The wardrobe suite was...impressive. Jupiter walked slowly towards the dais in the center, gazing at the various holograms placed around the big, low-ceilinged room; they were all of different outfits, ranging from simple to mind-bogglingly complex, floating in midair as if worn by something invisible.
"So all these clothes are in storage here?" she asked, stopping to look at one image that looked made of water instead of cloth. She lifted a hand even though she knew the gown was intangible, and at the motion the hologram rotated slowly, the pictured fabric rippling realistically. Jupiter twitched in surprise.
"Oh yes." Kalique strolled past several dresses, and paused in front of one. "Mother wore this one at Dannae Ba Korbash's century-party, I remember." Her smile was soft.
Jupiter walked over for a closer look. It was a simple white sheath decorated with green vines and small pink buds; she thought it was a pattern at first, but when Jupiter looked closer she realized that the greenery was on the surface of the gown, not part of the weave.
As she watched, one of the buds unfolded slowly into a familiar blossom. "Roses," Jupiter said, more to herself than to Kalique. "They weren't real, were they?" Who knows what's possible with this tech?
Kalique pursed her lips. "I'm not sure; they may have been hybrids." She flicked a finger at the hologram, and the dais was suddenly occupied.
"Whoa." Jupiter knew she was gaping, but she couldn't help it. It was her, wearing the rose dress - or rather, it was Seraphi.
Fascinated, Jupiter stepped closer. For a moment she wasn't sure if it was a recording or another hologram, but the figure spun majestically, then dipped, bent, straightened, and walked in place without changing expression, and she decided it was the latter.
The roses on the dress were cycling through bud and bloom and bud again, but Jupiter was more interested in Seraphi's face. She still remembered the statue in Kalique's shrine and its remote expression - she didn't think she'd ever looked like that in her life - but this was different. The hologram looked - cold. Stern.
The expression didn't change at all as the hologram repeated its movements, and Jupiter wondered how it had been made. Had someone recorded Seraphi somehow? Or was it a generic model that had been customized? The surge of curiosity was unexpected, but it was the first glimpse of the actual woman Jupiter had gotten since that last exchange with Balem, and she wanted to know more.
"The hairpieces can be changed out if you prefer," Kalique said, drifting over and apparently unaware of the focus of Jupiter's concentration. "But in this case it would be a pity; the harmony with the gown is so charming."
Jupiter tore her gaze from the holo-Seraphi's face to focus on its hair instead, and saw that the dress's high collar supported a rose-vine that wound into the coiffure, with more blossoms opening and closing in the high-piled hair. Kalique was right; it was charming.
"Wouldn't it be out of date, though?" Jupiter asked doubtfully. Or is a century and a half long enough to count as vintage out here?
Kalique paused, then gave her one of those gently superior smiles, which kind of put Jupiter's teeth on edge. "Oh, no. Clothing is far too ephemeral to fall victim to trends. Jewelry, on occasion..." She reached up to twist one of the long chains she was wearing around her neck. "When a new designer comes on the market, perhaps, or when a new metal or gem is discovered. But fashion is usually reserved for longer-lasting things. Art, ships, planets, and the like."
"Oh-kay." Jupiter squinted a little. "So if I show up at a party wearing this outfit - " She gestured at the rose-dress. "Nobody will think I'm just into thrift?"
Kalique cocked her head, looking slightly baffled. "It would demonstrate continuity, actually; I wouldn't be the only one to remember Mother in that dress. She always dominated, you know." She turned back to the image, expression going dreamy. "Always the mistress of the situation."
Jupiter wasn't into psych, but Kalique's words gave her a sudden insight into Balem. Well, that would explain a lot.
But it was going to be quite a while before Jupiter was going to achieve that level. If I even want to. She tried to shake off the thought, returning to the impulse that had made her ask Kalique to join her. "So...where do I even start?"
Kalique's gaze sharpened again, and her smile widened. "Hmm...let me see."
The next few hours were actually fun, if deeply weird in some respects. Jupiter's on-site dressers, Sa Brem and Mr. Cal, conferred with the three women Kalique had brought along, but it was Kalique who made most of the decisions as they moved slowly through the room, selecting outfits to try.
It was like shopping with half the aggravation taken away, Jupiter thought as she tried to glide in a very narrow skirt. Everything fit exactly, and it was all in colors that suited her skin tones. Not all of it suited her taste, but that was part of the fun too, and Jupiter was a little sorry that Kalique was built differently and couldn't try stuff on herself.
Kalique didn't seem to mind, however. She reminisced about various pieces and gave absent orders to the attendants, pausing on occasion to nibble on something from the tray of snacks Sevet had ordered be on hand. Jupiter tried on elaborate gowns and simple ones, trousers and tops, shoes ranging from sandals to boots to pumps actually made out of glass, which made her snicker - fortunately they were unbreakable. There were more gloves, scarves, and belts than she could possibly keep track of, and she counted herself lucky that Seraphi had apparently not been into hats, because the only one Jupiter wore when it wasn't freezing was an old Bulls cap, and she didn't think that would fly at an Entitled cocktail party.
It was interesting, though, that there was nothing like the weird black gown Titus had had for her when she'd been brought to his ship. Jupiter couldn't deny that it had been a killer look, but it had made her extremely uncomfortable, and she wondered what Titus' motivation had been in choosing that outfit in particular. Because there is absolutely no way he picked that at random.
But it was a question for when she saw him again, which Jupiter suspected she would have to do at some point, and she didn't want to talk about either Titus or Balem just at the moment, not when things were going so...lightly.
And then they moved on to the jewelry, and Jupiter lost her train of thought entirely in sheer dazzlement.
Abrasax Fleet Substation 6-A was huge, as befitted an installation built to repair starships, but a lot of it was dark and closed when the Neva came in on approach. Caine, watching it swell on the viewscreen, wasn't surprised. While it was true that the station and probably any ships docked there had come to Balem as part of Seraphi's trust on her death, he had had his own fleet and facilities; it probably hadn't gotten much use since.
To Caine's way of thinking, that was an advantage. The fewer people and ships that had been through since Jupiter's discovery, the easier his task would be. He lifted a lip briefly at Balem's memory, and went to arm himself as the Neva came in through the grav-hull to dock.
Captain Tsing led the way onto the station through the hatch, with Caine and Urdur behind her and Chatterjee and Nesh behind them. It was a delicate arrangement, Caine had to acknowledge; technically it was his mission, but it was Tsing's ship, and outside of her Majesty's direct personal security they were roughly equal in rank.
He didn't personally care. Caine knew Tsing's aims were the same as his own, and in any case she wasn't the sort of commander to abuse power. But presentation was important when entering potentially hostile territory, and a pure human commanding a ship would make a better impression than a Splice, even a Skyjacker.
The station manager was waiting for them in the docking bay, she and her coterie of subordinates dwarfed by the huge space and the view of the stars beyond the grav-hull, as well as by the Neva itself. Caine was not surprised to see that she was a Splice; she bore a strong resemblance to Balem's refinery manager, though her hair and skin were dark brown instead of nearly colorless. Caine reflected idly that Balem might have purchased an entire litter to run various facilities for him. Such things were common, and rat-Splices made excellent managers, being both loyal and detail-oriented.
The crew behind her was a mixed lot of pure humans, Splices, and a couple of androids, all looking stiff and slightly alarmed, but the manager's face was calm as she stepped forward. "Welcome to Substation 6-A," she said to Tsing, her gaze flicking over each visitor. "I am Manager Traduce. I and my crew are at her Majesty's disposal."
And hoping that disposal wasn't literal, Caine imagined, though he kept his face impassive. He was sifting the air for traces of either of his suspects, but mostly what he smelled was the dry air of the dock, the metal of the cruiser, and nervousness. None of the people before him were familiar in any way.
"Thank you, Miss Traduce," Tsing said smoothly. "I'm glad to hear it. We've come on a sensitive errand for her Majesty Queen Jupiter; is there a place where we can discuss it in private?"
Traduce nodded, and Caine caught a whiff of curiosity from her, but no alarm - which suggested that the news of the sabotage hadn't made it that far.
The manager led them to a small office not far from their chosen landing bay. It was cluttered with various items, mostly machine parts of one kind or another, and the desk looked battered with use. Tsing gestured her people to stay outside, but Caine and Urdur went in with her, and Traduce slipped behind the desk, waving at the chairs in front of it and then pointing the door closed. "Please, sit, and tell me what we can do for you."
Tsing did. By the time she finished explaining, Traduce was almost more grey than brown, and was wringing her hands, nose twitching with distress. "Horrible," she said, her voice wavering. "Horrible! And that one of my people...I had no idea...how could they…"
Tsing cut off the babble. "Miss Traduce, her Majesty is not Lord Balem or Queen Seraphi. She's not interested in punishing the entire station for crimes committed by one or two. But we do need to find the saboteur."
"Of...of course." Traduce blinked rapidly, and seemed to calm a little, though Caine could tell she was still terrified. "Let me…"
She rummaged in one of her desk drawers for a moment, coming out with a handful of keypass clips. "How many do you want?" she asked, voice steadier.
"Three," Caine said, and Traduce started slightly at the sound of his voice, but she dropped three clips on the desk and put the rest away. Pressing her thumb to each clip in turn, she coded them with a few taps and then reached over to hand them to Caine.
"They'll open any door in the station except Controlled Materials and the grav-hull gates," she said. "If you need access to those I will be happy to assist you, but safety regulations dictate - "
Caine nodded. Makes sense. Nobody wants the Queen's reps wading into etching acid, or accidentally evacuating the repair docks into space. "I'll need to see your logs, beginning with the date the skimmer left the station," he said.
Traduce relaxed slightly. "Your clips will give you complete access to station records," she said. "I will give orders for full cooperation from all personnel. In the meantime, Captain, do you desire quarters within the station?"
Tsing pursed her lips. "I think we'd better remain on board the Neva," she replied. "Though you can expect to see some of our crew, ah, stretching their legs."
A hint of a smile touched Traduce's face. "I do understand," she said. "Please, consider yourself at liberty."
She rose to show them out, and Caine fell in behind Tsing, handing one clip each to Urdur and Tsing and fastening the last to his own sleeve.
"Is there anything else I can do to assist your investigation?" Traduce asked as they stepped back into the corridor.
Tsing glanced at Caine, who shook his head. "You've fulfilled our needs for the moment," the captain said with a small smile. "I believe Mr. Wise and Sa Urdur are ready to begin, so we should get out of their way."
Traduce nodded. "Then if you'll excuse me I'll issue those orders and then go see about the leakage on Level 7. If you need to enter Interiors and Upholstery, please pick up protective gear until further notice." She bobbed a half-bow at them all and whisked back into her office.
Tsing waited for the door to close before grinning. "Not bad; I like her style."
Caine shrugged, but he could see what Tsing meant; the Splice obviously cared about her people and the station, and there was no odor of deception on her. "Perhaps you can bring her to the attention of her Majesty."
"I might, once we get this mess cleared up." She gestured at Chatterjee and Nesh. "Do you want any other backup? Like Manager Traduce, we're at your disposal."
Caine glanced at Urdur, who flicked a neutral ear. "Maybe later," he replied. "I want to scan those records first."
"I saw a general-access terminal back the way we came," Urdur said. "We can start there."
"Good. Let's go." Caine dipped his head to Tsing and led the way at a fast stride. He wanted the saboteur's neck in his hands, and the sooner, the better.
The terminal was tucked into a niche in the corridor wall, and looked well-used; it was older tech, like a lot of the station, but it lit up at once when they stopped in front of it. Caine frowned at the opening holo - it wasn't an interface he was familiar with - and Urdur trilled low in their throat. "Graf OS. I know that one."
Caine stepped back, opening a hand, and Urdur moved in to tap at the control panel with a speed that spoke of confidence. Caine watched over their shoulder as Urdur sped through various records, the tiny red light of restricted-access continually flashing to green as the terminal read Urdur's clip and offered up its data.
Finally the terminal spat out a long sheet of thin plastic printout, the kind common in environments where sheaves could easily be damaged, and Urdur caught it and handed it to Caine. "That's all the personnel who were on-base between the time the skimmer arrived here and the time it left, and their assignments and quarters."
"Nice." Caine bared his teeth in a fierce grin, and was a little surprised when Urdur returned it, showing teeth just as sharp.
"I enjoy a good hunt," they said. "Let's go find this vermin."
It was the first moment of accord Caine had found with any of the other Skyjackers, and it was startlingly good. He grinned wider, and the two of them loped down the corridor towards the first room on their list.
After a late lunch - Jupiter wondered how Kalique could be hungry after snacking all morning - Kalique excused herself for a rest, returning to her ship and issuing a languid invitation for Jupiter to join her for dinner late that evening. Jupiter waved her and her escort off and immediately went to find Virtu.
The turtle-Splice was ensconced in the office Jupiter had ordered be made available to her, and while it was already thick with sheaves, they were all in tidy piles. She rose and bowed as Jupiter came in. "Your Majesty."
Jupiter wiggled her fingers in greeting, then turned to shoo her attendants back out the door. "Thank you, I'm good - Soren, you can stay." It had been a little dismaying to realize that an even half-dozen people would trail her everywhere if she allowed it, but for the moment Jupiter let them since Kalique was there to observe. But Virtu's office had only one chair, and Jupiter wasn't sure she wanted them listening anyway.
Virtu offered her the chair without the least sign of discomfort. Jupiter took it even though it made her uncomfortable to have Virtu standing, because it would be really awkward to refuse, and she didn't intend to stay long anyway. Soren took up station by the door with silent ease, and if not for the wings and her gun might have stepped in from the street of any American city, North or South.
"How may I serve you, your Majesty?" Virtu asked.
Jupiter glanced over Virtu's desk, careful not to touch anything. "I know you're swamped right now, but I have a problem I'm hoping you can help with."
Virtu clasped her hands at her waist. She was a very quiet person, but tended to wear colors in combinations that Jupiter could only term eye-searing, and today wore a scarlet tunic and trousers with copious embroidery in Earth-sky-blue, none of which matched her skin. Jupiter reminded herself that even with Kalique's tutoring she really had no idea about fashion or beauty standards in the universe at large, and focused on Virtu's calm face and voice. "Of course, your Majesty," the woman said. "What is it you need?"
Jupiter chose her words carefully. "The Abrasax heirs pulled the top-level staff from Gabal when Seraphi died," she said, as if she'd always known the information instead of just learning it in the past day or two. "I need a new business manager, and probably support staff for her, him, or them. And I haven't forgotten that my head of finance needs some people to be head of," she added, pointing at Virtu.
Virtu cocked her head, eyes crinkling in what Jupiter had come to recognize as her version of a smile. "All very true," she replied. "Are you looking for assistance in personnel selection?"
Jupiter leaned back in the chair. "I am, yes. I know it's not your area of expertise, exactly, but some of 'em will be working for you. Do you - " She hesitated, still not sure how things worked in this new environment, but - There has to be some kind of job market out there. Not everybody can afford to just go buy a servant when they need one. "Do you know anyone good who's looking for a position?"
Virtu rocked thoughtfully on her feet. "Not personally, no. Am I to understand that your Majesty does not want to see a Splicer to fill any vacancies?"
"Damn straight," Jupiter said, then winced as Virtu's face went utterly blank. Crap. "I don't mean that I don't want any Splices! I do, of course I do." She winced again at her own babbling, and Virtu blinked in confusion.
Jupiter waved both hands, then took a deep breath and ordered her words. "What I mean," she said carefully, "is that I want to hire people who want to work for me. Not just people whose Splicers think they'd be good at the job."
Then came the belated realization that she had no idea if anyone had asked Virtu if she wanted her job, which just made Jupiter feel worse. But Virtu was relaxing, eyes crinkling again.
"Naturally, your Majesty would prefer experience at this time," she said, her voice amused. "Purchasing fresh personnel can wait until you are more established."
"Exactly," Jupiter agreed. She gets it, at least partly. "I need people who know what they're doing. More people." She waved at Virtu again.
"I will be most pleased to assist. What are your immediate needs?"
Jupiter dug her iPhone out of her pocket and called up the list she'd made. "Let's discuss it."
By the time the conversation was over, Virtu was back in her chair and Jupiter was perched on the edge of the desk, and the Splice had taken copious notes on a small sheave, scribbling in a shorthand Jupiter couldn't make out. "Yes," she said at last. "I believe I can find what you need, if your Majesty will give me leave to go offworld."
"Whatever you need," Jupiter said fervently. "There's a whole bunch of spaceships available, and you can requisition a pilot and anything else you need. Here, give me a blank one." Virtu handed her a sheave, and Jupiter wrote a quick set of orders and sealed them with her sigil.
Virtu accepted the sheave back with a satisfied blink. "Very good, your Majesty. This shouldn't take too long."
Jupiter slipped off the desk. "I hope not. Aggie'll be arriving in a few days - I wish I could send her with you, but that might be too much for her right off."
Virtu flipped one hand. "I'm not sure about that, but perhaps another time. I assume your Majesty would prefer to offer the same generous contracts she has extended to her current employees?"
"Yep." Jupiter put her iPhone away. "Oh! That reminds me - Caine said I can give the royal guard bonuses instead of increasing their salaries?"
Virtu nodded. "That's customary, yes."
Jupiter cocked her head. "Can I do it privately? Like, give one a bonus but the others don't know about it?"
"Certainly." If Virtu thought this was favoritism towards Caine, she didn't let it show. "The bonus would be registered with the Legion, so Mr. Apini would be aware of it, but financial awards can be kept private."
"Good. Okay, I'll get back to you on that." Because while she'd been ready to give them all a prize a few days ago, Jupiter was still kind of pissed at the Skyjackers who'd tried to arrest Caine, and Rush in particular. I should probably talk to Stinger first anyway. Though he deserved a fat bonus too…
Sighing a bit, she added it to her mental list, which was getting long enough that she really ought to make it a physical one. And then there's the whole secretary thing.
Jupiter took her leave of Virtu and headed back out the door with Soren, picking up her retinue as she hit the hallway. So far the half-dozen attendants were all her employees, though Kalique had made dire hints about finding some upper-crust nobility to swell their ranks and add prestige - prestige to whom, that's the question. But these people were general servant-types, plus a couple of the robot guards that she'd seen with all the Abrasaxes.
At least if I need an errand run, there's someone on tap. Jupiter tried to look at it as a bonus. She'd asked Stinger about the gun-bots, and he'd shrugged and said they were standard for Entitled, but not to depend on them too much. Given how Caine had apparently taken a bunch out all by himself on Cerise, Jupiter took the warning seriously.
Suddenly the corridor seemed too small and stuffy. "I want to go look at the water," Jupiter said to the group at large. "Like, in person, not out a window. How do I get there?"
It took some doing, but eventually Jupiter was walking down to the end of a broad pier at one edge of the big island, Soren beside her but the rest of her little crew staying in the jellybean-shuttle that had brought them all down from the tower. The gun-bots stood guard at the start of the pier, capes snapping in the wind off the water, and Jupiter dragged in deep breaths of the chilly air and let the wind destroy the coiffure that her hairdressing android had put it in after the dress-up session.
The water was an even dark blue, almost metallic in color, and smelled more like water than an ocean or a lake - no odors of fish or salt or weed, or any organics, really. There was nothing floating on the little whitecaps, and when she peered over the edge - Soren tensed - Jupiter saw no weed or debris, nor anything darting past beneath the surface. Huh. I wonder how deep it is here.
It was peaceful, though. Jupiter thought about hanging her feet off the end, then thought about what might be living down there that she couldn't see, and reconsidered. She ended up sitting crosslegged about a half-yard back from the edge, resting her elbows on her knees and trying to relax.
Soren, who was about as close-mouthed as Absaba, took up an easy stance a little way behind her, and Jupiter closed her eyes and turned her face up to the mild sun.
It was the first chance she'd had to experience the actual planet, as it were, and in fact her first chance to experience any planet other than Earth. She hadn't had time on Cerise, Orus had been entirely indoors, and Jupiter - well. Come to think of it, was that Orus, or were we orbiting Orus? Nobody had made that clear.
But this little part of Gabal was empty if not quiet, and all the noise was from the planet itself. Jupiter had always liked the water; Nino had always claimed it was because Jupiter had been born at sea. Jupiter herself thought it was more because the huge body of water that was Lake Michigan was so utterly different than the city on its shore - beautiful, alien but not hostile, big beyond human control.
She didn't think about how the whole place - both places - now belonged to her. She just sat, feeling the wind scour her skin and tangle her hair, filling her lungs with oxygen. The sun heated her just enough to keep her from shivering, and she could almost pretend that she was back home, sitting on a boulder on the lakeshore, her life no more complicated than keeping Vassily from shrinking her social life with yet another house to clean.
Except...she didn't want to pretend.
Huh. Jupiter examined the thought, but it was true. This whole thing is overwhelming, but...I kinda don't mind.
Good to know.
She smiled a little, and turned her face upwards to the light, and let the wind blow her thoughts away too.
Just for a little while.
Kalique's new ship was as ornate as her previous one, though instead of rococo walls and bare floors it looked vaguely like something out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting, all rich colors and fabrics and patterns everywhere. Jupiter stepped carefully across the thick carpet, uncertain in the thin-heeled shoes Mr. Cal had chosen for her to accompany the gown he'd insisted on. Jupiter had done spikes before, but not while trying to wrangle a meter of trailing skirt. Okay, now I'm beginning to see the point of those Entitled who don't walk anywhere.
But she'd made it safely up the transport beam into the shuttle, with two Skyjackers to guard her and the little Splice Sa Brem to carry the box Jupiter had brought along. At least Absaba and Banti didn't seem intimidated by the Entitled atmosphere; Brem was harder to read under the feathers.
Kalique came forward to greet Jupiter as she and her entourage stepped off the shuttle, much as Jupiter had met her the day before, though this time she just clasped her hands at her waist. Jupiter, having asked the chamber presence for advice, did the same. "I'm glad you could join me," Kalique said, and her smile was warm. "It's not that I don't find Gabal charming, but - "
"Really? 'Cause I don't," Jupiter interrupted, feeling a little mischievous. "It's way too intimidating."
Kalique blinked, obviously taken aback, and then she laughed. "You're wicked, to catch me in a lie already," she said, dimpling. "You're quite right. Mother intended it to be intimidating; she always said it gave her an edge in doing business."
Jupiter grinned back. "That, I can see."
Kalique nodded, and stepped forward to slide her arm familiarly through Jupiter's. "Wait until you see her main alcazar; it's a much better display of her taste. Come, let's eat, and then I will show you my beautiful ship."
Kalique guided Jupiter through the big room, which while nowhere near as large as Titus' landing bay was still a lot of space, and then down a few corridors to a dining area. To Jupiter's relief, the place looked nothing like Titus' intimate dinner for two - it was a sort of conversation-pit setup with a low table in the middle, already crowded with decorations and tableware. Servants stood against the walls at intervals, and some of those gun-robots were there as well, though Jupiter trusted they were mostly ceremonial.
The chamber presence wasn't the only one Jupiter had questioned. As they sat, she gestured at Sa Brem to step forward, mentally blessing Sevet for knowing what to do. "I have a gift for you," she said, and Brem bowed and slid the box into Jupiter's hands. Jupiter leaned over to present it to Kalique, whose face brightened with what seemed to be genuine interest.
It was about the size and shape of an old laptop, and nearly as heavy; it astonished Jupiter on some level that she could just send someone back to Earth not only for coffee but for this, though Sevet had come up with the wooden container. It didn't seem special enough, but between what Kiza had said and Kalique's penchant for snacking, Jupiter was willing to take the bet.
Kalique set the box in her lap and lifted the lid, brows going up at the neat ranks of cardboard within. Jupiter spoke up before Kalique could ask. "It's an Earth delicacy. Not available anywhere else."
"How interesting." Kalique pulled out one of the prism-shaped boxes and looked it over. Jupiter had told Honch to stop by Stinger's farmhouse and talk to Kiza about where to go, and the Skyjacker had done well on their mission; there were four varieties of Toblerone in the container. "It's a sweet?"
"Yep." Jupiter resisted the urge to babble; Sevet had assured her that at this stage the gesture was really more important than the actual gift. "It's - exclusive." Which wasn't exactly true, but it was close enough, and Kalique probably didn't know enough about Earth to know the difference. And it was easier than sending Honch out for Godiva. Or See's.
Kalique replaced the box and closed the container, setting it next to her on the low couch. "I have a gift for you, as well."
As she spoke, one of her android servants came forward and handed Kalique a long glassy wand; Kalique promptly passed it to Jupiter. It felt like glass, heavy and smooth and cool, and it had something glittery embedded in it from the blunt wider end to about two-thirds towards the narrower, more pointed tip. Jupiter turned it slowly, admiring the light flashing back, and then looked at Kalique in inquiry.
Kalique smiled, and twirled one finger, pointing up. Jupiter tilted the wand towards the ceiling, and rotated it cautiously.
Soft chimes sounded, and from the shadows above came a small flock of - something. Jupiter tilted her head back to watch; as they drifted lower, they caught the light and flung it back from dangling prisms, twinkling with rainbows; each was hardly larger than her two fists together, and she finally decided that they resembled jellyfish as much as anything.
"Wow." The wand sagged in her fingers, and the swarm drifted to follow in the direction the tip was pointing. Jupiter grinned, and tilted it back, instantly reminded of Stinger's bees outlining her gestures. "They're gorgeous."
Kalique leaned back, looking satisfied. "I had them designed for you; the technology's not unusual, but the artist is new."
"Cool," Jupiter said, and meant it. She played with the wand for a minute or so; it offered a lot more control than something so simple should, and Jupiter didn't think she'd figured out every motion by the time she handed the wand to Brem. Sevet had coached her on this too; gifts were put away for later, not kept to linger over. Jupiter had no idea why, but it didn't matter at the moment.
Brem, having watched Jupiter, twirled the wand to gather the flock and headed back to the shuttle, trailing the small cloud of chiming - Jupiter had no idea what they were, robots or animals or something she'd never heard of. The box she'd already given Kalique was gone, handed off to another android, and at Kalique's gesture more servants brought in trays and dinner began.
It was a long meal, course after course of dishes almost all completely alien to Jupiter; each one was a tiny portion, so she didn't fill up too quickly, but there were a couple she wasn't sure she could swallow when she tried them. She didn't think Kalique would be too upset if she spat something out, but Aleksa had drilled manners into Jupiter very young, and she'd long ago learned to eat what was put in front of her whether she liked it or not.
But most of the food tasted acceptable and more than a few dishes were delicious, so Jupiter decided it was a reasonable trade-off.
Kalique kept the conversation light, telling tales of various other Entitled, which Jupiter tried to remember; but it was hard to keep all the names straight and she was increasingly tired. Maybe I should have gone for a nap instead of sitting by the water. Fortunately only every third course or so had alcohol to accompany it, and the glasses were small.
By the time they'd finished the last one - and Jupiter was interested to see that in Entitled meals the dessert apparently came in the middle - she was full to the brim and wondering how soon she could make her excuses. But Kalique gathered her skirts and rose. "Let me show you my ship before you go - it's a new model and something you may want to consider for yourself."
Jupiter stood, and found her arm taken again, but she didn't really mind. "I seem to have a whole bunch of spaceships already."
"Oh, yes, but they're all out of date." Kalique started off at a leisurely pace. "And while you may eventually fall heir to some of Balem's fleet or even one of Titus' monstrous creations, you'll need something right off to make a splash."
"Mm," Jupiter said, trying to look agreeable. "About how long is that all going to take, anyway? I'm not greedy," she added hastily. "I'm just trying to, um, plan ahead."
Kalique patted Jupiter's arm with her free hand. "Of course you aren't. Let me see. Titus isn't expected to come to trial until, oh, perhaps next year; the date hasn't been set yet and the silly boy is furious over having to stay confined."
Jupiter blinked. "He can't get out on parole?"
Kalique glanced at her, a slight wrinkle appearing between her brows. "Parole? That word's not translating."
Huh. "Never mind," Jupiter said. Good to know he won't be running around loose.
Kalique shrugged. "As for Balem's estate, that will probably be handled a little sooner. Normally the lawyers would divide things, but we may be able to keep it in the family and avoid the subsequent wrangling." Her lips curved wryly. "It will certainly be easier this way. Titus has a habit of wandering off when he wants to make a point, it's very tiresome."
Jupiter thought of the way Vladie would invent urgent appointments when he didn't want to do something, and laughed. "I know exactly what you mean."
Kalique's tour of the ship took in as much of its luxuries as its capabilities. Jupiter, veteran of many family conversations about car engines, made obediently enthusiastic comments about the decor, amenities, and speed of Kalique's new toy. It wasn't that different from when Zeno brought home another beater to fix up; there was just a lot more walking involved. Fortunately, the tall shoes were a lot more comfortable than they looked, once she'd learned to balance in them.
I don't know why I'd want a ship the size of a few football stadiums, unless it's to intimidate someone, but there's something to be said for all the room, Jupiter thought as they passed through a long hall lined with statuary. It was very different from the somewhat cramped Aegis cruiser, most of whose space was reserved for the single-pilot fighters it carried; Kalique's vessel reminded Jupiter more of a cruise ship than anything else, except intended for a few rather than many.
One thing's for sure, if I buy one of these things it's going to have a totally different decorating scheme. The Renaissance Faire theme is starting to hurt my eyes.
"I've been meaning to ask," Kalique said, pausing to stare thoughtfully up at a winged figure with a blank oval where its face should have been. "Do you need any help pursuing the saboteur who sent you off course?"
Her tone was casual, as if such events were commonplace, and Jupiter was starting to think that they might be. "That was fast," Jupiter said dryly. "Or did Commander Apini tell you what he was looking for?"
The look Kalique gave her was indulgent. "My station-keepers reported the incident, of course, though they weren't clear on what had occurred - Mr. Apini was very brief indeed. As for the details, Malidictes had those within an hour of your reappearance."
Jupiter's stomach twisted. "I thought Virtu - "
"Oh no." Kalique played with the dangling pendant of her long necklace. "No, I played fair with that one, my dear. But gossip will flow, even when forbidden. Perhaps especially when forbidden."
Okay, new list. One: Kalique probably has spies hanging around me already. Two: gotta find out who they are.
Three: plant a few of my own?
That idea was so bizarre that Jupiter immediately filed it under think about it later, a list that was getting dismayingly long. "I didn't tell anyone not to gossip," she said, fixing on the minor point to keep her confusion from showing.
"Good," Kalique said, smiling again. "Discreet servants are a far better choice; they are much more judicious in what they pass on."
"Got it," Jupiter said. Not gonna touch that one right now. "To answer your question, though, no. Commander Apini has it under control."
Kalique nodded. "Jupiter, I feel I must warn you, given your, ah, recent arrival to Entitlement."
Jupiter felt her eyebrows going up. "Okay?"
Kalique's expression had gone sober again, and all of a sudden her eyes were cold. "When you find this creature, whatever it is, resist any impulse to be merciful."
By the time Jupiter shut her bedroom door on all her attendants - and Soren, who had gravely agreed to guard outside in the main room - she was exhausted all over again. Interacting with Kalique was a strain no matter how friendly the woman was behaving, and it felt strange and a little alarming to have Caine absent. Jupiter kept glancing around for him and not finding him, and it made her feel lonelier in the midst of all the strangers around her. If he can't be here, I wish Kiza and Aggie were. But they weren't due to arrive for another day or so.
Huh. I wonder if Kiza likes the ocean. And since that reminded her -
"Hey, chamber presence. Does anything live in the ocean out there?"
"There are a few species of bacteria but their density is low."
Jupiter tugged on a lock of her hair, confused. "That's it? Why aren't there - no, wait. Give me a rundown on Gabal's history. The highlights."
She sat down on the hovering couch and undid her shoes as the flat voice recited. "Gabal was seeded with human life by Abrasax Industries approximately 125,000 years ago. 6387 years ago, it was successfully harvested under Queen Seraphi's order."
Jupiter grimaced, swallowing against a small surge of nausea. The chamber presence continued.
"Due to the age of its star, Gabal is not considered an ideal candidate for re-seeding. Queen Seraphi sterilized its biosphere and raised its temperature to melt the planet's ice caps, generating the shallow ocean now in place."
Jupiter stared at the ceiling, caught in a weird disbelieving horror. "So basically, you're telling me she killed the planet and remodeled it, just so she could use it as an office?"
"Correct, your Majesty."
Her temples were throbbing. Jupiter thought about Earth without its humans, all the variety of life that would still be there, from plants to bugs to elephants, and felt sicker. The more I learn about this woman, the less I want to be anything like her. "But there is some life, still. Bacteria, you said."
"The bacteria comes from the planet's current inhabitants," the chamber presence corrected. "It is impossible to keep a biosphere sterile without complete isolation."
It was eerie, the idea of an entire world with nothing alive on it besides one island and a few microscopic critters. One that's got oxygen and water and stuff, anyway.
"What's the other side of Gabal look like?" she asked suddenly. "Is that all ocean too?"
The screen-wall lit up with a picture of the planet, which promptly began rotating, clouds swirling lazily above the blue sphere. A red dot appeared in the southern hemisphere, and gradually moved right. "This is your current location," the chamber presence said. A few seconds later it disappeared as the image of Gabal continued to spin, and a gray patch eventually appeared on the left side of the planet, much more northerly. When the patch reached the center of the sphere, it stopped turning.
It was about a third of the size of Australia, Jupiter estimated, though geography had never been her strong point. The image zoomed in, the planet filling the screen, and the gray sharpened and focused until Jupiter could make out a little detail. Wrinkled waves of bare stone stood up from the water like an ancient maze, with a few rounded peaks on the edges like islands, and Jupiter realized that what looked like a low patch of ground was probably the remnants of Gabal's highest mountains.
How do you sterilize an entire planet? Jupiter opened her mouth to ask, and then decided that she didn't want to know.
"What did it look like before - before it was harvested?" She almost called the words back, but the display had already changed.
It looked a lot like Earth, but with less water; there were a couple of small seas like the Mediterranean, but no globe-spanning oceans. From Jupiter's orbit-distance viewpoint, it seemed like the vegetation had been more blue-green than bright green, and the ice caps at both poles were huge, extending much further than Jupiter could remember seeing in any image of her home planet.
But it was still similar enough to put a lump in her throat. Don't ask, don't ask - "What did they look like? The people who lived here?"
The display changed again, and Jupiter swallowed, because they were - people. Just ordinary people, with two eyes and one nose and five digits on each hand, just people walking down a street or sitting in chairs or talking to one another; holding children, driving vehicles, walking some kind of fuzzy turtle on a leash.
The spasm of pain finally penetrated, and she uncurled her fists, barely seeing the dents where her nails had dug into her palms. "Turn it off," Jupiter said, though the last word was more a squeak; but the images vanished.
She rolled over and buried her face in her arms, feeling the smooth velvet of the couch press against her chin and hearing the endless silence of an empty world, and all she could think was don't let me be her, please don't ever let me be like her, ever ever ever