Eternity (Warhammer High)

From 1d4chan
Small Book.pngThe following article is a /tg/ related story or fanfic. Should you continue, expect to find tl;dr and an occasional amount of awesome.

Someone else.'s conclusion to his Warhammer High stories. The posting has ended. Enjoy.




Jake sat beside the others in his program in the Kouthry field house. The Institute President was talking about how the man next to you could be your best friend at graduation, and how nothing was more important to a successful career than blah blah blah. As hard as Jake was trying to listen, the occasional outbreaks of excited whispering from his classmates or applause from the audience of adoring parents was drowning him out.

“It’s like they’re the students,” the kid next to him muttered.

“I know,” Jake said under his breath. “Your parents out there somewhere?” he asked.

“Somewhere, yeah,” the other boy said back. He scanned the crowd. “Can’t find ‘em.”

Jake eyed the bleachers. Vulkan wasn’t there in person, naturally, and he couldn’t spot Alpharius or Corax either. Then, that was often the case. Misja was there, he could see, and though he had never met Cora’s or Alpharia’s mothers, the clouds of Treasury agents near them (and more covert plainclothesmen around them) helped him pick them out.

The convocation address drew to a close, and all the students rose and cheered in unison, while the bleachers erupted in flashes from cameras. Jake waved to his parents as the students started filing out by row, and try as he might, he couldn’t find any of the three girls he knew in the crowd. Of course, they were all different programs. Cora was in one of the civil engineering programs, he knew, and Alpharia had mentioned Education. Venus was in Inorganic Chemistry, while he was in Consumer Design and Practices.

His own row was called out, and he walked out of the room with the others from the convocation address. He flinched as he entered the open air of the Kouthry campus, shying from the light and sliding his sunglasses on. Even after an entire summer out of doors, it seemed, his mild myopia wasn’t going away.

“You got bad eyes or something, man?” the other kid asked.

“Eyesight’s fine, I’m just light-sensitive,” Jake said. “My parents got me these sunglasses as a going-away present before I went on a road trip this summer.”

The other kid nodded. “Cool. What’s your name?”

Jake held out his hand. “Jacob Seager. Call me Jake.”

“Aaron Wabash, call me Aaron,” the other kid said, shaking his hand with a grin. “If you were in my block, you’ve gotta be in the design program too.”

“Well, sort of,” Jake said. “Technically, I’m staff here, not a full-time student. I work in the bio labs. I just take classes too.”

“Cool,” Aaron replied. “Do you live in the city?”

“Student housing,” Jake said. Aaron had a look he was quite familiar with about him: old money. From his watch to his clothes to his hairstyle, he looked like a male Lyra.

“Mmm.” Aaron shrugged. “They make everyone live in the student dorms for freshman year. So annoying.”

“Annoying how?” Jake asked.

“It’s so…cramped,” Aaron said. “My closet back home was bigger than my dorm. I don’t mind my roommate, though,” he added as they walked over to the dorm buildings, down the nearly third of a mile road to the residential end. “He’s a cool dude. Smart as hell.”

“That’s always good,” Jake said. “I’m rooming with my girlfriend from high school.”

Aaron glanced over at him. “You got a job at the same place your high school girlfriend went to college? How much did THAT take?”

“Not much. Her dad and I get along really well, and he’s a school sponsor and alumnus,” Jake said. It happened to be true. “Besides, I REALLY wanted to work here. It’s perfect. And staff get a huge discount.”

Aaron nodded. “If you say so. What do you do?”

“I work in the bio labs, like I said, mostly just cleaning up. No research. I start Wednesday. Mostly midday classes for now,” Jake said.

“Huh.” As they wandered down the road to the dorms, the thousands of students in the campus buzzed all around them, partaking in Orientation activities, exploring the campus, and otherwise taking in the gorgeous day. “Lovely campus, isn’t it?” Aaron asked.

“Fantastic. Reminds me a bit of my high school, though, internally. The buildings and shit,” Jake said.

“What city are you from?” Aaron asked.

“Hive Tetra, actually,” Jake said. “I went to school at Imperator, in Startseite.”

Aaron looked over at him, surprised. “You’re a hiver?”

Jake glanced back, a bit coolly. “That a problem?”

“No, just surprised, is all,” Aaron said quickly. “You don’t act like any of the hivers I’ve ever met.”

Jake let the moment drag on before dropping it. It certainly wasn’t any different from anything he had had at Imperator.

As they reached the dorms, both stepped aside as a row of about ninety men in camouflage shirts trooped past. “Reservist guys, I guess,” Aaron commented.

“Or Officer trainees,” Jake said. “Though with the daughters of three Primarchs on campus, there’s some Treasury around too. You see all of them in the crowds at the convocation?”

“Yeah,” Aaron said. He watched the soldiers go with a somewhat disgruntled look, but didn’t elaborate. “Which ones are here again?”

“Venus, Cora, Alpharia,” Jake said immediately. They had been playing cards the previous night, after all.

“Right. Shame Victoria’s not here, too,” Aaron said wistfully.

Jake smiled. “She’s taking the year off,” he said.

“Ah well,” Aaron chuckled. “Any of them in our program?”

“Nope,” Jake said. “You know, they went to Imperator too,” he said. “I was in their class.”

“Oh? Cool,” Aaron said. “Out of how many people?” he asked as they reached the dorm buildings.

“Around a thousand,” Jake said.

“I can’t imagine going to school with the same people so long,” Aaron said. He held the door open for Jake. “This’ll be a learning experience.”

“That’s college, all right,” Jake laughed.

A Treasury agent walked past them as they left, carrying several empty plastic bags. Jake nodded to him as he passed him, but got no response. As they reached the stairs, Jake peeled off. “What floor are you on?” he asked.

“Fourteen,” Aaron said. He chuckled. “Room with a view.”

Jake blinked. “Me too! What’s your number?”

“Zero seven one four eight eight,” Aaron supplied.

“Oh, that’s on one end, isn’t it?” Jake asked. “You get a corner dorm, at least.”

“Yeah.” Aaron tapped for the lift.

“Bah, take the stairs! Commemorate your first day with a workout,” Jake said.

Aaron looked up the massive stairwell. “No thanks."

Jake sighed. “Fine.” The two of them walked into the lift, making room for a group of departing parents, their arms filled with suitcases.

As the doors started to close, however, the ambient noise in the lobby dropped off a bit. Cora emerged from the throng of people around the door and started walking towards the elevator. Jake held his hand over the door and she sped up, sliding in with a grateful nod.

“Thanks,” she said.

“What’s your floor?” Jake asked as Aaron stared, eyes wide.

“Uh, fifteen,” Cora said. “I’d take the stairs, but I have to get this message off before they lock up the package delivery room for the weekend,” she explained. She tapped her pocket. “Damn post office taking weekends off on move-in day.”

“What floor is Alpharia on?” Jake asked. Aaron’s wide eyes turned to him, shocked that he would have the effrontery to ask a Lady Primarch where her relatives lived.

To his manifest surprise, Cora answered. “Top floor, twenty, I think.”

“Heh. There’s a funny coincidence,” Jake chuckled.

“Yeah,” Cora said with a grin. She glanced over at Aaron. “Who might you be?”

“Uhh…A-Aaron Wabash,” the tanned teenager answered shakily. “Your Highness,” he added hastily.

“Mmm. Corvus Cora.” The liftcar fell silent as they arrived on the fourteenth floor and both boys got off.

Aaron heaved a sigh as she vanished behind closing doors. “Well. That was…interesting,” he said.

Jake shrugged. Aaron stared at him in reproach. “You shouldn’t have been so frank,” he said.

“What?” Jake asked.

“You asked her where Princess Alpharia is staying! That’s none of your business!” Aaron said, clearly perturbed by his brush with royalty.

“Whoa, man, cool off,” Jake said, putting a hand up. “I told you, we went to school together. She knows me.”

Aaron shook his head. “Right. Sorry, that was just…and she lives above us?”

“Yeah. Room over mine, actually, I think,” Jake said. “You want to just hang for a while? You look spooked.”

“Sure…why not,” Aaron said, shaking himself loose. “Sure. I should make sure nothing got damaged on the flight, too,” he said. “I flew in from Arcadus, over on the Farwest hives.”

Jake followed his new friend to his dorm and glanced over it. Pure stock, all of it: two elevated beds with computer desks underneath and a holoscreen set against the wall on a table, with a wide window at the end of the room. “I’ve stayed in hotels worse than this,” Jake said. “It’ll be home in no time.”

“No offense, dude, but you live in a hive,” Aaron said.

“Not for the last three months,” Jake said. “I went on a road trip with my girlfriend and a few of her cousins. We were all over the place, none of it hives.”

Aaron picked up one bag and unzipped it. “Still.” He looked over his bed and sighed. “I don’t get why we’re not allowed to bring our own furniture.”

“Besides the fact that they provide you with plenty?” Jake asked drily. “Well, think about the logistics. How would Moving Day look with every student bringing their own shit?”

“True,” Aaron conceded. Jake followed him in and looked out the window.

“Your room has a better view than mine, all I can see is the wall around the school and the buildings past that,” Jake said. “At least you can see the campus.”

“Your room faced east, right? You get the sunrise,” Aaron said.

“Ugh, not with my schedule,” Jake groused. “Up at five, work from six to nine, classes ten to noon and one to five, work from six to seven, in bed by ten.”

“That sucks, all right,” Aaron said. “No time to do your own shit except late at night?”

“Well, yeah, but I get weekends off,” Jake admitted. “That will be homework time, I fear.”

“Hah. Probably.” Aaron glanced back at him and his eyes went wide. “Oh man…don’t look now, but Primarch number two is en route,” he said.

Jake glanced back. “Oh, yeah. Hey, Venus!” he called.

Venus looked up from their door. “Oh, there you are,” she said, walking up to him as every other person on the floor stared. “What are you doing over here?”

“Just meeting the neighbors,” Jake explained. He gestured at Aaron. “This is Aaron. Aaron, Venus,” he said.

Venus stuck her hand out. Aaron went stock-still until Venus shook her hand in midair a bit for emphasis. Aaron snapped free and gingerly took her hand, flinching at the heat. “Nice…nice to meet you, Princess,” he managed.

She sighed slightly. “Yeah, nice to meet you. You in Jake’s program too?” she asked.

“Y-yes, your Highness,” Aaron said.

“Venus, please.”

“Uh…Venus,” Aaron said, shaking his head. “Sorry. Uh, yes, we’re both in Consumer Design and Practices.”

“That’s cool.” Venus leaned back against the doorframe. Her illuminating red eyes flooded the room with light.

Aaron straightened up as his confidence returned a bit. “What are you here for?”

“Inorganic Chemistry,” Venus supplied. “Maybe stay for a Masters, too, I dunno. I’m only on this floor because my roommate is too.”

“Oh. Well…” Aaron said, his seventeen-year-old chemistry and upbringing driving him towards a single converging destination. “I’m looking forward to living with you, Venus,” he said, sliding easily into the effortless schmooze-mode of a born socialite.

Venus shook her head. “No, my room’s down the hall.”

“Right, but I mean on the same floor. Will you be at the floor meeting tonight?” he asked.

“It’s mandatory, so yes. Then I’m heading out to a little get-together in the city,” Venus said.

“Ah, cool. Do you need someone to go with?” Aaron asked.

Venus allowed the faintest hint of a smile to reach her lips as she divined Aaron’s ultimate desire. “No, my boyfriend already said he’d go,” she said.

Aaron deflated, his momentary lifelong dream wilting away. “Ah.”

“Why, did you have nothing better to do tonight?” she asked jokingly. Jake rolled his eyes.

Aaron shrugged, somewhat bashfully. “Can’t blame a man for trying,” he said.

The night-black young Salamander laughed. “Nope.” She turned to Jake. “Can you help with the computer desk? I swear one of the legs is broken,” she said.

“Oh, sure,” Jake said, following her down the hall to their room. Aaron tagged along to see the room looking rather disassembled.

Jake lay down on his back under the computer desk and clucked his tongue. “Ah. Yeah. Gimme a knife or something? The screw’s loose.”

Venus crouched down next to him and slid a pocket knife into his hand. Jake reached up and tightened the screw, then tapped his hand on the leg. It didn’t budge. “Problem solved.”

“Awesome.” Venus grabbed his hand and hauled him up. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Jake said. “I unpacked quicker last night. Then, I had less to bring. The thing I had to fix was the bedframe,” he joked.

Venus looked back at where their single beds had been pushed together under the window to form a double bed, and the two mattresses laid side by side with a single sheet over both. “Inventive.” It was certainly preferable to the twin beds they had had before.

“Wait, this is your room?” Aaron blurted.

Both of the others looked over at him. “Yeah, it is,” Jake said.

“Then…how did you know his computer desk was broken?” Aaron asked Venus.

“That one’s mine,” Venus said. She gestured at the identical desk next to it. “That one’s his.”

Aaron stared at them both. “…So when you said you came here with your girlfriend from high school,” he said slowly.

Jake nodded, holding in a laugh at the look of stupefaction on the other man’s face. “Yeah.” Refraining from his impulse to do something as cliché as smack her ass, he simply winked at Venus and left her to unpack, closing the door behind himself. “I’ve had kind of an interesting four years.”

Aaron shot the other boy a look of absolute disbelief. “Don’t take this the wrong way, man, but…what the hell hive did you live in that you got a Lady Primarch?”

Jake raised one eyebrow. “‘Got?’ Hey, Venus, can you still hear us?” he asked, his voice at no more than conversational levels.

“Loud and clear,” Venus’ voice said from the other side of the door.

Aaron blushed bright red and scampered back to his room. Jake chuckled and pushed the door open. Venus was sitting on the bed, glaring at him. “Jake, that was mean.”

“‘Got’ you, come on,” Jake said. “Sorry if that was over the line, though.”

She shrugged it away. “I’ll go be nice to him later or something.” She laughed. “I bet you got asked that by half the boys at Imperator, too.”

Jake shook his head. “Not once, actually.”

“Really?” Venus asked.

“Nope.” Jake crossed the distance between them and stood in front of the bed as the door swung shut behind them. “Hmm. That’s a good sign,” he said, looking at the bed where Venus was sitting.


“The bed.” Jake gestured. “It’s at the perfect height for me.”

Venus looked down to where she was sitting, then up at him with a look of strained patience that he needed no psychic power to see was completely forced. “Subtle,” she said flatly.

“What? I know how we both like it,” he said playfully. He stood in front of her and grabbed her by the hips, scooting her across the bedspread until her legs fell on either side of him. His hands travelled up to her shoulders and pulled her into a hug. “So…Kouthry,” he said under his breath, leaning his head on her shoulder. “I’m fucking stoked.”

“Yeah.” Venus hugged him back. “Your schedule is nasty, though.”

“I’ll deal,” Jake said. “We had a worse one on Fenris.”

“You weren’t getting paid to work on Fenris,” Venus pointed out.

Jake squeezed her shoulders. “I’ll make it work. Trust me, I’m not letting your Dad down.”

“Or me,” Venus said. Her voice was confident and even eager. “I’m looking forward to this too.”

Jake knelt before her at the bed. “Say, this is a good height for you too,” he said playfully. “Think they design the beds at the perfect level for sex on purpose? It is a college dorm.”

“They’re supposed to be bunk beds,” she giggled, “but they are modular, so who knows?”

“Good thing I gave you that step-by-step lesson about silence back before the road trip,” Jake said solemnly. He rose to his feet. “I’m sure you remember it well.”

Venus rolled her glowing eyes. “Quite. Eidetic memory, gotta love it.”

“You bet. We’ll need all the help we can get to survive in this den of dangerous and well-moneyed social predators,” Jake said. “I mean, that guy didn’t even check to see if you had a last name and he was already fantasizing about spending…gasp…TIME with you!” he said, all fear and worries.

Venus stared at him with all the emotion of a block of rock salt. “Jake, I know you’re excited, but try to restrain yourself,” she said flatly.

“So sorry, dearest, but I extract such a joy from alarming the Terran rich with my tawdry and low-born origin stories,” he sighed. She snorted. “Oh, all right, fine, no more games,” he grumped. He smiled suddenly, stepping back from the bed a bit. “The floor meeting isn’t for four hours,” he said. “What did YOU want to do until then?”

Venus looked away, as if conceding the point was a major effort. “Well, I suppose your idea isn’t ENTIRELY without merit,” she said under her breath.

That evening, both teens were sitting in the chairs in the floor lounge when the last of the residents wandered in. The RA clapped her hands to get everyone’s attention. “All right, folks, welcome aboard. Before we get started, I want to thank your Orientation Assistants for getting us this far,” she said, waving to the group of upperclassman volunteers who had shepherded the freshmen about. As they acknowledged the hearty applause directed at them, the RA gestured in turn to the two older people standing near the doors. “And I’d also like you to thank the two tireless Facilities staffers who keep our floor clean. So, thanks to Ally and Keiko!” she said, waving to them.

The two custodians waved to acknowledge the good-natured clapping of the assembled students. As it died down, the RA turned to Venus to introduce her to the other students, only to see her shake her head and draw a horizontal line in midair. The RA blinked, but didn’t miss a beat. “Well, now that we’re all here, I think it would be a perfect time to lay down the two campus rules, then do some icebreakers. So first, I’ll start us off: does anyone remember Nicholas? He moved in yesterday,” she said.

A few people nodded. “Great. Well, forget him: I’ve already had him expelled for coming in stone drunk,” the RA reported. Several people made noises of surprise or disgust. “Yeah. So there’s rule one: no drinking on campus. Rule two, and I suspect this one will be bigger: violators of the quiet hours rule will be penalized with academic demerits,” she said. “I mean it, folks, silence is golden. That said, outside of quiet time, doors should be open! We’re living together, we should all get along. My door is always open, too, if anyone needs to talk,” she concluded.

“Now, let’s get the icebreakers underway,” she said. “I’ll start us off. I’m Angela,” she said, eliciting a grin from Jake and Venus. “I’m from New Arks, so I’m a townie. I’m a fourth-year Composite Design major. My favorite color is green, and my favorite song is ‘Cascade,’” she said. “Who’s next? And remember that this is no-décor. We’re all friends all here.”

A few other students introduced themselves in turn, until Jake piped up. “I’m Jake. I’m from Hive Tetra, went to school in Startseite. I’m a freshman in the Consumer program. My favorite color is blue, my favorite song is ‘Underneath the Citadel.’”

Venus spoke next. “I’m Venus. I’m from Startseite too, and I’m a freshman in Inorganic. Favorite color…never thought about it, guess it’s green. Favorite song would be ‘Black Sands,’” she said.

“Wait, if you’re Inorganic, how come you’re on this floor?” someone asked.

“I made a roommate request,” Venus said with a shrug.

After the other students made their own introductions, the RA clapped for attention. “All right, my friends, that’s that. I’m sure you all have things to do before quiet hours, so I’ll see you all tomorrow,” she said.

The group broke up slowly, as people wandered off chatting. Venus stood and stretched, idly flipping open her vox. “All right…Jake, you wanna go track down the others?” she asked. “Looks like a message from Cora here.”

“I ran into her in the elevator, too. I think I do,” Jake said. He checked his own vox. “Oh, hey…message from Alex.”

“Alex? What’s up with him?” Venus asked.

“He shot me a notice that he’s sending me a package,” Jake said. “Huh. Well, we’ll see what it is when it gets here.”

Above, Alpharia settled on her bed. The dorm was a bit stifled, to her tastes, but only because of its other occupant. Her roommate, it seemed, was incapable of parting with her mountains of furniture. Her name was Maria, it seemed, from somewhere in one of the satellite cities of the Iberos hives, and she smelled like a hoarder to Alpharia.

But maybe that was just because she had only ever had one roommate herself before. Her sister Omegan was off at another school entirely, now, and Alpharia was alone. There were a few moments when the idea of being cut off from her twin felt like a punishment, almost, especially since her sister’s emotional troubles were only eased by a familiar environment. Still, what was done was done, and now they were starting new lives apart.

Maria bounced back into the room with yet another armful of crap. “Do you mind if I just put this in the closet?” she asked.

“Yes,” Alpharia said. “I do mind. That’s my closet.”

“But…you haven’t put anything in it,” Maria pointed out.

“Not yet. I will,” Alpharia said. She looked at the teetering piles of things on Maria’s half of the room. “Isn’t the point of college starting afresh, without the burdens of mementos weighing you down?”

“I know I’ll use all of it!” Maria exclaimed.

Alpharia stared at the piles of suitcases and carry-alls. “Sure.”

The door knocked. Maria turned to the eyehole. “Uh, it’s some guy I don’t know,” she said.

Alpharia stepped past her to open the door. The non-descript man beyond immediately smiled. “Alpharia.”

“Hi, Graham,” Alpharia said happily. “Seeing me off?”

“Yes,” the plainclothes Treasury agent who had been Alpharia’s shadow for thirteen years said. “I’m flying out to see your sister tonight, but I wanted to make sure you were comfortable.”

“I will be, if we can get the territorial disputes settled,” Alpharia said cheerfully. “Same thing that’s happened at every college since the dawn of time.”

“Grand.” The Treasury agent shook Alpharia’s hand once. “Goodbye, Alpharia. You take care now.”

“I will,” Alpharia promised. The guard bowed briefly and walked away.

Alpharia let the door shut and sighed. “My ex-bodyguard.”

“Wow.” Maria stared. “What was it like growing up with one of those?”

“I don’t know. Not like I have anything to compare it to,” Alpharia pointed out. “But we all got to know our guys pretty well. Trusting someone with your life like that tends to make an impression.”

The door knocked again. Alpharia peeked through the keyhole to see the hallway empty. She opened the door, curious, to see Cora standing there in plain view, smiling innocently. “Hey, Alpharia,” she said happily. “All moved in?”

“Did you duck below the eyehole or something?” Alpharia asked.

“Perhaps. Come! Dinner! Schmoozing!” Cora proclaimed. “Just you, me, Jake, and Venus, dinner in the Furnace.”

The white-haired girl blinked. “What the hell is the Furnace?” Alpharia asked.

“I’m told it’s the nickname for the dining hall in the basement,” Cora said. “Because of the split-level windows that face east.”

“Charming.” Alpharia shrugged. “Sure…I guess.”

“Awesome, grab your shit.” She peered past Alpharia to where Maria was arranging her computer things. “Are you her roommate?”

“Yeah, I am,” Maria said. “Who are you?”

“Cora,” she answered. Visually, she couldn’t have been more of a contrast with Alpharia, either: hair darker than Venus’, skin paler than Jake’s, while Alpharia had her mother’s white hair and her father’s eternal deep tan. “Want to come along?” she asked.

“No thanks,” Maria sighed. “I have so much unpacking to do.”

“Sure. Later,” Cora said, steering her cousin out into the hall. “By the by,” Cora said, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial level, “have you seen the others on your floor making the same mistake as they are on mine?”

“What mistake?” Alpharia asked.

Cora affected surprise. “Why, addictions, of course,” Cora said. “Now, I may have a cogitator in my arm, but these kids have them in their eyes. Look at that,” she said, pointing into one open room, where two boys were already clicking away on their computers. “First day in college and they’re not doing shit with each other, they’re just type-type-typing! Shameful,” she said with a shake of her tightly-cropped black hair.

Alpharia managed a tiny grin. “Gad you’re having fun, at least,” she said as they entered the stairs.

“Oh yes, Alpharia, lots of fun,” Cora said. “So many new things to do.”

“That’s good,” Alpharia said. “I’m still a bit nervous.”

“You? Nervous? What for?” Cora asked.

“Just…I dunno. I like new things too, I just have a lot of trouble making friends in new places,” Alpharia confessed.

“You’ll be fine,” Cora said confidently. She smiled wistfully as Angela’s words from nearly four months before returned to her. “Angela was right. This is exactly what I needed.”

“Yeah? What did she say?” Alpharia asked.

Cora grinned coyly. “Oh, nothing,” she said.

Jake dropped into a seat at his table with a tired sigh. The others looked askance at the pile of food on his tray. “Getting a headstart on the Freshman Fifteen?” Venus asked.

Jake glanced down at the food. “Uh…now that you mention it, this is a bit much,” he said. He shrugged. “Well, I just won’t have dessert.” He chuckled self-effacingly. “I’m still not used to the idea of a place where you can have literally infinite food.”

“That will wear off quickly,” Alpharia said. She sipped at her soda and discreetly glanced down the long table. Groups of other students were throwing glances their way, but none had worked up the stones to talk to them.

Venus made a choking sound from across the table, and her eyes widened. “Oh my…look. Slowly. Turn around and look carefully at the guy at the pasta bar.”

The others turned to see a man in a ragged-looking shirt and no shoes at all waiting in line at the pasta counter for his food. He seemed oblivious to his state, which was disheveled at best.

“Oh, exquisite, we’re sharing our food with a caveman,” Alpharia said. “That’s always good to know.”

“Pay seventy five thousand credits every four months to come to this place and he can’t even justify shoes,” Cora said. She turned back to her own food with a shake of the head. “His parents must be so proud.”

Jake shivered. “Fuck, is that what you people are paying? Remind me to send another thank-you to Vulkan.”

Cora chuckled. “I’m on a scholarship, too, it’s just token. Something to put on a resume. No actual money.”

“Then…what’s the context?” Jake asked, confused.

“The Ralner Memorial Forensic Scholarship,” Cora explained, shoveling mashed potatoes into her mouth as she did. “I was a forensic science nut in junior year.”

“Surprise, surprise,” Venus said drily. “Still, that’s pretty cool. Does this school have a forensic science program?”

Cora shook her head with a smirk. “Know what my department head said when I asked him that?” “What?”

“‘No, dammit, and that stupid holo program about forensics means that someone asks me that every year,’” she said in a forced, somewhat whining voice. “I mean, he’s ex-Mechanicus, I can’t blame him, but still,” she added.

Jake smirked. “Perceptions from holos probably throw a lot of things when it comes to criminal justice,” he said.

Venus’ eyebrows rose as Aaron appeared at the end of the table and hesitated. He started to sit down, far from the Royal trio, when, to his astonishment, Venus beckoned him over. Disbelief etched on his face, he picked his tray back up and gingerly sat down beside her. Jake kept a grin at the poor kid’s expression carefully hidden.

“Aaron, right?” Venus asked.

“Yes, Your…Venus,” he said. “Sorry about my presumptuousness before,” he said contritely.

Venus’ eyes flicked over to where Jake was determinately not listening. “You were baited. Forget it. We still have to floor together.” She turned to smile at him. “Might as well be friends, right?”

Aaron stared at her for a moment before hesitantly smiling. “Thank you, Venus, that’s very kind.”

Venus shrugged, digging into her food. “So, where you from?” she asked.

“Arcadus,” Aaron said. “A city built over the Farwest hives.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s the one with the gigantic museum in it, right?” Cora asked brightly.

“Yes, it is,” Aaron said. “Have you been?”

“Nope. Always wanted to.” She downed her drink and stared over the rim of the cup at the others in the room. “Quite a mix in here. That’s good.” “Mix of what? Majors?” Venus asked.

“Planetary origins,” Cora said. “It’s all in the accents.”

“You can pick them out at this range?” Jake asked.

“Some more than others.” Cora shrugged. “Still. I was afraid it would all be locals.”

“Why?” Alpharia asked.

“Nothing wrong with locals, but part of the idea of college is to be exposed to new stuff, right?” Cora asked.

“True enough,” Alpharia said. She rose from her seat. “Well, I’ll see you guys around the campus, I guess.”

“You’re leaving?” Cora said. “Stay for dessert!”

“No thanks,” Alpharia said, pushing her hair behind her shoulders. “I should go make sure Maria didn’t occupy my closet or something.”

She walked off with her tray as Jake looked pensive. “‘Occupy My Closet’ would be a great name for a band,” he observed.

“It would,” Venus agreed. “Do you keep a list of these things?”

“Nah, I just forget them after a while anyway,” Jake said. “I’m a shit musician anyway.” He glanced over at Aaron, who was still avoiding eye contact with the girls. “You play anything?” he asked.

Aaron blinked. “Er, no. Never had the patience for it.”

“I played bit of guitar when I was a kid, but I hated practicing,” Cora said idly. She bit into her popsicle dessert as the number of people in the room started rising. Some Orientation activity must have just let out. “Venus is more into percussion,” she quipped.

“If you can play it with hammers, I’ve mastered it,” Venus said, straight-faced.

“Man, we’re on a roll tonight,” Jake said. “‘Playing with Hammers’ is also excellent.” Venus choked on her water.

“I will end you,” she said, glaring daggers at her boyfriend. Jake sniggered.

Let's Meet Grandma[edit]

Christine Donnelly coughed as the nurse adjusted her IV drip. “Good morning, Thomas,” she said to the nurse.

“Good morning, Doctor Donnelly,” the nurse replied. “How’s your throat today?”

“Sore,” Christine said ruefully. “Very much so.”

“I can get you a bit of painkiller if you think it would help,” the nurse commented.

“No, I want to have breakfast first,” Christina said from her chair in the room that constituted her world now.

A quiet knock on the door drew the nurse’s attention. He peeked out the eyehole, then looked back at Christine. “Ma’am, there’s a guest here for you. Your husband, I believe?”

“Let him in,” Christine said, straightening up happily.

A man in a somewhat faded-looking Imperial Army jacket appeared at the door, grinning faintly. “Hello, Chris,” he said softly. The orderly made his discreet exit.

“Honey! Come here,” Christine said, rising to her feet. She hugged her husband around the shoulders, showing surprising strength in her failing arms. “Thanks for coming in. How did it go?” she asked.

“The procedure was a success, Wally’s fine,” Eric said. “And look,” he said, digging a packet of holos out of his pocket. “I brought some ultrasounds of Mizuki,” he said. “She’s coming well on her way,” he said.

“Aww, she’s only three months from due, isn’t she?” Christine said, looking over one of the holos. “Hard to believe. I feel like Hajime and Alice only met a few days ago, you know?”

“Yeah, it’s been longer, though, I’m pretty sure.” Eric shook his head as he took back the holos. “Have you had breakfast yet?”

“No, I haven’t,” Christine said. “Have you?”

Eric smiled. “Actually, I invited Jake and his girlfriend to join us, if you’re all right with that, and she wanted to cook.”

“Jake, and…Lady Primarch Venus?” Christine’s eyes widened, and she stole a look at the hallway outside. “Oh, you didn’t.”

Eric’s grin grew wider. “You could say no, but Jake’s only in town another day before he has to go back to school, and he wanted to introduce her to you.”

“And it’s not a bother to her?” Christine asked.

“No, she wants to meet you too,” Eric said. He snorted at his wife’s expression. “I know, I know, but she’s a really nice girl. She wouldn’t be put out.”

“Well…I guess I’d like to meet her too,” Christine said.

“Good, because she’s on her way with Jake,” Eric said brightly. Christine sighed, well used to her husband’s antics.

A few minutes later, Jake arrived at the little apartment where Christine lived in the hospital of his hab, a bag of food under his arm. Venus tagged along behind him, being stared at by everyone in the halls and ignoring them, by and large. “So just so I don’t trigger any awkward pauses,” Venus said under her breath, “what exactly is she in for?”

“Gerbin’s Disease, degenerative ligament disorder. She’ll have trouble standing and talking, but not much else,” Jake said in the same tone. In a more normal voice, he continued. “She’s a doctor, by the way, in Architecture. So it’s Doctor Donnelly.”

“All right.” Venus lifted her own bag of goodies and squared her shoulders. As they approached the room, Jake knocked once and waited.

“Come in,” his grandmother said.

Jake pushed the door open and grinned. “Hi, Grandma,” Jake said, dropping his food on the table by the door and walking over to her.

Christine rose to her feet and hugged him despite the visible strain it caused. “Hello, Jake,” she said back. “How’s Kouthry working out?”

“They’re really working us in the labs, but it’s fun,” Jake said. He retrieved the bag of food and delivered it to the counter in the tiny kitchenette of the two-room long-term-residence apartment. Venus appeared at the door with her own bag, and Eric had to place a restraining hand on his wife’s shoulder to keep her in place.

“Doctor Donnelly? Hi, I’m Venus,” she said, walking up to where Christine was sitting and inclining her head. “Nice to meet you in person.”

“I’m honored, your Highness,” Christine said, averting her eyes from Venus’ fiery gaze.

“The honor’s mine,” Venus said, setting her food down on the same table where Jake was busily preparing the meal. The food they had brought was no banquet, but compared to the reprocessed protein blocks that constituted food in the hives, it was gourmet cuisine. “Jake and I are having a lot of fun at Kouthry,” she continued. “Where did you earn your doctorate?”

“Here, your Highness, 19889 Polytechnic,” Christine said.

“Cool. And call me Venus, please,” she said, dragging up a chair.

Jake spoke up from the kitchenette. “Hope you guys are hungry, I think we may have brought too much,” he said, bringing the tray over to where his grandparents were sitting.

As they ate, Jake was practically bursting with anecdotes and stories to share. “I never thought the Mechanicus would allow a private school to have such broad-capacity gene sequencing equipment, but they do. And the labs are so generalized, you can do any sort of research in them if you have a bit of preptime,” he said eagerly.

“That’s nice to hear,” Christine said as Eric munched on his toast. “Do you like the classes too?”

“So far…well.” Jake looked aside for a moment. “Kind of. Some of my teachers are clearly just there to do research. But the ones who really like teaching? Sure, I like their classes.”

“That’s good.” Christine finished her toast with some difficulty. Jake tried not to look like he was staring. Eric barely noticed. “What about you, Lady Venus?”

“Just Venus. And I love my classes, but I think I picked the wrong minor,” Venus said. “I had this crazy idea that Criminal Justice was a good minor for me.”

“You don’t like it?” Christine asked.

“It’s kind of samey, that’s all. It’s just the teachers, the subject is fascinating,” Venus said. “I think I’ll switch over to Sculpting instead. I prefer working with my hands.” She held up her palms to reveal the tracery of tiny scars, burns, and other marks of hard work that she had earned with nearly fifteen years of forging.

Christine stared. “Goodness. Your hands look like a map of Terra.”

Venus smiled. “Well, I’ve been working in a forge or welding since I was four. It shows.” She lifted a tiny golden bauble from her pocket and placed it on the table between them. “Here. Look.”

Christine lifted the little golden object and looked it over. It was a pendant, she realized, embossed with two golden letters: E and C.

“Oh, it’s beautiful,” Christine said. “You made this yourself?”

“I did. With some assistance from Jake,” Venus said. “He provided the holo.”

“Holo?” Christine looked askance at the seemingly solid piece of metal, until Jake gently took it from her hands and pressed the clasp that held the chain.

The pendant swung open, becoming a locket. Inside was a tiny holo of Eric and Christine standing together at their anniversary party just before Christine had been hospitalized.

Christine looked up at Venus, as did Eric, both stunned. Venus smiled. “Call it a gift,” the pretty young Salamander said.

“Oh…oh, your Highness, I couldn’t even…begin to…” Christine managed. Eric felt his eyes tearing up.

“Hush. I make these things because I love doing it. And what good is making them if you don’t share them?” Venus asked. She decided not to mention that it had been the work of perhaps an hour in her forge, the first place she had visited upon coming home the previous day from the distant college where she lived.

Eric covered his mouth with his hand, stifling his tears, as Christine clutched the golden chain with her shaking hand. “Venus, I’m…overwhelmed,” Christine said, starting to tear up herself.

“Good. I hope you like it,” she said happily, and returned to making herself a bagel as if she didn’t have a care in the world.

Jake and Venus didn’t stay much longer. Both had work to do before they went back to school, and Jake had promised Vulkan a full report on the lab Vulkan had ordered built with his money on the Kouthry campus. As they stood up to leave, though, Jake hesitated. “Venus, baby, I’ll see you in the car, all right?” he asked.

“Sure. Goodbye, Sergeant Donnelly. Nice meeting you, Doctor,” she said to the Donnelly couple at the table.

“Thank you so much for this, Venus,” Christine called after her.

“You’re very welcome,” Venus said, as she vanished out the door.

Jake turned to his ailing grandmother. “How are you doing, Grandma?” he asked quietly.

“Jake, sweetheart, did you tell Her Highness I would have liked this?” Christine asked, staring at the little pendant.

“Nope. She’s just a sweetheart like that,” Jake said honestly. “You know jewelling is her hobby, right?”

“But I met her today,” Christine said, clearly having as much trouble coming to terms with the fact that she had been given a gift by a Lady Primarch as any hiver would.

“And she’s a sweetheart like that,” Jake repeated, grinning. He stood. “I watched her make it, you know. That’s twenty-two karat solid. She has entire drawers of jewelry she makes every time she comes home.”

Christine stared. “You’re in good hands, Jake,” she said at length, a smile appearing on her face at last.

Jake grinned. “You’re fine too, then? Good,” he said. He leaned down to hug her. “I’ll see you at the end of the next break, all right?”

“Absolutely, Jake, and tell her not to bring me anything next time, I’d feel terrible if she made a habit of this,” Christine said.

Jake snorted. “Okay.” He turned to his grandfather. “All right, Grandpa, I have to run. Goodbye,” he said, shaking his hand.

“Goodbye, Jake,” Eric said. “See you in a few months.”

As Jake walked out the door, Christine sagged back into her seat. “Wow.”

“Yeah, she’s quite something,” Eric said. “This was as much a surprise to me as it was to you,” he added. “It’s gorgeous."

Christine held it up the light over the table. “Isn’t it?” she asked. “What a fine gift.” She pressed the button on the top of the locket again, and it popped open along an invisible seam, to reveal the picture of the two of them in their finest at the dinner. “Do you want to keep it at home? I’m afraid I’ll lose it here.”

Eric shook his head. “No, no, keep it here. I’ll be back tomorrow,” he said.

The two of them sat in silence for a while, looking at the locket. The image of the two of them didn’t fade at all, and reflected the love they shared as brightly as the gold of which it was made.

The Visitor[edit]

One evening, as Jake and Venus were just sitting down for dinner in their apartment, there was a loud banging on the door. "I'll get it!" Jake called out, wondering who it could be. He pushed the door of the tiny apartment he shared with Venus open and looked at his guest.

Before him stood a man in an armored bodyglove of studded leather and armor links, with a waist-length cape of mustard yellow hanging from his shoulders. It took him a moment for Jake to recognize him. “Julius?” he asked.

“Hetman Pius.” Julius smiled. “Good to see you, Jake, it’s been a while.”

Jake leaned back in his chair and gauged the board in front of him. He was getting reamed.

Julius slid a piece across one of his and captured it. “So, it’s been a rough start, but it’s getting smoother. This is luck, really,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to get leave on Terra this soon.”

“We’re glad you did,” Venus remarked from the couch in the apartment.

“Yeah, it’s been too long,” Jake said, sliding a piece out of danger. “When do you find time to practice at checkers?”

“It’s the fastest board game to set up,” Julius explained.

“I guess.” Jake watched as Julius moved a piece into position to bait out one of his kings. “So…you’re already a Hetman?”

“Technically. I’m kinda new, though, so I’m hardly high up on anyone’s priority lists,” Julius said.

Jake moved a piece, refusing to take the bait. “Not what I hear.”


“I hear the Uxors make a ‘priority’ out of every Hetman they hire,” Jake said mildly.

Julius rolled his eyes. “Give it a break.”

“Gotta say, you’re the envy of rather a lot of Terran men right now,” Jake continued. “Armfuls and armfuls of fresh, lascivious young psychic women around every corner.”

Julius glared at him. “Shut up.”

“Never a chilly bed, never a restless night,” Jake said dreamily as Venus chuckled.

“Shut your damn fool mouth,” Julius muttered. “They’re all bloody crazy.”

Jake sighed wistfully. “And no ovaries! You can boink all day, and never hear a baby’s squeal.”

Julius grimaced. “They’re all nymphomaniacal psychic killing machines. Trust me. The risks outweigh the rewards.”

“You really do make a habit of looking gift horses in the mouth, don’t you,” Jake laughed.

Julius glared at him again, but he couldn’t hide a smile. “You’re not an easy man to distract, are you, Jake?”

Jake lurched backward, his eyes flying open. “What?! Who are you?!”

Venus buried her face in her hands. Julius rolled his eyes. “Funny, mate.”

“I know, right?” Jake looked back down to the board. “So what brings you by, anyway?”

Julius sighed. “To be honest, my deployment orders are looking harsh. I may not get a chance to drop by Terra for a long time. Eighty Geno companies are off to some hole called 63-30, to polish off a mutant enclave that escaped the Sixtieth Expeditionary Fleet in the First Great Crusade.” He moved a piece and kinged it. “It’s really a chance to say goodbye to everyone, since I have no idea when I can come home again.”

Jake stared. “Wow. Which Astartes unit is attached?”

“Why would we get one?” Julius asked, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “We’re on our own, Army and Navy. No Astartes.”

“Harsh sounds like the right word.” Jake looked up at him. Julius seemed more resigned than angry. “Well, then we’re glad you could stop by.”

Julius nodded. “I am too, my friend.”

The Proposal[edit]

It was funny, really, how the question hadn’t felt sudden at all.

They were sitting at the counter of the apartment they shared at Kouthry. Jake had had the first shift rotation at the labs in the biomedical sciences building, so for once they had risen together. The smell of the tea Venus was drinking drifted into the air, filling the room with a fragrant steam.

Jake looked up from the slate he had been reading, a thought drifting into his mind. “Venus…I just thought of a question,” he said.

“A dangerous pastime,” she remarked.

“Why haven’t we gotten married yet?” he asked.

Venus looked up at him, her eyes widening. “I…we’ve been busy, you know.”

“Yeah. Yeah, we have…but the school year ends in one week,” Jake reminded her. “This summer, we could just pick a date.”

“I guess…we did talk about it, didn’t we?” Venus asked. She set her teacup down and cradled it in her hands. “Wow.”

“I know.” Jake leaned over the tiny breakfast table and squeezed one of her hands. “So…will you marry me?” he asked.

Venus looked up at him and smiled. “Of course.”

Jake brought her hand to his lips and kissed it, resting it against his lips. “Then…let’s,” he said.

Venus stood, letting her hand fall away. “So…do you want to be Prince of Nocturne?” she asked formally.

“I do,” Jake said, feeling a thrill of excitement race through him. It was finally happening. He stood too. “What next?”

His new fiancé wrapped her arms around him and hugged him close. “Now, baby, we go make some very complex vox calls home,” she said happily. “And then we go see how long we can go before we tell everyone in your lab,” she added with a smirk.

“Do I get to learn Nocturnean?” Jake asked.

Venus grinned. “Dad will insist.”

Jake shook his head. “I bet.” He grinned broadly, the tension his stomach fading to a thrill. “Thank you, my love,” he said quietly.

Venus rested her head on his shoulder and squeezed him around the middle. “Thank you, too,” she said in the same tone. She let her eyes slip shut. “You were right. This was the right time.” 

Gettin' Hitched[edit]

Jake Seager bowed his head before the robed Judge, his heart hammering. “By the authority vested in me by the Imperium of man, I pronounce you husband and wife,” the Judge intoned.

Jake turned and embraced Venus, as the room filled with muted applause. The conference hall of a hotel was hardly an auspicious place for a wedding, but then, this was just where the ceremony was being held. The actual wedding and reception were being held at far more appropriate locales: Nocturne and Vulkan’s home, respectively.

The newly wedded husband felt Venus’ tear on his cheek, and he squeezed his eyes shut, overwhelmed. As he gently pulled back, and the Judge bowed out, the radiant grin on his wife’s lips lit the room almost as much as her eyes. “We did it, baby,” she whispered softly.

Jake leaned forward until his forehead rested against hers, overwhelmed completely. “We did it,” he said. “I love you, now and forever.”

Jake’s mother brushed a tear from her own eye as she watched her son growing up. George, his father, squeezed her shoulder, biting back a sob too. Vulkan and Misja didn’t even bother, as they watched unobtrusively from the back of the room.

The room was filled with chairs and small conversation tables, by Venus’ specific request, instead of the usual large conference tables. Even as Venus and Jake slowly made their way over to the seats, and Venus dropped into one, dazed and happy, Freya Russ leaned over the back of her chair and gave her a gleeful hug. “Congratulations, Venus!” she said eagerly. “Oh, I’m so happy for you!”

Venus closed her eyes and squeezed her cousin’s hand. “Thanks, Freya.”

Farah Manus offered Jake a quick hug as he moved to sit beside her. “You looked great up there, Jake,” she said cheerfully. “Congratulations.”

Jake beamed. “It seemed awfully short for all that planning, but there it is! Thanks so much for coming,” he said.

“My pleasure,” Farah said. She had selected what Jake assumed was a Medusan formal outfit for the occasion, and it matched Venus’ Royal uniform well. Jake felt almost paltry in his tuxedo, but Venus had informed him that he’d receive a uniform like hers upon their move to Nocturne, which pleased him immensely. Now that he was married, that is.

Jake felt the unfamiliar weight of the rings on his hands. On Terra, it was customary for a husband and wife to wear their marriage rings on the fourth finger of the weaker hand, and the wife to wear an engagement ring on her left hand. On Nocturne, however, the tradition was different: both partners wore wedding rings on their left hand, and the wife wore her engagement ring on the same finger, while the husband wore his on the right. Jake actually liked the tradition, and had acceded to her request to uphold it. It was a fair price to pay for having the ceremony on Terra instead of the world he’d be co-ruling.

CO-RULING! He nearly laughed, giddy. From hive scum to Bond Prince. What a life.

His father walked up to him, grinning from ear to ear. Jake extended a hand from the couch and shook it wordlessly. Both men shared a grin of amazement and pride that needed no narration. Sandra brushed past George to wrap Jake up in a hug, nearly lifting him from the couch. “I love you so much, baby,” Sandra whispered.

“Thanks, Mom,” Jake said, rising to his feet. “I couldn’t have done it without you two.”

“Not so stylishly, anyway,” George quipped. Jake rolled his eyes.

Venus paused in her tour of the room to offer her father a formal bow. He had dressed in an undecorated formal uniform of the Legion, not feeling Power Armor appropriate for a wedding. His eyes glinted as she approached him. “I am very proud of you, Venus,” he said in Nocturnean.

“Thank you, Father,” she replied in the same language. “It’s going to be an adventure, even if it doesn’t feel it yet,” she said, switching back to Gothic. “I mean, we’ve been living together for four years already,” she added drily.

“Right, but it’s legal now,” Misja said with a laugh. She drew her daughter into a hug, wrapping her arms around Venus’ armored torso. “We’re both so pleased by this…you picked very well,” she said happily.

“I did indeed,” Venus said softly. “Lucky me.” She drew back and glanced over to where Jake was shaking his new sisters-in-law’s hands, one by one. “Dad…do you think he’ll be a good son?” she asked.

“I have no doubt at all, now,” Vulkan said.

Venus smiled happily. “Good. Let’s head home and get the real party started, hmm?”

As the procession of cars appeared over the horizon of Startseite – that being, the nearby hive walls – a Treasury guard raised his wrist to his mouth. “Sire, the convoy is here.”

The Emperor, who had decided not to attend the wedding so as not to overwhelm the guests any more than a few Primarchs being there would have already, nodded from his seat in the greatroom, where he had been sitting alone for several minutes. “Very well.”

“How late will you be staying, Sire?” the guard asked.

“Not long. Long enough to offer congratulations, then depart quietly.” The Emperor rose from his seat and, with a thought, donned his sorcerous guise. He had chosen the same one he had used at Morticia’s trial for the occasion. “This isn’t my day,” he said. “This is theirs.”

The guard nodded and lowered his vox. The cars settled outside the manor, and jubilant guests filtered in. Venus and Jake were first in by their own design, since Venus wanted to change into something less ornate than her uniform. As they entered, both spotted the man with the black ponytail and gilded uniform shirt standing in the far side of the room, and Venus beamed a grin. “Grandfather, I’m glad you could make it!”

“I would have been remiss not to offer my congratulations,” the Emperor said, making his way over. “In that spirit…congratulations, both of you.”

Jake bowed his head, a little overwhelmed. The Emperor found himself glad that he had chosen an appearance even as unassuming as he had. “My thanks, Sire,” Jake said quietly.

“And Venus, does this mean that you will be returning to Nocturne to begin ruling formally?” the Emperor asked as other guests started streaming in.

“Oh, no, Grandfather, not for over a year,” Venus said. “I have obligations here I won’t abandon.”

The Emperor nodded. “Very well. You know that when you return to Terra, for whatever reason, I may well have some responsibility for you as well, yes?” he asked.

“I sort of suspected,” Venus admitted. “What would they entail?”

“Nothing too strenuous, at first, but as your father and uncles divest themselves of the workings of the Administratum, I will find roles for you and your sisters. Assuming, of course, that you do not simply enter the military, as your sister Hana has chosen to do,” the Emperor said.

“Well, that needn’t concern you,” Venus said. “I love my brothers in the Legion, but I’ll never be one of them.”

The Emperor smiled slightly. “So your father assures me.”

Venus rolled her eyes, probably. “I bet.”

A few other guests walked up to where the three of them were standing, and the Emperor stepped back, sensing his presence becoming a distraction. “I’ll see you soon, I’m sure,” the Emperor said.

George Seager walked up to Jake as Venus made a discreet exit for her room to change. “Jake, I can’t say it enough, congratulations,” George said, clasping his son’s shoulder again.

“Thanks, Dad,” Jake said. He turned to face the Emperor again, reaching out a hand. “Have you met Venus’ grandfather?”

George turned, absolute awe forming on his face. The Emperor hid a sigh and nodded politely. “Sieur Seager.”

“Dad,” Jake said under his breath.

George shook himself, nodding back. “Your Royal Highness, I’m honored,” he managed.

“The honor is Jacob’s and Venus’, today,” the Emperor deflected neatly. “Now…Jacob, if you’ll pardon me, I must return to the Lunar Conference. Again, my congratulations.”

“Certainly, your Highness, I’m glad you could make it at all. And thank you for the token,” Jake said, patting his pocket.

“Of course. Farewell,” the Emperor said, walking back towards the door.

George watched his liege disappear, stunned. “What token is this?” he asked, finally.

“The Emperor grants all of his new grandsons-in-law one of these,” Jake said, lifting a tiny silver chain from his pocket. A small metal token in the shape of the Aquila was attached, and its surface was mottled with inbuilt circuitry. “They grant access to the Palace hangars from a distance,” Jake explained, putting it away. “Anyway.” He broke into an ecstatic grin as the moment returned. “Fuck, I’m actually married!”

“I know, how did that happen?” a new voice asked. Remilia appeared at his side, smiling smugly. “I mean, nobody saw it coming.”

“Hey, Remilia,” Jake said, offering his new sister a hug. “Thanks for being there,” he said.

“Are you kidding? Wouldn’t miss it!” Remilia was decked out in a gold-lined dress tunic and a beautiful layered dress shirt below it, her loathing of traditional ‘girly’ clothes extending even to wedding wear. She was joined by Angela, who was beaming as widely as her cousin.

“Jake, congratulations,” Angela said happily. “You’re in for a beautiful future.”

“Is that a prophecy?” Jake asked, half-grinning.

“Nope, common sense,” Angela said cheekily.

Jake chuckled, then looked down and clasped his hands over the warm, dark arms that had appeared around his chest. Venus pecked him on the cheek as she hugged him. “Hey, sweetheart, are you ready to go?” she asked quietly.

“As soon as you’re ready,” Jake said under his breath. They had decided to postpone a formal honeymoon until after their education had concluded, and were going to spend the summer on Nocturne, instead, allowing them both to begin the process of acclimating themselves to the world’s climate and politics. They were going to leave as soon as the party was in full swing, in traditional Terran style, since they were planning on having a formal ceremony on Nocturne as soon as they arrived.

Remember That One Time[edit]

Jake tapped his finger on his knee, nervously staring at the camera. “I’m still not used to those,” he muttered.

“Holocams?” Venus asked.

“Yeah. When have I ever needed to be filmed, before?” Jake asked.

His wife rolled her eyes, probably. “Don’t worry about it,” she deadpanned. “We’ll be fine.”

“I don’t want to embarrass you,” Jake said quietly as the excited reporter shuffled some cards with questions on them.

Venus smiled. “You won’t.”

The reporter sat down across from them and gestured to the sound technician to start their microphones. “All right, your Highnesses, I’m ready if you are,” he said, steadying his hands as he did so. It was a rare day that a member of Lord Primarch Vulkan’s family consented to an interview.

“Sure, roll it,” Venus said, straightening up. Jake glanced sideways at her to see how she was sitting, and she looked relaxed. Her eyes were focused on the reporter, and her hands were crossed in her lap. The interviewer’s clothing was incongruously casual from the waist down, he noted with a grin. Then, if the camera only recorded from the belt up, who would know?

“Welcome back, my friends, and tonight we have a very special guest, or two,” the interviewer said happily. “It is our profound honor to welcome Lady Primarch – and Princess of Nocturne – Venus, and Bond Prince Jacob.”

The camera facing them lit, and the two newlyweds smiled. “St’eng, it’s a pleasure,” Venus answered for them both.

“May I be the first to say, your Highnesses: you have my earnest congratulations,” St’eng said, inclining his head for a moment.

“Well, I’m afraid a few of my cousins beat you there, but thank you kindly,” Venus chuckled as Jake held back a laugh. At least half of the crew of the ship they had taken in the way from Terra to Nocturne had said nearly the same exact thing.

“I see, of course,” the anchor said. “Does your recent move to Nocturne precipitate a permanent move here?”

“Sadly not, actually,” Venus said. “We both have some educational obligations back on Terra.”

“I see. Would you be willing to speak of them?” the reporter asked.

“Well, I have one year left in my Masters’,” Venus said. “A Masters of Science in Inorganic Chemistry.”

Jake spoke up next. “I’m in for a Bachelors’ of Fine Arts in Consumer Design,” he added.

“Interesting choices, my Lady, Lord,” the interviewer said. “No politics?”

“Having a Primarch for a parent sort of prepares you for that on your own,” Venus said drily. “I’m quite well-versed. Besides, I won’t be assuming actual control of the system for several years; Regent No’dan will be ceding his authority gradually as I take up the reins.”

“If I may, Princess, you’re referring to yourself only. Does this mean, Lord Jacob, that you will not be taking a role in the system’s governance?” the interviewer asked.

Jake shrugged awkwardly. “I will be quite happy to do so if I feel needed, but I don’t have Venus’ training.”

The reporter nodded again. “Where will you be basing yourselves, your Lady and Lordship?”

“Venus and Jake work fine, actually, it’s less of a mouthful,” Venus said. “And Themis is the answer. We’re going to take up residence in the city Castle for now.”

St’eng smiled at the apparent lowering of formality. “I appreciate that. Might I ask why you selected Themis as the city of choice for your residence? Traditionally, King Vulkan selected Hesiod as his home.”

“And I respect that choice, but I’m not my father,” Venus said. “We want to make a fresh start.”

“I can certainly understand that,” St’eng said. “What was your life on Terra like?”

“Oh, I couldn’t possibly describe it all in one sitting,” Venus said. Jake nodded, not adding anything yet.

St’eng turned to him, oblivious to his nerves. “And you, Prince Jacob, what was your own experience on Terra?”

Jake shrugged awkwardly. “Well, I was born there, that was a highlight,” he said. He coughed as Venus rolled her eyes. “But if you meant later on, well, we lived together for four or five years before now, ever since the end of high school.”

“What is the high school system like on Terra?” St’eng asked. “We don’t have them here.”

“Essentially, from the age of around twelve or thirteen to sixteen or seventeen, you attend the same school, and take sequentially more difficult classes, usually in a pretty diverse array of fields,” Jake said, picking up steam now that they were discussing something safe. “After the end, you graduate, and go on to the military, a job, trade, university, a professional school, what have you.”

“And am I to understand that you were not a member of the Imperial nobility, like Princess Venus?” St’eng asked.

“No, far from it,” Jake said. He shifted a bit as the conversation turned to his own origins again, despite his best attempts to avoid it. Trolling college buddies was one thing, but this? Technically, St’eng was one of his subjects.

“Truth be told, it came in handy once or twice,” Venus said, detecting his discomfort.

“It did?” Jake asked, turning to her in confusion.

“Yeah. Remember the movie theater near the campus?” Venus asked slyly.

Jake laughed, breaking his tension. “Oh, wow, that was insane,” he chuckled.

Venus turned to the bemused interviewer. “See, Jake and I both love riffing terrible old movies. You know what riffing is? Well, there was a movie theater near our college home that had a habit of running movies long after the audience had already moved on, and so there would be times when the theater would have completely empty rooms. We would use that opportunity to go watch movies together, and if we had the place to ourselves, we would just riff the hell out of it.”

St’eng raised his eyebrows. “Really? They let you do that, your Highness?”

“Well, if nobody’s there, sure,” Venus said, smiling. “Except…”

“Except for that one time,” Jake finished. “That was pretty hilarious.” He turned to the newscaster and continued. “See, one time, Venus and I were watching a movie, and a guy in the projection booth overheard us. He was really confused by all the talking, so he came down into the theater and found us sitting there, just laughing our asses off at each other.”

“We thought he was going to be so mad,” Venus laughed. She shook her night-black hair in amusement. “Instead, he grabbed a video camera and joined us.”

“So it was just me, Venus, and this random employee, sitting there in the theater, recording ourselves riffing this awful movie,” Jake said, grinning at the memory. “The recording is still floating around out there, somewhere.”

“Ah, that was fun,” Venus said cheerfully. “Can’t do that here, sadly.”

“We can’t?” Jake asked.

“Nope. I’d get recognized in an instant here, even with my disguise,” Venus said.

“Ah, true,” Jake said dolefully.

St’eng shook his head, chuckling as well. “I see. I’m glad to see you had fun, at least,” he said. “Did you ever try anything like that again?”

“No, but occasionally, my cousins and I would turn our powers against one another,” Venus said, glaring at Jake with mock resentment. Jake affected surprise. “Really? The clock?” Venus deadpanned.

“Oh, right, the clock,” Jake said, as if he had just remembered. “The clock was great.”

“See, my old alarm clock had a port on it, for firmware upgrades or something,” Venus said to St’eng. “And I went to bed after he did and woke up after he did for classes. So one evening, my dearest fiancé here decides that my clock wasn’t good enough. So, he and my cousin Cora put some batteries in it, unplug it from the wall, connect it to his computer, and load a selection of animal noises onto it,” she continued. St’eng gaped as Jake held back a gleeful giggle. “Then, she puts it in a hamster ball or something like that, along with a mousetrap, and they put all this at the bottom of my laundry hamper.”

“So, the next morning,” Jake said, picking up where Venus had left off, “when her alarm goes off…” he had to pause to bite back another spate of giggles. “We take a trip to the zoo in our laundry basket,” he said, and lost the battle. He clamped a hand over his mouth, laughing into his hand.

“As you can imagine, I was so incredibly confused,” Venus sighed. “And when it went off, I had to go rooting around in the laundry hamper, trying to figure out what the hell is going on, all while trying so hard not to wake him up. So hard!”

“See, I was supposed to be asleep,” Jake said. “Of course, I’m wide awake, and I’m struggling not to laugh and give up the game.”

“And then, when I find the damn thing, the mousetrap goes off and launches it clear across the room,” Venus said. “It caromed off the walls a few times and lands under the bed.”

“So I’m lying there, shaking with laughter, just dying inside, while she’s rooting around under the bed, trying to find the damn clock and pry the ball open,” Jake said, wiping a tear of mirth from his eye. “And when she finally digs it out, and turns it off, I sort of raise my head and go ‘what happened?’” he said, miming exhaustion.

Venus sighed as Jake broke out in laughter again. “I was ready to kill Cora after that. And you too,” she said, glaring at Jake.

“Ah, you’d miss me,” Jake said, playfully squeezing her hand. She jerked it away, pretending to grumble.

“So…you had an eventful college career, I take it?” St’eng finally managed.

“Oh yes. Especially when I found a way to load the animal sounds onto his vox,” Venus said. “I made sure to call him at work the next day.”

“Yes, that was a confusing few seconds,” Jake laughed. “I’m standing there in the lab, and pawing frantically at my pockets, while all sorts of baffling noises are happening, and everyone’s staring at me. And then, I whip it out, and press ‘talk,’ and I just ask, ‘Hi, Venus, what’s up?’” Jake said, miming a vox to his ear.

“Isn’t that still your ringtone for when certain people call you?” Venus asked.

“Yes, my parents and one of my old poker buddies,” Jake said. “Good times,” he said with a rueful chuckle.

St’eng looked from one laughing Royal Family member to the other, slowly picking his jaw up off the floor. “Well…this will be an interesting reign, won’t it?” he asked aloud.

“One hopes,” Venus said happily, as Jake squeezed her hand again. “I’m certainly looking forward to it.”


An Ethical Dilemma[edit]

Eternity. It was a bloody long time.

Jake leaned back against the black leather of his chair. The ice in his cup creaked as it melted into his drink. He set it down on the table beside him, slowly rubbing his moist fingers together. He wondered. Would he still feel the cold?

Venus sat across from him. The interlocked gold and silver rings on her finger bespoke the three years they had been married. The tiny trail of Nocturnean diamonds around the single blood-red ruby on the silver ring chased the blank gold in a beautiful contrast.

Jake and his wife were a visual contrast as well. His pale, almost ill-looking skin and curly light brown hair were as different as could be from her coal-black skin and long hair, and glowing, uniform red eyes. To the wrong viewer, she looked daemonic, terrifying. To her friends and family, she was an easily likeable young woman.

Jake, however, had other things on his mind. His wife and her appearance were among them, certainly, and so was he. But the main thought in his head was eternity. Life everlasting, youth unending, healthiness forever. It was his, if he wanted it.

Did he want it?

He had no idea.

His wife’s eyes were dimmed and narrow. For once, the lack of a glow in her eyes was borne of something other than contentment or exhaustion. She was angry, she was apprehensive, she was frustrated, and she was confused. For her, Jake’s choice was an obvious one. However, she was a bright girl, and knew that his perspective was radically different from hers. Normally, Venus had the patience she had been gifted by her father. Today, that patience was drawing thin.

Jake’s jaw tightened as trains of thought chased themselves through his head. His choice should have been so simple. Life with the woman he loved, and the chance to start a family with her…or ignominious death, in the knowledge that he had broken her heart.

His stomach roiled. He grimaced and ran his hand over it. Venus’ eyes dimmed a bit more.

“Why is it a difficult choice?” she quietly asked.

“Because…because, baby, I’ll give up the body I was born to. My appearance, part of my identity.” He met his wife’s eyes, flinching away from the light from them as he did. “My mother gave me these eyes. My father gave me this hair, my skin, my voice. I might lose them.”

She stayed quiet. He leaned forward, pleading. “Never think that I DON’T want to spend forever with you,” he said. His voice was a rasp. “If ‘Til Death Do Us Part didn’t have to come to pass…I’d be on it like a shot. But it’s not a guarantee,” he said.

“The odds of failure are tiny, but grow bigger the longer we wait,” Venus said. She sighed as his jaw tightened again. “Sorry. I just don’t understand why this is hard for you. Michael and Nathaniel accepted in an instant.”

“I’m not Michael, and I’m not Nathaniel,” Jake said coldly. “I’m not willing to abandon my body without thinking all of the act’s implications through to their end.”

“They were?”

“Michael was. Nathaniel…he was smarter, but he still did it.” Jake sat back, tired and angry. “Venus. Please…just…let me think.”

She stared at him, her eyes flaring a bit. Slowly, she rose from her seat. “I don’t understand…but I can respect that you need time. The Emperor doesn’t want an answer right away.”

“Thanks, Venus.” Jake sipped from his drink, feeling the frigid alcohol slide down his throat. “I love you.”

“I know you do, Jacob, and I love you too,” Venus said. Now, she sounded just confused instead of angry. It wasn’t an improvement.

She walked out of the living room into the hall, closing the door behind her. Her hand lingered on the knob for a moment, before tightening in frustration.

The vox rang. She snatched it up from its cradle by the door, answering it before the first ring had ended. “Hello?”

“Hello, Venus,” Angela’s voice answered.

Venus walked briskly down the hallway towards the entry. “Hey. What’s up?”

“I wanted to know if you and Remilia were back in town. That confirms that,” her cousin drily observed.

“You couldn’t tell?” Venus asked.

“Yes, the emotional groundswell from Jake is pretty much blotting out that whole area. What’s got him so scared?” Angela asked.

Venus sighed. “The Emperor made him the offer.”

“Oh.” Angela went quiet. “I hope he accepts,” she finally said.

“Me too.” Venus sank into a chair in the open kitchen. “Did you say scared?”

“Yes. You can’t tell? He’s terrified. It feels like when Morticia was hurt. His soul is screaming in fear,” Angela said gravely.

Angela was many things. Prone to hyperbole? Not amongst them.

Venus swallowed a thread of guilt. “I don’t understand why he’s having a hard time. It’s everything we’ve ever wanted.”

“Interesting choice of words,” Angela observed. “Is it everything he’s always wanted, for himself?”

Venus sighed. “I don’t know. I thought so.”

Angela nodded. “May I come over?”


“I want to help. Do you want me to help? I think a quick trip through his fears will expedite this.”

“Angela, you’re a sweetheart, but I can’t decide that for him,” Venus said. Her stomach tightened. “I’ll ask.”

“Please do.” Angela muted the vox and looked down the road from her home to Venus’ (relatively) modest manor. “Quickly,” she added under her breath.

Jake listened to Venus approach and closed his eyes. He wondered which of her cousins wanted to weigh in now.

“May I come in?” Venus asked from behind the door.

“Of course,” Jake said. She walked in, gesturing with the vox.

“Angela wants to come over. Is that okay?” she asked.

Jake smiled inwardly. He had hoped one of the psykers would call. “Sure.”

Venus lifted the vox. “Come on over,” she said.

Angela breathed a sigh of relief. She unmuted the vox. “Great. I’ll be right there.”

She and her husband Michael were only a minute away. Their regal cousin and brother-in-law arrived and made themselves at home in the living room as Jake explained his conundrum.

Michael, who had undergone the surgery himself years before, listened intently to his friend’s tale. “Well…I suppose, really, you’re to be congratulated. It’s a rare offer,” he said. The surgery certainly hadn’t had any negative impacts on him, Jake noted. The tall, handsome nobleman had accepted his grandfather’s offer in under an hour, and the procedure had gone flawlessly. He had always been easy on the eyes, but now he projected a totally confident air that had lined the pages of many tabloids aimed at hormonal girls. His eyes were a brilliant, piercing blue, now. They had been green before.

“It is. I have to know, Mike…just how bad does it hurt?”

“It’s horrific. But…only for a day or two. After that, it feels amazing.” He held his bare arm out to his old friend. “Jake, the sensations are better, I’m stronger…I swear I’m smarter. There’s not a single drawback to a successful operation.”

“Not unless a changed appearance is a drawback,” Jake noted. “Man, you always looked like Sanguinius. I don’t look a THING like Vulkan, and he’ll be the donor. My hair, my eyes, my skin, my voice…they’ll all probably change.”

“Well…that’s fair. But if it’s the pain you’re worried about, don’t. I actually feel better now.” He leaned forward with an easy grin on his lips. “Jake, my friend, it’s something to look forward to.”

Jake nodded. “I see.”

Angela slowly inclined her head to him. “If you’d like, Jake…I can help a bit.” Her implication was clear.

“I’d like that, I think,” Jake said. Michael nodded and rose, trusting his wife to her word. Venus lingered in her seat.

“What do you want to do?” she asked.

“I want to help Jake see what it looks like,” Angela said. She turned her smile to her cousin. “I promise I won’t raid his memory, or anything personal. I just want to impart a bit of understanding. I swear it.”

Venus nodded. “All right…Jake?”

Jake had already made up his mind. “Do it,” he said. He paused to squeeze Venus’ hand as she rose from her seat. “I’ll be here, don’t worry,” he said.

“I know.” She pulled her hand loose. “I’ll be in the family room if you want to find me,” she said.

The door closed behind her as she and Michael walked down the hall. Jake looked back to his sister-in-law, his heart picking up. She rose and crossed the room, sitting down next to him. Her wings fluttered a bit as she made herself comfortable next to him. “Jake…I promise, I won’t give you a reason not to trust me,” she said. Her voice was quiet, respectful. She understood that he was asking her to invade his privacy.

“You’re like a sister to me, Angela,” Jake replied. “I trust you. What do I do?”

“Thanks.” She grabbed a pillow from the end of the couch and slid it behind his head. “Here, just relax. You might actually fall asleep.”

“Okay…” Jake lay down a bit, staring up at his deific guest. “What now?”

“Now you hush up and relax,” she said warmly. She rose and knelt at his side next to the couch, looking down at him. “Let me know, and I’ll stop.”

“I will,” Jake said. Her eyes flared bright, unnatural blue as she slid her mental projection across his mind, easing herself in. He gasped through his teeth. “I’ll never get used to that,” he whispered.

Angela let her own eyes slide shut. The roiling, twisting ball of fear at the center of his mind was glowing like a raging fire. She could have found it if she were unconscious. She slid her hands together over her belt buckle and relaxed, trying to find a way into his memories.

“All right…that doesn’t hurt,” Jake reported.

“Good, it’s supposed to be relaxing,” she said. He cracked one of his own eyes open. She was sitting still, her eyes glowing purple through the lids. “There…I’ve found it. Does that feel bad?”

“No…” Jake felt sudden knowledge flow into him, like a breath of hot air. Her own understanding of the process the Emperor could bestow, and the ways her life had changed since Michael had undertaken it, blossomed in his mind. More than that, he felt the emotional mess in his head fade a bit.

She opened her eyes and stood. “And done. Not so bad, was it?” she asked.

“Didn’t feel a thing after the first few seconds,” Jake said, sitting up as well. He reviewed the burst of knowledge with a nod. She had imparted her sense of relief at Michael’s own apotheosis, and the sense of certainty she felt when they thought of the future together. “So you think it’s a no-brainer, huh.”

“I think it’s something you should have talked about before,” Angela gently chided.

“Probably.” Jake sighed. He patted the seat next to him. As she sat, he looked at her sidelong. “Angela…I think, to an extent, it’s the implications of success that get to me. My parents think it’s an abomination. My cousins think it’s the coolest thing ever. My wife thinks I’m an idiot if I refuse, and my mother-in-law thinks I should say no and move on with my life.”

“Misja, George, and Sandra aren’t here,” Angela noted. “And I didn’t hear Vulkan on that list.”

“He thinks it’s a grand idea. But…he can think in the long term.” Jake ran a hand through his hair. “You know…that’s another thing.” He looked over at Angela again. “You and the other Progenitors can think in terms of eternity. You’re mentally capable of it. When I sit down and think about…I mean, THINK about it…it scares me.”

“I could see that.” She grabbed his hand and held it between her own, trying to still his fear. “Jake…all psykers have to think about eternity. Whether they’re immortal or not. It drives some crazy. Others, like me…it’s a mystery to solve. Lord Regent Malcador, before he died, he said that it was something he liked to think about. He was a bit weird, sure, but he always liked puzzles. You and Michael…you only have trouble comprehending it because your minds and bodies didn’t evolve for it. Maybe I can’t show you the limited understanding of eternity I have…but I bet if you ask Michael, he can tell you what he thought.”

Jake nodded. He felt the vaguest feeling of placation at the edge of his mind. “I understand. Is that you?” he asked.

“Oh, sorry, force of habit.” The thought disappeared. “Look…I’ll get Michael. He’ll be better at this than me, I think.”

Jake stood. “All right.” As Angela rose, he gingerly caught her in a hug below the wings. “Thanks.”

“No problem, Jake,” she said. She returned it quickly, and parted with a beatific grin. “Any time you need me.”

Michael downed a shot of bourbon as Jake tried to explain what Angela had given him. “Well…I can tell you now that our circumstances are a bit different,” he started. “Jake, Angela and I have been sharing minds since we were fourteen. We had literally no reason not to do it. It sounds like you might.”

“Really, dude?” Jake looked pained. “Man, I can’t even THINK about living forever! How did you do it?”

“I can do it now,” Michael pointed out. “One of the things the Emperor changed was my ability to comprehend my own lifespan. How do you think men like Lord Luther or Lord Phaeron can handle being four thousand years old without getting made into Astartes?”

“Why didn’t Malcador do it?” Jake shot back.

“Never asked.” Michael set his glass down. “Believe me when I say, Jake, that it’s only scary beforehand. I’m looking forward to it now.”

Jake grimaced. “Well…that helps. It does.” He looked back up at his friend. “What else changes?”

“Well, my senses are sharper, like I said. I feel like it takes me less time to solve problems, too. And…well.” He coughed into his hand. “I understand that it makes me genetically compatible with Angela. We’re in no hurry to test that.”

“Wait, really?” Jake asked. “I knew it would make me compatible with Venus, but I thought Angela was close enough to baseline…”

“She’s just out of range.” Michael shook his head. “Not important.”

“What about your personality?” Jake asked. “Did that change? Or your memories?”

“My memory’s actually much better now. As for my personality…” Michael hesitated. “I don’t know. I asked Angela to mention any changes, and she hasn’t, so I assume all’s well.”

“So…as far as you know, in your case at least…no drawbacks,” Jake said, just to be sure.

Michael nodded. “No drawbacks. Everything feels fine. Better, even.” He paused. “If you want another perspective…I suggest you speak to Nathaniel.”

Jake huffed. “That’s part of why I’m nervous.”

“Magnus’ donation went…oddly. Nate didn’t, you know, mutate, or anything…no extra eye,” Michael joked. “But he has a lot of trouble sleeping now. I think that’s worth it. And you wouldn’t have that problem anyway,” he added.

“Yeah.” Jake thought back to what the Emperor had told him. “Still…what odds did he quote for you?”

“The Emperor? Ninety seven,” Michael said.

Jake shot upright. “What? He told me I had an eighty five percent chance of success!” Jake said, astonished.

“Different DNA, different donor, different age…that stuff matters,” Michael awkwardly said. “If it makes you feel better, Nate had a seventy nine percent chance and it went pretty well.”

Jake stared at his friend, before sinking back into his chair, grinding his hands into his eyes. “Ugh…”

“Man, I’ve said my piece.” Michael stood. “I think you need to talk to Nate.”

“No, the one I need to talk to is my father,” Jake groused. “He thinks it’s a crime.”

“Whoa. Why?”

“He’s a baseliner. Always was.” Jake thought back to when his father explained why he had chosen to raise his family in the hives instead of Mars. “He refused to enter the Mechanicum seminary, even though he had a guaranteed seat, because he hates augmetics.”

“Oh.” Michael thought that over. “I think…huh. I think I’m beginning to sense the root of your problem, here,” he weakly joked.

Jake managed a snort. “Maybe a little. Angela knows, too. She’d probably say I should go talk to Dad.”

“Wise words.”

Jake grabbed his friend’s hand and levered up out of the seat. He paused as he did; glancing uncomfortably into the eyes Michael hadn’t had a month before. Michael grinned wistfully, instantly realizing what Jake was doing. Jake searched his face for a moment in silence, before nodding.

“All right. Thanks, Mike.”

“My pleasure, Jake.”

George Seager opened the door of his new apartment and breathed the filtered air. The ambient noises of the hive were so much fainter here. He had an actual, dedicated landing pad for his aircar. Sandra could walk to her job; it was so close to the apartment.

It was Jake’s gift. After the wedding ceremony, Vulkan’s family had given Venus a generous dowry of sorts, to make a home on Terra. Choosing to build in the new surface city of Cordoma, six hundred miles from Startseite, she had selected to construct a relatively small summer home, to complement her permanent home on Nocturne. She and several of her cousins had chosen to do that to retain some connection with their homeworlds and Terra, where most of their families lived. Jake had obtained Venus’ permission to send some of that money to his parents, both in payment for his years of residence there, and because he felt guilty about living like a king – or Prince, specifically – while his parents stayed in the hive.

George and Sandra had chosen to buy a much nicer apartment, five cubes up from where they had lived before, and used the money to buy it in full. The rest of the Seager family was just a few button presses on the autopilot away, after all. Now they had a separate kitchen and sitting room, bedrooms larger than prison cells. It felt like opulence.

“Hey, Uncle George!” an eager young voice piped up. George looked down and beamed at his niece, Mizuki. Her mother Alice was Sandra’s younger sister. Alice and her husband, along with Sandra’s youngest sibling (of two), Walter, who was really only a few years older than Jake, had come over for a housewarming.

“Hey, Zuki, great to see you!” he said, scooping the bubbly toddler into his arms. “How’s life treatin’ ya?”

“Good! I start first grade in two weeks!” Mizuki proudly declared.

“Well, that’s exciting!” George said. He smiled over her head as Hajime, Alice’s husband, emerged from the parking area down the street. “Is your Mom around?”

“She’s in the car,” Mizuki said, pointing back to the lot. Alice and Walter were emerging too, and so was-

George tightened his grip on his niece, quite unconsciously. Jake was with them, and Venus was also. He looked down at the little girl and tried to keep smiling. “Hey, when did your cousin Jake get here?” he asked.

“He got here when we did!” Mizuki eagerly said. “And Venus too!”

“Good,” George said, letting Mizuki down. She scampered over to her father and walked behind him to the apartment.

Hajime smiled at his brother-in-law, shaking his hand. “Hello, George.”

“Hi, Hajime, glad you could make it,” George said.

Hajime glanced over his shoulder to where Venus was porting a bag of something up from the cars. “Princess Venus is here…I’ll never get used to thinking of her as family.”

“It takes a while,” George said. He managed to keep all the bitterness out of his voice.

Sandra welcomed her family in unreservedly, even Jake and Venus. When Jake paused to shake his father’s hand, he caught the flash of suppressed anger in his father’s eyes, but chose to ignore it. Venus dismissed her guard detail, and they vanished into the crowds of people outside the apartment like ghosts.

While Walter and Jake chatted about the end of the summer and Walter’s new job, Sandra and Venus unpacked the food Venus had brought. “Hope you don’t mind, but I felt like bringing something,” Venus said, pulling a bag of homemade rolls out of the larger canvas sack.

“Of course not, honey, it’ll get eaten,” Sandra pointed out. “How was your trip?”

“Awesome. You should SEE the things we have under construction in the Expansion Zone,” Venus said. “The new colony habs are amazing. Makes me wonder if the older colonies will demand them from the Mechanicum.”

“Probably.” Sandra watched as Venus’ red gaze darted away from where George and Hajime were standing. “Something wrong, Venus?”

“I’m sensing some hostility from George, and I don’t think I need to guess why,” Venus confessed.

Sandra tutted. “Don’t talk about it. If George wants to be truculent in the apartment you paid for, let him. He can talk about it like an adult.”

“Sandra, Jake paid for your apartment. It was his money to do with as he saw fit.” Venus nodded as she unpacked some more food. “All I did was give it to him. And even then, it was a present from Dad.”

“Well, thank Vulkan for us, then, because it’s much better than our old place.” Sandra’s head turned as the front door opened. “Grandpa! Come on in!”

Venus tilted her head up. Sandra’s recently widowed father, a long-since-retired Crusade veteran from the Imperial Fists Army Group, was walking in. He started to salute by habit as he saw his Royal granddaughter, but Jake’s abrupt bear hug and Mizuki’s joyful squeeze of the leg interrupted him.

“Hey, kiddo! What are your parents putting in the soylens they feed you? You’re as tall as I am!” he said, ruffling his granddaughter’s straight black hair.

“No, Grandpa Eric, I’m not yet!” she pouted.

“Well, you will be soon,” he promised.

With the family assembled, they sat around the new table in the middle of the greatroom. Mizuki scrambled into Venus’ lap as she did, as Venus discreetly slid a few napkins under her to block the heat. Eric smiled indulgently at his granddaughter. “Mizuki, you must be ready to start elementary school by now.”

“Two weeks!” Mizuki announced.

“Well, that should be fun.” He glanced up at Jake. “How about you, Jacob? How was your trip?”

“Surprisingly productive.” Jake leaned back in his chair and smiled as his mother passed him a roll. “The work they’re doing with the new construction teams in the Expansion Zone is breathtaking. So much new design. It’s pretty encouraging.”

“I always thought that’s what you would wind up doing,” Walter said. “You loved that stuff.”

“I still do. The new setup we have on Nocturne has a nice design suite. You are all invited, by the by,” Jake said, sweeping his hands over the room’s occupants.

Mizuki’s eyes bugged. “REALLY?!”

Jake shrugged. “If your parents are okay with you traveling through the Warp, sure.”

“Bah, I’ve been through the Warp more often than you have, Jacob, it’s a walk in the rec zone,” Eric said dismissively.

“That’s Hajime and Alice’s call,” Venus said firmly.

After dinner, Mizuki curled up on the couch with Sandra as George showed the others around the new apartment. Jake sank down next to his little cousin and grinned. “Hey, Mizuki, how was your summer?”

“It was okay, I guess,” she said sleepily. “I met a few new neighbors.”

“Yeah? Any your age?”

“No, they’re all little kids,” the six-year-old grumped.

“For now,” Jake counseled. “But you can be like a big sister to them in a few years.”

“I don’t wanna be a big sister,” Mizuki complained.

Jake nodded, offering up a knowing grin. “Not yet. You will.”

“If you say so,” the little girl said. Jake smiled fondly.

“She’s growing up quick,” he said as Mizuki wandered off to the bathroom.

“It’s uncanny,” his mother said. She looked over at Jake as the tour group returned. “How about you, Jake? Do you have any plans?”

“Yeah, when do I get to be a great grandfather?” Eric quipped.

“Hmm.” Jake looked up at Venus, as if in contemplative appraisal. Discs of red light arced across the ceiling as Venus rolled her eyes. “Might be worth a try. Of course…there’s that other issue,” he said.

“So…the Emperor really did make an offer?” Sandra asked, a tone of awe creeping into her voice.

Venus nodded. “Yes. He offered Jake the same thing he offered Nathaniel and Michael.”

Silence met her proclamation. “So…you gonna do it?” Walter hesitantly asked.

“Not sure,” Jake admitted. “I want your opinions.”

“The hell for?” Hajime asked. “It’s your decision.”

“Of course it is, but you guys will always be my family.” Jake’s voice hardened. “And if I do this, I may watch all of you die. So I want to know. What do you think I should do?”

“Go for it,” Walter opined. “How often do you get an offer like that?”

Sandra shook her head. “Not very…”

George shook his head. “You know my opinion,” he said coldly.

“I don’t understand it, though, not really, Dad,” Jake said. “What about it makes you so angry? You barely looked me in the eye when I walked in.”

George did now. “It makes me angry because there’s nothing wrong with the body you’ve got! You’re in perfect health. Yes, you’ll die someday…but so does nearly every other person in the universe! It’s natural!”

“And I’m not?” Venus ground out.

George flinched. “Sorry, Venus, I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Maybe not consciously, but it’s an easy conclusion to reach. I don’t remember you complaining about my biology when we met, though, or for the next eight years. Yet, now that Jake has a chance to live life eternal, suddenly it’s an issue,” Venus pressed. Her eyes flashed red. “Care to share, George?”

“Venus.” Jake’s quiet word was a request. She was instantly silent, but seething. “Dad. I want to live my life with Venus…and if that means extending it, I can live with it. No pun intended. And it will mean we can have a family. Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“It means more to me than I’ve probably implied,” George admitted. “But I made a conscious choice not to twist myself with augmetics when I left the Mechanicum. I was practically thrown out of the seminary for that. And Dad…Carmine never fully forgave me for it.”

“Do you really want to end things between us on the same note?” Jake asked softly. George glared at him, but didn’t say anything.

“I was ready to commit to a relationship I knew I would outlive,” Venus said. “The Emperor thinks it shouldn’t end like that.”

“As well he should!” Eric suddenly said. Every eye turned to him. “Damn it, George…when Christine died, I thought I was going to…” Eric’s eyes were watering. His voice caught. “I thought I would go mad. I was married to her for fifty one years. When I was off on tour, she was always there for me. She never lost her faith, her trust…we built a family together. And when she died of some…some stupid virus…” He paused to wipe his handkerchief across his face. Alice and Sandra were both tearing up themselves. Walter’s eyes were screwed shut. “I lost half my life when I lost her. Don’t you even THINK of trying to make Venus go through that too,” he said. Venus looked away.

“Eric…” George tried to snap something back, but couldn’t do it. “It’s not like Christine ever got the chance Jake has.”

“What difference does that make?” Jake asked.

“Jacob, I can’t change your mind. If you want to do this, then do it. But you wanted my opinion. You have it,” George said. He didn’t cross his arms, but he did look like he was sulking.

Jake shut his eyes, trying to reconcile the patient, ferociously clever father he loved with the bitter old man in front of him. He couldn’t. “What do I not know, Dad? Please tell me,” Jake said. “Why did you decide not to get augmetics?”

George sighed. “They’re unnecessary,” he said tightly. “More than that, they’re dangerous. And even if bio-modding isn’t the same, it’s still turning something that works into something that works differently. Besides, it’s unfair. Someone with augmetics or gene-mods can out-compete someone without them. And the MANIA the Mechanicum and…” he trailed off as he tried to choke out the word. “And even the Astartes have for them; it’s repulsive. It smells like religion.”

“With whom, precisely, is Jake going to be competing?” Venus asked coldly. “No, really, I’d like to know.”

“Fine, he won’t be.” George huffed.

“Aunt Alice, you’ve been quiet. What do you think?” Jake asked.

“Me? I think you should do it.” Alice said. “What are the side effects?”

“Well…no way to know until you try, but my brother-in-law, Mike, he has it. He had no negative side effects at all. His eyes changed color a bit, but other than that…he says he feels like a new man,” Jake said.

“Then why would you have no way to know until you try?” Hajime asked.

Jake shrugged. “No two people have identical DNA. Well, Alpharia and Omegan, maybe,” he joked. “But I’d be getting my upgrade, basically, from a donor, and he has very different DNA. It might change mine a bit.”

“How much is a bit?” Sandra asked.

“What are you guys talking about?” Mizuki asked from the hallway.

Everyone looked over. “We’re just wondering if Jake and I should have a kid, and how it could change things,” Venus said.

Mizuki sank back onto the couch. “Would it change stuff that matters?” she asked reasonably.

“Maybe a lot,” Jake said.

Mizuki shrugged. “Like what?”

Alice squeezed her daughter’s hand. “Mizuki, come on, that’s private,” she shushed.

“How much is a bit?” Sandra pressed. Clearly, she wanted to keep talking in front of her niece.

“Potentially, my hair, voice, face, eyes, and skin will all change a little. Darken, deepen,” Jake said.

George shook his head. “You won’t even be the same person anymore!”

“Will I still be your son?” Jake demanded point blank. George glared at him, leaning forward to deliver a hot retort. “Careful, Dad. I may spend the rest of time with your answer,” Jake cautioned.

George froze, his teeth clamped together. Eric stared at his grandson, white as a sheet. “Jake…how could you even ask that?” Eric managed.

“You…Jacob, you will always be my son. But I may not know you any more,” George finally said.

“According to Mike and Nate, the surgery has no impact on personality. None. Even psychics can’t tell the difference; believe me, I’ve asked.” Jake leaned back. “All right. Hajime?”

“I think you deserve it, Jake.” His uncle met his eyes. “I think…if anyone deserved to enjoy that life, it’s you.”

“Mom?” Jake asked.

Sandra shook her head. “I think…Jake, I think Dad is right. My Dad. I think you should take the chance.”

“All genemodding has a chance of failure,” Walter pointed out. “What are your odds?”

Jake sighed. “Eighty five percent chance of perfect success. Two percent chance of partial success; that is, I live forever, but don’t stop aging. Three percent chance that I die on the table. Ten percent chance of perfect success, but physical changes occur.”

His mother paled. “Five percent chance of a fate worse than dying normally,” Sandra said.

“I came here because I genuinely wanted to know what you all thought,” Jake asked. “I guess now I know.”

“Are you leaving?” Mizuki asked.

Jake smiled down at her. “Nope. I wouldn’t miss a housewarming party…that I paid for,” he continued so quietly only Venus could hear it. She sniggered.

“Can we go outside?” Mizuki asked.

“Have you been to this cube before?” Jake asked.

“No, I mean to the surface,” Mizuki pressed.

Jake paused. “…I think that would have to happen some other time,” he said.

“Yeah, honey, let’s go later,” Hajime said.

The little girl yawned. “What’s it like?”

“Bright,” Jake said. “Very bright. I had to wear dark glasses the whole time, first few years I was up there. You get used to it, though.”

“How come you went to school up there?” she asked.

Jake grinned. “I won an award at middle school and got to go to any place I wanted for high school.”

“I hope I can go to school on the surface,” Mizuki tiredly said.

The conversation was turning to something that was actually more uncomfortable than surgery. Jake grimaced at the irony. Alice noticed. “Honey, are you tired? Do you want to go home?”

“I’m all right,” she said, stifling another yawn. “Can we stay a little longer?”

“Of course, Zuki,” Sandra soothed, shooting her son and husband a glance. “You can stay as late as you want.”

A few hours later, Mizuki was out cold, the food was all eaten, Sandra’s siblings were gone, and Eric, Jake, Venus, Sandra, and George were the only ones left. Jake and George were in the kitchen, having decided that their conversation had upset the others quite enough.

“Dad, let me make something clear: do not disrespect Venus’ origins like that again,” Jake quietly said.

“I didn’t mean to offend her before, no,” George said. “But I meant what I said about you getting this surgery. You won’t thank yourself.”

“How else can I not break her heart, Dad? How else can I get her pregnant? For that matter, how else can I fulfill my new responsibilities?” Jake asked. “I’m a Prince now. The Nocturneans have lived under immortals for over thirty six centuries.”

“Fine, I can’t speak to that,” George said. “But you know my opinion, and I’m sticking to it.” He stared at his taller son. “Jake, why do you even want to know what I think? You’re a grown man now.”

“I will ALWAYS care about your opinion, Dad, don’t think I won’t. I just wish it made more sense sometimes.” Jake ran his hand back through his hair. His fathers’, he noted, had a streak of grey in it. “Look…Venus and I have asked family that had the procedure, and aside from one guy who had mild insomnia, they all report that it went well. I’ll still be Jake. I’ll just last a bit longer. If I go through with it. I want Vulkan and the Emperor’s personal opinions.”

“And what will they say?”

“They both think it will be a good idea. I want to know why,” Jake said.

Back in the living room, Eric was asking Venus a few questions about the process. “Venus, do you know what this actually involves? The procedure?”

“It’s a bog-standard genemodding, really, they just use a Primarch’s DNA as a base instead of a blood relative,” Venus said. “The reason it’s so rare is that if you’re not a member of the Royal family, or absurdly well-connected to the Astartes legion, it’s technically illegal.”

“Why? Do they just not want a bunch of random strangers living forever?” Sandra asked.

“Well, that may be a part of it, but I suspect that it’s just a precaution. They don’t want to have the DNA of Royal Family members floating around in public,” Venus replied with a shrug. “Also, it’s not the safest possible source of genemods. There’s also some psychoconditioning and a few small cybernetic implantations, just to ensure the body doesn’t reject the modified genes.”

Sandra shifted uncomfortably. The idea of her son becoming someone else was obviously disconcerting. For once, Venus didn’t have a placatory remark to make. “Sandra, I’m not going to say this is safe. It’s…it’s no more dangerous than Warp travel, certainly, but it’s not safe. But I want this, for his sake and for mine. And frankly, the Emperor wouldn’t have offered if he didn’t think Jake should take it. The fact that he sees it as something to look forward to should say a lot.”

Sandra nodded, her stomach tightening. “Well…he’d know, I suppose. Do you know what Vulkan thinks about this?”

Venus managed a smile. “Dad thinks it’s a brilliant idea, and he’s already offered to help.”

“Has Lady Misja received this treatment, do you know?” Sandra asked.

Venus’ smile froze. “No. It’s…it only works on men. Mom’s mortal, still.”

“Oh.” Sandra looked away. “I’m sorry.”

“Mom and I have talked about it. We’ve talked about it many times.” Venus sighed. “I’ve come to terms with it, and I think she has too. But I don’t have Dad’s resilience, really. I couldn’t lose Mom and Jake.”

Jake and George returned to the room and sat back down as Venus finished her statement. “Well…even if it didn’t extent my life, it would still be the only way to have a biological family,” Jake said gravely. “That lends it weight, too.”

“Jake, it sounds like your mind’s made up,” Eric noted.

“No, Grandpa, it isn’t. Not this fast.” Jake leaned back in his chair, clearly drained. Sandra and George both noted their son’s new appearance. He had gotten much stronger since he had left Earth. The tight cords of muscle in his arms and upper back bespoke Nocturne’s gravity.

“Look…thanks, all of you, for your opinions.” He offered up a weak grin. “I think we’ve all had enough. What else should we talk about?”

As the night wore on, the group slowly broke up, and Jake and Venus departed for their own home. As Jake sat, silent and stern behind the controls, Venus looked over at him. “Did that help?” she asked.

“Yes. I think so.” Jake sighed. “I’m sorry Dad called you unnatural.”

“Yeah, that stung.” Venus slowly shook her head. “Where did it even come from? I’ve never seen George act that way before.”

Jake thought back to the conversation. “I think he feels that the sort of genetic alchemy the Emperor uses is more danger than benefit.”

“Well, he’s wrong. We won the Crusade with it, I was made from it, and Grandpa’s offering it to you to make your life better.” Venus’ fraying patience was evident in her blunt statement.

Jake looked over at her, pained. “Venus…it’s the fact that it might not work that gets to me.”

“True.” Venus felt the conversation about to loop back to old ground, and decided to cut it off preemptively. “Listen. Go talk to Dad again. He needs to weigh in on this.”

Jake nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right.” He let out a tense breath. “You know, Angela put a little knowledge in here.” He tapped his head. “She thinks it’s the best thing that’s happened to Mike since they got married. That means a lot.”

“Well, it means a lot to her that Michael and she can spend their lives together,” Venus said, maybe a bit shortly. The fact that her psychic cousin had had apparently no difficulty in convincing Michael of the procedure’s benefits was distantly annoying. Venus wondered if perhaps she just hadn’t hit upon the right argument.

“For what it’s worth, I think you’re right.” Jake looked back out the window at the taillights of the Treasury car ahead of them. “I’m going to talk to Vulkan tomorrow.”

The pseudoweather outside was growing cooler as summer ended. The rooftop patio of Vulkan’s manor was still covered in the carefully-tended flowers that Misja planted, in pots and ceramic urns here and there, and the wrought-iron railing (which Vulkan had made with his bare hands, as Jake had learned) was overgrown with creeping, flowering vines.

Jake breathed in the familiar smell with a grin. “Smells like an arboretum here.”

“It does,” his father-in-law said. Vulkan reclined against the entry to the open patio, hands folded over his waist. “We didn’t have these back home.”

“Still don’t, sadly, last I checked.” Jake smiled. “The new house on Nocturne is absolutely magnificent. The design work we did…it’s beautiful.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Vulkan said with a distinct note of pride. The two men had co-designed the structure, at Jake’s suggestion. The manor was situated on one of the massive rooftops of Themis Castle, cunningly built to look like nothing more than another addition to the ever-expanding citadel. It was more than half again the size of the house Vulkan and Misja shared on Terra, and five times the size of the house Venus had bought for them on Terra, after the wedding.

“I suppose you know why I’m here,” Jake said, cutting to the point.

“You want my advice,” Vulkan said.

“I do.” Jake sighed, burying his simmering tensions. He looked up at Vulkan and tried to meet his eyes. “Vulkan, I’m scared. I shouldn’t be…and if I was one of your Astartes, you’d tan my hide for it,” he said.

Vulkan snorted. It was true.

“But I am. And…I want to know what you think.”

The obsidian warrior clasped his hands on his son-in-law’s shoulders, mindful of his temperature. “Jake, I think it would be the wisest decision you could make to get the procedure. More than eternal life, it’s a chance to start a dynasty.” He stepped back and spoke earnestly, eyes raised to the sky. “I fought for my father’s empire for three thousand six hundred years. I built bases, power plants, schools, shipyards. I burned churches and temples, I crossed oceans of stars, I built a Legion of a half a million men from ten thousand over-eager Terrans…and I have never been happier than I am watching Venus grow into a Crown Princess.” He looked down at Jake and smiled. “I want to see her stay happy, confident, and deeply in love, Jake. You can do that for her.”

Jake was silent, surprised and moved by the unexpected depth of Vulkan’s plea. “I…understand. My own father said it was an abomination, not in those words, you understand, but he did. He thinks I shouldn’t throw away a body that works the way nature built it to.”

Vulkan nodded. “My own father, N’bel, was surprised and unnerved by my appearance when I was growing up. He thought it unnatural, deviant. It was a sign of his character that he overcame it, and treated me like an honored son even when he learned my true heritage.” He sat down in a metal chair by the door and thought back. “When the Emperor came to Nocturne to take me away…I spoke to N’bel. I told him who I was. Who I was born to be. What I was to become. He was sad…confused. But he was also proud. And when I offered him the same thing the Emperor has offered you…he refused, because he wanted to go to the mountain one day. I respected his choice.”

Vulkan looked back up at Jake, his eyes narrowed. “I still do. I know that it was the way of his people, my people, to respect death, even if they also held some fear of it because of the depredations of the Dark Eldar. Nocturne was death itself, to them, a birthplace and a grave. So please, Jake, understand, that when I say I want you to live, and give my daughter the children she so desperately wants to have, it means more than just the words themselves can convey.”

Jake felt his eyes water a bit at the pain and weariness behind Vulkan’s voice. He suspected that he and Misja had had some tense discussions of late. “I see.” Jake sat too, running his hands over his narrow beard. “Well…that’s pretty convincing.” He slowly looked to Vulkan, resolve crystalizing in his heart. “Then there’s really only one person left to ask, isn’t there?”

Misja pressed the envelope on her daughter, frowning. “I mean it, Venus. This was part of the deal.”

“I suppose it was,” Venus said. She hesitantly took the envelope and pocketed it. “Thanks, Mom.”

A hesitant knock on the door drew their attention. Jake was standing at the door to the little library on the third floor, eyes wide. “Should I come back later?” he asked.

“Please, Jake,” Misja said.

“Sorry.” He stepped back and retreated into an adjacent study to wait.

Misja looked back to her daughter. “Baby, you and Jake both want to keep working, which is great, but Nocturnean nobility generally make politicking their full-time job. You’ll need money.”

“But…I mean, math isn’t exactly my strong suit, but isn’t this above critical mass, so to speak?” Venus said.

“Well above. Don’t worry about it,” her mother counseled. She leaned over and hugged her daughter. “Believe me, the last thing I would want to have happen to you two is money problems, and goodness knows we’re never going to run out.”

Venus closed her eyes and sighed, accepting her mother’s wisdom. “This is a huge deal, Mom. Thanks.”

“Don’t worry about it, Venus,” Misja said. She leaned back and smiled. “So…I asked Jake to wait because I want to ask you first. What’s his decision?”

“He’s waffling,” Venus groused. “Eternity scares him.”

“It scares me,” Misja admitted. “But…well, we’ve talked it over, before. I’m at peace with my choice. And I think Jake could be, too. But I know you want him to take the plunge.”

“If it had been viable for you, Mom, would you have done it?” Venus asked.

“Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t think it matters.” Misja fidgeted, crossing her arms. “Listen, I know you think it’s what Jake should want…but it might not be what he does. Please, don’t resent him if he decides to live with the lifespan his parents gave him.”

“I wouldn’t,” Venus said.

Misja cocked an eyebrow. “Really?”

Venus glared at her. “I wouldn’t!”

Her mother was obviously not convinced. Expedience won out over persistence, however, and she let the matter drop. She rose and beckoned Jake in from the other room. He walked in and sat next to his wife, squeezing her hand with a smile as he sat. “Hey. Sorry if I intruded before, I apologize.” Misja smiled. “Not a problem, Jake. I was just giving Venus the account details for her gift.”

“Yes…such generosity. It makes my head spin,” Jake admitted. “You can take the hiver out of the hive, as they say.”

“Well, you only get half,” Misja joked.

Venus rolled her eyes. “Mom, we merged accounts years ago.”

“Oh, did you? I didn’t know.” The former Administratum worker turned her own eyes to Jake. “May I ask what you’ve decided?”

“I want to hear your piece first,” Jake said.

Misja nodded. “Well, I think it’s ultimately your call, but I want you to give it fair pause.”

“I have, trust me,” Jake said. “I sat in the chair in the greatroom for nine hours yesterday, starting at about four in the morning, thinking until my eyes were tearing.”

Misja smiled in sympathy. “It happened to me, too. To all of us. Some of the Royal Mothers turned to experimental surgeries, juvenat treatments…even psychic therapies. Me…I might use juvenats myself, if it comes to that. But I’ve come to live with my lifespan, Jake. I will love Vulkan and you and Venus as long as I can, then I’ll die. I can still be happy with the time I have.”

Jake grimaced in discomfort. “But…that’s the problem. You’ll live on in Venus, of course…but if I don’t do this, we can never have children.”

“Can’t you? Venus wasn’t born from my womb, but she’s still my daughter. You could adopt,” Misja pointed out.

“That’s fair,” Jake allowed.

Misja tilted her head. “But you don’t want to.”

“I don’t know. I haven’t considered it.” Jake leaned forward. “Look…I haven’t made up my mind, because I honestly don’t know if I’ve learned everything I need to. We’re talking about a literal change in the physical and mental structure of my brain, here. The introduction of new conceptual capabilities. Michael, Angela’s husband, swears he’s smarter. He can comprehend more topics. That scares me a bit.”

“What do you want me to tell you, Jake? I can’t experience that.” Misja smiled faintly. “I have an immortal husband too, you know. Have you asked him what he thinks?”

“Naturally. He basically said he was looking forward to me going through with it so Venus could start popping out kids,” Jake said drily.

“Oh, really? Really, Dad? For fucks’ sake,” Venus groaned.

“Well he coached it in a story about his father, N’bel, but yes.” Jake smiled. “He was very convincing, though. I admit I had never thought of it as matter of spiritual preference.”

Misja nodded. “Nocturneans think of the Circle of Fire, the cycle of birth, accomplishment, death, and returning to the soil. You’re not Nocturnean, really, I know, but I think you see the point. And if you go through with this, become more than human, you’ll have the chance to escape it. I think if you were a lesser man, Jake, Vulkan would have opposed this even if he still offered his genome to make it possible. It’s a sign of his respect for you that he actually wants you to survive outside of the spiritual creed by which he’s lived for all these years.”

She leaned forward, transfixing him with her piercing brown eyes. “There is no shame in death on Nocturne. Everyone dies there, sometimes without warning. The Astartes that are the pinnacle of the Nocturnean way of life live forever, like you could, until they come to an abrupt end in war, and then they have a chance to return to the flames of Deathfire where they belong. They reconcile the fact that, on the surface, they don’t seem to be a part of the Circle of Fire by rationalizing their purpose: they are soldiers, and soldiers can die. If the worst should happen, you wouldn’t really be escaping your spiritual burden, you’d just be accepting it long after you would have otherwise.”

Venus glanced sideways at Jake, and noted the distant look in his eyes. “I see.”

“By the same token, there’s nothing wrong with accepting the life that you have and living it to the fullest, making yourself and other happy. That’s what the whole universe does, save the Eldar. And you can’t be held to a fault for it, even if it means that you can’t start a family from your own loins,” Misja continued. “Meeting Vulkan and starting a family with him is a blessing to me, even if I know I’ll leave him some day. Can you say the same for meeting Venus?”

“Unconditionally,” Jake affirmed.

“Then make the choice that satisfies your own conscience and desire, Jake, not the one that your parents want, or I want. Or even what Venus wants,” she added.

Jake sighed. “Except that I know that I can’t make everyone happy with this, and making my family and friends happy with my actions is…maybe more important to me than it should be,” he said. “Sorry, that was a dumb thing to say. Let me start over. I don’t want my relationship with you or my father to worsen if I go ahead with this, any more than I want to make Venus live alone, or disappoint the Emperor.”

“Well, Jake, it sounds like you HAVE made up your mind, you just aren’t sure how to handle the consequences,” Misja said.

Jake went silent. His hands gripped the armrests of his chair. “Is that it?” he finally asked.

“You know my opinion. You know the opinions of everyone who has a place sharing them.” Misja stood. “So if you can’t please everyone, no matter how much you want to…what will you do?” she asked. Her voice was firm, even harsh.

Jake slowly stood too. He looked down at Venus, then up at her mother, eyes weary, but determined. “Thanks, Misja.” He wrapped his arms around her shoulders. “I needed a kick in the ass.”

“So many people do, and I can only provide them one at a time,” Misja sighed.

He snorted. “Gee, what a martyr.” He stood back and smiled at her. “So…if I do go ahead with this, you won’t think less of me?”

“It’s not what I would do if I were you, Jake, but if you can give yourself, my daughter, and the Salamanders a dynasty…I could only be even prouder of you,” Misja admitted with a smile.

Jake let out a breath. “Then my mind’s made up.” He took Venus’ hand and gently lifted it. She stood to look up into his eyes, and she dared to hope.

“I’ll accept the Emperor’s offer.”

Jake knelt before the Emperor’s desk, hands on his knee. “My Liege.” The radiant light from hidden fixtures on the walls bathed the white marble flooring in a suffuse glow. The Emperor’s own light added to the effect.

The Emperor bade him stand. “Rise, my grandson. You have reached a conclusion regarding my offer?”

“I have, my Liege,” Jake said. He stood, quelling his nerves. “My testament is written…Vulkan has provided his blood sample. I am as ready as I can be. All relevant parties have weighed in, and I am prepared,” he intoned.

The Master of Mankind rose from his chair, hands planted on the surface of his desk. “Jacob. Your name is a significant one, even if you didn’t know it. Do you know your name’s roots?”

“If I recall, it means something like ‘A man who wrestles,’” Jake replied, somewhat confused.

“Close.” The Emperor slowly walked around the table, eyeing his grandson. “In the mythology of Ancient Earth, back when people took religion as a way of illuminating themselves instead of blinding others, your namesake was a man of great and storied conflict. He was a patriarch, so the books said, a leader who founded great families, overcame great hardships, and eventually gave his name, or a version of it, to a nation which lasted for thousands of years.” The Emperor chose to conceal that fact that it remained a warzone for nearly its entire history. “The name itself means both ‘A Wrestler of Angels’ and ‘A Prince of Harsh God.’”

The Emperor paused at the edge of the table. “You will never be a Space Marine, Jacob, nor should you be. You will overcome great struggles in your life, be sure of it, though not all of them will involve fighting. Precious few, I imagine. But your second name seems fitting. Nocturne is a harsh, terrible place, where the most violent of cataclysms are used to set calendars and watches, and horrible beasts devour people alive…but within you will lie the same flame that lights Vulkan’s heart and scours weakness from his people.”

The Emperor stood before his grandson and stared into his dark green eyes. “Tell me, Jacob. Would you take his fire into yourself? Become more than human…even if it means you will not be your old self anymore?”

“To what extent would my mind change, my Liege?” Jake asked.

“Your memories will remain. So too your outlook on things, and your views and politics. You will think faster. Your reflexes will improve. Strength, stamina, mental perception. They will all become more than they are.” The Emperor tilted his head back, looking down at the slightly shorter man. “You will be able to comprehend numbers and ideas that humans can not.”

“But my personality will be the same? Really, that’s my only reason for pause at this point, my Liege,” Jake asked.

“Unchanged. I would not offer it if it made you someone other than the man whom my granddaughter loves,” the Emperor said.

Jake bowed low. “Then I accept your offer, my Liege, and the responsibility it confers.”

“Good.” The Emperor clasped Jake’s hand as the shorter man rose. “Eternity is not something to fear, Jacob. It is a wonderful thing, should one find a passion. For some, it is war, others art, others foretelling. I have a love of artifice and invention. Your father-in-law loves honest, hard work, and leadership. Your uncle Roboute enjoys the intrigue and trickery of interstellar economics.” He smiled faintly. “I suspect you will find Nocturne and Terra alike are places of great wonder, once you have infinite time to explore them.”

“I sincerely hope so, Sire,” Jake said. He returned the handshake. “Then…what do I do?”

“First, I wish for you to go to those who disagreed with your decision and speak to them frankly. Tell them what you can. And give me Vulkan’s blood sample,” the Emperor said.

“No need, Sire, Vulkan said he would send it over by secure courier,” Jake said. He grimaced. “And there’s only one man who objected in more than passing vehemence.”

“May I assume it is your father?” the Emperor asked. Jake nodded. “I see.” The Emperor quirked a grin. “I’d ask that he come and speak to me in person, but I’d rather not drown out his own opinion.”

Jake ruefully shook his head. “Yes, Sire, I suspect he’d think I was trying to bully him into submission by intimidating him. Remember how he nearly locked up at the wedding reception?”

“I do, and I find that sort of behavior distantly tiring,” the Emperor said. He held his hand over to the door. “Please. Do what you would to alleviate the concerns of those who would fear for the outcome of the process. The nearest time my chirurgeon can perform the operation is twelve hours out, the actual procedure is quite fast.”

“I shall, my Liege,” Jake said, stilling another bout of nerves. “Venus herself would want to be present, I imagine.”

“She should not be, if you wish to retain some privacy. The operation is fast, but invasive. I would recommend she wait in the Guest Wing,” the Emperor said.

“I’ll let her know,” Jake promised. “She and my parents, and Miranda and Nathaniel, are waiting outside.”

“I know. I’m glad Nathaniel found his own procedure successful,” the Emperor said, walking his grandson to the door. “Do greet them for me, would you, Jacob?”

Jake bowed again. “I will. Thank you, your Majesty.”

Venus quickly stood as she saw Jake returning from the Emperor’s personal offices. “Hey! How did it go?” she asked.

“Well. They’ll be ready to go in twelve hours. The Emperor’s personal chirurgeon is going to perform it,” Jake said as he walked up.

Miranda smiled serenely from her seat. “I think you’ll be fine, Jake. I’m not sensing any sudden upwells of mourning in your future,” she said.

“Good to know. Now, just to be sure,” he said, turning to Nate.

Nate chuckled, his blue eyes flaring briefly as he checked his wife’s work. “Nope, you’re good as far as I know. Then again, I couldn’t levitate a pencil a foot off the ground.” He stood up and grinned at his friend and brother-in-law. “Believe me, you’ll pull through if any of us do.”

Sandra clutched her hands together, staring at the carpet. Beyond discomfort at the sight of such psychic abilities being used, she wasn’t comfortable with the idea of her son going into surgery. George sighed. “Jake…are you sure you want to do this?”

“As sure as I can be, Dad,” Jake said. “The Emperor said to say Hi to all of you, by the way,” he added. “Busy guy, you know.”

“Subtle,” George muttered.

Miranda rose from her own seat. “And how are you feeling, Jake?” she asked. She could tell, of course, but she knew it would make him feel better to verbalize it.

“A little nervous, but who wouldn’t be?” Jake asked rhetorically. “Really, though, I just want it to be over.”

Nate nodded in sympathy. “Here,” he said, running his hand over his lower neck, just above his trapezius. “There’s a full suite of biomonitors in there now. Feel them?” he asked. Jake blinked, running his own finger over the spot.

“Uh, no.”

“Exactly. The cybernetics are completely non-invasive. Would you have even known where to look?” Nate asked.

“No.” Jake pulled his hand back, wondering how to ask his question. “Man, I appreciate your trying to make me less nervous, but I think I just want to go get some rest for now. Maybe grab a bite to eat.”

“Nope. No food before surgery,” Sandra pointed out.

“Damn. I forgot.” Jake shrugged. “Oh well. You guys want to tour the Palace a bit? The Emperor offered to set you all up in the Guest Wing while we’re waiting.”

“That’s very kind of him, but I think I should be going,” Miranda said. “We’ll be back,” she added. “Don’t worry about it, Jake. I have trust in my grandfather’s medical experts.”

Jake offered her a quick hug. “Thanks, Miranda.” He turned to her husband. “Nate, man, good to see you. If I pull through this, we still on for poker on Saturday?”

“Count on it.” Nate rolled his eyes with a smirk. “You’re the only man I know who can beat a mind-reader at cards.”

“It’s gotta be the shoes,” Jake finished their joke. “See you around, my friend.”

“Bye.” The two psychics walked down the hall to the tramway that would take them to the parking lots.

George slowly rose to his feet, his face pinched. Sandra and Venus started off to the trams as well, as Venus gave directions to the VIP suite. George caught Jake’s hand as he passed. “Jake.”

His son paused, raising his eyebrow. “Look…I’m sorry. I don’t want you to think that I don’t care what you and Venus want.”

Jake nodded, relieved. “Thanks, Dad.” He smiled faintly. “Look at it this way. If this works, the Seagers will be half the bloodline of the Nocturnean Royal Family. Your grandkids could be warrior-kings.”

George snorted. “Well, that’s something.” He looked pained for a moment. “Jake, you know you’ll be my son forever, right?”

“Yeah, I do, Dad,” Jake said. He squeezed his father’s shoulder. “Now…go get Mom and settle in in the Guest Wing. I need to go do one last errand.”

“What do you have left to do?” George asked as the two men walked down the hall.

“I want to ask someone a quick question, and I have to find her first,” Jake answered. “It’s very difficult.”

Alpharia set her vox down, looking up at her unexpected guest. “Jake! Hi, how are you?” she asked, standing up from her luxurious desk.

“I’m fine, thanks,” Jake said, shaking her hand. “How’s the business?”

“Quiet. Very much so. The problems that were cropping up in Croft have subsided by a lot, which might be good or bad,” the White Queen of Espionage replied. “You understand.”

“Sometimes, but that’s why they keep a smart thing like you running the show, so you can grasp it when we mere mortals can’t,” Jake said. He smiled nervously. “Not that I’ll be mortal much longer.”

“Oh, you’re taking the plunge, are you?” Alpharia asked. She smiled coyly. “Can’t say I’m surprised.”

“That’s true most times, I’d wager. But yeah. Tonight.” Jake sighed, his nerves returning. “Actually, that’s why I’m here.”

“Oh?” Alpharia sat back down. “What’s the issue?”

“Well…to be honest, it scares the shit out of me. Now that I’m committed, it’s not so bad, really, but I still want to know. What’s your opinion on the process?”

Alpharia thought carefully. She and Jake had been pretty frosty to each other when they had gone off to Kouthry, but five years together had thawed them out, and now she was one of the few Royal daughters that Jake thought he could rely on to act as a confidant. “Well, I’d say it’s in your best interest. What could I tell you that the Emperor couldn’t?”

“I want to know its success rate. I don’t think I’d get a straight answer out of His Majesty,” Jake admitted. “I asked him back when he first proposed it and he quoted a different answer than the ones that Nate and Mike got.”

“Oh, really? Hmm.” Alpharia considered the question. “If I recall, it’s about eighty nine percent.”

Jake nodded. “Okay…that’s higher than what he gave me. So…is he just hedging his bets?”

“Dunno.” The gray-eyed, white-haired young woman looked at him contemplatively, rubbing her chin in thought. “I think he just has more experience with its procedure than I do. Honestly, I bet you’ll be fine.”

“All right.” Jake stood back up. “Thanks, Alpharia. We still on for poker on Saturday?”

“You bet.” She stood back up and offered him a quick hug. “You’ll be fine, Jake. Trust my grandfather. He wants you and Venus to be happy.”

“I know he does.” He smiled at the shorter woman. “Thanks a lot. I’ll see you after it’s all done.

The Emperor’s private chirurgeon, a stocky little man with the look of a sanctionite about him, eased Jake down on the table in the operating room, several hours later. “All right, Prince Seager, any questions before we get started?” the man asked.

“Well, the usual. The time it takes, side effects, et cetera,” Jake said nervously, staring at the variety of dark fluids in their glass ampoules on the side table with trepidation.

“Oh, we’ll be done in three hours,” the doctor soothed. “As for side effects…depends on the donor. Your skin, hair, eyes might darken a bit since your donor is from Nocturne, but you won’t grow extra eyes or anything. Certainly, you’ll become a bit physically stronger. As for the actual surgery, you won’t notice the effects for several days. They’ll come gradually. Within a month, we’ll know how well it worked, and your apotheosis will conclude.”

“Have you had it done on yourself?” Jake asked.

“Oh goodness no, I have a horrible fear of needles,” the doctor said. Jake stared at him. “What? I can use them on other people, just not myself.”

Jake let out a breath. “Okay…well, tell me you’re ready to start.”

“Sure thing, your Highness,” the doctor said distantly, sorting through a small pile of metallic beads and selecting the one he wanted to use. The tiny cybernetic devices controlled the donor geneseed, to prevent the recipient’s system from being overwhelmed. “In fact…we’re ready to begin,” he said.

“All right,” Jake said, trying to suppress his shakes. “All right. Then…let’s not waste time.”

“Time, sir? Time isn’t an issue for you anymore,” the doctor noted, gently tapping an IV into Jake’s arm. “Now. Relax and start counting.”

Venus wrung her hands in the waiting room. Her eyes were dimmed, and if anyone had tried to touch her, her skin would have felt as cool as a human’s. Miranda was half-asleep in a chair in the corner. Nate had his arm around her shoulders, asleep himself in the love seat. The Seagers were sitting across from each other, both pretending to read magazines.

“Venus,” Miranda whispered from her seat. Venus started and looked over to her cousin as her hair whipped around her like a black rope. “He’s just fine. Fast asleep and doing great,” Miranda said. Her eyes flared a bit, lighting her peaceful smile. “Trust me. No problems at all.”

Her black-skinned cousin nodded. “Right. Right.” She gave a tight, uncomfortable sigh. “Did I push this on him?”

“Yes,” Miranda said. Venus winced. “That said, I would have if you didn’t. Vulkan would have if you didn’t. The Emperor would have if you didn’t, and he wouldn’t have asked Nate and Mike if he didn’t want to be well-informed,” Miranda continued. She gingerly disengaged herself from her husband and walked over to Venus’ seat on the couch. “Please stop, okay?” she quietly asked.

Venus’ pained gaze lit Miranda’s Scholastica Psykana robe of office, turning the rich purple fabric a deep red. “I’m just worried.”

“You’re right to be worried. It’s dangerous. But I have an insight you don’t, and I’m telling you to relax.” Miranda smiled again, invisibly opening her third eye and allowing the faintest hint of blue light to leak through the bandana on her forehead. “Jake wants this to work, very much. So did Vulkan. Trust me.”

Finally, the Salamander Lady Primarch managed to relax, letting her cousin’s words register. “Yeah. All right.” She weakly smiled at Miranda. “Thanks.”

Miranda slid her arm around Venus’ shoulders for a reassuring hug. “He’s just fine. Not even dreaming.”

“Don’t tell him you peeked into his mind while he was out cold, though, okay?” Venus asked.

Miranda drew her fingers across her lips in the classic zipping motion. Venus laughed under her breath. “You know he went to Alpharia to ask her opinion too?”

“I did. She told him something that took a load off his mind, whatever it was. I won’t ask.” Miranda straightened up. “Oh…good. The implants are finished. Just the injection, then he’s all done.”

George looked up from his magazine. “How does he look?”

“At the moment, undignified, but completely fine. He’s under anesthesia,” Miranda informed him.

“Actually, Miranda, can we skip the details?” Sandra asked. “It’s intensely creepy, and he asked us not to watch in person from the gantry. This feels like we’re doing that.”

Miranda shrugged, casting her red braids over her luxurious robe. “As you wish.”

After the last few hours passed, the doctor emerged from the operating suite and stood expectantly in the waiting room. “Ladies and gentlemen, he’ll be just fine,” he assured the waiting family. “The operation went perfectly. He’ll be up and around by next week with no problems,” he said.

George sighed, a feeling of relief mingling with the last of his lingering resentment. “And did it take?” he asked.

“We have no way of knowing,” the doctor hedged. “Give it a week. And I’m warning you now, Princess, he’s going to be weak as a baby for a day or two. Water only, no food, no sex, no exercise, no direct sunlight, no loud noises, no chemical exposure. I’ve essentially reset his cardiovascular system to default. No Warp travel, no trips to Nocturne for a bit.” He delivered the warning in the stern voice of a career doctor.

Venus nodded. “We’ll be careful.”

Sandra spoke up. “When can we see him?”

“Well, that depends on how much he needs to rest, but I’d say sometime in the morning two days from now,” the doctor said. “Within a week, he’ll be feeling his old self, more or less.”

“Good.” Sandra sighed. “Then…I think we should go.”

“Sandra, you’re welcome to stay in the Guest Wing for as long as you like,” Venus pointed out.

“But you’re taking him home, right? So I think we’ll just head out,” Sandra said.

Venus rose and hugged her, muffling a sigh. “He’ll be okay, Sandra, I promise.”

“I think he will,” Sandra said. A tear gathered in her eye as she moved back. “You take care of him now, all right?”

“Bet on it,” Venus said.

“Jake’s gonna be so disappointed,” Nate said sadly.

Miranda's husband, Nathaniel

Venus looked over at him. “Why?”

“You heard what the doctor said. No chemical exposure? He loves that,” Nate sighed.

Venus erupted in giggles as Sandra clamped her hand over her lips. “Nate, shut up,” Venus managed.

“Just making it easier,” Nate said cheerfully. “I had the same speech, after all. Or so Miranda tells me. I was out like a broken bulb for two days straight.”


Jake stirred. The breeze across his face brought him about. He licked dry lips and tried to rise, until a lancing pain from his shoulders brought him down. He groaned through his teeth. “Oh…not moving for a while,” he muttered.

He glanced to the side, noting the small fan that was providing the breeze. A shifting weight on his other side pulled his attention away from the oscillating fan to the familiar sight of his wife, dressed in a thick tank top, fast asleep. “Venus?” he asked.

Her eyes snapped open. He winced at the light. “Jake…you’re awake!” she said. She leaned over to him, eyes sparkling. “How do you feel?”

“Everywhere hurts, baby,” Jake admitted. “How long was I out?”

“Well over a day,” Venus whispered. “It’s 0200 Tuesday.”

“Did I wake you?” Jake asked.

Venus smiled, her shoulders shifting as if she was letting something go. “See, you’re the best. You just had life-altering surgery and you want to make sure I’m okay.”

Jake returned the smile, feeling her warmth brush his lips as she slid her eyes shut and kissed him. “I don’t feel different.” He sank into the pillow. “In a few days, we’ll find out how it worked.”

“Until then, relax.” Venus slid her hand down his chest, leaving a trail of her heat down his bare skin. “The Royal Estate can wait a while until you heal properly.”

“All right.”

“You should have heard the laundry list of restrictions the doctor had,” Venus said. “You’re basically confined to bed for a few days.”

“Yeah? What did he say?” Jake tiredly asked.

“‘Water only, no food, no sex, no exercise, no direct sunlight, no loud noises, no chemical exposure. No Warp travel, no trips to Nocturne for a bit,’” Venus quoted from her eidetic memory.

“Whaaaat? Vastly increased stamina and I can’t have sex with you for a week?” Jake groused.

Venus slapped a hand over her face in frustration. “Listen, stud, you’ve got enough on your plate. We’ve got infinite time to get back to the grind, you get some sleep.”

“Hmph. I suppose it’s doctor’s orders.” Jake tried to move his arm, and he couldn’t. He whimpered through his teeth as his nerves flared with pain. “Can you help? My arm is asleep.”

Venus obligingly lifted his arm and set it down at a more natural angle, gently massaging the aching muscle with her hands. He sighed as the heat from her flesh melted into his, and she coaxed circulation into his arm after a day of disuse. “Thanks, baby.”

She leaned over and rested her finger on his lips. “Now…rest. I’ll be here when you wake up, don’t you fear,” she whispered. Her eyes dimmed as she relaxed back into the bed, letting go of his arm.

“Good night, baby.” Jake settled back into the soft sheets. “Now, just to confirm…no chemical exposure?”

“Go to sleep, Jake,” Venus said flatly, concealing her relieved grin in the darkness.

Sandra sat in the chair at Jake’s bedside a few days later, feeling some of her worries melt away. “Are you sure you’re all right, Jake?” she asked again.

Jake grinned, sitting up in the bed. “Mom, I’ll be fine by this time tomorrow. I don’t even feel different yet.”

“So did it not work?” George asked.

“I dunno. Give it a few more weeks. According to the doctor, if it did work perfectly, the only thing that will change visibly is that the atrophied muscles in my arms and legs will start healing on their own,” Jake explained. “And if it didn’t, then my eyes will start changing color, then the thing with my arms.”

“And…if it failed, and the thing we talked about at the party happens?” Sandra pressed.

“That would have been obvious to the doctor when I talked to him yesterday, he had a blood screener with him,” Jake said. “I’ll be fine.”

George shook his head. “Well…all right. You come see us when you can, all right?”

“Absolutely,” Jake assured them. He grinned up at his parents. “Thanks for swinging by. You two want to stay for dinner? It’s my first solid meal since the operation.”

Sandra hesitated before answering, looking up at George. “Sure, that’d be nice.”

“Great.” Jake gingerly edged out of the bed, glad he had bothered to put on running shorts. His back audibly popped as he stood. “You guys ever had Venus’ cooking? I don’t know where she found time to learn at school, we were always so busy,” he said, steering them out of the bedroom.

That Thursday morning, Jake stared at his reflection in the mirror. His eyes were changing. The rippled dark greens were fading into a uniform red. His hair and skin were the same, but there was no mistaking it: his eyes were transforming.

He slowly reached a finger up to the mirror, brushing some drops of condensate aside. He brought his face up to the glass, staring straight into his own gaze. The red was bleeding out from the retina into the iris. The cornea and iris weren’t changing, yet, but the whorls of green pigment were vanishing into a bright, brilliant red.

“’Morning, Jake,” Venus said cheerfully, walking in front of the entrance to the bathroom. She had had to leave early for a meeting with the Chancellor. As she crossed the door, she paused, taking in his pose. “You all right, baby?”

Jake silently beckoned her over. She stood by his side, looking in confusion as he held his nose to the glass. “Venus, go get your mirror glasses, all right?” he asked. His voice was cut with urgency.

Venus blinked in surprise, but did as she was told. She brought the glasses to him and slid them onto her face.

Jake straightened up and gently squeezed her shoulders, holding her still. He brought his eyes up to her own, and he could see the little ovals of fire widen behind the mirrored lenses.

“Oh! Your eyes…they’re shifting!” she said in surprise. “Wow…well, how do you feel?”

“I can’t feel a thing,” Jake admitted. His voice was hollow. “But…well.”

“You wanted to keep your mother’s eyes,” Venus said in sympathy. “Well, we took those pictures before the operation, you can have your eyes surgically altered to look like your old ones again.”

Jake turned back to the mirror, staring at his reflection. “Let’s see what else changes,” he whispered.

Alpharia set the bowl of chips down on the table in her modest house, looking at the well-worn leather case on the table. “Hey, more money for me!”

“Dream on,” Freya snorted. She ran her hands over the case, remembering when she had bought it. “Man, we broke that thing in fast,” she muttered. “Several nights a week for the rest of the summer.”

Jake sat down next to her, grinning up at her from behind his sunglasses. “I hope you’ve been practicing.”

“Bah, I don’t need practice,” she scoffed. She smiled happily at the pile of clay chips Jake was pulling out of the box. “I’m glad you were up to this.”

Jake nodded emphatically. “Me too!” He saw Nate and Remilia wander in, completing the assembly.

Nate immediately dropped a large bag of something tasty-smelling on the table. “Hey, all, hope everyone’s hungry.”

“Always,” Remilia said. She looked over at where Jake and Venus were sitting. “So…don’t keep us in suspense, you two. How did it go?” she asked.

Jake looked sideways at Venus, arcing an eyebrow over his sunglasses, which he had retained only to heighten the mood. “Well…” he drawled laconically, pulling them off. “You know how these things go.”

Freya actually gasped. The others made similar, more muted sounds of surprise. Jake’s irises were now constantly-moving circles of red. They both looked like currents of glowing paint, swirling around his pupils. They weren’t glowing with actual light, but the effect was still profound.

“Holy shit,” Nate murmured. “All mine did were change color.”

“Yeah, this was something of a surprise,” Jake admitted. He smiled. “Looks rad, though. This happened in less than two days,” he said, gesturing at his face.

“So does this mean more will happen?”

“If it continues, you bet,” Jake said. He grabbed a steaming sandwich from the bag. “At this rate, I’ll look like Vulkan in under a month.”

Alpharia gaped. “Are you serious?” she demanded.

“No, all I’m due for is a slight change in skin tone, now,” Jake said. “I was just poking fun.”

Freya let out a breath. “Well…that’s going to take some getting used to.” She leaned over him, staring intently. “Did it hurt?”

“Not at all.” Jake shrugged. “Do I look different any other way?”

“…No, but you do have a different…sense, I guess,” Freya said.

“Do I smell or sound different yet?” he asked.

“Yeah, just a little.” She narrowed her eyes, staring into his. “It’s actually kinda fun to watch,” she said.

“Well, the only other thing I’ve noticed is increased heat resistance,” Jake said. “I accidentally set my hand on a handle for a cast-iron skillet that had been over an element for fifteen minutes and it barely felt uncomfortable.” He opened his hand. It was unmarked. “I mean, I still can’t handle heat like Venus can, but I seriously felt almost nothing.”

“Are the rest of your senses dulling?” Remilia asked.

“Not at all.” Jake sat back in his seat and grabbed a pack of cards from the chip set. “Honestly, I feel great.”

“Good,” Nate said. His eyes flashed for a moment. “You mind?” At Jake’s shrug, he ran his own mind over the contours of Jake’s. “Huh. Basically the same.”

“Well, if it’s gonna change, it’ll be over the next few weeks.” Jake cut the cards. “I sort of prepared for this. It’s a small price to pay.”

“What do your parents think? I know they were both dreading this,” Nate said.

“I haven’t seen them since it started.” Jake anted up. “Who’s in?”

Nearly one full month after the operation, Jake sat at the dinner table in his parents’ new apartment, talking to his family, and trying not to weird them out overmuch. Mizuki was balanced in his lap, staring up at her cousin in amazement that stood in stark contrast to her parents’ mixture of disgust and shock. “Did it hurt at all?” she asked.

“The surgery? A lot. The changes? Not at all,” Jake said. He smiled down at the little girl in his lap. “Want to see?”

“Yes!” she said, scooting up to look into his eyes. Jake relaxed and opened his eyes as wide as he could, and Mizuki stared into them, entranced. “THAT’S SO COOL!” she squealed.

Jake grinned broadly. “Sure is.” He looked up at Alice and Hajime, who were looked far less enthused. “Right, guys?” he asked pointedly.

“It’s certainly different,” Hajime murmured. He looked at the tan Jake was sporting as his skin darkened. “Do you know how much more you’ll change?”

“Yep, this is about it, physically,” Jake said. He hefted his free hand and held it open. His cuticles, tongue, eyelids, all of his skin had darkened. Where before he had been so pale that one could follow the veins under his skin, now he looked like a Tallarn. “Mentally, the changes will be so slow and subtle that I won’t even notice. So…this is the new me.” He grinned down at his cousin in his lap. “So, what do you think? Am I still Jake?”

“I think so,” Mizuki decided.

“You do? That’s a relief,” Jake confessed. “I wouldn’t want to creep you out.”

“I think your skin’s too dark, though, you look like you fell asleep in a tanning bed like that one time,” Mizuki said.

“Hey, that wasn’t even me!” Jake protested. “That was totally in a movie.” He gestured over to where Venus was sitting, chatting with Sandra about something. “You don’t think Venus is too dark,” he pointed out.

“Yeah, but she always looks like that,” Mizuki pointed out. “I’m not used to you looking like this.”

Jake gently let her down to the floor. “Well, it’s permanent. I suspect you’ll get used to it,” he said.

Mizuki’s hand lingered on his. “Are you sure you’re all right? Your hand is really warm. It’s like you have a fever.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine.” Jake pulled his hand back, smiling to reassure her. “This is just how my skin feels now.”

“It’s hot.”

“Not as much as Venus’. Is it too hot? Does it hurt to touch?” he asked.

“No, it’s just hot,” she said. She looked up at him again. “So do you feel different?”

Jake shrugged. “Actually…not really. I mean, I’m a little bit stronger and faster, but I can’t even notice it. Seriously, I forget it happened if I’m just sitting around doing something that needs focus. Then I pass by a mirror and ‘Oh yeah, that thing that happened.’”

George finally spoke up. “At least your facial structure didn’t change, right?”

“Nope, still mine,” Jake said, rubbing his chin. His facial hair was a little bit darker, but not as much as his scalp hair. Where his tight curls had been light brown, now they were a deep brown. “So…what’s the verdict?” he asked of the room.

His parents had spoken of it before, of course, and even seen it in person, but the others hadn’t. Walter shrugged. “Man, George is right. This is going to take some getting used to. Still, it looks natural. I don’t know if I prefer it,” he said.

“Hmm.” Jake sighed. “Well. We’ll have time. Now, I talked it over with your parents, Mizuki, and we’ve decided that this is as good a time as any to visit the surface.”

“REALLY?!” she gasped, overjoyed.

“Sure. Do you still want to go?” he asked.

“Yes! Where are we going?” she eagerly asked, as her parents stood.

“You get to pick!” Venus announced.

Mizuki’s little face screwed up in sudden concentration. “But I don’t know any places up there! What do I get to pick from?”

“Well, do you want to go to someplace public, or private?” Venus asked.

“Public! I want to meet people,” Mizuki declared.

“Okay…do you want to go outside or see the buildings?” Venus continued.

“I want to see what the place you and Jake went to school at looks like,” Mizuki said as a thought occurred to her.

“Sure,” Venus said. “It’s called ‘Imperator High.’ It’s called that because it was founded on the last day of the Crusade,” she added. The group slowly made their way out to the cars, handling the questions that Mizuki was eagerly posing, until they fell into formation in the skylanes and took off.

En route, Jake noted Venus discreetly tapping a few commands in her vox. “What are you up to?” he asked.

“Making sure of something,” she enigmatically replied. Jake cocked a brow, but kept his questions stowed. Let her be mysterious.

Mizuki tucked Venus’ sunglasses over her eyes and stared up at the sky with her mouth wide open. “WOW! It’s so BRIGHT!”

“It’s actually pretty cloudy today, if you can believe that,” Jake said. He smiled down at the girl who was having her mind so thoroughly blown, remembering when he had had the same experience. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”

“It’s HUGE! It feels like I’m falling!” Mizuki said. “And it’s so quiet up here too!”

“It feels that way, but people can hear just fine up here,” Jake said. Walter, who had likewise never been out of the hives, was trying not to look impressed, and failing completely, if somewhat less overtly than his niece. Hajime and Alice were looking around in wonder, too, though they had both been topside before. George and Sandra, of course, had seen it many times, and Eric had seen more than his fair share of jungle combat, and found the display entirely unremarkable.

The old soldier had been quiet the entire time, however, only fielding the rarest of questions that Venus and Jake couldn’t answer. At length, however, he spoke up as the group approached the school. “Jake, do you ever think about living in the hives again?”

“All the time,” Jake said, surprising his parents. “Nobody knows their neighbors up here. It’s so expensive. There’s stuff I miss a lot.” He turned to smile at Venus. “But we built a house up here. I wouldn’t walk away from that.”

“Hmm.” Eric looked up at the huge school building, which was an eclectic mix of gothic and pragmatic design that towered over the surrounding manors. “Hell of a building,” he muttered. “Looks like the Munitorum office I worked in back on Maractane.”

“I bet Rogal Dorn designed both,” Venus piped up.

“No, this place was built when he was still stationed on the same planet as me, at the end of the Crusade, before he moved back to Inwit.” Eric shook his head. “It’s still amazing.”

“It is.” Venus walked up to the door and acknowledged the guard’s salute with a nod. “Afternoon, Private.”

“My Lady Venus, Lord Jacob, welcome back,” the aging guard said. “What can we do for you?”

“Is she in?” Venus asked.

“She is indeed, my Lady. Shall I page her? She may be in a conference.”

“Oh, I just won’t bother her,” Venus said. “Thanks.

Jake led the group into the building, pointing out a few details that had changed since he left. “Those doors there are where guests had to go to sign in. It was a zoo. So many students had mercenary guard details or something, and they were never allowed inside, so they had to just wait.” Jake chuckled. “So stupid. There was never any violence here. Well, armed violence.”

“That was the entrance to the assembly hall,” Venus said. She propped the door open an inch and saw a small group of students doing something on the stage. “Looks like we can’t go in, though.”

“My stars! Venus! Is that you?” a voice from ahead of them asked. The group turned to see a graying man in a rumpled-looking tweed vest gaping at her.

“Wow, Professor Blenkach! Been a hell of a long time!” she said, happily shaking his hand.

“It has! Look at you!” he said, holding her at arm’s length. Even in her modest denim jacket, she cut a beautiful figure. “You look amazing, Venus. It’s great to see you after all this time!”

“It’s good to see you, too, Professor, but what are you doing here after school let out?” Venus asked as Jake walked up behind them.

“Oh, just paperwork,” he scoffed. “I swear, I did less in the Munitorum.”

“Hey, Professor,” Jake said.

Blenkach turned. “Uh, hello,” he said. His mind raced as he tried to put a name to the face. “Oh! Jacob! Wow, I almost didn’t recognize you. How are you?”

“Just fine, Adam, thanks.” Jake gestured at the group. “My parents, grandfather, cousin, aunt, and uncles. We’re just here to see the old stomping grounds.”

“I see. Well, that…oh,” Blenkach started as he saw the matching Nocturnean rings on their hands. “So you two stayed an item, then?” he asked slyly. “Good on you both.”

“We did.” Venus smiled. “He’s the Bond Prince of Nocturne now, in fact.”

Blenkach stared at them both for a moment. “Well…quite a promotion,” he said at last. “Congratulations to you both.”

“Thanks, Professor,” Venus said for the two of them.

“I’d love to talk, but I need to hand these in to Headmaster Sebastian,” Blenkach sighed, straightening the papers in his hands. “Do drop by again.”

Jake grinned. “We just might. So long, Professor.”

As Blenkach walked off, Jake and Venus shared a wry grin. “Hmm. Seems he got the anti-aging procedure too, because I swear he hasn’t aged a day,” Jake noted.

“Hee hee, feisty old coot.” Venus looked back at the others. “My old history professor. Former political officer from the 194th Army Group.”

“He always thought I was going to join the Army for some reason,” Jake noted. “Can’t imagine why.”

“Is it true you’ve got former Astartes on staff here?” Mizuki asked, wide-eyed.

“Faculty, not staff. And yes. A few.” Venus looked around her. “In fact…this way,” she said, leading them down one of the halls on the floor. “Let’s see if she’s even in her office…” They walked down a hallway, marveling at the trophies in the racks and display cases on the walls.

“What are all these for?” Mizuki asked.

“Well,” Venus said, pausing alongside one. “This one is mine,” she said. She pointed at the name and date on the bottom. “I was in that team. ‘Girls’ Team Relay Swimming,’” she read off the label. She smiled as the memories came back. “Good times.”

“Wow. You have a pool up here?” Mizuki asked.

“A big one. I can show you later,” Venus said. She pushed open a door at the end of the long hallway as they reached it. “In the meantime…”

Faith looked up from the student she was speaking to and started as she saw her cousin walk in. Venus saw that she was busy and backed out with a wink. “She’s busy, we can come back,” Venus said.

“No, no, come in!” Faith called. She turned to smile at the nervous-looking boy in front of her. “You let me know when you’re finished, all right? Your group needs that.”

“I will, Miss Aurelian,” the boy said, picking up his bag. “Thanks for your help.”

“No problem. See you next class,” Faith said, watching him go. “Venus, come on in. How are you?”

“I’m doing well, Faith, how about you?” Venus asked.

Faith walked over to the group. “I’m great. This job is incredibly rewarding. Who knew I was good with kids?” she asked.

Jake extended a hand to her. “Hey, Faith.”

Faith paused, looking at him with naked astonishment. “…Jake?”

Jake nodded. “It’s me. I got a paint job, but…”

“Jake! Wow, look at you!” Faith said. “Congratulations!”

“Thanks,” he said, finally shaking her hand. “Oh, my parents, George and Sandra Seager, and grandfather Eric Donnelly. My Uncle Hajime and Aunt Alice, and their daughter Mizuki, and my Uncle Wallace.” He gestured to them all in turn as Faith shook hands and smiled. “And this is my sister-in-law, Professor and Lady Primarch Faith Aurelian.”

“Well, not yet, until I finish my thesis and get the actual piece of paper,” Faith admitted with a warm grin. “So, for now at least, it’s just Faith, please.”

Mizuki boggled. “Wow. You’re a teacher here?” she asked.

Hajime grabbed her shoulder to silence her, but Faith was nodding. “Yep. Ninth grade biology.” She saw the gesture and waved it away. “Believe me, it’s nothing I didn’t get from the students here. Or the faculty! They were so confused. ‘You…want to…teach?’” she mimed the headmaster’s shock.

“Don’t let us interrupt, Faith,” Venus said. Faith shook her concerns off.

“No, I’m pretty much done for the day. What are you all doing here, anyway?” she asked.

“Well, we wanted to bring Mizuki up to see the surface for the first time,” Jake said, smiling fondly at his cousin.

Faith smiled and stepped back slightly. “And how do you think it is, Mizuki?”

“Big. Really big. And everything’s so bright,” she said, clearly a little overwhelmed by everything.

Faith noticed. “Well, you have fun up here. I need to go get back to work on the papers,” Faith sighed. “Grading. It never ends.”

“How’s your own paper coming along?” Jake asked.

Faith snorted. “Slowly. I should have picked something with fewer interviews.”

“Hmm. Well, good luck.” Venus and company filed out as Faith grabbed her jacket from the back of her chair. She caught Jake’s eye as he moved to follow.

“Hey, Jake. How did it go?” she asked.

“Well enough that the pain is long gone, but the doctor says I’ll look like this for the rest of time,” Jake said quietly. He held his hand before his face. “I don’t quite know how to feel.”

Faith watched as he ran his hands together. “I think you’ll adapt. Give it a few decades and you won’t even remember being a different color.”

“I hope I do. I wouldn’t want to forget.” He turned his alien eyes on her, wondering what to say. “I’m still me, though.”

“I can tell.” Faith slid her jacket on and gave him a quick hug. “Hang in there. It’ll be alright.”

Outside, Venus was showing them another of the trophies in the hall. When Jake and Faith emerged, she paused. “Hey. I was thinking we show them our terrible secret,” Venus said.

“We have a terrible secret?” Jake asked.

“Yes. You know, the study hall.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “Sure, why not.” As Venus took off down the hall, Jake turned to explain. “You guys will love this.”

“What are you two even talking about?” Eric asked.

Jake smiled. “The room where we met. Originally, it served a much darker function in my mind.”

George winced. “Oh, I remember that. You were just…ugh.”

“Yeah, that was bad.” Jake paused outside the study hall on the first floor, looking into the rows of students serving detentions, waiting for late busses, or just hanging out. “Right…there, at that table. That was where Farah introduced us,” Jake said, pointing.

“It was,” Venus said. She walked up next to him, leaning her head on his shoulder for a moment. “A good call on her part, I think,” she said quietly.

Walter let them have their moment before asking the obvious question. “So…what was its darker function?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jake said, stepping back from the door. “I got dumped by her cousin at that same table.”

“You came home a complete mess,” George said in sympathy.

Jake sighed. “How Hana and I stayed friends after that, I’ll never know.”

“You stayed friends because she wanted someone to boss around, and lead about by the…hand,” Venus said, mindful of the presence of little Mizuki.

“So true. She grew out of it, though.” Jake let his eyes travel the familiar rows of seats and benches, remembering. “How does it feel like so long ago when it wasn’t even a decade?”

“It was a very busy decade,” Venus chuckled.

Someone in the room recognized her and gasped. Before anyone could do anything, she took a long step back out of the doorframe and into the hall. “Welp, that’s our cue. Mizuki, do you want to stay here or go somewhere else?” she asked.

“I want to see the pool,” Mizuki said.

Venus nodded. “Ah, my old lair. That was my lair,” she said. “My room, my cave, my haunt.” She led the group through the empty halls to the gym area, pausing at the door. “Oh…it’s Friday. Blast. Races today,” she said. She thought for a moment. “Eh. It’s public,” she said. She pushed the door open and walked in.

The smell of chlorine assaulted the group’s senses, bringing a wistful grin to Venus’ face. “Wow. What a time trip,” she said. She looked out over the pool from the spectator area in which they found themselves. She retrieved her sunglasses and slid them on so she didn’t distract the racers.

“Hey, Jake, remember the time I was in a Sectionals race and I could barely walk from that leg cramp?” she chuckled.

“Oh, that was a disaster. You came in second place instead of first,” Jake joked.

“Hey, I was sad,” Venus huffed.

“Now, this, more than anything, takes me back,” Sandra said. “I remember the ONE time Vulkan showed up to watch a race and nobody got anything done until he left because his security guards were scaring everyone.”

Venus groaned. “Oh man, we were both so embarrassed…”

“Can we go in?” Mizuki asked.

Hajime squeezed her hand. “No, honey, they’re having races today,” he said. “Venus, is the pool open other days?”

“All the time, they let anyone come in,” she said.

“Maybe we can come back on a weekend,” Hajime said to his daughter.

“Not here, Hajime, trust me,” Jake said. “You’ll want to go to one of the public pools in the city proper. They don’t like hivers much around here,” he added, his voice frosting over.

“Ooh, the thing in the…yeah,” Venus said, halting before she could get too personal. “Well, that’s it…unless you want to show something, Jake?” she asked.

“No, I want to go to the overlook now,” Jake said. He tapped his pocket with a loaded look.

Venus took the hint. “One last stop then, you guys,” she said. She turned to Mizuki and grinned behind her shades. “Trust me, we saved the best for last.”

Cora lifted her vox and smiled when she saw the caller ID. “Hello?”

“Cora! It’s Venus. How are you?” Venus asked.

“Great! I got the contract,” Cora proclaimed.

“Oh, awesome. Did you get both distributors?” Venus asked, inquiring of the construction project Cora’s company was undertaking.

“Both, but one of them wanted an ear, an eye, an arm, and a leg, so they might have to suck it up,” Cora said. “What’s up?”

“Well, Jake’s bringing his cousins on a tour of the surface, and he wanted to know if he could let his six-year-old cousin take pictures from the roof of the Spire,” Venus asked. The group were in their cars, slowly folding into the general Startseite traffic. They were far enough away from the Spire that they could divert to another building if they needed to.

“Of course! Should I make an appearance?” Cora asked.

“If you want, then of course, it’s your home. We saw Faith at Imperator,” Venus said.

“Yeah, how is she settling in?” Cora asked.

“She seems great,” Venus said, nodding to Jake, who sent a confirmation message to the other cars in the convoy. “We’ll be by in ten. Thanks, Cora.”

“Hey, no problem, I haven’t had a chance to say hi to you since you got back anyway.” She thought for a moment. “Hey, uh, so there’s no surprises…how did it go?”

Venus glanced over at Jake, still busy at the controls. “Jake’s just fine. He’ll be with us.”

“Great! See you soon.”

Ten minutes later, the group was standing on top of the Spire, Corvus Corax’s opulent home, and Mizuki was busily snapping pictures with the vox her father provided. “This is amazing,” Walter said, looking out over the drop to the city below. The structure loomed over the city like the hive spire against which it backed. Venus was sitting by the edge of the structure, pointing out significant structures for Mizuki to capture. “It’s like a different planet,” he continued, overawed.

“I know. I felt the same way,” Jake said. He looked over at his uncle, who was standing stock-still. “You get vertigo, man?”

“No, but…this is amazing, it’s like I’m on an ornithopter over the Gap,” Walter said. He was talking about the cleft between two hive spires atop his cube, so far apart that a smaller hive could have been built between them with room to spare.

“It is pretty amazing.” George gingerly stepped up to the edge, glancing down the endless-seeming drop. “The hives on Mars were this big, but they weren’t open to the air.”

“I should go see them sometime,” Jake said. “What was the Seminary’s hive like?”

“A vault. So cramped…even compared to Tetra. It was basically a gigantic cathedral,” George said.

“Venus, who did you say this place belonged to?” Hajime asked, holding tight to Mizuki’s hand.

Venus saw a shadow move on the ground behind them and smirked at the timing. “My cousin Cora, who’s staying here until her own house is built.” The shadow was moving opposite the direction of the clouds, and was very clearly defined. Venus raised her voice. “It’s a real shame she can’t stay in her own place like a grown-up,” she said loudly.

“Hark who speaks, you can’t even pick a planet!” Cora’s voice replied.

The group turned to see a pretty, dark-haired young woman sitting cross-legged on top of one of the air conditioners on the Spire’s top surface. She smiled down at the group. “How’re you doing, Venus?”

“I’m great, thanks for the invite,” Venus called back. Cora nodded from her perch. “We appreciate it.”

Cora uncrossed her legs and dropped the fifteen feet from her seat to the level that the others were on, landing with her arms already out for a hug. “After two months, you can sit on my rooftop all you want,” Cora cheerfully replied, grabbing the shorter woman in a playful squeeze. “How was the trip?”

“Fantastic. I brought home something like five volumes to give you.” Venus patted her pocket, pulling out a small data disk and handing it over to her cousin. “Enjoy.”

“Yeeesssss, a sacred exchange,” Cora said, rubbing her hands together. “Who knows you have them?”

“They’re not proprietary, wiseass,” Venus snorted. Cora’s face fell.

“Aww, and I thought we were being clandestine!” she said, disappointed. She glanced over at her guests. “And who might you be?”

George shook himself loose from his surprise at her entrance. “Uh, I think we’ve met,” he said.

“Right, the wedding,” Cora said, remembering. “Nice to see you, Sieur Seager. And you, ma’am,” she said, waving to Sandra.

“It’s been too long, Lady Cora,” Sandra said, dismissing her own shock at the superhuman display.

“Are you okay? You fell like two stories!” Mizuki asked, deeply concerned.

Cora smiled. “I’m just fine. We’re built for that. What’s your name?”

“Oh, I’m Mizuki,” the girl said, a little nervously.

“Corvus Cora, welcome to the Spire,” Cora said, gently shaking the girl’s hand. She straightened up, smiling at the rather shell-shocked hivers behind her. “The name’s a little pretentious, I know, but some habits die hard. Who might you be?”

“First Sergeant Eric Donnelly, Imperial Fists Ninth Army Group,” Eric said formally, though he was wise enough not to salute.

Cora nodded politely. “Sergeant.”

The others introduced themselves piecemeal. Cora shook each proffered hand in turn. “So what brings you topside?” she asked of the group, though of course Venus had already told her.

“We wanted Zuki to see what the surface looks like,” Venus said, smiling down at her cousin.

Cora nodded again, sagely. “And what do you think so far?” she asked.

“It’s so big! There’s so much air I feel like I’m going to stop breathing!” Mizuki said nervously.

“Well, you won’t. It’s supposed to be like this,” Cora chuckled.

Venus piped up. “So, Cora, how’s the development going?”

“Surprisingly slowly, given how much the Guild was nagging me,” Cora said, glancing back at her cousin. Baffled looks on the hivers’ faces urged her continue. “I’m in the macroconstruction business. Theme parks, Prometheum refineries, office complexes, colony sewage treatment plants, what have you,” she explained. “Anything so big that normal manufacturing and construction businesses can’t get it done economically.”

“Really? That seems to be a pattern with the Royal Family,” Sandra said.

“What do you mean?” Cora asked.

“Well…I mean that most of Venus’ generation seem to be more interesting in working in the private sector rather than the government,” Sandra said.

Cora shrugged. “Some. Not all. Hana’s in the Rough Riders. Well, the White Scars elite auxiliaries, anyway, which means Rough Riders to me. And a bunch of the rest of us are in the political sector. I just prefer working in the private sector since there’s more of a challenge. You know? If you fail, you fail on your own merits.”

Hajime’s lips compressed a little as she said that. Certainly what she said wasn’t true in a lot of industries. Sometimes it felt like the aircar industry was so far into the pockets of the boards that ran them, it was impossible for anything to change for the better.

Cora noticed his anger, of course; her senses rivaled Freya’s. She decided it was best left unaddressed, for now.  

Thangir's Burden[edit]

Thangir, the newlywed Prince of Fenris and nominal Lord of the Fang, sat at the picture window in his suite, clad in the night sky. The massive mountains of the Fang jutted all the way through the clouds here on stormy nights, but tonight there were none; just a clear view to the snow-covered plains and mountainsides below.

The youthful warrior looked out at the snows and rocks, feeling an uncomfortable sense of longing. He had received his enhancement surgery from the Fang’s Wolf Priests after a brief visit by the Emperor himself; or All-father of the Imperium, as he was known to the Fang. The experience had been awe-inspiring and frightening to the then-nineteen-year-old mortal, but clearly whatever test to which he had been subjected had impressed the Emperor, as Freya had extended the offer of the same eternal life she enjoyed to Thangir mere minutes later. He had had not needed to think long to accept. The surgery’s recovery had been agony, but the enhancements he had received had been quite worth it. Better stamina, strength, senses…all of him seemed improved. It had even caused his canines to grow a bit from his upper jaw, like Freya’s had, though they didn’t seem to be getting anywhere near as large as hers, and she had told him that her senses were far superior.

For all the improvements, though, the part he had enjoyed the most so far had been the reduction in time spent asleep. Where before he could have slept like the dead for nine hours after a hard day, now he never felt the need to sleep more than four or five at the most. The extra hours made each day feel fuller and more vital, and he had reveled in it. At least, he had at first.

Of late, his mind had drifted to a darker topic. He had tried to banish it, but it had come back, closer and quite vivid. It was confusing. It made him feel like he was committing infidelities, too, which didn’t help.

The quietest sound of footsteps behind him caught his ear. His newly enhanced ears and nose told him Freya was standing in the door to the royal bedchambers, watching him. Even with his new senses, though, he was sure he wouldn’t have been able to detect her if she hadn’t wanted him to. His awe at her abilities had only grown as his own senses had.

The starlight glimmered an unnatural green in her lupine eyes, and allowed him a view of her bare silhouette. She had worked the braids in her hair loose before retiring, and her hair fell around her chest and shoulders nearly to her waist in places.

She looked into his eyes in silence for a moment, letting her scent do the talking. She was curious as to his absence, it seemed.

“Sorry. I had a nightmare,” Thangir said.

Freya kept watching him, before walking over to the bay seat beside him on the windowsill and sitting down with her back to the far side. She leaned back and glanced out the window, letting him see her beautiful profile. The red moon of Fenris shone undimmed this high up, and spilled watery light like diluted blood over her naked skin. She looked every inch the Valkyrie he had mistaken her for the first time he had seen her.

“No,” she said softly.

“No…what?” Thangir asked.

“No, you didn’t have a nightmare,” she said.

Thangir bristled. Freya’s eyes darted to him, though her head didn’t move. “You didn’t fall asleep yet tonight,” she said. It was a statement, not an accusation. Thangir deflated.

“Sorry, my love,” he said. The guttural Juvjk they were using was his native tongue, though she had only learned it in later life.

She turned her head to look at him fully, though he was relieved to sense no judgment in her yet. “So what troubles you, my warrior?” she asked. She had called him that first when he had only been one of her servants, after washing out of Space Wolf training at Kerrvik Training Camp in the Asaheim foothills. He had mistaken it for derision, at first, before she had whispered it in his ear one evening with a look of invitation he would never forget for the rest of his life.

“I feel…distracted,” Thangir said. “I was reliving something most unpleasant.”

Freya cocked her head.

“The…” Thangir’s words failed for a moment. He gestured at the ragged scar, nearly an inch thick in places, from his left shoulder to his waist, just below his navel. It had killed him. Only the medical gear in the back of Freya’s Thunderhawk had saved him. As he had bled out on the sands of his home island, he had heard the victorious Ironjaws destroying his village, sacking his home, capturing his people to use as slaves and whores. Freya had watched the entire battle from the sidelines with two Wolf Priests and a few skjalds, selecting the finest warriors to take to Kerrvik.

Freya nodded understanding. “I see.” She flicked a few stray red hairs over her shoulder and settled back against the metal walls. “Do you still feel the pain?”

“No…not the physical injury,” Thangir said.

“What, then?”

“I…I hear the sounds.” Thangir looked away, ashamed of himself.

Freya’s eyes narrowed a hair. “Of the battle…or the aftermath?”

Thangir nodded as the truth crept closer. “You have it,” he whispered.

Freya traced a hand over his leg, crossed and resting on his knee. “Thangir, you’re a strong man. I know you can overcome your fear.”

“Not fear,” Thangir said, harshness welling up in his tone. He forced it back. “I’m…I feel unfaithful, but…”

“Unfaithful?” Freya asked, confused.

“My…daughter, Freya. My wife,” Thangir said, forcing it out. “I flashed back to losing them.”

His second wife fell silent. She had known he had been married before his ascension, but so had thousands of other battle brothers. They had had more brainwashing to erase their old lives, though. It seemed more of it lingered than she thought. “I see.”

Thangir sighed. “Forgive me, Freya. It…I can remember hearing them scream my name from the back of your ship,” he managed. “Since I met you, it’s been lessened, but it’s still there. It’s what kept me awake.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry.”

Freya glanced at him sidelong, her gaze softening somewhat. “I understand.”

“It’s not missing them specifically,” Thangir said. He felt compelled to continue. “Of course I miss them. But…knowing that they’re out there and I can’t get them back is the worst feeling.” They were undoubtedly still alive on some Ironjaw island somewhere, being used to pump out babies for the clan. The thought set Thangir’s teeth on edge. His daughter and wife, enslaved…and the very vow he had taken to serve the Fang – and the one he had taken to wed Freya – prevented any action on his part. He was technically the Prince of Fenris, and couldn’t interact with his nominal subjects whatsoever.

His new wife squeezed his leg from her perch. “I can’t help with that, Thangir, but…maybe there is one way we can help you move on.”

He looked up at her. “How?”

She rose to her feet, letting her hair drape back down across her back. “I can’t help you get your old family back, but I most certainly can help you make another.”

Thangir thought about that, and felt the ache in his mind fade. “Then…you’ve thought about this?” he asked, scenting a sense of decision come about her.

She turned and walked back to the door to the Royal bedchamber, pausing to cast a glance back at him, chased with a faint grin. “I have.”

Thangir stood to follow her. Freya sat on the edge of the bed, waiting for him. “…Thank you, Freya,” he murmured. He leaned down from beside the bed and kissed her on the cheek. “I was afraid you’d think less of me.”

“I wouldn’t. Not for wanting to do more than you could,” Freya said. “But not now, all right?” She slid her hands up his arms and guided him down. “Now…me.”

“Us,” Thangir said softly, and they embraced once more.

Back From the War[edit]

  Jake swung the door of his home open and stared. The man on his stoop was a stranger.

He was dressed in a layered yellow and grey tunic that looked recently-pressed. He had a silver Power Sword clasped at his flank, with a compact Hellpistol in a holster on the other side. The grips on both showed ample wear. Despite being Jake’s own age, the man looked about twenty years older.

“Holy shit,” Julius Pius said. “What happened to your eyes?”

Jake sipped at his tequila in the kitchen as Julius recounted a few stories from his time with the Geno. “My assistants are a bit slow on the uptake, but they’re both excellent soldiers, no question of that,” Julius said. He fingered his left elbow, staring into the past. “Nearly lost an arm in one fight, but my batman, Baldgin, he saved me.”

“Wow,” Venus said. “Did you have to get an augmetic?”

“No,” Julius sighed, rolling up his sleeve. Jake winced at the red loop around his arm. The angle of the cut showed it had gone straight through to the bone. “But I did get a tiny, temporary implant just to monitor the wound. Make sure it worked when we added bone grafts and synthflesh on there so it didn’t go septic and didn’t give me leukemia or something.”

Jake shivered. “I’m glad you’re okay, though.”

“Thanks, Jake,” Julius said, leaning back with a sigh. “Let’s not make this all about me, though. How have you two been?”

“Well, you can see I took a trip to the body shop,” Jake quipped, waving a hand in the air. “I’m banking on the fact that I was completely obscure and unimportant before marrying into the Royal Family to hide that I’m looking so different,” he said brightly.

Julius shook his head. As much as the cynical part of him wanted to feel scorn at the flippantness of Jake’s approach to something so life-altering, he could also hear the faintest trace of relief in his friend’s voice. Jake was masking a buried concern with levity. He could hardly be hypocritical enough to call the young Prince on that. Goodness knows he had seen some terrible things in the interim, too. Briefly, he hazarded a guess as to what could have gone wrong with Jake’s ‘trip to the body shop,’ and pushed them back. The man deserved some privacy.

Either Jake noticed his friend’s buried reaction and ignored it, or he missed it. “Really, you’re lucky you caught us,” Jake said. “We’re moving back home to Nocturne for a few years soon, so that we can really start getting involved in the leadership there.”

“Hmm. ‘Back’ home,” Julius noted. “You spend more time on Nocturne than Terra now, I take it?”

Venus shrugged. “That was always the plan,” she said. “You know, if your company gets shipped by, feel free to drop in. Our door’s always open to you. Both of them,” she added with a grin.

Julius shifted his shoulders in relief. That, at least, was something for which his war-hardened soul had hoped. “And I’m happy and grateful to hear it, Venus,” he said.

Jake sighed dramatically, lifting an oven mitt from the table. “I’m gonna plod back into the kitchen now,” he said heavily.

Julius watched as Jake rose from his chair to glance over the cooking meal in the kitchen. “You two look good married,” he said.

Venus beamed. “Thanks. I think so too.”

Julius nearly added ‘But then, everything looks good after three and a half years of non-stop trench fighting,’ and caught himself with the words on his lips. Best not to sound ungrateful.

“But then, I bet everything looks good after time in the trenches, doesn’t it?” Venus asked. She caught his sudden sharp glance and smiled gently.

Julius stared, feeling a slight grin return to his lips. “It certainly does. Thanks.” He looked over to where Jake was working in the other room. “May I ask you a personal question?” he inquired politely.

“Sure,” Venus said.

“What did your father think of a mortal marrying into the family?” he asked.

“He was all for it,” Venus said. “Dad always said that he would support us if we decided to tie the knot. And just between you, me, and the walls,” she added, leaning forward conspiratorially, “we’re going to try for a child soon.”

Julius stared over at Jake. “Er. Is that…possible?” he asked gingerly.

“One of the perks of my new frame and chassis,” Jake said from the other room. “Along with enhanced senses and a few other bonuses,” he added, returning with the tequila bottle in his hand.

“I see.” Julius was glad he had halted his earlier inquiries. “Well…good on you both,” he said. “I confess that I’ve entertained the notion of leaving the service after a few more tours to formally settle with Isis, but I think it won’t be necessary,” he said.

“How do you mean?” Jake asked.

“Well…I haven’t told anyone yet, but what the devil, there’s a Primarch in the room,” Julius grunted, accepting a fresh cup of tequila with a nod. “I asked Isis to marry me, and she’s accepted. Jake, I want you to be my best man, if you’d be willing. And to cap it off, once the war is over I’m being reassigned to one of the Geno offices here on Terra. Away from the frontlines. It’s a long tour, too. Eleven years. More than enough time for…well, personal life,” he said broadly.

Jake leaned over and grabbed his hand. “I’d be happy to! Congrats, my friend,” he said.

Venus clapped her hands together. “Fantastic! Oh, that’s a hell of a thing, Julius, congratulations.”

“Thanks, Venus,” Julius said, his tension fading a bit more. He swirled the drink in the glass a few times before downing half in a gulp. “Good God damn, I missed Terran liquor,” he said flatly, setting the cup down. “Geno troops are too well-disciplined to set up stills in the trenches, unfortunately,” he sighed.

“Damn shame, that,” Jake deadpanned.

“Yes, it’s a crying shame indeed,” Julius said. “Bloody things glow like a road flare, in a thermo scope at night.”

The oven in the corner beeped. Venus rose and swung it open, flooding the spacious kitchen with the scent of daisy ham. “Want to stay for dinner?” she asked.

Julius looked up and smiled. “I’d love to, thanks.” He stood too, and rolled his neck to work out the kinks. “Can’t say much for military food, really,” he said drily.

“Is it disgusting, or something?”

“No, it’s just…nutrients. Not bad, not good,” Julius said. “And then you get dropped in a trench for a while, and suddenly it’s haute cuisine.”

“Ouch,” Jake said. “They don’t just not feed you guys in the trenches, do they?”

“Oh, they do,” Julius admitted, “just not with what you’d call ‘edible’ substances. Hell, we had to catch rats for meat once because the supply truck got shelled out in the open, and it took two full weeks to clear out the snipers well enough to get close enough to salvage anything. My batman fancies himself a cook, but if you ever have a chance to try his ‘Rat-Au-Van,’ just don’t. You can guess what it is.”

Venus winced. “Fuck, that’s disgusting. I’ve half a mind to send a Legionary ship with actual food out to you guys.”

“If ever I were to ask you or Isis to abuse your power, that would be how I do it,” Julius groused. He tapped the bare patch of leather at his left hip as Jake grabbed plates. “I want to thank you, Venus, as long as I’m here.”

“For…oh, for the sword,” Venus said.

“Very much so. You, Farah, and Hana did one hell of a job.” Julius held out his empty had to accept a glass of water. “It’s perfect. The balance is flawless.”

“It was fun to make.” Venus set out plastic cutlery for the three of them. “Do you ever actually use it? Or is it just ceremonial?”

“I’ve worn the grip smooth in one place, and it’s partway there in another,” Julius said. “Trust me, that thing has saved my life.”

“Well, that’s very good to hear,” Venus said. She sighed to herself as the men sat down. “You know, though, I feel bad. I wish I could make your job easier, Julius. Or, you know, safer.”

Julius shook his head. His cropped deep brown hair was cut to a military crew, but he looked to be growing it out a bit for his leave. “Venus, coming back to Terra to see my family, friends, classmates, and fiancé is making my job easier in ways I couldn’t have even appreciated before signing up. Please believe that.”

“Well…if you say so,” Venus said. She grinned as Julius reached for a loaf of bread with an almost childlike eagerness. “Are you allowed to bring leftovers home in a napkin, Julius?” she asked.

“You’re an angel, Venus, but I’m going to go back to Isis’ apartment after this, and I came from there, too,” Julius chuckled. “Plenty of time to filch real food.”

“So glad,” Venus said, slicing the ham. “Well, dig in.”

Julius smiled to himself as his friends laughed and carried on. It did feel good indeed, he decided, to come home every so often. He made a mental note to check in with the rest of his high school confederates that had enlisted, just to make sure they were all right. It never hurt to stay in touch.

Disrespectfully Pregnant[edit]

  Crown Princess Venus settled down on the edge of the bed and went still. Her husband, Jacob Seager, rested his ear on her stomach and listened. The sound of her blood pulsing through her mingled with another, fainter sound…then a faint sense of pressure against his cheek made him grin from ear to ear.

He lifted his head up and beamed at her, overjoyed. “I felt him.”

“Oof. You should feel him on this end,” Venus said. She ran a hand over her distended tummy and smiled as Jake stood. “He’s kicking up a storm. Hard to sleep, some nights.”

“Really? Wow. Anything I can do?” Jake asked.

“No, nothing, thanks,” Venus said wearily. He sat down next to her and ran his hand over her bulge. “The doctor said a glass of milk before bed and nothing else.”

Jake stared down at the lump over his wife’s usually trim stomach. He squeezed his fingers slightly, a silly little smile on his face. “…Baby.”

Venus slid her hand over his. “Yep.”

“I think I like our idea, by the way,” Jake said, apropos of nothing.

“His name?” Venus asked.

Jake nodded. “Yeah. If he were growing up on Terra…I’d say no, too weird. But on Nocturne? It’s perfect. And you know Vulkan will start tearing up.”

Venus chuckled. “Sentimental old fart. Yeah, he totally would.”

“N’bel…” Jake said.

“Grandpa’s name,” Venus said softly. She gingerly stood. “Ow. Hard to believe he’s still seventy days off, he feels ready to go.”

“I bet he does,” Jake said. “Stairs giving you trouble?”

“No, but I miss being able to swim, with a sack full of ground pork under my stomach,” Venus grumbled.

Jake frowned. “Honey, it’s not nice to refer to our larva as a ‘sack,’” he scolded.

Venus snorted back a laugh.

Jake helped her out into the hallway and out to the balcony. Venus leaned against the stone and stared out at the world below. The mixing streets of Themis vanished into the tangle of buildings beyond, until they reached the massive walls of the city. “I love that view,” Jake said. He ran his hand over her shoulders and squeezed her gently, following her gaze out to the city. “He will too, I’m sure.”

“I hope so,” Venus said. She smiled into the blazing sun. “You know…it’s the sensations I’m curious about.”

“How so?” Jake asked.

“Like…what does it feel like to hold a baby? I’ve never done it. Mizuki was born before we got married, and none of the others have kids. And what does it feel like to have someone drink out of you? That just blows my mind. As a concept, you know. And teaching someone two languages at once. How will that work?” she asked.

“I expect you’ll manage,” Jake said. “We, I mean. I was wondering, though…do you think we’ll send him to Imperator?”

“I think we should,” Venus said. “It’s such a good school.”

“Then we will.” He squeezed her shoulder as she leaned against him. “Personally, I’m looking forward to going back to Terra. I want to show my parents their grandson.”


George Seager sat in a chair in the middle of his apartment and stared at the warm bundle of fabric in his arms. A baby boy was curled up inside, fast asleep, with a look of absolute concentration etched on his tiny face. The little guy looked like him. Quite a lot, actually.

“N’bel…” George managed. He was tearing up, too.

“Yep,” Venus said happily, sitting beside her father-in-law and letting him examine his first grandchild. “Two point seven zero kilos at birth, normal delivery, healthy as a horse.”

Jake smiled from across the little room. “Go ahead and get weepy, Dad, there’s good precedent for it. You should have seen Vulkan,” he chuckled.

His mother managed a laugh as she looked down at the tiny infant beside her in her husband’s arms. “He’s adorable…” she said.

“For now, sure. Then we’ll try to go to sleep and then BAM, he’s a banshee,” Jake said. “You just watch.”

“You were hardly innocent in that regard,” his mother noted.

“True.” Jake reached over and ran his fingers over his son’s tiny hand. The sleeping baby instinctively squeezed one finger, and Jake shook his head ruefully. “Strong for his age. Or so the doctor says, anyway, I hardly have anything to compare it to.”

“Oh, trust me, Jake, he’s strong,” Venus said with a groan.

“Got a bit of a kick, does he?” Jake asked drily.


George set the baby down in Venus’ arms and leaned back, overwhelmed. “He’s beautiful,” he said, aglow with paternal pride. “Does he have your…er, appearances?” he asked, gesturing at his face.

“Well, when he wakes up, you can see,” Venus said. “Assuming he doesn’t deafen you,” she added. “But yes, his eyes are like mine. Aside from that, though, he’s basically in line with Jake. Same internal temperature, same anti-aging, same hair and cuticle color, everything.”

Jake nodded solemnly. “I know you’re disappointed, Mom, you always wanted a girl to spoil,” he said.

Sandra snorted. “I’ll let you wait a while and decide that he needs a playmate. I’ll take my chances with round two.”

“Oh my hell, don’t even joke about that, Sandra,” Venus said. “Yeah, the feeling when they hand him to you is incredible, but the whole ‘nine months before it’ really doesn’t seem so trivial when you have an eidetic memory.”

“Hey, at least they didn’t give you a C-section, like they did me,” Sandra said. “I was conscious too, and sedated. Why do you think I stopped at one?” she asked teasingly. Jake rolled his eyes.

“Ew.” Venus rocked her baby and beamed down at him. “The first biological offspring of the Emperor, too…” she said quietly. “He’s thrilled. We’re seeing him next.”

“You’re the first of your generation to have children, Venus?” George asked.

“Yeah. Miranda and Angela are both married, but they wanted to wait a while,” Venus supplied. She ran a fingertip over her son’s lips and smiled contentedly. “Not me. There’s nothing in the whole world more important to Nocturneans than having a family. Nothing. If I had lived my entire life on Nocturne, I may have had kids as young as eighteen.”

Sandra shuddered. “Luckily, I live on Terra, where the nicer boys live,” Venus finished, shooting her husband a wink. Jake preened at the compliment.

“Well, he’s amazing, Venus,” George said, looking down at the tiny boy. N’bel’s eyelids glowed slightly. It was a constant glow, too, like holding an LED flashlight up to the skin of your hand and letting the light shine through. He glanced sidelong at Venus and didn’t see the same light when she blinked. “His eyes are so bright I can see them with his lids closed,” he said.

“Oh, really? Damn, he’s about to wake up then,” Venus said, snugging him closer to her chest and rocking him again. “I can’t notice it with these contacts in. Our eyes are keyed to our emotions and wakefulness,” she explained. “I’m just completely exhausted, too.”

“I bet,” Sandra said knowingly.

The door sounded with a knock. George rose and opened it, and grinned at the sight of his guest. “Eric, come in,” he said, stepping back. His wife’s father nearly rushed in, searching the room with his eyes after a cursory ‘hello, George.’ As soon as the old veteran found where his new great-grandson was sleeping, though, he came to a complete halt. He stared at the tableau of Venus gently rocking the little bundle in her arms, agape.

“Grandpa Eric, meet N’bel,” Jake said from his seat. “N’bel, meet Great-grandpa Eric.”

Eric sank down on the couch next to Venus, reaching out to gently stroke the infant’s cheek. “He’s gorgeous,” Eric said softly. “Venus, congratulations.”

Venus smiled happily at the odd tableau. “He is. Thanks.”

Several hours of pure indulgence later, Venus was sitting in a chair in the Emperor’s private chambers, rocking her son on her shoulder as her husband hovered protectively behind her. The Emperor sat across from her, a grin playing about his lips. “So…it seems I’m a great-grandfather now, after all,” he said, watching N’bel fidget. He glanced up at where Venus was gently shifting her baby to her lap. “May I confide something in you, Venus?”

“What is it?” Venus asked.

“In my…copious free time,” the Emperor joked, “I had taken to wondering which of my granddaughters would give birth first.” He glanced down at N’bel, who had calmed a bit, and was busily staring into space. “I admit I had staked a wager on it being Angela, given how early her relationship with Michael Grecco matured.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have faulted you,” Venus chuckled. She smiled down at her infant son. “Want to hold him?”

The Emperor silently extended his arms, and Venus lowered N’bel into his grasp. The Emperor shook his head as he listened to the sound of N’bel’s sleepy breathing. “You know…it’s odd. I have had twenty one sons, and I’ve never held a relative of mine in my arms like this.”

“It’s pretty wild,” Jake said. “He doesn’t look a thing like Vulkan, though, does he?”

“It’s uncanny,” the Emperor admitted. “He looks more like your father than you do, Jacob.”

Jake snorted. “Oh, sure, pick on me, Sire,” he said.

“Did you know about the little tradition the Startseite hospital has, Grandfather?” Venus asked.

“What tradition is this?” the Emperor asked.

“The hospital takes the ultrasound picture of the baby, and then uses facial recognition software to figure out which celebrity it most resembles,” Venus said. The Emperor shook his head with a wry grin as Jake laughed. “According to them, he most resembles the old Senator, Cornelius Algunn. Remember, the former Arbites representative on the Senate?”

“Of course, I appointed him,” the Emperor said. He scanned the baby’s face. “I don’t see it, though.”

“Yeah, it’s a bit of a stretch,” Venus giggled, accepting N’bel back. “Well. I don’t wish to impose. We should bet getting the little guy home for dinner now anyway.”

“Oh, you may stay as long as you like,” the Emperor said. “The VIP Suite in the Guest Wing is available for the next week or so.”

“I mean home to the house,” Venus said. “We have so much to do! Assembling the baby shower furniture and such.”

“Ah, yes,” the Emperor said, rising to his feet and watching as Jake helped his wife stand as well. “Tell me…do you intend to return to Nocturne?”

“Of course! Probably within a month or so,” Venus said.

“I would prefer if you waited,” the Emperor said gently. “The Warp routes between here and Nocturne are quite tumultuous of late. It wouldn’t be safe for your little one,” he added, smiling fondly at N’bel, who was deep in contemplation of his fingernails.

“Entire generations of starfarers on Rogue Trader crews have been born in the Warp,” Venus pointed out.

“And there’s a risk there, which their parents accept, Venus. I won’t stop you…but please reconsider,” the Emperor said.

Venus looked at him quizzically, before shrugging. “I guess we can wait a while.”

“Thank you,” the Emperor said.

Jake grinned. “Not just eager to see more of your great-grandson, though, right, Sire?”

“That is important to me, of course,” the Emperor said, “but I can already feel his ancestral traits manifesting. He’s eternal, as you and your wife are, now,” he said to Jake. “I’ll have all the time in the world.”

Some Things Never Change[edit]

Freya Russ nodded to the somewhat overwhelmed-looking Governor before her. “Well, I should hope so, Governor, but of course it isn’t my decision.”

The pasty little man sighed dramatically. “Of course, Lady Russ, I wouldn’t wish to impose.” He sipped at his wine as he scrambled to find a safer topic than Army tithing. “Really, though,” he said, finally finding one, “I should thank you for being able to make it tonight at all. The Warp in this region of space is tumultuous, some Overlords are left quite to themselves. That a Lady Primarch herself would make it all the way out here is an exceptional honor.”

“I felt the need,” Freya said. “Besides…I’m the active type,” she said cheerfully. “I can’t stay still too long.”

“Freya?” a voice asked from behind her. Freya turned from the Governor to see her husband Thangir standing behind her, a wine-filled goblet in hand. “Here,” he said, passing it to her and setting her empty one aside.

“Thanks,” she said, turning back to the politician. “So, Governor, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to do some catching up do with the other guests.” She smirked as a few familiar faces in the crowd drifted by. “I haven’t seen some of these guys since high school.”

“Of course, your Highness, my home is yours,” the Governor said, bowing graciously.

Freya nodded and turned, to see her husband of five years making a beeline for the food. She rolled her eyes and sipped at her drink, ambling over to a cluster of Army officers she remembered meeting on the Fang once, when a statement stopped her.

“You could still burn the dark from a blind man’s eyes, Freya.” She raised her eyebrows in surprise as the voice registered.

She slowly turned to see a man in a rather opulent black and grey military uniform with purple trim staring at her with a knowing grin. His broad shoulders had a narrow purple cape draped over one and a gold epaulet over the other, with a small circle of seven platinum stars on his exposed sleeve. She wasn’t looking at his arms, much, though, because she was staring in shock at his eyes. Eyes that she had watched from inches away for many years.

“Alex! Alex Carlin! I don’t believe it!” she exclaimed, smiling from ear to ear. “I haven’t seen you in twelve years!”

“It’s been that long, hasn’t it?” Alex asked, spreading his arms wide and drawing Freya into a hug. A few people nearby made noises of surprise. “It’s great to see you again, Freya,” he murmured.

She moved to kiss him, but caught herself. From the sound of his breath, so did he. They both stepped back, smiling ruefully. She took the opportunity to look him up and down, taking in his uniform and physique. “Wow…you landed on your feet,” she said approvingly. “I’m glad.”

“Me too. And I stand by my earlier comment,” Alex said slyly. “And…I understand you’ve since been married?”

“I have,” Freya said, showing off the sparkling diamond on her finger. “In fact…Thangir is around somewhere,” she said, looking around.

“What is it, Freya?” he asked, stepping from the crowd.

Freya grabbed his hand and brought him over to Alex. “Thangir, this is Lord Trader Alex Carlin.”

Thangir’s light green eyes narrowed a hair, but he shook Alex’s hand anyway. The superhuman cords of muscle through his arms and shoulders told a tale about his augmentation by the Emperor, several years before. Despite that, his grip was direct and un-gauging. “Lord Carlin,” he said, nodding politely. He had to have recognized the name.

“Alex, this is my husband, Prince Thangir,” Freya said, finishing the introduction.

To Freya’s surprise, Alex immediately smiled warmly. “Your Highness,” he said, bowing low as he retrieved his hand.

Thangir blinked, surprised as well. “Rise,” he said immediately. “To what do we owe the pleasure?” he said, just to cover his reaction at the unexpected courtesy.

“I wouldn’t miss a chance to attend a gathering such as this,” Alex said, sweeping the room with one hand. “Besides…I was close. And I wouldn’t miss a chance to say hello to Freya again, either,” he added, grinning at his former lover. “You look radiant.”

Freya beamed. “Thanks. How long will you be here?”

“All night,” Alex said. “And the next few days. The station’s got a few small amenity traders, and they just can’t be very efficient this far from a major forge. Think I might linger.”

“So…you got out of the crypt and coffin business?” Freya asked meaningfully.

Alex’s reply was a solemn nod. “And good riddance,” he said coldly. “The dead should lie.”

Freya winced at the frigid tone in his voice. It vanished instantly, however, as Alex smiled again. “At least the crisis we faced…dissolved,” he said. “I was a real mess, you recall.”

“Yeah,” Freya said wistfully. “You were falling apart. I felt awful that it ended the way it did. I kept wondering if there was anything I could do, but…you know.”

Alex nodded. “I’m sure you did. I didn’t doubt for a moment. And pulling through on my own was…not fun. But at least we managed to get Mom back on her feet.”

“Did you?” Freya asked. She nodded happily. “Good. She was in a bad way. I’m really glad you’re happy again,” she said. She ran a hand over the thick, layered Fenrisian dress shirt she was wearing. “And…I suspect you’ve not heard the good news?”

“What new…” Alex trailed off. Her posture, the movement of her hand over her stomach... “Freya…are you pregnant?” he asked quietly.

Freya nodded.

Alex let his eyes slide shut for a long moment, and when they opened, a tear was gathering in each. “Congratulations,” he said, smiling at her stomach with reverence. “You…congratulations. Boy or girl?”

“Too early to tell,” Freya said. She lowered her voice. “Nobody knows outside the Family and a few obstetricians, so keep a lid on it until we do the announcement, all right?” she asked.

He nodded once, wiping his eyes. “Good on you, Freya,” he subvocalized, so quiet even she had to strain to hear it. Thangir couldn’t have, at that range. “You’ll do fine.”

Her senses caught the presence of a woman approaching them, from behind Alex…who smelled a lot like he did. Freya’s eyes widened as that train of thought reached its end. “Alex, are you here with someone too?” she asked.

Her old flame grinned broadly. He held his arm out to the woman as she halted at his side. “I really can’t keep anything from you, can I?” He gestured to the woman, who was glancing at the others with a clear question in her eyes. “Freya, Thangir…please, meet my wife, Lady Trader Vanessa Arralim Carlin. Vanessa,” he said, gesturing to the others. “Lady Primarch and Blood Princess of Fenris, Freya Russ, and Prince Thangir.”

The young woman’s eyes widened at the heady title, but she bowed slightly. “A profound honor, your Highnesses,” she said.

Thangir nodded politely, but Freya caught her sudden sense of fear and had none of it. As Vanessa straightened up, Freya stepped forward and gripped both Carlins in a hug. “I’m really proud of you,” she whispered in Alex’s ear as she did, offering him a wink his wife missed in her surprise. As she stepped back, leaving her own husband astonished, the watching party-goers frozen in surprise at the breach of decorum, Alex chuckling in nostalgia, and Vanessa breathless, she grabbed both of Vanessa’s hands and pumped, smiling cheerfully. “It’s wonderful to meet you, Lady Vanessa,” she said.

Vanessa’s eyes darted to Alex, as if looking for a grounding of reality, but all he did was roll his eyes and pat her shoulder. “Freya, you just met her,” he said, adopting a tone of indulgence.

Freya sighed and stepped back, bowing in return at last. “Sorry.”

“N-no problem…your Highness,” Vanessa said.

Thangir overcame his own surprise and bowed slightly as well. The thick, deep scars on his shoulders, visible under his formal tunic and sleeveless duster, shifted as his muscles tightened. His mess of dirty blond hair and dark blue eyes were very Fenrisian indeed, as was the elaborate tattoo over his left wrist.

Freya straightened up and skewered Alex with an inquisitive glance. “So who do I talk to, to get details?” she asked suspiciously.

Alex chuckled. “Either of us, I’m sure.”

Freya’s eyes lit upon Vanessa’s own, and she blinked under the Primarch’s scrutiny. “Have a few minutes, Lady Trader?” Freya asked innocently.

Vanessa nodded slowly, following Freya over to the buffet with a look of trepidation. Alex glanced over at Thangir with a weary smile, and for a moment both men shared the same mental wavelength.

Freya stood next to Vanessa at the end of the buffet, wondering how to phrase her question, then settling on the direct. “Vanessa…if you don’t mind me asking,” she said coyly. “Would you humor me with telling how you and Alex met?”

Vanessa nodded, her nerves returning a bit under the Royal gaze. “Well, his father was an employer of mine for a while. When Alex took over his father’s business, he shut down several branches. My branch liquidated,” she said, putting a few pieces of fruit on her plate. “Alex opened a new branch on Cordeline’s Wake, and I requested a transfer to his office there. He basically rehired the whole group and transported us over there. We met at the party to reopen the place, since he felt he had to go in person. It was…” she smiled to herself. “It was pretty quick.”

“He’s a passionate man,” Freya said knowingly. “There’s a lot to love.” She offered up a smile of her own. “I’m really happy for you both,” she said quietly. “Alex was falling apart at the seams when we broke up. He needed someone to love.”

“He told me that that was one of the darkest parts of his life…but…” Vanessa trailed off, glancing back at where her husband was effortlessly schmoozing up some local nobility. “He never told me the woman he left behind was a Lady Primarch.”

“I specifically asked him not to, at least at first,” Freya said, surprising Vanessa. “He was afraid that if he did, he would wind up turning every relationship he ever entered into a competition, whether it was fair to do so or not.” She flashed a fang-filled grin at Vanessa. The shorter woman blinked, somewhat unnerved. “Alex was surprised, but he went along with it. Ask him about ‘The Road Trip’ now that the metaphorical cat is out of the bag.”

“The…road trip?” Vanessa asked, confused.

“He’ll know what it means,” Freya giggled.

“Very well…” Vanessa said. The two of them wended their way over to where the drinks were arrayed, and Freya passed up a third wine for a glass of ice water. “May I ask you something as well?”

Freya shrugged. “Of course.”

“How…how long, exactly, were you two together? And how close were you?”

Freya looked her over, and now there actually was a sense of judgment in her gaze that did Vanessa’s courage no favors. “We met at fourteen. We were dating by fifteen, and shared a bed from then until twenty two.” Her frankness was a piece of bait, placed before Vanessa as much to see how she reacted as to answer her question.

Vanessa looked away. “I see.”

“You sound as if you expected a different answer,” Freya said.

“I did. I wasn’t expecting such…detail.” Vanessa looked down into her wine, trying not to say anything else.

The Space Wolf princess sensed her bait being taken. She softened her tone as the sense she had been searching for appeared. “I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, Vanessa, but do take it in perspective,” Freya said quietly. “Alex was utterly demolished when we parted ways, thanks to his father’s death and mother’s illness. I can see how much he matters to you,” she said. “And you clearly matter to him. I can sense that kind of thing.” She glanced at Alex again. “Ask him about that, too.”

Alex himself was leaning back against the wall by now, chatting with a few low-tier local politicos. The deliberately casual air he projected was something he had learned to cultivate; very few things helped slice through a politician’s fragile ego like the sense that he was being outmaneuvered, and he wanted to avoid that.

As he spoke, he saw his wife being gently interrogated by Freya, and he had to grin to himself. Time, it seemed, changes little.

Thangir walked up behind the politicians to whom he had been speaking, and waited behind them like a thundercloud until Alex met his eyes. “May we speak for a moment, Lord Trader?” he asked.

Alex levered off of the wall and nodded. “Certainly.”

The politicians evaporated under Thangir’s presence, until the two men were alone. “Lord Carlin, I do not know exactly what transpired between you and Freya. Would you be willing to tell me?” he asked.

Alex shook his head. “No. There’s no need, anyway,” he added. “Freya’s telling Vanessa right now.”

Thangir looked over to where Freya and Vanessa were still in discussion. “You can hear at that distance?” Thangir asked.

“No, but you can,” Alex pointed out. Thangir’s eyes shot back to where Alex was standing, calm and unassuming. An entire volume of conversation occurred between them before Thangir finally relented, his posture easing somewhat.

“Forgive my rudeness, then,” he murmured. “I suppose that answers my question…if she was willing to share that much.”

“We kept no secrets, your Highness,” Alex said. “She was all that kept me sane during my darkest day.” He took a step forward, into the gene-modded warrior’s reach, but not assuming even the vaguest stance of attack. “Do not interrogate me, Prince Thangir,” he said softly.

Thangir looked down at him, completely expressionless. After nearly ten full seconds of silence, Thangir nodded, stepping back. “Very well.”

As the party wound down, Freya paused at the threshold of the ballroom on the space station, her hand held up for a moment’s pause. Alex, standing nearby in anticipation, walked up to her and immediately adopted a waiting pose. Freya smiled to herself, her planned speech melting away. “Alex…it really has been too long. Send me a message the next time you’re near Terra. I mean it.”

Alex smiled back, and even under Thangir’s and Vanessa’s eyes, he looked for a moment like he was going to go in for another hug. He restrained himself, however, and simply bowed slightly. “I agree. And…if you see the others…”

“I will, count on it.” Freya suddenly pawed at one pocket. “Oooh, wait, hang on,” she said. She produced a small holo card reader and flipped through some images until she arrived at one specific picture. “Have you seen this?” she asked, showing it to Alex.

Alex took the card reader, and his clean-shaven face split in a grin. “Wow…”

“I know!” Freya leaned over the picture of N’bel, Jake’s and Venus’ five-year-old son, sitting on his father’s knee and beaming at the camera.

“Guess I don’t need to ask how they’re doing,” Alex said. He shook his head as he handed the reader back to Freya. “You’re right. I should drop in on them. See how the old crowd is doing.”

Freya nodded eagerly, her face flush with the same vigorous optimism that had drawn them together so many years before. “We’d all love that.”

Vanessa stepped up to Alex’s side, oblivious to the exchange. “It was a true honor meeting you both, your Highnesses,” she said.

Alex retrieved the reader from Freya and passed it to his wife. “Here, look at this.”

Vanessa looked over the picture. “Lady Primarch Venus?” she asked.

“Yeah, and Jake and their son.” Alex shook his head. “Man. I’ll never remember to add the Prince in front, you know? All I can think of when I think of him is the thing on Nocturne.”

Freya sighed. “Really?”

“No, I remember you and him kicking my shit in at poker and darts every night all summer, too,” Alex admitted. “But that’s not as heroic as what I did in the bar,” he sniffed.

Freya laughed. “Never change, Alex.”

“Don’t plan on it.” Alex passed the card back and bowed to Thangir. “Nice meeting you, Prince Thangir. An honor indeed.”

To his mild surprise, Thangir smiled and extended a hand. Alex took it and shook. “You as well, Lord Trader Carlin.”

As they parted ways, Thangir and Freya retired to their vessel, docked on the void platform. As Freya prepared for sleep, Thangir reclined in the lavish bed, which was by far the most opulent thing in the room, decorated with mammoth furs and padding so thick it could have served as a crash cushion. Then, on a ship, that could be a wise investment. As Thangir did so, he thought over the evening’s revelation. What did Alex mean to her, even after all this time?

Freya slid into bed beside him, and as had become a custom with him, he immediately rolled onto one side to run a broad hand over her flat stomach. Their son – he would accept no other outcome, in his mind – was still only the size of a blueberry, but it was the thought that counted. “An interesting evening,” he said quietly, admiring the way her ample curves folded seamlessly into the rock-solid muscle of her stomach and arms. Even her coming pregnancy hadn’t diminished her pure, animal beauty.

She lay on her side and faced him, though the obstetricians had told her that wouldn’t make a difference for several months. “It was.” Her shining green eyes met his and she smiled, content. “I missed Alex. He was a great friend.”

“I understand he was far more than that,” Thangir said, somewhat harshly. But then, his loyalty to Freya had been absolute from the moment she had revealed her true lineage to him, and to learn of her past intimacy felt almost like a declaration of rivalry.

Freya sensed his concern and headed it off. “He was. But you know me well, my warrior…would I settle for a man I couldn’t like as a person, as well as being a man?”

“No,” Thangir admitted. “You would never do that.”

She settled down on the thick pillows and pulled the sheets up to her chin. “Ask me about him. I don’t want you to dislike him, or think of him as a foe.”

Thangir went quiet as he thought. “…Did he ever make you cry?” he asked.

Freya hesitated. “Only when he left me to care for his dying mother and crippled family business.”

“Did he ever make you wish you didn’t know him?”

“Never. Not once,” she insisted.

“Did he honor you and remain trustworthy to your hand?” Thangir asked.

Freya nodded, remembering the extent of their confidentiality. “Always.”

Thangir propped himself up on one elbow. “Did he look down on your friends of lesser station, and treat them as inferior humans?”

Freya shook her head from the pillow. “Not that I remember.”

Thangir’s eyes narrowed. “Did he have a sense of honor?”

The red-haired princess thought back to the maiming Jake had received in the bar on Nocturne. Alex’s first act had been to sprint to Jake’s side and staunch the bleeding. Later, he had dismantled his father’s empire of graverobbers even though it cost him billions of credits. “Unquestionably.”

“Did he respect Father Russ and All Father?” Thangir asked pointedly.

“Deeply. They didn’t always get along, but he was always respectful,” Freya said.

“Did he make you laugh?”

“All the time,” Freya said. “Half the Gothic jokes you’ve learned from me came from him,” she added happily.

Thangir nodded. “Did he please you, satisfy your needs?”

Freya hid a smile. Before her husband had been upgraded, Alex had been her finest partner in that sense. “Consistently,” she said instead.

“And did he ever, even once, tell you that he preferred another lass?” Thangir asked bluntly, coming to his point.

“No.” Freya was adamant. “He always kept his trust, and I loved him for it.”

“Did he love you back?” Thangir asked.

“He did.”

Freya felt the faintest sense of something warm brush her lips as he leaned over for a kiss. “Then he is a friend, not a foe. For…he would do only what I would do,” Thangir said. He settled back down on the bed and hugged Freya to his chest for a moment, imparting the sense of reassurance that he knew she loved. She had always been a tactile woman. “I love you, Freya. If he did too…I can hardly blame him.”

“My thanks, Thangir,” Freya said softly, feeling her tension fade. “The happiness in his eyes when he figured out I bear your child…he could not fake that. When he left me…all he wanted was for both of us to find happiness again. He found it in Vanessa. I found it in you, and I am grateful for that.”

Thangir ran his lips over her neck, baring his fangs at the end. The first time she had felt that, it had startled her, but she had realized it was his new lupine instincts coming to the fore after his upgrade: to place one’s fangs on another’s body and resist the urge to bite was to demonstrate profound trust, and ask for the same. She returned the gesture with a loving nuzzle of his shoulder, and snuggled down under her furs to sleep. “Good night, Thangir,” she whispered. One of the criterion to which she had held him during his abbreviated courtship in the Fang’s many camps had been that she had to feel as safe as she could when she was with him. As he draped one thick arm over her and held her close, letting her smell and hear him with such unbridled intimacy, she reflected that in that way, Thangir and Alex truly were akin to one another.

Aboard the Corundum Star, docked elsewhere on the station, Alex Carlin went through a similar motion with his own wife. As he sat on the chair at the bedside, reading a slate, Vanessa perched on the bed and brought up the elephant in the room. “Lady Freya was pretty…direct,” she said.

“Sure was.” Alex chuckled. “Some things never change.”

Vanessa shook her head. “You met her as a child?”

“Fourteen, fifteen. Something like that,” Alex said. He looked up at her. “She was on the wrestling team at school. Undefeated, as you can imagine.”

She met his gaze. “She was pretty open about how intimate you two were. It surprised me,” she admitted.

“Yeah. Well, she’s like that,” Alex said. “Are you surprised by the fact we got intimate, or the fact she told you?” he asked.

“I guess both. I don’t know, we were always presented with the idea that the Royal Daughters were supposed to be ideals, incorruptible, beyond basic needs. You know?” Vanessa hedged.

Alex shrugged. “They weren’t. Did it make you uncomfortable?"

“I guess it did,” Vanessa said. She sighed. “I just didn’t expect a Lady Primarch to be using such brusque language, or to hug us like that.”

“She’s an emotional girl,” Alex said. “I’m sorry she made you uncomfortable, though.”

Vanessa fidgeted. “You know, she told me that she told you not to reveal to me that she was your ex. She said she didn’t want it turn it into a competition.”

“Yeah, that happened. Do you think she was wrong?”

“No, and I would have asked you if it was true either way,” Vanessa said. She pushed her hair back over her shoulder and lay down, looking sideways at him from the bed. “Do you miss her?”

Alex looked up at her from his slate. “As a friend?”

“In any aspect,” Vanessa said.

“Sure. All the time. She and her cousins were very close friends of mine,” Alex said unapologetically. “As a partner? Not really. By the end of our relationship, we could both tell how it was going to end.”

Vanessa looked up at the overhead lights. “All right.”

“Baby, I’m not gonna lie to you. But this isn’t going to be a turning point between me and her,” Alex said. “I’m not about to go running back to her. She loves Thangir, deeply. Couldn’t you see she was pregnant?” he asked.

Vanessa jerked her head back to stare at her husband. “Pregnant? Her? She was?”

“Yeah. Bun in the oven,” Alex said with a half-smile. “She’s content with what she has, and so am I. We shouldn’t have completely failed to keep in touch, but all we’re ever going to be from here on out is friends.”

“Oh.” Vanessa thought over that for a moment. “You know…I think she was right.”

“How’s that?” Alex asked.

“I think I would interpret this as a competition, if I had known,” Vanessa said.

Alex switched his slate off and set it down on the chair, rising to sit next to Vanessa on the bed. He slid his fingers through hers and gently squeezed, looking down into her eyes. “Well…don’t. Okay? If it were a race, she would have lost twelve years ago, when we were only staying together so I could have a place to live for long enough to finish my degree, before I could go bury my father. I don’t regret you at all. You shouldn’t either.”

Vanessa smiled at last. “All right.” Alex flicked the lights off and slid down next to her in the bed.

“You know what you need?” Alex asked softly.


“You need a vacation. Somewhere tropical.”

Vanessa shrugged. “Sounds fun. Have a place in mind?” she asked.

Alex grinned in the darkness. “I might.”


Vacation Time[edit]

Jake Seager, Lord and Bond Prince of Nocturne, crossed his legs on the manicured sands of Carshim and watched his son play in the surf. N’bel, it seemed, was deciphering the myriad nuances of fluid dynamics, deliberately building a little sand castle at the top of the waves’ reach and intently studying the way it crumbled when the waves tore it down.

His wife, Crown Princess Venus, was sitting beside him, relaxing on the blanket. The beach was nearly deserted at that moment, fortunately enough. Then, it was the crack of dawn. In a few hours, the place would be swamped with tourists. Until then, they had a modicum of privacy.

N’bel giggled happily as the waters collapsed his creation again. Venus glanced over at him and smiled to herself. “Glad he’s having fun.”

“It was a good call.” Jake yawned and stretched his arms, popping them behind his back. “Me, I’m glad they rebuilt that weak gym here. No pool or cyclic lifters here last time.”

“Mmm.” She glanced up at him, curious. “You okay? You look tired.”

“Little bit,” Jake admitted. “It was damn loud last night.”

“Eh. Someone celebrating a wedding,” Venus said.

“Probably.” Jake fell silent as N’bel rebuilt his little fort. “Persistent, isn’t he?”

Venus chuckled. “Takes after his grandfather.”

Jake rose to his feet and brushed off the sand. “I think I’ll show him the correct means of skipping rocks,” he said.

Venus set her head back down and closed her eyes behind her sunglasses. The sound of her husband’s voice and that of her son mingled with the sound of the gentle waves, and the distant rumble of passing boats. Carshim’s massive in-land seas weren’t very saline, and were kept clean with almost obsessive vigilance by the world’s casino-boss owners. It felt a bit manufactured to her, but N’bel was having the time of his six years of life, and that was good enough for her.

It had been thirty-four years since the end of the Great Crusade. Jake and Venus had been married for thirteen years now. Twelve years of rulership over Nocturne, ceded to them by Venus’ father Vulkan while he retook leadership of the Salamanders to lead them on the Solar Expansion. It had been six years since she and Jake had brought little N’bel into the world, to the overwhelming support of the entire Royal Family and the populations of Terra and Nocturne alike. He had been the first of the great grandchildren of the Emperor, and though his eyes matched his mother’s endless, radiant red, the rest of his physical appearance was so close to his father’s that Jake had joked it was only a matter of time before they were mistaken for each other over the vox.

He was growing up. No latent psychic talent, Magnus had discreetly informed her, but he had a quick mind and strong, healthy physical development that nobody needed psychic power to see. He was a voracious reader, and so far his favorite hobby was sitting in his father’s lap, listening spellbound as Jake paged through the colossal archive of holos he had taken of Terra before moving to Nocturne.

Venus smiled up into the cloudy sky. She had been a bit hesitant to accept motherhood into her life, despite her words to the contrary to her own mother, Misja. Since N’bel’s birth, however, she had been enjoying nearly every day of it. It wasn’t a series of momentous occasions, like the holos had had her believe. The little things – the joy on N’bel’s face when they took him out for a night of fun in Clymene, the pride she felt when he eagerly displayed his newest alchemic concoction – were nearly as memorable.

The sound of shuffling feet from up the shore caught her ear. A pair of tourists were making their way down to the water. Carshim graciously allowed the members of the Royal family unlimited stay in their luxurious hotels and casinos, thinking that the presence of such classy and important people would increase their draw more than any advertising campaign ever could. They were probably right, too.

The tourists froze dead solid when they spotted Venus’ distinctive appearances. She was idly wondering whether they were going to do something she’d have to make them regret when their hurried conversation reached her ears.

“It’s her! Princess Venus herself!” a man whispered. “I…I can’t, I don’t want to bother her,” he said.

“Just go ask! The worst she can say is no,” the woman said back.

“The worst she can do is sic that Treasury sniper over there on me!” the man said back.

Venus rolled her eyes. He just wanted an autograph. Whatever. If he got close enough to ask, she’d give him one, if not, his own fault for being spineless. She’d certainly signed a ton of shit since she arrived. She was toying with the idea of just flat-out refusing to sign things after a few more days, just to mess with the prices of autographed merchandise on the black market.

She sat up and rolled her shoulders as the two squabbling tourists moved farther down the beach and spread their own blanket. The clouds were growing deeper, she noticed. She didn’t smell rain, but it wasn’t out of the question, either.

Jake knelt at his son’s side and showed him the rock in his palm. “Do you know why this is the best kind of rock for skipping?” he asked.

N’bel thought for a moment. “Because it’s small? So it’s easy to throw?”

“Good answer.” Jake lifted the flat stone and pressed it into his son’s hands. “Now…throw it juuuust above the water’s surface, nice and level.

N’bel chucked the stone. It landed in the water with a *splash*. Jake grinned at his son’s disappointment. “Here. This time,” he said, lifting another. “Watch.” N’bel stared as his father skipped the stone off the waves.

“How did you do that?” N’bel demanded.

Jake picked up a third rock. “The way you throw. Don’t toss it out…” he mimed his son’s throw. “Skip it away.” He drew his arm back and flexed it like he was cracking a whip sideways. The stone skipped twice before slamming into a wave and sinking.

Jake reached down and hefted a spherical stone. “How well do you think this one will skip?” he asked.

“Uh…it’s round, so it would probably skip…” N’bel said. His glimmering red eyes widened as realization struck. “But all of yours were flat!” he said.

“Smart kid,” Jake said fondly. He drew his arm back and skipped the little pebble, and it sank on the first impact. “See? Flat is more important than small.”

“Let me try!” N’bel said, grabbing another flat rock and hurling it out. It skipped once before falling into the waves. “Aw. Why didn’t it work?” N’bel asked.

“Practice!” Jake said. “Here.” Jake grabbed another little rock from the sand. “Try this one.”

N’bel accepted it and threw it, aping his father’s movements. The rock skipped once before an unlucky wave swallowed it whole. N’bel turned a sad face to his father. “It didn’t work!”

“The waves worked against you. Just keep trying. No rocks to skip on Terra!” Jake reminded him. “I learned here.”

“You’ve been here before?” N’bel asked.

“Sure have. Mom and I came here for our honeymoon,” Jake explained.

“What’s a honeymoon?” N’bel asked.

Jake smiled. “It’s what people do after a wedding,” Jake said. “They go have fun for a while before they go live together. We waited a while, though, since I wanted to finish university.”

“I thought you lived with Mom before you got married!” N’bel said.

“I did. But we weren’t Prince and Princess until after that,” Jake said.

N’bel turned back to the water. “So you came here after you got married?”


“Is that when I happened?” N’bel asked, all innocence.

Jake raised his eyebrows a bit. His own brilliant red eyes didn’t glow anywhere near as much as his wife’s or son’s, but they were still utterly inhuman. He had grown to like them, though he toyed with the idea of having them altered to look like they had before the surgery had made him more than he had been. “No, N’bel, you happened many years later,” he said truthfully. “But hey. You hungry? I’m hungry,” he said, dodging that verbal bullet. “Let’s go see if your mom is up for a snack, huh?”

Venus heard the entire exchange and sighed, though she couldn’t suppress a smirk at her husband’s verbal redirection. She sat up as her family approached. “I could go for a snack, sure,” she said, knowing full well that the other two could hear them at that range. N’bel scampered up to her and eagerly showed off the collection of beach glass he had found.

His mother looked down at him with a curious grin. “What do you have there?”

“I found these on the shore! Is it crystal?” N’bel demanded to know, the light from his eyes scattering on the glass.

“Nope.” Venus cocked her head. “Well, technically. It’s just ordinary glass. See how it’s all smooth? That’s because it gets worn down against the rocks and sand.”

“Where’s it from?” N’bel asked.

“People throw garbage over the sides of their boats. This was probably a drink bottle once,” Jake said, walking up behind his son.

“TOO COOL!” N’bel squealed, holding the little glass pieces up to his glowing eyes. They scattered red over the sand. “Can I keep them?”

“Sure, if you find a place for them back home,” Venus said.

“I will!” N’bel promised.

The trio rose to their feet and donned their sandals. Jake packed up the towel and they headed off to the little concession stand at the far end of the sandy beach. As they passed the pair of tourists, the man scrambled to his feet.

The uniformed guard at the end of the long strip of shady sand raised one finger, but a glance from Venus halted him. The man hesitantly approached her as she waved the boys along. “Let me hazard a guess,” Venus said as the tourist approached.

“Get asked to sign things a lot here, do you, your Highness?” the man sheepishly asked. “I don’t mean to intrude.”

“Eh. You get used to it.” Venus took the proffered pen and scribbled her name on the little paper stub the man offered her. “Here you go.”

“Thanks so much, your Highness,” the man said. He probably wasn’t even twenty five years old. The ring on his finger said ‘engagement getaway’ to Venus. “Having a pre-wedding getaway, pal?” she asked.

The man blinked. “Er…yes! How did you know?”

“Just a guess. We had our honeymoon here ourselves,” Venus said idly, hiking up her bag. “Right. Goodbye.”

“Yes, goodbye, and thanks!” the man said, before scurrying back to his companion with the paper stub thrust forward like a trophy.

Venus caught up to the others. “Autograph hunter?” Jake asked.

“Yep.” Venus grabbed some coins from her bag to buy a cup of lemon ice for N’bel.

That evening, as N’bel fell asleep in his room, his parents retired to their own. Jake started up the hot tub and climbed in. “Is this the same suite we had before?” Jake asked.

“Sure is,” Venus said. She pulled her bathing suit back on and clambered in with him. She tugged her hair free of its simple tail and sank into the bubbly water up to her neck. “Mmm…that’s nice,” she said contentedly. Jake switched the water off and let the jets swirl the water about.

“So…day one!” Jake said, squeezing her knee under the water. “N’bel’s having fun.”

Venus slid sideways until she was resting against her husband’s side. “We should show him the islands, that was the best part of the honeymoon,” she pointed out.

He slung his arm behind her shoulder and she squeezed his hand. “Maybe we should,” Jake said quietly. Beyond Venus being only inches from his ear, N’bel’s hearing was nearly as sharp as his mother’s. “Do you want to try tomorrow?”

“Well, I promised to make a quick appearance with Overlord Lysander tomorrow evening, but after that, sure, we’re here for four months.” Venus closed her eyes and slid her hand over the one Jake was resting on her shoulder. “I forgot how nice the beaches are here.”

Jake leaned his head on hers and closed his eyes two. The Prince and Princess sat in the tub for a while, just letting the faint sound of the water jets fill the room. At length, Venus let the light from her eyes flood the water with red again. “So…what do you want to do with him tomorrow?” she asked.

“We can decide tomorrow,” Jake said softly. Venus glanced to the side to see his lips curled in a faint grin.

Venus smiled back. “Do you have something else in mind for tonight?” she asked innocently.

Jake opened his eyes and gestured broadly. “You bet.” He flicked the fingers on the hand he had draped over his wife’s back and her bikini top fell away. She tilted her head to the side and accepted Jake’s hungry kiss, as his other hand slid up her leg to her crotch and pulled the rest of her suit away. “Fuck, you feel good,” Jake growled, palming her warm, firm breasts.

Venus pulled his swim trunks away and ran an approving hand over his shaft. “You know…somehow, I don’t think I ever really appreciated how hung you are as a girl,” she murmured.

Jake grinned proudly as he reached out of the tub to grab a condom from his pants pocket. “Not like you had others to compare it to.”

“True, but a few minutes on the net proved illuminating,” Venus giggled. She rose from her seat on the tub bottom as Jake let out a bit of water. She took the rubber ring from his hands and slid it down over him. “There…” she let her hands fall away and leaned up, biting her lip with a sultry grin. “Ready for me?”

As his wave crested, he slumped back against the marble wall of the tub, smiling happily at her from millimeters away. “…Outstanding, baby,” he murmured, pecking her on the lips.

She followed him back, resting her head on his shoulder. She leaned her forehead on the stone side and whispered softly in his ear. “Any time, Jake, trust me.”

After the glow faded, Jake awkwardly extracted himself, tossed the condom, and dried up a bit. Venus, her clean-up simpler, was already curled up in bed when Jake wobbled out of the bathroom. He flopped down next to her on the massive mattress and immediately started raining playful little kisses on her shoulder.

Venus giggled tiredly. “What’re you up to?”

“Nothing.” Jake lingered on her neck, tracing his tongue along her ear line. “Just feeling great.”

“Mmm.” Venus watched his dark brown hair bob over her head as he moved up her face to her lips, and planted a slow, satisfied kiss. “Remember when we tried that technique first?” she asked with a faint laugh.

Jake groaned as the memory returned. “Fuck, I nearly broke my arm on the stone. You were laughing so hard we had to stop.”

“Well, I’m happy to report that you did much, much better this time,” she said happily, sliding a warm hand over his stomach.

He grinned and sank down on his side next to her. “I didn’t feel you come.”

“I didn’t. It’s always good when you’re really taking the initiative, though,” she said. His hand moved down to the neat little arrow of black fuzz over her clit, but she paused him with a request.

“No, thanks, baby, I’m not there. It’s okay…we have a while,” she reminded him coyly. His eyes slipped shut as he leaned in for one last kiss.

“All right. Night, baby.” He settled down on the mattress. “Remember when your body temperature was so high we couldn’t do this?” he asked, indicating the few inches between them with a wave of his hand.

Venus snorted. “It still is high, you’re just warmer too.”

“True.” Jake yawned. “…Hope N’bel didn’t hear us.”

“He did, I’m sure, but with any luck he has no idea what we were doing,” Venus laughed.

“…He did ask if he ‘happened’ while we were here the first time…” Jake recalled with trepidation.

Venus’ eyebrows rose. “Oh. Right.” She paused. “Eh. We’ll see.”

Jake rose from the bed and silently moved to N’bel’s door. He pressed his ear to the wood panel and listened.

His son was sound asleep, his breaths slow and shallow, his heartbeat steady.

Jake sighed in relief and made the classic ‘sleeping like a baby’ gesture to his wife. She nodded and closed her eyes as Jake padded back to the bed. “All’s well,” he reported.

“Good.” Venus said sleepily. Jake slipped on next to her and closed his eyes, and she idly listened as his biorhythm slowed into the quiet of sleep.

The following morning, Jake was sitting on a small rise of sand overlooking the endless blue of the sea. His son was down in the surf, continuing his hydrodynamics experiment. Venus was out in the placid water, swimming back and forth between two rubber buoys the casino put out. Jake himself was watching the little waves lap at the sand and rock, just enjoying the sun on his skin.

A faint shuffling noise behind him drew his ear, and he looked over to see a woman in her early thirties walking up to him with a bag in her hand. The thick shirt she had stretched over her ample belly was decorated in a motif that said ‘hormonal purchase’ to Jake’s eyes. A pregnancy shirt, perhaps?

Yelling from the beach drew his attention. Venus was splashing up to the shore where N’bel was building his sandcastle, and N’bel was furiously blocking his mother’s waves, protecting his fortress with his body. Venus crouched down behind him and menacingly filled a bucket with water, as N’bel watched with terrified eyes. Odd how he had gotten so much better at reading emotions in those glowing red eyes after his had started to resemble them; it’s not like he could see his own face.

The pregnant woman, meanwhile, had spread out a blanket on the sands above them, and was gingerly sitting down. She was well on her way, Jake realized, with probably only four months left on her timer.

He realized he was staring and looked away, to where Venus and N’bel had apparently agreed to a non-aggression pact, and were busily building a moat. Venus was explaining how making the edges of the moat deeper than the middle helped with draining, which struck Jake as perhaps a bit advanced for the beginner’s course, but his son was loving it.

A shadow fell over the sands near him. He looked around to see a man he didn’t recognize standing beside the pregnant woman, lowering a cup of something down to her. She took it gratefully, sipping at it through a straw. As the man turned, he made eye contact with Jake. Most people, when they did that, recoiled at the alien sight. Others watched for a moment, distracted or mesmerized by the hypnotic movement of light and darkness around the tiny retina. Even more ignored them in favor of watching his wife’s or son’s utterly startling eyes instead.

This man, however, hesitated, and slowly removed his own sunglasses in surprise. He took a few steps closer, as a few of the Treasury guards at the edge of the beach tensed up. The man muttered something under his breath. “No…fucking way.”

Jake’s memory kicked into motion, spurred on by the man’s voice. The pregnant woman was looking back and forth between him and the man, not seeing what was going on. As Jake looked up at the tourist, his mind finally placed the voice.

“Alex Carlin? What are you doing here?” Jake asked, rising to his feet.

“It…Jake? Is that you?” Alex asked, astonished. The two men crossed the distance and stared at each other. “You…you look like you fell asleep in a tanning bed set to ‘pulsar,’” Alex said, flabbergasted.

“Hah! Alex! It is you!” Jake said, drawing the slightly shorter, but much broader man into a hug. “How the fuck are you?”

“Awesome, actually, yourself?” Alex asked, pulling free. Jake stepped away and looked over his friend from arm’s length.

“I’m good, I’m good…you look like a million credits, compared to the wedding,” Jake said.

“Hah! More, actually,” Alex said with blatant false modesty. “Hell, it’s great to see you again. You here on vacation?”

“Sure am!” Jake said. He glanced over at the woman on the towel.

Alex shook himself. “Right. Vanessa, this is a high school friend of mine, Jacob Seager,” Alex said. Jake walked a few steps closer and held his hand low for her to shake, rather than force her to climb up.

She took and it and shook, then gingerly levered onto her feet anyway. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “You said you went to Imperator?”

“I did,” Jake confirmed. “My family is here on vacation. We’re here for four months, then back home so my son can start grade school. He just turned six.”

“Wow, he’s that old already? Man, all I have is holos,” Alex said, shaking his head.

“Well, shit, if you want to say hi, they’re right over there,” Jake said, jerking a thumb over the rise of sand obscuring his sight of the others.

“Yeah? Think I will. Wonder if she even recognizes me,” Alex chuckled, walking over.

Jake sat down next to the blanket as Vanessa eased back to join him. “So, Vanessa, where are you from?” Jake asked.

“I was born on Shardenus, but I grew up all over. Traders, you know,” she said. She fanned herself with a broad paper fan, adjusting her hat. “Alex and I worked together on Cordeline’s Wake.”

“Cool.” Jake nodded. “My wife and I went to high school with Alex, together.”

“That’s cute.” Vanessa looked over to where her husband was disappearing behind the sand drift, already cupping his hand around his mouth to holler down to Jake’s family. “If you went to high school in the same class, you must have been in the same class as the Royal Daughters.”

“Yep.” Jake felt the opportunity for a prank arising and quashed it. If he was lucky, Venus had already thought of it.

“We ran into Lady Primarch Freya at a dinner last year on a void platform over Dorrmammu,” Vanessa said. “That was quite a reunion.”

Jake chuckled. “I imagine. Did she do the thing where she picks you up?”

“What? No…though she did hug me so hard I bruised,” Vanessa said. “That was a shock.”

Jake laughed. “She didn’t mean anything by it.” He looked over at the sand rise, from behind which Venus’ delighted voice was echoing. “Sounds like Alex found them.”

“Alex! Hahah, come here!” Venus squealed, wrapping her arms tight around the taller man.

Alex did so, fondly hugging her back. “Venus, you look fantastic. How have you been?”

“I’m great…but what are you doing here? Just taking a break?” Venus asked.

“Well…sort of,” Alex said. “Business isn’t as good as it was back when we had low standards, but it’s tolerable. Frankly, I found it hard to work while Vanessa’s expecting,” he said. “I keep dropping what I’m doing to go check on her.”

“You’re married? Wow, good for you!” Venus said. “And you have a baby on the way?”

“Yep. Well, my wife does,” Alex chuckled. He looked down to where N’bel was trying not to be seen behind his mother’s leg. “So…are you Prince N’bel?” he asked, smiling.

“Yes,” N’bel said, somewhat cautiously.

Alex squatted down next to him and stuck out a hand. “My name’s Alex. I went to school with both of your parents,” he said.

N’bel gamely took his hand and shook. Alex grinned. “Wow. You know, I bet you don’t think so yet, but you are just gonna be identical to your dad in a few more years.”

“Everyone says that!” N’bel grumbled. His radiant eyes painted Alex’s face red as the much older man smiled knowingly.

“Well, sorry, kid. How old are you now?”

“Six Standard, four Nocturnean,” N’bel said proudly.

“Wow. Time flies,” Alex said. He stood up and gestured over his shoulder. “Want to meet Vanessa?”

“Sure,” Venus said. She paused to slip her sandals back on and followed him over the rise.

Vanessa was applying sunscreen to her arms when Alex came back with Venus and N’bel in tow. Jake watched with a hidden grin as she slowed, a few puzzle pieces falling into place. She looked over at him.

Jake shrugged. “We’re just civilians here. And N’bel and I both dislike formalities among friends. Strongly.” He winked.

She shook her head and set down the squeeze bottle. “Alex sure has had interesting friends.”

“He’s lucky that way,” Jake said drily. Venus walked right up to Vanessa and crouched down.

“Hello…Vanessa, yes? Pleasure to meet you,” she said, casting a knowing glance at Vanessa’s stomach as she did. “I’m Venus.”

“Hello, Princess…Venus. Sorry.” Vanessa shook the proffered hand, though she didn’t manage to conceal her flinch at the warmth of it. “And…you must be N’bel,” she said, stumbling a bit on the very non-Gothic name.

“Yes, hi,” N’bel said. He looked at the two Rogue Traders and cocked his head, but didn’t ask anything.

Venus sensed her son’s entirely reasonable desire. “N’bel, if you want to go rebuilt the fort, do so,” she said in Nocturnean.

N’bel took off for his crumbling sandcastle, leaving Vanessa stunned at his speed. With his genehanced muscle, he was easily as fast as a career track and field athlete, at six years old. Alex nodded at the display. “That takes me back.”

“I know, right?” Jake clapped his friend on the back. “How’s the business?”

“Eh. We’re not robbing graves any longer, so that’s something, but our profit factor is…unenthusiastic now,” Alex said. “I mean, shit, who am I to complain, but still.” He sat down on the towel as the Nocturneans settled down on the sand beside it. “Things are improving now that the new Solar worlds are calming down. Lots of call for haulers. We’ve taken to buying cheap freighters, hiring Navigators from the Rogue houses, and sending them to haul along the new colony routes for pennies. Not making any money now, but give it ten years and we’re the only ones already working the new lines when they open for general trade,” Alex said.

“Crafty,” Venus said.

“Yep. And it doesn’t smell like tombs. The older Navigators hate that we’re willing to hire exiles, but screw ‘em. They’re not the ones getting their hands dirty.” Alex chuckled. “How about you two? What have you been up to?”

“Well, getting settled on Terra and Nocturne, of course, but I’ve been getting my way into the Nocturnean leadership roles I’m expected to fulfill, too,” Venus said. “I didn’t realize just how much No’dan was actually doing.”

“Did he retire from active duty when you claimed your throne?” Alex asked.

Venus shook her head. “No, he simply rejoined the Fire Drakes as a field commander. We built a home in Themis.”

“Cool.” Alex nodded. “We technically have a home on Hernreith, but I don’t think we get back there more than once every other year.”

“We also have a house on Terra that we stay in when we’re home, but I think when N’bel is old enough to go to high school, we’ll send him to Imperator,” Jake said. “Nothing against Nocturnean high schools, but it’s the best school in the galaxy for political families.”

“Yeah, it was pretty great.” Alex leaned forward over crossed legs. “So, N’bel, that’s a Nocturnean name. Is it a family name?”

“My father’s adoptive father,” Venus supplied. “A tribal blacksmith.”

“Hmm. Think N’bel will want to learn smithing when he’s older?” Alex asked.

“‘When he’s older?’” Jake chuckled.

Alex blinked. “He’s six.”

“He’s a Primarch’s blood. He can already handle simple welding tools,” Venus said. “He insisted. I was so proud,” she said with a smile.

Vanessa shook her head. “That sounds really dangerous.”

“It is. But he’s careful, and smithing is the oldest and most sacred art on Nocturne,” Venus said. “And I’m always in the room with him.”

Vanessa shrugged, unwilling to argue the point. “If you say so, ma’am.”

Venus uncrossed her legs and lay down on her back, letting the sun soak into her night-black skin through her rust-colored swimsuit. “Mmm…you two been here long?”

“Yesterday,” Alex supplied. “We’re here for about a month and a half.”

“Nice, isn’t it? You know, we went on our honeymoon out here,” Venus said. “It’s a great place to unwind.”

“Is it? Never been before,” Alex said.

“We’re here the next four months,” Jake said. “Then we go home to send N’bel off to first level school. Then I go back to getting the way at the Castle,” he grumbled.

“Oh, hush, you’re not that bad,” Venus scolded.

“What do you mean?” Alex asked.

“I always feel like I’m getting in the way of the professionals when I’m in the Castle in Themis. Like the PDF guys are worse off for my being there,” Jake said with a sigh. “I mostly just stick in the Royal Quarters now.”

“Well, that’s silly. Trust me, the military on Nocturne has no problem telling people when they’re in the way,” Venus said.

“I guess.” Jake glanced over at the Rogue Traders. “How do you two handle security on your ships and such? Mercenaries?”

“Lifer mercs and crew offspring,” Vanessa said. “Mostly. Some ex-Navy, too. The background screening on most group hires is pretty heavy, but we have to prevent problems from within.”

“So I imagine,” Venus said. “The issue being attempted infiltrations?”

“Yeah. It happens. Gotta keep sharp,” Alex said.

“Who’s running your organization while you’re here?” Jake asked.

“We have a group of adjutants. And they can always contact us by the Astropath on the ship if they need to,” Alex said.

N’bel knelt on the sand at the water’s edge and felt the water run through his fingers. It felt like any other kind of water, except it was sort of grainy. Was it the sand getting disturbed or the salt in the water? He couldn’t tell. He tasted the water on the tip of his finger and made a face. “Ugh. Too salty.”

The wind was dying down, and the tide was falling too. He grabbed a small pebble from the sand and stuck it in the sand just above where the waves were washing up, and lay down in the sand next to it to watch. The water licked up on the tiny stone, pulling a few grains of sand it has just pushed up back into the sea, and partially burying the stone…then another wave washed it clean.

He retrieved it and let it roll down his palm, though its asymmetric shape prevented it from rolling off completely. He cradled the stone as he rose to his feet. He glanced over the calming water and drew his hand back, hucking the rock as far as he could.

Some fifty meters away, the little stone splashed down. N’bel smiled. “Hah. I can finally out-throw Dad.”

He turned back to where his parents were sitting. Mom was lying next to the pregnant lady, while Dad was talking loudly with the man he didn’t know, Alex, about something to do with Navigators and pay scales. He sighed. That was so boring. They were on a beach with real oceans! Why did they just want to talk? He wandered back up to where they had dropped their stuff and grabbed his sunglasses, turning them over in his hands. With his eyes – Mom called them superhuman, but he didn’t feel like they gave him powers – he could see things normal people couldn’t. At least, Dad said they could. He said he, Dad, was born with normal eyes, but the Emperor had given him better ones, ones you usually had to pay the Mechanicum to get.

He slid the glasses on and put his hands in the pockets of his swim trunks, walking back down below the rise to the water. He wasn’t supposed to go in the water when Mom or Dad weren’t there, just like the pool back home, and he could kinda understand why: it got pretty deep in a real ocean.

The water’s glimmer vanished behind his glasses, and he crouched at the water’s edge again, staring into the deep blue mass. His eyes followed some tiny fish through the polarized lenses, and he felt a funny sense of longing. The oceans back home were just too acidic for swimming. The pool was great, but he sensed that this was something special, something he wouldn’t get to see too much. He resolved to make the most of it.

Venus laughed as Alex finished his story. “I can’t imagine operating a void platform for profit. Overhead would just be so damn high…”

“It’s a bitch, yeah, but you gotta recognize a niche market. When you control the market, you control the pricing on both ends. Vertical control, and all that,” Alex said with a grin. “I’m trying to be nice, though, I know pricing on atmo controls on the station was so low before I bought it because they basically cut corners in payroll and safety wherever they could. I had to cut a thin margin out, trying not to let the whole station fall apart during the transfer.”

“Where’s N’bel?” Jake suddenly asked. He rose to his feet and looked around. “Oh…there he is.” He held his hand over his eyes and watched as his son wandered down the beach, hands in his pockets, just kicking rocks into the water. “What’s the region the guards have staked?” he asked his wife over his shoulder.

“Two hundred meters gold, four hundred green,” Venus said. Gold being the area the guards had under total lockdown as far as any sniper setups would go, green being an area under near-total control but with no guarantees.

“All right, he’s fine,” Jake said. “He’s just out for a stroll.”

Venus looked away from her husband over to Vanessa’s swelling tummy. “So…little guy or little girl on the way?” she asked.

“Girl. We haven’t picked a name,” Vanessa said. She rubbed her stomach. “I’ll take a year off when it happens, then stay at home long enough to get a sense of school options…but we’ll probably just hire some private tutors for the first several grades.”

“Might send her off to Imperator?” Jake asked as he returned.

“Doubtful. It’s not a boarding school,” Alex pointed out. He reverently caressed his wife’s hand over her belly and smiled happily. “Either way…I’m looking forward to it.”

“It’s an adventure, certainly,” Jake said. “The first nine months…seven if you’re lucky, they’re the hard ones. After that though…there’s this process of re-constitution, where they stop being this hot lump of shit and start being an actual person,” he said. “You never forget it.”

“‘Hot lump of shit?’” Alex asked, eyebrows raised.

“Human babies produce more shit per minute than an entire herd of grox. True science fact,” Jake said solemnly. Venus laughed.

N’bel ambled down the yellow sands to a little depression in the ground, heading down to the water. He stared into it, his mind piecing things together. The trench looked artificial, he realized, looking up towards the dry end. He could see the faint marks of tools up there; shovels and hands. It got blurrier as it went below the level where there wasn’t any beach debris scattered around, until it was just a smooth curve in the sand where the water started. So…someone had dug a trench, left it there overnight, and it had eroded when the tide came in. He nodded in satisfaction. Mystery solved.

He glanced from side to side. Nobody was on this stretch of beach. He hopped down into the little trench and sat on the packed sand, planting his hands on the sides like armrests in a chair.

In an instant, he was sitting in the cockpit of a Lightning Harbinger. He raced over the hills that the waves before him had become, glancing at a phantom ground-effect radar every few moments as he did. The Hrud menace was lurking around somewhere, and he meant to find them.

Chatter came in from the invisible radio beside him. He looked over and frowned. The sand was blank, unfeatured. He paused his mental simulation and scratched a few little buttons and knobs in the sand to represent radio controls. Much better.

He returned to his flight, soaring over the barren glacial hills of the unnamed world below, following an orbital feed on his target.

N’bel blinked. Wait. Harbingers were for intercepting torpedoes. Which Lightning model was ground attack? He thought for a moment…was it the Lightning Strike? Or the Lightning Storm?

He shrugged. Whatever. It still had two wing-mount lascannons. He resumed, fingers tightening on invisible firing studs as the bendies came into range. In an instant, he pulled up, missiles away.

The Strike! That was it. Two lascannons, six Hellfuries. The Hellfuries raced down, their airburst warheads scattering phosphoric doom on the hapless Hrud.

“What are you doing down there?” a voice asked.

N’bel glanced over his shoulder. A girl he didn’t recognize was standing over him in the trench, staring down at him.

“At the moment? Vaporizing a Hrud pack,” N’bel joked.

The girl seemed unfazed. “What’s Hrud?” she asked. She looked about his age, but she had skin the color of that strange citrus candy Mom liked.

“Aliens.” N’bel stood up in the trench. “What’s your name?”

“Michalina,” the girl said. She was staring at his skin. N’bel, who was slowly growing used to that, stifled his impatience. At least she wasn’t staring at his eyes. “Who are you?”

“N’bel,” he offered. He wondered how she would react if she knew who his great grandfather was, and resolved to keep that one in reserve for select trolling later if the need arose.

“Bell?” she asked.

“No, N’bel,” he corrected. “Pronounce it like there’s a silent ‘a’ in there.”

“N…N’bel,” she managed.

“There you go.” He crossed his arms over his chest. She was shorter than his four foot one, but then he was tall for his age. Apparently Dad had been too. “Where are you from?” he asked.

“Kolscyky,” she said. He knew the name, a massively underpopulated mining world in Obscurus somewhere. Grandpa Vulkan had conquered it in the Crusade’s final century.

“That’s…uh, Obscurus, isn’t it?” he asked casually. She nodded, surprised. He beamed in delight at her acknowledgement. “I’m from Nocturne,” he said.

“The Salamander homeworld?” Michalina asked. “Cool. Is it really a Death World?”

“If you’re not careful,” N’bel joked. She didn’t seem to get it.

“What is it like, growing up on a Space Marine world?” she asked.

He shrugged. “It’s interesting. The Salamanders are pretty easy to talk to,” he said, not adding that that was the case because he was technically related to all of them. “But it’s not a very safe world. The volcanoes are everywhere. Whole villages get wiped out every fifteen years.”

“What? Why?” Michalina asked.

“Because our moon is so huge, it causes tidal earthquakes when it gets too close in its orbit,” N’bel explained.

The girl looked at him funny. “The moon doesn’t cause tides.”

“Sure it does,” N’bel said. “Its gravity is strong enough to pull water up to it. That’s high tide. Low tide is when it’s on the other side. On Nocturne, the moon is so strong it can pull lava around too.”

N’bel was starting to really enjoy the look of awe on her face. “How do you know all this stuff?” she asked.

He shrugged, awash with six-year-old modesty. “You just kinda learn.”

Vanessa struggled to her feet with her husband’s help. “I’ll be right back,” she said, wobbling over to the restroom at the top of the beach.

Alex watched her go with a wistful grin. “Five months pregnant, and still the cutest little butt I ever saw,” he said.

Jake chuckled. “What’s her story?”

“She was working for one of my dad’s less profitable branches a while back. When I liquidated it, I had her team transferred to one of my other departments. We met and, well…here we are,” Alex said. “I love her to pieces. And she took meeting Freya really well,” he added.

“Oh, she did, huh? Well, I’m glad you could find someone, too, Alex,” Venus said, smiling up at him from the sand.

“Yeah. I had a few flings after I got my shit straightened out, but Vanessa was the only girl who actually cared about me, and didn’t just want to hang off my dick or my wallet,” Alex sighed, in the voice of the long-suffering.

“Uh huh,” Jake said drily.

“Well, that, and she actually likes tagging along on my crazy acquisitions trips,” he said. “I can see why the life of a piratical Rogue Trader appeals to so many people, but that’s not me. I’m perfectly happy plying the well-travelled trade lanes and making twice what those glory-hounds make.”

“Probably for the best,” Venus said. “Otherwise you couldn’t take a month off and go for a vacation.”

“Yeah. Was Freya okay, by the way? Her own childbirth? She was only one month in, when I saw her last year,” Alex said.

“She’s fine. The baby was a boy, Thangir named him after his own father, Olev. Freya went along with it because she liked that it anagrams to ‘love,’ in Gothic,” Venus giggled. “He’s a cutie. His hair and eyes are a dead match for Uncle Leman. Ever see a ten-foot tall killing machine turn to protoplasm? Let Leman Russ hold a baby with his eyes.”

N’bel stomped the last of the grooves in the trench flat and placed the plastic sheet they had dragged from Michalina’s family’s dump site over it, pinning it down with rocks. He stood at the top and nodded. “All right, now for the water.” Michalina dumped the bucket of mixed water and suntan lotion they had labored to create – when her parents weren’t looking, of course – over the sheet to create their very own water slide.

“Yay! It’s ready!” Michalina said, clapping her hands together.

“Moment of truth,” N’bel said, and launched himself feet-first down the trench. The air rushed by as he slid down the impromptu slide and skidded into the water in a tangle.

He surfaced, blowing water out of his nose and laughing his ass off. “Success!” he shouted, waving at where the girl was standing at the top.

She gingerly sat at the top and pushed herself down, and he scrambled out of the way as she splashed into the water. He doubled over laughing as she came up in the surf, wiping salt water out of her eyes. “Excellent!” he said through peals of laughter. “My best invention yet!”

He climbed back up to the top of the three meter slide and launched himself down, glad he had put his glasses on their strap before putting them on. He cannoned into the water again, launching white spray high.

Venus observed the spectacle at a distance. “What in the hell is he even doing?” she asked aloud. She watched as he vanished into the sand rise and surfaced, soaking wet, several seconds later.

“Want me to go check it out?” Jake asked.

“Please,” she said. Jake rose to his feet and walked over, though he was mindful of the fact that the snipers he had watching his son would have acted if there was a real threat to his life.

N’bel watched his father approach out of the corner of his eye, a sinking feeling forming in his stomach. He wasn’t really ‘swimming,’ per se, but he may well have been violating the spirit of the law, if not the letter.

With the mental equivalent of a shrug, he turned back to his slide and propelled himself down again, splashing into the water. His suit was riding up a bit, but other than that, it was the best time he’d had since arrival.

Michalina raced past him as he reached the top, where his father was standing with his hands on his hips. N’bel paused in front of him, feeling like he was in for a lecture at best.

Jake looked down at the sandy deathtrap the boy and his friend had created. He looked back at where the pair of Salamander Legionary auxiliary snipers were concealed, over to where his wife was chatting with Alex and the newly freshened Vanessa, and over at where a pair of middle-aged people he assumed were the little girl’s parents were sunbathing.

He looked back down at his son and sighed, all mock reluctance he knew his son could see right through. “Carry on.”

“Hahahah! Thanks, Dad, you’re the best,” N’bel proclaimed, then threw himself down the tunnel again. Jake gave the A-OK signal to Venus and sat down to watch the display.

Michalina surfaced with a cough. That last one had sent some saltwater down her throat.

N’bel paused before he went down, himself. “You all right?” he asked.

“Ugh, yeah, I just swallowed some seawater,” she said.

He shrugged. “Okay,” he said, and launched himself down again.

Michalina sank to her haunches and coughed up the water, wiping her mouth. “Gross.” She looked over at where Jake was observing his son splash about in the water, trying to get to his feet. “Are you N’bel’s dad?” she asked.

“Yep. Jake’s my name.” Jake smiled at her behind his own shades. “Do you think we look alike?” he asked innocently.

“Yes, you do look like him,” she said, just in time for N’bel to come within hearing range.

N’bel glared molten daggers at his father, who had to clamp a hand over his mouth to hold in his gleeful snigger. He had felt the same way about being compared to his father at that age too. N’bel stomped up to the others and grimaced angrily, before sliding back down again in silence.

He splashed into the water once more, and just as he was standing, he slipped on the sand, falling flat on his back.

“You okay, son?” Jake called from above.

N’bel blew his nose into the surf, blinking back the sunlight. “Y-yeah, just slipped,” he said. He felt something tap against his foot and looked down, to see his sunglasses floating in the water. “Oops.”

He scooped them up and slid them back on as he turned to climb back up. Above, Michalina’s eyes went wide. As he reached them, she stopped his progress. “Wait…N’bel, can you take those off again?” she asked.

He blinked, but pulled his glasses free. She gaped at his completely inhuman eyes: solid orbs of burning, bright red light, with no iris, corneal coloration, or retina. “W-wow…does that hurt?” she asked.

“Hurt? What? My eyes? No, they’ve always been like that,” N’bel shrugged.

She stared into the featureless red spheres. N’bel sighed under his breath, but didn’t look away. “They’re really pretty,” Michalina said.

Jake hid a smile as N’bel flushed. “Pretty? Better than ugly, I’ve had people say that before they knew who I was,” he grumbled.

“Who you are?” she asked, suspicious.

He shook his head, chagrined. “Never mind.” He launched himself down the slide without another word, leaving his father to scoop up the glasses.

Michalina glanced sideways at Jake before turning away. Jake smiled. “It’s all right,” he said, pulling his glasses down the bridge of his nose. She peeked over to see that his own eyes were quite different. They were the same color, but they weren’t glowing at all, and the irises were swirling circles of patterned red, constantly shifting and changing, while the rest of his eyes were completely normal. “Our family just looks this way.”

“Oh.” She looked a moment longer before sliding down the waterslide again.

Jake allowed himself another smile. N’bel, for all his disquiet around adult strangers, shared his paternal grandmother’s talent at instantly making friends.

Michalina climbed up to the top again, and noted in surprise that her mother was nearly running over to her. She paused before she could get back in the slide, panting from exertion.

N’bel clambered back up behind her, staring at the delay. “What’s up?” he asked, not even a little out of breath.

“Mom’s mad,” she said. Her mother came to a halt right next to her.

“Michalina, we’re leaving,” she said angrily.

She wilted. “But Mom, this is a lot of fun!”

“You can use the slide in the pool, but we’re not staying here!” the woman insisted.

Jake rose to his feet. “Is there a reason you’re yelling in front of the kids, ma’am?” he asked.

“You be quiet!” the woman snapped. She reached out for her daughter’s hand, and the girl hung her head, starting to trudge away from her newfound friend.

To Jake’s surprise, N’bel spoke up. “You forgot your tarp,” he said, grabbing the plastic sheet with one hand and ripping it free with a single tug. The woman recoiled from the display of strength, but shook it off and accepted the sheet with a look of disgust. “Michalina, you wanted to know who I am, right?” he asked loudly. The girl hesitated as her mother grabbed her hand. “I’m Lord Vulkan’s grandson,” he said, glaring up at the woman pulling his new friend away.

Both of the paler females looked over at him. Michalina’s face remained puzzled, while the other woman just stared, aghast. Jake smiled proudly, standing back to let his son direct the show. N’bel looked up at his father. “Dad, do you have a pen on you?”

“A pen? No,” Jake said.

“Mmm.” N’bel walked up to Michalina and gave her a quick hug before marching straight back to where his mother was waiting for him.

“…Why was his skin so hot?” Michalina asked, clearly very confused by all of it.

“It’s how the Emperor made him,” Jake said, and he turned to follow his son.

Venus smiled at N’bel as he unceremoniously dropped down on the sand next to her. “You made a friend.”

“Yeah, and her mom was mean to her,” N’bel grumbled.

“Well, some humans don’t like people who look like mutants,” Venus said. “She’s just narrow-minded.”

N’bel sighed, sadness replacing anger. “Why do people do that? If they know who I am, they grovel or…or…what’s the word?”

“Patronize,” Jake said, crouching behind his son and passing him his glasses.

“Yeah, patronize. And if they don’t, they treat me like a heretic,” N’bel sighed.

“Because some people replace common sense and the love of their fellow humans with two things called ‘vitriol’ and ‘haughtiness,’ things you don’t have,” Venus said. She slid her own sunglasses off and stared into her son’s eyes with her own identical red gaze. She smiled gently. “You know we both love you very much, right?”

“Yeah, I know, Mom,” he grumbled awkwardly.

“I thought you were really brave, just walking up to that girl and hugging her,” Jake said slyly.

“Can we pretend I didn’t do that?” N’bel said, blushing again.

Alex and Jake both laughed as Venus smiled conspiratorially. “I promise,” she said.

N’bel sighed again. “All right.” He struggled to his feet. “I think I’m just gonna go back to the hotel and get dry,” he said. “Can I go?”

“Sure, if Dad goes with you,” Venus said. “You know the way?”

“Yeah, it’s just down the street,” he said.

“All right.” N’bel waved awkwardly to Alex and Vanessa as Jake led him back up the sandy beach.

Vanessa propped herself up with an effort. “Smart kid,” she said.

“He certainly is,” Venus said happily. She sank back down on the sand and brushed her hair out of the way. “Takes after his grandfathers. Both of them.”

N’bel slid his sandals on at the top of the beach and walked up the road with his towel slung over his shoulder, staring at the concrete path. He was lost in thought, turning over what had happened in his mind until his stomach grumbled in discontentment. His father heard, but let him keep his silence. The two of them reached the hotel and entered the spacious lobby, where N’bel ducked into a bathroom to slide his shirt on before ascending the elevator to the penthouse.

The beach-side lobby was a riot of activity, with many of the tourists just passing through on their way to the luxurious casinos and theaters, or porting baggage carts worth of clothes and suitcases up to counters for check-ins. Jake noted Michalina and her parents near one of the lifts out of the corner of his eye.

As N’bel emerged, Jake diverted him. “N’bel, what did you want a pen for, before?” he asked.

“I wanted to give Michalina my autograph, since she was nice enough not to ask for it,” he said. He scoffed. “It sounds stupid when I say it aloud.”

Jake nicked a note pad and a pen from the little refreshment station and map kiosk next to them. He passed the pad to his son. “Quick, write your name in Nocturnean,” he said.

N’bel stared, but did as he was told. Jake ripped the note free and jogged over to where the girl and her parents were still waiting. “Michalina,” he said as he approached.

The little brown-haired girl turned around and stared as her parents tensed up. Jake quickly passed her the note. “N’bel wanted you to have that, call it a souvenir,” he said. “It’s his name in Nocturnean.”

“Uh, thanks, sir,” she said, accepting the note. Jake didn’t linger, instead walking back to his son, who was watching, bemused.

“Why did you just do that?” he asked.

Jake grinned. “It was a nice thing for you to do, that’s all.”

Life Goes On[edit]

Ela Whitefist leaned back against the shattered wall of thatch and stone behind him, feeling his life drain into the snow at his feet. The battle was over. His people had won. And now, he was going to die.

It wasn’t a hard guess to make, mortality. Life on Fenris was short and violent. Rare were the souls that lived past forty. Ela glanced down at the gaping hole in his stomach, through which his intestines were clearly visible, and noted that he wasn’t even going to make it to twenty.

Oh well. He had tasted fine wine, bedded fine women, won a glorious battle against his clan’s enemies, and unless he was very much mistaken (he hoped he wasn’t), impressed the gods themselves. Even at that moment, two were watching him.

Their fiery chariot had descended from above to observe the battle, between the Whitefists and the Dragonsons. The battle had frozen at a halt when they had arrived, with combatants on each side making the sign of the All-Father in reverent awe. The chariot had circled above them, leaking fire from massive engines. Then, to the shock of all watching, two massive men with the heads of wolves, armor of metal, and talismaned weapons fell from the sky and landed in their midst. The warriors of the Whitefists had frozen stock-still, gaping at them, while the attacking Dragonsons had faltered, staring in shock and glee. The Choosers were with them, now.

The Dragonsons had fallen back to their boats to fetch more weapons, while the Whitefists had packed their daughters and wives off to the hills of the little island, to spare them from the carnage. It wouldn’t make a difference, of course, the Dragonsons would just enslave them if they won even if they did have to find them first. Still, the chance to earn a place in the halls of the Kings on Asaheim itself was worth a momentary distraction.

Ela had fought like a man possessed in the battle. His spear was slick with blood, and other, darker fluids. The elaborate tattoo on his arm was ripped clean off, along with some of the arm itself, taken by the axes of the Dragonsons’ chieftain. Ela had let himself fall forward after the injury, and driven his spear up into the taller man’s stomach, pulling it out with his spearhead. A worthy end, to be sure, but an end.

The bedraggled nineteen-year-old had fallen to his knees in a pool of his own blood. The women and children were coming back, now, keeping reverent distances from the silent Choosers even as they wept over the broken bodies of sons and husbands.

A child – not his – ran up to him and squeezed his shoulder, pale and blanching. “Ela! What happened?”

“I died, child,” Ela managed, collapsing against the wall with a groan of agony. “Go and get the others.”

The child scampered off, casting worried looks over his shoulder as he did. The Chooser nearest Ela stepped aside to let him pass, staring at the carnage with dead eyes behind his helm.

Ela felt anger stir in what was left of his stomach as he looked on the massive man. Was this not enough? Was the death of the entire Dragonsons and half of the Whitefists not enough? Had none been found worthy?

A stirring of cloth behind the giant Chooser caught his eyes as he sank back on the ground. A figure in a cloak of pelt and fabric appeared from where the chariot had set down on the distant hill. The figure moved over the ground with grace that bespoke incredible strength, like the Choosers, but also restraint. As the figure walked up behind the Choosers, it paused, and seemed to be looking over the battlefield from within its hood.

One Chooser paused beside the body of a fallen warrior, too mangled to recognize. With the press of a gauntleted finger to the body’s neck, the Chooser rose, then walked up to one of the Dragonsons that had died late in the fighting. That one Ela DID know: one of their Clanguards, a warrior of great skill who had managed to take Ela’s brother down with him.

Ela’s teeth ground together as the possibility that that…BUTCHER would be given the honor of ascension! The spearman tried to rise, but the unthinkable agony – and more worryingly, growing numbness – from his crippled stomach brought him back down with a muted scream of pain.

The eyes of the Choosers were on him in a moment. The lithe figure in the cloak seemed to pause what it was doing, as well. Slowly, the figure walked up to him, its eyes inscrutable in the darkness of the hood. As it reached Ela, it knelt, hiking its cloak up to keep the pelt from dipping into the blood pools.

“Have you a name, fighter?” a soft voice from within asked. A woman’s voice?

“Ela…Whitefist…son of…Kaer Whitefist…” he managed.

A hand in a delicate leather glove emerged from the folds of the cloak, and another tugged the glove free. The hand freed from the doeskin was undeniably that of a woman, too, and a young one. The hand travelled up to Ela’s shoulder, and gripped it with a strength that would have hurt like a bastard if he were in better shape to feel it.

“ many Dragons did you kill today, Ela Whitefist?” the voice asked, contemplatively.

“…Seven…eight,” Ela replied, gasping for air. His soul was slipping away into hell and he was being quizzed on killing by a woman with no face? What was this?

“And so I observed,” the voice said, this time with a faint note of approval. Had she expected some other answer?

“What…did you…think I’d…say?” he managed.

“More. Men feel the strangest need to exaggerate their accomplishments in the face of death, as if they had anything left to prove,” the woman said. “But death in honest battle is the highest honor, anyway.” She slid the glove back on and sank to sit on her ankles. “I know what awaits us after death in battle, Ela Whitefist. Shall I tell you? Or would you find out firsthand?” she asked, her voice soft and growing harsh.

“…I would…know…so I have…no fear…” he said after a moment.

The figure nodded, and this time there was open approval. The woman reached back her hand to pull free her hood-

Ela felt the pain in his guts fade a little at the sight. She was…without a doubt…the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his entire life. Magnificent rolls of clean, braided red hair spilled from around a youthful, healthy face, with glorious, wide eyes of an inhuman green set in in the middle like gemstones. Her face was angelic, sculpted. Was she a Valkyrie? One of the spirits who ferried the greatest fallen warriors to a rousing, triumphal eternity?

The cloak was fastened below her collarbone, and her red hair flowed out over the soft fabric of her cloak to hang over the blood-drenched ground. Her red lips were turned in a slight smile, behind which two small, pointed fangs were visible. She was of their blood? She was a Chooser as well, an immortal scion of King Russ?

“When one dies in battle, their soul falls from the body, into the roiling stuff of the Warp, from which all souls come,” the beautiful young woman said. “This you know. After all, it was across the seas of the Warp that Father Russ came to this world. After a time, most souls fall into the formless darkness of space in rest, and return to the things from which the universe is made. No pain, no fear, no lust, no love or hate. Just a dreamless sleep.” She smiled again, her fangs glinting in the blue light. “Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?”

“…I…suppose not…” Ela admitted.

The beautiful woman grabbed his spear, fallen from numbing hands. “Swing this at me.”

He stared. “What?”

The woman stood, crossing her arms. “Swing it at me. Now.”

Ela gripped the wooden haft, searching for a trap in her words, but finding none. He swung the gory weapon at her legs, and she effortlessly leaped the clumsy arc. “Hmph. Not much to speak of,” she said dismissively.

Ela felt his anger and fear surge through him, even as his imminent death fought to pull feeling from his arms. He swung the spear again, and again she jumped it. He made to swing again when the darkness flooding in at the corners of his eyes overwhelmed him, and he collapsed backwards, unconscious.

Freya Russ watched the spearman fall, her mind working idly. “Hmm. Argun, what do you think?” she asked.

“He has fire, certainly,” the Wolf Priest said, staring at the body. “Bit old.”

Freya nodded. “Yep. Think he deserves a shot?”

“I think so, yes. He took on those men two at a time, and only went down when the fight was over,” the Wolf Priest replied, in Gothic. Their words were not for the wounded.

“I like him. He wanted to know more about death for the sake of facing it without fear,” Freya said. “He’ll face his training head-on.”

“Sure.” Argun nodded, lifting the blood-slicked spear from the ground beside the fallen fighter. “He will be taken to Kerrvik. If he can survive it, we’ll go through training.”

“Good.” Freya watched as the body levitated onto the small medical platform the Wolf Priest was operating. “Anyone else?”

“This makes three. The others are either useless or beyond us,” the Priest said flatly.

“All right. Off we go,” Freya said, pulling her hood back up.

“NO!” a woman screamed from the village behind the battlefield on the icy beach. Freya turned to look at her as the bodies floated into the back of the Thunderhawk for resuscitation. “No, Ela, no, don’t go!” she cried.

Freya held up her arm to block the woman’s path. “Sorry, lass, but your man is destined for a greater fate than ignominy,” she said softly, in Juvjk that time.

The woman tried to push past her into the hold of the Thunderhawk, but Freya was as strong as a Long Fang, and did not relent. “Don’t take my husband,” she begged, tears pouring from her eyes. “Please! Don’t make his son grow up without him!”

Freya grimaced under her hood. “Your husband is dead. He goes now to Asaheim, that he may live forever with the blood of the Russ,” she said. “Mourn him, and remember him well,” she added, turning to go.

“What possible use could you have for him above that of his family?” the hysterical woman demanded.

Freya’s shoulders rose as she sighed. “More than you know. With any luck at all, lass…more than you will EVER know.”

The sun broke over the walls of Camp Kerrvik. The blinding light flooded the training grounds below, covered in fresh snows from the blizzard the previous night. Atop one ragged wall of wood and stone, a Fenrisian boy sat with legs crossed. His mess of ruddy blond hair was cropped below his ears, and he had to brush strands out of his shining blue eyes.

Olev as a little boy. Thanks, SirBriggz!

He was easily the youngest person in the camp. He hated that. The only people who even seemed to approach him in size were the new aspirants, and they were a dime a dozen. Half-dead, some of them, and the others never lasted too long. They either died here or went off to the Fang. By that time, they were Wolves, Vlka of the Rout, and more like uncles than friends.

The crack of a ship breaking the sound barrier drew his superhuman eyes up. The streak of fire and metal overhead dropped like a stone towards the camp. The boy smiled happily. At least Mom was coming home.

The Thunderhawk settled down on the ground inside the walls, and the ramp dropped into the snow. A few scared-looking men with scars under their jumpsuits appeared, walking down the ramp into the streets of the tiny township. “All right, you little bastards, you straighten the hell up!” a voice roared. The lad recognized the voice as that of Sergeant Hasskald, a Grey Hunter from the Fang that he liked. Hasskald was happy to take him out to see Fenris from the skies sometimes. He said it was important.

“You whoresons THINK that you’re CHOSEN ONES!” Hasskald roared at the new guys. “You AREN’T! You’re dirt beneath my boots for the next four months! You’re ghost men, unloved at home and unmourned here, and every single one of you is going to break like glass for the whole time!” He glared at them all, brandishing the tiny silver talisman in his hands. “By the end of this training, forty five to fifty five percent of you will be stone dead. The rest? The rest of you will graduate to REAL training. You will fight one another, you will fight the elements, you will fight the Trolls and the Fiends, and you will learn what it is to kill with your bare hands! And maybe when you’re done, you bone scraps will be VLKA!” he finished, his eyes burning. “Now…I know that some of you came from clans at war with others. That’s fine. As of today, you forget it all. You will forget your clans, your women, your children. Today, the only sons you have are the next batch of aspirants, the only brothers you have are the men beside you, and the only father you have is High King Russ!”

The Grey Hunter slammed his ceramite gauntlets together, throwing sparks where metal it metal. “You will become warriors capable of feats that could and will break lesser men if you live through this, aspirants. You will walk through the bellies of daemons, and the arms of savages, and you will take the Wolf’s Spirit within yourselves. I anticipate very few survivors, whether I want there to be or not,” he added. “I came from a batch of ninety. Only three remain.”

The aspirants shuffled their feet, some paling. “You fear that? Good! Fear means you’re alive!” Hasskald declared. “Some of you will become the Skjalds and Kaerls of the Fang, the hall of your father. Some will become food for the others when winter comes,” he said darkly.

The boy on the walls rolled his eyes. That never actually happened. “Some others will actually come to be Vlka, and you will take your claws to the necks of the Emperor’s enemies by the truckload, and learn to love the smell of blood,” Hasskald finished. “Now fall out, and go to the buildings you’re assigned. You will be Claws soon enough.”

The men trooped into the buildings scattered over the training grounds, as the Wolf Priests handed them scraps of paper with names on them. The boy scrambled down from the wall and ambled up to the Thunderhawk, his nine-year-old ears filtering out the sounds of the engines like a veteran deck crewer.

Hasskald looked down at him and smiled. “Olev. Lad, what are you doing up this early?”

“Listening to you bellow, apparently,” Olev sighed airily.

Hasskald snorted. “Lad, when you’re old enough, you’re doing this training whether you plan to become a Marine or not.”

“I sure hope so,” Olev said idly. “Mom’s sure pressing me not to.”

“Your mother is hopelessly in love with you, pup, and doesn’t want you to come to harm,” Hasskald said. “Fear not. There’s strength enough in you to live through my instruction.”

“Oh, there’s strength enough, I’m not worried about that,” Mom said, stepping from the hold, where she had been watching quietly. She smiled happily down at her son. “But I couldn’t live with myself if he got eaten up by trolls.”

Olev waved a hand dismissively. “I’d smell them coming.”

“In your sleep?” she asked pointedly.

Olev shrugged. His mother leaned over to wrap her arms around her son’s shoulders, hugging him close. “You know you don’t have to stay here, Love,” she said softly. “I know you want to see it, but…”

“Mom,” Olev grumbled. “Come on. Don’t call me that where the others can hear.”

Freya laughed and stepped back. “Right, sure.”

The aspirants walked back out of their new homes, blinking at the unfamiliar environments of the mountain range in which they were staying. One by one, they lined up in front of Hasskald, trying not to look afraid.

The Grey Hunter tapped the flat of his combat knife in his palm, watching them fall in. “Now. There are those of you who may think that even as Aspirants, you have nothing to prove. Nothing to accomplish. You made it this far, after all. You were Chosen! But let me show you how wrong you are,” he said. He stepped back, and Freya shooed her son away. “Before you stand I, boys, one man,” he said flatly. He hefted his chainsword in one hand and his knife in the other. “All of you who feel that you need to make up for something…all of you who aren’t smart enough to be afraid or nervous…get up here.”

Nobody moved.

“Smart lads, for once,” Hasskald said. He dropped his chainsword in the snow and slid his knife into its sheathe. “How about now?” he asked mildly.

Several of the Aspirants looked at each other and mumbled. “That armor protects you,” one of them said hesitantly. “Can we even hurt you?”

“Fair question,” Hasskald admitted. “And if I were not armored? Would you find the testicles to fight me then, little boys?”

“I just might,” another said angrily. He stepped up to the front rank, fists clenched.

“Great. What if I were not only unarmed, but unarmored, and a young woman to boot?” Hasskald asked, baring his fangs.

“Then I’d call it a complete waste of my time,” the warrior scoffed.

“I did SO hope he’d say that,” Olev said happily.

Freya took her cue. She stepped up beside Hasskald and drew back her hood. “If anyone in your little gang can beat me one-on-one,” she said by means of introduction, “he gets double rations tonight.”

The warrior blinked, taken aback by her appearance. “You send a whore to fight in your stead, Sergeant Hasskald?” he asked.

Freya grinned. “Now now…harsh words instead of fists? Do you have no fight in you, child?”

“I came here to fight, not lie with a whore, woman,” the warrior blustered, as several other aspirants chuckled.

“Well, I suppose I did meet my husband here,” Freya admitted. “Still, something tells me you’d lack any sort of appeal even if I were on the market,” she said idly.

The man snarled and lunged at her. Freya’s wrist flickered. She had caved in his nose and stepped aside. His body tumbled, senseless, to the ground.

The other aspirants froze. Less than a second had passed. “Anyone else?” Freya snarled, flashing her fangs. One or two men gasped as recognition set in, but nobody moved. “Wise. My name is Freya Russ, you worthless puppies, and until the day you die, I am your Queen, your elder sister, your personal daemon, and the last thing you see before you die,” she said coldly, her voice biting like the chill of the wind. “My father will break you down, shatter your preconceptions, grind you into powder, and then sculpt you into REAL fighters, Astartes, Space Marines, Vlka Fenryka. You will live for eternity, in the halls of the Fang, in the depths of its armory, or in the memories of its warriors, but only if you DAMN WELL DESERVE IT!” she roared, shocking them back a pace. “This galaxy chews up and shits out the weak, and it took three thousand, seven hundred years of nonstop killing to make it even as habitable as it is!” Her wolf eyes glimmered in the morning light, glinting off of her fangs like diamonds. The men were spellbound. “Does anyone else want to challenge their Queen?” she demanded.

Not a soul twitched.

“Good. Haul his useless carcass off to a medic and start doing laps of the compound,” Hasskald said. “The man who does the fewest has to do it again.”

Two men lifted their senseless comrade off to the medical center as Freya brushed a speck of blood off her bare hands before sliding her gloves back on. Olev meandered over to where she was standing, the chill wind tugging at the sleeves of his jacket. “Mom, why do you say that you’re the last thing you see before they die? You don’t fight in the field,” he pointed out.

Freya shrugged as the other Aspirants started running. “Because every so often, I jump into the training circles to beat some pride out of the ones who have a natural skill that they mistake for discipline. See, Olev, it’s easy to think that you’re good at something if you were born able to do it well, but I don’t want naturals. I want men who can fight because they have good training as well as lots of experience and natural talent. And if they mess up in the ring, fighting me or their brothers, they die. If they mess up because they’d rather do things their own way instead of the way we train them, that’s hardly my fault.”

“That doesn’t answer my question at all!” Olev protested.

“Olev, men die here. Sometimes because their trainers killed them. It happens.” Freya looked down at him, sadness written on her face. “That’s why I don’t like it when you’re here.”

“But everyone treats me like a baby on the Fang,” Olev grumbled.

Freya knelt before her son to bring his eyes level with hers. She gently leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “I prefer that to treating you like a killer. For now. Okay?”

Olev sighed. “Okay.”

Julius Moves up in Life[edit]

Julius settled nervously into his seat in the little conference room in the core of the Palace. Several other people were already gathered, chief among them his friend and former Best Man, Jake. Also present were Michael Grecco, Nathaniel Romanvene, and one man he didn’t know in a loose tunic and green leather pants and vest. The door closed behind him as he sat, and Mike took a moment to click the lights higher. “Good to see you, Julius. Bit closer than last time, too,” he chuckled.

“Ugh.” Julius shook his head. “The formal ceremony was absurd. Aren’t weddings supposed to be private, intimate events?”

“Not when the participants are famous,” Nate said drily. “But congrats anyway, Julius.”

“Thanks.” Julius turned to look at the man he didn’t know. He was the youngest man there by a fair deal, with a gruesome scar protruding out from under his left lapel. His tousled blonde hair and light green eyes said a bit about his origins. “Have we met, ser?” Julius asked him.

“Thangir Russ, and no, we haven’t,” the man said. Julius nodded. He had thought as much. Freya’s wedding had been even more private than his real one.

“I only got here a week or so ago, myself,” Thangir said. “It’s been…a shock. You know? Buildings this size…” he shook his head. “I thought the Fang was huge.” He shrugged self-effacingly as he said it. Julius was struck by how much younger than the others Thangir was. Nate, by the look of him, was the eldest in the room by a few years at least. “I’ve been on void platforms and such…but you never see those from the outside, if you’re lucky,” he finished. The others chuckled.

“Quite. Although the Palace doesn’t see many viewers from the outside unless you’re on the roof,” Julius said. He cleared his throat as Nate sat back down beside him. “So, gentlemen…why exactly are we here?”

“Well, you and Isis just tied the knot, eh?” Nate asked reasonably.

“Yes…what is this, some kind of fraternity initiation?” Julius asked.

The smiles vanished from every other man’s faces. Nate’s eyes flashed blue for an instant. “Who told you?” Mike asked darkly.

Julius blinked. “W-what?”

The others held the silence for a moment longer, before, nearly as one, they laughed. “We’re just fucking with you, Julius,” Mike said, waving his hand dismissively. “Trust me, we put Thangir and Jake through the same song and dance.”

“I nearly fell for it, too,” Thangir said, shaking his shaggy blonde mane.

Julius sighed. “So why am I really here?”

Mike reached into his pocket and extracted a piece of metal on a small chain. “Do you have one of these?” he asked.

“Sure, I do,” Julius said. “It’s an access token, isn’t it?”

“Yes. For the garages, but also for the interior security system,” Nate put in. “Have you tried it for the elevators yet?”

“What, the lift network in the Palace itself?” Julius asked, surprised. “Er, no.”

The others stood. “Then you have to see this,” Nate said.

Julius stood, bemused, and followed the others out of the room and into the corridors. The hallway outside was bustling with workers, scuttling about and no doubt doing something important or other. Nate pressed a button for a lift and the Royal husbandry piled in, closing it before the people outside could enter.

Mike held up his token and pressed the bottom to the button panel. The panel was three-phased, with programmable buttons, so that lift cars could travel from different wings of the structure as well as different floors, and even a third set of buttons for controlling clearance levels. The token didn’t react to being pressed against the panel, but the panel did. The tiny LCD screens next to the buttons flashed clear. Mike pressed a button at random, and the tiny screens started displaying the names of the various wings of the building, as they usually did. Mike pressed the one for the northernmost wing, the one they were in at that moment. The screens blanked and filled with block numbers. One of them was a different color than the others, Julius noted, curiously examining the token again. He hadn’t noticed that the bottom had a computer port in it.

Mike pressed the colored screen’s button, and now all of the options the buttons displayed were blue. He pressed the button for the fifty-second floor, and the car was off.

“So I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now, but the tokens are passcards for the Guest Wing,” Mike said. “You can use them to get to the VIP area, the access-restricted one, with the push of a button.”

“Ah.” Julius glanced over the buttons as they reset to their normal requests for input. “And…why is this?” he asked.

“I’m sure you know that not all members of the Royal Family have homes on Terra,” Nate said with a shrug. “Where better for them to stay?”

“The Imperial Fists-controlled starport to the south of the Palace?” Julius guessed.

“True enough, but sometimes they come here for formal duties,” Jake said. It was the first time he’d spoken, Julius noted, and his friend’s face was a bit drawn.

“You all right, Jake?” Julius asked him.

“Some small trouble sleeping,” Jake said, shrugging. Thangir’s eyebrow twitched at that, even if he was pretending not to be listening. Was Jake lying, then? Another time, Julius decided, as the floor dropped out from under them.

“Fffff, I hate that feeling,” Nate groused. “Dropping into the core of the Palace in a metal coffin…”

Mike nodded ruefully. “Yeah, I know. How the Palace could even have any room to work in with the office blocks being broken up by the tubeways is beyond me.”

“Architecture in general is beyond me,” Thangir muttered, wincing as the car took a whiplash-inducing turn to the right. “Bloody hell, why do you Terrans make your buildings so large?” he asked.

“To administrate an Imperium of many, many trillions,” Mike said. “Trust me, you should see how hives look on worlds where they weren’t planned out in advance. Absolute pigsties, every one.”

“Mine was no picnic,” Jake grunted, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck. “Anyway. We’re here.”

The doors swung open as the car coasted to a halt. The quintet emerged into a completely different atmosphere. There were no people besides them that he could see. Where before the air had been flat and recirculated, here it felt crisp, even fresh. A neat trick, Julius thought, and the reason came clear moments later. The entire corridor beyond the tube block was lined with small, flowering trees. The hallway wended its way, curving around conversation nooks and small, decorated tables. The walls themselves were free of ornamentation beyond a variety of large mechanical clocks, with the names of famous planets beneath them, each set to wildly differing times and hours. It was a nice effect overall; at once a subtle reminder of the Imperium’s scope, and a boost to the morale of the people seeing it. They were important enough to witness it, after all.

“So, do I get to know why we’re here?” Julius asked. Mike pushed a door open and gestured in with a smile.

“Of course,” he said. “Come on in.”

Julius walked in and glanced about. There was a huge table in the middle of the room with a variety of mystifying electronics set into its surface, and a whole row of holoscreens and flatscreens along the walls…but the room was decorated like a sports bar, with homey lighting and comfortable chairs. The table was piled up with buffet-style food, too, real food, not reprocessed protein.

“Okay, I give up,” Julius said. “What’s going on?”

The others laughed, save Jake, who seemed to have vanished. “My friend, we can’t let this occasion go unremarked!” Mike said. He took a plate off of a small rack of them near the table, and began piling it up with food.

“Wait, so it really is some kind of initiation?” Julius asked.

“I guess you could say that,” Nate said. “Grab a plate.”

An hour of conversation later, Mike brought out a small plastic cask. “Here, gents,” he said, placing it on the table.

Julius craned his head forward. “What is it?”

“Three thousand credits of scotch,” Mike said, putting a tiny plug in the bottom and pouring a cup.

Julius stared. “Huh.”

Mike and Nate filled goblets and slid one down to Thangir. The younger man grabbed it and tipped it in gratitude, as Jake waved one off. “I’m done, thanks,” he said, indicating the empty glass in front of him.

“You guys did all this for me?” Julius asked. “I’m flattered.” He accepted a cup and swirled it in his hands. It even smelled expensive.

“We’re brothers-in-law now, man,” Mike said.

Bread and Circuses[edit]

Lord Primarch Fulgrim steepled his fingers and looked over his desk at his two guests. “Of course I could, my young friends…but why are you interested?”

Jake and Julius glanced at each other. “Well, your Lordship, simply put, I had an epiphany,” Jake began.

“Do tell,” Fulgrim said mildly. The intimidatingly tall white-haired warrior was unusually subdued in dress and demeanor today. Jake found himself wondering if he had an entire wardrobe he could duck into between guest meetings.

“Your Lordship, I don’t know if you know much about our personal histories, but in case you didn’t, I’m a farmer and he’s a hiver,” Julius said with a faint grin. “And yet…here we sit.”

“And my brothers and I range from slaves to mining world refugees to princes,” Fulgrim said, returning the joking smile. “Fate plays strange hands.”

“True enough, Lord. My point is that we are uniquely suited to understanding what problems the Imperium faces…not as a government, you understand, or as a military force, but as a group of like-minded and disparately-born humans,” Julius said. “I imagine you, yourself, observed that firsthand. That common need. Rich or poor, Terran or out-worlder…we all have the same basic needs.”


Jake took over. “Lord, before the Crusade even ended, you had set up the Foundation for the Advancement of Education and the Arts here on Terra.”

Fulgrim’s brows peaked as he divined the other two men’s goals. “I did. Am I to interpret that you wish to offer some assistance towards it?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Julius said. The two men were switching the speaking role back and forth. This was rehearsed, Fulgrim surmised. “We would humbly request some advice, actually.”

“Regarding…what?” Fulgrim asked.

Jake leaned forward. The lad had clearly undergone the same genetic treatment as most of the other Royal husbands, Fulgrim noted with hidden distaste. As much as he understood its necessity in the Emperor’s eyes, he found it uncomfortably close to the Astartes creation process, and that was a mechanism that hardly needed to be spread about.

“My Lord, I entered into Venus’ life purely by accident,” Jake said quietly. “Obviously a chance at romance is hardly the point of scholarships, but the message is there. How many trillions of Terrans deserve better chances than they get?” He shook his head. “Every single one of my friends in my childhood – and I – dreamed of more. Of finding or being given more. How many kids think of earning more?”

“Too few,” Julius supplied. “But some do.”

“So what exactly do you want from the Foundation?” Fulgrim asked, intrigued.

“We want to lend out own experience and influence to the Foundation’s goals, sir,” Jake said. “Basically, I want to pass along what I’ve learned on my own. Not in terms of my role in the Family, but in terms of applying the Nocturnean mindset to the Terran hives.”

Fulgrim was quiet for a moment as he thought through the uncomfortable implications of that statement. “And…if I may ask, what would that be? As I understand it, your tenure on Nocturne has been a largely invisible one.”

Jake shrugged. “Well, politically, sure…but I’ve learned so much.” He winced. “Sorry, but there’s no way I can say this without sounding snobbish.”

Fulgrim blinked. “How do you mean?”

“Sir, simply put, I’ve come to realize that a big portion of the Terran poverty problem stems from the fact that a lot of Terrans have decided that their lot in life is sealed shut,” Jake said. “Nocturneans have a completely different outlook on life, sir, and frankly I think it’s a healthier one.”

“And you wish to lend your aid to the Foundation to support the influence of this Nocturnean outlook?” Fulgrim asked.

“I suppose I so, sir,” Jake said.

Fulgrim thought on this. “And what do you want out of this, Lord Pius?”

Julius nodded. “Sir, while my background differs greatly from Jake’s, I want to help out. The people on Terra want for more than they should. I’ve seen how much of this planet can barely even afford proper nourishment, let alone luxury. Even on the Throneworld, things could be better.” He shrugged. “I mean, I don’t expect an easy solution, but I feel I could help.”

The Emperor’s Children Primarch leaned back in his seat, brooding. “And you come to me for advice on how to improve things, or at least help those who are already working to improve things?”

“That’s the gist of it, your Lordship, yes,” Jake said. “So, will you help us out?”


The ticking of the mechanical clock in the room was the only sound for a few moments. Finally, Jake broke the quiet. “May I ask why?”

Fulgrim sighed. “Gentlemen, while the desire to improve the lots of others is a worthy goal, it sounds more to me that you’re trying to force standards on people.”

“How is wanting people to have better access to food forcing standards on anyone?” Julius asked, surprised.

“Because you phrased it in the language of wanting Terrans to live to a higher standard,” Fulgrim pointed out. “And you, Lord Seager, you said that you wanted people on Terra to learn from the Nocturnean standard. But if all you wanted was for people to learn their ways, why coach it with charities? Because then,” Fulgrim said, gesturing in Jake’s direction, “you would inevitably reward those who demonstrated those aspects of Nocturnean life that you admire. That, by itself, is not entirely unreasonable, but it is not the work of the Foundation. My Foundation works to ensure those whose lives were damaged by pure happenstance have a fair chance at recovery and improvement, and their children, too. You want to, essentially, bribe people into adopting your foreign standards.”

Jake sat back in his own seat, thinking furiously. After nearly a minute of mind-wracking, he looked away. “…I can’t disagree, I think,” he said. “This is disappointing.”

“I offer no offence, I hope,” Fulgrim said. “But I want you to understand why I will not lend my own assistance in this endeavor. If you wish to work on your own, very well, and I’m sure you will do so with the best of intentions. But the people will not thank you for it.”

Julius looked sidelong at his friend, but Jake wasn’t upset. Instead, the hiver-cum-Prince just stood and offered his hand to his uncle. “Thank you for your time, then, your Lordship,” Jake said heavily.

“Certainly, Lord Seager. And remember, if you really want to better the lot of your former friends and neighbors, money isn’t the way to do it,” Fulgrim cautioned, shaking the much smaller man’s hand.

Venus slid her night shirt on and glanced over her shoulder at the bed. Jake was lying there, arms crossed behind his head, staring into space. She walked up beside him and sat on the bedside. “Hey.”


“How did it go today?” she asked, running her fingers over his arm.

Jake sighed, freeing up one hand to squeeze hers. “He said no.”

“Oh.” Venus thought that over before leaning back to look at him better. His face was placid and un-lined. He didn’t seem to be taking it personally. Her transhuman eyes lit upon his face and he managed a tiny smile.

“I’m not worried. He took the time to explain why. I found myself agreeing with him.”

“He’s pretty persuasive,” Venus chuckled. “What did he say?”

Jake sighed, staring beyond her into the past day. “Well, he basically said it would be like bribing people to accept a foreign standard of living.”

Venus pondered that as she slid into bed beside him. “Huh. That’s pretty cynical, but I don’t know that he’s wrong.”

“That’s more or less what I said,” Jake said heavily. “I dunno, sweetheart. How do I do this? Fulgrim’s right, I can’t just take up Nocturnean self-reliance and drop it whole on Terra, but…damn it, I feel like I’m not doing enough here!”

Venus raised her eyebrows. “Here…on Terra?”

“Well, yeah,” Jake said. “I came from here. I want to make things better. And they could be better, baby, so much better.”

“They could,” Venus said. She tapped her finger on the pillow as she thought. “Have you tried asking directly?”

Jake looked up at her, confused. “Who?”

“Terrans.” Venus glanced down at him, a sly smile playing around her lips.

Jake stared for a moment, before he broke out in a smile too. “…I love you, baby,” he said softly, running his hand over her nearer arm.

“I know, Jake, and it feels good,” Venus murmured, kissing the crown of his head before snuggling down beside him and flicking off the lights.

Dieter Hatham sank into his chair with a groan of released stress. The day’s work at the factory had been grueling, like every single other, and all he had to look forward to that night was the weekly poker game he had been holding with his friends since he was eight years old. As he wearily reached for his slate to get the final headcount, he noted an unusual message in his queue. He pressed the Open button, and message popped up.

>TO: DHatham5780,

>FROM: TransplantG2R


>RE: Poker

>Hey, Dieter, it’s me. Do you mind if I drop in on the game tonight? I’ll bring my own food, of course.

Dieter blinked. He didn’t recognize the handle. He glanced it over and squinted, but the name remained elusive. He opened his own mail system and typed up a quick response.

>Sure, I guess. Who is this? You’re not in my contacts list.

He set the tablet down and rose to prepare the food. Even as he turned on the heating element in his single studio apartment, the slate beeped. He looked over at the screen.

>Oh, man, you wound me. It’s Jake!

Dieter stared at the slate, astonished. Hadn’t Jake married some princess and moved to far-off wherever? He typed out a response as the soylens started heating up.

>Are you entirely sure?

Within minutes, he had his response.

>Last I checked. Can I come to the game tonight? I assume there is one, I remember it was Fridays.

Dieter hesitated, long enough for his door to knock. He peered through the eyehole and saw Will standing there, looking around him. Dieter opened the door and let his friend in, distracted by the email.

“Hey. You got the table all set up?” Will asked. When Dieter didn’t answer, he looked over his shoulder. Dieter was staring at the tablet. “Someone bail?” Will prompted.

Dieter shook his head. “No, it’s an unexpected RSVP.”

“Unexpected?” Will glanced over the tablet. “…Jake’s coming?”

“I haven’t replied,” Dieter said. He set the tablet down and ran his hands over his face. “What do you think?”

“Why are you asking me? We should have him!” Will said.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Dieter said. He hesitated to lift the tablet, though. “Didn’t he move, though? What’s he doing here?”

Will sat down at the table and dropped his stake into the middle of the table. “We can just ask.”

“I guess.” Dieter typed his reply at last.

>Sure. I’m in Tetra still, Cube 12, Hab 1, Deck 198, Room 198-085. Stake is fifty credits upfront, buy-in of fifteen, bring your own food.

Within minutes, Jake’s reply lit the screen.

>Cool. I’ll be there.

As the group assembled, Dieter idly flipped a few cards back and forth on the table, waiting for the last guests. Counting the running game he had held in middle and high schools, he had been running this game anywhere from one to seven times a week for twenty years. He would have pitched his skills against a professional if he could find the time to do so. He wasn’t nervous because he thought he was going to lose.

In fact, why was he nervous at all, he asked himself. Jake was an old friend, right? And he wasn’t bringing any of those nobles – or even Ladies Primarch – from the party that one time with him, was he? He realized he hadn’t asked.

The door rapped again. He pulled it open to see his old friend standing there, dressed in what was probably supposed to be casual attire, with a large basket hanging off his arm. His skin was several shades darker than anyone else’s in the room, but the biggest change was his eyes. They were bright red.

“Dieter, man, good to see you!” Jake said, reaching out his free hand. It took Dieter a moment to grasp it, though, he was so busy staring at his friend’s changed visage.

“…Uh, yeah, Jake, hi,” the black-haired factory line supervisor said. “Good to see you too…what’s with the new look?” he asked.

Jake shrugged as he walked in. “Surgery didn’t quite work out the way it was supposed to. Long story. How’s things?” he asked.

“Uh, pretty good, I guess…new factory hours are a bear,” Dieter said. The other guests took notice of Jake’s arrival and made their way over in the three-room apartment. The ones who knew Jake personally looked stunned at the changes in his appearance, while the others just shook hands or nodded politely, not seeing any differences. After all, cosmetic surgery was cheap. In the hives, some people decided to look like they lived above their station when they didn’t. Nobody judged for that.

As they sat down, most of the guests chipped in to pay for an expanded ration chip for the evening, so they could eat in. The chips were special tokens one could redeem in advance for a larger body of people for single meals, and it was common in the hives to have the host pay for once in advance, and then all participants simply pay a percentage when they arrived. When Dieter put the bowl of soylens on the cooktop and started to add the flavor pouches, Jake got up from the table and brought over a the basket. He discreetly cleared his throat.

“Would it trouble you greatly if I brought a second course?” Jake inquired.

Dieter looked back at him. “You brought surface food?” he asked.

“Yes,” Jake said. He put the basket down on the counter and opened the seal. “My wife made a pie,” he said. There was a circular pastry inside.

“Oh…alright,” Dieter said. “Uh, after the main meal? Is that when you serve those?”

“Yeah, it’s dessert,” Jake said.

“Okay.” Dieter walked back over to the table and sat down, deftly pulling the cards from the pack. “All right, folks, are we all ready?”

“Yeah, I’m in,” Will said, dropping a few of their faithful plastic chips into the pot.

As the players anted up, Jake shucked his jacket and draped it over the back of his chair. “Thanks for having me, man, I know I haven’t dropped by as much as I should have lately,” he said.

“Yeah, it’s been a while,” Abram said. “I understand you got hitched since we saw you last.”

Jake held up his hands. The Nocturnean rings glimmered on his fingers. “I did."

“Good for you,” Abram said. He picked up his cards and bet. “I’m engaged, actually,” he said.

“Oh, yeah? Congratulations,” Jake said. “What’s his name?”

Will snorted water on his shirt as Abram glared at his friend. “Her name is Cris,” Abram said coolly. Will snorted again. “Short for Crystal, damn it,” Abram said.

“Well, that’s awesome, dude, congratulations,” Jake said. He grinned at his old friend and chucked in his cards. “When are you getting married?”

“A few months, actually,” Abram said.

“Cool.” Jake watched the rest of the hand in silence, judging the time not to be right for his proposal.

When the food was done, Dieter brought the bowl over and doled some out. Jake took his portion and glanced over the plate as he did, since the game was paused. “So, guys, how has everyone been?” he asked.

“It’s not easy,” Dieter said. Jake raised an eyebrow at his friend’s tone, but kept his mouth shut.

Will shrugged. “You remember what it’s like,” he said. “Just existing.”

“Yeah, I do remember,” Jake said. Then, even as a child he had been somewhat privileged, since his father had actually owned his business. He was aware in hindsight how much condescension he had exuded in conversation back then. If he had any chance of his proposal being well-received now, he had to stay polite. “What are you up to?”

“Line supervisor at a factory in the next hab down,” Will said.

“What do you make?” Jake asked.

“Hair curlers, and some light plastics, mostly,” Will said.

“Oh,” Jake said. “Custom design or something Martian?”

“STC relics, but that means we’ve got to keep standards up.” Will spooned the last of his portion of the meat-flavored soylens onto his plate. “If you let something that’s supposed to be STC-quality slip, wow. They come down on you hard.”

“I bet,” Jake said. “Does anyone else here work there?” he asked.

“I do, Dieter does, I think Alan does,” Will said, eyeing a few of the other men at the table. The other man, Alan, nodded.

Jake finished his food and rose. “All right. Anyone not want dessert?” he asked.

“What’s dessert?” Will asked.

“Tonight, a starfruit pie my wife made,” Jake said. “Anyone not want some?” He hefted a knife and dug into the basket.

“The hell is a star fruit? Some kind of space food or something?” Abram asked.

“No, it’s fruit that is literally shaped like a star,” Jake said. “Fucking amazing. It’s about the only Terran fruit that can grow on Nocturne without genemodding.” He hefted a slice of the stuff from the top of the pie to demonstrate its unusual shape.

“So, you did move off-planet after getting married,” Dieter said. “Why?”

“Because my wife wanted to go home, and I wanted to go with her,” Jake said. “Venus had obligations there.”

“Really? It must have been hard,” Will said.

“It was,” Jake said heavily. “It is. The weather on Nocturne is terrifying. Acid storms and earthquakes, every week like clockwork. Everything’s made of metal or stone because there’s no wood, and because the earthquakes will topple anything more fragile. The food’s more diverse, but the ambient temperature and gravity are so high that it’s actually pretty hard to walk around outside unless you have special gear or were born there. Or get genemodded, like I was,” Jake said.

Will stared at him. “I thought you looked different.”

“Yeah. I was bedridden for several days, the marrow infusion hurt so bad,” Jake said ruefully. Was he coming off as immodest? He couldn’t tell. “Anyway. Dig in, guys,” he said, putting plates of the pie in front of the others. “If my wife were here, she’d say she didn’t make this with cooking, she made it with Applied Chemistry,” he chuckled. “I burn water, so that works for me.”

“I gotta say, Jake, I’m surprised you’re even here,” Will said, finally broaching the topic. “Didn’t you get married to a pretty high-tier noble?”

“Lord Vulkan’s daughter,” Jake supplied.

The others either looked stunned or stared at each other. “Wow,” one of the men Jake didn’t know said. “Where did you meet?”

“High school,” Jake said. He sat back down and dug into the pie. “We also went to the same college. Actually,” he said, glancing over the others. “It’s part of why I’m here. Back on Terra, I mean. My oldest son is probably going to be going to a Terran school when he’s old enough. I came here from Nocturne like I do every seven months or so, because Venus and I have obligations to the Royal Family’s Estate, but I wanted to do something else while I was on-planet.”

Dieter and the others exchanged looks. Jake continued. “Remember when we were in middle school, we all used to talk about what we’d do for Terra if we made it?” he asked. “Well…I did. So when I came here last week, I dropped in on someone. Do you guys know about the Foundation for the Advancement of Education and the Arts?”

“Sure,” Will said. “We got some comp from them after an accident on the job meant my brother Drew had to miss six weeks of work.”

“Good,” Jake said. Despite the name, the Foundation had smaller branches that covered charitable and compensatory funding of all types. It was one of the reasons Jake had gone to Fulgrim in the first place. “Well, I went to one of its founders to offer my assistance in exchange for some advice,” he said.

“What advice?” Will asked.

“I wanted to lend myself out for fundraisers and the like, and in exchange, the founder in question would either help me set up my own charity or work through the Foundation towards specific goals.” Jake sighed. “He said no.”


“Because he thought it sounded like I would basically be bribing people to adopt different standards of living,” Jake said. “And he was right. So I would like your opinions,” he said, taking in the room. “How can I put my newfound influence to best use for the good of hivers?” he asked.

The room went quiet. Some of the men looked at Jake uncomfortably, while a few grimaced. “Man, you know how people around here look at charity,” Will said. “I think you ought to just donate money to a charity that already exists if you feel like you should be doing more.”

Jake shook his head. “I don’t mean money alone. I mean attention-raising.”

“Oh, come on,” Dieter said grimly. “We all know the drug trade around here is the real problem. There’s so few Arbites and Praetors that can do anything about it, that nothing gets done at all. The Enforcers are basically useless for fighting that kind of organized crime.”

“So more cops, or better cops?” Jake asked.

“Both. Either,” Dieter said. “Do you really not remember how bad it was?” he asked coldly.

Jake shrugged uncomfortably. “I do, but things change. When I left, most of the dealers around my apartment were small fish.”

“Well, things do change, all right,” Dieter said. “But let’s be realistic here. How much are you talking about donating to something, here?”

Jake cleared his throat self-consciously. “Uh, not much actual money, truth be told. We don’t exactly get paid. I meant more like doing commercials and fundraisers.”

“What do you mean you don’t get paid?” Dieter asked.

“I mean that the position of Bond Prince of Nocturne doesn’t have a salary,” Jake said. “We have a tiny stipend from the Royal Family, but we live off of investment dividends.”

"Bond Prince?” Dieter demanded. “Are you serious?”

“That’s my title on Nocturne, yeah,” Jake said. “On Terra, though, I’m just Jake. No title here. I’m still me.” He coughed again. “For what it’s worth. Anyway, I came to you guys because I trust you, and because if I asked my parents, I doubt I’d get a straight answer. I’m not on the best of terms with my father these days.”

“If you want my honest opinion, get the Emperor to re-instate the Penal Legions,” Abram said. “I mean, they were a ready-made solution to the drug trade. The Arbites could just pack up gangs of drug dealers wholesale and ship them off to die. Perfect.”

Jake snorted. “I agree. Unfortunately, they were pretty much an ethical black mark, so he decided to stop creating them shortly after the Crusade ended. I don’t have the sway to get him to change his mind. I’ll bring it up next time I see him, though.”

“Wait, you really get to talk to him?” Abram asked.

“He’s my wife’s grandfather, I see him all the time when I’m here,” Jake said. “Not in a formal context, you understand. Just…you know, family get-togethers.” He picked his empty plate up. “All right, thanks for the advice. I’ll think it over before I go back to my contact at the Foundation.”

“So who is this contact, anyway?” Will asked. “You said he was one of the founders.”

“Yes, he is,” Jake said. “I mean, we’re not exactly friends, but he’s one of Venus’ relatives, so we get along pretty well.”

“Well, man, I don’t know how you do it,” Will said. “Rubbing shoulders with the Primarchs and whatever.”

Jake shrugged. “If I’m being perfectly honest, some of them scare the shit out of me, even now,” he said. “Curze and Mortarion and Angron terrify me. And I know Fulgrim and Perturabo think the Royal daughters have no business getting married to mortal men, even if Fulgrim would never say it aloud.”

“No offense, man, but Vulkan is scary as hell, too,” Will said. “Do his eyes really look like that?”

Jake nodded. “Yeah. So do Venus’. And N’bel’s, and Carmine’s,” Jake said. “N’bel and Carmine are my sons. N’bel was Vulkan’s father’s name, Carmine was my father’s father’s name.” He set the plates back in the basket and sat back down. “Okay. Thanks for the advice, guys. Let’s play poker,” he said, picking the deck up.

“You have children?” Dieter asked.

“Yeah. Two boys, twelve and a few days short of seven.” Jake grinned wistfully as it struck him that his eldest was as old now as he had been when he met his wife. “Time flies.”

“Wait, twelve? Damn, you got off to a quick start,” Will observed.

“We got married before we finished college,” Jake said. He dealt the cards out. “All right. Who’s in?”

Several hours later, the game broke up. As Jake collected his things and prepared to go, his vox buzzed. He pulled it loose and answered it. “Hello?”

“My Prince, are you ready to head out?” Jake’s bodyguard asked.

“I am, but I think I want to take the trams, not the car,” Jake decided.

The line was silent. “Are you certain, sir?” the bodyguard asked.

“I am. I used to live here. I’m safe,” Jake said. “And I want to drop in on my parents.”

“Very well,” the guard said, already thinking over the new security routes he would have to take.

Jake finished the call and slid the vox back into his pocket. He picked up the basket and walked over to the door. “Hey, Dieter, thanks for having me over, man,” he said.

Dieter nodded, feeling unexpectedly hesitant. “Good to see you, too, Jake. Sorry if I was being an ass, before.”

Jake blinked. “I didn’t get that vibe. I was more worried that I would sound like a spoiled asshole, actually.”

Dieter managed a tired laugh. “We surprised each other, then, I guess.”

“Tell you what,” Jake said, hefting the basket. “Next time I’m on Terra, you guys can play at my place. I miss you guys a lot when I’m not on Terra. I shouldn’t forget where I came from.”

“Really? You think about us when you’re off in space or whatever?” Will asked from the table.

“Absolutely! You guys were my best friends when I was in public around here,” Jake said. “Nobody on Nocturne plays cards like you guys, either. Buncha pussies when the chips hit the table,” he joked. “You guys would make a mint on Carshim or any other casino planet.”

“You really think so?” Abram asked.

“Absolutely.” Jake smiled and backed out. “All right. So long, guys.”

Outside, he slid his sunglasses on over his eyes and carried the basket over to the car. The security codes on his keyfob told him nobody had approached the vehicle, so he opened the door and put the basket on the front seat. He tapped the ‘Return’ key on the fob and it lifted to soar off to the house that he and Venus shared on Terra. Jake himself turned and hiked up the collar of his jacket a bit, then slid his hands into its front pockets and walked towards the public trams. The miniaturized digital needler in his pocket clinked against his fingernail as he did so, and he slid it on. No point in being incautious. He had considered bringing the tiny laspistol he had made for himself, too, but decided against it.

As he walked away from the apartments and entered the huge lift tubes that raised him to the first major public tram terminal, he thought over what his friends had said. More policing of the drug trade. Would that make enough of a difference? There was little drug trade on Nocturne since the world was almost entirely deserts or acid oceans, and all chemical imports were controlled down to the ounce. But Terra…Terra had a drug trade as old as the species. What could he do about it?

He exited the lift and walked over to the nearest guidepost. The trams were a brief walk from the lift, and Jake walked over, making sure not to pay too much attention to anyone else.

The streets of Nocturnean cities were much safer, he thought to himself, despite everything. People weren’t afraid of eye contact on Nocturne. The Astartes walked the streets and helped the people. Still, this was where he was born. If he didn’t take the lessons he’d learned on Nocturne to the streets of Terra, what right did he have to call himself Vulkan’s son-in-law?

He craned his head up to look at the armored and reinforced ceiling, high above. The artificial lights had been carefully designed not to harm the eyes of the viewers, but they weren’t a real sun. There was no cloud cover. It didn’t feel natural, even after growing up under it.

Jake sighed to himself and walked on to the tram station, his mind turning over his thoughts as he went.

Aboard the tram, Jake leaned back in a corner seat, musing. If he offered his support to the Arbites directly, it would be a waste of time. After all, the Arbites weren’t the problem. And the more he thought about it, the Enforcers couldn’t really do much more than they already were either. The problem was the Praetors. It was their job to enforce Cube and Spire-level law, where the Arbites enforced Imperial law and the Enforcers covered the normal Habitation and per-level rules. The Praetors had to be able to track them better than the Enforcers could, and the Arbites didn’t much care about simple drug trafficking in most cases, since it was legal on some worlds and not others. Terra, after all, had to be held to the same standards as any other Imperial world in the enforcement of the Book of Judgment.

He shook his head. All he could do was put words in the right ears, really. Beyond that, it was up to individual Terrans.

Speaking of individual Terrans, he thought. The number of people on the car was increasing considerably. Each stop added passengers. Even as he looked, several dozen more people stepped onto the car. As the tram car pulled away from the station, the various people found seats. One young man, not a day older than ten, sat on the seat beside him, glancing enviously at Jake’s expensive clothes and rings. Another boy, this one with a more furtive look about him, sat next to the other boy on the far side and glanced nervously around the car. After they were underway, he leaned over to the first boy and whispered something. Jake looked away at the lights flashing by the windows, but his enhanced hearing picked up every word.

“Dude, that’s totally him!”

“What the fuck are you talking about?” the first boy asked.

“The guy at the front! He’s packing a Lawmaker! It’s an Arbitrator! We’re fucked!” the second boy whispered. He was clearly on the verge of panic.

“Stay calm,” the first one said under his breath. “We’ll just get off on the next stop.”

Jake grimaced. Thieves. Not even ten, and they were thieves. Disgusting. Even at his worst, he had never sunk that low. Or was he passing judgment too quickly? Were they just afraid of the police? He remembered people like that when he lived here.

Whatever. It wasn’t his business. Jake turned back to see the car had filled almost completely by now. He rose to feet to allow someone pushing a wheelchair to pass him, and as he did, his vox fell from his pocket. Jake’s hand fell to the seat where it landed, muttering a curse.

The screen lit as his fingers brushed a button, though it didn’t unlock. It popped up his contact list as it landed. Jake, stuck upright until he could sit and grab the vox, noted the boy next to him staring at it. How rude. Didn’t he have a sense of privacy?

As the wheelchair passed, Jake sat down and snatched the errant electronics up, sliding the vox back into his pocket. The boy glanced at him as he did, his fear melting away into suspicion.

“Excuse me,” the kid said. His voice was suddenly very young indeed. “Are you a member of the Ordo Investigatorum?”

Jake stared. “…What?” he asked.

“I mean…that’s an off-world vox, and you have a needler,” the boy said, his voice trailing off.

Jake glanced at his finger. “How did you know this was a needler?” he asked, surprised that the boy even knew what it was.

“I’ve seen holos,” the kid said. “Wow. So you are?”

“First off, if I were, do you think I would tell you?” Jake asked, annoyed. “Second, do you make a habit of talking to strangers on trams?”

“But we didn’t do anything!” the second boy spoke up. His voice was reedy with fear. “Please, you have to help us, sir! The Arbites want to get us!”

“For asking questions, or because you actually broke the law?” Jake said.

“I…I-I don’t know!” the first kid lied, his face paling.

Jake sighed heavily. “Don’t lie to me.”

The second kid bit back a sob. That, at least, sounded real. Jake looked over to see a series of tiny cuts along the child’s hands. Not injection marks or calluses, though. They reminded Jake of his wife’s hands after she spent a meditative session in the forges. They were cuts from gripping tools too tightly, and skin drying quickly. “Kid, what happened to your hand?” Jake asked, a horrible suspicion setting in.

“Nothing, sir,” the kid managed, fear and nerves undermining his voice. Jake’s heart ached. He was only a few years away from his own sons, damn it.

“Kid, please,” he said, trying to channel his father-in-law’s voice and presence. “Your hands bear the marks of a powder cutter.”

The kid flinched and hid his hands. “It’s just for now,” he said, perhaps realizing that confessing something like that to a member of the Ordo was potentially dangerous.

So the kids were members of a drug dealer’s gang, and were fleeing its downfall. Jake gritted his teeth, but kept up his façade. “All right, boys,” he said softly. “Here’s what we’re going to do. When the train stops, I’m going to call for a pickup by the Treasury. I’m going to drop you off with them. Once you’re with them, you’ll be safe. Just tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Do you understand?”

The boys exchanged frantic looks, but neither said anything. As the car slowed, Jake lifted his vox and hit the Treasury page button. In an instant, the speaker chirped.

“Lord?” his bodyguard’s voice asked.

“I have two children here in need of protective pickup at…station 175, deck 19, same Cube as before,” Jake said into the vox. “They’re going to tell a bit of a tale.”

“Sir?” his bodyguard asked, confused. “What do you mean?”

“Please just arrange a pickup,” Jake said. “I’ll be off shortly.”

Jake hung up and pocketed the vox. He rose and gestured for the door as the tram slid to a halt. Both boys obligingly trooped out as Jake followed them, watching the station for any sign of the Treasury vehicles. He held up a hand for stillness as a man who followed them off the tram walked up quickly behind them.

“Step away from the children immediately,” the man said curtly. His hand was fingering a poorly-concealed pistol in his coat pocket as he said it. Jake eyed him. The boys’ assessments seemed accurate. A plainclothes Arbitrator or Praetor, for sure.

“Very well, Judge, but I’ve already arranged for a pickup,” Jake said, keeping his hands still. The boys looked frightened enough to bolt, but didn’t move.

“Keep your hands visible and don’t move,” the Judge said, gesturing at Jake’s ring. “Take the needler off and place it on the floor, now.”

Jake sighed and did so. The Judge took a step forward to collect it when a group of seven men in the distinctive beehive uniforms of the Treasury’s special protective service. The Treasury agents marched straight up to where Jake was standing, taking in the strange tableau as the other passengers and pedestrians stared. “Your Highness,” one of the black-masked Treasury operatives said without preamble. “You ordered a pickup?”

“These kids here could use some help,” Jake said, gesturing at the two boys. “Or do you have something to add, Judge?” he asked, glancing at the Judge over the rims of his sunglasses.

The Judge blinked, but apparently recognized the mark of the Salamanders in Jake’s eyes. “Negative, sir. I apologize,” he started.

“Oh hush, you didn’t do a damn thing wrong,” Jake said. “Now. Gentlemen, let’s went,” he said, scooping up his ring as he walked by it.

That evening, Jake was sitting in the tiny waiting room of the Arbites Courthouse nearest the site of the arrest when Venus stormed in. She sighted her errant husband in the corner of the room, reading a magazine. “Jake! What the hell happened out there?” she demanded.

Jake stood. “Hello.”

“The car comes back empty, Blake tells me you go off for a stroll, and then you get two small children ARRESTED?” she fumed. “What the hell party did you attend, exactly?”

Jake fought back a laugh. Venus’ eyes turned even brighter. “Okay, long story short is that when I took the tram home, I realized that the two kids next to me had cuts on their hands from cutting powder in a drug lab,” Jake explained. Venus stared, her ire fading to astonishment. “I called a Treasury pickup, and here we are.”

“You called in the Treasury instead of the Arbites…why?” Venus asked, walking up to him. The room was empty save them at this hour.

Jake sat back down. “The children were afraid of the Arbites. I thought they might be more talkative with the Treasury. That, and I could page the Treasury faster.”

Venus groaned. “Jake, baby, I love you but you’re denser than ceramite. You could have gotten robbed or shot or something!”

“By those kids? They were so scared they could barely move,” Jake said. “I grew up down here, Venus, I can look after myself.”

Venus rubbed the bridge of her nose with her fingers and sat beside him. “All right. Sure. Ugh.” She glared at him, her eyes fading to their normal, healthy glow. “Are you okay, though?”

“I’m fine, baby, don’t worry,” Jake said. “Where are the larvae?”

“Back home, worried sick,” Venus said.

Jake sighed. “I’ll apologize for spooking them when we get home.”

“No, you won’t, they’ll be in bed by then,” Venus said in exasperation. “Let’s just get you home, all right?”

Jake sat at his son N’bel’s bedside later that night and tried not to look too tired. “Hey, son, you should be asleep,” he said quietly.

“I was scared!” N’bel said indignantly, pique laced through his twelve-year-old voice. “You were off getting arrested or something!”

The hiver grinned and sat back in his seat. “Well, I wasn’t trying to scare you. I just took a detour on my home from my friend’s place.”

“But you’re okay, right?” N’bel demanded.

“Right as rain, N’bel, fear not.” Jake stood. “Now. I’m going to go tuck your brother in. I’ll see you later, all right?”

“Yeah. Yeah, all right,” N’bel grumbled. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Dad.”

“Good night.” Jake hesitated before closing the door. N’bel glanced at him from the bed.


“Sorry. Just…hang on,” Jake said. He crossed the space to the bed and leaned over to give his son a quick hug. “Don’t you ever get mixed up with those drug pushers, you hear me?” he murmured. “I love you too much for that.”

“Dad, come on,” N’bel muttered.

Jake sighed into his son’s wavy black hair. “Sorry. You sleep tight. We’re going over to Grandma Sandra’s place tomorrow, all right?”

“Yeah, all right,” N’bel said. Jake straightened back up.

“Good night,” he said, and this time he closed the door behind him.

Carmine was already fast asleep next door, so Jake contented himself with a peck on the boy’s cheek and a whispered ‘goodnight.’ Leaving the room, he walked up the steps to the building’s top floor, where he joined his wife on the balcony of their master suite. Venus was already in her bathrobe, trusting in the building’s holoscreen to protect their privacy. Jake walked up behind her and slid his arms on either side of her to rest over her own hands on the wrought iron railing. “Hello,” he said softly.

“Hi there,” she said flatly.

Jake sighed into the downy fabric of her robe’s collar. “I’m sorry if I worried you, love,” he said in Nocturnean.

“I was confused and damn it, why did you scare me like that?” Venus replied in the same tongue. “My Prince, your life is too high a price to pay for adventuring!”

“Venus, I just wanted to time to think,” Jake said honestly. He kissed the back of her head and breathed in the scent of her shampoo and perfume. “I was distracted. Upset. I wanted to walk through streets I used to call mine.”

“I know, Jake, that’s not what worried me,” Venus sighed. She pushed his arms away and turned around, looking up into his eyes. Jake was taken aback at the sadness he saw. “Please, tell me what happened!”

Jake nodded. “Well, the party was pretty much what I expected,” he said in Gothic. He wasn’t quite fluent in Nocturnean. “I learned a lot, some of the guys had interesting ideas.”

“All right…how were they?” Venus asked, putting her patience to work. Jake was obviously just marshaling his thoughts. Her father acted the same way at times.

“Well…for where they live in the hive, pretty well, but…” Jake trailed off. “Shit. They deserve better.” He sighed, thinking over the tiny apartment and reprocessed people and feces they had had for dinner. “They liked the pie, though,” he added as an afterthought.

Venus snorted. “Good. What were their suggestions?”

Jake sat on the little bench in the corner of the porch and thought back. Venus sat beside him, adjusting her robe as she did. “Hmm. The principle suggestion was that the Arbites crack down harder on day-to-day drug trading. And…shit, what I saw on the tram, I think they’re right.” Jake grimaced bitterly. “Ten. They were ten years old, and for pennies a day, they were cutting drugs in some lab. I know those cuts. Kids came to school with those cuts,” he said, remembering back to middle school. “The kids with the shiny new voxes and bags under their eyes.” He turned a pained glance on Venus. “N’bel is only two years older than them, and they were so terrified of the Arbites that they preferred me turning them in. They thought I was an Ordo spook.”

“Are you serious?” Venus asked in astonishment.

Jake held up his hand. “They saw the needler.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Venus groaned.

“So you can see the confusion,” Jake continued with half a grin. The balcony lit up a bit as a passing car’s headlights made it through the holoscreen, which Venus had set to two-way. Venus ground her palms into her eyes.

“Okay, so, you turned them in, long story short, here we are?” she finished for him.

“Essentially.” Jake nodded. “Well. The kids are at least safe now.”

“Kids.” Venus shook her head. “Unbelievable. What kind of deplorable…ugh.”


Both adults looked over to the door of the porch. Carmine was clinging blearily to the doorframe, wiping his eyes. His soft pajama pants glowed in his mother’s stare. “What are you doing out here? Is Dad home?”

“I’m right here,” Jake said, standing up and walking over to his son. He knelt and wrapped the little boy in a hug. “Hey, sorry if I kept you up. You were asleep when I got home!”

“I heard someone walking in the hall,” Carmine muttered tiredly.

“Well, let’s get you back in bed, alright?” Jake asked. “I can tell you what happened in the morning.”

“M’kay,” Carmine said, allowing his father to turn him around and guide him down the hall to the stairwell. Venus stayed behind, sitting on the bench where she had been, her mind wandering. Did Jake have a point? Was the incredibly low crime rate of Startseite blinding her to the problems of other Terrans? She wasn’t going to pretend that the state of hivers was the fault of anyone other than hivers, but still…

Below, Jake watched as his son climbed into bed. Carmine yawned and snuggled down under the covers. “Can I ask you something before you go, Dad?” Carmine asked. The incredibly bright lights of his eyes – the brightest Jake had ever seen save those of Vulkan himself – dimmed as the boy started to drift back to sleep.

“Sure, son, what’s up?” Jake asked, sitting at his son’s bedside.

“Why do you want N’bel and me to go to school here?” Carmine asked.

“I want N’bel to go to high school here, and I can hardly leave you behind,” Jake pointed out. “And N’bel wants to go to school here too. You don’t have to,” he said.

“I want to go home for school,” Carmine said.

“Well, you can.” Jake stood. “Tell you what. Your new school starts in a few weeks. Why don’t you try that out for a while? I think you’ll be pretty popular.”


“Because you like new things,” Jake said. “And you’re really smart.”

“I guess,” Carmine said tiredly.

Jake snorted. “Good night, Carmine. See you tomorrow morning.”

Upstairs, Venus lounged on the balcony bench, idly running her hands together. The thick web of scars and wear marks on her hands were the product of thousands of hours in the forges, not fighting or drug use, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized what Jake must have seen, and why it had him so emotional. She wondered what she would have done in his place.

“Sweetheart? Carmine’s in bed now,” Jake said from the door.

Venus sat up, then rose, snugging her robe. “Good. Was he okay?”

“Just night sounds keeping him up,” Jake said. He walked into the bedroom and started undressing. “I really do apologize if I scared you,” he said around a mouthful of shirt.

“I’m just glad it all worked out,” Venus said. She slid her robe off and hung it on the peg. She paused before climbing into the bed. “Have you figured out why you wanted to do all this?” she asked.

Jake pulled sleeping clothes on slowly, thinking the question over. “I think I have, yeah.”

“And have you decided what you’re going to do?”

He lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling as Venus doused the lights. “I’m getting there. Safer schools would help, but…I dunno. I feel like…like I’m letting them down, you know? My old family.”

“You’re seeing my parents and yours tomorrow,” Venus pointed out. “Ask them.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I should,” Jake said. He reached out his hand in the darkness and caressed Venus’ flat stomach, eliciting a giggle at the tickling feeling. “Do you think we keep the boys safe?” Jake asked softly, the terror in the eyes of the boys on the tram coming back to him. “I feel like I can barely even tell what they’re thinking sometimes.”

“You think I can?” Venus asked drily. “They’re boys. They feel like aliens to me half the time.” She squeezed his hand. “I think we’re doing okay so far.”

“Me too,” Jake said, and he let her warmth lull him to rest.

Venus squeezed Carmine’s shoulder as he exited the car outside the Seager family home. “Don’t stare, Carmine,” she said softly. Her son was eyeballing a few pedestrians, who were clearly taken aback by what probably looked, for all intents and purposes, like a mutant pack exiting a car with the Imperial Aquila on it. Carmine shot them a parting glare and looked up at the small apartment that the Seagers shared, the same one Jake had purchased for them several years before. The structure was decorated in fashionable low-key Gothic style, with no windows at all, but a large aircar pad right outside the door. N’bel ran ahead of the others and eagerly knocked on the door.

His mother Sandra opened the door and beamed at her grandson. N’bel, smartly clad in a neat Terran formal shirt, smiled up at her from the stoop. “Grandma Sandra!” he exclaimed.

“Hello, N’bel,” Sandra said, hugging him as he entered. “Goodness, you’re a foot taller than you were when I saw you last!”

“You think so?” N’bel asked. Lights flashed across the front of the apartment as the neverending streams of traffic raced by on the elevated roadways and in the air.

“I do!” Sandra said. She leaned over to hug Carmine as he raced up to her. “Carmine! How are you?” she asked. George walked up behind them, grinning at his enthusiastic grandsons.

“I’m okay, Grandma,” Carmine said. He hugged George in turn as N’bel made for the bathroom after the nearly hour-long flight to the apartment. “I’m a little nervous about school starting. I don’t people to make fun of my accent or anything here,” he said.

“Oh, honey, trust me, nobody will do that,” Sandra said. “Nobody important anyway.”

Jake shook his father’s hand and hugged his mother as his sons found seats in the main room. “Mom, Dad, good to see you again,” Jake said. He hadn’t aged a day in fourteen years, where his parents most certainly had, but the better accommodations of the home he had bought for them had afforded them a higher standard of living, and both were still spritely.

“Hello, Jake,” George said. “Venus, you look radiant,” he added, hugging his daughter-in-law. His rumpled short-sleeve work shirt was kept fastidiously clean, and had the name ‘Seager Metalworking and Rapair’ emblazoned on the breast pocket. “How was the flight?”

“Slow. We got pulled over once, if you can believe that,” Venus said.

Sandra stared. “Someone actually pulled over a vehicle with the Imperial flags on it?” she asked.

“No, not like a traffic stop or anything, just a snarl in the autopilot,” Venus said. She looked around the apartment, searching for the time. “Oh, it’s only noon. Good.”

“Yes, it’s early.” Sandra and George sat down, and Carmine immediately crawled into his grandfather’s lap. “Oof. Hey, kiddo,” George said, grinning at his grandson. Carmine hurriedly slid his shades on to keep from blinding his grandfather.

After a while recounting the past year and a half of separation, the boys stayed in the main room to play games on the holo while the adults took to the little kitchenette. The Seagers listened as Jake recounted his adventure with law enforcement the day before. “So, apparently I’m an Ordo spook, too,” he finished. “That was a new one.”

His mother stared at him, pained. “Jake, sweetheart, I know you want to make a difference,” she began. The brown-haired office worker had had her own problems with drug pushers working near their own home before Jake had moved them out entirely. “But Dieter was right. The problems are with the Arbites and simple human nature,” she said. “You can’t fix that.”

Jake sighed heavily, massaging the bridge of his nose. “I suppose. I still feel that I could at least help the Arbites out a bit.”

“How? Funding? Training?” Sandra asked. “If you only help out one hab, people will call favoritism.”

Her son nodded glumly. “I guess you’re right.”

“Anyway, we’re just glad you’re okay,” George said. His voice was momentarily drowned out by a whoop of pure pride from the other room as Carmine managed to run his brother over in an aptly-named Salamander in the game they were playing. “Are you going to be staying in town while N'bel is at Imperator?” he asked, changing the subject. “It’s a long drive from Cordoma.”

“Actually no,” Venus said. “If you take the skylanes it’s only twenty minutes per trip. The boys will just get the car. I’ll drive them to school and then go to the Palace to work, rather than working from home.”

“And what will you be doing all day?” Misja asked Jake. He shrugged.

“Well, I have work to do too. I’ll either go with the boys or work from home,” he said. He placed both hands on the table and looked closely at his parents. Any revulsion they still felt towards his new appearance was more or less gone, by now. “I want to make something clear, though, as long as we’re still here,” he said. “Is it alright if the boys stop off here every so often if we can’t pick them up?”

“Absolutely!” Sandra said. “Are you sure they wouldn’t want to stay at Vulkan’s and Misja’s house, though? It’s much closer,” she noted.

“It is, but they want to see you two just as much,” Venus pointed out.

“Hey, Dad, can you help us with this?” N’bel called from the other room. Jake wandered in to help the co-opping brothers through a particularly tough level as the Seagers and Venus continued their discussion.

“We’ve made it very clear to the boys that you’re as much a part of the family as my parents are, even given their…traits,” Venus said, waving at her eyes. “Really. And I promise they’ll thank you for having them. They go years without seeing their grandparents when we’re on Nocturne.”

“Well, we always like it when they stop by,” Sandra said. “They’re welcome any time.”

Hard At Work[edit]

Cora and Afina in their younger years!

Business was good.

Corvus Cora sipped a cup of hot cocoa and stared at several dataslates on her desk, watching numbers scroll by at blinding speeds. Her superhuman eyes followed their movements, absorbing the information as fast as it was presented, and she grinned behind the white ceramic of her cup. Yes, business was good.

Less than ten years before, she had purchased the Terran Manufacturing Concern to add to her slowly-growing collection of private construction companies. The macroconstruction industry was her battlefield, and she crossed it with skill. The new colony on Maxeillus had been one of hers, constructed with a combination of human and servitor labor, with Mechanicum oversight. It had nearly bankrupted the company to finance, but they had succeeded. With that contract under their belts, there wasn’t a project in the galaxy that the Corvus Design and Engineering Conglomerate couldn’t handle.

With one small problem. While the actual construction had gone smoothly, the supply chains had cost so much that Cora had had to take out multiple loans to keep the teams equipped. The Mechanicum kept the manufacturing and supply sources of the Imperium under an iron grip, and not without reason, but it was bad for business. The answer?

“Vertical control, Afina,” Cora said with satisfaction.

Her secretary poked her head into the cavernous office Cora had to herself. “Sorry, my Lady?” the mousy young Terran asked.

“Nothing of import,” Cora said smugly, rising to her feet. The Terran Manufacturing Concern controlled over four hundred small-scale manufactorae across the Sol system, and though only a few had made construction equipment when she had bought them out wholesale, that was swiftly rectified. With the TMC facilities making the equipment and materials she needed at a fifth of the price the Mechanicum charged, she had been able to pay off every single loan the company had ever owed, in full. Now, the data streaming across her slates had told her how much more she had brought in with one simple purchase.

“Afina, do I have anything scheduled for the next hour?” Cora asked as she walked out into the antechamber.

Her secretary – a frighteningly smart if timid young business PA that Cora had a lot of time for – fumbled through a small schedule book. “Er, no, my Lady,” she said. “But right at 1300, you have a tour of the plastics molding facility in hive 0004 on Terra.”

“Oh, right,” Cora said. “Great. We’ll have lunch in Startseite and go to the factory after that.”

“If you will it, my Lady,” Afina said. Cora hid a smile. Afina’s near-reverence for her station had been a bit wearying at first, but Cora was growing to like it. It was clearly just Afina’s means of expressing respect.

“Didn’t you grow up in Startseite, if I may ask, my Lady?” Afina asked as she dug up her wallet and slid it into her pocket.

Cora nodded. The sleek business suit she was wearing contrasted nicely with her snow-white skin and shimmering black hair. By contrast, Afina’s brown tweedish shirt and green dress seemed nearly pedestrian. “Yes, I did. Where are you from?” she asked as she pulled on a jacket.

Afina nodded eagerly. “I’m from Albiona, my Lady,” she said. Her soft voice would have been hard for someone without Cora’s hypersensitive hearing to detect. “I’d been to Startseite a few times before I came to work for you, though,” she added.

“Cool.” Cora flipped a pair of sunglasses on and tapped the call button for her elevator. “Let’s head out.”

Her office, in the heart of Cordoma’s business district, was a mere twenty minutes from Startseite by skycar. The luxurious black limousine raced through the air towards the city, cutting through the sun-drenched Terran surface glare. Nearly the entire planet was one giant hive, thanks to the Emperor’s construction order. Cora didn’t give it much thought as a child, though she was starting to understand why some hivers resented surfacers so much for it now that she owned several hive-based factories.

The limo’s interior was padded with soundproofing material, and plenty of leather upholstery. The small holo screen set into the island that ran down the middle flickered to life as Cora faced it. “Lady Primarch, you have a call coming in from Derrel Parkman,” Afina reported.

Cora made a face. “Put him on,” she said. Parkman was one of the managers of the plastics factory she had purchased mere weeks before. He was a competent enough man, but renovating his facility had taken far more money than he had estimated.

The image of an elderly man with thin grey hair appeared on the screen. “Your Ladyship, hello,” Parkman said. “Hope I’m not interrupting anything?” “Just a trip to lunch,” Cora said. “What can I do for you?”

“Actually, I was hoping we could move the tour of the factory from 1300 to 1330,” Parkman said apologetically. “We’re having about fifty shipments of microbeads arrive at the same time as five pickles. The whole facility will be in gridlock.”

“I want to see it as it, Derrel,” Cora said mildly. “Half the reason we negotiated the buyout was that your facility could handle shipments that size without problems.”

“Well, that’s fine too,” the manager admitted. “Very well. I’ll see you then, your Ladyship.”

Cora bade him farewell and hung up. Afina looked at her nervously. “My Lady, you know, it’s funny,” she said. “I know in my head that the word ‘pickle’ just means a sealed container of volatile liquids being moved to a processing facility, but…”

“But the mental image is fantastic,” Cora finished for her, grinning. “I know. How do people even come up with this stuff?”

“I don’t know, my Lady,” Afina admitted.

The car settled down outside the restaurant Cora had chosen for their lunch before taking off to the factory. Cora and Afina exited and faced the structure, one Cora had frequented as a child. “Wow, I missed this place,” Cora said happily. “Montegreen’s. Good times.”

“I’ve never been, my Lady,” Afina said, following her boss into the place.

The hostess noticed them as they entered, and her eyes widened as she recognized Cora. To Cora’s relief, she didn’t act unusually, instead directing them to a table near the stage. “It’s a great place; most of us visited at some point or another,” Cora said. They sat at the little table and the hostess deposited some menus. “Small town, you know.”

The stage was occupied for the lunch crowd, with some stand-up doing a routine. Cora tuned him out – a tricky business with her hearing – and focused on her slate, which she propped against a napkin box. The news trickling in over her screen was mostly financial information from her brokers and accountant, but routine in nature. Afina discreetly cleared her throat when the waitress arrived.

Cora ordered without opening the menu. “Malted brawn steak with a side of mesquite fried corn,” she said, not taking her eyes off the slate. She looked up at the waitress with a sheepish smile when she heard the other woman chuckle. “Some things never change, eh?”

As the meal approached its end, Cora rose from her hunched observation of the slate and cricked her back, looking around the main room of the restaurant. A few kids in the corner booth remained, but the lunch crowd was vanishing as people went back to work. “Much better,” Cora sighed. “It’s quieter.”

“Does it hurt your ears when it’s louder than this, my Lady?” Afina asked over a bowl of ice cream.

“No, but it’s so distracting,” Cora said. She dug into her own, melting bowl of ice cream with gusto. “All right. Five minutes, and we’re off.”

“Alright,” Afina said. They ate in silence for a while as the rest of the customers vanished, one-by-one, and a few stragglers wandered in for a late snack. “May I ask you something about this expedition, my Lady?” Afina asked after a minute or two.

Cora looked up at her and licked vanilla away. “Sure.”

“Why did you choose a factory that didn’t manufacture the things we were needing to purchase, my Lady?” her secretary asked hesitantly.

Cora shook her head, scattering black strands over her shoulders. “Because the Mechanicum hates competition. If I had tried to muscle into the business by just buying a manufactorium that built construction materials, it would have cost more than buying a struggling factory that made something else entirely and repurposing it.”

Afina sighed. “That’s silly.”

“No kidding,” Cora muttered. She set her bowl down and stood as the waitress dropped her card off on the table. “All right. Let’s went, shall we?”

“Yes, my Lady,” Afina said.

In the car outside, Cora was just fastening into her seat when her arm invisibly twitched. Cora stared at the implant in her forearm with surprise. She had long ago restricted access to her personal communication implants to immediate family and friends. Curious, she blinked three times and opened the data stream in her sunglasses.

Three words, a message from her cousin Morticia, floated in her sight. “Tonight’s fine here.”

Cora beamed. “Excellent,” she murmured. Afina looked at her curiously, but said nothing.

Derrel Packman nervously adjusted his splash coat and awaited the Lady Primarch to whom he now owed his job. The factory was a complete zoo at that moment. No fewer than forty five trucks were still queued at the docks, and even if the offloading was going perfectly, it still looked like a demolition derby in the warehouse.

“Mister Packman, the volatiles delivery is sorted,” one of his managers murmured.

Packman sighed. “Good. Is the lab ready?”

“It should be, sir,” the lab manager said. “When does the Lady Primarch arrive?”

“Any minute,” Packman murmured. The lifelong bureaucrat was hesitant to show Cora the factory out of more than just self-consciousness. Some of the upgrades had been messy.

The security door in front of them opened, and a Treasury officer in uniform emerged. Lady Primarch Cora herself emerged behind the officer, and immediately angled towards Packman. “Director Packman, good to see you again,” Cora said, extending a hand.

Packman bowed as he shook her hand, settling his nerves. “Your Ladyship, welcome back,” he said. “We’re eager to show you the changes we’ve made.” Cora half-smiled at the obvious but necessary lie. “I’m sure. Shall we? Where do we begin?” she asked.

Packman retrieved his hand and gestured at the traffic pattern of trucks and forklifts in the room. “Well, we haven’t changed Receiving much, so let’s move straight to Airblowing,” he said.

“Great.” Cora fell in step behind him with Afina tagging along behind her, who was surreptitiously recording everything on her slate. “So, last time we discussed the possibility of gutting the old mechanic shop and replacing it with a more open area where all the mechanics and facility Techpriests can just hop on the equipment they need,” Cora noted.

“We tried to implement that idea, ma’am,” Packman said, turning down an aisle of massive boxes stacked four stories high. “The techpriests don’t want to have to open their more advanced equipment to use by the general mechanics.”

“And why is that a problem?” Cora asked. “Is it something the general mechanics will even need to use?”

“They may use it anyway,” Packman said. He shrugged awkwardly as they proceeded through the cavernous room. “Well, in fairness, no, the trained mechanics won’t, but the line workers have been known to try to use the gear the mechanics leave on the line for repairs or changeovers.”

“I see.” Cora thought that over in silence as they reached the end of the aisle. “I noticed you put those spherical mirrors in place,” she said, pointing at one of the little silvery orbs in the air. They reflected light from odd angles, allowing people to see vehicles approaching from the cross-halls without having to actually step into them.

“We did, ma’am,” Packman said. “Vehicle accidents were rare before, now they simply don’t happen.”

“Good,” Cora replied. “Where to next?” she asked.

“Well, I was thinking that we would see the new plastics molding area on the way to the offices, ma’am,” Packman said. “Unless you’d rather see something else?”

“Actually, I’d love to see the glasscutting area,” Cora said. “From what I remember, it wasn’t even here last time I visited, before the buyout.”

Packman quickly shifted gears. “Very well, Lady Corvus, we can visit that first. This way,” he said, turning in the intersection.

Cora followed him down the hallways, her hyperactive senses absorbing information from around her. While, indeed, the place did look better than the shape it had been when she had bought it, there were still problems around. Portable tanks of casting liquids and coolants were stacked on top of each other, ancient plastic pallets frayed and cracked, and the floor was sticky enough that she actually had to avoid patches.

“And here we are,” Packman said, pausing at the entrance to the glass area. Cora glanced into the massive room and rubbed her chin, taking in the sights. The whole assembly floor was crisscrossed with lines and drains, and the bustle of workers and forklifts filled the empty spaces. Pallets of glass sheets and piles of small boxes filled spraypainted squares on the ground. Brilliant white lights hung from the ceilings, several of them showing signs of recent installation. All that, Cora took in with a glance, and could have fit into any factory in the human species. The rest, she took in with her transhuman eyes, on a level no other save her own relatives could hope to match.

She saw the thin lines of rust and paint chipping around areas where the floor had been corroded away and simply painted over. She saw the way boxes and pallets had been stacked outside the designated area, and the way the workers were stopping to look at the clocks every few minutes.

Cora also noted the way the workers’ uniforms were ripped and ragged and stained, moreso than they could be after one day’s work. Some of the uniform shirts she saw were ripped wide open, hanging by scraps.

“We’re quite proud of the improvements we’ve made so far,” Packman said.

“I bet,” Cora replied.

In the conference room above, Cora leaned back in the chair and watched the presentation Packman was giving her about how they had improved this and that, and dutifully recorded it with her flawless memory and the small tablet she had brought with her. While she did, Afina quietly excused herself for the second portion of her responsibility to Cora: not being quite as visible.

The young Terran woman donned an anonymous ‘Visitor’ coat and hairnet and slipped into the factory, walking purposefully for the manufacturing floor. The other people present walked right by her without a second glance, not even looking at her face under the net.

Afina looked over the manufacturing floor as she walked through the massive door, taking in the details. The conversations around her died under the sound of the massive grinders, and she slid a pair of ear protectors on as she approached them. The sound died down as she passed it and entered the sorting area, where teams of humans sorted the multicolored plastic and stone chips more effectively than a Mechanicum sorter robot ever could.

One of the line supervisors was talking as she neared his line. “Juan, get the second bin from the cleaner, it’s done by now,” he said, gesturing at a metal box behind them.

“Yeah,” an oil-stained young man with a ragged beard muttered, walking over to the boxes.

“So…did you see her?” one of the other line workers asked.

“Who, the Princess? No, she wasn’t there,” the line supervisor said. “Bunch of the others were.”

“Eh. Just another rich surfacer telling us how to work,” the worker beside him said.

“We’ll see.”

Afina frowned mightily at the slight to her mistress, but forced herself to walk on by.

Upstairs, Cora stood as Packman finished his speech. “Thanks for taking the time to make that, Sieur Packman,” she said, as she took her place at the head of the room.

“Our pleasure, Lady Corvus,” Packman said, bowing back to his seat.

“All right, my friends,” Cora said, as she gripped the podium and looked over the small group. “We’ll start with a brief recap. When I purchased this company to add to the Conglomerate, I was hoping that the equipment here would cut down significantly on the costs of creating the materials we can’t field-fabricate for large-scale colony building,” she said. Packman and the others nodded. “So far, it has. Upon my purchase four months ago, the refurbishing costs were pretty high, but have been offset by the decrease in expenditures from the rest of the Conglomerate nicely.” Cora smiled as she recalled exactly how much money she was actually saving now that she didn’t have to go get her materials off the open market. “The refurbishing costs have already been offset, in fact.”

“Oh, excellent,” Packman’s Treasurer said excitedly. “That’s wonderful news.”

“Indeed it is,” Cora said happily. “Now…of course there will have been some problems in the major equipment replacements. The old plastic melters replaced entirely, the pelletizers gutted, the fabric section replaced entirely…anything I should know about?”

“Well, we had a few small problems with sorting the power grid and moving some rooms around, but not much beyond that, honestly, ma’am,” Packman’s Plant Manager said. “We’ve increased our workforce to over eight hundred. Our Human Resources staff had to increase accordingly, but the new employees are working out well, on the whole.”

“With the usual range of exceptions,” Cora said, sipping at the drink in her cup. She made a face and pushed it aside. “Anyway. How are the new structural changes for the building?”

“Not a problem, ma’am, though they did take quite a while, as I’m sure you know,” Packman said. “The only real problem is the security issue.”

“By which, I assume, you mean the fact that the factory has suffered some thefts of late,” Cora observed. She slowly twirled a stylus around her finger as she spoke, watching Packman closely. He was a bit nervous, but not worryingly so.

“It has, ma’am, though we have stepped up background searching on all applicants,” Packman assured her.

Cora looked down at her slate, and paged through to the section on factory hiring policy. “Looks like most of your new hiring goes through headhunters, for anything short of executive positions…and you don’t pay any benefits to new hires for over a year.”

“That’s correct, ma’am,” Packman said. He wasn’t apologizing. The elderly executive gestured at the factory floor below. “Our workers have a high turnover rate. We’re not going to invest in retirements or medical insurance for them when they rarely stay on for more than a year. We say so upfront in their contracts.”

Cora looked over the copy of the contract he had provided. “So I see.”

“Are you saying you disapprove, ma’am?” Packman asked.

“Yes.” Cora set the slate down and folded her hands over it. “Treating your workers like expendable drones doesn’t build any sort of loyalty to the company.”

“I’m aware, ma’am, but what option do we have? We expanded our workforce by hundreds, my Lady, you’ll recall,” Packman said awkwardly. “Payroll went up enough as it is.”

Cora nodded slowly. “All right.” She rose. “Is there a little girls’ room around here, sieur?” she asked.

“There is, my Lady, down the hall on your left,” Packman said. “Shall we reconvene in five minutes?” he asked of the room.

A general chorus of affirmatives met his suggestion. Cora walked out the door and made for the room, pawing in her pockets for a vox with a camera function.

Below, Afina was meandering through the production areas, trying hard to have the particular mix of casual and purposeful that she needed to have to get the job done in her appearance. The secretary par none walked past a small breakroom and she slipped in, deftly un-doing her hairnet in mimicry of the people around her. A group of workers by the coffee machine were arguing about something as she sat down. She tuned in with half an ear. “So I told the fuck, he isn’t allowed to give me that bullshit, not now or ever,” one fat mechanic was saying, with much waving of arms.

A young-looking technician in a tattered blue lab coat shrugged uncomfortably. He had small foam buds in his ears to block out the loud noise of the omni-present pumps and grinders. “I guess he had a point, though. I mean, this isn’t exactly up to spec, you know?”

The mechanic waved his hand again, disgusted. “It’s all a bunch of shit. They’re like animals. They should know not to shit where they live.”

The technician shrugged again. “I know.” He spotted Afina and wandered over. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Afina said, pulling out her vox to check for messages from Cora.

“Uh, I don’t think we’re allowed to use those down here,” the tech said nervously. “The old floor manager fired a guy for using one in the bathroom.”

“Supervisors are allowed to use them,” Afina said. “And guests.”

“Are you a supervisor?” the kid asked, sitting down in a new chair.

“I work for the corporate office,” Afina said distractedly. Cora wanted her report. She packed the vox back up and stood. “See you later.”

Cora finished photographing the walls in the bathroom and walked out into the hall. Afina fell into place at her elbow with military precision, already transmitting her observations. “My Lady,” Afina said demurely.

“Did you find anything of note?” Cora asked quietly.

“There are very, very few people here who like their jobs, my Lady, but I saw few things that truly worry me,” Afina reported. “There were some rather disappointingly low standards of uniform repair.” Cora nodded. “All right. Well done.”

Afina beamed at the compliment and followed her mistress into the conference room. Cora moved to the head of the table as soon as she entered, and waited for the other people to return.

The black-haired young mogul cleared her throat or attention as the door closed. “All right. Before we move on, I’d like to address a few things we’ve observed so far.” She tapped a button on her slate and the screen behind her blanked. Up popped a flash of a screensaver – some craggy mountains overlooking a small inland ocean – before a blank list of bullet points appeared. “Okay, first things first. I know nobody here wants to be lectured, so I’ll keep this succinct. You’ve made progress,” Cora said, earning a few nervous grins. “Things still need to change.” The grins vanished. “The things in the warehouse that I saw need to be rectified. Stacking non-modular containers on top of each other? Someone’s going to be crushed.” She entered a line on the list: Warehouse safety.

She continued. “I also saw, down on the production floor, that a lot of lines and grinders had large painted squares next to them. What goes in there?” she asked.

The floor manager spoke up. “Those are the spots where the pallets are set. We put the items that come off of the lines there.”

“Then why were so few of them empty, while pallets of material were strewn haphazard around the floor around them?” Cora asked pointedly.

“Because people don’t like following rules that inconvenience them, my Lady,” the manager said awkwardly. “I mean, we will of course do better. I’ll think of something.”

“Put posters up around the lines, showing pictures of people doing it wrong,” Cora suggested. She wrote ‘Pallet Locations’ on the list.

As the meeting dragged on, the list grew longer and longer, until finally Cora stopped her recitation and took in the room. Some of the executives were visibly angered by the procedure, though only her super-senses allowed her to see it clearly. She sensed their patience wearing thinner and decided to lance the boil. “All right, folks, I’ve been talking for a while. Why don’t I surrender the podium for bit and see what ideas you all have to contribute,” she said, stepping back. She took her seat next to the podium and waited.

Packman coughed. “My Lady, the fact of the matter is that rather a lot of those solutions you proposed will require substantial increases in payroll. We’re fully staffed as it is.”

Cora frowned. “I don’t understand.”

“I mean, we have all of the shift rotations filled with employees,” Packman said. “Short of overstaffing, this is pretty much a full house.”

“Then if I may ask, Sieur Packman, why have the improvements we’re seeing here seemed so small?” Cora asked politely. “When I was here six months ago, I created much the same list.”

Packman sighed, but couldn’t immediately refute the argument. “Lady Cora, the problem is that the factory itself had to be rebuilt, as I’m sure you know. Our mechanics can’t be making all these little adjustments at the same time as a full-scale reconstruction.”

“Then you aren’t fully staffed,” Cora said. “Look, I’m not trying to pick a fight, here, Sieur Packman, but don’t tell me in one breath that you’re fully staffed, and in the very next breath tell me that you have too few mechanics.” She leaned back in her seat. “You do your hiring through a headhunter. Instruct them to start branching out and bringing more qualified mechanics on board. Maintenance people too. The amount of graffiti in your bathrooms and halls is unprofessional. I hold my facilities to a high standard.”

Packman nodded. “I see. I will do that, but, ma’am, I do feel I should say…I do not have the payroll budget to support many more people.”

Cora sighed, rubbing her forehead. “That’s a very familiar argument, Sieur Packman.” She sat back in her chair. “Okay. So you’re hiring from the general hive population. You don’t want to trust them with full employment, because that would necessitate the full benefits of employment, so you use a headhunter instead, who doesn’t give them shit for benefits. However, the headhunter needs to make money too, so they charge you…what, five to two? Five to three?” She paged through the notes for the presentation. “Five to three. Okay. So for every three credits your temps earn, you pay the headhunter five. So given that you’re paying well above the industry standard per employee, but only have to have a small HR department and can fire absolutely any employee for absolutely no reason at any time, it balances in your favor. Fine. And since your income was previously determined by the market value for your products, you could only pay the headhunters so much.”

She flipped the stylus off of the table and caught it, twirling it in her hands as she spoke. “Now, however, your income and budget are what I say they are. Given what I’ve seen of the state of this place, what may have been a full house before isn’t good enough now. That, or you do have enough people but they aren’t working efficiently enough.” She leaned forward and glanced down the rows of people. “My friends, this isn’t gonna hack it. In two months, I leave for Copernicus, to construct the largest privately-funded oil refinery in human history. I’ll be there for up to five years. I need to know that factory output will be as high as you can make it that entire time, because…goodness, I certainly don’t want to have to worry about logistics out in the backwater.” She flipped the stylus again and caught it, then stabbed it down on her tablet. “If you need a bigger payroll or better training or whatever you decide you need, all you have to do is ask.”

“Well…we appreciate that, my Lady,” Packman said, a bit taken aback by her apparent generosity on the heels of the shopping list of problems. “I do want to make sure, however…you do understand that part of the problem is turnover, right?”

“Turnover…of temp employees?” Cora asked.

“Yes, ma’am. A lot of our employees are just kids working during school breaks or what have you. We have relatively few long-term employees, and all of those are hired full-time, with benefits and internal TMC hiring,” Packman said.

“Yeah. I know.” Cora picked up her stylus and called up the local population and unemployment figures. “Says here that unemployment for those looking for work is about four percent locally…and unemployment for everybody old enough or young enough to work but not doing so is around ten percent. Four percent times the local population level equals around fifty million people.” She set the stylus back down. “Of course, you knew that.”

“Right.” Packman sighed, feeling a little patronized. “Ma’am, the problem isn’t line workers. Those are abundant. What we need are skilled workers. Mechanics and technicians. Those are far, far rarer and more expensive.”

“To fulfill my suggestions,” Cora said.


“You need more techs and mechanics to fulfill my suggestions. Right?” Cora asked. “That’s what you meant.”

“Well, in general,” Packman said.

“And…you said you were fully staffed before,” Cora pointed out.

“I mean that they’re hard to replace,” Packman corrected himself.

Cora felt the ambient resentment in the room rising and felt she had seen enough. “Alright.” She stood, and the rest of the room rose too. “I think my point is made. I’d like to finish the tour now, if we could,” Cora said. “Even when I was here a few months ago I hadn’t seen the QA and management areas. Let’s see how they look. And drop by the chapel, too.”

“The Mechanicum shrine?” one of the executives asked. “I’ll go inform the Magos.”

“No, don’t bother,” Cora said. “We’ll just arrive. I prefer to see things when they haven’t been sanitized.”

Afina slipped out of the room as the others rose, and put her anonymous ‘visitor’ coat back on. She walked straight over to the office block on the bottom floor of the cubic factory and lurked outside, her vox at the ready.

Within minutes, Cora and the rest of the executives passed by on their way to the QA labs, and Afina took advantage of the distraction to duck into the massive gravel storage tank farm beside the offices. She wandered around, keeping half an ear out for anyone approaching her.

She noted with disappointment that the metal clamps that held the coolant pipes were simply dropped to the floor when not in use. Several littered the ground under one of the massive plastic tanks. Greasy fluids sluiced across the ground in puddles. The drains into which they were supposed to flow were mounted at the highest points on the floor, so the liquids simply pooled under the tanks instead. Footprints in the grease showed where mechanics simply walked right through them, oblivious. The various tanks rumbled with the shifting weight of many, many thousands of kilograms of ground rock and plastic.

Afina heard someone approaching and made her exit, walking into the management offices like nothing was happening at all, and she had every right to be there.

In the labs, Cora donned a coat of her own and slid on the hairnet with some difficulty. She followed the lab manager into the little rooms, and listened as the manager described various things Cora already knew from the briefing. As she did so, her eyes traveled over the equipment in the room, watching it for any sign of defects.

A clattering of footfalls behind her made her start and spin around. A technician was walking gingerly over the maze of hoses to read labels off of a steel drum behind her. With him thus distracted, Afina slid away, trailing unobtrusively behind her mistress. Cora sensed her assistant arriving and tuned back in.

“…Which is why the lab has increased in size of late,” the manager said. “We’ve really been emphasizing the newly expanded plastics wing to make our own packaging, but the benefits have been significant.”

“I’m certain they have been,” Cora said. “So, who’s on deck here?”

“Well, we have a small core of four technicians who are trained on every single station and are full, salaried employees,” the manager listed. “Then we have a supervisor and a senior lab technician over them, and the six of them supervise ten more junior technicians.”

“Those junior techs are on some kind of temp contracts?” Cora asked.

“They are, your Ladyship,” the manager said.

One of the junior technicians, the one with the ragged lab coat, jerked as either Cora’s voice or the use of her name registered, but didn’t turn around. Cora’s hypersensitive hearing alerted her to his sudden tension, and she sensed her presence becoming a hindrance to the workers. “Okay, now for the chapel,” she said. “How do I get there with this new layout?”

“Actually, we’d love to show you some things we’ve added here in the lab,” the manager said, gesturing to some new equipment.

Cora nodded. “Very well, then. What have you added?”

“Well, we started by scrapping the old HPLC, and bought two more, plus a gas chromatograph, a new NMR, and a pair of separatory analytics machines for processing results,” the manager said, pointing each out in turn.

Cora was silent for a moment as she remembered what the abbreviations were for. “All for QA on the plastics?”

“And the dyes we use for the colored glass and packaging labels.”

“I see.” Cora nodded approval. “Well, that’s good. Do you have the amount of full-time staff you need?”

The manager shrugged with some caution. “We’re actually short by three. We’ve had some retirements.”

“Ah.” Cora rubbed her chin. “Then…put out bulletins to the local colleges and see if you can’t hire some undergrads. Do you hire them as temps, or professionals?” she asked.

“Temps,” the manager replied.

Cora tsked. “Working with equipment like that, they should be treated like professionals.”

“I agree, but we use the temp positions as just that: temporary positions,” the manager said hastily. “We hire on the ones worth keeping. We pay a full package, including retirement.”

“That’s something,” Cora said.

A Learning Experience[edit]

The wall of the mansion loomed over the guest before it. Dieter stared up at the wrought-metal railings around the huge porch and tried not to look out of his depth. It was only his second time on the surface.

Jake’s suggestion that the guys congregate at his home for poker next time had been well-received, and Dieter was the first of the hiver guests to arrive. He was several minutes early; he had departed the hive ahead of schedule so he wasn’t in danger of getting lost. During the whole trip to the house, the factory worker had been trying to calm his nerves, telling himself that he was just visiting an old friend.

That seemed paltry in front of the casual display of wealth all around him. Casting his eyes around for something familiar, he spotted some metalworking tools on the swing several meters to the left on the broad, covered porch. He started to walk over to them to see if he could figure out what they were out for when the door swung open.

His gaze jumped to the side to spot a young man standing in the door. The boy looked up at him with confusion on his face, but Dieter barely noticed his expression. The kid’s eyes were solid, glowing red.

“Uh, hi,” the kid said. His voice was surprisingly deep for his age. “Are you here for Dad’s game?”

Dieter managed to find his voice. “Yeah. Er, yeah, I am,” he said. “Am I here too early?”

“A bit, but he’s around,” the kid said, waving distractedly behind himself. He walked out on the porch, ignoring Dieter’s stunned expression, and headed for the tools. “Ah, crud, I left this out on the porch again…Mom’ll be pissed,” he muttered to himself.

“Uh, can you tell me where your Dad is?” Dieter asked.

The kid pointed into the house with one hand. “First floor, back room.”

Dieter looked through the front door, awkwardness holding him back. “Can you show me where it is? I’ve never been here before,” he said.

The kid sighed under his breath and straightened up. “Sure.” Dieter followed him into the building, noting how much he looked like his father. Aside from the freaky eyes, he looked almost exactly like Jake had when they were in middle school together.

The house was massive, but simply decorated. Small metal and stone tokens hung on the walls, held up by invisible wires. A few holos of people and Astartes dotted some tables and wall frames, but mostly the walls were bare white. Here and there, flowers in vases added blotches of color to the home. In one room they passed, there was a small statue of twisted metal bars that looked like it belonged in a museum. A surprisingly large amount of weaponry decorated racks and cases in the halls, most of it highly ornate.

Finally, they reached the back room. Jake was there, brushing off a low felt table. He looked up when the boy and the hiver entered. “Hey, N’bel…Dieter! Good to see you,” he said. He dropped the brush and crossed the room, shaking Dieter’s hand. “Glad you could come.”

Dieter forced a smile past his nerves. “Wouldn’t miss it.” Jake turned back to the table and grabbed a placemat pile, so Dieter took his chance to examine his new surroundings.

This room was the polar opposite of the rest of the house. The whole room was packed with crap, centered around a gargantuan holo on one wall. There were a few cogitators around, including several gaming computers, along with stacks and stacks of board games and art supplies.

N’bel fidgeted at the door. “Dad, can I go clean up the project I was working on?” he asked.

His father nodded from behind the table. “Sure thing. Thanks. If anyone else gets here, call me on the intercom, if they don’t know where to go,” he said.

“Sure.” N’bel closed the door behind him as he walked back to the porch.

Dieter cleared his throat. “So…this is a hell of a place,” he said awkwardly.

“Thanks.” Jake finished distributing placemats and reached for some plates. “Venus and I designed it,” he said. “We wanted to build fresh when we moved back. Thirsty?”

His old friend nodded. “Yeah, I could use a drink.”

Jake pointed at a small refrigerator in one corner. “Help yourself.”

Dieter opened it up and stared at the bewildering array of drinks and food inside. “Uh, what’s good?”

“The purple one is awesome, if sweet. The boys love it,” Jake called over. Dieter dutifully grabbed one and closed it. “So how have you been?”

“Good,” Dieter replied, popping the bottle open. “Busy. I hear one of your sisters-in-law bought my factory,” he said.

“So it was yours? Thought so,” Jake said. “Yeah. Cora. She’s expanding her businesses like mad right now.”

The door swung open again. Another boy, this one much smaller, wandered in, glancing around in irritation. “Daddy, have you seen my bag?” he asked.

“Uh, the green one? It’s on the table by the front door,” Jake said. “What do you need?”

“I thought I put my glasses in it, but I found them on my table in my room,” the kid said. “So I don’t know what’s in it.”

“A deadly situation,” Jake said, mock-seriously. “Dieter, this is my second son, Carmine. Carmine, this is my old friend from high school, Dieter. He’s here for the game.”

“Hi,” Carmine said, looking over. Dieter nodded politely. The shorter boy – who also had incredibly bright eyes, Dieter saw – looked back to his father. “Oh, Uncle Thangir is here, too,” he said. “I saw his car from my room.”

“Cool, show him in when you grab the bag, would you please?” Jake asked. “I need to finish setting up.”

“Okay.” The boy walked down the hall, already waving to someone outside.

Dieter sat down, placing his drink on a coaster. The stuff was sweet, all right, like a soda, only with a distinctly bitter aftertaste. He didn’t much care for it. He looked around for something to fill the air. “So…N’bel and Carmine?” he asked. “I think I remember those names from before.”

Jake smiled fondly. “Yeah. N’bel’s nearly fifteen, Carmine’s a hair over nine.”

“That’s cool,” Dieter said. He fingered the tiny metal band around his own finger. “I got engaged since I saw you last, myself,” he announced.

Jake looked over. “Oh, yeah? Hey, congratulations!” he said. He rose from the table and walked around to shake the other man’s hand. “What’s her name?”

“You may recall her from school, actually,” Dieter said, thinking back to middle school. “Nicole Gethert.”

“Oh…yeah, that rings a bell,” Jake said. “Tall, long black hair?”

“Yep. We got engaged last month,” Dieter said. The tiny ring was pretty standard Terran betrothal jewelry: a silver ring with an artificial diamond in the setting. He ran his fingers over it, remembering how thrilled he had been to actually hold it for the first time. Traditionally, only the person who received the proposal had one, but Nicole had been about to propose to him, too, as it had turned out, so they had simply traded rings once the irony had worn off.

“Well, that’s awesome, man, good for you,” Jake said. “When’s the wedding?”

“Haven’t decided,” the pale hiver replied. “Probably sometime this summer.”

The door swung open again. This time, the person who walked in couldn’t have looked less like Jake. He was a young-looking man, with mop of tousled blonde hair. The loose shirt he was wearing was unbuttoned on the top two buttons, enough for Dieter to see a massive, ugly scar wending its way across his chest. He tried not to stare.

When the newcomer spoke, his accent was thick enough that Dieter pegged him for an offworlder immediately. “Jake, hello.”

Their host grinned. “Thangir, what’s up with you?” he asked, reaching out to shake hands.

“Just waiting for Freya to get back from work, most of the time,” Thangir said ruefully. “But integrating Olev into ‘high culture’ is always an adventure,” he added, curling his fingers in the air.

“You know what I do?” Jake asked, faux-seriously. “I don’t bother. Let him be himself and try not to laugh at the shocked nobles.”

Thangir threw his head back and laughed. “Hah, that would work well with Freya’s approach to the upper crust!”

Dieter stood as the man approached him. “Don’t know we’ve met, friend,” the younger man said cheerfully, eyeing Dieter up. Dieter felt the most unsettling feeling in his spine as they made eye contact. It was as if he was looking at a holo of a predator. “Thangir Russ.”

The name sounded familiar, but no connection materialized in his mind. “Dieter Hatham. Nice to meet you,” Dieter said automatically.

The other man nodded with an equally clear lack of recognition and sat at the table. “Jake, my friend, this is new,” he said, running his hand over the table.

“Well, ‘new,’” Jake said with a shrug. “Since you were here last time.”

“Yes,” Thangir conceded. “Who else is arriving tonight?”

Jake counted them off on his fingers. “You, me, Dieter, Cora, two of my friends from school, a friend of theirs, and maybe Remilia if she can make it. We’re not holding our breath.”

“I see. Seven is a full house anyway,” Thangir said, rising to his feet again. “Where’s Venus?”

“Downstairs, where she now spends every waking minute, perfecting some gadget.” Jake shook his head with an equal measure of fondness and resignation. “I think she’s trying to teach Carmine some trick.”

“I see. Olev is taking to Terra well, all things considered, but he prefers it back home,” Thangir said, which at least confirmed Dieter’s suspicious about his off-world status.

Jake nodded in sympathy. “I know, Carmine’s the same way. I promised him I would let him go to school on Nocturne when he was old enough.”

Thangir made a non-committal sound and wandered about the room. He glanced over one of the smaller decorative weapons on the wall and cocked his head. “I should know this…a matchlock weapon?”

Jake glanced over to where his brother-in-law was standing. “Yes. One of N’bel’s first.”

Dieter blinked. “Uh…you let your kids make guns?” he asked carefully.

His friend shrugged with some discomfort. “I admit it’s dangerous, but I can hardly stop them. It’s in their blood.” He noticed Dieter’s blank expression. “We’re very careful. We don’t give them ammo.”

“Sure,” Dieter assured him. “Do you do it too?”

Jake shrugged. “Not well. Not like Venus or the boys. I’ve designed some things they built, though.”

The door swung open again, terminating the rising awkwardness. A woman of about Jake’s height and short, light brown hair walked in. Again, Dieter was struck by a sense of familiarity. It clarified the moment she spoke. “Jake, Thangir, how are you?” she asked. Her voice was sharp and measured, like she had military experience. Dieter blinked as a name floated into his head: Remilia Dorn. His mouth went dry. He looked from side to side as covertly as he could, trying to fathom how he should be acting, but the others were being unnervingly nonchalant.

Dorn was dressed in a loose button-up over a pleated shirt and cargo pants, so this clearly wasn’t supposed to be a formal occasion, at least. Dieter forced himself to relax, remembering how they had handled the meeting after Jake got back from high school. He cleared his throat, trying to hide his nerves.

“Er, hello,” he said. Remilia glanced over at him. “I doubt you’d remember me, ma’am, but I’m Dieter, we met at the get-together…after you and Jake came back from the trip…after high school,” he said, his voice losing strength as he plowed on.

Dorn tilted her head at him for a moment, then stuck out her hand, smiling brightly. “Right, I remember. How have you been?” she asked, as if it had only been days.

Dieter felt his cheeks burn a bit that she had actually remembered him. It had only been for a few minutes, and decades ago. “I’ve been well, ma’am, thank you,” he said. “I’m flattered you’d remember me.”

Remilia smiled, with a self-effacing shrug. “I’m good at faces.”

“Remilia!” Jake said, crossing the room to envelop her in a quick hug. “Glad you could make it! We thought you had a thing at the Registry!” he said.

His cousin hugged him back. “Hi, Jake, glad I could be here too,” she said. “I had a guy cancel at the Bureau, so I made time.” She waved at Thangir, who was pawing through the fridge. “Hey, Thangir.”

The younger man rose and nodded a greeting. “Remilia, hello. Are you ready to lose a fortune?” he asked mildly.

She scoffed and sat at the table. “Never gonna happen,” she proclaimed. Dieter shot a glance at Jake, who caught his eye and shook his head.

“Nobody’s losing a fortune, actually,” he said. “Buy-in here’s a hundred credits.”

Remilia looked up at him. “Oh. Duh, sorry. Yeah, this is a friendly,” she said, no doubt for Dieter’s benefit.

“I’m probably going to regret this, but what’s the usual buy-in?” Dieter asked.

Thangir dropped is drink on a coaster and slumped into a chair before answering. “Twenty thousand,” he said. He grinned at Dieter’s shake of the head. “Bit steep?”

“I make maybe twice that in a year,” Dieter said disgustedly, dropping into another chair and trying once more to fight off the sense of displacement.

Over the next few minutes, the rest of the guests arrived, one by one. The other hivers looked as out of their depths as Dieter had. Will and Abram, at least, didn’t look as uncomfortable after a few minutes had gone by. Alan was more occupied trying not to stare. Jake did his best to make the others feel at home; he tuned the audio system in one corner to an ambient music station and broke out a few bottles of amasec for those so inclined. Dieter and Thangir accepted a tumbler each of the deep brown liquor. Dieter read the label, but didn’t recognize the name. Off-world too, no doubt.

The door opened yet again, and a woman he didn’t recognize walked in. This one was pale, incredibly so, more even than a hiver like him. She had stomach-length black hair and was dressed for business, complete with a slate under her arm. As the surfacers crowded around her, the name they used to address her froze Dieter’s blood.

“Cora, just in time,” Thangir said. “We were about to start.”

“Ah, you couldn’t start without me, I’m bringing the food,” Cora scoffed. She turned to the hivers still sitting at the table, a few of which looked stunned. “Hi.”

“H-hi,” Alan managed. “I, uh, I think I work for you.”

Cora laughed. “Likely. You work for TMC?”

“I, we do,” Alan said. “Ma’am,” he added.

“Cool.” Cora dropped into a seat. “Well, these things are no-décor, so just have fun and let’s not talk about work, huh?” she asked cheerfully.

“Sorry, ma’am, but…no-décor?” Alan asked carefully.

“No Decorations. We’re all friends here,” she explained. She set her slate down and cricked her knuckles as a servitor pushed in a cart of food. “All right. Let’s get started.”

Jake sat down in one seat and pulled out the deck of cards from under the soft felt table. “All right. We have enough people that we can swing five or a hold’em. Any preferences?”

“Classic Draw gets my vote,” Cora said. There was a general nodding of heads, and Jake reached under the table to grab his box of chips.

“Excellent. Just like old times, huh?” he asked his middle school friends with a grin.

“Some traditions must be maintained,” Abram said, grabbing his chips.

The game started slowly, as the players divvied up the chips and selected food and drinks. The hivers dug into the surface fare with enthusiasm that made their host smile in recollection. He had been nearly that zealous when he had first had a snack at Imperator.

As the game moved on, the conversation turned to Thangir’s family. “My home on the Aett is changing, these days,” he said, flipping some chips into the pot. “Raise you ten.”

“Changing how?” Remilia asked as she matched the bet.

“It’s less crowded, for one,” he said. “So many of us are gone now, off in the wars.”

“I imagine.” Remilia set her cards down, revealing an ace-high straight. The others made sounds of disgust and chucked in their cards. “When I was there, it was pretty empty, too, since several Great Companies were off stomping Orks on the Void Walks.”

“There are many still so dispatched,” Thangir said cryptically.

A light knock sounded on the door. Jake rose and opened it. Carmine was standing beyond, eyeing the group curiously. “Dad, can I come grab some stuff out of the cabinets?” he asked.

Jake stepped back. “Sure.”

Carmine walked up to the rack of storage cabinets on one wall and started rooting through them as Jake returned to his seat. “Anyone still thirsty?” he asked.

“Nah, I’m good,” Remilia said. She rose to her feet and stretched. “Deal me out a few.”

Cora, the current dealer, nodded. “All right.”

Remilia wandered over to where Carmine was digging through some games and watched him sort. “Hey, Carmine, you have a second to talk?” she asked.

Carmine glanced curiously up at her. “Uh, sure.”

“Cool.” She squatted next to her nephew and marveled at how fast he was growing. “What are you looking for?”

The boy squinted red light into the cabinet as he rooted around. “A specific…thing…” He was silent as he dug for a few more seconds. “A pair of binoculars…”

“What for?” his once-removed first cousin asked.

“I like to look at airships out over the city, but…mmph. Can’t find them,” he sighed. He closed the cabinet and stood, looking around himself. “Where can they be?” he muttered.

“Can I ask you about school?” Remilia asked.

Carmine shrugged and plopped down on the floor. “Sure.”

“How are you fitting in here? I know you were worried about it.”

He thought over the question for a moment. “It’s not as bad as I was afraid it would be,” he admitted. “The others think I look like a mutant, sometimes, but forget those guys. I just hang out with the ones who don’t.”

Remilia smiled. “Smart kid. Do you have a best friend?”

“Yeah, I do, actually,” Carmine said. “He’s Tohm, a merchant’s son. He’s the same age as me, maybe a day or two older. We both like the same shows and stuff.”

“That’s good. Do you like your classes?”

“No,” he sighed. “They’re all really easy. I’m taking every advanced course I can, and I’m still bored out of my mind.”

Remilia nodded sagely, having been quite aware of the same phenomenon at Imperator. Only college had truly challenged her. “Yes, I’m sure. Are the teachers nice, at least? I know some teachers dislike teaching people from other planets.”

He looked up at her, surprised. “I never see that. Where does that happen?”

“Oh, some schools more than others.” Remilia looked over at the door. “Is your Mom around?”

“She’s in the forges,” Carmine said.

“All right. Thanks,” she said, starting to rise again. She leaned over to peck him on the cheek. “You stay out of trouble, now, okay?” she asked fondly.

“Oh, we’ll see,” Carmine said evasively. Remilia rolled her eyes.

N’bel shuffled his feet and glared at the floor in the basement below, trying not to look at his mother. Venus had crossed her arms over her apron and was staring straight at him, trying not to lose her temper, in turn. “So, where was the soldering gun when you found it?” she asked.

“On the porch,” N’bel mumbled. Venus’s eyes narrowed.

“And why was it on the porch?” she pressed.

“Because I left it there,” N’bel said, still not looking at her.

“Is there something wrong with your eyes? Are you having an allergic reaction?” Venus snapped. “Look at me!”

N’bel’s red eyes met hers at last, and he flinched away. “N’bel, I should never have to tell you where your tools go,” Venus said, cold now. “And why did you take a solderer out of the basement anyway?” she demanded.

N’bel didn’t answer at first, then relented as his mother’s eyes narrowed again. “Uh…to fix something that broke on the swings.”

“One of the chains that held it up get cracked?”


Venus sighed. “Then why didn’t you dismount it and bring it down to fix?”

“I…didn’t think to.” N’bel’s eyes were drifting away again.

“And why use a soldering iron, when the chains up there are tempered steel, and can’t be adequately repaired by anything short of a welding setup?” Venus asked.

“I…wanted to get it done fast,” her son said.

Venus’ fingers tightened on her bare arms. “Fine. Go clean up, dismount the swing, bring it down, and fix it here. I’ll wait.”

N’bel sighed, but obeyed, putting his tools away. The door to the forges opened at the top of the stairs as he did so, and Venus turned to face the new arrival. Remilia appeared, hands in her pockets, and paused at the bottom of the stairs. “May I?” she called across the room.

Venus sighed under her breath. “Sure,” she called back. Her cousin navigated over to her, carefully moving around the various metalworking stations. “How’s the game going?”

“I’m just taking a break,” she said. She leaned in close and lowered her voice. “Am I interrupting?”

“Sort of,” Venus mouthed. Louder, she continued. “I have a second, though. What’s up?”

“Just saying hello.” Remilia glanced at the forge her cousin was working. “What have you got going?”

“A project for the son of a friend of mine who’s joining the Auxilia back home,” Venus said. She ran her hand over the lumps of unidentifiable metal. “It’s eventually going to be a Stalker Bolter with an integrated polar optic and a recoil suppressor. Not quite done, yet.”

“Very cool,” Remilia said. “You want to drop by the game upstairs and say hi to everyone later?”

“I may,” Venus said. “Cora bring food?”

“She did.”

“Did she cook it herself?” Venus asked with trepidation.

Remilia laughed. “No.”

“Then absolutely,” Venus said drily.

N’bel listened in with half an ear as he stacked his tools in the proper places. He tried not to let his annoyance at being called out get to him. He had screwed up, and he knew it. Remilia turned and headed back up. Mom waited a moment longer, to make sure he was packing properly, before following.

The game upstairs was speeding up with the generous application of amasec. To Jake’s relief, Will was coming out of his shell a bit, and actually trading stories with the other players. At that moment, he was describing his adventure finding the place. “Of course, I’d only been outside the airlock once in my life, so I could hardly navigate.”

“How’d you find it?” Cora asked.

Will cleared his throat past the cloying taste of the alien alcohol. “I just followed the directions you gave me and looked for the house with the big porch. I had to look up what a porch was, but hey.”

Jake shook his head. “I didn’t know why Venus insisted on one before we had one. On nice days, we rarely go inside.”

Alan dropped his cards and folded out. “So how often do you go to space?”

“Oh, we’re back and forth between Earth and Nocturne all the time,” Jake said. “At least once a year, round-trip. For other purposes, a few times per year.”

“Do you get your own ship?” Alan asked.

“Heh. I asked the same thing,” Jake said drily.

A voice from the far side of the room spoke up. “We don’t get our own ships unless we pay for them and hire the Navigator ourselves,” it said. Alan and the other hivers looked over at the source to see a woman with skin darker than shadow emerge from a side door, rubbing down her forehead with a towel. She crossed the room, flipping the towel to hang over one shoulder, and revealing uniform, bright red eyes as she did so. They glimmered in the dim room lights, casting eerie shadows over the furniture.

“As this little debutant so declares, we don’t get ships,” Remilia said dismissively, shooting the new woman a smile. “Hi, Venus.”

Dieter blinked as the memory returned. She had been the one with Jake at the party. That explained the eyes.

“Hey, Remilia,” Venus said back. She leaned over Jake’s head to whisper something, then shot a smile at the rest of the table. “At the risk of sounding like a total scrub, how’s the game going?”

“I’m just about murdered,” Cora said sadly, nursing her last few chips.

Thangir swept up the latest pot with a smirk. “A feat for which I will take all the credit,” he said.

“Hey, come on,” Will said, glaring at the Prince with visible hesitation.

Thangir good-naturedly shrugged. “Oh, fine, you lads are doing just as well,” he said, gesturing at their chip stacks. “You play quite well, by the way. Where did you learn?” he asked.

“Right here on Terra, at middle school, sir,” Will said. “We taught Jake.”

Jake snorted at the insult. Abram picked up where Will left off. “About eight and a half hours every week, for money, for three or four years.”

Thangir stared. “What kind of school did you attend?”

Jake chuckled. “A normal one. We just found our own means of entertainment.”

“I can see. Even my eyes can’t see your tells, half the time,” Thangir said.

“Or mine,” Cora said. She stretched and pushed away her cards as they were dealt. “I need a stretch.”

Venus vanished upstairs to clean up as Cora wandered over to the food tray. “Who’s hungry?”

“I can’t get enough of whatever the little brown square things are,” Will said. “What are those called?”

“Brownies,” Cora called. “They’re chocolate, or these are.” She grabbed a few and passed one to Will as she sat back down. “Covert delivery system of choice for powder and leaf narcotics, too,” she added as he started to bite.

Will froze, staring at her. Jake glared at his cousin. “Hey, knock it off. They’re not poisoned, Will, eat up,” he added. He bit into one with gusto. “They are also excellent,” he said through a mouth of chocolate.

Dieter sighed heavily and set his cards down. “Jake, man, this is freaking me out,” he said.

Jake stared at him, as did most of the others at the table. “What’s wrong?”

Dieter felt the sense that perhaps he should have asked for a more private venue to air his complaint, but soldiered on. “This is…I mean, we’re playing cards with royalty. I feel like I’m drowning, here.”

Jake started to say something, but Thangir abruptly cut him off. “Why?” he demanded.

Dieter blinked at the unexpected interruption. “I mean…I’m a hiver, and you all are…”

“I’m a fisherman,” Thangir said, glaring at the older man. “My whole life was standing on the deck of a ship, stabbing razorfish.”

Jake tried to speak up again, but this time his words stopped on their own. Thangir continued, oblivious. “Look, Dieter, all of you,” he said, this time addressing the other men at the table as well, as Cora and Remilia traded uncomfortable looks. “When Cora said no décor, she didn’t mean ‘ignore the fact that I am a Primarch,’ she meant ‘only pay attention to the fact that I’m playing cards.’ If you are intimidated, I can respect that, but suppress it.”

“Thangir, that’s not fair,” Remilia suddenly said. “The man’s never even seen the sun before.” She looked over at the hiver men. “What can we do to make this less nerve-wracking?”

Alan piped up, hesitantly and quietly. “I honestly don’t know.”

“Well, we could try just talking,” Dieter said, apparently past the ‘embarrassment’ stage. “I mean, all we’ve done is play cards.”

Cora shrugged, putting her cards aside. “Suits me. What do you want to talk about?”

A knock at the door broke the mood. Cora rose to open it, laughing as she did. “We had this whole rapport going, too.”

Dieter chuckled feebly, feeling a sense of resignation bolster his courage. He looked over at Jake as his old friend started packing up the cards. “How did you do it, man?”

“I was twelve. How much did I need to care about royalty back then?” Jake asked. He paused as Remilia raised one eyebrow with a sardonic smile. “Okay, fine, I was scared shitless. But I also had a crush on Hana Khan, so I just forced myself to acclimate.”

Will laughed, despite himself. “Are you serious?”

“Yeah,” Jake said ruefully, as the memories returned. “She dumped my ass like a bag of rocks.”

“You were broken at the seams and joints, as I recall,” Remilia pointed out cheekily.

“Ah, it all worked out,” Jake said, taking his ribbing. Venus brushed past Cora at the door and walked back in, freshly scrubbed and clad in civvies.

“Hey. Mind if I snag lunch?” she asked Cora.

“Help yourself,” Cora said. She sat back down and glanced over the hivers as Venus dug into the platter. “So…what did you want to ask?”

Venus discreetly glanced over the table. The chips were still out, but the cards were out, and all four hivers were looking a bit apprehensive. She bit back a sigh. As badly as Jake wanted to keep in touch with his old life, this probably hadn’t been the best way to do it. Still, he was her husband, and if she could help here, she would.

Abram finally found his voice. “I guess I just don’t know how to be acting,” he said. “I mean, when we were kids, it was…you know, whatever, it was easy…but now? It feels different.”

Remilia nodded slowly, though internally, she had to admit that interacting with common Imperial citizens wasn’t really her cup of tea. Still, it was Jake’s gig. “Well, I can’t speak to that,” she said. “But…I think that you’re thinking of us as royalty when we’re not, as long as we’re here.” She underscored her words with a gesture at the surrounding room.

Will snorted. “What the hell.” He flipped a chip in the air and caught it, and started rolling it between his fingers. “I guess I’m just all fired up. I dunno.” He smiled weakly at the Royal daughters. “Sorry if we’re cramping someone’s style.”

Dieter shifted at the implied admission of wrongdoing, but Jake cut him off. “Forget it. You’re not. And maybe this was a bad idea, but you’re here, and we may as well enjoy it,” he said firmly. The corners of his mouth tightened as he said it. Thangir caught a flash of self-recrimination in his scent, too. “What do you guys want to do instead?”

“I dunno, man, catch us up,” Will said. “What have you even been doing lately?”

“Being a stay-at-home Dad,” Jake said, his tension easing a bit. Venus quietly sat in the overstuffed couch in the corner where N’bel and Carmine would sit to play games on the holo. “Learning how to work in the forges, picking my drawing back up, that sort of thing. Before we had the boys, I used to work in the Palace more.”

“Work how?” Will asked.

“At the Estate. I would review which files needed to be sent to Nocturne, that sort of thing,” Jake explained.

Over the next few minutes, Venus watched in silence as the eight players tried to break the ice a bit more, trading stories and anecdotes from their daily lives. After about ten minutes went by, someone remembered that the chips needed to be cashed, and Jake passed out the buy-in money. The hivers and Thangir had indeed cleaned house. Still, the tension didn’t fade completely, and after another half an hour, Dieter finally stood.

“Well, man, I think we should be heading out,” he said, grabbing his money. Jake sighed, letting his frustrations show for an instant, then rose as well, forcing a smile onto his face.

“It was good to see you again after all this time, guys,” he said. “Let me walk you out to the cab stand.”

“Sure, thanks,” his old friend said. He turned to the Royal family members with much greater hesitation. “Well…thanks for having us,” he said. Thangir inclined his head. “Good to meet you,” he said.

“Thanks for coming,” Remilia said, as Cora nodded. Venus rose from her chair and walked past them to the front door, pushing the food cart with her as she did.

“Remilia, Cora, Thangir,” Will said. He chuckled to himself. “Man, that’s weird. Not adding a title in there.” Remilia grinned.

“Thanks for coming, gents, the game’s better with eight,” she said. “Hope you can make it to the next one.”

“We’ll try,” Will said, though Thangir wasn’t the only one who sensed his hesitation.

At the front door, Venus leaned back against the frame with the food in her arms. As the others walked up, she passed it out. “Can’t have leftovers. You guys travel safe, all right?” she asked, smiling brightly.

Abram stared at the food like it was treasure. “Wow. Thanks,” he said. “Nice to see you again, your…Venus. Thank you for having us,” he added. “It was memorable.”

Venus bowed back and let her husband walk the others out over the porch. As soon as they were off, she closed the door and walked straight back to the game room, dropping heavily into a chair.

The others hadn’t moved. “Well,” Cora said flatly. “That was…awkward.”

“What did we forget?” Venus asked angrily. “They were scared out of their minds. Did ANYONE act like that at Imperator? Am I not recalling something?”

Thangir stood, shaking his head with disgust. “Call me a cynic, but that was a fool’s errand of Jake’s,” he said. “I mean no disrespect, truly,” he added as Venus turned to look at him. “It’s good to know where you are from. But the man is not a mortal any more, and he is not a commoner any more.”

“And on Fenris, that’s irreversible,” Venus shot back. “On Terra, it’s not. It shouldn’t be.”

Thangir raised one hand, asking his next question in silence. Venus relented. “And yet…” she said quietly. “Damn it.”

Cora slouched in her seat, staring at the ceiling. “Do I scare Dieter and Will and Alan that badly when I go to the factory where they work? Hell, I’ve actually seen two of them there. No wonder Packman’s so tense when I’m around.”

“Who knows.” Venus stared at the table for a while, then huffed a breath in impatience. “Well. Thanks for coming, Remilia, It was nice to catch up. Stick around for dinner? All of you.”

“We should be heading out, sorry,” Remilia answered for the group.

Outside, Jake waited at the taxi stop with the others. “Well, guys, I’m sorry that was so awkward,” he said to the group as they sat in the little concrete box. “I was hoping that doing it at home was going to help, but…hell. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked the girls over,” he said.

Abram shrugged. “I wanted to try it. I wanted to see the surface, and I think it was worth it for that.”

Dieter was about to agree, when he saw Jake’s fists clench. He looked up to see his old friend’s face tighten in helpless anger. His lips moved in a silent ‘damn it.’ The former hiver, now a Prince, rose to his feet and stared off into the distance of the Cordoba skyline. “Guys, was I wrong? Am I supposed to cut ties now?” he asked.

Silence met his question. Jake spun around, seeing them all look away. “Damn it, we were like brothers once!” he said, his voice cracking. “I don’t want to forget where I came from, and I don’t want to leave you guys behind!”

Dieter sighed. “You married up. We didn’t. Doesn’t mean we have to never see each other again, but…fuck.” He set his bag down and finally met his classmate’s eyes. “We’re still friends. Let’s just not cross-contaminate the social circles, know what I mean?”

“It was fun, I just don’t…you know, I don’t want to have to worry about my language or clothing or whatever,” Alan said. “I mean, she says ‘no décor,’ but she’s still a Primarch’s daughter.”

Jake slumped back down in the seat. “Yeah.” He looked aside. The wall of the shelter was covered in a weather-proofed plastic case with some ads for things his friends could never, ever afford. He could have bought them and not missed the money.

The taxi, a servitor-piloted yellow skycar, pulled up at the stop, and the hiver men piled in. Jake caught Dieter’s shoulder as he stooped to sit. “Hey, man, got a minute?” he asked.

Dieter straightened back up. “Yeah. What’s up?”

Jake suddenly hugged the other man, startling him. Even as he instinctively tried to pull away, Jake said something under his breath. “Good luck with the wedding, man. Can I come?”

Dieter relaxed, gingerly returning the gesture. “Sure, man. Of course.”

“Thanks,” Jake said. They separated with a weary smile apiece. “I miss you guys. I really do miss you guys. Please, drop by whenever you want. I mean it. Get a day off, come shoot the shit with me, take the local scrubs at cards, get in trouble, piss off the Praetors.”

Will spoke up from inside. “Sounds like fun.”

“Yeah.” Dieter grabbed his food and sat in the car. Jake slid a card through the window for the fare meter, then stepped back. “So long, Jake.”

“So long, guys.”

The car rose and headed for the airlock. Abram looked out the back window as Jake receded into the distance. Jake watched them for a second or two, he saw, then drew back his fist and punched clean through the display case on the concrete wall. Abram winced, but decided not to share it with the other men, who were busily sorting through their bags of goodies and exclaiming at the novelty.

Jake clenched his fist against the pain and glared at the specks of blood on the darkened skin of his hand. “Damn…it. DAMN IT!” he shouted, slapping his bare palm over the cracked plastic, cracking it more. He spun off and stomped back to the house, fuming.

Venus watched from the top of the mansion, her hands over her mouth. Her eyes were wide with shock. Carmine, watching through his binoculars one floor below, dropped them and scrambled down to the front door to await his father.

N’bel, rising from the forge, brushed the dust and grime off of his hands with a rag. He saw his brother shoot past him in the hall. “Hey, what’s wrong?” he called.

“Dad!” Carmine yelled, fear cracking his young voice. N’bel dropped the rag and ran after him.

Jake slammed the front door behind him and sank into a chair in the antechamber. He buried his head in his hands and squeezed back bitter tears. Recrimination and helpless fear raced through him, until he lost the battle, and hot tears slid down his face. He felt his own blood speck on his cheeks and didn’t care enough to wipe it away.

Footsteps racing through the hallway brought his face up. “Dad! What’s wrong? Are you okay?” Carmine demanded as he skidded to a halt in front of his father.

Jake stared at the blank red eyes in his son’s face. Shame he hadn’t felt in years caught his breath in his throat. “Carmine…” he said, his voice unsteady. “Goodness, kid, I’m so sorry for myself right now.”

“What’s wrong?” Carmine pleaded, tears forming in his eyes, too. He was an empathetic young man who didn’t like seeing his father hurt one bit. N’bel arrived behind him and gasped when he saw the state of Jake’s hands. “Dad, what the hell? Did one of the guys you brought over attack you or something?”

The door to the game room at the end of the hall swung open too, as the others overheard the conversation, and suddenly Jake didn’t need more people in his life. He shot to his feet and blew past the boys, heading for the stairs to the roof. “I’ll be fine,” he said over his shoulder, teeth clenched. “Just give me a minute.”

Remilia watched him go up the stairs, then looked down at the boys. N’bel just looked mad, Carmine was barely holding back tears. “Guys,” she said softly. They both looked over at her as she spoke. “Your Dad is just very scared of something. Please give him a little time to think, okay? He’ll want to see you both later, I promise.”

Carmine ran over to her and nearly threw himself into her arms. She knelt and hugged him tight as Cora looked away. Thangir sighed and walked back into the game room. N’bel hovered nearby, before following Thangir into the game room, intent on answers.

Jake managed to get all the way up to the roof before the rage had replaced the shame completely. He burst out onto the flat patio roof and slammed the door behind him. He glared at himself in the reflection on the glass in the door. His voice tore from his throat in a ragged shout. He ground his words out in a pledge. “I DIDN’T-”

“Didn’t what?”

Jake spun around, his proclamation dying on his lips. Venus was sitting in a chair in the middle of the patio, staring at him. Instantly, his anger vanished. “Venus…I didn’t see you there,” he managed.

“What didn’t you do?” Venus asked softly.

Jake felt a drop of blood ooze down his hands to the tile patio below. “I…I’m sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t wait to see if…”

Venus stood and walked over to him, taking his uninjured hand. She gently guided him without protest to the chair and sat him down. She knelt before him and looked up into his eyes. “What didn’t you do, Jake? Why are you so angry?” she asked.

Jake stared down into the eyes of the person he trusted more than anyone else he had ever known, and felt the words escape his lips. His voice was tortured, angry…and painfully ashamed. “I didn’t…earn this.”

Venus was quiet. “Earn…what?” she finally asked. It was just to encourage him. She knew what he meant.

Jake looked into her unthinkably beautiful eyes, trapped by their gaze. She wasn’t being judgmental in the slightest, damn her. How could he feel like this if she wasn’t blaming him for it? “I didn’t earn a perfect life,” he whispered, and his head sank into his hands again.

Venus stared at her husband, her heart ripping in half. She tried to find words that wouldn’t deepen the wound, and they didn’t come easily. “Jake…”

“Venus, I’m so sorry,” Jake sobbed. Tears and blood dripped from his hands in orange spots. “I haven’t earned this gift at all,” he said, grinding his eyes into his palms. He was referring to the surgery the Emperor had offered him, the one that had made him eternally youthful and able to get Venus pregnant. “I’m…I’m richer and more powerful and more healthy than every single friend I’ve ever had, I’m…I’m going to outlive everyone I ever knew before I met you…and I haven’t earned that at all,” he sobbed. “My…my friends from school, and Alan…they’re struggling every single day, in shit jobs for shit pay and…and then I ask them here, and they see you and your cousins…and my boys, and Thangir…and look at what they’ve done!” he cried. He pulled his hands back so Venus could see his shame. Blood and salt water caked his hair at odd angles. “What did I do live this life? What have I done to earn this?” he asked, his voice a thready whisper. “I tried to start a charity, it never got off the ground…I tried to help in the drug war, it was a waste of time…I try to give my friends a good time, they’re scared shitless…”

Venus slowly rose and sat beside her husband, cradling his head on her shoulder. She could feel him shuddering. Sobs wracked his body. She felt his tears stain her shirt as she weighed her words. “Jake, you did earn it. Why do you think the Emperor waited so long to extend the offer to you? So much longer than Mike and Nate?”

“Because…because they’re psychics,” Jake managed. “So is he. He read their minds, saw their worth. I’m not psychic.” He choked a cough past his tears.

“No, baby,” Venus soothed. “You’re looking at it wrong.”


“The Emperor didn’t take longer to approve of you because he couldn’t read your mind,” Venus explained quietly. “He took longer because he holds you to a higher standard.”

“What?” Jake blinked back tears and stared at her from inches away. “What do you mean?”

“Angela and Miranda, baby,” Venus whispered. “They’re psykers. They could read Nate and Mike’s souls. The Emperor didn’t need to do it himself. I’m not psychic.” She looked Jake square in the eyes. “I had to learn you inside and out the old-fashioned way. The Emperor took his time because I took my time. I had to be so sure, so absolutely and permanently confident in your right to an eternal life, that there would be no possibility of you ever dishonoring him by abusing the power.”

Jake stared at her. “Oh.” He looked down at his hands, the shame swelling up again. “Then…why did he only need to meet Thangir once?”

“Because he had every single one of the Wolf Priests and Rune Priests in the Fang vouching for him, and they’re either psychic or genehanced to the point that they can’t be lied to,” she reminded him. “Freya understood long-term relationships better than I did. And Freya had already known loss. I haven’t.” She squeezed his hand. “I never will. You’re too good, too kind, too smart, too pure to ever lose.” She buried his head in her shoulder and kissed the top of his head. “I love you, Jake, I love you so much it thrills me. I won’t have you ever thinking that’s not a good enough reason to live forever.”

Jake screwed his eyes shut against her soft cotton shirt, feeling her heat soak into him even as his tears soaked into the cloth. “Venus…I love you too, and the boys…”

“The boys.” Venus closed her eyes too and thought of their sons. N’bel; proud, smart, charismatic. Carmine, wise, strong, emotional. Both were a joy to her life. She knew Jake felt the same way. “Do you think the boys would be proud to see their father in this state?”

“Of course not,” Jake mumbled. “You’re right, I should go apologize for blowing them off-”

“Shhh. Not yet,” she soothed. She held him in place and scooted away a few inches. He sank his head into her lap and rested her hand in his curly hair. “Rest a minute.”

“Yeah.” Jake closed his red eyes and lay there.

The wind picked up, fluttering the plants on the edge of the terrace. The brilliant glare off of the hive skins dimmed behind clouds. There they sat for minutes neither bothered to count.

After a long time, Venus spoke up again. “Remember when we were on the observation deck of the Fang? We were like this.”

“Yes.” Jake sighed exhaustedly. “You were down here that time. You were explaining the Creed.”

“Yeah.” She stroked his hair and leaned down to whisper. “Remember when you said that you wanted to spend your life with me so badly, the only thing holding back your proposal of marriage was the age-of-consent laws?”

Jake chuckled as the memory returned. “I did, didn’t I.”

“Did you change your mind?” Venus asked.


His wife caressed his cheek. “Neither did I. Stay with me?”

“I will.” Jake lay there a moment longer before sitting up. “I always will.” He looked into her eyes and finally smiled. It was anemic, bloody, and weighed down by decades of guilt, but it was a smile. “I can’t disappoint you or Vulkan.”

“Something to keep in mind, baby,” Venus whispered. “You earned your place at Imperator, too.” She brushed stray hairs out of his eyes. “Six people out of thousands. There isn’t an accolade in your history you haven’t owned solid.”

Jake brushed his lips against hers in a feathery kiss. She held him closer and drew it out, savoring it. When she released him, his eyes stayed shut for a moment. She could see the stress lines in his face vanish. “What should I do if I ever feel I haven’t earned my life in the future?” he asked her quietly.

“Let your grandfather Eric kick some sense into you,” Venus advised playfully. Jake smiled fondly at the thought of his ornery Crusade veteran grandfather. “He’d be livid if you wasted the chance he fought for.”

“Good idea.” Jake kissed his wife again and slowly rose to his feet. “All right. Let’s go see the others.”

Downstairs, Carmine was sitting in the overstuffed couch in front of the holo. He was wringing his hands as the others looked about each other, trying to find a safe topic. N’bel was hovering nearby, trying to be a good older brother and make things clearer, but he was as confused as everyone else. He looked up at where Thangir was lethargically picking over a sandwich. “Uncle Thangir, can I ask you something?”

Thangir looked up. N’bel was looking understandably apprehensive. “What?”

“What was…I mean, I don’t know,” N’bel said hesitantly. “You’re the only one left here who knows. What’s it like, being mortal?”

Cora slowly turned to look at the two of them. N’bel was standing beside his brother, looking at Thangir with an inscrutable expression on his face. Carmine was looking up too, clearly interested.

The Fenrisian cleared his throat, turning the question over in his mind as he did. “Lads…that is a very difficult thing to say,” he hedged. “What do you think it feels like, being immortal?”

“Well, I dunno.” N’bel sat down and thought for a moment. “I guess I don’t have anything to compare it to…”

“And I didn’t have anything to compare mortality to,” Thangir explained. “Honestly, it is not all that different. I just don’t age.” He leaned back in his chair and studied both boys. N’bel was in his normal weekend clothes; loose sports shirt over slacks, while Carmine was dressed for something fancier. He had on a dress shirt instead. Both boys were staring at him with identical looks in their red eyes. “Does that concern you?”

N’bel looked away. “I think it concerns Dad, some times.”

“Ah.” Thangir felt something slide into place in his mind. “The game today?”

“He was…” Carmine screwed up his face. “I’ve never seen him so angry!” he exploded. “He punched that bus stop so hard his hand was bleeding!”

“Oh, Jake,” Remilia said quietly, running her hand over her eyes.

“What’s he mad about, Thangir?” N’bel asked.

Thangir sighed and slowly stood. “Lads, I am not of the mind to speak for others.”

Carmine’s voice was plaintive. “Dad’s never mad like that…but being with his human friends was what got him upset, I know it!”

“Carmine, please calm down,” Remilia put in. “I promise your dad will be alright. He’s just very frustrated.”

“At what?” N’bel asked again. His aunt looked away.

The door swung open. Jake and Venus walked in. Jake looked around the room as everyone in it straightened up and stared. “Don’t have to guess what you all were talking about,” he said wearily. He smiled faintly and sank onto the couch next to the boys. “C’mere, guys,” he said, holding his arms out, and Carmine scrambled into his lap. N’bel sat beside them and stared at his father, his fear melting into something between concern and frustration.

“Dad, what was-” he started. Jake help up his hand.

“N’bel, I’ll explain, but give me a sec, okay?” He wrapped his arms around Carmine and gave him a quick hug before sighing heavily. “I’m sorry for that. All of you,” he said, looking over at the others, still sitting at the table. “I apologize.”

“Dad, what happened?” Carmine demanded.

His father sighed again. “Oh, kid…I miss my old friends so much. And sometimes, I don’t feel much like a noble.”

“Then you should do what I do, and be a noble savage instead,” Thangir said, nodding wisely.

Jake stared at his friend, not comprehending, for all of one second. Then, Carmine fell from his lap as he pitched over giggling. “Oh, to…to hell with you,” he said as the spate subsided. “Ugh.”

“What just happened?” N’bel asked, baffled. The Royal daughters exchanged a look.

“You know what, let’s not go there,” Cora said hastily. She stood from her chair and started packing her detritus. “Anyway. Thanks for having us, Jake, Venus.”

“Our pleasure, drop by any time.” Venus rose too, and started to help clean up. “Boys, could you take the food cart out to the kitchen for us?”

“Okay.” N’bel grabbed the cart and stared pushing it out. Carmine lingered.

“Dad, are you okay? Really?” he asked quietly.

Jake leaned over and gently hugged his son again. “I am. I’ll talk to you both later, okay?”

Carmine hesitated, then acquiesced. “Okay.” He followed his brother out of the room and closed the door.

The women and man at the table kept at the cleaning for another moment before Jake decided to get it over with. “I’m sorry, guys.” He draped his arms over the back of the couch and closed his eyes for a moment. “I blew up out there. Sorry if I spooked you.”

“What happened?” Remilia asked, maybe a bit curtly.

“I lost it. I was so frustrated that I took it out on the damn taxi stand,” Jake said. His voice was thick with self-acrimony.

Thangir looked up at him. “And now what?” he asked.

Jake stood up from the couch and walked over to help the others clean up the mess. “Now, I call the taxi company and offer to replace the sign, then I go work downstairs until the bad vibes are gone, then I call up the guys again and ask them if they’d be willing to come over some other time, just five or six of us.” He looked across the table at his wife. “I can’t fix Terra, I can’t fix Nocturne, I can’t fix people. I can fix this. I can make a difference for four or five old friends and that’s a start.”

Venus held his gaze for a moment. She felt the confidence he usually had so close to heart return in him, and smiled back. “It’s a start,” she echoed. She looked down at the table and swept up the last crumbs and trash. “So what comes after that?”

“More,” Jake said.

“Good answer.” She dropped the trash into the bin and wiped her hands off on a napkin. “For what it’s worth, I think you had a good idea. This is just new.”

Thangir glanced over at them, remembering his own struggle to acclimate with immortality and political power. “You want some free advice, brother?” he asked.


“Do not rush. We have more than most men dream of,” he said, drawing a line between them in the air with one scarred hand. “But what we have most of is time. Time to do good. Time to make a difference. We will lose people, we will lose initiative…but we’ll keep going.”

“You have anchors to keep you stable,” Cora put in drily. “You know, Jake, your boys asked Thangir what being mortal was like. Maybe you should talk to them about it.”

“Yeah, I overheard that,” Jake said. “I will.”

“Cool.” She squeezed him across the shoulder and made for the door. “See you around.”

“Thanks,” he said after her. He accepted a longer hug from Remilia and a handshake from Thangir, and then he was alone with Venus.

She sat back down, looking up at him pensively. “Feel better?”

“Much,” he said gratefully. He sat down beside her and grabbed the cards. He slowly flipped one card back and forth out of pure muscle memory as he though back to what he had said to her on the roof. “I feel like I’ve been missing something, you know.”

“How do you figure?” she asked back.

An ace slid across his hand as he answered, gradually and carefully. “I think I forgot something about when we were in school,” he said. “Remember when I was trying to start up that charity thing with Fulgrim, he said it was basically bribery?”


“It was. I had no idea what I was doing. And then, when I tried to ask the guys what I could to do to attack the drug trade, they said I had no chance,” he said, remembering. The cards halted in his hands as an idea coalesced. “And…here I am, schmoozing with you and the others while my friends…look on…” his voice drifted off as the thought grew larger.

Venus’ eyes narrowed. “You have a look about you.”

“I do…” Jake said softly. He looked up at her. “What do I do well?”

She blinked. “Huh?”

“I mean…what am I good at?” he asked her. “It’s not ruling, though I’m getting better. It’s not helping people with grandiose schemes and patronizing parties, clearly,” he added with a snort. “What have I always done well?”

“Well…I guess you’ve always been good at design and writing,” Venus said.

“Bingo.” He slapped the cards into their box and slid it away under the table. “What if…what if I offered to teach at some local school? Help the people out, but not with some ill-advised patronage or whatever.”

“A teacher…” Venus said slowly. She pondered the idea. “I guess I could see the appeal…Faith does it already, and she loves it.”

“Yeah.” Jake perked up as the idea took form. “I mean, it’d be perfect.”

“It’s be nostalgic, certainly,” Venus said. “Dad would approve.” Jake looked at her curiously. “Dad said that back before the rest of the Imperium encroached on Nocturnean culture, the Salamanders were mostly advisors, guardians, scholars, and artists when they interacted with the people.” She leaned forward, feeling a bit better herself. “They taught and sheltered the people as much as recruited from them. They still do, to an extent. I think teaching would be good for you; you’re great with the boys. And you loved Kouthry.”

“I did,” Jake said excitedly. “But I meant a high school or a middle school.”

“Oh.” Venus hesitated a moment. “That could work too.”

“Not necessarily Imperator, maybe my old school or one of the ones in the Spires,” he clarified. “So, do you think I should do it?”

Venus shook her head. “No. Not yet anyway.”

Jake jerked his head back. “What? Why not?”

Venus smiled. “Because you want to do something great, good, noble, and lasting.”

“And teaching isn’t any of those things?” Jake asked, surprised.

“Of course. But sweetheart, you already have a responsibility like that,” Venus reminded him. She gestured to the stuff Carmine had left behind when he went to push away the tray.

Jake sighed. “The boys.” He glanced over at her. “I think I can raise the boys and teach at the same time.”

“You could,” Venus confirmed. “Let me ask you something, though. Pretty soon, Dad is going to ask me to take over on Nocturne. Sometimes for years at a time. N’bel is old enough that he’ll handle it well. Carmine? Probably not. You’ll be his only parent at some points.” She squeezed his hand as the boys’ footsteps sounded in the hallway. “Just something to think about.”

“Yeah.” Jake looked away. “I think…well.” He looked over at her again as the door opened. “I think I might still do it.”

Venus nodded. “Your call.”

The boys walked in, both quiet. Jake beckoned them both over. “Guys, I’m sorry I scared you before,” he said. He made sure to make eye contact with both. “I promise it’s over.”

His older son shuffled his feet a bit. “Why were you bleeding?”

Jake held up his hand. It was already healing. “Because I got mad and did something stupid.” He shamefacedly shrugged. “I’m alright now, guys.”

“Don’t scare us like that,” Carmine chided.

“Sorry,” Jake said. “I just felt a little guilty.”

N’bel gaped. “Guilty? What for?”

“For having so much,” Jake said, gesturing to the huge house around them. “I didn’t start with this much, and most of my friends will never have this much.”

Carmine looked back and forth between his parents. “So what? That’s not a good reason to feel guilty. Not like leaving a soldering gun out on the porch,” he snarked.

“Hey!” N’bel snapped, glaring at his brother.

“Quiet, Carmine,” Venus said. “Dad’s being serious.”

Jake stood, and let Carmine grab his healing hand. “Okay, no more of this. What do you guys want to do for the rest of the day?”

As the two started talking, Venus caught Jake’s eyes for a moment. He was at ease now, talking with his sons. Venus relaxed. His guilt may not have faded entirely, but this was a good start.

Omegan Speaks[edit]

I listened to the twenty-year-old music and smiled. It was reassuring in a way I hadn’t expected. Nostalgia’s not one of my usual vices, after all. My sister paused behind me, waiting for me to move on. I blinked the distraction away and scooped a sandwich off the platter at the buffet and hurriedly moved on before I could hold up the line. The sounds of people talking all around me faded as the guy behind the counter – why couldn’t I remember his name? – thumped his hand on the rickety old minifridge that had the beer in it. “Omegan, good to see you,” he said. He extracted a bottle and glared at the ancient machine.

I smiled as his name came back. “Derek, right? Nice to see you again too,” I said, accepting a bottle. “How’s your twenty years been?”

“A bit rough,” he admitted, “but it’s been tolerable.”

“That’s good, I suppose,” I said. The lights at the front of the room brightened as someone finally found the switch. “What are you up to?” I asked, as I stepped aside to let Alpharia pass us.

“Working in the Palace as a file clerk, actually,” Derek said. “In the Estate.”

“That’s good,” I said, though I wouldn’t wish that job on anyone. “I’m working on one of the orbital plate stations as an administrator.”

Derek looked over at me, curious. “Really? Thought for sure you’d go into the intelligence business.”

“I’m happy working with people who aren’t just trying to impress me,” I said, earning a snort from my sister. That was about as much as I was comfortable saying. Alpharia’s connections with Imperial Intelligence aren’t publically known.

As I finished at the buffet, I let my eyes wander around the room. I admit, I was surprised. Where was the rest of the Family? I only saw about seven or eight of my cousins there. I had thought they’d all have made it. Cora was there, joking with her fiancé, and Lyra was in the corner, talking in low tones with a man and woman I didn’t recognize. Venus and Jake weren’t there, to my surprise, but Petra was, and I angled over to where she was sitting.

Petra looked up as I sat down. “Hello, Omegan,” she said. “How was your de-orbiting?”

“Every time I hear that, I hear ‘catastrophic, uncontrolled re-entry,’” I joked. “Fine, though. Surprised you came. Were you in town?”

“Yeah.” Petra sipped at her water and stared around the room. “I had a meeting in the Palace.” The two of us sat in silence and ate as the rest of the guests worked their way through the buffet line. “Will you be Earthside long?” Petra suddenly asked.

“Probably a week or two,” I said. I looked over at her to see her gazing contemplatively into her drink. “How come?”

“Just…wondering, really,” she said. “It’s been too long since we saw each other.”

“It has,” I affirmed. Up on Gondavana, I don’t see the other Royal Daughters much. Frankly, I like being on my own for now. Still, it never hurts to see the others, and Petra especially doesn’t get out much.

I shook my head at that thought. People used to say that about me. Before I got through therapy, I was barely even ambulatory if I was on my own for too long.

Mike's Disappointment[edit]

The plastic floor of the jail cell was really cold, that day. Colder than most were, even. Larson, long-time resident of Hive Tetra and more recent (and intermittent) resident of the Startseite and Cordoma Praetor lockups, was feeling the chill. He was shivering head to toe, even with his booze-soaked arms wrapped around his legs.

“H-hey…” he tried. He cleared his throat past the cold and tried again. “Hey!”

The guard glanced over at the noise. “Can you…please turn up the heat?” he managed through chattering teeth. “I’m really going into…thermal shock, here…”

The guard shrugged under his nice, snug jacket. “Sure.” He fiddled with the thermostat under his desk and in minutes, the air warmed up a bit. Larson buried his face in his knees and fought down his shivers. It was almost over.

The door swung open. Another guard walked in and leaned over the one sitting behind the desk. Larson watched as the seated guard listened to what the newcomer was saying. His face turned from a mask of surprise to complete disgust as the other officer spoke. “Are you serious?” he asked. Resentment cut through his quiet voice. “For this clown?” The new Praetor nodded.

The first guard glared at the prisoner through the bars. Larson grinned right back. Finally, the guard relented. He fished some keys out of his pocket and unlatched the drunk tank, his eyes burning into the criminal the whole time. “All right, get out,” he grunted.

Larson stood and stretched. He took his time getting his things out of the little plastic bin the second guard offered him. “Any idea what’s going on?” he asked innocently, despite knowing full well.

The second guard glared at him, too. “You have a guardian angel.”

Outside, Larson walked casually up to the black hovercar parked behind the station house. He slid in as the door closed behind him automatically. The interior was padded with luxurious brown leather, he noted. Worth more than the car, probably.

He smiled at the one other occupant of the passenger compartment. “Thanks, man.”

The other occupant didn’t reply. He just tapped the back of the driver’s compartment with his knuckle, and the car lifted off. Larson continued. “That’s one I owe you.”

“You owe me several,” the other man said. Larson shrugged awkwardly.

“Well, still. I appreciate it.”

“Drunk and disorderly, drunk in public, and public vulgarity?” the other person coldly listed. “What did you do, find a scrumball team that liked you?”

“Just a bottle of amasec who wanted to be friends,” Larson joked feebly. His sense of humor was evaporating under the other man’s chilling stare. The other guy was far better dressed. Everything about their surroundings screamed ‘money.’ It was the exact opposite of the description anyone would use to label Larson Grecco.

His brother Michael Grecco glared at him from across the cabin. “Promise me you’ll at least bathe before you see Angela?”

The limo slid into the garage at the manor. Larson exited from the black vehicle, not even noticing the stench of fuel over the haze of alcohol that surrounded him. The aircraft’s driver walked past him to hold the door for his employer, who thanked the other man by name. Turning to his brother, Mike gestured expressively at the door to the manor. Larson took the hint and walked in, belatedly pausing to shuck his ragged jacket. He uncaringly dropped it on the floor behind him. Mike didn’t see it, and stumbled. He caught himself on the coatrack immediately next to the door and glared at his brother, who was now wandering into the antechamber beyond.

“Seriously?” he demanded. Larson blinked and backtracked. He scooped up the jacket and hung it on the rack.


Mike shouldered past him. He stormed into the ornamented greeting room. The bloodied wings of the Angels were present on more than a few banners around the outside of the room, but the majority of the furnishings were a mixture of white and black leather in a style that could be described by the uncultured as ‘ugly’ and the cultured as ‘vibrant.’

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Larson said self-consciously.

Mike spun on his heel. “All right. What the hell happened?” he asked. Before his brother could speak up, however, he raised hand and ran the other over his brow. He dropped his gaze to the floor as he did. “Just…no. Go shave, shower. Use the razor in the guest room on the third floor. Go.” His voice was thick with exasperation.

Larson hesitated. “Mike, you…you’re still…I mean, we…” he stumbled over his drunken tongue.

His brother glared over at him. Larson found his words. “You’re still…you still love me as a brother, right?”

Mike exploded. “Of course I do, you idiot! Why else would I bail your ass out for the SIXTH TIME?” He pointed his arm up the stairs like a condemnation. “Go clean up! We’ll speak when you’re dry!” Without another word, he turned back and stomped down the hall to his private library.

Larson stared at his brother’s disappearing back until he was out of sight, then tiredly walked up the stairs with a slump in his gait.

Mike slammed the door to his library. He walked up to the woman sitting in the small study chair and dropped onto the couch behind her with a bone-weary sigh. “Guess who’s here for the evening,” he said grimly.

The woman didn’t look up from her tome. “Does his name rhyme with larceny?”

“How did you guess?” Mike asked. His tone was as bitter as quinine. “Damn him. Some day, I’m going to lose my patience with that imbecile.”

“Why hasn’t it happened yet?” Angela inquired over one feathered shoulder.

Mike didn’t answer. Instead, he stood and walked up behind his wife, and placed one hand on her shoulder above her wing. Angela caught his hand and looked up at him, noting the grim lines on his face. “He’s my brother,” Mike muttered.

Angela nodded. “I understand.” She patted his hand and returned her gaze to the book on the table.

Mike looked down at it. “What are you reading?”

“A book of absolute nonsense called The Implacable Minds,” Angela replied. “It’s a pre-psychic era book of human psychology.”

“Is it nonsense if, at the time, people had no way to contradict it?” Mike asked.

Angela scoffed. “This is. Even by contemporary standards, it was considered fringe. It says that every single possible human thought derives from nutrition hunger.”

“That’s…pretty silly, yeah,” Mike said. He stayed quiet a while longer before offering her another shoulder squeeze and dropping back into his chair. “Well. He’ll be down soon.”

Larson scraped off the layer of growth on his chin and stared at himself in the mirror of the guest suite. The bathroom was appointed like a regal hotel, without any homey touches. The fans slowly drained the steamy air from the room, replacing it with the scent of poutporri.

The faint sound of the water in the drain faded away, leaving him with his thoughts. The thirty-five year old heir-on-paper to the Grecco throne ran his hand over his chin, trying to piece together the last few days. It was mostly a blur. He recalled leaving a hotel after a meeting…with whom? No clue. He went to the bar and started working his way through the scotch and amasec supplies until…when?

He clenched a fist around the handle of the razor. When was it? He realized he had no idea. He looked around for a clock and couldn’t find one. Was it even still Thursday? The razor slapped against the marble countertop as he threw it down in disgust.

What the hell difference did it even make? He was here, now. He finished cleaning himself up, grumbling about how unfair it all was. He walked out into the suite to find a servitor or maid had deposited some fresh clothes – in his size – on the bed. He glanced them over, noting the tags with surprise that even cut through his mounting headache. They cost more than his car. Where was his car, anyway? Had he left it at the second bar? The Praetors didn’t have it, did they?

Whatever, he would find it later. He slipped into the underwear and soft pants, noting the exquisite texture of the shirt and jacket as he picked them up. He lowballed an estimate of eight hundred threadcount. “Weren’t you always the one who didn’t give a shit about fashion, Mike?” he grunted.

Down below, Angela tilted her head at her husband, who was still busily brooding in the same seat. “Mike?”


“He’s coming.”

Mike sighed. “Yeah.”

“Does he know where you are?”

“Probably. Let him look. I’m not ready yet,” he said testily. He slammed his hands down on the armrests and launched himself straight up. “To hell with this! We’re having it out this time!”

Angela looked up at him, pained. He paced around the room, hands clasped at his back. The elegance of his evening jacket was effective, even when he was fuming. He looked every inch like the first grandson-in-law of the Emperor he was. Despite his brush with the constabulary, his clothes and hair were immaculate. His blue eyes closed tight as he reached the end of one circuit of the little room and started another. “Blast him! He’s my bloody BROTHER! Can he not see how much he’s damaging himself and everyone else he knows with this? He KNOWS he’s an alcoholic, and he STILL gets smashed every bloody month! This is the sixth time this year!” he snarled.

His winged love looked away. “Mike…he’s not weak-willed. He’s an addict. Addiction has only a cursory relationship with willpower,” she said.

He stopped his pacing to redirect his ire to his wife. “Oh? Then why? He’s never had the impetus or desire to clean up?”

“I don’t understand it entirely,” Angela said. “I’ve seen his mind, though, Mike, and he’s not stupid.”

“Oh no, nobody could call him stupid,” Mike said coldly. “Goodness knows he’s got a two-year degree in accounting, a double-major five-year degree in business management and economics, and a doctorate in economic theory,” he listed off on his fingers. “The man knows more about money than I do! Just not when it is and when it isn’t alright to spend it on booze!” he nearly shouted. He dropped into a different chair and crossed his arm over his chest, but immediately launched back up to resume his pacing. “Where the bloody hell is he?”

Larson paused on the landing between the first and second floors. His mind was racing. How was he going to even talk to his brother now? And why the hell would he? What happened was none of his business! Sure, he had bailed him out, but one mention of the Grecco name would have worked just as well. The last thing he needed was help, right now. Hadn’t he just tried to secure a sixty eight millions credit contract with House True? He didn’t need his brother’s patronage.

He turned around on the landing and marched back up. Screw Mike, he thought. He was going to go to bed.

Mike ran his hands over his face. “What’s taking him?” he grumbled.

“He’s scared and ashamed, love,” Angela said. She fluttered her wings for balance as she stood. “Maybe you should go talk to him, instead of making him come to you.”

He dismissed that idea with a gesture. “And make the mountain move? He’s the one who screwed up. Let him take the knee.”

Angela digested that statement and the sentiment behind it. “He’s a proud man, Mike,” she said quietly.

Mike nodded, recalling their family when they were all younger. “He always belonged to Father, you know. Liz and me, we were Mother’s kids, but not Larson. The man’s nothing if not traditional.”

“Lord Grecco is certainly a stickler for the ways of the past,” Angela agreed. “And he’s proud, too.”

Mike sighed, this time in regret. “Should I call Father?”

“Would he want to know that one son was drunk and reckless, and the other used the family name to get the first from out beneath the gavel?” Angela asked.

Mike shook his head. “No…no, he wouldn’t.”

“So call him anyway,” Angela suggested. “Just…after Larson leaves.”

Her husband snorted a grim laugh. “I should. We’re still kids, to him, you know.”

“He wants grandchildren,” Angela said knowingly.

“Bloody right,” Mike grunted. “He’ll be waiting a while. Elizabeth’s married to the work, Larson’s not interested in women, and your genes are being uncooperative.”

Angela nodded again. “Indeed. So…Larson.”

“Oh, to the Warp with him,” Mike said, dropping back into a chair. “Let him stew.”

Larson reached a floor in his climbing and paused. The vestiges of amasec in his blood were making it hard to navigate. Was the bathroom on the third floor or the fourth? What floor was this? He started down the hallway, trying to find a landmark.

The first door he passed was locked. The one beside it opened with a push, and revealed a little study, complete with fancy gas fireplace. The far wall was dominated by a tasteful stainless steel array of grates, covering a gas burner that stood beneath a narrow smokestack.

Larson sank into the chair beside it, then pushed experimentally with his slippered feet. The chair slid over behind the wooden desk in the corner. It was covered in papers and slates, none of which was written in Gothic. Baalish, perhaps? Who knew.

Little holopicts switched on as the seat slid into position. They rose from concealed slots in the edge of the desk. One, Larson recognized, was him, Mike, their sister Elizabeth, and their parents. Another was Mike himself, arm around Angela’s shoulder, posing before a statue of a Marine in unmarked Iron armor, helmet under his arm, smiling triumphantly. The third was a cluster of six men including Mike; none of the others were identifiable, though all were familiar in a distant way.

The fourth gave him pause. It was Angela, clad in a breathtaking red dress that lent her regal profile a haunting beauty, arms crossed at her waist, kneeling before Sanguinius and receiving a tiara of rubies and silver. The name of the occasion returned to Larson in a rush: the Crowning of Baal, in which Sanguinius had formally named his daughter the heiress and Lady Regent of the Baal system upon her marriage. Mike was visible kneeling behind her, face soaked in tears.

The last picture, though...Larson’s face tightened. He knew that one. He had taken it. It was Mike, clad in a Grecco Family uniform aboard their void platform in the Centauri cluster, looking grave and dignified, and surrounded by literally hundreds of Navigators. That was the source of the family’s power, after all: there wasn’t anyone in the galaxy short of Horus, Leman Russ, and the Emperor himself with as much experience negotiating with the Houses of the Navis Nobilite as the Grecco family. That was how they made their first million, their first billion, their first trillion, and the next two as well. Now safely ensconced in the incalculable wealth of a diplomatic and trading empire worth more than several systems’ colonies and the stars they orbited, they had a manor on Terra, another on Macragge, and another two each on Goromis and Bekke. They had ruling ownership in not one, but three major Imperial shipyards, and of course…the second son of the family was the first mortal to marry into the Royal Family.

“Naturally,” Larson whispered. “Of course.”

Mike flipped his wrist implant open and stared at the number it displayed. 0004. “Time’s up,” he declared, and he rose to his feet.

Angela looked up at him with sadness etched on her face. “Mike…please don’t yell at him. Believe me, he’s miserable enough as it is.”

“No, he isn’t,” Mike growled, and he shut the door behind him.

Angela stared at the door , tearing up. Even with her vast psychic powers, she was unable to comprehend the rifts in the Grecco family. Elizabeth and Mike got along perfectly, to the extent that they got to see each other. The Grecco parents and their parents got along swimmingly with their youngest son and middle daughter. But Larson?

She couldn’t think of a member of her generation of the Royal family that the others ostracized. Kelly and Petra were loners, but the others loved them. Six of them were married, three with children, and all of them still had their mortal mothers except Morticia. The idea of losing a sibling, to her, seemed alien.

Angela ran her hands over her face, thinking. At length, she reached for her vox and tapped in a number. It rang three times before picking up. “Hello?” a deep voice answered.

“Father,” Angela said, grateful she had caught him up. “Do you have a moment to talk?”

Sanguinius looked down at the speakerphone on his desk. “Of course, little one. What troubles you?”

Mike stormed up the stairs to the third floor and blew into the guest suite, glaring at everything in sight. After a moment’s searching, he discovered that Larson was indeed not in the suite. “Where is that drunken fool?” he snarled under his breath. He walked back out and looked side to side in the hall. Every door he could see was closed. He swore and made for the nearest set of stairs.

Larson cradled his head in his hands, staring into the picture of Mike in his little cluster of friends. The six men were lined up in a room that looked like the guest wing of the Palace. They were an eclectic bunch. One was Mike himself, wearing the most expensive ‘casual’ shirt Larson had ever seen. The man beside him was a tall, slender man with close cut brown hair and the clothing of a very senior member of the Astra Telepathica, including what looked like a Refraction Field Rosette encrusted with Star Gems around his neck. The third had a brilliant red glare in his eyes, from the camera maybe, and tanned skin; he also had what looked like a ceremonial Army pin on his collar. The fourth looked like a commoner, with a loose and rumpled outfit on that didn’t do a very good job of hiding his tattoos and scars, which crossed his arms and neck like a tic-tac-toe board. The fifth was standing straight as an arrow, smiling politely, and wore a Power Sabre at his hip. The sixth had a business suit on, complete with tailored coat, and a polished, crafty smile on his clean-shaven face.

The errant Grecco stared at the picture, trying to figure it out. He knew the one with the Rosette was married to one of the other Royal Daughters, but the other four men were more enigmatic. He thought he knew the last one’s name from somewhere; he was the chairman and founder of the Dynamic Stellar Frontiers corporation, and had made headlines several years before by discovering an STC artifact on one of his corporation’s construction sites. The fifth man looked a bit like a news pict he had seen once. The third and fourth, he had never seen in his life.

He gave up the mystery and slumped back into his chair, rubbing his forehead. The alcohol cloud in his mind was vanishing after several cups of water from the cooler in the corner. He still had the bruises from the fight on his arms and face; no drink of atomic-purity water could eliminate that.

The weariness of his day was dragging him down, he realized. He stood and tried to focus on the surrounding study, but his vision swam. Distantly, he wondered if he had had anything to eat besides breakfast pastries at meetings for the last day or two. He suspected he hadn’t.

He made for the door and stumbled. He caught himself on the edge of the desk and winced at the pain as his arm twisted. Hunger, tiredness, anger, and shame twisted in his stomach until he couldn’t bear it any longer.

“Damn you,” he whispered of and to nobody. He dropped back into the chair and slammed his hand on the corner of the desk. The lights, perhaps reacting to the noise, turned off, and he started. “Fucking…lights,” he muttered bitterly. He closed his eyes and rubbed his fingers over them, trying to focus.

Mike walked quickly down the halls of the second floor, looking for his brother. Each room was empty, so far. A few startled servants reported having seen nobody. A slight worry was worming into Mike’s huffy anger, and it wasn’t doing his temper any good. He moved up the stairs to the fourth floor and resumed his search.

Angela finished her summary of the situation over the vox to her father. He sat silently, feeling many emotions pull at his mind. To be sure, the situation was a complex one. “Little one, before I continue, I will say that I and your mother have an inviolable and absolute trust in your ability to do what is best for the Grecco and Royal families, despite it all,” he began. “Do you want my personal advice as a married man, or my paternal advice?”

“Both, piecemeal, starting with the latter,” Angela said. “Small words.”

Her father smiled at her witticism. “Larson’s a fool and deeply jealous of your husband, Mike’s worried sick about his older brother, the fact that neither can admit it despite the obvious need is wearing at their sanity, and you shouldn’t be up this late.”

Angela laughed, her tension easing a fraction. “So sorry.”

“Next thing you know, you’ll be spending all night with boys and wearing skirts above the knee,” Robin, Angela’s mother, put in from the door of her husband’s study.

“Is that you, Mother? Good to hear you,” Angela said, glad for the diversion.

“Maybe even driving,” Robin continued, crossing the room to stand beside the gigantic mahogany table. “It’s unbecoming, a daughter of the Primarch driving herself.”

“Mother, as welcome as your voice is, your advice is a shade worse than useless right now,” Angela said wryly.

“Oh fine, see what my contributions get me,” Robin said with faux sadness.

“Mother…” Angela huffed.

“Angela, let the boys work it out on their own,” Robin counseled. “Larson envies your relationship with Michael. Your getting involved before they reach closure on their own could be problematic.”

“I agree,” Sanguinius said with a nod. “Allow them to resolve this. Urge it on, but don’t weigh in unless asked.”

Angela’s head and wings drooped. “Collected passivity isn’t a strength of mine, Father.”

“No kidding,” Sanguinius said, his kingly voice dropping to a conspiratorial stage whisper.

“Didn’t catch that,” Angela said darkly.

“Nothing,” Robin said innocently, winking at her beloved. “Go to sleep and let Mike and Larson hammer this out.”

“Right.” Angela fingered the vox, turning their advice over in her mind. “You know that this is the sixth time this has happened in as many months? What makes this one different for both?”

Sanguinius thought about that. “That is a perfectly reasonable question that you should lay before Michael,” he said at last. “My interpretation is that Larson is starting to confront the reasoning behind his irresponsible behavior in a way that frustrates Michael immensely.”

“And…my means of helping is confined to ‘ensure Mike has a shoulder to lean on?’” Angela asked incredulously. “If he’s angry, why shouldn’t I help?”

“As I said, Angela,” Sanguinius reminded her. “I think that whatever you decide to do will be the right thing. I simply know what I would do were our positions reversed.”

“Mmm.” His daughter sighed her assent. “Thank you, Mother, Father.”

“Of course, Angela,” Robin said. “You be safe out there.”

“Cordoma has the lowest crime rate of any habitable part of the Solar system, Mother,” Angela said. “The Palace has a higher incidence of misdemeanor.”

“Doesn’t mean I can stop worrying,” Robin chided lightly. “Good night.”

Mike blew through the door to the private study, still searching for his brother. His eyes alighted on Larson’s sleeping form, sitting behind his desk, and his anger flared back up. “Larson! What the hell are you doing at my desk?” he demanded, crossing the room to his brother’s side.

His brother stirred in his sleep, but didn’t awake from his amasec-drenched slumber. Mike groaned in exasperation and rounded the table to drag his brother from the chair…and paused. The pictures behind the desk were up and displayed, as they were when anyone sat there, but one had been dismounted. Larson had removed the picture of Mike, Nate, Jake, Thangir, Julius, and Armin from its slot, and judging by the fingerprints and tearstains on it, had been staring into it for quite a long time.

Mike’s rage faded in an instant. Rather than the tempest it had been, it was now little more than a flickering grudge. “How does he do that?” Mike asked under his breath. He looped his arms under his brother’s robed armpits and lifted, heaving Larson’s sleeping body onto the small couch on the outer wall of the room. He tugged his evening jacket off of his own shoulders and draped it over his brother’s body, then snapped his fingers once to turn the fire in the corner on to a low setting. “That’s seven you owe me, you bastard,” he muttered under his breath as he walked out the door.

On the fifth and top floor of the mansion, Angela was already snuggled into the bed and lying, as she rather had to be, on her side, reading a holomag. Mike walked in, and immediately made for the changing closet. “Found the lunkhead,” he reported, unceremoniously tugging off his shirt and chucking it into the laundry hamper.

Angela looked up at him. “Oh?”

Mike tugged a sleeping shirt on as he continued his conversation through the open door of the closet. “The fool fell asleep at the desk in my study on the fourth floor.”

“What?” Angela sat up, awkwardly folding her wings as she did. “What was he doing in there?”

Mike sighed heavily. “…Looking at family photos and crying.”

Angela closed her eyes. “Mike…”

“Don’t say it,” her husband groused. “Hang on.”

Angela duly waited until Mike had changed into sleeping clothes and climbed into the colossal bed beside her before asking the question. “What are you going to do about him?” she asked. Trepidation colored her voice. Mike was rarely roused to anger. His brother was one of the very few things that could do it.

He sank into the pillows and wearily rubbed his eyes. “I don’t know any more. What did Sanguinius suggest?”

“How did you know I called Father?” Angela asked in surprise.

Mike looked up at her.

Angela smiled faintly. The two had shared souls with one another, in their foolish youth. Predicting the other’s actions was hardly a challenge. “Right. I did call him, and he and Mother suggested that Larson is…well, jealous.”

“That, I figured out on my own,” Mike grunted.

“And…that you’re worried sick about him,” Angela continued.

Mike stared at the ceiling, trying to disprove her. It didn’t work. “I’m worried, I’ll grant them that,” he finally allowed.

His wife laid one hand on the headboard over his neatly-trimmed blonde hair. “Mike, I think the two of you need to have a long and personal talk.”

His voice was small and bitter. “I know.”

Angela sensed his anger turning to resentment. She averted it completely. “Well. Time to sleep, then,” she decided.

Mike smiled despite it all. “Angela, are you reading my mind?” he asked. It wasn’t unprecedented.

She leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Her hair tickled his ears. “I don’t need to,” she said coyly. “I just do what I think will make this work out happily.”

“Then by all means, continue,” Mike said with a yawn of fading adrenaline. He pulled up the covers and caressed his wife’s hand as she settled down, facing him from her side. “Good night.”

Larson awoke slowly the next morning. His head was bursting with a hangover migraine. Moving quickly would have been too overwhelming. He gradually cracked his eyes open to see that the study was lit solely by a disconnected holo on the desk, running on a battery, and by a flickering fire in the grated fireplace.

He struggled to sit up, pushing back the blanket over his chest – no. It was a jacket. Not his?

Larson rubbed sleep from his eyes with a wince of pain. The jacket was crushed velvet, and monogrammed with mGs. Mike’s jacket, then. Hell. He tossed it over the couch and gingerly stood, hesitating as the pain flared up in his head. “Now if only I was married to a psyker, that wouldn’t even be a problem,” he muttered.

The pictures on the desk had retracted when he – or Mike – had moved him to the couch. One of them was unplugged, sitting on the table, running on battery power. Larson lifted it, trying to remember what they had been. It was Mike and some of the senior members of the government, wasn’t it? One of them was Princess Miranda’s boyfriend –

No. They were the men who had married into the Royal family. That was it. Mike Grecco, Nathaniel Romanvene, J. Something, Something Russ, Julius Pius, and Armin Napier. Larson let out a heavy breath. That was why he hadn’t recognized them, some of them had been commoners. Of course. Well, wasn’t that peachy.

He nearly slammed the holo back down into its charging cradle, and it descended into the desk. The slot closed with a quiet *click*, and he glared at it so hard he could have melted the plastic cover clean off.

Whatever. Let Mike and Elizabeth and Dad and Mom and the Emperor himself pick their own ways, he thought to himself in a huff as he went looking for his shoes. He had picked his own way, and he was sticking to it. He patted down the pockets of his borrowed clothes, looking for his keys. His fingers ticked against something hard on the left side pocket, and he reached in. His fingers closed around a small metal chain, and he tugged, curious now. He extracted a set of silver keys, looped on a twisted metal ring, and each was emblazoned with a room number. He stared, wondering what it was, when it clicked. They were the keys to the guest suite in which he was supposed to have been sleeping overnight. Hadn’t the door been unlocked, though?

Suddenly weary beyond measure, he slumped down onto the couch before the flickering fire and cradled the keys in his hands. They were so blasted fragile, he thought blearily, dropping them onto the floor between his legs. Humans and keys alike. And fireplaces, and cars, and self-esteem, and relationships, and love…

The door swung open. Larson scrambled to his feet as his youngest sibling turned on the lights. Mike stared at him. “What were you doing on the floor?”

Larson stammered. “I, uh, I dropped the keys to the guest suite,” he said, gesturing at them where they lay.

Mike shrugged. “Mm. Alright. Get real clothes on, we’re going,” he said, turning away.

“You’re throwing me out already, huh?” Larson said feebly.

Mike glared over his shoulder. “No, you imbecile, I’m buying you breakfast.”

Angela watched, half an hour later, as a small, compact silver car drove – on wheels – out of the garage and made for the Cordoma business district. The little town was expanding so fast that half the skyline was construction cranes and Mechanicum auto-assembly scaffolds, and there was an abundance of busy, cheap places for the laborers and techpriests to find repast. The blonde angel shook her head and turned away to find a maid. She needed breakfast too, and she was booked solid with meetings that day.

Larson looked out the windows of the car as Mike drove them down the narrow streets. “So this is Cordoma in the daylight, huh?” he asked.

“More used to it at night?” Mike asked, false levity dripping from his voice.

“Too bloody right,” Larson said dryly. “Nice town.”

“Where do you live nowadays?” Mike asked.

“Oh, Startseite, but the aircars now can do the trip in twenty minutes. I just booked a cab here, a few nights back, I think,” Larson recalled through the post-binge haze.

Mike drove them in silence for nearly thirty seconds. “…You’ve been wandering around the city, drunk and lost, for a day and a half?” he asked quietly.

Larson looked back at Mike. His brother’s jaw was clenched so tight his cheeks were white. “…I guess I have,” Larson said. “Not proud of it.”

Mike gripped the wheel and turned them down a side road, maybe a bit too fast. “I’d have come get you before you wound up in the drunk tank if you called me, you know.”

Larson shook his head. “I wouldn’t have asked.”

“I’d rather pick you up so you can sleep in a real bed than abuse my power to get you out of a misdemeanor charge,” Mike said curtly. “And either way it would have given you a place to rest that night.”

“I know,” Larson said testily, then regretted it. “Sorry.”

Mike stepped on the brakes, slowing them down so he could park. “We’re here,” he announced. Larson looked at the place they had stopped. It was a featureless concrete wall.


“It’s behind the wall, best kept secret in Cordoma,” Mike said.

“Ah. I was gonna say, I’m hungry, but cement mix just goes right through me,” Larson said. Mike snorted and unlocked the doors.

Behind the concrete blast wall was a small, even clandestine restaurant with an unlit sign over the door that said ‘Baker’s Bakers.’ Larson looked up at the sign as they walked under it. “We’re eating at a place that is literally a pun. Excellent.”

Mike held the door open for his brother. Larson walked past him and took stock of the place. It was utterly vacant. No waitstaff or diners were visible anywhere. “Uh, Mike, I don’t see anyone,” he said.

“I called ahead,” Mike said, dropping into the table next to the door. “The owner owes me a favor.”

“What for?” Larson asked.

“Getting his land construction approval passed after he bollocks-ed the tax form up,” Mike said. The kitchen door swung open and a portly man in his fifties emerged, rubbing his hands on a towel.

He spotted the Royal son and the disheveled man beside him and beamed a smile at them. “Michael, my good man, so glad we can square things,” he announced in a booming voice overflowing with joi de vivre. Larson liked him instantly. “How can I serve you and your friend?”

“Brother, actually, and we’ll start with two Sewer Worker Emergency Plates,” Mike said with an easy grin of his own.

“Bit early in the day to be committing suicide, isn’t it?” the man, presumably Baker, asked with mock concern.

Mike waved a dismissive hand. “I fear nothing,” he said with regal disdain.

“Indeed! Two SWEPs, coming right up,” the man said, and back into the kitchen he went.

Larson stared. “What in the hell is a Sewer Worker’s Emergency Plate?”

“The best food you’ve never tasted,” Mike said. “Three blackberry pancakes over a pad of butter with imported tree sugar syrup, four links of mini-pork sausage and a slice of Butcher’s Bacon, two pieces of rye toast, and two cups of sugar-drenched quadruple-caffeine-rationed black coffee, served white hot.”

“Good Lord.”

Mike shrugged. “I know, it’s risky business, but if you’ve dredged a Terran sewer, sometimes you need a few trillion volts of fat and stimulants in your system immediately,” he said. “And like I said, I knew the place was closed.”

“How and why did he need your help with the tax forms?” Larson asked as he reached for a napkin.

“Because I’m dumber than the day is long and listed two dependents I didn’t have when I filed my taxes for the place,” the man called from inside the kitchen. “Mike here is a dear old friend and he spoke to someone in the Administratum for me. So he gets to eat whatever the blazes he wants, once per week until the Grand Opening…” he said as he exited the kitchen with the toast on a plate, “which I had to delay because of the bureaucrats.” He set the toast down with some butter and jelly packets. “Eat up, sir, you look famished.”

“Indeed,” Larson said. “Thank you kindly.” He set into the toast with a vengeance as Mike sipped a glass of ice water. The cook or proprietor or whatever he was vanished into the kitchen again, and moments later the sounds and smells of frying fat wafted through the old-fashioned swing doors.

Larson looked over his bread at his brother. Mike was staring into his ice water, watching the cubes melt. “So…thanks for this,” he said.

Mike didn’t look up. “Yes.” He looked down at the unopened menus on the table. “Found my personal pictures last night?”

“I did.” Larson hesitated. “Sorry.”

“I left the room unlocked.” Mike sighed. “The one you looked at…that was a few weeks ago. At the Palace. After Cora and Armin got married.”

“Yeah, I remembered the wedding,” Larson said. “Was it nice?”

Mike looked over the rim of his cup with one raised brow. “Well, it was…wealthy. The most successful businesswoman on the planet and the most successful galactic explorer outside the Mechanicum can throw on quite a party when the mood takes them.”

Larson snorted. “Oh, I bet.” He sipped at his water too, to wash down the sticky jelly. “What’s he like?”

“Dashing. Very old-schooled, very elegant. Fancies himself an action hero,” Mike said. “No desire for home life. Not like me.”

“Mmm.” They ate in silence as the sounds of eggs whipping emerged from the far room. Larson looked back at Mike with strain lines appearing at the corners of his eyes. “Any plans on children, yet? I know you wanted to wait…”

“We’re trying now,” Mike said. “It’s hard to predict the timing on such things, but…it’s fun, anyway,” he said with the ghost of a grin. “Angela wanted to wait until I felt comfortable around the Royal Family, and she wanted to get settled in at the Astra Telepathica before committing to motherhood.”

“Sensible.” Larson downed his drink and reached for the pitcher. “Good on you.”

“Thanks.” Mike finished his own water and set it aside. “So…are you ready to talk about last night?” he asked.

“Can we wait until I have actual nutrients in me?” Larson asked evasively. Mike heaved a sigh.

“Very well.”

Larson inclined his head. “Thank you, Mike.”

Mike’s vox beeped. He swore under his breath and extracted it. “Hell. I need to take this,” he said, and flipped it open. “What?”

“Lord Michael, this is Principe Fordin,” the voice on the other side said. “I was asked to inform you when the Nimbus is ready.”

Mike sat up, listening intently. “I see.”

“The vessel departs at your will, your Lordship,” the voice continued.

“Good! That was bloody quick, pass along my thanks to the Lord Techmarine,” Mike said. “Keep me informed.”

“Of course, your Lordship. Thank you, sir,” the man said, and hung up.

Mike set the vox down and sighed again. “We’re heading back to Baal in a few days,” he said for his brother’s benefit. “We waited until the wedding was over.”

“You have your own ship?” Larson asked, avoiding his brother’s eyes again.

“Well, it’s the Royal yacht,” Mike said. “Sanguinius, Robin, Angela, me…any of us can use it.”

“Hmm.” Larson finished his toast. “Why didn’t you take one of Fleet Grecco’s ships?”

“Inconvenience a Grecco ship because my wife wants to be home while she’s expecting? I think not,” Mike said. “The Nimbus was going back to Baal for upgrades anyway. Bloody thing’s getting old.”

They waited in awkward silence as the rest of the food cooked. When it was done, Baker emerged with two steaming plates of food and deposited them at the table with a fresh smile. “Gentlemen, enjoy,” he said.

“Goodness, I’m glad I haven’t eaten in two days,” Larson said, staring at the mountain of calories.

“That’s what I’m here for. Sirs,” Baker said, and backed away.

Mike tore into the food, as did his brother, and the room was quiet except for chewing and cleaning noises from the dining hall and kitchen in turn. The pancakes and meat vanished under the concerted forces of hunger from the Grecco boys, and for a few brief minutes, they were eight and ten in their mother’s kitchen again. Larson finished first, and sat back in his chair with a groan that was half fulfillment and half regret.


“Yeah, a Sewer Worker Emergency Plate will cure what ails you,” Mike said around a mouthful of bacon.

“If what ails you is anorexia,” Larson sighed. He pushed his plate away. “Thanks.”

“Yes.” Mike hefted his coffee and sipped it. “Army folk call this caffeine-enriched stuff recaf. I think it’s a portmanteau of something.”

“Recycled Caffeine?” Larson guessed.

“Who knows.” Mike stared at his brother through the steam.

Larson relented. “Then…I guess…”

“What’s happening?” Mike asked bluntly.

Larson shuddered a sigh he had been holding in. “I’m sorry, Michael.”

“Yes. For what?” Mike pressed.

Larson looked away from him and drummed his fingers on the table. “How does this happen?” he asked aloud.


“I want to know how this sort of conversation goes, but I’m sort of stumbling,” Larson admitted.

“Does it ever go smoothly?” Mike rhetorically inquired. Larson answered anyway.

“Probably not. Well, I should say…hell, Mike, I know this is unfair of me.”

“No kidding,” Mike said coldly. Larson’s return glare was half-hearted.

“Why do you bail me out?”

“You’re my brother.”

“I mean why you? Why not Liz? Why not Mother or Father? Is it because you have some power over the Arbites?” Larson asked.

Mike shook his head. “My power ends at the doorstep of the Arbites’ Precincts. Thank goodness you’ve never been in one. The Praetors, however…half of the Survivors’ Fund is bankrolled by me.”

“The what?”

“Orphans and widows.” Mike sipped his drink. “They owe me. Which is a problem for you.”

“Indeed.” Larson put his head in his hands and his elbows on the table, staring down at the cheery patterns on the table.

“Why do you do it, Larson?” Mike asked quietly. “Do you just enjoy drinking that much?”

“It’s not…I mean, I don’t function properly,” Larson mumbled. “I can’t understand…why people don’t want to feel that good all the time…”

Mike shook his head. Larson continued. “It’s…it’s not like I’m stupid, I don’t think it’s natural.”

“Nobody thinks you’re stupid,” Mike said. “Or lack willpower. But that doesn’t leave much else.”

“I’m an addict, Mike,” Larson said bitterly. “It doesn’t have to make sense.”

The two men sat in silence as Baker collected their dishes and went to wash them. He discreetly locked the kitchen door behind himself to grant the Grecco sons some privacy. Mike sent silent thanks for his sense of decorum.

At length, Larson raised his head and looked over at his younger brother. The bags under his eyes made him look ten years older. “Mike, do you ever feel like life isn’t something you can control?”

“No.” Mike downed the last of his recaf and set the mug on the table behind him. “I don’t.”

“I do. It’s not fun.”

“I imagine not. Do something about it,” Mike said flatly. “Six times in six months? Sooner or later, nobody’s going to take your call. I certainly won’t, not for the next ten months. I won’t even be on Earth.”

Larson snorted. “Think I’ve worn out the Grecco family welcome mat?”

“No. The Royal family doesn’t care about you, particularly, and their public image isn’t going to be destroyed by one drunken relative, but brother, Mom and Dad and Liz are just as embarrassed of your behavior as you’d expect,” Mike said angrily. “There’ll be a point when they force you to go to rehab, and you’ll thank them for it, even as you curse yourself for not doing it voluntarily.”

“Oh, like I could do that!” Larson snapped. “Like I can find the time for that!”

Mike shrugged. “I guess it would be hard to find an opportunity with your schedule. I mean, you spent the last two weeks stumbling around a strange city, drinking heavily. No time for rehab in there.”

Larson’s hands gripped the edge of the table like he was going to flip it over, when Mike’s hand snaked out and grabbed his brother’s wrist. He twisted, exposing Larson’s palm to the lights of the room. “Look at yourself!” Mike snapped. “You can’t live like this, Larson! We’re worried about you!”

Larson wrenched his hand away from his genehanced brother with some difficulty. “You don’t…you don’t know what I’m going through!” he shouted.

“No!” Mike shot back. “But I’m sitting across from you in an abandoned restaurant, with no time commitments for the next few hours, Angela’s busy at work, you’ve got nowhere to be in more ways than one, and I just dragged your carcass out of a Praetor drunk tank! Get to talking!”

Larson’s teeth clenched, even as he sank back down in his seat. “You’re right,” he bit out. “You’re always fucking right, aren’t you?”

“I am this time,” Mike said darkly. “Get to talking.”

“It was always you,” Larson said bitterly. “You married into the Royal Family, you got the accolades at Imperator, you’re the one the Navigators would rather work with…”

“So this is sibling rivalry gone horribly awry?” Mike demanded. “How convenient that your addiction is now someone else’s fault.”

“No, you bastard!” Larson suddenly bellowed. “Not like…not like that…”

The fire vanished from his tone and he deflated as if he had been pricked with a pin. He sank down into his seat and cradled his head on his hands again. “It’s…not…”

“Is it the fact that I married first that bothers you? I know it bothered Liz, at first,” Mike said.

His brother shook his head as a tear leaked past his hand. “Of course I’m jealous,” Larson whispered. “But…”

Mike stared at him. “Why Cordoma?” he asked.

Larson pulled his hands away from his eyes and blinked at Mike. “Huh?”

“Why are you in Cordoma?” Mike asked him, trying to keep his voice level. “Last I heard, you were in Startseite.”

“I was,” Larson said. He looked back down. “I had a business meeting.”

Mike leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “So how did you get from there to getting beaten up in a bar?”

“How does a celebration after a meeting ever turn out?” Larson asked with an attempt at a quip. “I just…well, I don’t…ever reach the point where I think I need to stop.”

Mike sighed as he sensed the conversation turning in circles. “What was the meeting?”

Larson hesitated. “I was meeting with a representative from House True.”

“What for?”

“I, er…” Larson’s hesitation caught Mike’s attention, and he leaned forward to try to match his older brother’s eye.

Mike’s tone was harsh. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m…” Larson fidgeted like a kid called before their teacher for breaking the chalk.

Mike sat up as a piece slid into place. “Larson, you’ve known you had a drinking problem since you were twenty years old,” he said slowly. “Why did I suddenly have to bail you out six times in half a year?”

“I’ve…I said already, I’m just jealous of your life sometimes,” Larson said angrily.

“Not after I’ve been married for twenty six years,” Mike said. “What’s going on?”

Larson glared at his brother across the table for a moment longer, before Mike sat back in his chair and stared at him, crossing his arms over his chest. He relented at last, slumping into his seat.

“…I’m in trouble, Mike,” he finally admitted. His brother bade him continue with a wave. “You know Vuaso Management?”

“Mutual fund brokerage,” Mike recalled.

“My company’s retirement funds are invested through them, and so are a bunch of my own personal accounts,” Larson said heavily. He felt the hand of shame squeeze his heart. “They’re in deep shit.”

“What’s going on?” Mike asked again, this time in concern.

Larson slowly leaned forward and lowered his voice, despite the room’s vacancy. “They’re…about to get investigated by the Imperial Fraud Investigation and Prevention Panel.”

Mike’s jaw dropped. “IFIPP is investigating your mutual fund brokerage?”

The older man nodded and bit back a frustrated groan at the thought. “I have so much tied up in those guys…Mike, we have over seventy five thousand employees with accounts there. And those are just the retirement plans. If you count personal insurance plans and stock portfolios, it’s over ninety thousand. If they’re really running a scheme…I’m destroyed.”

Mike was stunned. The young Prince took a moment to think it over, running his hand across his jaw as he did. “Well…wow. What are you going to do?”

Larson glared at him again. “Would I be drinking myself half to death if I had an answer?” he snapped. “I came to Cordoma to meet with a rep from House True to see if we could secure a contract for some shipping work with them, scrounge up some trade money to buy me some time.”

“So did you go get blasted because it did work, or because it didn’t?” Mike asked pointedly.

Larson’s shoulders drooped. “I fucked it up,” he mumbled. “My price was a shade too high, and they got spooked.”

Mike sighed. “Damn. Well…huh. I couldn’t help with the money, but…”

Larson’s head jerked back as if stung. “Did I ask for your help with that?” he demanded. “No, really, did I ask for money?”


“Then…ah, hell.” He dropped his hands to the seat and plaintively looked across the table. “Mike, I’m scared.”

“Why didn’t you check them out?” Mike asked.

“I did! I hired a PI to check out the firm’s history,” Larson wailed. “They were clean! They may have started after we opened the account with them, I don’t know.”

“Then did you commit any crimes?” Mike asked.

“No, no, I didn’t do anything,” Larson said, wounded.

“Then it’ll suck, you’ll lose a fortune, and your employees will be in hot water,” Mike summarized. “It’s horrible, but it’s life.”

Larson gaped. “Those are the retirement accounts of my entire staff you’re dismissing!”

“And there’s nothing you can do!” Mike said. “Look, I sympathize, but what else is there?”

“Mike, what the hell do you mean? I have to fight this!” Larson said.

“Brother, you can do NOTHING but co-operate with the government and hope for the best!” Mike said. “If you really want to help your people, then go get some real work done! How much is getting smashed on the streets of Cordoma helping your employees?”

His brother sighed and ground his hands into his eyes again. “I feel guilty, Mike, like I let them down.”

“Your board will stand with you if you present a tough face and gut this out,” Mike assured him. “Do you think they’ll back you if you’re disappearing days at a time into lockups and bars? Get your ass back to Startseite and sit down with the Panel, and get your accounts squared.”

Larson closed his eyes. “…I know.”

“But it’s easier not to, isn’t it,” Mike said heavily as the truth emerged at last. “You don’t want to look your guys in the eye and say what happened.”

Larson didn’t answer. Mike stood after another minute of silence. “If you want my support, Larson, you have it,” he said. His brother looked up at him in surprise. “I can’t offer you money, not legally, but I can testify before the Panel.”


“But not for another ten months or so,” Mike finished. “I won’t interrupt our plans to start a family over this.”

“Would you do it if I asked you to?” Larson asked.

Mike froze, staring at his brother in shock. “…What?”

“Would you wait a bit longer to have a child if I asked you to?” Larson was sitting still, now, not fidgeting, and staring straight back at Mike with a steely look in his eyes.

The silence in the room was deafening. Mike’s hands gripped the back of his chair. “…I suppose I would.”

“Then I won’t,” Larson said, nodding as if in conformation of something. “Go start a family. I’ll pick up after myself.”

Mike narrowed his eyes. “Why did you just ask me that?”

Larson grimaced as he stood. “Because I needed to be sure.”

“If you get arrested again, I’m not helping you,” Mike said flatly. “I won’t even be on Terra.”

“I know.”

“I mean it. Ask Liz if it happens again,” Mike pressured him.

“I know. Thanks,” Larson said. “You’re a real son of a bitch, though, you know that?”

“We have the same parents,” Mike reminded him.

“This is true.” Larson followed his brother out the door and back to the car without another word, and sat in the passenger’s seat. Mike started up the car and they were on the way back to the house.

Partway back, Larson suddenly snorted in amusement. “I feel as tired now as I did last night.”

“Despite all that recaf?” Mike asked.


“Hmm. Soul-searching does that.” Mike pulled them up in the manor’s driveway and secured the car in the garage.

Inside, Larson went to collect his things. Mike sat down in a chair in the antechamber and tried to muddle through the last hour. The room fell quiet as Larson went up to the guest suite and the study, and left Mike alone with his thoughts. He let the news of his brother’s financial trouble tumble through his mind. The instincts he felt as he did pulled him in at least two directions, unfortunately.

Still. The food was eaten, the talk had been had, and now they had to act. The onus was on Larson now. If he decided not to reform his ways, that was on him; if he did, then Mike would be there for him, he decided. And either way, they were still brothers. The Greccos looked out for their own.

Larson returned in his own clothes, cleaned and pressed by the servants in his absence. He tucked them under his arm and hesitated as he reached Mike. “Well…thanks for breakfast, Mike,” he said.

Mike nodded and rose. “Sure. Drop by before we fly to Baal, please.”

“Listen…don’t tell Dad about all this, all right? I don’t want to embarrass him,” Larson awkwardly said.

“I understand.” Mike briefly hugged him before stepping back to hold him at arm’s length. He gave Larson a hard stare. “You understand why we’re concerned?”

“Yeah, I’ve got it.” Juvenat treatments couldn’t hide the age in Larson’s eyes, but at least he wasn’t walking with a slump in his spine any more. “All right. Where’s my car?”

“It’s at the Praetor’s stationhouse, I asked them to tow it. Here, use this if they give you crap about the bill,” Mike said, passing his brother a money card.

“Thanks.” Larson pocketed it and shook Mike’s hand. “I’ll…if you’re back from Baal, I’ll call you when you can testify before the Panel.”

“Do so. Goodbye.” Mike held the door as his brother exited with one last look, and stepped into the cab Mike had called on the drive home. He clambered in and took off towards the town without another word.

Upstairs, one of the house servants was dusting the trophy room when Mike wandered in, hands in his pockets. The servant sketched a quick bow, but Mike wasn’t even looking around. He acknowledged the bow with a distracted wave, then turned to look at a picture on the wall. The servant turned back to his cleaning.

Mike stared at the picture in silence. The image was nearly as old as he was. It was him, at the age of two, cradled in Elizabeth’s arms, and Larson standing behind them. Angela, no older than him, was fast asleep in Robin’s lap where she sat next to his own mother. He sighed under his breath and walked away, head hung low.

Jake Can Come Off As Strange[edit]

Lisa looked out the front door of her boyfriend’s house in dismay. The darkness was total; even the lights of the city were invisible. Driving sheets of rain were tearing across the sky, so strong that the branches of trees were whipping around.

She sighed to herself. “I just had to walk over. Three blocks…damn.” She raised a hand to block the wind and stepped forward.

“Where are you going at three in the morning?” a voice asked from behind her.

She jerked around, her heart rate spiking. Prince Jacob was leaning against the frame of the antechamber’s door, staring at her a bit blearily. “In this weather, too,” he said.

Lisa stammered. “J-just walking home, your Majesty.”

Jake shook his head. “Don’t be absurd, that weather could kill you. Terran rain can turn acidic from the water coming off the hive skins. Just stay here tonight,” he said, straightening up.

The blonde teenager nervously shook her head. “Thank you, your Majesty, but I couldn’t trouble you to set up a guest room at this time of night,” Lisa said.

“Who said anything about a guest bed?” Jake yawned.

Lisa’s jaw dropped. She stared, shocked. “W-what?”

Jake yawned again as he walked away. “I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

Upstairs, N’bel, Jake’s older son, crossed his arms behind his head and stared at the ceiling, completely at peace with life. She had been a bit nervous, and he couldn’t blame her, but Lisa had returned his affections. They had made love for the first time, and it had been everything he had hoped for.

Abruptly, his door swung open, shaking him out of his post-coital reverie. Lisa staggered in, looking exhausted. N’bel sat up.

“Baby, what’s wrong?” he asked. Hadn’t she been about to go home?

“Kill me now,” she groaned, sinking facefirst onto the mattress. “Go get that ceremonial knife off the wall over there and ram it straight into my heart,” she said into the covers.

“What the hell are you on about?” N’bel asked. “Are you all right?”

“Your dad stopped me from leaving and said I should just stay the night,” Lisa mumbled. “Ffffffuuuuck…”

N’bel’s brilliantly glowing eyes widened. “What?”

“And…when I said he shouldn’t bother to set up a guest bed, he said ‘I didn’t mention a guest bed,’” she finished, gripping her head.

N’bel sank back into the pillow, staring blankly. “…Shit.” His mind raced, trying to think of a way out of their predicament, and couldn’t find one. “Well…I guess we’ll just have to see how this goes,” he said, pulling the sheets back for her.

The next morning, Lisa crept down the stairs of the house, wondering if she could get away clean.

Not to be, it seemed. Jake poked his head out of the kitchen as she walked by on tiptoes. “Good morning,” he said. “Have you had breakfast?” he asked.

Lisa nearly jumped out of her skin. “Uh, uh…your, uh…your Majesty, I’m fine, thanks,” she said, inching towards the door.

“Not what I asked,” Jake said mildly. “Come on in.”

She couldn’t see a way out of her impending doom, no matter how hard she tried, so with the airs and dignity of a condemned prisoner, she trooped into the kitchen, where Jake was already making a few omelets. Clearly he had been waiting for her to make her escape.

She sat at the counter, nervously glancing around. “Is…is Princess Venus here too?” she asked, just to delay her demise.

“She had to leave early. She says hi,” Jake said, flipping one sizzling circle of mixed egg.

Lisa looked down at her plate. “…I’m sorry,” she said quietly.

Jake looked up at her from the food. “For what?”

“For…I mean…under your roof, and…” Lisa trailed off, flushing red. “Sorry.”

Jake shook his head. “You did nothing to be ashamed of. Do you know what N’bel is like when you’re not around?” he asked. He snorted. “Stupid question. Never mind. I’ll help: distracted, at best.” He smiled slyly as she looked up in surprise. “I think he really loves you, Lisa.” He raised his voice. “And he’s really bad at staying quiet!”

N’bel appeared at the door, eyes drawn and dimmed. “Uh, morning, Dad,” he said. “You, uh…heard me come down the stairs, did you?”

“Clear as a rifle report,” Jake said. “Sit down. Eat.”

N’bel slid into the seat beside his girlfriend, looking up at his father behind the counter. “So…you’re not gonna kill us, right?” he asked, to make sure. Jake waved one hand. “Why would I do that? I remember being your age,” he said.

N’bel stared. “…What?”

“What? You’re both responsible kids,” Jake said, dropping a few slices of cheese into the cooking eggs. “I’m glad you two are happy.”

Lisa flushed bright red. “And…you’re not mad? At all?”

“Lisa, I actually like you,” Jake said drily. “My son’s in good hands.”

Lisa managed to blush even brighter, staring down at the empty plate in front of her. “…Thanks, your Majesty.”

“That’s gonna have to stop, though,” Jake said.

“We won’t do it again,” she said sadly.

“What? No, I mean calling me ‘your Majesty’ in my own house like that,” Jake said. “Look at me, I’m in a bathrobe, cooking eggs. Nothing Majestic here,” he said. He pushed the eggs out of the pan and onto her plate. “Here.”

“Uh, thanks,” she said. “I’m sorry if we…you know, bothered you last night.”

Jake chuckled. “You didn’t. I just wish N’bel had thought to close his door,” he said with mock weariness.

N’bel’s eyes flickered in sudden nerves. “Wait, you…oh fuck, you didn’t…”

“Yeah, I didn’t really want a play-by-play,” Jake said.

N’bel’s head sank into his hands. “Ugh…” he mumbled.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding,” Jake said, putting his hands up. “Seriously. I’m happy for you two.”

“Am I missing something?” N’bel said, looking up through his fingers. “I expected you to flip a shit, here.”

“Why?” Jake asked reasonably, starting his own breakfast. “You think I wouldn’t remember when I was sixteen? Shit, I wish my dad had taken it as well,” he said. “First thing I did when I came home the next morning was yell at me.”

N’bel stared. “Grandpa George yelled at you?”

“Sure did. And then, he did it after my first night with my second girlfriend too,” Jake said. “He was just overprotective, though, I don’t blame him.” He smiled at his son’s look of total astonishment. “After you’re done, go do me a favor, though, huh? I heard something land on the roof in the storm. Go make sure whatever it was didn’t puncture the seal, all right?”

“Uh, yeah…sure,” N’bel said, digging into his eggs.

After he finished and made his escape, Lisa sat in her own seat, her food all but untouched. Jake looked at her over the counter, gauging her nervousness. “Lisa, are you all right?”

“Yes, sir,” she muttered.

Jake sighed. “Lisa, come on. Why are you so embarrassed? Did he hurt you or something?”

Her head shot up. “No! No, he didn’t…I mean, I’m just…you’re his dad!” Lisa said.

“Yes, I am.” Jake looked over at her, trying not to intimidate her with his eyes. “Listen, sweetheart, you make my son very happy. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing. All right? Don’t be embarrassed.”

“I just…I didn’t even ask to come over, he just said we should come over after the party, and then…” she mumbled.

“Is that it? Lisa, my son’s never happier than he is when you’re around,” Jake said gently. “What kind of father would I be if I didn’t want that? My door is always open to you.”

She looked downward, flushing again. “Great.”

He chuckled again, shaking his head. “Frankly, I was wondering what took you two so long. N’bel’s been proclaiming his undying love for you with a downright adorable level of eagerness for weeks,” he said drily.

Lisa glanced up, surprised. “Really?”

“He’s such a romantic,” Jake laughed. He looked into her eyes, all mock sternness. “You don’t go breaking his heart, now, all right?”

“I won’t,” she promised.

“Good.” He smiled. “You want a ride home?” he asked.

“No, I should just walk,” Lisa said. She looked down at her untouched food. “Um, can I finish first?”

“Sure thing,” Jake said, sliding his own dishes into the dishwasher. “And please, for his sake, don’t hold my weirdness against him, all right? I’d never forgive myself.”

She bit her lip to hold back a giggle. “Sure thing, sir.”

“Superb. See you around,” he said, walking out of the kitchen.

N’bel was walking in the door as Jake reached it. “There’s nothing on the roof at all,” he accused.

“Wow, you saw through my transparent attempt at causing a diversion,” Jake deadpanned.

“What did you talk about?” his son demanded.

Jake put his hands up. “Easy, son, I don’t deserve that tone,” he said.

N’bel fumed. Jake nearly laughed at his son’s simmering frustration. “All right. You kids have fun. I need to descend into the cave to continue my labors,” he sighed, walking down to his office in the basement.

N’bel glared at his father’s back until he was out of sight. “Asshole,” he muttered.

Lisa picked at her eggs as N’bel sat down beside her. “I thought he was gonna be mad,” Lisa said, her nerves settling down.

N’bel sighed. “Me too.”

“You think he was being an asshole?” Lisa asked.

“A little,” he admitted.

Lisa managed a smile as she ate. “I think your Dad’s pretty cool, actually. He was really nice. Said I was always welcome here.”

“He did, didn’t he,” N’bel muttered. He looked over at his girlfriend. “Are you going to be all right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Lisa said. “Well…I think my own parents are gonna be mad, though.”

“They’ll have to get over it,” N’bel said. “That was way too much fun not to try again.”

Lisa smiled at him sidelong. “It was.”

“Well, it’s a Saturday on a three-day weekend,” N’bel said casually. “We have all day, if you want to go again.”

She giggled. “Perhaps…but I need to be getting home.”

“All right.” N’bel waited until she was done eating and stood up before rising as well. “Hey…Lisa,” he said. When she looked over to him, he slid his arms around her waist and chest, pulling her into a relaxed hug, and resting his head on her shoulder. “Thanks, baby. I love you,” he said softly.

“You too, N’bel,” she said, hugging him back. “I’ll see you at school.”

After she had started off to her house, N’bel walked down to where is father was working in his corner of the basement studios. “Hey, Dad, why did you do that?” he asked as soon as he was in range.

Jake looked over his shoulder. “What?”

“Why did you confront her like that?” N’bel demanded. “You scared the shit out of her.”

Jake glared. “Watch it, N’bel.”

N’bel reined in his temper. “I mean…you scared her, Dad.”

“I didn’t mean to, but I also talked to her last night, and I didn’t want her to come away with the impression that I disapproved of your relationship,” Jake said. “I actually think she’s a nice girl. And, you know, she was the one who brought it up. All I did was ask if she wanted some breakfast.”

“Yeah, she is a nice girl, and can you kindly stay out of it when she’s over next?” N’bel asked coldly.

Jake rolled his eyes as he turned back around. “Of course. I just don’t think walking home through an acid storm is good for your health.”

“I mean…come on. That was supposed to be her quiet escape,” N’bel said.

“Yeah, and I don’t want her feeling that she has to ‘escape,’” Jake said. “She had no reason to hide what you did. That’s all I was trying to say. And again, all I did was offer her some food, she was the one who brought it up. What did she say when I was walking away?”

“She said she thought you were being cool,” N’bel admitted.

“Yeah, I heard that part,” Jake said. “Look,” he added over his shoulder. “I can be your friend about this, or your father about this. One wants to say he’s happy for you and hope you keep it up, and the other wants to know why you weren’t doing your homework instead, or whether she’s been tested.”

“She has, and can you not talk about this again?” N’bel asked.

“Absolutely. I don’t intend to,” Jake promised. “I would have been happy just making breakfast for her. You do understand that she was the one who-”

“Yeah, yeah, I heard. I think she was just a little scared of you and Mom, all right?” N’bel asked.

“Well, I don’t want her to be. And, hey, son,” Jake said. He looked over to where his son was standing. “She really is welcome here.”

“Thanks, Dad.” N’bel snorted, his anger fading away. “Does this mean you’ll start treating me like an adult now?” he asked jokingly.

“I don’t ever want to hear you say that, not once, for the rest of your life,” Jake said coolly.

N’bel blinked. “What?”

“Only the most extreme of assholes equate sex with adulthood,” Jake said. “Does getting molested as a child make that child an adult? Does someone who goes off to join the Astartes before they’re old enough to have sex refer to themselves as a boy? No, they don’t. Manhood is something you get when you find yourself looking forward to a responsibility. I don’t care what it is,” he said, cutting his son off. “It’s something you earn. Marriage, fatherhood, invention, political appointment, military service, I don’t care. It’s when you find yourself with that responsibility and find yourself actually looking forward to it that you’ve become a real adult. Trust me. I knew guys in college who jumped from bed to bed like they were full of hot coals and graduated as irresponsible manchildren, and one of my best friends in high schools took an abstinence pledge as a child and lived a mature and responsible adult life from the minute he joined the Army. Loyalty and responsibility make you a man, not sticking your dick in something pretty.”

N’bel digested that. “ don’t think I’ve earned it?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter when I think you’ve earned it, because you find out for yourself,” Jake said. “I have no input on it. But I think you’re an intelligent and responsible sixteen year old, and I think you’ll acquit yourself well when the time comes, and it does me proud to see you in a loving relationship with a beautiful girl.”

N’bel nodded. “Okay.”

“One thing I want to be clear on, as long as I have your attention,” Jake said.


“If I ever even suspect that you and Lisa, or anyone else, are sexting, I’m going to cut your throat,” Jake said matter-of-factly. “I mean it. I even see a hint of the Royal Dong on the net, and you are a dead man. And don’t go bragging to your younger brother, either.”

N’bel flinched. “I wouldn’t.”

“You better not.”

“I wouldn’t!” he insisted.

“Good.” Jake rose and walked over to where his son was standing. “All right. Are we cool?” he asked.

N’bel nodded. “Yeah, now that I know you weren’t just being a cock-block,” he said.

Jake snorted. “Try keeping up a relationship with a Primarch’s daughter in a hive hab block with half the Treasury breathing down your neck and then talk to me about cock-blocking,” he said.

N’bel shuddered. “Can we not talk about that? At all, ever?”

“Sure,” Jake said drily. “Now…go do your damned homework,” he said, returning to his desk.

Olev's Training[edit]

Thangir lay back in his bed in the home they had built on Terra, musing over a slate. Freya was changing in the bathroom for sleep. The young Prince read over his slate for the fourth time. He couldn’t focus; his mind was elsewhere. The family was returning to Fenris in mere hours. Olev was starting his training in the camps at Kerrvik.

His wife emerged from the bathroom, freshened. She slid out of her robe and lay down beside him on the bed as Thangir forced himself to read the document on the slate.

“How was your day?” Freya asked him.

“Distracting,” Thangir replied. “The cleanup after Olev’s party was…significant. I didn’t know he even knew that many locals his age.”

“He’s his father’s son,” Freya observed. “You knew that many locals your age back when you were as he is now. He’s good at making friends.”

“He has good instincts,” Thangir came back. “Strong ones. And he has a better grasp of his abilities than I ever did.”

He glanced over the top of the slate to where he had stacked the birthday cards Olev had received for his fifteenth birthday. His son was old enough. It was time for the trials. And yet…

Freya looked over at him. “What are you reading?”

Thangir set down the slate with a grunt of annoyance. “Some tripe about how the casualty rate in the camps isn’t decreasing even though they’ve got some new policies. Pisses me off.”


He glanced down at where she was snuggled against his side. “Either he’s facing the true test of the Vlka, or he isn’t. Either he’s going to make it through on his own merits, or he isn’t. Do we want administrative nonsense disrupting his training, or not?”

“I don’t want him to go through the camps at all,” Freya reminded him. “He’ll never receive gene-seed, so why bother? We can train him ourselves.”

“But if he doesn’t at least attempt it, what sense of belonging will he have to the pack?” Thangir asked testily.

Freya’s eyes narrowed. “I never went through it, Thangir. Do I not belong to the pack?”

He scoffed. “It was never for women anyway.”

Freya slowly uncurled from his side and sat up. Thangir hastily corrected himself. “I mean women can’t be gene-seeded, not that you lack the strength,” he said, starting to sit up too.

She placed a hand on his chest and pushed him back down with a pressure he couldn’t have resisted if he’d been in Power Armor. His pulse picked up by about half at her utterly dismissive use of strength. “Thangir,” she said softly. His eyes darted up her arm to her face. She was smiling tightly, her teeth were pressing against her lips. “I knew what you meant. Both your words, and your thought.”

“Freya, trust me,” Thangir said, gripping her wrist where she had him pinned. “I don’t think you lack strength. Physical or mental.” He tensed up again as she shifted her legs to straddle him. Her warm skin pressed against the thick fabric of his sleeping shorts.

She raised her free hand to switch the lights off. Freya held the pose an instant longer before releasing the pressure on his chest. Immediately, Thangir’s hands whipped up to her elbow and knocked her hands aside. The pressure on his waist vanished as she rolled aside. Thangir swiped a hand where she had been, but she was gone.

His lips pulled back in an anticipatory snarl. Somehow, despite the complete reversal of his situation, from annoyance to life-threatening peril, he felt more at ease than he had for days. He stretched his senses out for his wife, and caught a whisper of air as she disturbed some paper on the desk at the edge of the room.

Had he only received his new senses moments ago, he might have lurched towards them like a blinded dog. Instead, he listened with all his might for the next sound, and a second later, he heard her move past the chair beside the desk. He slid off the bed and placed himself between the chair and the way into the main, open space of the room.

The lights flicked on. Freya was sitting on the edge of the bed behind him, arms crossed over her chest and an insolent smile on her face. Thangir stared at her, before slowly letting his arms slump to his side. “How? Just…how do you do it?” he asked.

Freya smiled mysteriously. “If I told you, where’s the fun in finding out firsthand?”

He sighed. “Seems I haven’t quite mastered my instincts,” he noted.

“You’ve mastered them as well as you’ve ever needed to,” Freya encouraged him. He shrugged uncomfortably and moved back towards her.

As he approached, she scooted backwards up the bed. “Let me ask you. Did you feel even the least bit threatened by what just happened?”

He shook his head. “I suppose not.”

“If you weren’t at home with your abilities,” she asked coyly, “would having been plunged into darkness with an irritated post-human who can see and hear better than you frightened you?”

“It would,” he admitted.

“Then shut up,” she said, catching his hands as he moved to lie beside her. “Olev will blow the roofs off the place, no matter how many reservations I have, or you have. Sure, he’s going to be singled out for unfair pressure no matter what I say, and sure, the trials aren’t the same as when you took them. He’s still our son. And whatever reservations you have about your abilities,” she said, squeezing his hands, “remember that he was born with them. They’re as much a part of him as they are a part of me.”

He nodded, accepting her wisdom. “Yes.”

She smiled up at him. “Here. Lie down.” she said, guiding him back to the mattress. He lay facedown on the sheets and sighed as his wife’s hands worked over his neck. “You’re worried about him, in more ways than one,” she stated.

He sighed into the pillow. “Of course I am, Freya.”

“You’re afraid like me, like he’ll break or get hurt because he’ll be held to an unfair standard by the training Sergeant,” she guessed.

Thangir stayed silent for a moment. “Not…break, but feel less for himself,” he said.

“And you’re afraid that all he’ll be interested in after he gets out is joining the military…when the entire point of spending two years on Terra was to show him he can do whatever he’s smart and ambitious enough to do,” Freya continued. Her hands slid down to his scarred shoulders, and she gently massaged the bunched muscle there.

He gripped the sheets in one hand. “…Not as much, but…”

“And more than anything else…you’re afraid of what will happen if what happened to you happens to him, and he mistakes his abilities for invincibility,” Freya concluded. After Thangir had received his upgrades, his first act after healing had been to challenge one of his most despised rivals in the Huskaerls to a fight. He had won so easily that he had swept the man’s friends into the battle as well, and had been pummeled so badly he had nearly wound up back in the hospital.

“Naturally,” Thangir sighed. “I was a bloody idiot, Freya,” he admitted. “What if…”

“Did we raise an idiot?” Freya asked.


“Then he’ll get his ass beat once and never again,” Freya informed him. “When it comes to life in the Rout, the only way to learn to do something right is to do it wrong once and take it on the chin. You think I never abused my strength when I was an athlete at Imperator?” Her hands slid over his shoulders and she lay back down atop him, pressing her lips against the nape of his neck. “Our son will be fine. He’s ready.”

Thangir closed his eyes and listened to the steady pace of her breath, felt her even pulse. She was as confident as she could be. “…Yes. He will.” He reached aside and gripped her hands on either side of him. “We’re both worried, though, are we not?”

“Naturally, we’re parents.” Freya kissed the back of his neck again, then scooted back to let him roll over. As she did, she let one gene-hanced arm drape across his collarbone and keep him still, just long enough for him to feel it. He accepted her gentle display of dominance with grace, holding one arm out for her lay beside as she moved away.

“Why we you do that?” he asked as she settled down. “Do you ever ask?”


“The…” words escaped him. He waved his hand at the room. “I don’t know that I would have felt all that comfortable with you pushing down on me like that before, either.”

“I dunno.” She shrugged. “Does it feel bad?”


“Then what’s the problem?”

Thangir blinked. “I…guess there isn’t one.”

“All right then,” Freya giggled. “Good night.”

On the roof, Olev stood at the very edge of the structure, one foot on the lip of the gutters. He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at the rows of houses and mansions across the street, eyes narrowed. His heart was pounding. He was going home. Away from this nonsense planet of cities and uncivil warfare, away from the vapid socialite girls and leering, swaggering boys. He was done with the Arbites and their lack of pride as much as he was done with the nobles and their parasitic lifestyles.

The wind was dank with the smell of burned fuel and cut grass, two things he wouldn’t smell back home much. It never snowed here, that was going to change too.

He let go the grin he had been hiding for nearly half an hour. “I’m going home!” he whispered. His fists clenched in triumph. “It’s about time!”

Footsteps on the roof turned his head. One of the neighbor kids, a girl maybe seven years younger than him, was scrambling on the surface. Olev waved her over. “Valerie, what are you doing up this late?” he called.

The young girl was huffing from the effort of climbing the ladder from the deck to the roof. “I saw you up here and I wanted to make sure you were okay,” she said breathlessly. She and other neighborhood kids would sometimes hang out up there where they imagined parents wouldn’t find them, and Olev had been happy to oblige them. It was nice to have a private place to go. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong!” Olev declared happily. “I’m going back to Fenris!”

Valerie’s eyes went wide. “Are you going to be okay?”

Olev flashed his fangs in a confident smile. “I’ll be fine, trust me. I’m a native son, and all the time I’ve spent in this gilded cage didn’t soften me any!”

“Wow.” Valerie looked at his attire. He had already donned a Fenrisian sailor’s outfit; all leathers and pelts and rough fabric. “What are you wearing?”

“Just something Mom brought here from our last trip home,” Olev said, admiring his appearance. He flexed one arm and ran his other hand over the dagger at his belt. “This does feel good. No offense, Valerie, but this world’s not for me.”

“I know,” she said. She sighed unhappily at the prospect of losing a friend. “Well…you be safe out there, okay?” she asked sadly.

Olev started to toss her comment aside when he smelled her mood turn morose. He immediately stopped his braggadocio and stepped up beside her to rest a hand on her back. “I’ll be safe as I can be,” he promised.

She looked up at him. “When will you be back?”

He hesitated. “It will be years.”

“Years? Really? What are you doing?” she asked.

“Training for my role in life,” he said solemnly. “Don’t you fear. I’ll come back eventually.”

“Okay,” she said. “Can I have your address, so I can send you letters and stuff?”

“Fenris doesn’t exactly have a postal system,” Olev chuckled. He patted her on the back. “Just send messages on the ships to Fenris, and I’ll get them.”

She squinted at him in the darkness. “Promise?”

“I do,” Olev confirmed.

“Okay.” She wrapped her arms around his waist, and Olev returned the hug. “’Bye.”

“Farewell,” Olev said. She turned and climbed down the ladder. A few seconds later, her frock of blonde hair appeared on the lawn below as she made her way back to her own home.

Olev watched her until she vanished back into her house, then looked up. The sky was a dead, grey mass here. In his mind, he could already see the constellations of Fenris.

He smiled wistfully as he thought of the friends he would be leaving behind. Valerie wasn’t the only Terran he liked. Now, at least, he’d be among brothers.

Boys With Toys[edit]

Carmine, second son of the Nocturnean Royal family, idly twirled a pair of metal shears around his fingers. The dark, hot room he was in smelled like scorching metal, and was filled with a very faint, but audible, buzzing sound.

The seventeen-year-old set the tool down on a rack and adjusted the apron he was wearing over his forging pants. He stared at the weapon coming together before him, his superhuman senses taking in every flaw and angle.

“It’s the barrel, I suspect, not the rails,” a voice behind him said.

“I know, Dad,” Carmine mumbled, focusing on his work.

The voice sighed. “Man…I thought I was done being mistaken for Dad.”

Carmine glanced over his shoulder. His older brother, N’bel, was leaning against a cold forge behind him, arms crossed.

“N’bel! When did you get back to Themis?” Carmine demanded, wiping his arms off with a rag.

“A few hours ago. I’ve just been shooting the shit with Dad,” N’bel said. Carmine pulled his apron backwards and awkwardly embraced his brother. “Fuck, you got tall,” N’bel remarked. His brother was nearly as tall as him, now.

“Psssh, you’re just tiny,” Carmine said. “How long you staying?”

“Eh, a few weeks at least. The situation on Terra’s getting static,” N’bel said. “How about yourself? How’s school?”

“Done in four weeks, and not a day too soon,” Carmine said. “This is so boring. Was Imperator boring?”

“Fuck no, the last few days were the hardest,” N’bel remembered. “They had us do a graduation project.”

“None of that, here on a civilized planet, rather than barbarian Terra,” Carmine said cheerfully. He righted his apron and returned to his labors.

“The hell you need a bolt pistol for?” N’bel asked.

The ebony-skinned young man shrugged. “Who said I needed it for anything? I just wanted to make it,” Carmine replied.

N’bel looked down at the metal chunks his brother was laboriously shaping. “You’re getting good, man,” he said.

“Thanks,” Carmine said proudly. “Think I’m as good as you yet?”

“No. Give it another few years, and you’ll match me,” N’bel said honestly. He clapped his brother on the shoulder. “Still thinking about enlisting?”

“No,” Carmine sighed. “Mom said it was a horrible idea. I kind of agree, frankly. Might go for officer’s school instead, if only for the PDF.”

“Mmm.” N’bel modestly shook his head. “Well…I couldn’t do it.”

“Sure you could,” Carmine said.

“Yeah, I could,” the twenty four-year-old said. “But I’d hate it.”

Carmine rolled his eyes. “You want to help?”

“You got it under control,” N’bel said, turning to go. “See you at dinner.”

“Yep. Welcome home, brother,” Carmine said, turning back to his creation.

Time of Trial[edit]

Author's note: First person-segments here are from Venus' Perspective

The sky was aflame.

I watched from the balcony of the Royal Quarters in Themis as clouds of black soot enveloped the sun. The diffuse red haze of Deathfire and its smaller sisters, off in the far distance, bled through the cloud, casting a hellish pallor over the world. I looked up at the void shields overhead and saw a field of purple spikes – lightning, skating off of the projected bubble. The streets below were thronged with people, thousands of them, trying to find a place to rest. Something to put between them and the daemons at the gate.

Not the literal kind, of course. Nor was our attacker the ancient specter of the Duskwraiths, which Father banished an era ago. The thing assaulting me and mine today was our planet, and tempestuous hostess, Nocturne itself. The Time of Trial had begun.

I slid a vox from my pocket and connected it to my slate, which I had left on the balustrade of the castle. The machines exchanged their beeps and bits, and a picture of the city appeared. A color filter was superimposed over it, with each color representing a population center that had been overrun with refugees and could accept no more. There were a few red spots of critical overcrowding, but most of the map was the yellow of acceptable population. Only some spots were the blue of undercrowding. Three spots were white: military zones, off-limits. The Astartes lodgings in the outer wall near the north end of the city, a small Librarium center and its associated comm relays, and of course the Castle’s residential quarter, where the City Governor and the associated PDF and Auxilia – Ibu’Than – commanders lived and worked.

I frowned. The light from my eyes was filtered by my contacts, so I couldn’t see the red glare from my screens, but the small coterie of advisors that seem to pollute the air near me when I actually need to decide things must have noticed, because they stopped murmuring.

“Why is the Castle’s garage closed off to refugee traffic?” I asked nobody.

Obviously, someone answered. “Problem with the docks for the Trainee vehicles, ma’am,” a voice – I think it was Perlma, one of the Ibu’Than officers – said. “The entire Legion’s Initiate batch was here. They filled the garage with Land Speeders and Bikes to corral the Initiates on patrol and training in the deserts.”

“Why now, of all times? Can they not read a calendar?” I asked coldly.

“I’m sure they thought they would have time to get them out of here,” Perlma said confidently. “If it becomes an acute problem, we can use a Stormbird to move the vehicles up to the ships in orbit.”

“Then start doing so, immediately, before things get any worse,” I said. “The miners and nomads from the desert are coming. Tens of thousands of them. We’ll need every square inch of clean floor for beds.”

“At once,” Perlma said, snatching a hand-held vox from his belt and walking away.

I nodded as he left. One tiny problem solved. Fifty million more left to go.

A hand appeared on the balustrade next to mine. As much as it looked like Jake’s, I knew it wasn’t. No wedding rings, for starters. My eldest son, N’bel, stepped up next to me, looking about four hundred years older than his actual age of twenty nine. He nodded a greeting to the various Nocturnean officials around me, but ignored them completely beyond that. That was unusual in itself. He was usually much more polite. “Mother, the situation at the gates is getting completely out of hand,” he said quietly. “We can’t be turning people away.”

I turned to face him, noting the lines on his face with concern. His eternal self had manifested the year before, so he would never age again, but the look on his face was that of an old man in a hospital. “What are we doing at the gates?”

“Some people are being turned away, or so I hear,” my son asserted. “I think we should see to this.”

“Oh, I agree,” I said, turning to leave. I could feel my anger rising, and as much as I wanted to vent it on some obstructive gate guard, my son, ever the peacemaker, grabbed my shoulder.

“Let me,” he said. “You’re needed here.”

I scoffed, but he was right. “Oh, very well. Where’s your father? And Carmine?”

“Carmine, I have no idea. Dad’s down on the streets somewhere, he’s on the comms.”

I turned back to look over the streets below. “What’s he doing?”

N’bel half-smiled. “Helping as best he can.” Of course.

I lifted my slate again, already on to the next problem. “Then we should get to it. Go see what’s going on.”

N’bel’s aircar slid as high under the void shield as he dared to take it. He couldn’t fly lower, for fear of clipping an evacuation vehicle. As it was, he had the best view in the city of the tempest overhead. Occasionally, a cloud would part and drop a bomb on the void shields, where it would spatter and flicker, and then vanish into mist, like everything that hit the Mechanicum’s mighty barrier.

Needless to say, N’bel found his knuckles white on the controls. He had never actually been home during a Time of Trial before. He hadn’t been born when the one thirty years ago had occurred, and he had been on Terra for school when the last one struck. This was a learning experience. Spotting the gates, he aimed his vehicle down to the tiny parking area behind the colossal stone and metal construct and landed.

A guard at the door turned to interrupt him as he approached, but backed off immediately when he spotted the tell-tale glow. “Lord N’bel, sir,” he said instead, falling into step behind his prince.

“What’s the trouble?” N’bel asked. The dappled stone of the gate’s ornate frame was cast with shifting shadows as an anemic sun poked through the clouds. “I hear people are being turned away.”

“Not turned away, sir, just redirected,” the guard hastened to assure him. “We’re not refusing entry. It’s just that there are several small groups of people who are outright refusing to discard their personal belongings, so we’re setting those people aside until the more cooperative people are safely inside. King Vulkan’s orders.”

That caught N’bel up short. He spun to stare at the guard. He was old, N’bel noted. Probably in his seventies. “King Vulkan ordered that people who refuse to lose everything they have are set aside like bags of sand until everyone else is in?” he asked incredulously.

“Specifically, sir. This is how it’s been since before the Mechanicus built the shields,” the guard said gravely. He tilted his head. “First time home for it, sir?”

“Yes,” N’bel mumbled. “How many for you?”

“Six, sir, counting one I’m too young to remember.” The guard set his hand on N’bel’s shoulder, gently steering him away from the streams of farmers, drovers, travelers, and even a few Salamanders who were pushing through the gate under the watch of several Tarantula turrets and local Enforcers. “Sir, if you want, you can review the cases of which people get to bring in what personally, to help us. We’re very shorthanded, sir.”

“Mmm.” N’bel considered that, then grabbed his vox. “One moment.” He lifted the vox and walked into the shadow of a pillared storefront to speak in private. His expensive Terran clothes stood out against the drab and practical dress of the locals, who tended towards stocky, burlesque, and red-haired. His own black hair and darkly tanned skin weren’t so uncommon, but the blazing, magma-colored lights in his eyes were all the visual evidence anyone ever needed of his Royal lineage.

He spoke into the vox, trying to keep his voice low, and speaking in High Gothic in case of eavesdropping by the panicked civilians. It was one of the five languages he had learned since his birth, and became the language of privacy in his household. At least when they weren’t on Nocturne itself. “Mother, N’bel speaking. The whispers are untrue, and the people here are simply very afraid and stubborn. The evacuation convoys are overladen, that is all.”

From within the halls of the Castle, I raised my own vox to my lips. “Then direct them as best you can, my son,” I said. “I am heading to the floors to assist, myself.”

“Understood,” my son said, and he cut the channel. I slid the vox back into a pocket on my practical work clothes and slipped into the crowds of people on the first few floors of my home. The bottom layers of the Castle had been unsealed for foot traffic during the rush of people. The Governor had understood the need; with Nocturne’s population higher than it had ever been, it wasn’t hard to see where the room would go. The flocks of people from outside the shields weren’t letting up.

I paused at the entry to one large room, where a group of my Battle-brothers in full Iron armor were lifting pallets of water-purifying equipment off of the floor where they had been and stacking them higher, to make more room for people to spread their make-shift beds. As desperate as we were, it did my heart good to see them helping out. I walked right up to them and stood unobtrusively behind one.

He sensed me and turned. I recognized the plates he was wearing. 124th Fire-born, Wall-takers. “Princess, can I assist you?” he asked.

“I mean to ask the same, Brother,” I said, holding out my hands. “My logistics officer tells me this is the most under-manned part of the Castle right now. I will help.”

“You will not,” he said gently. “Princess, your hands would be best served on the controls of the city, I think. There are plenty of people around to help us.” He laid one massive gauntlet on my shoulder and turned me to see the stream of Enforcers and local volunteers wading through the crowd with garbage bags and bags of protein bars. “Your willingness to help is admirable, but…”

“Brother, please,” I interrupted. “I wouldn’t have come down if I didn’t think I had done all I could up top. The Governor is back from Prometheus, he brought my Father’s entire Logistical Corps from the fleet station, and Father himself will land in Hesiod in an hour to supervise the entire planet in person. No’dan has the reins in the rest of the system, and I’m superfluous.” I turned back to look up at him. “I raised my boys, telling them every day that the Nocturnean people forget things like rank, pay, name, origins, and station in the Time of Trial. What kind of hypocrite would I be if I didn’t help out here, now?”

The Marine hesitated. “Very…very well, Princess. If you insist, we could, I suppose, use some more help in the queues outside the food distribution center on the terrace levels of the city.”

“Thank you, Brother,” I said. As I diverted to leave, however, a thought struck me. I still had no idea where Carmine was. Perhaps he wasn’t even here? I turned to the lifts and picked my way through the throngs to find one. As I did, I tapped the button for the Legionary forge in the basement. If he wasn’t in there, he’d be in the one in the Residence, I was sure.

As the lift opened, the familiar stink of carbon scorch, incense, melting metal, ozone, and sulfur greeted me. My genehanced senses filtered it out as best they could. I walked down the short hall to the forge room itself, passing several small side chambers. They included a few ritual chambers, I knew, and a bathing room, plus a servitor station. The forge itself was a cavernous chamber that easily reached half a mile in length, crowded with pipes dangling from the ceiling and forging stations arising from the floor. Welding stations stuck out of every wall, with soldering tables for more precise work. A few smaller workplaces existed for the Artificers, though they usually worked in other areas of the planet, or on Prometheus.

In the distance, on nearly the farthest forge, I saw someone hard at work from the elevated entryway. As I approached, I squinted. It looked like my father. Was he here already?

No, I realized as I drew close. It was my younger son, Carmine. The illusion of size was a trick of the room. Aside from stature, obviously, and hair, they looked shockingly alike. As I drew nearer, I saw what he was working on. He had a bar of enriched steel in a vice and clamp, and was gradually twisting it around its base. Tiny chips of metal fell off as he did so, landing on the scratched floor. He was wearing a leather forging apron over heavy canvas shorts and armored boots, and a pair of goggles obscured his eyes. A pair of black stone pieces on the table behind him, along with some metal screws and a pair of large red garnets, waited their turn to be added to the creation.

I stopped behind him, knowing full well he could hear me. “Carmine?”


“What are you doing down here?” I asked. The heat from the room wasn’t something he could feel, of course. The rivers of sweat down his back were from exertion and exhaustion alike, I wagered.

“Working on…a gift,” he said under his breath. “Hard to imagine I started with ten pounds of steel to make this.”

“What is it?” I asked, though the shape of the stone bits clued me in. They were pieces of a handle for something. Probably a mid-length knife.

“A seax,” he said, confirming what I had thought. The handle was distinctive. “I’m trying to spiral the metal before I beat it down.”

“Okay.” I sat in a seat at the next workstation and watched. “Are you all right?”

He turned to look at me. “I’m fine. Why do you ask?”

“You’re down here working when the people upstairs are running around like mad,” I pointed out.

“They’re helping. What could I do that they aren’t?” he asked, maybe a bit shortly.

I sighed under my breath. “Was that an appropriate thing to say to someone who wanted to make sure you were all right?” I asked.

“Of course not, I apologize.” He examined the metal as it cooled. “That should be enough. I need that station,” he said, lifting the metal from the clamp with tongs. I stood back as he did.

“Well. When you’re done down here, son, we can always use more help upstairs. Come find me at the food queues when you can,” I said. “I don’t know why you’re down here, but the rest of the planet needs you right now.”

He sighed, but nodded assent. As he turned back to his work, I shook my head. Sometimes, my sons are polar opposites. Where N’bel is the empath, the one who always needs to be seen doing whatever he’s doing, and the one with some starry-eyed girl hanging off his arm half the time, Carmine has all of his maternal grandfather’s strength and craftsmanship, but none of his brother’s social skills. He wore his heart on his sleeve because he didn’t care not to, not because he was a socialite. Still, Carmine’s unbreakable bond with the Salamanders and his endless crafting skill were as much a gift as N’bel’s charm and intelligence.

N’bel paced the area behind the gate, examining a slate someone had handed him. The lists of personal belongings weren’t matched to names, which he appreciated. This was hard enough as it was.

Carts full of food and other useful supplies were allowed. So were animals, limited to livestock and pull creatures, or one pet. People were allowed weapons and bags of intimate personal items, and clothes. Computer and cogitator parts were less common among the plains-dwellers, of course, but permissible if they were declared in advance of arrival. Everything else, from larger personal vehicles to wardrobes’ worth of clothing to furniture, had to be left outside until all people were in. If there was room for storage once all living persons had entered the city, then some things would be allowed in.

He paged down the list, looking for any obvious infractions. One family had brought over fifty domestic animals. He put them on the permitted list, so long as they could vouch for the animals’ presence and paid for all food themselves. One family wanted to keep two groundcars AND a trailer of food. He rejected the cars and allowed the trailer of food, assigning a truck to haul it in through the cargo gate.

The young prince paused his perusal at the sound of someone bawling. He raised his eyes, safely protected from scrutiny and glare alike behind custom sunglasses, to see a young woman sitting beside the road in, clutching a crooked leg, and weeping. Several passers-by were standing around, unsure of what to do. That surprised him. Didn’t the plainsfolk generally know how to treat such things? No hospitals on the plains.

He walked up beside her and crouched. “Hey, sweetheart, what happened?” he asked softly. He scanned the injury – two visible breaks. Ouch.

“I-I fell off the cart,” the girl whimpered. “My parents…didn’t see, I think! I hit my head, and when…when I woke up…” she bit back a scream as she tried to touch the break. “I think someone ran over my leg with a cart wheel,” she managed.

N’bel’s heart ached. “Poor thing,” he murmured. “Listen. I’ll call a medicae over, all right? Just don’t touch it.” He waited to see her nod before raising his voice and calling over a harried-looking Ibu’Than medic. “Doc! We have a multi-fracture here, no break, possible concussion!”

The medic arrived and knelt beside him. “Yep, road injury,” she said grimly. “All right, child, I’m going to lift you up into a grav-sled, all right? Just don’t clench your muscles, or it will hurt worse.” The girl gamely nodded and slid her arms around the burly woman’s neck. “Okay. I’ll lift on five, okay? Relax as much as you can,” the medic instructed. “One…two…” she abruptly lifted, before the girl could tense up at hearing ‘five.’ The girl screamed.

“Sorry, you’d have clenched if I actually counted to five,” the medic apologized, depositing the girl on the sled and guiding her over to a field medic’s station. N’bel watched the crying girl go, feeling weary.

“Poor thing,” he repeated heavily.

I sat down behind the table in the food distribution center – a paint manufactorum’s warehouse annex in calmer times – and stared at my instructions, passed along by an overseer. I was to divvy up the prepackaged food into specific ratios and stuff it into an insulated bag, then get the next bit and do the same to that, in a human assembly line. Seemed simple enough. I started in on the first batch, cutting plastic and sliding bags into place.


I turned to my left to see the man to my right staring at me. “Princess Venus?” he asked.

“Guilty as charged,” I confirmed.

“Wow. Uh…what are you doing here?” he asked.

“Helping out, of course,” I said. I pointed at the pile of food in front of him. “Are you finished?”

“Uh, sorry.” He hastily resumed packing. “I meant…you know, aren’t you supposed to be in the Castle where it’s safe? And helping direct stuff?”

“I was,” I confirmed. “Not any longer.”


I rolled my eyes behind my contacts. Maybe this had been a bad idea after all.

Carmine emerged from the showers, toweling off the last of the water. The clothes he had laid out before were still there, as was his vox. He felt a pang of guilt as his mother’s quiet reprimand returned to him. He was hiding from himself down here. He dressed in silence, pondering what he could do topside.

A faint cough from the door caught his ear. He glanced up to see one of the Castle serfs, a girl a few years younger than him, waiting for him.

“Karin? What are you doing down here?” Carmine asked, strapping his vox and weapon belts on. “And why are you in the men’s shower?”

“There’s only one shower on this level,” Karin reminded him. “And I came down here because you weren’t in the Residence forge.”

Carmine snorted to himself. Apparently his poor conduct had been fairly predictable. “You wanted to talk to me?”

Karin, the only girl who had ever even approached girlfriend status for him since moving back from Terra, nodded. They were strictly friends, and platonic ones at that, but he trusted her, and she was one of his few mortal confidants. “Are you going to go help?”

“I am now. I was working before.” Carmine finished his dressing and slid his hand-built slug pistol into the holster. He wasn’t anticipating needing it, of course, but you never knew. Carrying openly was about as common as wearing a hat, in Themis. “Are you okay?”

“Oh, sure, I’m fine, but I just want you to stay safe, all right?” she asked. “And when you get the chance, can you go check on my brother? He’s an officer in the Ibu’Than. He’s keeping an eye out for dactylids trying to attack the convoys. He’s out on the plains.”

Carmine looked up sharply. “Really.”


“Okay. I see what you’re worried about.” Carmine finished his dressing and walked past her into the forge chamber again. She paused at the threshold. Mortals, as a general rule, weren’t allowed in unless they were artificers. She watched as he wended his way through to one of the back forges and grabbed some dark objects off of the counters and tables. He returned laden with plastic boxes, each of which bore a small drakes-head icon. She stepped back and watched as he opened them one at a time, and withdrew an Accatran-style, but locally-built bolt carbine and rather a lot of ammunition. “Might need this if I’m going out on the plains,” he said.

“Oh, Carmine, I don’t…” Karin said nervously. “I mean, there’s entire Chapters of Salamanders out there.”

“Not for long. Once the people get inside the city, the Fire-born start going up into orbit, save those few thousand who stay planetside to help keep order,” Carmine explained. “Some are already leaving. Didn’t want to take up space in the hangars and garages.” He chambered a bolt and slid in a fresh magazine, sliding several more into his belt. He was easily the strongest of the Emperor’s great-grandchildren, so it wasn’t a burden. He slung the bolt carbine across his back as he did. It was designed for stormtrooper veteran sergeants; on his muscular frame, he accommodated it without issue. He smiled at Karin’s obvious concern. “I’ll go make sure he’s all right. His name is Zal’die, right?”

“It is,” she confirmed. He offered her a quick hug as he passed her going the other way.

“I’ll find him. Don’t worry.”

I rose from the table, my pile of food sorted. The next truck of food wasn’t due for another hour, so we had all decided, more or less as one, to take a break. I made a bee-line for the door outside, looking to place a call to my father before he landed.

I didn’t make it halfway. My vox beeped the tone I had reserved for him. I snatched it up and answered. “Father?"

“Venus, where are you?” my father’s voice replied.

“Themis, a paint manufactorum they’ve repurposed as a food distributor,” I said, looking up at the hellish sky. Where was he?

“Good. I am back in the Sanctum in Hesiod. I will be here for a time, to help oversee the evacuation of the Ignean nomads. Those who chose to come, anyway. Are you and your boys all right?”

I reassured him as best I could. “Oh, we’re fine. Jake’s off helping the refugees in the Castle, Carmine is getting ready to head out and help him, N’bel is at the gates.”

I could almost hear him smile across the airwaves. “You make me proud, my daughter,” he said.

I grinned. “Thanks, Dad. We’ll hold down this city; you and No’dan help out in the others, all right?”

“Of course. Be safe.”

N’bel sat atop a Tauros’ turret in the parking area next to the gate and watched the people come to shelter. The stream of people had been largely compliant, with a few small exceptions. There had been some nomads who had tried to carry more than their fair share with them, a tourist of all people who hadn’t read his travel advisory and had been nearly burned alive by the ash storms, one woman who had arrived stone drunk and had picked a fight with a Marine guarding the gate – never a wise move. The majority, though, had been as quiet as you could want, and aside from the constant glances at the crumbling earth outside the void shield, had even stayed remarkably patient with it all.

He tilted his head back and watched in silent awe. Up above him, invisible behind the bruised sky, the moon Prometheus was tearing at the crust of his homeworld. The tidal forces of the moon were so strong that they literally dragged the magma under the crust of the world around, and shifted entire oceans in hours. It displaced people, too. Entire communities had to abandon their homes and flee to the Sanctuaries every fifteen years. Those that tarried died. Those that hurried made shelter, and were welcomed unreservedly by the people of the Sanctuaries. Even for all its modernization, the world of Nocturne never forgot its roots. Vulkan wouldn’t allow it.

He leapt down from the turret and passed the slate off to a guard that had followed the latest group in through the gates. N’bel snugged his shades to his face and joined the crowd, wandering amongst the people. The smell of the unwashed people and animals didn’t bother him much, given how long he had spent in the forges of the Legion. It was the sounds that caught him. The people around him spoke Nocturnean more and Gothic less than any other population he had ever encountered. The nomads especially seemed to favor it. Weapons were everywhere, on slings and in sheaths, but none were drawn. Clearly, none felt the need to present them.

A young couple, even as he watched, dragged a wheeled cart of meat behind them. Plastic had been stretched over it, and it had been flooded with salt water to keep the freshness. The method of preservation was as old as brining, and it seemed it wasn’t the only practice they embraced. A pair of small animals – domestic poultry of a sort – followed at their heels, and the mother had a baby in a sling across her chest. The father had a huge shotgun on a strap across his chest; N’bel saw the red cartridges of Dragon rounds. This family lived near a small nest of Ghouls, it seemed.

He left the stream of people and found himself near a small fruit stand. The stand was owned by a local, and was doing a brisk trade. The nomads had brought their own food, but the miners largely hadn’t, and both they and local Enforcers needed sustenance as much as the next guys. N’bel paused to watch as a Salamander scout walked up and bought a snack of his own, and stood beside the other diners as they ate in silence. He chuckled as he thought about how few worlds had that privilege: Marines who acted as commoners. Certainly no noble-born Ultramarine or barbaric Wolf acted as such.

I hefted a box of plastic-wrapped food and dropped it on the back of a truck, then thumped the frame. The truck took off, and I stepped back to watch it go. The crowd in the manufactorum dispersed as the shift ended, but I lingered. I stuck my vox into a wall charger on the table in the corner, presumably where the supervisor usually sat, and leaned back in the chair. I felt the ache of several days without sleep starting to build up in my muscles, but I fought it off. The last few days had been utter chaos, every minute. Ordered chaos, the only kind I could tolerate. From the mass arrival of the refugees to the inevitable strain on the city’s power supply to the headaches of powering up the places’ massive void shield generators, even coordinating the militia. It had all been a huge strain. I hadn’t slept; I had gone days without seeing Jake or one of the boys. Still, I felt like I had done more good than I had in years. I was helping, of that I was sure. How much?

Well. Father had always said that it was times such as these that made you realize just how insignificant we all really are. I guess he was right. At least Jake and the boys had the right idea.

Come to think of it, where the hell was my husband? I opened the vox and dialed his number. It took four rings for him to respond. “Hello?” He sounded worse than me.

“Jake, it’s me,” I said. He must have been pretty far gone if he couldn’t even recognize my ringtone.

“Venus,” he said, relieved. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Father’s reached Hesiod. The boys are off helping at the Gate, I think. Where are you?”

“In the Castle, helping the injured refugees,” he said. I could hear a lot of crying and yelling in the background. “Where’s Carmine? Is he still in the Forges, or is he helping now?”

“He should be out here somewhere,” I said.

I heard Jake sigh. “You know he’s angry as hell right now, right?”

“He is. I don’t quite get why,” I confessed.

Jake’s reply was a scoff. “He’s just angry that this isn’t an enemy he can shoot. He feels useless because his skillset doesn’t cover this verbatim. His military side is getting in the way. He should go help one of the Fire Drake units that’s patrolling the city. Then he can see how the military mindset can help at a time like this.”

I nodded to myself. Jake’s words bore wisdom. “I can call him.”

“Nah. Let him find his own way this time,” Jake advised. “This’ll go on for weeks more. He can figure it out. If not, let him be the one to ask. He’s always been self-reliant like that.”

“Yeah.” I thought that one over. “Well. I’ll be in touch.”

“Get some sleep,” Jake ordered.

“You first, baby, and then I’ll do it too,” I laughed.

Carmine’s Auxilia truck slipped through the void shields and drifted over the column of refugees that snaked its way through the wastelands. He soared over the people and animals, looking for the glint of Salamander armor or the vehicles of the Ibu’Than. Finding some of the former, he maneuvered his own truck down over the ash and parked it aside a jetbike someone had left idling at the roadside.

The Salamander he had spotted was directing traffic like an Enforcer, complete with laser pointer and a mace, which he used as a sign. Carmine walked up beside him where he stood perched on a rock and smirked. “Valk’or, did you get demoted?”

“Little brother, if you speak another word, your beating will be swift and unremorseful,” the Marine said back.

“I find that unlikely.”

“Fine, swift. I shall shed a single, salty tear.” The Marine jumped down from the rock and drew the smaller man into a crushing hug. “Carmine, you’re looking well!”

Carmine grinned happily at his friend. The other man had been two years ahead of him in school here, and had joined the Marines upon graduation. He had been accepted and survived training, and now served the Fourth Grand Company’s Second Chapter as a squad demo trooper. Instead of the usual combi bolt/plasma pistol he usually used in conjunction with his massive pouch of plastic explosives, he had only his power mace, a laser pointer, and an Arbites flashlight. The laser he had attached to his helmet, and apparently controlled it like a target designator with his helmet’s sensors. The light and mace he used to direct the foot traffic.

“I am well, old friend,” Carmine said. “Tell me, how badly are the Ibu’Than slowing you down?”

“Not at all! They’re actually quite helpful,” Valk’or corrected him. His eyes were nearly as bright as Carmine’s. “Their vehicle vox-packs are helping us coordinate.”

Carmine cleared his throat. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Zal’die is, would you?” he asked. “The Ibu’Than officer?”

“I would!” Valk’or gestured at a distant vehicle. “He’s driving that.”

“Oh, excellent.” Carmine shook his old friend’s hand. “Thank you, brother. Don’t let me keep you.”

“Oh, I’d never do that.” Valk’or leapt back up to the rock and resumed his traffic role. Carmine jumped back in his truck and took off, mindful of the jagged terrain. Volcanic rocks had torn out the undercarriage of many vehicles on this planet. He goosed the airtruck’s jets up a bit to compensate.

As he approached the other vehicle, he stuck his hand out to wave. The driver waved back, and Carmine parked his truck beside it. “You Zal’die?”

The driver nodded. “Yeah, that’s me. Who are you?”

“Carmine, Ibu’Than Royal Guard.” The prince saw the other man’s eyes go wide. “I’m here on behalf of Karin. She wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“She did? Well, thank her, but it’s not bad yet. We’re in for it, tonight, though,” Zal’die said. “The periapsis is six hours out. Ever see a planet self-destruct, sir? You will.”

“I will,” Carmine said. “You guys need a hand out here?”

“Maybe,” Zal’die admitted. “The dactylids are getting very close.”

Carmine looked, and saw several large shadows soaring around the column. So far, the noisy engines of the ground vehicles and the presence of the air vehicles had kept them at bay, but they had to be in a frenzy over all the morsels below. Sure enough, one wheeled down from its high vantage and dove on the column, moments later. Carmine was dismounting his truck and reaching for his bolter when a flash of light from the column erupted to impale the creature. It shrieked and died, landing heavily in a cloud of ashes half a klick away. Carmine looked over to see a soldier in the livery of the Ibu’Than heavy weapons troopers lower his shoulder-mount missile tube with a smirk. For now, it seemed, things were under control.

Zal’die shook his head. “Damn things won’t go away,” he said. “Can’t blame ‘em, of course, they’re just hungry, but still.”

Carmine hefted his ash-plain camouflaged bolter and nodded. “I know. Need help?”

Zal’die glanced over and blinked at the massive weapon. The stormtrooper-grade weapon was supposed to be fired from the hip, while braced, with both hands. Carmine had it gripped casually in one hand, and was extending a bullpup stock with the other. “…Sure. Thanks, Meja.”

Out of the corner of his eye, beside the fruit stand, N’bel spotted a refugee. She was staring, despondent and aghast, at a public pict-screen on the wall behind the stand. Usually, it displayed pictures of local attractions, but now, it showed rotating images of the convoys approaching and passing through the gates and dispersing amongst the buildings. N’bel wandered up behind the girl and looked at the picture.

At that moment, it was showing an aerial image of the south gate, where he had just been. The crowd was reacting to something, he saw. Specifically, it looked like a cart had tipped over, crushing someone beneath it. N’bel tsked at the waste of life and material, then looked at the young refugee again. She was clutching her face with shaking hands. Her tattered cloak and dirty jumper beneath told a tale about the length of her journey.

N’bel spoke up. “Someone you knew, ma’am?”

The girl sobbed. “My…he was…my neighbor from the…we grew up together…”

N’bel sighed. “I’m sorry.”

The girl buried her face in her hands. “Why do we live here?” she demanded of the world, tears seeping out from her hands. “It’s…we live in hell…and…every cycle, this happens…”

The prince slid his hands around the girl’s shoulders and pulled her into a hug. He closed his eyes and rested his lips against her hair. “Hush…it’s all right.”

“I don’t want this,” she whimpered into his shirtfront. “Every time…this is…how many people…they die because of luck! Timing, fortune! They don’t deserve this!” She squeezed his shirt with bloodied hands. She must have had to climb up a cliff face to reach the city. A miner? “If I…if I had been here five minutes later, that would have…would have…I would have…” she broke down again, letting her fear escape her screwed-up eyes.

N’bel grabbed a tissue from his pocket and passed it to her as she pulled away, sniffling. “All we can do is rebuild,” he said quietly. “We always will. Every time, we’re stronger.”

“Is it worth it?” the girl asked through her tissue.

N’bel wiped her tears off of his shirt. “Depends, sweetheart.” The teenaged laborer looked up at him, incensed at his circular answer. “Look around you. The Marines of this world love and care for us as kin. We never run out of things to sell to the Mechanicum, we never let our technology replace our will to survive,” he listed. “It’s horrible sometimes, yeah…but we’re made of steel and leather,” he concluded.

“Didn’t help poor Sraiid out any,” the girl said sadly, gesturing at where the medicae were now carting the body away. The stream of people resumed, gradually filling in the gap the accident had left in the route.

“No. No, it didn’t.” N’bel took his glasses off to clean them on the dry hem of his shirt. The girl stared.

“P-prince Jacob?”

N’bel closed his eyes in silent recrimination. He could practically hear his father giggling. “No. He’s my father.”

“Oh…” the girl looked over his face again. “Prince N’bel?”


The girl bowed her head for a moment, then winced. “Sorry I ruined your shirt.”

N’bel waved it off. “Nothing a trip to the dry cleaner’s won’t fix.” He squeezed her shoulder again and steered her away from the bloody picture on the pict-screen. “So. Are you set up for the night, ma’am? Where are your parents?”

The girl slumped. “Killed in an earthquake, last Trial.”

Now it was N’bel’s turn to wince. “Sorry. You all set up?”

“No,” the girl admitted. “I was hoping I’d find a place here. I had to leave everything behind when the ash storm destroyed my hab.”

N’bel couldn’t quite resist the urge to hug her again. He did so, and quickly stepped back. She was staring at him again, astonished and confused. “I think I know a place,” he said.

I arrived at the gates of the Castle. The place was crawling with people, lining up for a place to sleep. The crowds were getting restless, but not violent. I was pleased, needless to say. The last thing anyone needed was more unrest. The Enforcers were helping the people as best they could, with the occasional Salamander lending personal aid. I walked up to one group of resting medics and glanced over their charges. Lots of radiation burns, of course, and some sand and ash burns. Dehydration, but that was a fact of life outside the city. The medics ignored me, which was probably best for all involved, and I went in the garage of the structure. Normally, a fence extended across the entrance, and it was guarded by a platoon of house troops, but the emergency led to opened doors. I walked in without even speaking to a guard, and gazed over my hundreds of houseguests.

They were a motley bunch, my fellow Nocturneans. Some were clad in ragged desert robes, others in the guise of shepherds and the like. Some were whalers, who had been trapped here on leave or while delivering food. Others wore the greasy uniforms of oil rig mechanics. I even saw a few techpriest robes, no doubt the chief enginseers of the oil rigs. A Salamander in full Tartaros armor was keeping vigil from the corner, his weapons aimed at the ceiling. A servitor, dragging pallets of fresh water in plastic jugs, ambled past me.

I don’t know what I was feeling as I watched them. Not entirely. I know I was a bit sad, that all these people were suffering, and I was a bit proud that they were overcoming it. I knew, first-hand, that most were as much resigned to discomfort as they were afraid. The older ones had lived through three, four Trials before. I admit, this was only my second. I had been twenty seven years old for my first, and it had been Jake’s first as well. It had happened while I was expecting, so I wasn’t able to get out and help much. Funny how those only a few years older than my fifty seven Standard years had been present for as many as four.

I suppose what I was feeling more than anything else was exhaustion. Sympathetic exhaustion, from watching their struggling, and personal exhaustion, from my weariness. Dad’s gifts make me capable of going a week without sleep without serious medical trouble, but this was going on ten days. I had barely slept for the twenty days before it. Jake had been forced to rest fairly often, he wasn’t up to my level of genetic enhancement. The boys, perhaps six days a piece. We were all tired. So very tired.

I listened to the sounds in the room turn more fearful. I looked about, trying to find the reason. Then the lights died for a moment. Not the lights on the ceiling of the massive, well-armored castle garage, but the light from outside. I walked back out and stared upward. Despite being ready for the sight, my jaw was agape.

The sky had been a dark and ugly grey for weeks now, the result of the constant volcanic storms that wracked the globe. The fiery wrath of Deathfire and her smaller cousins had scorched the sky, and flooded it with pyroclastic lightning. Suddenly, however, it had ended. For a few brief minutes, there was nothing above, as Nocturne and Prometheus entered periapsis. The mutual gravitational attraction between both worlds was strong enough that the clouds boiled away beneath it. They yielded to unthinkable alignments of gravity and thinned to nothing, for just few short moments.

I stared up at it, looking for Prometheus station, and found it, clinging to the moon’s equator like a parasite. Its silvery domes and towers were invisible to a mortal viewer, but I could see it clearly. I stared, one hand over my mouth, overcome by the moment.

Something warm slid into my free hand. I started and looked over to see my husband Jake standing beside me. His clothing was smeared and dirty, his face was smudged, and despite it, he was holding himself high.

I noticed how frail he looked, especially his shoulders. He was never a devoted smith, like me and the boys, so he was never as solid around the shoulders as they were or I would be if I wasn’t female, but he still kept at it sometimes, and I made a point of instructing him in the basics. He would sometimes join me in the forges, and work on smaller things while I aimed higher. While I made Stalker bolters and ten-foot sculptures, he would be making watches or pendants. From the look of him now, his body was a size too small for his clothes.

I admit that when he moved to Nocturne with me, I had feared for him. I knew even then that he had a core of strength that could carry him through it all, but I worried that he would find the constant battle against the environment overwhelming. Instead, he had thrown himself into it. When the gravity proved to be much more than he had realized as a youth, he had taken to lifting weights. When the food proved untenable for his Terran stomach microbes, he had taken flora supplements. When the heat had become too much, he ordered special thermal protection clothes.

Now, when his world was crumbling, and he knew I and the boys would have been overworked, he had gone to the first floor and joined in the relief effort, helping those who had nothing. I leaned into his shoulder and he smiled as best he could under several days’ worth of sweat, sleep deprivation, and dust.

“Are you all right?” he asked softly.

“I will be,” I said. It was true.

I straightened up from the lean and looked up at the sky again, though I didn’t let go of his hand. I wasn’t quite ready for that yet. I heard a pop and snap sound behind me. I had the sneaking suspicion that the two of us would be tomorrow’s headline picture. Somehow, I didn’t mind.

We stood there until the minutes of periapsis ended. As the clouds roiled back into place, I looked back down over the city. Jake squeezed my hand and turned to go.


He looked back at me.

“What about you? Are you all right?” I asked.

He nodded, though I could see the weariness seeping through him. “I’ll be fine.” He tilted his head as he said it. “Will you actually be able to sleep tonight?”

“I sure hope so,” I said heavily. “The next few hours are the hardest parts of the entire Trial.”

Jake’s face hardened. “Yeah. The gates close tonight.”

I nodded back. The week or so after the periapsis ends are by far the hardest to survive out on the plains. Entire communities vanish under sheets of lava that can erupt from anywhere, regardless of the proximity of fault lines. Islands liquefy, oceans boil, volcanoes erupt, chasms open and valleys close. In the times before the earth shamans found the safe lands on the surface of the world, whole clans had gone extinct. When the dragons still ruled, that was when they all took to the skies to eat the drakes that had to abandon the underground caverns.

The cataclysm didn’t stop there, though. The next eight months would be a horrific, punishing ice storm that wracked the whole planet. Ice shards as big as bicycles would soar through the air on gusts of wind up to tornado speed, if not inside literal tornadoes of ash and snow. The tectonic plates would harden and form new faults, and soon the volcanoes would awaken again. In the meantime, the gates of the cities would seal shut, and the void shields strengthened as much as possible, including the ones underground. The whole city would lock up tight. I would be Queen of a snowglobe, the whole time, and take on the responsibility of feeding three or four times Themis’ usual population.

I knew it would be hard. Governor Lanneire would do his best. It warmed my heart to know Jake and the boys would be there to help.

Carmine sighted down his bolter and squeezed the trigger. The gun bucked, and sent a mass-reactive shell into a dactylid’s wing at the shoulder joint. The animal shrieked and plummeted into the ground beside the convoy, jerking spasmodically. The youthful Prince casually drew his autopistol and shot it neatly through the brainstem. It twitched again and went still.

“Nice shot, Meja,” Zal’die said, awed. The dactylid had been several hundred meters up when Carmine had fired. He couldn’t have made the shot with a hotshot long-las.

“Thanks,” Carmine said, “but don’t call me that out of uniform, please. I’m just Carmine out here. A Nocturnean.” He looked up at the now-visible tail end of the column of refugees. “One of many. Here to help.”

“Well, I appreciate it, sir, but please. I’m Dactylid. The Auxiliary, Ibu’Than kind, like you. Not the reptile, obviously. Technically, I’m your bonded servant,” Zal’die reminded him. “So…even if you choose to eschew formality, please respect that it’s not so easy for me.”

“We’re of equivalent rank in the Auxilia anyway,” Carmine reminded him. The scream of another dactylid, mad with hunger, drew his fiery eyes upward. “Oh, come on…”

“Well, I suppose, but you’re still my prince,” Zal’die said, raising his voice to be heard over the report of Carmine’s bolt rifle. Another creature loudly died above them. This one had taken the shot square in the chest, and blew apart, showering the ash sand in blood. “So. Sir, should we head back?”

Carmine looked over the convoy. They were scrambling towards the city gates. On the horizon, the entire world was turning blacker than old night. A pyrestorm, particles of black volcanic dust and gravel superheated by the constant volcanic eruptions on the world’s innumerable fault lines, was racing towards them.

“Absolutely,” Carmine said. He switched to full auto and opened up on the pack of dactylids in the far distance, shredding a few. The others wheeled about and soared off to find new prey.

Zal’die hefted his lasrifle and set it on the seat of his truck. Carmine slung his bolt rifle and walked up to the dactylid he had shot earlier. “Hey, help me with this.”

“You want the corpse?” Zal’die asked, staring at the monster’s flesh.

“City’s gotta eat something,” Carmine pointed out. He lifted it effortlessly. “Turn your truck around, I’ll put it in the bed.”

“You’re mad, sir.” Zal’die backed his truck up as he was ordered. Carmine deposited the mess of bloody leather in the back with ease.

“No, just pragmatic. Head out. I’ll tail the convoy.” Carmine saluted the other man as he lifted off in his truck. He jogged back to his own and gunned the engine, moving to follow the rear of the refugee group.

N’bel waited for the girl – he had learned her name was Eldie – to finish in the bathroom. The little guest suite in the Royal residence was hardly as opulent as his own quarters, but it was far more luxurious than the garage floor.

Eldie emerged, the blood gone from her hands. She shuffled her feet as N’bel dragged his thoughts away from the catastrophe outside. “Are you feeling better?” N’bel asked with a kindly smile.

“Yes, my lord,” Eldie said. “Thank you. This is…I appreciate it.”

N’bel set a hand on her back and tried not to scare her with his eyes. “You needn’t lose everything,” he said. “You’ll always have kin.”

She smiled at last. “Thank you, sir. How can I repay this?”

“By extending the same courtesy to those who need it themselves, someday,” N’bel said. He let go of her back and directed her to the bedchamber. “So. Get comfy. Eight month long blizzard coming,” he said drily. “I’ll probably not even leave the castle much.”

Hey jaw dropped. “I’m staying here…for the entire Time of Trial?”

“You have somewhere else to be?” he asked mildly. “You’ve suffered enough.”

Eldie ran her hand over her eyes as she started tearing up again. “…You’re so kind, sir,” she managed. “Thank you…”

N’bel felt his heart swell. “You’re most welcome. I’d encourage you to go and mingle with the rest of the people in the city while you’re here."

“I will,” she promised. She smiled again, shaky but relieved.

Carmine followed the last of the refugees into the city and turned to scan the world behind him out of the back of the truck. The black line on the horizon had spread into a cloud. The tempestuous storms that had blanketed the whole world were melting into it as the volcanoes vented their rage. The glowing-hot clouds pushed back the weather until everything beneath them burned.

He shook his head. How had anyone survived that before shields had been invented?

The console beeped. The gate was closing. He slid the truck under the arch and set it down in a reserved parking spot. Off in the distance, he saw Zal’die unloading the dactylid from the other truck. The Dactylid officer hauled the dactylid corpse off to be sliced up for rations. The irony was not lost on him.

A pair of Salamander Marines in heavy support gear kept their massive plasma guns trained on the gate until it sealed shut completely. Carmine kept a respectful distance until they relaxed and powered their guns down. As they turned, they spotted him. “Little brother Carmine, good to see you,” one said. His armor was marked with the insignia of the Thirty-sixth Fire-Born, a Crusade-era infantry formation.

Carmine shook his head. “I have to ask. How do you all of you know it’s me? N’bel and I don’t look so dissimilar.”

The helmetless Marine smiled. The helmeted one probably did too. “Little brother, how many other people under six feet in height have our eyes?”

“Oh, sure, mock my height,” Carmine grumped. He hated being the shortest of the family. Even Misja was taller. “How is the evacuation going?”

The farther Marine, in the helmet, sighed unhappily. “The number of people in the city is higher than it’s ever been. Space is limited. A lot of people had to leave vehicles or what have you outside. Within the void shield, but outside the walls.”

“I can imagine,” Carmine said grimly. “Will you be heading into orbit?”

“We will, but about a thousand of us will stay behind,” the helmeted Marine assured him. “To keep the people calm.”

“Good.” Carmine slung his bolter and walked past the two Marines to where a group of Ibu’Than were maneuvering vehicles to take up the minimum of space. “Looks like you have things under control so far.”

“Inasmuch as they can be.” The second Marine clapped Carmine on the shoulder with an affectionate smile. “I saw you taking down those dactylids out there.”

“Did you?”

“Your aim is impressive with a weapon that heavy,” the Marine gregariously added.

Carmine smiled at the compliment. “Thank you, Brother.”

I sat at the edge of the small conference room in the Castle’s Logistics Center, watching a holo of my father speak from Hesiod. His resonant voice was robbed of a fraction of its audible power by the static-laced holo transmission. The raw violence brewing in the atmosphere was ruining all inbound comms. I can only imagine what it looked like from orbit.

“The void shield was raised on time, thankfully,” I said.

Father nodded. “Good. I saw the storm moving your way.”

“We managed to close the gates without issue, though there were some small injuries and one fatality in the queue before that,” I added in regret.

Father sighed. Static cracked the sound. “I see. How are the local Enforcers handling it?”

“Well. Some have seen four Trials.” I lifted one empty hand. “Everyone’s exhausted, but unless the shields falter, we’ll be all right.”

The holo didn’t relay Father’s eyes very well. They looked like blank grey spots on his face in the failing holo. “Remember, the transports can’t travel from intra-atmospheric targets at anywhere near urgent speed,” he said, this time addressing the group. “It will be easier to medevac to Prometheus as long as it is so close.”

“How ironic,” one of my officers said.

Carmine patrolled the small stoneworks that ran like a lane divider down the center of the Themis marketplace. Every stall was open for business, of course. The hawkers and merchants were trying to separate those freshly arrived from the money they had spent the last fifteen years earning. In any other context, it would have felt distasteful. As it stood, it was just a part of life. There were few attempts at chicanery with Salamanders moving about the market too.

The youngest Prince raised a hand from the stock of his bolter as a passing Marine nodded at him. Growing up on Terra, he had never felt compelled to treat the Fists and Custodes as brothers. Upon arrival on Nocturne, and especially after joining the Ibu’Than officers’ corps, he had discovered that bond developing between him and the Salamanders, and had found it intriguing. At first, he had thought it was simple friendship, but soon enough, he realized its true definition. They were glad that civilian life hadn’t turned the Primarchs away from attention to their Legions, and nearly as glad that the children they had raised understood the importance of maintaining that connection. They didn’t disrespect N’bel for eschewing it, of course. They just approved of Carmine exemplifying it.

As if summoned by Carmine’s musing, N’bel appeared at the base of the stone structure. The taller N’bel moved to clamber up beside his brother, but Carmine jumped down instead. He landed easily beside N’bel, careful to keep his bolter pointed skyward. “Brother! How did it go out on the plains?” N’bel asked.

Carmine shook his head. “A few dactylids got too close. No real issues.”

“Good. Are you going to call Karin?”

Carmine’s eyes widened at the sudden shock of memory. “Oh, crap, I was supposed to.” He dug out a personal vox and passed it to his brother. “Dial her, would you? I can’t use a personal vox on the watch.”

“Sure.” N’bel punched in a few keys and worked through a message system for the Castle until he had her. “Karin?”

The voice on the other end was muffled. Karin was speaking quietly, with a lot of conversation in the background. “Yes? Who is this?”

N’bel decided not to pull on his own name twice in one day. Clearing his throat, he settled on a safer route. “Ma’am, I’m calling on behalf of Meja Carmine. He wanted you to know that he and your brother are fine, and back in the city.”

Karin let out a relieved sigh. “Oh, thank goodness. Pass along my gratitude, would you, sir?”

“I certainly will. Stay safe.” N’bel clicked the vox off and handed it back. “Aren’t you going to ask how I knew about her?”

Carmine blinked. “Oh, hey, yeah. How did you know?”

“I saw her at the Castle, when I was helping a refugee girl find a bed.” Carmine’s head whipped around to glare at his brother. N’bel caught his own words and tried again. “Uh, I mean I was helping her get settled in. I didn’t sleep with her or anything.”

Carmine shook his head, still a bit disgusted. “Brother…”

“I know, I know, I’m a huge slut,” N’bel chuckled. “Still. The poor thing lost her parents, her neighbor, her home, her possessions, everything. Including her money. I just wanted her to have something. Anything. I settled on a clean bed.”

The red lights of the brothers’ eyes met, and Carmine relented. “Right. Well, all right, that’s not so bad.” He shouldered his bolter. “So. Where are Mom and Dad?”

“Back at the Castle.” N’bel leaned back against the carved stone wall and watched his subjects go by. “I think…I think Dad’s feeling a little overwhelmed. He’s doing a great job not showing it.”

“He’s doing a fantastic job,” Carmine grunted, flicking the cap off a bottle of water he snagged from a passing vendor. He slid some coin into the vendor’s hands and drank deep. “He went six days without sleep at one point. Even with his upgrades, that’s a hell of a thing.”

Now it was N’bel’s turn to shake his head. “He tries so hard not to appear weak in front of us, you know? Like he has something to prove.”

“Biologically, he’s younger than you are, man,” Carmine reminded him. “He DOES have something to prove.”

“He’s my father, and he did a good job en route. What else is there?” N’bel waved off Carmine’s water bottle. “I’m good, thanks.”

Carmine slid the cap back on and put it on the ground at their feet. He nodded respectfully at a passing Salamander heavy trooper, who had slung his plasma cannon for a huge sack of car batteries, which he passed out to vendors who were taking their carts off the grid to save power. “Dad’s scared that you won’t respect him for being younger, physically weaker, and mentally less capable than you are,” Carmine said bluntly.

The weight of his brother’s statement weighed down N’bel’s shoulders. “I know,” he said softly.

“It’s not unreasonable.”

“I know.”

“It’s not natural to be younger than your children. The Salamanders favor me, the nobility favors you. He feels superfluous.” Carmine looked sidelong at his brother when he heard no response. N’bel’s gaze was turned down. He looked more sad than pensive. “It bothers you.”

“Deeply,” his older brother admitted. “Because…hell. I still feel the same way now that I did when I was off at college. Like I need to impress him, to live up to him. Like every son does.”

Carmine nodded slowly. “It would be disrespectful if you didn’t.”

N’bel’s eyes turned to the sky, where the raging lightning storm was hammering the void shields. His words were punctuated with staccato bursts of light and sound from the devastating display. “Mom told me that he used to feel like he didn’t deserve this life, you know.”

Carmine stared. “What?”

“He felt like he didn’t belong in the Royal family. He loved Mom, of course, and he loves us, but he never felt like that was something that entitled him to immortality and power.” N’bel closed his eyes and let the shifting breeze from the air circulators under the shield stir his neat, curly black hair. “He stopped with that nonsense, of course. Now he just goes through these bursts of trying too hard to be helpful.”

He turned to face Carmine again. “Do you agree?”

“I do, but I don’t think it’s trying too hard to be helpful,” Carmine hedged. “I think he just wants to ensure that people around him are glad he’s there. It’s not always overt. When was the last time he said ‘no’ when one of us asked him to do something?”

N’bel nodded. “Fair point.”

An Ibu’Than soldier jogged up to the Royal boys and saluted. “Meja, sir, thanks for covering for me.”

Carmine straightened up and returned it. “Not a problem,” he replied. “Take the watch.”

“Aye aye.” The soldier unslung a shotgun and took Carmine’s place. Carmine took off for the Castle on foot, with his brother in tow. N’bel cocked an eyebrow at the activity.

“I’m off shift until tomorrow afternoon,” Carmine said once they were out of earshot. “I just got asked to cover for someone. It’s why I’m out of uniform.”

“Ah.” The boys wandered through the crowd, watching the people in silence.

The Nocturneans were unloading. The Time of Trial had become a time of commerce as well, in the era since the void shields. The whalers dragged in their carcasses, the miners sold their ores at bottom-floor prices, the artists sold to those who wanted to decorate when they returned home, and the restaurateurs simply did a roaring trade. The boys rejected hundreds of offers for merchandise on their way home, and paused to write autographs where asked. N’bel’s was very much a Terran artifact: all flat lines for speed. Carmine took his time, signing his name with the blunt, thick lines his forge work often resembled.

When at last they emerged from the marketplace, it was local night, as determined by the clocks, since nobody could see the sky. Carmine’s military truck and N’bel’s Castle car sat in their lots, for a Legion serf or Ibu’Than trooper to use; they felt no need for expediency or protection in their own city.

As they breached the low rise that emerged from the center of the city, and upon which the first structures of the city had been built over four thousand years prior, both men paused. The ground was shaking. Even through the void shields, they could feel Nocturne’s rage.

N’bel looked nervously about. “I know what to expect, but still. That’s scary.”

Carmine’s eyes narrowed a bit. He knelt and spread a hand on the patch of dirt with decorative rocks next to which they had stopped. A sign hung overhead, commemorating the site of the city’s founding. “We’re not in danger, brother,” he said evenly.

“Well, yeah,” N’bel said defensively. “I just don’t like it.”

As the tremors stopped, both men resumed their walk towards the Castle. The crowd changed as they moved. Where before it had been the merchants and nomads and laborers, now it was the artisans and craftsmen. The stores changed from places of retail and travel to places of work and creation. Blacksmiter’s shops and jewelers’ stores lined the roads. An aircar dealership stood shuttered and guarded for the duration of the chaos on one side of the street. Across from it, a small family-owned watchmaker shop emptied into the streets as the staff went home for the evening.

N’bel smiled as a pair of children, perhaps eight years old, scampered after their mother as she left a bakery for the night. They looked up at the sky with eyes full of fear, and she stopped to comfort them. She squeezed one’s shoulder and pointed down at the ground, then up at the moon, invisible though it was behind the shield and the twisting storm. The other listened intently, then slowly relaxed. They were twins, N’bel realized, a boy and a girl.

“That’s cute,” he remarked. Carmine looked over.

“Oh. Young enough for their first, hmm?” He laughed. “It’s my first, too, technically.”

“Yeah. Can you imagine surviving this when the shield wasn’t there?” N’bel asked rhetorically. “Horrifying.”

“Grandfather Vulkan was right to install them,” Carmine agreed. He shifted his bolter’s strap to the other shoulder. “I know he disliked introducing new technology and the element of debt to the Mechanicum, but I wouldn’t want to raise a family here without a shield over and under my home.”

“The nomads and Igneans manage it,” N’bel pointed out. “I bet it’s pretty horrific, though.”

Carmine nodded glumly. “I heard a report on the vox while I was out in the desert. One of the caves in Ignea collapsed. Eighty four dead. Over a hundred MIA.”

N’bel’s shoulders slumped. “No…”

“They dig them back out and explore new ones, of course,” Carmine continued. “Still. It’s bad out there.”

N’bel just nodded, slow and regretful.

The two men resumed their walking, until at last they came to the noble quarter. Its name was a poor choice. It was a tiny fraction of the total size of the martial, industrial city, but what it lacked in grandeur it made up in wealth. The houses here were spacious and decorated. Every driveway had an aircar or two, or a fancy groundcar. A few small shuttles were even visible, for those who had ships docked at the edge of the system. The structures themselves all possessed visible signs of moneyed ownership, too. Wrought bars of black iron twisted into expensive railings, porches made of stone and imported wood beckoned travelers to stare at the supposed gregariousness of the resident.

Still, for all the signs of ostentation, it was Nocturne. Every door was open. The brothers spotted a few porches and guest structures with signs of inhabitation, and recent signs at that. Carmine stopped to watch a truck pull into one driveway and a group of people pile out. The front door burst open, and a woman in noble clothes rushed over to embrace one of the refugees as the others clustered up.

N’bel caught Carmine’s eye and jerked his head for the gargantuan Castle ahead of them. Carmine realized he was staring and quickly caught up.

The Castle itself loomed over them, as foreboding as a Titan and several times as huge. The structure was built right into the walls of the city, and housed several of its void shield projectors. The hangars on the upper floors were wide open, as a stream of air vehicles slipped in and out on errands of coordination for the on-going evacuation efforts. The ground hangar was usually closed for fear of infiltration, but now it was wide open too, and several dozen Salamanders guarded it with autocannons slung at ease. Servo-skulls with sensorium packages swooped about, looking for anyone out of place.

The inside was a zoo. The refugees here were the injured ones, the ones with no money to buy nicer lodging, or the regional military and law enforcement, who were supposed to quarter with the military anyway. Large metal claws lifted vehicles into storage racks on the walls and ceilings, and lifts lowered them into underground garages. Several searchlights in the room’s highest corners shone, dimmed, on the crowd. An ultraviolet light emitter in the corner sat idle, waiting to activate and sweep the room clean of bacteria and lice. It was too early for that, of course.

Small tables on one side of the room allowed dining. Coolers with bags of ice and meat in them were arrayed across the floors behind them, and small cookers hummed, bringing some of the food up to temperature. It was after dinner, but the late crowds of refugees were still hungry, and the Castle serfs obliged those in need of emergency sustenance.

N’bel shoved his hands in his pockets and wandered away from the crowd as Carmine waded in, bolter aimed reassuringly away from anyone. N’bel’s eyes drifted across the crowd, and he smiled automatically as a few people recognized him. His path wasn’t random, though. He was making his way over to the small shrine in the very back of the room.

The shrine was a distinctly Salamander addition to the structure. Nearly all major military installations were filled with small Mechanicum posts, of course, and they usually had shrines, but this had nothing to do with the Mechanicum. This was a small monument to the founding and guiding influences of the Legion. His own name was on the little anvil-shaped plinth, but of course it referred to Vulkan’s father.

The metal statue of an anvil with crossed hammers at rest on its surface was as old as the castle, and had been dedicated by the surviving Imperial Rams after Vulkan had finished his training by the Emperor in preparation of leading the Legion in person. N’bel stared at the little divots of thousands of years of passers-by and worshippers on its surface and let his mind wander back across the ages. Carmine walked slowly through the crowds, trying to project confidence. The refugees were scared, resigned, and very uncomfortable. That was to be expected, but it didn’t make it easier to watch. A few minor scuffles had broken out before, but the Salamanders watching over the people had swooped in and separated the combatants before anyone had been hurt.

Now, the air was less sullen and more exhausted. Several days of refugee traffic had filled the space with footsore travelers. The smell of the unwashed was growing, and Carmine wondered to himself where all these people would meet their hygiene needs.

I rose from the conference room as my father’s image faded away. The cadres of military advisors were oozing relief, to be sure. Their part in all this was essentially over. Everyone who was going to live was inside the shield, everyone who was going to die already had, barring something catastrophic. It was our turn now, the civilians’ turn.

Well, in theory, anyway. As it was, I was so tired, I could barely even stand. Several of my aides stood back to let me pass on the way to the door. I appreciated it. I was actually having trouble finding it for a moment.

As I entered the hallway, I turned to the lifts and walked into one, feeling pure exhaustion wash through me. My hands and feet were feeling weak, my vision was swimming, and I swear I was actually sweating. That doesn’t happen to me unless I’ve either been forging for hours or I’m exploring the volcanic vents.

I rubbed my eyes as the lift rose through the halls of the Castle for the Royal residence. We built it near the very top, as much to show silent dominance over the Governor as anything. Not that I find myself overruling him much, of course. I concerned myself with affairs of statecraft more than direct rulership, most of the time.

As the doors opened, I stepped out into the wrong hall. I blinked back distraction, trying to see what had happened. I stepped back into the lift, glancing at the button I had pressed. It was one button below the button I had meant to press. I sighed. I really was exhausted.

“Crown Princess?”

I turned back to see a girl in ragged – but oddly clean – clothes, staring at me. Her mouth was agape behind her hands. She looked freshly showered, and more rested than the refugees below.

“Hmm? Yes?” I asked. I was on one of the guest floors; was this a friend of the Governor’s? I had no idea.

“Er, ma’am, I’m a refugee,” she clarified.

She looked it. Her clothes looked like the sort of thing I’d wear if I were going to be working around obsidian underground. The simple work clothes I was wearing were stained with the work I had done in the factory, so at least out appearances matched. I looked for something to say to break the awkwardness. “Someone cleared you to this suite?” I asked, then kicked my mental self. Of course the girl was cleared, how else could she have gotten in?

She swallowed nervousness. “I have, my Princess. I’m Eldie, if I may,” she said, bowing a bit.

I tried not to scare her further. “I see. So sorry to disturb you, but I think I hit the wrong floor button,” I said, gesturing back at the elevator. “I’m so tired I got lost in my own home,” I joked.

Eldie managed to smile. “I…yes, your Highness.” She turned her eyes down in respect. “I feel I should thank you, your Highness, for your family’s generosity in allowing me to stay here. Prince N’bel was most kind.”

I admit to some surprise at hearing that statement. “N’bel cleared you for the suite?” I asked.

She blinked. “Should he not have, your Highness?” She realized the impropriety of her words as they left her mouth, but I saw it happen, and I waved it off.

“No, no, it’s fine. So long as you’re not the latest in his never-ending stream of life-long romances,” I chuckled. In my defense, I hadn’t slept in ten days. I would never have been so rude had I not been feeling the sleep madness encroaching.

Eldie blushed furiously. “I’m just someone he saw fit to help, your Highness.”

I smiled too, hoping it would take the sting off my accidental slight to my son. “I was kidding, Eldie. You’re welcome here.”

She bowed her head again. “Thank you, your Highness.”

I walked past her down the hall, back towards the small staircase at the far end. It leads from the guest suite to the Royal quarters, in case one of us wants to visit a guest without using the lifts. As I passed her, however, Eldie spoke up again. “Your Highness?” she suddenly asked. “Where shall I put the books?”

I turned back to face her, puzzled. “Books?”

“Yes, your Highness, the books,” Eldie said, somewhat hesitantly. “There was a pile of books on the bed in my room when I arrived. They looked personal, I didn’t touch them.”

I frowned. We never used the guest room for storage. “Show me.”

Eldie scurried back into her suite as I tried to figure out what she meant. I never visited down here, so it couldn’t have been something I had left there.

As I entered the room, however, it clicked. The books on the bed were no mass-circulation novels or reference tomes. They were a pile of children’s books I had read to the boys when they were small. I stared at the dirtied and well-loved books, memories flooding back. I felt a tear gather in my eye as I stood there. All I could see was Carmine curled up in my lap, listening as I read Moon Over the Sun, or him sitting and mouthing the words to New Tales from the Old Mothers as N’bel sat in the corner, pretending he wasn’t on a trip down Nostalgia Lane.

One image jumped into my mind, as vivid as life. N’bel, sound asleep in my lap, barely ten months, as I rocked him, reciting Starlight in Our Eyes. That had been the song of his childhood, and Carmine’s, just like it had been mine. My own mother had sang it to me when I was tiny, and had quoted its lyrics when I had come home from school in tears when someone had made fun of my eyes, yet again. I could hear it, in my voice and hers, so clearly it staggered me.

We looked so hard, to find

The starlights in the sky

Only to recognize

The starlights in our eyes

From the world in which we wake

To the land of dreams at night

Your starry eyes are all I see

And you show us all your light

So don’t cry, we’re alive

Tonight, we burn like stars that never die

I realized I was crying when Eldie turned back to see me and gasped. I quickly dried my face and cleared my throat. “Sorry, sorry, I, uh…I just took a trip into the past,” I said.

She looked at the books, back at me. Back at the books again. Realization dawned. “Are…they yours, ma’am?” she asked.

I nodded, choking up a bit. “I…I used to make the boys sleep down here when they were being extra naughty, or something like that…I kept the books in the closet of this room because this was the last place they’d slept before we went to Terra for several months.” I squeezed my eyes shut, helpless against the memories in my state of total sleeplessness. “Wow. They left at…what? Six and twelve? And now…”

Eldie watched with a strange sadness etched on her face. “…Time flies?” she asked quietly.

I was quiet for another moment as I forced the memory back. “Yes, it really does,” I eventually said.

“I know what you mean, your Highness,” Eldie said under her breath. Perhaps it was because she attached the honorific, but I thought she had meant it for my ears.

“Are you a mother too, then, Eldie?” I asked.

She jerked her head up, surprised. Apparently, I hadn’t been meant to overhear her comment. “N-no, your Highness. I was just…remembering the last Trial.”

I nodded. “I see. I was on Terra.”

“I…lost both my parents,” she admitted. “The walls came down. My neighbor, Sraiid…he saved me.” She closed her eyes, too. “He…died a few hours ago. He made it to the city, but a cart collapsed on him.”

“Oh…I’m so sorry to hear that,” I said. The fact that N’bel had quartered a girl he had just met was making more and more sense. He’s definitely the most compassionate of us.

She slumped a bit. “It just doesn’t seem right, sometimes,” she muttered. She looked back up at me, as if wondering if I would take offense. “I mean, I know it gets easier every cycle, but…it truly feels relative, doesn’t it, your Highness?”

“Indeed.” I caught her eye. “Do you think we should leave?”

She stared. After a time, she slowly shook her head. “I…don’t.”

I nodded and turned back to go. We were done.

Upstairs, I sank into a chair in the kitchen and groaned aloud as blood rushed back into my feet. I had been standing or walking so long, without rest, that I was actually a bit shaky. The last week – more – was weighing on my body as much as my mind. All I could think to do was lean forward, rest my head in my hands, and try to focus. The shimmering patterns of light outside the windows, a specter of the storm overhead visible through the shield, scattered ugly patterns over the counter in front of me, and I watched as they pulsed across the granite countertop.

Jake walked back up through the levels of the Royal Quarters. The day’s work was nearly over. All that was left was making sure that the rest of the family had food to come home to, if they needed it.

Upon arriving in the kitchen, he spotted his wife at the counter, head in hands. He sighed, walking up behind her. He reached out a hand to squeeze her shoulder, then paused. Her head was unmoving. She was totally still. He slowly circled the granite island, wondering. She couldn’t actually be…

She was. Venus was fast asleep. Her lips were sealed tight, her eyes shut, and her neck cricked up. He gently tapped the table beside her, trying to wake her smoothly.

She blinked red light on the table. “Mmmgh…Jake?” she asked, spotting his hand. She stretched her neck and awkwardly sat up from her slouch. “Wow, I was out cold.”

Jake stared at her. “What time was it when you sat down?”

She glanced at the clock over the oven. “…Uh.”

“What time was it?” Jake repeated, worried now.

“…Four hours ago, give or take five minutes,” Venus admitted. Jake sighed.

“Sweetheart, go to bed.”

Venus weakly chuckled. “Would it make you mad if I said that I actually feel a lot better now?”

“I know that the Progenitors only need four hours of sleep under normal circumstances,” Jake scolded, “but you’ve been up for over ten days.” He rested his hand on her back. “Rest. The Ibu’Than have us covered.”

“Yeah.” Venus straightened up and rose from the stool. She wrung her wrists and neck, working out the kinks. “Well. Actually, there is one thing I need to do before I go get some real sleep.”

“How long will it take?” Jake asked.

“An hour, two at the most. Then…hell, baby, I’ll sleep for days,” she chuckled.

Downstairs, I walked out into the Residence’s small, private forge, clad in my usual apron and work pants. I had thick gloves on this time, when I usually eschewed them. Despite my earlier words, I was still quite sleepy.

As I wended my way through the metalworking complex, I heard voices and tools. They resolved as I got closer: the boys. As if anyone else would be here.

“I don’t think it was unfair,” Carmine was saying as I approached and started sorting through some crap material.

“No, and I said I didn’t think it was unfair, I just don’t like how it was your first assumption,” N’bel shot back.

“Discussing your guest?” I asked as I stepped into view. The boys both started and looked over at me, before the hot metal they were working on called their attention back. “We spoke, briefly.”

“Yeah, sorry, Mom, I brought her without asking,” N’bel admitted. His work clothes were immaculate, of course. I suspect he projects a field that actively repels all uncleanliness unless he actually desires it. “Poor thing just needed a place to sleep. I know there’s the garages downstairs, but…”

“I spoke to her,” I repeated. I grabbed a handful of tiny gold pellets from a bin. “She’s suffered enough.”

N’bel nodded, glad to hear it. “Thank you, Mom.”

Carmine shook his head and returned his attention to his own work without a word. He was working on the same seax knife he had been working on that morning. He was just adding the finishing touches now. Rather, the boys were. N’bel was working gold as well, only unlike the pellets I was heating up, he was cooling some down in the shape of a ring. He was making accents for the handle-grip. It touched me to see them working together like that.

In fact, I seemed to be interrupting a moment. I started melting down the gold as they returned to their conversation.

“It doesn’t feel fair, man,” N’bel said.

“Fine. I’ll try not to make those sorts of assumptions in the future,” Carmine said flatly. “Will she be here until the end of the Trials?”

“Of course! What alternative is there? Sending her out to die in the blizzards?” N’bel shot back.

“Putting her in one of the buildings out in the city proper once the refugees are all sorted and the roadways open back up,” Carmine pointed out. He slid the seax blade onto a chilled sheet of tungsten carbide/titanium alloy that we kept on a table nearby for cooling things without water. The glowing blade cooled off immediately, even as he watched.

I turned my own eyes to my work. I had melted the gold, and now I was pouring it into two little circular slots. The settings were nominally for making the trigger mechanism plates for bolter shells, but they would work for this. They were a bit more than a centimeter in width, and very shallow. Just shallow enough to give me some space to work with when they cooled.

“I guess we could,” N’bel grumbled. “Should we, though? I promised her she could stay for the whole eight months.”

Carmine’s head tilted to stare at his brother, and I have to admit that I did too. “Did you get approval for that? From Mom and Dad or from the Governor?”

“It’s the Royal guest suite, the Governor doesn’t get to say anything,” N’bel said half-heartedly, but he had faulted here, and he was suddenly aware of it.

To the surprise of both of my sons, however, I waved it off. “She’s welcome, N’bel, so long as you understand that she’s not to be dining at our table unless I approve it,” I said. “I’d never throw her out.”

“Thank you, Mom,” N’bel said for the second time in half an hour.

“I respect your judgment,” I added. “If she’s no threat, she stays. That said, I hope you understand that she’s been essentially confined to the building by your decision.”

N’bel shrugged. “No more or less than any other refugee. Of course she can go any time she wants. And it’s not like she can’t go explore the city or work in one of the temporary centers like the other fifty thousand people in the city who come in out of the storms.”

“Fair enough.” And with that, it was over. N’bel was finishing up the accents for the handle of the blade, while Carmine started work on the edging and sharpening of the now-cooled weapon.

“Who’s this for, again?” N’bel asked.

“A friend in the Ibu’Than Auxilia who wanted a hand-made personal defense blade for when he had to attend to ceremonial duties on Terra,” Carmine replied. “He didn’t ask for it, but I owe him one, so. You know. I felt like it.”

“As good a reason as any,” N’bel said. “Garnet or Quartz?”

“Garnet. Red, if we have it,” Carmine said. N’bel grabbed a small chunk of red garnet from a bin on the wall and ran his hands over it, feeling for cracks.

“Here you go.” N’bel sat it down on a table and got to work carving it.

I was nearly done with my own project. Despite my words to Jake, I felt exhaustion returning. Just because we can survive on a few hours of sleep doesn’t mean it’s good for us. Still, this was a pretty simple project. I left the gold to cool and sat down at a small heat-shielded cogitator in the corner of the room. The system was networked with a small metal fabricator in the center of the room, capable of assembling near atomic-scale impressions and embossing in metal plates.

“How about you?” Carmine asked as I nearly finished the first little gold disk. “What are you working on over there?”

“A commemorative medallion,” I said. I finished the metal press’ shape with a click and sat back in the chair. The gold disks slid into the press slot and the machine went to work. The micro-lathe spun and beeped as it transferred my pattern to the metal. “After all, this is your first time,” I continued over the din.

“First…wait, you didn’t,” N’bel said, his eyes lighting up.

“Didn’t what?” Carmine asked from where he was threading the gold loops over the handle.

“She made commemorative tokens for us,” N’bel groaned.


I smirked at N’bel’s manifest embarrassment. “Oh, they’re not for you,” I said.

“Then…who are they for?” N’bel asked.

“They’re for me. Keepsakes. Just as a way to mark the time.” I watched as a small pattern emerged on the surface of one coin. “I did this last time, too.”

“You make new ones for each Trial you survive?” Carmine asked. “Not a bad idea.”

“You’re both welcome to make them too,” I said. The machine beeped as the first token finished. “One for me…one for Jake.”

Carmine watched as I collected the warm disk from the machine. “Where do you keep them?”

“Trophy room.” We had a rather spacious room where I kept the most valued public possessions and creations the two of us had, including my Crown of office and some of Jake’s scholastic achievement awards. The tokens from our first Trial together were still there.

N’bel peered at me as the machine whirred into action on the second token. “Mom, are you all right? You look terrible.”

“I’ve slept four hours in…eleven days,” I said, glancing at the wall calendar in the entryway to the forge.

The boys exchanged looks. “Mother…I know you’re built to a pretty high standard, but even you have limits,” Carmine said slowly. “A full Astartes can’t keep going with that level of rest.”

“And luckily enough, I don’t have a six hundred pound slab of muscle for a body. I also don’t require a mountain of food to stay operational.” I watched the second medallion appear. Sure enough, it was coming along well. The gold I used was exceptional. “How far along is your knife?” I asked. I hoped the boys wouldn’t see how my hand twitched a bit as I reached for the coin as the machine spat it out.

“An hour, less, then I’m done.” Carmine turned back to his labor as N’bel cut the garnets, and I managed to hide a bit of a swoon as I rose to switch off the lathe.

Jake read over the last few lines of his slate’s display. The casualty count was in. The Trial’s first phase was over, and now it was going to start cooling off the planet.

A quiet tap on the ground behind him announced Venus’ arrival. Jake turned to see her in a tousled bathrobe, drying wet black hair. Her temperature, of course, was high enough that she never stayed wet after a shower for very long, but there was no need to drag out the process. She had a little box in one hand, a cheap and pre-made cardboard thing. They used them in the forge to transport small objects.

Jake stood immediately. “Sweetheart, what did you make?” he asked. He was trying to keep recrimination out of his voice. She looked dead on her feet again.

Venus beamed. “The tokens.”

“Right!” Jake said, remembering. She had promised to make tokens for each Time of Trial they were there to witness and place them in the trophy room, for as long as she was able to. At the time, Jake had thought it touching. Now he was worried for her health.

Or sanity. She was still beaming, like they had been some prize she had snatched from a defeated foe. “Well. I can go hang them now, anyway,” she said, and turned to go.

Jake noted the slight stoop in her back and had had quite enough. He walked up behind her and slid one arm around her waist. “No.”

She turned in his grasp to stare at him. “No?”

He didn’t have her raw power, but his genehanced muscle was enough. He slid the hand on her lower back down to her knees as he crouched, and wrapped the other around her shoulders. She gasped as she fell into his arms. Without another word, he walked her right back into the stairwell.

“Jake, what-”

“Nope,” he said flatly. “You’ve spent enough time awake.”

She giggled, high on life and sleep deprivation. “Jake, put me down.”

“We’re not there yet,” he replied. At the top of the stairs, he turned down the hall to their quarters and sidled in. He lowered her onto the massive bed and gingerly extracted her bathrobe. She was giggling wildly as the moment overcame her, but she was clearly still willing to play along. He grabbed the sheets and draped them over her as he tossed the bathrobe over a chair back at her desk.

“Now,” he said flatly. “Go to sleep.”

“Jake, I could hardly…I mean…” she broke down giggling as he snapped the lights off and started shucking his own clothes. “This…”

“Hush.” He slid into bed beside her and tapped one finger against her lips. “Sleep.”

She snorted in a mixture of good humor and delirium. “Jake, this is silly.”

Jake slid an arm across her chest and leaned in to plant a kiss on her cheek. “Good night.”

In moments, sure to his request, she was out like a light. Jake shook his head in the darkness. “Silly indeed,” he murmured.

Below, N’bel emerged from his own shower, and found Carmine waiting outside, turning the seax over in his hands. “I think he’ll love it,” Carmine said absently.

“I think so.” N’bel tugged his fresh shirt on and tossed his forging and older civvie clothes into the hamper. “So…you think Mom’s alright?”

“I suspect Mother’s fine,” Carmine said. He slid the seax into a small, padded box and placed it on a table by the door. “Well.”

“Yeah.” Both men glanced out the window at the roiling hellstorm outside the shield. “How soon before the snowfall starts?”

Carmine thought back to his own Ibu’Than briefing. “A few days. Then the earthquakes stop, at least for a while.”

“Good.” N’bel wandered off to the stairs up to the kitchen. “Hungry?”

“Famished.” Carmine flicked water off of his tight black curls and grabbed the box back up. “Let me just drop this off with my friend in the Auxilia first.”

The organized madness of the garages was starting to calm a bit as the flow of refugees from outside stopped, and the gate guards dispersed into the city to help protect the civilians there. The Salamanders were tagging out, in essence, getting into their ships and flying up to the station on Prometheus for the duration of the storm, save those few thousand who would stay behind and help. Carmine stepped out of the guarded lifts in his civilian clothes and let his incredible eyes wander the room. Sure enough, he found the man he was looking for. He set out across the chaotic space passing by groups of Salamanders disengaging themselves from the crowd, Ibu’than troops and Nocturne PDF passing out supplies and helping the injured, and civilians looking for a spot to lie down.

Before he even made it halfway across the room, he spotted Karin and Zal’die standing together near a parked Army truck. He wended his way over, hoping to have the chance to speak to Karin himself. Nobody in the Ibu’Than was going anywhere, the knife could wait.

“Carmine!” Karin said, noticing his distinctive gaze from a distance. “Sir, thank you so much for helping out there.” The honorific, of course, was just for show, they felt no need to share titles off-duty.

Carmine waved off the gratitude. “It was no trouble, I was happy to help.”

Zal’die paused to shake his hand. “We got them in, sir,” he proudly announced.

“We did.” Carmine took stock of the crowds of people and supplies. “What a mess.”

“It’s bad, but it could have been so much worse, you know,” Zal’die said grimly. “Did the rest of the Sanctuaries get their shields up in time?”

“Sounds like they did,” Carmine said. Out of uniform, he lost none of his presence. His eyes drew confused or excited whispers from several refugees who were unused to his presence in the city. “Well. I just wanted to check in. I’ll see you both later.”

The others nodded farewells as he resumed his course across the room, blade in box. As he worked back through the chamber, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride. They had indeed gotten as many in as they could. A little crowding was hardly a high price to pay.

I awoke. The room was utterly dark, with every blind drawn, every light extinguished. The door to the bathroom, with its nightlight, was closed. So was the door to the hall, and to our closets. I blinked and the room filled with dim red light.

My arms were cramping. I wasn’t lying on them, I was just stiff from sleeping too long. I felt my stomach gurgle as I stirred awake. I was utterly ravenous, and my bladder ached. How long had I been out?

I turned my head and stared at the clock at the bedside. I felt astonishment when I saw the number. I had been out cold for fully twelve and a half hours. That was three times longer than I usually slept. It was the equivalent of a mortal sleeping an entire day.

Jake wasn’t there any more. I had the room to myself. I rose and gingerly walked to the bathroom, to meet the needs of an entire half a day of rest. It felt odd to bathe after just having bathed before sleep, but I felt grimy all over.

After cleaning and dressing, I left the Royal bedchamber and walked over to the stairs, meaning to head down to the kitchen to find some food. Instead, I paused, as voices from the level above me – the top level of the Royal Quarters, and in fact the entire Palace – caught my ear.

“It’s terrifying,” I heard someone – N’bel or Jake – say. “The whole sky looks like it’s trying to break.”

“I know,” Carmine – his voice was quite distinctive – replied.

The other of the two men in my life who sound identical spoke up. “The clouds will stay for a bit longer, then start to condense and fall across the shields. That’s when they really take the strain. The Mechanicum will shut down all nonessential systems and divert the power to the upper void dome.” That had to be Jake. He was the only one there who had been through this before.

I climbed up the stairs and beheld a sight. Down the hall from the stairs, it opened up into a rooftop lounge. The boys and their father were sitting in chairs on the weather-proofed surface, staring up at the sky and sipping at what smelled to my enhanced senses like Septiim vodka.

I walked up to the door and cleared my throat. “Guys?”

All three turned back to look at me. Carmine’s and N’bel’s faces wore identical looks of relief, while Jake just nodded knowingly. “Better?” he asked.

“Much. I don’t feel dizzy, at least.” I sat beside them and Jake passed me a tumbler of vodka. “What’s the occasion?”

“All four of us survived the end of the world,” N’bel said, nodding at his wisdom. “That deserves a stiff drink.”

I chuckled as I accepted the booze. “Hah. Fine, I’ll drink to that.”

We all looked up at the shield over our heads, and watched as the toxic rain, lightning bolts, gyrating wind cells, and rubble of a thousand volcanoes slammed into it. Distant Deathfire roared angrily and spat bolts of rock and fire into the sky, visible even at this distance. The twisting clouds spat angrily at the city below, but the Mechanicum’s gifts held, and the shield didn’t break.

Carmine stood from his chair and hefted his glass to the rest of us. We all lifted out own.

“To fifteen more years,” he said solemnly. We all stretched out and clinked our glasses with his.

“Fifteen more years.”

Nate's Travails[edit]

The robes of a Senior Counselor to the Master of the Astra Telepathica are more than mere fabric. They include a variety of psy-dampening or psy-enhancing materials, depending on the stability of the wearer, and are frequently customized with personal accoutrements. Often, the wearer will also bear a Rosette or Rosarius shaped like the Scholastica Eye, in the form of a pendant. One set in particular was sky blue, trimmed in black, and the belt was laced with a huge variety of technological trinkets. The Rosette was built with a compact Refractor, and encrusted with Star Gems. The Refractor field could divert attacks of all sorts, even plasma, and was designed to prevent the wearer’s death from the attack their psychic senses didn’t see coming.

At the moment, however, nobody was wearing them. The Rosette and robe were stuffed into a locker in the City of Sight’s sparring hall, and the owner was fighting desperately in the next room.

The sparring chamber was tucked into the base of the Whispering Tower, near the Novitiate chambers of the Scholastica Psykana. Over the millennia of the Crusade, the restrictions on psy-power from the Edict of Nikaea had been loosened as mountains of data on the use of psychics and the temptations psykers suffered had been uncovered by the Emperor’s servants. Primarchs and Astropaths of every stripe had begged the Emperor to allow psychics to serve in the Imperium as more than living telephones once more, and eventually, he had agreed. The City of Sight returned to its admittedly subdued bustle of activity shortly thereafter, as the Sisterhood and Scholastica had returned to the harvesting and training of young psychic minds, and as the Black Sentinels went back to their normal jobs.

Among the roles filled by Adepts of the Scholastica was that of the teacher, specifically the teacher of Imperial Army officers in how best to deploy Primaris Psykers and War Psychics in battle. That, of course, required that psychics of the Scholastica be trained in how to actually fight, and so the sparring halls of the Astra Telepathica were once more opened to their intended use, that being: beating the shit out of each other.

Nathaniel Romanvene, Prince of Prospero and husband of Miranda, danced back from the young War Psychic he was fighting. Her armor was scratched and scarred from generations of use, but it was well-fitted and tough, and she was far more youthful than he.

Nate threw himself backwards as fast as he could, just barely dodging a blow that he hadn’t foreseen. Luckily, his opponent wasn’t a very skilled fighter. Unfortunately, she was also a much stronger psychic.

The Prince had to duck to dodge a stream of shimmering silver fire, which splattered against the energy field at the edge of the practice ring. He lunged forward, trusting in two decades of footwork practice to carry him around her counter.

It worked. The younger psychic lashed out once, twice, thrice, four times at him, but he slid past her brutal blows, deflecting her training staff with his armored gauntlets, their serrated finger-guards the only visible weapons he was carrying.

She stepped back to let him approach her with her guard up, then lashed out again, launching a slender beam of violet light that coiled and spun like a hyperactive snake. Undeterred, Nate clenched one fist and threw himself sideways again, letting the phantom blow right over him. He straightened up and tossed the contents of his fist into her face.

The woman gasped and jerked back as frighteningly bright grey sparks blasted into her face. It was a parlor trick and nothing more, but the message was clear: he could have melted her face right off. She snarled and swung her staff low, this time feeding psychic energy into it to push through an extra sting.

Nate didn’t bother dodging. Before it could even connect, he had gripped the insides of both of her thighs and twisted them upwards. She gasped again, this time in pain, and fell right on her ass. Little witch-fires burned on her training pants where he had grabbed her, though they weren’t hot at all. It was just another reminder of how much more experienced he truly was.

“Enough!” Nate barked as she squealed and slapped at the illusory flame. They vanished as he dropped the charade, and he crossed his arms over his chest with a stern glare. “Get up, student!”

The student scrambled to her feet, panting and ruddy-faced. “What the HELL was that?” Nate demanded. “I killed you four times in twelve seconds!”

The student stiffened. “With respect, sir, it was two.”

“Bullshit! You were dead before I even closed,” Nate said hotly. “Look down.”

The student glanced down, to see a thin slick of blood coating the tops of her shoes. She sucked in a breath as she noticed two shallow cuts on her shins, just below her leg armor. “If I had aimed that two centimeters lower and held the slash,” Nate said, pointing at a seemingly random spot on the far side of the ring, “you’d have had your feet cut clean off. Did you even notice?” She squinted and spotted two bloodied coins sitting at the rim of the arena. He’d launched them from the pockets of his pants while they had been approaching each other at the start of the bout.

“Sir, no, I did not, sir,” the student admitted.

“Then, when you tried a Warp Scorch, I ducked it like a beach ball! Why throw so slowly? I’m not going to catch it! I’m supposed to AVOID catching it!” Nate continued. “Believe me, there are Weirdboyz out there who WILL catch it, and they will throw it right back at your ass twice as fast! And, of course, the face and the legs,” Nate finished up. He marched up to the student and stared down into her hazel eyes. “Nothing wrong with ambition, student,” he said quietly, his demeanor changing entirely. “But…never, EVER mistake a lack of power for lack of refinement. If you ever fight an Eldar in CQC, you will die and never know how. And,” he said, turning away and adding the stinger over his shoulder, “go tell MacMillan that’s three lunches. He knows what I mean.”

The student blinked back harsh tears. “Yes, sir.”

“Dismissed,” Nate called, and vanished into his locker room.

The student wiped her forehead with a bloody hand and nearly threw her staff into the corner. She ripped her towel off of the bench and wiped it over her soaked face, muttering bitterly under her breath.

“Student?” a new voice asked.

The girl whipped around, ready to work out her frustration on some new target, and dropped the towel. Instead of venting anger, she turned shock white, and slid into a ramrod-straight attention. “Ma’am! Primaris Candidate Eight Able Mike Four, Ma’am, Terran WPTS, Ma’am!” she sounded off.

Miranda, the Crown Princess and Sceptre-Bearer of Prospero, and Nate’s wife, was standing where Nate had been. Unlike her husband, she was wearing no war panoply. Instead, she had a positively restrained Psykana robe dress on; her only visible icon of office was a solid Star Gem pendant in the shape of a glowing orange eye. The light locked inside it roiled like a living thing. It was every bit as unnerving as her real third eye, which she never bothered to cover in the City.

She smiled. “I didn’t ask your billet, officer code, or rank, student.”

“Force of habit, ma’am, I apologize!” the student said quickly.

“Very well, no harm done. Where is Prince Nathaniel?”

“In the locker room, ma’am,” the student said, and for reasons she would not figure out for the rest of her life, continued with “wiping off my blood!”

Her jaw clenched at the completely disrespectful addendum, and the reptilian survival instincts at the back of her mind wondered if taking a knee would help her overcome Miranda’s rarely-seen but nigh unsurvivable displeasure.

It seemed Miranda was in a good mood, however, because all she did was laugh. “He’s faster than a mongoose when he’s angry, isn’t he?”

“I…confess to not knowing what a mongoose is, ma’am, but he’s faster than any non-cyborg I have ever witnessed, ma’am,” the student said, her cheeks burning.

“Yeah, being taught close-quarters anti-psychic fighting tactics by Atok himself tends to impart some lessons,” Miranda agreed. “Though, technically, he is a cyborg. I dunno, though, you think I could take him?” she asked playfully.

The student hesitated. “I…would assume so, ma’am, your power vastly eclipses his and mine combined.”

“Very true, and well said,” Miranda said with mock seriousness. She walked past the student with a wink a murmur. “Buck up, kid, you’re not even twenty. You’ll get the hang of restraint soon enough.”

The student looked away. “Yes, ma’am.”

Miranda waited outside the locker room as the student walked off to the showers. At length, Nate emerged with his armor in a bag, clad in his robe. Without even stopping to look if anyone was watching, he slung an arm around his wife’s shoulders and drew her into a breath-taking kiss. Miranda returned the gesture, gripping his shoulders with both hands and leaning into it. Several seconds later, they parted, both grinning, and walked off together.

“Good bout?” Miranda asked.

He scoffed. “Not at all. I don’t know what the trainers are doing down in the College if that’s the best they can send up.”

“I hate to break it to you, there, Champion, but the really good ones know their limits and don’t challenge their Lord,” Miranda pointed out. “The next batch of Senioris Primaris, the Legionary War Directors, are the best I’ve seen in thirty years.”

“Yeah? And that’s the best name they could come up with?” Nate mused. He flicked shower water from his close-cropped black hair as they walked into the grey afternoon light together, arm in arm. “‘Primaris Senioris?’”

“I don’t create the pay grades,” Miranda said.

“Oh, I know, it’s the fault of someone else,” Nate replied.

Miranda nodded gravely. “Well, yeah. Everything is someone else’s fault. Still, she was in tears. Were you hard on her?”

“I was quite hard on her,” Nate said unapologetically. “She’s a fourth my age, and she had the gall to claim that I had no business directing psykers of Epsilon talent when I’m an Iota on a good day.”

Miranda sighed. “Oh, dear.”

“Yeah, she had it coming. Iota, Gamma, Alpha plus, who gives a damn? If you can’t block a pair of coins with your mind or smell your own blood, you’re useless in a fight,” Nate said. He looked down at his wife and smiled. “But you didn’t come down from the Oneirocritica to tell me that I’m being mean to the young people.”

“No, no, I can do that over the intercom,” Miranda said, nodding regally. “I came down to float an idea.”

“Do tell.”

“I want to have a few people over to the manor for dinner tonight, if that’s quite alright with you,” she explained, waving to a bowing Acolyte they passed.

“And whom shall we be cannibalizing?” Nate asked in an eagerly curious voice.

“Oh, nobody of importance,” Miranda said, continuing the joke. “A few Lords General, my father, a representative from the Black Army, you know. Nobody that anyone will miss.”

“Right. So who did you have in mind, really?” Nate asked.

Miranda counted off on her hand. “Petra, us two, Garret, and Hebe.”

Nate stopped dead. Miranda stumbled and let go of his arm. She looked back at him to see him ram his hands into his pockets and look away. “Hebe.”

“Yes, Nate, she was in town and she called,” Miranda said. She didn’t need her incomprehensibly vast psychic power to see the sudden flare of irritation in him. “Nate. It’s been forty seven years. She just wants to have dinner. You can’t still be angry at her for what your mother did.”

Nate resumed walking towards the Archway. He kept his fists in his pockets the whole way. Miranda hurried to catch up with her taller husband’s stride. “At least consider it?” she asked. She settled for the gruff ‘fine’ she received, and decided to change the subject. “So…who is this MacMillan?”

“Trainer in the Primaris office who likes to send unprepared students up against senior instructors with lower Assignment ratings. We bet lunches over it sometimes,” Nate explained, his temper easing. The two discussed work until reaching the gateway to the more welcoming parts of the Palace, where they parted ways; her back to the Tower and Nate to the garage.

As soon as his wife was out of earshot, Nate’s mind drifted. Away from the green-walled City, away from the gilded Palace to the north, away from the kind words and unfathomable complexity of his wife. His mind went to Europa, a lovely childhood cut short, and a pair of bitter, cynical, cruel nobles.

Miranda sat at the very peak of the Whispering Tower, listening to the vague sounds from the walls. The Whispering Tower – aptly named – was the core of the psychic antenna that was the Telepathic Temple of Earth, and there was nothing else like it outside the Craftworlds. It was so large that there was room for four separate libraries through its huge structure. One of them was hers and her father’s, and it was a tiny speck compared to the huge Chamber of Thoughts, the Great Dream Library, or the Code Room.

Still, it was home away from home for her. As she had gained refinement and control over her abilities, she had come to enjoy her time there. The little room was filled with mismatched furniture, of wildly varying sizes and themes. Some were for Magnus’ size, others were for her petite 5’10” frame, and others were sturdier, so that armored Custodes and Marines could sit comfortably.

At the moment, she was curled up in a bean bag chair she had stashed in one corner, sipping a cream tea, and trying not to think about her husband’s abusive family. She let her mind walk through the pathways of the psy-reactive structure, casually eavesdropping on various telepath messages. Here was a picture of a starmap someone wanted sent to the Navy outpost at Cyprya. Here was a joyous message of a successful breach birth sent to an anxious father, far away on tour. Here was a classified file – she ignored that. Here was a sad tale of an overzealous Enforcer who had blundered into a drug deal and gotten lynched for his trouble.

All the words of the messages from that day filtered through the walls around her and pressed against her thoughts. She had found it frightening when Magnus had brought her here first, but now it helped her focus.

So she said, anyway. At that moment, absolute silence couldn’t have helped her focus. She sighed and picked up a slate, trying to force her way through it. The Sisters of Silence were practically begging for an expansion of the Blackships’ escorts through Cahrdammzog. Well, obviously. What would happen if an Ork Warboss managed to capture and enslave a ship with thousands of psychic human children in it? She granted the request and sent the form to the Palace for Roboute’s signature; that region of space was his jurisdiction.

She set the slate down and wormed her way into the bean bag chair, a fond relic of her college dorm, and the one addition to the furniture she had made. Magnus had bought the rest of his own volition. She sipped at her tea and allowed herself to address the elephant in the room: Nate’s family.

He had been born on Europa, the eldest child of the Romanvene noble family. They ruled one of the floating cities that drifted across the odorous seas of that moon, and as far as the rest of the planet knew, they were gregarious but unremarkable nobles. They were also, as a far more select group knew, cruel and insular, prejudicial, and bitterly racist. This, of course, was not the face they showed the public. Nate knew it all too well. After all, the family had voluntarily disowned him before the Black Ships had come to harvest him with rest of the Sol System’s psykers.

Miranda sighed into her teacup as she remembered when Nate had finally opened up to her about his past. They had met in college, where Nate had been laboriously working through a two-year degree in psychology, and she had been breezing through a four-year degree in the same. The two psychics had fallen quickly, thanks to the insights into each other’s minds that their powers allowed. They had married almost immediately, to Miranda’s parents’ concern, but it had been a wise move. The Emperor had grown to like the boy, and accepted him into the small, elite circle of the immortal grandsons straightaway.

Nate’s outlook on life was a product of the upbringing he had lost. Scorned by his family for his psychic talent, equipped with mere psybernetic implants rather than Sanctioned due to the (then) paucity of his raw power, and essentially kicked to the curb by the Astra Telepathica because he was no threat to anyone, it would have been reasonable to assume that he’d have a long pessimistic streak. In reality, he had embraced his lot in life, taking to working during the day and studying at night, applying for every scrap of scholarship money he could find. His outlook had been positive despite everything, which had gone a long way in drawing Miranda to him. She had sensed the trained psychic walk into the bar she had been patronizing and spun in her seat to see him staring straight back at her with eyes wide.

The moneyed life into which he had married was familiar enough that the only obstacle had been her bizarre family. Magnus’ surprise and disappointment at the haste with which she had married had faded as Nate took the time to get to know him personally, though. His own family, however…

She stood, slowly walking up to the window of her library. The rising sun shone from the distant hive structures beneath the Himalayas, but the windows polarized to compensate. Miranda looked into her own reflection, trying to find an answer to Nate’s problems. Unsurprisingly, none emerged. Her own family adored her. Nate’s reviled him.

The vox built into her table beeped. She answered without looking, pressing the switch with a thought. “Miranda.”

“Miranda, it’s Garret,” her best friend outside the Family said. She turned at that point.

“Garret! How’s things?”

“I was calling to RSVP for tonight, if we’re on,” Garret said. The much older man was one of the serfs who served Magnus’ office on Prospero and had transferred to Terra after the Crusade. He had taken something of a mentorship to Miranda in her youth, and was one of Nate’s confidants.

“We are,” Miranda confirmed. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“Of course, Miranda, I look forward to seeing you. What’s on the menu?”

“Home-made pierogies and sausage, actually,” Miranda said.

“Exquisite. See you then. Goodbye.”

“Bye.” Miranda cut the channel and turned back to her musing, but answers were as unforthcoming as they had been before.

Nate sat down at the little table in his own study in the home he and Miranda had built in the peaceful retirement quarter of Cordoma. The idea behind building a home for a young couple in the retirement quarter was as much derived from the peace and quiet they would enjoy as it was the perceived increase in security. There are few geriatric homebreakers.

The Prince paged through the book on the table before him, thinking about his youth. The book was full of the few mementos he had salvaged of that part of his life; press clippings and holopicts that included him, a few report cards from his tutors. The last entry in the book was the positive psy-active test result from his doctor. He had smuggled the original off of Europa with the Sister of Silence that had come for him, minutes after leaving a copy behind with the Arbites. Why he had been driven to such an act was no mystery: he had come to loathe his parents very quickly. In the span of a few days, they had gone from regarding him as a prodigy and lucky star of the family to an abhuman – subhuman? – mutant, unfit to live. He had been just old enough to recognize the inherent unfairness of such a claim. He retorted to his enraged parents that Malcador himself was a psychic, as were at least two Primarchs, the Emperor himself, and fully every one of the Navigators in the family’s service.

That argument had gained little tread in his parents’ embittered hearts, and they had unceremoniously thrown him from the building, barely pausing to give him some clothing to wear and a ration stick to eat. Weeping and destitute, he had marched straight to the nearest Arbites Precinct and explained the entire story to an astonished Judge Arbitrator. Starting with the unusually high luck he had displayed at card games and guessing games from the age of six to twelve, continuing with the discovery of his psychic talents, and culminating with his brutal disowning, he relayed the whole tale.

He fully expected the Judge to kill him for his ‘crime,’ but instead the lawman had summoned a Black Ship from nearby Terra, and had the boy hustled off to begin a new life. Such as it was.

Upon reaching the age of thirteen, he was judged to be a weak Iota psyker, too frail of power to be a threat to anyone, and given stabilization psybernetics. Even this wasn’t enough to make him worth the attention of the senior psychics of the Scholastica, and he was honorably discharged at the age of sixteen, sent off to a civilian job with a warning never to use his powers and a paltry bit of money to start afresh.

He had met Miranda some time later, and the two fell deeply in love. “The rest, as they say, is history,” Nate muttered under his breath as he closed the scrapbook.

His younger sister Hebe had never sided with her parents. Nor, for that matter, against them. She had only been four years old at the time of his disowning, after all. She had never attempted to reconcile with him, any more than his parents had. Even when he married into the Royal Family, she had sent only a cursory message of congratulations.

In recent years, however, something seemed to have changed. She had appeared in a documentary on the subject of children taken by the Blackships without their parents’ consent, and even though she had sided with the Sisterhood’s authority to do so, it had been a shocking move for someone from the Romanvenes to do so at all. Later, she had included him, perhaps even by accident, on a list of recipients for a message to several hundred family members around the system, though its contents had been irrelevant to him.

Finally, less than two years before, she had been spotted in public attendance of a lecture given at a Terran theater on the subject of civilian use of Sanctioned psychic power. While a younger, more privately cynical Nate might have suspected that she was up to something, the older and more satisfied Nate was just plain curious.

He had to arrive at that conclusion, he told himself as he filed the book away in the small house’s library. As much as he resented his family, the jump from ‘appearing publicly interested in psychics’ to ‘asking to drop in for dinner’ was a huge one. What did his sister want from him?

Reconciliation, perhaps? Unlikely. If she hadn’t felt such a desire to rejoin him to the family when he married the Emperor’s granddaughter, it wouldn’t come now. Not when they were in their late fifties.

Miranda’s car slid to a halt outside the house. The Princess emerged and walked in, looking around for Nate straightaway. She found him in the kitchen, supervising the servitors making the food. He was hands-deep in a salad himself. “Program five, guests for tonight,” Nate was saying as he chopped up some cabbage.

“Acknowledged,” the servitor replied in its flat monotone. Miranda stood across the island from Nate and waited for him to turn around.

“Hello,” he said over his shoulder. “Thought I’d get some cooking done.”

“So I see.” Miranda glanced over at where the plates were stacked. “Only four settings.”

“Yes.” Nate kept working the vegetables. “Hebe’s not coming.”

Miranda sighed under her breath. “You turned her down?”

“I haven’t. Could you do it? How did she contact us?” Nate asked. “Come to think of it, how did her name appear on a list of cleared persons without my seeing…a note…” his voice trailed off. He wiped his hands on the towel at the side of the table and slowly turned around. “She couldn’t. All household residents have to be informed when a name is added to the cleared access list,” he said, suspicion creeping into his voice.

“Unless I ask them not to notify you,” Miranda said, steeling herself.

Nate stared at her, his face suddenly blank as paper. “You…told them not to notify me,” he said flatly.

“I did.”

He whipped back around, his hands tightening into fists. “You knew I would refuse.”

“I did.”

“And…then you told me…in public, no less…the day she gets here…so I would have minimum chance to refuse,” he finished. His teeth clenched. “Wow.”

Miranda’s shoulders slumped. “It was callous. I apologize for that. Nate…you shouldn’t hate her. She was four when-”

“When my parents THREW ME out on the STREETS!” Nate suddenly barked.

“And look where it got you!” Miranda shot back, annoyed herself now. “If you don’t want to have her over for food, fine, but at least reach out to her! What could she possibly have to say? Why would she contact you and ask for a seat at the table?”

“I don’t know,” Nate said coldly.

“Do you think she’d come to you if all she has is recrimination for you?” Miranda pressed, not shouting now, but still upset. “Come on. At least talk to her!”

“All right!” Nate snapped. “Fine. After work tomorrow, I’ll call her.”

“Why wait? You want me to call and let her know she’s not invited, right?” Miranda pushed.

Nate glared daggers at his wife and threw the towel back on the peg. “You just don’t know when you’re not helping, do you?” he muttered bitterly. He snatched up the vox and stomped out before she could get in the last word.

His study was a small affair, stuffed with bookshelves. The wood panels were some of the most expensive things in the house; he had had them imported from Prospero itself. One of them concealed an audio dampener, which he engaged when he wanted privacy as he did now. He sank into a chair at the desk and looked at the vox’s little screen. Sure enough, an incoming call from one H.T. Romanvene was listed as having come the previous day. He stared at it, steeling himself for the task, and pressed the ‘call back’ button.

He immediately hung up, before the call could even go out. Nate’s fingers gripped the vox until he could bear it no more, and dropped it into the chair. He rose to his feet and stared at the trophies on the walls between the bookshelves. Knickknacks of worlds he had visited with his wife, an image of himself with the other Royal grandsons, and other collections of his younger years stared back at him. Faint psychic whispers of his past echoed from them. He wondered with an ironic half-smile if thinking about the past so much was healthy, given how his life had started.

Eventually, he sighed and picked the vox back up. He punched in the number quickly so he couldn’t stop himself, then switched on the speakerphone and set it down on the desk.

It rang twice before someone answered. “Hello?” a male voice asked.

“Hello,” Nate said, someone put off his anger by the unexpected voice. “Is Hebe there?”

The tone of the reply was pure boredom. “What is your business with mistress Romanvene?”

Nate glared at the vox. “She knows this number.”

A few moments of scuffling sounds followed that. Nate heard the sounds of people and music in the background. A shopping complex?

“Hello? This is Lady Hebe,” a new, female voice asked.

Nate squared his shoulders. This was it. “Hebe. It’s Nathaniel. Nate.

The sounds of footsteps on the far side died down. “Oh…yes. Hello,” Hebe said. Her voice lost a fraction of its aristocratic edge. “I…hello, yes.”

“Hard to say hello after forty seven years, isn’t it?” Nate asked.

“Yes, it is.” The sounds of activity beyond faded further. She must have sat down somewhere secluded.

“I…understand you spoke with my wife, sometime last night,” Nate said, searching for a thread.

“Yes, I wanted her to know that I was here, and…I guess…” she trailed off. “I don’t know.”

“And Miranda extended an invitation to dine with us tonight,” Nate supplied.

“She did.” Hebe paused before continuing. “I…think I sent a congratulations when you married into the Royal Family,” she said.

“You did, we got it.” Nate tapped his chin, remembering the surprise he had felt. “What did Mother and Father think of that?”

“All they really knew was what they read in the news, you understand,” his sister replied. “They thought it was someone else, at first. They thought you were on Terra, still.”

Nate blinked. They had kept track of him? “Why? Did they have me watched, or something?

“No, they just thought that was where you were.” Hebe coughed lightly, probably to buy time to think. “So…may I assume that this call isn’t purely social?”

“I suppose, in an absolute sense, it is,” Nate said. “We won’t be having you over tonight.”

Silence greeted his words. “I understand.”

“I will be meeting you,” Nate said abruptly. “Pick a spot. Or ask me to, it’s not a trouble. I know the city.”


“It’s been forty seven years, and you were four,” Nate said briskly. “We should talk. But not in front of my wife and her friends. Somewhere private. Neutral.”

“I…very well,” Hebe said, feeling a bit whiplashed. “Er, I’m in a city called New Arks.”

“I’m in a city called Cordoma,” Nate said. “By gravity shuttle it’s half an hour. There’s a city called Azor between us. There’s a restaurant there, Calie’s. We’ll meet there at…say nineteen thirty local.”

“Very well, I’ll…I’ll find it. See you there, then.”

“Yes, goodbye.” Nate thumbed off the vox and dropped it into his pocket, feeling much older.

Outside, Miranda was finishing up his salad when he returned. He dropped the vox into the cradle and sat down at the kitchen table without a word.

Miranda looked up at him. Her third eye – the metaphorical one – could see exhaustion in him. From the fight earlier, from the conversation now, and all that had happened between. She could also, however, see an ember of resentment from her behavior.

She looked back down at the food and tucked one lock of red behind her ear. “Do you know how hard it was to keep it quiet all night?” she joked. Sleeping with a mind reader has its drawbacks.

His glare informed her that that had been the wrong thing to say. “It was childish, Miranda.”

Miranda hesitated, then conceded. “It was. I’m sorry. I stand by the outcome.”

“That she’d be meeting me in neutral ground?” Nate asked.

She nodded. “How did you know?” Nate asked, then held up a hand. “Alpha plus. Right.”

“Well, forgive me my intrusion,” Miranda said contritely. “I’ll set three tonight.”

“Yeah.” Nate looked up at the clock. He had about sixteen minutes before he had to leave. “Well. I should get dressed.”

Hebe stared at the restaurant her brother had chosen. It was a dive. “Why in the world would a member of either the Romanvene or Imperial families come here?” she asked aloud.

Her manservant Serge looked around. “Perhaps this isn’t the right place? Shall I check the map again?”

“Please do,” Hebe said, nervously glancing at the mobs of tourists and commoners around her.

Several blocks away, Nate’s car slid into a private garage he had called. For a member of the Royal family, getting a place there was no trouble. He slid his sunglasses over his face, damped his psybernetics with a thought, and emerged from the garage into the little street beyond. Walking towards the restaurant at a quick pace, he kept his eyes open. His guards were nearby; he could sense five Beehives within two hundred paces at least. Beyond that, his senses were no shaper than anyone else’s. He could, however, also sense two Treasury shadows around too. Nate belatedly recalled that his guard shift was training some new guys. At least they wouldn’t follow him into the restaurant.

Ahead, he spotted a woman in aristocratic clothes and a well-dressed man beside her. The woman was in her forties, while the man looked barely older than twenty and was built like a volleyball player. That had to be Hebe and her sidekick. Nate diverted to the other side of the street and walked up behind them in silence.

“I mean, why would he pick this place of all restaurants? Nothing classier on Terra than this? He’s royalty now, we could have gone to the Palace!” the woman complained.

Nate spoke up. “And be seen in Royal company?”

Both others turned to see him standing there. He had chosen up-style clothes for the occasion, in the sort of understated dress a modern noble of the Sol System might wear if they grew weary of ostentation. His sister looked a thousand years old, to his surprise. She had clearly decided to eschew juvenats. Grey lined her hair, and wisdom cracks gathered at the corners of her eyes as well. Her associate’s belt was covered in all manner of gadgetry; no doubt it was assigned to her scheduling.

“Oh…er, hello, Nathaniel,” Hebe said. “It’s…been too long.”

“It has.” Nate glanced at her companion.

Hebe took the hint. “This is Serge, my secretary.”

Nate extended a hand in the routine of greeting that had been burned into his mind since the age of three. “Nathaniel Romanvene.”

The man bowed over his hand before taking it. “Prince Nathaniel, a pleasure. Serge Antonius. I am your cousin.”

Nathaniel started. He squinted, looking for a resemblance.

“Well, first cousin once removed would be more appropriate,” Hebe corrected. “I’m giving the lad a taste of life in the main branch of the family.”

“Ah. So your great grandparent is my grandparent,” Nate said.

“Indeed, sir. Specifically, Lord Apollo of the Io branch,” the young man said.

“Mm.” Nate fished around in his pocket for a money card and found one for a few hundred credits. “Do me a favor, Serge. Go find yourself a place to dine and keep the change. Call it delayed birthday presents.” He passed the boy the money and jerked his head at the restaurant. “My sister and I need to catch up.”

The boy stared, but slowly took the money. “Er…very well, sir.”

Nate walked towards the dingy building with his surprised sister in tow, leaving the younger scion of the family staring. “Ever been to Terra before?” he asked Hebe.

“Well, a few times when I was much younger,” Hebe said, puffing in his wake. He pushed the door opened and smiled at the familiar surroundings.

“I guarantee you’ve never been here,” he said. “Miranda and I met in this place, nearly…wow. Thirty four years, it’s been.”

“You met at such a young age?” Hebe asked, wrinkling her nose at the strange décor. The room was filled with random-seeming little collections of tables and hanging lights, a few small island bars with rings of stools around them, and booths on the walls with privacy screens. “And…in this place?” It was no Imperial Restaurant, that was for sure.

“Yes. The college we attended was quite near, after all, and I felt like debauchery,” Nate said, enjoying the burst of nostalgia. The pure, unprecedented rush of joy when he had first seen Miranda… “Anyway.” He approached a hostess. “One shielded booth, please.”

“Absolutely, sir,” the hostess said, and lead them to a booth with a flickering holoscreen over the seats. From the outside, it looked empty. As she pressed a button on the back of one of the chairs, a light overhead turned red. “I’ll be by in a moment with your orders.”

“Thanks,” Nate said. He shucked his coat and hung it on the peg behind the seat. As he sat, he scanned the crowd. Nobody he knew, no reporters, no visible security. Good.

“Dare I ask why someone in college would want to dine invisibly?” Hebe asked, looking at the surface of the table askance. She gingerly touched it, and found it clean.

“Privacy. Nothing else,” Nate said. He pushed them menu aside without opening it. “I took the liberty of calling ahead and ordering for us.”


“Yes.” The waitress walked up to the table and waited for him to lower the holo. “Thought you’d approve.”

The waitress deposited two plates of steaming Europan gene-crabs. “Enjoy!”

“Thanks,” Nate said for them both. He turned the holo back on as she walked away and cracked a crab open. “Home sweet home, eh?”

His sister started on her side salad. “Hmm. Do you really think of Europa as home?”

“Not once since they did it.” Nate spooned butter onto his crustacean. “So. What did you want to talk about?”

Hebe stared into her food. “Well. I guess…we probably both have questions for each other,” she started. “I…well. You know about our brother?”

Nate choked on his food. He swallowed the half-chewed crab in his mouth with a major effort and stared across the booth. “I…what the hell?”

Hebe shook her head. “Mother and Father had a third child after you left, Nate. Mother was pregnant when you were being sent away. A boy. His name is Zander.”

A sense of disconnection and overwhelming surprise slammed into Nate like the waves at the edge of the massive floating hive he had once been in line to rule. He slumped back in his seat, passing a hand over his eyes as he struggled to take it in. “I…I have a brother.”

His sister – middle sibling! – nodded. “He’s the new heir to the Romanvene family, in fact.”

“They bypassed you?” Nate asked automatically.

Hebe’s aristocratic air didn’t allow a shrug, so she gave an eloquent roll of the eyes instead. “He’s so smart and charismatic, though, it was an easy decision for them to make,” she said.

Nate stared at her for several long seconds before gingerly resuming his eating. “I don’t know what to say. Why didn’t he accompany you?”

“He’s so busy with the family that he couldn’t find time,” Hebe said.

“Perhaps I should drop in on him,” Nate joked darkly. “Wonder if he even knows I exist.”

“Oh, he does,” Hebe said. “We all do. You married a Princess. A Lady Primarch, no less.”

“For love, despite everything,” Nate said. “That may surprise you.”

“Why would love surprise me?”

“I know Mother and Father would have thought I’d marry high for station, try to get back what they stole from me,” he said bitterly.

Hebe glared. “How would you know what they thought?”

Nate looked up to return the glare. “I knew them for twelve years, Hebe. That was enough for them, by all accounts.” He set down a crab shell and leaned back in his seat. “What did they tell you? When they disowned me? That it was all my fault?”

Hebe fidgeted. “Not in so many words, but…yes.”

Nate scoffed in disgust. “Arrogant swine. Like I can help that I was born with a mutation? It’s a random thing.”

“It’s not,” Hebe insisted. “You know how it works?”

“What? Being a mutant?”

“No. Genetics,” Hebe said. “I looked it up. You get your genes from your parents. Mother was a latent carrier of the psy-gene.”

Nate nodded. “I know. I had myself tested at the Scholastica. The psychic allele – it’s not just one gene – was partially activated by a hormone from the X chromosome. I got it from Mother.”

“She was terrified that Zander would be psychic too,” Hebe recalled. “Me, as well. We’re not.”

“Well, all right then. I suppose it’s good that they didn’t make you suffer too,” Nate said blankly.

Hebe tried again to glare at him. This time, it slid off his indifference like oil over steel. “Nathaniel, they were afraid.”

“But not justifiably!” Nate snapped. “I was twelve! I would have gone willingly if they had just given me the chance! But oh, no, that would have deprived them of the chance to enjoy disinheriting me in person!”

“They didn’t enjoy it!”

“Didn’t seem to be hesitating, either,” Nate retorted.

Hebe impaled a crab leg like it was a recalcitrant underling. “Look, I won’t say it wasn’t cruel, but what if you had been a channel for psychic devastation, like had happened so many times before?”

“There was a Black Ship IN ORBIT!” Nate exploded. “They couldn’t place a call? They couldn’t ask the Sisterhood for a moment of their time?”

Hebe looked away. “They’re very insular and traditionalist people, Nathaniel.”

Nate’s face was ice. “And horrible parents.”

“Nathaniel! I don’t…” Hebe trailed off as Nate tore into his crab. “I didn’t track you down after all this time solely to talk to you about the tiny parts of our lives that overlap,” she finally said.

Nate paused his voracious eating for a moment to consider that. He was struck by the accuracy of the point. “That’s…” He set down the crab leg. “That’s entirely fair.” He slowly resumed eating as she did the same. “So…what else is new?” he asked blandly.

She scoffed. “Well, there’s quite a bit of upset back home right now anyway.”


“The old social houses are jockeying for position. Lots of arranged marriages, it’s quite distasteful. I never married, myself,” Hebe said airily.

Nate nodded. “Miranda and I decided not to have kids, at least not for a long time.”

His sister raised an eyebrow. “Did you?”

He sighed into his crab, feeling the fires of anger fade a bit. “I think we’d do well, but… Anyway. We have several wonderful nieces and nephews to care for and be with, and I have my students, and Miranda has her students, and we’re all right.” He dripped some crab in imported Totnis garlic butter and chewed. “The others who have kids let them over as often as possible.”

The waitress stopped to pick up empty plates, and Hebe took the opportunity to change the subject. “My own status in the family is declining as well, truth be told.”

“Because you appeared in that documentary?” Nate asked pointedly.

Hebe scoffed again. “Oh, nobody cares about that. I mean that the political negotiation between branches of the family for heir status over the cities is tumultuous. Uncouth.”

The vaguest thread of an idea was forming in Nate’s mind as he heard that. It didn’t coalesce from his intuition immediately, but he could feel it. Perhaps he was just tired. The whiplash of the revelatory and emotional meal was draining. “Unfortunate. Who’s coming out on top?”

“Our brother, Zander,” she said in a patient tone he found vaguely annoying. How was he to have known? He worked on a higher scale of politics now. “He has Father’s support. Mother keeps her own counsel.”

He grimaced as memories of the aristocratic life filtered back to him. He had buried that in a dark place.

Hebe looked over at her older brother from behind an aristocratic mask. So far, he had been a curious mix of things she had expected and things that had surprised her utterly. He hadn’t lost even a scrap of his noble bearing, even as he dug into a plate of crab meat, surrounded by commoners. He was also dressed like a mere merchant lord instead of a member of the Emperor’s family, and filled with loathing she had hoped he would have forgotten.

The only thing she had been worried about before had been the man’s psychic abilities. As of yet, he hadn’t shown them. Perhaps that was what the little silver lines on his right cheek were? Psychic implants, or something? Who knew. As long as she was careful, it wouldn’t be a problem. Decades of negotiating inner family turmoil had made her a skilled dissembler.

Nate felt the faintest sense of recall again as they turned to their personal lives. He wasn’t done with his parents’ misbehavior, of course, but it could wait. He was immortal, and they weren’t.

“I work in the City of Sight,” he explained. “Technically I’m a liaison between the Skitarii and the Astra Telepathica. They take care of themselves out there, though, so I spend much of my time with the younger students. Teaching them how not to make asses of themselves.”

“That must be challenging,” Hebe said.

“Not as much as you’d think.” He stirred his drink in his hands as he thought. “Really, my favorite part of that job is working with the techpriests to coordinate the dispatch of Astropaths to the Mars temples. They need them, too, but they’re always haggling, always negotiating. It’s interesting.”

“I imagine.” The crowd outside the booth started to disperse as the hour grew late. Hebe sensed the time to make her ploy approaching. “Nathaniel, do you ever think of returning to the Family of your own accord? Not asking for forgiveness, just coming back and stating your case?”

The glass in Nate’s hand cracked. Hebe’s head jerked around at the sound. Very slowly, Nate raised his head. Hebe caught his stare and flinched. Where he had been icy before, now his eyes were like two cauldrons of seething plasma.

“Did…you say…forgiveness?” he hissed. He set the glass down. Very carefully. “Did you say forgiveness?”

“I don’t think you need it!” Hebe said hastily. “Just that Father would! And Mother would! They don’t understand!”

“Then why would I approach them at ALL?” Nate barked. “They’ve had FORTY years to get it right! If they’re too stupid and proud to speak to their firstborn after forty years, then what POSSIBLE reason would I have to approach them now?!”

“Because they won’t!” Hebe said with no small amount of real desperation. If this didn’t work… “Because they are proud! Because they are arrogant and elitist! And because you can be better!”

“I don’t need to see them firsthand to know that I’m better than them,” Nate growled. “Look at me! They were handed their power on a silver plate, and I earned mine through wisdom, perseverance, and will! And I, by the way, don’t find psychic power repugnant!”

“But did you? When you were small, and you were raised like I was and like they were? Did you think it was repugnant until you saw it firsthand?” Hebe pressed.

Nate caught himself. Self-recognition gripped his throat. “…Yes.”

“Then show them what you showed me!” Hebe insisted, trying to suppress her triumph. This could actually work out better than she had planned. “Go back to Europa and show them! See them!”

The immortal psychic slumped in his chair, fuming. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to him to extend the olive branch. The darkest part of his married life had been overcoming the urge to use his power to toy with his parents, it was true. But reconciliation wasn’t worth his time, was it? What did he stand to gain?

Hebe held her breath, realized she was doing it, and let it out. She decided to press while she had the initiative. “Look, Nathaniel, I can’t tell you what to do. But…as far as Mother and Father are concerned, they only have one son. Would it really be so bad to remind them that they have two?”

He looked away from her. She was gambling on this, she knew, her support in the family could wane even further if he was seen as overly influenced by the Emperor or Magnus, but if he backed her…

Nate closed his eyes in the chair and let his mind churn. This had to happen. He knew that. What had he expected? Open arms? He ground his hands over his eyes and winced as one finger snagged on his psybernetic implant on his cheek. It was supposed to be level with his skin. He would have to have it adjusted soon.

That thought kicked off a new train of logic. Didn’t he only have his sister’s word that the family would be open to him? In fact, had she said any such thing?

He opened his eyes again and slowly leaned forward. He crossed his arms over the table in front of him and stared at Hebe. “What would I gain?”


“If I went to talk to them?” he pressed. “I have a loving family now. A far higher station. A job I love. What would I gain?”

Hebe hesitated. “Closure, I suppose.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Would they even see me? They locked the door behind me, I recall.”

“If a member of the Imperial family drops in on someone, they get noticed,” Hebe reminded him. “Especially if it’s public.”

Nate snorted. “They threw me out in public. Would a public return work as well?”

Hebe’s heart leaped. He was actually going to do it? After one meeting? She had expected weeks of cajoling! “I think it might,” she said, pretending to give the matter some thought.

His narrowed eyes widened. “What do you mean?” he asked, apparently surprised.

“Well, if you return in public, given how long you’ve been away, it wouldn’t be seen as supporting one side or the other in the family’s power struggle,” Hebe lied. She would make sure the right people knew it was her idea.

Nathaniel’s hands squeezed his elbows. “And you?”


“What do you think I should do?” he asked.

“Well, I think you should do it, if only to put it behind you,” she said. “It needn’t be a millstone around your neck.” She was going to say more, but then she saw a peculiar gleam in his eye, and this was a real one, not a trick of his mood like before. His mouth suddenly clenched into a curved line, and he shot to his feet, nearly dislodging the table as he stood. He dropped a small-denomination money card on the table.

“Don’t leave Terra,” he growled, and then he was out the door before she could react.

She stared at the door, as did everyone else in the room. What had just happened? What had she said?

Outside, Serge was fidgeting. He had eaten, very quickly, and now he was waiting. Commoners flowed around him like leaves on the surface of a river flowing around a pillar, and still no sign of –

WHAM. The doors to the restaurant flew open, and Prince Nathaniel stormed out. He marched straight up to the shorter man with flames in his eyes. “Serge,” he ground out, drawing the eyes of everyone around him.

Serge took a step back. “Y-yes, sir?”

“What’s your training?” Nate bit off.


“Your schooling, boy, your education!” Nate snapped.

“Er, I am a graduate of Clementine Academy,” Serge managed, naming a prestigious Europa liberal arts college. “Business and history.”

“Then leave the family while you still can and find HONEST work,” Nate rumbled. His fists were clenched. “They have no future, no soul, and no place in the Imperium.” He nearly slammed a small piece of paper into the boy’s hands and stomped down the street.

Serge watched him go, bewildered. Hebe slowly emerged from the restaurant, looking haunted. She started off to where he had parked her car without any explanation. Serge struggled along behind her and caught up. “Ma’am, what happened?” he asked, breathless.

“I have no idea,” she said quietly.

Nate didn’t get hot when he was mad, not for long. He wasn’t like Thangir, who got territorial when angered, or Mike, who grew imperious, or Jake, who grew self-loathing, or Armin, who got wrathful. When Nate got mad, he went cold.

He slid into the seat of his car and started it up, employing his rarely-used Royal Family codes to prioritize his vehicle in the local traffic grid. It lifted, and moments later his escort arrived too. He clicked on the autopilot and sat back in the seat, crossing his arms again. He thought back to those last few moments, and his lips curled in another bitter frown. He hadn’t been mistaken. He knew what he had felt.

His damnably intermittent psychic senses had taken a while to clue him in. The stirrings of memory he had been feeling were his psy-senses trying to tell him something. Locked in the clarity of dichotomy – did he go back, or not – they had crystalized. Hebe’s surface thoughts vanished. Beneath had been one, single purpose: revenge. It had surprised him, at first. What had he done to her? She had been four when they parted ways.

Then it had hit him. The patronizing tone in her voice when she discussed the new sibling in the family, the way she had poached some idealistic younger family member to keep him out of the way, the condescending note after the wedding, the sighting at the lecture…and of course her emphasis that his return to Europa wouldn’t be a big deal when it obviously would.

She wasn’t after vengeance towards HIM. She was using him to get a leg up over Zander in the race to claim the Romanvene throne. Something that should have belonged to her after he, Nate, had left…but no longer did, because she had been seen as supporting reconciliation by appearing in that stupid documentary.

His confusion had vanished. A misleading couple of questions later, and her soul was laid bare. Her little plot, just as he had speculated.

Now, the boy, Serge, was probably on his way to something better, his sister was stymied, and the only thing left to do was find a bit of vengeance of his own.

Miranda waved goodbye as Petra’s car vanished into the night sky. She glanced up and smiled as the faint psychic beacon of her husband appeared at a distance. She settled against the frame of the door and watched his flame approach.

As it did, however, her smile faded. His mind was a cloud of anger. That had been her worst-case prediction. As he landed, she steeled herself for whatever emerged.

Nate unfolded his long legs from the luxurious car and walked up to her. Stopping to plant a kiss on his wife’s cheek, he walked past her into the house. “Hey.”

She turned to watch him, feeling mightily apprehensive. “Hello.”

“So my sister’s an evil monster, it seems,” Nate said conversationally, reaching into the refrigerator for a popsicle. “She wanted me to go back to Europa to back her for Lady Governor.”

Miranda jerked her head back in pure shock. “W…what? That’s insane!”

“Welcome aboard the Royal Imperial Navy vessel Crazy, destination Romanvene gene pool,” Nate said bitterly. “My entire family’s either so bigoted the world takes on different colors in their eyes, or so selfish that they’d fly to other planets just to annoy me.”

Miranda hung her head. “I’m sorry, Nate.”

“For trying to get us back together?” Nate asked, in a studiously level tone.

Her voice was small and tired when next she spoke. “For not trusting you.” He glanced back to see her staring at the floor. “You said that they were completely insane, and I thought you were exaggerating.” She looked up again, downcast. “Sorry.”

Nate, as a general rule, found it nearly impossible to stay angry at Miranda for any meaningful length of time. This time was no exception. Still, even as his anger lessened, a nugget of resentment remained. “Well, you had only the best of intentions,” he said tiredly. “Just don’t do it again, okay?”

“I promise.” Miranda hugged Nate from behind, all contrition. “Will you be alright?”

“Much better than she’s going to be,” Nate said darkly. Miranda frowned and stepped back.

“Nate, you’re well within your rights to be angry, but don’t go looking for a fight.”

He glared at her over his shoulder as his resentment flared. “Miranda, I haven’t spoken to her in forty-plus years. She came looking for me!”

“Be the better man and let her go, Nate,” Miranda counseled. “She’s not worth it.”

“Worth…I’m sorry, Miranda, worth what?” Nate asked levelly.

“Worth your attention. She’s beneath you,” Miranda said quietly. She was sad, deeply, at the thought. She couldn’t imagine hating her cousins any more now than she could two days before.

Nate closed his eyes and forced his fingers’ death grip on the popsicle – his one vice – to relax. The idea of allowing his family to get away with trying to toy with him was repugnant. How could he allow it? Could he allow it at all?

“Look, I know you’ll have no trouble believing this, but I know what you’re thinking,” Miranda said, which at least drew a silent chuckle. “But just like she had no business dragging you into Romanvene family politics, you have no business dragging me in either. And I will be, if you pull a string to inconvenience her.” She looked away. “I’ll always be there if you need me, Nate, but I won’t be an accomplice.”

And there it was. Nate’s revenge, if exacted through the Family, would hurt Miranda’s reputation and public image. Was punishing Hebe worth that?

He dropped the stick in the trash and sank into a chair in the kitchen, staring bitterly at the table. What the hell was he supposed to do now?

Hebe paced in her cabin. The little family shuttle was about all she had left, now that her status in the Romanvene hierarchy was eroding. Serge was in his own cabin, trying to figure out whether they had clearance to leave. Her brother’s warning not to leave Terra was something she could scoff at, surely, except that if it had been given under the authority of the Royal Family, she could get the vessel impounded. Had it been? Things had been so casual until that happened. What was he up to? Come to think of it, what had made him storm off like that? What had she said? Not a piece of this made sense.

The cabin door slipped open. Serge stuck his head in. “Ma’am, we’ve received clearance to depart.” The youth shuffled his feet. “Do you think…”

“Go,” Hebe snapped. “We’re leaving now, before something changes.”

Nate glanced over his slate, head hung low. The bright lights of the kitchen glared off of the screen, damn it. He needed a matte screen.

Sure enough, his sister’s ship was leaving. She sure hadn’t waited. At least that confirmed her objective didn’t involve his well-being.

He dropped the slate on the table and stormed off. Miranda looked away as she felt him walk out of the house. Her senses as a psychic and wife alike said how much he needed alone time. Or at least, needed a new perspective. She suspected that he was on his way to gain just that.

In his car, Nate tapped a few keys on the panel beside the air controls. A few moments of introspective grumpiness later, a screen lit, and a list of names appeared in glittering silver letters on his dash. He selected two and spoke. “Julius, my friend, are you free tonight?”

The little vox was silent for a moment, before a voice on the other side responded. “Of course, Nate, what’s happening?” asked a clipped voice.

The lights of the cityscape beneath cast shadows over Nate’s face. “I just had one of the worst days of my entire life, and I need to become more drunk and less morose, quickly,” he ground out. “And grab Thangir if he’s on-planet.”

“He’s not, but I can meet you somewhere,” Julius said. “You have a preference?”

“Someplace we won’t be recognized.”

Julius craned his head back and stared at the façade of the bar he had picked. The Toledan Publican. At least it rhymed.

Nate appeared behind him, hands shoved in his pockets. He was still in his noble clothes, which wouldn’t lend themselves to hiding his identity…though, they were in a rich district.

“Thanks for coming,” Nate muttered. “I needed someone to talk to.”

“Of course.” Julius held the door open for his friend, who shouldered past him into the bustling pub. Julius’ eyes narrowed at the unintentional snub. His friend’s mind was dark. “So what happened?”

“Get me smashed first,” Nate grumbled. Julius nodded.

As the two men walked into the riotously loud pub, Nate angled straight for the bar, pawing at his pocket. He slapped some money on the counter when the barkeep caught his eye. “Four Iblis Triggers and a screwdriver. I have my own lighter.”

“How courageous,” the barkeep said, chuckling as he produced the ingredients. “You want a tab?”

“Sure. Open it for…Zander,” Nate said. At least his mysterious brother would be good for something.

“You got it, pal.” The bartender started pouring the drinks while Julius grabbed a booth for the two of them. This place didn’t have a holoscreen to use, but it was dark in the corners, and most attention was directed around the billiards and pool tables. It would do.

Julius scanned the crowd, an instinct that military life had left firmly ingrained in him. There was nothing more dangerous here than a group of revelers. Then, he’d seen those turn deadly.

He forced himself to return his attention to the night. His friend needed him. From the look on Nate’s face, he’d recently fought a battle too.

The taller man slid into a seat, arms full of drinks. Julius stared. “Okay, the screwdriver’s for me. Four Iblis Triggers?”

“One at a time,” Nate muttered. He slid his lighter into the first cup and ignited the near-toxic mix of energy drink and alcohol. With a tip of the cup at his bemused friend, he slammed the whole thing, fire and all, in a single gulp.

Julius gripped his own drink and cupped it in his hands, looking into the orange depths. How best to approach this? Ask for clarity? Or just wait?

“So.” Nate set his drink down and pocketed his lighter. “This evening.”

Julius snorted. No waiting, then. “Yes?”

“The crazy thing…how much do you know of my family?” Nate asked.

His friend shrugged. “Well, I know you’re the eldest son of the family, but I really don’t know…”

“Not my family life,” Nate cut him off. “My actual family. The Romanvenes.”

“Well…” Julius paused to collect his thoughts. “Your great-grandfather, one of them, he was one of the Emperor’s counselors. He was appointed the leader of one of the major hive cities of Europa…after that, your family has always had a presence in the politics of the system.”

“At one point, a Romanvene was in charge of at least one major economic hub city on Io, Europa, and Ganymede,” Nate supplied. He flicked a drop of hot sugar off of one finger. “We’ve come a long way since then. Discovered exciting new lows.”

Julius snorted. “Oh dear, you only control one body in the Sol system now?”

“Oh yeah, man, we’re downright paupers these days,” Nate chuckled. “I mean, look at us. The family heir was disowned by his parents and shoved off to the Black Ships for being born with a psychic mutation. It’s hard to bounce back from that.”

Julius started to laugh at the jest. A single shiver of intuition cut the sound off before he could finish it. As he snapped his head up to stare at Nate, he saw a mixture of sadness, morbid humor, and regret that made him think of trench warfare.




“The very same.”

Julius sat back, stunned. “And, tonight…”

“My sister came out of the woodwork to ask me to back her for the throne. Fifty years, and that’s what I get.” Nate lit the second cup of pure upper and downer and slammed that one too. “Welcome to my life.”

Julius felt his jaw tighten as Nate spoke. “That’s…oh, Nate, my friend.”

“Good thing my car has autopilot,” Nate said quietly. He coughed on the flames of his second drink and set down the cup. “Help me.”

Miranda set down her book and closed her three eyes. When she had been younger, she had hated her appearance. Her willowy, near-androgynous body and visible mutation had put her through a lot of grief. Unlike most bullying victims, however, she didn’t need to hear a taunt to feel it. She was hardly the only Daughter to be mutated, of course. Angela had her wings. Venus had her eyes and skin. Morticia had her illness. And the Twins, of course, though that was arguably a beneficial mutation. The difference was that Morticia was never around, in school at least. Venus’ eyes and skin made her alluring as well as different, or so Miranda had felt, and clearly so had her husband. And Angela, of course…well. She had assets to offset her wings. Miranda remembered boys who had temporarily lost the ability to speak when Angela smiled at them.

Miranda hadn’t had any of those things. She had, however, had a father who utterly adored her, the most patient mother one could ever want, and a coterie of dear, close, loving sisters. By her family’s standards, she had been somewhat alone. On the whole, she had nothing to complain about.

She slid her book away on the table and drew her knees to her chest, scooting back on the couch. She wrapped her arms around her knees and stared glumly across the cozy library. This was her room, opposed to Nate’s across the hall. Where his was all about stately wood paneling, hers was a mess of books, mismatched furniture, and holos. Some were connected to her personal computer, some were for more general use, but all were controlled by a little remote control at her side. They were all off. She could never understand people who watched holos while they read.

A quiet chime from her desk announced the hour. 2200. The boys wouldn’t be back for a while longer yet, she was sure.

Was that okay? She was worried about her husband. Who wouldn’t be? But Julius was with him, and Julius was steady as a rock.

Julius finished his own drink and watched as Nate ignited his third. “Easy on that stuff.”

Nate glared, but acquiesced. “Yeah.” He doused the drink with an ice cube from Julius’ empty glass and set it back on the table. “So. What do you think I should do?”

“Well, frankly, I think you’re right to be pissed,” Julius hedged. “I will say, though, you had really ought to stifle that vengeful impulse-”

“I did,” Nate cut him off with a snort.

“-until you can act upon it more creatively,” Julius finished.

Nate slowly raised his head. His eyes were as wide as teacups. “…It’s possible that I’m very drunk, but…what did you just say?”

“Don’t act on vengeful impulses yet,” Julius repeated. “Listen, it would be possible for you to play the better man, here, and say that you had no interest in meeting in your sister, and all that nonsense…but doesn’t your sister’s behavior imply some real political turmoil on Europa?” he asked.

“Massive,” Nate said, bewildered. Was his disciplined, selfless brother-in-law actually proposing revenge as a viable item of diplomacy?

“So does that benefit the Royal Family?” Julius asked reasonably. “If the leadership of a moon is in serious jeopardy, the Royal Family can step in and restore order. The military does it with worlds that fall into unrest all the time.”

Nate winced in discomfort. “Those are worlds embroiled in actual civil war, though.”

“Well, then, man, I don’t know,” Julius shrugged. “The options available to you are pretty slim. But then, that’s why you came to me, right? And not Armin, Mike, or Jake?”

“Because I was looking for someone who could give me some experience in ruining people?” Nate said drily. “Political subterfuge wasn’t what I had in mind when I asked for you.”

“For me, and for Thangir.” Julius sniffed one Iblis Trigger and winced. “How can you drink this?”

“With valorous determination.” Nate sighed into an empty glass as his gaze drifted back down. “Man, I was just…I don’t know. Can I confide something in you?”

“Moreso than you have already? Of course,” Julius replied.

Nate set the drink down and steeled himself. “I asked you and Thangir because…I wanted to know how you two dealt with your own family shit.”

The Pius family, lacking a mother since the early days and a father for some time now, was hardly a perfect parallel for Nate’s dysfunction, of course, any more than Thangir’s having to watch as his entire family was murdered. Still, the sentiment was clear.

Nate’s face fell as he realized, from the look of restrained displeasure on his brother-in-law’s face, that perhaps this had been as much an act of foolishness as he had been afraid. “Nate…I’m not really comfortable discussing that,” Julius said.

The disowned Romanvene slumped in his seat. “Then…consider it dropped.”

Julius nodded again. “Very well. What else did you want to talk about?”

“I suppose I’d like your opinion on what I should do from here on out, still,” Nate said, a vague slur appearing in his voice. “I mean…this can’t go unanswered. I know, I know, like you said, I could be the bigger man, but this…this was an act of brazen blackmail.”

The slightly younger man shrugged. “My friend, if you didn’t represent the Royal Family with each act, I would agree. But…you need to remember that whatever you do, Miranda will be seen to do.”

“Miranda…” Nate’s voice drifted off. “Damn it. She knew I would run into a roadblock here,” he muttered. He ran one hand over his eyes. “This…I can’t act in public, or she’ll look petulant, then?”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”


“My friend, you need to get this solved in silence, or not at all,” Julius said, driving the point home.

“I suppose I do.” Nate set his head in his hands and stared at the table, wracking his brain. “Well…I can’t let this stand, either way,” he said at length. “I mean, I can’t allow this. They were trying to drag the Royal Family, however indirectly, into their little slapfight. It would set a poor precedent if this were allowed to continue.”

“Well, that I will concur,” Julius allowed. “Perhaps Magnus should weigh in.”

“You think I should tell him?” Nate inquired.

“You haven’t yet?” Julius asked, surprised. Miranda and Magnus spoke nearly every night they were both on-planet concurrently.

“It was four hours ago, rounding up,” Nate shot back.

“All right, all right. Absolutely tell him. He needs to know what someone from Europa just tried to do to his family,” Julius supplied.

Nate ignited his third drink and slammed it. “Yeah. You’re right. I should…well, he’s in town tomorrow. I’ll go and meet him after his whatever.”

“What is he up to here? I thought he was working on some project in the Prospero system.”

“He is. He’s meeting with a few members of the Emperor’s advisors on some economic whatever to ask if he can piggyback his project on the establishment of some…trade station somewhere, hell if I know,” Nate muttered. “When I said ‘in town,’ I mean he was on Earth. You know.”

“The things we take for granted, eh?” Julius chuckled. He slid his empty glass back and forth on the table and glanced at his brother-in-law. “You really need four of those?”

Nate looked at the fourth, un-burned Iblis Trigger on the table before him. “Fuck it,” he grunted, pushing it at Julius.

“Oh, trust me, I’m not drinking that, I just think you’ve damaged yourself enough tonight.”

“What are you, my mother?”

“No. And you may thank God for it.”

Nate stared at his friend, shocked. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, his head slowly sank back into his hands. His back heaved, and Julius felt a sudden burst of guilt. “Ah, shit, Nate, I wasn’t trying to-”

His friend waved him off, tilting his head back as he did. His mouth was a compressed line, holding back a desperate laugh. A tear of pure hysteria gathered in the corner of his eye as he sagged back in the seat.

Julius relaxed a fraction as Nate collapsed. “It wasn’t that funny,” he said flatly.

Miranda glanced up at the sky through her window as she sensed her husband approaching. His soul was still a shimmering mess of emotions, but at least the black streak of anger in him was fading. Julius’ presence was absent, meaning that at least her husband was sober enough to remember where the autopilot controls on his car actually were. He didn’t drink often, but when he did…

She leaned on the open frame of the door in her evening dress, trying to look more welcoming than judgmental. As he stumbled out of his car and made his way to the door, aided by what little psychic power he could muster in his inebriated state, Miranda spoke up.

“So, do you need to jump in the shower, or the washing machine?”

“That’s funny! It’s amusing,” Nate called back, walking up closer. The weave in his step wasn’t particularly pronounced, luckily enough.

“I try. Who did you meet?”

“Julius,” Nate replied. He halted at the door as he realized Miranda wasn’t stepping aside. “Hi.”

“Hi.” His wife leaned forward and inspected his clothing. Not too rumpled, not too odorous. “How are you feeling?”

“Much better, thanks,” Nate said, fully aware that he was under inspection. “Do I smell too bad to use the bed tonight?” he asked flatly.

“No. Go clean up.” Miranda, ever the stickler for hygiene, had sent her husband from her bed precisely once: when he had been so drunk that she had foreseen him ruining the quilt in a midnight vomiting spell. It had been an accurate prediction, though it turned out to be a section of carpet instead.

“Thanks,” he said, and she stepped aside to let him pass.

“So what did you decide regarding an appropriate reaction?” Miranda asked as her husband climbed the stairs.

“I want to let Magnus know first,” Nate said.

“Know…that you’re planning something?” she asked apprehensively.

His voice floated down the wood-paneled stairs. “No, that someone tried to drag his family into internecine warfare on Europa, and thought we wouldn’t notice.”

“Ah, vengeance by proxy? Dad will approve of that particular use of the Royal name,” Miranda said as she followed him up.

His footsteps paused. “What? No, I won’t ask him to do anything.”

“I mean, that’s what you’ll tell Dad. That your sister was looking for vengeance by proxy,” Miranda explained.

“Ah, yeah. The most effective of all lies: the truth,” Nate proclaimed.

As the sun rose on the endless cities and armored hive skin of Terra, Primarch Magnus set a slate down on the table before him as a group of economic advisors filtered out, arguing over facts and figures. He filed away the information from the day’s meetings and dearly wished he were elsewhere as he did. Some of his brothers may have been able to find such trivia interesting, but he was not they. The relative impacts of economic expansion in the newly-conquered systems as a proportion of the post-Crusade tithe income? Why did that need a Primarch’s signature? He stood to go as the door closed behind the last of the bureaucrats. The glaring light through the high windows of the conference room dimmed as the screen polarized. It was further softened by the neatly-kept gardens outside, on the lower roofs of the Palace. As Magnus came to his feet, a Custodian in glittering gold armor entered.

“Lord Primarch Magnus, if I may?” the warrior asked.


“A guest awaits you, Lord.”

Magnus looked into the hall, and spotted the dim, steady shimmer of his son-in-law standing beyond. “Ah, see him in.”

The Custodian bowed at, gesturing Nate in as he did. Nate entered his wife’s father’s presence and immediately inclined his head.

“Lord Magnus.”

“Nathaniel, rise,” Magnus said, spreading his hands. “And you needn’t bow to me.”

“Thanks, sir, but we’re in the Palace. I wasn’t sure if we were on the record,” Nate chuckled.

“Assume we are, but that’s just Palace propaganda speaking,” Magnus rumbled. His bass voice rattled unsecured pens on the table. “So what do you need, son?”

Nate sank into a chair and weighed his words. The decorative stone tabletop was hewed from stone unearthed when the Palace had been built; it was a symmetry that Rogal Dorn and the Emperor had found amusing. The light from beyond the polarized windows suffused the stone with a faint silver glimmer.

“Well…you should know that the collection of genetic stains that call themselves the Romanvene family have reached out to me,” Nate began. He could have made an attempt to conceal his utter contempt towards his family, but felt no need. Concealing things from Magnus was generally fruitless. “My sister, Hebe, visited Terra and called Miranda.”

Magnus’ psychic aura shifted colors a bit at the implications in Nate’s words. “And what happened?”

“Miranda invited her over for a reconciliatory dinner. Needless to say, I shot her down,” Nate sighed. “I meant no offense to her, and none was taken, but I wasn’t ready. I met her, alone, instead.”

His father-in-law narrowed his eye and stared. “May I assume that things went poorly?”

Nate snorted. “Oh, yes. Turns out, she just wanted me to come to Europa to back her for ascendency to the throne of the hive city they rule. They thought the Royal signature on her claim would lend it legitimacy.”

Magnus leaned forward and rested his lips against his steepled fingers. “I see.”

“So I told her not to leave Terra and stormed off, though I rescinded that order and let her take off. She’s halfway to Europa now,” Nate finished. “I was all set for vengeance, but Julius talked me out of it.”

“That was wise of him,” Magnus noted.

“You’re taking this well.”

Magnus half-smiled. “Oh, I’m angry. I just see no way I can act.”

Nate looked back up at him. “…But there’s some way we can? Miranda and me?”

“No. I do think that their assumption that the Royal Family can be so easily deceived should be countered, but realistically, how can that be done? Make a showy, open visit to the world under false pretenses? Chastise them publically? Sabotage?”

Nate sighed. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I assure you that I do not take attempts by outsiders to abuse the ties of the Royal Family passively,” Magnus reminded him. “However…I think any overt action on your part would be precipitous. Consider also that your sister has waited rather a long time to do this. Might this not suggest that your parents are suffering health problems of their own? They strike me as the sort that would eschew juvenats.”

“Oh, they are. Purists, all the way,” Nate grumbled. He heaved a sigh. “Well. Alright. I suppose I just wanted you to know.”

“I appreciate it, Nathaniel.” Magnus rose to his feet again and gestured to the door. “Give my love to Miranda.”

“Of course, sir. Thanks for helping.”

As the day drew to its end, Nate sat down in his cozy study, working on the paperwork from the Scholastica. His teaching duties were mostly dealing with the martial and philosophical aspects of psychic power, and only rarely did he have to deal with children. As most of his students were adults, the majority of the problematic students derived their issues from the mental instability that accompanies psychic power with such depressing frequency.

As bizarre as it was, working on such issues was a good distraction from his own troubles with his family. If nothing else, it allowed him to help the development of Imperial psychic stability in his own way, which he had always found rewarding.

It also helped him concentrate. By nature, he was a very focused man, who found a piece of good, challenging work welcome. It was what had delivered him to the college he had attended, especially since he had already had a thirty-hour job on top of it. When a group of hive scavvies had beaten him senseless on the way back from work one day, just for having been born psychic, he had dragged himself to his apartment and nearly blacked out from the pain. All it took was the knowledge of what he had stood to lose if he hadn’t gone back to work the next day, and he was back on his feet. When he had met Miranda, it had been that determination, she had informed him once in a private moment, that had helped draw her to him. Surrounded by drunken kids and life-weary serving staff, the cool, icy blue of his mind had been like a gas burner in a candle store.

His determination was helping him keep his disappointment at Magnus’ words at bay, too. That his family could escape unpunished was annoying him profoundly.

He set his stylus down and closed the last envelope on the stack. He had finished the last grading task of the week, and had a bit of time to himself. Nate decided that he was done thinking about the horrible parts of his family, he decided. It was time to spend a while with the part he loved.

Miranda was leaning back in a lounge chair on the top balcony of their house, reading a slate with her bandana off, when she felt her husband’s mind approaching. She kept an idle gaze on him as he approached, then smiled to herself when it turned playful. He emerged on the balcony, hands in his pockets, and looked down at the slice of red hair peeking over the top of the furniture. “Hey, what’s this? Miranda’s home and I’m done with work,” he said, all surprise.

His wife smiled again, but didn’t take her eyes off the screen. “Hey, how about that?”

Nate leaned forward over the back of the couch, ‘carelessly’ letting his fingers drape over the terrycloth shoulder of her robe. She let the very, very faintest wisp of disapproval appear in her mind, and he infinitesimally nodded, message received. He leaned down to kiss her on the cheek. “So…Miranda.” He let his head rest against hers for a moment longer, marshalling his thoughts. “I’ve been sort of obsessing over this thing with my family lately. I guess I should say I’m sorry.”

“Forget it. You’re justified.” Miranda locked her slate and set it down on the armrest. Nate slid over the back of the long chair and sat down beside her, and she cuddled up to his flank. “So Dad advised restraint?”

“Not just restraint, total inaction,” Nate said dolefully. “Hell. Maybe he’s right. Maybe we can’t return fire on people who take cheap shots at us. But I feel like I’ve sort of been short-changed.”

Miranda nodded. “Are you still?”

“Nope.” He slid his arm around her shoulders, and her mind glowed a fuzzy, contented pink. “Not at all.”

There was so much more to be said. So many things they could have done. Instead, they sat there, two eternally youthful people in love, and let time slip by for a while.

Eternity: Beyond