"I do believe it's ready, your Majesty."
The felid Splice held up the vial for Jupiter's examination, and her Majesty leaned in for a closer look. The substance was navy blue and lacked ReCell's glow, but it had a subtle glitter and rippled against the inside of the vial as if it were alive.
Caine reflected that in a way, it was alive. Though he'd only understood about half the scientist's report when he'd read it; he was a soldier, not a scientist.
"It looks good, Dr. Vinge," Jupiter said, clearly pleased. "What kind of test do you have in mind? You've run all the sims, right?"
"We have, yes." Vinge's tail twitched; unlike Caine and Stinger, her Splice characteristics were very obvious. "We're about to ask for human volunteers."
Jupiter glanced around the big lab. It had been one of her first projects, when she'd settled into actual rule, and she'd skimped on nothing. The lab techs were all lined up to watch, and there was more equipment than Caine had seen outside of a ReCell refinery; all of it pulled together in the search for the key to toppling an empire.
To Caine, the ReCell industry was a distant fact of existence; he understood Jupiter's horror, but he didn't feel more than a sort of remote distaste for the practice. And the stuff had saved his life more than once - and Stinger's, and Kiza's.
But his Queen wanted to end the Harvests, and he was starting to believe that she might somehow manage it. Out of sheer stubbornness, if nothing else. It was just one more reason he loved her -
"Well." Jupiter reached for the sleeve of her shirt and began to roll it up. "Since I commissioned this crazy idea, it seems like I should be the one to test it."
Caine flinched, and Vinge's ears went flat against her head. "Your Majesty!" she protested. "You can't possibly risk your safety - "
Jupiter lifted a brow at her. "If it's safe enough to test on humans, then it should be safe enough to test on me."
Vinge's tail lashed, and her colleague Dr. Grant wrung both sets of hands. Jupiter looked back at Caine. "Give me your knife, please, Mr. Wise."
Her face was calm, but he knew the gleam in her eyes, and he chose his words carefully even as he reached for the sheath strapped to his leg. "Your Majesty...it isn't your place to take this risk."
Jupiter's brows drew together, and it was a measure of their bond that he could face her calmly. He didn't want to point out that her researchers were on the point of panic, it would only make her feel guilty, but he knew he'd have to act quickly. Arguing with his sovereign in public was bad protocol and it hurt his stomach anyway.
Caine always kept his blade sharp. It was easy to draw the edge across his forearm; blood welled up in its wake, and he barely felt the sting.
It was Jupiter's turn to twitch, and he could smell her shock. She glared at him, he could feel her eyes without even looking up, but he didn't look, instead holding out his arm to Vinge. "Doctor?"
She snapped into action, her own nose twitching, gesturing him towards the patient bed across the lab. "It needs sterile isolation. Sit down, Mr. Wise."
He sat obediently and held still as Grant set up the sterile field around his arm; it always felt a bit odd when the greenish glow swept across his skin, but it never hurt. Vinge snapped a spray nozzle on the vial and put her hand into the field, which surrounded her fingers with a sparkling shield; the spray was neither cold nor warm, and looked almost black beneath the field when Vinge squeezed the trigger.
Caine felt the bed give a little as Jupiter sat down next to him, and her hand slid into his free one, fingers interlacing with his in a firm grip. "We'll discuss this later," she said in an undertone, but she sounded more rueful than upset, and she smelled less of anger and more of anxiety. Caine squeezed back, and didn't let himself smile.
The sting was already abating, though Caine couldn't tell if it was due to the spray or just his own body dealing with the tiny injury. The sterile field blurred the view just enough that he couldn't see details, though as they all watched the dark smear gradually shrank; about ten minutes after it had been applied, the last few drops turned an ashy grey.
Vinge trilled softly. "That's that," she said, and snapped off the field. "Let's have a look."
The cut was completely gone; Caine's skin was golden and unmarred, even the downy hairs restored. He raised his brows and blew out a sharp breath, impressed.
Grant made a bubbling sound of approval, and clapped Vinge on the back with both right hands. Jupiter laughed, her grip tightening. "That's amazing!"
Vinge grinned, and used a suction scoop to gather up the grey droplets. "One quick examination, Mr. Wise, and we're done, though I'd appreciate a chance to look again later if you'll permit."
Caine nodded, and let her run scanners over his forearm and mutter with Grant. Their work was not a replacement for ReCell, not if it required a sterile field to work, but it was a good start, and he could feel Jupiter's exhilaration as she watched. Almost two years of effort...who knew what more time would bring?
When they stepped out of the lab building, the afternoon was golden; Dvodie III's vegetation tended towards shades of yellow and bronze, and the lowering sun lit the trees with warmth until the alcazar grounds looked molten. It was a beautiful world, and Caine understood why Jupiter had chosen it for her base of operations - not least because it resembled Earth in many ways.
The place was as safe as could be expected, Stinger saw to that, but Caine still slipped his arm from Jupiter's as they passed through the doors, widening his senses to check for possible threats. Her Majesty was used to the protocol and simply continued at his side, glancing back to make sure her small retinue - her senior secretary and two synth-guards - was following.
Jupiter's alcazar was actually a number of low buildings spread out around a natural lake, with winding paths between; Lady Kalique called it "rustic" and it certainly lacked the impressive architecture of many of the holdings Jupiter had inherited from Seraphi, but Caine suspected she liked it all the better because it wasn't so imposing. The many buildings made it harder to secure, but the complex was enclosed in the best in protective tech and Jupiter had given Stinger carte blanche to hire personnel, so even though the grounds were open to the sky it was safe enough for her to wander around as she pleased.
It was just as well, Caine knew, because she would have done that anyway. But it made him feel better, at least.
"What's next on the schedule, Miss Vee?" her Majesty asked, and her secretary, a peabird Splice who'd been part of Balem's estate, slipped up to join her.
"You have the next two hours marked as 'Private'," Vee replied, her tone matter-of-fact. "If I recall correctly, you threatened to - I quote - 'run away and join the circus' if the time was not kept blocked off."
Caine bit back an undignified snicker, and Jupiter grinned. "I always liked the trapeze artists. Okay, dinnertime; you can go eat too, Miss Vee."
"Your Majesty." The secretary bobbed her head, having learned early on that her new employer didn't care for elaborate obeisances, and strode away.
Jupiter veered towards the lake-side building that was her private quarters - and Caine's. Caine fell into step beside her, the synths following, and they walked in comfortable silence for a bit. Caine reflected that most Entitled would have used some sort of conveyance to get around - physical exertion was seen as déclasseé among the First Estate - but Jupiter usually refused to consider it unless the weather was bad.
Protocol was protocol, but as they turned down the path that led to the lake her Majesty's hand hooked through Caine's belt, and he let his own hand brush it, a quick caress. "A whole two hours," he said, keeping his tone sober. "That probably caused Vee pain."
Jupiter snorted. "She likes a challenge." Her glance up at him was lit with amusement. "You know, if it only takes us half an hour to eat, that leaves ninety minutes just lying around loose."
Caine licked his lips at the surge of anticipation. "May I inquire as to her Majesty's footwear this evening?"
Jupiter stuck out one foot. "Just plain old boots today, sorry."
"Not a problem." Caine lifted her into his arms, grinning at her chuckle. "We wouldn't want to waste any of those minutes."
Jupiter's arm went around him, and he crouched and leapt easily into the air, letting his wings carry them both up. Her Majesty's head rested against Caine's shoulder, welcome weight. "Vee's not the only one who likes a challenge."
Caine tightened his grip in lieu of a reply, and flew a little faster.
The message came through just as they were finishing dinner - which had ended up in the last half-hour of Jupiter's break - chiming with Caine's urgency alert on the nearest console. He laid down his fork and ducked his head in apology as he rose to check it, but Jupiter just smiled permission in return.
The message made him frown a little, though it was hardly that unusual - just not something he'd seen since his reinstatement. Report to Post 17-8387-129 for special assignment.
"What is it?" Jupiter asked, sounding curious, and Caine shrugged and tapped the panel to forward it to her sheave.
"A summons up to the local Legion post. No details, but I can guess." He resumed his seat and reached for the sweet goopy stuff Jupiter referred to as "mousse"; his translator implant kept telling him it was a large boreal mammal, but it certainly didn't taste like one.
Her Majesty skimmed the message, then set down the sheave and stole a spoonful of his dessert. "Mm?" she said around the utensil.
Caine swallowed his own bite, suddenly uncertain. "I know Stinger explained what I used to do for the Legion. Solo missions."
Her face went sober, and she pulled the spoon free with a pop that would have been distracting at any other time. "Yeah..."
Uneasiness itched up his spine. "That's probably what this is. A hunt."
"Weren't those - um." Jupiter looked away, and Caine could finish her sentence in his head. Assassinations.
He'd never cared, before; a mission was a mission, and obedience was a Splice's first duty. He still didn't care, not for himself - it was what he was bred for, where his skills lay, and he was proud of his record.
But Jupiter did, and that made his stomach twist uncomfortably.
Caine searched for words, but before he found them she turned back, reaching out to wrap her fingers around his hand, and automatically he turned it palm-up to meet her touch. "Just be careful, okay?" she said, and though her eyes were dark, her voice was steady. "The Legion may have first claim on you, but I need you more."
The knot in his gut unwound, and he started to bend, to press his mouth to her hand, but Jupiter was already tugging his arm up, and her lips on his knuckles made his breath catch.
"Your Majesty," he managed, and felt her smile curve against his hand, small and worried and true.
Legion Outpost 17-8387-129 was kind of a backwater, containing only about ten thousand soldiers and a similar number of support personnel; it was an unwieldy sphere of a station, bristling with at least five generations of weaponry and sensors. To Caine, it looked like a whiskery wart that had lost the backside it had grown on.
But the Legion wasn't about beauty. He docked the little runabout that he'd requisitioned from her Majesty's fleet - she kept trying to give him one of his own, but since he almost never went anywhere without her he couldn't see the point - and went in to find his way through the labyrinth to the intake office. The place smelled like recycled air and stale caffeine, comfortable and familiar.
"Report to General Atadie," the desk officer said, handing him a sheave without even looking up from his desk. Caine took it, but frowned.
"The general? Are you sure?"
"I just pass 'em on, Splice, I don't question 'em," the officer snapped. Caine bit back a tired growl and let it go, stepping away to read the sheave. Bigots were so common in the Legion as to be beneath notice - though it gave him an odd feeling to realize that he was using her Majesty's term. Before, the scorn of it would have been absorbed without a flinch; now it just made him impatient.
But Caine had no time for analysis at the moment. He scanned through the sheave, but all it had was basically the same vague wording as the orders that had brought him here, report to the Command office for special assignment. He thumbed the sheave off and started walking. It really was sounding more and more like a covert track-and-kill mission. Assassination in military wrappings - well, he was still a Legionnaire. I just hope it doesn't take too long.
Outside the general's door Caine took a few seconds to settle and make sure his uniform was perfect. General Atadie didn't like Splices either, and it was best not to give him any excuse. Caine had never come face to face with the man before, just seen him at reviews and such, but he'd heard things - top brass always had stories told about them.
He knocked. "Come in," shouted someone, male and annoyed, and Caine stepped inside, gaze going automatically to the figure behind the wide desk and hand rising equally automatically in a salute.
"Lieutenant Wise reporting, sir." Then his eyes tracked right, skimming the huge lycantant guard standing against the wall and then stopping on the woman seated opposite, and he felt them going so wide that they ached, because she wore a face and bore a scent he had thought he would never encounter again.
And when she raised one brow in censure, an older reflex than the Legion's cut in, and Caine sank to his knees without consciously forming the thought, even as his throat tightened in revulsion.
Atadie made a disgusted noise. "That the one you wanted?" he said.
The woman rose. She wore youth the same way the Entitled did, a fresh pelt over an ancient soul, but of course she could afford it. Simone Thalassa walked over to Caine and took a handful of his hair, pulling his head to the left in a move neither gentle nor cruel, merely impersonal, and peered at his brand. "Yes, this is the right one."
"All yours then." Atadie tapped a button on his desk. "Your payment's already gone through, though why you want a failure back is beyond me."
Sweat was starting up all over his body, and old memories were waking horror within him. Caine forced his voice to work as Thalassa released him. "S-sir - what - "
Atadie cast him a cold look. "I'm not your commander anymore. Your Splicer bought you back. We're going to want his wings back first," he added, turning to Thalassa. "That's proprietary tech."
"Very well, but do it under anesthesia. I don't want any unnecessary trauma." She straightened and walked back to her chair.
Your Splicer is your god. It was the unspoken truth of any Splicing facility; the Splicer planned the outcome, mixed the genes, and studied the results, nurturing the successes and culling the failures. Splices were their property, with no rights; they were merely commodities. The Splicer was life and death, was absolute power - until a Splice was sold.
He was going back to that - and away from Jupiter.
There wasn't room in the office for his wings, but Caine blew them open anyway, using their power to launch himself to his feet and flip backward out the door. The huge wind of the downdraft had Atadie cursing and small objects flying, but Caine was already on his feet and pelting down the hall, fingers dancing out the code for his boots, other hand reaching for his gun. Shouts erupted and people dove out of his way, and Caine felt the fields take hold under his soles. He snapped his shield on - faster, come on, faster -
Snarls and the heavy thud of feet told him the lycantant guard was pursuing him. Caine pushed harder, knowing he could outrun them if he had a clear path, and slingshotted around a corner.
An alarm blared, loud enough to make his teeth ache, and he cursed, forcing back a flood of panic and calling up what little he knew about the layout of the post. His only real hope was to get to a dock, any dock, and grab a ship with portal capability - if he could just get back to Jupiter he could claim asylum, it wasn't strictly legal but that never stopped an Entitled -
Another corner - Caine used his wings to help make the turn, then folded them tightly to reduce drag. The snarls were getting fainter, and he wondered wildly if he could get far enough ahead to disappear into a crowd, though they'd still be able to track his scent. He cursed again, this time at the protocol that put top officers at the center of stations, and chose the next hallway almost at random. Think -
Left, and then right. Somewhere behind him a chilling howl broke out, the sound of a lycantant on the hunt, and even though he was the quarry some small part of Caine wanted to answer. He clenched his teeth and ran faster. The next one should take me halfway to the skin -
He made the turn, but the alarm had taken effect. What looked like an entire squadron was boiling up the corridor ahead of him, weapons already out and firing. Caine skidded up the wall, shield forward, and was over half of them before they reorganized enough to shoot upward. His heart was shouting in fear, fear old and new, but the tactical part of his brain was coolly taking charge.
He cartwheeled down behind the squadron, firing back at them with the aim of clogging the hall; there were too many in too small a space to be effective. Some returned fire, but he blocked the shots easily; these were ground-pounders, not Skyjackers.
But they were also just the first wave, and as he skated around the next corner Caine knew that he had very little time. He forced back a flood of panic, and was briefly grateful that all his equipment was charged.
The next junction was a T, and another squad was thundering up from the direction he needed, and there wasn't enough room to go up and over. Caine flew towards them, letting his wings add extra speed, and slammed into the leaders. It was a free-for-all after that, an elbow-punching scramble of shouts and grunts and bodies lurching back and forth; Caine ignored the bursts of pain from fists and feet and concentrated on getting through.
He almost made it. Even when more soldiers bore down on them, he fought and fought, punching and kicking and clawing; even when they wrenched his wings back and pointed guns at his head, he howled and struggled and dragged his captors forward until they piled on him, six and seven together, dragging him down by sheer weight. Only when he could no longer move did he stop.
Caine could smell Thalassa when she came, even through the stink of two squads' worth of exertion and adrenaline. That dry, powder-sweet scent was one of his oldest memories, and nothing about it was pleasant. He could just see her shoes when she halted next to the swaying heap of soldiers holding him down.
"Sedate him. I don't have time to waste."
He couldn't help it. Caine strained to throw off his captors, snarled when the medic approached, wrenched his neck when a rough hand grabbed his jaw, but there was no escaping the injector, and its pop drove ice into his veins.
No - NO - JUPITER!
And he was gone.