Story:ROAD TRIP! (Warhammer High)/Part Five
|This article contains PROMOTIONS! Don't say we didn't warn you.|
- 1 Take Four
- 2 A Better Day
- 3 And Later That Day...
- 4 To Outer Space, Every One of Us
- 5 Earth
- 6 Parents Suck
- 7 My Friends...Farewell
The next morning, after the poker game broke up and the group bedded down, Jake stirred to wakefulness. Something hot and soft was touching his wrist and moving the sheets. “Venus?” he slurred, looking around in the darkness.
She winced. “Sorry,” she whispered, as she slid back into bed. “I didn’t want to wake you.”
Jake sighed. She had just been in the head. One of the few drawbacks of sharing a bed. He glanced at the clock and groaned to himself. He wasn’t supposed to get up for another hour, and Venus wasn’t going to for another half an hour. The winter days of Fenris had thrown their schedules for a loop. “Well, I’m not going to fall back to sleep,” he said, sitting up in the bed.
“My bad,” Venus said. She opened her eyes, adding a second set of red lights to the room, which had previously been lit only by the clock.
Jake looked away, blinking afterimages out of his vision. “Not a problem.” He sat still, feeling the cool air of the room on his bare arms. The thin shirt he was wearing still had a little of her heat in it. The cold wood headboard against his back chilled him. Wood on the Fang. He wondered how much that had cost.
“Something wrong?” Venus asked.
“No, just thinking about stuff.” Jake crossed his arms over his chest and stared into the inky darkness. “You looking forward to school?”
“Absolutely,” Venus said with quiet happiness. “I can’t wait.”
“I’ll be an employee, not a student, so it may take a while to get a degree, but…me too,” Jake said. She reached over and gently stroked the back of his hand with one fingertip, leaving a trail of heat behind it. He smiled and he knew she could see it, even with her eyes narrowed to slits.
He looked down at her face, seeing the two tiny red lines in the complete darkness. He slowly moved one hand over to her chin and tilted her head, looking at her eyes. One of the slits narrowed a bit and the other expanded slightly as she raised an eyebrow, but she didn’t move. “You know, I can’t get over how cool that is,” Jake said faintly, tracing his hand over her cheek. “I can’t even see you except these two little red parts.”
Venus laughed under her breath and caught his hand. He leaned over her and continued. “I hope whatever apartment we get on campus at Kouthry has a really high-end air conditioner, so we can keep this up,” he said, gesturing at their sleeping arrangements. She smiled and flicked her fingers in the darkness. The infrared sensors in the thermostat caught the movement and plunged the temperature of the room down thirty degrees. Jake slid back down under the covers and entwined himself with Venus.
“If you don’t mind?” she asked sleepily.
“Why would I?” he said quietly, resting his head on her shoulder. He closed his eyes and relaxed, letting her fiery heat push back the room’s chill. She slid one hand back behind his head and ran her fingers through his tight curls, then gently held him to her chest.
“All right…” she said. His body always felt so cool to her.
“I’m glad you smell good,” he said blearily.
Venus slowly tilted her head down to look at where his face was buried against her. “Come again?”
“My second girlfriend never took care of herself, or used bad soap, or whatever, but she always smelled like sweat.” He draped one arm over her flank to wrap around her back. “You just smell good.”
Venus nodded. “Ah.” She set her head back down. “What was her name?”
“My ex? Fais Calet,” Jake said.
“The Tallarn exchange student?” Venus asked. “Didn’t know you two were an item.”
“For a few months. I wasn’t going anywhere long-term with her,” Jake said tiredly, “but I was rebounding from Hana and she put out and she didn’t hate hivers, so…yeah.”
“Mmm.” Venus considered that. “I knew I wasn’t your first, I just didn’t know her name.”
“I got…you know…” Jake yawned.
“Yeah, you showed me,” Venus said. After their first night had been unprotected, Jake had discreetly provided her with his chart from the doctor he had visited after getting dumped by Fais. Venus, of course, had been a virgin.
Jake closed his eyes and held still against her until his breath slowed a little. Venus relaxed and listened to the faint sound of his watch in the box on the nightstand mingle with the regular sound of his heart and breaths in a quiet rhythm. The two of them just lay there, dozing in each other's arms, until the alarm sounded. Venus rose to bathe before going to the gym, and after a moment’s thought, Jake did too. As fun as it was to snuggle with his girlfriend, it was always a bit sweaty, and he certainly wasn’t going to sleep again.
Down in the gym, Remilia leaned on the ropes of the simple sparring ring the skjalds used, stretching her back. Freya was already there, but she was forgoing the ring for a simpler workout. Remilia glanced over the skjalds in the room, wondering if any would find the stones to challenge her, when Venus walked in, bag slung.
“Hey,” Remilia called. Her world turned red as Venus looked up and smiled.
“Up for a bout?” Venus called back, ambling over.
Remilia paused. “Sure, why not?”
“Good.” Venus dug around in her bag for a towel. She stopped when her fingers brushed the little containers of bloodpaint. “Hmm…” She looked up at her cousin. “Hey, have you ever seen me in paint?” she asked.
Remilia blinked. “You mean that blood stuff?”
“Yeah.” Venus straightened up. “Just for fun,” she said.
Remilia shrugged. “Don’t think so…if you want to, sure.”
“Great.” Venus walked back to the shower. “Be right back.”
“Uh, Venus, that’s the men’s showers,” Remilia called after her.
Venus looked around. “Is there a women’s shower?”
“Not that I know of,” Freya said, walking up to her. “No female skjalds.”
Venus huffed. “I don’t want to go back to my room to change, either.” She pondered a moment longer, then just shrugged. “I’ll just put it on my face and arms only,” she said, walking over to a mirror in the corner of the room.
As Remilia limbered up, Freya noted the boys walking in. They angled for the free weights, as Alex continued his now-daily instruction of proper technique. “All right, do you want to try the fifteen kilo plate now?” Alex asked, as he assembled his own dumbbell.
“Sure, but let’s do leg first, it makes sitting lifts easier,” Jake said, putting a few plates on a well-worn leg lifting machine.
“If you want,” Alex said. “Say…check the ring.”
Jake glanced up to see Remilia tug her tank top off from over her sparring bra, and apply a quick wrap to her ankles and wrists. “Huh. She gonna box someone?” Jake asked.
“Looks like it,” Alex said. He turned back to his own weights and started lifting.
Freya sat down next to them. “Hey, guys. I was thinking we could go out to the hot springs I spotted the other day, if you’re up for it.”
“Sounds good,” Jake grunted from his machine. “You bring a bathing suit?”
Freya blinked. “…shit. No, I didn’t think we’d have a chance to go swimming,” she said.
“Dark underwear would work, don’t sweat it, and we all brought towels,” Jake pointed out, feeling his leg muscles sing. “When do you want to go?”
“Right after lunch, if that’s okay,” Freya said. “Venus wanted to tour the Fang a bit.”
“Cool, then it sounds great,” Jake said. He wiped a bead of sweat from his eye. “Thank the skjalds for letting use their gym, huh?” he asked.
“Sure thing, but look at this place,” Freya said, taking in the massive gym with a sweep of her arms. “Place is nearly a graveyard with so many skjalds off crewing the Legionary ships while the Great Companies are out and about.”
“Still,” Alex said. He set the weight back down and tacked another two kilo plate on the end. “How about you? You ladies done?”
“Nope, Venus and Remilia are gonna spar,” Freya informed them.
Both boys’ eyes darted over to where Venus was still fiddling around with her appearance in the mirror. “Really?” Jake asked. “That’ll be interesting.”
“You guys should fight me four-on-one,” Freya said with a predatory grin. “Group combat is always interesting.”
Jake looked at her askance. She deliberately flexed one calf muscle, and Jake had no doubt that a single kick from her could have broken him in half. “No, thanks. Maybe if we were on Nocturne, right after a radspike, but shy of that, I’d rather fall down stairs,” Jake said, resuming his leg lifting. “I’d probably break fewer bones.”
Freya leaned over and nipped his ear before rising. “I’d be gentle.”
“Uh huh,” Jake said drily.
Over in the corner, Venus finished applying the bloodpaint. She had stripped down to shorts and sparring bra, with the paint applied only over her face and arms in an abbreviated version of the more intricate design she had chosen when fighting Isaac. Ignoring the blatantly lustful glances she was catching from most of the skjalds close enough to see her through the forest of support columns and exercise machinery, she tucked her things back in the bag, though she left one small vial of paint free. She dipped a thumb in the paint and dragged thick, ugly lines across her upper chest and triceps, in a paint that would be invisible once it dried a bit, but was laced with just as much of the tiny plastic bits that relayed the light. She hoped the effect would be worth it.
Tucking that away too, she walked up to the ringside and leaped clear over the ropes into the ring, landing behind Remilia, who had been looking away. Remilia turned and started at her cousin’s suddenly daemonic appearance.
“Fuck, that’s…quite a get-up,” Remilia said, staring at the assemblage.
Venus cracked her knuckles and kicked her exercise sandals off, taking a step back and settling into stance without a word.
Remilia rolled her eyes. Venus was clearly exercising her theatrical side. Still, Remilia had to admit to herself that the effect was intimidating. Venus’ eyes brightened as the blood started pumping faster. She clapped her hands together once and advanced a pace, clearly taking the initiative.
Remilia had none of it, swinging a vicious blow at Venus and following up with a low kick. Venus parried the punch and side-stepped the kick, turning her momentum into an advance. She lunged towards her cousin, throwing all her might into a cruel elbow strike.
Remilia caught it square on the sternum with a creak of bone. She choked, lurching back in surprise and sudden pain. Venus followed up with a quick forward step, and raised her arms like she was going for a headlock…then stepped back. “Too far?” she asked under breath.
“A bit,” Remilia coughed, spitting a drop of blood from her lips. “Just…hang on,” she said, clutching her chest. Venus lowered her guard, stepping back to the ropes.
“…Fuck,” Alex observed.
“I think it’s the paint,” Jake said weakly. “She wasn’t like that when she was teaching me.”
“She taught you how to spar?” Alex asked, looking over at his friend.
“Just some basic poses, no real combat,” Jake said. “Just for fun.”
“Mmm.” Both boys looked up at where Remilia was straightening up, clearly in pain. Her superhuman biology was accommodating her injury, though, and even an Astartes couldn’t heal as fast as a Lady Primarch. A few drops of blood oozed from her lips as she ran a hand over her tender chest and nodded once, putting her hands up.
Venus nodded back, slowly circling her cousin. Remilia swept her leg low and raised her hand at once. Venus simply leaped the leg sweep and leaned back from the guard, her eyes following her cousin’s movements. Remilia stood back and raised her fists to her chin level, guarding, but Venus seemed content with fighting on the defensive for now.
Freya sat down at the ringside, observing closely. Her senses alerted her to some tissue damage in Remilia’s chest, something that could have hospitalized a human. Then, if Venus had hit a human with that blow, it would have killed them.
In the ring, Remilia advanced, firing off jabs in rapid succession, trying to beat back Venus’ guard. Her ebony partner blocked or dodged most, but one snakelike shot caught her on the jaw, and she lurched back from the force of it. Remilia followed up with a cross to Venus’ guard and a salvo to the ribs, pushing Venus back another step. Venus was in it now too, striking back as often as defending. She was deliberately avoiding the spot she had struck before, but that was the extent of her restraint. The air between them was thick with flying fists.
Jake watched, mesmerized. Alex set his own weights down to see the battle. The skjalds in the room weren’t even pretending not to be watching; some were placing bets.
The paint was dried now. The light from her eyes bled into the red across her face and upper arms, and through the invisible paint on her chest. The effect was subtler than the one from before, but the invisible paint on her chest was aglow with dimmer light than the red paint higher up, making it look like there were bloody gashes across Venus’ chest. The artificial blood was joined by a few drops of the real thing now, as minor injuries piled up on the two of them.
Remilia was losing her breath. The damage to her chest was slowing her down, too. More and more of Venus’ blows were getting to her, and she was starting to get a bit dizzy. She stepped back, trying to get her bearings, and raised a middle guard, hoping she could block anything Venus used to follow up.
It didn’t work. Venus took advantage of the open space to leap forward with a knee thrust that could have bent a car door around it. Remilia managed to divert it, sending Venus to her hands and knees beside her, but that had been the idea. Venus continued the motion, sweeping her other leg around her lowered body in an arc that dropped Remilia flat on her back. Venus finished the roll and levered around on her arms like pivots, and rolled over one planted knee to land squarely on top of Remilia’s waist. In an instant, Venus’ hands were at Remilia’s throat, clenched just tight enough to send the message.
Remilia tapped out. The room erupted in applause from the watching skjalds.
Before her hand had even finished the motion, Venus was off her, grabbing her by the shoulders and lifting. Remilia staggered to her feet. Her cousin’s daemonic mask of bloodlust cracked and melted away into an expression of regretful concern under her paint. “I’m sorry, Remilia, I didn’t mean to break the bone,” she said quietly.
Remilia coughed, wiping away the blood oozing from her mouth and nose. “Yeah, that hurt like a sonofabitch,” she muttered. “If I had been advancing that could have killed me.”
“I’m so sorry,” Venus said sadly. “Can you forgive me?”
“Of course,” Remilia said tiredly. Venus gingerly offered her a hug across the shoulders and stepped back.
“All right. Let’s get you looked at,” Venus said, vaulting the ropes a moment later.
“No need,” Remilia coughed. “I can feel it, it’s set. Right?” she asked, pausing to let Freya get a good look at her.
“…Yeah, you’re good with a bit of rest,” Freya said, peering at her taller cousin’s torso.
“Hell of a fight,” Jake said, walking up. “I find myself saying that a lot around you three,” he joked. “You gonna be all right, Remilia?” he asked.
“Sure, sure, right as rain with some milk and cookies,” Remilia said, waving his concerns off. A ribbon of blood worked its way out of her mouth as she said it. “I'mma shower now.”
“Unisex showers,” Jake pointed out. “Remember you told us?”
Remilia paused. “I’ll be fine,” she said after a moment. She turned to glance at the crowds of skjalds in the room. “Just fine,” she said with a smirk.
As she vanished in to the showers with most of the others, Freya grabbed her own towels and headed out to the lifts. Not that she didn’t trust the showers, but she wanted some time to think before they went off to breakfast.
Milk and Honey, Hold the Milk
In the empty liftcar, Freya rubbed her finger over chin and thought. The day’s diversions would hold them, of course, but what about the next several weeks? She was running out of ideas. Perhaps another fishing excursion, only at the equator and on a larger island? Maybe a tour of the more open parts of the fortress?
The doors opened and she walked up to her room, still deep in thought. She unlocked her door and walked in, heading straight into the bathroom and getting to it.
As the water poured down, her ears alerted her to someone opening the bedroom door. The rushing water and the fans had washed away the scent, so she just shrugged, assuming it was Alex.
As she finished up, she clambered out and started drying off, when the oddest scent reached her nose. She paused, trying to identify it. Whatever it was, it was sweet. Maybe…honey?
Curious, she wrapped herself up in a towel and pushed the bathroom door open. There, sitting on the table in the middle of the sitting room, was a small, steaming cake, on a plate with a few little cups of honey in them, and a note, in Gothic.
Her curiosity piqued, she walked over to it and lifted the note. ‘Freya, don’t let yesterday get you down. Someone once told me honey is a delicacy here on Fenris, so please enjoy. Venus.’
Freya glanced down at the fresh little cake and finally identified the scent of the person who had deposited it there: one of the skjalds who had served them at dinner the previous night. Venus must have spoken to him while she was chatting with Bjorn. The pretty redhead smiled to herself, shaking her head. “Nice, Venus,” she said. She sat down next to the table, glancing over the food. “I appreciate it.”
Alex wandered in, his hair glistening in the room’s lights. He had the breakfast they had requested be sent up to them in his hands, he must have bumped into one of the kitchen serfs in the lift. “Hey, babe…you order breakfast already?” he asked, spotting the food.
Freya tucked the note into the folds of her towel. “No, just a gift from someone,” she said. “Honey is worth its weight in gold around here.”
“Really?” Alex asked, sitting beside her.
“Yeah, this planet redefines ‘killer bees,’” Freya said. She picked up one of the two little cups of hot honey and poured it over the cake. “Want some?”
“Sure,” Alex said, breaking off a piece. He set the other food down next to it. The two of them sat beside the table, slicing pieces off and eating as their hair dried.
“Mmm…it’s even tastier if you imagine the epic battle that was waged to acquire the honey,” Freya pointed out.
Alex swallowed with some effort. “Unless it’s imported.”
Freya glared at him. Alex blinked. “…though of course Fenris would produce its best for its Blood Princess,” Alex finished.
“Nice save,” Freya said drily. She finished off her cake and rose, bunching her towel. “All right. I’m gonna change before we eat the stuff you brought.”
Alex stood too, sliding his arms around her waist as the towel fell away. “Hey. Are you feeling better?” he asked.
She squeezed his hands. “Much.”
“Good.” Alex let go and stepped back. “All right. Let’s ditch this in the laundry and get ready to explore, huh?”
“You want to see the hammerhold too?” Freya asked as she slid fresh clothes on.
Alex scooped up their clothes and unpacked the rest of the food she dressed. “Sure, why not? Sounds pretty awesome.”
“It is pretty awesome, though…I have the weirdest feeling that Venus might actually not like it much,” Freya confessed. “Where she’s from, equipment maintenance is pretty much sacred. Around here…not so much. It’s almost a chore to some of the brothers.”
Alex shrugged on a nicer shirt. “Can’t imagine that Venus would hold it against them. Do you think they’d hold it against her?”
“Not in the slightest,” Freya said. “They’ll understand. Different Legion, different rules.”
Venus waited outside the lift down to the depths of the hammerhold with the others, tapping her finger on her belt. She was getting pretty eager to see what the Wolves did in terms of equipping. Freya emerged from her room with Alex in town, up the hall. She had apparently decided to use something more utilitarian than the Fenrisian cloak and wrap today, using a simple tunic with a broad leather belt over it. The pair arrived at the lifts where the others were waiting. Freya wasted no time in marching right up to Venus and aggressively hugging her. “Thanks, Venus.”
Venus winced as Freya accidentally squeezed her bruised shoulder. “You’re welcome.”
The others stared. Freya left explanations to Venus. “Just a breakfast suggestion I made,” Venus said as she pressed the call button.
Freya’s green eyes turned to Remilia. “How’s your chest?”
“Recovering,” Remilia said. The crater Venus had left was already healing, Freya could see. “I’ll be fine in a few days.”
“I still feel bad for going overboard like that,” Venus admitted.
“Stop. We were fighting.” Remilia shrugged with a hidden grimace. “So…uh, that stuff you were wearing was bloodpaint?”
“The red stuff was, the clear stuff is just a modified version of it.” Venus turned to look at her with a sly little smirk. “Got the point across, did it?”
“It was pretty intimidating,” Remilia allowed. “Do all Salamanders wear that stuff?”
“No, actually, most of them never use it, since you have to wear it under armor and it can obscure your honor markings. I just like it,” Venus said. Remilia made a noncommittal noise and walked into the elevator. Together, they descended into the heart of the fortress.
Just Like My Basement
Venus peered over the array of arc welders in the insulated racks before them. “How many dedicated stations are there for internal repair?” she asked the Iron Priest beside her.
“Four hundred, but some are dedicated to a specific task,” the Priest said. The Wolf was so heavily modified with augmetics that Remilia was a little taken back, looking him over. Didn’t the Wolves usually eschew such devices?
“Like Dreadnought maintenance?” Venus offered.
“Yes, that is one of them,” the Priest replied. Venus nodded, looking at the welders with a master’s eye. The electric arc contacts on most showed good maintenance and regular clearing, but a few looked like prized possessions, stripped of even the tiniest offending speck. She couldn’t disapprove. Behind them, Freya looked over a few pieces of armor that had been set aside for stripping and scrap. A mixture of at least five different types of gear were present, including what sure looked like an ancient artificer-ed Type Four armor piece. She wondered what sort of damage it had taken for the Legion to forego that relic.
Remilia walked up to her and joined her in staring at the armor. “Wow. Is that a Four?”
“It is.” Freya leaned up to it, scanning the surface. “Acid damage. Must have been fighting some xenos filth with acid sacs.”
“Mmm.” Remilia straightened up, looking at a small workstation beside the pile of armor bits. The whole room was lit by brilliant lights set into the ceiling, with small sconces in the walls providing extra illumination. Massive red and blue banners decorated the metal walls, covered in elaborate sayings in High Gothic and Juvjk. The numbers Six and Two in binary and Gothic and Juvjk alike were everywhere.
“Sir Priest, may I ask? What do the numbers six and two everywhere signify?” Jake inquired, clearly wondering about the same mystery as the girls.
“Ah.” The Priest raised one mechadendrite to point at the tapestries and wall hangings. “The number six is our Legion number, of course…and the two symbolizes the union of the Priests of the Iron and the Priests of the Red Planet, with whom we exchange our data and build our accoutrements of war.”
“Oh, I see. My grandfather was a techpriest on Mars,” Jake offered. “Canstrides Seminary.”
“I see. Is that how you learned to read binary? Most can’t,” the Iron Priest said.
“Well, I only know a few numbers,” Jake said modestly.
The Priest noted the girls’ scrutiny of the armor. “Princess. The armor was retrieved from a ship we took four weeks ago.”
“A ship?” Freya asked curiously. “How do you mean?”
The Iron Priest walked up behind her, the echoes of his heavy footfalls muffled by the thick tapestries on the walls. “We were awarded part of a Space Hulk to do with as we saw fit for a joint retrieval mission with the Skitarii. We found some damaged armor components aboard. As near as we can figure, they were looted from the fallen by a pirate, whose ship then collided with the Hulk as it attempted to enter the Warp.”
“How foul,” Freya said coldly.
The Iron Priest nodded. “The fell hands of the Warp do not discriminate hero from parasite.”
Jake leaned over the armor pieces, careful not to touch them. “Acid damage?”
“The battle in which they fought was against a race of xenos with chemical weapons,” the Priest said. “Or so we believe.”
Behind them, Venus ran a familiar hand over the grip of an oversized contact welder gun. “Good times,” she muttered to herself, ignoring the repartee between the Priest and the others.
“Pardon?” the Iron Priest asked, raising his voice a fraction to be heard.
“I recognize these. Got one in my basement, too,” Venus said, flipping up a panel on the welder. “Hmm. Stygies 4. Solid kit.”
Freya stood behind her, watching Venus’ detailed inspection with a grin. “So, how does the hardware of the Rout live up to Salamander standards?” she asked under her breath.
Venus hid a grin. The Iron Priest HAD to be listening. “Acceptable,” she said. “But the product is more important than the tool, certainly,” she added. “Do you think Lord Bjorn would clear us to use the range if we asked?”
“Hadn’t thought to ask. I should.” Freya nodded sagely. “When we get back tonight.”
“Sure thing,” Venus said, straightening up. She turned to face the Priest. “Iron Priest, thank you kindly for the tour,” she said.
“Honored, Princess,” the Priest said, in the stiff electronic tones of his kind.
As the group moved to go, however, the Priest stopped them. “Princess Venus, perhaps you could share a bit of how the Tech-brothers in your own Legion work their forges,” he said politely.
Venus thought for a moment. “Well…we have nine forges instead of one, of course…what do you mean specifically?” she asked.
“Whatever you wish to share,” the Iron Priest said with a shrug of his mechadendrites. “Perhaps some of your methodologies?”
“Oh, well, sure,” Venus said. “Let’s see…well, our principle forges are in the major cities, in the castles, plus one each in the wilds of Prometheus and Nocturne,” she explained. “So that’s the big difference, that they’re in population centers instead of a fortress, by and large.”
“Ah.” The Priest nodded. “Is it a truth that every single one of your Legionnaires must memorize the schematics for the latest designs of carapace and Power armor?” he asked. “I was told that once by a member of the Eighteenth when we fought together against the Dark Eldar on Felger’s Fortune, and barely believed it.”
“No, not quite,” Venus explained as the others listened in. “Scouts need only memorize carapace armor and basic weapon schematics. The things you have to retain get more complex as you ascend the ranks. So a Seventh Company recruit would only need to know bolter pistols, carapace…maybe a few knives. A Fire Drake would need to know Terminator armor, power armor, carapace, and about seventy different weapon designs.”
“I see. We do things very differently indeed, then,” the Priest noted. “Here, it is the Blood Claws who must undergo extensive trials of memory, while the Long Fangs and Wolf Scouts usually only bring such responsibilities upon themselves if they have Terminator honors.”
“Oh, interesting. Why do you do it that way?” Venus asked.
“Because technologies of the sorts that we rely on every day simply aren’t a part of life for Fenrisians,” the Iron Priest said, his voice filter lending his words an unintentionally cold edge. “We would have no Iron Priests at all if some Blood Claws did not manifest an increased interest in their workings and artifice while undergoing their training.”
Venus nodded. “Yes, that’s true. Well. Thank you kindly for your tour and sharing your knowledge,” she said, bowing her head slightly.
“An honor indeed, Princess. Thank you for visiting,” the Priest said, returning the gesture. “Should you happen to encounter Tech-brother Ner’el, of your Sixth Reserve Company, pass along my reminder, if you would?”
“A reminder?” Venus asked, puzzled.
“His debt goes unpaid,” the Iron Priest said. He noted Venus’ increasing confusion. “Worry not, he will know of what I speak. Enjoy your stay,” he said, turning back to his labors as if they had never been interrupted.
The group wended their way back to the lifts, pausing to allow Venus to drink in the details in a few places.
“Kid in a candy store,” Remilia chuckled.
“I know, right?” Venus said, staring at a partially-dismantled assault cannon case ejector. “I’m afraid that if Kouthry has a machine shop I’ll just skip classes to hang out there with the mechanical engineering kids.”
“Hahahah! Oh man, I can see that,” Jake laughed. “That would scare the shit out of the teacher!”
“‘Oh no, a Salamander is here to judge our students!’” Alex pantomimed.
“‘My tenure!’” Jake continued, clutching at a phantom diploma.
Venus half-heartedly glared as the other four laughed. “It’s not funny, damn it,” she muttered. “We’re a very task-oriented Legion.”
“Ah, we’re just kidding,” Alex said, waving her concerns off. Venus huffed.
This is Not a Public Pool
After a brief lunch in their rooms, the group picked out the clothes they would be wearing to the Cave, and assembled on the launch bay they had arrived in to await a ship. As Freya chatted with the pilot, Remilia hefted the stack of towels they had brought, and Alex stared into the box Freya had placed alongside the towels. “More guns?” he asked.
“Heh. A few, and one or two other things,” Freya said as she rejoined them. “The area we’re going to is one of the safest on the planet, but it never hurts to be prepared.”
The pilot jogged up, helmet slung. “We’re ready to head out, Princess,” he reported, snapping off a salute. In Juvjk, he continued. “Are you certain you wish to go a place so close to a local settlement?”
“Yes,” Freya said in Gothic, suffering no argument today.
“Very well,” the pilot said. He tapped a rune on his wrist-mount cogitator and the ramp of his ship swung down. The teens trooped aboard, lugging their cargo behind them.
As Freya sank into her seat, she felt a little tremor of apprehension. If there were people there, they could just leave, of course…but damn it, they deserved to have something go right.
Venus dug around in the box. “Are these firestarters?” she asked.
“Yeah, the cave is naturally ventilated, but there’re no lights inside. I thought we’d bring torchers, just in case someone put sconces in there. I would,” Freya said.
Alex cracked his knuckles as the ship dropped through the atmosphere. “Won’t people see us approaching the village?” he asked.
“We’re not. We’re terrain-flying over a frozen lake, with the hills between us and the village. We’ll be fine, and if there are people there, we just go fly somewhere else for the afternoon,” Freya said. “But it’ll be clear.”
“Uh, can we go even if there are people in it?” Venus asked.
Freya looked pained. “It…that’s not really viable.”
“Why wouldn’t…oh.” Venus looked sheepish for a moment. “Right. Glowing eyes and foreign tongues. Of course.”
“Sorry.” Freya shrugged again. “The locals wouldn’t know what the fuck.”
“It’s fine.” Venus unclipped her harness and wobbled over to the box in the turbulent transport. “All right…let’s see how this looks,” she said, reaching in. “Hmm. Seven torches and a pack of patches…any chlorine?” she asked.
“Why would we need chlorine?” Alex asked.
“Do you know what’s been in that water?” Venus asked pointedly.
Alex shuddered. “No.”
“Well, I can guess,” Venus said firmly.
“I brought some rapid-dissolver water purification tablets, for when the Wolf Brothers need to purify a whole lot of water in a hurry in the field. We should wait outside while it’s working, though,” Freya said. “They smell terrible, and in a confined cave…”
“Good call,” Venus said, sitting back down.
The gunship arrived at the little hillock. The teens slid their jackets and thermo coats on, and hauled their towels and other accoutrements free of the gunship’s interior. The gunship took off to the other side of the lake, its atmospheric camouflage of grey and blue with deep blue Wolf colors blending in with the snow. The pilot left the vox open to reach them if a quick dustoff was needed.
Freya crept into the little crevasse, looking for occupants. There was nobody. The sound of very distant running water reached her ears, and a draft of hot air blew over her face, as she walked into the rocks. The scents of sulfur, a hint of hydrogen gasses, and the much fainter scents of people and even a little fire mingled together. She’d have wagered nobody had been there since the storm.
“It’s clear,” she said in relief. When nobody entered, she poked her head out. “Guys?”
“Anyone got the torches?” Remilia asked. She was rummaging around in the box. She paused as her fingers brushed wood and plastic. “Wait, these are real torches? I thought you meant torches like…you know, a lightbulb.”
“Wood torches, not flashlight torches,” Freya said. She swiped one and grabbed the matches. “Everyone get one and light it,” she said, suiting actions to words.
The group selected torches and walked in, Freya at the lead. The path beneath was jagged, so everyone kept their boots on. The snow gave way to a slush of half-melted ice and mud, churned up by passing feet.
The cave widened up, around five meters in, from a narrow hallway to a broader chamber. Freya’s eyes detected good places for the teens to set down their lights, and they did so, as Venus’ eyes settled on the waters below.
“Beautiful,” she whispered. The waters bubbled up from the black rocks below, from invisible cracks in the stone. It wasn’t the stereotypical ‘natural’ springs of a resort, but instead the undiminished volcanic water vent that it truly was. The edges of the little pool were jagged pumice and obsidian chunks, and the water spilled out of the main, overfull crater into a smaller, but much deeper one beyond it. The large, roughly circular room was around twenty meters across, but a dark hole on the far wall from the entry suggested deeper caverns. The water in the main crater was just under one and a half meters deep at the center, the smaller one beside it four times that in the middle.
“It’s awesome,” Remilia said. “How did you find out about this thing again?” she asked.
“A guy in the village told me,” Freya said. “Anyone else smell fresh air from deeper in the cave?” she asked.
Venus poked her head through the hole in the back wall. “There’s another vent back here. Only about forty centimeters deep, but it fills most of the room.” Her eyes and torch filled the room with flickering light. “It looks like there’s a crack in the ceiling.”
“Good, so it’s safe to use the torches,” Freya said. “All right, everyone out, I’m going to drop in the capsules,” she said. She scooped the little chemical caplets out of her pocket and dropped them into the water as the others walked back out.
She rejoined them, wrinkling her nose at the nasty smell emanating from the caves behind her. “Yuck.”
“The Mechanicum can purify oceans with that shit when they terraform, but they can’t make it smell like anything other than packing peanuts on fire,” Remilia said drily.
“It would probably offend the Machine God,” Jake said with a chuckle.
As the smell passed, Freya hesitantly inhaled at the entryway to the caves. “All right, we’re good,” she said. They walked back in to the caves and started laying out towels.
“Man…I don’t think I’ve ever actually been in a hot spring,” Remilia said, testing the water with one finger. “That’s pretty steamy, too…what do you think?”
Venus and Freya stuck their hands into the water. “Hmm…about three hundred fifteen kelvin?” Freya hazarded. “So, a hot shower.”
“Cool,” Jake said eagerly. He walked back into the other cave to start undressing. Since none of the five had brought swim suits on the trip (entirely reasonable when touring volcanic and arctic wastelands), they had decided to adopt Jake’s idea of dark underwear, and in a few moments, all five were sitting in the water of the larger pool.
Venus leaned back against the side of the natural pool, relaxing. “The funny part is, this just feels like water from the tap for me,” she said drily.
“Well, take my work for it,” Freya said, letting her braids out and breathing in the clearing air. “This is awesome.”
“I was afraid it would turn out to be a wading pool or something, but this is really deep,” Jake said, gingerly probing the floor with his foot. “I’d be over my head in the very center.”
Alex closed his eyes and plunged his head underwater for a moment. He came up and blew water out of his nose. “Phew, that’s hot.”
Venus’ eyes lit the water where Remilia was sitting. She was sitting back with the water up to her chin, eyes closed, just soaking. “This…people pay a lot of money for this on other planets,” Remilia said, dreamy.
“You guys are the lucky ones,” Venus grumped.
Jake splashed over to her and sat down beside her, sliding one soggy arm over her shoulders. “Ah, come on, just enjoy the novelty of it,” he said softly.
She rolled her eyes, but had to grin. Remilia reached into the pile of clothes and towels behind her and flailed about for a moment. “Ah hah, here we go!” she said. He pulled out a thin glass bottle. “Bottle two. If nobody minds?” she asked.
“Where did you get that?” Jake asked.
“Same place as the one from your birthday, Jake, just better hidden,” Remilia said coyly. “I hope plastic cups work for people,” she said, fishing some out.
“Do be careful, Lady Dorn,” Alex said with theatrical weariness. She looked back at him and arced a brow. “Champagne, half-naked teenagers on vacation, a hot spring…if we’re not careful, this will turn into something one might find on the tawdrier parts of the net.”
The others stared.
“I mean, not that I would know,” Alex said, all airs.
Remilia laughed aloud, passing him a cup and filling one for herself. “You’re all heart, Alex Carlin.”
Steamy Confessions (Literally)
“Would you guys laugh at me if I asked what the drinking age was on Fenris?” Jake asked mildly.
Freya snorted her drink out her nose and spent a few moments coughing before she could answer. “Y-yes,” she managed through a nose full of bubbles.
“Just checking,” Jake said.
Remilia lifted her cup as Jake waved one away. “All right! To the road trip, leg two!” she said enthusiastically. Four glasses and Jake’s empty cup met over the depths of the pool.
As the others pulled their hands back, Jake coughed lightly. “And to Morticia being all better when we get home,” he added, "and Julius getting off of Seadelant safely."
“Hell yeah,” Venus said, sending her cup back in for round two.
They drank and settled back against the edge of the pool, enjoying the soak. Venus drained her cup and smacked her lips. “Mmm. Good stuff,” she said.
Remilia giggled. When the others looked her way. “I’m sorry, forget it,” she said, waving her hand. “Just a funny thought.”
“Mmm.” Freya poured herself another cup and sipped it more slowly. “So, guys, what’s everyone gonna do tonight? Getting sick of losing to me at poker?”
“But that hasn’t happened,” Jake said innocently. Freya glared at him. “Well, not very often,” Jake said in blatant false modesty.
Alex rolled his eyes. “Jake, where did you say you learned? Darts, cards, the match trick…”
“Middle school, my friend, all middle school,” Jake said.
“What the hell middle school did you go to? A magnet school for illusionists?” Freya asked.
Jake laughed. “Hive Tetra Middle School 19889,” he said.
“It didn’t have a name?” Alex asked.
“Nope.” Jake shook his head. “Just 19889. Hive schools are basically factories,” he said, unconsciously echoing the discussion his parents had had with Vulkan a few weeks before.
“Horrible,” Remilia said. “No way to treat kids.”
“Nope.” Jake sighed. “No, it isn’t.” He peered over at her. “How about you all? What school did you go to?”
“We all did different stuff. Morticia and Kelly had private tutors, some of us went to private schools, some went to upper-crust public schools…” Remilia shrugged. “I went to a private school down the road from Imperator.”
“I went to a very small public school,” Venus said from beside him.
“I went to a private school for the second two grades of middle, had a tutor for the first,” Freya put in.
Alex shook his head. “Homeschooled, but by a small group of tutors.”
Jake nodded. “I remember the looks on my parents’ faces when I won the award. They were so proud…” He smiled at the ebony war goddess next to him. “Worked out all right, too.”
“I bet they were,” Freya said. She stretched, letting rivulets of water work their ways down her arms in the shimmering light. “Mmmm…anyone getting uncomfortable? Is this too hot?” she asked.
“Nope, I’m great,” Jake said. Venus and Remilia sounded their approval too.
“I’m too dry,” Alex said, pouring another cup. He tossed down a quick slurp. “Problem solved.”
“So…Jake, tell me about the rest of your family,” Remilia said.
Jake thought. “You know my parents?”
“We met on the landing pad for the ship to take us to the Tide,” Remilia said.
“Right. Well, my father’s a designer, my mother works for the Cube,” Jake said. “Hmm…I have an Uncle Walter and an Aunt Alice, my mother’s siblings…my uncle is actually still in college, my mom’s family was really far apart. I think you guys would really like Uncle Wally, he’s a funny guy,” he added. “He and Alice both work in an aircar factory in my hab.”
“Factory work,” Freya shuddered. “I couldn’t survive that kind of repetition.”
“Yeah, I dunno how they do it,” Jake said. “Well...Alice just got engaged to her boyfriend, Hajime,” he said, rubbing his chin. “My mother’s parents are both still alive, Grandma Christine worked for the Imperial Estate as a menial, and Grandpa Eric served in the Crusade with the Fists.”
“He was a Space Marine for Dad?” Remilia asked, wide-eyed.
“No, I meant it literally. He served the Fists,” Jake corrected. “He was one of Lord Dorns’ tenth- or eleventh- string assistant officers’ personal secretary. Started out as Praetor infantry, lost a kneecap to a Hrud Dissolver Cannon graze.”
“Gross,” Venus said. “Poor guy.”
Jake smiled ruefully. “Ah, he’s tough as nails. Got right back up and shot the bendy fucker, but he was done fighting after that. He had a paper degree – rare for an E-3 enlisted back then – so they stuck him behind a desk and he retired one year after the Crusade ended and they demobilized all the Praetor artillery regiments.”
Alex nodded. “You all know my dad, sadly…let’s see. My mother used to work for one of my paternal grandfathers’ trading companies on Proximus Station.”
“Isn’t that where Captain Roemer was from?” Venus asked.
“Yep! It’s a decommissioned O’Neill cylinder ship that they ripped the engines out of and stuck some extra hydroponic labs in there. They use it as a way-station for megafreighters passing through the Centauri cluster on the way to Sol to deliver the tithes,” Alex explained. “Grandpa basically owned two small trading companies that sold shit to the freight crews, and Dad met Mom there around twenty years back.”
“Huh. Before the Crusade ended, then?” Venus asked.
“Yeah. Hard to imagine how much it’s changed,” Alex said.
Remilia let herself slide forward on the rocks until the water was nearly up to her chin again. Her soaking hair swirled around her in the gentle current. “Heh…if we’re in family story mode…my mother helped found one of Uncle Fulgrim’s charitable foundations. He laid the groundwork out for it almost five years before the Crusade ended, since he sort of suspected it was going to happen, you know. Mom and Dad had known each other for years before then, though. She’s Terran, not Inwitan.”
Freya nodded. “Mom, the Queen of Fenris, she’s actually half-Fenrisian herself. Her father was a skjald of the Rout who was re-stationed on Terra to train the Household Guard of the Paternova. He met my grandmother, a servant of the House, and Mom happened. Dad met Mom around…twenty seven years ago. Dad, not that you’d notice, has a soft spot for girls with red hair,” she said drily, poking at her head.
“Well, they were head over heels for each other…it was only after the Crusade ended that she could have a kid, though, obviously. We’re not genetically compatible with humans…all of us, anyway,” she finished.
“I am,” Remilia said. “Gotta be careful.”
“Hope Kines never finds it out the hard way,” Freya teased.
Remilia flushed red. “Freya!”
“What? We’re all happy for you,” Freya said, as the others nodded or exchanged sly looks. “Can’t hide anything from me, remember?” she added. Remilia remembered her own words in the diplomatic lounge from the Palace, only a few months before.
“Talk about something besides me getting laid,” she mumbled, sinking deeper into the water to hide her blush.
Venus chuckled. “Dad met Mom on Nocturne, but it was only after she moved. She’s from Terra originally, she moved to Themis as an Administratum liaison. She met Dad at a ceremony to commemorate the induction of a fresh batch of about two thousand initiates, and they fell for each other at first sight.”
“That’s cute,” Freya said with a grin. “They got married before the Crusade ended, didn’t they?”
“Engaged. Dad knew it was drawing to a close. I was a surprise, I’m told, but a welcome one. Even Dad could only look forward to leading a Legion for so long, knowing peace was within our grasp.”
“I wish Dad felt that way,” Remilia sighed from the water’s surface. “He misses leading the Legion.”
“So does my Dad,” Venus replied. “I think…after I graduate and find work he’s going to move back to Nocturne and raise the banner again. Just long enough to shake the dust off and go explore the dark spots on the map for a while.”
“Probably do the Imperium some good,” Alex said. “We can always use more worlds.”
Venus downed her drink, setting the cup aside for the moment. Remilia glanced up at her and stifled another giggle. Venus looked over at her, feeling somewhat piqued. “What, Remilia?”
“I’m sorry,” Remilia said, grinning in self-reproach. “It’s just…you went with the black bra and panties, and it’s dark as hell in here, so it looks like your eyes are just floating in mid-air,” she said. “Sorry!”
Venus huffed a sigh. “Come on,” she muttered.
Jake slid his arms around her waist and hefted her up, depositing her in his lap. “There, now you’re visible against my ghost-like flesh,” Jake deadpanned.
Remilia’s giggles escaped, and she slapped the surface of the water in her mirth, sending water crashing around the pool. “Jake, don’t say that,” she laughed.
“Yeah, ghosts don’t have flesh,” Alex said suddenly, and the others laughed too.
Jake wiped water off his face from Venus’ hair. “Oh, man…this is great, you guys,” he said happily, squeezing his girl around the middle. Venus snuggled back against him.
“Yeah, this is a lot of fun!” Remilia said. “Wonder if there’s a hot tub on the Tide.”
“Actually, yeah, there is,” Venus said. “Standard on all patrol ships that size. It’s for physical therapy of crewers accepting augmetics after injury, though, so nobody here gets to use it.”
“Awww.” Remilia settled back down against the rocks and crossed her legs under the water. “Well, guys, I want to thank you for bringing me along. This was exactly what I needed.”
“We’re glad you came,” Freya said contentedly, snuggling up beside Alex. He slid an arm down her back and held her close in the steamy air. “Are you guys enjoying yourselves on the trip so far?” she asked. “I want to think this was a good idea of mine.”
Venus nodded and smiled. “It’s been rough in places, but…definitely worth it.”
“Yeah.” Jake squeezed her hand under the water. “I’d rather be here than home, with or without you guys.”
Alex nodded in silence, though of course everyone present knew his own trip had been far more turbulent. “It’s been worth it,” he said at last.
“Good.” Freya wiggled up next to her lover and let his broad arm slide down her flank. “Anything catch your eye in the Hammerhold, Venus?” she asked.
Venus chuckled. “No, but it’s always fun to see how the other guys do it.”
“Bet Farah would have loved to be there,” Remilia said knowingly.
“You bet. Hana too, probably,” Venus said. Her physiology was protecting her from the alcohol’s effects, as it was with the others, though Alex wasn’t afforded that luxury.
Freya downed her third cup and set it down. “Well…here we are,” she said, in a movie trailer voice.
Remilia chuckled. “When I move out of the house, I’m installing a hot tub in whatever I buy,” she said.
“You’ll have to have us over,” Venus quipped.
Jake leaned up to her ear and whispered, so faintly only she could hear it. “Any tub you’re in is a hot tub, baby.” Venus bit her lip to stifle a laugh.
“Is the smell getting to anyone?” Freya asked.
“What smell?” Jake asked.
“Okay, it’s just me then,” Freya said. She waved her hand in front of her nose. “Sulfur gas from the vent. Not too bad, but it’s there.”
Alex inhaled. The smell was so faint he almost couldn’t sense it. “Not really getting it yet.”
“All right, I can just head out if it’s too bad,” Freya said.
As the bottle slowly emptied and the afternoon wore on, talk turned to home again. Freya spoke up from Alex’s shoulder. “Do you think everybody else is enjoying their time away?”
“The ones who took some,” Remilia said. She shook her head, sending wet blond hair all around her. “Angela sure didn’t. Straight to work for her and Hana.”
“And Kelly…I still feel awful for her,” Venus said sadly. “I hope she’s okay when we’re back.”
Freya nodded. “She’s tougher than she thinks.”
“What’s Hana doing?” Alex asked.
“She went straight to a four-week seminar thing, I forget the subject. We can ask when we get home.”
“I wanna hear about Miranda’s vacation!” Jake said. “An entire planet of resorts sounds fucking awesome!”
“I’d settle for a day or two at that beach,” Remilia said dreamily. “That orbital photo was just plain sexy. An entire inland ocean…”
“I’ve never been to a casino, either,” Jake said wistfully. “I have a feeling I’d do pretty well.”
“Trust me, Jake, nobody goes to resort worlds and comes back richer, not playing a game of luck like Poker,” Remilia said. “You’re good, but you can not believe the shit professionals do. They piss themselves at the table so they don’t have to get up, they use augmetics that show hormonal levels in opponents’ blood, all kinds of shit to get ahead.”
Jake leaned forward, his expression intense and focused. “Then the solution is clear.”
Remilia blinked. “What?”
Jake’s voice was rough and flooded with conviction. “We must transplant Freya’s nose onto me somewhere I can conceal it under my clothes, then set me loose on the casino.”
Freya fell out of Alex’s arms, laughing hysterically. Venus snorted champagne onto Jake’s chest as the Remilia and Alex fell about laughing. Freya managed to calm herself, staring at Jake in naked disbelief. “I can’t handle what you just said,” she said, gasping past her laughter.
“Ah well,” Jake shrugged sadly. “I’ll just have to make good on what I have, regretfully.”
Venus blew the alcohol out of her nose. “You know, Jake, I’m proud of you,” she decided.
Jake glance up at her. “How so?”
“When we met, you were so scared of us all that you barely even smiled around us,” Venus recalled. “Now, here you are.”
“Perseverance overcomes all obstacles,” Jake said. “I just kept at it.” He squeezed her hand and smiled up at her near-invisible face. “The payoff has been well worth it.”
“You should write self-help books when we get back to Earth on how to overcome social un-confidence,” Remilia suggested.
“Hey, yeah, I could ask Angela how she got published,” Jake said.
Freya’s watch beeped. She sighed. “Well, guys, it’s dinnertime. We should head back, I think,” she said, rising from the geothermal tub. The water glued her long red hair to her flanks like a shroud. “That was still a lot of fun. We should come back if we get the chance.” Suddenly, she froze in place, her eyes wide and staring. She hissed for silence and gestured the others to stay still. “…FUCK! Someone’s coming!” she said under her breath.
“Uh oh,” Venus said, scrambling out of the water. She scurried over to the towels and scooped one up, hurriedly drying herself off.
The others jumped out too, stumbling a bit as the alcohol took its toll. As they dried, Freya moved up to the entrance and listened. Two voices, one male and one female. Not voices she knew.
As soon as she judged them close enough, she started yelling. “We’re a bit busy!” she said in Juvjk.
The footsteps outside stopped. “Ah, lass, don’t do this to me! It’s an hour from the village!” the man complained.
“Just give us a moment to clean up and we’ll be gone, we were done anyway!” Freya called.
“Like hell, it’s freezing out here!” the woman scoffed. The footsteps started up again. “We’re coming in, it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.”
“No, you AREN’T!” Freya yelled, baring her teeth in defiance.
Venus pulled her shirt on, hurriedly slapping her sunglasses over her eyes. Just in time, the voices arrived. A Fenrisian man of twenty or so and a woman of the same age entered the cave, glaring at them.
Freya stomped out of the water and walked right up to the man, hiding her fangs with an effort. “Has privacy no meaning to you, fool?” she snapped. “My friends are dressing here!”
“Bah, no man owns this place, girl,” the man scoffed. “Now if you’re done, begone.”
“Neighborly of you,” Freya said coldly. Her hand closed over the man’s like a vice, making him pause and gasp. “I said you should wait because not doing so is bad for your health,” she snarled.
The woman slapped Freya across the face, shocking her into releasing her grip. “Hands off him, bitch!” the woman said angrily.
Alex stared, one arm hanging out of his shirt. Freya slowly looked back at her, her hands clenching into fists. “Wrong move,” Freya said darkly, and hauled off with a quick jab that knocked the woman flat on her ass. In a blur of red, she spun to the side and cold-cocked the man, sending him sprawling.
The others finished dressing as Freya dried herself off and left the two Fenrisians reeling on the floor. She marched past them with the others in tow as Alex doused the torches in the water and left them floating.
The Thunderhawk was swooping in from the horizon as they emerged, and Freya breathed a sigh of relief that the natives hadn’t seen it. Alex cleared his throat nervously. “Exit notwithstanding, Freya, that was the best time we’ve had since we got here. And yeah, we should do it again.”
“I agree,” Freya said, and to the others’ relief, her voice was free of anger again. “Maybe next time we won’t be disturbed by morons. Honestly. Does nobody respect common courtesy around here?”
“Would you want to lurk about outside while people took their time dressing in there?” Remilia asked. “At least they didn’t seem to notice our clothes.”
“Hmph. Oh well.” Freya shielded her eyes from the backdraft of the Thunderhawk as it landed, and they climbed aboard.
After a short flight back and a dinner in their rooms, the group parted ways for the evening, retiring to write home or just unspool…and in Alex’s case, walk off the champagne. He opened his slate’s message box after settling in and noted its contents with surprise. “Well, hello…two messages from…no, three messages from Terra. One from Mom, two from New Cyprine.”
“What do the Cyprine ones say?” Freya asked from the other side of the bed.
“Hmm… ‘welcome, transfer student, to blah blah blah…we acknowledge your request to room with Lady Primarch Russ…durr durr durr…just acknowledgements and approvals.” He opened the next one. “Hmm. The other one is a campus map and some information on where people coming from ships should go.”
“Wait, really?” Freya asked, scrambling over to stare at the slate. “They acknowledge a freshman asking to room with me with a form letter? Hah! Wanna bet this was just some school admin drone’s busywork and he didn’t even look at the names?”
Alex chuckled. “I don’t take sucker bets.” He set the slate down on the bed before she could pull away and ran his hand over where the local had slapped her. “Are you sure you’re all right?” he asked.
“I’m fine, I didn’t even feel it,” Freya said with a shrug. “And they got theirs.”
“On Terra, you’d have kicked their shit in,” Alex pointed out.
“And this is Fenris.” Freya sat down next to him. “I’m fine, baby, really.”
Alex nodded. “All right.” He picked the slate back up. “Hmm. One from Mom…she got a form letter from Cyprine asking for confirmation and so forth…I listed her as my emergency contact,” Alex explained.
“All right.” Freya sipped from the ice water on the nightstand. “You gonna send a reply?” she asked.
Alex sighed again. “No.”
“Really? Is your Mom not going to want to know what’s up?” Freya inquired, cocking her head.
“Probably, but…” Alex trailed off. “I’m just putting it off, aren’t I?” He tapped his hand on the slate. “All right…I’ll record the message then send it later, so it’s not hanging over her when we’re coming home.”
Freya paused him, squeezing his hand with a concerned look in her eyes. “How can I help? Or should I even be here?”
Alex looked away.
“All right.” She rose from the bed. “I’ll just watch a movie with Jake and Venus or something. Take your time.”
“Thanks, babe,” Alex said, already dreading his task.
As Freya closed the door, he downed the rest of her water, trying to calm his nerves. “All right, Mom…” he said under his breath. “Let’s hear it.” He opened his transcriptor.
“Hi, Mom, it’s Alex…obviously…” he muttered. He closed and deleted the recording. “Take two…” He pressed the record button again. “Hi Mom. Not sure when you’ll get this, the tides are pretty high, but I should be home fairly soon, and I wanted to make sure you got this in case I went straight off to Orientation with Freya. I’m safe on Fenris, if that’s even possible.” He stood up and started pacing. “Last few days have been pretty crazy. I’ll hold off on a full explanation until we’re home, though.” He paused his wandering and swallowed.
“Mom…when we were on Nocturne, Dad tracked me down. I specifically told the son of a bitch not to, but he did, and now…” His words failed for a moment, and he paused the recording to choke off a sob. Bitterness and regret rose to choke off his voice. When it passed, he resumed. “It was right before we left. We were at dinner, and Dad…Dad said…fuck him to hell, he didn’t even say it to me. He said to some random fucking stranger…‘I had to choose between inheriting the Fleet and going to college.’” Alex squeezed his eyes shut. “I asked him what he meant, and he repeated himself. I snapped, I said I wouldn’t make that choice, and I stormed off. He disinherited me.”
Alex slumped down on his bed. “I’ve agreed…hang on,” he said, stabbing the slate again. The recording paused as he wiped away tears. “I agreed to live with Freya at Cyprine…I bet I told you. God…Freya is about the only thing keeping me sane right now,” he sighed. “I love her…”
He trailed off, aware he was becoming maudlin in front of his mother. “All right. Well…” He opened his eyes again, staring at his clenched hands and consciously relaxing them. “Mom, I wanted you to know because…well, it’s pretty obvious. Dad’s made his choice…” he laughed bitterly. “Ah, well. I’ll see you when I get home, I promise. I love you, Mom,” he said, turning off the recorder.
Freya was watching a holo with the others when Alex knocked. She rose and padded to the door, taking in his drained and unhappy sense with a single sniff. “All right…I’m done,” he said heavily.
“Don’t be alone,” Freya declared. She held the door open to let him in. “Watch unbearably bad zombie movies with us.” Alex managed a feeble grin and followed her into the room, where the others were huddled around Venus’ slate.
“What are we watching?” Alex asked as he sat beside the others.
“Tonight’s film is ‘The Incredibly Evil Birds,’” Venus announced, sliding her glasses on to halt the glare from her eyes.
“That exists?” Alex asked.
“Unfortunately,” Remilia said. Alex smiled at the sight of the four others lying together on the bed, staring at the propped-up slate from the other end. He withdrew his vox and snapped a picture. “There.”
“What was that?” Venus asked.
Alex sat down beside the others. “Just commemorating this.”
A Better Day
It Wasn't a Blank
As the sun rose the next morning, and the five returned from their workout, Freya halted Alex in their room. “Babe, do you want to go back to the hot spring today?” she asked.
Alex paused, one hand on the doorframe. “Sure,” he said, wiping a bead of water out of his eyes. “When do the others wanna go?”
“I mean you and me,” Freya said. Alex smiled.
“Yeah…that sounds good,” he said. “When do we leave?”
“After lunch, no hurry,” she said, flopping down on the bed. “I spoke to the others after we finished that…abomination of a movie last night, and they’re just gonna check out the firing range today anyway.”
“Is Jake going to be alright?” Alex asked.
“He should be fine, Venus isn’t worried,” Freya said. “Nice of you to be concerned, though.”
Alex shrugged. “I gotta say, I didn’t have a whole lot of time for him at school, but he’s good people.”
“And he makes Venus feel like she belongs,” Freya agreed. She sat up. “All right…do me a favor before we go, and go grab those towels from before? I need to arrange transport with Bjorn.”
“Sure,” Alex said, making for the door.
Shortly after lunch, the two were over the ice fields at two klicks, with a pair of Blood Claws providing a discreet escort. Freya had insisted that they would go with only a small guard detachment, though how much of that was just rationality or lingering embarrassment, Alex couldn’t tell.
As they headed away, Remilia led the others down to the Fang’s massive basement firing ranges. Equipped with ear covers to protect them from their own lack of Lyman’s ears, the trio arrived at the cavernous room and stared. From the catwalk overlooking the room, presumably in place to allow Wolf Priests to observe training Aspirants, the channels and lanes looked like rain trenches. There were already wide puddles of brass in some lanes from skjalds and Blood Claws practicing with buck and slug guns.
“Too cool,” Venus commented into her baffled mic.
“Wonder where they put in Power Weapon training?” Remilia asked, staring at the rows and rows of firing lanes.
“There was a second floor,” Venus pointed out.
A skjald walked up behind them and brushed a fingertip over the microphone in his helmet to draw their attention. “My Lord, Princesses, welcome to my range,” the elderly skjald said. The elaborate red and blue marks on his shirtsleeves marked him as the facility rangemaster. “I’m honored by your patronage,” he continued, bowing deeply.
“Thank you for having us, sir,” Remilia replied. “You may rest assured that we know how important firing practice is for a Space Marine. We’re flattered that you would allow us to train with you.”
“Too kind, Princess Dorn,” the rangemaster said, directing them back down to the ground level. “What would you like to try today, your Highnesses?”
Venus piped up. “Well…I’m the mood for some pistol, if you happen to have one calibrated for teenagers,” she said with a hint of humor in her voice.
“Certainly, the kaerl sidearm range it is,” the rangemaster said. The group reached the cement floor, scuffed by millennia of passing boots, and halted in front of an armor locker, where an alert-looking skjald with lean, waspish features eagerly checked out three shiny black pistols. Jake looked at it a bit askance, but the krakenspawn incident had well convinced him that maybe dating the daughter of a Primarch involved some small risks.
Running through the center of the colossal range was a conveyor belt, reminding Jake incongruously of a people-mover like the ones he had seen in the civil starports of Clymene. They rode one past rows of skjalds and even some Wolves, practicing their marksmanship, until at last they arrived at their destination: a trio of small booths. Remilia grabbed the box of ammunition the rangemaster handed her and slid a magazine home, testing the weapon’s balance.
“Hmm. Venus, where do you think this is from?” she asked.
Venus glanced over her own weapon. “Mars. See the two tiny divots in the metal under the safety?”
“Those aren’t traction marks?” Remilia asked.
“Nope. Mars has two moons, right? Phobos and Deimos. That’s them. It’s the stamp the Mars forges use when they don’t have enough space to stamp a full embossing,” Venus said. “Half the welding shit in my basement has it, I’d know it blind.”
“Cool.” Remilia racked the slide, ejected her mag, slipped another slug into the mag, and reclosed it, as Venus showed Jake how to do the same.
“So, you put the other round in so that your first mag has an extra shot in it,” Venus explained. “Barely matters with, say, an anti-materiel rifle, but with a weapon that fires in bursts it could be the difference-maker.”
“Yep,” Jake said. “Most good video games let you do that, too,” he said. He coughed self-consciously. “Not that they compare to real experience, naturally, but still.”
Venus grinned to herself. “Uh huh.”
“My Dad said he cooked off a few rounds when he lived on Mars, but he found it to be too boring and dangerous as a hobby, especially once he started thinking about kids,” Jake said. He hefted his pistol and switched off the safety. “So uh…”
“Not yet!” Venus cautioned him. “You wait for that blue light over the lane. Fire before then and you get thrown out on your ass.”
“It’s the ‘warning’ light, it means someone’s clearing brass from their lane,” Remilia put it. “Ricochets kill.”
Jake nodded, somewhat intimidated. “All right.” Venus and Remilia moved to their own lanes and took up positions. The light flashed blue, and three muzzles rose to address the targets. Jake squeezed the trigger on his pistol. The flash and recoil shocked him, making him blink and flinch. “Shit,” he muttered under his breath. “This is hard…” he looked up at the target and didn’t see a mark on it. “Aaaand I suck at it.” He glanced down at the pistol. “Venus, any tips?” he asked over the mic.
Venus glanced around the partition. “Yeah, use both hands,” she said.
Jake gripped the pistol with both hands, clumsily meshing his fingers over the plastic grip and firing. This time, he managed to cut the white paper around the human outline. “Hmm. Little better,” he said.
The light over the range turned off. Jake blinked. “That was fast,” he said. He had fired two of the eighteen rounds in the pistol.
Venus stepped around the partition and glanced over his stance. “Hmm. Next round, I’ll stand with you, see what your stance looks like.”
Jake chuckled. “I wonder how that will look to the Wolves, to see their guest learning how to shoot from a girl,” he said with an air of resignation.
“Yeah, nobody in here ever learned from a Primarch,” Venus said drily. She stood behind him and gently realigned his hands with the grip as the light came back on. “Try this…”
A Good Soak (Part Two)
Alex stepped off the ramp of the Thunderhawk as Freya returned from the cave. “It’s clear, the water purifier’s working,” she reported. He followed her back in, fumbling in the bag for a flashlight. He flicked it on, illuminating the walls of the cave. “All right…let’s change,” he said, setting the bag down near the water’s edge. Freya ignited some torches and put them in the well-worn sconces as Alex disrobed. As he started to slip into the water, though, she glanced back.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Alex hesitated. “Uh, getting in the water.” he said.
“Well, yeah, but why are you still wearing that?” she asked, pointing at his boxers. “You expecting to get interrupted? I’m not,” she said, running a hand over the cloak she had draped over her Fenrisian outfit.
Alex felt his blood pick up a bit. “Wouldn’t want to get my underwear wet, I suppose,” he said, shucking them and clambering into the water.
Freya slid her cloak off and removed her own clothes, then sat down beside him, letting him slide an arm around her shoulders. “Mmmm…” she sighed luxuriously. “Remilia was right, people pay a fortune for this back home,” she said.
Alex closed his eyes and rested his head on hers. “Yeah…can’t find this on Terra.”
Freya gently pulled away from him and cricked her back where she had been leaning over. “Alex, I want to thank you,” she said.
“I know this trip has been rough on you,” Freya said, her green animal eyes appearing as tiny discs in the light. “I’m glad you haven’t let it get to you.”
“In front of the others, anyway?” Alex asked tiredly.
“Yeah.” Freya undid her braids and let the hair fall into the water beside her. She sank down into the steamy pool up to her collarbone. “But even after all the shit you’ve been through, you’re still Alex.”
“I don’t want to ruin things for the rest of you,” he said.
She nodded, eyes shut. “I know.” She smiled up at him. “That’s part of the reason I love you.”
The faint sound of water dripping out of the pool into the adjacent one and the faint burning of the torches were the only sounds Alex could hear. He sank back against the rock walls and spread his arms over the rim to balance. “Thanks, baby.” He sighed. “It meant a lot that you were there when Dad…threw me away.”
“I just…I dunno.” Freya sat up a bit. “I want to understand more about why he did it. It baffles me. And to phrase it like a choice like that, of college or the fleet…I’ll be honest, it doesn’t really sound like he outright disowned you.”
“I know it doesn’t,” Alex said heavily. “But that’s the effect of it. I told him outright that I had no interest in running his little empire of graverobbers when I was old enough to understand what they really did. I said to his face I was going to play rugby and go to college and get a job that didn’t leave the stink of corpses in my nose when I went off to Imperator and got my scholarship. He was more surprised than anything. I half-think he was expecting me to be proud of him or something. Asshole.”
“The instinct to impress your children is a strong one,” Freya said quietly. “Do you think he’ll ever change his mind?”
“He can’t, the worthless old bastard,” Alex grumbled. “He did it in front of an audience, you see, including you. He can’t take it back. His pride can’t allow it. He did the exact same thing to me that he did to Mom, and now she’s moving out of the house.”
Freya reached out and caressed his hand on the lip of the pool. “I’m sorry, baby. I wish I could make it better.”
“You did, those were the best two hours of my life,” Alex joked weakly. Freya managed a small smile, but the deeply empathetic girl could see the raw wound in his heart. “But the fact that you changed your college plans to stay with me…god…” He closed his eyes.
She sat back down next to him and held his hand on her near shoulder, looking up at him. “Well…you know, I have forever to go back to school. Spending time with you is more important.”
Alex nodded. “Thanks.”
They sat in silence for quite some time, letting the water’s heat soak into them and melt their problems away.
Jake slid his magazine out and replaced it, sweeping his brass into a bag. “Hmm. At least I’m hitting the taget now,” he said. Venus slid her arms around him and adjusted his grip again, eyeing his hands.
“Try feathering the trigger instead of jerking it like that,” she suggested. “You can feel the break on the trigger, so you don’t need to manhandle it.”
“All right.” The light turned blue and Jake fired again, sending a slug through the human outline in the torso. “Progress!” he said cheerfully.
Remilia’s target showed a single broad hole in the forehead, through which she had somehow put around four magazines of eighteen slugs each. “I forgot how satisfying this can be,” she said. She emptied her magazine into the target again, and the hole didn’t get any wider. “I used to hit the ranges with Dad back in the day. I was always terrible at it.”
“Where did you even go?” Jake asked, setting his gun down. His hands were protesting. “There were no ranges in Startseite.”
“No, but there was one in the PDF garrison in the very very top of the hive spire four klicks south of the city,” Remilia said. “Dad wanted me to learn how to shoot.”
“You’re better than me,” Venus said, glancing over her own target. She had only fired two magazines, spending the rest of the time coaching Jake. Her target had a smattering of holes in the head and heart region, nowhere near as neat as Remilia’s. “I’m way out of practice.”
Jake glanced over into her lane. “Firing that Conflagrator is probably the extent of it, huh?”
“Oh yeah.” Venus walked back to her land and cleared the chamber, sliding a fresh magazine home. She raised her gun and fired, sending a few more rounds to pierce the target’s heart.
Freya rose from the water to dig a small water-sealed package out of her bag. Alex admired her shapely backside as she rooted around. “Ah hah, I see it,” she said. She sat back down in the water and passed him the little plastic container. “Eat up,” she said.
Alex extracted a small muffin. “Cool, thanks,” he said, chowing down. Freya took her own and put the package away. “Never eaten in the bath before,” Alex chuckled.
Freya licked her fingers and splashed crumbs away. “All right. Thanks for being open with me, baby, I know it hurt to talk about.”
He nodded. “Well…I don’t blame you. But…I want to ask you something too.”
“What’s up?” Freya asked.
“Well…we talked about pack instinct and all that before,” Alex reminded her. “But I don’t really understand all of it. I mean, in regard to your family. I can count the number of times I’ve met your mother on one hand.”
“So just tell you more about them?” Freya asked.
“Well, sort of,” Alex said. “I just want to know them better. I mean…your Dad’s a PRIMARCH. Can you tell me more about him, his role in the Imperium? I just feel like I don’t know them at all.” He shrugged. “I’d like to.”
Freya nodded. “Well, my grandparents on my mother’s side work for the Houses of the Navigators,” she said. “You knew that though. Uh…well, Dad still leads the Legion since he found out he sucked at politics. He’s on Luna a lot, liaising with the senior guys in the Navy and Expeditionary forces.”
“That’s cool. Have you ever been to Luna?” Alex asked.
“Sure have. It’s kinda boring. The atmo shields are lowered unless they’re running a drill, so you’re stuck in the bunkers.” She shrugged. “I should take you some time.”
“I’d like that,” Alex said. He scooted over to sit next to his girlfriend. “Your Mom always seemed to like me more than your Dad did.”
Freya shrugged, sending her ample breasts swaying in the torchlight. “Mom likes you a lot, but Dad just doesn’t like that I’m old enough to be dating. He always thinks of me as his little girl.”
“I bet most of the Primarchs do that,” Alex said. “When you’re that old, you know?”
Freya laughed. “Probably.” She leaned back and thought. “Dad wanted to keep at the Crusade, I know. He thinks there’s too much of the area inside the Astronomican’s projection range unexplored. I kinda agree, but after we were born…he learned to love being a Dad. He spent a lot more time with me when I was a kid, too; I know I’ve said he brought me home to Fenris several times. Only Miranda’s been off of Earth more than I have.”
She slid her hands through her hair and idly worked one lock into a braid. “Hmm…what else do you want to know?”
“What does your…pack instinct or whatever you call it…feel around your cousins?” Alex asked.
Freya slowly twisted her hair as she thought that over. “Hmmm…it’s…complex. Miranda and Remilia feel like…little sisters more than anything else. Venus’ sense is more like a pack-mate, someone I can trust. She’s a mediator, you know? Like Angela is.”
She continued. “Isis is like a an older sister, she’s the one who looks after the rest of us. I mean, that’s a human thing too, but it’s a common instinct that way,” she said. “Sorry, this probably sounds weird.”
“No, I think I get it. What do you feel towards Kelly? I remember you were pretty torn up when she went to the hospital,” Alex said.
“She’s hurting, baby,” Freya sighed. “She’s really scared of the future. She was getting better by graduation. And, hmm…Furia too. I know she was thinking of heading off to college after graduation, I never thought she would be. She’s getting better too.”
“Yeah.” Alex nodded. “You have a great family, Freya.”
“You’re part of it, whether it’s for the next four years or however long we’re together,” Freya said with a smile.
Alex felt a little thrill of excitement as she said it. “Really? That’s…really flattering,” he said.
Freya leaned against his shoulder and smiled as his body reacted to that. “It’s the best,” she said softly. “I feel like I belong when I’m with my family. Like I can let my guard down. It’s…smaller of a sense than when I’m with the Rout, but it’s there. I feel like they all have roles to play, and me too.”
“So where do I fit in?” Alex asked, feeling his heart pick up a bit more.
Freya snorted at the question. “Didn’t I make it clear when I pulled you out of Amber Gainner’s thieving claws?” she asked drily. She leaned even farther sideways, until he wrapped his arms around her stomach. She looked up at him and grinned, fierce and happy. The flickering torchlight reflected as a rippling gold in her eyes. Her bared fangs and wet red hair glinted in the light. “You’re my mate.”
She held his gaze, and her free hand slid up to grip his chin. She pulled him into an impassioned kiss, which he returned with equal parts hunger and relief. She very deliberately placed one leg over his and pushed the cleft of her butt back against him as she broke the kiss. “I think…” she whispered sensuously. “That for…a few minutes…I can stop being nervous about my Brothers’…senses of smell,” she said, running both hands behind her back, down to stroke him where he was already hard as the rock they were sitting on.
“Up against the wall of the cavern,” he ordered roughly, half-lifting her out of the water and turning her around. She splayed her hands over the steam-smoothed stone.
“To start with,” she growled back.
She moaned in anticipation as he parted her and started thrusting. The tension and lingering anger in Alex vanished as he held her to the wall and mated with her, shattering the doubt that had been holding him by the throat since Nocturne. Freya gasped her approval as the desire and lust he had been keeping in check since they came in range of the Fang broke free.
Some while later, dried and dressed, both teens were sitting cross-legged on the top of the hollowed rocks and snow. Alex was back in the full thermo suit, now, complete with sealed mask and gloves. He was holding magnoculars to his eyes, watching the storm front approach. It was as broad as the horizon, and as high as the tropopause. Flurries of hailstones the size of fruit were hurtling about within. The higher reaches of the cloud were ablaze with forking lightning that left afterimages in his eyes and made him blink behind his mask’s lenses.
Alex slid the magnoculars back into his equipment pouches and stared at the approaching stormhead. The Thunderhawk was en route to them, they would be well and gone before the storm arrived.
“It’s amazing,” Alex said quietly.
Freya nodded in silence.
The black clouds swirled closer, with the faintest of susurrus of thunder rolling in. Freya sat up. “There’s a snow-cat coming, from across the frozen lake,” she said, her voice barely above the wind. “It’s seen us, but keeping its distance.
Alex looked back. Sure enough, there was the tiniest mound of white on the frozen water where there hadn’t been before. He switched his mask’s optics to polarize the light and the blob refined itself a bit. “Are we safe?” he asked.
“Not if we were human,” Freya said softly. Alex glanced back at her. Her irises and retina bled together in an inhuman green through his optics. “Luckily…I’m not,” she said. She wasn’t smiling.
“And you’re all right with that?” Alex asked, just to make sure.
Now she did smile. “I am. And that’s good news for you,” she said, her voice turning a bit husky.
Alex tilted his head in silent question. Freya reached over and gently pushed against his sternum until he fell back a bit. She leaned over him on all fours and nuzzled his mask. “Wolves protect their mates,” she whispered. She rose from her crouch, and Alex heard the faint rasp of metal on leather as she drew her pistol and chambered a slug.
The cat didn’t move, just staring at the two of them, until the gunship settled down beside them and it bolted away. Freya and Alex clambered in, and the gunship lifted, flying back to the Fang.
Alex settled down on a bench at the end of the row and peeled his mask off. Freya curled up on the bench next to him and rested her head in his lap, letting her long hair spill out over the thermo outfit Alex was wearing. She pulled her cloak off and draped it over herself like a blanket as she lay there, shutting her eyes to catch a quick nap.
The two Wolves on the opposite bench looked at each other askance, but said nothing. Alex pulled his hood back and ruffled his hair to get the tangles out, then slowly ran his fingers through her thick red mane.
“What does our Sister mean to you, Lord Carlin?” the Blood Claw across from them asked.
Alex didn’t answer right away. He just stroked her hair, thinking. When he spoke, it was slow and deliberate. “I love her. We make each other happy.”
“Pardon my bluntness, Lord, but that’s a fun time, not meaning,” the Claw said. Alex glared at him. The Astartes continued, unabashed. “What do you want from her?”
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing asking me that?” Alex snarled, trying not to wake her.
“I want to know who my sister is sleeping with, literally and metaphorically,” the Claw said, even as the other Claw looked at him in surprise and unease.
“Well, if love isn’t enough, then I guess I’m not good enough, am I?” Alex asked bitterly. “Now you shut the hell up.”
The Claw tightened one fist for a moment. “I have every right to worry about my sister, human,” the Claw said darkly.
“And she called me her mate,” Alex said in the same tone. “If that’s not enough for you, open a vein.” The gunship’s hold went silent, save the sound of engines, as the two Claws stared at him, before the talkative one finally relented.
“I…apologize if I have overstepped, your Lordship,” he said, before turning his gaze down to his weapons and falling quiet.
Alex scoffed. “Yes, you did,” he said darkly, and went back to watching Freya sleep in his lap.
Over the next several days, Alex sensed a definite change in the behavior of the Wolves towards him and the other guests. Him especially. Less and less were they treated as guests only reluctantly. At a few of their smaller dinners in the conference room that they had used with Lord Redwind, other Wolves had attended, either just to check in with Freya or to speak with the offworlders, and they even spoke in Gothic most of the time. Whether he had passed some secret test in the Thunderhawk or something else was in play, he didn’t know, but the change was a welcome one.
They continued their exploration of the Fang, with Freya acting as a guide. She and the others made a habit of visiting the range, as well, and with Venus’ coaching, both boys picked it up well. Alex especially gained an appreciation for it; he spent a few consecutive days at the massive range, branching from solid shot to lasweapons under Freya’s watchful eye.
After nearly a week of stalling, Alex finally sent the message he had recorded for his mother. It felt like as much a self-fulfilling curse as anything, but at least, he reflected, he had something to come back to now.
Bjorn, however, had become rather secretive in the time after they arrived. It was his right as the presiding Wolf Lord to whatever he pleased, of course, but he started limited his time even with Freya after a few days of normal interaction. He seemed obsessed with preparing for something, and Freya speculated with a heavy heart that yet another Great Company might be about to receive mobilization orders.
As it happened, however, that was not the case. One afternoon, less than a week before they departed Fenris, the quintet was sitting in one of the lounges for the skjalds. The small but well-loved room had become the preferred hangout of the group. With a small bar against one wall and a constant stream of coming and going personnel, they never ran out of people to talk to.
At that moment, however, the group was watching a poker match between Jake, Freya, and one of the skjalds. Alex was reading over his slate on one couch, glad that his mother’s response hadn’t come. Remilia and Venus were watching the game, their eyes darting back and forth like they were watching tennis. Freya was sitting with her back to the door. The skjald and Jake were sitting across from her in a triangle, and the piles of chips in front of them favored the skjald by a degree that unnerved both teens. The dour-looking warrior hadn’t said a word during the whole game, so deep was his concentration.
“See your sixty, raise you twenty,” Freya said, chipping in.
The skjald hesitated, then slid in his own twenty as Jake dropped out. Both put down their cards and Freya breathed a sigh of relief: her straight edged his three of a kind.
The skjald grunted and swigged his brew. Jake cleaned up the cards and shuffled. “You sure you guys don’t want to play?” he asked the girls.
“Count me out, the kind of statistics you people can do in your heads blow my fucking mind,” Venus confessed.
“‘You people,’” Jake said drily. “Mm hmm. Venus, if you can teach me to shoot, I can teach you to play poker.”
Freya yawned and sipped at her water. “What’s your vocation, sir?” she asked the skjald, in Gothic.
“Saerbis,” the skjald replied in Juvjk.
“So our guests can understand?” Freya asked.
“I don’t speak Gothic,” the man said in his own tongue. “Poker is a universal language anyway,” he added, taking his cards.
“Mmm.” Freya translated. “Saerbis means rifle trainer, basically. So he teaches the Fang guards in longrifle shooting.”
“Ah.” Jake picked up his own cards and chipped in a healthy bet. “I’m in for forty,” he said.
The change was instantaneous. The ambient noise in the room died down so fast, it was as if the atmosphere was gone. Venus and Remilia both glanced over at the door, their faces identical masks of shock and dawning delight. The skjalds in the room all stopped what they were doing and rose to their feet, saluting or kneeling in silence. On the couch, Alex swallowed sudden nerves and struggled up, only to bow.
Freya, Jake noted through his surprise and nerves, was sitting stock-still, save a slow clenching of her shoulders and widening of her eyes. She was shocked, her hands white on the table. Very slowly, she turned, just to confirm what her nose and ears were already telling her, with sensations she would have known in a coma.
A large, scarred hand on her shoulder arrested her progress. She glanced up at the man it was attached to.
“Hello, Freya,” Leman Russ said, smiling broadly. “How’s your trip been?”
“DAD!” Freya squealed, launching herself out of her chair and into her father’s arms. “When did you get here?” she demanded, burying her face in his cheek and hugging him tight.
He sank into a crouch so she wouldn’t have to lean. “Fifty minutes ago,” he said. “I’ll be here the next month.”
“Awesome!” she said happily, turning to the others with an ecstatic grin. “Guys, Dad’s here!” she proclaimed.
“So he is,” Venus said, rising to her feet and giving him a hug too. “Good to see you, Uncle Leman.” Remilia followed suit.
“Yourselves also, you two,” Leman said. His eyes lit upon Alex and Jake. “Gents.”
“Your Highness,” Jake said, bowing low. Alex rose from his own bow with a somewhat nervous feeling in his stomach, but he mustered a smile.
“So what brings you home?” Freya asked.
“Well, I could bullshit you and say I just wanted to hang out with my daughter and her friends,” the Primarch sighed. “I mean…it would be true, but it would be bullshit. The fact of the matter is, the Emperor’s enemies don’t give a toss about my vacation schedule, and every so often I have to go put them in their places.”
“Spread over some distance and unmoving?” Venus asked drily.
“Quite.” Leman ruffled his daughter’s hair. “I’m here to drop off about six hundred Tartaros Sevens and perform some other…more personal duties,” he said. “And consecrate the new ships.”
“What ships?” Freya asked, glancing up at her father with a curious glance.
Leman shrugged. “Saturnine shipyards are catching up on that backlogged order from when they went offline for upgrades a few years ago. Several new Quicksilver class patrol frigates came off the lines at the same time, so they distributed them more or less evenly to the Legions.”
Freya nodded. “Well…I’m glad we got to see you, Dad, I was afraid you wouldn’t be home when we went back to Terra!” She was bouncing from foot to foot in her excitement. Venus had to smile.
Leman straightened back up. “I’ll swing by your rooms before dinner, I wanted to talk to you all about your trip before I dive headfirst into the small ocean of paper in my office,” he said with another sigh. He glanced down at the skjalds who had been standing by since he arrived. “As you were,” he said, walking out.
Alex sank back onto the couch, sighing. Freya was practically vibrating with excitement. For a moment, Alex allowed himself to wonder what it felt like to look forward to seeing your father that much.
“That was…unexpected,” Venus said, sitting back down.
“I know, right?” Freya said happily. “I was so nervous that he’d be coming here when we were going home, and we’d just miss each other!”
“If you wanna go, go,” Remilia said, looking meaningfully at the door.
Freya bit her lip, fidgeting. Venus leaned over and picked up her cards, setting them down next to the deck. “Go,” she said.
Freya nodded. “All right,” she said, rising to her feet and following her father.
Out in the hall, she spotted her father, parting the throngs of warriors and servants effortlessly, taking the occasional moment to greet old friends and familiar faces with a solemn nod or joking greeting as necessary. She tailed him at a distance until he paused at a lift. She hurried up to him and waited expectantly.
He glanced down, feigning surprise. “Freya?”
“Dad, do you have a minute to just talk?” she asked.
“Just…stuff. So much has happened since I saw you last,” Freya said.
Leman smiled, kneeling to stroke his daughter’s cheek. “After what you told me about Alex’s father torpedoing your vacation, I would feel bad if I dragged you away from it. Go,” he said, rising back to his feet. “Go school your friends and servants at cards, I promise I’ll swing by before dinner,” he added, stepping into the lift.
Back in the lounge, several of the skjalds – mainly the younger ones, who had presumably never seen him before – were looking rather shellshocked. Jake, who had, ironically enough, met him several times, swept up the cards, sensing that nobody was interested at continuing the game, and to avoid losing any more than he already had.
Freya walked back in, diminished but still clearly happy. “We’ll just see him at dinner.”
“Cool.” Venus clambered to her feet. “What do you want to do before then?”
“I want to go and yell at Bjorn for keeping this a secret,” Freya grumbled, “but that wouldn’t be smart. Let’s just go get ready, huh? I’m too nervous to do anything else,” she said with a weak grin. “Actually, that’s not fair, you guys go do whatever you want, I shouldn’t press nerves on you guys,” she said.
“Naw, that’s fine,” Remilia said.
Jake turned to his opponent and shook his hand, collecting his chips. “Thanks for the game.”
In the Wolf King's Eyes
Above, Russ settled into his throne in the holotank room, as Redwind and Bjorn bowed low to their King. “Father Russ, welcome home,” Redwind said.
“Rise, brothers. Speak to me of your plan,” Leman said, leaning forward as he did.
Bjorn spoke. “The camps yield your sons, of course…but the problems remain.”
“Of course,” Russ growled. He leaned back in his seat, sounding disgusted. “And the deployments?"
“Well enough, Lord,” Redwind replied. “Two officers of the Army were here a while ago reporting in on their own roles in the deployment. It seems smooth enough…but we haven’t mobilized on this scale in a very long time.”
“No,” Russ agreed. “How did First get off?”
“Very fast, fortunately enough,” Bjorn said, again hiding his irritation. “Sending that many Dreadnoughts off at once…it was a logistical nightmare. Fortunately, the Iron Priests were prepared.”
“Good.” Russ peered over at his ancient friend. “Something else troubles you.”
“It does, King Leman,” Bjorn grumbled. “We’re wasting time. It’s been too long since we took the fight TO the green filth. We can defend against their raids, sure, but then we start losing worlds when we’re not close enough. We have outposts ninety thousand light years from Terra, but we can’t keep control of a single trade lane in the Ultramarines’ back yard?” he asked coldly. “Someone is at fault for this.”
Russ let his eyes narrow a bit. “And at whose feet,” he asked quietly, “do you lay the blame?”
“The Navy,” Bjorn answered instantly, with Redwind nodding in silent assent to his mentor’s words. “They simply aren’t doing enough to hold and expand the territory we sacrificed four millennia to take.”
The Wolf King regarded his advisors with a sense of surprise stealing through him. Bjorn’s words so closely echoed his own, to the Emperor a mere month before, that he felt honestly taken aback.
He slowly rose from his throne, pacing around the holotank. The empty space below filled with light as he approached, showing the colossal web of ‘safe’ Warp routes through which the Chartist Captains and Rogue Traders and Explorators hawked their wares, hauled their goods, wove their deals, and explored the galaxy. Clearly, from its presence, this had been a topic of some discussion in the Council of late.
“I see,” Russ said slowly. He looked over at where his two Lords were staring at him, unmoving. “I do not…disagree…” he said, his voice trailing off a bit. He looked down into the tank and picked out four small runes around an intersection of two trade lanes: suspected Hrud nests. A black sphere nearby bespoke the alleged presence of a Webway Gate the Dark Eldar had only recently reactivated.
Threats. Slowly, the dark places on the map were filling with them. Once, ancient Terran mariners had filled the blankness of their sea-charts with depictions of horrible beasts, to represent to the ignorant the dangers of exploring the unknown. How prophetic of them it had been in this instance. “Brothers, your words are familiar,” Russ finally said, speaking quietly, and standing stock-still. His eyes – perhaps the best in the human race after his fathers’ – picked over the map, searching for a foe he could reach out and crush. An enemy neck, to test his blades upon, a target he could break for his father’s will…a danger he could undo to make the world a little bit safer for his beloved wife and beautiful daughter.
“They are my words,” he finally said. “I said the exact same thing to the All-Father, less than four weeks ago. Even the bit about the Navy being…inadequate.”
Redwind blinked in surprise. Bjorn smirked in vindication.
“I told Freya when I arrived that the new Saturnine Fleet vessels would be distributed amongst the Legions, and I spoke the truth,” Russ said. “What I did not say was that those vessels will be IMMEDIATELY staffed and crewed by Titanian and Martian crewers the Emperor and Horus handpicked, and dispatched to reinforce the Warp lanes around the Legionary homeworlds the instant they are consecrated,” he finished, emphasis raising the tone of his voice. “And the rest of the Solar shipyards will be doing the same. We will divert tithes if we must: the shipyards of Segmentum Solar will not fall quiet ever again.”
“What do you mean, Father?” Redwind asked. Bjorn’s smile turned toothy as comprehension dawned.
“I mean that the Emperor agreed with me. Horus, Sanguinius, Rogal and I approached the Emperor with a plan to expand the Imperium’s borders…but do so within our existing borders,” Russ said, looking down into the tank once more. Less than twenty nine percent of the galaxy within the Astronomican’s range was under human control, less than fifty percent of the galaxy total.
“So…you mean, then, to fortify the existing inter-Segmentum trade and transit lines…then push outward from worlds on their course?” Redwind asked, his Astartes mind deriving his master’s intent.
Russ gave him a nod of mixed pride and bloodthirsty approval. “Very good, Ackur, very good,” he said.
Redwind nodded to acknowledge the compliment.
Bjorn spoke again. “So Earth and the Legionary homeworlds will be the hubs of this expansion?”
“Not exactly.” Russ turned to gesture at the map. “The Segmentum Solar is the physically smallest Segmentum, yet it contains the largest number of Forge Worlds by twenty percent more than Ultima. Why? Because the Martians didn’t always have FTL drives as fast as the ones we have now. The galaxy’s industrial core is there because that’s where Mars is. So the Forge Worlds of the Segmentum Solar will all be the hubs of this drive inwards…and the Legionary home worlds will be the lynchpins, the points from which the elite troops and intelligence-gathering services muster.”
“Just like the Crusade,” Redwind said, comprehension dawning.
“Bulls-eye,” Russ growled. “The Solar Expansion will see every dark place on the map explored. I have no love for the Eldar, but even they see the wisdom of this plan; I’m told the Emperor contacted Ulthwé and Alaitoc with this idea and they gave their enthusiastic approval.”
“What the hell for?” Bjorn asked curtly.
“Apparently, there are many unaccounted-for Webway portals and Exodite worlds within the theoretical boundaries of human space,” Russ said.
Bjorn shook his head. “No, I mean why do we care what the Eldar think? All the craftworlds are migrating out to where Ultran’s making his little fortress, out in the Ghoul Stars.”
Russ snorted. “I couldn’t give a thundering fuck what they think. But the Emperor flat-out told me that the Eldar want the expanding Hrud and Ork threats inside Imperial space neutralized for the safety of their ancestral cousins, and that so long as we don’t attempt to colonize any of the Maiden Worlds, they may even lend us their starmaps, thus saving us incalculable amounts of money. They did colonize this galaxy first, after all…and they’ve re-explored less than a hundredth of the colony worlds they lost when they fucked Slaanesh into being.”
Bjorn and Redwind exchanged disgusted looks, but kept silent. Russ was internally grateful for their lack of further dissent. No Wolf alive could change Russ’ course when he and the Emperor both had their minds set to a task, after all, and Russ was in no mood for his homecoming to be scarred by an argument with two of his most trusted friends and commanders.
“Any comments to register, my sons?” Russ asked, point-blank, just to be sure.
“None, really,” Redwind said. “Disregarding that Eldar bit, I think it’s a grand idea.”
The millennia-old Terminator shrugged. Though he could be described as ‘stoic’ and ‘grumpy’ in a single sentence, he also knew a reasonable argument when he heard one. “I would lead them myself, if you asked me…but you won’t. Will you, Leman?” he asked rhetorically.
“I came here for several reasons, old friend…and one of them is to lead the Brothers in person once more,” Russ said, turning his eyes to the holotank again. Fenris glowed in the maze, all but invisible in the sea of five hundred million stars. He could find it, though. He had stared at that star millions of times on thousands of maps, even as more and more worlds appeared on the maps around it, and he could have found it blindfolded by now. Soon, the empty places around it would fill even more…but he knew he could find it again.
“I have missed running with my brothers in the fields of war, I will not lie,” Russ said, staring down at the artificial galaxy. “But I will wait. The campaign will not begin until all assets are constructed and in place. ‘Expedience in the absence of foresight leads to catastrophe,’” he quoted Hawser. The Primarch turned to his Wolf Lords. “The Legions of Mars must be able to keep pace with the Legions of Terra and Fenris and Nocturne and Inwit and Macragge and Medusa, after all.”
“Oh? What will the Martians be up to?” Redwind asked.
“Beyond the obvious and urgent need for more exploratory and troop-transport ships for this expansion, they will be called upon to transport whatever STC artifacts and useful xenotech we find, obviously,” Russ said. “But the Collegio Titanica will be our armored spear, here. We will be fighting xeno empires that not only eluded the Crusade for three thousand seven hundred years, but in some cases ESCAPED it,” he pointed out. “We will need the War Titans on this quest, you may be entirely certain of it. And if we are to expand into the galaxy once more…then by the Worldsea of Fenris, we will need our armored companies,” Russ added darkly.
“Of course, Sire,” Redwind said, bowing his head in agreement.
Russ sank back into his throne and gestured once. The holotank switched off once more. “The Martians may not be ready to supply us with the ships, Titans, and Skitarii forces we need for twenty years,” Russ said. “And the eighteen years of peace we have enjoyed have…softened the Army. Not all of it, of course, but some. Enough to be a problem. And the Rogue Traders, who once served alongside the Explorators, have grown fat and complacent,” he added with a tone of unadulterated disgust in his voice. He HATED Rogue Traders. Some were little better than privateers and heretek mercenaries, serving the Emperor and Mars in name alone.
Bjorn, whose personal views on Rogue Traders hewed closer to his masters’ than in any other regard, nodded in weary agreement. “I would not be so quick to discount the Army though, Sire,” he said. “Was it not you who said that the Astartes often forget the sheer bravery of the mortal man, who is motivated to fight to defend his family and honor?”
“It was,” Russ conceded with the faintest grin of self-reproach.
The ancient one nodded, his point made and received. Redwind sensed the conversation ending and bowed low.
“How shall I impart your plan to the Brothers?” he asked.
Russ straightened up in his throne. “You shall not. Not verbally, at least. As I said, there could be two uninterrupted decades of hard work ahead of us. Step up recruitment as much as we can short of provoking battle between the clans outright, see to it that we secure as many designs for fresh hardware from the Mechanicus as we can without stepping on anyone’s mechadendrites…quietly. We have many foes, with many ears to hear and eyes to see. I trust the Techpriests here, of course, for they stand to gain as much as we do. Lost Forge Worlds! Entire archives of human history and knowledge. STC relics! But caution is the preserve of the living victorious, and indiscretion the preserve of the dead vainglorious.”
“Well said, Sire,” Redwind said. He rose and allowed himself a small, satisfied grin. “Anything else I should do, before I go to see to this instruction?”
And Later That Day...
On a Lighter Note
Russ nodded once, relaxing back into his seat again. “Tell me,” he said genially, his anticipation and bloodlust vanishing in a heartbeat, “of little Freya’s vacation.”
Redwind chuckled at the sudden change of tone. “Well, Sire…it’s been eventful. Not always in the good way, either.”
“Oh?” Russ asked.
“Yes. She loves it here, of course…but her friends have found it all somewhat overwhelming,” Redwind admitted. “They were attacked by krakenspawn when they went fishing, as well. It unnerved the Terran, Seager, and the Trader, Carlin, greatly.”
“Those boys have been having a rough few months,” Russ muttered. “Are they all right?”
“They are now, yes, but they didn’t think they’d have to…let’s say it: hose down the local fauna with an autorifle to survive their first week,” Redwind said. “They’ve kept to their quarters for the most part since.”
“A shame,” Russ said. “But…this is Fenris. I thought I impressed upon Freya the dangers of taking her friends and cousins here before they departed.”
“So did she,” Redwind said unaccusatorily. “She thought they could handle it. She was wrong.”
Russ went silent for a moment, thinking. Both other men sensed it when he made up his mind. He rose from his throne. “I think I will speak to them directly.”
Remilia flipped back on her bed and crossed her arms under her head. “So, Freya,” she started, smirking at her cousin, who was practically wringing her hands at the foot of the bed. “How you doin’ right now?”
“Flipping out!” Freya said. She grinned nervously, crossing her arms over her stomach. All five teens were lounging around Remilia’s room. Alex was still a bit anxious, since the elder Russ had never professed to be any friend of his. Then, he probably wouldn’t have let either him or Jake come to the Fang if he found them untrustworthy. “Are you guys okay? Dad can be kind of…you know, overwhelming.”
“You almost sound like you’re scared,” Jake said in surprise.
“Do I? I’m really not. Just anxious. We have a lot to talk about.”
“I’m a bit nervous, but only because…well. It’s your Dad,” Alex said. “I swear he still doesn’t like me.”
Freya shrugged. “Oh, hush. He’ll be fine, I promise.” She suddenly glanced at the door, mischievous. “Although…if you want to confuse the hell out of him, I know a thing we could do.”
Russ rode the lifts down to the VIP guest quarters, wondering if he would have the chance to get Freya to tell him exactly what had happened with the krakenspawn. As he emerged on the right floor, the most curious conversation met his ears. They were, after all, the second best in the entire Imperium.
“I’m telling you, that’s simply not fair,” Remilia was insisting.
“We could ask Uncle Leman,” Venus said.
“Why would he even care? And besides, when would he wear them in the first place?” Remilia asked.
“But it’s a question of definition!” Venus insisted. “And who better to define the word ‘tactical?’”
“Beyond the obvious?” Remilia sniffed.
“Guys, come now. We’re not going to want to bother Dad with whether or not you can define cargo pants as ‘tactical jhorts,’” Freya said with a sigh.
“Your definition is too narrow!” Venus said as Leman approached the right door.
“You’re too narrow,” Freya muttered.
“Go chase a car,” Venus said in the same tone.
Russ rounded the corner into the room to see all three girls arguing while the boys stared at them in a mixture of surprise and shock. Russ coughed. “Please don’t halt the argument for my benefit,” he said drily, knowing full well they had been arguing for just that reason.
Freya snapped her fingers. “Damn, he never falls for that any more.” She struggled to her feet. “He fell for it once, never again.”
“Once, and I’m sure you’ll never let me forget,” Russ sighed, leaning over to accept a gleeful hug from his daughter. “How have you all been? A bit roughed up, I hear?”
“I think it’s more the roughing-ups we avoided, Sire,” Jake said, struggling to force his nerves down. “It is good to see you again though, your Highness, and Fenris is an amazing place,” he added, bowing.
“It is,” Russ said. He took a step back and leaned against the wall, having removed his power armor for a more practical leather and fabric tunic. “So. What else have you done here so far?”
Freya piped up. “Well, we went on a rock-climbing excursion with Grey Hunter Hasskald of Tra,” she started. “Before that we went on a trip to the beach of the Everocean, but that got cut short by a skirmish between two tribes nearby…let’s see, we had a hot spring scene,” she said, drawing a chuckle from her father. “But I also went on a day trip to a large Krennir village, just to see how things work out here. You know, see the people a little.”
Russ nodded, catching her drift. They’d discuss it in privacy later. “And what else?”
“We’ve been spending some time at the range in the lower levels, and we toured the Hammerhold,” Venus put in. “And the fishing trip, of course.”
“I see.” Russ nodded again, thinking. He noted that both of the Terrans were deflating a bit, their nerves easing considerably. Well, the hiver was. Carlin, not as much. He was still wound tight as a spring coil. He was distantly satisfied. “Perhaps I can come up with some ideas as to what you can do while you’re here,” he said, coming back to the point. “How much longer are you here?”
“Nine days,” Freya said. “Then straight back to Terra.”
“Right.” Russ crossed his arms over his chest and smiled knowingly. “I imagine spending so much time here has grown somewhat repetitive,” he said.
Remilia and the other non-Fenrisians shifted awkwardly. Russ waved it away. “It’s nothing, I expected as much. But then, I knew I would be dropping by,” he said with a sly little grin. “I will be here for the next…let’s say ninety Terran Standard Days. As much as my time’s going to be taken up by work, I would feel like a terrible host if I didn’t offer you all the chance to see the Fang from its owner’s perspective,” Russ said. He smiled faintly. “Or perhaps one of the places I bet you haven’t seen yet outside?”
“Did you have something specific in mind, your Highness?” Jake asked carefully.
“I do indeed, Sieur Seager,” Russ said. He straightened back up. “First, however, it’s well after supper, you must all be famished. Freya, I’d like to speak to you after you’ve eaten, just drop by my own quarters when you have a moment.” He nodded once. “I will see you all tomorrow.”
Freya bounced up from the bed and followed him into the hall, pausing him as he walked away. “Is something wrong, Dad?” she asked.
“Not at all,” Russ said, reaching down to squeeze her shoulder. He smiled as she shrugged his hand off, pretending to be annoyed. “Trust me, I just want to hear how things have been going and talk about your college plans. Really. We can talk after dinner tonight if you like.”
“I think I would,” Freya said. She planted her hands on her hips and stared at the deckplates, thinking. “Yeah. I would. If you’re not busy.”
Russ nodded and stepped into the lift. “Tonight, then.”
As the group took dinner in their rooms, Freya raced through the food, hoping to get away to speak to her father. She bolted as soon as the food was gone, pausing only long enough to grab Bjorn’s gifts to show her father.
As she arrived at his chambers, however, she found him in the middle of a blazing argument with two officers, and hovered nervously outside the door until they tromped out, muttering to themselves. As they left, Freya entered, glancing around for her father. King Russ himself was hunched over the table at the farthest wall, paging through his papers with an air of intense annoyance. Freya coughed from the door to the room.
Russ spun around, his anger melting into fond attention in an instant. “Freya, come in,” he said.
“Am I interrupting, Father?” Freya asked in Juvjk.
“No, we’re all done,” Russ said, beckoning her closer. “Tell me of your adventure.”
“Do you want the short version from the letters, or the longer, more detailed version?” Freya asked.
“I have time for the full one, I think,” Russ said.
Freya walked up beside him, begrudgingly tolerating his ruffling her hair. “Well…right off the bat, the ship’s officers started clamoring for attention…”
As she recounted the tale, tastefully omitting the details of Remilia’s newfound love, she slid into full storyteller mode, relishing the opportunity to pass it along. They sat down in two massive chairs before the small gas fireplace in one wall and started it as she continued. As she reached the end, she faltered a bit when describing her companions’ mounting boredom and their experiences with the krakenspawn. Russ didn’t interrupt except for small questions and requests for clarification, until at last she wrapped up with the poker game he had interrupted.
“‘Busy’ doesn’t begin to describe it, eh?” Russ said, his eyes glimmering in the firelight.
“Not at all,” Freya said.
Russ smiled. “Good. I’m glad. Tell me more of this spat between Alex and his father, if you would,” he said, pouring himself a glass of something that smelled overwhelmingly strong.
Freya waved off a cup. “Well, his father’s a prideful and cowardly man, at heart, but smart,” she said, disgusted. “So when he told Alex in public rather than in private that he was forcing him to choose, he was backing his son into a corner.”
“Revolting,” Russ murmured. “What did you do?”
“I told him that I would have his Warrant revoked if he had done what Alex was afraid of him doing,” Freya said bluntly.
Russ’ head jerked around. “You did WHAT?”
“You heard me,” she muttered, but it wasn’t defiance so much as lingering bitterness in her voice. “Worthless corpsemerchant would deserve it too.”
“That is not the point,” Russ said, a tone of pure ice sliding into his voice like the edge of a knife. Freya flinched. “You do not have the authority to revoke a Warrant unless I give it to you. Which I won’t. I have made my stance on empty threats clear,” he said darkly.
“Forgive me, father,” Freya sighed, her head drooping in contrition. “I will try not to let my emotions get in the way.”
“Of course not, Freya,” Russ said, his anger melting away. How did she bloody do that? “But the decision was Venus’ to make anyway.”
“I understand she later threatened him with imprisonment if he stayed in Nocturne’s system without approval, or followed us to Fenris,” Freya said quietly. “I wasn’t there.”
Russ looked back to the flame. “What did Alex do?”
Freya closed her eyes and felt tears build. “He…stormed out, flew back to the castle. He raved, called his father a worthless monster…called himself…” she hesitated as her voice tightened. “…I won’t say it, that wasn’t even for my ears.”
Russ glanced back at her. Her sense was one of regret, remorse…even self-doubt. “He wept, father, felt so abandoned…he was hurting so much. I asked him what I could do to mend the hurt…offered him everything I could think of…my hearing, my…self. Nothing. He just…he is so alone now. His father drove his mother off before this happened, and now all he has is me.” She looked up at her father, her eyes glistening with tears. “He was hurting so much, and so I was too. Does it feel like that for normal people?”
Russ sighed heavily, remembering the state Gairwyn had been in upon her mother’s diagnosis of brain cancer. “Some people. Good people. There is…nothing wrong with emotion, little pup, nothing at all. It is simply not useful sometimes. Basic empathy is…not always something we of the Vlka should feel. But when someone that close to you is hurt, I think humans feel it as close as we do. I don’t think they react the same way, every time, though. Your mother is a passionate and emotional woman, too, and she does not bear our gifts.”
Freya smiled sadly at the thought of her mother. “Is she not here?”
“She did not wish to be. Things are…not well on Terra. You will see. She is in no danger, of course, but the riots, and her mother’s health…” he trailed off. “She did not wish to travel.”
“Riots?” Freya asked.
“A smuggling ring in Hive Nondemus took an Arbites courthouse out with it when the local law came knocking,” Russ said. “But back to the matter at hand. As much as I don’t like to see you suffer, I want to know how much this incident has affected your own plans,” he said. “Clearly you have already changed your college for him.”
Freya shook her head. “What of it?”
“Freya, is this boy worth twisting your career for him?” Russ asked.
His daughter glared up at him, her sadness turning to anger. “What career, father? Do tell. What is my future? Have we decided?”
Russ lowered his head a bit to meet her angry glare. “Freya, please. It’s an honest question.”
“So was mine,” she said darkly. “I will live eternally, and he won’t. Why not spend time with him while he’s here?”
Russ nearly bared his fangs in anger before checking himself. “Do not be so cavalier,” he said instead.
“Why do you not like him, father? This isn’t the first time you’ve said that,” Freya pointed out coolly. “That exact word, regarding my reasoned decision to stay with him. ‘Cavalier.’”
Russ grimaced. “Freya, you know full well that I chose for my people to remain in the mires of war. That they might elevate themselves through the brutal meritocracy of conflict, so that those with the mettle of a Space Marine might be seen without extensive trails beforehand. I do not want…no matter how happy he makes you…for you to find yourself with someone who lacks the strength to serve as my heir, in battle as well as politics.”
Freya fell silent. Russ stared into the flames for a moment longer before turning to her. He blinked. Freya’s face was twisted in revulsion. “Oh…father…how cruel,” she said, her voice bitter. “How pointlessly cruel.”
“Cruel?” Russ asked.
“Alex is not a Space Marine candidate! We’re not even TALKING about marriage, let alone him serving as your heir!” she insisted. “How…WHY would you judge him by a such a lofty criterion when he’s not even old enough to consider them?”
“Because time flies, Freya,” Russ said shortly.
“And besides, I didn’t ask why you don’t want me to marry him,” Freya said in the same tone. “I’m asking why you don’t LIKE him. You treat random friends of mine from school, and Jake and your nieces, better than you treat him. Hell, you wouldn’t even shake his hand if I didn’t ask you to.”
Russ grunted. “Fine. I don’t like him because you two started having sex before you were even done growing, because he frankly seems to lack spine, and because I think he has entitlement issues.”
Freya gaped. “Well, Dad, I can’t speak to the third, since he’s certainly never acted that way around me, but as for the first: my senses are as sharp as yours, and I’ve had to listen to, and smell, everything you and Mom have done behind closed doors since I was born.”
Russ shuddered. “Fair enough.”
Nobody Came Out of That Smelling Like Roses
“And if he seems spineless around you, ask yourself this: have you ever tried to NOT intimidate him?” she asked sharply. “I mean, the first thing you did when you met him was bare your teeth. I had to grab your hands and bring them together before you would shake.”
“He smelled like you, Freya, at fifteen. His voice hadn’t even broken! How well was I supposed to take that?” he asked. “Believe it or not, I love you, and I didn’t want you to give yourself to someone at that age, certainly not before I met him.”
“Look, my history with him aside, he’s seventeen bloody years old and already lost a parent to an act of senseless cruelty, that is, forcing him to choose between family and personal choice,” Freya said in a voice that could have melted glacial ice. “How is your behaving so poorly around him different? Because you making me feel that you distrust me and making him feel unwanted isn’t doing anyone favors.”
Russ’ head snapped around to glare daggers at his daughter, but the bite of truth in her words blunted his anger again. “If you wish to know how I feel he is self-entitled, at least, answer me this. When he walks into a stranger’s home and puts his feet on the furniture, does he even slow to think of it? When he costs himself or others money and time in an act of carelessness, does he apologize with words or action?”
“I don’t know, Dad, because I’ve never seen him act so careless,” Freya said. “You’re really reaching, here.”
“Freya, he acts like you were something he deserved because of his station and power, and treats you as such,” Russ said angrily.
“His station and power cost him his family.” Freya stood. “Come with me.”
“Come with me. Let me show you just how wrong you are,” she said. Her eyes narrowed to green slits in the firelight. “He has not acted like that…not once that I can remember in over a year. You are objecting to my relationship with a man who doesn’t exist.”
Russ stayed in his seat, staring at his daughter. “I’m not blind, Freya. He has the arrogance of the born privileged in him. Whether it’s a part of your everyday interactions or something he mostly keeps in check, I don’t know, and it barely matters. It’s there.”
Freya leaned forward, and now she DID bare her teeth. “I don’t judge you when your hands come home smelling of the blood of aliens and traitors,” she whispered. “I trust you and respect you all the same. Can you not respect and trust me when I choose a partner I feel would rather die than harm me?”
Russ was quiet for a long moment. At length, Freya turned and walked out, knowing full well her father would follow. After finishing the glass he had poured, Russ tiredly rose to his feet. “Horus and Lorgar don’t have to deal with this, oh no, their daughters are dating boys who’ve sworn themselves to abstinence,” he grumbled as he followed his daughter to the lifts. “Julius Pius and Pietro Gallagher at least don’t think with their dicks.”
Below, Alex was sprawled over Jake’s bed, listening to Jake tell stories about his old job. “Now, I don’t blame him. His health was pretty bad. But seriously, leaving me to go deal with customers we caught shoplifting while he vanished into the back room?” Jake asked. “Ugh.”
“Did that happen often?” Alex asked.
“Not as often as you’d think, given the local crime rate, but it was still pretty often. Most of the time, we’d just let it slide, or take a picture of the thief and put it behind the counter with the big red word THIEF over it,” Jake said, scrawling on an invisible picture. “Worked pretty well, but a few times it got violent. We got robbed at gunpoint once, though I wasn’t there when that happened.”
“Well…none of that at Kouthry,” Venus said. She drew her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs. “I wonder if I should get a job on campus. Just as an office clerk or something.”
“I’m sure you could, if only to seriously fuck with the heads of visiting people,” Remilia chuckled. Venus laughed.
“Yeah, that would confuse the hell out of people. Walk into the bursar’s office and there’s a Primarch behind the desk,” she said.
“Make people wonder just how high the tuition is,” Jake said, “that Lord Vulkan’s daughter has to work in the bursar’s office.”
A knock on the door announced Freya’s return. “Hey, guys, Dad and I are gonna discuss what we’re going to do tomorrow,” she said, ducking in and sitting on the bedside.
Jake shrugged. “What did you have in mind?” he asked.
Russ himself entered in his daughter’s wake. “I would be quite honored to show you all one of the islands we use as a field camp,” he said, pausing in the doorframe. He hid a smile at the boys’ surprise. “I can promise no kraken, at least.”
His senses so attuned, he did indeed sense some of the anxiety from Alex that Freya had suggested. He made a visible effort to appear more relaxed, leaning sideways on the doorframe and crossing his arms, and while Venus’ lad, Jacob, merely sat back down, Carlin instead deliberately crossed over to where Freya was sitting and sat beside her. Almost like he was afraid Russ would take Freya away or something. Interesting.
“Well, that’ll be an improvement,” Venus said, oblivious.
“I’d love to go, if we won’t be intruding, your Highness,” Jake said. He tilted his head towards the planet, far below. “Personally, I’ve found Fenris’ weather amazing so far. Actual snow. I never thought I’d live to see it.”
Russ allowed a small chuckle to pass his lips. “I suppose to a hiver it would be more memorable than more or less anything else. I think you’d like the island we’re visiting, though, it’s quite…what’s the phrase? Picturesque.”
Jake smiled nervously. “Sounds like fun. What time should we leave, your Highness?”
“Say 0900. I have a few administrative concerns to attend to.” Russ straightened up. “Am I to understand that you’ve availed yourselves of the firing range in the base of the Fang since you arrived?”
“Several times,” Remilia said. “Should we not be doing that, Uncle Leman?”
“Far to the contrary, I approve. Help yourselves,” Russ said with a nod. “I’ve always hoped you and your cousins would understand the importance of maintenance of martial skill, given your…lineage. You can visit it any time you wish.”
“Cool, thanks.” Remilia stood. “Don’t suppose we could convince you to stick around long enough to join our poker game tonight?” she asked with a coy grin.
Russ laughed. “I’d love to, but my duty calls me to the consecration ceremony of our new Quicksilver frigate tonight. Perhaps if you have a few spare hours nearer to the end of your stay, I would take you up on it, but for the time being…”
“Shame. Oh well.” Remilia offered her uncle a quick hug before vanishing into her own room to use the bathroom. The others moved over to the table in the corner of the room as Jake broke out the chip sets. Russ jerked his head out to the lifts and Freya nodded, rising to follow.
As soon as they were out of earshot of the others, Freya glared at him. “See? You make him so nervous that he didn’t say a word. And he’s been a perfect guest since he arrived, even when he had just arrived.”
“Very well,” Russ conceded. “I suppose he did, at least, show Bjorn due respect when he met him, from what he tells me.”
“He was outright reverent. Give him a chance, father. We won’t disappoint.”
“You never disappoint me, Freya,” Russ said.
“Neither will he. Trust me.” She turned back to the room and walked off.
Russ shook his head and tapped the call button for the lift. As he did, he heard Alex approach him from his apartment, hesitation filling his steps but not slowing them. Russ glanced back over his shoulder as Alex halted behind him.
“Lord Primarch Russ…may I ask you something?” Alex inquired nervously.
The stocky rugby player sighed. “Look…I know you don’t like me, Freya didn’t need to say it. And…yeah, I was…kind of a dick when we first met,” Alex admitted. Russ snorted. “But we both love Freya very much, and she helped me through losing not one, but BOTH parents. So even if you think we can’t or shouldn’t be friends…can’t we at least not be enemies?” he asked.
Russ held the door of the lift open, and turned to glare at the boy. “If you were an enemy of mine, Alex Carlin, believe me, you would be acutely aware of it. That said…I suppose you right about one thing. Freya’s happiness is paramount to me. And though I don’t think you have her best interests at heart, your willingness to level with me and delay your own future plans for her sake speak greatly in your favor.”
“And I make her happy,” Alex said, stifling his annoyance.
Russ stared down at him before finally nodding. “You do. So very well. If you wish to start over with me, fine.”
“Good.” Alex nodded, sighing heavily. “Good.” He started to stick out his hand, but the door was already closing behind the Primarch. Alex shrugged and plodded back to the room.
Freya was waiting for him. “Did it work?” she asked.
“I think so,” Alex said, sitting down at the table as Jake poured them all water. “I think he would just prefer that you only dated Fenrisians.”
“Probably, but Fenris is one of exactly TWO Space Marine Legionary homeworlds that doesn’t have Imperial standard education and awareness of the greater galaxy, so I would have a pretty damn narrow range of options,” Freya said. “Besides, he sent me to a Terran school. How did he think it would end?” She kissed him on the cheek as Venus passed out the chips. “Trust me, I won’t hold his lack of foresight against you,” she said slyly.
He smiled, squeezing her thigh under the table. “Thanks, babe,” he said.
Time to Go
The last few days passed quicker, since at last the group had found a guide willing to show them around the Fang who actually wanted them to be there. Under Russ’ direct supervision, they toured one of the small camps the Wolves used to train for infiltration missions, wherein the trainees had to move from one side of the island to the other without being detected by an Iron Priest overseeing them with several servo-skulls high in the sky. Later, the group went on a far less interrupted trip to fish on another island.
As their time on Fenris drew to a close, Russ received notice of the liberation of Seadelant. As he returned to the others, his visage was darkened. “Freya, I thought you might want to know. Julius Pius has been rescued from Seadelant,” he reported.
The five teens paused their game to listen. “Great! We were getting worried,” Freya said.
“Well, there were complications. He should be all right, but the fighting got…dirty.” Russ shook his head. “You’ll hear it from him, I’m sure.”
After returning from an ornithopter tour of a mammoth herd on the icy fields of Asaheim, the group started packing to go, with reservations for some. Alex was taking his time, meticulously examining each piece of clothing and each souvenir. Freya sensed his nerves, and quickly derived the cause. “Alex, are you worried about something specific?” she asked, with a forcedly casual air. “I mean, you’re on eggshells here.”
Alex set down the pair of socks he had had folded three times. “Yeah.” He sat down and ran his hands through his hair. “I’m just nervous, though…it’s probably nothing.”
“I want to hear it now anyway,” Freya said.
He smiled up at her, though his expression was tinged with an air of regret. “It’s what we’re going off to. You know. Living together.”
“Does it scare you?” Freya asked.
“No, more the responsibility. I mean…shit, that sounded dumb,” he muttered. “All right. I don’t know if it was just something I didn’t notice, or what…but it’s starting to hit me what a commitment that really is,” he said. “Living with someone for four years, you know.”
Freya nodded. “Yes, it is.”
“It doesn’t intimidate you at all?” he asked.
“Yeah…it does, a little, but I’m looking forward to it too, you know?” She padded over to him and stood in front of him, looking down at him on the bed. “It’ll be new. Something to try.”
“Yeah.” Alex rested his hands at his sides and leaned back to look at her.
She smiled slightly, planting her hands on her hips and looking down at him. “Alex, baby…don’t let the future scare you. Yeah, it’s looking like it will be rough for you. I won’t say it isn’t. But you have a lot going for you, too.”
Alex managed a little smile of his own. “Yeah. You’re right. I guess I just don’t know what to expect.”
“We’re living together now,” she pointed out.
He shrugged. “That’s true.” He rose to his feet and pecked her a kiss. “All right. Let’s get back to it,” he said, resuming his packing.
As the group assembled to leave the following day, a few of the Wolves turned out to wish their little sister well. The other four busied themselves with moving the luggage as Freya all but disappeared in the circle of her kin, ruffling hair and offering up trinkets of farewell.
“I gotta admit,” Remilia said, watching the display, “I do envy her that.”
Freya was fielding a Blood Claw’s playful advance, and settled for a kneeling farewell hug. With that, she turned to her father, who paused her as she passed. “Well…I guess I’ll see you when you get home, Dad,” she said.
He knelt as the others Wolves gave them a respectful pace or two away. “Freya…I won’t be there to see you go off to school, so I want you to know now,” he said softly. She leaned forward and rested her chin on his shoulder as he slid his arms around her shoulders. “I love you, little one. I want you to go and have fun at Cyprine. All right?”
“I will, Dad, don’t you worry,” she said. She leaned back and adopted an innocent air. “Believe me, give me a month and the whole school will be under my thumb,” she said airily.
He raised an eyebrow and sighed the sigh of the long-suffering. “Sure.”
She leaned forward again and hugged him back. “Love you too, Dad. I’ll see you when you get back to Earth.”
Alex hefted the last of his suitcases. Freya walked up behind him and grabbed one of her own. “Uh, Alex…I think you might want to talk to Dad before we go,” she said.
He nodded. “Yeah…yeah, you’re right.” He set the case down and walked back to where Russ was still standing.
Alex came to a halt at the Wolf King’s side. “Sire, do you have a moment before I go?” he asked.
Russ looked at the other Wolves. They silently filed away to the lifts, offering them a moment of privacy. He glanced down to where Alex was waiting. “What is it?” he asked.
Alex squared his shoulders. “Look…I want to thank you, sire.”
Russ cocked his head. “For what?”
“Well, letting us stay here, for one thing, but also for trusting Freya to make her own decision regarding whether or not to stay with me at Cyprine.” Alex looked back at where she was lifting the last of their luggage onto the servitor-driven baggage cart. “I don’t know where I’d be without her.” He looked back up at Russ, nerves peeking through. “I’m…really bad at this. So, let me just say this. I promise what no matter how this ends, with us and with my family being assholes and all of it, I’ll never give her a reason to leave. I was happy to be there for her when Morticia was hurt, and she was happy to be there for me when I was disinherited.”
Russ nodded once. “Good. I’ll hold you to that.” He gestured over to the lifter. “Now…you’re going to be late. You go and get my girl off to school safe and sound.”
“I’ll do that.” Alex bowed. “Thank you for hosting us, Lord Primarch Russ. It’s been an honor.”
“Certainly.” Russ watched him rise and rejoin his daughter. He saw the lad squeeze her hand as he climbed the ramp, and then they vanished out of sight as it rose to seal the hold.
To Outer Space, Every One of Us
The shuttle lifted and slid out into the inky blackness of space. The ambient sound of the engines died down considerably as they left the atmospheric shields of the bay. Freya sank down into a seat on the little ship and stretched out, staring out into the open chamber. Alex sat down beside her, but she didn’t stir. Remilia pulled her slate out to check messages one last time before they were out of range, while Jake and Venus simply buckled in for naps.
Freya pulled her knees up to her chest and lay down sideways on the bench, eyes unfocussed. Alex looked down at her. “Are you all right, Freya?” he asked.
“I will be.” She didn’t move as she answered. “I just never feel good leaving the pack like this. Just give it a few hours and I’ll be all right.” Alex made to raise her head to rest in his lap, but she waved his hand away. “You’re a sweetheart, but I just need to handle this,” she said. She reached over her head and squeezed his hand again, though. “Thanks.”
Remilia groaned under her breath, drawing their attention. “Fucking great,” she said aloud.
“What’s up?” Jake asked, stirring in his seat.
Remilia held up her slate. “The Tide was lightly damaged in the fight for Seadelant. It’s spaceworthy, but Captain Roemer wants us to bear in mind that we may not be all that warmly welcomed while the ship’s hangar is undergoing repairs.”
“The fuck? What happened?” Venus asked.
“Dinged up by Orks during the landing sequence of the Army shuttles, but check this out,” she said. “They took on a damaged Stormbird during the landing and part of the hangar got trashed. And aboard the shuttle was Nathaniel Garro of all people.”
“Are you serious?” Venus asked.
“Apparently Uncle Mortarion wanted the big guns at the front rank for this one,” Remilia said. “Can’t blame him. Long story short: the hangar’s damaged, so we’ll be docking in the cargo shuttle bay instead,” she reported.
“Hmm.” Venus thought that over. “Well, we’ll have to see how that goes. I’ll talk to Roemer when we get aboard.”
No sooner had she said that than the ship’s engine noise died down even more. The ship had emerged from the gravity well of Fenris and its deep-space drives kicked on, propelling them towards the outer system and the Iron Tide.
As the ship docked in the cargo bay some ten hours later, Venus rose and nudged the others awake. “All right, you guys, grab your stuff,” she said.
As the others roused themselves, Venus poked her head into the cabin, just to confirm their arrival. The dank and worn metal bulkheads and decking of a ship’s cargo bay greeted her through the viewport. “All right, thanks for the lift,” she said to the Space Wolf skjald crew.
“Our honor, Lady Venus,” the copilot said, already beginning the post-flight checklist.
The rear ramp swung open, revealing a small group of uniformed technicians and Officer Haarlan, already waiting at the base. “Lady Venus, Ladies Russ and Dorn, Lords Carlin and Seager, welcome back to the Iron Tide one last time,” he said. “We’ve brought a few cargo pallet movers to expedite your offloading; I hope you got our message about the damage your previous bay has taken?” he asked.
“We did, thank you for the heads-up,” Venus said, bowing slightly to acknowledge him. “Need I be informed of any casualties from the attack?” she asked.
Haarlan’s face darkened. “Not precisely, but the ship did take on some passengers: Lord Nathaniel Garro and some of his Death Guards.”
Venus’ red eyes blinked. “So I have been informed. What happened?”
“Their ship was damaged by an Ork gunship, and they had to make an emergency dock,” Haarlan explained, leading them into the ship.
Venus let out a sigh. “Very well. Then let’s get underway as soon as we’re offloaded,” she said.
“Naturally. Captain Roemer awaits you all at your leisure in the Captain’s Hall,” Haarlan said.
As they left the dock, allowing the servitors to move their things, Venus let her eyes wander over the corridors, looking for any sign of damage. Sure enough, the ship seemed undamaged, and the crew seemed jubilant on the few occasions they encountered another person. Then, they had boarded at the very beginning of the day shift.
The lift ferried them to the Captain’s quarters, where a small honor guard awaited them as usual. The Captain rose to his feet, looking rather weary, but nevertheless happy to see them. “My Lords and Ladies, welcome back,” he said, bowing as they entered. “I trust your stay on Fenris was enjoyable?”
“It was. My Father even stopped by,” Freya said.
“Lord Primarch Russ is in the Fang right now?” Roemer asked, surprised.
“He is,” Freya confirmed.
“I see. Had I known, I would have extended an invitation to join us,” Roemer said.
Freya shook her head. “He would have declined. He’s quite busy right now. First time he’s been home in a while.”
Roemer sat as soon as Venus had done so herself. “I understand. I am assured you have been informed of the combat which has taken place involving my ship since last you saw it?” he asked.
“We have indeed,” Venus said, smiling to acknowledge Isaac’s grin. “I’m glad the Ork incursion could be expelled before anything catastrophic occurred.”
Roemer smiled ruefully. “As were we all. And it was an honor to meet Captain Garro, as well,” he said.
“I’ve met him at a formal ceremony or two,” Remilia piped up. To Freya’s senses, she looked somewhat nervous about something, though she seemed relaxed at a glance. “He’s a pretty straight-laced officer. Did you have a chance to join the battle for the planet in person?”
“We did, in fact, we engaged a small Ork ship directly,” Roemer said. “I’m proud to report we made a fine accounting of ourselves; the Orks had their lightest-armed flank to us, so we were able to bring them within full broadside under only minimal fire.”
“Good on you, Captain,” Venus said approvingly. “Congratulations. Is that the ship’s first blooding?”
“It is against greenskins, though we have fought pirates before,” Roemer said. “You’ll be pleased to know the tank acquitted itself well against the greenskins.”
“Excellent. Dad would approve,” Venus said. “Did you bring it back?”
“No, a few ships were going to stay behind to transport the Hulk chunks to a Forge World for salvage,” Isaac explained. “We simply left the tank behind; no sense in transporting it with a damaged hangar. Safer that way too, if there’s Orks left behind.”
“I see.” Venus waved off the proffered wine. “Captain, it occurs to me that carrying us to Terra on the heels of such a battle is an inconvenience for you. On behalf of myself and my friends, thank you for transporting us,” she said.
“Think nothing-” Roemer started to say.
Venus held up a hand to gently interrupt. “Roemer, please. You took your vessel into battle in behalf of the Imperium and saved not only one of the Adeptus Astartes’ founding heroes, but also a personal friend of ours. I mean it. Thank you, very much,” she said, smiling broadly.
Roemer returned it, relaxing into his chair a little. Clearly, he was proud of his vessel and crew’s accomplishments. “You are most welcome, your Highness,” he said.
Isaac rose from his seat. “With your leave, Captain, I would ensure the Space Wolf ship got off safely and that we are cleared to depart,” he said.
“Certainly, Isaac,” Roemer said. He rose as well. “As much as I would enjoy giving you all a proper welcome, I imagine you wish to unpack and rest. If I may, however,” he said as his guests moved to stand, “I would ask that you be careful outside of designated safe areas. We were boarded during the battle, and took some internal damage. We’ll be putting in at Mars for repairs as soon as you depart, in fact,” he added.
“I see, thank you for your warning,” Venus said. “How will we know the safe areas?”
“Military police postings at the corresponding intersections,” Roemer said. “And, incidentally, given your flight time, I would be honored if you joined me for a dinner tomorrow night. Just to commemorate the journey’s end.”
“Very well.” Venus bowed slightly as she led the others out. “Thanks, Captain.”
Below in the lounge, Lieutenant Kines looked unhappily at the remaining stockpile of alcohol in his O-Club bar. It looked like it had been used for target practice.
“I suppose the Royal Daughters at least are too young to drink,” he said.
One of the fighter pilots at the bar glanced over his shoulder as two familiar red points of light appeared over at the hatch. “Say, speaking of,” he said.
Kines looked up and smiled as the five teens made their way through the room. “Sirs, Ladies Primarch, welcome back,” he said.
“Hello, Chuck,” Remilia said. She glanced around the room. “Looks a bit different,” she said. Indeed, several small pieces of carpeting had been cut out from the floor in places.
“There was a bit of damage in here from the ship rocking about in the atmosphere,” Kines said. “I wasn’t here, I was manning one of the firefighting teams, but one of the Death Guard Terminators was, thankfully. Or my stock would be even more depleted,” he sighed.
“What?” Jake asked.
“After the battle, we put in over the capital for quick repairs. Mine was probably the only working bar outside the capital’s inner city,” he said with a rueful grin. “Sold about ninety percent of the alcohol on the ship that day.”
Jake laughed, sliding into a seat. “So I imagine. You still have some non-alcoholic drinks left, I hope?”
“Sure, if you like cola and water,” Kines said. Jake shrugged.
“By the way,” Kines said, pouring drinks for them all, “you’ll never guess who I met.”
“Who?” Remilia asked as the others took their drinks.
“Julius Pius,” Kines said. “He sat right there where you’re sitting, Remilia,” he said, pointing at her seat.
“Really? Wow. Small galaxy,” Remilia said. “Is he all right?”
Kines hesitated. “Not…really, no,” he said. “He took the battle hard.”
Remilia nodded glumly. “I see. Well…we’ll see him on Terra. I’m sure he can talk to us then.”
The fighter pilot nodded his thanks to the bartender and stood, heading out to the hatch. As soon as he was out of earshot, Remilia sighed into her glass with a longing air, and he struggled to keep a smile off his face. “I’ll be around all evening, if you wish to return after dinner,” he said. “I just opened. It’s pretty early in the duty rotation right now.”
“I think we will,” Venus said for them all. “But for now, you mind if we just stick around and talk?”
“Of course not, Venus,” Kines said with a professional smile. “It’s your ship.”
The hours passed, as Kines retold his own, meager part of the battle – that is, waiting for fires to start – and the teens recounted Fenris’ many dangers. Kines seemed particularly interested in the descriptions of King Russ’ side trips with the group, like when they had gone mammoth-watching from the back of a gunship, or when they had visited a field training camp of Great Company Tra.
When lunch rolled around, the group simply ate in, enjoying the company of the few officers who wandered in every so often, trading stories with those brave enough to speak. By late afternoon, though, the mortal two fifths of the party were starting to feel the day’s length, and the ten hour flight to the ship was catching up to them. They retired to their own rooms, where they could compose messages to be sent home before they left the Fenris system. As they reached their own cabin, Jake’s slate beeped. He opened it and smirked. “Excellent. Move-in dates, the RA’s name, local contact data, a map of the town, confirmation of shared residence, some coupons for nearby restaurants, a parking pass for you…just in time.”
Venus peered over his shoulder. “Perfect. Any messages from home?”
“One for you,” Jake said, glancing over her slate as well. “Looks like a message from Farah.”
Venus brought it up. “Hmm. Looks like Johor got a job at the Embassy. That’s cool…aaaand Farah says she’s already hyped up for her trip, and will be leaving…right after we get home. Guess she wanted to go see her mom early.” She paged down. “Aww, that’s sweet.”
“What is?” Jake asked.
She showed him the slate. “They’re having a going-away party for those of us that are headed off to school, the day after we get back. Mom and Dad are going to ‘surprise’ me with the car.”
“Awesome,” Jake said. He grinned at the brief message. “Your parents are great, you know that? Just up and giving you a car like that.”
“Well, I’m paying for part of it, but yeah.” Venus took the slate back and switched it off. “Listen, Roemer said we had the night, so I think I’ll just eat in. Order something up from the kitchen and chow down here. Sound okay?”
“Sure,” Jake said, switching his slate off. “I suspect Remilia’s gonna want to go to the bar, though. Alex and Freya might, too.”
“I’m not up for it, really,” Venus said evasively. “You can.”
“Nah, I’ll just hang here,” he said idly, searching for a menu. “Hope the kitchen survived the battle.”
Freya and Alex sat across from Remilia in the officer’s mess, watching the crew as they ate. A few of the Naval personnel seemed downcast, even given that the battle had been a week previous. Others, however, seemed pleased, with the kind of bare patches on their uniforms that suggested recent promotions, while others yet seemed on the verge of falling over from exhaustion. Technicians and mechanics from the repair crews, no doubt.
“Never seen the aftermath of a battle like this before,” Remilia said quietly.
A few members of the ship’s security detail patrolled the outer parts of the room. The lengthy tables were packed with officers, though in what was becoming a trend, not one actually stopped to talk to them.
“Wonder if anyone has a copy of that video of us sparring,” Remilia said drily.
Freya laughed. “Probably not. And if they did, who gives a shit?”
Alex downed his water, looking at the officers around them. “If they’re here, I’d wager the club is pretty empty,” he said. “You two want to whip me raw at darts after dinner?”
“Sure,” Freya said happily. “You may even pick something up this time. Like a dart.”
“I know, right?” Alex sighed. “I’m so bad at that game. How can I kick a rugby ball into a target the size of a fruitbasket, but not hit a dartboard?”
Above, Kines wiped down the bar, trying not to sweat under the appraising glare of Haarlan, who had been sitting at the counter chatting with one of the other officers for several minutes at this point. True to Venus’ word, no sign of punishment for his affair with Remilia seemed forthcoming, and given the combat the ship had seen, it seemed a minor complaint. Still, a traditionalist Political Officer like Haarlan could carry a grudge like it had handles and a shoulderstrap.
Relief arrived in the form of three of the teens, who made their way over to the dartboard and started playing. Haarlan, loyal and obsequious political officer that he was, was distracted enough by their presence that Remilia was able to walk right up to the bar and sit down before he even noticed.
“Hi, Lieutenant,” she said, taking the proffered cola.
“Evening, ma’am…Remilia,” he said, adding the ‘mistake’ of referring to her formally for Haarlan’s sake. Then, she had used his own title for the same reason. “Will Lord Seager and Lady Venus not be joining us?”
“I suspect that they’re just tired. Long flight from Fenris,” Remilia said.
“Sure. We would have sent a lander of our own, of course, but, well…the hangar,” Kines explained.
“Naturally. The Wolves were happy to accommodate.” She sipped her drink and set it on a coaster. “Ever worked with the Wolves before?”
“Nope, neither Space nor Luna,” Kines said. “In fact before the dinner in Skarokk, I don’t think I’d ever even seen Astartes up close.”
“It’s memorable, isn’t it?” Haarlan put in. “I wonder if there will be any Imperial Fist Techmarines in the team they send to repair the ship.” He looked over to Remilia. “Ordinarily a Salamander Legionary ship will put in at Corprus or Kar Duniash for repairs, but since our destination is Terra anyway, we’ll just put in at Mars.”
“So Captain Roemer tells me,” Remilia said. She ran her finger along the rim of the glass, looking at the melting ice. “I admit I was surprised the ship was called spaceworthy enough to transport us so soon after a battle. What was the casualty count aboard the Tide?” she asked.
Haarlan shook his head. “Minimal. Around six crewers and one of the Space Marines we took aboard injured injured.”
“That’s too bad,” she said softly. “Will there be a formal ceremony?”
“We already had one, ma’am,” Kines said solemnly. “It was the first full day after we entered the Warp.”
“Oh.” Remilia looked down into her glass. “Sorry to turn the tone maudlin.”
Haarlan graciously dismissed her apology. “It was kind of you to ask.”
Now No-one Can Smell Us
As the evening approached, and Haarlan finally found his presence needed elsewhere, Remilia passed the look she had been harboring the entire night to Kines over the rim on her glass, which he returned with a wink. With that, their entire exchange concluded, and the group broke up an hour later, Kines staying behind to work, and Alex and Freya heading up to their room. Remilia made straight for her room, as well, checking discreetly as she did that the box of condoms Venus had left her wasn’t spent.
Next door, as Venus and Jake cleaned up the detritus of their meal, they and every other person aboard felt the characteristic lurch as the ship accelerated. Jake brushed his hands free of breadcrumbs and rose from the table. “That’s it. Homeward bound.”
“Yep.” Venus dropped onto the bed and cushioned her head in her hands. “It’ll feel good to be back, even if it’s only for a day or so.”
“Sure will.” Jake stretched. “Would you mind if I invite someone to this going-away party?” he asked.
“Some friends of mine from middle school, and other guys from the hive,” Jake said. “I want the chance to say goodbye, you know?”
Venus stared up at the ceiling. “Sure, if you want. The party’s information is on the slate.” She rolled to her feet and rose. “I have a slightly more urgent need, though.”
Jake looked over at her. “Yeah?”
“Oh, yes,” she said. She slowly stood and walked up to him, unclasping the buttons on her shirt as she approached. “Dunno about you, but I have the funniest feeling…like I haven’t had an orgasm in a month, despite sharing a bed with my boyfriend the whole time.”
Jake grinned from ear to ear and slid his hands under the fabric of her bra to cup her breasts. “Oddest thing, that. Contagious, I suspect,” he said. He started to lead her to the bed, when she paused him.
“Jake. Baby. Sit down,” she said flatly. Somewhat confused, he did so.
“Something wrong?” he asked.
Venus’ eyes flickered brighter as she gently pushed him back on the bed, until he was lying flat on his back. “Not at all,” she said. “But, see, I’ve been dry as long as you have. Trust me,” she said softly, running one warm hand over his cheek. “I’m driving tonight.”
Remilia leaned sideways against Kines’ shoulder as he reclined against the headboard, feeling her racing heart slow. She smiled as he ran a playful hand over her leg and squeezed, tickling her. She slapped his arm away. “Quit it,” she giggled.
He kissed the crown of her head. “Do I have to?” he asked.
She grabbed his hand and rested it in her lap. “There.”
He gently ran his fingers over her soft skin, smiling fondly. “Don’t mind saying it, Remilia…I was wondering where you were when we were fighting the Orks,” he said softly.
She chuckled. “I was thinking of you, too, when we were getting attacked by krakenspawn on Fenris. Funny, huh?”
“Is it?” he asked. She eased down onto her back as he spoke, pulling away from his hand. “I was wondering if I’d ever get to see you again.”
“That’s sweet,” she said, smiling at the thought. She grabbed the hand that rested beside her head and idly played with it. “I was just thinking of what I wanted to see when it was over.” She bought his fingers to her lips and kissed one. “Life-threatening danger makes you amorous. Who knew?”
He laughed aloud at that and slid down next to her. “I think it’s more about finding something distracting.”
She smiled against his fingers, running her thumbs across his palm. “Yeah.”
He rolled onto his side and pulled the covers up to her stomach, then wrapped his arms around her shoulders briefly. “Good night,” he said softly.
“Wait,” she said as he gestured at the lights. “Can we just talk for a bit?”
He let his hand fall back down. “Sure. Can’t promise I won’t fall asleep, though,” he added, stifling a yawn. “You wore me out.”
“A month stuck in a building with several tens of thousands of Space Marines with superhuman noses,” Remilia said.
“Don’t even want to think about it,” Kines said. “What did you want to talk about?”
She thought for a moment. “I’m headed off to college, you know. What was it like?”
“College? Well…I dunno, I went to a shitty little tech school in the middle of West Ballsack, Nowhere. You’re going to the most prestigious liberal arts school in the Segmentum,” Kines pointed out. “Hardly comparable.”
“I guess so,” Remilia admitted. “But was it fun?”
He hesitated. “Not really. But they rush you through. Get your class list, get your books, go go go.” He smiled at her again. “Like I said. You get to take your time.”
“Yeah.” Remilia nodded, pondering that.
“Listen, gorgeous, I’d love to chat, but I really do need to turn in,” he said, yawning again. “Talk to you tomorrow, for sure, all right?” he asked.
“Right.” She pecked him on the cheek, slid her lips down to his, and lingered. He stroked her cheek as she held the kiss for a moment. “Good night,” she whispered, pulling the blankets up to her chin.
Supply and Transportation
A few days later, the group reassembled in the O-club one afternoon to plan logistics. Remilia would have to take off nearly as soon as the party ended, but Venus and Jake would have nearly a week to prepare, and Freya and Alex about half that. The Captain had already told them that they would be docking on a small repair platform on Mars’ orbital ring, then taking a lander to Startseite.
Remilia glanced over their manifest, which Roemer had included with their timetable. “How in the world did I manage to pack this much stuff by myself?” she asked rhetorically.
“Three months looks much longer at the start,” Alex said sagely.
“True that,” she sighed. She set her slate down and glanced over to where Venus and Jake were hunched over their own slates, trying to coordinate transportation of their junk to the college. “How are you two looking?”
“Pretty good,” Venus said under her breath. “I think I would probably be better off using Dad’s truck for moving the holo…and you’re just going to leave your computer home, right?”
“Yeah, use it as a home computer and build a better one with the money Remilia gave me,” Jake said distractedly. He finally tapped the screen of his own slate. “All right! Rides are arranged. Thanks, sweetheart,” he said to Venus.
“Not a problem,” Venus acknowledged him. “The Treasury guys will need to clear you, but I imagine security’s lowered this long after the shooting.”
“I think so, too,” Remilia said. “I’ll be taking one of Dad’s aircars on a cruise over the hives, it looks like. It’s a seven hour flight, but whatever. I’ll just nap.”
“Hell of a flight, but do me a favor while you’re out there?” Jake asked.
“Take a holo of the hive skin as you fly over it,” Jake said. “There’s hive spires that break the skin out there to give the upper crust some sunlight in places, and I always wanted to know what they looked like.”
“Sure.” Remilia closed down her own slate and reached for her water. “You guys know what you’re gonna do for those few days you get before orientation?” she asked.
Freya’s lips quirked downward for an instant before she brought herself under control. “I think we’re going to stay in Startseite for a while, at first, but then I want to go see my Grandmother in the hospital.”
“And I want to go visit my mother, too,” Alex said. “Before she sells the house.”
Jake looked up at him. “Where in the hive is she going?”
“Top cube. One of the spires. The place is supposed to be nice, but…I haven’t heard from her in weeks. Even after I sent the message that detailed everything that happened,” Alex admitted. “I’m a bit worried.”
Venus nodded in sympathy. “In the Warp, message delivery is never fluid. I’m sure she’s fine.”
“Yeah.” Alex sighed heavily. “I’m just afraid the reason I haven’t heard from her is that the money she managed to wrangle from Dad is all run out, and she can’t afford Astropathy.”
“Then she’ll be fine,” Freya said firmly, cutting off the discussion before Alex could depress himself. “Believe me. We’ll see her when we see her.”
“Isn’t this the first time you’ll have met her?” Alex asked.
“Sure is,” Freya said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Jake spoke up. “A few of my old friends from the hives will be attending the going-away party, but only if it’s all right with you guys,” he said. “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to have strangers at the party.”
“Doesn’t bother me any, and it’s a big place,” Remilia said, referring to the hotel ballroom Roberta had rented. “Shame Farah has to bolt right after.”
“Yeah, I wanted to catch up,” Venus said remorsefully. “Show her my new outfit.”
“Hey, show up to the party in the outfit,” Jake said, half-joking. “Blow people’s minds.”
Venus chuckled. “I think I may just bring the holo of me in it that you took. How about you, Freya? Wearing the furs?”
“You bet your ass,” Freya said happily. “I’ve been dying to show them off.”
Remilia shook her head. “I have no costume,” she said with a dramatic sigh.
“Bah, you look good all the time anyway,” Jake teased. “Besides, one less thing to pack. Don’t you have to leave that very night?”
“Ugh, yes. Packing like a mad woman. Unless Mom had one of the butlers do it for me, I should have asked,” Remilia said.
“I have so little stuff to bring, I would be happy to help you out,” Jake offered.
“That’s sweet of you, but I should do this,” Remilia said. “I need to talk to Mom alone anyway,” she reflected.
The pretty blond soccer player finished her water and wandered over to the bar. Kines spotted her coming and refilled the glass. “All ready to head out when the time comes, ma’a…Remilia?” he asked for the public’s benefit. He certainly had no problem remembering not to call her by a formal title when it mattered by this point.
“Nope, few last-minute hiccups here and there,” Remilia said. She sipped at her water and discreetly glanced around to see if anyone was watching. Determining that there wasn’t, she offered him the sly little wink that had become their password, and he eagerly returned it as he would have be insane not to do. She set the glass down and sat on the stool, allowing normal conversation to replace innuendo. “So, Lieutenant, if you don’t mind me asking. What do you see yourself doing after your tour ends?”
“Well, Remilia, I’m thinking I may get out as soon as I legally can, like I must have told you,” Kines said. His light brown hair bobbed over the counter as he reached down to turn on the ice maker. “But after that? Open a bar. Maybe in the spaceport back home on Totnis. Start a family, if I can.”
Remilia smiled. “I suspect you’ll find that an easy prospect, Chuck.”
Kines blushed faintly. “Thanks.” He fiddled with a glass, wiping it down. “I think the fighting over Seadelant got to me a bit. I just want to get out. I never asked to join up, anyway. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t intend to jump ship, and I do like this job, but it’s certainly not my life.”
“I’m glad you get to make that choice, even when conscripted,” Remilia said.
“Me too,” Kines said emphatically. “But, it is considered something of a breach of protocol to discuss that while on duty, so I’ll just ask: what can I get you?”
Remilia smiled behind her glass. “I’m fine. Thanks.”
Questions and Answers
That evening, as Kines secreted himself into her cabin, Remilia asked him a question she had wanted to ask before. “Chuck, are you going to be on Mars long?”
He sat on the edge of her bed. “At least two months.”
“Do you think I could come and see you while you’re up there?” Remilia asked.
Kines wistfully shook his head. “I don’t think so. What if you got caught? You’d be crucified in the press. Plus, Haarlan would lose his patience after that long.”
“Yeah, but I’m gonna miss you,” Remilia admitted.
Kines smiled. “I’ll miss you too, but I think it would be better if we kept this a summer fling. You know.”
She sighed. “I guess I understand.” She curled up on the bed behind him. “It’s been worth it, though, hasn’t it? So far?”
“Absolutely,” Kines said. He leaned back on his elbows so he could make eye contact with her. “It’s been great. Seriously, this is the best thing that’s happened to me since I got conscripted,” he said cheerfully.
Remilia giggled. “That’s kind of you.” She uncurled and scooted over to him, as he rested his head in her lap to stare at the cabin overhead. “Can I ask you something that just occurred to me?” she inquired.
“How come you’ve started to treat the others like just normal passengers? I mean, more than just not using titles,” she said.
Kines shrugged. “Shouldn’t I? You specifically asked me to call you by your given name. Venus doesn’t even have a last name, that I know of.”
“No, she doesn’t, and it gave her a headache every time she had to fill out a multiple-choice test with those answer bubble sheets,” Remilia said with a laugh. “I remember she just started putting ‘Venus Na.’”
“Yeah, N A, for Not Applicable,” Remilia said, remembering. “We called her Na for like a month after that.”
Kines chuckled. “To answer your question, though, I just call you that because that’s what you wanted.”
“Right, but I mean in conversation,” Remilia said. “Just you and me.”
Kines blinked. “I guess I don’t understand. Should I stop?”
“Oh, no, I like it,” she said. “Even at school, most of us were referred to with such…formal language by so many faculty. Like they were afraid of us, or our parents, or something. Which was dumb since so many of the other students were crazy rich and powerful too,” she said. “I like it.”
“Yeah, now you’re slumming it,” Kines said drily.
“Slumming it, in a VIP cabin on an interplanetary road trip, ayuk yuk, listen to you,” Remilia said. She flicked his ear for his temerity.
“What? It’s true! Living in a suite with only two rooms, deigning to grant the occasional dirty fuck to an O-2 Lieutenant, having a servitor do your laundry instead of an OW!” he said as she flicked his ear again, harder.
“You, shut the fuck up,” she said sternly.
He sighed. “You never let me have any fun.”
Remilia sniffed. “I let you have my virginity instead, that has to count for something,” she said haughtily. She reached down to run her hands through his hair. “Really, though, Chuck, I only ask because I appreciate it. It’s really nice to have someone to talk to outside of the family and school people. It makes a difference.”
He smiled as she stroked his hair in her lap. “I enjoy it. Around here, the guys feel like they all have something to prove. I mean, there are guys on the crew I feel I can talk to as friends, but it’s nice to have someone from outside the military, too.”
“Which is hilarious, given my parentage,” Remilia observed.
“True, I should really be saluting every time you open your mouth,” Kines quipped. He looked up at her from her lap. “Can I ask you about that stuff? How people treat you, what it feels like to be transhuman…that kind of stuff?”
“I guess,” Remilia said. “What, specifically?”
Kines thought for a moment. “Well…did your super-senses manifest at birth, or what?”
“Yeah, always been there. It’s got its benefits,” she said. “Nobody thinks to block things they think other people can’t sense. So if someone’s whispering in the same room as me, they’re only going to be as quiet as they think they need to be so a room full of normal people can’t hear them, but I could probably hear them just fine.”
“That’s really interesting,” Kines said. “I bet living in a world built for people with lower sensory thresholds must get annoying after a while, though.” “Annoying?” Remilia wondered about that. “No, it’s not annoying. It’s just more noticeable at some times than others.”
“Does it hurt to have people talk to you at conversational levels when you can hear things so quiet?” Kines asked.
“Not at all. It’s more like…like I can pick up a wider range of sounds than just increased sensitivity,” she said.
He digested that. “Are your other senses super-powerful?”
“Kind of. Touch and taste, not really, but smell and vision, yeah,” she said. “But really, it’s not like I have anything else to compare it to.”
“Yeah.” He raised his head as she sat up against the headboard and beckoned him over. He obligingly shifted to rest his head on her crossed legs again, and she slid her hands over to rest on his shoulders. He couldn’t feel the warmth of her hands through his evening uniform he had worn to the bar, but he was sure she felt as good as she always did. “You know, some of the guys are starting to wonder what exactly I’m doing when I come over here and don’t wind up back in my bunk,” he said. “If we were docked over a planet, I’d be worried.”
“But you aren’t here?” she asked.
“Nope. When we’re in the Warp, the higher-ups sort of let it slide. They know if they don’t allow fraternization between grades and genders on a mixed-sex ship, there’ll be trouble,” Kines said.
Remilia nodded. “But in port?”
Kines sighed. “Well, I could be a cynical twat and say that in port we’re more likely to be entertaining visiting officers, but in reality, we’re just so much busier that the difference in time between how long it takes to get from your woman’s bay to your own really can make a difference, so they actually check to see where we are.”
“But you’re not a cynical twat,” Remilia deadpanned.
“Exactly,” Kines said. He smiled up at her, upside down. “I dunno. It’s just that on a warship, EVERYBODY needs to be able to rely on EVERYBODY,” he said. “If the fourth-battery fire response squad doesn’t have the total confidence that the corridor is secure during a boarding, or if the flight deck controllers don’t have every single one of their emergency fuel dump crew in place at ALL TIMES, we could lose the entire ship, because of one little distraction. Nobody really minds the restriction when we’re actually at risk.”
Her light brown eyes met his much darker ones, and she smiled back. “It’s good that you can be objective about it.”
“Nobody coddles the conscripts. Shit, the volunteers do have it worse, I admit, because they’re expected to have perfect morale right off the bat, but the conscripts get it on day one: no warship is a ground crew, no warship officer is an island, and every man needs to know where you are without looking. We need to be able to come out of the Warp with every single cannon and torp-tube and lance and fighter catapult ready to vent and lock, in under four seconds. We can’t get that done if the fire control team leader is of getting laid,” Kines chuckled. “The one advantage to being an officer in a position where I have absolutely zero subordinates: I get to be the last one to die in case of an actual fire because the team leader stands at the back of the row of guys in the corridor.”
“Unless the fire is behind you,” Remilia pointed out.
“You ruin all my fun, like a wheat thresher, cutting down a field of my idle fantasies,” Kines accused. Remilia smirked, recalling his passionately informing her how many of his idle fantasies, exactly, she’d managed to fulfill on the trip so far.
It must have sounded lame, even to him, because he coughed and hastily redirected his line of inquiry. “So, how about your pretty self? Looking forward to college now that you’ve had some time to think about it?”
“I really am,” Remilia said. “It’s scary, but I want the challenge. Right away they throw us in the dorm, although I got a single room. Not by request, so either someone saw my name and wanted to do me a favor, or I lucked out.”
“Do you want to live alone?” Kines asked.
“I think I do, really. Privacy when I want it, more storage space…I like that,” she said.
“I had a double, but my roommate slept at the fraternity house, so it wasn’t crowded,” Kines said. “Just get to know your RA. Become her best friend. It will come in so handy when it’s time to vacuum your room or to assign exit paths during a fire drill or something.”
“Hah! Friends in high places, I like that,” Remilia laughed.
He reached up to rest his hands over hers on his chest. “Yeah, it’s something I’m good at,” he said. “Bartender’s gotta be everyone’s friend. Gotta remember all the brassholes’ favorite drinks, so when they come in and ask for ‘the usual,’ you don’t give them a vodka martini when they wanted a lager or something.”
She smiled. “Yeah, I imagine that would be…wait, ‘brassholes?’”
“What? It works. Not all the brass forget about the little guys, but some of them do. I think there’s a conditional amnesia illness that kicks in when a person’s pay grade goes above Lieutenant Commander,” Kines groused. “They forget where they came from.”
“What about those guys, the…what are they called…Warrant Officers? Do they forget their enlisted roots?” Remilia asked.
“Hell no, a good Warrant Officer is your best friend, your father, your guardian spirit, and your own personal daemon, all at once,” Kines said. “Being a good friend to a Warrant Officer is the best possible way to make yourself useful on long tours, those guys are indispensable. A Chief Warrant Officer Fifth can tell a Commander to fuck himself and get away with it, in the context of actually doing something involving the operations of the ship.”
“Yeah, the lifers, the ones who get juvenats and re-enlist, those guys are better than techpriests when it comes to making the ship keep flying.” Kines smiled at some un-elaborated memory. “Which makes it super-awkward, let me tell you. Technically, I outrank guys a hundred and ten years older than me and with a full, uninterrupted century more experience. I feel absolutely awful when I have to order them to do something.”
“When do you even need to do that?” Remilia asked.
“Fire drills, boarding drills…any place where chain of command is more important than experience when we’re being timed.” Kines shook his head in her lap. “Well. Enough about that.”
“Yeah…I’m tired,” Remilia said. “When do you need to be up?”
“Mid-shift tomorrow…I need to be at the bar by 1000 hours,” Kines said.
“Oh, you’ve got all night,” she said. “Stay with me, huh? I love just talking with you,” she said.
Kines smiled up at her. “Love to.” He looked aside as what he had just said registered. “‘Love.’ Hmm.”
She cocked her head. “What?”
“How many men get to say that to a Lady Primarch in the flesh?” he asked happily, beaming up at her.
Remilia sighed with an air of patently false strained patience. “You’d be amazed. When I transferred in to Imperator from the private school I started in, half of the freshman class was proclaiming their undying love for me, in the most passive-aggressive, hormonally-fueled ways you can imagine.”
“The male half,” Kines guessed.
“Not…entirely, actually, I remember a few lustful glances from the girls too,” Remilia admitted. Kines’ eyebrows rose.
“Say, that’s…fun to think about,” he said upon reflection.
“Sure, except then you’d have to split your attention between me and…well, someone else,” Remilia sniffed, all airs and class.
Kines rolled his eyes. “My poor heart.”
“Besides, I’m not into girls.” Remilia looked down at her. “You know…I’ve had boyfriends before, but we all broke up over the dumbest shit. Makes me wonder if I’ve ever really been in true love. I think to myself I’d know it if I saw it…and I have seen it, too. Jake and Venus are forever, I bet…I know Angela and Michael are, too. But would I know it if I wasn’t seeing it from a distance?”
“You know something, sweetheart? I bet if you peel back the skin on those ‘perfect’ relationships, you’d see stress lines,” Kines asserted. “Nobody’s really perfect.”
Remilia shrugged. “I guess, though I’d argue it for Angela and Michael. I just want to know I’ll not, you know…screw it up when I find it for myself, if I ever do.”
Kines sighed. “Why would you do that?”
“Well, I don’t always take the most…reasonable approach to hard choices,” Remilia muttered.
“No, I mean why would you beat yourself up over it?” Kines asked. “Come on. That’s not helping anything.”
“I suppose, it’s just hard to avoid some times,” she sighed.
He sat up and turned to face her. “Come on. You’re a brilliant, beautiful girl. If you forget that you’re maybe not all that confident in social situations, you’ll master them easy. You think I don’t get a bit nervous when a guy with oak leaves walks into the bar?”
“I guess I just don’t like thinking about it.”
“Who does?” Kines asked. He half-rose and shucked his uniform for bed. “But you know, I’m serious. Just don’t worry about it. Look forward to it.”
She shook her head again. “How do you seem so much smarter than me when you’re less than two years older than I am?”
“I’m a gifted liar,” he deadpanned.
Remilia laughed. “Gee, how reassuring.”
“It can get you out of anything,” Kines remarked.
Let's Go Home
As the final day of flight arrived, the group assembled in the Captain’s Hall one last time. Roemer and a few of the ship’s senior officers and serfs assembled for a dinner, inviting Venus and the others to join them.
As they sat and ate, Roemer took the occasion to ask a question. “Lady Venus, how do you think your trip has been so far, with regards to the Tide?”
Venus paused, sensing a trap. “Well…Captain, I don’t know how to phrase this, but I feel a bit guilty, overall.”
“Guilty?” Roemer blinked in surprise. Clearly, he hadn’t expected that. “How do you mean?”
“Well, you were just in combat. In the face of that, and the loss of several crew, surely carrying five seventeen-year-olds around would be a pain in the ass,” she said.
Roemer backpedaled, trying to come off as modest. “Not at all, your Highness, this is technically your ship, after all.”
Venus nodded. “In that case, I think it’s been surprisingly fun. I haven’t had any problems to speak of with crew or accommodations, and the gym has been perfect for our routines.”
“Excellent,” Roemer said. “I’m glad to hear it.” He took another bite of his dinner and looked down the table to where Remilia was animatedly chatting with one of the ship’s fighter group commanders. “What are your plans after you reach Terra, if I may so bold as to ask?”
“Well, we’re having a quick welcome home/goodbye party,” Venus said. “Several of my cousins are coming or going from vacations or planetary tours and what have you. Then it’s straight off to school after some furniture shopping. Computer table doesn’t fit in my new dorm room,” she sighed.
“You’re moving into a dormitory?” Roemer asked. “I would think they would provide more comfortable housing if you asked.”
“I won’t ask. Not until I’m out of freshman year,” Venus said. “I want Kouthry to be a chance to live independently for a while. Take nothing for granted.” She smiled to herself. “I know having my boyfriend live with me kind of defeats that, but why pay for two dorms when you can pay for one?”
“Indeed,” Roemer said. “Would you be willing to share a bit of what you’ve seen on your venture with us?” he asked.
Venus gestured down the table. “Absolutely. Going home to Nocturne after so long was fantastic, as you’d expect…though things got rough near the end. The opportunity to visit the city where I was born, and the other six Sanctuaries, was breath-taking. The Nocturneans are a hard people, but they retain the unbreakable bond of community that the Salamanders admire so much. It’s a world in the grip of a crime wave, though.” She sat back in her seat. “Fenris…Fenris is different. Its people are just as hard, but they turn that hardness on each other. They’re content with their world not being a part of the greater Imperium, for the most part, and the Wolves are a strong but just group to rule a planet that is so rough.”
Roemer nodded solemnly. “The Astartes are a far more varied and world-wise people than the average Imperial citizen need ever know, or ever will know.” “They certainly are,” Remilia piped up from Roemer’s other side. “Tell you one thing we weren’t expecting, though, was to hear that Julius Pius of all people was aboard.”
“Ah. A friend of yours?” Roemer asked.
“Yes, he was on Seadelant during the invasion,” Remilia said. “We were very relieved to hear of his survival.”
“Beyond that, Captain, it was an eventful and largely enjoyable trip, and I thank you for your cooperation,” Venus said.
“It’s been an honor, Princess,” Roemer said. “May I ask if you ever intend to join the military yourself?”
Venus shook her head. “I’ve been bred and trained to be a leader and an artist, first and foremost, Captain. I can fight, sure, but I’m not a soldier. I don’t have the patience.”
“A shame. I think you’d take to the life of a career Navy officer well,” Roemer said.
“Perhaps, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I look forward to living on Nocturne,” Venus said, “where the most martial thing I’ll be doing is firing off a few rounds at the range every so often.”
“May I ask what your father would want?” Roemer inquired.
She shrugged. “He doesn’t want me to join the military. My place is at the homestead, as a leader. I’d do it even if he didn’t want me to.”
The Captain nodded. “Thanks for indulging my curiosity,” Roemer said.
At last, the day came. Trailing behind their luggage, Venus directed the carrying servitors down to the cargo bay. The other four, feeling the need to go full circle, stopped in the O-Club one last time before the ship docked over Mars. As they drew up stools, Kines put out their now-well-remembered favorite drinks and leaned back against the rear counter. “Thanks for flying, my friends,” he said.
“It’s been real,” Jake said. “On the tiny chance you have the opportunity, definitely check up on us.”
“I should,” Kines said. “You go have fun at school, your Lordships,” he said to Alex and Jake.
“I’ll certainly try,” Alex said, shaking his hand. “Stay safe, Lieutenant.”
When Freya and Jake were done shaking hands too, Remilia walked up to him and paused. The others made for the couches to prepare for deceleration, and to give them a moment.
Remilia smiled over the counter at him. “Thanks, Chuck. It’s been a lot of fun. I feel…a lot better than I did when I came aboard. It was wonderful to have someone to talk to.”
Kines’ face fell. “THAT was why you kept coming back?” he asked, crestfallen.
Remilia blinked, then buried her face in her hands. “No offense to your technique or anything,” she said through her hands, holding back a laugh.
Kines beamed. “Better.” He reached under the counter. “Here, I was saving this.”
She peered through her fingers. “Huh?”
“When your friend Julius was aboard, he bought this and told me to save it for you,” Kines said. He extracted a bottle of orange soda and handed it to her. “Last one aboard, actually.”
“Aww, that was nice of him,” Remilia said, accepting it. She twisted the cap off and sipped. “Mmm. Want some?”
“No thanks, Remilia,” Kines said.
She downed a bit more and made to throw out the bottlecap, then hesitated and put it in her pocket instead. “Think I’ll hang on to it,” she said with a faint smile.
Kines grinned. “A memento of the trip?”
“Sure.” She paused as the ship lurched a bit. They were decelerating into orbit over Mars. “Well…time to go,” she said.
Kines nodded and started to salute, but she grabbed his hand before he could finish and pulled him into a quick kiss. “Thanks, Chuck. I won’t forget you,” she said softly. “You were exactly what I hoped I would find on this trip.”
He pulled back, blushing a bit. “Thank you, Princess,” he said. “That’s very kind. I’ll remember you too.”
“Eternal youth plus eidetic memory…and they say you never forget your first,” Remilia said, grinning mischievously. “You keep yourself safe and go open that bar of yours, hear me?”
“Count on it,” Kines said happily. “Farewell, your Highness.”
Better Luck Next Time
The four teens made their way down to the cargo bay, to find Isaac and a few of the other Salamander serfs awaiting them in their green and gold day uniforms. “Your Ladyship Venus, it was wonderful to see you again,” he was saying as the others arrived. “If I ever get reassigned to Terra, I will make a point of seeing if you’ve kept up your routine while you were off learning,” he said slyly.
Venus chuckled. “Sure you will.” The others walked up as the last cargo box was loaded aboard. “All right, everybody here?” she asked.
“Yep, we’re ready to go,” Remilia said, finishing her drink. “How long is the flight?”
“Mars is right next to Terra right now, in its orbit, so basically no time at all. An hour, max,” Venus said.
“Great! Where do we put down and what’s the local time?” Alex asked.
“The Palace, actually, Grandpa must have pulled a string,” Venus said. “And it’ll be about 0800.”
“Bleh, it’s shipboard 1600. This’ll be a long day,” Remilia said.
“It’ll just help with sleeping tonight,” Venus said. “Take a few days to get back on planetary time zones.”
Isaac inclined his head as the pilot powered up the rear engines. “Princess, pass along my well-wishes to Queen Misja, would you?”
“Happily,” Venus said. “Goodbye, Isaac. Benevas Vitam Corod,” she said in Nocturnean.
“Benevas,” Isaac said, stepping back. Venus shook his hand and bowed her head as the other serfs stepped back.
A Long, Long Time 'Til Touchdown...Oh, We've Landed
Remilia kicked back in her chair and crossed her hands behind her head, listening as Venus said her farewells. The ship’s ambient noise picked up as the pilot brought more and more of the flight systems online. The cells that fuelled both engines spun up as Venus walked inside and sealed the ramp. “All right…everyone ready to go home?” she asked.
Remilia nodded. “Yep.”
“Can’t wait,” Jake said. “So much buying to do! Remilia, I seriously owe you one,” he said.
“What?” Remilia asked.
“The gift card. Remember? Keller’s?” Jake reminded her.
“Ah, yeah.” Remilia looked up to the lights overhead. “I think I’ll join you, actually. I feel like upgrading before I head out.”
“Thinking of implants?” Jake asked.
“Hells of no, that shit is creepy,” Remilia said. “I mean, good on Cora for stomaching it, but I couldn’t do that. I’m just gonna buy a new storage drive.” She went quiet as the others found seats, with Venus and Freya already debating who they thought would be at the party. She found herself uninterested in joining in, as her thoughts turned to her own impending discussion with her mother.
What could she say? Between the time she had come home from Freya’s and when she left for the road trip, they had barely spoken. Would she feel compelled to apologize to her mother? Would she resent her?
Remilia rolled onto her side in the heavily cushioned seat. She hadn’t talked about this with Chuck. Should he have? It was new to her. Clearly Chuck had gotten along very well with his parents, too.
As the hull started to buck a bit as they entered the atmosphere of the planet, nearly an hour later, Remilia realized that all she was accomplishing was making her stomach upset. She sat up in the chair, looking over at where the others were busily reconfiguring their slates and watches to local time.
“All right, we’re clear and descending,” Venus said, glancing over her slate one last time. She switched it off as they bumped about in the upper atmosphere.
“I’m actually nervous,” Freya confessed. “I really want to see Morticia! I hope she’s all better,” she said.
“Oh, is she back from Albiona?” Venus asked.
“She should be, and I want to read Angela’s story,” Freya said. She was practically bouncing in her seat. “Do you think Julius will be back?”
“Doubtful,” Venus said. She squeezed her armrests as the shuttle dropped through the stratopause. “I’m looking forward to spending some time in the forge. Or hell, the pool. I haven’t gone swimming in forever.”
“Can I take a dip with you?” Jake asked.
“Of course,” Venus said. “You guys are all invited, if you want.”
“I’ll be gone,” Remilia said wistfully.
“I’ll be there,” Freya said. “I love your pool.”
“I’m in,” Alex said. “I think I should check in on Mom as soon as we’re off the shuttle, though,” he said quietly.
Jake cleared his throat. “Well, I have a question for everybody,” he said. “What’s everyone’s favorite part of the trip been?”
Venus paged through her memories of the journey, smiling at a few choice moments. “Tough call…but I’d have to say either smithing in Deathfire on your watch or the thing in the hot spring on Fenris.”
“I’ll say the hot spring too,” Alex admitted, as Freya hid a smile.
“I think meeting Chuck, really,” Remilia said. “That was a lot of fun.”
“He was a cool dude,” Jake said.
“I think…the trip to Hosanger,” Freya said. “How about you?” she asked Jake.
He thought it over. “I think the fishing trip, up until the kraken happened,” he said. “Nocturne was fun, but it was just so hot.”
Alex passed him his vox. “Remember this?”
Jake looked at the screen and smiled. “Hah…yeah,” he said. “Me and my harem.”
“You have a harem? Why haven’t I been invited?” Venus asked.
“You kind of were, actually,” Jake said, passing her the vox.
Venus took it and laughed. “Oh yeah…that was the night of the hot spring, wasn’t it?” she asked. The screen showed the three of them lying with Jake on the bed. “Man, you could sell this picture to any tabloid and make a bundle,” she said, giving the vox to Alex.
“Yeah, some random fucking hiver and his three Lady Primarchs,” Jake said cheerfully.
Remilia snorted. “Dad would be so goddamned confused. I’m almost tempted to have you really do it.”
The shuttle lurched. “Your Highnesses, we’re four minutes from skids-down,” the pilot reported.
Alex sat down and buckled in. “I hate this part. No part of a space flight can go wrong in more ways,” he said under his breath.
“I trust my father’s pilots,” Venus said, settling back into her chair. “And then…home.”
The ship settled on the pad on the Palace, clicking as it cooled. After a few minutes of checklists, the hatches swung open, and a pair of Palace troops entered, providing an escort for the five teens as they disembarked. At the bottom, two men in Navy colors stood, checking over the ship, and they parted in respect as the Primarch girls emerged. “Your Highnesses, welcome home,” one said. “If you will, your luggage is being transported to the security checkpoint.”
“Sure,” Remilia said, following the Navy personnel with the others in tow. “Anything big in the news while we were gone? Locally, I mean?”
“Lady Angela got published,” one of the sailors said.
“We saw. We’re all really proud,” Freya said.
“Ah. Well, Lady Morticia returned from her vacation…one of the members of the Senate had a heart attack and died,” the sailor. “The representative of the Chartist Captains. He’s been replaced.”
“That’s a shame,” Venus remarked.
“Indeed…Lord Primarch Perturabo and Lord Primarch Guilliman are both on planet at once for the first time in four years,” the sailor said. “Aside from that, little major news until the election in four weeks. Campaigns are reaching new lows in terms of turnout,” he said drily. “The position of Grand Provost Marshal is open for the first time in twenty years.”
“That a fact? Cornelius retired?” Freya asked.
“Sure did, ma’am.” The group fell silent as the doors to the security station creaked open. Beyond were the simple scanners used for the VIP checkpoints, with a small lounge beyond where people could wait for the scanners to spit their readings out.
Meet the Parents
As the group filed through, one by one, the machine beeped and whirled, and pronounced them all free of various diseases. After an abbreviated search, they emerged into the tiny luggage claim and into the waiting area beyond.
Gairwyn Russ was sitting on a seat in the corner of the room, reading a holozine, when her daughter appeared. “Mom!” Freya said happily. Gairwyn looked up and beamed.
“Freya! Welcome home!” she said in Juvjk, sweeping her daughter into a vice-like hug. “Oh, you’re a foot taller, I swear,” she fussed.
“Mom, I wasn’t even gone three months,” Freya giggled, returning the bear hug. The others filed in more sedately, separating to meet their own parents.
“Hey, Jake, good to see you intact,” George managed before Sandra cut him off.
“Where was it? Let me see!” she exclaimed. Jake obligingly turned to show here where the bottle had broken his skull, and sure enough, the spot had healed over entirely, and his hair was regrowing.
“I’m fine, Mom, I promise,” Jake said. “Really, I’m completely okay.”
Remilia hugged her own mother, stepping back after a moment to look up at the intimidatingly tall businesswoman. “Hi, Mom.”
“Hello, Remilia. How was the journey?” Olivia Dorn asked.
“Incredible,” Remilia said. “Do you have time to hear it all?”
“I suspect so, yes,” Olivia said. “I took time off from the Foundation, until you can get off to Alanaster anyway.”
Remilia smiled to herself. “Good.”
Venus hugged her mother tight, accepting a peck on the cheek. “Venus, sweetheart, we saw the recording of your speech in Hesiod,” Misja said. “You looked magnificent. Your father couldn’t have been more proud.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Venus said happily, brushing a tear away. “It feels really good to be home. Can I just go throw myself in the pool after the party?”
“Of course, baby girl,” Misja said softly. “And I want to hear all about Nocturne.”
Alex stood at the back of the room, watching the reunions with a fading smile. Even before, he was sure neither parent would have been there to greet him, but now that he didn’t have one and the other was losing everything she had, the fact that neither COULD be there was wearing at him. He tried not to look obtrusive as he made his way over to the door.
“The hell are you going?” Gairwyn’s voice asked. She clamped one hand on his shoulder to arrest his progress. “Come here,” she instructed, dragging him and her daughter into another hug. “You’ve been away from home too long not to come back to a hug,” she said.
Alex’s shoulders shifted a bit as he held back a sudden sob, but he managed a smile. “Thank you, Queen Gairwyn,” he said.
Freya nipped his ear as she was released from her mother’s iron grip. “Let’s go,” she said softly.
Jake managed to disentangle from his mother and took a quick step back. “You guys have to see the stuff I bought on Nocturne,” he said. “I should change when I get the chance…oh shit, hey, Venus, we need to show them the…you know,” he said, tapping his head and gesturing as if he was running his hand over the contours of her crown.
She grinned. “Hell yeah we do.” She turned back to her own mother. “Is Dad around?”
“He’s home, working on something, but he’ll have time to hear the whole story when you get there, don’t worry,” Misja reported. “Have you had breakfast?”
“It’s actually around 1700 by shipboard time,” Venus said. “Have you had breakfast?”
“Yeah, before we arrived, we all went out for a bite,” Misja said.
Gairwyn followed her daughter and Alex out of the room, watching them go with a proud smile. “It’s quite something, isn’t it, Misja?” she asked.
“Sure is,” Misja said, as Venus hefted her carry-on and walked out after them. “Shame we only get them back for a few days before they leave, eh?” she asked.
Alex piled his things in the back of the small truck Gairwyn had brought with her to the Palace garage, then sat inside as Freya filled it up with her own. The truck shifted as the cargo servitors deposited the rest of the luggage and returned to their charging slots, and Gairwyn sat down beside him. “Alex, lad, did you have a good time on Fenris?” she asked brightly.
“It was pretty fun,” Alex said. “It’s an amazing planet.”
“It certainly is,” Gairwyn said. “I look forward to hearing all the details.”
In the air limo beside them, Olivia watched her daughter settle into the cushions and decompress. “Phew…feels good to be back in the old love-wagon,” Remilia sighed.
“Why do you call the limo the love-wagon? Really, that makes no sense to me,” Olivia said.
“A girl has to have some quirks, doesn’t she?” Remilia yawned.
Jake paused to look over the new aircar his parents had bought in his absence. “So this is the new ride?”
“Sure is,” George said. “We bought it from a headhunter, and it’s great.”
“What happened to the old one you guys had?” Jake asked.
“We sold that one and yours and consolidated to buy this one,” George explained. “Stack your stuff, we’re going to follow Lady Misja to the party.”
“Cool.” Jake hefted his things into the aircar and sat inside. “So, what have you guys been up to?” he asked.
“Not a whole lot, but it’s been busy,” George said. “We set up a new heater at long last, but really the only major news is Hajime and Alice,” he said.
“Yeah! Are they nearby? I want to see them before we leave!” Jake exclaimed.
“Sure, they’ll be in town tomorrow,” George said. He looked over at Jake as the aircars lifted. “How are things with you?”
“Awesome, Dad,” Jake said happily. “Kouthry is gonna be awesome.”
George smiled. “They’re gonna work your ass off.”
“I can take it,” Jake said confidently. “Trust me.”
“I hope you took tons of holos while you were out and traveling,” Sandra put in.
“Shloads,” Jake reported. “We’ll have time to view them all, I assure you.”
They flew in silence for a moment longer before Sandra’s maternal instincts got the better of her. “How are you and Venus, with regards to moving in with each other?” she asked.
“Subtle,” Jake said drily. “And we’re looking forward to it,” he said. “Oh wait, hang on,” he said, digging his new vox out.
“Hey, is that yours?” George asked.
“Birthday present from Alex,” Jake said. “That and the hat, which I’m not wearing…ah hah,” he said. He sent off a text to Alex. Within minutes, the response came: the picture of the four of them watching the movie.
“Here, check this out,” Jake said, showing the picture to his parents as the autopilot drove them to the hotel.
Sandra’s eyes widened. “What was the context here?” she asked.
“Heh. We were watching a movie after we were done with the day,” Jake said, as his father’s eyebrows rose at the sight. “Good times.”
“That’s quite a thing,” Sandra said. “I’m glad you’re so comfortable around them, now. I still feel a bit nervous around the Royal Daughters, even still.”
“Well…I guess it’s just context,” Jake said. “Besides, I don’t think I could have picked a nicer combination of them to go with on the trip.”
“I don’t think I really ever had a chance to meet Remilia,” George said.
“You guys are coming to the party, aren’t you?” Jake asked.
“If you want your parents hanging around, sure,” Sandra said.
“It’ll be the last chance to see people before we all leave,” Jake remarked. “I have a ton of stuff to buy afterwards, too. Oh, and Dad,” he said, pawing at his pockets. “Here, you have to see this.”
He extracted the watch Venus had forged for him and passed it over, with the clip and chain in its box. He had set it aside on the flight to show his father when he had the chance. George took them and stared.
“Wow. This is…this is beautiful,” George said, turning the gold watch over in his hands. “Where did you get this?”
“Venus gave it to me as a birthday present,” Jake said. “She built it in one of the Legionary forges on Nocturne.” George slowly looked up at him. “I know, she just does that stuff. It’s nice, though, isn’t it?” Jake asked. “She didn’t make the actual mechanism, but the rest was her.”
“It’s gorgeous,” Sandra said. “She’s special, isn’t she?”
“She is,” Jake said, putting the watch away.
The Picture Show
The convoy pulled up outside the small hotel that Roberta had booked for the morning, and the group piled out, as a few paparazzi near the entrance were shooed away. The five travelers filed in, and were immediately beset by the Royal Daughters who had remained on (or recently returned to) Earth.
Venus lurched backwards as she was nearly tackled by Farah. “Venus! Great to see you again!” Farah proclaimed, wrapping her cousin tight.
Venus hugged her back. “Farah, I’m so glad we caught you!” she said, pecking the ever-tousled blonde on the cheek. “We have so much to show you from the trip!”
“I bet! Come on up to the ballroom Roberta rented, we got a projector,” Farah said.
Gairwyn paused Freya as she walked in. “Do you want me to be here, or do you want to see your cousins alone?” she asked quietly, in Juvjk.
“Be here!” Freya replied in the same tone. “We’ll get little enough time to see each other before we take off.”
“True. Very well,” she said, following her boisterous daughter in. Freya promptly pounced on Miranda for a ferocious bear hug, nearly lifting the diminutive psyker off the ground.
“Miranda! You’re back too! This is great!” Freya squealed.
Miranda shook herself loose, breathless. “Yeah, Carshim was fun…I brought holos too,” she managed. She turned to offer a hug to Remilia too, and broke into a beaming smile. “Remilia, welcome back,” she said, squeezing her cousin around the shoulders. “You’re faring much better. You can rest easy again,” she said in the faintest whisper, regarding the spiritual matter to which her father had attended prior to Remilia’s departure. Her eye glowed faintly behind its bandana as she said it.
Remilia felt a weight lift as she heard the news. “Thanks,” she said under her breath. Louder, she continued. “So how was the resort?”
“Manufactured, but very comfortable,” Miranda said. “I’ll show you upstairs.”
Alex and Jake wandered around, being welcomed by the Royal Daughters who knew them, until Roberta poked her head out of a stairwell and spotted them. “Guys, the room is ready,” she said.
Upstairs, the last of the caterers were making their exits as the girls emerged from the stairs. “Oh, awesome,” Venus said, taking in the vaulted room. “Where do we set up?”
Roberta pointed at the little table where a projector was sitting. “Just get all the pictures on the same vox and pipe them in there,” she said.
“Here, I’ll do it,” Remilia said. “Pass me your voxes, people.” Those of the Daughters who had something to show handed their voxes over as Freya and Venus made discreet exits to change.
Jake and Alex drifted over to the table where a small buffet had been set up, both taking a headcount as they did. Miranda was there, as was Roberta, Farah, both of the Twins, Isis, Faith, Victoria, and Venus, Freya and Remilia of course. Angela was also there, as were Morticia and Kelly, but Cora, Petra, Hana, Furia, and Lyra weren’t. Most of those girls whose parents could attend had them there, as well, though it was mothers-only for all of them, which suited the boys fine: the Seagers especially were looking somewhat overwhelmed.
Isis ambled up to where Jake was standing. “Hey, Jake, glad you’re back,” she said. “How was military food?” she asked drily.
Jake shook his head. “I’d tell you if we had any. We ate with the Captain nearly every day on the ship, except for breakfasts, and we just ate out on Nocturne.”
“And the Fang?” she asked, her curious orange eyes shining with good humor. “No restaurants on Fenris.”
“Heh. We ate in the Fang, so that, I’ll grant you, was pretty good,” Jake admitted. He smiled back at Isis. “Glad Julius is okay.”
“Me too!” Isis said emphatically. “He wanted to go see his mother’s resting place before he came home, though, so I won’t see him for a long while.”
“So I hear.” Jake coughed lightly. “Forgive me, hmm?” he asked. Before she could say anything, he leaned forward and hugged the much shorter girl. “I’m glad you didn’t have to say goodbye to him, after what happened,” he said quietly.
“Thanks, man,” Isis said, stepping back with a bashful look. “So…pics. Show me. Nocturne, the Tide, all of it.”
A few minutes later, the projector wheezed to life as the girls and the few boyfriends and parents who wanted to stay found their seats. Remilia picked up the remote for the projector.
Morticia glanced around. “Are we not waiting for Freya and Venus?” she asked.
“They’re around,” Remilia said. She brought up the first one. “’Kay, here we are in front of the bar in the O-Club on the Iron Tide, the Salamander patrol ship we took. That guy back there serving the fighter pilot is my new best friend, Chuck Kines,” she said, deciding to omit the details. “Pro tip for when you find yourself on a warship: befriend the bartender, if you can find one.”
They moved on to the later trip, including a still from the sparring match with Isaac and Venus, to which the other cousins made the appropriate catcalls and sounds of appreciation. Jake snorted as Farah gave him a playful nudge. “Does she wear that around the house?” she teased.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Jake shot back smoothly.
The pictures advanced to Nocturne, and Venus in her formal uniform giving the speech. Just as the image came on, she emerged from the restroom with the folded uniform in hands, having grabbed it when she had ducked into the head to change into civvies, and Remilia paused the show to let her display it.
“Nice outfit, Venus,” Roberta said, running a hand over the thick leather sleeves. “Is that real drake?”
“Of course,” she said. She showed where the weapons would holster on the hips with a gesture. “Couldn’t really be asked to unpack the hardware or the crown, though,” she said.
“Oh, yeah,” Freya said, emerging from the bathroom in her Fenrisian robes. “It’s shiny, sure, but if you want that rustic feel, well…”
The others looked up to see her in the full outfit, dagger and all. “Wow, that’s really pretty,” Morticia said, fingering the pelt on the hem of the hood.
“Thanks, Morticia!” Freya said happily. “Can’t get this on a store rack, either, this is real wolf pelt,” she said. “And check the gloves. Bjorn got them for me,” she said, holding her hands out.
“Bjorn…the Eldest? Your father’s lieutenant?” Farah asked. “Too cool.”
“Yeah, it’s great,” Freya said. She put her hands up. “But I don’t want to stop the show.”
Alex coughed lightly. “Want me to drive for a spell, Remilia?” he asked.
“Would you?” she asked. “Thanks.” She ducked into the head to strip out of her travelling clothes into everyday wear as Alex picked up the remote.
“All right…here we are on…oh yeah, that was your birthday party, wasn’t it?” he asked Jake.
Jake nodded, a tiny bit uncomfortable being the center of attention from the Royal mothers. “Yeah, that was the party,” he said. “That poker set got broken in at record speed, too.”
“Hell yeah it did, much to my immediate profit,” Freya snarked.
“Dream on,” he Jake shot back.
The trip images took them over the remainder of the Nocturne excursion, until the last Nocturne picture appeared on the screen: the five of them standing in front of the Skarokk castle. “And that was Nocturne,” Alex finished. “Man, that was a wild trip.”
“So, Jake, show us your honorable war wounds,” Farah said. Jake stood to show the shaggy part of the back of his head.
“Not very honorable, but hey,” he said. “I mean, can you even see it?”
“Nope,” Farah said. “Oh well.”
The door at the back of the room opened, and a few more people filed in, but Alex picked right back up with the trip to Fenris. “So once we got there, we didn’t take as many pictures since we were staying in the Fang for the most part, but we got a few cool ones,” he said, showing them Venus’ pictures from the top of the basalt pillars.
They paged through several more, including one of Jake and the girls at the firing range, and one Alex had taken of the other four outside the hot spring. When they got to the pic of Jake and the three Daughters watching the holo, Jake very deliberately crossed his hands behind his head and leaned back, to the laughter of most of the girls in the room.
The last few pictures of the Fenris trip were of the Fang’s interior, those parts that Freya thought the Wolves wouldn’t mind being photographed. One was the inside of the rooftop hangar bay. “I don’t get agoraphobia, but man…if I did, that room would have ruined me,” Jake remarked. “You could park a Cobra in there, easy.”
“Really? Wow,” Roberta said. “Think they’ll build a ship in there someday?”
“Someday?” Freya asked. “They HAVE. One of the system patrol boats. Never again, though. What a mess it left.”
“Impressive,” Roberta said.
The slide show ended with a brief video clip of the five of them out in the wilds of the planet with Leman Russ, showing the boys how to construct a lean-to. When the clip ended, Alex snapped his fingers and the lights rose. “Man, what a trip,” he said.
“I know. Can I show mine?” Morticia asked.
“Oh, of course,” Alex said, stepping aside.
Time For Food
One by one, the other Daughters who had taken trips showed their own images and videos. As they did, Jake noted the people who had just arrived: the small group of friends from the Hive he had invited. He discreetly got up and walked over, sitting down beside them. “Hey, hey, what’s up, guys?” he asked as he sat down.
The three other boys looked over at him, astonished. “You…didn’t say they’d actually BE here,” one whispered.
Jake blinked. “What?”
“I thought you were just going to show pictures of the trip you took to their homeworlds,” the boy whispered urgently. “They’re actually HERE?”
Jake sat back in his seat. “Yeah, they are…don’t worry, I asked if they minded if you were here, and they wanted to meet you.”
Angela rose last, holding up her pamphlet. “Well, this is it…not much to look at, but it’s ready and done,” she said. She held it up to the crowd, who applauded politely. “I’ve already ordered a single print run for distribution. If schools like it, they can order more.”
“Very cool. Can I read it?” Freya asked.
“Sure! I’ll leave it up here,” Angela said, setting it down by the projector control.
Roberta stood as she sat. “All right, we don’t have much time before Remilia, Farah, and I have to bolt, so let’s eat, huh?”
“Yay, Terran food,” Venus said. “No offense to Roemer’s larder, but I suspect that when you can requisition any food you want, you just get the same few things over and over again without meaning to.”
“How was food in the Fang?” Miranda asked.
“Amazingly good, actually. Spicy, though. And more or less everything is cooked in its own blood. Very heavy food,” Venus said, walking over to the plates.
Jake intercepted her as she made for the food with the others. “Hey, Venus, I said I was gonna invite a few friends?”
She looked them over. They flinched at her eyes. “Oh, yeah, right! Well, hi, guys,” she said.
“Dieter, Abram, and Will,” Jake said, pointing each out in turn. He held them up as each started to kneel. “Guys, come on, we’re having lunch,” he said, walking over to the food.
Venus grabbed Abram’s shoulder and hauled him up as he sank anyway, a look of total awe on his face. “Glad you all could make it,” she said, as if nothing had happened. “I understand you went to middle school with Jake?”
All three were nearly dumbstruck, but one finally managed to speak. “Uh…y-yes, your Highness,” Abram said. “It…I mean, it’s been a while, you know, but still…”
“Are you guys hungry or what?” Jake asked from the buffet line.
One by one, almost gingerly, the three boys made their way over to the food and stared. “I don’t even…what is half of this?” Dieter asked.
“Just take a spoonful of each item, it’s all good,” Jake said.
Farther behind them, Angela lingered at the tail end of the line for Remilia. As the other blond passed her, Angela halted her with a faint remark. “When you left, I was really worried for you.”
Remilia shrugged. “That was a dark part of my life, I’m not gonna lie…but come on. Kelly and Morticia were worse off and they’re fine now.”
“Morticia took it on the chin and came out stronger, and Kelly’s been in intensive psychotherapy for three months,” Angela said softly. “You’ve been stuck on a warship and two Death Worlds. So…what did you do to make your soul heal so much, so quickly?”
Remilia looked down and blushed faintly, checking to make sure her mother wasn’t within earshot. “I met a really, really nice guy on the ship…he took very good care of me. Mentally, I mean.”
“Bartender on the O-Club, actually,” Remilia admitted.
A smile played around the edges of Angela’s lips as she made the obvious leap of logic. Remilia wondered if she had been a bit too unsubtle, but then Angela wrapped her arms around her taller cousin’s torso and slid her wings around her too, drawing her into a gentle hug. “I’m really happy that you’re feeling that much better,” she said softly.
Remilia hugged her back. “Miranda said the same thing…was it that obvious that I was fucked in the head before?” she asked under her breath.
Angela opened her wings again and snugged them against her back with a rush of air. “Blindingly. Once I knew what to look for. But…don’t worry. You’re in vastly better shape now.”
“Good.” Remilia shifted from one foot to the other, somewhat self-conscious. “Can I just grab something and go eat? I have to run after.”
“Sure, sure, let’s,” Angela said, grabbing a plate.
Kelly and Morticia reached the head of the line with their food and walked over to the huge table down the middle of the room’s left side, sitting down at the end. Freya immediately dropped into the seat at Morticia’s side. “Hey, Morticia, how’s your ticker?” she asked.
“Good as new, and it was the lung that got hit, not my heart,” Morticia said. “Doctor says I’m up to 97%, and I’ll be healed to full by the end of August.”
“Great!” Freya proclaimed. “It’s fantastic to see you better, you still had a crutch when we left.”
“Progenitor physiology, gotta love it,” Morticia remarked.
“How about you, Kelly?” Freya asked.
Kelly paused her chewing for a moment, not meeting her cousin’s eyes. “I’m…better. The guy at the hospital is really nice, and he’s helped a lot.”
“I’m glad,” Freya said. “Have you decided whether or not to go to school?”
“I’ve had enough school,” Kelly said. “I’m taking a year off to just relax and get my shit together.”
“That’s cool too,” Freya said, digging in to her biscuits and gravy. “Breakfast buffets are the best thing in the world.”
“Aren’t they?” Morticia asked. She turned her pale eyes on her lupine cousin, brushing lank grey hair out of her eyes as she did. “Did you enjoy the trip home?”
“So much!” Freya said excitedly. “It always feels so, so good to go home to the pack.”
Morticia smiled. “That’s good. Albiona was wild. It’s a bit…artificial, in places, but fun. It feels more tourist-y than Startseite, like they feel the need to conform to stereotypes to attract rich tourists, but it was still pretty cool.”
“I got the same feel from Carshim,” Miranda said, sitting beside Kelly. “The whole planet is a beach resort, except a few floating towns over the jungles and a cabin getaway or two. It felt very manufactured, and the casinos were gaudy as hell, but the water…wow.”
“The ocean was nice?” Kelly asked.
“Glorious. I went swimming every day,” she said. “Took in a few shows at the casino, but always with a falsehood on. People just stared at my eye when I went without one. Thought I was a Navigator or something,” Miranda grumbled.
“Really? Wow. Dicks,” Freya said.
“Eh. I’m used to it by now.” Miranda munched on some pancakes as the others marched up one by one.
Holy Shit, You're Important
Gairwyn’s somewhat rakish outfit of Fenrisian leathers and light blue tunic were positively outlandish compared to the simple denims and t-shirts of the children, but she wore it with the confidence of a career fighter. Then, she was a child of the Navigators’ Household guards. The Terran-born Fenrisian sat across from Alex at the far end of the table as the others found chairs. “So Alex, what’s this I hear about you and Freya going to college together now?” she asked.
Alex looked up at her. “Well…did she tell you about what my father did?”
“Then there you go. Freya and I are going to go to college together since I can’t rely on Dad covering it, and I got a scholarship to one of the places where Freya got accepted,” Alex explained.
“And you’re moving in together?” she asked innocently.
Alex smiled weakly. “The scholarship didn’t cover room and board…I won’t be able to afford it if I don’t. Not that I, you know, didn’t want to, but,” he backpedaled. She smiled at his floundering.
“When do you move?” she asked.
“Uh, five days,” Alex said.
She nodded. “Good to hear. You two are good together,” she said.
“I think so, yeah,” Alex said, chowing down to avoid further embarrassment.
Down the table, Jake sat with the three guys he knew from school, noting the way they seemed almost fearful of the their surroundings. “Guys, if you’re uncomfortable, you don’t have to stay,” he said.
“Yeah, but how often do we get a chance like this?” Dieter asked. He quickly shut up as Angela sat beside him, with Remilia sitting across from her.
“So, you guys are the ones who taught Jake how to play cards, are you?” Remilia asked.
Abram swallowed. “Uh, yes, ma’am, we did.”
“Really, dude? ‘Ma’am?’” asked, pained. “Remilia. Please. I just spent three months instructing every sailor on that ship not to call me ma’am.”
“Sorry…we were just told that that was how you address royalty,” Abram said, looking away.
Jake cut through the tension. “Speaking of cards, guys, hold on,” he said, rising from his seat. “Dad, toss me the keys,” he said to his father as he stood.
George blinked, but tossed him the keys to the new aircar from his chair as instructed. Jake jogged outside to grab the poker set from the trunk, and returned to the room in a rush.
The three other boys were still sitting there, studiously not talking, when Jake returned. “Gents, after the food, I’m picking you clean,” he said.
Abram blinked. “Say what?”
“Freya got me a poker set for my birthday, and we’re reverting to bad habits after the food,” Jake proclaimed, setting the case down beside himself on the floor.
“Uh huh.” Dieter eyed the box. “Well, I don’t know how much you had the chance to play at Imperator, but we kept up our daily game for four years after you went upstairs. You can’t be very good, by this point.”
Jake raised his eyebrows at the challenge. “Really. Interesting.” He looked over to where Freya and Farah were sitting. “Hey, you two…want to play after you’re done eating? I want to show you the guys who taught me,” he said.
Freya’s eyes lit up. “Hell yeah, this will be an epic clash.”
Dieter’s eyes, however, narrowed. “You need a Royal handicap to win? You trying to intimidate us?”
Jake grinned. “You haven’t played until you’ve played someone who can see tells like she can.”
Freya flashed her fangs down the table to where the boys were sitting. All three recoiled, but remained resolute in their defiance of Jake’s sudden confidence. “All right, fine,” Will said. “I’m in too.”
“Fantastic. We’ll show them Hive poker, then,” Jake said.
“What else have you taught them?” Will asked.
“Basic stuff. Slapper, Ratscrew, Euchre, Blackjack, Double Hands,” Jake listed. “A few other simpler games.”
“Hmph. Introducing vice to the Royal Family,” Angela said with faux haughtiness. “Such a tawdry display.” Will paled, but Jake laughed.
“Funny, Angela, funny. Who spent their spring break in one of the Merican hive-casinos that one time?” he asked.
“That was me, actually,” Isis said from down the row.
“Oh.” Jake shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, you know how we look so much alike, it happens all the time,” Isis deadpanned.
Freya pushed back her empty plate and bounded up to Jake. “Here, I’ll set up.” Jake handed her the case and she brought it to an empty place on the table to unpack the chips and cards.
“She’s nearly as good as I am,” Jake said. He raised his voice a fraction. “Nearly.”
“Just don’t tell me not to remind your friends about your humiliating record at Horse Darts,” Freya shot back. “I might forget.”
“Touché,” Jake conceded.
Freya spread out the chips as Farah wandered over. “You have not seen people play poker until you’ve seen Freya and Jake play poker,” Remilia said. “It’s mesmerizing. They get so in the zone, you don’t even know. You wish you had their level of concentration.”
“I’ve been holding back all summer, you see,” Freya said cheerfully.
“Uh huh, sure you have, Freya,” Jake said drily. He turned to the others. “Come on, let’s school them.”
At the far end of the table, Victoria and Faith were speaking with Venus. “Your trip sounds pretty wild, Venus,” Victoria said over her food.
“It was pretty great, except for the thing at the end of the Nocturne leg,” Venus said. “I know I shouldn’t, but I feel a little responsible for it.”
“Your people’s behavior aside, I mean,” Victoria pressed.
“I think so, yeah. It was definitely fun.” Venus sipped her water. “How about you, Vicky?”
“Well, I was going to go on that little tour of the Foundation’s facilities across the system,” Victoria started, “but after the riots damaged one of the offices a few weeks ago, we called it off partway and I just came home. Security concerns, you know. And it let me have a chance to say goodbye to Ben on my own time,” she said coyly.
Venus smiled behind her glass. “Left an impression, did you?”
“I think so,” she said with an airy flick of her hair over the shoulder of her skin-tight halter top. Faith rolled her eyes.
“Tell me about it,” Venus said. “Can you imagine spending a month in the Fang...within sensory range of all those Marines? No fun.”
“Ooh, sounds like you’ll have a lot to make up over the time between now and college,” Victoria teased.
Venus shook her head. “Actually, I think Jake and I are going to spend most of the next few days cutting ties, you know. Jake wants to go and say farewell to some of his friends from the hive and family he won’t see for a while, and go see his aunt and uncle before they leave on their honeymoon. Me, I’m gonna throw myself in the pool and not come out, I suspect. Haven’t gone swimming in three months.”
“You guys on the rocks?” Victoria asked idly, picking at her food.
“Not at all,” Venus said contentedly. “We’re moving in at Kouthry together, after all.”
Victoria glanced down to where Jake was dealing his cards. “Really.”
“Yes, really,” Venus said. “Coulda sworn I’d told you that.”
“I thought he was just going to work there,” Faith said.
“Nope. Living with me and taking night classes while he works days,” Venus said.
“That’s a big jump,” Victoria said. “I couldn’t live with the same boy for four years. I’d get bored.”
“Well, we won’t see each other much once his schedule starts up,” Venus said regretfully. “But I’m still looking forward to it.”
Victoria shook her head minutely. “Must have been a hard adjustment for him, living with you for three months, straight out of the hive.”
Venus cocked her head. “I didn’t ask. But it was fun.”
“Me, I had to say goodbye to Pietro,” Faith said sadly. “It was rough, too, he really thought we could make this happen over college, but we’re just not going to be able to see each other.”
“That’s a shame,” Venus said. “Where was he going?”
“Alanaster, like Remilia,” Faith said.
“Oh, cool.” Venus sipped at her water again as the sounds from the part of the table where the cards were being played died down. “I want to see this,” she said, standing up.
Jake and his friends were already neck-deep, and even Freya was looking a little sandbagged. Farah had clearly already backed out, and was watching with awe. The four hive boys were playing in almost complete silence. With a speed that that a professional poker player could have met, Abram ditched two cards and picked two up, and before he had even seen them, or so it looked, had dropped a chip into the pot. Jake flipped a few of his own into the pot and set his cards down simultaneously with the others. Will won, and scooped up the chips as Jake shuffled and re-dealt, again in silence.
“It’s like watching a deaf person paint,” Farah said, staring at the display. “Art in silence.”
“How profound,” Venus observed. Dieter chucked in his hand as the others dropped bets into the middle so quickly it was hard to tell the exact amounts. Their eyes were darting from face to face, barely even looking at the cards. Freya folded too, and Jake dealt out replacement cards. Will had barely taken his cards when Abram and Jake both flinched at some unseen sign and folded immediately.
“Wait, what happened?” Freya asked, bewildered.
“He made the flush,” Jake said in disgust.
“But…how could you tell what he had? He only ditched one card, and you didn’t see what his hand was!” Farah exclaimed.
“I just kinda know,” Jake said. “Will’s tells are kinda obvious,” he sighed.
“Screw you,” Will said, scooping up the pot again.
“I can’t even tell what they are!” Freya said. “How much were you holding back when we were playing all summer?” she demanded.
“Not much, actually,” Jake said. He sipped his water as Abram dealt. “I can only really do this with guys I know. But keep in mind, we played an hour and a half per day, for money, for four or five years.”
“Are you winning?” Venus asked, sitting beside him.
“I’m being bodied,” Jake sighed.
“My body is being destroyed,” Jake said glumly. “I’m so bad at this game.”
“Oh, you’re a martyr,” Alex said.
“Eh, you’ve only eroded somewhat,” Will allowed him.
“You guys are crazy good at this,” Farah said. She suddenly grinned cheekily, drumming her metal hands on the table so they could hear them. “I bet I could kick you all raw at Ratscrew, though.”
The hive boys stared at her hands awkwardly until she sighed. “It was a joke. You’re allowed to laugh.”
“Well, it’s also true,” Jake chuckled. “Your reflexes are insane.”
“Well, yeah,” she said with a sniff of false vanity. The loose bandana over her head and tie-dye shirt she had on were specked with tiny burns, no doubt from recent work in the forges.
“What have you been up to before your trip out, Farah?” Jake asked as he took his cards.
“Just tooling around in the shop, really,” she said. “Bit of writing, just having fun. I’m looking forward to going home, though. I want to see Mom’s new digs.”
“She has a new house?” Jake asked, pitching his cards in and sitting back as Freya finally won a hand.
“Well, remodeled.” Farah stood and stretched, lifting her shirt over her toned stomach for a moment. “Must acquire further sustenance,” she mumbled, walking back to the buffet.
Jake won some of his losses back with an inside straight before she returned with a second plate of sausages and biscuit. “So, you three, where are you from?” she asked brightly.
All three hesitated before answering. “Uh…well, we’re from Tetra too, your Highness,” Will said on their behalf. "We went to middle school with Jake at 19889.”
Farah cocked her head. “What’s that?”
“It’s just the number of the hab block our school was in,” Jake supplied, dropping a fifty credit chip into pot.
The pretty cyborg nodded. “Ah. So when did you get time to practice?”
“At cards, ma’am?” Dieter asked. He shrugged at her nod. “Well, most kids in the habs don’t have personal voxes or anything like that, so we just entertain ourselves the old fashioned way.”
“Jake had a vox when he came to Imperator,” Farah remembered.
“Well, Dad got a discount on them because of where he worked at the time,” Jake said. “It’s more about age than anything. Most hivers have them by graduation.” He pulled his new one out. “Alex got me this for my birthday. I guarantee the range on it is a thousand times the range on my old one. You don’t need long range in the hives, there’s antennae in every structure.”
“Can I look at that, man?” Will asked.
Jake passed him the vox and Will flipped it open. “Wow. No kidding. I can’t even tell what it is…” he said, trailing off. “Who’s that on the background?” he asked.
Jake took the vox back and checked. “Oh, that’s just a picture of me as a kid with my grandfather Eric,” Jake said. “Hell, he probably hasn’t worn that uniform shirt in ten years.”
Will nodded. “My dad was in the Praetors. Field recon.”
“So was one of my uncles,” Dieter put in.
Farah smiled. “Good on them. Any of you considering military life?”
“No thanks, ma’am,” Will said, shaking his head. “No offense, but the war’s over. Life in the hive is dangerous enough, I just want to keep my head down and get a real job.”
“Why would that offend me? I’m hardly a soldier,” Farah said.
Will hesitated, looking at the tiny Iron Hands embossing on her bionics. “Well…er…”
“Your father’s Ferrus Manus,” Venus said drily.
“Oh, right, that part,” Farah said with a laugh. “Eh. All the Primarchs understand that half of the reason we were fighting in the first place was to give humans a place to live without having to worry about alien invasions.”
Dieter grimaced, but all three boys looked down to their cards. Farah cocked an eyebrow, surprised by their sudden hostility. “Did I say something?” she asked.
“Forget it, ma’am,” Will said.
“Please stop calling me that,” Farah said. “I know it’s knee-jerk, but some of us don’t like it.”
“You say so,” Will said, dropping a chip into the pot.
Venus suddenly snapped her fingers. “Hell. Jake, do you remember if we brought the spare towels out of the cabin? Or did we leave them in the dresser on the ship?”
Jake slapped his forehead. “Nuts. We left them behind.”
“Damn,” Venus grumbled. “Well, the Navy gets free towels. I’ll shop for more before we go.”
“Gonna need them, Kouthry’s pool looks pretty damn big from the holos,” Jake chuckled.
Morticia dropped into the seat beside Dieter and stared at the game as Miranda took Angela’s other side. “Wow. You guys do this a lot, don’t you?” she asked.
“Eight years running,” Will mumbled, staring at his cards.
“Yikes.” Morticia caught his eye as he looked up to place his bet. “Hi. I’m Morticia,” she said.
Will started slightly. “Oh! Oh, yes, you were…right. Hi, I’m Will,” he said.
Morticia half-smiled. “Seen me in the news of late, huh?” she asked drily.
“Few times, ma’am,” Will admitted nervously. “Glad you’re feeling better,” he said.
“Me too.” She watched another few lightning-fast hands in silence. “I didn’t see you on the basalt pillars with the others,” she said to Jake.
Jake shook his head. “Like I told Hunter Hasskald, I don’t like fighting gravity.”
“What’s it like seeing actual snow?” Dieter asked.
“Unbelievable,” Jake said. “I’ll never forget that.” He shook his head at the memory. “Man, you guys think the glare off the walls is bad, an entire horizon of snow…it was nearly blinding.”
“I can’t even picture it,” Abram said wistfully. “But man…I didn’t even understand what was happening in the picture of the castle in the middle.”
Jake blinked. “The castle in…oh, the Skarokk castle. It was just us standing there.”
“I meant the sky. Was it red?” Abram asked.
“Yeah, on Nocturne the sun is red and the clouds are blue,” Jake said.
“Wild,” Abram said.
“It was pretty disorienting, yeah,” Jake said.
“You’ll get used to it,” Venus said confidently. “If nothing else, you’re used to the heat.”
Jake shook his head, picking up the next hand. “That’s debatable. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to handle the heat. It was like sleeping in a furnace every night.”
Venus giggled. Jake squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, grinning. “Moreso than usual, that is.”
Remilia finished her own food and glanced at her watch. “Ah, blast,” she muttered. “Hey, Venus, can you give me a sec? I want to ask you something,” she said, rising to her feet.
Venus followed her into a corner. “Can you do something with this for me?” she asked her obsidian cousin, holding out the bottle cap from the drink Kines had given her.
Venus stared. “A bottle cap?” she asked.
“Yeah, a keepsake from Chuck,” Remilia said. “Can you forge it into a little pendant for me? Just a little heart shape or something?” she asked.
Venus grinned, taking the tiny piece of metal. “You bet. Won’t get it done before you have to make tracks, though. I’ll mail it to you.”
Remilia hugged her quickly, before walking back to the table. “Well, folks, it’s been fun to see everyone, but I have a flight to catch to Alanaster,” she announced. “See you all around, eh?”
Several of the other girls scrambled to their feet to offer up farewell hugs or advice as soon as she made the announcement. Remilia accepted them all in turn, sadly exchanging her own farewells.
The Party's Over
“Good luck out there,” Kelly said next.
“Thanks, Kelly. You too,” Remilia said.
Angela hugged her cousin briefly. “You’re in good hands,” she said softly. “I’m glad you’re not scared of the future any more.”
Remilia hugged back. “Good luck with your writing,” she said. “I’ll keep in touch.”
After she had received farewells from each Daughter in turn, Freya walked with her to the door of the ballroom. They paused at the top of the stairs, and Remilia turned to her. “Freya…thanks,” she said.
Freya nodded. “Of course.”
“I think…I think this has been probably the best summer of my life,” Remilia said. “And if you hadn’t invited me…”
Freya stepped up to her and hugged her tight. “It was my pleasure, Remilia,” she said happily. “You take care now, okay?”
Remilia closed her eyes and squeezed back. Both girls just stood there for a moment before Freya nipped her ear one last time and pulled away. “Now you go pack,” she said sternly.
The lanky soccer player smiled. “You got it. Write when you get to school, huh?”
“Of course.” Freya stepped aside for Olivia to pass. “Goodbye, Remilia.”
Venus sat back down beside Jake and slid the bottle cap into her pocket. “Do you wanna head out too, baby?” Jake asked.
“Actually, I sort of do,” Venus said. “I have so much packing and unpacking to do…and I promised I’d make something at the forge for Remilia.”
“Oh, okay,” Jake said. He set his cards down as the hand he was playing ended. “Gents,” he said, standing up.
“You’re leaving?” Abram asked.
“’Fraid so,” Jake said. “Got a lot of unpacking to do.”
“Then I guess we’re leaving too,” Abram said, sliding his chips over to the case.
“All right. You guys gonna be around later so we can get online? I’m in town another nine days.”
“Uh, sure,” Dieter said. “I will be, anyway.” The other two nodded assent.
“Awesome. Just like old times,” Jake said, packing up the chips and cards.
Misja walked over to them and held out her arms. “Jake, I’m glad you had a fun time. Make sure to call me before moving day so we can coordinate the mail situation.”
“Oh, right, the address,” Jake said, referring to the shared postal code he would have with Venus. “I will.” He accepted a quick hug from her as the other three boys stared. “It was good seeing you too.”
“Actually, this is goodbye for now, isn’t it?” Venus asked.
Jake nodded. “Yeah, I was going to go and see Alice and Hajime after we get unpacked, then go hit Keller’s.”
“Right.” Venus pushed her plate away and stood up, stretching tiredly. “So I guess I’ll see you in a few days?”
“Yep.” Jake packed up the rest of the cards and chips. “And then…Kouthry.”
“Hell yeah,” Venus said.
Jake picked up the hefty leather case and slung it. Venus paused him with a parting hug and a quick kiss. “I’m really glad you had fun,” she said quietly. Her eyes sparkled. “We should do it again sometime.”
Jake chuckled. “Count on it. Maybe some summer break when they don’t need me in the labs?”
“Call it a plan,” Venus said.
Jake set the case back down long enough for her to rest her head on his shoulder for a moment. “Thanks for inviting me, baby,” he said softly.
“I wouldn’t have enjoyed it much if you hadn’t been there,” she said in the same tone. She withdrew to the corner to say goodbye to Morticia and Kelly, who were still chatting with Miranda.
The three hiver boys gaped at Jake, in varying states of disbelief. Jake shrugged sheepishly. “Are you serious?” Abram asked.
“Would she have invited me along otherwise?” Jake asked.
“No, I mean…you are the luckiest guy,” Abram said, shaking his head.
Jake quirked a grin. “Come on. You guys need a ride back home?”
“No, we took Will’s car,” Dieter said. He bumped fists with Jake as he walked by. “Man, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous, but still…it was good seeing you again.”
“Yeah, we should get together and play again before I head out,” Jake said, hefting the case on its metal handle.
Alex rose as well, sensing the party breaking up. “Queen Russ, I want to thank you,” he said. “I was a bit worried I’d come home to nobody,” he admitted.
Gairwyn shook her head. “I wouldn’t allow that, now,” she said. “Do you want a ride to your mother’s new apartment?”
“I don’t know. Where did she take all my stuff from the old place?” Alex asked.
“No clue. I’m sure she wouldn’t just pitch it, though,” Gairwyn said.
Freya bounded up. “Do you have your Mom’s vox number on you?” she asked.
“Uh, yeah,” Alex said, paging through his own vox. “Here.”
“All right. Call her now and ask what you should do, I can just drive you if you need a lift.”
Alex clicked her number and held up the vox, walking over to the corner of the room for quiet. His mother answered on the first ring. “Hello?”
“Mom, it’s Alex. How are you?” he asked awkwardly, suddenly aware that he should have called the moment he was earth-side.
“Alex! Baby, are you okay?” his mother demanded. “I only got your message a day or two ago, I’ve been worried sick!”
Alex sighed in relief. “I’ll be alright. Can I drop by and pick up my stuff from the old place?”
“Of course! Come on to my new address. You have it, right?”
“Sure do. Love you, Mom. Gotta run,” he said.
“Yes, I love you too, Alex. Please come over as soon as you can,” she said.
“I will.” Alex hung up and puffed out a breath. “Okay.”
“Is she okay?” Freya asked as he walked back over.
Alex slid his vox into his pocket. “I think so. She just didn’t get the message until we were most of the way home already, that’s all.”
“That’s good,” Freya said. “Are you going to see her?”
Alex grimaced. “Well, I will need a means of traveling over there, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Gairwyn spoke up.
“Great. Thank you, Queen Russ,” Alex said.
Victoria unfurled from her seat with a shake of her hair. “Mmm…second breakfast is a glorious thing,” she said idly.
“It is,” Faith confirmed. “When are you heading back out to the Foundation tour, Vicky?”
“Tomorrow,” she said with a yawn. “When’s orientation?”
“September seventh, actually,” Faith remarked. “Of those of us who are leaving, I think I leave last.”
“Plenty of time to pack, at least,” Victoria commented. She broke off as Jake and Venus walked up with Farah.
“Well, you two, this is it,” Farah said. “I’m Medusa-bound in fifteen hours.” She hugged each in turn. “Have a good year, all right? I’ll be home when I’m home,” she said.
“I’ll try,” Faith said. “I’m already nervous. Just wanna speed up and start classes, you know?”
“Nope!” Farah said happily. She turned to Victoria. “You have fun, okay? Say Hi to your folks for me.”
“I will,” Victoria promised.
Freya and Miranda watched as the five parted ways, heading for their parents if they had brought them – Victoria hadn’t – and walked out one-by-one. “Are you looking forward to working with your Dad?” Freya asked.
The other redhead nodded eagerly. “I have so much to learn. Dad’s starting me off at the Scholastica Isolatorium, the place where the Scryers’ College is. Learning the ropes there, you know. I’m really excited,” she said.
Freya smiled. “I’m glad.”
“And you’re comfortable living with Alex? I don’t know if I could trust myself to live with someone like that,” Miranda confessed. “I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from giving my little insights.”
Her cousin chuckled. “Oh, I suspect you will. That’s my little insight.”
“Mhmm.” Miranda shrugged modestly. “Well, that’s kind of you to say.” She blushed a bit as Freya pondered the benefits of her shared living space. “I’m, er…glad you two are so happy with each other.”
Freya leaned in closer to her cousin. “Little secret for you, Miranda: a good relationship is one where you’re just as happy spending time away from your guy as you are with him. When Alex goes off to play rugby, he doesn’t mind that I don’t go with, or when I go off to the range for a few hours he doesn’t feel obligated to come along.”
Miranda shrugged awkwardly. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Trust me, Miranda, you’re going to work out just fine in that regard,” Freya said confidently. “You be sure to write when you can, all right?”
“Bet on it,” Miranda said, “but I’m staying in town another week, you’ll get to speak to me before we go.”
“Of course,” Freya said.
As the girls and their families wandered outside, leaving the caterers to clean up, Farah and Remilia nearly raced off to their own homes to do last-minute packing and shopping, while the others left more sedately. As they flew, Remilia and her mother avoided serious talk, just catching up on things. It wasn’t until they were already in the Dorn manor and Remilia was unpacking her things that they finally broached the hardest subject.
Olivia mentioned it first. “Sweetheart, I don’t want to ask this and I know you don’t want to answer, but…your arms,” she said hesitantly. “Are you feeling better?”
“I am,” Remilia said resolutely. She chucked a shirt in the laundry servitor’s bin before turning to face her mother. “I’ve stopped. Probably for good.”
“That’s reassuring,” Olivia sighed. “Can I ask why?”
“Why…I did it, or why I stopped?” Remilia asked.
Remilia thought that one over. She sat on the top of an unopened suitcase and pondered. “Well, I guess…I did it because I just hurt that much,” she said softly. “When Dad…hit me, when I was on the verge of failing that Collegiate Product Physics course…Morticia getting shot.”
Olivia looked away as Remilia recited the list. Her daughter continued. “As for why I stopped…Uncle Magnus helped a lot, Freya helped a lot, Jake helped a little…but I also got a new perspective.”
“What do you mean?” Olivia asked.
“I met a guy on the trip. A really sweet guy,” Remilia said, half-smiling to herself. “He was so smart…we just sat and talked for hours. Turns out…well, it’s his business, but his little sister cut too. She died, in fact,” Remilia said sadly.
“That’s horrible,” Olivia said with a wince.
“Yeah. When he saw my arms…he got tense, yeah, but we just talked after that,” Remilia said. “We sat in my room and talked, for hours. I mean, we had to wait until he was off-shift, but we talked as much as we could. Just…life. His growing up on a farm, my growing up on Terra…it felt so good to just bare my soul to someone,” she said. “And without psychics involved.”
Olivia nodded sagely. “Well, as long as that’s all you bared to him,” she said.
Remilia struggled to hide an inappropriate giggle. Her mother started. “Remilia, you didn’t.”
She giggled. “I didn’t say anything.”
“Tell me you didn’t have sex with some random crewer on the ship!” Olivia demanded, faint.
“Hey!” Remilia barked. “He wasn’t some random crewer, he was some random officer!”
“Remilia! I can’t believe you did that!” Olivia said, aghast.
“Why not? He was sweet as candy,” Remilia said primly. “Besides, four hours talking with him, seven times over the course of two months, did more for getting my head un-scrambled than a year in therapy could have.” She smiled broadly at her mother’s horror.
“Remilia…oh, sweetheart, I thought you were going to choose better than that,” Olivia said. “I know you were hurting, baby, but turning to sex for a passing relief doesn’t accomplish anything.”
“Mom, I already felt better,” Remilia said patiently. “Shit, after seeing Jake bounce back from getting that badly hurt by a random asshole, I would have felt hollow if I just jumped in this guy’s bunk. I made my choice and I’m better for it,” she said. Her eyes narrowed. “And here I thought you’d be proud of me for that.”
“Remilia, I’m…I mean, did you even know this man’s history? You could have gotten sick with something, or pregnant!” Olivia said.
Remilia sighed. “Give me some credit, Mom. I wouldn’t have even considered it if we weren’t being safe.” She crossed her legs on the suitcase and played with the hem of her fleece jacket. “Besides, he needed someone to talk to as much as I did. We spent hours just loafing around in my room, talking about school, about the news, about my trip…he was more than a pretty face, though he had that going too,” she added coyly. “He was a friend. Someone I could confide in.”
Olivia stared. “Confide in? Remilia, what if he tells someone?!”
Remilia shrugged. “Who would notice, with all of Vicky’s tabloid dramabombs? Besides, I never asked him to keep his mouth shut, and he was hardly the type to kiss and tell.”
“You didn’t even ask him not to tell anyone?” Olivia gaped.
Remilia finally let some of her mounting anger peek through. “What exactly is the problem here, Mom? That I had sex with a guy? Or someone who wasn’t a noble? Because I guarantee that he was better for my head than anything else that could have happened. Is my mental health not more important than the family’s sacrosanct public image?”
Olivia snapped her mouth shut, fuming. “Discretion is important, Remilia,” she said.
“And I was discreet. Aside from him, the other four of us, the ship’s LO who was outright ordered to keep a lid on it by Venus, you, and Angela, not a soul knows,” Remilia said coldly. “As for discretion being important, Mom, I think you should reflect on the fact that I felt that I had to leave in the first place because I couldn’t trust myself to stay here until Alanaster.”
“What has that got to do with anything?” Olivia asked.
“Forget it,” Remilia said in disgust, climbing off the suitcase and starting to unpack it. She turned her back on her mother and pulled assorted clothes out of the container.
For a few minutes, Olivia was quiet. When she spoke again, however, her voice was softer. “Remilia, I’m sorry. I just don’t want you to be hurt again.”
“I’m not expecting to see him again, Mom, if that’s what you mean. He’s on Mars, right now, I could go see him. But I won’t. That’s what we wanted,” Remilia said, unpacking her jewelry.
“I mean…” Remilia heard her mother struggle to find words, before finally sighing. “Remilia, I just don’t understand.”
“What part?” Remilia asked.
“All of it,” Olivia said heavily, dropping onto the bed next to her daughter. Remilia looked at her in surprise. “I just don’t get it, baby.”
“Like…like cutting. Why do it at all? And why did you go straight to Magnus instead of asking me first? And why did you need to leave the house for three months? And why turn to sex with a total stranger? Isn’t that as bad as cutting?” Olivia asked, tears gathering in her eyes.
Remilia looked into her mother’s face and found her anger shrinking. “Mom, I don’t know why hurting myself felt like a good idea at the time. I can quote Magnus and half a dozen other people as to why they think people do it, but what the fuck do they know? If there were a right answer, all of them would have said the same thing.” She set her jewelry box down.
“Magnus…I didn’t go to him first. I didn’t do anything of the sort, actually,” she said. “I tried to hide it. Dad confronted me and tried to scare me into stopping,” she said with a trace of old bitterness. “When that didn’t work, I just kept hiding it until Freya figured out what had happened and outright ordered me to stop. When I realized that the others were figuring it out, I went to Miranda.”
“Because I trust her, Mom, so deeply,” Remilia said quietly. “My god, she can see into people so deeply that they literally can’t lie without her knowing…and yet she’s so sweet, so innocent, so kind…I thought if anyone could help me figure it out, it would be her. She said her father had solved problems like mine before with people, so I went to him to figure things out.”
She sat down next to her mother, pushing the suitcase aside. “Magnus said that I was hurting myself metaphysically, badly enough that my soul was in real danger. That alone would have scared me straight, I bet, but he helped me a little.”
Remilia ran her hands over each other and looked down at her scars. “He went into my mind and helped me remember all the things that had ever made me hurt myself, but all the things that I couldn’t think about when I was doing it too. Like when I won that,” she said, jerking her head at one of the many trophies and certificates on the wall over her bed.
“He also did some stuff with my spirit…I don’t even begin to understand it, but I felt better within an hour,” she said. “That stuff scares me, but it worked, whatever it was. So I got all fired up and went to confront Dad about…everything. And Dad…confessed that he was a bad father, and that he thought he was making me stronger, and all those things he said…” she trailed off, hugging her ravaged arms to her breasts as the painful memories came back. Olivia stared, saddened but unable to help.
“And when he said he was trying to make me see for myself why it wasn’t a good idea in the long run, I just lost it. I said he should have helped a little, like a father would, and I went straight to Freya.”
“Why Freya?” Olivia asked tremulously.
“Because she’s the one who figured it out on her own, but also…” Remilia sniffed through her budding smile. “Because she’s a sister to me, Mom, she’s been there whether or not I wanted her to be, every single time I was hurt or sad or lonely.” She hung her head, closing her eyes as a tear worked its way free. “Where would I be without her?” she whispered.
Olivia squeezed her daughter’s shoulder as Remilia wiped her tears away. “Well, she set me up for a few days and talked to me for a bit…and she invited me on the road trip, too,” she remembered. “And then there was a little get-together, at her place. Venus, Faith, Freya, and their boyfriends, and me. And I asked Jake, Venus’ boyfriend, to help me figure shit out. Before you ask,” she said, anticipating her mother’s question, “it’s because I…well. I sort of envied Venus her relationship with him. She used to hate going to school sometimes, you know,” Remilia said. “People made fun of her, or got scared of her, because of how she looks, and the fact that she likes to spend time alone in her basement all the time.”
“And Jake changed that somehow?” Olivia asked.
“What? No, no,” Remilia said, shaking her head. “But she started to look forward to coming to school when she met him, and they’re practically joined at the hip now. So, I asked him to give me a new perspective.” She screwed her face up. “And I came off like a complete bitch, too, but hey. He explained some stuff, and he helped me figure out why I felt like I needed to get away from home for a while.”
“And why was that?” Olivia asked.
Remilia turned to look at her. Her mother looked a lot like her, coincidentally enough. She was tall, too, only where Remilia was lanky but trim, her mother was just thin. At that moment, Olivia’s narrow face was pinched further yet, by sadness and regret that Remilia didn’t like seeing.
“Because, Mom, Dad loves me but has no clue how to show it, and you love me but you’re never home,” Remilia said simply. “And neither of you ever stopped to explain to me why Dad hurt himself too…or why he stopped.”
Olivia just stared at her daughter, before she emitted a single sob. “I’m sorry, Remilia, I was wrong,” she said, wiping her eyes.
Remilia nodded and reached out to hug her mother around the shoulders. Olivia sobbed again, holding her daughter tight. “I can’t remember the last time I actually told you I love you,” Olivia wept.
Remilia closed her eyes. Her eidetic memory could provide her with an exact answer, and it did. It had been a long time. “Well…I know it’s true, so we’ll go from there,” she mumbled.
At length, she let go of her mother and leaned back. “Can I keep going?” she asked.
“Sure, baby, go on,” Olivia said, wiping her eyes.
“Anyway…when it was time to go, I immediately looked for things to do on the ship, as you might expect,” Remilia said. She peered over at her mother. “Mom, I want you to swear something to me, okay?”
“What is it?” Olivia asked, drying her eyes on her hankie.
Remilia straightened up on the bed. “Swear to me that you won’t go after the guy I was with on the ship. I mean it.”
Olivia blinked, but she nodded. “I promise.”
“Good.” Remilia lay flat on the bed and looked up at the ceiling, where the faint outlines of little plastic stars could be seen, before she had been too ‘mature’ to want them there any longer and had had them scraped off.
“After we came back from Nocturne, which I’ll describe later, I decided I wanted to get to know the funny, mouth-wateringly cute bartender, Chuck, from the ship’s O-Club, and, well…that happened.” She smiled at the ceiling. “He was a balm. I don’t think I’ve ever really had a friend I could just unload on like that, not outside the family or the football team.”
Olivia winced, displaying an entirely understandable dislike of discussing her daughter’s sex life, but Remilia plowed on. “He was so adorable, too…and he was always smiling when he was around me. It was so rewarding,” she said dreamily. “Just to be acknowledged like that. He told me flat-out that I was the best thing that had happened to him since he got conscripted.”
“Well, that’s good…I guess…” Olivia said. “And…just to be sure, you were safe, weren’t you?”
“Naturally,” Remilia sighed.
“Good…” Olivia trailed off, looking away. “You were saying?”
“Well, that was it, really. He told me a lot about life as a conscript, what he was going to do after his tour…that’s it.” Remilia sat up and resumed her unpacking. “I did get these on Nocturne, though, for…oh shit!” she said, extracting the jewelry she had picked for Alpharia and Omegan. “I meant to hand these off to the Twins at the party. Damn. I’ll have to have someone send them,” she chided herself.
“On Nocturne, you say?” Olivia said. “Those are pretty.”
“Yeah, I bought them in a market in Skarokk,” Remilia said. She dropped them onto a side table for later. “Well…I guess that’s it about Chuck, really,” she said. She looked up at her mother. “Want to stay and listen to some of the other stuff that happened?”
Olivia hesitated and sat back down. “Sure, I’d love to.”
Alex stood at the door of his mother’s new home in the hive spire and tried to calm down.
The new place was dark. So incredibly dark, compared to the house where they had lived in the surface city. There wasn’t a sky overhead at all, either. Just a metal dome, strung with lights. Some of the individual homes backed up to the outside, so the people could look out of the hive when they wanted, but there wasn’t blue overhead any more.
He drew in a breath and slowly exhaled, steeling his nerves. “Nothing for it,” he muttered, knocking on the door.
After a moment, it creaked open. Veronica was standing there, dressed in her business clothes, seemingly no worse for wear, except for dark bags under her eyes. As soon as she saw her son, her mouth flew open. “Alex!”
“Hi, Mom,” he managed to say, before he was buried in a hug.
“Baby, welcome home!” his mother said, holding him at arm’s length after a moment. “Look at you…you turned into a man when I wasn’t looking,” she said wistfully.
Alex scoffed and casually flexed his arms. “Well, I don’t like to brag,” he said airily.
“Come on in, see the new place,” Veronica said, stepping back. Alex walked in and craned his head back. The new apartment was surprisingly roomy, moreso than their old home had been. A narrow staircase cut across from the very middle of the room to an upper level, which circled the central main room like a balcony. The whole outer wall was a window on one side, over the undulating sea of silvery hive metal. The polarized window was sealed tight against the ravaging winds over the hive skin.
There was a small, sunken conversation area in front of the window, and a little kitchenette in one corner of the large room. All in all, Alex decided, it was a pretty nice place…for a hive apartment.
“Interesting new digs,” Alex said.
“It’s pretty comfortable,” Veronica said, following her son into the conversation area. “But tell me how your trip went!”
“It was pretty wild, I gotta say,” Alex admitted, sitting in one overstuffed chair. “Traveling with three Ladies Primarch is unforgettable. Oh, before I forget,” he said, leaning forward, “what happened to my stuff in the old house?”
“It’s just in storage until you have the chance to root through it,” Veronica said. “Don’t worry. We can go get it before you move out with Freya.” She sighed impatiently. “When do I get to meet her? A Lady Primarch! I have so much to ask her!”
Alex felt relief loosen his tensed shoulders. Clearly, his and his mother’s misfortunes hadn’t dampened her spirits overmuch. “Well, actually,” he said, standing up. He turned to the door and walked over, pushing it open. “Come on in,” he said.
Freya, who had been lounging against the side of her car the entire time, waiting for Alex to decide if his mother was in any state for company at her own suggestion, straightened up and walked in. Veronica’s eyes widened at the sight, and she shot to her feet.
“Mom, this is Freya,” Alex said by means of introduction. “Freya, this is my mother, Veronica.”
Freya walked straight up to her and inclined her head. “Nice to meet you at long last, ma’am,” she said.
“An honor, your Ladyship,” Veronica said, kneeling.
“Please get up,” Freya said as Alex walked back over. As soon as she could make eye contact again, she smiled broadly, her fangs glinting in the artificial light. “It’s a bit incongruous to meet you just as I’m taking your son away for four or so years, but it’s still a pleasure to make your acquaintance,” she said happily, shaking the astonished woman’s hand.
“L-likewise, Lady Russ,” Veronica said. Whether it was surprise alone or shame from having a Primarch have to enter a hive to speak to her, Freya couldn’t tell, but her cheeks suddenly colored, and she stepped back as soon as she could withdraw her hand.
Freya had none of it. “Oh, you needn’t call me that, Veronica, titles are for strangers,” she said. “Call me Freya.”
“Freya, yes, thank you,” Veronica said. “So, er…welcome,” she said, awkwardly gesturing to the room around them as a servitor appeared at the door with the first of Alex’s belongings.
“Mom, where do I put my shit?” Alex asked, pointing at the idling servitor.
“Oh, uh, guest room upstairs for now,” Veronica said, stepping over to the servitor to direct them to the larger stairs in the back.
Freya leaned over to Alex as his mother moved out of earshot. “She seems nice,” she said quietly.
“I’m relieved. Can you stay a while to discuss the trip and where I go from here?” he asked under his breath.
“Not for too long, I have unpacking to do too,” Freya reminded him. “But yeah, I can for a while.”
“Good,” Alex whispered as his mother returned.
“Well…Alex, Freya, tell me everything, please!” Veronica said, gesturing to chairs for them both.
The two sank into a love seat as Veronica sat across from them. “Well, the ship was a bit…samey, but it’s a warship, not a cruise liner, so that’s to be expected,” Alex began.
Over the next few hours, as the servitor unloaded all of Alex’s things, Freya and Alex retold their tale, leaving out only the most salacious of details. When Alex reached his argument with his father, however, he couldn’t stop himself from clenching his hands into fists. Freya’s eyes turned down in remorse as Alex recalled his father’s ultimatum, and his passive-aggressive dismissal of Alex’s college career.
“Oh, baby,” Veronica said softly, closing her eyes and sinking back into her chair. “I’m sorry he hurt you.”
Freya leaned against his shoulder, and he looped an arm around her back, letting her presence soothe his anger. “Yeah. Yeah, I was pretty far gone,” he said quietly. “The others were great, though…I changed my college enrollment to stay with Freya until…well, until the future happens. You know.”
“Yeah.” Alex’s mother shook her head, thinking that one over. “Well…thank you, Freya, for giving Alex a place to stay and keep learning,” she said.
“It was my pleasure,” Freya said, smiling faintly.
“So…what did you do next?” Veronica asked.
Alex bit back an inappropriate smile. “Well…I just stayed in the suite for a while until I felt better, then we just went on a tour of a gallery on Skarokk…”
Finally, they reached the part where Alex and Leman Russ had come to a tentative truce. “Wow.” Veronica shook her head, looking overwhelmed. “Alex, that just…I mean, I know, intellectually, that you’ve met him before, but that still just blows my mind.”
“What?” Alex asked.
“Meeting a Lord Primarch like that…shaking his hand,” Veronica said. “I suppose going to school with his daughter must have made it seem commonplace, but still.”
Alex tilted his head to the side, looking a bit distracted. “Well…no, it’s still pretty intimidating. He’s a scary man.”
“He also tried to intimidate you directly, Alex,” Freya said drily. “He doesn’t show his teeth around the house as much as he does around you.”
“When you show me your teeth it doesn’t scare me,” Alex said.
Freya grinned coyly. “Context is important, though,” she said playfully.
Alex chuckled. His mother looked from one to the other, uncomprehending. “Aaaanyway, Mom, we came home a day or two after that,” Alex said. “The flight back was a bit rougher since the ship had been in combat, but that’s the way it goes,” he finished.
“Well, it sounds like apart from Joseph’s arrogance and your friend’s injury, it was a pretty fun trip,” Veronica said.
“It really was,” Alex said. “I just wish I hadn’t spent all of my discretionary budget before I left.”
“Have you actually tried to reach your old accounts?” Veronica asked.
“I have. Only the two that were under my name and sealed to my ID code are still active, and they’re tiny compared to the ones Dad cut off,” Alex said heavily. “Enough to finance housing for a few years, but not enough to live off of.”
“That’s too bad,” Veronica said. “Then, I guess I owe you doubly, Freya,” she said.
Freya shrugged awkwardly. “I haven’t given Alex any money, Veronica, and I’m not going to unless something even worse happens. I’m just happy to room with him. To be honest, Mom and Dad keep my own accounts on a pretty short leash, and Dad would blow a circuit if I just up and gave one to Alex.”
“I don’t mind, really, either,” Alex spoke up. “I’m just grateful for what I’m getting, and this way I can earn my degree.”
Veronica rose to her feet. “Well, baby, I’m glad you managed to have fun anyway,” she said. “Want to go get your stuff from the lock-up?”
“Let’s,” Alex said. He turned to Freya as she stood too. “Thanks for everything, Freya,” he said.
She took his hand and lifted it to her lips. “It was fun meeting your Mom. I’ll see you again in a few days, when we have to consolidate out luggage for the move, okay?”
“Sure.” Alex released her hand and drew her into a quick hug. “See you then.”
Jake's New Swag
Jake’s parents’ new ride settled on the roof of their little apartment. Jake stood and breathed in the cycled air. “Home, sweet home,” he said, peering up into the endless maze of aircar lights.
“It sure is,” George said, opening the trunk. “Grab a few suitcases.”
Jake and his mother grabbed some bags and cases and followed George into the apartment. Jake paused at the threshold as he looked around. “Man, I know I should know better, but I can’t help but compare this to the hotel room in Clymene. Venus got us into the Imperial suite,” Jake said.
“Really?” Sandra asked.
“Yeah, it was bigger than the whole apartment here,” Jake said. “Here, let me take that,” he said, hefting the massive case his mother had taken.
“Say, someone’s been working out,” George said.
“Yep! Alex gave me a workout routine to do on the ship, since there was basically nothing else to do,” Jake said. “I’ve gained ten pounds since I left, all muscle.”
George nodded his approval. “Good for you,” he said. “And I understand Nocturne was Terra-plus on gravity and pressure?”
“It was,” Jake confirmed, setting a case on his bed. “First few days were hell. I just dealt with it after a while.”
Sandra opened one case to help expedite unpacking, and her eyes widened. “Jake, what in the world is this?” she asked, withdrawing the suit he had purchased on Nocturne.
“Oh, that was a present from Remilia,” Jake said. “That formal dinner I talked about, where Alex’s dad was a dick, I didn’t have anything suitable, so Remilia bought that for me. Don’t worry, I felt bad afterwards, that’s what matters, right?”
“Jake, this is…this is a seven thousand credit suit,” Sandra said.
“And Remilia’s a generous girl,” Jake said. “She swore before we left that she’d buy all my clothes for me for the trip. The thermoreflective outfit, this, all of it.”
“I hope you thanked her,” Sandra said.
“Profusely,” Jake said. “She’s a sweet girl, though, she was happy to do it without even being asked.”
“Which one is your girlfriend? I can’t tell,” George quipped, feeling the fabric.
“The one who made me that watch,” Jake laughed. He walked out to the car and returned with yet more suitcases. “I washed most of this on the ship, so I can just put it away,” he said.
“Oh, good,” Sandra said. She closed the suitcase. “You know, Jake, your friends are really generous to you,” she said. “I’m sure you’re smart enough to thank them for everything, but does it ever feel like they’re just trying to buy favor?”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Jake asked, sliding the gift card into his wallet. “Favor from who? Some hiver they went to school with?”
“Well, I just…I know that a few of the Lords Primarch set up charities or private companies or what have you after the Crusade, and some of them are basically used as tax sinks by the rich to dodge paying full taxes,” Sandra said.
Jake stared. “And you want to know…”
“If you ever get the feeling that they’re being generous to you out of pity instead of genuine friendship, yes,” Sandra said carefully. “Obviously I don’t think Venus is, but still.”
Jake sank into a chair, staring at his mother. “Wow. Holy shit, Mom, that…wow. That’s fucking mean,” Jake said, feeling anger stir in his stomach.
“Jake, don’t talk like that to me,” she said defensively.
“Do you honestly think I’m either stupid enough or pathetic enough not to tell the difference?” Jake asked, gripping the armrests of the chair. “Sure, there are Royal Family members who look down on me, but I don’t hang out with them!”
“Jake, it’s not just that,” Sandra said. George looked back and forth between his wife and son, silent. “After the Crusade ended, the Royal Family-operated charities and so forth, like Lord Primarch Fulgrim’s Foundation, they had people flock to them. Not the recipients, either, but the people who just wanted to have some of his glamor rub off on them,” she said disgustedly. “Jake, all I’m saying is that when I see you come home with these gifts, I feel like maybe they’re just giving you these things because they feel that it absolved them of some…moral problem, or something. You see it all the time in the business and political worlds.”
Jake stared at her as she finished her recitation. “Mom, do you know why Remilia gave me all that stuff? I doubt I’ve told you,” he said coldly. “She gave it to me,” he said, cutting his mother off, “because she was horribly depressed by an act of abuse in her household, and you may not, under any circumstances, repeat that,” he said, pointing at both of his parents, who recoiled, stunned. “She was broken, sad, confused, and when she asked me to help, I did. It made her feel better, and she wanted repay me. I said she didn’t have to, and she said she did, so I let her pay for something I could never have bought on my own and thanked her for it anyway,” Jake said, trying to rein in his temper. “They’re PEOPLE, Mom.”
“There are good people and bad people, Jake, and some of them are rich and some are poor,” Sandra said flatly.
“Yeah, and I don’t treat any of the Daughters interchangeably, and I certainly don’t spend time with the ones who pity or dislike me,” Jake said. “Now are you done questioning my judgment? I have a gift card to spend before we leave.”
“To where?” George asked, speaking at last.
“Remilia gave me a gift card for my birthday, for Keller’s Electronics,” Jake said, tapping his wallet. “I want to build a new gaming rig.”
“That was nice of her,” George said before Sandra could say anything.
“It was,” Jake said, putting the last cases in his room. “See you guys later,” he added, swiping the keys for the car off of the table on the way out.
The Daughter of the Drake
Venus felt her feet leave the floor as her father swept her into a hug. “Forgedaughter, welcome home,” he murmured.
“Hello, Dad,” Venus said softly. “It’s good to be back.”
“Tell me of your venture,” Vulkan said, allowing his daughter to sink back to the ground.
“It was amazing,” Venus said excitedly. “I have all these holos and videos to show you.”
“I bet you do,” Vulkan replied, sitting in one of the reinforced chairs in the spacious living room. “Before anything, though, I want you to tell me some of the things you’ve mentioned in passing in your messages.”
Venus sat down, bursting with excitement. “Well, Captain Roemer did a commendable job adapting to our weirdness,” she began, drawing a chuckle from both parents. “He was a good host. And Isaac! I ran into Isaac while we were there, and I kicked the shit out of him,” she said proudly.
“So you mentioned,” Vulkan chuckled.
“As for the planet itself, well…it was beautiful. I had to work really hard to look like I knew what I was doing, too,” Venus said drily. “I think I came off as being as much a tourist as they did.”
“That’s to be expected, really,” Misja said. “It was your first time there, too.”
Venus pulled off the ring she had bought from the market in Hesiod and showed it to her father. “Here, check this out,” she said.
Vulkan took the ring and examined it. “Hmm. A heliotrope…one of yours? No, it isn’t, that’s not your setting…it’s passable, though.”
“I bought it in Hesiod.” Venus took the ring back. “Heliotrope is my birthstone, right? Well, I got that, and a cymophane for Jake, I used it as a clasp on a watch I made for him.”
“That was sweet of you,” Misja said. “Did he like it?”
“He loved it! And he said his paternal grandfather made watches in the seminary in his free time, so that was cool too,” Venus said happily. “And the best thing, oh man…I got to make it in the Hall of Deathfire!”
Vulkan nodded solemnly. “How was that?”
“Awe-inspiring,” Venus said. “I felt so at home, though. And the other Salamanders were very respectful, although one did get a bit nosy,” she mumbled as an aside.
One black brow peaked. “Oh?” Vulkan asked.
“Yeah, he said I would be better off with a Nocturnean partner,” Venus sniffed.
“Hmph. He should have minded his own business. Still, I’m glad you went,” Vulkan said. “Do you understand why we hold that place in such reverence?”
“Absolutely,” Venus said emphatically. “The entire place felt…what’s the word I’m looking for? Historical?”
“Atavistic?” Misja suggested.
“Purposeful, I think,” Venus said. “Like the entire experience was as much a goal as it was a means. Like going there was something I should have done whether I was actually making something or not.”
“Good answer, my daughter,” Vulkan said, smiling faintly.
Venus looked down, pleased by her father’s praise. “Well, all the cities had their cool bits,” she said. “The Hall of Initiation in Themis – I didn’t invite the others to that one, though. The Aerie in Heliosa, the Walls! Oh, the walls in Epithemus!” she exclaimed. “Magnificent! Walls a half-mile high on three sides and an open port on the fourth. We just climbed up there and watched the waves one day, it was breathtaking!”
Vulkan grinned again, sitting back in his seat. “Did you make it to Ignea?” he asked, referring to the subterranean cave networks where the Ignean nomads made their homes.
“Of course!” Venus said. “I saw all my people. Including the worst one of all,” she said darkly.
“Yes…the man who maimed Jake,” Vulkan said. He closed his brilliantly glowing eyes for a moment. “I feel I should see to that when I go home next.”
“You’re going to Nocturne?” Venus asked.
“After you leave for school,” Vulkan said. “Clearly, they need me to hold their hands while this crime wave recedes.”
“What else do you guys want to know?” Venus asked sheepishly.
Vulkan crossed his arms over his chest and sat back in his seat. “I want to hear more of what happened between Alex and his father,” he said.
“Do I have to?” Venus asked hesitantly. “That’s kind of private.”
“I understand he confronted his son at a formal banquet in your honor at the Castle in Skarokk,” Vulkan pressed.
“Dad, he’s a spoiled and self-entitled asshole who treats his son like an employee he can’t fire,” Venus said coldly. She didn’t hesitate to say it for a moment, knowing full well that even in his darkest anger, Vulkan loved her with all his heart. Her opinion was never unwelcome.
The Primarch shook his head slowly. “And Freya will try to make it better?”
“She will. She has.” Venus nodded. “She’s a sweetheart, isn’t she? She changed her college plans to help Alex get back on his feet.”
“You think they have a future together beyond college?” Misja asked.
Venus paused. “You mean marriage? I don’t know. I don’t think so. But they treat each other very well, and I think she really loves him back, so for now, I think they’re on the right course.”
Misja smiled faintly. “You know…after that message where you described your arrival in Skarokk, and then the thing with Alex, I wondered aloud if Jake was going to propose to you,” she gently teased.
Venus’ eyes widened. “You did what?”
Her mother grinned. “He didn’t, did he?” Misja asked.
Venus let her gaze drop to the heliotrope ring on her finger.
Her parents stared. “…Please tell me you’re kidding,” Misja said.
Venus grinned. “I’m just kidding. He didn’t propose. But I don’t mind saying…when I thought I lost him, and he came back unchanged…I considered it.”
“Well, don’t tell him that,” Misja said gravely. “Nothing’s more insulting than telling someone you were going to propose and then changed your mind.”
Venus thought of the words Jake had spoken to that effect on the Observation Deck of the Fang. For a moment, she considered telling her parents of Jake’s own abortive plan, and decided against it. They really were too young by Terran law, anyway.
“I don’t think he’d interpret it that way at all,” Venus said instead. “But yeah. It’s not a topic we’re going to discuss for a while.”
“Well, you’re going to be living with him for a good long while,” Misja pointed out.
Venus cracked a smile. “Suggesting I should use the time as a test bed for something more long-term?” she asked innocently.
“No, but I bet he will be,” Misja said. “I would.”
Her daughter rolled her eyes. “I’ll keep that in mind.” She stood up. “Well. Mind if I go throw myself in the pool?”
“Only if you stop by the changing room first,” Misja said.
Venus cocked her head. “Oh?”
“You’ll see,” Misja said.
Minutes later, Venus stepped into the changing room of the little sunken pool in their back yard – well behind the house and holo-shielded, so as to not be visible to passing paparazzi – and beamed at the sight of what was sitting on the bench. “Awesome!” She reached down and grabbed the little bundle of cloth off of the bench and unfolded it into a new swimsuit. “Excellent, Mom,” she said.
“Go ahead,” Misja said from the other side of the acid-scoured concrete wall.
Venus hurriedly shucked her clothes and slid on the new suit, then launched herself clean from the little structure into the pool with a massive splash. Misja skipped back from the edge as some of the water lapped out of the depression.
Venus surfaced blowing chlorinated water out of her nose. She grinned broadly up at her mother from the pool. “Hah! I haven’t gone swimming in three months!”
“Well, you can now,” Misja said, walking up to the edge of the water and crouching. “Don’t stay in too long, though, we need to unpack. Remember?”
“Right, I know,” Venus said distractedly, kicking off of the wall. “I’m just going to indulge first.”
I Stocked That Shelf
Jake set his parent’s aircar down at the edge of the little shopping block in the residential zone of the hab, locking it up. He glanced up at the sign on the side of the structure towering overhead and beamed. Keller’s Electronics, it said, underlined with running neon lights.
“Remilia must have funded them pretty well when she bought the card,” Jake said to himself. “Time to lighten their inventory a bit.”
As he reached the broad walkway between the parking block and the stores, however, he paused. He glanced down the row to the tiny store on the corner. He ambled up to the front door and glanced through, noting the broad shelves of random crap he had himself stocked, three months before. “Why not,” he muttered. He pushed the door open and walked in.
The store’s noisy fans rattled in their plastic cages as Jake walked up to the magazine racks by the door. “Heh. I stacked some of these,” he said to himself.
“Jake!” the man behind the counter said. “Well, hello there! Back from vacation?”
Jake looked over to where the elderly proprietor was standing. “Yep. For a while. Then off to school.”
“Well, that’s good,” the old shopkeeper said. He straightened up behind the counter, nearly invisible over the racks of recycled protein candy and flavored wafers. “How was it?”
“Wonderful, except the part where I went to the hospital,” Jake said.
The old man stared. “What?”
“I got hit with a beer bottle in a bar on Nocturne,” Jake said. “Nearly put me in a box, that did.”
“Shit, Jake, that’s a damn shame,” the old man said. His crusty ID tag was so faded that Jake had to wonder why he even wore it, but it said ‘Jeff’ under many decades of stains.
“Yeah, that sucked,” Jake said. “How about you? Find a new guy?”
“I did,” Jeff said, jerking a thumb in the back. “And he didn’t run off to bone royalty, either,” he added snidely.
Jake glared at him in disgust. “Wow, dude, mind your own business.”
“I am, by the way,” Jeff said. “Think you could get her Highness to get those pushers outside to fuck off?”
Jake nearly snapped at the old man until he remembered just how much those swine had frightened them both. “If you want me to, I bet I could,” he said instead.
Jeff blinked. “Really?”
“Why not?” Jake asked.
“Well…thanks,” Jeff said.
“Yeah.” Jake turned for the door. “I’ll see you around, Jeff.”
“Yeah. Thanks for swinging by,” Jeff said, somewhat wrong-footed.
Jake emerged to glare at the back of Slide dealer on the corner before walking down to the electronics shop. “Count your blessings,” he muttered under his breath.
The War God's Wife
Freya dropped the last of her clothes onto her bed for later sorting. “Mission accomplished,” she declared.
Her mother’s scent at the door, and the faint sound of her breath, announced her company. “Freya, dearest. Have a moment?” she asked, in Juvjk. Despite never having set foot on the planet Fenris until the age of twenty eight, she had learned the language from her father and husband. Freya liked that she spoke it around the house. Certainly, it had eased her own time on Fenris.
“Sure, what’s up?” she asked.
“Just checking in,” Gairwyn said. “Warp Travel’s never safe.”
Freya shrugged red locks over bare shoulders. “I’m fine. Thanks for checking, though.” She held her new gloves aloft. “Look at what Bjorn gave me!”
“I saw at the party,” Gairwyn said, sitting down on the gargantuan bed. “They’re really pretty. Doeskin?”
“Yep,” Freya said, sliding them on. “They’re a tiny bit loose, but they’re still really comfy.”
“That was nice of him.” Gairwyn smiled down at her daughter. “And I wanted to say before you vanish into the laundry room…I’m proud of you.”
“What for?” Freya asked.
“Going out to see the people on their own level,” Gairwyn said. “That was brave of you.”
Freya looked down in modesty. “It was educational, certainly,” she said.
Gairwyn leaned over and wrapped her arm around her daughter’s shoulder to pull her into a maternal hug. “And despite what your father thinks, I’m very proud of how maturely you handled Alex’s difficulty.”
Freya felt her cheeks warm a bit at her mother’s remark. “I just did what I thought would help,” she said.
“And that’s why I’m proud of you,” Gairwyn said softly, mindful of her daughter’s hypersensitive hearing. She kissed the top of Freya’s tangled red mass. “You’re growing into a responsible woman of the pack, and your father and I are both very pleased to see that.”
Freya leaned her head against her mother’s shoulder and grinned contentedly, eyes shut. “Thanks, Mom.”
Gairwyn let the moment continue for a moment before rising to lean against the dresser across from the bed. “Do you know how your classes at New Cyprine are going to work, regarding your career choice?” she asked, apropos of nothing. “Their athletic and political science departments aren’t exactly their star roles, yet that’s what you’re both interested in.”
“Yep! I’m pretty much railroaded into the first few classes,” Freya said, folding her hands in her lap. “But starting with year two, you can take any of about thirty classes in whatever order you want, then write a seventy-page paper at the end of the last year.”
“That’s intense,” Gairwyn said. “I will admit, though, Freya, that as proud of your choice as I am, I didn’t think you'd be the Political Science type.”
Freya rolled her eyes. “Yes, well. I’m strange like that,” she said.
Gairwyn chuckled, shaking her head. Though there wasn’t a single one of her genes on her daughter’s body, their hair was so similar one could be forgiven for thinking they were related. “Freya, you wouldn’t happen to be cruising for an easy degree, would you?”
“Seventy page graduation paper,” Freya said flatly.
Jake pushed the door of his apartment open backwards, and shuffled in, arms laden with swag. “Behold, for it is the electronics fairy, and I bear stuff,” he said.
George looked up from his holomag and blinked. “Wow.”
“Aww yeah, buildin’ me a rig,” Jake said, laboriously hauling his goods to his room to set up.
“Uh, maybe you should leave that stuff in its packing until you move, so it doesn’t break in transit,” George pointed out.
Jake looked down at the pile of hardware in his arms. “You’re ruining my entire life here, Dad,” he grumped, setting the parts down gently and wrapping them up in a blanket.
George stood and walked over to the entrance of his son’s tiny room. Jake was gingerly packing the electronics into bath towels for transport, looking longingly at them as he did. “Jake, about what your mother said before…”
Jake’s shoulders tensed, and he sighed in rising anger. “What?”
“I don’t want you to think we don’t like that you’re spending time with the Royal family,” George said.
“Okay.” Jake straightened up. “Well, Mom sure wasn’t convincing me not to.”
His father set his teeth and tried to rein in his own irritation. “Look, I don’t agree with Sandra about your friends using you as a morality pet.”
“Great, because it was really not what I wanted to hear, coming home after three months,” Jake said. “I mean, she didn’t even stop to ask me if I had fun. She just jumped straight to questioning my perception and judgment.” He glanced over at his father and narrowed his eyes. “Did you guys come to some conclusion about me and the Royal girls while I was gone?”
George hesitated. “We discussed what your college plans would mean for us, in terms of you being out of the shop. I’ll have to hire an assistant, since I was assuming that you were going to help me.”
“Sorry about that,” Jake said, packing up the last of the electronics and starting on his Nocturne purchases. “That doesn’t explain Mom’s unexpected truculence,” he noted.
“Don’t talk about your mother like that,” George warned.
“Don’t give me this ‘united front’ crap,” Jake shot back. “You know as well as I do that she was way out of line with that little accusation. What brought it on?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest as he stood from his suitcases.
George glared at his son, but he relented. “Your mother thinks that you’re going to get so attached to the Royal Daughters that if something goes wrong between you and Venus like it did with you and Hana, you’ll be emotionally demolished by it,” he said.
“Great. And she should have said that outright instead of passive-aggressively accusing me of poor perception,” Jake said. “Where is she, anyway?”
“She’s picking up our ration card,” George said.
“Good. Did you guys add me back on for the nine days that I’ll be here?” Jake asked, abandoning his posture and rooting through his souvenirs.
“No, we left you off from the day you left to the mid-year break of your first year at Kouthry,” George said.
“Cool. Venus’ parents are loaning her a car, so we’ll be able to get around on campus if we need to,” Jake said. He dug a pair of little boxes out of the bag and held them up. “Here, this one was from Alex to me, but this one is from me to you. I said I’d get you something,” he said.
George took the proffered box and opened it. Inside was a small storage card. “What’s on it?” he asked.
“An explorable holo of Heliosa,” Jake said. “One of the Sanctuaries of Nocturne.”
“Wow. Thanks,” George said. “This will work on our ancient projector?”
“Yes.” Jake extracted the watch and set it on his bedside table, putting the chain and other accoutrements in as well. “All right. I need to do paperwork and start getting winter clothes ready to pack.”
“Did you wash your clothes before coming home?” George asked.
“On the ship, yeah.” Jake cricked his neck. “All right, I better get to it.”
That evening, Remilia packed the last of her bags into the aircar for shipping to Alanaster’s dorm. She closed the trunk as the autopilot accepted the coordinates the driver was punching in, and stepped back from the car to look at the Dorn manor one more time. “All right…this is it,” she said to herself.
Her mother stood next to the car, looking down at her daughter with worry on her face. “Now…you stay safe and write when you get there, all right?” she asked.
“Sure will,” Remilia said. The driver stepped out of the vehicle, since, at Remilia’s specific request, she would be keeping the car for a time upon arrival. As he nodded his farewells, Olivia leaned down to hug her daughter.
“I love you, Remilia,” she said quietly. “You go have fun.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Remilia hugged her back. “Say Hi to Dad when he gets back, okay?”
“I will,” Olivia promised.
“All right.” Remilia grabbed her slate from the butler. “Thanks, Warren.” She checked the charge – full. “Welp. I gotta seven hour flight ahead of me. I’ll head out now. Bye, Mom.”
Olivia waved as Remilia started the aircar and sat down behind the controls with the chair all the way back for comfort. She watched as the yellow car rose into the sky and took off into the sunset.
Remilia settled into the chair and braced herself as the car accelerated, rising to its cruising altitude. The car took off for Alanaster like a shot, as Remilia switched on her slate to watch a movie on the flight.
Within minutes, she had switched it off. As she raced over the hives of Terra, she looked down at the shimmering metal skins below, and her mind wandered.
She thought about the way she had spiraled down after Morticia had been shot. She thought about lying in bed at Freya’s, shattered, and how a stranger and a cousin – sister – had helped her out. She thought about a trip to a planet of volcanoes and dragons, and how crime could turn even the hardiest people against each other.
Remilia leaned back in her seat, staring through the skylight. She couldn’t see Mars, and couldn’t see the Iron Tide docked in orbit around it, but she could imagine it well. She thought about the grit and ash of Nocturne, and the snows of Fenris melting in her boots, and the feeling of basalt grinding in her hands.
The blond soccer player flattened her seat out and lay down, snuggled under a jacket she had draped over herself. She thought about how inspired she had been at the boys, Alex and Jake, both mere mortals, bouncing back so thoroughly from things that could have ruined them. She made a point of not thinking in what Miranda called ‘The Eternal Mindset,’ that ever-present knowledge that she and her cousins were genetically-engineered superwomen, with the kinds of lifespans and sex appeal that no mortal womb could birth. It was still there, though, at the back of every day and every thought, quiet and half-forgotten, until something brought it up.
She closed her eyes and tried to relax. She thought of Chuck Kines, and the way his professional smile of greeting gave way to a bashful but honest smile of attraction. She remembered the way he had never forgotten her favorite drink, even once, and the soft feeling of his hair against her cheek when he fell asleep on her shoulder.
Remilia smiled to herself as the lights of the day faded under cloud, then came back brighter as she flew into the sun faster than the earth could hide it. She remembered the way Chuck had looked at her arms and her pale skin and her freckles and her uneven haircut as they lay down to make love, and the way he had run his hands over her body and called her beautiful. She remembered the way she had shivered with nerves and anticipation as he replied in the affirmative to her clumsy attempts to invite him to her room, and the funny feeling of pressure in her stomach as he had appeared at her door.
She remembered the looks her cousins had given her the next morning, and the sudden fear when Haarlan had decided to interfere, and the sorrow she had suppressed when she had said goodbye for the last time.
Remilia lifted her slate to capture a picture of the hive skins for Jake, then lay back down, her mind wandering. She thought about the way it had surprised her to see her mother admit she loved her, and the way it felt to hear Miranda give her a clean bill of soul health. She reflected on how much fishing on Fenris had made her long for Inwit’s frozen oceans and twilight-shrouded hills, and the jealousy she had felt when she saw Freya reduced to tears by the strength of her feeling of belonging in the Fang.
She switched the slate off after sending her message to Jake. What, she wondered, would she have to do to make herself as comfortable at Alanaster as she had become on the trip? At Imperator, she had been one of the Royal Daughters that were least reliant on her status to get what she wanted, but would she have a chance to change that? Or even a reason?
She thought of Michael, who had just been born next to Angela. She remembered how Alex had introduced himself to Freya by noting that she had a cute butt after a wrestling match, and how Jake had been the shy kid in the corner until Hana and Farah had taken pity on him.
No, she decided, she didn’t need to change her approach. Remilia straightened up her seatback and watched as she flew into the west, over trillions of people who would never know her privilege or influence. This had to be her story, not her father’s story. Maybe there was something to his philosophy of strength through pain…but he had abandoned it for a reason. The only chance she would have to write her own story, she knew at that moment, would be to go and find out who and what she could be, on her own…and if another person became a part of that, more’s the better.
Remilia settled back into her seat and switched her slate back on. She had a seven-hour flight ahead of her. Philosophy and discovery could wait. For now, she had a season’s backlogged holos to watch.
Goodbye, Freya, Goodbye, Alex
As the final days of summer wound by, Freya and Alex reassembled their belongings for transport in Freya’s father’s truck. Alex had retrieved his belongings from his mother, but had, on reflection, decided that since he would moving in with – and staying with – Freya for so long, he would try to bring as much of it as he could to their apartment on the New Cyprine campus.
Freya herself, however, took off as soon as she could after unpacking the things she had brought home from the trip. The very next morning, she made her way to the hospital in the relatively isolated Navigator’s Quarter where her grandmother was staying. After a talk with her ailing matriarch, Freya had returned home to her own manor to collect the last few things she wanted to bring with her to the hive school.
As she carefully packed away the subdued jewelry she preferred into boxes, Freya felt the soft sounds of one of the manor serfs approaching from down the hall and straightened up to view the door. The serf walked in and bowed.
“Lady Freya, the transport vehicle is prepared,” he said.
“Thanks, Lanc,” Freya said, lifting her jewelry box. “What will you do, now that only Mom is in the house?”
“Oh, we keep busy, ma’am,” Lanc said, glancing outside. “Groundskeeping and such. And of course the house still needs maintenance, just less indoor cleaning.”
“Right.” Freya grabbed the last few items and walked out. “See you in a few months.”
“Have fun, ma’am,” the serf said.
Alex leaned against the side of the door to the Russ manor, waiting for her. Gairwyn sidled up to him as he waited, a sly little grin playing over her lips. “Now, Alex, just to be sure, you and she aren’t going to disappear into the old college trap, right?” she asked in Juvjk.
“Sorry. You and Freya aren’t going to fall into the college trap, are you?” she asked in Gothic.
“What trap might that be, Queen Russ?” Alex asked.
“I know you’re going together, which is great, but don’t think you can’t go out and meet new people too,” she said. “College is supposed to be a place where you make new friends.”
“Of course, ma’am, and I plan to.” Alex peered up at her. “Did you go to college?”
“I did, a two-year degree in Military History. But, really, it was only so that if I felt the need, I could join the Household Guard myself,” she said. “There was no chance of me going private sector once I met Leman.”
Alex nodded hesitantly. “He made his dislike of me clear on Fenris.”
“I think you don’t know how ‘dislike’ looks from my husband if you think his cold shoulder treatment was dislike,” Gairwyn said drily. “But yes, he’s made his ambivalence clear. Still, from what Freya tells me, you handled it quite well. He was impressed, I’m sure.”
“I suppose.” Alex shuffled a bit nervously under the Royal Mother’s keen eye. “Thanks, by the way.”
“For supporting me even as much as you have since I got back,” Alex said. “I never really felt like I had a lot to lose with Dad, but Freya…she’s been amazing to me. And your being there to help…” He grimaced. “I’m terrible at this.”
Gairwyn chuckled and shook her head. “It’s not easy for anyone to thank others for providing something they didn’t ask for. Regardless, you’re quire welcome.”
“Your daughter is a hell of a girl,” Alex said. He heard Freya’s laden steps from inside the house and straightened up. “Thanks for trusting me with her for four whole years.”
“Just keep her happy and we’re square,” Gairwyn said, stepping back to let Freya pass.
Freya dumped the rest of her things in the rear sets of the truck and spun about. “All right! We’re set to go!”
Her mother walked up to her to give her a parting hug. “All right, little pup…you go have a fantastic time, all right?” she asked in Juvjk.
“Mom! That’s what Bjorn calls me!” Freya huffed.
“Well, it works.” She held her daughter close for another moment, before gently directing her to the truck. “All right. When you’re done writing, send the truck home.”
“I will.” Freya pecked Alex on the cheek as he stepped into the truck. “Bye, Mom.”
“Goodbye, Freya,” Gairwyn said. She stepped back and shielded her eyes as the airtruck lifted and swooped off to Cyprine, and watched as the vehicle shrank into the distant sky.
Venus was hard at work in the forge at that moment. The rivulets of sweat down her bare back were testament to just how much time she had spent there that day. She was in the same outfit she had been in while in the Hall of Deathfire; a simple metalworker’s apron over shorts. The bottlecap had been stripped of its rubber component, and was melting in one tiny crucible, but she had spent the majority of her efforts that day on something else entirely. The small metal bauble that was growing on the work surfaces in front of her at that moment was the centerpiece of an anklet, the slender metal lines beside them were a pair of stands for the slate she was loaning Jake until he had saved enough to buy it from her, and the little gold coil she was making at that moment was the beginning of a tiara she didn’t plan on wearing.
Farah saw forging as a means of expressing herself, certainly, and for passing time and working with her unusual abilities, and Hana liked it for the simple pleasure of making something, but for Venus and her family, there was a spiritual element to it that she doubted anything else could replace. This was meditation, this was prayer, this was sacrifice and supplication, and she loved it.
A light from the other side of the room flickered as her father moved in front of it. He was taking the opportunity to work with his beloved daughter, though he was making a Power Glaive and she was making the tiara, but the effort was well appreciated. The beaming grin on her face when he bothered to look pleased him to no end.
A shadow fell over her forge as she slid her gloves on to lift the tiny mold the anklet bauble was in, and she glanced up to see her mother walking by to deposit a small platter of cookies on the table in the middle of the massive workshop. Venus flicked sweat out of her eyes and nodded her thanks as Misja walked past.
Her mother had to raise her voice to be heard. “Are you having fun?” she asked.
“Hell yeah,” Venus said. “Can’t do this on a patrol ship.”
“Excellent. Don’t forget to snack when you get the chance, you’ve been down here a while,” Misja said.
“Yep, thanks.” Venus slid her goggles on and gingerly moved the mold, examining the cooling silver. “Damn, it’s asymmetrical,” she muttered. She grabbed one of her shaping tools and gingerly tapped at the metal, trying to reshape it.
Misja wandered over to where Vulkan was threading the power conduit down the haft of the weapon. She stood beside her husband and watched him work for a moment. “Kind of makes you proud, doesn’t it?” she asked quietly.
He flashed her a smile sidelong as he worked. “Hah. It does. I wonder if there’s a metals shop on the Kouthry campus. I’d hate to see her have to give it up for school.”
“Oh, I bet there is,” Misja said. “I just hope it isn’t for majors only.”
“Mmm.” Vulkan finished threading the cable and cinched it at one end. “What is it?”
“Are you going to leave when she does?” Misja asked.
Vulkan looked at her again, his face blank. “No. Not at first. Give it a few years. I’ll make sure she has time to be sure about Kouthry being the right call.”
“Good,” Misja said. She looked up at him, towering over her. His physique, size, and utterly alien appearance hadn’t intimidated her much when they had met, given that he had been, from nearly the word ‘hello,’ the kindest soul she had ever seen, and now she barely noticed them. However, the news that the Salamanders would be amongst those Legions participating in the Solar Expansion, still formally classified, had been an unpleasant reminder of his role.
“You won’t just leave, right?” she asked softly.
Vulkan turned his eyes to her again, hurt. “Of course not.”
“Good.” She looked down at the floor for a moment. “Perhaps…perhaps Venus had the right idea. I think I may go back to Prometheus for a time. Just long enough to get the Residence ready and check in with No’dan.”
“Do you want to make the journey now?” Vulkan asked.
“No. I think I’ll wait for a while, too.” Misja gestured for his hand as he reached for the bolt cutters to slice the armored power cable at the spool. “You know…I have to wonder. Do you think Venus will ever join you and your brothers on the Expansion?”
This time, Vulkan’s gaze was one of complete denial. “Absolutely not. Misja, I am endlessly proud of her, but she is not a killer. Her hands will sculpt wonders and guide the people, not soak with blood.”
“Is that your will, or hers?”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said coldly. “She will be a princess and a mother, I hope, but never…EVER a warrior. I have not fought for so long, watched so many brothers die, so that innocent souls like hers could be drawn into the fires of war. I fought to prevent that,” he said, squeezing the haft of the glaive.
“You fought so that people would not fight…or would have the option not to fight?” Misja asked. “They’re not the same.”
Vulkan’s massive shoulders bunched as he fought his impatience down. She was right. “No. No, they aren’t,” he said. “But it would horrify me. It would sadden me. And even if she didn’t care about those things…I think she loves the civilian life too much to risk it in war. I don’t have that luxury.” He turned to regard his wife, his stance softening. “I’m glad she does.”
Misja remained silent for a few more seconds, until Vulkan turned back to his weaponsmithing again. “I suppose.” She looked over to where their daughter was still working. “I think she’d take to it.”
“Naturally. Like she and the other Progenitors take to all tasks, given time.” Vulkan grabbed a pair of wire cappers and gingerly snipped one errant feed cable. “Have you asked her to give her own opinion?”
“No.” Misja looked over the weapon her husband was crafting. “What are you even making, here?”
“Just something I wish to present one of my battle-brothers from the Liberation of Seadelant task force who distinguished himself,” Vulkan said. “Polearm users are rare in the Assault ranks, but he’s gifted.”
“Mmm. Well, don’t go hungry,” she said, gesturing to the food she had brought down.
Vulkan smiled as he hefted the unfinished weapon and balanced it on one finger. “You take good care of me, Misja.”
“Oh, I know,” Misja said drily. She walked back to where Venus was now setting the tiara aside to cool.
“I don’t plan on joining the military at all, Mom, fear not,” Venus said without preamble, crouching to stare at the tiara at eye level on her work station. “Blasted gem settings are so damn fragile…”
Misja closed her eyes for a moment, chastising herself for forgetting her daughter’s highly refined hearing. “Okay, good.” She placed her hands on her daughter’s bare shoulders as Venus rose to fix the tiara. “Venus, sweetheart…I just can’t stomach the thought of losing you to the Emperor’s wars. It’s hard enough knowing what Vulkan’s gone through.”
Venus relaxed and let her eyes slip shut as she felt the cool weights of her mother’s hands. “I know, Mom. Believe me, I know. I may be able to put on the uniform and fire off a few rounds at the range, but I’m not a warrior.” She reached up with one un-gloved hand to rest it over her mother’s. “I like being able to choose.”
“All right.” Misja let go and stepped back. “What are you working on?”
“Just some stuff for Remilia and a thing for Jake’s slate that I loaned him,” Venus said. “The crown’s just for kicks.”
“Why don’t you ever wear a bra when you’re working down here?” Misja asked, glancing at her daughter’s scarred back. Aside from the ties at her neck and waist, there was nothing obscuring the view.
“Flammable underwear is never a good idea around an exposed element,” Venus chuckled. “I’ve got something on under the boots and shorts, rest assured.”
Misja rolled her eyes as her daughter heated the crown back up. “Good to know.” She stepped back as Venus got back to work, and snagged a cookie for herself as she walked back to the stairs.
A Wise Father
Several hundred meters below, and nearly five klicks south, Jake brushed his hands as he rose. “Moment of truth,” he muttered, sliding the power switch on his old computer on.
It started up with the quiet hum of electronics turning over, and a muted buzz of fans.
“Superb,” he chuckled proudly. His old computer now contained a new, massive hard drive, and his old drives were tucked away for transport to college. “Now I can use this as a server when I’m home,” he said.
“Did you blow it up?” his father asked from the door.
“Not yet,” Jake replied idly, turning the computer back off. “Hey, check this out,” he said.
George appeared at the door. “What?”
Jake gestured to a custom case mod he had installed earlier that day. A small metal switch, with a safety cover over it, now decorated the top of the black box. “What is that?” George asked.
“Watch,” Jake said, flipping the cover off. He flicked the metal switch, and an audible *clank* resulted.
George blinked. “I think you just launched all the missiles.”
“No, it’s an emergency hard drive formatter,” Jake said. “Hit it while the computer’s on and it blanks the drive, flushes the memory, and resets the BIOs to factory.”
“Uh.” George looked at it askance. “And…what happens when someone just flicks it idly?”
“Nothing, since the cover is biometrically linked to me,” Jake said slyly. “Remilia gave me a lot.”
George raised an eyebrow. “How much, exactly?”
“Enough that I could build two or three more computers’ worth of parts like the ones I brought home, switch included,” Jake said.
George shook his head. “She’s a generous girl.” He shut the door and sat on the tiny bed as Jake assembled his machine on the floor. “You understand that they’re going to work your ass off at Kouthry, I’m sure,” he said.
Jake suppressed a sigh. “Sure. I can handle it. I doubt Vulkan would have made it conditional if he thought I couldn’t.”
“Right.” George hesitated for a moment before waving it away. “Right, of course, sorry.”
Jake set his old computer on its table and booted it as soon as it was plugged in. “You want my old power strip? I bought a better one for myself.”
“Absolutely, we can always use more at the shop,” George said. “You know, Jake, I gotta admit, you sure got used to having met Vulkan quick.”
“I lucked out,” Jake remarked, rooting around under his desk for the power strip. “Vulkan’s probably the nicest one to mortals. Can’t imagine dating Kelly or Morticia. Nice girls, if distant…but man. The Night Haunter and the Reaper.”
George flinched. “Yeah.” His son rose and started coiling the power cable around the strip, dusting it off with his hands. “Well, I guess I still can’t quite get used to it,” he said. “I mean, I grew up during the end of the Crusade. Day in and day out, we would get word of how the Primarchs and their Legions were ‘over there,’ were cleaning house at the edge of the Compliance zones, all of it.”
He leaned back against the bare wall and remembered. “You’d think you would get used to it, but the old-timers, my grandparents and co-workers, they were so excited over it. Apparently the whole galaxy was getting tense and anticipatory, the Crusade was going to end within their lifetimes.”
“Yeah?” Jake looked back at his father as he groped about in the pile of packing material for a twist-tie. “What was it like?”
“Scary. Nobody knew what would come next,” George said. “We all wondered if the Legions were going to be forced into peacekeeping duty, you know. That intimidated some people.”
“I can only imagine,” Jake said, tying up the cord.
“Don’t. We didn’t like it.” George shook his head. “When the Primarchs came home…started families, like your mother and I were doing…we wondered what they would even be doing.”
“I bet the image of nineteen strategically adorable, squealing babies probably kicked off a baby boom like nothing the galaxy had seen,” Jake said drily.
“Oh my goodness, you have no idea,” George chuckled. “Half of the Terran Praetors coming home at the same time didn’t help things. Hell, we probably wouldn’t have rationing as harsh as we do if the planet’s population hadn’t gone up by a full third in the span of ten years.”
“That much? Yikes,” Jake said.
“Yeah, it was quite a thing,” George said. “Well. You grasp the concept, I think.”
Jake shrugged. “I think so.” He dropped the power strip in his father’s lap and sat in his computer chair, swiveling it to face his dad from across the tiny room. “So, what brought this on?” he asked.
“Well, it’s just that I don’t quite know how to react,” George admitted. “The Primarchs were always, even during the Crusade, supposed to be the epitomes of humanity and accomplishment.”
“Dad, Vulkan can intimidate the hell out of me,” Jake said. “Don’t think I don’t respect him or anything. It’s just that he’s a deeply humanist guy, too, and he finds worship and fear distasteful. Really.”
George nodded, accepting his son’s wisdom. “Now…I suppose I have to give you the birds and bees talk,” he said heavily, hiding a smirk with serious effort.
Jake rolled his eyes. “Let me save you the trouble. Venus isn’t baseline. I physically can’t get her pregnant.”
George stared. “She isn’t.”
“Nope. Which has its upsides, of course, but still,” Jake said. “We’re good.”
His father turned that over in his mind for a moment. “Well. That’s a shame, really.”
“Yeah, but she says there’s ‘options.’ She also gave that to me in confidence, so lips sealed, m’kay?” Jake said pointedly.
“Sure,” George said. He rose to his feet and opened the door. “All right, I’ll let you pack.”
The day before the final pair of travelers departed, Jake flew up to Venus’ house for a final exchange of things to be packed, and to pick up his new slate legs. Breezing past the single, token Treasury guard, Jake walked into the house, glancing about for anyone.
“Oh, hello,” Misja said from the far side of the huge sitting room. She rose from her seat and walked over as Jake closed the door. “Venus is in her room, packing up stuff.”
“Great, thanks,” Jake said, making for the stairs.
As he poked his head into her room, he spotted her lying on the bed, staring at the holo over her head. “Hey, baby,” Jake said.
The door lit as she looked over. “Hey, Jake, come on in,” she said.
Jake shut the door and walked over to the bed, kicking off his shoes and flopping down next to her. “How are you?” he asked her.
By way of response, she held out one arm, and he rested his head on her shoulder, joining her in watching the holo overhead.
“Where are the Cities?” Jake asked.
Venus’ arm rose from the far side of her head and pointed at a nearly invisible silver dot on the black ash wastes. “There’s Heliosa. There’s Clymene…and in the ocean there is Aethonion.”
Jake gripped her other hand and clasped it to his side. “Hard to believe we were actually there.”
“It is,” Venus chuckled. “I’ve been staring at it for so long, then I was there.”
“We’re lucky the deserts were so dark from all the ash and obsidian dust, or I could have burned my eyes out on the glare,” Jake said ruefully.
Venus narrowed her own eyes to slits and smiled, letting her hand fall onto her bare stomach. Her halter top was decorated with a new necklace, Jake noted.
“Like it?” she asked, spotting his gaze. She lifted the little pendant to reveal the tiny silver bauble she had created a few days before. “I’ve been spending six or seven hours at the forge every day since I got back.”
Jake leaned closer and looked at the tiny spiral pattern in the middle, as if it had been made by filling a seashell with silver. “Cool.” He sniffed the air from an inch above her. She smelled like flowers, at that moment. “You don’t smell like you’ve been at the forge,” he observed.
She rolled her brilliant eyes and let the pendant fall back to her breast. “What am soap?” she drawled.
Jake leaned back, smirking. “Is that new too?” he asked, pointing at the tiara on the nightstand.
“Oh, yeah,” she said, flopping over and crawling to the stand to grab up the circlet. “Check this,” she said, setting it on her head. The single tiny diamond she had set in the middle was from the small supply her father maintained for just that purpose.
Jake rose to his knees and looked at her. She settled against the headboard and drew her knees up to her chest, gazing over her legs. “Do you like it?”
He felt a slow smile spread across his face. The shimmering light from her eyes brightened as he leaned forward and lifted the gold circlet from her hair, setting it aside as he leaned in to kiss her. “It’s beautiful,” he said quietly, running a hand across her cheek and leaning in for another, slower kiss.
When he finally pulled back, she was grinning a bit. “You didn’t even look at the tiara, did you?” she asked.
Jake blinked. “Tiara?”
Venus sighed and took the pendant off. “Boys.”
Goodbye, Venus, Goodbye, Jake
On the morning of moving day, Jake packed up the last of his things, and tucked them into the back of his parent’s car for the trip to the manor.
Sandra and George rode with him to bring the car home. They were quiet on the way, for the most part, with only the occasional bout of actual talking. Once they were nearly there, however, Sandra turned to her son, who was practically bouncing in his seat. “Jake, honey, calm down.”
“Sorry, I’m just so fired up!” Jake exclaimed. “Kouthry! This is awesome!”
“As staff, yes.” Sandra looked up at the looming buildings all around her. “I really hope you enjoy working there.”
“I hope so too,” Jake said eagerly. The car slid to a halt outside the Vulkan estate, and nearly ran up the steps. Venus met him at the top of the flight, her arms already laden with stuff.
“Hey, baby, just drop your stuff in the back of the truck,” she grunted, lifting a massive container of clothes into the back of an airtruck.
“Sure,” Jake said, carrying a bag over. Sandra and George emerged from the car with bags of toiletries and other detritus, as Venus walked back for another armful of junk.
“Venus, do you need any help?” George asked.
She shook her head, scattering black hair everywhere. “No, thanks, Sieur Seager,” she said.
Vulkan himself emerged with a computer chair in one hand. “All right, that’s it,” he said.
“Excellent,” Venus said, checking her watch. “We are way ahead of schedule.”
“It’s a four-hour flight,” Jake reminded her.
“A pittance,” Venus scoffed, “with ten unwatched LaffTrax movies on my slate.”
Jake laughed. “Outstanding,” he said.
Vulkan held the side panel of the airtruck open as George deposited Jake’s own computer chair. George raised an eyebrow upon observing just how little was in there.
“How…restrained, Venus,” he said.
Venus peeked into the truck. “Heh. I don’t want to drag along a ton of shit I don’t need,” she said. “I can always send home for stuff if I really want it.”
George nodded as Jake started depositing his computer components with the greatest of care. As he stepped back to give Jake some room, he caught Vulkan’s attention and looked meaningfully at the door to the house.
Intrigued, Vulkan followed George into the manor, and crossed his arms as George nervously licked his lips. “Vulkan, sir, I want to thank you for giving my son this opportunity,” he started. “He’s over the moon.”
Vulkan half-smiled. “A good choice of words.”
“‘Opportunity,’ you said,” Vulkan observed. “George, I like your son and Venus likes your son, but I wouldn’t have helped them out if this was all there was to it,” he said. “I think your son is a brilliant young man, denied a chance for greatness by poverty, and there’s no waste like wasted potential.” He slid his hands into his pockets and watched the much shorter man with a critical eye. “May I ask why you – and subsequently, he – didn’t enter the Mechanicum?”
George bristled as his line of profuse thanks became a line of uncomfortable questions, but he answered. “I find the mandatory augmentations of the Mechanicum disgusting.”
“The augs themselves, or the fact that they’re mandatory?” Vulkan asked mildly.
Vulkan sighed lightly. That hadn’t been the answer he wanted. Despite that, he inclined his head with a gracious nod. “All right. Then you’re most welcome, George, and congratulations. I know how momentous it can feel to send them off, now,” he chuckled. “It’s unforgettable, isn’t it?”
“Unforgettable and slightly depressing,” George sighed. “I remember being his age. I miss the Seminary’s environment of learning and exploration.”
“I attended Kouthry myself, incognito and online, for the most part,” Vulkan remembered. “The look on the Dean’s face when I showed up to receive my degree in person was the funniest thing I had seen in years,” he laughed.
George cracked a smile. “I imagine.”
Vulkan opened the door back up. “Now, go say farewell to your son as I do the same for my daughter, eh?”
Outside, Misja was tearfully hugging her daughter farewell. “Mom, I’ll be calling home tonight,” Venus managed.
“I know, I know,” Misja said sadly, squeezing her daughter’s shoulders once more. “It’ll be really late, though, so just turn in early and be sure to get up in time for the convocation address!”
“Mom, the convocation is three DAYS from now!” Venus said exasperatedly. “Really, move-in today, a day of Orientation, day of Faculty meetings, then the Convocation day, then the weekend before classes is more Orientation, then classes start. I’m fine.”
Sandra pecked her son on the cheek as he sat down in the truck. “You stay safe out there, Jake. Don’t feel pressured to take a high classload,” she advised. “You’ve got time.”
Jake grinned with anticipation. “I know. I’m looking forward to it.”
George shook his son’s hand as he walked back up to him. “You have fun at Kouthry, Jake,” he said.
“I will, count on it,” Jake said.
Venus climbed into the driver’s seat and began the autopilot’s sequence. “All right…bye Mom, Dad!” she said happily, as the gravlift engine lifted the truck off the ground.
“See you at semester break,” Vulkan said, waving as they lifted.
Venus leaned back in the driver’s seat, eyeing the autopiloted car of hers which was following behind in their wake. “It took off fine,” she said.
“Cool.” Jake leaned his seat back and settled down on the padded cushion. “I wonder when I start,” he said idly.
“Chat with your new supervisor,” Venus suggested.
“Yeah. Think he knows Vulkan got me the job?” Jake asked.
“Probably,” Venus said wryly. “The smartest thing you could do is just build your class schedule around your works hours and then kiss up to your boss for optimal shifts.”
Jake snorted. “How cynical.” He crossed his arms behind his head and leaned back in the bucket seat, eyes half-shut. “You know…I didn’t tell my parents about our mutual realization.”
“On the Observation Deck of the Fang,” he reminded her.
Venus half-smiled, crossing her arms over her stomach. “I implied it to my parents when they specifically said they were wondering if you were going to propose.”
“Mmm.” Jake sighed at the ceiling of the airtruck. “I don’t think they’d trust me to make that kind of commitment. My mother actually had the stones to ask me if I ever felt you and your cousins were being nice to me because they thought it made them better people, or absolved them of moral burdens, or some shit.”
Venus shrugged uncomfortably. “What did you say?”
“I said ‘of course not,’” Jake said. “But the fact that she even asked…I mean, the context was Remilia giving me all those clothes and gifts and stuff.”
“Well, I guess to someone who doesn’t know just how grateful to you she was, I suppose that could look like graft or condescension,” Venus said. “But do you think it was?”
“Of course not, my mother’s just stubborn,” Jake said, waving his hand.
Venus twisted in her seat to look her boyfriend over. He was idly rubbing one finger across his chin, thinking. “So…do you think we should talk more about this?”
“About what?” he asked.
“About getting married.”
Jake’s stomach tightened up a bit. “Well…honestly, no,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong…I think we should, someday…but hell, I bet every seventeen-year-old thinks that at some point. And what’s the odds? Something like seventy-five percent of high school marriages end in divorce?”
“So you think we should wait?” Venus asked. “But not rule it out?”
Jake smiled ruefully. “I actually considered buying a ring with the money Remilia gave me, on Nocturne, but then I remembered. You’re a jeweler. You’d make a ring nicer than anything I could buy.”
Venus shook her head. “You’re incorrigible.”
“I have my moments.” Jake reached over and caressed her hand. “But if you want to think about something longer-term…”
She caught his hand in hers. “Mom specifically asked me if we were going to be using this as a test bed for something more permanent.”
“Well, of course we are,” Jake said. “We’re living together.”
“Yeah, but –”
“Also, ‘test bed’ sounds like a great idea,” Jake mused.
Venus sighed through her grin. “Jake, baby, come on.”
“Sure,” he said, pulling his hand back. “So…where are we going with this?”
Venus shrugged against her seat. “Who knows? I don’t.”
“Well,” Jake said, pushing his seat back as far as it went, “as long as the air conditioner in our room lets us do the ‘fire in the freezer’ thing, I’m good for now,” he said innocently.
Venus laughed, slapping her hand over her mouth. “Is that what we’re calling it?”
“If you have a better idea,” Jake said, sounding so very hurt.
“Nope, I like it,” she admitted.
He grinned happily as she fought down her giggles. She was beautiful. She was funny. She was, as far as he could tell, the ideal woman for him. And for the next four years, they’d be growing and learning together.
Jake leaned sideways to stare out the window at the hundreds of tiny fluctuation in the surface of the hive skin below. Life, he decided, was good for him, right then, and he was looking forward to it.
Venus stood up in the cab to grab her slate from its bag on the floor of the truck behind her. She started it up and paged through it to the movies directory, and sat down to watch one. As she did, she glanced over at where Jake was looking out the window, and smiled to herself. Kouthry would be demanding, she hoped, and she had no idea how her relationship with Jake was going to end, but she knew it would be fun finding out.
The truck and the pilotless car behind it sailed over the hives towards the school, unmarked and unremarkable. Inside, two seventeen-year-olds thought about the future, about school and love, and about how life was better for the other’s presence. They soared east, to where Jake and Venus' desires had drawn them, and to lives they could enjoy together.