Work Header

Chapter Text

None of the Neva's cabins were large, and neither was the furniture they contained. Caine's head only just cleared the upper bunk when he sat on the lower, and he had to be careful how he disposed his wings, but it was space enough for him to write up a quick report for Stinger. Granted, it wasn't much more than we got here, and haven't found anything yet, but he knew Stinger would want the update, and the Neva's comms officer would send it along as soon as Caine made the request.

It felt odd, being away from Jupiter. Caine paused for a moment to reach up and touch the band that rode his bicep, as if it were a talisman; he'd been apart from her quite a few times since she'd claimed him, but only once at such distance, and part of him fretted at the separation.

She's fine, he told himself. Stinger and the others will look after her, guard her well; she's safer on Gabal than on her Earth even with Lady Kalique there.

But it still pulled at him, a peculiar nonphysical ache that said no and wrong and alone even though the Neva was full of people. Caine schooled himself to ignore it. The sooner he found the saboteur, the sooner he could get back to his Queen.

The little console built into the opposite wall beeped. Caine nodded at it, and the screen flickered, then produced an image of the comms officer - a young man who wore a voder over his mouth like the Stormbreaker Banti. "Mr. Wise," the voder said, as smoothly as an android. "You have an incoming call from the Queen."

A streak of surprise ran through him, and his heart rose. Caine sat up straight, setting his sheave aside. "I'll take it here."

The officer disappeared, replaced by Jupiter, and Caine instantly wanted to crawl through the image to join her. His lungs expanded reflexively, trying to draw in her scent, but of course all that met them was the dry air of the cabin; still, he couldn't help his smile. "Your Majesty."

She was sitting crosslegged on her - their? - bed, wearing the shirt he'd left for her under a pillow, and Caine was torn between delight that she'd found it and chosen to wear it, and worry, because she looked exhausted despite her own smile. "Hey - I didn't wake you, did I?"

Caine shook his head. "I'm waiting for Urdur to get out of the 'fresher," he said. "Felids always take too long to get clean."

Jupiter chuckled. "How are things going?"

"We've started quartering the station, but there's a lot of it. The manager's been very cooperative, though."

"Good, they'd better be." Jupiter rubbed her eyes tiredly. "Urdur's treating you okay?"

Caine wished even more that he was there, so he could tuck her into bed again; clearly she needed rest. "They're fine. Really," he added at her skeptical look. "Urdur's got a pretty good nose, actually."

As if summoned by their name, Urdur came out of the 'fresher, vestless and smelling of soap. They took one glance at the screen, bowed to Jupiter, and vanished tactfully out the hatch - thereby going up another notch in Caine's estimation.

Jupiter laughed again. "Fair enough."

"Your Majesty." Caine raised his brows and gentled his voice. "I know it's late there. What's wrong?"

He saw her lip tremble before she bit it, and the ache increased sharply. "Nothing - nothing major, anyway. I just...did something I shouldn't have, and now I'm afraid to go back to sleep."

That wasn't hard to interpret. Caine wanted to scoop her up and just hold her, comfort her, but she was far too far away. "Is Lady Kalique not treating you well?"

"Hm? Oh, no, she's fine. For certain bizarre values of fine, but whatever." Jupiter waved a hand unconcernedly, then let it drop, sobering. "I just asked the chamber presence to show me what Gabal was like before it was Harvested."

Caine had never thought much about Harvesting before he'd met Jupiter; it was no concern of a Splice or a soldier, and questioning the ethics of Entitled was never encouraged. But her utter horror at the idea had pushed him to consider the question; he could see both sides of the issue from where he stood, but his loyalty was to his Queen. "It was...difficult?"

Jupiter swallowed, eyes squeezing shut. "If I ever even start thinking that's a good idea, you have my Entitled-y permission to toss me over the nearest cliff. And no catching me on the way down."

The idea was borderline offensive, but Caine could tell she wasn't truly serious even without smelling her. He pursed his lips. "As your Majesty wishes."

That made her smile again, just a little. "Well. I don't want to keep you up, I just wanted to see you for a minute, y'know? Shake off the nightmares." She muffled a yawn. "I can't keep you guys awake all night."

"Your Majesty may talk as long as she likes. Urdur will sleep in the corridor if you wish it," he said, prompting a snort. Urdur would, too; the Stormbreakers were all devoted to her, particularly the Splices.

She looked at them all and saw people; how could they not love her?

"I don't pay 'em enough for that. Besides, you need your sleep too. The sooner you find the saboteur, the sooner you can come back." Jupiter blinked sleepily. "I miss you."

Caine's throat closed at her words, and he had to work to clear it. Only she could strike him to the heart so easily. "Your Majesty."

It was all he could force out, but she seemed to understand; her lips curled up. "Get some sleep," she said, and blew him a kiss before vanishing.

Caine just sat for a long few moments, the ache of separation sharper but his heart singing. She had called him for comfort. Not just because she missed him, but because she needed him.

It was like their time in the skimmer - too much, too rich, scarcely to be believed, and yet it had happened. Caine closed his eyes to savor it, then tapped his comm implant reluctantly.

Urdur said nothing when they came back in, merely springing up to the top bunk with liquid ease and settling in with a rattle of feathers. Caine waved off the light and lay back himself, reaching under his own pillow. He'd been halfway out of the Queen's suite when the thought had occurred to him, and he'd ducked back into the bedroom to scoop up the discarded shirt.

Now he pressed it to his face to inhale Jupiter's sleepy scent, a soft drowsiness that sat gently on his tongue. Tucking it between his cheek and the pillow, Caine relaxed in the Neva's close darkness, and slept.

Jupiter woke to the same dimness the bedroom always displayed when she was sleeping. Normally she didn't require a nightlight, though the Bolotnikov basement was never wholly dark except during a power outage; but for the moment being able to see her weird new environment when she opened her eyes was reassuring.

She stretched in the sheets, groaning faintly, and took stock. She still felt kind of bleary, but rested; seeing Caine, even briefly, had had an effect, even if it had made her that much more lonely after disconnecting.

"Outside view, please," she said, and silently the opposite wall turned into a virtual window. Not that there was much to see - evidently she'd woken before dawn. "What time is it?'

"Four twenty-two, your Majesty."

Jupiter scrubbed her face with both hands. "Look, just put up the time on the wall, okay? And leave it there." She focused on the digits that appeared. "A little bigger - okay, that's good."

She slogged into the bathroom and took her time in the shower, trying to wash away the intangible residue of the night before. When she stepped out, freshly dry, the sight of herself in the real-time screen that passed for a mirror made Jupiter pause.

She looked small and pale and unkempt - not at all royal. That's just the outside, though. The second she asked for it, there were three beings ready and eager to do her clothes and hair and makeup, producing an image as powerful as Jupiter wished - or as they envisioned.

Yesterday was a roller coaster. Jupiter stepped closer to the screen, looking into her own eyes. Yeah, I'm more comfortable with this whole Queen thing, but there's some fucking terrifying stuff that goes with it.

She blew out a breath and straightened her shoulders. "It's too late to change your mind," she told the image. "Go big, or...just go big."

For a moment she imagined Caine standing behind her, calm eyes fixed on hers in the image, in his own way immovable. Just having him around was an ego boost, but it was his faith in her that was the true goad, because she desperately didn't want to disappoint him.

And then the Caine in her mind blushed, and Jupiter remembered she was nude, and started to giggle. "Too bad," she said out loud. "Could have made something of that."

She ran her hands down her torso, sighing, and turned to go out and find her robe, and her attendants, and breakfast. But before leaving, she folded Caine's shirt and laid it carefully in a drawer in the room's little desk. That should keep anyone from messing with it.

Then she tightened the robe's belt and took a breath. "Let's get this party started," Jupiter muttered, and opened the door.

Kalique sent down a message from her ship saying that she was fatigued and would see Jupiter that afternoon, so Jupiter spent the morning talking to the people who staffed the various business offices in the tower, wishing she hadn't just sent off Virtu. But one of her android attendants, a male done in glossy black all over, was amenable to note-taking, and Jupiter kept him close as she spoke with person after person.

Seraphi's business interests had been wide-ranging, Jupiter discovered. The offices were really contact points for larger enterprises spread out over several galaxies, ranging from agriculture to import/export and passing through banking, publishing, and pharmaceuticals - Jupiter was a little surprised to learn that Regenex couldn't fix everything.

There were also a few industries that she didn't understand at all, but she listened to those managers too, nodding along and hoping to look things up later. Like, what the heck is a vitiltre provider?

There were, however, no Splicing facilities listed among the assets, and Jupiter was relieved at their absence.

She'd just finished hearing about a company that mined one of the components used in starship hulls - if mined was the term when it usually meant literally breaking up a planetoid and extracting the ore - when her stomach finally got her notice. Jupiter halted in the corridor, which looked a whole lot like the corridor she'd stopped in the day before, and looked at the people following her around. Today it was Forthwith and Laur, two robot guards, a matched set of Splices delegated by Sevet to attend her, and Jahn, the android.

"Lunchtime," she said. "Let's have a picnic."

The Splices - one of which looked distinctly froggy, while the other's only unhuman attribute was an extra set of thumbs - glanced at each other in confusion. Forthwith's lips twitched; Jahn merely kept his usual polite expression. Jupiter sighed.

"Eating outside. Don't tell me nobody does that out here."

"Oh! Of course, your Majesty," the frog-splice said. "Perhaps on one of the balconies?"

Jupiter shook her head. "I want to eat down by the water. Hey, is that floating pavilion still around? That'd be perfect."

It took a little doing, but eventually Jupiter was settled next to a table within the pavilion from which she'd greeted Kalique, and the pavilion was parked next to the same pier Jupiter had visited the day before. It was another mild day and the food looked enticing, but Jupiter looked around at the seven beings all standing at attention and shook her head.

"Come on, guys. This is ridiculous. You three, you can at least sit down if you want." She pointed at the two attendant Splices and Jahn, knowing that the Skyjackers wouldn't sit and the gun-bots didn't. "And are any of you hungry?"

"We're not allowed to eat on duty, your Majesty," Laur reminded her, shrugging a little. "It's a safety protocol."

The two attendant Splices looked astonished at the question - almost frightened. "We - we're - not hungry, your Majesty," the human-looking one managed. "Though your Majesty is very gracious to offer - "

"Okay, maybe later," Jupiter said hastily; they were clearly uncomfortable at the notion. "Go on, call up some seats. Hey, call Stinger for me while you're at it, okay?"

Maybe I really should get one of those communication implants. Hard to explain at home, though.

Within a couple of minutes Stinger dropped down out of the air to land outside the pavilion, clumping in and exchanging nods with the Stormbreakers. "Your Majesty?"

"Pull up another floaty thing and help me eat all this?" Jupiter gave him a beseeching look. "There's enough food here for six people."

Stinger grinned and took the seat that one of the Splices made the pavilion generate. "Sevet doesn't know what you like yet, that's why." He scooped up a cracker and popped it into his mouth. "Tell her and you'll both feel better."

Jupiter glanced over at her attendants, now all seated in a row and looking a little less stuffed than earlier. "Sure. Jahn, add that to the to-do list, would you? Thanks."

Stinger gave her an approving nod. "Getting your chickens in a row, are you? That's good."

Jupiter bit her lip, trying not to laugh, and reached for her fork. "Um. It's ducks."

"What? Oh." Stinger coughed. "Damn tercie languages - sorry, your Majesty - "

"Oh, come off it." Jupiter smirked, and helped herself to what looked like salad before passing him the bowl. "Have you heard from Caine?"

"He sent in a report last night, though they've not much to report as yet." Stinger pulled a small sheave from his uniform pocket and handed it to her. "I'm glad you called me, I was going to request a meeting anyway."

"Yeah, about that, we should be meeting every day anyway, right?" The thought made her head ache a little, that she would have to schedule time to see someone she thought of as a friend, but Jupiter supposed she'd get used to it eventually. It's two separate things, anyway.

"It'd be a good idea, yes, especially if you're going to make a habit of eating outdoors where anyone can see you." Stinger's half-smile made it a tease, but Jupiter could see his point.

"You think somebody else wants to hurt me?" The salad tasted good, if a bit salty, and Jupiter chewed carefully, trying to wrap her head around the idea of yet more people wishing her dead.

Stinger shrugged. "I served five years in the Noltorian royal guard - there's always someone with a grudge against Entitled."

"Great." Jupiter frowned. "And I haven't even done anything yet."

"Of course you have, your Majesty," Stinger noted mildly. "You dismissed the steering agents for Earth, for starters. People'll take notice."

He served himself a ladleful of tiny spheres that looked like nothing so much as emerald beads. "You upset the market and the Entitled hierarchy just by existing. There will always be some who resent it."

"Gah." Jupiter reached for what proved to be, reassuringly, a bread roll. "Y'know, with all those millennia, you'd think - "

Stinger squinted, not quite a grimace, but Jupiter got the warning, and took a bite of the roll. Don't talk about how much you hate the current society in public, right. Geeze, this is ridiculous.

Stinger cleared his throat. "Yes, well. Regarding that security matter we discussed when you arrived, are you ready to make that public?"

Jupiter hesitated. "Let me talk to Kalique about it," she said finally. "I mean, I don't know what the legal system is really like yet, but I suppose it has to come out sooner or later. But I think she has a right to know first."

Stinger bowed his head. "I agree, your Majesty. And she may be able to advise you on the matter."

Jupiter nodded glumly, and glanced at the three attendants seated in a row across the pavilion, waiting patiently as the breeze fluttered hair and clothing. Stinger had assured her that the Stormbreakers were bound by oath to keep whatever they overheard to themselves, but she was aware that the other people flocking around her had nothing binding them. As far as she knew.

Like everything else, she'd have to get used to it.

For a little while they ate in silence, easy if not peaceful. Jupiter was glad to be outside again; the business section of the Tower seemed stuffy and claustrophobia-inducing even though it wasn't, and while Jupiter knew the effect was on purpose it was still hard to fight. And what about the people who work there? Are they just used to it, or what?

Though when she considered the offices she'd seen on Orus, the Tower didn't seem so bad…

"Is there an alternative to those communication implants you guys have in your necks?" Jupiter asked Stinger when they had both cleared their plates. "I mean, I love my iPhone, but…"

The batrachian Splice shot to his feet. "Your Majesty, if I may - "

Jupiter glanced at him in surprise. "Uh - sure, go ahead."

The attendant was almost quivering. "Her Majesty the late Queen had a number of comm devices meant to be worn rather than implanted. If your Majesty will permit, I will fetch them for you."

Her first impulse was to say it could wait until she got back inside, but the guy looked so eager that Jupiter didn't have the heart. "Okay, yeah. Thanks."

The Splice all but ran off the platform, hurrying back towards the Tower before Jupiter could tell him to use the jellybean transport that had brought them to the pier. When she turned back to Stinger he was snickering into his napkin, and she had to grin a little. "What?"

Stinger shook his head. "Majesty, I don't believe there's ever been an Entitled who said 'yeah' to a servant." His smirk widened. "Your manners are deplorable."

Jupiter blew him a raspberry, which only made him laugh harder. "Just for that, you don't get any coffee," she said, reaching for the carafe to pour herself a cup.

"I'd rather have juice. By the way, get Sevet to get you some moloto - it's close enough to coffee. Caffeine and all."

"Okay." Jupiter added sugar to her cup - milk didn't seem to be a thing in space-dining, though she'd seen cheese go by - and stirred. "So is there anything else official you need to tell me?"

Stinger swallowed his mouthful and pulled out another sheave, and spent fifteen minutes walking her through the security system for Gabal. It wasn't that it was boring, but Jupiter had a little trouble concentrating - it was just more information, dumped on top of way too much data already. I think my brain has indigestion.

"Do I really need to know all this?" she asked plaintively when he was done.

Stinger tilted one hand back and forth. "Sort of. Most Entitled wouldn't know the inside workings of their security - unless they're the paranoid types, and you do have 'em. But they already understand the, um, structure underneath."

"Right." Jupiter nodded. "So this is kind of background."

"Exactly." Stinger shut down the sheave. "Besides, the best way to stay alive is to know this stuff. First rule of a long life is never to trust anyone entirely, even your own staff."

Jupiter made another rude noise, then sobered when he didn't smile. "Seriously? I mean, I take your point, but if I can't trust you and Caine and Kiza - "

Stinger rubbed the back of his neck. "I'll give you Caine, but he's special circumstances. I have to remind you, Majesty, I already betrayed you once."

Jupiter opened her mouth, then closed it, and organized her words carefully. "You betrayed Caine. I was just, like, a game piece." She reached out to touch his arm. "Besides, it was for a good reason. Stinger, you think I don't understand that?"

His face squinched up. "Yes, but - "

"Stop it," Jupiter said firmly, and decided to be royal, even if it felt weird. "Stinger, we're done with this. I forgive you, if you think you need it, and I do trust you. You're my Chief of Security, and my adviser and friend, and I swear if you bring this up again I'm going to make you eat jam with your breakfast instead of honey - "

Stinger sputtered a laugh, and buried his face in his hands for a moment, coming up flushed and still grinning. "All right, Majesty - Jupiter," he said. "I'll leave it be."

"Thank you." Jupiter sat back and drank the rest of her coffee.

Hurrying footsteps brought the froggy Splice, who practically bounded up into the pavilion and dropped to one knee in front of Jupiter. He was balancing a wide flat box on both forearms and looking hopeful. "Your Majesty - "

Before Jupiter could move, Stinger made a warning noise, but Forthwith was already stepping forward and unhooking a small device from her belt. She waved it over and around the box, glanced at its readout, and stepped back. "No organics, no explosives. It's fine, your Majesty."

The Splice looked indignant. "I would never endanger - "

"It's protocol," Stinger cut in shortly. "All staff is unsecure at this point until - "

The Splice made a hissing noise. Jupiter cleared her throat loudly, and everyone stiffened.

"What's your name?" Jupiter asked the Splice, keeping her voice level.

He ducked his head in an abbreviated bow. "Col Sandalusi, your Majesty."

Jupiter nodded. "Nice to meet you. Now, personally, I figure just about everybody here on Gabal is fine, and happy to have me here - at least, that's what Sevet tells me. But Commander Apini is professionally paranoid, and since that's kind of what I pay him for, I'm going to go with what he tells me for the moment."

She smiled at Col. "When he says everybody, he means everybody, from Sevet on down. So don't take it personally. It's just the way we're doing things until I settle in, okay?"

Col nodded, poppy eyes wide, and Jupiter nodded back. "Now, please, stand up, that can't be comfortable."

The Splice rose slowly to both feet, and when Jupiter lifted a hand he did something that sprang the catch on the box. The lid didn't open; it drew back, vanishing into the sides in a way that looked totally CGI, revealing an array of six different bracelets in a variety of materials and styles.

"All of these will tie into the comm system, your Majesty," Col said, pride evidently restored to judge by the angle of his chin. "But if they do not meet your needs, I will be happy to procure new ones."

"No, no, these look good." Jupiter looked them over, fascinated, then pulled one out. It was made of some silvery metal and looked like a chain of stylized stars; when she drew it through her fingers she couldn't even find a button. A little regretfully, she put it back. Pretty, but I don't want to have to fiddle with it to make it work.

Two of them were more obvious cuff bracelets in filigree patterns, and she selected one that had the slick smoothness and dull silver-black of hematite. Indicator lights winked like jewels in the carving, and the button was center-set like an ornament. Yeah, that's easier.

Jupiter slid it onto her wrist, where her complete non-surprise, it fit perfectly. "Terrific. Thanks, Mr. Sandalusi. Hang onto the rest of them; I may want to switch styles later."

He bowed his head over the box and made it close again. "Of course, your Majesty."

"Very smooth, Majesty," Stinger said in a low tone as Col took his seat again; the corner of his mouth was twitching. "Unorthodox, but smooth."

Jupiter stroked the bracelet, enjoying the feel of it under her fingertips, and grinned.

When Kalique arrived that afternoon, she was dressed in a gown that graduated from navy blue at the bodice to black at the hem, and had her hair braided in a long plait woven with pearls. Jupiter wondered whether Kalique dressed for fun, or if changing clothes every five minutes was Entitled custom. Guess I'll find out eventually.

"Can I talk to you in private?" she asked after Kalique had greeted her. "I mean, like really private - no, um, entourage."

Kalique's brows went up. "So serious, my dear. Of course - where do you have in mind?"

Jupiter didn't think Kalique would be very comfortable on the pier, given what the wind would do to her outfit. "How about upstairs? One of the balconies in the private quarters should work okay."

"Very well." Kalique took Jupiter's arm again, and they rose up in the hoverbeam elevator from the public area of the Tower to the suites near its top. Both Kalique's people and Jupiter's followed them, but when they reached the suite Jupiter had claimed she stopped them. "Guards only past this point," she told them. "Make yourself comfortable in the lounge; Sevet, can you see that everybody gets refreshments if they want?"

Sevet bowed, and Jupiter beckoned Kalique and their guards into the inner rooms.

They followed the curving outer hallway to the balconies that were set into each side of the Tower. Most of them had furniture of one kind or another, and all had forceshields that could be used to keep out the weather; Jupiter chose one that had only a couple of chairs, and adjusted the shield so that only a bit of breeze sighed in.

Laur and Forthwith exchanged glances with the three guards attending Kalique, and without words they sorted themselves out so that there were two each at either end and one at the door - as far out of hearing range as they could get, though the balcony wasn't big enough to prevent them from overhearing. Still, it was a nice touch, and Jupiter appreciated it.

Kalique drifted over to look through the screen at the ocean far below. "Here we are, my dear...what do you have in mind?"

Jupiter mastered a small surge of irritation at Kalique's indulgent attitude, and folded her arms, trying to figure out how to phrase things. "Um. You remember - look, I'm sorry to bring this up. But you remember how Balem died."

Kalique's smile faded, and she kept her gaze on the water and the sky. "In the ruins of his refinery, yes. If not at your hand, then at your Splice's, correct?"

Jupiter started. "Oh - no. He...he fell, when the place was collapsing. I...didn't see him - I didn't see." What? She thought Caine killed him?

"Ah." Kalique's brows arched again, but her face was sad. "Are you looking for forgiveness?"

Jupiter cocked her head. "No," she said after a moment, unwilling to prevaricate. "He was trying to beat me to death, so no."

Kalique's lips twitched, an ironic look. "That's fair," she said.

Jupiter rubbed one hand over her face. "Look, I'm doing this badly. One of the things he said to me while we were there - Kalique, he said he killed S - your mother."

Kalique went completely still. Jupiter watched her anxiously for a moment, then dropped her eyes when it occurred to her that maybe the woman didn't want to be stared at just then.

It was a little while before Kalique spoke again. "Do you have proof?"

Jupiter shook her head, though for a moment her jaw throbbed, remembering his blow to her face.

Kalique let out a long breath, and turned slowly to lean against the balustrade. "Then it's all speculation."

Jupiter grimaced. "He sounded pretty certain to me."

"Oh - I don't actually doubt you." Kalique looked tired suddenly, as if her actual age were ghosting up under her youthful skin. "I had wondered, to be truthful. He was getting more and more unstable as Mother changed, and - but he was calmer, after her death. I thought I'd been mistaken."

She turned a little to face Jupiter. "He was mad, in his way, but that's not uncommon among Entitled, particularly as we age. Such things are eventually self-limiting, and his madness was not the sort that affected profits or politics."

There was so much embedded in her words that Jupiter couldn't begin to sort it out. "Well. I'm not looking to - accuse him publicly, I guess. I just thought you should know."

Kalique inclined her head in a formal gesture. "Yes. Thank you." She touched her fingers to her lips. "It's good to know the truth, I suppose."

"Yeah, that's what I figured." Jupiter leaned back against the balustrade, resting her elbows on the edge; the shield obligingly dimpled outward to give her space. "I don't know if this is the kind of information you want to release, or what; when I got here, everybody acted like the assassin was still lurking in the shadows or something."

"Does anyone else know what you've just told me?" Kalique's gaze went sharp.

Jupiter was a little taken aback. "Mr. Wise, Commander Apini. That's it." She thought for a second. "I can't speak for anybody who worked for Balem, though."

"You - mm." Kalique made a tiny motion, as if shaking herself out. "Jupiter, I request that you keep this information to yourself, and that you ask your Splices to do the same."

"Of course." Jupiter straightened, annoyed on their behalf. "They're completely discreet."

Kalique waved a hand. "Yes, I'm sure. My dear, I'm sorry to be so uncongenial, but I believe I need a little privacy to think this through. Do you mind?"

"Of course. That's fine," Jupiter said quickly, barely stopping herself from babbling. "Is here okay?"

"Yes, this will do." Kalique turned back to look out at the water.

Jupiter left her to it, slipping through the door with Laur and Forthwith falling in behind her. Jupiter was about to go back out to the lounge when a thought crossed her mind.

She deserves privacy...but she's out there with just her people.

"Hold on a sec," she told the Stormbreakers, and ducked into the big bathing room. "Hey, chamber presence."

"Your Majesty?"

Jupiter thought for a moment. "I want you to record whatever happens on the balcony where Lady Kalique is right now, but I don't want you to pay attention to it. Can you do that?"

"Yes, your Majesty. What access level do you wish assigned to the file?"

"I don't want anybody but me to be able to access it. Or - Commander Apini, if something happens to me."

"Yes, your Majesty." The flat voice fell silent, and Jupiter gave a silent sigh.

I can dump it without watching it. But if somebody had been recording the last time, the whole mystery would have been avoided.

She didn't actually think anything was going to happen, or that Kalique would do anything unexpected. But better safe than sorry.

She collected her guards and went back through the lounge; everyone looked up as she came in and started to rise, but she waved them back down. "No, stay where you are. Sevet, send someone to wait in the hall in case Lady Kalique wants anything, would you please? Then come sit with me and we'll talk about the household."

Jupiter took a seat at the far end of the room, beckoned Jahn to join her for note-taking purposes, and waited for Sevet to come over. I've been meaning to do this, but it's nothing I can't drop when Kalique comes back out.

I hope she's okay.

She mustered a smile for Sevet as the android sat down, and dove into household management.

Urdur knocked on yet another personal-quarters door, waited five seconds for a response, and lifted their wrist to let their keypass clear the lock. When the door slid open, the room's lights came up automatically, but it was clear no one was in.

Urdur stepped back in the routine they'd developed, and Caine stuck his head into the room and breathed deep. And felt a now-familiar pulse of disappointment. Splice, yes, but not the one we're looking for.

"Nope," he reported, stepping back, and Urdur chuffed in frustration and tapped the panel to close the door again. "How many left?"

Urdur consulted the sheet in their hand. "Three," they said. "We're running out of possibilities."

"Maybe we should have started at the bottom," Caine said dryly, and peered at the list. "Up one level and over a bit?"

"There's another on this level," Urdur said, running a clawed finger along the last line of printing. "Just around the corner, in fact."

"All right." Caine loped down the hall, wondering what the next step would be if none of the names generated a hit. It was certainly possible to quarter the entire station, but it would take time, and he wanted to get back to Jupiter. And the longer we take to find this trash, the further away they're getting.

But the second they turned the corner he felt all his nerve endings quivering alert. The trace on the air, so faint it was hardly detectable, was familiar.

He held up a hand, signaling silence, and Urdur slipped up next to him. In best Skyjacker formation, they unholstered their weapons and woke their boots, and glided silently down the hall to the target door.

This time they didn't bother knocking. Caine's keypass opened the door with the usual faint beep - it couldn't be helped - but when they exploded into the room, weapons out and ready, they were met with another empty space.

In fact, the scent was stronger there but stale, and the room was truly empty - there were no possessions, just stripped furniture. Nobody had occupied it for at least a few weeks.

Caine spat a curse, and Urdur growled. "Now what?" they demanded.

Caine holstered his gun and shut down his boots, then gestured at the room's console. "Check the records. This - " He squinted at memory. " - Petala Elgin has to have gone somewhere."

Urdur woke up the console and poked at it for a few minutes, but eventually straightened with a frown. "All it says is that Elgin's contract was sold."

Caine scrubbed a hand through his hair. "We'd better go find Manager Traduce."

They ran the Splice to ground in a docking bay halfway around the station from the one the Neva rested in, consulting with a pair of powersuited Sargorns while a half-dozen more flitted around an orecrusher with a gash torn in its cargo hull. As soon as she saw Caine and Urdur approaching, she waved the workers off and hurried to meet the Skyjackers. "What can I do for you?" she asked as they neared.

"We need to find Petala Elgin," Caine said. "A neuter Splice whose contract was recently sold."

Traduce rubbed her nose. "The name's a little familiar, but I oversee too many to remember precisely. Let's go back to my office, if you will, and I'll call up their file."

Caine extended a hand for her to lead. "Urdur, ask Captain Tsing to join us, please," he said, and Urdur nodded and spoke quietly into their commlink.

Tsing was waiting for them outside Traduce's office, calm as always. "Progress?"

Caine huffed as they crowded into the little room. "Maybe."

Traduce was quick to seat them and call up Elgin's record. A scan of the suspect's face hovered over her desk, rotating so they all could see; round and smooth and bald. Probably a reptile Splice, Caine thought, maybe something from Outer Synge.

"Yes, I remember now," Traduce said. "Sa Elgin's contract period expired, and with no one to speak for them, they went back on the market." She sighed. "I hate to lose good people, but upper management was moved elsewhere after Queen Seraphi's death and I'm afraid Lord Balem never replaced them."

She tapped at the console. "Let's see."

"I already checked the file," Urdur objected.

Traduce shot them an apologetic glance. "Terminations are kept in a separate file, you wouldn't know to look there," she said. "I have no record of their purchaser, but Elgin left just - hmm. Just a few weeks ago." She frowned.

So did Caine. It wasn't common for a buyer to be left out of a terminated employee's records, but it wasn't unheard of, either. But the timing was starting to alarm him. "Any record of where they went?"

Traduce shook her head, her color fading slightly, and hooked a finger into the display to turn it so he could read it. "No. But they hitched a ride on the transport tug."

That's it. Caine bared his teeth, and heard Urdur's low growl. That has to be it. "Where's that tug now?"

In the end, it was Lieutenant Chatterjee who found the tug for them; it was an independent vessel rather than Abrasax Industries property, and its crew made a living running several regular routes and picking up odd jobs on the side. Moving a handful of ships to Gabal had been one such.

Caine watched through the bridge viewport as the tug obligingly slowed in response to the Neva's hail. The massive ship consisted mostly of a long straight staith, with a disk attached flat on one end to house the engines and crew quarters. It had portaling capability, but no speed, and when the Neva approached there were only a few ships clamped down on the staith, with one more anchored by force shield. Given the age of the tug, Caine was a little surprised that it had the shield tech, but apparently whoever ran it had sprung for the upgrade at some point.

"Yes, that's correct," the comms officer was saying. "This cruiser is part of Queen Jupiter Jones Abrasax's fleet and we are pursuing a matter on her orders. Request permission to board." He paused, listening to the comm through his headset, then turned to Tsing. "They will allow boarding, but only unarmed personnel."

Tsing cocked a brow at Caine and Urdur. "Will that be acceptable?"

Caine traded glances with Urdur, and nodded, and both of them unholstered their guns. Tsing turned back to the officer. "Let them know that we'll be sending over three, unarmed as requested." Her mouth quirked. "As much as either of you get, that is."

Caine huffed a silent laugh, and unstrapped his knife as well; Urdur was piling up a handful of small throwing weapons on one of the bridge consoles. "Do you need a box?" Tsing added innocently, and Urdur smirked.

"Almost done," they said. "Who's coming with us?"

Tsing jerked her chin at Lieutenant Chatterjee. "The lieutenant's about as unarmed as you. I don't expect trouble, but I don't want to have to explain to her Majesty that I lost two of her guards on a slug tug, either."

Caine grinned at her, a little fierce; he knew better than to take her concern as an insult. Good commanders didn't send in insufficient personnel, after all. "It's a straight line, Captain, we can't get lost," he retorted, and she smiled a little.

The Neva docked neatly with the tug, taking a berth very close to the engine disk. The welcoming committee outside the airlock consisted of four people, one of whom was carrying a pulse rifle and two of whom were armed with heavy metal batons, but Caine smelled only wariness as he stepped on board, not aggression.

The unarmed woman, burly and grave, stepped forward. "Anna Zabor. I run this tug. What does the Abrasax queen want with us?"

Caine gave her a courteous nod. "We're here about a passenger you picked up at Abrasax Fleet Substation 6-A. Sa Petala Elgin."

Zabor relaxed a little. "Oh, the mystery fare. Yeah, we dropped them off on Gabal - that was the last we saw of them."

On Gabal. On Gabal. Caine was more than dismayed now. Any sensible saboteur should have either gotten off before Gabal or stayed on the tug as it left; only the fact that he hadn't smelled that scent anywhere in the city was keeping him from even worse alarm.

"Captain Zabor, may I see their quarters?" he asked, trying to keep his voice even, and hoped that the cabin hadn't been cleansed since.

Zabor frowned. "What's this about?"

Lieutenant Chatterjee spoke up, her artificial voice smooth and almost soothing. "Queen Jupiter has business with Sa Elgin, and we're attempting to trace them. Any assistance you render can be rewarded generously."

Two of the others looked hopeful at this, but Zabor hesitated. "This is the new queen, right? The Recurrence?" At Chatterjee's nod, she frowned. "Not sure I want us to get mixed up in any Royal concerns."

"I just want to examine their quarters," Caine said, carefully suppressing his growl. "To confirm that they're the person we're looking for."

"Come on, Ann," the man with the pulse rifle said. "You heard the lady. Since when do you pass up easy profit?"

"When it stinks of politics," Zabor muttered, but shrugged. "Looks like I'm outvoted anyway. Sami, take 'em down there, and stay with them 'til they're done."

One of the baton-wielders tossed off a cheery salute. "Follow me, folks."

She led them down the staith and into the disk. Glancing back, Caine could see the hollow length of the staith disappearing into the distance; it had a rail in the center for a car, but they didn't have far to go and there was no vehicle in evidence anyway.

The disk smelled...lived in. The air was even a bit stale, a far cry from Captain Tsing's strict insistence on absolute cleanliness, but it gave Caine hope. The less they've cleaned, the more trace I'm likely to find.

And as they approached what Sami called "guest quarters, unfortunately for them," the faint musky trace of Elgin was detectable even in the corridor. When she tapped the door open, Urdur and Chatterjee stayed back, allowing Caine to step into the shabby little cabin alone.

There were no personal possessions left, but as Caine had hoped, no one had gotten around to actually cleaning. The musk was mixed with another scent, one similar but sharper, and he prowled around the room, tasting the air and trying to sort them out. Another Splice - a relative?

He looked back at Sami, who was leaning against the far wall with a curious expression on her face. "Who was in here with Elgin?"

Her curiosity deepened. "Nobody. They stayed in their cabin the whole trip - didn't even come out for meals."

Caine scowled. "I smell two people." Two people, two Splices...two familiar scents, he realized, though familiar for different reasons. I don't like this. He couldn't quite place the second scent, but -

He waved open the door to the tiny 'fresher cubicle, and this time let the growl out. The little space was a mess - there was dust everywhere, dust and fluff and feather fragments. Feathers.

A mostly-empty pack of injectors sat on the miniscule counter, and several used ones had been tossed in the sink. "Urdur," Caine said tightly, and the felid Splice flowed into the room to peer past him. Caine could smell their scent changing from curiosity to a taut anger.

"That had to hurt," they said casually, but their ears were laid flat against their head.

"What is it?" Chatterjee's voice was as calm as ever, and Urdur backed out of the 'fresher.

"Elgin did a full body mod." Caine swiped a finger through the dust, lifting it to his nose. The odor had an acrid edge - serum and pain - but he finally placed it.

And it terrified him.

Chatterjee looked at Sami. "What did Sa Elgin look like?"

Sami blinked. "Couldn't say. They came on board wrapped up in one of those hooded robes, like from the Quarter systems. Left the same way." She cocked her head. "I thought a complete body mod had to be done at a medical facility or something."

"Only if you want it to be safe," Urdur said. "Wise?"

Caine was controlling his breathing very carefully. "I know who they became," he said. The body mod had changed Elgin's appearance and their scent along with it, but he had it now.

A small body, round and fluffy. Hiding in the background, just another servitor.


He bared his teeth. "We have to get back to Gabal now."