It's been two weeks now that Jupiter has been waking up early in the morning without complaint and delivering coffee un-asked -- an unprecedented streak. She has also become prone to pausing in the middle of ordinary daily activities to announce things like "Thank you for being so normal, Mom," and “I really appreciate our relationship,” generally intoned in a voice of heartfelt gratitude, and occasionally accompanied by a spontaneous hug.
Aleksa finds this a little rich, given all the grief that an adolescent Jupiter used to gave her mother over such factors as her accent, her occupation, her abrasive attitude towards other adult authority figures, and her overall failure to embrace the qualities that an average American teenager would apparently consider 'normal.'
“Maybe she's pregnant,” says Nino.
Aleksa dismisses this suggestion with the scorn it deserves. “Not possible.”
“Doesn't she have that new boyfriend? So?”
“Two weeks ago, she went to that clinic. If she's gotten pregnant in two weeks, she doesn't know it yet.”
Nino thinks about this, leaning precariously on her mop. “Well – you know, then, maybe it's the thing with the eggs. Our Vladie, that idiot, he thinks it's, what, like throwing away your toenail clippings?” Aleksa gives her a dangerous look – Our Vladie, that idiot, is not yet anywhere near back in Aleksa's good graces, is probably not getting there any time in the next century – but Nino ignores it with the ease of long practice. “Jupiter, she's smarter than that. Maybe she starts thinking what it's about to be a mother, how it might be to be a mother to kids she doesn't know, maybe it makes her appreciate you more.”
“Hm.” With a flick of her fingers, Aleksa acknowledges this as something that resembles a line of reasoning. On the other hand, the one time she's tried to talk with Jupiter about the ill-advised egg-donation operation, Jupiter blinked at her in near-incomprehension and then said, “Oh, right! Yeah, that was a thing,” as if the entire event had happened years ago in a near-irrecoverable past. Young people have short memories, she knows. And yet.
“Or maybe,” offers Nino, after a few more moments of thought, “she's feeling guilty about the telescope. Maybe she thinks you're thinking you're not enough of a parent for her, that she has to go chasing after things that represent the father that's not in her life.”
Aleksa finds she's tired of this conversation. “Maybe,” she says, “she's just happy we bought her the damn telescope.”
She doesn't want to think too much about the telescope. It makes Jupiter happy, that's fine, that's the point of it, but she doesn't want to think about it. Still, she's got to admit to herself – later, once Nino's gone with Irina and Lyudmila to get groceries, and for once she's got five minutes alone – that the explanation is not completely implausible. It seems the kind of thing that Jupiter might get into her head. Except that Jupiter has barely used the telescope since it got here; she's working all day, and she's off all night with the new boyfriend.
Aleksa's bones are aching from a full day of work – what she doesn't understand most of all is how Jupiter even has the energy for this boyfriend – but for some reason, she finds herself hauling her tired body up to the roof to regard the brass monstrosity of sentiment they've bought for Jupiter, in some kind of saccharine attempt to improve the shitty lot she's been handed. Four thousand dollars, they spent on this. Four thousand dollars, so Jupiter can look up at the stars, and depress herself thinking about a version of their lives that never happened, and that, to be honest, might very well not have been less shitty even if it had.
“Well, what the hell,” says Aleksa, to the empty air, and leans in to look up through the telescope.
Then she leans back. Then she rubs her eyes. Then she looks at the sky – almost empty, except for a few distant specks that could well be birds, might very well be birds – and then she leans forward again to look once more through the telescope.
After a few more decisive minutes, Aleksa says, to the not-entirely-empty air, “What the fuck?”
“Jupiter,” Aleksa says the next day – very calm, so calm, someone should give her one of those acting awards, “we're meeting this boyfriend of yours tomorrow. You bring him here.”
Jupiter blinks at her, then laughs. It's almost natural. All the same, Jupiter is probably not winning any of those acting awards. “Tomorrow? Mom, come on, that's crazy, we've only been dating for like a week.”
Aleksa gives her a gimlet stare. She has many weapons at her disposal; she will gladly deploy them all. “What, so you're ashamed of your family?”
“No!” exclaims Jupiter – she's visibly horrified, which is mildly gratifying (not that thirteen-year-old Jupiter's tantrums made so much of an impression, but they were certainly loud). “No, you're definitely not – I mean, Mom, you're – you're great. Seriously, like, you don't even know how great you guys are.”
“Then,” says Aleksa, ruthlessly, “there's no problem with bringing him tomorrow night.”
Jupiter fidgets; she hedges; she rallies. “Well, I'll try – but, you know, tomorrow, it's pretty short notice, and I don't know if he'll be able to make it --”
“You've seen him almost every other night this week,” Aleksa points out. “Or so you're telling me when you go out. So either this poor boy really has got nothing going on in his life other than to wait attendance on you --”
Jupiter presses her lips together.
“-- or you're lying to me about where you're going and what you're doing. That's fine! You're an adult. Lie if you like. If it mysteriously happens that the one night he has got something to do is the one night I'm asking to meet him, then I'll know which it is, that's all.”
“So am I going to vacuum this basement, or are you? You think we've got all day for this?” says Aleksa, and breezes past her to the downstairs. She is not exactly serene in the knowledge of her victory – it's difficult to be serene right now – but she's fairly sure the boyfriend, or whatever he is, will be there tomorrow night.
As usual, she is correct. The boyfriend turns up the next night with the kind of slunk-shouldered hangdog look that looks increasingly absurd as the person wearing it increases in size. Despite the warmth of the day, he's got an oversized leather jacket and a large knit hat shoved down over his head.
Aleksa eyes him up and down. “Why's he wearing that hat inside? He thinks it's going to rain on him in here?”
“Aleksa!” says Nino. “Be nice to the poor boy or Jupiter will never bring anyone over again.” She pauses. “But please do, take off your hat! Make yourself at home, don't stand there looking like you're going to run out the door any second!”
The boyfriend says nothing, just stares at them with a vague air of panic.
“Well!” says Jupiter, brightly. “Guys! This is my boyfriend Caine! Caine, this is my mom, and my aunt Nino, and – hey, Mom, where's everyone else?”
“They're out having dinner at Olive Garden,” says Aleksa, and switches to Russian. “What, you think I'm totally heartless? Two at a time is enough. He can meet the rest later, then I get the fun of watching you squirm twice.”
“Anyway,” Aleksa goes on, coolly, “it seems a lot, to spring the wings on all of them right now.”
Nino says, “What?”
The other two, her daughter and this poorly-disguised creature she has brought home, are both just staring at her – both of them, she notes. So the boyfriend does understand Russian. “The wings,” Aleksa says. “Didn't you hear me? What kind of a stupid plan is this, anyway? This piece of shit air conditioner is broken again, did you think he was going to wear this hat and coat all night?”
“Um,” says Jupiter. “Well, actually, we set a timer on his phone --”
On cue, the boyfriend's cell phone rings (a boring noise, just a plain phone sound, which Aleksa didn't think anybody under the age of thirty used anymore). The boyfriend looks at Jupiter; Jupiter shrugs. He clicks the phone off, and returns his gaze to Aleksa. The air of faint panic is gone; his eyes are narrowed and intent. Aleksa has seen enough soldiers in her life to recognize this look. It does not make her feel significantly better about her daughter's taste in men. Or things that look like men.
“I see,” she says – still in Russian, because he seems to understand it, so why not. “The phone goes off, he has to leave suddenly, too bad, he's so sorry. Clever.”
“Aleksa,” says Nino, “what the hell is going on?”
Aleksa smiles. Well, her teeth are bared, anyway, and the corners of her lips turned up. “Why don't you take off the jacket, Caine? Like Nino said. Make yourself at home.”
Caine says, slowly, “I'm not sure that's a good idea.”
Aleksa stares him down. “Is this your house? In my house, I say what's a good idea. Take off the jacket.”
Technically the house is actually her cousin Vassily's, but these details are unimportant at a time like this. Still, she notices that he looks over at Jupiter, as if for permission, before giving a small, tight nod and shrugging his shoulders out of the jacket. She's not quite sure what she makes of that, but then she is distracted, because as the jacket comes off – a leather jacket! how cliché can you get! – they unfurl. The wings.
Nino sits down on the stairs, with a heavy thump.
Aleksa breathes. Up until now, she has – not doubted what she had seen, not that. Aleksa Ruslanovna Bolotnikova has never been a person who is carried away by fantasy; she knows what's real and what's not. A man with wings is impossible, her daughter flying is impossible, sure, that's true. But she's seen these things with her own eyes, which she trusts, and her mind, which she trusts more, and that means they're apparently not impossible after all. It's as simple as that.
But it's one thing to see something impossible from a distance, through a telescope. It's another thing altogether when the impossible thing is a foot from your face.
So she gives herself a moment to breathe. Just one.
Meanwhile, Jupiter looks at Caine, eyes wide, and says, “You speak Russian?”
Caine blinks back at her. “No, Your Majesty.” After another beat, he adds, “I also don't speak English.”
There is far too much in that exchange for Aleksa to even begin to process; probably best not to even try. “OK, so,” she says, her voice is as steady as she can possibly make it. “Now you explain. And,” she adds forcefully, as Jupiter opens her mouth, “don't even try feeding me any kind of Kabbalah shit. I don't believe in angels.”
“Oh! Good. I don't either,” says Jupiter, weakly.
“Except for that phase when you were eleven,” Nino puts in. Her voice sounds rather faint, and her hand is pressed to her heart, but she's apparently determined to make sure the record is straight nonetheless. Aleksa feels a sudden flood of affection for her sister.
“Yes, please,” says Jupiter, “let's talk about all my embarrassing childhood phases now, right in front of Caine! Who apparently understands Russian! Thanks! Anyway! No angels, OK, but – how are you on aliens?”
Aleksa surveys Caine, and his wings. Caine looks stoically back. He's still wearing the ridiculous beanie. Aleksa wonders what's under it. “Given the circumstances,” she says, finally, “I am open to discussion on them.” She pauses and considers what she has seen of Caine so far. “Although dubious about the likelihood of parallel development of humanoid sapient entities under completely distinct evolutionary conditions.”
“Well, actually,” says Jupiter, looking relieved to have a question she can answer, “Caine's actually a genetically – um, spliced? – human, so. Well, half-human. Half-dog. Part-dog?”
“Wolf,” says Caine, with the faintest hint of reproach buried under twelve levels of flat military neutrality. “It's closer to a wolf.”
“Ah yes,” says Aleksa, flatly, “that explains the wings.”
Jupiter shrugs again, and casts a sidelong glance at Caine, half-proprietary, half shy. “The wings aren't genetic. They're just, like, a space military bonus.”
Nino has revived enough by this point to put in, “Nice bonus!”
Aleksa shoots her a quelling look, before returning her glare to Jupiter. “I'm sure there's a very cute story about how you and this flying werewolf soldier from outer space happened to meet. Maybe you bumped into each other at the ice cream store, huh?”
“Believe it or not, we met at the clinic.” Jupiter meets her gaze, and then, unexpectedly, breaks into a grin. “And, Mom – if you think parallel development of humanoid species is genetically implausible, you're really gonna love the rest of this.”
An hour later, the part that Aleksa is stuck on is the part where they were all kidnapped by aliens two weeks ago and none of them remember anything about it.
“I didn't wipe your memories,” Jupiter says, earnestly. They've switched back over to English, now; it seems easier for Jupiter to find the right phrasing for some of the stranger concepts in that language. “I mean, I would've told them not to if I'd had a chance. The Aegis --”
“Space police,” says Nino.
“Yeah, space police – they did it to all of you before I even got back on the ship. They said it was standard procedure. I'm really, really sorry about that.”
(The flying werewolf boyfriend from outer space, standing behind her with his wings stiffly mantled, looks as if he not only would have cheerfully wiped all their memories the first time, but is wishing he had free rein to do it again.)
“And then I didn't tell you afterwards because – well, you know – I mean, I seriously didn't think you'd ever believe me. It's a lot. You know? I'm still – trying to deal with it all. But,” she goes on, brightly, “you guys are taking it really well! I'm really impressed!”
Aleksa can't help but be reminded of Jupiter's unflattering surprise the first time Aleksa proved she had enough awareness of modern technology to send a text message. (It is apparently shocking to learn that texting is not the sole prerogative of people under the age of thirty with a perfect command of English.) “Thanks,” she says, dryly.
“So what happens next?” asks Nino, leaning forward, as enthralled as if she's watching another episode of Real Housewives of New York. “That crazy Balem's got us all as hostages, unless you turn over the planet to be people juice? So how do you get out of this one?”
Jupiter takes a deep breath. The too-brightness, it seems, was a cover; it's faded away again now. “I, um. I said...” She breaks off, looking down. “I told him – I'm sorry. This is really hard to say to you guys.”
Aleksa notices Caine's fingers give an infinitesimal twitch, as if he wants to put a hand on her shoulder, but thinks it would be incongruous with military discipline and also potentially inappropriate in front of her mother. It makes her feel marginally more warmly towards him. Marginally.
“I told him that I wouldn't sign over the planet. He could kill all of us, but I wouldn't do it. Six billion people, all of them going to die – I couldn't. I couldn't. And I didn't know – I mean, it turned out OK, because Caine and the Aegis came to help, and we were able to get away and rescue you guys, but I really did think that I'd just gotten you all killed along with me. And, like, it's fine for me to say I'm willing to give up whatever time I've got left for the Earth, but who am I to make that call for you? Everyone out there --” The vague gesture of her hand encompasses the roof, the door, presumably the entire galaxy, and incidentally the space boyfriend. “-- keeps talking like all the lives on this planet belong to me, like it's OK for me to be the one making those decisions about what's gonna happen, but that's stupid, and it's wrong, and it's especially wrong when it's – I mean, you're my family! And afterwards – I didn't even know how to talk to you about it.” She takes a deep breath, and lifts her head. Her voice is shaking a little. It's been a lot of words, Aleksa thinks, pent up there for the past two weeks – not so long a time. But for Jupiter, in terms of growing up, maybe a lifetime. “I'm sorry.”
Aleksa is not always the world's most physically affectionate parent, but there are certain times when a course of action is clear. She reaches over and puts an arm around her daughter. “Jupiter, you're an idiot,” she says, roughly, “and a very smart girl, and I am very, very proud of you.”
Jupiter lets out a breath and buries her head in her mother's shoulder; Nino scoots over from where she's sitting on the step, and joins in by throwing her arms around both of them.
The moment is eventually broken by the boyfriend saying, awkwardly, “I should go.”
“No,” says Jupiter, sitting up immediately. “You should stay. Stay.” (Aleksa represses a wince. It is one thing to be aware that her daughter has always wanted a dog, but this is above and beyond.) “He should stay, right?” Jupiter asks, appealing to Aleksa and Nino. “I mean, since he's kind of like – my retainer, I guess? My bodyguard?”
Nino looks like she's about to make a joke about guarding Jupiter's body; Aleksa elbows her before she can.
“– then there isn't any reason for him to go back to staying in that cheap motel, right? It's just silly.”
“Um,” says the boyfriend, visibly alarmed.
“What's silly,” snaps Aleksa, “is thinking you can fit anybody else into this house. Here's a question, Jupiter, my rich space princess daughter – if you're so wealthy, why are we still living in this dump? Why are we not living in a space palace, huh?”
“Come on,” Jupiter protests, “I mean, it's not exactly like I can snap my fingers and make us millionaires! Seraphi Abrasax left me a lot of stuff, but it's not like it translates exactly into piles of dollar bills. I haven't even started working out how to make any of this into anything useful - I can't even look at the paperwork without my head starting to swim!”
Aleksa sighs. She has always wanted to believe that Jupiter has a deep untapped ability to understand numbers. (Jupiter's algebra grades and unbalanced checkbook have rarely borne out this belief, but hope springs eternal.) “Jupiter – did you not think of, perhaps, consulting an expert?”
“Well,” says Jupiter, “I mean, Caine's been trying to help me get a handle on my assets --”
Nino stuffs her fist into her mouth.
“While I am sure your new boyfriend has many good qualities,” says Aleksa, with all the patience she can muster, “I was thinking more of, perhaps, a professor in applied mathematics? Who, to your great good fortune, happens to live in your house?”
Jupiter stares at her.
Aleksa stares right back. “What? What's so shocking? I've got a fly on my face?”
“Well, no,” says Jupiter, “it's just – you never, um, you never talk about what you used to do.”
Aleksa refuses to let herself be taken aback. “That,” she says, crisply, “is because there has not been a point to it.” (It's true, that was a locked door, one of many doors that she's kept locked for years; it's true that it's almost a loss in itself, to realize how easily and painlessly she's just walked through it. That's something she'll think about later.) “It seems there's a point to it now.”
Nino takes her fist out of her mouth and leans forward, her eyes sparkling. “Well! Applied mathematics, useful enough, I suppose – but may I point out, certain professors who are very fancy with their teaching credentials should also remember that certain other people have degrees in Economics from Baikal National University, if you please! Maybe not all of us have to be professors to know what is going on!”
“Economics!” scoffs Aleksa. “What, Soviet economics in the eighties? Yes, so helpful! Perestroika, such a success!”
“Is what Gorbachev does my fault? Anyway, if I can learn the stupidness that's US currency, I can learn space currency! It can't be stupider!”
“Guys! Guys,” says Jupiter, lifting her hands. “I – let's take a step back. I don't even know if I want to be doing anything with an economy that's built on people juice, and – I mean, I'm still trying to figure out if I should be doing anything about that – I mean, I should, right? I know it's crazy to think I can change the entire galaxy, but –”
“Sure,” says Aleksa. “We'll do something about that.”
“We'll do something about that,” says Aleksa. It's surprisingly easy to say, given how long it's been since she's let herself say anything like it. “Why not? But first things first, okay? First thing --” She grins at her sister, at her implausible princess daughter – even at the flying space werewolf boyfriend (though he looks more unnerved by this than anything else, which, OK, Aleksa thinks is kind of as it should be.) “Let's move our family out of this shithole, and then we figure out the rest.”
Jupiter's space palace is a little bit of a fixer-upper.
So, step one: move their family out of this shithole. They're all agreed on that. It's the details that get tricky.
“All right,” says Aleksa, after several minutes of consultation between Jupiter and Caine have failed to turn up any useful statistics, “we have really got to find out what your capital even is.”
“And, more important, how it translates,” puts in Nino. “You can say a number in space dollars, but what do space dollars mean? Once we understand that, we find out ways we can turn that currency you've got into some kind of Earth resources and then back into currency we can use – unless we want to live in space. You said space palace, yes? I like a space palace.”
“I don't want to live in a space palace,” says Jupiter.
This is already the second time for this conversation. Nino is apparently deeply charmed by the idea of a space palace, and will not let it go. The first time around, Aleksa had not yet given up hope of getting some sense of the size of Jupiter's fortune out of her theoretically-wealthy daughter. At this point, she figures she might as well let it play out, so she doesn't interrupt when Jupiter explains, “I mean – Aunt Nino, genetic recurrence or not, I'm from Earth. I want to keep being from Earth, you know? And what I really don't want to do is turn into some kind of space asshole like all the other space assholes.”
“That's good!” says Nino, moved, and reaches out to give her a pat on the shoulder. “I understand. You don't want to forget your roots. You're a good girl, Jupiter, very grounded.”
The space boyfriend, however, is frowning very slightly.
Aleksa swivels to look at him. “Well? Cat has your tongue? Make yourself useful, spit it out.”
The space boyfriend's frown deepens. “Your Majesty --” He's turned towards Jupiter again. It's a soldier's habit, Aleksa thinks, always addressing himself to the most important person in the room. (Of course it may also be a habit of besotted small dogs.) “If you're going to make any decisions to do with, uh, the family business ...”
“They're not my family,” says Jupiter, “and I'm going to stop the business, but yeah, sure, go on.”
“...OK,” says Caine, “well, either way, if you're planning to do anything with that, you're gonna need to meet with some pretty scary people, and you're gonna need to impress them. This place is...” His eyes flick to the worn linoleum, the cheap scavenged chairs, the broken air conditioner. “...maybe not the best location for that.”
Jupiter shrugs. “So, like Mom said, we'll move into a better house.”
Caine shakes his head. “You don't understand. What I'm saying is – I mean, the thing is that there's not really a place on Earth that would be a good location for that.”
“Seriously?” Jupiter stares at him. “Seriously, Caine, you're going to tell me there's not anywhere on Earth that's classy enough to host a space business meeting?”
“Peterhof Palace is nice,” Nino volunteers. “The Taj Mahal, you know, it's a little nice.”
“Yeah! Come on! And, I mean, look, I spent kind of a lot of time in Titus Abrasax's house, and maybe it was a palace in space, but it was also a tacky piece of --”
Seeing a teaching moment fly past, Aleksa calls out, “So, Jupiter, maybe you think about that next time before you agree to marry someone who lives in a space house like a tacky piece of shit and has dirty thoughts about his mother?”
“Why did I tell you about that?” demands Jupiter, turns, and demands of Caine, “Why did I tell her about that?”
Caine – in what Aleksa deems to be his wisest move thus far – only shrugs.
Jupiter lifts her chin in the air, in an attempt to regain her dignity. “Anyway. I can definitely get a house on Earth that is way classier than that.”
Caine shakes his head. “It doesn't matter how classy it is. Entitled don't live on the surfaces of uncivilized worlds. The way they see it, that's for Tercies, exiles and bums.” He glances at Aleksa and Nino, belatedly, and adds, “No offense.”
Aleksa and Nino look at each other. Aleksa's not sure what a Tercie is, but when anybody feels the need to end a statement with 'no offense,' that's generally a strong indicator there's something in there to take offense at.
Her feelings are borne out when Jupiter says, “Uh, kind of offense.”
“My apologies, Your Majesty,” says Caine, gravely. “I beg your pardon.”
Jupiter's face softens. “Pardon granted.”
Aleksa feels it is now certainly time to interrupt, before anybody starts to get more soppy than this. “So if the big shots don't live on populated planets, then where do they live? In clouds?”
Caine coughs, dragging his gaze away from Jupiter. “Moons – mostly artificial ones. Satellites. Constructed platforms, domes, things like that. Very controllable environments. Entitled like having control.”
“Great,” says Jupiter, flatly. “So you're saying, if I'm gonna get anything done, I need to build some kind of floating platform in space to do it from first? Except in order to do that I'd probably have to meet with people to, like, get them to build it for me, which I can't do without having a big floating platform in space to meet them in to begin with!”
“Well, not necessarily,” says Caine. “Balem Abrasax owns a couple residences in this solar system –”
Jupiter grimaces. “Owned.”
“Right. He owned … a lot of stuff around here. The titles to the other planets in his portfolio are going to be in dispute for a long time --”
“Dispute for whom?” interrupts Nino. “Who gets all his planets? He's the one owning Jupiter, right? Think how nice it would be," she adds, in Russian, half-turning to Aleksa, "if Jupiter owned Jupiter. Maximilian --”
Aleksa cuts her sister off before she can go any further with this thought. “Never mind that – what's important is that the more planets Jupiter owns, the more resources we have got to leverage. So!” She swivels back to Caine, switching back into English. She knows he'll understand either way, but she likes having the extra layer of linguistic distance between them. “Is there a chance that Jupiter inherits this portfolio?”
Caine looks both startled and harassed. “Uh – you'd have to ask an advocate about that, ma'am.”
Aleksa sniffs. Maybe it sounds a little dismissive; if so, that's unfortunate, but can't be helped. She certainly doesn't mean to imply that he's of no use. It is of course possible that an occasion will arise when a flying space werewolf soldier will serve a function in her life, other than to distract her daughter. However. “Then why has Jupiter only got you as a retainer? A bodyguard, that's fine, but why have we not got a legal advisor?”
“I bet we could get an advocate,” says Jupiter, perking up – and then perks down again. “But we'll need somewhere to negotiate to hire one, and then somewhere to put them once we've got them, so that gets us right back to --”
Caine coughs. “As I was gonna say --” He slides Aleksa and Nino a slightly reproachful look before continuing. “The planets will be in dispute, but anything that's in Earth's orbit is pretty clearly within your territorial waters.” (Aleksa spares a moment to be impressed by whatever translation mechanism he's using, which has just managed to create a fairly complex analogy between outer space and the ocean in order to come up with that almost-entirely-accurate phrase.) “I think there's an older location on your moon that used to belong to Seraphi, and another one in orbit that Balem built later. If you wanted, we could check those out, see what would have to be done with them before you could set up operations there.”
Jupiter, visibly reluctant, hesitates, then gives a short nod. “OK. Makes sense. So long as we're all clear that I'm not setting up shop there full time – just for meetings. Just for when I have to play at being Entitled. That's all.”
“Your Majesty,” says Caine, a small furrow in his brow, “you are Entitled.”
“No,” says Jupiter. “I mean, yes. But I'm not one of them.”
She's carrying so much tension in her shoulders, Aleksa can see it almost as clearly as the space boyfriend wings. Aleksa puts a hand on her back. “Not one of them. One of us.”
She looks straight at Caine as she says it, with all the fierceness she's got. It's not that she thinks of him as her enemy. It's just that it's a thing she wants to make very sure he knows.
The silence is broken by Nino, who gives out a huge yawn. “Well! I'm sorry, I know there is still very much to discuss, but isn't it getting quite late?”
Aleksa glances at the microwave clock, and is startled to see that it's nine o'clock. Normally by this time they would be well through the process of packing lunches and getting themselves ready to be out the door the next morning.
And not only that, but –
“Hello, hello!” Lyudmila carols out, as the door swings open. “Aleksa, my mother says to tell you --”
Lyudmila stops talking.
Irina's bag, probably containing leftovers -- Lyudmila's sister never lets them leave without a massive pile of leftovers -- drops to the ground.
Nino's hands go up over her mouth again to smother her guilty laughter.
Well. All right. It's true that if Aleksa had had her way, this would certainly not have been how she introduced her cousin, his wife, his mother-in-law, and their three children to the existence of Jupiter's winged werewolf space boyfriend.
But she has got to admit, the sight of Mr. Big-Shot Military Man Caine Wise's impassivity shivering into alarmed dismay as he swivels slowly around, in all his winged glory, to meet the eyes of a full collection of astounded Bolotnikovs is pretty damned hilarious.
Jupiter's hands are over her mouth, too. She lets them fall, then clasps them together behind her back, and presses her mouth together for a moment until her face is under control. “So, uh, hi, guys!” she says, brightly. “I guess it's time for everyone to meet my boyfriend!”
So now it's been a few days, and Aleksa is sitting on the front steps of the house, fanning herself and waiting for a visitor from space.
Jupiter and the space boyfriend have already gone on ahead to the moon to check out this palace that used to belong to Seraphi Abrasax. The vehicle Caine has been using to shuttle back and forth to Earth is apparently only big enough for two. Aleksa supposes, in fairness, she can't blame him for not having planned to be ready to transport an entire set of Bolotnikovs on short notice. (That severe lack of foresight is Jupiter's fault if it's anybody's.) Jupiter's promised to send them a ride. What that ride's going to look like –
– well, it will possibly look quite a lot like the speck in the sky that is rapidly starting to grow.
Aleksa carefully sets down the library print-out copy of “Trend Following Trading Under a Regime Switching Model” with which she's been fanning herself, and clambers to her feet. Her knees have locked, a little, but they hold her. She twists around, pulls open the door, and yells, “Get out here!”
Once she hears the answering sound of feet thundering up and down stairs, she lets the door fall shut and returns her attention to the descending speck – or no, not a speck anymore. In the time she wasn't looking, the speck has resolved itself into most definitely a something. Something that looks like a metal turtle made from a fancy builder set for children.
After a few moments, she amends that: a very large metal turtle.
And then again: a very, very large metal turtle.
She hears the door of the house creak open and then slam closed – then creak open again, followed by the same startled crash of someone abruptly forgetting to hold the door. Her family is behind her, and, to judge from the lack of commentary, probably all gaping like fish. She supposes she can't blame them.
The woman who steps out of the spaceship – spaceship! – has a uniform, an immensely straight back, and something that looks like the kind of wiggly telephone earpiece generally worn by people in suits with guns, if such an earpiece were decorated to match the outfit for an Olympics ice skating routine. Aleksa feels her mouth twitching downwards in a scowl. She could wish her daughter knew one space person who wasn't some kind of police.
The policewoman swings a tidy salute. “Captain Diomika Tsing, at your service.”
“At my service?” says Aleksa. “Really?”
“If you're Aleksa Jones, then, for the moment, yes.”
Aleksa grudgingly says, “I am.”
Captain Tsing gives a brisk nod. “Very well. Are all the passengers ready?”
Aleksa glances backwards and counts one, two, three, four gaping faces: Nino, Vassily, Irina, and Vladie, who has only managed to weasel his way into the expedition because nobody currently trusts him to watch Moltka and Mikka by himself. (Moltka and Mikka are currently in the basement, having an epic pair of tantrums. However, tantrums or no tantrums, Moltka and Mikka do not get to go into space until the adults have determined for themselves that going into space is a safe endeavor for persons under thirteen. Lyudmila, who is apparently not so sure that going into space is a safe endeavor for persons over seventy either, has volunteered to babysit.)
“Yes,” she says. “We are ready.”
“Please follow me, then.”
The Bolotnikov clan trail up the entrance ramp like ducklings. Vladie, Irina and Nino crane their necks without shame to look at every panel and bobble and frill, but Aleksa keeps her eyes straight ahead, on the back of the woman in front of her. She will not be caught goggling like an idiot. Yuri Gargarin took the Vostok 1 into orbit before Aleksa was even born. It's not so much a big deal that a spaceship like this should be a little fancy.
Then the metal robot woman with the detached face comes to meet them, and even Aleksa is hard-pressed not to stare. She compensates by turning her mouth even more ferociously downwards. This is ridiculous anyway. A robot is one thing, but why does a robot need to have a face like a person with makeup and plucked eyebrows? For what does a robot need to dress up?
“Lieutenant Chatterjee will be responsible for your comfort during the journey,” says Tsing. “We're prepared refreshments for you through there, if you'll please follow her. I'm afraid I myself must return to the bridge.”
“I'll come with you.”
“I'll come with,” says Alexa. “To the bridge. That's in the front, right? With all the view?”
She's about to get closer to the stars than she's ever been. It's only a journey, it doesn't mean much; still, she'd like to see it.
“Very well,” says the captain, as unperturbed as before. She slows her steps a moment to allow Aleksa to come up and walk next to her. They continue in silence while Aleksa attempts to wrestle her scowl under control. Being around people who are so clearly official makes her twitchy. After a moment, she says, “You're taking a lot of trouble, running about like this for us.”
She hasn't bothered not to sound accusatory, but Tsing just raises a slight eyebrow. “It's a pleasure to assist Her Majesty. She's a credit to her family.”
Aleksa eyes the captain narrowly. She strongly suspects an attempt to butter her up. “Which family?”
The captain's face remains bland. “Any family she cares to claim.”
This Captain Tsing, Aleka's got to admit, is far better at this game than the space werewolf boyfriend. Well, she's got more years of practice. (Probably. Though, she reminds herself, with these people, who really knows – and if it turns out the space werewolf boyfriend is really forty, or eighty, or a hundred and eighty, then she and he are having words.)
Before she can figure out a way to respond that will give her back the upper hand, they've gotten to what must be the bridge. People are running about in every direction, but Aleksa hardly notices them. Somehow, while they've been making their way through the ship, they've already gotten up into space. They're in space, and what she sees –
She's showing more on her face than she means. Tsing's brow furrows. “Miss Jones.” (A distant part of Aleksa's mind notes that the translator or whatever it is that they're using is confused a little by personal address.) “Are you well?”
“I'm fine,” says Aleksa, hears the harshness of her voice, and does her best to modulate it.
It's only a collection of bodies in space, that, with the benefit of distance and angles, make for a nice twinkly illusion. It's only rocks and gas and math. It might have meant something to somebody else, but what does that matter now? She clears her throat. “Yes. I'm fine.”
The captain probably thinks she's overwhelmed. A little person from a little life can't handle the big sights of the universe – that's what you expect, if you're a big shot space police captain, right? “Are you sure you'd like to stay on the bridge?” Tsing asks, politely.
She'd bet Tsing can't wait to be rid of her. Nobody in the world (or the galaxy, or the universe) wants a clueless stranger wandering around getting in the way when they're trying to do their job, much less a clueless stranger that they've got to be be polite to. So what? What this policewoman wants is not Aleksa's problem. “Just tell me where to stand,” she snaps. “I'll stay out of the way.”
“Would it be acceptable,” says Tsing, “if instead I tell you where to sit?”
Aleksa catches a hint of humor, and is not sure how to feel about it. She crosses her arms, and raises her eyebrows. “Sure. You're in charge. You can tell me to stand on my head if you want, what do I do to stop you?”
“Oh,” says Tsing, calmly, “I imagine you would think of something.”
Unable to think of a rebuttal to this, Aleksa takes the seat.
The rest of the trip passes quicker than she expects – or maybe it's only her thoughts that are moving quickly, bouncing rapid and restless from the past to the future and back to the past again. She watches the moon grow bigger and bigger in the window, grimacing at the flags planted in the dust – typical US, stick a flag in something that belongs to the whole planet to show that it belongs most to them! – before remembering that in fact the whole thing belongs not to the US, nor even to the whole planet, but to one person, to her daughter. At least according to the rules of the galaxy. Rules that nobody else on the planet knows about or accepts, but rules nonetheless. Rules that can be used and manipulated to produce tangible effects.
Aleksa has not considered herself a proper socialist since she was a child, but if she ever needed a demonstration of the inherent inanity of the notion of individual property, it's here on a silver platter.
The ship comes to a halt above a patch of moon that looks exactly the same as all the other patches of moon they have floated by. “Mr. Nesh! Get ready for docking,” Tsing orders, and Aleksa stirs herself.
“Docking where?” She supposes these space people must have some mechanism for making buildings invisible, or else Earth's astronomers could hardly have managed to miss it. Still, it seems a challenge, to dock in an invisible building.
“It's cloaked,” Tsing explains. “Once we're through the shield, we'll be able to see – there it is. Take a look, Miss Jones.”
Aleksa pushes herself out of the seat Tsing has found for her and goes to stand by the great window, looking down.
“Wow,” she says, after a moment. “This is – wow. This is hideous.”
Tsing says, briskly, “Absolutely hideous.”
The space palace – it is very definitely a space palace – is covered all over in towers, and each tower is roofed in some kind of shiny gold, and ringed with dangling black gems that clack against each other like enormous bead curtains. Random gold-tipped spikes protrude around the bottom of the building at random intervals. Someone probably thought this looked menacing in a way that was artistic. What it mostly looks like is the perfect stage set for the next Eurovision Song Contest.
On the top of the tallest tower there is a giant statue of – is that her daughter, all in gold?
Yes. Yes, it is.
Aleksa says, “Is this, you know. Typical?”
“It's not the most restrained example of Entitled architecture,” says Tsing. “Also not the least, of course.”
Aleksa tries to imagine what the least restrained example of Entitled architecture would look like. Her imagination fails her.
They dock in the tallest of the gilded towers. The rest of her family joins her as they walk through the corridors. Nino leans over to Aleksa and whispers, “Somebody spent so much money on this!”
Aleksa snorts. She recognizes Nino's tone of delighted horror. The truth is that Aleksa has always been a little bit bemused by Nino's addiction to reality television, and – yes – all right, maybe a little judgmental, but it seems it's prepared Nino better for the Abrasax family than anything else could have.
Jupiter and Caine are waiting for them when they exit. As soon as Vladie sees Jupiter, he starts laughing. “I'm sorry,” he chokes, “just – the statue --”
Jupiter gives him a death glare. Caine's glare is beyond death. “Your Majesty,” he rumbles, “may I --”
“No,” says Jupiter, transferring her death glare, “you may not!”
“Vladie,” snaps Vassily, “you stop embarrassing your cousin in front of her --”
“Employees,” suggests Irina.
“Retainers?” offers Nino.
“-- in front of her people, or you are staying behind in the ship!”
Vladie stops snickering. “Jesus, what am I, ten years old?”
Vassily glares back at him. “When you stop acting ten, we stop treating you like you are ten. What are you thinking? What if somebody important is here? Shut up and behave yourself!”
Tsing and Chatterjee are both perfectly stone-faced, Aleksa notes, as if they're quite used to being assumed to be unimportant. This seems unusual, for police.
“I mean,” says Jupiter. “He's kind of right though. Like, this is ridiculous. There's no way.”
“Eh,” says Nino, looking around the bland golden inside of the tower with an assessing gaze. “I don't know. There may be possibility.”
“Possibility? There's a giant gold statue of – of my face up there! I can't live in a place like this.”
“Statues can be moved,” says Nino, with a shrug. “Maybe it is a fixer-upper, that's not so bad. The exterior decorating is not so much what's important. You've got to look at the things that are harder to fix – the foundation is good? Has it got plumbing? The bathrooms, what are these like? Small things, decoration things, we can change. That's for what they have contracters.” She grins. “It's all about location, no? Moon location – can't be beat!”
Everyone is staring at her. “Nino,” demands Irina, “where is this coming from? When have you ever bought a house?”
Nino shrugs. “The Calvins, we do them on Sundays, always they've got on the HGTV. There are many very educational shows. So!” She claps her hands, imperiously. “We do a walk-through now, yes? Jupiter,” she adds, “I am sorry, probably this is a repeat for you --”
“No,” says Jupiter, clearly as fascinated by this new side of Nino as all the rest of them. “I mean, yeah, I got the quick tour already, but I think it'll be, uh, a different experience going through again with you.”
So it's under Nino's guidance that they trek all the way through the palace – all hundred and thirteen rooms of it. “Has anybody got a clipboard?” Nino demands, once they hit room two. “I'll want to be making notes.”
Aleksa is dourly unsurprised when Captain Tsing promptly offers a glittering electronic notepad.
By the time they've reached the end of the tour, Aleksa's feet are killing her and the rest of her family doesn't look much better. All except for Nino, of course, who appears bright as a daisy. “OK,” she says, cheerfully, “so we've got lots of ideas, yes? You give me a day or two, Jupiter, I'll get my notes in order, we'll talk about what we like to do.”
Jupiter is collapsed on a black satin bench. “Sure, Aunt Nino,” she says, weakly. “Whatever you say.”
“It's better to have a solid idea in mind before meeting with the contractors,” says Nino, “or else they talk you into all kinds of things you don't want to be spending money on. You don't want to --”
“Has anyone got the time?” Irina interrupts. “I haven't seen a clock in any of these rooms. … what?”
Aleksa – sitting stiff-backed on a bench of her own – considers the possibility of launching a scathing commentary on Moon time vs. Earth time vs. Chicago central time zone, and decides the whole thing isn't worth it. “My watch says ten,” she says, instead.
“Ten o'clock!” Nino's eyes fly open. “This late? And we have the Schillers tomorrow morning!”
“I called,” said Aleksa, “and cancelled the Schillers for tomorrow.”
She's not surprised to find herself the immediate focus of five pairs of shocked eyes. “We never cancel the Schillers!” says Jupiter.
“The Schillers are good money,” says Irina, fretfully.
“Who said you could cancel?” demands Vassily. “Why did you not ask me first? Who's the boss of this business?”
“Listen to yourselves!” scoffs Aleksa. She'd stand up for emphasis, but her feet are sore and swollen, and they're all looking at her anyway. (Or all the ones she cares about right at this moment. Caine's eyes, as usual, are fixed on Jupiter, and Tsing and Chatterjee are politely pretending to be absorbed by the molding.) “You really want to be racing back now through space now, wake up at five tomorrow, go clean up after the Schiller's poodle? We're on the moon! You think if you go to the moon, it's a sure thing that you'll be back tomorrow by seven in the morning? You think it's for certain that everything can stay the same? Better we take control of the change now than we let it overtake us. Yes? You tell me I'm not right.”
“You always think you're right,” snaps Irina.
“It's not that you're wrong, Mom,” says Jupiter, “it's that you didn't ask first. What if I wanted to do the Schillers tomorrow? I actually really like their poodle.”
(For a brief moment everyone carefully does not look at Caine.)
“Jupiter, you --” Aleksa's mouth shuts, with a snap. She wants to say, you should talk, Jupiter; you should talk about not telling people things, you should talk about making decisions for other people. A person shouldn't have to spy through a telescope to find out her daughter's entire world has changed. She'd thought this was OK, after the other night. But apparently still she's not OK.
And none of this means that Jupiter is not correct to say what she's said. It is, after all, Jupiter's space princess life to do with as she pleases. Not Aleksa's.
“You are right,” she says carefully, instead. “I should ask. It seemed to make sense to do, that's all. It's a long way here, and it's a long way back.”
In the silence that follows, it's Captain Tsing who speaks up. “Your Majesty,” she says, addressing herself properly to Jupiter, “as you saw, the bedrooms are made up, if you and your family would like to stay the night before returning home.”
Jupiter is silent for a moment. She doesn't want to, it's clear. But it's late, and the kids will be asleep already – and this place, after all, is hers, however much she doesn't want it; she'll have to get used to it somehow. Aleksa watches all her thoughts moving on her face, clear and understandable as a story on the television set, and doesn't say anything, because it's Jupiter's decision to make. “All right,” Jupiter says. “It makes sense. Let's stay here, just for the night.”
Despite her reluctance when it comes to space palaces, the space ballgown project appears to be something that Jupiter is deeply invested in.
"We're taking a military escort to go shopping," says Aleksa, flatly.
Jupiter shrugs. "Sorry, Mom, but I'm not really wild on the idea of hiring a personal stylist who might turn out to be an Abrasax assassin, you know? At least the military escort I know we can trust."
Aleksa can't argue with this. Still, se doesn't like the idea of the military being the only people you can rely on -- even though Captain Diomika Tsing clearly goes to great lengths to ensure that she epitomizes the idea of reliable.
"How is it that you and your crew are always available to take us one place and another?" she asks Captain Tsing, once they're en route to the bespoke tailor that Gemma Chatterjee has blandly recommended. She's up in the front again, near the window to the sky; she didn't ask to be there, but it seems everyone has just assumed this is how it's going to be. It doesn't matter. She's here on business. "Have you nothing else to do with your time? Is it never required for space police to actually police?"
"The Aegis are responsible for keeping the peace," Tsing answers. "And as the Entitled maintain the peace and prosperity of the galaxy --"
Aleksa scoffs. "Really! You believe this? I don't believe you believe this."
"Oh?" asked Captain Tsing, politely. "Why is that?"
Aleksa glowers at her. "Wishful thinking. I wish to think there's an intelligent person in charge of this spaceship, because I wish to think we're going to survive these trips in space."
"I assure you, Miss Jones," says Tsing, "whatever you may think of my intelligence in other areas, I'm highly skilled at commanding a spaceship."
Aleksa feels they have gotten somewhat off-topic. "Captain Tsing," she says, "you don't answer my question."
Tsing glances at her. "The Aegis have the responsibility of protecting the Entitled -- within the limits of the law, of course. If an Entitled chooses to favor any particular captain of the Aegis with attention or requests for assistance, the Aegis and her unit are of course honored by their requests."
Aleksa translates this in her head: the Entitled say jump, and the Aegis hop to it. Unless, of course, the Entitled say, 'jump and while you're there, murder another Entitled for me,' and then the Aegis provide them with a slap on the wrist. What the Aegis are supposed to do if an Entitled requests that the Aegis murder someone else who is not an Entitled is unclear. Though Aleksa feels like she's ready to make a guess.
No matter how much Aleksa hates legal technicality, it seems she is going to have to follow up her studies in intergalactic finance with some reading on intergalactic law.
"Concerning your second question," Captain Tsing continues, and Aleksa runs the conversation backwards to identify the second question: ah, yes. Whether Captain Tsing believes the Entitled propaganda.
There's a pause, and for a moment, Aleksa thinks perhaps she's going to get an answer, before Captain Tsing says, blandly, "I apologize, Miss Jones, but under Rule 1578 of the Aegis Code of Conduct, officers are strongly discouraged from expressing political opinions while on duty."
Aleksa snorts. She's never understood the source of the English idiom 'cop-out,' but this is a case in which it certainly seems to apply. "Is there a time when you're not on duty? Can such a thing exist? Already we've established there's nothing else you do with your time except to take orders from Entitled."
Captain Tsing raises an eyebrow. "That's a wilful misinterpretation of the facts, Miss Jones. When we have no immediate orders, I as a captain am perfectly free to grant our crew such leave as I see fit."
"So you mean you get to take a break when my daughter stops ordering you about," says Aleksa.
"After this trip," Captain Tsing agrees, "if Her Majesty has no immediate orders for us, I will most likely provide my crew with an opportunity for leave."
"And when you take leave, you go home to --"
"Miss Jones," says Captain Tsing, "under Rule 1579 of the Aegis Code of Conduct, officers are discouraged from discussing their personal lives and histories while on duty."
Once again, Aleksa is certain she sees a twitch of humor lurking somewhere in the very edge of Captain Tsing's eyes, and right now she is also quite certain that she does not appreciate it at all. "Oh yes," she says bitterly, "what an original brand of humor, making things up to fool someone who has had no opportunity to learn the difference. You see me laughing!"
For once, Captain Tsing looks mildly taken aback. She blinks at Aleksa, and then bows her head. "I apologize if I've given offense, Miss Jones."
Now it's Aleksa's turn to be taken back, though she does her best to avoid showing it. She's used to military kinds of people, police kinds of people, acting as if they're the kings of this world and anybody else is dirt -- moreso for certain kinds of anybodys. The kind of anybodys who don't speak English, or who don't have papers. Or who clean toilets. For example.
Now her daughter is a somebody, and that seems to make Aleksa a somebody too. That's enough to adjust to, but if it were just that, she might not mind so much making a police kind of person feel a little bit like an anybody.
But then there's Tsing's caution, and Caine's hangdog demeanor, and the casual way they all of them seem to expect to be ignored. There's the fact that for all the attempts she's made to shake information out of Jupiter and her space boyfriend, she still knows next to nothing about this broader galactic world they have been thrust into. In a place where people can ask for a dog-soldier made to order like you might order up a labradoodle, who knows what police means, what military means?
Aleksa is a mathematician. She ought to know, if anybody does, how stupid it is to assume that something that looks superficially like a pattern implies any real basis for effective calculation.
She needs more information, is what -- and just as she's thinking this, Tsing glances up again, and says, "If you'd like, I'm sure Lieutenant Chatterjee would be happy to provide you a copy of the Code of Conduct for your perusal on the rest of the trip."
It turns out that 'providing a copy of the Code of Conduct' translates to 'hooking an electric pad up to a circuit in Lieutenant Chatterjee's head, downloading the rulebook from wherever in her memory banks she stores it, and then handing the pad over to Aleksa with a polite smile.' As they start to walk down to the bridge, Aleksa asks her how to do a search for Rule 1578.
It turns out that Rules 1578 and 1579 exist in the Code of Conduct exactly as Captain Tsing has quoted them. Aleksa finds herself obscurely irritated to learn this. It's not that she wants to discover her daughter's retainers pulling the same kind of children's pranks that she's all too familiar with from her first few years in the States, but it would be in some degree gratifying to have a cause for resentment to hold over the Captain's head.
"To be honest," Lieutenant Chatterjee confides in her, "while 1578 can really get you in trouble, 1579 isn't usually followed very strictly. Most of us aren't going to keep it entirely secret when we're sending a gift to the rest of our production batch."
Lieutenant Chatterjee is also a puzzle. She doesn't sound like a robot. She's already assured Aleksa that at least 50% of her brain functions are organic. Aleksa is not a biologist, but she's fairly certain that, when presented without context, this statistical factoid has next to no meaning. But Lieutenant Chatterjee does seem to act in a largely autonomous and self-willed fashion -- at least as much as any of the Aegis are autonomous and self-willed.
For Jupiter's sake, Aleksa thinks the question of the kind of behavior that's expected of the Aegis is well worth answering. Jupiter likes to wax eloquent about the difficulties she has in trusting people. Given recent events, Aleksa considers this to be rather like Nino talking about how she doesn't watch so much television. Certainly, there are many people who watch more television than Nino, but then, Nino's life isn't so easy as some people's, and she can't just kick back whenever she likes. Jupiter's life hasn't given her so many opportunities to throw herself into trust either, but give her half an opportunity and there she is, welcoming space werewolves into her heart after a week, without a second thought.
Jupiter trusts the Aegis, so Aleksa needs to know if the Aegis are trustworthy.
She tries to spend the rest of the trip reading the Code of Conduct, but Nino, Vassily and Irina's squabbling over the holographic fashion plates soon becomes too loud to ignore.
“I don't believe this!" Nino is saying. No one else is here to listen, so they're all talking in Russian. "They can make a half-dog person and a half-bee person and live for a million years, but they still can't figure out how to make a space prom dress that looks nice on a size fourteen?”
"Probably there's a plus-size magazine also," Irina says, soothingly.
"Probably there are no size fourteens," declares Vassily. "These people have advanced science so much that they've stopped the aging process altogether -- making themselves look like supermodels is probably child's play."
Nino snorts. "You think people are all the same? Vassily Bolotnikov! Not everybody wants to look like one of those skinny models! Even if I could wave my hand, poof, size two --"
Irina's eyes take on an interested gleam. "You think these people can really do a thing like that?"
"Given that they make their anti-aging creams from dead people," says Aleksa, abandoning any notion of being able to concentrate, "I wouldn't be so quick to ask about their diet plans." She leans her head back against the wall of the spaceship, and sighs.
She's irritable, she knows. They don't even really have the money yet to be buying space clothes, not until they spend more time working out how to transfer actual funds from Jupiter's account. But despite her reluctance when it comes to space palaces, the space ballgown project appears to be something that Jupiter is deeply invested in. "When we start working with people," she told Aleksa, "like, galactic people, I want them to take you seriously from the start, you know?"
If Aleksa suspects that Jupiter's determination has as much to do with the fact that space couturiers are much more likely to take Abrasax credit than any designer stores on Earth, and a certain degree of envy for Katharine Dunleavy's closet, as it does with space political savvy -- well, it's not like she's never wanted to be able to buy nice things for her daughter. Not like she's never wanted to be able to buy nice things for herself, either. Still, it feels frivolous. A guilty pleasure.
Besides, she's looked through this catalog of space fashion already, and everything in it is hideous.
She's not feeling any better about the mission when their shuttle finally lands in the space parking zone behind the boutique. The giant light-boards that beam a rotating selection of the latest fashions out into an uncaring universe, drowning out the light of the stars, do not inspire a great deal of confidence.
Jupiter is already inside when they get there. A shiny, sleekly carapaced individual with four arms is fussing over her with a variety of measuring devices. Every time the person steps into Jupiter's personal space, Caine twitches. In the back, a more robotic sort of person with even more limbs makes rapid and dangerous-looking mechanical adjustments to an ever-growing pile of fabric.
"Color," Jupiter is saying. "I want some more actual color choices. Do you have anything in a cool pattern, or --"
"Oh, that would be a mistake. Black and silver are all the rage now. Although -- perhaps red --"
"Not red," says Jupiter. "And yeah, OK, I'll want some stuff in the black-and-silver range. Guess I'm gonna have to look intimidating sometimes. But some of the time I'm gonna want to come in peace, you know?" She waves the rest of her family on over, and they all shuffle in. Jupiter holds up two swatches. One is a shimmering blue snakeskin, the other a lacy orange ruffle. "What do you think?"
Aleksa raises her eyebrows.
"Yeah," says Jupiter, with a sigh. "I thought so." She turns to the robot-person, and collects an enormous armful of clothes. "Okay, can I have some time to try these on while you get started with them?"
"Oh," the beetle-person begins, "my assistant --"
"You," says Jupiter, firmly.
Nino and Irina close in, smiling.
The beetle-person visibly braces for onslaught.
Aleksa watches Jupiter disappear into the back with her dog-person, and then leans back against the wall to peruse the catalog once more. She's in no hurry. Every so often, Nino marches in front of her to demand an opinion.
"No," says Aleksa, to the silver gauze monstrosity.
"You're joking," she says, to the holographic black-and-white bow-bedecked abomination.
"That is horrible in every possible way," she says, to the one that seems to be an entirely deconstructed chandelier attached to some strategically placed rubber.
Nino laughs and takes a spin. The crystals clang atonally. "Yes, but I look good, right?" She gives a flirtatious wink to the robot-person at the cutting table. The robot-person winks back.
Aleksa rolls her eyes. "Am I your mother? Do what you want!"
"What about this?" says Irina, appearing in front of her in something black, broad-shouldered and ruffled that can't seem to decide whether it's a business suit or a prom dress, and has therefore acquired the worst features of both. Aleksa remembers seeing something similar in the catalog.
"If you like it," she says, as blandly as she can. Irina is not her sister, only a relation by marriage. If she wishes to embarrass herself publicly, Aleksa does not feel any need to take responsibility.
Apparently she does not do a good job of concealing her opinion. "It's terrible!" says Irina. "You think it's terrible, don't you?" She turns to the beetle person. "What kind of trashy clothes are you giving me?"
"That's the very latest style from Calixas Prime!" wails the beetle-person.
"I think it's nice," says Nino, encouragingly, and pats the beetle-person on the back. "Hey -- so where is Vassily? It's half an hour ago he went into the changing room."
It turns out Vassily is still in the changing room. He has gotten stuck in a high-collared metallic vest. Irina and the beetle-person hasten to rescue him. He emerges, red-faced and very much on his dignity, to announce, "There was a clasp when I put it on."
He does not decide to buy the vest. He does buy several important-looking jackets that have a certain undeniable resemblance to classical Cossack coats, and only a very moderate amount of sparkle. Irina tells him how impressive he looks.
Military outfits are designed to convey a sense of power. It's an obvious association. Vassily does look good. Irina looks good, too, in the matching red suit she eventually decides to buy.
"And you, Miss?" says the beetle-person, coming to a rest in front of Aleksa. "Are you not buying anything today?"
Aleksa clicks the pad off and stands up. "No. I'm buying. I want a shirt and pants. Two pairs. I want them in some nice colors -- green and brown will do. I want them comfortable, I want them loose, I don't want any shoulderpads, buttons, collars, nothing. Nicest fabric you've got, but not one thing shiny. Not one thing, or I don't buy anything at all."
The beetle-person's mouth opens.
"How refreshing," says the beetle-person, weakly, "to find someone so sure of their own mind. Yes, of course, Miss Jones."
The robot at the cutting bench is already getting to work.
Everyone is very pleased with themselves when they return to the spaceship. Everyone except Aleksa, who is finding that she doesn't feel so great with herself about having bullied the beetle-person. It's the same problem again: it's one thing to be poor and an asshole. In that, she's always felt justified. To be rich and an asshole, that's a whole different story.
Aleksa's never considered herself a self-righteous person. She's never realized, until now, how much of what she does, who she is, is built on the assumption that she's standing on a moral high ground. Now that ground is shaking, and her foundations with it. She doesn't know where to put her footing.
It doesn't help to see Captain Diomika Tsing at the door and be reminded that her first impulse, when planning out her space fashion outfits, had been to go with something brisk, navy and practical -- a lot, in fact, like what Captain Tsing is wearing. There's no denying the outfit looks good on Tsing. It's miles and leagues better than anything Aleksa found in the high-fashion catalogs.
But whatever Aleksa's going to be, in this new world Jupiter's bringing them to, it's not a Captain. Not military. She's not sure exactly what she will be, but she's absolutely certain about that.
Aleksa's been looking forward to someone else's turn to have the culture shock.
(Tsing is not particularly obliging.)
Vassily has put his foot down: no more trips off-planet for anyone for at least two weeks. They are, after all, still running a business. Vassily is proud of this business, built from the ground up with his own hands -- as he tells everybody repeatedly -- and has no wish to give it up just because his niece has come unexpectedly into money.
Besides, since Jupiter's money is for the moment still safe and untouchable in an Abrasax bank account, there also remain the small matters of the rent, the groceries, the gas bill, the water bill, the electric bill, the phone bill, the check-cashing fees, the long-term loan payments to that shady friend of Vassily's -- none of this goes away because it turns out the universe is bigger than anyone thought.
So nobody's going anywhere for a little while. Nobody except for Jupiter, who's apparently supposed to meet with some kind of space lawyer about the case against Titus Abrasax, the one with the shitty space palace and the Oedipus complex.
(Aleksa had described it this way to Jupiter once, and Jupiter said, "Mom, that's all of them." This is the opposite of reassuring.)
In any case, Jupiter's travels require no transportation assistance beyond that of Caine and his two-person shuttle, so Tsing, true to her word, has parked her ship at a spaceport on the edge of the solar system and granted her crew temporary leave. A few, apparently curious -- or maybe just not wanting to lose out on the vacation days required to travel to a different galaxy and back -- decide to take the opportunity to explore the backwater Tercie planet that is Earth.
Tsing pilots the shuttle that brings them down.
"What's your plans?" Aleksa demands of her, with great suspicion.
"I don't have any," said Tsing, placidly. "Sleep, I suppose. I've not had much chance for that, these past few weeks."
Aleksa stares at her. It's seven in the evening, Chicago time. "What, right now?"
For a wonder, Tsing actually smiles. "Perhaps not right now. Tomorrow, certainly. Until noon at least."
"Hibernation?" says Aleksa, covering her surprise with dryness. Even if Aleksa was the sort of person to sleep until noon, given the opportunity -- and she refuses to confirm or deny whether this is a thing she has ever done -- she would never admit it in front of another adult human. She would not have thought Tsing would be the kind of person to do so either. But perhaps an off-duty Tsing is an entirely different proposition than the Tsing who's been ferrying her around for the past week. "Maybe build up some belly fat first."
"Oh, I plan to do that as well," says Tsing. She pauses, then adds, "Do you have any recommendations for a place on this planet that might serve something worth eating?"
Seeing her opportunity flutter past, Aleksa grabs it. "I'm hungry a little also," she says. "I'll come with you."
"By all means," agrees Tsing, courteously. "I've been expecting the interrogation."
They get cheap American-style Chinese food at the place around the corner. A deal is a deal, and two meals' worth of chicken and broccoli for five dollars is difficult to beat. Besides, one of the few things on which the Bolotnikovs are all in agreement is that cheap American-style Chinese food is one of the greatest things about this country, and possibly also this planet.
Aleksa's expecting maybe some pushback on the glistening red-soaked lumps that constitute sweet-and-sour chicken, but Tsing picks up her plastic fork and tucks straight in without even one dubious glance. Aleksa finds herself disappointed. She'd been looking forward to someone else's turn to have the culture shock. "So," she says, while Tsing shovels food neatly and methodically into her mouth, "why are you here, Tsing? Why don't you go home when you go on leave?"
"Home," says Tsing, "is not a universal concept. You've read the Aegis manual now, haven't you? Aren't you going to eat your bread?"
"Hmm?" Aleksa looks at the plate of scallion pancake. "You want some? It's all flour and fat. Good for hibernation." She waves it enticingly.
"Sounds delicious," says Tsing, with every appearance of sincerity.
Aleksa dumps a slice of pancakes on her plate. "Family? Don't you try and sell me that family's not a universal concept. Not when I've been shoved full of Abrasax this and Abrasax that –"
"Universal? Perhaps. But it's an --" Tsing, perhaps also considering the translation mechanism, takes a moment before continuing. "An aspirational concept. Wouldn't you say? Perhaps it isn't that way here. I've gotten the impression -- I hope you won't take offense -- that your family, before Her Majesty's ascension, existed somewhere on the low end of the spectrum of resource and privilege allocation, within the culture of the Earth. Is that so?"
Aleksa shrugs. America isn't Earth, Chicago isn't even America, but for the context in which they operate -- "Why take offense? We live in a shithole. We work in shitholes. No point in calling shit anything but shit."
"But in your shithole --" Tsing seems perfectly comfortable with the word, or whatever the galactic equivalent is; it comes out with a crisp upper-class precision nonetheless. "-- there exist nine humans, linked by civil and genetic bonds, who form a unit on the basis of that association and no other. Not dissoluble by any authority --"
"Not dissoluble?" Aleksa scoffs. "Easily dissoluble, very! Always very much at risk! Any one of us could be deported, put in jail --"
"But not sold," says Tsing. Her face is calm, but there's a certain undeniable emphasis in how she puts down her fork. "Or forcibly restructured, or ordered elsewhere to fulfill your genetic purpose. You claim a genetic unit, you live with it, you work for its mutual benefit and for nobody else's. You watch your progeny grow up within that unit, indebted for their existence to nobody but you. The Entitled are born with that gift. It's the blessing of their genes. For the rest of us -- we may strive for the opportunity to achieve it. It requires numerous resources, both tangible and intangible."
Aleksa presses her lips together. "Aspirational," she says, in flat experimentation. The word leaves a bad taste in her mouth. It has a capitalist sound to it; perhaps, for the translation algorithm, that's not unintentional. There are people, after all, certain very Marxist people, who consider the entire concept of the family as something bourgeois that ought to be abolished. Children raised by committee. Is the extreme opposite of that children raised by and into corporations? And who was it that said, after all, that the extreme left and the extreme right always end up meeting somewhere on the other side?
It's corporations that Tsing means, of course, as the alternative to the family structure she describes -- an alternative so obvious that Tsing clearly feels no need to even define it. Corporations creating persons, various kinds of persons, in -- production batches, was it, that Chatterjee said? Perhaps that's what you call it if you're a robot, or an android, or whatever is the word for something like Chatterjee. A litter, if you're a space werewolf. And who else would have the resources to make batches of robots, make litters of space werewolves, except for corporations and owners of corporations; and why would they do it, except to profit from their lives after?
From there it's only a very small leap, although one that Aleksa herself had not yet made. Not just robots or space werewolves, but people, all kinds of people -- people like Tsing, who looks as human as Aleksa does -- cooked up to design. The ultimate financial resource.
"So for you," she says, after a moment, "though we are very poor, of course, very primitive, backward, Tercies -- commodity people, this is what Tercies means, right? -- also in a way we are rich. Is that what you're saying?"
"Something like that," says Captain Tsing.
"In America, you'd think this is quite trite," says Aleksa, "a cliche. We're poor, but we are rich because we have love. Or because we have --" Her mouth twists. "-- a genetic blessing."
Trust these space capitalists to reduce the idea of family down to genetics. It's enough to make one turn genuinely Marxist after all.
Diomika Tsing pops another red-soaked lump of sweet and sour chicken into her mouth, and doesn't answer.
"So you --" Aleksa can't quite keep her voice neutral, though she tries her best. "You don't have a family? You aspire to achieve one."
"I had a wife, actually," says Captain Tsing. "I don't anymore. Does this place provide alcohol? I would quite like some alcohol."
Thrown once again, Aleksa says, "No, but there's a place around the corner." She goes there sometimes with Nino, on their rare days off, and they shout at each other. Jupiter brings boyfriends there sometimes. Once or twice Aleksa has brought a friend too. Never anything serious, but sometimes you need a break, and a beer.
And now she's bringing a space captain. Who takes one look around, assesses the room coolly, and settles into a booth with a good view of the door. Once a military, always a military, apparently. Aleksa, who likes her beer dark, orders them each a Guinness.
"Don't think," she says, once the beer appears, "that this is a bribe for you to spill your sob story. Talk or not talk, whatever you want."
"All right," says Captain Tsing, and takes a gulp of her beer.
And then nothing is said. Aleksa didn't mean to make her statement a challenge; nonetheless, it's clear that they've somehow embarked on a kind of silent competition. Aleksa doesn't particularly want to be in a competition, and neither, she suspects, does Tsing. But if she's going to be in a competition, she wants to win it.
There are ways to break the stalemate, of course. When my husband died -- there's a conversation starter. Or, the euphemism that's always grated, when I lost my husband. When I lost my wife, my father, my daughter. The assumption of a bond: we're all losers here.
Aleksa doesn't know how Tsing feels about it, but she personally doesn't much like having bonds imposed upon her. People tend to assume that other people's grief takes the same shape of their own; Aleksa knows for a fact that this is not true. She's encountered enough alien minds at the other ends of those attempted bridges, even before she met any actual aliens.
Besides, who knows what "I don't have a wife anymore" means in the context of space? Maybe Tsing's wife left her for a giant bee. Or was a giant bee. Maybe she was ordered to go do something else by some Entitled syndicate. Or maybe she was turned into people juice, along with her entire planet. Maybe space marriage is meant to last for a year and no longer, or five years -- or five light-years. All that Aleksa feels safe in assuming is that Tsing feels some kind of loss, and even then, there's no way of knowing whether it resembles anything that Aleksa would recognize.
(Sometimes, Aleksa wonders how her daughter and her space werewolf boyfriend manage to talk to each other about anything at all.)
The silence has now stretched for ten minutes. Both of their beers are getting low. Aleksa starts to reach into her purse for her notebook, covered in sprawling calculations. "Since we're here, you mind if I do some work?"
"Actually, yes," says Tsing.
Aleksa sits back up, eyeing Tsing. "Okay," she says, feeling oddly triumphant.
"Sorry," says Tsing, not looking particularly apologetic. "But I'm off duty. The last thing I want to be reminded of is people doing work." She sits back in her chair. "I wouldn't think it's a bad idea for you to take an hour off either."
Obscurely offended, Aleksa frowns, feeling the familiar scowl lines set in around the corners of her eyes and mouth. "What, you think I look tired?"
"No. Only -- if I can speak directly? -- you've absorbed a lot in a very short time. You all have. Her Highness as well." (Even off-duty, Aleksa notes, it's Her Highness.) "And you seem to feel," Captain Tsing goes on, "that you have to learn it all tomorrow. It's very impressive, but you needn't always be impressive. Everyone will understand --"
Aleksa snorts, as rudely as she can. "Understand? Sure, yes, they'll understand -- look, an easy target!" She's back on the moral high ground here; she's spent enough time ignorant, enough time a stranger, to know exactly what that entails. All that's different here is that the scale is bigger. "Ignorance is a weakness. What, you don't know this? I never took you for a person this naive. You've never seen it happen like this before?"
"Ignorance," says Captain Tsing, quite dryly, "is a weakness. All right. No, I haven't seen it happen before, as a matter of fact -- or not on this level, and not on this scale. Genetic recurrence is quite a rare event, you know. And I've never been assigned to assist with a Harvest, thank God." (Aleksa spares a moment to wonder who or what God Tsing might be meaning to thank.) "Interaction with Tercies is an entirely new experience for me."
"How difficult for you," says Aleksa, sourly.
"Difficult?" says Tsing. "Not particularly." She takes a sip from her glass, and Aleksa grunts in acknowledgment of a point scored -- Aleksa's certainly been doing her best to make sure it isn't easy. "Fascinating, though. It's certainly interesting, at my age, to encounter new perspectives."
"At your age?" Aleksa scoffs. "You're younger than me." Either that, or she's been using that Regenex shit. You wouldn't think so, from what she just said about Harvests, but what a person doesn't want to do herself and what she doesn't mind other people doing far away can be two very different things. Either way, if Tsing has been using Regenex, Aleksa wants to know about it.
Tsing lifts an eyebrow. "Fifty."
In a purely Earth context, Aleksa would certainly have guessed younger. Still, probably not Regenex. And, even better: "Fifty-two," she says, triumphantly.
It's probably the beer, but Tsing actually laughs. "Congratulations," she says.
Aleka grins back, and lifts her glass in victory.
It's getting a little late now, for a normal Bolotnikov schedule. After they finish their drinks, Aleksa helps Tsing get a taxi to the motel where the others are staying, then retreats back to the too-small room that she shares with a snoring Nino. It's been an interesting night, on the whole. Not the worst drink she's ever had, by any means -- but she's uneasy, for reasons she can't quite name. She lays her head down, Tsing's laughter still ringing in her mind. She'd been happy to hear that laugh, at the time, but now there's a part of her that wishes she hadn't.
Certainly she's learned something tonight, several somethings. But her goal is not make friends with any of these space people. Jupiter's already done this -- lowered her defenses, let them all in. That's good for Jupiter, and Aleksa's glad to see it. Still, among all these aliens, military aliens with alien ideas, someone's got to keep their defenses up. And among the Bolotnikovs, Aleksa's defenses have always been the strongest.
There's no reason that a shared smile with the imperturbable Captain Tsing should make her worried about this. It doesn't mean friendship, doesn't mean anything. If anything, the rest of the night only reinforced all the reasons she should be worried about the immense gaps in ethics, in culture, in understanding that exist between her family and these bizarre space imperialists.
Still, she thinks about it more than she should, and it takes her longer than she meant to get to sleep.
Which is a cause for irritation in and of itself, for anybody who's got to be cleaning houses at five AM the next morning.
There are some unpleasant things in life, Aleksa feels -- like managing a bank account, or waiting in line at the space DMV -- that an adult person should not be able to fob off on their parents.
Vassily's mandated two weeks go by. The Chicago rent is safely met for another month, which is a good thing, since the space palace isn't yet ready. In fact, the space palace, the space contractors tell them, will not be ready for three months at the earliest. The space contractors would also like to be paid half in advance, which means that it's time and past time for someone to go to the space bureaucracy and figure out how to shake out some space funds.
That's all right. Aleksa and Nino have been busy the last two weeks, giving themselves crash courses in space economics. Well, Aleksa has been busy with space economics; Nino has been essentially useless since House Hunters Intergalactic has taken over all her attention. Somewhat to Aleksa's surprise, Vassily has stepped in to pick up some of the slack. Vassily doesn't have the same number of degrees stacked up that Nino and Aleksa have got, but he is -- as, again, he is very happy to inform everybody -- a successful small business owner (for a given value of success) with hands-on experience in the practicalities of engineering cash flow.
Vladie does not volunteer his assistance, but she does notice him furtively picking up some of their translated notepads when they leave them lying around the house. Aleksa's not sure whether she feels this is a positive thing or not -- Vladie's attitude towards money is the kind of thing that made the Soviet Union seem like a good idea at the time -- but she's got enough other things on her mind without worrying about whether Vladie's trying to get himself into problems with space capital. After all, it isn't like he's got any space capital to spend until and unless Jupiter decides to give him some.
Aleksa's been assuming it will be Jupiter who actually makes the trip to the space bureaucracy to shake her inheritance out of them. Jupiter takes one look at the pile of notes that Aleksa, Nino and Vassily have written up for her, and refuses point-blank. "It's going to take all day, Mom! I've got other stuff to do!"
"Oh yes," says Aleksa, "things very much more important than being space rich."
"That place," says Jupiter, "was traumatic, and I super do not feel like being traumatized today. Anyway, I've got to prep for the trial against Titus, and I've got self-defense classes with Caine, plus Katherine Dunlevy's throwing a party this week, so her house is going to be a disaster zone, and -- look, why don't one of you go? I'll give you power of attorney or something, it'll be fine."
Aleksa gives her a flat look. There are some unpleasant things in life, Aleksa feels -- like managing a bank account, or waiting in line at the space DMV -- that an adult person should not be able to fob off on their parents. However, before she can point this out, Nino says, "Sure, I will go! It's no problem."
"See!" echoes Jupiter triumphantly. "She says it's no problem." There's a pause, and then Jupiter's conscience reasserts itself. "Um, Aunt Nino, are you sure it's no problem? I mean, I'm not kidding, it really will take all day. Maybe two. And, like, I'll be happy to bail you out if you accidentally snap and murder a bureaucrat while you're in there, there's no way anyone could blame you for it, but if that's a risk you don't want to take I will totally understand --"
Nino is gurgling with laughter by this time. "You're so much like your mother!" she says affectionately. Aleksa frowns, glances at Jupiter, and is not quite comforted to find out that Jupiter doesn't seem to know whether this is a compliment either. "Standing in line and filling out forms? Most Russians are world champions at this. Your mother, now, I don't know how she survives the 1980s without exploding."
Aleksa rolls her eyes. Nino doesn't know what she's talking about. Aleksa is perfectly capable of standing in line if she has to. So what if she's sometimes a little brisk when she finally gets to the front? After all that time-wasting, who doesn't want to make sure the thing you've been waiting for gets done as quickly as possible?
"Well," says Jupiter, still looking doubtful, "if you're sure, then I'll ask if Captain Tsing can take you up as soon as her crew's all back from leave."
Aleksa looks at Nino. "You don't mind going up into space by yourself?" All their interstellar travel so far has involved a significant reliance on the principle of strength in numbers. If Nino doesn't want to venture out into infinite strangeness on her own, Aleksa won't blame her. They've got the Yangs today, but they haven't canceled on the Yangs at all so far up until now, and Aleksa's willing to sacrifice their countertops for a higher cause.
But Nino just makes a dismissive noise. "Waste of your time, and boring for you as well. You and Vassily have work to do. Me, I'll nap on the ship, nap in line, nap on the way back."
"Oh!" Jupiter brightens. "And while you're up there, see if you can get the same advocate I got when I was there last. I liked him and I wanna try and bribe him to come work for me."
Nino grins. "You want I should try and bribe him also?"
"Nnnnnno," says Jupiter, a little apologetically. "I mean, maybe, yes? We can talk about how much would be a good number to offer him? But I feel like technically I'm gonna be the one hiring him, so I should probably make the actual offer myself. If you can get him to come back with you to talk to me, that'd be cool."
"I will do my best!" agrees Nino.
The trip takes Nino a solid 48 hours. Aleksa tries not to fret. Nino is an adult, but Aleksa has concerns that she is not taking this entire situation with one hundred percent seriousness.
These suspicions are confirmed when Nino marches back into the Bolotnikov house with her face wreathed in smiles and some kind of fancy robot following behind her like a duckling. She plants her feet in the front hallway and declares, at the top of her lungs, "Jupiter, I am back!"
There's only a moment's wait before Jupiter comes galloping down the stairs. The space werewolf boyfriend is following behind her, more sedately. Aleksa, who has been going over accounts in the dining room, does her level best not to notice that Jupiter's hair is messy and both of them appear flushed. Jupiter had said he was here to consult with her about the trial; fine, very well, she doesn't want to know.
"Well?" Jupiter demands. "How'd it go? -- oh! You brought Bob! Hey, Bob!" She jumps down the last stair and runs over to give him an enthusiastic handshake, like an American politician on the campaign trail -- which, in a way, Aleksa supposes, she is. Or will be. "I'm so glad you came!"
"The pleasure's all mine," the robot assures her, in a voice that is warm and unrobotic. "I was delighted to answer your call, Your Highness."
"Great! So I guess the trip was a success?"
Nino and the robot immediately both start talking over each other. "Well!" says Nino, cheerfully, "really, it turns out it's very simple. We only have to --"
"Miss Nino," the robot says, "is -- how can I put this? A master of her craft. I don't think I've ever seen --"
"-- then, you know, the man at the Inheritance desk, very nice man once you talk to him a little, he finally agrees that it's much more simple if we put aside the issue of the death tax --”
"-- figured out a loophole that let us bypass the Code IV Subsection B line altogether, which provided a substantial reduction of the addition to --"
"-- really, you were so dramatic, Jupiter! The way you're talking, I'm thinking you're giving me a job that's a little bit hard. Now, if you'd ever been to a bank in Moscow, you'd know --"
Jupiter holds up her hands, laughing. "Okay, okay, I got it! Good job! Sounds like you two made a great team!"
"It was an honor," says the robot, "really -- an honor simply to be on hand for such an elegant demonstration of the system at work."
For a moment, Aleksa is genuinely a little bit afraid that this robot is about to cry from sheer emotion. It's one of the more alarming moments of her life to date.
She glances up, and happens to catch sight of Caine standing behind Jupiter. From what she can catch of the vaguely horrified expression he's currently trying to repress, it seems that, for once, she and the space werewolf are in total agreement.
Jupiter says, gamely, "Uh, OK! Well, I'm -- glad you liked it! Especially since I wanted to bring you here to -- well, I guess Nino filled you in, right? I was hoping you might consider --"
"It's all right," says Nino, still cheerful. "I know you said you wanted to negotiate yourself, but it turns out he doesn't need bribing! Only to purchase him from the central bureau. So I do this, and now he works for us."
Aleksa opens her mouth, and then shuts it again. She tells herself, wait; see what Jupiter will do.
"Indeed," says the robot, "and may I say, it's a pleasure --"
Jupiter frowns. “Hey – hold up." Aleksa feels her shoulders relax a little. "Sorry, Aunt Nino, but -- you said purchase? Like, you had to buy him?"
"Ah! Well, technically, it's his contract I am buying. The bureau rents him long-term from the Cyzgorsi Corporation, which --"
"But," Jupiter says. "I mean. Aunt Nino, you just -- bought me a person? That doesn't seem at all weird to you?"
Nino and the robot exchange puzzled glances. Caine, in the background, is once again stolid-faced and unexpressive; whatever he's thinking about this conversation, he clearly doesn't feel like sharing it at this time. The robot says, "Your Highness, I assure you, the transaction was satisfactory to all parties concerned. Unless you regret the expenditure --"
"No! No, I just --"
"Some of us Tercies," says Aleksa, "hold this strange idea that persons should not be for sale."
The robot swings her way, brows knitting in polite confusion.
Aleksa surveys him. He is a robot, clearly -- or a cyborg, or an android; whatever the word, something either partially or wholly artificial. At least 50% artificial, if his construction follows the same lines as Gemma Chatterjee's. Whatever the case, his face is made of metal. This is fact. It could be considered no different to buying and selling a computer.
On the other hand, he makes expressions, speaks with the casual idiosyncracies customary to thinking beings, and holds bizarre opinions about Nino that are clearly incompatible with pure machine logic. And he is a lawyer, or so Jupiter says, and he has a name.
"Are you a person?" she inquires.
She's half-expecting him to say that personhood is aspirational. What he actually says, sounding rather affronted, is, "Certainly!"
"She didn't mean to be rude," says Jupiter, hastily, and sends a reproachful look Aleksa's way, which Aleksa does not really feel she has deserved. (Though the answer, in and of itself, is not as illuminating as one might hope. Translation mechanisms again: what does 'person' mean, translated to galactic speech and back?)
"Uh, that's my mom, by the way," Jupiter continues. The robot aims a stiff, polite bow in Aleksa's direction; Aleksa snorts. "She's just, you know, we're all still getting used to the way things work off of Earth -- I mean, um, outside of Tercie space. Anyway, I'm really glad you're coming to work for me, but --" Now it's Nino's turn to receive the reproachful look. "What I wanted to do was tell you the kind of stuff I had in mind, and then give you a choice about whether you wanted to come. Nobody should be signing onto this without a really good idea of what they're getting into."
The robot smiles politely. "Working directly for an Entitled always provides a fascinating challenge, Your Highness, but I certainly hope I will be equal to the task."
"Yeah, that's not what I -- look," says Jupiter. She sighs, shoves her hair back from her face, then shifts her weight, planting her feet a little further apart. "Here's the thing. I might be an Entitled, but I'm an Earth Entitled, and like my mom said, we've got all kinds of wacky ideas down here -- like, you know, not wanting to buy and sell people. Or turn them into fancy skin cream, and buy and sell that. Basically just not into a lot of the buying and selling that's going on up there, in general. We're pretty much against all that. I mean, I'm pretty much against all that. I need an advocate to help me figure out how to not be a part of that. How to use what I've got to shut as much of it down as I can."
"And how to transfer over the rest of your space capital," Nino puts in, apparently unquelled by the various judgmental looks she has received over the course of this conversation. "And what to do about this mess the Abrasax person left from his mining operations, and also how to handle this space junk mail we have got coming in -- Jupiter, I don't even have a chance yet to tell you about the space junk mail, but it fills my whole flash drive --"
"-- yeah, and all of that, in the short term," says Jupiter, patiently. "I mean, not gonna lie, there's a lot of stuff we need help with. We're kind of flailing around here. But the long-term plan is -- I mean, I guess it's kind of about deconstructing your whole system? So I get if that sounds pretty weird to you --"
"And dangerous," rumbles Caine, standing behind her with his arms crossed.
"-- right! Weird and dangerous. Whatever I do, the other Entitled are not gonna be too happy about it. So basically I feel like you should get to say if you're up for that or not."
The robot lawyer looks distinctly taken aback -- as well he might, Aleksa supposes, given that he has just been informed he's been sold into a rebellion. "Jupiter," she remarks, "perhaps you should tell Mr. --"
"Bob," say the robot, Nino and Jupiter, in unison.
"Bob," echoes Aleksa, drawling out the name in her best effort at an American accent. She spares a moment to wonder what 'Bob' translates to, in whatever language the cyborg lawyer actually speaks. It would be interesting to know what is the most comically generic name it's possible to have in space. "It's maybe a good idea to tell Mr. Bob what's his other choice, besides staying here and working for you? You're thinking you'll sell him back to the Intergalactic Bureau?"
"Ummm, I mean," Jupiter says. "If you'd rather go back to there, then -- yeah? Sure? Or whatever else you want to do, I guess."
Bob appears somewhat paralyzed by this. He shoots a helpless glance over at Caine. Caine, unhelpfully, shrugs back. "I went off the rails and attacked an Entitled," he says. "Don't look at me."
"You did what?" says Aleksa, who has not heard this particular piece of Caine's backstory before. She transfixes Caine with a stare; Caine sets his jaw.
Jupiter rolls her eyes. "Mom! Chill!"
Meanwhile, Bob has apparently taken advantage of this interlude to escape from his momentary blue-screen. He smiles at Jupiter, all efficient polish once again. "Your Highness, I will happily serve to the best of my abilities until they become obsolete."
Jupiter squints at him suspiciously. "You're not just saying that because Nino already paid for you?"
"Look at it this way!" chirps Nino. "You know the old system top to bottom, true, yes -- but if you're the person who is building a new system, now you know the new one also better than anybody else from day one. Good for career prospects, right?"
"Assuming," says Caine, who is altogether a bundle of cheer today, "we all survive long enough for that."
"Thank you, Caine!" says Jupiter, "and thank you, Nino! But right now, I'd like to hear from Bob, please!"
But all she gets from Bob is, "Miss Nino, as usual, makes extremely cogent points."
Jupiter surrenders. "Well -- OK. But if you decide you're not sure-- oh, jeez, man," she interrupts herself, "we're gonna need a place for you to sleep while we get the space palace ready." (Everyone is calling it the space palace now, even Caine.) "Caine, the motel room you're staying in, it's a double, right? Would you guys mind bunking down together for a little?"
Aleksa takes advantage of the shift in conversational focus to drag Nino into the other room, leaving Jupiter to attempt to wrangle a definitive statement of agreement or disagreement out of either Caine or Bob. (Given that Bob is determined to be pleasant, and Caine just as determined to be stoic, this task seems likely to be unenviable.)
"Eh?" says Nino. "What? This is about Caine and the biting just now? Because, you know, Aleksa, often I think you are too hard on him, really I think he is a very sweet boy --"
She's speaking in English, and sounding, as she often does in English, the cheerful naif. Aleksa is not having any of this. "You know what it's about," she snaps, in Russian.
Nino crosses her arms. Aleksa is glad to see her looking a little bit defensive, rather than glibly innocent. "I don't know what you want me to say!” she retorts, and switches over to Russian as well. “What, I should have stolen him? You want me to break the law? Those are the rules out there! This was the only way he could come!"
"Oh, because you've never broken the law before? How did we come into this country, anyway?"
"You don't follow the rules," says Aleksa, with some force, "when the rules are made by assholes."
"We don't even know who made the rules," mutters Nino.
"We do," says Aleksa. "Assholes."
Nino gives a snort of almost-laughter, but Aleksa's not laughing. Regenex, and children made by corporations, and aspirational goals. She might not know everything about the rules, or who made them, but by now she thinks she knows enough.
There's a whole great big universe out there -- and is it really a surprise, from the example of the microcosm that's Earth, that the macrocosm is even more totally fucked?
After a minute, Nino heaves a sigh. "You don't need to lecture me, I know what you're saying. Buying and selling people, it's a little creepy, I get it. He wanted to come, I thought it was fine."
"Yeah, OK," says Aleksa, "but if Advocate Bob was a lawyer from Earth, not an android person from God knows where, would it have taken you two days to realize that's a little creepy?"
"If Advocate Bob were a lawyer from Earth," says Nino, "I'd say the bastard would have what's coming to him."
Whether Nino's throwing the joke out as a peace offering or a diversion, Aleksa refuses to take the bait.
"Here's the thing I'm not sure you get," she says. "We're not television billionaires here in a bubble where nothing is real. Everything we do affects something else. You understand that, right? You studied economics. You know where I'm going with this? Or is it all HGTV now?"
Nino takes in a breath, and then lets it out, slowly. "Honestly, Aleksa -- you're a real killjoy, you know that? HGTV's much more fun."
"Proud to be so," says Aleksa, before hearing an almighty crash from the living room, followed by an anguished cry of "Moltka! Leave the poor metal man alone!" The Junior Bolotnikovs have apparently launched their attack.
Nino and Aleksa exchange glances, suddenly united once again.
"Beer?" says Aleksa.
"Yes," says Nino, and they make their escape before anyone can think of setting either of them to watch out for the children.
She's got to admit it to herself, if to nobody else: Aleksa wants to see the faces of these Abrasaxes.
"The trial is probably going to take a couple days," Jupiter says, "so I'll be home in --"
"We," says Aleksa.
"I'm coming with you," says Aleksa, coolly. "Moral support."
She's expecting Jupiter to reject the offer out of hand. In fact, despite her dramatic eye-roll, Jupiter in fact looks a little bit relieved (which in turn makes Aleksa a little bit concerned). "What about work? You're gonna make Aunt Nino do all those houses by herself?"
"Vladie will help."
"Vladie needs pocket money," says Aleksa, not without some satisfaction. Vladie can usually coax some kind of cash out of his father, but the egg donation fiasco has put a hard stop to that for the time being.
Anyway, Vladie's assistance won't be required for long. Vassily is interviewing for another two cleaners to join his business. The Bolotnikov coffers are slowly but surely being enhanced with a trickling stream of Abrasax cash. Aleksa, for one, is increasingly ready for the day when she never has to do anything to a toilet except shit in it.
"Well, then, if it's not gonna be a hassle for you...” Jupiter shrugs, radiating unconvincing unconcern. "Sure, why not? I guess it can't hurt me to have a bigger entourage. But --” She gives Aleksa a look of intense and sudden suspicion. “-- you gotta behave yourself, though, Mom, OK? None of this --" She waves her hand, in a thoroughly unhelpful gesture.
"Well," says Aleksa. "Of course. You're in charge."
She smiles, and now it's Jupiter's turn to look rather wary. Aleksa can't imagine why.
There are a few reasons Aleksa is suddenly interested in attending a trial in outer space. The first is just the one that she said to Jupiter: she thinks her daughter could use the extra support. Of course the space werewolf boyfriend will also be there for support. The space werewolf boyfriend at this point practically has his toes glued to Jupiter's heels. However, if the space werewolf boyfriend suddenly goes berserk and starts attacking space CEOs right and left, will not additional support be required for the practical and emotional fallout of these space werewolf antics? It's best for all contingencies to be covered.
Besides, Jupiter has never been inside a courtroom. Neither has Aleksa, for that matter. To participate in the justice system of the United States, it is required that the United States recognize you as a citizen deserving of justice. This in itself makes the idea of a trial stressful. A space trial, operating under space rules, facing down some hostile space individual who is probably going to be trying very hard to make Jupiter sound stupid, hysterical, or worse -- this is not like waiting in line at the DMV. In a situation like that, a person should have their mother somewhere nearby.
So that's one part of it, why she wants to go.
Another part, the less sentimental part part, is that it's a further opportunity to learn even more about the rules that they are likely going to be breaking in future. And as for the last part –
She's got to admit it to herself, if to nobody else: Aleksa wants to see the faces of these Abrasaxes.
She feels an odd sense of shame about this curiosity of hers. Whatever these galactics believe about genetics, Jupiter is not an Abrasax. Aleksa will not allow these space lunatics any part in her daughter. She's said this from the beginning, and she means it.
So the Abrasaxes somehow share half their genes with her daughter. So what? Genetics is a random shake of the dice. Billions of factors generating billions of possibilities. Impossible to predict even with the most advanced statistical models. Aleksa's real (hypothetical) grandchildren might have – hopefully will have – nothing at all in common with Titus or Kalique Abrasax.
But she wants to see their faces all the same.
(And then, probably, based on Jupiter's reports, slap those faces. But see them first.)
This time, at least, Jupiter doesn't go off by herself in Caine's tiny little ship. The idea is to arrive at space court with full pomp and circumstance, forcing everyone to recognize straightaway that Jupiter is a person of importance, and therefore that anything Titus did to her was obviously very wrong indeed. This means that everyone's riding together with Tsing and her Aegis crew – 'everyone' consisting of Jupiter, Caine, Aleksa, Advocate Bob, and a middle-aged man who shows up at the last minute on a motorcycle with a sour expression.
Jupiter's enthusiastic welcome of the stranger confirms that this is the space bee marine friend she's mentioned before. Aleksa is mildly relieved to find that he sports neither antennae nor black-and-yellow stripes; it would have been difficult to take him seriously if all she could think about when looking at him was a mascot for children's cereal. (Nino, on the other hand, is doing her best to hide her disappointment. She'd been hoping for wings.)
"You sure you want to do this?" Jupiter asks, after stepping back from the hug. "You don't have to. We've got plenty of testimony -- your name doesn't even have to come into it if you don't want."
"I beg your pardon, Your Highness," Advocate Bob says, "but if I may, Mr. Apini's – er – position does strengthen our case considerably. Bribing a member of the military to take sides in a conflict between Entitled is a serious offense."
"Yeah, but --"
“I'm doing it,” says Stinger Apini, cutting off the conversation, and that seems to be the end of that.
Aleksa remembers the part of the story that involves Apini's betrayal extremely well. She wanders over to Lieutenant Chatterjee, who is standing politely by the bridge waiting for everyone to be ready to take off. "Chatterjee," she murmurs, "if my daughter had decided to press charges against Apini, what would the penalty be?"
Chatterjee frowns, but answers with her usual courtesy. "Death, most likely. There are a number of variations in method, depending on the circumstances of the crime. I could provide you with more information --"
"Not necessary," says Aleksa, "at the moment." Though it probably would be instructive to learn what space people considered a punishment that fit the crime. "Would it be possible for someone who wasn't my daughter to use his confession in court against him?"
"Oh, no. Only Her Highness, or, if she had died, a direct descendent."
"Hm," says Alexa. Titus Abrasax had, of course, meant to make certain that Jupiter had died without any direct descendents. She supposes it's a convenient policy, if you're a would-be assassin. Make sure you do the job right, and you never have to worry about getting caught.
Eventually they're all loaded up onto the ship. Caine and Apini take twinned positions on either side of the broad window out into space, with Jupiter in the middle. Under advice from Bob, she's wearing one of her queenliest ensembles, a long stiff vest of silver-embroidered brocade that sweeps out into a open skirt – with train, no less – over a tight suit of satiny black. She matches the Aegis, in their formal black dress uniforms; in a fortuitous side effect, she's also perfectly set off against the starry black expanse of the sky.
Still, her expression isn't quite as regal as her outfit. Aleksa's taken several trips into space by now, but this is the first time she's been on the same ship as her daughter. She'd somehow expected space travel to be old news for Jupiter by now, the wonder long worn away, but Jupiter still looks out at the stars as raptly as somebody who's never seen them before.
It takes Aleksa like this, sometimes, the incalculable flood of affection for the person that her daughter is, was, is growing to be. The feeling is worth treasuring. It is, however, inconvenient for it to happen in the middle of a spaceship full of people around whom Aleksa would prefer to show no vulnerability whatsoever, and so she looks away from her daughter, searching for something else to focus on. She finds an incomprehensible patch of gadgetry and fixes her gaze fiercely onto it for the rest of the flight.
The court, when they arrive there, is another space station – of course it is; important things, Caine had said, don't happen planetside – with a genuinely startling lack of ornamentation to it. The clear crystalline paneling in the center of the ceiling, allowing a dollhouse view of the court proceedings within, serves as the only concession to form rather than function. “It is almost possible,” remarks Aleksa, “to believe that someone out here has sense.”
Jupiter's bee marine friend snorts. “Don't worry,” he says, “that won't last long.”
Kalique Abrasax is the bigger shock. Titus is a sneering boy with an overblown sense of style and a bad haircut. There is, perhaps, a faint resemblance to Vladie, but plenty of people have a faint resemblance to Vladie. It doesn't mean very much. He's floating up in a defendant's box for trying to murder her daughter. It takes no effort whatsoever to think of him as the complete and disconnected stranger that he is.
Kalique, though. Kalique smiles when she sees them, gathers up a deeply implausible number of frothy green layers of skirt, and sweeps over to clasp Jupiter by the hand. (Behind Jupiter, Caine looks as if he's readying himself to scoop Jupiter up and skate away to safety at the least provocation.) “It's wonderful to see you again, truly,” Kalique says. “I'm so glad you weren't too inconvenienced by any of this unpleasantness.”
Jupiter stares back at her. Her hand hangs in Kalique's as if she's forgotten about it, which likely she has. “Your brother is dead,” she says, in some bewilderment. “I killed him.”
“He is?” Kalique blinks up at the box where Titus sits, and then lifts her free hand to her mouth. “Oh – Balem! Oh, that was very sad. But he'd been – quite erratic for some time now, you know.” She leans in, and tells Jupiter, earnestly, “You mustn't blame yourself. You know he would much rather you had killed him than that anybody else did.”
This, Aleksa thinks, has gone quite far enough. She sweeps up next to Jupiter, trying not to feel underdressed in her specially commissioned space slacks. Kalique's eyes only meet hers for a moment before she dismisses Aleksa as irrelevant and moves on. They're familiar-looking eyes. Even the dismissive look is familiar; it's quite a common one among the Bolotnikovs.
A random genetic confluence can have fairly astounding effects.
“Oh,” says Jupiter, clearly grateful for the excuse to change the subject, “Kalique, this is my --”
“Accountant,” says Aleksa, briskly. Jupiter gives her a dubious glance, which Aleksa ignores. This is not a room full of people who are trustworthy, and Aleksa has no plans to be taken hostage against Jupiter's good behavior again.
“Oh?” says Kalique. She hones in once more on Jupiter. “If you're looking to hire a good accountant, I can recommend --”
“My current accountant does a pretty good job,” says Jupiter. She shoots another sidelong glance at Aleksa, and then, finally, reclaims her hand. “But I'll keep it in mind. Um, thanks, Kalique.”
“You know you're welcome to ask whatever's in my power to give,” says Kalique, smiling. “What else is family for?”
When Kalique talks to Jupiter, her voice is gentle, quiet, warm – very un-Bolotnikov. It's perhaps projecting to therefore assume that these qualities are false. If Kalique genuinely believes Jupiter is her mother reincarnated, Aleksa knows of no particular reason why she would not wish to act gently and warmly towards her. Still, Aleksa notes that Kalique does not say that she will grant any of Jupiter's requests, only that Jupiter is welcome to ask.
She'd expected to find it difficult to believe what Jupiter had said, that Kalique is fourteen thousand years old. In fact, it's not that difficult at all.
“Miss Abrasax,” she says. Kalique stiffens – well, let her think that Jupiter hires ill-mannered accountants, or ignorant accountants, but Aleksa is certainly not going to go around calling a person like this, who might in another life be her granddaughter, 'Your Majesty.' “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?”
Kalique raises her eyebrows, but says, graciously, “Please – go ahead.”
“You're here today for Titus,” says Aleksa, “or for Jupiter?”
Kalique doesn't hesitate for a moment. “I'm supporting Jupiter, of course. What Titus attempted to do was abominable. Of course, Titus is quite young – he's barely lived out a millennium. I do hope you'll be able to forgive him someday, Jupiter, when all of this is done.” It's smoothly done, Aleksa notes, how she redirects the conversation so that she's once again addressing the only other human she considers important in the room. “Of course I would never dream of asking you or the Aegis to drop the charges --”
“Good,” growls Caine, “because that's not going to happen.”
“-- and the inevitable drop in his stock options if he's found guilty today,” Kalique continues, ignoring Caine entirely, “will be a suitable punishment to him in and of itself. Unfortunately, some of my holdings are tangled up with Titus', so his punishment will mean a loss to me as well. And I must admit, as the first Primary of the House of Abrasax, the prospect of a very great penalty to Titus is painful to me on a personal level. But I hope the value of the lesson to my brother will outweigh any losses I may suffer.”
“What lesson?” says Aleksa. “Don't murder people? Don't marry people and then murder them? Don't marry your mother? These are all lessons I hope it takes my children much less than a millennium to learn.”
“Oh?” says Kalique, with a flicker of interest. “You have children?”
It takes Aleksa a moment to realize that, in a genetic economy such as the one Tsing described, having children might indeed be a sign of a certain status. “One child,” she says, briskly. “You?” She knows the answer – she thinks – but then, Jupiter might not have learned everything about the Abrasax offspring yet, either.
Kalique smiles, dips her head. “No, not yet. The time's just never seemed right.”
“One less Abrasax now,” offers Aleksa, brightly. “Maybe the time --”
At this point Jupiter steps quite firmly on her foot. “Well! Kalique, it's – been great catching up, but we – should probably go figure out where we're going to sit in the prosecution's box, and --”
“Check it,” offers Caine. “For traps.” Aleksa is fairly sure that he genuinely believes that he is being helpful.
“-- right? Yeah, OK. Check for traps. Man, bodyguards!” Jupiter says to Kalique, with a manic sort of camaraderie. “Never satisfied. So … later!” She sweeps off across the courtroom. Caine marches off behind her, somehow managing not to step on her silver-brocade train. Aleksa, taking pity, does the same – though a part of her still very much wants to stay and talk more with Kalique Abrasax. This is, however, probably not a useful urge to indulge. Kalique is the solution to an equation with too many variables; she doesn't even know which one she would want to try and solve for, and there's no way the results could be satisfying.
There are no traps in the defendant's box. The witness boxes are another story. Apparently it is standard practice in space court to put all the witnesses in their own sealed, soundproof, floating containers for the duration of the trial, so they can't see or hear anything that goes on in court until it's time for them to give their testimony.
Apini, Tsing and Caine are all down on the docket as witnesses.
Apparently there has been a miscommunication somewhere, because Caine is not at all pleased to learn this. “Take my name off,” he says, evenly. “Tell them I'm not testifying.”
“I understand your reluctance, Mr. Wise.” Advocate Bob draws himself up to his full height, which is apparently fuller than one might think, though Aleksa would not put it past him to be cheating underneath his neat-looking suit. His face extends slightly upwards on its metal hinges. “However, your testimony is crucial to the case at hand.”
“Her Majesty's safety is a lot more crucial than the case at hand. She's surrounded by her enemies here, and you want me blind in a box?”
Advocate Bob holds his ground. “When his Excellency Titus Abrasax confessed his – his nefarious plans, you were the only witness besides Her Majesty herself --”
“And I'm the defendant,” Jupiter puts in. “There's got to be someone else, or it's just my word against his. Look, we talked about this, right? We said –”
“You said,” says Caine. “I said I didn't like it. What does that matter? I'm just your dog.”
Tsing's face is perfectly composed. Stinger Apini is struggling to achieve the same effect, but cannot quite keep control of his eyebrows. Advocate Bob and the court-appointed lawer-bot exchange uncomfortable glances. Aleksa crosses her arms, and resists the urge to heave a pointed sigh.
Jupiter holds up her hands. “OK,” she says. “Sorry, my bad. After the trial, you can rip me a new one –” Aleksa gives Jupiter a look. “-- and that was bad choice of words. Whatever, we'll fight it out, it'll be fine. For right now – sure, I mean, babe, it's your call. Advocate Bob thinks we'll have a pretty hard time winning this case without your testimony, and from what I can tell that wouldn't be great for my space royalty cred, not to mention giving Titus the chance to try something else in the future. And I really don't think anyone's going to try to assassinate me in front of half a dozen court officials. But hey, I could be wrong. It's up to you.”
Caine glares at her for a long moment, with more open frustration than Aleksa can remember seeing from him before, and then whirls around and stalks into the witness box. He does remember his professional composure enough not to slam the door behind him.
The box of infuriated wolf-man sails serenely on up to the ceiling. Oddly, Jupiter seems to be fighting back a smile as she watches it go.
Aleksa looks suspiciously at her daughter. “What are you so happy about?”
“Don't get me wrong,” says Jupiter, “the Your Majesty thing is nice and all, but this like a relationship milestone, you know? I'm gonna mark the anniversary. Next year I'll get him a cake saying 'Happy Day That Caine Figured Out It Was OK To Tell Jupiter To Go' – well, uh, you know what I mean.”
Aleksa rubs her eyes with one hand. She can't exactly say the entire incident makes her feel better about her daughter's relationship with an emotionally damaged and historically violent space werewolf marine. Still, she supposes she ought to be proud of Jupiter for taking her principles to heart. Anyway, it's not like it's the first time her daughter's romantic choices have given her a headache. “Sure, OK. I hope you two have a very nice argument.”
“I expect I should take my place as well,” says Tsing. Whatever she might have thought about that whole little scene, none of it shows in her face. “Best of luck in the trial, Your Majesty.” She grips Jupiter's hand briefly and steps backward into her box. Like Caine's, it immediately seals himself and floats up to the upper level of the courtroom.
Apini just gives Jupiter a thump on the shoulder, and then does the same.
The boxes are transparent from the outside, though opaque from within. Apparently this is meant to ensure that nobody is illegally sending any of the witnesses information from the ongoing trial. Caine stands in the middle of his and glowers, fists balled, shoulders hunched. Apini drums his fingers in irregular patterns on the side of the container. Tsing, Aleksa is fascinated to see, has brought out some sort of complicated handicraft involving wood and string, and is calmly basket-weaving away.
Jupiter glances up at Caine, once, and then looks back at her remaining team: Bob, Aleksa, and the court lawyer-bot. “OK,” she said. “We ready to do this?”
The accuser's box, larger than the others and not soundproofed, is ready and waiting for them. “Don't worry, Your Majesty,” says Advocate Bob, squaring his electronic shoulders. “This is perfectly under control.”
They all step inside.
It doesn't take long before some part of Aleksa is wishing she'd brought along basket-weaving of her own. She has a dark suspicion that these Entitled courts have been purposefully designed as some kind of boredom endurance test. Anybody presenting a frivolous complaint would certainly be tempted to get up and leave at the two-hour mark, when the court-appointed lawyer-bot is still in the process of establishing the identity and credentials of Titus Abrasax for the court. All the same, Aleksa forces herself to pay close attention, and writes down any questions that occur to her. She doesn't know enough about these people yet. She can't afford to be bored..
And when you cut through all the legal bullshit, there's some interesting information in there to be ferreted out. For example: Titus Abrasax owns thirty planets, but some planets are valued at higher amounts than others, and those valuation trends don't seem to correspond directly to the total population of the planet. Why this courtroom would need to know the total population on every single one of Titus Abrasax's thirty planets, Aleksa cannot fathom. Nonetheless, she writes down the figures – planet, population, valuation – and then sets them aside. It's tempting to start working on the problem now, figure out what the other factors in play might be, but if she starts solving equations, she'll stop paying attention to anything else, and she can't afford to do that either.
Titus' opening introduction is followed by another one for Jupiter that's even harder to sit through. It doesn't contain any new revelations, just the same information that Aleksa's been poring over for months, delivered in a flat drone with senseless rhetorical elaborations.
The lawyer-bot refers to Jupiter throughout as 'Seraphi Abrasax.' Aleksa is perfectly aware that this legally relevant. The name and identity of the long-dead Entitled woman is the only thing that gives Jupiter a right to sit in this court at all. Still, the muscles in her face ache with the effort of not scowling when he says it. She wants to reach out, put a hand on Jupiter's back or her arm, remind her daughter and everybody else out there watching that it doesn't matter what anyone calls her – but she'd promised Jupiter she wouldn't do anything embarrassing, and besides, she'd told Kalique she was Jupiter's accountant. Nobody expects emotional support from their accountant.
This portion of the proceedings takes about four hours. After all that, the shift from introduction to interrogation is almost shocking in its swiftness. “Seraphi Abrasax,” the lawyer-bot announces, “accuses Titus Abrasax of interference with her free travel, matrimonial contract fraud, interference with her staff, and attempted murder of her second physical incarnation. Titus Abrasax admits to the first charge, does not admit to the second, claims self-defense in the third, and does not admit to the fourth. We will now hear the witnesses speak.”
The witness boxes sail down from the heights and line up in a tidy row. Tsing frowns down at her basket, which looks to be about half-finished. Apini is taking a nap. As for Caine, for the amount he's moved since entering the box, he might as well be a statue titled 'Man With Bad Goatee Having Bad Day.'
“We'll hear first from Stinger Apini,” says the lawyer-bot, and Apini's box opens. The moment would probably have more dramatic impact were Apini not still snoring.
With a slightly embarrassed cough, the lawyer-bot extends a long silver pointer finger several meters and taps him on the shoulder.
Apini's eyes flick open. “Right. I'm up, then?”
“Please state your name and employment history,” says the lawyer-bot, primly retracting the pointer finger and folding it away.
Over the course of the lengthy interrogation of the first two witnesses, Aleksa learns the following fascinating facts:
- Stinger Apini is the result of an entire bee-related breeding program that has generated 5,000 other successful space bee soldiers over the past twenty years
- Diomika Tsing has three parents, all Legionnaires
- Stinger Apini has never been married
- Diomika Tsing spent the first twenty years of her service in the Legion before transfererring to the Aegis at the age of thirty-five – around the same time, Aleksa notes, as the date of her marriage contract to one Karo Tsing
- Stinger Apini's daughter is sixteen years old, and not in any service of any kind
- Neither Stinger Apini nor Diomika Tsing use any but the very blandest and most polite of words to describe their career choices (if choices is, in fact, the correct word)
- Diomika Tsing's professional record is so impressively impeccable that even the court-appointed lawyer-bot takes a moment to congratulate her on it. Aleksa doesn't know what she'd expected.
“You were an Aegis engaged in Her Majesty Seraphi Abrasax's business,” the lawyer says to Apini, “when you gave out unauthorized information about her that led to the circumvention of her free travel rights by another Entitled. If your story is true, you're aware she would be within her rights to prosecute.”
“I'm aware.” Apini crosses his arms and leans against the back of the witness box. With the faintest trace of dryness, he says, “I trust in the benevolence and generosity of Her Majesty.”
“So you witnessed yourself the attempt by His Highness to force Her Majesty to sign the matrimonial contract?” the lawyer-bot asks Tsing.
“While the charges provided by the prosecution appear consistent with the facts as I observed them,” Tsing answers, “I was not a witness to the marriage contract, and have no direct evidence to offer on that front.”
Apini's testimony is frank, open, disarmingly honest. Tsing's is straightforward and professional. Aleksa is not naive enough to think that either of these things are accident. Apini and Tsing are both old enough and savvy enough to know how to make a good impression on this kind of audience.
Unfortunately, Aleksa does not trust their next witness to do any such thing.
As soon as the box opens, Caine's eyes go straight to Jupiter. Apparently he expects to find that Jupiter has been kidnapped, dismembered, or worse during the five hours or so that she's been out of his sight. Jupiter, patently well except for a case of extreme boredom, smiles encouragingly and gives him a tiny wave with her fingers. This only makes Caine's scowl go flatter and colder than ever. His eyes jerk forwards again, and fix on the lawyer-bot as their target.
Presumably he is merely engaging in the space werewolf military version of sulking. Still, pointy ears and ill-advised goatee aside, her daughter's space werewolf boyfriend is making remarkably little effort not to look like a murderer in front of all the law-abiding citizens of the court.
The lawyer-bot clears his throat. “Please state your record for the court, Mr. Wise.”
“Caine Wise,” says Caine.
Aleksa raises an eyebrow and shoots a glance at Jupiter – not as bad as she'd feared, but still, a little on the old side for a person of twenty, perhaps? – who scowls back and shoves her with an elbow.
“Primary of House Farkan.”
“For the purpose of – really, Mr. Wise,” says the lawyer-bot, exasperation overcoming nerves, “if you could please simply state your full record directly for the court, this would go much more efficiently.”
For once, Aleksa is inclined to agree with the lawyer-bot. She doesn't know what Caine is playing at, but she fixes a glare on him, silently willing him to get on with it.
“Created,” says Caine, woodenly, “for the purpose of serving as a bodyguard. Deemed unsatisfactory by House Farkan, and sold to the Legion at the age of twelve.” Aleksa notes the use of the word, 'sold.' Stinger didn't use it, nor Tsing – though it's always possible that either or both of them joined up voluntarily. Or perhaps it's the algorithm translating differently, based on context. “Gained my wings at the age of eighteen. At the age of twenty-four, indicted by this court for attempted murder of an Entitled. Full sentencing waived at the request of my superior officer. Released at the age of twenty-nine at the request of Titus Abrasax. No genetic connections, no property, no genetic descendents.”
“And now you work for?”
Caine looks straight at the lawyer-bot. “Nobody,” he says. “I'm a free citizen.”
The lawyer-bot hesitates and goes blank for a moment, consulting internal files; presumably this is the robot version of surprise. “You don't work for Seraphi Abrasax?”
“I accompany Seraphi Abrasax,” says Caine, “but she does not employ me. I am a free citizen.”
Of course, now that Aleksa bothers to think about it, this is perfectly true. Caine is Jupiter's bodyguard, everybody knows this, but nobody's ever made any provisions to pay him, outside of arranging for his hotel room and expecting him to take part in awkward family dinners. Caine is Jupiter's boyfriend, and everybody knows this, too. Nobody expects to provide financial assistance to Jupiter's boyfriends, except that one time when there didn't seem any other reasonable way to compel the deadbeat to return Jupiter's possessions.
Still, how is it possible that nobody at all those awkward family dinners ever got around to asking Caine what kind of a living he makes, and where it comes from? Normally that would be question number one – though of course they've all been a little distracted. Aleksa makes a note to prime Lyudmilla with this conversational topic when they all get back.
Meanwhile, the lawyer-bot frowns. “But at the time of the incident in question, you were employed by Seraphi Abrasax?”
“Though there are no fund transfers into your account from that period.”
“The contract was paid,” says Caine, evenly, “in medical assistance.”
Aleksa hears Jupiter snort.
“Very well,” says the lawyer-bot, with a sigh. “Now, you say that Titus tried to murder you while you were in Her Majesty's service?”
“His employee Famulus threw me out an airlock.”
“Without receiving permission from Her Majesty first.”
“Not to my knowledge,” says Caine, “although of course I can't confirm this.”
“I would never have consented to that,” Jupiter says, loudly.
The lawyer-bot's head swivels disapprovingly in her direction. “Your Majesty, I beg that you will remain quiet until it is your turn to testify.”
Jupiter snaps her lips back shut and slumps down irritably in the plush cushioning of her chair.
“In this court,” says the lawyer-bot, “we must consider all the possibilities. You admit that there is a possibility that Her Majesty may have requested that her contracted fiancé arrange for your termination, then changed her mind at a later date?”
Jupiter's fists clench at her sides.
From her angle in the accuser's box, all Aleksa can see is that Caine tenses in the witness box. His lips draw back in a snarl, and his shoulders ripple, as if he's preparing to leap out.
Aleksa throws herself on top of Jupiter.
“Mom!” Jupiter wails as she tumbles to the floor of the box, in tones of the utmost embarrassment.
At the same moment, the court-appointed lawyer-bot shrieks, “Miss Famulus, what is the meaning of this!”
Jupiter flails. “Mom! Let me get up, I need to see!”
Advocate Bob leans down. “Er – excuse me,” he says, in a loud whisper, “but I believe whatever danger existed has been averted.”
“You stay down until I check for sure,” Aleksa hisses, and cautiously clambers up to her knees to peer out into the courtroom.
Jupiter, of course, ignores her completely and pops straight back up to her feet. Aleksa hadn't really expected anything different.
Somewhat to Aleksa's surprise, Caine is still sitting in the witness box. He doesn't look happy about it. Every muscle in his body appears to be clenched. Aleksa has seen women in labor who look more relaxed than this. Still, he's sitting, and has not moved.
Aleksa swings her gaze back around into the audience, where everyone's attention seems to be fixed on an innocent-looking young woman with large pink ears and a high-piled hairstyle who is standing very still, her hands stretched out in front of her. “I apologize for interrupting the court,” she says. “I had a call of nature.”
“That woman,” says Advocate Bob, sharply, “is an employee of Titus Abrasax, and as anyone can clearly see, she is holding a Class Five directed-energy weapon --”
“Replica,” answers the woman, coolly. Her ears quiver very slightly. Aleksa wonders if this can be accurately assumed to indicate nervousness. “It's just a toy, Your Honor. You know it wouldn't be possible for anybody to bring a real weapon through the defenses here. But if you're concerned – I'm putting it down.” Slowly, she lowers her hand to place a small gray device down on the arm of her chair. It's so small that Aleksa has to squint to notice that it's even there.
But of course, unlike certain individuals – Caine Wise, for example – Aleksa doesn't have genetically modified eyes.
“Why do you have a toy replica of a directed-energy weapon in a courtroom, Miss Famulus?” demands the court-appointed lawyer-bot. It's obvious that he's not amused.
The name's familiar. Aleksa places it a moment later: of course, it's the woman who'd had Caine thrown out the airlock.
Famulus says, “There's nothing illegal about having a toy, Your Honor.”
The lawyer-bot practically quivers with indignation. “You said you had a call of nature, Miss Famulus. If I were you, I would go answer it. And I wouldn't return.”
Famulus bows stiffly at the waist, and then exits, head held high. Aleksa glances up at the box where Titus Abrasax sits with his own (well-groomed, female-looking, curvaceous) advocate-bot, and sees him looking straight ahead, face just as stiff as his employee's.
The rest of the trial goes swiftly after that. The lawyer-bot briefly finishes his cross-examination of Caine, then moves to Jupiter. His politeness to her is marked, and though she doesn't look comfortable, she answers his questions with a level of poise that makes Aleksa proud.
Next comes Titus, who does his best to level best to ooze sincerity as he assures the lawyer-bot that his offer of a marriage contract to Jupiter was a sincere good-faith effort. Jupiter sits stone-faced throughout the whole thing, but makes no undignified interruptions. The lawyer-bot, meanwhile, all but rolls his eyes as he runs through the questions.
Aleksa had expected at this point to have to sit through a full parade of witnesses from Titus, all attesting to her daughter's dubious character. But there are no other witness-boxes, so perhaps an accused defendant is not allowed witnesses in space court. The lawyer-bot retires to consider his verdict, and Jupiter's witness-boxes float back down to release their inhabitants.
“That was quick,” Apini remarks, against a background buzz of conversation from the spectators. He looks a little puzzled.
Advocate Bob grins. He, on the other hand, looks positively gleeful. “His Majesty overplayed his hand, I'm afraid. That little trick with his minion Famulus deeply annoyed the court. Really, I can't imagine what he thought to gain by such a maneuver.”
Aleksa finds herself exchanging glances with her daughter. She, personally, can imagine. She thinks probably Jupiter can, too. If Caine had taken the bait –
But Caine is now standing behind Jupiter, once again the perfect bodyguard. His face is expressionless.
At this point, Kalique Abrasax sweeps up. “Congratulations,” she says, with every evidence of warmth.
Jupiter's smile back at her is a little nervous. “Don't jinx me!”
“Oh, it's a foregone conclusion now, of course. The only question remaining is the size of the settlement. Your accountant will have her hands full. But I'm sure she'll have no difficulty managing it.” Kalique suddenly sweeps a bright smile directly at Aleksa. “I can't imagine how you could have a more devoted employee than your own mother.”
Aleksa keeps her face still, with an effort, as Kalique goes on, “I do wish you'd introduced us properly earlier.”
“Oh,” says Jupiter, “didn't … I …?” Then, rallying: “I'm really sorry, it just slipped my mind – you're always so well-informed, I kind of assumed you already knew?” She gives Kalique a smile that is equally bright, and equally insincere. “There's kind of a family resemblance, right?”
Kalique looks a little taken aback by this comment, which, Aleksa privately tallies as a point for Jupiter. “Well – it's very much a pleasure, Jupiter's mother.” The phrase is delivered with the air of a title. Aleksa wonders if there is an untranslatable element to it that she is somehow missing. Surely space language must have a specific word for 'the irrelevant womb that had the good fortune to spawn a genetic recurrence.'
“Aleksa Ruslanovna Bolotnikova is my name,” she says, pleasantly.
Kalique does not appear to find this information significant. “Well, if you've any questions about the settlement, please feel free to contact my people for advice. They're very familiar with all of Titus' properties. Jupiter --” She reaches out and cups Jupiter's cheek in her hand. “I may have lost some profit today, but I do hope that perhaps I may have gained a business partner? We'll be in touch.”
Jupiter does not look comfortable with the cheek-stroking. Aleksa feels extremely strongly that it is her responsibility as a parent to intervene. She starts to take a step forward, at the same time as Kalique slides backward, bestows one last gracious glance around at Team Jupiter, and glides away.
Of course no space people show any signs of thinking this interaction has been at all peculiar, because there is apparently no space person who remembers that 'personal' is an important part of 'space.'
At this point, a noise like a bell rings from somewhere overhead. “Ah!” says Advocate Bob. “To the judgment room!”
Space court allows for the principal parties in a case to hear the result in a private room, before any public announcement is made. This is meant to ensure that they have a head start in the process of capitalizing on any financial advantages created by the decision. Aleksa got this explanation from Bob.
In order to reach the judgment room, everyone in the defendant's party and the accuser's party is required to squeeze themselves into their respective boxes and sail away over the heads of the crowd to an enclosed glass tunnel at the top of the courthouse, which then leads them once again over the heads of the spectators and off into a separate building. This is meant to ensure that they appear as ridiculous as possible. Aleksa did not get this explanation from Bob, but she can't think of another one.
When Jupiter and her cohort reach the lawyer-bot's office, Titus is already there, backed by his advocate-bot and an additional phalanx of (of course) attractive young-looking female-looking persons, none of whom are Famulus. He mockingly kisses his hand to Jupiter across the lawyer-bot's podium as she arrives.
Jupiter gives him the middle finger.
Aleksa wonders if there's any kind of universal translator that might whisper an explanation of the gesture into the lawyer-bot's ear, but can't really find it in herself to care.
The lawyer-bot clears his throat. “Well. We don't want to keep the good people of the court waiting, so let's get right down to it. This court finds Titus Abrasax guilty on all four charges, including willful breach of contract against his mother and House primary, Seraphi Abrasax. Fifty percent of His Majesty's assets are now remanded into Her Majesty's possession, including the planets of Polidor, Essen Five, and Tlutarita --”
Jupiter lifts her arm for a small fist-pump, but the lawyer-bot is still going.
“-- as well as the satellite processing plants Tluta One and Tluta Three, and thirty thousand vats of pure RegeneX.”
It's not all that large a number, in the grand scheme of thing, but it echoes in the room like a much larger one. “Thirty thousand vats?” echoes Advocate Bob, in tones of wonder. Apini whistles. Aleksa takes a moment to do the math in her head. If one vat of RegeneX contains about five hundred portions, as her preliminary market research indicates, then the court has just awarded Jupiter custody of 1.5 billion murdered souls.
The glee has slipped out of Jupiter's face. She says, to Titus, “You own sixty thousand vats of RegeneX?”
“Owned.” Titus' face looks drained and white, but the condescending smile still lingers on his face. It's a very punchable face. An unfortunate trait in certain Bolotnikovs, too. “Congratulations, Mother,” he says. “That will keep you young for a long, long time.”
He leaves, with his phalanx of assistants, before anyone has the chance to think of an effective comeback.
“Well?” says the lawyer-bot, irritably. “You'd better hurry, if you don't want him to gain a stock advantage.”
Jupiter looks blankly around the room. Advocate Bob mutters, “Don't worry, I'll take care of it,” and scurries off after Titus.
“Is there a way we can leave from here without going back through the circus?” Aleksa asks the lawyer-bot.
“Well! It would be very irregular --”
“Did I ask if it's irregular?” Aleksa demands.
The lawyer-bot sighs, and a small door slides open behind him. “Follow the yellow arrows at the end of the hall, and you'll come out back in the parking lot.”
“Thank you,” says Aleksa, and sweeps on down the indicated hallway, pulling the rest of the party in her wake. The rest of the space spectators can go screw themselves.
On the ride back, Jupiter sits by the front bay, stares at the stars, and frowns to herself. The rest of Tsing's crew tiptoe tactfully around her. Advocate Bob and Apini converse in low voices; Aleksa wonders vaguely what they have to talk about. Tsing moves calmly around the bridge as if nothing at all had happened, and perhaps, for her, nothing did. Still, Aleksa, watching her – watching all of them – catches even the unflappable Tsing throwing the occasional glance in Jupiter's direction.
It doesn't surprise her that Jupiter should be thoughtful, or that the crew take the cues of their mood from her.
However, it does surprise Aleksa when Caine comes to stand next to her in her nook on the bridge.
He says, without preamble, “You weren't looking at Famulus when you knocked Jupiter down.”
So apparently they're talking about this. Aleksa gives a shrug of agreement. She didn't know from Famulus before today; why should she have been looking at her?
“You were looking at me.”
“Yes,” says Aleksa, experimentally. She's fairly sure this is already the longest conversation that they've had without Jupiter present.
“What did you think I was going to do.” His intonation is flat, no rise at the end.
Aleksa shrugs again. “You looked like you were going to attack something.” She makes an effort to stare him down, but he won't meet her eyes; he's looking resolutely somewhere off past her shoulder. “You got a problem with what I did?”
“No.” Caine bites off the word. “I –” He stops, and then starts again. He's almost worse at speaking in whatever his native language is than she is in English. “Titus meant for me to see the directed-energy weapon and think it was real. Attack Famulus to protect Jupiter.”
Aleksa does her best to keep her voice neutral. “Seems so.”
Now Caine does meet her eyes, finally. “I wouldn't have hurt her,” he says. His voice contains all the passionate melodrama of young love. “It's fine if you don't believe me – I know it. I wouldn't ever hurt her. I'm here to protect her, not win her lawsuits, but it would've looked bad, if I'd gone after Famulus, and because of you, I remembered – I realized I didn't have to. Realized that it would look – So thanks. For that.”
For once, Aleksa finds herself at a loss for words. How is a person meant to react to being thanked for for reminding someone – not just any someone, her daughter's boyfriend someone – that he's considered a strong candidate for a murderous rampage? “Um,” she says.
Apparently Caine considers this a solid talk, because he gives her a short nod and starts to turn away.
Aleksa finds herself saying, “Wait.”
Caine snaps back to facing in her general direction, in an attitude that Aleksa cannot help but think of as 'parade rest.'
“You're right,” Aleksa tells him. “I'm watching you. To trust any of you people for one hundred percent with my daughter, I'd have to be crazy. But if I really thought you would hurt her, you would be gone already. I don't care what Jupiter says – you'd be gone. OK?”
There's a small pause.
“So ... you're saying you do think I might hurt her,” Caine says slowly, after a moment, “but … you don't think I might hurt her.”
“Possibility and probability are different,” says Aleksa, and looks at him to see if he understands. Who knows how much math education space werewolves get?
“....OK.” There's another pause, as Caine considers this. “Uh. Thanks?”
It'll do for now. “Great,” Aleksa says. “Good talk.” She leans back against the wall of the bridge, and goes back to looking out at the crew going about the business of piloting the ship.
Caine can take a hint. He wanders back up to the front bay, and settles into a seat on the floor about a foot away from Jupiter, back against the window to space. They don't talk – they're still fighting or something, Aleksa remembers belatedly – but his long legs, stretched out along the floor, brush against the tips of Jupiter's wildly impractical space shoes.
Aleksa might be imagining things, but she thinks the stiff set of Caine's shoulders has relaxed a little. If nothing else, she hopes she's managed to confuse him at least as much as he has her.
Jupiter holds the first business meeting of the revolution. Space ethics continue to be a challenge.
Aleksa's been used to losing for so long that she's almost forgotten that there are ways in which winning is just as hard.
Jupiter has decided to hold regular conferences. She wants everyone who's likely to play any kind of a role in Jupiter's long-term plans for the galaxy to attend. That means all the Bolotnikovs over the age of eighteen, a werewolf, a half-bee, a robot, and Tsing.
Jupiter wants to invite Tsing's crew as well. When she makes an effort to suggest this, however, Tsing obliquely but emphatically declines on their behalf. “While they have a number of other duties to perform, they can, of course, attend if you order their presence.”
“Well,” says Jupiter, “I'd just like to know what they think about --”
“The Aegis,” says Tsing, blandly, “are not encouraged to have opinions.”
“Rule 1578,” murmurs Aleksa, and Jupiter shoots her a confused glance.
“If my presence will be insufficient, Your Majesty --”
Aleksa says, “Do you want to have a presence?”
Tsing's aura of blandness somehow manages to intensify. “There is a possibility that my input may prove useful to Her Majesty.”
Jupiter opens her mouth again to speak; Aleksa gets in first. “Sure, then that's fine.” She waves Tsing off grandly with one hand. “Go on, aren't you supposed to be flying a ship or something?"
“If Her Majesty will excuse me,” Tsing answers politely – which, Aleksa supposes, is one way to put Her Majesty's mother in her place.
“Um … sure?” Jupiter says, but her brow is furrowed. She waits until Tsing's around the corner to round on Aleksa. “Mom, I know you just wanna help, but --”
“Her crew are military,” says Aleksa. “They follow orders. The more they know about what those orders mean, the less safe for them, the less safe for us.”
Jupiter looks mutinous. “Hey – you agreed with me that Bob should have a say before he joined up. And Tsing wants to be there!”
Aleksa shrugs. She's about to say that they're not slaves, they volunteered for the military life – but in fact, after her conversation with Tsing the other day, she's not entirely sure that that's true. “Bob advises you,” she counters instead. “A person makes decisions, they also get blame for them. Same with Tsing. A commander shields the people under her. The other Aegis don't make decisions – Tsing does. If you don't think that's right, OK, you can order the Aegis to have free will, see how well that works out.”
Jupiter huffs. “Sure, you can make it sound stupid, but the fact is that if people are going to do something dangerous they should have a choice about it!”
“Dying for something you don't know anything about, that's how being in a military works. You don't like it, you don't use a military.”
“I can't do this without the Aegis!”
“Yeah? Sure, maybe. I'm not telling you what to do.” Aleksa switches over to Russian. “I'm not saying free will is a bad cause, either. But you've got to think about the implications and the consequences. If you're afraid of wolves, don't go to the woods.”
Jupiter rolls her eyes. “Sure easy for you to say, Mom.”
“Of course,” says Aleksa. “I'm not the space princess. God be praised for that.”
She uses Lyudmila's standard Yiddish phrase, about the only Yiddish she knows, and it has the intended effect; Jupiter wrinkles her nose and makes a face at her. “Since when did you thank God for anything?”
Aleksa rolls her eyes heavenward and says, piously, “Ever since you were granted a shitty space miracle.”
“If you'd maybe not be so judgy about literally everything,” Jupiter mutters, “that really would be a shitty space miracle.”
“Sure it would. And who wants a shitty miracle?”
Jupiter lets out a snort of laughter in spite of herself. “OK, fine. We don't really have enough space for all the Aegis this first time anyway, but that doesn't mean they're not ever coming, I just gotta think about it a little more.”
“Sure,” Aleksa agrees. “That's your job. My job is space math.” She starts gathering up her paperwork. There's a lot of space math for her to do in the next three days, if she's going to be ready for this meeting. “Prepare to be wowed.”
It's not entirely true that they couldn't have fit all the Aegis at the meeting, if Jupiter had really made a sticking point out of it. The space palace is almost finished – three weeks for sure now, the contractors are saying, they just have to finish putting in the toilets – and in theory they could have made use of the large council table that Nino has installed there for just exactly this sort of meeting. It's not really very practical to hold an important meeting in a palace that has no working toilet, but Aleksa is fairly sure that's not the only reason Jupiter's decided to cram them all back in the Bolotnikov home for this first meeting instead. The reminder of who Jupiter is and where she comes from is important. Jupiter doesn't want anyone to forget it – or maybe she just doesn't want to forget it herself.
Aleksa appreciates the symbolism. Still, it has to be said: even with as small a group as they are, the table could stand to be a little larger.
Caine wanted to stand behind Jupiter to free up space, but Jupiter insisted that he sit next to her and participate in the conversation. Apparently they've patched up their fight, because now he's glaring at anyone who has the temerity to look at their interwoven arms. Nino is half-squashed next to Bob, and hits Aleksa's arm with her elbow every time she moves. Tsing, on Aleksa's other side, would probably be doing the same thing if she weren't sitting so still. This is irritating, because it means that Aleka's now almost certainly going to be the one accidentally hitting her instead unless she pays constant attention to where Tsing is in relation to her arm. On the other side, Stinger the space bee is sandwiched stoically in between Vassily and Irina, while Lyudmila has somehow managed to use the advantage of her age to carve out a six-inch bubble of personal space at the end of the table. Vladie, who wasn't formally invited, has pulled out the extra stool from the kitchen and seems intent on making sure he has both a metaphorical and literal seat at the table.
Aleksa's life has been getting stranger by the minute these past few months, but somehow the strangest thing yet is to see this array of aliens gathered around her kitchen table, evenly interspersed with faces she knows as well as she knows her own.
“Okay,” Jupiter says, when everyone's jostled themselves into something approximating a comfortable position. “So – you guys know why we're here. Now that we've dealt with the Titus issue --”
“Temporarily,” says Caine.
“Most likely temporarily,” agrees Bob. “It will take him some time to rebuild his assets enough to leverage any significant --”
“Now that we don't have to worry about the Titus issue for at least a little while,” Jupiter says firmly, “we should start drawing out some game plans on the whole …. RegeneX thing. Like. I mean. OK. I guess I should start by saying that we're all on the same page that full-planet liquidation is not OK, right? Anybody not on that page? Because if so, this is the time to walk out.”
Aleksa skips over the Bolotnikovs, and focuses in on the alien faces: Caine, Bob, Apini, Tsing. Caine, as far as she can tell, is doing the same. As for the rest – well, she doesn't even know for sure what she thinks she's going to see. It's not like she's any kind of expert in understanding what aliens are thinking.
Whatever they're thinking, none of them walk out. She hadn't really expected that any of them would. One way or another, they all work for Jupiter. Whether that means any of them really believe in Jupiter's self-proclaimed cause is another question entirely.
At least Jupiter looks satisfied. She gives a decisive nod. “OK, good. So, obviously, I'm not making any more RegeneX. We've already shut down production in all Seraphi's factories, plus the ones I got from Titus. But I also inherited a whole lot of RegeneX that already exists, and given that … it's gross …. but super valuable …. but gross … I'd kind of like to talk about what to do … with all that.”
Jupiter looks expectantly out at her council of war. There's a brief moment of silence.
Lyudmila raises her hand. “Excuse me – you say Regenex, means --” She hesitates, searching for the right word, and finally settles on, “Immortal face cream?”
“I don't know if it's actually a face cream,” Nina says. “I think you drink it. Something like that. Or shoot it like a Botox? Also, you can talk in Russian if you want, Lyudmila,” she adds, though she keeps speaking English herself. It's how they all tend to speak to those who are alien. “Everyone understands.”
Lyudmila sticks stubbornly to English. “No matter. Just making sure I'm understanding. Immortal juice made from people. Yes. Well, you are right, Jupiter,” she says, firmly, “this is very much an evil thing. I think you destroy all of it you have. Such a thing should not be.”
Apparently all it needed was for one person to propose an idea in order for the floodgates to open. Now, suddenly, everybody has an opinion.
“It seems a waste --”
“But it's worth millions,” wails Vladie.
“Earth millions are small change when compared with the intergalactic value of Jupiter's stores of RegeneX,” says Nino, then adds, hastily, with a glance at Aleksa, “I'm not advocating to sell it! Just to make sure we're holding an accurate discussion.”
“It's a terrible thing, of course, how it's made is horrible,” says Vassily, “but destroying it won't bring any of those people back. And whatever you're planning, Jupiter, the more resources you have, the easier it will be.”
Stinger Apini says, rather to Aleksa's surprise, “I'd be happy to smash up the lot of it.”
“If you'll excuse me, Your Highness,” says Tsing. She's managed to catch a lull in the shouting, and everybody turns to look at her as she goes on, “You might wish to consider reserving some of the store for your own use.”
Jupiter blinks, her forehead drawing down. “Captain Tsing, that's not --”
Tsing holds out a hand. “Hear me out. What you're discussing – what we're discussing – is, in the long term, the end of RegeneX production as an industry. Correct?”
“Yeah,” Jupiter says, warily, “I thought I'd already made that pretty clear, yeah.”
“This not the work of a single human lifetime. Your enemies have been profiting from the current economic laws for millenia. They have enough RegeneX stockpiled that even if no more were ever to be produced, starting today, they will be able to live for centuries more at minimum. Against such odds, any accomplishments achieved by an individual over the course of a few decades can be easily overturned.”
“Well, that's --” Jupiter swallows. She's barely past twenty. No one of that age is in the habit of thinking in terms of decades. “I mean, obviously I hope that once we get going, all of this isn't going to have to rely on just me – and, I mean, if I have kids, and their kids, then --” She trails off, with a shrug.
Tsing waits a careful few moment, giving Jupiter the space to end her sentence, before she speaks again. “Children may decide not to follow the wishes of their parents. Seraphi Abrasax herself turned against RegeneX at the end of her life, it's said, and if she had not been reborn in you --”
Aleksa leans under her chair to grab the files she's stowed there, pulls them up, and lets them drop to the table with a satisfying thud. Every head turns toward her. “Actually, she says, loudly, “this is a point we're wishing to discuss.”
“What?” says Jupiter.
“The plans of Seraphi Abrasax. Did you think she didn't have any?”
So it's maybe a little bit of a drama move to pull. Still, she has to admit: it's gratifying, to have such an attentive audience. Nino is grinning at her across the table. “First,” Aleksa says, “we go back a little. Tsing, you're correct – destroying the business of RegeneX forever is not an easy thing to do. We're all aware of this. Destroying any kind of business is not easy. How can you do it? Couple of options. First -- you make it illegal. How? Set that aside for right now. It's difficult. More difficult with space laws, but we're talking options. So, say you make it illegal –"
"Economic collapse," puts in Nino. "Lots of people suffering because of this."
Aleksa makes a dismissive hand gesture. "The resource planets, like Earth, will they suffer because of the collapse of an industry they don't know about to begin with? Probably not so much. Do we care about the suffering of people who use skin cream made of people? I don't know that we care so much about that. "
"Now who's being space unethical!" says Nino. "Sound more like Lenin, why don't you!"
"Better Lenin than Stalin. Still, even so, if you think about this practically, you get a black market. People pay even higher prices than before, and no regulation -- atrocities maybe on a smaller scale, but still atrocities and maybe worse ones. So, this is not ideal.” Aleksa takes a breath, and plows on before anyone else can interrupt. “So. How else do you destroy a business?”
She looks pointedly at Vassily, proud small business owner, who provides the answer on cue: “You have a better business.”
Aleksa gives a sharp nod. “Exactly. A better business. Better work, better technology. This is what Seraphi Abrasax was working on, before she died. You think that out of the goodness of her heart, she decides to end her business without securing her economic interests first? Does that sound like an Abrasax to you? Of course it doesn't. She sees that there is a potential solution that involves maybe a little less murder, and, being a smart woman, she thinks she can corner the market. After that, OK, sure, end RegeneX. Flood the market with synthetic, drive it out for good. This was what she planned. Probably this is why her son kills her.” She gives a dramatic shrug, and then regrets it immediately when her elbow hits Tsing in the side. “Or maybe not. I don't know what a murderer with a shitty space palace and an Oedipus complex is thinking. Either way, when he inherits her assets, he makes a good start on hiding all evidence of what his mother is doing – and of course Seraphi Abrasax, too, so far as we can tell, she's doing this as much in secret as she can.”
“But you can't do everything in secret,” Nino jumps in, “and you can't erase all paper trails, especially if you are busy building shitty space palaces and murdering planets and fussing with your hair, or whatever else it is that a person like Balem Abrasax does with his time. And this is even more difficult if you are too suspicious to let anybody who is expert in bureaucracy know much about what is going on and help you with any of the work. So he cannot hide everything.” She taps the side of her nose, looking immensely smug. “Or at least he cannot hide it from talented individuals such as Mr. Advocate Bob and myself.” She puts a comfortable arm around Advocate Bob, who makes what can only be termed calves' eyes at Nino in response.
It's mildly sickening, but Aleksa does not have time at present to be disturbed by further evidence that a robot accountant has imprinted on her sister. “What Nino is getting around to saying,” she concludes, “is that we are certain Seraphi hired a factory to test production of synthetic RegeneX. We also think – though are not certain – that there is some chance we can locate enough of her research to bring it into the market.”
She looks again at Vassily, who is grinning in a way that makes him look twenty years younger. He's known about this, of course; he's the one who's been helping her go through Seraphi's financial files. “The business plan,” he says, gleefully, “almost writes itself.”
He sits back, and now everyone is waiting for Jupiter.
Jupiter opens her mouth. Jupiter shuts her mouth. Jupiter says, with admirable poise, “Thanks for the update, everyone. This is definitely important information, and, uh, an exciting new game plan to talk about for the future, but before we get too far off the agenda --”
“Did you send an agenda?” says Irina, startled. “Are we supposed to have an agenda? I never received an agenda.”
“-- the agenda which I didn't actually send but which exists in my head,” Jupiter amends, “but which I will definitely send before the next meeting – so, before we get too far off, what does this have to do with the actual, existing vats of RegeneX that I wanted to talk about?”
“To bring a synthetic RegeneX into the market,” Aleksa says, “we will need to do testing. For testing, we will need the original product.” She looks at her daughter. “But maybe you don't feel OK using it for this? Maybe you want to destroy it, like Lyudmila says. I can't tell you what is right.”
Jupiter sits back in her chair a little. She takes a deep breath. “Well,” she says, “I wish you could.”
Eventually, Jupiter calls for a vote. It doesn't much help. Lyudmila and Stinger remain in favor of destroying the RegeneX immediately. Nino, Irina and Vassily vote as a block to keep it for the purposes of potential synthetics research. (Vladie also votes for this, but it's tacitly understood by the rest of the family that his vote doesn't count.) Advocate Bob declares that he strongly recommends the plan proposed by the Bolotnikov accounting team from a business standpoint, but that he is not programmed with an expertise in ethical matters, and therefore refuses to advise on the topic. Caine, like Aleksa, abstains, and despite her earlier suggestions, so does Tsing.
Jupiter does not look happy with these results. “So if I vote for destroying it, it's a tie,” she says. (Aleksa sees Stinger's brow furrow at this conclusion. He has not yet spent enough time among the Bolotnikovs to understand about Vladie's vote.)
“If you vote for destroying it, we destroy it,” says Caine. Typically, it's the first thing he's said besides his one-word vote absention. Nobody contradicts him; even Vassily is nodding. They're Jupiter's assets. The decision has to be hers.
Jupiter lets out a tremendous sigh, lets her head drop dramatically to the table, and then pushes herself upright again. “OK. We'll hang onto it. For now. Bob, can you work out some kind of legal thing to make it basically impossible for me or anyone else affiliated with me to use it or sell it for anything other than the purposes we've talked about? Cool, thanks. We'll talk about the synthetic RegeneX plan and whether we want to move forward with it at the next meeting, which … I will definitely have an agenda for! And maybe if we're lucky, an actual conference table – um, which, speaking of, Nino, do you want to give an update on the space palace?”
Nino is only too happy to give an update on the space palace. Aleksa, who has been the semi-willing recipient of regular updates on the space palace every day for the past several months, does not find this the most enjoyable portion of the meeting. Nino's detailed explanations of her frustrations with space contractors, the expense of space building materials, and the inconvenience of space plumbing requires a great deal of gesticulation. The amount of elbow-jostling rapidly grows unacceptable. Aleksa grimly plants her feet and grips the table to avoid sliding into Captain Tsing's personal space.
Given how hard Aleksa is working on maintaining the spare inch of space between them, perhaps it's inevitable that she finds her thoughts turning back to Tsing's earlier suggestions for Jupiter's use of the RegeneX. It seems Tsing has been putting some thought into Jupiter's plans for rebellion, or whatever you want to call it. Aleksa finds herself more than a little curious to know what Tsing thinks about the notion of synthetic RegeneX.
When Jupiter finally calls an end, Aleksa rises, planning to catch Tsing outside and see if she can satisfy her curiosity a little. However, before she can follow her to the door, Jupiter steps in front of her and puts a hand on her arm. “Hey. Mom,” she says. “You have a minute?”
“Always for you,” Aleksa answers, with a raised eyebrow, and follows her daughter upstairs to their room.
Jupiter closes the door carefully behind them, and then sits down on the bed. “So.” She sounds like someone who is straining to keep her temper, which is unusual for Jupiter; usually, if she's mad, she doesn't bother to strain. “You didn't think maybe you wanted to give me some advance warning before busting all that out, back there? Seriously, Mom, what were you thinking?”
Aleksa stares back at her. Now she's the one who feels blindsided. “… I'm thinking the point of a meeting is to meet?”
“No duh! I'm not saying you shouldn't have brought it up for everyone to talk about, but why wouldn't you tell me first? What did you expect me to do,” Jupiter demands, “figure out how I felt about all of that just there on the fly? How am I supposed to lead a meeting on something I don't have a clue about?”
There are half a dozen sharp retorts poised on the edge of Aleksa's tongue. She clamps her teeth together to hold them in, forcing herself to think the situation through.
For Jupiter to set up a whole meeting presumably for the purpose of sharing information, then assume everyone understands that if they want information to be shared, they should do it in a meeting before the meeting – well, it's certainly aggravating. Still, while Jupiter may be a novice at managing a large-scale enterprise such as this, she's not wrong about the necessity. If Jupiter is going to lead, she needs to know things first. Aleksa should have realized this, even if Jupiter did not remember to tell her. Hasn't she been the one lecturing Jupiter about leadership, and decision-making, and need-to-know information?
What had she been thinking? Prepare to be wowed, she'd said to Jupiter; was that what she had wanted? To wow her princess daughter?
She takes a breath. “You're right,” she says. “I'm sorry.”
Jupiter's head, bulldozer-braced for a fight, pulls backwards. “...What?”
“What, you're not listening? You want me to say it twice?”
“Well,” says Jupiter, “yeah, I kind of do. Just to make sure I heard right?”
The temptation to roll her eyes is strong, but Aleksa forces herself to resist. The whole point of this, after all, is that Jupiter has the right to ask such things. “You're right,” she repeats. “I'm sorry. Something this big, the boss needs to know it first.”
“The boss!” Jupiter lets the word hang in the air for a moment before wrinkling up her face like a pug dog. “You know, not that that wasn't satisfying to hear you say that, it definitely was, but also it feels kind of weird? Definitely feels weird.”
Aleksa let out a breath. “Very much,” she agrees, and sits down on the bed next to her daughter.
After a moment, Jupiter lets her head drop onto Aleksa's shoulder. “Well, anyway,” she says, “apology accepted.”
Aleksa suspects that the part of Jupiter that's excited about throwing a fancy princess ball is slightly larger than Jupiter is willing to admit.
It's another month before the space palace is finally completed. Nino, glowing, insists that the entire Bolotnikov family be in attendance to witness the ceremonial first flushing of the working space toilets.
After the polite round of applause, Jupiter backs out of the bathroom again and stares up at the hallway ceilings, which are tall, airy, and feature a minimum of gilding around the molding. “Well,” she says. “I guess we start having meetings here now, huh?”
“Are you kidding?” says Vladie. “We should move here!”
“Are you kidding?” says Irina. “There's no grocery store! No drugstore! How do we eat?”
“And no internet,” puts in Moltka. (This is the first trip the two youngest Bolotnikovs have made into space. After several hours in transit with no way to charge their phones, they have become somewhat less enthusiastic about the whole venture.)
“Oh, no,” says Nino, “there is internet. You think I'd fix up a space palace without internet? I know Jupiter, she can't live here unless --”
“I'm not living here,” Jupiter informs them all, for the several thousandth time. “I'm commuting here.”
“You'll want to stay here a couple days, I think, at least,” Aleksa says, “around the party.”
The party is something that nobody really wants to do – except Nino, and Bob, and Vladie, and Irina, and Lyudmila, and Moltka and Mikka, all of whom are very excited about it – so, all right, maybe it's more worth saying who doesn't want to do the party. These people, of course, are Caine and Aleksa. Jupiter also says that she doesn't want to do the party, but Jupiter nonetheless spends hours closed up with Nino talking over how to decorate the space palace for the party, so Aleksa suspects that the part of Jupiter that's excited about throwing a fancy princess ball is slightly larger than Jupiter is willing to admit.
In any case, as little as Aleksa wants to do the party, she understands the necessity of it. Jupiter needs to establish herself among these murderous space aristocrats as a person worth dealing with, or their plan will die before it begins. If they don't develop the necessary business contacts, their synthetic Regenex will never make it to the open market. And it's obvious that the only way to make business contacts in space is to waste truly tremendous amounts of money on absurdly luxurious events.
That doesn't make her any happier about just how many people are going to be in a room with her daughter who might very well want said daughter dead.
“I definitely do not want to stay here around the party,” says Jupiter. “I want to collapse after the party in my own actual bed. In pajamas. I can't wear pajamas in the space palace while there are people here!”
“Sure you can,” says Nino. “What else do you think your mother's going to wear?”
Jupiter laughs, and Irina shakes her head, with a sorrowful sigh. Aleksa rolls her eyes. Nino is only annoyed because Aleksa has categorically refused to provide any more opinions on space party outfits. What's the point, when she knows nobody will listen to her anyway?
“Your mother's right, though,” Irina adds, with the air of one who is consciously doing ustice to another. This is the air Irina often has when agreeing with Aleksa, which is why Aleksa generally prefers that Irina does not agree with her at all. “You should come up early to supervise.”
“Bob can be here,” Jupiter says. “Or the Aegis can be here. I am not gonna be here. If I'm here all the time before the party I'll be stressed, and then I'll screw something up at the party, and that's what we don't want.” She brightens, as she turns to Irina. “You can come up here early to prep, if you want. I won't worry at all if I leave it to you, I know you're really good at this kind of thing.”
Irina is Vladie's mother. She knows when she is being shamelessly flattered towards an end. However, Irina is Vladie's mother; she may know when she is being manipulated, but that has never prevented her from enjoying the shameless flattery nonetheless. She smiles and folds her hands together. “Well! Jupiter, you're giving me too much credit --”
“I mean it,” Jupiter tells her, with the wide-eyed earnestness that frequently got her slipped an extra treat as a child purely by virtue of the fact that she was more convincing than Vladie. “It would be a load off my mind if you'd take charge. I promise we'll bring you up whatever groceries you want.”
Irina hesitates. “But Moltka and Mikka --”
Moltka and Mikka both hastily assure their mother that she should not dream of turning down important space work on their account. Given that Irina is the only person who ever actually enforces limits on video game time, Aleksa suspects this is not entirely motivated by an altruistic desire to see Jupiter's party become a success.
“But Vassily --”
“Certainly you should stay here at the space palace,” says Vassily, heartily.
Irina turns a wounded look on him, and he goes on, hastily, “Of course my life will be nothing but suffering until we're reunited, but I don't think of that. You're right that somebody responsible should be here, and unfortunately I have my business to run. Anyway, a little luxury will do you good.” He gestures up at the faintly-gilded molding and over at the vast crystal windows. “All these things, Irina, they're what you should always have had. It will ease my own heart to know you have them for a time.”
“Ah, Vassily,” says Irina, and presses her hand to her heart while Nino and Aleksa shoot each other speaking looks behind her back. This speech about the sort of things that they all should always have had is very familiar to them, and usually it precedes the announcement that Vassily would like them all to start cleaning another two houses a week.
But things are different now, and they mostly don't clean houses anymore – especially not Jupiter, who smirks at Vassily. “Well, hey, if you two want to take over the space palace for a second honeymoon after this whole party's over with --”
Irina blushes and smacks Jupiter's arm. Vassily, to Aleksa's surprise, grins. “Maybe! Why not?”
So Irina's been there five days already when the date arrives for this party. The Aegis ship lands in the front yard, as usual – Aleka barely pauses anymore to marvel that she should consider this usual – and collects a full set of space-fashion-clad Bolotnikovs plus Bob. Stinger Apini is already on board, along with a blonde teenager that Aleksa assumes or at least hopes must be his daughter.
Aleksa heads to her usual spot near the window. After a moment, Tsing comes to stand next to her. She and all the other Aegis are gussied up in what must be their dress uniforms: metallic embroidery, some kind of pearly trim. Captain Diomika Tsing cuts a nice figure in sharp-cut silver. Still, Aleksa thinks she prefers the plain blue uniform that Tsing wears on a daily basis. The dress uniform is too decorative, like the whimsical knife block in the Gardner's kitchen that's designed to look like a bookshelf. A uniform is still a uniform, and a knife block still holds knives.
“Her Majesty is not traveling with us today?” Tsing asks politely.
“It is not tactical for Her Majesty to arrive with her Tercie family as if Her Majesty thought them importance,” says Aleksa, blandly. “Her Majesty is more impressive if she arrives alone.”
“Also,” Aleksa says, “Her Majesty is still not finished fussing with her hair, and there's no reason for us all to wait for her when there are two spaceships.”
Tsing says, with every evidence of sincerity, “Your own headpiece is certainly worthy of attention.”
Aleksa finds herself smirking. She adopted the hat largely to shut Nino up on the dual topics of Aleksa's hypothetical party hair and Aleksa's boring party outfit. Put something impressive enough on your head, she's found, and nobody looks too closely at what's underneath. The fur hats she used to wear in Russia – well, it doesn't matter very much what she used to wear in Russia as a person of twenty-five, when she made a casual habit of looking impressive. Since then, impressing people has usually not been very much of an option. Better to go unnoticed, overall, until you mean to be noticed.
She does not particularly expect to impress people tonight, and she would still prefer to go unnoticed until she means to be noticed – but after all, perhaps Nino is correct that one ought to make at least a small concession to nonsense space fashion. So, her hat: a nice sober green that matches her space pajamas, with some faintly festive silver trim tacked on, and a diameter of two solid feet. Nobody's going to be getting much of a look at her hair under all that, or her face either.
“I don't like strangers getting too close,” she tells Tsing, and taps the brim. She has to extend her arm most of the way to do it.
The corner of Tsing's mouth slips up just a little. “Tactically sound.”
Aleksa gives her a nod, in gracious acceptance of the compliment. The edges of her hat bob with the motion of her head.
The space palace looks gaudy on a normal day. On the eve of a party, the effect is doubled, if not tripled. The semi-attached spaceship parking lot is filled with inexplicable vehicles; the one parked next to them would not have looked out of place among the historic buildings of St. Petersburg, while the one next to that resembles nothing so much as the fancy litter box that the Brockmans keep for their pampered Siamese cat. A delicate staircase sweeps down from the parking area to the ballroom floor – or at least what one must assume is the ballroom floor from the fact that people are standing on it, though it's very nearly invisible to the eye. The roof and the walls are transparent as well. The scene is lit by brilliant starlight and very little else. Everything is endless galaxies as far as the eye can see.
All the glories of the universe, used to make a stage set for a fairy tale. Aleksa feels her mouth twist. Probably it does not seem trite if one happens to be fond of fairytales.
As the Bolotnikovs-plus pile out of the spaceship, Tsing's Aegis line themselves up neatly to flank them on either side. The presence of the Aegis in their smart dress uniforms provides a dignity and a presence that she suspects it would otherwise be difficult for her somewhat disorganized family to achieve. She can feel people looking at them, assessing them, determining them to be individuals of importance. Aleksa did not ask for Tsing to do this. She wonders if Jupiter did, or if it was Tsing's own idea.
Irina meets them at the bottom of the staircase. She is completely swathed in shimmering fur from head to toe, with the feathers of some unidentifiable bird stuck through her hair. Behind Aleksa, Vladie mutters something to Moltka about Cruella de Vil, and they both snicker.
“You look very beautiful,” says Vassily, gallantly, but Irina has no time for him right now: “Where is Jupiter?” she demands. “I thought she was coming with you! It's a good thing I'm paying attention or the musicians would have started with her song --”
“She's coming with her boyfriend,” says Mikka, world-weary.
Nino pushes herself to the front of the little knot of Bolotnikovs. “Where are the caterers? Did you warn them about the new ovens in the kitchen? They're very complex --”
“Nino!” sighs Irina. “It's taken care of! I've been working with the catering staff all week now, what do you think --”
The Aegis, by this point, have fanned out around the edges of the ballroom and taken up positions of parade rest. Stinger the space bee and his daughter are heading straight for the food. Vladie has wandered off in the direction of a beautiful young-looking woman wearing something that looks like a shower curtain, and seems intent on making an impression. Aleksa wonders briefly if she should attempt to intervene in the situation – there seems no way that encounter can end anything but poorly – but, after all, Vladie is theoretically an adult, and also, thankfully, not her offspring. As for the woman in the shower curtain, if she is an Entitled, she can most assuredly fend for herself.
And of course she is an Entitled. They are all Entitled at this party. The entire point of this event is so that powerful people can meet Jupiter, and see that she is a person of power also. Aleksa takes a position near the stairs, leans back on an almost-invisible wall, and watches the powerful people move about.
In a word, it's boring. These people are boring. Oh, their clothes are sparkly and bizarrely shaped, but their faces – nearly every one of them looks like they might have come out of one of the magazines Mikka brings home, somebody's uninventive idea of what a genetically perfect human ought to look like.
Millions of people have died to keep Entitled face looking like this. Now that she's seeing more of the faces in question, Aleksa finds this more insulting than ever.
It's more interesting to look at the servers who zip quietly among the party guests on space rollerblades like Caine's, carrying trays of drinks and small fancy food items on sticks. Unlike the Entitled, more than half of the catering staff display the alien qualities she's grown used to among the Aegis – dinosaur arms, rabbit ears, cyborg patches and implants. The Entitled generally seem treat the servers as mobile furniture. This is entirely expected.
“Aleksa!” Irina has apparently concluded her argument with Nino and is now looking for other targets. “What are you doing, standing here like a hermit? Until Jupiter gets here, you should be making a social effort, don't you think? What are you looking at?” She follows Aleksa's gaze to where the man with rabbit ears is exchanging trays with a long-armed, large-eyed simian. “Who is that?”
Aleksa shrugs. “A waiter.” She's only been watching him because he looks twitchy – as, she supposes, one might reasonably expect from a rabbit, but it makes a change from the smug confidence that radiates from the Entitled.
“Is he?” Irina frowns. “I thought I'd talked to all the catering staff.”
Aleksa swings her head round sharply at that. “You don't recognize him?”
“If he missed the instructions I was giving about the stove --” Irina says.
“What?” says Irina irritably, and then stops, as comprehension dawns. “Aleksa, you don't think –”
“You watch him,” says Aleksa. “Don't you let him out of your sight.”
Then she sets off around the edge of the ballroom, quiet and purposeful, trying to move as quickly as she can without attracting attention. Perhaps it's nothing – perhaps it only is a last-minute replacement for another waiter who's come down with a case of space chicken pox or rabbit flu – but perhaps it isn't. And if her suspicions are right, the last thing she wants to do is set any events into motion through trying to prevent them.
Tsing is standing on the opposite side of the room, back straight, arms at her sides. She looks as if she could stand that way for hours, or days – and most likely could, and most likely has. “Miss Bolotnikova,” she says politely, as Aleksa approaches, though her eyes remain fixed on the ballroom floor. “You seem troubled.”
“Irina saw a caterer she doesn't recognize,” says Aleksa. “Maybe it's no problem, but maybe it is.”
Tsing's eyes narrow, a barely perceptible movement. “Who?”
“Hm.” Tsing crooks a finger at Lieutenant Chatterjee, who slips away from her own position halfway down the hall and comes towards them. “Chatterjee,” she murmurs, her eyes sliding impartially over the room. “If you'd be so good as to scan the lapin waiter over there against your databanks. Subtly, please.”
Chatterjee nods, glances in the direction of the waiter, and then half-turns away. Her eyes go blank. Lights spin around the metal plates that stand in for her ears.
While Chatterjee stands idle, Aleksa notes with unease that the waiter is circling further around the room, towards the stairs where Jupiter will be descending. She's about to turn to Tsing and ask what should be done when she sees Irina swoop down on the waiter from across the room. Aleksa can't hear what she's saying, but from the way she's pointing, it looks as if she's worked up a serious complaint about the tablecloths.
The rabbit seems twitchier than ever. Despite the situation, Aleksa feels a smile lurking around her own lips.
“Confirmed,” Chatterjee announces suddenly. The lights in her head stop spinning. “His profile matches that of Gub Cony, who's been implicated in the assassinations of six --”
“Thanks, Chatterjee,” says Tsing, and strides forward. Aleksa sees no signals passed, but approximately half the Aegis fall in behind her as she goes; the others remain behind at their posts to continue monitoring the room. They close ranks around the lapin waiter and sweep him away, leaving Irina blinking behind them.
Aleksa comes up to Irina in their wake. “Don't worry,” she says, and pats Irina on her fur-draped arm. “It's taken care of now.”
“That was very quick,” says Irina. She sounds a little shaky.
“Captain Tsing,” says Aleksa, “ is very efficient.” She's pleased to hear that it comes out as if she's simply stating a fact. Tsing should be efficient. Jupiter's safety is at stake.
She hesitates, then adds, “You were clever, keeping him here. It was well done.” Her own voice sounds rusty in her own ears. Mutual compliments have never been a significant aspect of her relationship with her cousin's wife.
“Well!” says Irina, blinking some more – but she looks a little pleased. “The catering staff have done their best, I'm sure, but there's always something that goes wrong. The wrinkles on that left tablecloth really are a disgrace. Still,” she adds, “I'm glad you were right about that man, Aleksa Ruslanovna. I would have been very embarrassed to be lecturing him right in the middle of the party, where all the guests can see, if it were not very important.”
As far as Aleksa can make out, none of the Entitled have paid any visible attention to the little drama whatsoever, from interruption to arrest. Perhaps this sort of thing happens at all the best parties. “Oh, well,” she says – unable, despite all her best efforts, to keep the dryness out of her voice – “I'm glad you were not embarrassed, Irina Ivanovna.”
Irina rolls her eyes upwards – then gasps, throwing a hand to her heart. “The musicians!” she hisses, and rushes off towards the other end of the room.
Aleksa looks up, too, but she's already guessed what set Irina off. Jupiter has reached the party at last.
Aleksa has to admit that Jupiter's been clever in setting this up. Asking the Aegis for recommendations of their favorite holodramas about lowly Recurrences coming into their own – this was an inspired notion. Jupiter's taken her favorite costume elements from each and combined them into the ultimate wish-fulfillment fairy-tale outfit. Her diamond-studded tiara sparkles. Her hands drip jewels. Her low-cut black gown has stars and constellations sparkling through it, so that when she moves against the glass of the windows she looks like a piece of the universe has detached itself from the sky to come to the party.
Caine is on her arm. His suit matches hers, black velvet dramatic against the gold of his wings. He looks – as best Aleksa can interpret this particular brand of military space werewolf stoic face – wildly uncomfortable.
As Jupiter and Caine take their first steps down the staircase, the members of the orchestra strike up their unrecognizable instruments. Even without lyrics, it only takes Aleksa a moment to recognize the tune: Jupiter spent a good half of 2009 blasting it from the kitchen of every house they cleaned. At the time, Aleksa had never thought that hearing an American teenybopper belt out her appreciation for American parties would inspire any emotions in her beyond the grim restraint of a mother who has repeatedly and heroically refrained from throwing her daughter's iPod speakers out the window.
She's more grateful than ever for the hat that hides her face. If anybody sees her having to swallow down the lump in her throat for Sirey Miles or whatever the singer's name is, she may have to murder them to bury the shame – but she knows what this song is doing for Jupiter. She can see it in the bounce of her daughter's step, in the lift of her head as she walks into a hostile ballroom and surveys her kingdom to the sound of alien instruments valiantly blasting out Earth pop music.
Let all of the other guests at this party wonder what they're hearing. Jupiter picks the music, and the rest of these Entitled assholes will have to learn to dance to it.
“Oh, fuck me,” says Vladie, from somewhere behind her. “'Party in the USA'? That's the Earth culture she's bringing into space? That's her royal fucking theme song? Just kill me now.”
“If you don't learn how to hold your tongue,” says Aleksa, in Russian, “I expect somebody eventually will.”
Before he can work out what she's said, Aleksa heads across the room to the food table – currently nearly abandoned, as everyone in the room cranes their necks to watch Jupiter descend. Behind her, she can hear Bob's voice, unnaturally amplified to echo to all corners of the room: “Her Majesty, the Recurred Seraphi Abrasax! Please form a line for introductions.”
Tsing finds her a little later, back against the wall and watching the room again, now with a plate full of space crackers. (As far as she can tell they taste exactly like non-space crackers. Salty flat things are salty flat things.)
Aleksa offers Tsing a cracker from her plate. Tsing does not take it. “We've finished interrogating Cony,” she says. Her voice is pitched low, barely audible under the music. “Would you like the report now or later?”
Aleksa looks around. More than half the room is still in line to make Jupiter's introduction; most of the others are dancing. Aleksa has observed that dancing, among the Entitled, does not appear to be a partnered activity. People instead stand around in small groups, politely applauding each other as they take it in turns to perform a series of choreographed movements. If she's not mistaken, several of them seem to be having some difficulty with the rapid speed of Earth pop.
In any case, nobody is close enough to her corner to hear them talking. “Now, please,” she answers, and shuffles aside, making room for Tsing to stand next to her.
“He came alone,” Tsing says, taking the spot offered. She has to duck under the brim of Aleksa's hat to do so. “He was hired through an intermediary who didn't give his name, and did his best to remain anonymous. But, from contextual clues, we can guess there's a good chance he was hired by Titus Abrasax.”
Aleksa considers this. “Well,” she murmurs, “better the shit you know.”
“I agree,” Tsing says, seriously. “It's a relief, to my mind. It seemed early to have made additional enemies who would risk playing their hand so soon. And Titus' lackeys tend to be marginally competent at best.” She hesitates, then adds, her voice quiet in Aleksa's ear, “There will be more, in the future, if we pursue the plan Her Majesty intends.”
The hair rises on the back of Aleksa's spine – but it's not like this is news, either.
She replays the memory of Tsing's Aegis removing Cony so efficiently from the ballroom. She's uncomfortable with how comforting she finds it.
“His interrogation,” she asks, abruptly. The fact that she doesn't want to ask is precisely why she has to. “What did you mean? How do you do this, interrogate? Torture?”
“Of course not,” Tsing answers. She sounds genuinely surprised. “Everyone knows that's ineffective. There are several kinds of splice that can interpret pulse and eye movement reactions to tell when a subject is lying.”
Aleksa lets out a breath. “Of course,” she says. “Just asking.”
Tsing's looking at her rather thoughtfully. Rather than meet her eyes, Aleksa directs her gaze out into the ballroom. Jupiter is still patiently greeting guests, Bob standing officiously on one side and Caine scowling at the other. Nino seems to be attempting to teach Stinger Apini how to dance a foxtrot, while his daughter laughs next to them. Vladie's talking eagerly to – is that Kalique Abrasax? That can't be good news, and Aleksa makes a mental note for later –
And then, because she's not a coward, she turns back to meet Tsing's eyes, barely a few inches away from her in the shadow of her own ridiculous hat. “The things you do to protect Jupiter – I want to know about them,” she says. “You keep telling me, all right?”
“All right,” Tsing says.
“If I don't like them, I'll tell you. We can fight about it. All right?”
“All right,” Tsing says, again.
“Okay,” says Aleksa. She takes a breath. She offers Tsing her plate again; this time, Tsing takes the cracker. They stand together, and watch the Entitled dance.