Story:ROAD TRIP! (Warhammer High)/Part One
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To the Road Trip!
Jake gripped the armrest of his seat, nausea pulling at him. “Does it always feel that bad?” he managed.
“Every single time,” Freya groused. She was looking a lot more comfortable, though. “You get used to it.” The four seventeen-year-olds and sixteen-year-old in the party were strapped into seats in the officers' lounge of the patrol frigate Iron Tide. The utilitarian interior of the ship was livened up a bit in the lounge, naturally, with real wood trim on the bar and a variety of entertainments scattered along the walls. All five recent High School grads were looking a bit under the weather, as the effects of Warp transition took their toll. The very few other people in the room were looking much better. But then, on a patrol frigate, Warp transition is a fact of life.
Freya, the most seasoned Warp traveler of the five, levered off her chair and shoved her restraints aside, shaking her hands. She glanced over the little group as she did so. There was herself, of course. Freya Russ, heiress of the Space Wolves, and de facto Blood Princess of the Fenris system. Her boyfriend, Alex Carlin, was with her. Beside him was her cousin – or sister, really – Remilia Dorn, who had so little interest in the rulership of the Inwit system that she wouldn’t claim it if it fell into her lap, and the heiress of the Imperial Fists. Next to her was Jacob Seager, Jake. He was there as the more-or-less fiancé of passenger five, Venus, the daughter of the Primarch of the Salamander Legion. All five were looking a bit green, save Venus, of course, whose obsidian skin and fiery eyes never changed their hue.
“All right, kids, on your feet,” Freya instructed, clapping once. “No way to get the Warp Shivers to go away better than a brisk walk. Let’s go, up up up.”
Alex wobbled to his feet, shaking his head. “You say so, babe,” he grumbled. Remilia climbed up too, her superhuman physiology easing her pain.
“So…this is it,” she said, excitement tingeing her voice. She was practically beaming. “We are officially on the way.”
“We are!” Freya said happily. “So…nine days to Nocturne, then a month there.”
Venus smiled, leaning back in her chair. “Home.”
“Terra’s home,” Freya said, then grinned eagerly. “This is still gonna be AWESOME!” she squealed. “Ah, I can’t wait.”
Jake unclipped his restraints, standing and stretching. The tall, pale sixteen-year-old shook off the lingering Warp Shivers, popping his knuckles. “I know!” He grinned broadly, sweeping the room with his eyes. “I’ve never even been on a ship before. I have no idea what to expect.”
“Several days of tedium,” Freya said wryly. They had already sent their stuff up to their rooms, to be deposited and sorted later. They had been on their way down to the lounge when the jump warning came through the PA. “Believe me, you want to spend as much time in the Warp as possible asleep. Which means I, at least, am going to spend as much time in the gym as possible.”
“Sounds good,” Remilia said. “Too bad they don’t have a pool, though,” she said, grinning at Venus.
“I know, I know, but I’ll make do,” Venus said. She was the only swimmer in the group, and was under no impressions about being able to practice that summer, seeing as her immediate surroundings would be nothing but warships and Death Worlds for months.
An officer in a smart white and grey Navy uniform walked up to the little group. He came to a halt several paces off and snapped off a respectful salute. None of the Daughters returned it, though Alex and Jake both glanced over to see if they should. “My Lords and Ladies Primarch, welcome aboard the Iron Tide,” he said, clasping his hands at his back. “I am Lieutenant Commander Haarlan, the ship’s Liaison officer.”
“Commander,” Remilia said, nodding her head in a brief bow. The other teens offered up an assortment of acknowledgements, and Haarlan gestured behind him.
“I’ve been assigned to ensure that your trip to Nocturne is as comfortable as it can be. Is there anything I can do to that end now?” he asked.
“Assure me that that bar serves something I’m old enough to drink,” Venus joked. Haarlan glanced over at her, and his face hardened a bit.
“I’m sure it does, Lady Venus.”
“Well, thank goodness for that,” Jake said, brushing himself down. He looked over at the officer and extended his hand. “Jake Seager. Nice to meet you.”
Haarlan grabbed his hand and shook it briskly. “Welcome aboard, my Lord.”
“Lord?” Jake chuckled. “Thanks, but I’m not-”
“Alex Carlin,” Alex suddenly broke in, cutting his friend off. He shook Haarlan’s hand too, looking pointedly at Jake. “I don’t suppose I could trouble you to show me where the nearest restroom is,” he said to the officer.
“This way, my Lord,” Haarlan said, directing Alex to one side of the room. As soon as Haarlan was out of earshot, Jake turned to the girl, eyebrows up. “What was that about?”
Venus shrugged, mystified. “No clue.”
“Does he think I’m royalty, too? And Alex?” Jake asked, bewildered.
“I specifically said who each of us was when I put us on the manifest,” Venus said with a shrug. Her shimmering black hair rippled over the thick fabric of her shirt as she did, catching the light over the bar. “Names, titles. He might just be confused.”
“Unless he’s making certain assumptions,” Remilia put in.
Freya shook her head, her red braids bumping off her arms. “Whatever. Who’s thirsty?”
“Aye,” Remilia said, walking straight over the bar. Jake put the question aside. He was going to be here for a while, he could always ask Alex later.
The four teens trooped up to the O-Club lounge’s bar and sat down, as a Lieutenant that looked barely older than they did bustled up, desperately trying to keep a grin off his face. “My Ladies, my Lord, how may I serve you?”
“Hi there, Lieutenant,” Remilia said, running her hands over the smoothed, glossy wood of the bar. “Just a round of waters, I think.”
“Can’t risk something heavier seconds after my first Warp transit,” Jake joked.
“Ah, the first jump, Lord? It’s something you'll soon forget,” the Lieutenant said. He grabbed a few glasses from behind the counter and started filling them. “It gets so much easier with time.”
“I bet.” Jake lifted his glass, waiting until Alex hurriedly walked up to the bar in time to join the toast. “To the road trip, then?”
“To the road trip,” Freya giggled, clinking her glass with the others. Each teen downed some water and set their glasses down, all solemn ritual.
The Lieutenant beamed. “Well. Let me know if you need anything else, will you?”
“Actually,” Venus asked, leaning forward a bit. “I was wondering how often this ship finds itself serving with the Salamanders, since it apparently makes the rounds between Mars and Nocturne.”
“In battle, my Lady? Never, that I know of,” the young Lieutenant confessed. “In other duties, all the time. As far as I know, however, you’re the first Salamander we’ve had aboard in the flesh.”
Venus blinked. “Then…what other role does the ship serve?”
“The Tide serves as a patrol vessel, ranging ahead of convoys between Nocturne and Sol,” Haarlan said, walking up behind Alex and standing beside the group. “Since that route is so secure, it’s often called upon to ferry VIPs and secure cargo that the normal Mechanicus and Navy convoys can’t carry in a sufficiently timely manner,” he explained, standing at ease next to the bar.
“Something I can get for you, Commander?” the Lieutenant asked brightly, turning to the liaison officer.
The older man didn’t even turn his gaze. “No, Lieutenant,” his voice suddenly a bit more clipped and toneless. The younger man seemed to shrink a bit. Remilia quirked her brow, sensing some history, but kept any questions she may have had to herself.
“I see. Thanks,” Venus said, arriving at the same conclusion. The Liaison officer nodded once.
“Of course. Here,” he said, digging in a pocket, “is my personal vox code. Please do contact me if you need anything else.”
“We will, thanks, Commander,” Remilia said. Haarlan nodded once, then turned on his heel and walked off.
As soon as the senior officer was gone, the Lieutenant behind the bar shook his head. He turned back to his guests, smile back on his face. “Anyone need a refill?”
“A story, I doth detect,” Freya said slyly.
“Nothing that literally every single ship in the fleet doesn’t have from time to time, Madam,” the Lieutenant said ruefully. “Political officers don’t tend to like the junior officers much.”
“So that’s what he does on the weekends, huh,” Freya said drily. “There’s no surprise.”
Jake blinked. “Uh…”
“Political officers are assigned to liaise with the Munitorum directly,” Venus supplied.
“Ah. AH. I…yeah.” Jake swirled his ice, thinking that one over. “Yeah. That would explain it.”
“Well. Anyway,” the Lieutenant said, clearly trying to steer back to smoother ground. “Is there anything else I can get you, my Ladies, Lords?”
“Ah, no thanks,” Remilia said on behalf of the group. “So…what’s your name, anyway?”
The young officer paused, surprised. “Ah…I’m Lieutenant Kines, my Lady. It’s an honor.”
“Thanks.” Remilia glanced over the room, noting how many more people were streaming in. “Is this the time of some get-together?”
“Well…sort of. A lot of the junior officers come by around this time, the first day after a jump. Just a good-luck thing, you know,” Kines said, shrugging nervously. “I assure you that you’re not intruding.”
“Good. Then, I think we’ll stick around, if that’s okay,” she said, tapping the side of her drink with one finger. Kines refilled her glass, then grabbed a few bottles of something for the other officers who were drifting up to the bar.
A member of the ship’s fighter complement wandered up, still in day uniform. “Hey, Chuck, how’s it going?” he asked, dropping onto a stool.
“Eventful. How’s the deck, Commander?” Kines said, sliding a bottle of something down to him.
“Packed. We had something like half again the usual cargo crap,” the pilot said, before the red glare off the mirror behind the bar caught his eyes. He followed the light to its source-
“Hi,” Venus said. The pilot stared for a long moment, shocked, then carefully looked away.
“Greetings, Lady Venus,” the pilot said, his demeanor shifting entirely. Kines shot Venus a tiny grin, glad to have found a coconspirator.
Gradually, other officers drifted over, and the vacationers settled in, talking to a few people, being stared at by most others. When the hour came rolling by, Freya glanced meaningfully at her bare wrist. Kines took the hint. “My Lords, Ladies Primarch, if you’d like, the mess is open for dinner now,” he said.
“Excellent. Where to?” Freya asked, standing up.
“It’s two decks directly below us, Madam,” the Lieutenant said. He seemed about to say more when he suddenly cut his eyes left, the smile fading from his face.
Haarlan walked up behind the group, standing at respectful ease until they had all turned around. “Dinner is served, my Lords, Ladies Primarch. Shall we?”
“Ah, just in time,” Remilia said, standing up.
“Thanks, Lieutenant,” Alex said, leaning across the bar to shake Kines’ hand.
“Certainly, Lord Carlin, thanks for coming. And welcome aboard the Iron Tide,” Kines replied.
Alex hurried after his friends, following the political officer out. Once all six were in the corridor outside, Haarlan summoned a lift. As he reached out to press the button, however, Remilia frowned. “Wait, I thought the mess was below us,” she said, as Haarlan tapped the button for the deck above them.
“The officers’ mess is, Lady Remilia, the Captain’s Hall is above us.”
“Exalted company,” Jake murmured.
“Hardly, Lord,” Haarlan said. “Technically, Lady Primarch Venus has authority over the whole convoy.”
Venus laughed aloud. “An illusion I’m glad to dispel,” she chuckled. “I’m not here to assume command.”
He smiled. “I’m sure he knows,” Haarlan said, holding the lift hatch open. “But it would be improper not to let you dine with the ship’s Captain on the first night of the voyage,” he continued.
“Well, thank you, Commander,” Venus said, unconsciously assuming the lead in the little gaggle of people. Some parts of command were easier to remember than others. As they marched up to the entrance of the Captain’s Hall, the pair of formally-dressed Naval Provosts outside clicked their heels together and saluted.
As Haarlan returned the salute formally, Venus tugged her hunter green jacket a bit tighter. “I feel underdressed.”
“I’m sure the Captain wouldn’t mind if you were to pause to change into something more formal,” Haarlan said graciously. Alex and Jake glanced at each other in sudden unease.
“Nah, I didn’t pack anything more formal than this,” Venus decided, pushing the hatch open. Haarlan’s face froze, but he followed the group in, clearly wrong-footed.
The Captain and a few Salamander serfs in formal uniforms were already in the room, discussing something with a man whose clothes suggested membership in the Scholastica Psykana. At the arrival of the party, however, the conversation ceased. The Captain immediately marched up to the group and dropped to one knee before Venus, who skidded to a halt when she saw what was going on.
“My Lady Primarch Venus. I am Captain Roemer of the Iron Tide. It is an honor to have you aboard.”
“Please rise, Captain,” Venus said, annoyance and exasperation buried in her voice. Jake winced. “And thank you for ferrying us to our destination,” she added as Roemer rose to his feet.
Roemer nodded respectfully, though he wisely refrained from saluting, which technically would have been a breach of protocol while none of his guests were in uniform. “I hope you find our military fare to your liking, my Lady,” he said, gesturing to the table and moving to sit down.
Venus didn’t move an inch. When Roemer noticed, he glanced over his shoulder, to see Venus rubbing the bridge of her nose. She looked up at him, lips compressed. “Is this going to be an issue, Captain Roemer?”
The Captain blinked, nervously glancing over at Haarlan. “I beg your pardon, my Lady?”
“Captain, I do appreciate that you’re honored to be transporting us on your ship, really,” Venus said, as her companions shifted or looked at each other awkwardly. “But let me clarify: this is a road trip. We’re going on vacation. So…please, let’s keep things as informal as we feasibly can, all right, Captain?” she asked, smiling to take the edge off.
Roemer stared at Venus for a long moment, then acquiesced. “Very well, Lady Venus, if you insist. However, it would be downright rude of me not to offer you and your guests a dinner suited to your station. In this, I insist.”
Venus nodded her assent, walking over to the table, where the other senior crewers and the psyker had been nervously waiting the entire time. “Of course. Please don’t take this the wrong way, Captain. But I have four years, or more, ahead of me, instructing batch after batch of teachers and classmates not to treat me like a china doll. I’d prefer the summer vacation I enjoy beforehand be free of that sort of thing,” she said, her voice easily slipping into the effortlessly regal inflection of born nobility. “Sorry to disappoint you,” she said warmly, sliding into her seat, and offering up the carefree grin that had melted Jake’s heart in an instant.
Roemer managed a smile of his own, sitting in his seat at the side of the table, next to Venus’ own. Jake quickly slid into the seat at her other hand, while the rest of the party found chairs where they could. One of the serfs, however, leaned across the table to address Venus in person. “I’m glad you were able to make it home, ma’am.”
“Hm?” Venus looked up from her plate to look at the serf, and her jaw dropped. “Isaac? Is that you?”
“Well, you’re about a foot higher, but yes, it’s me,” the aging serf smiled.
“Isaac! It’s good to see you again!” Venus said happily, as she leaned back from the table to allow the servitors to deposit her meal.
“It is, ma’am,” the serf said. He turned to the table and addressed the other guests. “Lord Vulkan appointed me seniormost member of the Salamander contingent aboard. Venus and I,” he added, smiling at her as he said it, “are old sparring buddies. Such as it is.”
“Hah! Even by the time I finished your courses, you could still kick my ass raw,” Venus confessed.
“Bah, you were holding back by the end,” Isaac said, waving off her concerns. As the servitors finished depositing the food, however, he paused respectfully, as Roemer stood and offered his glass to the room.
“My Ladies and Lords, on behalf of the officers and crew of the RHN Iron Tide, SLFG 98, I wish to offer you all the compliments of the vessel. By the behest of her Primarch Ladyship Venus, I’ll only get to do this once, so please,” he added, smiling benignly, “accept my humble gratitude for your presence.”
“Thank you kindly, Captain Roemer,” Venus said, standing and bowing formally, pausing just before her hair dipped into the food. “I look forward to the journey.”
The meal itself went amicably. Remilia and one of the serfs engaged in a conversation about the most recent shifts of Terran politics, while Alex and the psyker – the ship’s Navigator’s assistant – found a common ground in their shared love of scrumball. Jake, meanwhile, was bursting at the seams with questions about their destination. “So, when we arrive, what do we expect? Dock in orbit, or on Prometheus?” he asked eagerly.
“Prometheus station itself,” Isaac said. “We’re going to be offloading substantial amounts of cargo first. Some Martian hardware for the Legion, and a few new satellites.”
“That’s just fine. I can’t wait,” Jake said, grinning to himself as the servitors cleared his appetizer plate away and dropped off a plate of something that smelled awesome.
“First time leaving Terra, Lord?” the Captain asked. He held his cup to the side for the servitor to top off with wine.
“First time leaving the atmosphere, really,” Jake said.
“Ah, a Terran born and bred, eh,” Roemer said knowingly. “I had never left Proximus Station until I went off to the officers’ academy.”
“Well, no, my family’s actually Martian by history, at least my father’s side is,” Jake explained, in reference to his Magos grandfather. “But my mother’s side of the family and I have lived in the hives our whole lives.”
Roemer paused, cup halfway to his lips, and glanced the pale young man over. “Ah…a hiver, then?”
Venus very slowly turned to face the Captain, as did Jake himself. “Surely that isn’t an issue, Captain,” Jake said, an instant before Venus could.
“No, no…of course not,” Roemer said hastily. “I simply didn’t know that any members of the Royal family lived in the hives.”
“I’m not a member of the Royal family,” Jake said truthfully.
“Forgive me, Lord, but I’m confused,” one of the officers to Roemer’s side asked, presumably so the Captain himself wouldn’t have to. “What relation do you have to Lady Primarch Venus?”
“He’s my boyfriend, Captain,” Venus supplied. Roemer shook his head again.
“Well, I apologize for my presumptuousness, Lord,” Roemer said. “I must have been misinformed. I was told you were a relative of Lady Misja.”
Jake chuckled self-effacingly. “I’m just some guy from Hive Tetra, Captain.”
“I see.” The Captain just sort of looked at him for a moment, then returned to his food in silence. Venus looked worriedly at her boyfriend, but he was smiling into his dessert.
“Lady Remilia, if I may ask, how did the horrible situation with Lady Morticia resolve?” the ship’s mate asked.
“As well as any teenage girl getting shot can be,” Remilia said heavily. “She’ll make a full recovery.”
“Excellent,” the officer said. “We were all devastated when we heard that she had been hurt.”
“The assassin got twenty years,” Remilia informed him.
“Seems a bit light, really,” the officer noted.
“Twenty years of waiting for release from prison, followed by a lifetime of looking over your shoulder for the Death God and the Night Haunter?” Remilia pointed out. She smirked cruelly. “Sounds like a punishment to me.”
The ship’s mate nodded slowly. “In hindsight, that does sound…just. Well. We’re all glad to hear that she’s going to be all right.”
“So were we, believe me,” Remilia said.
Freya glanced sideways at her down the table, and tapped her finger on the surface once. Remilia nodded agreement.
“Captain, thank you for this excellent dinner,” Venus said, apparently catching the vibe.
“My honor, Lady Venus,” Roemer said, rising to his feet and bowing courteously. “I look forward to having you with us on our journey.”
“My gratitude,” Venus said, the weight of nobility lending the statement gravitas, and bowed formally as the party stood. As they wended their way through the decorated stateroom, she rose and turned a smile to Isaac.
“Isaac, my old friend. Want to pick up where we left off?” she asked, suddenly mischievous.
The serf nodded glumly, plodding over to the hatch after a perfunctory salute to the Captain. “I guess it’s been too long coming, hasn’t it?”
“Far too long,” Venus said cheerfully.
“Well…at least allow an old man his final rest,” the serf said wearily.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, you’re younger than I am,” Venus said dismissively. Haarlan held the hatch open for the group as they departed, walking by the guards.
“Still, I may need the night to get back into shape,” Isaac said, brushing invisible lint from his spotless black and green uniform.
Venus sighed dramatically. “Oh, if you insist. Be there…say, 1000 tomorrow?”
Isaac finally grinned. “Count on it, Venus.” The group entered the lift, he tapped the button for one of the serfs’ quartering decks. “Wear something durable,” he said under his breath as he got off.
Roemer sat back down, pouring himself another drink. “Well…that was different,” he said to the room.
“Royalty they may be, but kids none the less,” the psyker noted.
“Bah. The consort of Lady Venus isn’t even a noble,” the ship’s mate pointed out. “And such disrespect! A bloody road trip? Do they not know of any civilian lines to carry them to Nocturne? This is a frontline warship!”
“Do you know of any civilian lines to carry them to Nocturne?” the Captain reasoned. “It’s a Death World.”
“Yes, sir,” the mate allowed, “but to divert us like this, then refuse any ceremony, seems ungrateful.”
“How were we diverted, exactly?” Roemer asked. “We were going this way anyway.”
The mate nodded, conceding the point. Roemer continued. “I will admit that I was surprised by the Lady’s friend. How would she even meet a hiver?”
“Nothing wrong with hivers, Captain,” the psyker counseled.
“Well, color me surprised,” Roemer said. “I would have thought the Lady would have chosen someone a bit…classier.”
“You don’t even know the lad,” the psyker said, standing as well. “I am glad, however, to hear that Lady Morticia is on the road to recovery.”
“Yes, that was welcome news,” Roemer said. “Well. We shall have to see how this goes. At least she seemed familiar with Sieur Isaac.”
Haarlan glanced sideways at Venus as the hatch closed. “Have you some history with the man, my Lady?”
“He kicked the shit out of me for seven years,” Venus said with grim humor. Haarlan stared at her, shocked. “He was the unarmed combat instructor my father hired to teach me close quarters combat. I never really took to it like Furia or Farah, but I learned a thing or two.” She turned her smile on Remilia. “I wonder if he’ll find it as easy as it was to throw me over his knee when I’m a foot taller.”
“I…see,” Haarlan said. “Did you know he would be aboard?”
“I’m shocked. I thought he was reassigned to Nocturne itself a long time ago,” Venus said.
“Tomorrow, on Terran Sports Network, the Rematch of the Century!” Alex said, in the voice of a sports announcer. He leaned forward, gesturing to Venus and the now-departed serf. “In one corner, the living volcano, in the other, some guy I just met!”
“Do kindly fuck off,” Venus said sweetly, as Jake and Remilia laughed. Haarlan stared. Freya sniggered behind her hand, muttering something. Venus turned to her and cocked a brow. “Something to add, Freya?”
“No, nothing you didn’t already know,” Freya said, all airs and modesty. Venus’ eyes brightened and narrowed, flooding Freya’s corner of the lift with light.
“Uh huh.” Venus slowly crossed her arms. “That gym’s seeing some trade tomorrow…”
The group arrived back on the deck where they had been before and wandered back into the O-Club. “Who’s up for a nightcap?” Freya asked, breezing through the hatch into the club.
“I’m in,” Alex said. “Something fortifying.” Freya smiled.
Kines was still behind the bar, deftly handing bottles and glasses out to officers crowding around him. The crowd parted before them though, and somehow all five managed to find seats. “Hello, Lieutenant,” Freya said cheerfully.
“Hello, Lady Russ,” Kines said. “What can I get for you?”
“A glass of ice water, a glass of orange juice, an empty glass, and directions to the nearest dartboard,” she said cheerfully. Remilia and Venus exchanged exasperated looks. “I have bets to harvest.”
Kines stared, as did several of the officers around them. “Uh. All right…” he said, slowly filling the order. “There’re a few dartboards in this lounge…over on the far wall,” he said, pointing.
“Superb. I’ll be back a few hundred credits richer,” she proclaimed, taking her glasses and departing.
“You have no idea what you’ve unleashed, my friend,” Remilia said gravely. “Never get between Freya and anything she can turn into a competition.”
“I don’t plan to,” Kines said, back to business. “Anything I can get you, my Lady?”
“Just a soda, I think,” Remilia said. “We have to accommodate the young folk,” she said, waving cheerfully at Jake, the only sixteen-year-old in the room.
“Har har,” Jake grumbled.
Venus tapped a finger on her chin, looking over the selection. “Just an orange too, I think. Then I’m going to watch Freya put seasoned fighter pilots to shame.”
“I need to see this,” Jake said, standing and following his girlfriend across the room.
Freya was holding court, balancing the two full glasses in her hands with the empty one on a vacant stool near a dartboard. A few officers, their expressions balanced between astonished and cautious, watched from the sidelines. “Well?” Freya asked. One fighter pilot stepped forward, dropping a ten-credit coin in the empty cup.
“Sure, I’ll step up,” he said. He grabbed the blue darts and put them on the stool next to the empty cup, hefting the red ones for himself.
“Attaboy,” Freya said, grinning broadly. She downed the orange juice in one gulp, then dropped a coin of her own in the cup, setting the empty cup down beside it. She scooped up the blue darts and waited, eyes narrowed.
Jake crossed his arms and watched, as the pilot took a few practice swings, then unloaded the darts into the board. His aim was above fair, and most struck near the center. Freya nodded slowly, then stepped back. “All right, who’s next?” she asked.
“What? You’re not going, Lady Freya?” the pilot asked.
“Oh, I am, but I go last. Keeps the blood out of the water until the last moment,” she said slyly. “I’ll match any bet you care to place.”
“Oh, words,” the pilot said, though he looked like he wanted to say much more. Several other officers stepped up to try their luck with the red darts, and a few managed to do even better than the first once had. Freya matched each bet, until the empty glass was full of credit chips, coins, candy, and other tokens of wagers. Finally, it was full, and she stepped up to the line as well. She downed the ice water, which had been perspiring in her hand the whole time, and turned to face the board in profile, rolling the darts around in her free hand.
She sighted down one dart and let it go, slamming it into the board just above the center bullseye. “Got you,” she said happily, picking up another dart.
“Got what?” Jake asked.
“The range,” she said cheerfully, and her wrist blurred. The other darts slammed into the board like homing missiles, knocking other darts loose and filling the center of the board entirely.
The crowd went silent. Freya made a show of breathing on her nails and wiping them off on her shoulder, as if it were not even a thing. “All too easy. Good game, gentlemen,” she said, picking up the cup and making to walk off.
“Ah ah ah, just a moment, madam,” a voice said from the crowd. All eyes turned to a grizzled-looking Warrant Officer, who had been watching the spectacle since it began. “Put that cup down, if you please.”
“Something wrong, Chief?” Freya asked, a hint of a canine growl in her voice, just…just barely loud enough to hear.
The Warrant glared at the darts on the floor. “One more,” he said. “Horse.”
“Hm. Pair of balls on you, Chief,” Freya said appraisingly. The crowd rumbled, apparently sensing blood.
“Put your money where your confidence is, my Lady, and I will too,” the Warrant said, pulling a blank card from his pocket and swiping it through his reader. He tapped a number in, dropping it on the stool where the cup had been. Freya picked it up and swiped it herself.
Her red eyebrows went up when she saw the number. “Oooh, a risk-taker. I do so approve,” she said, her voice low and thoughtful. She looked up with a calculating gleam in her eye, staring down the challenger. His eyes stayed level, unassuming. She grinned suddenly, displaying her fangs. “You’re on.”
“Good,” he said, grabbing the darts from the board and scooping up the ones from the floor. The crowd took a few hasty steps back. Freya and the Warrant lined up, both turning to face the board in profile. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said.
Freya grinned tightly. “Thanks,” she said quietly, and threw the first dart. It thudded into the very center of the inner bullseye, and the Warrant nodded.
“Sure.” He threw his own, and it knocked Freya’s loose.
Freya nodded, impressed. “Cool. Try this.” She hauled off, sending one deliberately into the very highest point of the board.
The Warrant tossed his own dart, neatly knocking Freya’s out again. “Like this?”
Freya’s eyes narrowed as the crowed oohed and aahed. “Hmm. Hey, this is horse, not score attack, right?”
“That’s right, yeah,” the Warrant said, glancing over his shoulder at her.
“Nifty,” she said, and changed her stance, now facing the board with her left hand. “Try to keep up.” She threw another dart, and it landed dead center of the board.
“Oh, and subterfuge is employed,” the Warrant groused. He turned as well and threw, but the dart clattered off the wall next to the board. The crowd broke out in applause and catcalls, with several dejected officers reluctantly passing their jubilant neighbors coins and cards of their own.
Freya preened, sliding the Warrant’s card into the cup and sticking her hand out. “Good game, Chief,” she said happily.
He sighed, taking her hand. “Good game. I should have specified stance rules.”
“Should have, but you didn’t,” she noted, picking up the remaining darts on the stool and *thunking* them into the board, one by one. “See you next time.” She bounced over to where Jake and Alex were standing in awe. “Kiss,” she instructed leaning out and fluttering her lashes.
Alex pecked her on the check and gathered the empty drink glasses. “Nice job, baby.”
“Was there every any doubt? I mean really?” she asked, walking back to the bar, lucre in hand.
“Not for a moment,” Alex said.
Jake shook his head, squeezing Venus’ hand when he returned to his seat. “I dunno, I think that Warrant might be back for blood tomorrow.”
“Let him come, I can’t be beat at darts,” Freya said proudly.
“Mission accomplished, madam?” Kines asked, rubbing a glass clean.
“Aye aye,” Freya said, placing the cup on the counter.
Kines stared. “Say, that’s impressive,” he said. “I doubt you’ll find so many willing volunteers tomorrow night.”
“You said yourself that there’s other lounges aboard,” she reminded him.
“Well…the staff officers’ lounge and the enlisted lounge, sure,” Kines said.
Freya offered up a feral grin, her eyes glinting in the shifting light of the bar. “Problem solved.”
Alex downed his tonic, washing the bitter taste down with another sip of water. “I think it might be time to turn in, actually,” he said.
Remilia nodded, finishing her own drink. “I think so,” she said reluctantly. She glanced meaningfully over at Venus, who caught the hint and nodded invisibly. Freya, beyond her, did as well, and Remilia stood up. “Well. Thanks for the drink, Lieutenant. I’ll see you all tomorrow,” she said.
“My pleasure, my Lady,” Kines said warmly, waving the group farewell as they packed up to go. Haarlan, who had sat there fielding questions and being glared at by the pilots the entire time, stood up to guide them back to their rooms.
As they exited the lounge and the ambient noise died down, Freya suddenly stopped dead. “Fuck, hang on,” she said, turning back and making for the bar. She jogged across the room, reaching the bar again, looking around for her cup of winnings.
“Ma’am?” Kines asked, pausing.
“The cup. Where did it…ah,” she said, snatching up the money and other prizes. “Almost forgot.”
“Can’t have that,” Kines observed. “Want a bag?”
“Ha! Why not,” Freya said, dumping her gains into the plastic bag Kines offered. She paused before turning away. “Actually…I was wondering. Do you know where I can get an internal deck map?”
“Well, I’m sure Haarlan has one,” Kines said.
“I mean one of my own,” Freya said.
Kines blinked. “Well…no, madam, the vessel’s layout isn’t exactly written down somewhere a boarder could find it,” he said.
“Oh.” Freya cocked her head. “Then…how do new crew get used to the ship’s layout?”
“Extensive training on simulators, and color-coded lines on the decks and bulkheads, ma’am, correlated to the rooms along the corridors,” Kines said. “What are you trying to find?”
“The gym, if there is one,” Freya said.
Kines brightened. “Ah. Deck fifty nine, corridor two. The color code is Green for quarters and recreation. Blue is batteries, Red is command, Yellow is engines and maneuvering. There’s also wall maps in places.”
“Great, thanks,” Freya said, grabbing the bag. “See you tomorrow?”
“Sure, I’ll be here. Sleep well, my Lady,” Kines said, resuming his scrubbing.
Freya rejoined the others, bag in hand. “Can’t leave without my bankroll!” she announced.
“Hah! Hey, can I get some of that? I promised Dad a souvenir,” Jake joked.
“Challenge me tomorrow, and maybe you’ll get some,” Freya said, getting into the lift. Haarlan keyed the deck for their quarters, and they were off. Upon arrival, the group moved to the end of the corridor, and found their rooms had been tidied up in their absence.
“All right, then. My Lords, Ladies, I will see you on the morrow,” Haarlan said. “Breakfast is served from 0600 to 0700, in the Captain’s Hall.”
“Are the enlisted and officers’ messes open other times?” Venus asked, pausing on the threshold of her room.
“I believe so, madam, if you would prefer a later time,” Haarlan said hesitantly.
“Not later, earlier,” Venus said. “I get up much earlier. But hey, that’s all right,” Venus said, noting his expression and misinterpreting it. “I’ll just go to one of the other ones. Good night,” she said, closing her hatch.
“See you all tomorrow,” Remilia said, moving to start her own bathroom rituals.
Freya dropped her bag in the chair by the hatch, heading for the bathroom. “Wow, look at you,” Alex said, pawing through its contents. “There’s gotta be six, seven hundred credits in here.”
“That last bet is a good half of it. I almost feel bad, exerting my absolute dominance over that guy like that,” Freya said casually from the bathroom, before the closing hatch cut her off.
Alex snorted, dropping the bag and surveying the room. It was nicely appointed; it must have served as a VIP room frequently before.
Venus’ room was identical. She finished up in the bathroom and Jake took her place, as she pulled a sleeping shirt on. When Jake was done, he snapped his fingers once and the lights died completely. He made his way over to the bed and slid in, snuggling up next to Venus under the covers. She rested her head on his shoulder, accepting a little kiss on the forehead with a contented sigh. “Day one,” she said.
“Heh. Yeah.” Jake squeezed his arm around her shoulders, grinning. “Man. Nocturne. I can not wait!” he said, nearly giddy.
“I’m happy you’re so excited. I doubt there’ll be much ceremony after the first few days,” she said, closing her eyes so his world wasn’t bright red. “Which is fine for me, as you know. Are you looking forward to it?” he asked her.
“I am. A few of the ceremonies are just formalities, some are more meaningful.” She thought it over. “Hmm…I guess you can’t actually attend some of them. They’re specific to blood relatives of Dad, and Legionnaires.”
“Oh. Well…all right. I’ll just chill out somewhere. If such a thing is possible on Nocturne,” he joked. She chuckled softly.
“So…I hope you weren’t offended by Roemer’s little Q&A session about your origin story,” she said.
“Nah. I surprise people. I like that,” Jake said. Venus laughed, bringing a smile to Jake’s lips. She hugged him across the chest as she lay on her side, and he tugged his arm free to squeeze her hand. “You don’t think it will happen on Nocturne itself, do you?” he asked.
“Not even once. Believe me, compared to the way so many Nocturneans live, Terran upper hivers live like royalty anyway,” Venus said quietly. “Now…I’ll see you tomorrow, all right?”
Jake squeezed her hand again, then rolled onto his side, facing his back to her, as they had found it was the most comfortable position for someone who lacked her heat tolerance. She lay flat on her back, eyes still shut, and rested, letting the faintest sound of his heartbeat – which her augmented ears could pick up even over the ambient Warp drive noise – lull her to sleep.
Remilia slid her earplugs in and turned the light on, burying herself in her magazine and thinking over the events of the day. The dinner had been enlightening, for sure. She had never met a ship where psykers of lower rank than the Navigator themself was welcome at the Captain’s table. And the complete lack of tension between Roemer and Haarlan could either be good or very bad. A political officer and Captain who got along that well were either trusted comrades – which Kines had hinted wasn’t the case – or toadies.
She sighed in frustration, turning the light off and tossing the holomag onto the table. Either way, it meant an interesting trip, she supposed.
Alex finished up in the bathroom, and emerged to find that the room was already pitch dark. He grinned triumphantly, and quickly doused the lights in the bathroom too, stripping his clothes off and waiting.
Silence. He paused, listening carefully, but she was completely quiet. He stepped forward, wondering if she was even playing their game. Then, the faintest noise, someone shifting their balance on the carpeted deck, caught his ear, directly in front of him.
He nodded. His heart rate spiked. He felt himself harden up as he walked quietly, adrenaline running through his limbs. He moved as silently as he could, not even trying to hide from her senses, but still playing the role. Finally, he paused, a few inches from where he had heard her, and raised his arms slightly.
He heard the sound from behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder. Darkness. Then…suddenly, it was in front of him again, and he felt her hair brush against his outstretched hands. He moved his hands together, and felt the solid racks of muscle along her flanks. She slid into his arms, pressing her entire back against his front, and clasping her hands over his. “Have you ever had sex in the Warp?” he asked, his voice rough and throaty. “Because…my god, you’re about to.”
“Not yet,” she whispered softly. “Show me how.”
And he did.
Freya cradled the cup of water she’d brought from the bathroom in her hands, listening to Alex slow down. More than just coming down from the peak, he was relaxing. She hadn’t told him what it sounded like, or that she listened, but she did. She let her super-human senses tell her a story. His heart was slowing a little, his pulse was quieting. As it did, the tiny movements in his skin from pulsing blood grew less distinct. His skin lightened as his circulation slowed, and his bare chest settled as he took shallower breaths. She waved the light down and watched as his eyelids relaxed. As the adrenaline in his body faded away, the melatonin of late night and endorphins of the afterglow seeped through him, relaxing his muscles and tendons.
She took a sip from her cup, listening. The sound of his breath and heartbeat both slowed, growing more sluggish, as he drifted off to sleep. The muscles in his tongue and jaw tightened, just a tiny bit. She smiled, looking down at his body on the mattress next to her. He was familiar. She had asked her father once if actual wolves had senses that refined. He had said no; that she and his battle-brothers were even better, and special. They were more than their namesake, and more than human. Freya didn’t know if that was true or not, and probably never would. But she enjoyed them for what they were.
Freya wasn’t a psyker. She couldn’t sense the instant his mind was freed from activity and released into dreams. But she could smell his pheromones, and she could hear his heartbeat as clear as a bell. And when he fell asleep, she smiled to herself again. “I love you,” she whispered, so quietly that even she could barely hear it. He didn’t stir.
Freya drank the rest of the water and cleaned herself off with a handful of tissue. She tossed it in the trash and slipped silently under the covers, pushing her braids out from under her head. Even with the lights off, and the room almost absolutely dark, she could see, just a little. When she played their game, she couldn’t actually see him all that well, in the darkness of a ship cabin; the way she found him was the way she eluded him. She used her hearing, which didn’t need a medium more complex than atmosphere, and even if he was still she could hear him perfectly. When he walked into the room blind, she could catch him. She’d never hurt him, of course. She had vastly more control than that. But she had inherited more than her namesake’s senses and competitive attitude. She was playful, and the thrill of eluding him and letting him catch her – or not – felt better than nearly anything they did afterwards.
She turned her head slightly, and watched his chest expand and contract as he breathed. She could hear the rush of air, and even smell the air he exhaled. She watched his skin darken as his heart pushed blood through him, and lighten as he pulled it back through his veins. The ventilation system of the room pulled the smell of their mating away, replacing it with the flat, sterile air of the ship, and his head tilted towards the air vent slightly.
Freya closed her eyes, and listened to Alex sleep. “Thanks for playing,” she whispered. “Good night, Alex.”
A Good Workout
Venus’s glowing eyes snapped open. She flicked her finger at the bedside table once, and a tiny digital clock blinked on. 0510. She rolled out of bed, moving silently. The distant background rumble of the ship was all she could hear as she grabbed the clothes she had laid out beforehand and slid into the bathroom, emerging fully dressed. She stuffed a towel and her exercise clothes into a bag and padded over to the hatch, sliding it open and checking that the coast was clear.
It was. She rapped on Remilia’s hatch once, listening.
“Come,” Remilia called out. Venus keyed the hatch and walked in. Remilia was dressed too, and Freya was already shouldering her bag. “Hey, Venus. Ready to go?”
“Sure am. Freya, ready to get your ass kicked?” Venus asked.
“Oh, is that what’s about to happen?” Freya asked, stretching her arms over her head. “Because I thought you were about to check into the phlebotomists’.”
“Maybe, or perhaps I’ll surprise you,” Venus said, low and ominous.
“Hardly, you need to be ambulatory for Isaac,” Freya pointed out.
Venus tsked. “Yeah…oh well. I’ll demolish you later.”
All three girls lifted their bags and walked down the corridor to the lift. Freya punched in the right deck, and they were off.
The guard outside the gym straightened up as he saw the three Royal daughters arrive. “My Ladies Primarch.”
“Provost. Is the gym open?” Remilia asked.
“For you, it is, Madam,” the Provost said, opening the hatch for them. “The women’s’ lockers are on the far right.”
The trio entered the indicated room, quickly changing into their exercise suits, and dispersed throughout the room, starting their own routines. As Remilia set up on a machine in the center of the room, however, Freya paused her own setup. She looked over at her cousin, and mimed running her hands over her forearms.
Remilia was wearing a tank top. The scars on her arms were plainly visible. She caught Freya’s gaze and ruefully shook her head. “People are going to notice. May as well not hide it,” she said under her breath. Freya looked pained, but didn’t reply. It was her choice. She was hardly dressed conservatively herself, anyway, skintight spandex over sports underwear, cut at the mid-thigh and tricep. Any longer, she had found, and running was uncomfortable.
Venus, meanwhile, was loading up a leg lift machine, and noted a few more people drifting into the room. Most looked to be crewers ending their night shifts. A few paused to stare at their guests, but most simply moved to start their own routines, casting only the occasional glance their way. That suited Venus fine.
She worked the machine, thinking. What would she be called upon to do on Nocturne, exactly? She knew that a few ceremonies were going to happen, inevitably, and she was looking forward to one or two. Keeping in mind her father’s desire for her to take a more visible role in the operations of the Royal Estate, she was certain she’d be called upon to make an address, something that she would feel guilty refusing.
Venus leaned back for a moment, pausing to increase the weight on the bar a bit as she did so. “Hmm…what would Mom ask?” she asked aloud.
“Sorry?” a voice replied. She glanced down to see that a Naval crewman was working the machine opposite her.
“Just thinking aloud, Petty Officer,” she said, noting the tattoo on his shoulder. Senior Torpedoman’s Mate.
“All right.” He returned to his own reps, casting a shameful glance at the massive pile of metal on Venus’ stack. She smiled to herself.
With a glance to see what the others were doing – Freya was starting in on her hauler’s circuit, Remilia on free weights – she resumed her musings. There was one part of the trip home that was essentially cut and dried. She would have to appear before the Circle of Masters, for ceremony if nothing else. Fortunately – for him – Jake wouldn’t be able to attend. That was for the Fire-Born. “Or Fire-Seared,” she said, chuckling.
She disentangled from her machine, cricking her back and casting an eye around for a treadmill. Spotting one, she made for it, and smiled broadly as she noted its settings. “Excellent. Treadmills with no sprint settings are shit,” she said, climbing on and thumbing it up.
Freya finished her own run, loping off the treadmill and glancing over the single weights. Finding them dissatisfying, she made instead for a squat rack, and set about assembling a barbell.
A midshipman wandered up, hands in pockets. “You need a spotter, honey?” he asked, clearly not knowing who she was.
Freya clipped several fifty-kilo plates to it, not even bothering to turn and look him in the eye until she slid under the bar. “Not unless you’ve got servos in those noodles attached to your shoulders,” she said, making sure the sailor got a good look at the wolf’s head tattoos on her triceps as she lifted.
His jaw dropped. “Uh…all right then,” he said, backing up a few paces.
Several decks up, the alarm went off in Alex and Freya’s room, and Alex swatted at it. He blearily glanced at the time. “Oh fuck…I hit the hours button wrong,” he groaned as he realized his folly. It was a full hour before he had wanted to get up. “Oh to hell with it,” he grumbled, clambering out of bed and pulling some clothes on.
Jake was awakened by a loud rapping on the hatch. “Whu…who is it?” he asked, noting Venus’ absence. “Who’s there?”
“The fuck do you want, man, it’s…it’s fucking 0600,” Jake groaned, staring at the clock.
“Uh…sorry, I thought we were gonna get up and…” Alex improvised as he realized his mistake.
“Yeah, at fucking 0700,” Jake said angrily. “I’ll be around, let me sleep.”
“Uh…I’mma hit the gym if you want to come,” Alex said.
Jake glared into the darkness. “No.”
“The girls will be there still,” Alex pointed out.
Several seconds of silence passed. “Damn you,” Jake half-heartedly cursed, flicking the lights up and grabbing some clothes.
Dressed and moderately awake, Jake followed Alex wearily down the corridor. He didn’t really work out much, so he was feeling a bit self-conscious, but he was just tired enough not to care.
The guard outside the gym let them both in, and they changed in the locker room. When Alex walked into the main gym, however, he stopped dead. Jake nearly collided with him.
“What’s up?” Jake asked, peering over the other boy into the room. He caught sight of what was happening in the ring – “Oh. Huh.”
Remilia and Freya were squared off in the boxing ring, and the battle was well under way. The taller, blond Remilia was clearly on the defensive from the redheaded Freya, and several drops of blood were already decorating both girls’ shirts. Several dozen crewers and officers had paused their own routine to watch the blistering exchange.
Freya jerked her head back to dodge a jab from Remilia, then ducked low and lurched forward, slamming three quick punches into Remilia’s ribs. Remilia grimaced and swept her arms aside, brushing a trickle of blood off of her lips. She lunged forward, catching her cousin by surprise, and rammed her knee upwards, trying to catch Freya under the ribcage.
The spectacle was all the more impressive for its total silence. Freya was clearly holding back a bit, but Remilia wasn’t even trying to, and that was probably the only reason she was even still standing. Freya absorbed a few probing blows from Remilia before turning to her profile and leaning back, as Remilia swung her leg in a vicious lateral kick. Freya caught her cousin and wrenched, sending Remilia to the ground in a heap. She stood back, arms crossed. “Need help?”
“Cram it,” Remilia snarled, rising to her feet and settling into a stance.
Confident that they had drawn every eye in the gym, Jake tapped Alex on the shoulder and jerked his head over to the free weights. Alex nodded, grinning at the rapt attention most of the room was paying to the girls in the ring. Both boys wandered over to the weights, as Jake hesitantly selected one, hefting it.
Venus noticed what the two young men were doing and smiled, watching as Alex instructed Jake in the proper stance for lifting, which he had promised the previous night. Apparently the two had decided that with nothing else to do on a warship for three stretches of ten days each, Jake might as well catch up to the others in terms of fitness.
Meanwhile, Remilia returned to dodging a blizzard of blows from her shorter cousin, putting her longer legs to good use. She pivoted on her heel, driving her elbow towards Freya’s face, expecting her to duck it and open her guard. Instead, Freya just leaned forward a bit, taking the elbow strike on the forehead, and leaned into the next shot, which slammed into Remilia’s flank with bruising force.
Remilia yelped in sudden pain, wobbling back a step. Freya shrugged, all confidence, even as a ribbon of blood worked its way down her forehead. Remilia coughed, checked to make sure that she didn’t have any internal wounds, and put her fists back up.
Freya bared her fangs, feral and bloodthirsty. “Attagirl,” she snarled, and dropped into a crouching stance. Remilia spat a drop of blood onto the mat and advanced, swinging low. Her redheaded cousin dodged sideways, tilting her chest so that the punches rolled off, never taking her eyes off her cousin. Remilia snorted in contempt, sweeping her legs low, trying to knock Freya off her feet. She didn’t even bat an eye, bouncing off her feet, keeping her center of gravity level. Remilia abandoned the tactic, ramming her hand into the ground to act as a fulcrum, and swept her other leg at waist height, catching Freya on the hip and launching her into the ropes. Freya rebounded, bracing her left arm to catch the expected reprisal shot from Remilia, but Remilia wasn’t there. Instead, she had risen to her feet again, and swung another side kick at Freya.
Freya clamped her arm down over Remilia’s leg. “Gotcha,” she barked triumphantly.
Remilia kicked off the ground, slamming her free leg into Freya’s other side. Freya’s eyes glazed over in pain. She gasped, releasing Remilia and sinking to her knees.
“What have you got, now?” Remilia taunted, scrambling back up.
Freya cannoned into her, pinning her to the ropes and slamming both hands into her midsection. Remilia tried to right herself, but Freya ducked low, grabbed her cousin by the thigh and shoulder, and twisted. Remilia flew across the ring and slammed into the mat face-down, stunned. Freya ran after her, fangs bared, a red blur in the air trailing her head like a comet. She skidded to a halt on one knee next to her cousin, eyes bloodshot, and one hand pulled back into an animal claw.
Remilia meekly tapped the mat three times, face still flat on the ground.
Freya’s rough, panting breath was more or less the only sound in the room, as she fought down her instincts. After a few seconds, though, the red film receded from her vision. She grabbed Remilia, jerking her up.
Remilia tottered on her feet, blood oozing from her mouth and from a small abrasion on her shoulder. She focused her eyes on her cousin with effort, her chest heaving. Freya stared her down for a moment before hugging her across the shoulders. “Better luck next time,” the pretty berserker said, carefree.
“My ass,” Remilia said, shrugging her cousin’s arm off. She took a step back and bowed, shaking her blond hair loose from its tie as she did, and Freya mirrored the gesture, to the muted applause of several of the crew in the room.
“If anyone recorded that,” Freya said cheerfully, vaulting the ropes and landing on the ground below with a grace that belied her vicious behavior moments ago, “he gets to walk back to Terra.” The applauding crewers faltered, unsure if she was joking.
Remilia rolled her eyes, vaulting the ropes too. When she landed, however, she had to stifle a whimper of pain. Freya looked back and cocked her eyebrow. “Yep…definitely a crack,” Remilia muttered darkly.
“Hmm?” Freya grabbed her towel, wiping off the blood and sweat. “What’s up?”
“I definitely cracked an ulna,” Remilia said, cradling her left arm.
“Ah, shit, I’m sorry,” Freya said, gently taking the hand and staring at Remilia’s scarred arm intently. Sure enough, she could already see a little swelling forming under the crosshatched scars on her cousin’s pale skin. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Of course you didn’t, but I should get a cold wrap on that after I shower off. Also,” Remilia said, grabbing her own towel and drying herself off right-handed, “I am starving to death, here. What time is it?”
“Around 0700,” Venus said, walking up. “And damn, Freya, you lost it in there,” she added under her breath.
“How often do I get to fight someone my own level that doesn’t outmass me by a hundred and twenty kilograms?” Freya asked. She caught Venus’ reproachful stare and coughed self-consciously. “Well, I’m sorry if I scared you, but believe me, I was in control.”
“Yeah…sure. Anyway, I, too, am ravenous,” Venus said, glancing around for the boys.
Alex was standing next to Jake, adjusting his grip on the deadweight the taller boy was lifting. “There. Make sure the weight is pushing straight down your legs. Don’t lean, just keep everything below the knee straight.”
“Right,” Jake grunted, lifting from the leg.
“There you go, better. Now…try it twice, no pausing.” Jake did so, sweat running down his neck.
“How many reps, you think, now that I have the stance,” he asked tightly.
“As many as you can without having to stop. Do that many, then rest for a bit, slug some water, and do it again.” Alex returned to his own weights, glancing over to make sure Jake’s form was proper. “Eventually, you’ll be able to do more.”
“Right.” Jake hefted the weight again, then glanced to the side as a flash of familiar red caught his eyes. “Actually…looks like we’re leaving,” he said, noticing all three girls moving for the exit.
“Ah, all right. Set it down, then, move from the legs, not the back,” Alex said, watching as his charge did so. “Great.”
“You guys ready to get some food?” Freya asked, trotting up.
“You bet,” Jake said, setting the weight down and cricking his back. “Hell of a fight up there.”
“Yeah, that was fun,” Freya said, slinging her towel.
“How can you even be breathing after that shot to the side?” Jake asked, rubbing his hands on his towel.
Freya snorted. She pointed at one side of her stomach. “Feel.” Jake blinked, but dutifully pressed his finger against her bare flank. Freya tensed her muscles, and pressed his finger back.
“Holy shit,” he said.
“I’m fine, trust me,” Freya said proudly. “Remilia, however,” she said, glancing at her cousin, who was walking into the shower, “is gonna need a wrap on that arm.”
“Break something?” Alex asked, hefting his stuff.
“Cracked ulna. She’ll be fine by night, trust me,” Freya said.
All three teens made for the restrooms, cleaning up and emerging scrubbed and dressed, awaiting Remilia. Venus emerged a moment later, her damp hair still shimmering under the lights.
Remilia herself walked out a few minutes later, cold wrap in place, and the group walked up to the lifts, a few crewers passing them on the way down to the gym. As they reached the lifts, however, Alex paused.
“You know…I’m curious,” he said. “What do the enlisted mess and the officers’ mess look like?”
“Well, all we’ve seen so far is the Captain’s Hall,” Venus said. “You want to try one of the other ones?”
Alex laughed. “I would just love to see the looks on people’s faces when you three walk into the enlisted mess.”
Jake shook his head. “If you want to do it, go for it.”
Sudden and Total Panic
Remilia chuckled, clutching her arm to her chest. “Sure, I could use a laugh.”
Alex grinned. “All right.” He tapped the call button and turned to face the others. “Do we know where it is?”
“I do,” Venus said. “I’ve seen the ship’s layout before. Four decks down, four corridors to port.”
“Cool,” Alex said. The hatch split open behind him.
“Ah, there you re, my Lords and Ladies,” Commander Haarlan said, grabbing the hatch and holding it open. “I was wondering where you were.”
“Oh, good morning, Commander,” Venus said brightly. “We were just going to grab some food.”
“Very well,” the Commander said. He inhaled sharply when he saw Freya’s and Remilia’s injuries. “What happened to you two, my Ladies? You both look like you lost a fight!”
“I lost a fight, Freya didn’t,” Remilia admitted. Haarlan looked from one to the other, clearly disconcerted.
“I see…my Ladies, I feel that I must ask if it is appropriate for you two to be fighting one another like that,” Haarlan said.
“It’s a sparring match. People get hurt,” Freya said. “We heal quick. Now…breakfast,” she said. She tapped the button for the enlisted mess’ deck and the lift took off.
“So, Commander, what do you have in mind for today?” Jake asked, as the lift plunged into the decks below.
Haarlan turned to look at him. “Well, we have the limited recreation facilities one expects to find on a patrol ship, but they are suitable for a trip as short as yours. I thought I would show you around them, and then perhaps give you a brief history lesson about the ship itself.”
“That sounds fun,” Jake said. The hatches parted and the group disembarked. Haarlan noticed what deck they were on, and held up a hand.
“My Ladies, Lords, this is the wrong deck, I think,” he said.
“I thought the mess was on this deck,” Freya said.
“There’s a mess here, Madam, but it’s meant for the enlisted personnel only,” Haarlan explained.
Venus turned to face him, affecting surprise. “Are you saying the food the Navy feeds my father’s Legionary crews isn’t good enough for us?”
Haarlan caught himself before he could snap a reply. “No, my Lady, but the Captain himself has asked me to invite you to a meal in his Hall.”
“Ah.” Venus nodded reluctantly. “Right. Well, that’s fair. We can try the other messes tomorrow. Right guys?”
“Sure,” Freya said, shrugging. “Lead the way, Commander,” she said. Before he could lead them back to the lifts, however, a pair of Naval armsmen emerged from a cross-corridor, both laughing at something.
“The hell she could,” one man boasted.
The other one scoffed. “Clean through the wall, man…oh shit,” he said. He stopped cold as he spotted the cluster of nobility down the hall. His eyes darted to Remilia, then locked on the bulkhead above the group. He snapped to razor-sharp attention. “Good morning, your Highnesses,” he stuttered. The other man went white.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” Freya said, her voice suddenly dropping several decibels. “What were you two just discussing?”
“The outcome of a purely hypothetical fight, my Lady Russ,” the second guard stated immediately. He was sweating bullets.
Haarlan was opening his mouth to question the man when Freya suddenly moved. She marched down the corridor, brushing past both men and rounding the corner.
“Oh, fuck, they didn’t…” Remilia muttered, jogging after her cousin. “Freya, wait, don’t get mad,” she called after her. The rest of the group hurried to catch up.
“I’m not mad yet,” Freya said under her breath, rounding another corridor and breaking into a quick trot. She hustled down the corridor, pausing outside one of the hatches to the mess. “Let’s see who gets to walk home,” she growled, pushing the hatches open.
The room looked like a theater at that moment, with a whole array of massive holoscreens set against the walls. Most displayed Salamander Legionary icons or Navy flags of varying description, but one didn’t. Not coincidentally, it was also the one that had the attention of most of the room, and the one with a shaky recording of Freya and Remilia sparring on it.
Freya stood in the middle of the hatch, staring up at the projection of herself, as the others caught up. “Oh…fuck,” Remilia said under her breath. She risked a glance sideways at Freya. Her cousin was completely expressionless. That boded poorly.
A few crewmen near the hatch spotted her and rose to attention, or gasped aloud. Others, hearing their reaction, turned to see what was going on, and their reactions spread like ripples through a pond, until only those right under the screen hadn’t noticed Freya’s arrival.
The room was silent. Clearly, the recording had been made and shuttled down to the mess while the girls had been in the shower, and was on its third or fourth loop. Freya took a few silent steps into the room, eyes glued to the display. On the screen, her hands blurred, slamming Remilia’s blows aside. Her eyes flickered as her virtual leg rose to divert a kick. Finally, some frantic whispers caught the attention of whoever was at the controls, because the video paused. The whole room turned to face the Lady Primarch.
Russ took another few steps into the room, and a clearing emerged like magic before her. Her eyes narrowed to slits. “Well…somebody didn’t listen to me,” she whispered.
Venus took a hesitant step towards her, but Remilia’s hand on her shoulder brought her up short. Remilia shook her head, sending her wet blond hair sliding side to side. Venus bit her lip, staring at Freya’s back.
Freya sighed, rubbing her brow wearily. “It’s not even a good recording,” she said aloud. A few nervous titters greeted her announcement, but they were quickly shushed. She stared at the man at the controls, transfixing him from across the massive room. “Needless to say,” she said, her voice carrying over the rows of seated sailors, “if that recording leaves this ship, you do not. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Princess Russ,” the man squeaked.
Freya looked over her shoulder at Remilia. “Anything to add, Remilia?” she asked.
“It’s not a very good recording,” Remilia said.
“See, that’s what I said,” Freya said. She turned back to the man at the controls. “Have you ever seen a Space Wolf angry? Yes,” she said, cutting over his desperate reply. “Yes, you have.” She gestured up at the paused recording, which was showing Freya savagely throwing her cousin across the ring. “Reflect on this.” She waited long enough for him to delete the recording before turning and walking back through the hatches, closing them behind her.
Haarlan broke the silence. “Lady Primarch Russ…I cannot apologize enough,” he said. His voice and face were pinched with awkwardness and shame. “I promise that the sailor responsible will be held accountable for breaching your privacy.”
“What privacy?” Freya asked. “We were in an open gym.”
Remilia shrugged. “I guess I can’t get too angry either. It’s not like people don’t record their own sparring matches from time to time. I’ve done it.”
“If anything, it goes to show what a huge badass I am,” Freya said airily. Remilia laughed.
“I…am confused, my Ladies. I though from your reaction before that this was angering you,” Haarlan said, flustered.
“Eh. It’s hardly the first time,” Freya said. She started back down to the lifts. “Like the time at the opening ceremony for the Startseite Public Center, remember that?” she asked.
“Oh man, I thought Dad was going to blow a circuit,” Remilia said.
Freya noted Haarlan’s bewildered expression. “Listen, I’ll spell it out when we speak with Captain Roemer, all right?”
“As you wish, my Lady,” Haarlan said, still confused. The lift opened, and the party entered, heading up to the Captain’s Hall.
When they arrived, Roemer was standing behind the table, downcast. Several of his senior officers were there as well, and the entire scene reminded Freya of a group of schoolchildren called to task by a teacher. “My Ladies Russ and Dorn, I offer my sincerest apologies for the misbehavior of my crew this morning,” Roemer began without preamble. “You deserved better than that.”
Remilia spoke up. “Captain, please. We were sparring in an open gym. We’re not angry. To be honest, I kind of expected this.”
“Like I was telling Commander Haarlan, this isn’t the first time this has happened,” Freya said, sitting down at the table. Venus took her place at the head of the rectangular table as she had before, and Jake and Roemer took their seats on either side, Jake feeling out of his depth, and Roemer confused.
“A few years back some paparazzi took a clip of me, Remilia, and Furia sparring in the new gym they opened back home,” Freya continued. She decided to skip the details of what Dorn and Angron had done when they found out. “Seriously, it happens. Don’t take it personally.”
“I appreciate your generosity, my lady, but it still shouldn’t have happened,” Roemer said, determined to bear some guilt over the incident.
Venus shook her head. “Captain, when you get two athletic women fighting in front of a crowd of sixty men, someone’s going to record it. Let it go,” she said, the vaguest hint of command in her voice.
Roemer sighed, torn. He hadn’t expected leniency to be their choice, but he was relieved that his brief stewardship would not be tarred on the second day as well. “As you wish, Lady Primarch Venus,” he said. “I thank you for your understanding.”
The party dug into breakfast, and Remilia privately concluded that that was for the best. On a ship that size, processed protein bars would have been they could have expected from the enlisted’s mess. The spread of veal, fresh eggs, and baked goods the Captain had laid out was much nicer. Alex noticed that there were no Salamander serfs aboard this time. Venus noticed the direction of his sight, and arrived at the same conclusion. “Captain, will Sieur Isaac not be joining us?”
“He wanted to make sure that the special cargo that Lord Primarch Vulkan instructed we carry was arranged for expedited offloading,” Roemer explained.
“What is that cargo, exactly?” Venus asked, picking up a bran muffin.
“If I may, Captain?” one of the officers at the table asked. Roemer nodded. “The cargo is a prototype LRMk.15 Punisher, outfitted with a few new Martian upgrades,” the officer explained. “Lord Vulkan volunteered his Legion to test it.”
“Oh, I see,” Venus said. “Well, I’ll see him later today anyway, I know.”
“Are you sure you want to do that, my Lady?” Haarlan asked in surprise. “After this morning?”
“Bah, if someone wants to record it, I won’t care much. It’s not like there aren’t entire holo archives of me in swim meets,” Venus scoffed. “Besides, he’s had it coming for years.”
Jake swallowed some toast. “What did he do, anyway?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s an old, fuzzy, loving hatred,” Venus said.
“Ah.” Jake tried not to look like he was scarfing the food.
Venus finished her drink and set it down, her eyes narrowing. “Also…we heard something yesterday, Captain Roemer. Is it true that no Salamander besides me has ever set foot aboard?”
“No, my Lady, several Techmarines were present for the ship’s consecration,” Roemer said. “However, none have been aboard since except for brief inspections and cargo loading.”
“Interesting. So…you’ve probably never seen Nocturnean combat techniques up close, have you?” she asked with a grin. “Isaac taught me for years.”
“You know…if bootlegs are going to be an issue…” Jake suggested slowly.
Venus smiled. “I was planning on asking Isaac to record this, actually. No better way to learn your weaknesses than watch yourself get your ass kicked.”
Remilia snorted. “You can bench-press a car.”
“Yeah, but Isaac’s a damn viper.”
Roemer cleared his throat. “If you wish, my Lady, you could just have the gymnasium to yourself and have a servo-skull record the bout.”
“Ooh. Good idea, Captain. We’ll do that, I think,” Venus said, pouncing on the idea. “We have…two and a half hours.”
Alex leaned forward, all business. “What punishments shall we inflict upon people who set it to music?”
“Oh, shut up, Alex,” Venus giggled.
The hour came. Venus and company walked down to the gym, pausing outside the hatch, where small crowds of people were gathering. Most simply wanted to know why they couldn’t go work out, but a few were clearly hoping for a glimpse.
Venus paused behind the crowd, gym bag in hand. She wasn’t carrying the same clothes she had used that morning, Jake noted. She had sent those off for cleaning, and was carrying a few circular containers in the bag instead, plus some green cloth bits. Venus turned to him. “Hey, Jake, hon, can you sit this out? I want to be able to focus.”
Jake nodded solemnly. “All right. Kiss for luck?” he asked.
Venus leaned into him, pressing herself from navel to lips flush with him, and kissed him deeply. “I don’t need luck,” she whispered against his cheek. “I need timing.”
Jake wrapped his arms around her and squeezed her tight. “Knock him dead, baby.”
She half-grinned, all confidence. “I plan to.” She turned and walked down the corridor, parting the crew effortlessly, and disappeared past the guard.
The other party members made for the O-Club, where they had agreed to wait until Venus was done. Upon arrival, Lieutenant Kines welcomed them back to the bar. “Hello once more, my friends, what can I get for you?”
“Just some water, thanks,” Remilia said, sitting down at the bar. Kines filled a glass and passed it to her. As her fingers brushed his, she smiled as his hand lingered. His eyes, however, were locked on her arms, his jaw tight. She glanced down – “…oh. It’s…” she trailed off, pained. The scars on her arms were visible. But then, she was done hiding them. “It’s long done.”
“Good to hear, Lady Remilia,” Kines said quietly, visibly shaking himself. “My sister didn’t stop in time.” Remilia winced, setting her glass down.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Remilia said remorsefully. “And…sorry if I brought back something unpleasant.”
“Thank you, madam,” Kines said.
Alex shifted uncomfortably on his stool. Kines shook himself again, and turned to the others. “What can I get for you, Lord Carlin?”
“Just water. For all of us.”
“Yes, sir,” Kines said, handing some glasses out. “May I ask where Lady Venus is?”
“She’s at the gym,” Jake said, picking up his glass. “She wanted us to go ahead without her.”
Venus stood under the pouring water of the shower, eyes closed. The water wafted into steam where it landed on her skin. The girl wasn’t bathing. She was purging her mind.
Her hands clenched. She lifted them slowly, opening her eyes against the water. The world around her was tinged red. The light from her eyes tinted her vision. She could shield them with contact lenses, and usually did, so that she could look at the world the way normal people saw it. They were completely invisible, so nobody would ever know but her. She had removed them. Now the world looked like it was bathed in blood.
She ran her hands down her arms, crossing her breasts, and digging her fingers into her flesh until it hurt. “The fires of Nocturne burn within me. The hate of the unclean sustains me,” she whispered, repeating the first few lines of the Creed. “I am the paladin that shields the pure. I am the inferno that scours the world. I am the sword that cleaves the unrighteous and the light of the Emperor’s will,” she finished, turning off the water. She listened to the water drain down into the greytanks, dripping away into silence. She sighed. “I am a seventeen-year-old girl and I am gonna fucking die.”
She sighed again and toweled off. She dried her hair, and stood in front of the mirror, applying her wrap. She tucked it off under her back and slid a dark green sports bra over it. After a moment’s thought, Venus grabbed the other container from her bag, and slid a line of bright red makeup across her face. She drew a thick line under one eye, trailing to insignificance over the bridge of her nose, and widening back up under the other eye. She looked at the effect in the mirror and nodded. It looked like her eyes were melting down over her face. Excellent.
She daubed a few more spots over her clothes and skin, then pulled a matching green set of boxing underwear on, spreading a bit more dye over her them. It was the color her eyes were if the glow was absent, and it was slightly iridescent. The effect was such that it looked like she had cracks in her entire front side, from the soles of her feet to the base of her hair. She washed her hands off and glanced over her appearance, finding it appropriately terrifying. “One last touch,” she said, removing the drakeshead necklace from her bag and trying it tight around her left ankle. The ceramite chain could easily handle the stress. She paused as she looked over her reflection, and a smile quirked her painted lips. “Oooh…I know,” she said, grabbing her green drake skin bandana, and tying it off around her head. She carefully tucked her hair under it. “Perfect.”
Venus took a deep breath and walked out into the gym, passing an inactive servoskull that she had brought with her. She carried it to the ring and climbed in.
Isaac was there already, tying some tape over her his fingers. He froze when he spotted Venus. “Oh…my goodness, Venus. You turned into a beautiful young woman since I saw you last.”
“I did,” Venus said. She turned the skull on and carelessly tossed it into the air, letting it hover over the ring. “And…good luck,” she said. The room brightened as her heart rate picked up. The fire in her eyes lit the makeup, and the lines in her face glowed.
“I see…nice touch,” he said quietly. He cricked his neck and flexed his arms, settling into a stance. “How shall we play this?” he asked, shifting his balance experimentally.
“First one to surrender, of course. Or black out,” Venus said. She bent at the waist, settling into a stance.
“Brave girl,” Isaac muttered. He had been a youthful twenty-eight when Venus had trained under him first. Now he was pushing forty, and he still moved with a snakelike grace that put a chill through Venus.
“Record,” Venus said loudly, triggering the floating skull. A tiny light blinked to signify its recording status. Isaac smacked his palms together and bowed. Venus mirrored him, and they both settled into stances.
Isaac slowly turned, walking backwards around the ring. Venus followed his movements, watching carefully. He was gauging her. He wasn’t ready for the kill yet, he was checking to see how she had changed. She was a foot taller now. Her defenses would be higher. Her center of gravity was much higher. And she had certainly never worn bloodpaint before.
Isaac paused his circling, inching towards her. Venus tensed her shoulders, raising her hands to navel height. The wiry serf lunged, snapping his hand at Venus’ face. She froze. His knuckles stopped a hairsbreadth from her face. “Give me some credit,” she whispered.
Isaac nodded, then attacked. He opened with a vicious kick across her knees. She took a step back, avoiding it, and advanced, entering his guard. He threw four vicious punches at her stomach, which she either deflected or absorbed. Even as his arms were moving, she launched a counterattack. She jabbed high, then feinted with her left fist and swept her legs as he dodged high. She nicked his shin as he lurched back, but he recovered, stomping his foot down between her legs so hard the mat deformed for an instant.
Venus recoiled, slamming into the back of his legs. Isaac stumbled, off-balance. Venus rose, punching deep from the shoulder, directly into Isaac’s clenched stomach.
The serf stumbled, raising his hands in defense, as Venus slowly rose to her feet. “You’ve learned a few dirty tricks, Venus,” he whispered hoarsely. Venus nodded. She didn’t know if it was the makeup or what, but she was feeling like she hadn’t felt since before Morticia got hurt. The light from her eyes was painful for Isaac to look at directly. Her skin was aflame.
“I’m alive,” she whispered. Her voice was unnervingly deep.
“You feel the fires of our world stir in your heart,” Isaac said, meeting her eyes with effort.
Venus nodded, then charged. She closed the gap with blinding speed, slamming her elbow forward to catch Isaac’s guard. He gripped her arm and redirected her away, bringing his knee up to collide with her stomach. She bent around the blow, and brought her diverted arm up to grip him by the knee, throwing it down. Venus lunged upwards and drove her fist towards Isaac’s face.
He brought his guard up and caught it, wincing at the bone-crushing strength behind her blow. He shook his stinging arm and dodged high, ducking under her follow-up. He threw himself sideways at her, slamming into her with his shoulder. She staggered back, guard up.
Isaac nodded. “Good.”
“Ever the teacher,” she rasped, hot air spilling forth from her lips.
Isaac swung. Venus tilted her head back and let his punch roll off her collarbone. He swung again, a combo of four rapid-fire punches, and she deflected them. As he swung again, though, he suddenly lunged, driving a kick into her midsection. She leaped backwards, eyeing his legs. He advanced again, done holding back. Venus winced as he drove a cruel punch at her neck, which she just barely managed to dodge. He wasn’t relenting, either; he punched again, a vicious blow to her breast that staggered her, and somehow the wiry man got clean past her guard. He got a few punches through to her waist and stomach. Venus nearly gagged.
She swatted him away, angrily driving a knee strike at his groin. Somehow, he managed to pivot away in time, and took the blow on his thigh. The force of it was enough to drive him back a pace, and Venus pounced, swinging her hands like hammers at his ribs and stomach. Finally on the offensive, she drove in relentlessly, forcing him back several paces.
He threw himself backwards, landing in a half-crouch. Before he could even straighten up, though, Venus tensed her legs and lunged. He managed to jerk his head back from the line of flight of her kneecap by a millimeter. He could feel the heat roiling off her flesh.
She was on him, fists blurring into his guard. Isaac’s defense bent and flowed around her vicious punches, diverting them away instead of letting them impact. She wasn’t going to tire, though. She was more than human.
Venus suddenly shifted her tactics, driving her left knee at Isaac’s groin again, but stopped short, planting her bare foot on the mat. Isaac tried to sweep the leg out from under her with his own leg, but it was like trying to kick down a hundred-year-old tree; he couldn’t even get it to budge. Suddenly stuck in place, he drove both thumbs at her eyes, trying to blind her. She planted both hands on his suddenly stationary knee and rolled herself forward, slamming her entire body into him with bruising speed.
Isaac slammed into the mat, caught completely by surprise. He tried to roll away, but she was gone. Somehow, she was halfway across the ring already, perfectly still. She was resting one knee on the mat, crouching down. Isaac slowly rose to his feet. “Very well done,” he panted. “I completely didn’t see it coming.”
Venus smiled. With the lines of bloodpaint over her lips, the effect was positively daemonic. She rose to her feet in silence. With a few quick steps, she was back in his guard, and the battle resumed.
Isaac kicked high, trying to force her back with his greater height, but it didn’t matter. Venus was fighting like a monster, and even his speed wasn’t saving him now. Every few blows, one got past his guard. Finally, his guard fell aside for an instant, and Venus moved to end it. She crossed once, knocking him back. She followed up with two quick shots to the ribs, and as he bent forward slightly to block another, she slammed her forearm across his chin.
He crumpled, sagging to the mat. Venus stepped back, blinking sweat out of her eyes. “Yield,” she growled.
Isaac glanced up at her, but he was done. He tapped the mat.
Venus closed her eyes for a moment, letting the red mist fade. When she opened them again, she smiled. “A good fight.”
Isaac climbed the ropes, nodding. “Well done, Venus,” he managed, working his jaw. “You’ve improved considerably.”
“Thanks. I’ve been practicing,” she said coyly. “Now…” she stood back and bowed formally. Isaac did as well, and both climbed out of the ring. “Stop recording,” she said as she passed the skull. It fell into her hands.
With a few presses, the recording popped out on a data card. She left it on her bag as she went to clean up.
Peace and Quiet
Chains of Command
Ten minutes later, Venus walked into the O-Club. Jake and Alex were back at the dartboard, just killing time. Kines and Haarlan were listening to Remilia and Freya tell stories about growing up in Startseite. All six paused what they were doing as Venus walked in, bag and recording in hand.
“Well? How did it go?” Freya demanded.
Venus offered up a weary grin, wincing as a cut on her lip stretched. “I won. I’ll leave the rest to the tapes.”
“Hah! You kicked his ass,” Freya crowed.
“Maybe,” Venus allowed, sinking onto a stool. “Ooof. You know how you’re not really sore until after you change? Ow.”
“Isaac put you through the grinder?” Remilia asked.
“How did I even live through that as a kid?” Venus groaned.
Jake walked up, smiling eagerly. “How did you do, baby?”
“I think I won. I hurt all over, but he fell down first, so, hey,” Venus said modestly. She glanced over at Kines. “Lieutenant, can I get a glass of ice? No water, just ice,” she said.
“Sure, here you are, Lady Venus,” Kines said, passing her a glass. Venus grabbed a chip of ice and held it to her bruised forearm.
“Oooh, that’s better,” she sighed. She glanced over at the rest of the group. “So…what are you guys up to?”
“Jake is scaring the shit out of me at how good at darts he is,” Alex said. “I think Freya might need to take him as an apprentice or something.”
“Excellent,” Venus giggled, drying off her arm. The ice had already melted.
“I’m trying to impress upon Commander Haarlan and Lieutenant Kines here the importance of not letting your aircar rust out,” Freya said. Venus groaned.
“I remember. How did you even manage that?”
“I still don’t know,” Freya confessed. She glanced at the clock over the bar. “Who’s hungry?”
“I could kill and eat a sauroch,” Venus said.
Jake nodded. “Yeah, I bet. Think we’ll get to do some of that on Nocturne?”
Venus laughed aloud. “Not if you value your skin. No offense, honey, but the SAND on Nocturne kills people.”
Jake sighed dramatically. “Such is life.”
“If you’d like, my Lady, you could just eat here,” Kines said. “We do serve a little food here.”
“Sounds good,” Venus said. “Do you have menus?”
Kines shrugged. “Well…it’s just one of seven or so flavored protein pars and a few kinds of drinks.”
“I’m sure Captain Roemer would be delighted to have you back for lunch, Lady Venus,” Haarlan pointed out.
“Thanks, but I don’t want to bother him,” Venus said.
“How exactly does that work?” Jake asked. “Is the food that enlisted men, officers, and staff get different?”
Kines nodded. “Yes, sir.” When Jake didn’t inquire, Kines explained. “The Captain and his staff can request that certain foods be brought aboard for them. Officers are simply allowed a greater variety of what’s served to the enlisted.”
“That doesn’t sound fair,” Jake said. Kines shrugged uncomfortably.
“That’s just how it works. Rank has its privileges.” He set a few bars out on the counter.
Venus grabbed a protein bar and tore it open, biting into it. Her jaw froze mid-chew. “Oh.”
“What’s wrong with me?” Jake asked, gnawing on his own.
“What?” Alex asked.
“I think this actually tastes good compared to the ones they have in the hive,” Jake said.
“There’s a sterling recommendation,” Freya said, eyeing the bars and choosing not to take one. “I’ll pass, thanks, Lieutenant.”
Kines half-smiled. “What can I say? It’s hard to feed a crew of thousands for years at a time with no resupply, ma’am.”
Jake finished his bar and sat down. “So…Lieutenant, how exactly did you wind up a bartender on a warship?”
Kines shrugged. “I lucked out on my entry exams. And I specifically requested it, too. I like it here. What other part of the job has you meeting so many people?”
Venus finished her own bar and tossed the wrapper in the trash. “What do I owe you?” she asked.
“Huh?” Kines blinked. “For what, ma’am?”
“Er…that was a ration stick, ma’am, they’re free,” Kines said.
Venus tilted her head back. “Oh. Okay, thanks.” She spotted a poster to the side, and quickly turned to it to cover her embarrassment. “What’s that about tonight?”
“Holo night in the tertiary auditorium, my Lady,” Kines said, following her gaze. “They’re playing some holo we picked up on Terra.”
“What’s the holo?” Freya asked.
Kines thought for a moment. “I think it’s some old sports movie or something, ma’am.”
“Oh, cool. Who’s up for it?” Freya asked.
“Not I. I’m gonna need to rest.” Venus said.
Jake and Remilia also opted out. “You and me, then, Alex,” Freya said.
Alex adopted a stern tone. “Promise that you won’t be riffing the entire movie?”
“I hardly ever do that!” Freya proclaimed. Alex stared her down, and she relented. “Often.”
“Right,” Alex chuckled.
As dinner came, the group trooped up to the Captain’s Hall once more, deciding that it was indeed preferable to eat real food than reconstituted dead people. After the meal, Remilia headed back down to the bar, while Freya and Alex went to see the holo. Venus and Jake stayed in their room, just watching things they had brought with them on their personal slates.
Remilia sat back down at the bar, noting with a smirk that the Warrant from the previous night was hovering around the dartboard, clearly seeking vengeance for his upset. Kines walked up to her behind the counter and wiped it down. “Hello again, Madam.”
She accepted the orange soda he had stocked behind the bar with a reluctant grin. “Thanks, but please stop calling me Madam. It makes me feel old.”
“I’m older than you are, my Lady,” Kines pointed out.
“Still, people call my mother that. Call me something else. Please,” Remilia half-pleaded.
“All right then, my Lady,” Kines said, with the ghost of a smile.
Remilia groaned in exasperation.
“Lady Remilia then,” Kines continued.
“Just…Remilia works. It’s my real name, after all,” she pointed out.
“I’m not certain I’m comfortable with addressing you that way, Lady Remilia,” Kines confessed.
“Well, titles weird me out. So. Remilia. Please.” The lanky blond petulantly crossed her arms.
Kines struggled for words for a moment, then gave up. “Yes…Remilia. Man, that’s weird.”
“Well, it’s an Inwit name,” Remilia said with a shrug.
Kines went white. “No! Please, I wasn’t making fun of-”
“Lieutenant.” Remilia grinned behind her bottle. “It was a joke.”
“Well, stop it, you scared the hell out of me,” Kines grumbled.
Remilia looked at him funny. “Why are people on this ship scared of us?”
Kines looked down to the bar. “It was just that one thing.”
“Lieutenant, I’d like to think we were getting along. Why are people aboard so scared of us?” Remilia demanded.
Kines glanced side-to-side, seeking aid from the other people at the bar, but they were studiously ignoring the conversation. Finally, he turned his face back to her. “It’s…more like…caution, ma’am. One word from you could completely ruin any of us…and after this morning…”
“I don’t think Freya was really going to throw anyone off the ship,” Remilia said. “I barely even care. We’re mostly athletes, you know, we get recorded all the time.”
“Yeah, but…still,” Kines said, pained.
Remilia nodded and tried to summon her patience. “All right. Well please…stop walking on eggshells.”
Kines nodded, trying to put it all behind him. “Aye, Madam.” Remilia glared. “Sorry. That sounded like an order.” She giggled.
An Enduring Love
Jake settled back against the bed, thumbing through the small selection of holos and games he had brought on the dataslate Venus had loaned him. “Hmm…what do you want to watch?”
Venus tapped her finger on her chin. She was reclining on the chair in the corner, reading her own slate. “Want to watch my fight with Isaac?” she asked.
Jake peered over at her. “Sure, if you won’t mind.”
“Why would I mind?”
“Why did you order everyone out of the gym?” Jake reasoned.
“Because I didn’t want distraction.” Venus shrugged. “I don’t mind if you see it now.”
Jake turned his slate off. “Cool, pop it in.”
Venus stood, adjusting the thermostat down to bone-chilling cold for his comfort. She slid the card into her slate and connected it to the larger screen on the wall. Jake shoved the pillows behind him and sat up. Venus stripped her outer clothes off and climbed into bed, settling down against his front side. This was a ritual they had developed after discovering that leaving the room at normal temperatures while they shared a seat was simply too much for Jake. Venus, who was fortunately both immune to and causative of extreme temperatures, was quite happy to act as his heating element. He wrapped his arms around her stomach and pulled her back against him. She relaxed into his arms, clasping her hands over his.
“Play,” Venus called to the distant slate.
The video began, a bit shaky as the skull worked its gyros. Jake caught his first glance of Venus’ outfit from behind as she climbed into the ring. “Damn…hey, Venus, if you feel me popping a boner, please be okay with it, all right?”
She giggled, slapping his leg. “Quiet.”
On screen, she turned around, and Jake’s hands tensed on her stomach as he saw her war paint. “…Holy shit, baby, that’s scary.”
“It’s just some body paint,” Venus said. “But thanks, that’s what it’s for.”
“Promise me that you won’t wear that around the apartment, all right?” Jake asked.
“Every single Halloween,” she promised. Jake groaned.
The fight began. They started circling each other, testing each other’s’ defenses. Isaac moved, striking high, and Jake squeezed his hands as the man’s fist stopped a hair from breaking Venus’ nose. “How did you not flinch?”
“He wasn’t going to hit me, and I didn’t feel like humoring him,” Venus said. They circled a little more, then Isaac kicked her low.
Jake winced. “Cold.”
“Nocturnean martial arts are all about humbling your opponent with pain, then killing the shit out of them,” Venus said smugly. “It’s what you’d expect from people who have had to very literally kill dragons to get meat.”
She punched Isaac, hard, in the stomach. Jake’s eyes widened at the look on her face, but this time he didn’t say anything. “‘I’m alive,’” she said on the screen.
“…You didn’t even talk like that when you were trying to scare off Polazzi,” Jake said quietly.
Venus squeezed his hand, trying to assuage the fear she felt building in his voice. Isaac punched her breast, and Jake felt his testicles try to crawl into his stomach. “…Ow.”
“Yeah, that sucked,” Venus said.
The two of them were dancing, now, just dealing damage and taking it. The flurry of blows she was raining down on Isaac was actually hard for Jake to follow. “I’m glad you’re on my side,” Jake said. Venus winced at the tone of his voice.
On the screen, she somehow flipped over her own knee to ram her entire back into him, sending him sprawling, then flipped feet over head to land in a perfect crouch. “Catlike,” Venus declared.
The fight ended as Venus slammed an arm full across Isaac’s face, sending him back against the ropes. After exchanging a few words, the recording ended. “Stop,” Venus said, and the screen went dark.
“So what did you think?” Venus asked. Jake didn’t reply. He just buried his face in her hair and squeezed her tight.
Venus heard apprehension color her voice. “…I didn’t freak you out with the whole Woman of Steel thing, did I?” Venus asked.
“Huh? No,” Jake said. His voice was muffled by her thick black hair. “No, that doesn’t weird me. I know you’re more than human.” He closed his eyes and laced his fingers with hers. “I think it’s part of why you’re so damn cute,” he whispered. “You can splatter blood on yourself and beat trained men senseless, and still make me feel completely safe.”
She closed her eyes and snuggled back against him, relieved. “So…why did you sound so nervous?”
Jake was quiet for a moment. “I don’t like seeing you hurt.”
“Well, thanks,” she said. “But…you know I’ll be healed by tomorrow.” Jake shook her loose, gingerly climbing out from under her and crouching alongside her.
“Your skin is so dark I can’t even see the bruises…but that looked like blood from here,” he said, gently running his fingers over her cheek. Sure enough, there was a rough spot. “He cut you?”
“I was dumb and dodged wrong. I moved my head directly into his fist, so it hit even harder. Split the skin,” Venus explained.
“Oh.” Jake stared. Her skin was black. An unnatural black, darker than the depths of space. He leaned forward and kissed her next to the wound. “I’ll kiss it better,” he subvocalized. She heard him.
“Hee hee…thanks, Jake,” she whispered back. She closed her eyes and let him explore her face with his lips, finding each tiny bruise or cut and stopping to give her a kiss. “See…this is why I keep you around. You always make me feel better.”
“That’s why? It’s not for visual contrast?” he asked, holding his hand out in front of her eyes. He was so pale that the veins in his arm stood out even under his dark arm hair.
Venus guffawed. She gripped the sheets underneath her, doubling over in laughter. Jake rocked back on his haunches and laughed, too. “What? I’m just saying what we’re both thinking!” She fell sideways on the bed, heaving with mirth.
When she finally recovered enough to talk, she wiped her eyes on the sheets and looked up at him, still tittering. “Wow. You actually went there.”
Jake smiled down at her. “I did.” He rested one hand next to her and leaned down, kissing the visible welt on her collarbone where Isaac’s fist had left a scar. “He really worked you over.”
“Good. He was supposed to,” she said. Without her body to keep him warm, goosebumps were rising on his exposed skin. She started to pull him down, but he squeezed her hand.
“Hey…I’m all right,” he said. “But you…wow. You look like you got tenderized.”
“I did, really. Just no enzymes and spices, you know,” she joked. She pulled her tank top up over her shoulders, leaving her bra on. She guided his hand to where Isaac’s foot had slammed into her shoulder. “Can you not see the bruising?”
“Nope.” His eyes were those of a normal human. Even if Miranda’s Warpsight, Cora’s bird’s eyes, and Freya’s unparalleled senses were better than her own, the glowing red orbs in her head could still see better than any unaugmented human’s eyes ever could. She could see her wounds, and she could see them fading, too. He couldn’t.
“Here,” she said, guiding him to an abrasion on her stomach. He bent over and ran his fingers over her, tickling her. Her stomach muscle rippled as she giggled. “Quit it.”
“Don’t wanna.” He slid his hand over her ribs, pausing when he felt her flinch. “Sorry,” he said. “Here.” He ran his cold fingers over her skin, letting the warmth seep into him. “Better?”
“How are you so cold all the time? I mean, I know we have the AC on, but you’re an iceberg,” Venus said. She gripped his free hand against her flank, warming him up.
“I’m not cold, you’re a furnace,” he said, turning to straddle her. He pulled his hand free, running both of them over her sides. “I don’t need you to help me find this,” he said, running his hands under her bra. He traced his fingers over the faint outline of the vicious bruise on her breast from Isaac’s cheap shot.
She tugged the bra off and dropped it over the side of the bed. “Yeah. That hurt like a bastard.”
Jake leaned down and kissed her, letting the heat from the bruised blood vessels seep into his lips. “All better?”
“No. But that feels good,” she said softly, relaxing into the bed. He kissed his way down her chest, pausing at the base of her ribcage, then worked his way down to her waistline.
“Oh.” Venus’ eyes opened. She glanced down at where Jake was headed. “Huh. That’s odd.”
“What?” he asked, from somewhere below her navel.
Venus propped herself up on one elbow. “I was so relaxed I didn’t even realize we were going to have sex.”
He smiled. “We don’t have to.”
She thought for a moment. “…Sorry, baby.”
He shrugged, surprised at how un-disappointed he was. “It’s your call. If you’re not up to it after all that fighting, I’m okay with it.”
Venus reached down and extended a hand. When he grabbed it, she gently pulled him up to her eye level, and he lay down next to her. “See…that’s the other reason I keep you around,” she said. She wrapped one arm around him, holding him tight. “You’re the sweetest guy I know.”
“It’s a burden,” Jake said heavily.
Venus closed her eyes in mock exasperation. “I know. You’re a martyr, Sieur Seager.” She flicked the lights off as both of them shucked off clothes for bed. “Tomorrow night, though, I should be all rested up.”
“And you’ll sleep like a baby,” Jake promised, splaying his hands over her shoulders and pulling her close. “Now…no, don’t,” he said, catching her hand as she reached to wave the temperature back up. “Leave it cold.”
“Nah, you keep me warm. My little fire,” he whispered his name for her when nobody else was listening. She smiled, white teeth in the darkness.
“Good night, Jake.”
Down at the O-Club, Remilia tossed down her last water and stood. “Thanks, Lieutenant. I’ll be seeing you tomorrow.”
“I look forward to it, ma…Remilia. Sorry,” Kines said.
Remilia sighed. “Right. Bye.” She made her way through the room to the lift. As she rose to her own room, she leaned against the wall and wondered.
She didn’t particularly enjoy titles. She had tried to reconcile that with the way she had always strove to surpass and overcome others academically, and justified it to herself by saying that academic achievement was hardly a born right. It was true, too. But here on the ship, she was a noble. A princess. And that wasn’t something she had earned. She had just been born. That was hardly an accomplishment.
The lift opened, and she started to get off. “Where are you going?” Freya asked. Remilia looked up and blinked in surprise.
“Oh…I thought this was the deck we were on,” Remilia said. Alex and Freya got into the lift as a stream of crewers went by outside.
“Naw, holo’s over. And man, that was DUMB,” Freya said. “I want those two hours back.”
“Did you riff the entire movie?” Remilia asked.
“Only once. Once! I was restrained!” Freya said indignantly. Alex snorted.
The lift opened on their deck, and the three teens headed for their own rooms. As Alex wandered into the bathroom of their suite, however, Freya halted Remilia from entering her own. “So…the fight. Actions to take?” she asked.
“None. It’s not worth pursuing,” Remilia shrugged. “It’s just a sparring match.”
“Okay.” Freya hugged her cousin good night. “You want to spar again tomorrow?”
“No, I’ve had enough for a while, actually,” Remilia replied.
“Spoilsport,” Freya grumped. She hugged her taller cousin again and nipped her ear. “See you tomorrow.”