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Redux

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Jupiter woke to the sound of the alarm blaring and Mama commanding, ”Jupiter get up. Make the coffee.”

She dragged herself out of bed with a groan and went upstairs, automatically going through the motions of filling the water and measuring out the grounds.

She was exhausted. And sore—her muscles ached all over. Had she even slept last night? She slumped against the counter listening to the sputtering water, anticipating that first hot cup of coffee.

Something was strange, but she was so tired she couldn’t think straight.

She couldn’t recall coming home last night. Last thing she remembered was that dive bar downtown. She and Caine had flown around the city for hours, finally stopping to find a spot still open for burgers and beer. They’d snuggled into a booth in the back, and she’d been thinking about where to go for the rest of the night.  

She switched on the overhead light in the kitchen.

“Hey,” mumbled Vladie from where he slept on the couch, covering his eyes to escape the glare.

There was something different about the room...but she couldn’t place it.

She didn’t remember how the night had ended with Caine. It felt like they were doing a dance sometimes. Two steps forward, one step back. It was hard to know where he was coming from. He was holding back, but she wasn't sure whether that was just his nature, or if she should be doing something different.

Everything in her life had been changing so quickly. She didn’t want to push. She could be patient.

She’d been so euphoric all week though.

Her family was safe. She’d escaped death so many times she’d lost count. She’d saved the whole freaking planet. She’d been in a bubble of pure joy. Even cleaning toilets made her grin.

There were things she was putting off. Whether she wanted it or not, she couldn’t really go back to her old life. Not permanently. But there were still things she needed to figure out.

Including her feelings for Caine.

Had she actually passed out last night? She’d only had one beer...

Vladie stumbled in, grabbing a mug and taking the first of the coffee before it finished brewing.

Jupiter rolled her eyes at him.

“Don’t forget about the clinic today," he whispered. “It’s all set. I’ll cover for you while you’re gone.”

“What?”

“You know the...” he mouthed the word “eggs” and wiggled his eyebrows. He looked ridiculous, with his knock-off Green Lantern pajama pants, hair alternating between matted down and standing straight up. Maybe the memory wipe had affected his brain?

“Vladie,” she said patiently, picking up her cell phone and turning it on to check the date. “You know today is...”

“June 24th. Don’t tell me you forgot." His voice turned whinny." Come on Jupe. This could be a big break for us. You’re still doing it right?”

“Um,” Jupiter stared down at her phone:

 

                                      4:55

                           Wednesday, June 24

 

That didn’t make sense. It had to be at least July? Something was off.

She looked around the kitchen and it hit her.

The hideous floral wallpaper. It was the same.

The wallpaper that had been there ever since she could remember. It had been destroyed along with the kitchen wall when Balem abducted her family. The keepers had repaired all the damage to the house, but they hadn’t been able to recreate the exact same wallpaper—replacing it with an equally ugly print of egg yellow and puce daisies instead. No one else had noticed. But then, their memories had been wiped once they’d returned to earth.

Hadn’t they?

She looked at the date on her phone and strained to remember exactly what had happened last night.

Never mind Vladie’s brain had the keepers done something to her?

“Jupe, you gotta do it” Vladie pleaded.

“Yeah, yeah, okay.” She couldn’t deal with him now. “Just—don’t spend the money yet, okay? Don’t buy anything!”

“No, I wouldn’t...”

She tuned him out, looking at her phone again, going through her contacts. She didn’t know how the space phone tech worked exactly, but the numbers had been programmed in: The Aegis, Stinger, Caine.

They were all gone.

She went to the dining room and turned on the light.

Her telescope was gone.

Feeling desperate, she went back to her phone to look through photos, and there it was: The picture of the keepers in Katherine’s apartment.

If those things could erase memories and rebuild skyscrapers, what else were they capable of?

The last few weeks hadn’t been a dream, or hallucination. But somehow she was reliving the morning before her clinic appointment.

Could they also turn back time?

“What is that?” Vladie asked, leaning over to peek at her phone.

“Nothing,” she said, shutting it off. “I need to use your car today.”

“What?” he sputtered.

She placed her hands on her hips and glared at him expectantly.

“Okay, okay. It’s yours.”

One thing she knew for sure: She wasn’t going back to that clinic again. Last time, she’d barely escaped alive.

 

Chapter Text

It was a four-hour drive to Stinger’s house. And other than working herself into a frenzy, looking in the rearview mirror for keepers and bounty hunters every five seconds, dealing with Chicago’s typically frustrating highway construction and traffic going out of the city, everything went surprisingly well. Really, the worst aspect of the drive was the absolutely horrifying stench and mess of Vladie’s car.

Jupiter didn’t even know what to look out for anyway: Sparkling blue beams that would pluck her from stop and go traffic? Blasts from air cannons? Keepers, which were invisible anyway?

Ideally, she’d spot Caine gliding in on his gravity boots, doing a midair flip before sliding in through the passenger side window to sit beside her and say, “Caine Wise. I’m here to help you.”

She’d left the window open—well due to the smell and lack of a functioning air conditioner really—but she could hope, right?

So far, no one was following her.

If Caine had could track a gene through the universe, he should be able to find her at Stinger’s house. At least, that was what she was hoping.

And how exactly would she could explain to Caine, or Stinger, or anyone, what was happening? They’d think she was crazy!

Or should she even try to explain?

She’d read her share of sci-fi books, watched Back to the Future and Doctor Who. You had to be careful messing around with time paradoxes and erasing yourself from existence. But how exactly could she avoid a time paradox? Just by waking up this morning, with her memories intact, things were different now.

At least, coming straight to Stinger’s house she’d be farther away from all the things that were trying to kill her, a few hours ahead of Balem Abrasax’s plans.

She’d play it by ear, she decided. Figure things out as she went along.

Jupiter parked the car behind the rusting cab of a semi-truck, picked a path between tiny wooden bee-houses and walked toward the dilapidated front steps.

The house was the same as she’d first seen it—before Stinger and Caine crashed through the porch railing and bounty hunters blew through the front door: Paint peeling and eaves dripping with honeycombs, but mostly intact.

She knocked hesitantly against the front door and waited.

And waited.

She raised her hand again and saw it trembling. She was shaking with nerves and exhaustion. She hadn’t had anything to eat since she didn’t know when. And really, she was so incredibly tired.

“Stinger Apini!” she called out, pounding her fist harder against the door. “Open the door! It’s really important!”

The door creaked inward and Stinger came slowly forward, shotgun at his side and a suspicious scowl on his face. Kiza stood behind him, arms crossed.

“Um, hi,” Jupiter said, with a small smile. She was trying for sincere and trustworthy. Judging by his expression she must have looked more desperate and deranged.

“I need you to contact the Aegis for me.”

“Why’d you come to me?”

“Caine Wise...”

The gun came up to eye level.

“I know this probably sounds strange. It’ll take a while to explain everything,” Jupiter said, hands in the air, slowly taking a step backwards. “But it’s really, really urgent. If you could contact the Aegis right away, I need their help to get off the planet before Balem Abrasax orders a blockade.”

Stinger’s frown just deepened.

“Oh!” said Jupiter. “And I need some sort of security for my family back in Chicago, so they don’t get abducted...”

“By aliens?” Stinger said.

“Yes!”

“That’s it! Get out!” Stinger yelled, shooing her off the porch and down the steps.

Jupiter stumbled back down the steps, into a patch of wildflowers and tall grasses, and looked up at him. She couldn’t leave, but she couldn’t think of what to say either.

She felt too strange, as if she were standing off to the side, watching herself dig a hole deeper and deeper, her mouth moving without the help of her brain.

All the things that should have been convincing made the situation worse.

Like mentioning Caine.

For that matter, the name Abrasax hadn’t helped either.

She was so tired. Her thoughts buzzing around like crazy. She felt like she could collapse where she stood.

Stinger turned to go back into the house.

“No wait! I—Kiza!“

“How do you know my daughter?” Stinger turned back to look at her and stopped in his tracks.

Stunned.

“Yeah,” said Jupiter, wearily, waving at the bees circling around her. “And there’s that whole royalty thing...”

He walked slowly down the steps and knelt before her, eyes flashing gold, “Your Majesty.”

And she fell to the ground.

 

     *    *   *

 

She really had to stop passing out so much, Jupiter thought as she opened her eyes and looked around the room. Being unconscious so often couldn’t be good for her.

She was lying on an ancient velvet-covered settee in the front room. From the dust-filled rays of light slanting in she could tell it was still daytime. And—oh God—she had to pee!

She washed her hands afterward and combed them through her hair as she looked in the mirror. She looked like a normal, sane person—didn’t she? There were faint circles under her eyes, she could use a little lipstick... and there was a giant hickey on the side of her neck.

She actually remembered that happening pretty well. It was around the time that she’d thought last night was going to get really interesting.

Or not last night—next month?

At least, she had her favorite blue gingham shirt back; she’d put it on in the dark this morning. She thought she’d lost that for good somewhere in Kalique’s alcazar.

Actually, Jupiter thought honestly, giving herself a good stern Bolotnikov look in the mirror, she was feeling a little more crazy than she’d like—even if it didn’t seem to show. She took a deep breath and went back out to the sitting room.

Kiza was waiting for her.

“Oh, Your Majesty,” she said in a soft, concerned voice. “We’re so sorry. We had no idea, really.”

“Don’t worry about it, and please, call me Jupe,” said Jupiter, her voice cracking. “I’m sorry I collapsed in your front yard.”

“Would you like a drink of water? Some food?”

Jupiter gratefully took the glass of water Kiza offered, gulped down the whole thing and reached for the plate of cookies.

“Dad’s already contacted the Aegis. They’ re sending a cruiser to escort you to the Commonwealth so that you can claim your title,” said Kiza. “I hope you don’t mind that we took a sample and sent them your gene print. You were unconscious for a while, and you did say it was urgent.”

“Umph,” Jupiter replied, her mouth full. She resisted the urge to grab another handful of cookies, reaching for just one more. She might as well try to pull off being a little bit Royal here. “Excuse me. I mean. That’s fine. Thank you.”

“They should be here by tonight,” said Kiza.

Which left Jupiter where exactly? She tried to remember how previous events had played out. She’d have to make sure that she had everything covered.

It would be so much easier, if she could just tell Stinger everything that was going on.

“Well, um,” she said, trying to swallow a crumb that had stuck in her throat. “All this space travel and alien tech is pretty new to me. Do you guys all fly around with jet packs and have like...time machines... and stuff?”

For all she knew, time travel was common in their world. Maybe Stinger had a contraption in the back of the barn. He’d give it a few swift kicks to get it working and send her back to her date night with Caine.

Maybe this happened all the time. Stinger could tell her the usual Legion protocols; Captain Tsing might have to take her back to Orous to file the necessary time recalibration paperwork...

“Time machines? Not really. We have FTL transmissions and portals. Our techs’s advanced compared to Earth’s, but people hold on to their old stuff too. I keep trying to get dad to upgrade our Vid player. It’s at least five hundred years old—but he likes to tinker.” Kiza smiled and rolled her eyes.

“How long have you been here?” Jupiter asked.

“Three, almost four years. It’s a little quieter than I’m used to—but nice,” she added quickly, as if she didn’t want to offend. “Earth is really very nice, Your Majesty.

“And jet packs?” Kiza was eager to change the subject. “Dad used to have wings...” She lowered her voice. “Maybe you shouldn’t mention Caine Wise again. I don’t know if it’s all his fault, but he’s caused a lot of problems. Last I heard he was in the Deadlands, but if he shows his face around here, Dad’s likely to kick his arse.”

“Yeah, “ Jupiter agreed, remembering. “I, um, I’m pretty sure he is on Earth. Titus Abrasax hired him and part of his payment is a full pardon and re-instatement for your dad.”

“Really?” asked Kiza. “Do you know Caine? Know about him?”

“I’ve heard about him,” Jupiter said, choosing her words carefully. “I’m hoping that once he finds me, I can convince him to work for me instead of Titus. I’ve been told he was one of the best soldiers in the Legion, the best tracker in the Universe.”

“Wise is a loose canon, Your Majesty,” grumbled Stinger, walking into the room. “You don’t know what you’re getting into there. And he hasn’t tracked you down yet. Maybe he’s gotten soft, lost his touch.”

Chapter Text

 

Caine waited for his quarry to show at the clinic.

He’d surveyed the scene from a perch above the alley, planned his strategy, and calculated the number of seconds to fly through the door. He’d have to time it just right. If he went in too soon, they’d send for re-enforcements.

It was a warm summer afternoon, and the sounds and smells from the surrounding streets filtered up to him.

The ripe smells of laughing teenagers, greasy food from street vendors, and engine exhaust. But underneath it all he kept the scent memory of the woman, waiting to catch it again.

He closed his eyes for a second and focused.

This job was already taking longer than he’d expected; the first lead a dead end.

Katherine Dunleavy wasn’t the woman who’d signed papers at the clinic. Though he’d smelled traces of that woman in Dunlevy’s apartment. There was a strong bleach smell too, as if someone had tried to cover it up.

There’d been something strange going on with Dunlevy when he’d gone in there. He’d seen the slight mark on her neck from the gene sampler and she’d been disorientated and confused, as if the Keepers had wiped her too quickly, carelessly. There were clothes scattered on every surface and she kept asking Caine if he was there to fix the Internet. And if he had ever fallen in love.

“No,” he’d said, again and again. He didn’t bother to elaborate, explain that relationships were difficult for soldiers in the Legion—much less defective splices.

He tried to ask her about her roommate, or sister, or friend. Tried to figure out the connection. But she only looked at him blankly.

Maybe it was his fault. He wasn’t the best at talking to Terrsies–to anyone really. He’d gotten out of the habit of speaking much at all; it felt stiff, unnatural.

After leaving Dunlevy, he’d followed the scent from one house to another. Always encountering that strong smell of bleach, and some fake citrus after-tone that made him want to sneeze a little.

They’d all been dead-ends so far. There’d been only one more trail left to check out when he’d headed back to the clinic.

Something didn’t sit right about this job. He didn’t trust Titus Abrasax; knew the Entitled was withholding information. But Caine wasn’t in a position to choose. The important thing was to keep his head down, get the job done.

He could never make it up to Stinger entirely—wings stripped and stuck as a backworld Marshal all these years. But Caine would try to get him pardoned and re-instated if he could.

That was the least he could do.

He still didn’t understand why Stinger had taken the blame. He’d been his commanding officer, true, but Caine had never expected anyone to stand up for him like that.

Years ago, he’d thought he’d found his place in the Legion. He’d been closest to Stinger, but there had been a sort of comradery with the other skyjackers too. He’d had a built-in purpose, been part of a team. He knew it was only a half-assed replacement for a pack, but it had been something.

He didn’t know what would replace it. Maybe he’d go to the infantry. They’d take anyone or anything.

Titus had promised he’d be pardoned, but Caine didn’t imagine he’d ever go back to his old unit. Didn’t think any of them would stand the sight of him.

He wasn’t just defective anymore. They’d declared him deranged.

He’d never expected to survive the Deadlands. Going in was as good as a death sentence. But he’d developed a habit of surviving when he shouldn’t.

In the past, he'd made the most of his disadvantages. Done his best to ignore the pitying looks from other lycantants –- the whispers about the ill-bred half-albino without a pack.

Deprivation made his senses keener. Being smaller, meant he was quicker, more agile, able to think on his feet. He couldn't rely on instinct—his instincts were faulty—he'd had to figure out his own way of doing things.

He’d honed his skills, learned to savor the adrenaline rush of spinning in midair to dodge and shoot with dead accuracy. He'd trained his mind and body to work without hesitation, take in any situation, react to whatever came at him.

He’d worked relentlessly, determined to be the best fighter, hunter, pilot possible. His reflexes would never be as fast as someone like Stinger—but he’d trained until he was damn near close.

He tensed as he scented one of the hunters he’d fought last night a few blocks away. All three were lurking out there, on the periphery.

Cheap labor hired as a redundancy—if the Keepers didn’t get to the woman first.

Gangs like that roamed the ‘verse. Scrabbling for whatever they could get. That might have been his fate, if they hadn’t taken him into the Legion.

It might be his fate still.

Caine didn’t know what he’d do when this was done. For the last few years there hadn’t been any planning for the future, no decisions to make.

Just survival.

But after this?

He could strike out on his own he supposed. Pick up this kind of work: kidnappings and assassinations.

He could probably find a band of renegade splices who’d welcome him. Anyone sane wouldn’t want anything do with him.

If he were honest with himself, maybe this sort of work was all he was good for anymore. He couldn’t rely on his control, his self-discipline, the things he’d taken for granted in the past, before the attack.

The idea of being a hired thug repulsed him though. He liked the action, liked the hunt and the chase. He could do what needed to be done, but he’d never quite developed a lust for the kill.

He stretched and flexed his muscles one by one as he waited, enjoying the weight of his old boots again, body relaxed, but ready. Feeling…restless.

He wore his heavy coat, had put it on automatically. It was protocol on underdeveloped worlds to stay low profile, keep his wings covered. He’d forgotten he didn’t have anything to cover anymore.

He considered taking the coat off, moving to a spot where he could feel the mild warmth of this sun on his skin. So different from burning heat of the Deadlands.

He stayed in the shadows instead.

On a day like this he missed his wings more than ever, the way the warm air moved through his feathers. He could have circled for hours on the hot updrafts.

He should have been used to their loss by now, but he still felt them, like phantoms, at times.

Chapter Text

Jupiter turned to glare at Stinger. She wanted to jump to Caine’s defense. He had not gotten soft or lost his touch. And loose cannon --- what did that even mean?

But she held herself back.

In some ways, Stinger probably knew Caine better than anybody. He was bitter about what had happened in the past; the two of them needed to argue it out, she figured ---or fight it out more accurately.

And anyway, she didn’t want to get caught in a tangle of things she wasn’t supposed to know about.

It was overwhelming, like she was being pulled in a million directions all at once. She’d basically spent the whole time driving here freaking herself out, thinking about every action and counteraction, every possibility. Maybe coming here hadn’t been the right thing to do. Maybe she should have gone to the clinic and trusted that things would work out the same as before.

What if she was unraveling the fabric of time, messing everything up?

Stinger looked at her expectantly.

“You’re starting to go white in the face again, Your Majesty,” Kiza said. “Do you need to lie down?”

 “No. But, I really don’t feel that well,” Jupiter admitted. “Do you have anything else to eat?”

 

Two grilled cheese sandwiches and a mug full of strong, honeyed tea later, she was feeling more herself.

Stinger sat with her at the kitchen table, filling her in on what had happened while she’d been out.

“As soon as the Aegis cruiser arrives,” he said, “they’ll send a team out on protective detail for your family.”

“Oh, thank God!” said Jupiter. “I’m just really worried about what will happen to them if Balem gets to them first. Can they let me know that everyone is all right once the Aegis get there? “

 “Of course.”

Jupiter had decided that she’d stick with telling Stinger as much as she could, being as honest as she could. She’d never been good at keeping track of lies. She’d have to keep her head on straight and figure things out if she was going to get through this.

Whatever this was.

Kiza gave a hacking cough, and as Jupiter and Stinger turned to look at her, she apologized again, that they didn’t have anything else for lunch and offered to run to the store.

“No, that’s all right, really. It was delicious,” Jupiter said.

“Do you want to go and rest a bit?” Stinger asked Kiza.

“I’m all right, dad,” she insisted, just before breaking into another fit of coughing that left her doubled over.

 “Well, maybe just for a few minutes,” she relented, leaning heavily against the counter.

Caine had explained to Jupiter about Kiza’s bug. He'd said it was the reason Stinger sold them out to Titus.

Stinger was still trustworthy though, he’d insisted. And Jupiter thought the same. Anybody else might have done the same thing. Who was she to judge? She’d been ready, at one point, after all, to trade the entire Earth for the safety of her family.

She still hated even the idea of Regenex. But she had seen how much of the liquid had already been “harvested”. There was so much of it just sitting in storage on Titus’s clipper, ready to be sold to the highest bidder. She supposed it made the sense for it to go to some good purpose. At least that way it wouldn’t be a total waste of all those lives. Better to have it heal someone sick than to be used for just another Entitled beauty bath.

“So Caine Wise is out of Deadlands, working for Titus Abrasax and tracking you here?” Stinger questioned after Kiza had left the room. “And you want to hire the two of us?”

He gave her a dubious look.

“I know this all sounds kind of strange," said Jupiter. "But you know now that I’m the recurrence of Seraphi Abrasax. And there’s a lot of crap about to come at me because of it. I need help if I’m going to survive long enough to claim my title. I can help you too. Kiza’s sick. Once things are settled, I can give you enough money to help take care of her.”

“How did you find out about all of this though? You knew Kiza’s name before you even came here. And Caine Wise? He’s not the type to lose track of his prey.”

“I don’t think I can tell you everything,” said Jupiter in frustration. “I’ve been separated from the people who were helping me before though. And I was told that you’re a Marshall for the Aegis. That you could help me.”

“Of course, Your Majesty," he said gruffly. Stinger also had a genetically ingrained response to royalty.“But it’ll be hard to help you if I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“That’s the thing, “ she said. “I don’t really understand it either. I’m trying to figure things out, figure out what’s happening to me. I know the keepers blanked me at least once before. And I’m afraid they might have done something else---made it so that my sense of time is messed up—or I don’t know—can they do that?’

“Well, when a person is blanked they can’t remember how time has passed. I suppose that would feel like losing time. They can remove short-term memories. A week at most. After that it gets tricky.”

“It could be something like that.” Jupiter said. “I don’t know. Is there some way I could maybe look it up, find out about keepers and... I don’t know what you’d call it... time disturbances?”

“ Time disturbances…hmm… I heard you mention something about time machines to Kiza earlier.”

“Well, maybe it’s nothing---just the mind wipe thing, like you said.” Jupiter hesitated.  “But, well, I’ve always been kind of a space nerd---you could say it runs in my family---and, your people can travel faster than the speed of light, right?”

“I don’t know that I’d call them “my” people. But yeah.”

“Well, on Earth scientists are still trying to figure out things like quantum entanglement and special and general relativity. But it seems to me, with your space technology, time travel might be possible.”

Jupiter gave a sheepish smile. “I guess you could say it’s an interest of mine. And well, it might help explain some things.”

Stinger looked doubtful.

“ There’s so much I have to learn about this whole universe.” She said.  “Anything you could give me to read, really, it would be so helpful.”

“I don’t know, Your Majesty. I don’t think I’ll find any information on time travel, but I’ll see what I can do. My equipment’s not working too well these days.” Stinger went into the corner to poke and prod at some of the gadgets there. She thought she heard him mutter something about “damn budget cuts.”

 

************************************************

 

The woman never showed up at the clinic.

Caine followed his last lead to a house thirty miles outside the city. He spied a group gathered around a table in the front room, so he went around back and climbed through a window to the basement.

And there she was.

Or her scent, at least.

It was everywhere---surrounding him.

He took in the tangle of colorful blankets and pillows, the collage of photos and posters of space on the walls above her bed. Every surface crowded with books or toiletries or models of planets.

These living quarters were different than the ones he’d seen during his earlier search for her. They indicated a lower socio-economic status. Less luxurious, more cramped. She slept in close proximity to the others, her female kin.

But there was something nice--- cozy? ---he thought, for lack of a better word--- about the place as well.

It was more appealing than any of the sparse bunks he’d ever had on base, and hell of a lot better than the Deadlands.

He crouched down near her bed and took a deep slow breath.

There was something different about her scent here. Something strangely familiar.

It teased at the back of his mind, but he couldn’t quite place it. He disregarded the cleaning smells now; he’d seen the station wagon full of supplies in the driveway.

Quickly and methodically he went through her things until he found a name: Jupiter Jones.

He heard the voices upstairs, footsteps and chairs dragging against the floor.

“Where is Jupiter?” a man complained loudly. His voice thick with what Caine’s implants identified as a Russian accent. “She should let us know she’s not coming for dinner! This is all I ask, a nice family meal together...”

“For fuck’s sake Vasily, she’s an adult,” said a woman with the same accent. “You think she needs to come home every night to listen to you lecture about why she’s not married!”

“It is for her own good!”

“Oh, hey!... yeah,” said a smooth voice, a little too smooth Caine thought. This one was a younger male and without accent. “I let her use my car to visit some friends. She mentioned that she might be back late.”

Caine could tell he was lying.

“Since when are you letting anyone use your car, Vladie?” said the woman. “Though why she’d want that piece of shit...”

 Caine quickly plugged names and addresses into the planet’s surveillance network. Found a car licensed to Vladimir Bolotnikov--- last photographed exiting an Indiana tollbooth three hours ago.

Fifteen miles from Stinger Apini’s place.

 

************************************************

Jupiter read everything Stinger had found for her on time travel. Which unfortunately wasn’t very much.

There were a couple older accounts of military pilots coming home after a year or two of space travel to find their families had aged decades in their absences. But procedures had been put in place to help prevent that happening anymore.

 Most researchers had decided that time travel was way too expensive, too unpredictable to be of any practical use. There were no longer any studies being funded.

And no one could agree about time paradoxes. Could a person erase their own existence? Or would the universe change around them in response and always compensate? No one knew for sure.

Basically: traveling backward in time was hard.

Forward was easy.

And she was really missing Caine.

Where the hell was he?

The Aegis would be there any minute, and she couldn’t just sit around waiting for him to show up. She remembered how Balem’s shadows had blown that other ship out of the sky. She’d need every minute of head start she could get dealing with the Abrasax siblings. She couldn’t put off getting her title. Until she did, both she and the entire Earth would be in danger.

 

*****************************************

Caine pulled down the long dirt driveway an hour later.

A hundred yards away, he could see an Aegis cruiser, hovering above the fields of corn.

It was beaming two people aboard.

He sniffed the air as he leapt from the car, then sprinted through the rows of tall stalks. He jumped at the last second and held on to a panel, pulling himself up into the outer hatch.

It was when they entered the thin upper atmosphere that he recognized it, and it hit him like a punch to the gut.

Jupiter Jones smelled like a lycantant.

No, not just any lycantant.

Jupiter Jones smelled like Caine.

Chapter Text

 

“Greetings, Your Majesty. I am Intergalactic Advocate Bob, here to assist you through the ascension process...”

 

Okay, thought Jupiter hours later, standing on tiptoe in an attempt to see how far they’d gotten through the line. Her gaze was blocked on all sides by teetering stacks of dusty documents and tall ornate twirls of multi-colored hair, penned in by the rows of file cabinets that seemed to go on forever.

A rosy-cheeked Bob beamed at her.

She could do this: get her title, protect her family and the Earth, avoid all three of the variously creepy Abrasax siblings and return back home again.

She’d be more or less back to where she’d thought she was when she first woke up this morning.

Minus her boyfriend.

Was Caine her boyfriend?

They hadn’t quite gotten around to talking about that yet.

She looked over at Stinger. He gave a grim twist of the mouth that was probably meant to be a smile, before looking off into the crowd again with a thousand yard stare.

Jupiter was really feeling Caine’s absence. Last time, they’d stood in the lines at the Commonwealth together. She hadn’t realized at the time how much she’d counted on checking his reactions to things, his wry lift of a furry blond eyebrow, the sardonic shake of his head. As the hours had passed, she felt a little sadder each time she turned around and he wasn’t there.

She was trying not to worry about him. But where was he? What if something really bad had happened to him, waiting for her back at the fertility clinic?  She tried not to imagine him injured, alone and in trouble. He was tough, more than able to take care of himself. He probably didn’t really need her there, nursing him back to health with feminine hygiene products. But still…

“Stinger, “ she said. “I want to find Caine Wise as soon as we return to Earth.”

“Alright,” he said slowly.

 “I’d just really feel better having you both as my guards as soon as possible, “ Jupiter rushed to explain. “The Abrasax are going to be coming after me and I want to be prepared”

Stinger had agreed to be a part of her guard. Jupiter planned to buy his and Caine’s pardons and Legion re-instatements once she’d reclaimed her title.

“Of course, Your Majesty.” Stinger said. “I just don’t understand why you’re so set on Caine Wise. Royal guard duty is considered an honor. You could have your pick of most anyone in the Legion.”

“You said yourself he was one of the best soldiers you’d ever worked with,” said Jupiter.

“I don’t remember saying that,” Stinger frowned. “Though I suppose it’s true. I’m not exactly against the idea of working with him again. It’s just---I don’t know who’s been telling you stories. I suppose Caine’s become something of a legend---but it’s not all good. Do you know why was sent to the Deadlands?  He attacked an entitled. Bit him.”

“Yes,” said Jupiter, keeping her expression serious, “I know.” She resisted the urge to lift her hand and cover up the mark on her neck. It wasn’t very obvious, she hoped.

“I trusted Caine,” Stinger continued. “And I’ve had my suspicions about the case against him. But he was court marshaled, and sentenced. We both were. Even if he weren’t damaged before--- three years in Deadlands wouldn’t improve anybody’s disposition.” He gave her a penetrating look. “I just hope you understand that. ”

 “I do understand,” she insisted.

Stinger just huffed in response and looked back out over the lines that seemed to stretch into infinity.

 

 

 

The lizard splice behind the next counter droned something about geneprint identification from wills and trusts and Jupiter shook herself to keep from falling asleep. Advocate Bob’s smile was beginning to falter. Maybe she was in purgatory, she thought. Somewhere, somehow, she must have done something really bad to be forced to re-live this whole experience.

 Should she bring up the idea of a bribe? It was going to happen eventually, Jupiter figured. Might as well speed things up, if they could.

And....Wait?

Geneprint identification?

She looked down at her sleeves---buttoned all the way down to avoid questions lately, but...She unfastened her right sleeve and there it was: her glowy blue space tattoo.

“Will this work as identification?” she asked.

 “This is outside of normal procedures,” the splice said sourly.

Beside her, the gears in Advocate Bob’s head gave a nervous high-pitched whir.

 “She’ll have to go directly to the Minster of Seals and Signets,” the splice announced, giving a glare that managed to be both disgusted and bored. “Sub-thirty-three.”

 

******************************************

 

Jupiter remembered the damp cold smell that hit as they came down the last flight of stairs.

“Aren’t you coming?” she asked Bob as he hovered nervously, hesitating above them.

“Oh no, Your Majesty. Advocates aren’t allowed on Sub-Thirty-three.”

“Right,” said Jupiter.

She and Stinger waited at the counter as the wild-haired old man muttered and slowly walked toward them.

He looked at Jupiter through his square yellow lens and then suddenly shouted “You!” so loudly that she jumped back a little in surprise.

“Yeah, we’re here...” Jupiter started, holding up her wrist to show her tattoo.

He waved his hands in dismissal and mumbled, “Abrasax, Abrasax...” switching to an opaque green lens and scrutinizing her through it thoroughly.

Then he went back and forth doing some incomprehensible stuff with his machines, took a too-big bite of his sandwich and tried to shoo her away, saying merely, “All right then.”

“All right?” asked Jupiter. “Um, aren’t you supposed to give me my code and conduct guide, my official sheaves, that kind of stuff?”

He muttered under his breath a bit more and made a big deal out of collecting things from various cabinets before passing them over.

“Congratulations your Majesty,” he said. “Sleep with one eye open. And don’t come back again!”

 

******************************************

 

“Well, that wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” Jupiter said to Stinger as they made their way back to the cruiser.

Her Majesty had a bit of a bounce in her step, thought Stinger. It was good to see her happy. She’d been so desperate and wild-eyed he’d thought she was a madwoman when she first came to him.

For that matter, he still hadn’t ruled out the idea that she was a least a little bit crazy. There were all sorts of unanswered questions, things she wasn’t telling him. All that stuff about time travel. And who exactly had she been with before she’d come to him?  A lot of it just didn’t add up. But then Stinger had worked with Entitled enough to know that they were strange and unpredictable. Combine that with Terrsie hard-headedness, he figured, and the unusual event of a royal recurrence...

Well, there was definitely something peculiar going on with her, but he had to admit she was sort of endearing. And if working for her would get a re-code for Kiza and opportunities for them both beyond the corn fields of Indiana, he was all for it.

She had some kind of weird fascination with Caine Wise. But then there was no accounting for tastes, and the boy could do a hell of a lot worse for himself.

Jupiter walked into the next room before him. 

“Hold up,” he started to call out.

But it was too late.

Caine Wise came flying out from a corner. In one movement he grabbed Jupiter up, activated his shield and turned his mauler toward Stinger.

Stinger had his own gun up in a fraction of a second, but by then there were bounty hunters coming into the room on both sides.

“Caine?”  said Jupiter in a soft voice.

“Don’t do this boy,” said Stinger with a shake of his head. “You’re just fucking everything up.”

“I’m sorry man,” said Caine.

 

******************************************

 

Jupiter stuck close to Caine as she was herded toward the golden-winged transport ship.  At least one of the motley group of bounty hunters smelled like rancid latke oil and the monocle-eyed one kept leering at her in a way that made her skin crawl.

Luckily, none of them came on board. A matching set of ten black-robed android guards stood just inside the ship’s entrance though. And really, thought Jupiter, those things totally creeped her out.

Once aboard, Caine was quick to put some space between them.

“You’d better strap in,” he instructed, going to stand by the far wall.

“Okay,” she said.

Maybe she was in shock or something. She hadn’t thought to struggle when he’d scooped her up into his arms. Instead, she realized, embarrassed, she’d instinctively buried her face in his neck--- just for a moment.

He was looking at her warily, like he didn’t know what to expect. Accusing---almost as if she had done something to him.

Was he mad at her for some reason?

He was the one doing the abducting. Shouldn’t she be upset?

She thought about it, expected to be angry with him. But, no, she decided, she was saving it for Titus Abrasax. She was just too darn happy to see Caine. To know that he was, at least, safe and with her again.

Though their reunion wasn’t going at all the way she’d thought. To be honest, she didn’t know what she should have expected.

Caine didn’t know her anymore.

 “Ms. Jones,” said Famulus, coming into the room with a saccharine smile. “I’m terribly sorry about all this. Lord Titus hired Mr. Wise to retrieve you from Earth---for your own protection. Of course we had absolutely no idea you’d already been in contact with the Aegis and were claiming your title. I’m afraid Mr. Wise was a bit overzealous. We certainly never intended he abduct you from the Commonwealth. Lord Titus insists on speaking with you himself and doing his best to make up for this... misunderstanding.”

“Misunderstanding?” said Caine. Now he sounded mad. “I told you she was with a Marshal for the Aegis. Titus never mentioned that she was a royal, or changing the plan.  You sent me the back up and said it wouldn’t be any problem---it was something personal, he just wanted a chance to talk to her.”

Famulus gave him a condescending look and shook her head.

“Save your stories for Lord Titus. Though you shouldn’t concern yourself about it too much, Mr. Wise. He isn’t intending to send you back to the Deadlands---just yet. I’m sure we can still work things out to everyone’s...satisfaction.”

“I look forward to discussing things very thoroughly with Titus,” said Jupiter in her most regal voice. It was only in her own head that she added “that little shit.”

Famulus sat down in a plush chair, leaned back and swung one leg to cross the other, all the while keeping a sharp eye on them both.

Jupiter wanted to drink in the sight of Caine: from his pointy ears to his clunky, scuffed-up boots.There was just something so good about seeing him again. But she tried to keep it to herself. This wasn’t the time or the place to try to talk to him.

She remembered Titus smirking at her, “You’re in love with Mr. Wise, aren’t you?” She didn’t want to give anything away this time, give Titus anything to use against her.

Caine seemed to have a similar idea--- that was, avoiding looking at or speaking with her. He stood against the wall, arms folded, eyes trained on the floor--- other than the occasional look, as if he couldn’t help himself. His expression was a combination of frustrated and confused that reminded her of...something.

Jupiter looked down at the sheaves of entitled code and conduct she still held in her hands. She supposed she’d better prepare herself. Start making some sort of plan. Was it statute twenty-seven-b-stroke-six ---or seven?

Stinger had been left behind on Orous. He’d get back to Captain Tsing and the Aegis crew and hopefully they could figure out a plan to come get her soon.

In the meantime, Jupiter would have to deal with Titus again. This time, she decided, he was going to feel her wrath. There was no way in hell she was agreeing to another wedding.

She’d have to stall for time or something, she thought, with another look toward the hollow-eyed guards. The odds for them making a quick getaway weren’t very good at the moment.

And...Caine was still working for Titus.

He really wasn’t hers anymore, Jupiter realized with a sinking feeling.

Chapter Text

It was surprising how fast everything turned to shit sometimes.

Caine had taken the job to earn his and Stinger’s pardons; a simple find and retrieve, he’d thought. He still didn’t know how it had turned into abducting a Royal...and betraying his old commander.

Caine had stood at the side of the hanger as Titus Abrasax bent to one knee and smoothly greeted Jupiter Jones as “Your Majesty.” He’d watched as she’d recited rules and codes, threatened to have the clipper impounded by the Aegis and levy fines against Titus’ holdings. Caine had to admire the way she’d held her own, demanded her rights from her kidnapper.

Titus and Famulus must have had a pre-arranged signal though. The guards had closed in around Caine so quickly he could only take a few of them down before they’d had him on his knees and in restraints.

“I completely understand your upset at this ordeal.” Titus said in a silken voice.  “Please rest assured that Mr. Wise was acting against my instructions. He will pay for his transgressions against you.”

 “Wait!” She called out.  “I—I don’t want you to hurt him.”

Caine caught a glimpse of Titus’s surprised expression.

“I, um,” She cleared her throat. “ As the aggrieved party it’s within my rights to personally determine and oversee the punishment of your Splice.  Statute forty point H twelve.”

“As you wish,” Titus said with a lift of eyebrows.  

“In any case, I’m not sure Mr. Wise alone is to blame,” she continued. “You are currently detaining me without my consent, in direct violation of statute twenty-seven-b-stroke-six and I intend to file a tax grievance against you unless you take me directly to Earth.”

“Set a course for Earth Famulus.” Titus said. “Mr. Wise can be rather unpredictable; I’ll be happy to keep him safely contained until you’ve determined his punishment, Your Majesty.  In the meantime, since you’ve invoked code and conduct I trust you’ll do me the honor of dining with me...”

And they’d dragged Caine away, lowered him into a cell set deep in the subfloor.

He grasped the bars overhead, straining, trying to break or loosen them using the force of his boots—only to crash back down to the floor.

After a few more attempts, he sat there, frustrated, looking up through the bars. He didn’t know what game Titus was playing, but he probably wasn’t done using Caine yet. Entitleds thought of Lycantants as hulking, loyal dogs, expected them to run when called, give total obedience to their masters. It was one of the things they were coded for. Titus had probably counted on that aspect of Caine’s genomegeneering when he’d hired him, planned to use it against him even.

Problem was, that was just another one of his defects.

He was capable of loyalty, he craved it almost—and sometimes it worked with him. He’d always tried to be there for Stinger and his unit. It didn’t come easily, though, automatically, as part of the package. He could follow orders, but obedience was a struggle. It wasn’t second nature, like it was for most of his kind.

Titus should have told him what was going on.

As far as he’d known, Stinger had been on Orous for some bureaucratic errand—the sort of mind-numbing routine work that Aegis Marshalls got roped into all too often.

Titus had only said the job was personal, emphasized that the woman was to be kept safe, protected—and Caine had done a lot more questionable work in the past.

He’d ignored the clues, the warning signs that something wasn’t right. Too caught up trying to wrap his head around the one thing that was driving him crazy: Why did Jupiter Jones have his scent on her?

It must be some kind of trick. He just couldn’t figure out how, or why.

Whatever the deceit was, he didn’t think she was in on it. It was almost sweet the way she’d clung to him in the Commonwealth, stuck by his side as they walked to the ship. He thought maybe she was overwhelmed, intimidated—his protective instincts rising up in response.

Whatever Titus was trying to sell, she wasn’t buying it so far.

Still, Caine couldn’t figure out the weird looks she’d been giving him. It was strange, but it seemed like she was trying to protect him. When she’d asked to oversee his punishment it wasn’t with anticipation for inflicting pain—he’d encountered those types enough to recognize them—there’d been something more like worry behind her actions.

There was definitely something appealing about her. He thought he would have liked her—if she weren’t a Queen.

But why did she smell like him? So far, he hadn’t been able to figure out how that fit into Titus’ plan.

When Caine first came to the clipper—straight from the Deadlands—they’d taken his clothes, re-fitted him with his Legion gear.

They’d brought him to a room where Titus reclined beside a table spilling over with jewel-encrusted platters of food and goblets of glowing silver wine—more food and drink than Caine had seen in years in the Deadlands. Titus, insisting Caine take his fill, had leaned in close to ask questions, particularly intrigued about his attack against the Entitled.

Titus was definitely the type to deal in manipulation and lies. Had he been collecting Caine’s DNA when he’d run his hand along the tattoos on his arm?

Or maybe they’d taken his scent from his clothes somehow? It was possible. Splicers were always working on new ways to control their creations—Entitled paid extra for the ability to twist them to their whims. There were always new techniques being developed, ways to make Splices stronger, faster, keener than other humans. It was an arms race. The more powerful Splices were made, the more their creators had to find ways of using those senses and abilities, their coding, against them, keeping them subdued and under control.

It didn’t make much sense, but it was the only thing he could think of.

It made more sense than the alternative: that Caine somehow been over every inch of Jupiter Jones’ body—but didn’t remember it.

 

**************************

 

Jupiter wasn’t sure which dinner with Titus was more disturbing. The first, when she was half-convinced he wanted to seduce his own mother, or this second one, when she knew he wanted to kill her.

Things weren’t going quite as well as she’d hoped.

She’d always been a fast reader and this time she’d thrown every rule in the book at Titus. She hoped that she’d been able to protect Caine from being killed or sent back to the Deadlands at least.

Titus, of course, had readily believed she wanted to see to Caine’s punishment personally. It figured, she thought, looking down at the dress he’d given her to wear: all tight shiny black leather, and cut low in the chest, high up the front.

What kind of son dressed his mom up as a dominatrix anyway?

He had her at a disadvantage though, and he knew it. She was captive on his ship, and when it came to knowing the rules of his society, and how to get away with breaking them, Titus had thousands of years' head start on her.

At least he wouldn’t be able to play on her sympathies anymore. And she didn’t plan on giving away her feelings for Caine this time. If nothing else, she’d stall for time. The fact that Titus wanted something from her, should give her some sort of power. He couldn’t actually force her to marry him and the Aegis would come after her before long...she hoped.

“It was certainly never my intention to abduct you.” Titus explained sincerely, as he gazed at her across the long table. “I only wanted to ensure your safe passage from Earth—to help you claim your title, in fact. I was concerned that my brother Balem would not take lightly the loss of the Earth and might wish to do you harm. You must believe I would never have intentionally brought you here against your will.”

“I don’t believe you though,” she said in a hostile tone. “Your people could have left me on Orous as soon as they’d realized their mistake. It wasn’t just Mr. Wise,” she was careful to a keep a bit of anger in her voice as she said his name. “Your assistant must have arranged all of this with you.” 

“Perhaps you are right,” Titus conceded with a small nod, changing his tack.  “Indeed, I might have left you on Orous once I found that you had claimed your title. Though, I must say it was disturbingly easy to have you snatched up. Are you quite certain you would have been safe there, Your Majesty?”

He smiled at her, eyes sparkling. “From the moment I heard of your existence, I knew this moment would come. I knew that I had to see you, to talk to you. I can’t help but think that, in some respects, things have worked out very well.”

When she glared at him in response he merely chuckled.

“From the moment I saw your geneprint. I knew so many things about you---”

“Don’t even think about telling me that I’m like your mother.” She could be patient, bide her time, but she could only put up with so much from him a second time, and Jupiter was way past tired of being compared to Seraphi Abrasax.

“But it’s true!” he insisted. “I should know, because I was very close to my mother. So close in fact that I could tell by the way she raised her eyebrows...”

Jupiter should have remembered that the Abrasax brothers didn’t take her seriously unless there was violence involved. She lifted a delicate wine glass and hurled it at his head. Missing by inches, it crashed down to the floor behind him.

In response he merely tilted his head to the side, giving her slightly condescending smile. “Just like mother, always ready to see the worst in people.” He waved away a guard who had taken a few steps closer to the table. “But I have something very important to discuss with you, a question to ask.”

“Give me a call once I’m back on Earth,” she said “ I’ll check my calendar, see if I can schedule you in.”

“That distrust in others, in the world” he tsked and shook his head, as if in sadness. “I know you do not trust me right now. But I can promise that I am not your enemy. I only hope than I can convince you that it is safe to place your trust in me.”

He came around the table and held a hand out to her. “Will you walk with me? There is something you need to see.”

He really did think she was gullible, she realized in disgust. He was so arrogantly certain of her, so sure she’d be naïve enough to believe him. He was going to ask her to marry him all over again.

She let him take her by the hand, rose gracefully to face him, a smile on her face.

Then she brought her leg up to knee him hard and fast in the crotch, just like her mother had taught her.

Titus doubled over, groaning in pain.

“I’m not in the mood to speak with you right now.” Jupiter said as she walked away from him. “I’ll be in my room.”

She'd known that slit up the front of her dress had to be good for something.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

“I’m afraid Ms. Jones isn’t nearly as agreeable as I’d anticipated, Famulus. She’s very angry, vicious even,” Titus said with a shudder. “She reminds me entirely too much of Mother, disciplining me for one of my youthful transgressions.”

He was recovering from his ordeal, feeling somewhat better as he sipped a glass of Nectar-infused wine. One serving girl gave him a shoulder rub while two others hovered by his side, awaiting command.

He really didn’t care for this feeling of uncertainty though. Titus wasn’t used to being surprised. He very much preferred to be the one doing the surprising.

“She wasn’t at all swayed by my charm,” he complained with a pout.

“Really, My Lord?” Famulus sounded appropriately shocked at this information.

“Yes--- if you can believe it. She is more interesting than I’d expected,” he continued. “Something of a puzzle. What did you observe on the trip here? Was there anything in particular that set her off?”

“No. She seemed quite calm. Cooperative even. She read the entire time and hardly said a word.” She paused before continuing, “Although, now that I think about it, she was rather interested in Mr. Wise.”

“Well, she is from an underdeveloped world. Naturally, she’d be unused to splices. I’d rather counted on her being naïve--- amazed by all of this. Awed by my splendor, if you will.” He winced again, remembering the picture she’d made, walking away from him after the assault.

“I shouldn’t have put her in Mother’s black dress,” he said, shaking his head. “She looked so...vengeful...I don’t see how she will agree to the wedding by tomorrow.”

“Shall I stop the preparations?” asked Famulus.

“No, though we may have to postpone it a few days,” he said. “There must be some other angle I can try. Something to persuade her.”

“My Lord, perhaps you could redirect her anger?” she suggested.

“How so?” he asked, perking up a bit. There was something in Famulus’ expression of sly competence that always delighted him, her eyes glowing with mischief in the flickering candlelight.

“As I mentioned, she seemed quite fascinated by Mr. Wise---though not particularly curious about my own appearance,” she said, thoughtfully, stroking her hand along the curved length of her ear. “She was quick to take an interest in him down in the hangar as well. Perhaps we could distract and appease her at the same time?”

“How so?”

“I say we give her the opportunity to discipline Mr. Wise for his part in her abduction. Let her take out some of her frustrations on him. I must say, there is something very satisfying about seeing him in restraints.”

“Famulus, you are a treasure,” he chuckled. “Yes, let’s send him to her. And keep the wedding arrangements ready to go at a moment’s notice. I do hope to convince her yet.”

“And the pardons for Mr. Wise and Mr. Apini?” she asked.

“Hold on to them for the time being. We might make use of them.”

“Do you think Mr. Wise will cooperate though? He seems surprisingly insolent for a lycantant,” Famulus said with a sneer.

“He’ll have no choice,” said Titus dismissively. “No need to let him in on the plan, however. Better to just let him follow his own instincts--- when the time is right.”

He considered. “You know, I’d hoped he’d kill her after the wedding...but if I can’t persuade her... we might have to settle for the alternative. Keep them both under surveillance ---and check that my advocates have drawn up all the paperwork.”

“Of course, My Lord.”

“Have our spies sent any word about Lord Balem yet?” he asked.

“Nothing new since the medical team was brought in this morning,” said Famulus.

“Keep me posted.”

Titus had no idea what had happened to his elder brother, but something unusual was going on.

Balem was secretive and distrustful. Of course, he wouldn’t want his siblings to know if there were anything wrong with his health.

He had been looking rather grey and unappealing when last they’d met, thought Titus, but enough to suffer the effects of age?

If Balem were incapacitated somehow, even temporarily, it would give Titus more opportunity to manipulate events to his own advantage.

 

 

 

**********************************************

 

Caine was brought up from his cell, surrounded by a host of guards and pushed along the echoing hallways to where Titus stood waiting.

“You should have told me the truth about why you wanted her,” he said in a gravelly voice.

“What good would that have done?” Titus scoffed. “I hired you to rescue a poor, frightened Earth girl who’d been targeted for death---a damsel in distress. One who should have been grateful to go along with my plans.”

Titus took a few steps closer, whispered so that Caine could feel the hairs rising along the side of his neck. “Instead you brought me a royally aggravated Queen.”

Titus pulled back so that they were face-to-face, and he smiled---as if he could see the effort it took for Caine to hold back.

“Mr. Wise you haven’t precisely held up your part of the bargain.”

“You didn’t say anything when I contacted you from Orous,” Caine said through clenched teeth.

“I was merely giving you the opportunity to redeem yourself. I assume you do want another chance to earn the pardons? Or would you prefer I feed you to the void for your incompetence?” Titus gestured toward the doors as the guards stepped in closer.

“What do you want me to do?” Caine asked reluctantly.

“Her Majesty is feeling vindictive. Apparently she has quite the temper. And since she seems inclined to punish you for her abduction, I see no reason why we shouldn’t humor her. We can only hope it will improve her disposition. I daresay you can withstand her ire better than I could. You’re...built for it.”

“And then you’ll give me the pardons and re-instatements?”

Titus smirked.

“I’m sure we can work out something to everyone’s benefit...eventually.”

Caine gave a disgusted huff as Titus began to walk away from him down the long dark corridor of the ship.

“What did you do to Jupiter Jones’ scent?” he called out.

The other man turned around slowly. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean Mr. Wise.” He raised his brows, giving a wicked smile. “How would she smell to a creature such as yourself? ...I can only imagine...

I’m certain it’s delicious---but do try not to eat her up!”

He laughed as he walked away.

Fucking Entitleds and their games, Caine thought. It didn’t look like Titus was going to let him go anytime soon.

 

********************************************

 

Jupiter still wasn’t sure how she’d gone from keeping her cool to kneeing Titus in the balls in the space of twenty minutes.

Ugh, he was just so infuriating though, so smug ---the way he lied to her face and grinned. It had been satisfying, if only for a moment, getting an honest reaction out of him.

Jupiter unwound the high-heeled shoes from around her feet and threw them across the room in frustration. She was lucky she hadn’t twisted an ankle, or fallen on her butt. Somehow she’d managed a dignified get away, in spite of tottering on the towering shoes and feeling nauseous with nerves.

Her mom and Aunt Nino had taught her some defensive moves, the kind of stuff a girl needed to know working as a domestic: a knee to the crotch, a quick elbow to the gut.

But she didn’t like this jittery out-of-control feeling, she didn’t think it was something she wanted to get used to. She didn’t feel powerful after hurting someone, just sort of upset and gross. And she’d be fine if she absolutely never had to touch Titus ever again.

She’d always had a temper, but before these last few weeks, she’d never actually slapped someone hard in the face---no matter how much of a rat they were.

She didn’t regret shooting Balem, at all. But remembering the sensation of beating him with the metal pipe, the dull thud, the crack of bone---it made her feel kind of sick.

Caine made the fighting stuff look easy.

And okay, something about watching him move just really worked for her. Maybe he could teach her some fighting techniques or something. She probably did need to learn how to defend herself better.

She imagined it might be fun sparring, having an excuse to wrestle around with him.—and she had to keep imagining, keep hoping that there was going to be a time when that was possible again.

She’d have to figure her way out of this thing, and maybe the next, and probably the one after that too. But eventually, she needed to believe she’d be back to flying lessons with Caine or grabbing a pizza or yeah...wrestling. Because being here, again, in Titus’s pleasure palace of doom was really getting her down.

Why all the dark cavernous spaces and candelabra everywhere? Couldn’t he afford light bulbs?

Or maybe he kept it dark on purpose. This room could definitely use some cleaning. When you were thousands of years old, maybe skipping the vacuuming for a few months didn’t seem like a big deal. Judging by their outfits, Titus didn’t seem to pick his servants for their housekeeping skills.

Jupiter didn’t even want to look at what kind of dust bunnies were hiding in the corners here. Also on the list of things she didn’t want to look at: the wedding dress lurking behind the closet door.

Yeah, Titus definitely deserved some violence from her, but it probably wasn’t the best strategy for dealing with him in the long run. And honestly, Jupiter wasn’t engineered for ass kicking. Even if she leveraged all one hundred and five pounds of righteous indignation, she probably couldn’t take down any of those guards.

She’d really prefer to flay Titus with sarcasm and dirty looks anyway. And she hoped to get the hang of the entitled codes and laws, because from her time at the commonwealth, it seemed like the legal system was the best form of torture in this world.

She would just have to try harder to keep her cool, she determined, looking out the enormous curve of window at the vast starry sky beyond.

She had to let Titus think she might marry him, had to delay him somehow. So she’d stall. Try to think of this whole ordeal as all-expense-paid gothic space cruise.

She changed into some more comfortable clothes and looked over at the wide, silk covered bed.

It was one of those monstrosities with curtain hangings and mountainous piles of pillows and blankets that would have been a real nightmare to wash and iron and make up again. She let herself fall into it with a sigh and tried to ignore the small cloud of dust that rose up around her.

 

*****************************

 

 

An hour later, the guards had dragged Caine along the hall in his restraints. He could just see Jupiter Jones where she stood inside the threshold of her door, a wary look on her face. Titus was before her, flanked by more guards on both sides.

“Your Majesty,” Titus said. “I know we’ve had a less than auspicious beginning. You’re justifiably angered, but I sincerely hope you can believe me when I tell you that I want only to be your ally.”  

He stepped closer and Caine caught the quick, sharp scent of primal fear coming from him as he pressed something into her hand. She looked at Titus suspiciously as he hastily backed away again.

“I must apologize once again for the shock of your abduction. It’s fair and just that you punish the man responsible.”

Titus smiled hesitantly as he turned from the door.

“If you can believe anything Jupiter, you can believe your goodwill and trust are much more important to me than any Splice.”

Then the guards stepped up and Jupiter stood back as they pushed Caine roughly forward. He stumbled inside and the door was shut behind him.

“What?” she asked.

She rubbed a hand across her face and stared at him with wide eyes, looking at his bare chest, his arms pulled behind his back in the restraints. “Why aren’t you wearing your shirt?”

“They took it,” Caine said simply. He was just glad they’d left him his boots.

He tightened his jaw and walked farther into the room, managed to sit down on a low bench near the fire.

She still seemed confused. There was something soft about her—maybe she’d been sleeping--her hair was tousled and there was a drowsy look in her eyes.

Caine knew better than to let down his guard though. She was an Queen, and there had to be a reason why he’d smelled Titus’s fear. Though she was small, she could do some damage with that whip. They’d taken his shirt so that she could see the welts and cuts she made on his skin, probably thought it’d be more gratifying that way.

Still, she’d seemed angry to Caine, not mean or sadistic. And he could withstand a few lashes. He’d taken a lot worse in the past.

She stood before the window, face shadowed. He really didn’t understand her, the way she kept looking at him—as if she already knew him, or knew something about him that he didn’t.

The scent was still there too. His mixed with hers. Getting inside of his head. Although Titus was wrong, it didn’t make him want to eat her.

Well...maybe...

He raised a brow, looked down at the whip bundled into her hand and then back up to her face again.

“Oh!” she said, looking down, surprised, as if seeing it for the first time. “Titus really expects me to...”

“You suggested it yourself,” he said, watching her.

She was suddenly furious. And he could see it now: She looked like a Queen, larger than life, eyes dark and fierce.

“But—he can’t just toss you in here like a piece of meat! What will he do next? Grind up his servants to make me a face cream?”

Probably, thought Caine, if Titus thought it would get him what he wanted.

She threw the whip to the floor with a frown and walked over to him.

“Caine, you could work for me,” she said urgently. “Help get us out of here and get me back to the Aegis.”

Maybe she just didn’t understand.

“Titus Abrasax has my pardon. I can’t work for anyone else until I get it from him.”

She opened her mouth, and then closed it again, pacing back and forth across the floor, still fuming.

What would she suggest next? he wondered.

Did she want him to kill Titus?

Caine might be able to get away with it – if he did belong to her. But she probably didn’t realize everything involved, wasn’t really offering to go that far. She couldn’t know that he was defective, a bad investment.

She came to a sudden stop before him, looking at him intently, standing so close they were almost touching. He could see now that she looked tired and almost sad.

He tried to take in a breath that wasn’t filled with her, but he couldn’t.

“Is there something on my face?” he asked, clearing his throat.

“Yeah, actually,” she said. “You have kind of a...” She reached out and touched her fingers to the side of his face. “...A nasty cut, right here near your eye. Are you okay?”

He hadn’t even noticed the cut.

The touch of her fingers, on the other hand, was making him nervous.

Caine flexed his arms behind his back where they were strained by the cuffs. He heard a clicking sound, and registered in the back of his mind what he should have noticed when he first came into the room.

They hadn’t locked his restraints. He could get loose any time he wanted.

“Come here,” he said.

“Hmm?”

“Come here,” he repeated, gesturing with his head to indicate she move in closer.

Finally, she leaned in, her fingers still against his temple, her mouth moving slowly towards his.

He turned so that his lips dragged along her check, touched them to her ear, so that he could whisper almost silently.

“Titus is watching, listening to everything you do.”

“Oh!” That seemed to snap her out of her trance.

And she was angry again.

“He really thinks, that I’m going to whip you because I’m mad at him!”

Caine just shrugged and shook his head.

“I’m a Splice. It wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Not this time,” she said.

Caine couldn’t figure her out. Couldn’t decide if she was the soft, sweet, bed-rumpled woman or the angry vengeful queen.

Couldn’t tell which one was real.

Or which one he liked more.

Chapter Text

Jupiter paced back and forth as Caine watched.

How’d she gotten into this mess? All she wanted was to protect him; Titus had already tried to kill him once before.

When she’d found that section in the Entitled Codes about Splice penalties, she’d figured she could use it somehow. She hadn’t had time to think it through entirely.

But seeing Caine just shrug, that indifferent look on his face at the prospect of being whipped. Like he really didn't care, was used to stuff like that, expected it even. There was just something heartbreaking about it.

And she was so infuriated with Titus! And the other two Abrasaxes, and the whole concept of being Entitled for that matter. Using other people. That whole sick idea that some people were intrinsically worth more than others.

She’d dealt with people like them before. Cleaning houses, too many people had treated her like she was less than human, talked about her as if she weren’t there, pretended not to see her as she worked around them.

Just because Jupiter was suddenly a Queen didn’t mean that she was going to forget who she really was.

The problem was she might have to at least seem as selfish and ruthless as Titus if she wanted things to work out in her favor. Maybe she should demand what she wanted, act like she expected everyone to bow down before her.

Jupiter marched over to the door.

Outside the room, six guards stood in the long, dark hallway.

“I want to see Titus,” she demanded, and after a while, Famulus came walking up quickly.

“Your Majesty?” she asked. She looked calm, composed, but she was a little out of breath.

“I appreciate the gesture,” Jupiter said, nodding over towards Caine. “But honestly, a tax grievance against Titus would buy me more than a hundred Splices. Where’s your boss? I’d rather use that whip on him. ”

“I’m sorry, but I'm afraid Lord Titus is indisposed at the moment.”

Indisposed?

Huh... she didn’t want to think about that.

Famulus looked at her expectantly.

“Well, I’m going to keep Mr. Wise for the time being,” Jupiter announced. “And I want some food brought in immediately. Tell Titus I’ll talk to him in the morning—if he’s lucky I’ll be in a better mood by then.”

 “Yes, Your Majesty, “ said Famulus with a smile.

 

**************************

 

“I’m not a pleasure splice.” Caine said out of nowhere.

They were alone again.

On Jupiter’s command a guard had released Caine’s hands from the restraints and servants had set up a table filled with food. She’d been trying some of the different space delicacies, which were actually pretty delicious in spite of their strangeness. She hadn’t had an appetite when she’d been with Titus earlier.

Caine had been quiet until now. And she’d been happy to let him eat. She didn’t know if he had a different metabolism than hers, but he’d always seemed to put away huge quantities of food.

She paused, looking at him, a forkful of spicy sauce-covered cubes of—something—half-raised to her mouth.

“Pleasure splice?” Jupiter thought for a moment... “Oh!”

She didn’t know how things like that could still surprise her. Of course, they would totally have pleasure splices.

“I don’t have that training,” he said. “I was bred for the military.”

“That doesn’t matter to me.” She meant it to be reassuring, but he just frowned at her. “I mean, that’s fine,” she added quickly, but that didn’t sound any better really.

She’d been half-asleep when they’d delivered him to her door, confused and sort of overwhelmed by the sight of him. And okay, she’d admit there’d been a thought or two, maybe a scenario she’d imagined in the past that had him shirtless, tied up and at her mercy—there’d been more than one reason she’d smiled while she cleaned those houses lately. But her fantasy didn’t have Caine with a grim, resigned expression on his face. And it sure didn’t involve Titus watching on. Where were the cameras anyway? In the walls or something?

Had she done something to make him think she wanted to use him as a pleasure splice? Well, besides forgetting to ask for his shirt...Really, she just wanted to keep him with her, safe from Titus. And maybe she’d had the idea that he would keep her safe too, that they were still on the same side. She guessed they weren’t anymore, not exactly. But it didn’t matter. She still planned to keep him if she could—they’d figure out the rest of it later.

Of course, Titus would think that she wanted to use Caine somehow. If not to punish then for sex. And it was probably better to let him think that. She didn’t want him to guess that Caine mattered to her. She had to think and act like an Entitled here. And that was what Entitleds did: used people.

She was just so exhausted. Maybe time travel was really physically hard on a person, because she had this bone deep fatigue. She looked over at the giant bed across the room—and thought about how to fool Titus.

She finished her last bite of food before getting up to walk over to Caine. He stood immediately, looked at her expectantly as she drew close.  

He held completely still, watchful as she smoothed her hand along the freckles of his shoulder, down the tattooed design on his arm. She leaned in close to speak into his ear.

“Just play along with me,” she whispered. “I’m trying to keep you safe. That bed’s big enough for both of us and I’m not going to do anything to you.”

She drew back to give him a pleading smile and he slowly nodded in response.

She went around the room, first blowing out candles, then peeling back the top blanket on the bed and tossing away some of the heaps of pillows. The sheets seemed clean, maybe a little musty; the dust had only settled on the surface of the bed. The heavy decorative bed curtains wouldn't pull closed.

Had this actually been Seraphi’s room when she’d come to visit Titus—waiting empty all these years? A shiver passed through her at the idea. It was kind of cold, drafty, she thought, as she watched the velvet bed hangings settle back into place. If it could be drafty on a spaceship—wasn’t everything supposed to be airtight?

Once she'd blown out the last of the candles, it was dark except for the faintest bit of starlight. She could just see Caine’s outline against the window. She slipped into bed, pulled the covers around her and listened, as his boots dropped to the floor one after the other, felt the shift as he climbed in.

She scooted over and pulled the blankets over their heads, felt him tense as she put her mouth next to his ear.

“Do you think Titus can hear us now? Where do you think the cameras are?”

“I don’t think there’s any surveillance equipment under the blankets,” he said, his voice dry.

Was he teasing her?

“Do you think we should, uh, move around a little? In case anyone is watching?”

“Move around?”

“Yeah,” she moved closer to him. Then threw a leg over him and sat up to straddle his hips before she lost her nerve.

“Like this,” she said.

Her heart was pounding fast. She felt too precariously balanced, like she could fall a lot farther than just the few feet down to the floor—and this time he wouldn’t catch her.

She wished she could see better in the dark, see his face. But she could feel him, the way he held still beneath her, breathing slowly, tensed, for what seemed like way too long.

And...this had been such an incredibly bad idea.

When he moved, it was sudden, lifting and flipping her over so fast that she lost her breath for a split second. She found herself flat on her back, his face buried in her neck as he took a deep breath in. She arched up against him and felt him hard between her legs.

He backed away a bit, lifted his head to speak into her ear. “Move around like this?”

“Uh huh.”  

“What do you want me to do next?”

He whispered it. And she couldn’t read the tone of his voice, couldn’t see his face.

Dimly, she realized he was waiting for his instructions or orders—for her to tell him what to do.

Oh... pleasure splice... she remembered with a sinking feeling.

He wasn’t doing this because he wanted to. It was only because Titus owned him, and had delivered him to her room.

“That’s—that’s probably enough.”

“Alright,” The word came out of him in a long, low rumble as he moved, settled to lie down a few inches away, so that they were no longer touching.

“That’s enough?” he whispered next to her, a few seconds later. “What are you trying to convince him?”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said in a quiet, defeated sigh. “Like you said, he probably can’t see under the blankets.”

After that, he was silent and still beside her.

Jupiter didn’t know what she was doing. And really, she didn’t have the energy to think straight anymore. She was all out of adrenaline, or nerves, or whatever it was that had kept her running throughout this long crazy day. It was just too confusing, being here with him.

She needed sleep.

In spite of everything, she could feel herself starting to fade, her body growing so heavy with tiredness, it felt like she was sinking, filled with lead.

Maybe she was crazy, keeping him here with her. Caine was dangerous, part of her knew that. But it just didn’t feel true. She felt safe somehow.

He’d saved her so many times in the past.

***************

Caine watched her in the dark, his pupils adjusted to the low light.

She fallen asleep almost instantly, only shifting a few minutes ago, turning to throw an arm across him and whacking him hard in the face with her small fist.

He’d moved her hand away slowly, leaving it to rest across his chest.

He didn’t want to disturb her---enjoyed the smooth feel of her skin, slightly cooler to the touch than his.

Not as much as he'd liked her sitting on top of him. Bold and nervous at the same time—like she couldn’t decide if she was predator or prey. He'd been a hundred percent ready to play along, curious what she'd do next. But her experiment had ended too quickly.

An hour or two had passed, but he didn’t need much sleep, didn’t think he could relax his guard enough to sleep anyway.

He didn’t know why she’d decided to protect him. But she meant it—misguided as it was.

Caine wasn’t in any immediate danger.

He didn't know why Titus would toss him into a room, alone with her. If they’d meant to leave his restraints undone or if it been a mistake.

Even with them on, he could have killed her if he’d wanted to. Gone for her throat.

He’d done it before.

He’d never known why he attacked that Entitled, couldn’t guess what had triggered it. But he suspected Titus wanted it to happen again, was somehow setting him up.

Maybe that was the reason Titus had done something with Jupiter's scent. Was it something designed to make him want to attack her?

 If so, it wasn’t working the way it was supposed to.

Chapter Text

Jupiter gradually emerged from sleep, sprawled across Caine, shirt riding up, bare belly pressed against his. Her body was liquid, like she was a puddle of water working its way into stone. Really liquid, she thought, waking completely—and wiping away the drool from where her cheek had pressed against his shoulder.

She lifted her face slowly, hoping he was asleep so she could make a quick get-away.

And caught his eye—he was looking right at her.

“Uh, sorry about that,” she said in a sleep-scratched voice, managing to roll off him and move back to her own pillow.

It was still dark, but the window was filled with a giant blue planet, glowing like the world’s biggest nightlight. Apparently, Titus was taking the scenic route back to Earth.

If he was even going to Earth at all.

She wouldn’t be surprised to learn he was cruising randomly around the universe while he plotted how best to marry and kill her.

“You were asleep for more than twelve hours,’ Caine said, turning on his side to face her.

“Really? What time of day is it?” she asked. “Or is there a time of day when you’re travelling through space? Is it always dark in here?”

“The chamber presence isn’t operational—it’s an obsolete model—but normally it would regulate the temperature and light to your specifications through voice command and acclimate to your optimized circadian rhythms.”

She remembered waking up, floating midair in Kalique’s alcazar. It made her think better of this dusty old oversized bed actually.

She watched Caine’s face, shadowed by the light of the planet. She had to figure out what to say to him now that she was feeling more coherent, how to explain things.

She started to scoot closer to him, and this time he was the one who brought the blanket up to cover their heads.

“There are eight surveillance orbs in the room, each about the size of a pea, “ he whispered. “They emit a high-pitched sound, inaudible to humans. I located them all while you were sleeping. I could disable them, but we’d only have a minute before someone notices and tries to get in here.

“Four guards in the hall outside—I could take them without my mauler. Probably the next two farther down the hall too, before they send in reinforcements. I don’t know the entire layout of this ship, I might be able to get you to a ship. But we’d have a hard time getting clear long enough to portal out of here. I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have brought you to Titus if I’d known who you were, known what was going on.”

“Okay, but-“

“You don’t need to protect me,” he said. “I’ll try to help you if I can, but you’re probably better off just staying away from me. The Aegis will track you down eventually.”

“But why would I stay away from you?”

“I have flaws in my coding, I’ve attacked Entitleds before.”

“And you think that’s why Titus left you here with me? So that you could attack me?”

“I don’t know. He’s probably got more than one plan in place. Titus is tricky—all the Abrasax family are.”

“But you were with me all night and didn’t do anything,” she said.

She didn’t want him to go away. Even if he didn’t really know her anymore, even if they were forced to huddle like kids sharing secrets at a slumber party, it seemed better to risk keeping him with her.

“I’d rather have you here. Stinger told me...” But she stopped there. It was hard to remember anything Stinger’d said that would add to her argument. Stinger also thought Caine was dangerous, and she didn’t want to lie.

“You were supposed to go to a clinic on Earth,” he said. “Did you have any other medical procedures done? Or loose track of time recently, like you couldn’t remember what you’d been doing? There are these creatures called keepers that can blank you-”

“What are you thinking?” Jupiter asked.

He was quiet for a moment.

“You smell like me.” He finally mumbled.

“What?”

“You smell like me. My scent is all over you.”

“We’ve been in bed for a while...”

“No, I noticed it when I tracked you on Earth. I think Titus is trying to trigger some response in me. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t understand how it would work. But it’s better not to risk it.”

But Jupiter knew. She’d looped back through time with her blue space tattoo and his scent too, apparently. And he had been all over her. The night of their date, in between flying with him all over the city they’d been kissing for hours. And that was just the part she remembered. She still had the feeling that she was missing time from that night. But how to explain it to him?

There was a pounding on the door.

“You don’t remember....” she started to say.

The banging on the door grew louder.

“Just trust me, I do not want to stay away from you.... you can tell that I’m not lying right?”

“Yeah.”

The door burst open.

They pushed the blankets away and sat up in bed to look toward the door.

Famulus stood there with guards.

“I’m so sorry Your Majesty. We were worried there might be a problem.”

Jupiter just looked at her skeptically.

Famulus smiled, “Lord Titus would like to invite you to breakfast.”

 

*******************************

 

Jupiter met Titus in a glass conservatory bright with artificial sunlight, thick with ferns and twisted flowering vines. A small wrought iron table set for two sat along side a bubbling stream.

“Your Majesty,” said Titus, rising as she entered. Two guards and a servant stood behind him.

She gave a regal nod and took one of the golden fruit glazed pastries from a basket as she arranged her skirt to sit down across from him. She’d picked out one of the least ostentatious dresses from the oversized closet: a flowing sea-green silk with intricate crystal beading on the bodice.

It seemed Titus was trying to get in her good graces again and since she couldn’t think of anything nice to say, she’d just stay quiet. She wasn’t going to let her temper get away from her today. Titus had the pardons for Stinger and Caine and he’d given them to her before, maybe he’d be willing to do it again if she worked this right.

Titus watched her eat with an indulgent smile.

“I must say, Mr. Wise was an interesting choice. I can see the appeal. Though that military training is a obvious drawback.” He made a little tsking sound and shook his head. “ Too goal oriented, I’m afraid. In and out quickly. Getting the mission done.”

Jupiter choked on her pastry.

Titus chuckled.

Oh, God...That’s what Caine meant by asking if that was enough. And she’d been too out of her mind with exhaustion, or maybe just too out of her mind--- not even understanding what he was getting at.

Was she really going to have a morning-after critique with her pseudo-son about Caine’s sex stamina?

Wasn’t he even a little ashamed that he’d been spying on them?

Titus just grinned even wider at her frown.

Apparently not.

“I’m not done with Mr. Wise yet, actually,” Jupiter said in a stern voice. “I’m going to keep him for the time being.”

“If you like.” Titus said with a shrug. “I thought you might enjoy the conservatory---with the greenery and sunshine,” he said this with a slight grimace. “It was one of mother’s favorites actually. Though I find it a little bright.”

Jupiter imagined Titus lounging around his dark spaceship, Seraphi calling him in here occasionally. There was definitely something vampire-like about him, Balem too for that matter.

“My comparisons to mother seem to bother you, but she was a fascinating woman, aren’t you the least bit interested? I know that if it were me, I’d want to hear every word about my past self.”

“But she’s not any form of me--- past or otherwise, and I’m not her. Even if we do have the same DNA.”

“Granted,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind staying in her room. It seemed fitting somehow. Through it is a bit antiquated I suppose. Mother could be set in her ways...”

What could she say in response to that? She did mind, of course, being kidnapped and held against her will. Was Titus really that oblivious?

He set off on a glowing remembrance of “Mother” while Jupiter tried to tune him out for a bit.

The eggs- if that’s what they were- were delicious, scrambled with some sort of fluffy white cheese and brimming with fresh herbs.

She’d ordered breakfast for Caine when she’d noticed him grabbing one of the rolls left over from last night’s dinner. She’d wanted him to come along with her, but couldn’t think of a plausible reason. She hoped he’d still be there when she returned.

Listening to Titus was starting to give her a headache.

“Do you have any coffee?” she asked.

“Coffee? No,” he gestured a servant to pour her something glowing and blue. “Try this though. It’s quite invigorating.”

He wasn’t drinking it himself, she noticed and he hadn’t offered it to her last time...

“No, thanks,” said Jupiter, slowly. “I used to have kind of a Gatorade habit. I’m trying not to drink anything blue these days.”

“Perhaps that’s just as well,” he said, rising from his chair with a suddenly serious expression. “Come. There’s something important I need to show you.”

 

 

In contrast to Seraphi’s dusty and out-of-date room, the ReGenX storeroom was surgically clean. Cold, antiseptic. It felt like being in a morgue, hundreds of the blue vials in pyramids stacked high for as far as the eye could see.

“It has many names. ReGenX, ReCell, NECTAR” Titus was saying. “There are various levels of usefulness and quality but this is the most pure and most valuable solution made by the house of Abrasax.”

“How valuable exactly?” Jupiter asked.

“One unit is worth the more than half a million of your dollars.”

“I see,” said Jupiter slowly. She looked around the room, trying to keep her face expressionless. “Is it some sort of drug?”

“Oh no, something much more valuable than that. It’s...time.” He smiled at her, “How old would you guess that I am?”

“I don’t know, thirty-five, maybe forty?” She said it to be mean and enjoyed his shocked look just a little too much.

Being in this room again was getting to her, and she wanted to take it out on him in some way, even if it was small-minded of her.

It took Titus a moment to regain his composure.

“Hmmm. No. Actually I am thirteen and a half thousand years old,” he said.

“Oh,” said Jupiter. She hoped she sounded suitably amazed. “I can see why people would pay a lot of money for this. If this is the family business I’m going to be a very rich woman.”

“Wealthy beyond your wildest dreams...” Titus said with a touch of sadness. “But there is something you should know... Regenex comes from people. Each unit is refined from approximately a hundred human beings.”

“What do you mean by refined exactly?”

“Your planet is a farm Jupiter. There are thousands of planets like yours set up by families like mine to supply an ever increasing demand for more time.”

“You mean that you kill people to make this.”

She should be used to the idea by now, had decided that she would play it cool. Maybe if Titus thought she was okay with Regenex he would want to make a different sort of deal with her---one that would be easier for her to get out of than marriage.

But even the idea of Regnex made her skin crawl. Being surrounded by a storeroom of it...she remembered seeing her family hooked up to those machines in Balem’s refinery.

It was hard to look Titus in the eye and say calmly, “It’s something like we do to cattle, I suppose. “

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

“I hope that it’s done humanely.”

“Of course,” Titus looked concerned. “I can assure that they feel no pain. The idea bothers you, naturally. There’s no need to hide it.”

“No, really. It’s okay.” Jupiter said. She hated that he could read her so easily. Worried he’d just find a different way to manipulate her this time around. But it was true; she felt it, the weight of the hundreds and thousands of dead people pressing in on her from all sides

“I can only assure you that you’ll grow more used to the idea with time.”

“I assume, I can bring my own family safely away from Earth before it happens,” she managed to say it in a steady voice.

“Yes, of course. But I’m afraid it’s not that simple. You must realize that you are in danger. Right now my brother and sister dominate the market. And they would do anything to maintain their position. I fear for my own life. You should know that my brother gave orders to have you killed. I’d sent Mr. Wise to rescue you in fact. Without my help and guidance, I don’t think you’ll survive long in this world. And I need your help as well. I need someone I can trust. I want to know that when I die you will be my heir. Which brings us at last to my question. Jupiter Jones...Will you marry me?”

 

************************************

 

Jupiter slammed into her room minutes later, the door crashing closed behind her. Caine was sitting in a chair in the corner, fixing a circuit on his glove by candlelight. She strode over to him, hiked up her skirt to straddle his lap, sat down and leaned in close, put her lips against his ear so she could whisper.

And then she told him everything.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Jupiter half-crouched on top of Caine, skirt bunched, hands braced against his chest as she leaned to whisper into his ear.

 “I want to explain something,” she said. “The thing is, I knew you before yesterday. You don’t remember it, or ---you didn’t forget it exactly, but...” She was out of breath and coming down from being angry, getting tangled up in her explanation before she’d even started. She wasn’t sure where to begin, or if there was any chance he’d really believe her.

She pushed back to look at his face, trying to gauge his mood from his narrowed, black-rimmed eyes and deepening frown. She needed to stop and think about the best way to explain this, get her bearings.

The room around them was glowing with firelight, his skin pale against the deep red velvet of the chair and his eyes seemed to change colors from gold to green as she watched. His chest was warm beneath her palms, thighs hard where she’d perched her butt.

And, oh, she realized. She’d done it again.

She’d stomped into the room, upset about Titus and the Regenex and this whole crazy situation, caught up in playing at being an Entitled and pretending that she was using Caine for sex.

But...when had her natural instinct turned to straddling him?

She had spent an incredible amount of time recently with her arms and legs wrapped around him---holding on for her life, clinging to his back like a baby monkey. Maybe the straddling was just some sort of natural progression.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Are we pretending to have sex again?”

“Maybe?”

Sitting like this did make it easier to whisper –-and she didn’t want Titus to pick up on what she was saying. But this was the second--or was it third? --time in the space of a day that she’d just gone and climbed on top of him. And she didn’t want him to think she was a crazy woman before she’d even started her story.

 “I think your plan last night involved ‘moving around a little.’ I’ll let you be in charge of that,” he said. He leaned back in the chair, folded his arms behind his head and waited.

Umm. She hadn’t been expecting this.

Which was part of her problem really. She felt like she should know what to expect--how to deal with Titus and everything else better this time around.

And after everything she’d been through with Caine, shouldn’t she know him better, be able to convince him to trust her, that she trusted him, and that they should work together?

They needed to keep pretending, to fool Titus. But more than that, they needed to talk.

He’d tilted his head back, watching her.

 “I don’t think this is going to be enough,” he murmured.

“No,” she admitted.

He waited a moment, then slowly moved, putting his hands around her waist and lifting her so that she was sitting up higher. One of her knees slipped from inside the armrest and she felt the stretch in her thighs as her legs spread farther to balance on top of him. Then he was reaching for her skirt, a quick movement of his fingers rustling around out of sight, under the edge of it.

“That should do it,” he said.

 “That should do what?”

She watched then, as he did something else with the controls on his right glove. “I tapped into the signal on the surveillance, fixed it to play on a repeating loop. It’s a good thing this chair is in a partial blind spot. I don’t think your ‘moving around a little’ is very convincing.”

She gave an apology of a smile and she awkwardly clambered off of him.

“You can do that? Tap into signals with those gloves?”

“I had to rig a few things to get it to work. It’s an old Skyjacker trick.”

“Oh.”

He stood and looked down at her with a serious expression. “You wanted to explain something?”

Jupiter looked around the room, thinking of what she could say.

Considering things had been left untouched since her death, the furnishings didn’t really reveal anything about Seraphi Abrasax. Everything was done in lush velvets and silks, variations of red wine and gold. It seemed royal maybe, but there was nothing individual about the room.

On the other side of the enormous curved window, opposite the bed, near the sitting area where they’d had dinner the night before,  a fire had been built up in the hearth. It looked like someone had been in to clean and Jupiter’s jeans and shirt were washed and folded in a neat stack on top of the made up bed.

Caine stood patiently, arms folded, waiting for her to talk.

She had to start somewhere.

 “The reason I knew you before the Commonwealth yesterday, the reason why I smell like you--I think--is because I’ve traveled back through time,” she said. “I don’t know how else to explain it.  But the last thing I remember was flying around Chicago with you and having burgers together afterward. When I woke up the next morning, I’d gone back about two weeks into my own past.  I’m reliving things that already happened for me, but the story is changing.“

Then she told him everything that had happened during the first time she’d known him- from her rescue at the fertility clinic to their escaping the exploding refinery through a last-second portal.

‘The first time I lived through this, you helped me and we made it back to Earth together. You and Stinger got your pardons and your wings again. You saved my life so many times I can’t even count. That’s why I trust you now- that’s why I know that you won’t attack me. “

Caine just watched her silently.

She paced back and forth, full of nervous energy.

“When we first met, “ she said, “You told me it could be hard for people from underdeveloped worlds to believe in intelligent life beyond their own planets.

Well, in an infinite universe, is it really so hard to believe in time travel? Can you honestly say it’s impossible? Because it’s the only thing I can think of that explains what’s happening to me. We barely got through this alive the first time around. I want us to be on the same side again.”

“All right Your Majesty.” he said--reluctantly, she thought. “I believe you,”

He’d explained to her once before that he could smell if someone was lying. Jupiter wasn’t, of course, though maybe she hadn’t told him everything.

She hadn’t told him why he’d gone into a ten thousand mile wide storm, faced winds hundreds of thousands of miles per hour to rescue her. She didn’t explain why he’d risked his life searching for her until the very last second.  She didn’t tell him those things because honestly, she didn’t know for certain. They hadn’t had the chance to talk about any of that stuff yet. It was enough for now, that he believed her. She wasn’t going to try to convince him he’d had some sort of feelings for her too. She’d been burned before, making those sorts of assumptions.

It was something they’d probably have to figure out all over again.

At least he’d called her Your Majesty. It was the first time she could remember him saying it since this whole thing had started.

“Well,” she smiled at him in relief. “I think we need to figure out some sort of plan besides just waiting around for the Aegis to come and rescue me.  And, um, maybe I should have mentioned this when I first walked in, but--I told Titus I’d consider marrying him if he let me keep you as my pet.”

Chapter Text

Titus idly stroked the satin sleeve of his jacket as he watched Jupiter Jones on the desk module. His head had fallen back against the intricately carved chair--- mussing his hair, no doubt---but that was of no concern; the tousled look suited him well. He’d drained the last of his sparkling Dioritian liqueur and thought about signaling for another. It was a sweet, heavy drink for first thing in the morning, but he needed something to enliven himself.

The problem was that the surveillance video was so monotonous he was falling asleep. Mother would have been appalled to discover her recurrence so lacking in sexual imagination.

At one point, Titus had planned to broadcast the wedding night as well as the wedding, but he reconsidered that now, watching Ms. Jones move atop Mr. Wise in that strange, awkward pattern.

He wasn’t sure what to think of her. She hadn’t reacted to the idea of Regenex the way he’d expected and she’d seemed rather calculating with her answer to his proposal.

At least, her temper had improved since they’d dined last night. There hadn’t been any more outbursts of violence.

Titus had played the part of congenial host well, proving his goodwill, suggesting she keep the ex-Skyjacker as her pet while she considered his offer. It had been Famulus’ idea. And she’d been right, as usual. There was something about Caine Wise that irritated. He was too insolent for a lycantant, insufficiently grateful and not nearly subservient enough.

It would be a pleasure to see him taken down a notch or two. And keeping them close fit perfectly into his plan.

Titus didn’t like the way the rest of the plan was progressing though.

There was always the contingency. However, that paperwork was still winding its way through bureaucratic channels---not to mention the decades of legal battles to come afterward.

And he did have his heart set on the grand wedding.

He’d put Famulus in charge of picking out complementary attire---red went exceptionally well with his coloring---coordinating the Sims and flowers for the great hall, arranging for airtime on all the major signals. The broadcast would be stunning--- recorded from all his best angles.

This royal wedding would be the topic of conversation for years. It wasn’t often an Entitled of his stature married his own mother’s recurrence. Not to mention the tragedy of it all, if the deranged splice lover murdered her soon after.

Most of all though, Titus relished the thought of Kalique and Balem’s reactions to the marriage. Those alone were more than enough reason to wait for Jupiter’s agreement.

“My lord, everyone is ready for you in the chamber,” said Famulus, entering the room.

“Excellent,” said Titus. “Watching this for another minute would have put me off my lunch.”

“And Lady Kalique has signaled.”

“Put her through,” he said.

After a moment, the image of Kalique came through; rather distressingly large and clear considering his sister hadn’t had a recode recently--- though she was wearing a rather lovely aqua and gold embroidered gown.

“Darling, aren’t you looking...distinguished,” he said.

“Titus,” Kalique greeted him with tight smile. “Some of us are busy maintaining our business interests. Your lack of occupation in that area allows you to spend every free moment on your appearance no doubt. Well,” she gave a small laugh. “I suppose if beauty were my foremost asset I’d be inclined to do the same.”

“But we all know, Kalique dear, that your foremost asset is your kind and loving heart. Is that why you’re checking in on me, sisterly concern?”

“Actually, dear brother, I wondered if you were connected in any way to what happened at the commonwealth yesterday.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said smoothly.

Kalique studied him with raised brows.

But Titus considered himself a master at subterfuge. Some said the best liars taught themselves to believe that every word they spoke was the truth, but he had decided centuries ago to simply lie so outrageously and so often that even truths sounded like lies once they passed his lips.

“A royal recurrence was kidnapped yesterday after leaving the hall of titles,” she told him. “It just so happens that she was Mother’s recurrence. You didn’t hear of it?”

“I had no idea!” he exclaimed. “How absolutely intriguing.”

“She was from Earth,” she continued. “The very planet that you happened to mention the other day.”

“What a coincidence! I just finished speaking to Balem about Earth moments ago. Unfortunately, he still insists on keeping it for himself. I wonder... do you think he had anything to do with this abduction?”

“You spoke to him?” her eyes narrowed.

“Yes, we just got off the line. Though he didn’t mention anything about a recurrence. It was all talk of shareholder meetings and scheduled obligations. I’m surprised he didn’t bore you with the details as well.”

“No,” she said. “I haven’t spoken to Balem since we last met.”

“Well, lucky you,” said Titus with a smile. “But I do have something extremely important to attend to right now my dear. I’ll be sure to let you know if I stumble across this recurrence of yours.”

Kalique was frowning at him as he signed off. She wouldn’t do that, he thought, if she realized how it emphasized all those unfortunate lines around her face.

Titus gave a shudder.

She had neither seen nor heard from Balem in the last few days either then.

Interesting.

“Famulus,” he said, rising from his chair. “I believe you said the girls were ready and waiting?”

 

 

****************************************

 

“Actually,” Jupiter said, “I only told Titus I wanted to keep you--“personal pet” was his term for it. But I can take you around the ship with me as long as you’re in restraints and--” she made a face. “There’s some sort of chain involved...

“But I think it’s a good idea,” she continued quickly. “It keeps you with me and makes you appear sort of... harmless? It’s a chance to scope things out. Better than being kept in my room under guard.”

“You mean you’re going to take me out for walks, Your Majesty?” said Caine.

“Sorry,” she shrugged. “It’s worth a try.”

“Alright,” he said.

It made some sense, he thought.

And truth was, he’d been acting like her pet. Staying where he was told and following her lead. He just hadn’t understood why until now.

He wasn’t sure what to think about the time travel idea. She was telling the truth, or at least she believed it--and he had to admit going back in time was one possible, if improbable, explanation.

Without anything better, he was willing to go with her theory for now.

It made sense of things he hadn’t been able to figure out before: the fact that she’d skipped the clinic appointment and known to drive to Stinger’s house instead, the way she’d recognized him when he’d held her in the Commonwealth, the way she’d stuck to his side, looked like she was happy to see him and tried to protect him from the first.

It made even more sense if he included the part she’d left out, because he was sure she hadn’t told him everything.

She hadn’t mentioned the two of them having sex. And that was the only thing that could completely explain why she smelled like him. It was just, until now, he’d thought it impossible.

That had to be it though. And that was the reason he was responding to her like this. It was just biology. It confused him, because he’d never been controlled by sex before. He’d never reacted this way in the past. But his nose had told him that he belonged to her from the moment he’d scooped her up in the Commonwealth. He’d wanted to protect her and do her bidding, even though he was supposed to be working for Titus and should have been focused on finishing the job.

That was probably why he’d had the urge to kill Titus for her--along with a lot of other urges.

Biology aside, he’d still rather work for her than Titus, if there were a choice to make.

At least now, he didn’t have to wonder if someone had engineered a faulty response in him.

There must be a reason she’d left that part out of her story though.

He watched her standing in the firelight, her dress worth more than ten year’s Skyjacker salary, her hair swept up into an gleaming, intricate machine-created configuration. It was hard to imagine he’d dared touch her. She looked unapproachable.

It must have been an impulse on her part, one that she probably regretted now.

He remembered the night before, when she’d inched her way on to his body, over and over again, no matter how many times he’d tried to remove her. Eventually, he’d just given up and let her stay--she’d seemed to fit somehow.

Maybe the sex had been adrenaline-fueled, or gratitude for him saving her life.

Maybe she was confused about what she wanted.

Or more likely she knew exactly what she wanted. Caine had kidnapped her and now Titus held her prisoner and was planning to kill her.

She wanted him to get her out of this situation.

“Even with restraints and chains, I can kill Titus if I get close enough, ” he said, thinking aloud, “It’s a death sentence for me --fines for you, if they can prove you’re behind it. But if he’s planning to kill you it’s a different story. If it’s in your defense...”

“I don’t want you to kill him. I just want to get us out of here,” she said.

“I could get you to one of the short-range vessels in the hanger then. But we’d be a sitting target in the time it takes to set a portal. He might just blow you out of the sky. I don’t think we should risk you like that.”

“Wouldn’t that be too risky for you too?” she asked. “There were hundreds of guards when they brought me in. I don’t want to endanger either of us if we can help it.”

“Then we wait for the Aegis. Time passes quickly for Entitleds; a few years are nothing to them. Titus might wait for your answer for a long time. The only problem is Titus trying to use me against you. I still don’t know how he’s planning to provoke me. If you want to wait him out, maybe it’s better if you don’t have me here.”

“No,” she said. “I’m keeping you. That’s non-negotiable.”

He had to fight back the urge to smile.

“But I can’t wait years. The Aegis is keeping watch on my family, but nobody knows where I am. It would kill my mom if I were missing a long time. I need to get back as soon as I can.”

“The Aegis probably doesn’t have a track on this ship yet. All outgoing comms are blocked. But if I can get to a control box I can shut it down and send out a ping to help them locate you.”

“Then let’s get you to a control box,” she said, giving him a brilliant smile. “They’ll probably be here in a few minutes to put you back into the restraints--so I can take you for your walk.”

She winked at him and he had to look down at the floor for a moment so he wouldn’t just stare at her like an idiot.

“But first I guess we have to...?” And she gestured back to the chair.

He sat back down in the plush velvet chair again leaning back and resuming his position.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

He was surprised that he (or some other version of him, in a different time-line? He didn’t understand how that worked exactly) had gotten involved with a Royal. Wondered how it could have happened, why he hadn’t told her she was making a mistake.

It was going to make things awkward.

“I have to admit I didn’t really think this out,” she said. “But I’m not sure what other excuse I can think of to keep you with me. I don’t want Titus to know that I---

“That you want me here to protect you, to help you escape him if possible.”

“Well, yeah, that too.”

She climbed back into the chair, bracing her knees on either side of him, arranging her skirts and placing her hands against him. He noticed the mark on her neck again. From him?

“Titus was actually watching us--last night--he as good as told me so, ” she said.

“I told you that he was.”

“Shouldn’t he at least be a little embarrassed though? I look exactly like his mother.”

“I don’t know all about Earth customs but Entitleds aren’t shy about sex or nudity. They like to put themselves on display.”

“I guess we have that on Earth too--sex tapes,” she said.

Caine frowned, imagining the sticky silver tape he’d seen in use around the tower where he’d been hiding out on Earth. It didn’t seem entirely comfortable--but maybe? He gave his head a quick shake to clear his mind of the image that had cropped up. It wasn’t the easiest thing he’d ever done, her sitting in his lap while they talked about sex.

“Entitleds don’t have prohibitions against sex with family members,” he said, “On less developed planets, those mating restrictions help prevent genetic flaws in offspring, but since Entitileds can have their codes altered as they please..."

"I guess," she sounded hesitant. "The whole thing still seems weird to me."

"Weird or not, in spite of the fact that you look like his mother or because of it, Titus will probably invite you to his orgy chamber eventually. If he hasn’t already.”

He had to tamp down the weird reaction the thought gave him. It was useless to feel territorial about a Queen.

“No, he didn’t,” she paused and looked at him closely. “Wait did he invite you to his?”

“It wasn’t a condition of the job,” was all he said.

“Well what about splices. Do you have the same ideas about sex and privacy and incest all that?”

“That’s not relevant.”

“Oh,” she said, looking away.

Titus didn’t care about what splices thought or felt. Most Entitleds didn’t. Not that Caine had ever been used to the concept of privacy- living in a military barracks.

“I’m sorry you have to do this,” she said. “I told you I wouldn’t do anything to you. But that hasn’t been true exactly.”

“It’s fine, “he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

He didn’t mind, being close to her. Probably liked it more than he should. It would be awkward for her, but he’d determined he’d help her in whatever way he could.

Because he’d figured it out now, the reason she hadn’t mentioned them having sex before. It was in her questions, the way she was still figuring out the universe opening up around her.

She probably hadn’t known, the first time she’d met him, but she was smart and at some point she must have figured it out--the difference, the huge untraversable divide between royalty and a splice.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Nine days later, Jupiter sat across the dinner table from Titus.

Again.

Her sumptuous, dark-gold dress, patterned in stars and swirls of galaxies, reflected the firelight. Fabric soft like velvet but smooth and lightweight at the same time, fit perfectly to her body, curved over her breasts, flowing in a smooth puddle to the floor.

She didn’t feel at all comfortable in it.

In her left hand was a small silver cylinder, biometrically keyed to her palm print.

And just behind her, Caine stood, attached to the cylinder by a chain fixed to restraints around his wrists.

If she released the cylinder, an electromagnet activated, locking the cylinder into the nearest metal surface---usually the floor.

It was a devise for theft prevention on heavy-duty military vehicles. More than sufficient, Famulus had explained with a smirk, to contain one small lycantant.

At least, his hands were locked in front this time. And Jupiter insisted on keeping the devise in her hand.

She’d rather have Caine at her back than her feet.

The lock and chain were supposed to be safety precautions. But Jupiter was pretty sure it was all just to amuse Titus. They’d given her the key to the restraints, and she took them off whenever they were in her room.

And she’d noticed Titus’ malicious smile the time she’d lost her grip on the cylinder and it slammed down into the floor, Caine forced to crouch until she could release him.

It bothered her though, that Titus kept implying she liked the chain too, liked having Caine under her control.

Was it something he thought she had in common with his mother?

It wasn’t that she liked having Caine chained exactly...

But ...maybe she liked the fact that he’d agreed to it?

Caine wasn’t entirely happy with the situation, but he’d gone along with it. Rolled his eyes, as if there were something funny about being her pet. He wasn’t letting her in on the joke though, just shook his head when she’d asked.

Anyway, it was all just for show.

He’d already told her he could break through the restraints with his gravity boots.

Caine had been quiet all day. Alert. Gathering information probably. He could sense the guards’ movements through the ship, was memorizing their patterns.

Sometimes she’d turn and catch him looking at her.

She didn’t have to turn now to know his stoic expression as he stood behind her, arms crossed. She’d felt a whisper of air across her bare neck and shoulders, her arms suddenly covered in goose bumps when he’d shifted his stance just a moment ago.

Her skin was becoming absurdly sensitized to him.

It had been her stupid idea to pretend they were having sex all the time---it’d seemed like a good idea in the beginning.

All that sitting on him, huddling under the covers. Waking up mornings, wrapped around him in some embarrassing way---she was so frustrated she couldn’t think straight.

Caine seemed uninterested.

He’d agreed to help her, but maybe just because he didn’t want to work for Titus anymore.

Maybe once they got out of there, things would straighten out, but everything was such a mess right now.

She felt nervous, double guessing everything. Worried she’d never figure out what had sent her back in time, or if it would happen again.

One of the servants brought a tray pilled high with crisped cheese pastry triangles and Jupiter tossed one up to Caine, heard the snap of teeth as he neatly caught it.

He was addicted to the things--- and it annoyed Titus when she fed him at the table.

Titus just curved his lips into a smile though.

Was he wearing lip-gloss tonight or just the rich foods and wine that had stained his mouth?

He’d been oddly silent so far.

He’d stopped with the sex critiques a few days ago. Said Jupiter was a hopeless case and he couldn’t bear to think about it anymore.

She wasn’t sure if that meant they should try to be more convincing or not to bother.

At least Titus had never asked her to an orgy. No matter what the Entitled habits, she couldn’t get past the squick factor on that one.

He also hadn’t mentioned anything about a wedding recently.

And that was starting to worry her.

She and Caine had explored the ship as much as possible. There were a lot of unused rooms, closed away and left neglected. Due to Titus’s money problems or just a lack of interest, Jupiter didn’t know.

The clipper was a strange combination of futuristic space efficiency and run-down opulence.

Anything to do with the Regenex was meticulously maintained.

Or anything to do with Titus’s comfort or vanity for that matter.

She remembered the day Titus had shown her his bathing and wardrobe rooms: all high-tech wonders and iridescent pink marble as far as the eye could see...

Caine had gotten a ping out to the Aegis more than a week ago. They’d evaded a couple of guards, found a hall where he could disrupt a comm control box.

It had taken less than a minute.

She’d thought things were looking up then, that they’d be rescued soon.

But since then, they’d walked down that same hall every day, sending out a ping every time. And still no response.

It had seemed like being careful was the right thing to do. But it was starting to feel like she’d made a mistake.

Again.

Since the beginning, she’d felt like a game piece, moved around by the Abrasax family, by other things beyond her control. She kept trying to get her bearings, figure out the rules of the game, but everything kept changing.

Caine might be fearless- but she hadn’t quite figured out how to be that way.

It was one thing with gunfire, or explosions, big life or death, fate of the Earth, in your face, decisions.

Sinister marriage proposals with indefinite deadlines, pretend sex in strangely luxurious spaceships, seemed to fall into some different category.

For the first day or so, Caine had been fine with her stalling until the Aegis came. He’d admitted it was protocol to wait for back up.

But since then he’d been figuring out the layout of the ship, and every day he’d come up with new plans, better, more detailed ways of her escaping.

He’d help her, was still willing to follow her lead, but she could tell he was getting restless.

“Your Majesty,” Titus said, putting down his wine glass and speaking at last. “I must apologize. I realize now that my marriage proposal didn’t take into account your...cultural sensibilities. I can see that the sort of alliance I’d envisioned between us would be difficult at best. However, if you’ll agree to it, I would still like to make you my heir. I’ve had the sheave work all drawn up. All you need do is sign.”

One of the servants brought a sheave around and placed it on the table next to her.

Jupiter looked at it warily.

“Okay,” she said.

“So you’ll do it?” Titus looked pleased.

“Yes, I’ll be your heir.” She knew there must be some catch though, something strange going on. “I’ll have to read this over though and get an advocate to look at it for me.”

“Excellent. Take your time. And by all means, let Mr. Wise enjoy the rest of his... treats.” Titus stood and started to leave the room.

He paused before reaching the door and turned to face her again. “You’ll be happy to know we’ll reach Earth by tomorrow. Good night, and sleep well Jupiter Jones.”

 

********

 

After dinner, Jupiter and Caine walked into the conservatory garden. The artificial sunlight turned off, the light of two giant torches danced through the shadows of ferns.

They followed the dark paths through a tangle of overgrowth, finally stopping at an overstuffed couch in front of a glass wall looking out to the stars.

It was a good place to talk.

The guards stood back near the entrance and the sound of running water covered their voices. They were shielded from view by an elaborate metal trellis above, covered by a curtain of flowering vines.

“How’s the surveillance in here?” she asked as they sat.

He listened for the distinct high-pitched whir.

“Just the one in the corner near the entrance, it recorded us coming in, but it’s too far away now.”

He was frowning though, distracted, as if listening for something in the distance still.

She put her hand over his to get his attention, reaching past the restraints, smoothing down to his bare fingers where they came out of his gloves.

“I’m sorry,” she started. “I know I’ve been too cautious, waiting for the Aegis all this time, when it’s obvious no one is coming.”

“Something’s going on,” he said.

“I know,” she said. “I think Titus is done waiting. Whatever this thing is he wants me to sign--- it can’t be good.”

“I didn’t want you take risks because of me, to put yourself in danger,” she continued. “But the fact is that you’re already in danger, we both are, and I’ve just been delaying. We can’t wait around any longer.”

“You’ve trusted me. I should have trusted you when you told me you could get me out of here. You have to come with me though. It doesn’t matter if Titus still owns you. Once we’re away, I’ll fight him for you--- with lawyers or whatever.”

She waited for him to say something.

After a moment he whispered, “Shhh.”

“What?”

“The guards have gone away,” he said. He was still listening to something though. Or thinking. A look of concentration on his face.

Fair enough, she could wait while he figured out a plan.

She gave his hand an awkward pat, and picked up the sheave from her lap. It was difficult, with the cylinder still in one hand, but she figured out the light function to illuminate the words in the darkness.

She read through the first lines, dense with legal words and alien terms. It made absolutely no sense. At all. And it just went on forever.

She started scanning to the end just to see how long it was.

“Jupiter,” Caine said in a low voice.

She turned to face him.

He was closer than she’d realized. The blue glow of the sheave lit up his face but his eyes were dark.

He was staring at her, like he couldn’t help himself.

It did funny things to her stomach---she’d gotten so used to him looking away all the time.

He leaned in slowly, so slowly she thought she was imagining it. Touched his mouth to hers, giving her the chance to back away if she wanted.

She didn’t.

She leaned in too, letting her lips open against his, remembering the feel of his mouth.

Confused, but happy.

She dropped the sheave and put one hand up to hold his face.

Why hadn’t they been doing this all along?  

He caught her bottom lip between his teeth, gently biting down, as if testing the give of her flesh. His strong hands caught her by the waist and pulled her in so that her breasts pressed close against him.

His restraints were digging into her ribs though and she backed up enough to say, “Hold on a minute.”

She reached into her pocket and took out the key.

And he pulled away---moving as far as he could on the short chain.

“Something’s wrong,” he said.

He was breathing hard.

Suddenly, he yanked the chain from her hand and the cylinder slammed sideways, into the trellis behind, fastening so his arms were pulled back overhead.

He was close to panting, trying to catch his breath.

“Titus drugged me,” he said. “Put something in the food.”

The cheese treats, she thought. And he’d eaten the whole tray.

“He’s hoping I’ll attack you,” he said in a grim voice. “Just leave me here for a while until I can calm down.”

“I’m not going to leave you here.”

She got up to kneel next to him, leaned over, one hand resting on the back of the couch, straining to reach the lock.

He turned, nuzzled into her neck and opened his mouth, dragging his teeth along her skin.

She sucked in a sharp breath.

“Don’t unlock me,” he mumbled against her.

“You really think you’re going to attack me?” she asked, pulling back.

“No, not like that. But...I smell you and I can’t think straight. I’ll do something I shouldn’t.”

She sat back on her heels to look at him.

“Why shouldn’t you? You don’t want to?”

“I want to. But you don’t. You’ll be making the same mistake all over again.”

Wait, what mistake was he talking about here?

She struggled with her dress, which was falling down in the front and bunched up everywhere around them on the couch. She still hadn’t gotten the hang of these princess type gowns.

“Your Majesty,” he said. “I have more in common with a dog than I do with you.”

“I love---” she stopped short.

Oh, God, was she really going to do this?

She’d been frozen with fear lately, thinking too much about how their survival the first time around had depended sometimes on luck.

Waiting had seemed like the smart thing, the safe thing to do.

She didn’t want to wait anymore.

It was definitely time to start taking risks--- but maybe it was too soon to tell him that she loved him. Things were complicated enough already.

If she couldn’t tell him exactly, maybe she could show him.

“I don’t care about being royalty,” she said.   “Or the differences between us.”

“Alright,” he looked at her, uncertain.

“It wouldn’t be a mistake for me,” she tried to explain. “Unless it’s just because you’re drugged...?”

“No.” he said, clenching his jaw. “This isn’t the Entitled instinct Titus planned on. I’m just feeling out of control right now.”

“You really don’t want me to unlock you?” she asked.

He shook his head.

She dropped the key back into her pocket.

“This doesn’t hurt your arms?”

“No, “ he said on an exhale. “I’m fine. I could stay like this for hours.”

“Perfect,” she said with a smile.

“What?”

“You don’t have to be in control. I’m not afraid of you. The guards are gone... What if we never get another chance?”

With that, she stood up and started to take off her dress.

It was meant to be seductive.

But the material was difficult and clingy and got stuck in spots, so that she was breathing as hard as he was by the time she’d managed to pull it all the way over her head.

He didn’t seem to mind, focused on the way her breasts bounced after they’d sprung free of the dress.

“I’ll be in control for us both--- if you want,” she said.

She ran her fingers through her hair, undoing the twists of space magic that’d kept it in place, shaking it free so that it settled around her shoulders.

After kicking off her shoes, she climbed back up to kneel on the couch next to him, placed her hand in the center of his chest.

“This shirt just sort of comes apart, right?”

He nodded, watching her.

She grabbed on with both hands, delighted when it came off with one hard tug.

She wanted to explore every inch of him.

She put a hand on his belly, just above the waist of his pants, felt the tense of his muscles at her touch.

“Is this okay?” she asked.

He let out a long stream of breath.

“You don’t have to keep asking, Your Majesty. Anything you do to me is okay.”

She ran her hands up his abs, smoothed her palms over his chest. Her fingers caught on his nipples, toyed with them, pinched one just to see how he’d react and smiled at his quick intake of breath. Moved on to cup the bunched muscles of his shoulders, stroke the smooth hot skin of his arms straining up overhead.

She watched his face: head tilted back, eyes half-lidded, biting his own lip.

She could spend all night on just his mouth.

She darted in to taste him with a quick swipe of tongue, like she still couldn’t believe she was somehow allowed to do this. Then lingered in slow soft bites of his mouth, learning the feel of him all over again, fingers tracing the brand on his neck, the furry texture of his hair, the pointed tip of an ear.

He was trembling beneath her, tensed and holding himself back. She probably didn’t need to work either of them up too much more.

She’d already been going crazy for days.

“Wait,” she said. “Do we need some sort of space condom or..?”

“I get the standard Legion shots--- good for ten years,” he said.

“Good to know,” she said.

She went for the fastenings of his pants, his hips pushing up to help her work the fabric down his legs. Then climbed into his lap, taking him in hand, hot and hard and heavy. She lifted her hips and squirmed just a little to find the right angle, until she was sinking down on to him, stretching so he could fill her completely.

She spread her knees and tried to find leverage, worked a slow rhythm to start, pulling back to look into his eyes.

What was going on inside his head? They’d been so close, but he’d found reasons to keep a distance between them. Held himself back, trying to protect her.

She’d been the one who wasn’t brave enough. Did he really think he wasn’t good enough for her?

 

She’d have to find a way to convince him otherwise.

She returned to his mouth, this time for lazy open-mouthed kisses as she focused on moving above him.

Her fingers dug into the thick muscles of his back as she sped up then, grinding down on top of him.

It was hard to find the right angle, and she curved her spine, buried her face against his neck as she strained.

“Help me, “ she said.

And then he was moving, thrusting up underneath her, their bodies slapping together. She didn’t know if it was going to be enough, let go of him with one hand to work her fingers between them.

He gave a couple of mighty pushes beneath her, so hard she wondered if she was going to catch air, had to focus on just holding on tight. There was the snap of breaking metal. The trellis around them creaking in protest as he gave one last hard thrust.

“Unlock me,” he said, when he’d caught his breath.

It took a moment to find the key, to reach up his sweat-slicked body to where he was fastened, undo the mechanism that bound him.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said, rubbing at his wrists. He took off his gloves, flexed and stretched his long fingers. He looked normal, more himself again somehow.

He reached out to take her by the waist and hold her, gave her a sweet lingering kiss. Then eased her down so she was flat on her back in front of him.

“Your turn,” he said, and moved down to bury his head between her thighs, went to work on her with a combination of mouth and tongue and teeth and fingers that made her squeak in surprise before she melted into a helpless moan.

 

 

“Ummm, okay,” she said, surfacing after the fifth or sixth orgasm. Trying to find the ability to form words again. “I’m uh, good.”

He looked up from between her legs.

“You sure?”

He studied her face carefully, worked at her with a pulling stroke and twist of strategically placed fingers that made her weak all over again.

She groaned and shook her head no.

He lowered his head to settle back down to business.

 

 

Jupiter was going to die here, she thought a long while later. Caine was relentless. Maybe he was still out of control or something. She didn’t have the will to stop him though.

Lethargy would wash over her, and she’d think for just a moment, that was it, that was enough. Then he’d just start winding her up all over again.

 

 

When he did stop it was to raise his head to listen to something.

“Oh shit,” he said. “We have to get out of here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The drug didn’t make Caine want sex -exactly- it'd have been a hell of a lot easier if it were simple as that.

It was some chemical designed to strip him down--- until he was just one instinct, one basic, vital, essential thought.

He couldn’t push it away, couldn’t ignore it or use logic to get around it. It was there in the pounding of his heart, the jittery sensation in his stomach, the inability to catch his breath.

If he’d resented being chained to Jupiter, it might have been focused on revenge or violence. The drug might have worked the way Titus wanted. He’d have felt the urge to kill her, become obsessed with it.

But that wasn’t it at all.

He’d known something strange was going on for days.

His loyalty and obedience coding, so long dormant he’d doubted their existence, had kicked in with a vengeance. He’d been territorial, focused on protecting her. He hadn’t known if it was still the scent thing or just something inevitable about Jupiter.

He wanted to belong to her, be her pet, follow her lead.

He still didn’t understand why she was so determined to keep him. She just hadn’t figured out what a fuck-up he was yet. He should have tried to explain it better, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t resist staying close. And it wasn’t as if she had anyone else to help her.

 

He’d looked at her sitting next to him in the darkness, the chemical rushing through him, and something washed over him.

The smell of her, getting inside of him.

He’d ignored it, pushed it to the back of his brain for days now, but because of the drug, he couldn’t escape it anymore.

It was like he’d discovered something he hadn’t known he was searching for.

It was terrifying.

The drug had tapped into something primal, something he didn’t understand or know what to do with.

Sex was mixed up with it, sure, but he’d been dealing with that frustration for days.

And sex didn’t really freak him out.

That was just an easier way to explain it to her, something she’d understand. Less confusing than whatever this other thing was.

Anyway, he could smell that she still wanted him too.

No, he’d kissed her because she was there and he had to be up against her, to be close to her somehow, to do something about this overwhelming thing he was feeling.

If he were on the floor at her feet he’d have gone with rubbing up against her legs, butting his head against her even.

He half-remembered something like this from when he was just a pup. Something vague and pushed away, something he’d tried his hardest to forget. The feeling of wanting something he didn’t understand, couldn’t have, trying to nose his way into the huddle of other lycantants.

When she’d pulled off her dress and offered to take control for him, it’d been a relief.

Maybe he should have tried harder, for her sake, to convince her that it was a bad idea. That she didn’t want to make the mistake of getting involved with him again.

But he didn’t. He couldn’t.

Maybe sex would make sense of things, clear his head.

The feel of her hands, her lips, her body bouncing, pressing, moving against him, just intensified it.

Though he could feel the strange obsessive edge of it fading, the drug working through him.

 

He was able to shift his focus after a while, turn to the idea of tasting her, pleasing her.

The inexplicable feeling didn’t go away though.

He knew the drug had cleared his system entirely, at least, when other thoughts, other sensations were able to push through.

And he could hear the noise through the air vent, of massive numbers of guards moving in the hanger below.

 

Chapter Text

“As soon as Titus finds out I haven’t attacked you,” Caine said, “He’ll go to whatever’s next on the agenda. I don’t want to wait and see what that is.”

He’d fastened his pants and was putting his gloves back on as he spoke. “There’re hundreds of guards in the hanger right now. We need to get out while they’re looking the other way---while you still have the chance.”

Jupiter had gotten back into her crumpled gown.

“Are you ready to get out of here, Your Majesty?”

So ready,” she said.

“Then let’s go,” he took her by the hand.

He’d powered up his boots and shield and hoisted her onto his back before she knew it.

Then they were speeding down the garden paths, pushing through shadowy leaves and thorns, tendrils that grabbed at her dress and hair as they passed.

The blue streaks of Caine’s boots bright in the dark.

He paused, feet gathering speed, before sprinting out into the hall.

The crash of impact knocked Jupiter’s teeth together as he mowed down a group of guards---plowed right through an entire row of them, like they were bowling pins set up to be knocked over.

She held tighter against him as, seconds later, bullets exploded, ricocheting off the walls around them.

Behind the cover of his shield, they raced to turn a corner into a long empty hallway, Caine paused a split second to take in a deep breath and then ripped open an enormous wall panel, exposing an empty space behind.

"Hold on!" he said. Then he jumped inside.

And they were suddenly free falling down a service shaft, down so many levels Jupiter was dizzy with the blur of passing pipes and wires and circuitry around them.

He turned his boots to circle out---skidding off the sides---until they’d stopped in a stomach-twisting lurch, hovering in front of a metal grate.

One hard slam and the grate shoved free. They climbed out as it fell to the floor with a clatter, Jupiter’s dress catching on a twist of broken wire before she tore it free.

Caine opened a door and they ducked inside and closed it behind them.

She jumped off his back, looking around.

“We need weapons,” he said. “It’s in here somewhere.”

The room was small, lit by a dim orange bulb over the door, one wall curved inward, ribbed like the inside of a giant worm. The other wall covered floor to ceiling in cabinets and drawers. Caine started breaking things open, riffling through and tossing stuff to the floor.

A swath of gold-spun fabric, a tiny silver cat with emeralds for eyes, some sort of sheave with elaborate engravings. Everything was in a jumble; drawers filled high like a treasure chest overflowing with pirate loot.

A dark body suit made of some heavy, woven material landed at Jupiter’s feet. It looked about her size...

She quickly kicked off her shoes, tried pulling the pant legs up one by one under her skirt, wiggled to pull her dress off---caught sight of Caine, who’d turned to look at her, distracted for a moment.

He quickly turned back to his task.

“It’ll be better to move around in,” she explained, a little embarrassed. “More stealthy.”

A few seconds later, as she was putting her arms through the sleeves, she heard a clicking sound and saw a long metal box slide out from the bottom shelf.

It was filled to the top with weapons.

Caine took a gun and shoved it into the waist of his pants. Then made a sound of satisfaction as he reached in and grabbed his mauler. He switched off the safety and listened to it fire up, ran his fingers over it carefully, as he held it up to the light.

There were raw abrasions around his wrists, Jupiter noticed, just above his gloves. She remembered the chain hanging from the broken trellis earlier, the restraints.

Had she hurt him?

She really didn’t think she’d been drugged, didn’t have any excuse for being out of control...

“I’m sorry,” she said.

He looked at her curiously.

She reached for his hand and he gave it to her. He watched as she tentatively touched the broken skin.

“I took advantage of things back there, took advantage of you.”

Caine just seemed confused though, frowned at her.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Is the drug all gone? I thought you seemed better. I mean, your breathing is normal...”

“It’s all gone now. I have a quick metabolism,” he said. “I’m alright. You’re welcome to--- take advantage of me Your Majesty.”

He said it like he was testing out the words though; as if there was something he didn’t quite understand.

“But-“ she started.

She was at a loss for words.

He tucked his mauler into its holster, turned to curve his hands around the tops of her shoulders, fingers reaching to adjust the fabric that had twisted at her collarbone.

He looked at her questioningly. Then leaned in slowly, touched his lips to hers in a quick kiss before pulling back to look at her again.

“Really,” he said.

 

********

Jupiter expected guards around every corner, but the ship was quiet, empty.

They quickly made their way to a small maintenance bay, above and to the right of the giant space where she'd first entered Titus' clipper days ago. The far off glow of huge chandeliers barely reflected off the tops of the giant golden statues that stood between them and the main hangar far below.

She could hear the echo of footsteps marching in formation in the distance.

It was empty here though, just three small ships, some equipment and a double hatch door that led out into the vastness of space.

Unfortunately, the door was blocked by a grid of humming blue beams that would trip an alarm.

“I can get around and disarm it from the other side. Take this,” Caine handed her his mauler. She held it carefully in both hands “You need to flip-“

Jupiter turned off the safety and aimed it toward the door.

He smiled.

He flew up towards the ceiling, worked on picking his way through the beams, flipping up and around to the other side. In seconds, he’d deactivated it and was heading back down to her.

He was halfway down to the ground when they came back on again with an ominous sound, an electric buzz that held him trapped, caught inside the grid, suspended in mid-air.

An alarm blared out---and was quickly shut off.

Titus walked in with four guards.

Jupiter lifted the mauler to aim it straight at him.

“It looks like you’ve let your dog off his chain, Your Majesty. Fortunately, I’ve caught him for you.”

“Let him go,” she said.

Titus ignored her, didn’t seem phased by the gun.

“Apparently the drug didn’t work the way I’d anticipated.” Titus looked at Caine with a smirk. “What instinct did it uncover then? Did you learn something about yourself today Mr. Wise?"

Caine didn’t say anything, struggling against the trap. It flexed where he pushed against it, strained around him. But it held.

“I don’t suppose you were helpful enough to sign the sheave for me.” Titus said, turning again to Jupiter. “It’s not too late. I have another copy, right here. Cooperate and I will let you go. I’ll even let you keep your pet. I have his pardon and reinstatement. I can give them to you and send you both on your way right now.”

“I’m not going to sign anything. “ said Jupiter, hands steady on the gun. “Just let us go and no one has to get hurt.”

“You’ll never use that thing,” he smiled condescendingly.

Jupiter fired the mauler and it kicked back so hard she almost stumbled. The bullet tore through the high collar of Titus’s jacket, grazed his neck and left behind a thin trickle of blood.

She’d been aiming for his shoulder.

He lifted a hand to touch his neck, raised his brows. “Well, well Ms. Jones, you do continue to surprise. However, you may also be surprised to learn that this isn’t merely a trap. I can eject him into the void with the push of a button. Are you willing to risk it?”

She resisted the urge to look at Caine. She could hear the snap of electricity as he fought against the trap. Focused on holding the gun steady, she kept her eyes on Titus.

“You’re in love with Mr. Wise, aren’t you?” Titus looked at her with false sympathy, shook his head and made a little tsking sound. “Beauty and her beast.”

“What is it you want?” she said, beyond disgusted with him and his games.

“I told you, I simply wish to make you my heir.”

“I’m not that gullible. I know better than to believe anything you tell me.”

“So distrustful. And after everything I’ve done for you?”

Jupiter just glared.

Titus gave a dramatic sigh. “Well, if you must know, signing this will also make me your heir.”

“And then you’ll kill me.”

“That was one plan. I’d rather hoped the lycantant would do the job for me. It certainly would have facilitated things,” he said. “I could have taken your signature from your dead body and Mr. Wise would have taken the blame. You were quite helpful--so insistent on keeping him by your side. But since he’s failed to live up to his reputation... I’m a reasonable man. I’m willing to negotiate. Cooperate with me and I’ll wait. Sixty, seventy, eighty years even. It’s not such a long time. I’ve heard that patience is a virtue.”

“You can’t trust him,” said Caine.

“I don’t,” said Jupiter.

Titus shrugged.

“I could have my guards kill you--- slowly. That way we can take your signature while you’re still alive. There’s so much paperwork involved if there’s suspected coercion though.”

She could shoot Titus again. The mauler was heavy, hard to control though. Even if she aimed for his smirking face, she didn’t know if it would get them out of there.

Or if it would even kill him. They’d probably just dump him into a vat of Regenex---that is, after the guards had opened fire on her and Caine.

Titus took another step closer to her, reached out slowly, as if to grab her hand.

There was a growl from behind, sparks flying in every direction, an explosive burst of sound and light. Caine swooped down and tackled Titus and the guards, the impact driving them away from her.

Slowly, she backed away, toward the door.

After a few moments, Caine emerged from the pile with Titus held by the scruff, gun to the side of his head.

She sagged against the door frame with a sigh of relief.

And then she felt the cool slide of metal against her skin.

Famulus held a knife to Jupiter's neck.

"Ah hmm," she delicately cleared her throat. “Put the gun down Mr. Wise.”

Caine turned in surprise, reluctantly started to lower it.

A roar of engines started up, humming, vibrating inside the walls of the spaceship.

“Ah,” said Titus. “The sweet sound of the War Hammers, it’s like music to my ears.”

 

Chapter Text

The roar of the War Hammers increased. Down the length of the ship came the sliding sound of metal, followed by a great swoosh of outward projectiles.

And then silence.

They were at a standoff.

Jupiter stood at the door, while Famulus, quiet behind her, still held the knife at her throat.

Caine had begun to lower his gun, and then seemed to reconsider, turning instead to press it hard into Titus’s ribs.

Titus didn’t seem to even care; a confident smile on his face ever since he’d heard the War Hammers.

“What’s going on out there?” Caine asked him.

“There is an entire field of War Hammers surrounding us now. Even if you managed to take a ship, you’d never survive long enough to set a portal. It would be impossible for you to make it through.”

But that wasn’t true, Jupiter thought.

Caine had done it once before—when he’d stopped the wedding. He’d needed Stinger’s help that time though. Right now, their chances didn’t look too good.

The knife was sharp; it stung where it sliced into the surface of her skin, into the soft flesh under her chin.

Famulus’ hand was unsteady.

She was a deer splice, an assistant, not an assassin. And the knife wasn’t actually anywhere near an artery...

Caine kept looking like he was signaling Jupiter to do something, but she had no idea what.

He was covered in blackened singe marks, a bleeding cut down the side of his arm. His shield had protected him from most of the exploding grid, but not all of it.

This time she could do something brave to save the day.

She tried to envision some complex series of moves involving solar plexuses or insteps, but her brain was suddenly foggy and weird.

Nerves maybe?

She’d just have to wing it.

She threw her head back into Famulus with a hard clunk. The knife followed her motion though, cutting a little deeper before she could fling her arm up and back, knocking the knife away.

She raised the Mauler and stepped around to face the deer splice, who was now rubbing at her nose, eyes watery and bright—and angry.

Jupiter didn’t particularly like her, but she didn’t really want to shoot her either. She was just another pawn of the Abrasax family. It would be too much like shooting Bambi.

“Just go,” said Jupiter, aiming the gun at her.

Famulus didn’t hesitate, running quickly out of sight.

Jupiter stumbled as she turned back toward Caine. He’d had taken a firmer hold on Titus again, dragged him back toward the far wall.

He looked at her, concerned.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said, surprised. Why wouldn’t she be?

Maybe he hadn’t been signaling her to bust out with her smooth fighting moves...but what then?

From outside the ship came the sound of gunfire, then explosions.

“Something’s going on Titus,” Caine said. “Why are all the guards down in the hanger?”

Titus ignored him, looked at Jupiter with a conniving expression. “You might as well give up and take my bargain now. It’s the only way you’ll get out of here alive. Sign the sheave and I’ll send you on your way.”

“Who’s out there?” demanded Caine, giving Titus a little shake this time.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“You’re lying. I don’t think you know how to do anything except lie.”

Titus gave an impish shrug.

Jupiter eyed the guards. She’d never heard them speak, never figured out what kind of creatures they were exactly. The only thing she knew for sure was that they wouldn’t shoot at Titus.

Keeping hold of him was probably their best bet.

“How about he comes with us?” said Jupiter backing closer to Caine, trying to clear her head so she could think straight. “Send away your guards, Titus. Deactivate the alarms and the War Hammers and get us out of here. If you promise to stop pulling this kind of crap, I’ll convince Caine not to kill you. We’ll drop you off somewhere once we’re out of here.”

“Is there enough room on one of these ships?” she asked Caine.

He shook his head absently, frowning. He’d quirked an ear to listen to something.

But that was the best she could come up with for now.

She wasn’t feeling so good. The cut on her neck didn’t feel serious, but... She put a hand to her throat, her fingers coming away with a little bit of blood on them. She should be okay, but she felt dizzy—she’d never felt faint at the sight of blood before.

Something crashed down into the hanger below.

“All right,” said Titus, suddenly. “Maybe that is a good idea. How about the three of us leave together right now.”

Jupiter heard shouting.

Something was going on, but she couldn’t seem to focus. Her vision was narrowing, the peripheries going grey.

“I need a status report,” said a familiar voice.

There were footsteps out in the hall.

“In here!” Caine called out.

Three uniformed soldiers ran in through the door, guns raised, then stopped short to take in the scene.

It was hard to see for some reason, but she thought she saw the edge of—wings?

Stinger Apini walked in to stand at their front.

“Your Majesty,” he said.

“Stinger!” cried Jupiter.

She ran to hug him—but only made it halfway across the room before everything went black.

 

****************

 

Jupiter woke to the sound of the alarm blaring and Mama commanding, ”Jupiter, get up. Make the coffee.”

“Ugh,” she groaned. She felt horrible.

“Jupiter!”

She pulled the blanket away from her face.

“Just two more minutes,” she pleaded.

Aleksa’s eyes narrowed.

“What is this on your neck? You’re bleeding. Did you hurt yourself?”

Jupiter sat upright with a start, reaching to cover her throat with her hand.

“It’s nothing, just a scratch. I...scraped it in my sleep.”

This just earned her another suspicious look.

She climbed out of bed and gave her mother a big hug, throwing her arms around her and squeezing her tight.

“I’m okay,” she said. She didn’t like lying to her though. “I’ll go make the coffee.”

Upstairs in the kitchen she looked at her phone to see the date.

It was June 24th.

Again.

This time she’d have to do some things differently.

 

*******

 

This time, on the drive to Stinger’s house, she didn’t worry about aliens attacking her.

She’d made it there in one piece the last time.

Though maybe there was another reason to worry about getting there, making it through the whole four-hour drive: it was a struggle just to stay awake.

At least, if things went the same as before, she’d be feeling better in a day or so.

She didn’t know what the heck was going on, but maybe that didn’t even matter.

There were certain things she knew she had to do—no matter what: protect her family, protect the Earth, and keep away from the Keepers and bounty hunters.

She had to think practically. Step by step. Keep it simple.

Because if she started thinking about what it really meant, living in some sort of time-loop, she was going to totally freak out—and that wouldn’t do anybody any good.

Caine had been okay when she last saw him on the Titus’ clipper. Stinger had been there with the Aegis- or were they Skyjackers? She’d caught that hint of wings...

Or was the real Caine still with her in the future somewhere?

Or waiting for her at the clinic right now?

It made her brain hurt to think about it.

She didn’t understand alternate timelines or parallel realities.

She just had to keep moving forward.

She knew what to say to Stinger at least, planned it out carefully in her head.

After parking Vladie’s car, she started to walk through the bees and flowers and toward the front porch.

But she didn’t make it that far.

 

********

 

When Jupiter opened her eyes she was looking up at the ceiling of Stinger’s sitting room, lying on that same velvet settee. This time the sun was much lower in the sky though.

How long had she been unconscious?

“Your Majesty,” said Kiza, sitting on a chair nearby. “Are you all right?”

“Yeah,” she said, her voice was crackly, throat dry. She forced herself to sit up. “I think so.”

There was a condensation covered pitcher of ice water on the table next to her, along with a tall glass and plate heaped high with cookies.

“Can I?” Jupiter gestured.

“Of course,” Kiza rushed to pour her a glass and handed it to her.

Jupiter was guzzling it down when Stinger walked into the room.

“Your Majesty,” he said. “You’re awake.”

She nodded, grabbed for a few of the cookies, thinking of what she should say to him.

He looked at her closely, frowning.

“I found you passed out in my yard, surrounded by bees. They recognize royalty, you know. Figured I needed to know what we’re dealing with, and you were in no condition to tell me anything. I took your geneprint, arranged for a cruiser to come take you to the commonwealth. Lucky for you I have contacts with the Aegis. But then I guess that’s why you’re here?”

“I know that you’re a Marshal for the Aegis,” she said. “I would have called you if I could—do you have a phone number? I mean, I know you have those implants,” she gestured to his neck. “But I don’t. I might need a way to contact you.”

In case she had to do this over again. She didn’t know if she’d make it through the whole drive another time. She was lucky she hadn’t passed out on the highway.

He seemed to think it was a strange request, looked at her curiously.

“It’s not exactly a number,” he said. “I can program your phone to tap into the signal, direct it though to me.”

“No,” she said, frustrated. “That won’t work.” Though she couldn’t explain why.

She wanted something she could see written down, memorize, write it on her skin in Sharpie if she had to.

“How about this?” asked Kiza, holding up an old rotary phone. She picked up the handset and they heard the sound of a dial tone. “It works.”

Jupiter scrambled to write down the number.

There was a whole list of things she was trying to remember. She’d gone over them in her head on the drive over.

How much time did she have before the cruiser came?

“Can the Aegis to send someone to protect my family?” she asked Stinger. “I have reason to think they might be in danger.”

“Of course,” said Stinger.

What else?

She knew better than to ask him about time travel. That hadn’t done any good last time.

Kiza coughed.

“I’ll pay you to work for me,” Jupiter said to Stinger. She couldn’t think of anyway to say this stuff delicately—didn’t know if they had time—so she’d just plow on through. “I’m going to need a security detail, and I think your daughter needs medical attention. Does she have the bug?”

“Yeah,” said Stinger. “How did you know?”

He was looking at her skeptically, and she felt bad that she couldn’t tell him more.

“I’ve heard of it,” she said vaguely.

She knew she could count on his ingrained loyalty though, as long as Kiza was taken care of.

Suddenly something else occurred to Jupiter, and she was horrified that she’d never thought of it before.

What had happened to Kiza when they’d left her behind last time? Had the bounty hunters found her at home alone? Jupiter didn’t really know much about the girl. Didn't know how well she'd adjusted to living on an alien planet. Didn't know what she would do if Stinger left her behind.

How old was she?

They better take her along, just in case.

“Let’s bring her to Orous,” she said. “She can get a recode there, can’t she?”

“Well yeah,” said Stinger hesitantly. “But I wouldn’t presume to—This is official business, Your Majesty. I can’t just bring my daughter.”

“I insist,” said Jupiter.

“Thank you,” said Kiza, smiling.

There was a humming sound overhead.

“That’ll be the Aegis,” said Stinger.

He sounded relieved, like he wasn’t sure what to think of the crazy woman he’d found in his front yard, glad someone else had come to help make sense of her.

Jupiter walked out with him and Kiza to the front porch, saw the Cruiser hovering over the fields of corn.

“Wait!” she said, pausing, as they continued down the steps.

There was something else, but she wasn’t quite sure how to say it.

She knew they couldn’t linger here long. The Earth was in danger until she got her title sorted out. Balem would be arranging a blockade, sending in his shadows. But if she was right about this, it would only take a minute...

Seconds later, a car pulled down the drive.

Caine Wise got out and started walking toward them across the yard. Long black coat swinging as he moved through the tall grasses, black-lined eyes squinting into the setting sun.

“Stinger,” he said, looking hangdog, eyes to the ground as he stopped to stand before him. “It’s kind of funny, both of us ending up on this planet.”

“Funny ain’t the word I’d use,” said Stinger, testosterone thick in the air; he was gearing up for some violence.

“We don’t have time for this right now,” Jupiter announced, using her best Royalty voice. “We need to get out of here.”

They both turned to look at her, surprised.

“I’m Jupiter Jones,” she said, holding out her hand for Caine to shake.

He took it reluctantly, like he wasn’t sure what to do with it.

“I want you to work for me, along with Stinger. I need protection. You could say I’m having some problems with the Abrasax family right now. I’ll buy the commissions, pardons, reinstatements for the two of you, get you back your wings, whatever it takes. But we have to leave right now.”

Caine turned to look at Stinger and the older man nodded at him.

“Alright,” he said.

They walked over to the anti-grav beam underneath the cruiser.

“Hi Caine,” said Kiza, with a little wave.

“Hey Kiza,” he said.

He was looking at Jupiter though, nostrils flared, kind of confused or upset or something...

Oh, yeah.

Caine had told her last time that she smelled like him. He’d never actually explained exactly what he meant by that though. And now she’d have to figure out a way to explain it to him. Again.

Chapter Text

 

Once aboard the cruiser, Jupiter met the crew again—it was so good to see them all—and arranged for a security team to watch over her family.

“If there’s anything else we can do to make the journey easier, Your Majesty, let us know,” said Captain Tsing.

“Actually,” said Jupiter. “I am really hungry right now, do you maybe have something I could eat?”

“Certainly,” she looked a little surprised, but hid it quickly. “Though I’m afraid we have only standard-issue rations on board.”

The four of them were escorted to the galley by Phylo Percadium, Stinger pulling Caine aside at the last moment, just outside the doorway, to announce, “We’ll be with you in a minute, Your Majesty. Got a few things we need to discuss first.”

He narrowed his eyes at Caine.

Kiza gave a snort.

Fine, thought Jupiter, let the two of them sort things out. She needed food.

The galley was grey and utilitarian, not unlike a school cafeteria—if your school could fly through space and had windows with a galactic view. She was utterly stumped though, by the food machines. Standard Aegis issued rations turned out to be auto-heated, reconstituted cubes—a choice of brown or tan—half-floating in a mysterious liquid.

She stared at them, dazed for a moment, before something crashed into the other side of the far wall, startling her.

“That’ll be Dad and Caine,” said Kiza with a smirk. “Having their discussion.”

“Yeah.” Jupiter’s finger hesitated between the two buttons.”Um...”

“I recommend the brown, Your Majesty,” said Phylo with an apologetic smile.

“Thank you.” She was so tired she’d given up asking everyone to call her by name. She’d save that battle for another day. “I don’t want to keep you from your usual stuff. We’ll be fine on our own here.”

She had Kiza to keep her company.

He left with a small nod, Jupiter grabbing her food so she and Kiza could take seats at one of the long tables.

“Thank you so much for bringing me, Your Majesty.” Kiza’s braid swung from side to side as she moved, excitement pushing away her usual lethargy. “ I can’t believe I’m actually going to get the treatment.”

Kiza talked while Jupiter ate, uninterrupted except for the occasional crashes and thumps from the next room. The girl’s chatter took her mind off her own spinning thoughts, her weariness—and the taste of the food. She needed to get something into her stomach—she was feeling so light-headed still—and the brown cubes didn’t taste bad exactly; there was just something unsettling about how smoothly they slid down her throat.

She noticed that Kiza hadn’t taken anything to eat.

Smart girl.

“Maybe Dad will let me get an implant too while we’re there—I’m way past the usual age. You have no idea how bad it’s been, limited to Earth tech the last few years.”

Jupiter made a face.

“Or, I mean, I guess you do know about that,” she stammered, catching herself. “I’m so sorry, Your Majesty. I didn’t mean...”

“It’s okay.”

“Hey,” she said, changing the subject. “Maybe we can visit the Floating Panoply while we’re on Orous...”

Stinger and Caine straggled in then. They’d obviously exchanged more fists than words: Caine with a busted lip and Stinger holding his side, walking with a slight hitch.

They were more relaxed though, the tension eased between them. Apparently, they’d settled things well enough to turn their questioning frowns back toward Jupiter again.

She hadn’t decided what to tell them.

Part of her wanted to tell them everything, wanted to have them all on the same page again. She preferred being honest, and they deserved to know.

But she hesitated.

Maybe it was better to wait.

She needed time to think things over, to get her head together, time before she sprung this on them. They didn’t know her and had no real reason to believe her.

And what if there was some sort of time paradox?

Would she mess thing up if she told people about the future?

What if she’d messed things up already, by telling Caine last time- maybe that was why she’d gotten sent back again?

It was impossible to know.

Her eyes were tired, her head hurt and it was hard to think.

“You better take one of these, Your Majesty,” Stinger said, handing her a pill. “Portaling’s hard, and you’re going to need it after that,” he pointed to her empty tray.

Jupiter looked over at Caine, but he only looked back curiously, for a moment, before looking away again.

He didn’t have anything to say about her Royal Bowels apparently.

For that matter, she probably wouldn’t get a chance to let him know exactly how much she loved dogs anytime soon.

 

It turned out there wasn’t time to tell anyone much of anything. Minutes later, they’d come through the portal, were up in the command looking out at Orous and coming in to land at the Commonwealth.

 

When a beaming Advocate Bob greeted them inside, Jupiter merely said, “Thanks so much, but I’m headed straight down to sub thirty-three.”

His smile faded into a look of concern as they passed.

 

Once below, the Minister of Seals and Signets scolded her: “It’s done, Your Majesty. As I told you the last time, if you’d been paying attention. All your sheave work is in order. You will receive Royal Expediting, as is your due, but nothing more. Do you think you’re the first time traveler to come here attempting to speed up the gears of bureaucracy?”

“No, I’m not—“ she looked back at Caine and Stinger who were standing solid behind her, pretending not to overhear everything being said. “I’m not doing this on purpose. I’m stuck or something,” she explained, exasperated. “I just want to—I need to know that I own the Earth, that Balem Abrasax can’t take it from me. I can’t let him harvest it.”

“As far as the Commonwealth is concerned, the moment you received your Sigil, all holdings left to Seraphi Abrasax’s recurrence were in your control.”

He paused then, gestured her to come closer so that he could whisper in a conspiratorial voice, “I don’t know if you’ve been talking with Leonard over in Revenue Review, but he’s an incompetent fool, known for his shoddy sheave work, in fact. If he’s said anything about me...”

“No,” she said, pulling back in surprise. “I just want to make sure everything is taken care of.”

“Well, then,” he puffed himself up with all the importance of a petty official in charge of his own personal fiefdom, gesturing to the glowing blue mark on her wrist as if it indicated his own rank and power. “Everything here is done according to rule and code. My work always holds up.”

He turned away from her in dismissal, muttering and running his hands through his hair, agitated, as he began to sort through a cabinet stacked high with sheaves and ready to topple to the ground.

“Well,” Jupiter said hesitantly “I also need to find out about buying commissions and pardons... “

“Send your lawyers!” He turned to face her with a half-mad glare this time. “This area is chrono-locked. A time-traveler’s presence is destabilizing. Don’t return!”

“But...”

“Scoot!”

Jupiter hesitated, bewildered. Maybe there was something else she should do, but she didn’t know what. She wasn’t exactly steady on her feet right now, wasn’t ready to face the endless lines upstairs. As long as the Earth was hers, she guessed she could figure out the rest of the paperwork—no sheave work—another day.

She started back toward the door; saw Stinger and Caine, staring at her, perplexed.

“Time traveler,” Stinger muttered in a gruff voice, looking at her suspiciously as they slowly made the trip back to the surface.

Jupiter gave a sheepish smile.

“I guess you heard that then.”

“Nobody was lying.” Caine said with a frown. “Do you know anything about time travelers?” he asked Stinger.

“No, not outside of stories.” he said slowly. “But it wouldn’t be the strangest thing I've ever heard. I reckon it might make sense... if you think about it.”

Stinger and Caine looked over at Jupiter and she smiled hopefully. Then they looked back to each other again, seemed to consider the situation a moment... and both sort of shrugged.

“We’ve met before?” Caine asked her.

“Yeah,” she admitted.

“Ah! That’s why you came to my house, how you knew I was an Aegis Marshal,” Stinger said. “That’s why you knew about Kiza having the bug.”

“Yeah.”

Caine looked at her closely. “And that’s why you smell like—

“Yep,” Jupiter cut him off with a cough; she could feel her face getting red. She didn’t want to get into that right now in front of Stinger. “I got to know you pretty well.”

Caine still looked disconcerted, she’d have to find the chance to talk to him alone later.

“Hmm,” said Stinger, he was studying them both very carefully.

“Please don’t tell anybody,” she said. They were walking through crowds now. “I’ll try to explain as well as I can, but I don’t really know what’s going on exactly. I trust you both, but...”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Stinger said. “I don’t know what I’d tell anybody in any case.”

Caine nodded in agreement, still looking at her closely.

The three of them were heading for the exit when Jupiter stopped, remembering something.

“Um, guys? Do you think we could leave here another way, another door maybe? I have a bad feeling about going through that passage again.”

“Good thinking,” said Stinger.

“Yeah,” Caine agreed. “That boiler room’s an easy place for an ambush.”

They went out a back door instead.

The circle of Commonwealth buildings loomed behind them, jutting like black monoliths, impenetrable, nothing to hint at the levels of chaotic monotony inside.

Jupiter paused, leaning against a low wall for a moment to catch her breath.

“I’ll just be a sec,” she said.

They’d come out onto a curving ramp that sloped down to the docking area below. The air smelled different outside, charged with electricity—and kind of stinky.

She was on an alien world and she wasn’t entirely used to the feeling yet. Wasn’t used to seeing moons like burning coals hanging close in the night sky, or blocks and mis-patched twists of metal curving rings onto the horizon.

Strange as it was, the universe was hers to explore now.

Maybe the time loop was just a temporary blip, something she could figure out or get around.

The exhaustion was sure a killer though.

Still, Caine and Stinger were there at her side. She wasn’t sure if they believed that she was a time-traveler exactly, but they seemed ready to go along with her, in spite of the weirdness. She could get to know them both again. That wouldn’t be too hard.

She’d have to figure out what she wanted to do next though, what she wanted to be next. She had people looking to her for direction now.

Jupiter had never been any sort of leader before. Even her family barely listened to her. They cared, sure, but—Mom was so pragmatic it made her hard sometimes, and Aunt Nino’s head was high in the clouds... Nobody really bothered to tune to in to what Jupiter wanted, everyone else was fighting too hard to be heard themselves. It didn’t bother her exactly, she could pretty much hold her own. But she’d never been anyone’s boss—and even Moltka had been giving her sass lately.

So, she’d have to figure that stuff out—another day. She was so worn out right now she could fall over where she stood. Her bones, her eyes, even her teeth, ached.

She had to take a minute to rest and look around, though, to let things really soak in.

Orous was incredible, somehow beautiful and horrifying at the same time. Cesspool didn’t begin to cover it.

The air around them was a smoggy glow of reflected light, low hanging satellites casting shadows all around. Endless strands of wire strung everywhere, connecting everything, filaments spilling like gossamer strands of some glowing sea creature.

 

A dirty yellow moon in the distance, smoldered faintly behind a tower that climbed so high she couldn’t see its end, pieces haphazardly pieced together, suspended in mid air.

Did people live up there?

Looking up, she tilted her head too far, and stumbled back a step, feeling dizzy again.

“I got you,” Caine was behind her, holding her by the shoulders to steady her.

“Thanks.”

A gust of wind came over the wall, followed by a purple and blue pigtailed woman with aviator goggles on a floating moto-speeder. Her guns were trained right on them.

Caine was in front of Jupiter in a second, shield and mauler up, opening fire.

Stinger was already shooting at the two men who’d come up behind them.

“Get her to the ship!” Caine yelled, “I’ll cover you!”

“No, wait,” she called out. “Caine!”

“He’ll be alright. Come on!”

They were running, Stinger still shooting back into the fray, the cruiser just in sight, when a bounty hunter with an air cannon stepped out in front of them.

That was the last thing she saw for a while.

 

********

 

For the second time in her life, Jupiter Jones woke floating, suspended in mid-air, dressed in a lavender gown of asymmetrical ruffles and rosettes, speaking to the chamber presence, in Kalique Abrasax’s alcazar on the red planet Cerise.

After she’d been flipped back up to her feet, she stood still for a moment, expecting to feel dizzy or light-headed again.

She’d passed out and been knocked unconscious so many times that she was kind of worried about brain damage at this point.

But instead she felt...great?

Like, really, really good.

How long had she been out this time?

She looked out through carved marble pillars on the balcony to the flower covered mountains and waterfalls in the distance. Walked around to get her bearings.

She was feeling more than just well rested.

She lifted her arms, gave an experimental roll of her neck. The usual ache between her shoulder blades—from hours bent over scrubbing, all day, every day—was completely gone.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt this good.

“Hello,” said a soft voice from behind her.

Kalique walked in, arm outstretched in welcome, reaching out to touch her. Ladies trailing in behind her. “I’m Kalique.”

“Jupiter Jones.”

“I’m sorry for staring, but it’s really quite astonishing.”

Jupiter scowled at her.

“I do hope you’re feeling better now.” Kalique said in concern. “You had injuries when they brought you in, as well some mild cellular damage. We gave you a light restorative treatment.”

Restorative treatment?

Had they given her a re-code?

Chapter Text

 

“What injuries?” Jupiter demanded. “And what’s a restorative treatment?”

Kalique took a step closer, ran her hand along Jupiter’s forearm, examining the texture of her skin. The attendants, hovering behind, moved closer too.

Jupiter backed up until she ran into the edge of the heavy marble-topped table behind her.

“Hmmm,” said Kalique, thoughtfully.

She looked older again, brow furrowed, graying hair pulled high and fastened into a glittering ornament to one side of her head. Calm, composed. Something about her face was like a mask though, something else breaking through when she suddenly flashed a too-bright smile.

“You had an untreated laceration on your neck and contusions from the air cannon—for which I sincerely apologize. Your med scan revealed the cell damage.” She looked at Jupiter inquiringly. “The doctor couldn’t explain the cause.”

Jupiter couldn’t explain it either. But it must be something to do with the time loop, that fatigue she’d felt both times after she was sent back into the past.

“We immersed you in a medicinal serum and held you in stasis for an hour while it took effect. You’re not familiar with our technologies, but I assure you it is completely safe. We monitored you carefully throughout the entire process.”

But Jupiter was more familiar with their technologies than Kalique knew. Not just because of the Abrasax family—so ancient it was still hard to wrap her head around the concept of them—Stinger had boasted about not having a re-code in years, Kiza needed the treatment to fix her bug, and there’d been that miracle spray that instantly healed Caine.

It was everywhere she turned.

Whatever it was called—a treatment, a serum, a re-code—the secret ingredient must be the same: Regenex.

And they’d used it on her.

She felt like she was going to throw up.

She pushed past Kalique and sat down on one of the sofas, bent over and held her head in her hands.

Immersed her. Not just dabbed something on her cuts and bruises, but soaked her in the stuff.

In over her head even?

She imagined it leaking past her eyelids, creeping into her mouth, as she’d lain unconscious.

She wanted to scrub at her skin until it was raw. To get it off her, out of her.

She looked up and saw Kalique was watching.

Jupiter forced herself to take a deep breath and steadily meet her eyes.

“You gave me a re-code?” she asked, still uncertain.

Did it even make a difference though? It was probably just a matter of degrees.

“A re-code? Goodness no!” Kalique gave a fluttering laugh, speaking quickly. “You only needed to heal and to rest. It would have taken hours to calibrate your optimal settings. I wouldn’t dream of keeping you in stasis that long.” She smiled. “Not when I’ve been so eager to meet you.”

Not because it was wrong then. Or because Jupiter hadn’t asked for it, or didn’t want it.

Just that it would have been inconvenient for Kalique to wait.

“You were so eager to meet me you that you had me knocked out and abducted,” Jupiter said.

“Those hunters were hired by my brother Balem to kill you. Luckily, they came to me for a better payment,” she said. “I think the arrangement ended favorably for us both. Don’t you?’

“I guess so,” Jupiter said grudgingly. She hadn’t known they’d planned to kill her. “I don’t like getting so-called medical treatments against my will though... or being dressed while I’m unconscious.”

Although, to be fair, thought Jupiter, any of the other aliens she’d met might have done the same thing to her—assuming they’d had the resources.

And that was what they were: aliens.

It was obvious with the androids, some of the splices. Sometimes she forgot though, that even the human-looking ones weren’t really like her.

None of them hated the Regenex the way she did. To them it was something useful, valuable. The way it was grown and harvested an unfortunate fact of life.

None of them seemed to think it was disgusting or horrible. They all used it.

Was there even any use in trying to explain it? Giving someone medical care and clean clothes wasn’t usual considered a crime.

Jupiter would have to figure out a way to deal with it and move forward. Like she would with everything else that had happened to her lately.

She just was so sick of everyone doing things to her though. So tired of them dressing her up like a doll and moving her around from place to place.

“Oh! But the dress looks lovely on you!” Kalique said. “And it’s so important to me that you to feel comfortable and welcome here. Come.”

She held out her hand.

Jupiter hesitated, she wasn’t used to being rude, but—

She wiped her sweaty palms against the dress and stood up again, crossing her arms over her chest; gave Kalique a cool look and ignored the outstretched hand.

The older woman quirked a brow and gave a small shrug, walking towards the doorway.

“Follow me. I think it will be easier to show you than to explain...”

Trailing behind were the two color-coordinated androids and an attendant with a sunburst of decorative spikes radiating from her hair.

Their faces were expressionless.

 

************

 

The room full of candles and the statue of Seraphi Abrasax were still weird the second time around.

There was something off-putting about the glow in Kalique’s eyes, the reflection of the thousands of candles surrounding them.

Jupiter wasn’t really her mother; Kalique must understand that on some level, no matter what she said about genes’ spiritual significance. And why would she keep this kind of shrine to her mother anyway?

“My mother and I did not always get along. But I hope this recurrence might mean a second chance for both of us,” she said.

A second chance for what?

She seemed sincere, but who knew with the Abrasaxes?

Titus and Balem wanted to kill her for her inheritance. What was Kalique really after?

“Is that why you brought me here? So that we could get to know each other?”

“I want to help accustom you to your new life, Jupiter. It can be very difficult for a recurrence—especially coming from an underdeveloped world. I had planned to take you to the Commonwealth myself, but my contacts tell me that everything is taken care of—with astonishing speed in fact!” She gave a beaming smile. “However, claiming your title is only one step toward establishing your life in the First Estate. You have so much more to learn. I’d like to be your guide, to help you in any way I can.”

“Actually, I do need to hire some lawyers, ” Jupiter said, thinking about the promises she’d made to Caine and Stinger. Titus still had their pardons. She’d have to figure out a way to get those eventually.

“I have warehouses full of lawyers, ready to be activated at a moments notice.”

“Ok-ay...but I don’t really want to be a part of this whole system— Entitled, or Royalty or whatever. ”

Kalique looked sympathetic.

“You may have mixed feelings about being Royalty—but I’m afraid you have no choice.”

“You’re planning to keep me against my will?”

“No!” Kalique laughed. “But whether you like it or not, you are Royalty now. You can’t go back to your old life. There are already people trying to kill you. And that is only the beginning. Once everyone hears about your recurrence...I’m afraid it will be impossible for you to return to Earth as if nothing has changed”

Jupiter had gone back to her old life once.

In that timeline, though, Balem had died at the refinery and Titus had been under investigation.

In this timeline, they were both after her still.

Maybe she should stick around here a little while at least, take advantage of Kalique’s offer of help, her resources. If anyone knew how to deal with Titus and Balem, it was Kalique.

Kalique had never tried to harm her—as far as she knew. She’d saved her life even, though it was probably just as a part of some bigger scheme. Jupiter couldn’t let down her guard.

Still, it might be good to have her as an ally. It was worth a try at least.

Jupiter had no idea what would happen to her next. If, or when, she would be sent back in time again. She might as well learn what she could.

They were walking down the hallway toward a familiar room again, Kalique talking in an animated voice.

“You may as well embrace the opportunities before you. In fact, there is something else that I really need to show you.”

They’d arrived at the bathing room.

“Um, yeah,” said Jupiter. “I don’t want to intrude on your privacy.”

“Privacy?” Kalique looked puzzled by the very idea. “Think of this as a demonstration. It’s just one of the many possibilities of your new life.”

Before Jupiter had a chance to say anything else, Kalique had shed her dress and stepped down into the pool.

How many hundreds of thousands of people had it taken to fill that bath?

For that matter, how many people had been killed for Jupiter’s own restorative “serum”?

The candles flickered, wax forming stalactites along the marble ledges, dripping and flowing into puddles below.

The lightening flashing through the room reminded her of Frankenstein’s monster being brought to life...

Afterward, the attendants dressed Kalique, dried and styled her hair in an instant.

She was young again, smiling mischievously.

Jupiter pushed away the feeling of revulsion. It would only make her vulnerable, if everyone knew how much it bothered her.

She was surprised at how easily she could meet Kalique’s eyes though. Even with everything she now knew.

But she didn’t feel sick to her stomach anymore.

She felt determined. And strong.

Maybe too strong.

The thing that scared her most of all was how incredible she felt, since the Regenex treatment. She was almost humming with energy.

She really didn’t want to like the feeling.

 

They walked down the long marble corridors again. The view out across the canyons and waterfalls, the mountains in the distance, were undeniably beautiful. The mist-filled air was sweet with the scent of flowers.

Unlike Titus, always lounging about, Kalique was constantly on the move, attendants trailing behind her, feeding her, dressing her, ready to anticipate her every need.

Jupiter hadn’t agreed to stay as her guest. But then, she’d never agreed to come in the first place. Kalique just assumed what she wanted and worked to make it so.

“You can attend the board meeting with me in a few days. It’s important that you begin to get an understanding of our business interests. And then there is a gala the day after in the Corvialia cluster, a small event—no more than a thousand. There should be enough time to prepare you...”

Kalique was full of plans, but there were specific things Jupiter wanted to find out—if she could.

“Do you have a library? I want to learn as much as I can.”

“Certainly, dear. I have sheaves on every imaginable subject. We could download information directly—but of course you don’t have an implant.”

“No, I don’t.” said Jupiter.

Did she want one?

She didn’t know how she could explain something like that to her family.

She’d have to contact them, let them know she’d be away for a while. And she didn’t know exactly how she would explain that either...

“I want to learn everything though.” Jupiter said. “How do the implants work exactly? And portals? We traveled through one to get to Orous. And Splices and androids, and your anti-aging bath...”

Ugh, why had she even brought that up though? She shoved the thought aside, she'd have to figure how to deal it another time.

“What about time travel?” she asked, moving on.

If Kalique wanted to be her mentor or something, then fine. She’d learn what she could. And she might as well get straight to the point.

She wanted to figure out this time loop.

That and a few tens of thousands of years’ history she’d missed while the Abrasax family had been out dominating the universe.

“Time travel,” said Kalique, slowly. “Now that hasn’t been in fashion for some time. My elder brother, Balem, was obsessed with the idea—six or seven millennia ago. Right after the Calliope disaster, if I remember correctly...”

Balem was still alive. And he’d be gunning for her. Jupiter had to learn everything she could if she wanted to get through this.

She didn’t know how realistic it was, to try to play catch up when everyone else had such a head start, but it was the best she could do.

Kalique had other details in mind.

“You’ll want to set up your own residence eventually. I’d be more than happy to help to you with that.”

She said this with a look of satisfaction that was a whole lot more determined and deliberate than just the joy of being helpful though.

“You’ll need a court –you’re welcome to take a few dozen of my attendants. Try them out while you’re here and take any of them that appeal. I insist on it. As a gift to you.”

“Um. A court?” Jupiter asked. She didn't know what to say about the idea of Kalique offering people as gifts. No thank you?

“A group of advisors and assistants. Humans, splices, androids—I can make some recommendations. It’s always best to keep a mix really—for diversity’s sake—in case there’s any sort of outbreak. And you’ll need a security team of course. The Legion will assist with your Royal Guard appointments, but you’ll want a few hundred android guards. There’s really no such thing as having too much protection.”

Caine came gliding down the hallway on his boots then, mauler in hand, a troop of guards running after him.

He slid to a stop in front of Jupiter and trained his gun on Kalique.

“See what I mean,” Kalique said, her smile only the tiniest bit nervous.

“Caine!” Jupiter said, happily.

“Oh, is this the hunter Titus hired?”

He was wearing his shirt this time, and Kalique didn’t comment on how he was made.

“Call off your guards,” said Jupiter. “He’s working for me now.”

“He has contacted the Aegis,” said Malidictes, coming down the hall toward them “They are entering orbit now.”

“Excellent!” Kalique turned to Jupiter and said, “I’ll let you check in with them while I make arrangements for your stay.”

Expression fierce, still trying to catch his breath, Caine turned to Jupiter for confirmation. Then slowly, he lowered his Mauler and stepped back, almost deflating, a frown of concern on his face as he looked from one woman to the other.

 

Chapter Text

 

Jupiter grabbed Caine and walked to an oriel jutting off the main hallway, a covered circle of stone arches looking out to the rushing waterfalls below. She wanted to talk to him away from Kalique and her people.

“Is Stinger okay?” she asked.

“He’s alive,” he answered. “The Aegis picked him up after he was knocked out by the air cannon.”

He was looking at her funny.

She looked down and realized she had his hand in a death grip. He looked from their joined hands back up to her, and then cocked his head in that way of his—she’d given up on thinking of it as anything other than dog-like.

“Sorry,” she said, letting go.

He probably didn’t know what to make of the whole situation.

She was still trying to figure things out for herself.

She was on a different world—again—and the Regenex. It was a lot to think about and there were things she wanted to try to explain to him.

Kalique and Maledictes were watching them from the hall across the way though; she could just see them through one of the windows.

“You shouldn’t trust her.” Caine said. “She’s an Abrasax. That whole family is ruthless. She’s got to have some ulterior motive for helping you.”

“I don’t trust her, but... I have to figure out some way of dealing with the Abrasaxes. And so far, she’s the most agreeable of the three.”

He didn’t look reassured.

And he was right; she’d have to be careful.

She’d told him once before that she was still the same person, having a title wouldn’t change her.

But now?

Caine didn’t even know her anymore, didn’t know who she’d once been.

And so much had happened to her since the first time she’d stood with him in the Commonwealth. She worried it was inevitable, whether she wanted it or not, she might end up changing in some ways.

The Regenex was humming through her body.

Though she’d let go of his hand, Caine was still standing close. She could feel the heat radiating off his body. He looked down at her intently for a moment, before looking away toward a row of guards marching down the hall.

She took in a deep breath of misty air, felt the cold travel down her throat, expanding her lungs.

The light was different here, the air fresh, the sound of the water rushing far below, echoed all around them. A vase overflowing with flowers, tucked into alcove high above them, had shed a tiny petal into Caine’s hair.

She resisted the urge to reach up and pluck it out.

He was flushed from his fight with Kalique’s guards. Blood had dried on his lip, where he’d busted it in the fight with Stinger.

She wanted to touch it, put her fingers against his mouth.

She remembered, all of the sudden, how easy it was to tear his shirt off him, how he’d looked when they were in the garden on Titus’ ship that night—his arms held above his head, his body straining against her.

All that energy, surging through her body, flowing through her blood, had changed direction.

Oh God! Was the Regenex some sort of aphrodisiac too? That was the last thing she needed right now.

“You said you knew me pretty well,” he reminded her.

“Yeah,” she answered. She had to get herself under control here. “I’ve met you twice before. I want to explain—as least much as I’ve been able to figure out, but—

One of those orbs was hovering a few feet away from them.

“You know why I was in the Deadlands though.” He looked away then and shook his head. Said under his breath, “You know I attacked an entitled?”

“You won’t attack me. I know that.” She said it with absolute conviction in her voice. She wanted him to know that she was serious, that she believed it. “Do you think Kalique will be a problem?”

“I don’t like her, but I don’t want to rip her throat out.” He frowned. “The problem is I don’t remember wanting to do it before.”

“We were with Titus together for days,” she said. “And let’s just say he enjoyed provoking you. I ended up doing him some unplanned violence myself. But you kept your cool. Stinger said he had suspicions about the attack. Maybe there's more to it than you know.”

“Maybe,” he didn’t seem reassured though. “Titus’s people contracted me. They’re still expecting me to bring you in.”

“Are you still trying to?”

“No. Not anymore. Not now that I know who and what you are.” That seemed to settle it for him. “He made some threats against me, but he won’t actually expect me to betray him. Lycantants are coded to be obedient, to follow orders. If I pretend I’m still working for him, it’ll buy you more time before he sends someone else. “

“I won’t let him get to you. We’ll figure out a way to get your commission from him, make it legal.”

He’d never told her before that he was coded to be obedient though.

It kind of spun her.

She’d told Caine back at the Hall of Titles that she would explain why she smelled like him. But she didn’t really know what to say.

There were a lot of things she hadn’t had a chance to process yet.

It felt like only hours since they’d been captive on Titus’ ship, convinced he was going to kill them both.

So much had happened that night.

When she’d found out that Caine actually wanted to kiss her, that he'd been holding himself back. Well, for a lot of reasons, sex had seemed like a really, really good idea at the time. He’d said that he was feeling out of control, but she’d been sure he was into it too.

Afterwards, he’d said she was welcome to take advantage of him though. What did that mean? Had he really wanted her? Or was it just that he didn’t mind- he’d had worse things done to him.

He said he’d been coded to be obedient, follow orders.

So matter of fact. As if it there wasn’t something inherently wrong about the very concept.

And then there was the whole strange social hierarchy, that divide between Royalty and splices. There were just too many things she still didn’t understand.

And for this Caine, right here with her, now, none of those things between them had ever happened. Which meant she’d never get the chance to clarify anything about that night with him.

She’d always been the one wanting more with him, just going for it. And he’d always seemed confused by her.

Even before this time loop had started, she’d told herself to be patient and not push things. She’d lost sight of that, trying to keep him close while they’d been captive on Titus’ ship.

For now, it was more enough that he was willing to believe her, that he’d agreed to work for her.

She needed to put her hormones on hold. Give them both time to figure things out. Let him be the one to make a move this time.

If he wanted to.

 

******

 

Jupiter Jones was different now, Caine thought.

A lot steadier on her feet, for one thing. She’d been ready to fall over with exhaustion before. Now she was brimming with energy, her eyes bright. It probably had something to do with the smell of Regenex coming off her in waves.

She still confused him though.

The way she’d taken him by the hand —and he’d just let her do it.

He’d watched them take her on Orous, unable to get to her on time, barely quick enough to grab on to the ship as it left the docking area.

After they’d entered the atmosphere of Cerise, he’d contacted the Aegis, planned to rescue her.

Instead, she’d decided to stay for a while, guest of her kidnapper, Kalique Abrasax.

Did she really know what she was getting into?

She was looking at him closely, something open and seeking in her face that he wasn’t used to. It made him feel strange, uncomfortable.

Probably just a nervous response on his part. It’d been too long since he’d been around anyone but criminals and jailors—and Titus Abrasax of all people. Too many of Caine’s responses were messed up at this point.

At least there were some things he still knew how to deal with.

It’d almost been a relief when Stinger had come at him, ready to beat the shit out of him. He’d deserved it, after everything Stinger had been through.

And as a way of communicating, it was easy to understand, cleared the air a hell of a lot faster than talking.

They’d talked afterwards.

Stinger thought they should work for the Queen.

It was a giant step up from a life sentence in the Deadlands. Caine hadn’t imagined himself with a job like it ever again. Wasn’t entirely sure it was a good idea, or that he deserved it. But he’d wait it out, see what happened.

The time-traveler thing had come as a surprise though.

“Kalique’s offered to let me use her lawyers.” Jupiter said. “I’ll need them to get the pardons for you and Stinger. And she probably has a better idea than anyone else on how I can get you away from Titus. She’s offered to help show me the ropes, and there are some things I need to figure out. Things, I think, maybe you and Stinger can’t help me with. But maybe you can still help me in other ways? Stay close to me. Let me know if she’s lying.”

She leaned closer, started to reach, as if to put her hand on top of his, before she caught herself and pulled back.

“Alright,” he said.

She turned to look over to where Kalique Abrasax stood talking to her advisor.

“Do you believe me?” She whispered, coming in closer to him. “ About the time thing? I know I haven’t had the chance to explain things, but I don’t want to Kalique to know.“

“I don’t know what to believe, Your Majesty.” Caine said, honestly. “I can tell that you believe what you’re saying. And the Minister at the Commonwealth knew something about it. You’ve told me that you know me pretty well, but I don’t know you. I trust Stinger’s judgment though. He thinks we should work for you for a little while. Put in some time as your Royal Guards, and then get back into another Skyjacker unit eventually.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well. Yeah, if that’s what you both want.”

She seemed suddenly sad for some reason though.

She took a deep breath in, then sat up straighter, as if deciding on something.

“I really don’t know what’s happening to me, the way I’m looping—but I do want to get the pardons and wings for you and Stinger, and the treatment for Kiza as soon as we possibly can. It’s sort of creepy, but I don’t know what happens to you when I go, if I go. I want to make sure you three are okay, that I don’t just leave you...” She looked at him entreatingly. “Does that make sense, or is it too weird?”

“The whole thing is weird, Your Majesty.”

“I guess so,” she smiled.

The mist, heavy from the rush of waterfalls, made her dress cling to her skin. Her hair swung loose around her shoulders, curled against her cheek with the humidity--until she pushed it back impatiently.

She kept reaching out to touch him again, then stopping herself.

Touch wasn’t anything he’d welcomed since the Deadlands. Still, he was curious.

Beneath the Regenex was her own unique smell, the one he’d memorized, fixated on in order to find her.

Now that he’d located her again, he should let go of it—but it somehow stuck.

She no longer smelled like she had when he’d first walked up to her, in the yard outside of Stinger’s house though. When she’d held out her hand to him, introduced herself, announced that she wanted him to work for her, no matter what.

When he'd met her there she’d smelled like him, and sex, and something else he’d half-recognized but couldn’t figure out.

But that was all gone now.

Scoured away by whatever she’d had done with the Regenex.

Probably for the best. It’d messed with his head too much.

It’d be easier to talk to her now. As easy as it was for him to talk to anyone these days.

He almost wondered if he imagined it before, his scent all tangled up with hers. But his nose, at least, had never been wrong before. And she’d said there was something to explain.

Something that made her uncomfortable.

She still smelled like sex, but it was all her own scent now—and Regenex did that to you—everyone knew that was part of the rush.

It didn’t mean she wanted to start anything up with him now, even if they had done something in the past.

Captain Tsing and Stinger came walking up the hallway and Jupiter ran to meet them.

“Stinger! You’re okay!” She threw herself into his arms for a hug.

The older man returned it, surprised.

All right then. That was all it was.

She was—affectionate?

Caine would just have to get used to that. Not take it as anything personal.

 

Chapter Text

Jupiter drew back from their hug and grinned at Stinger.

“It’d take more than an air cannon to keep me down, Your Majesty,” he said, stepping back with a wry smile.

“But where’s Kiza?” she asked.

“Back at Medical Request on Orous. Takes half a day to get through the line there—and that’s to get a number to wait in the next line. It’ll be weeks to get her an actual appointment.”

“Some of the crew stayed behind as well, Your Majesty,” said Captain Tsing. “We’d planned to return immediately after retrieving you. However, Mr. Maledictes tells us that you’ll be remaining here as a guest?” She lifted a brow and looked over to where Kalique and her attendants were standing a few feet away.

“I’m so sorry. I really do have to stop getting kidnapped so often.” Jupiter said with a grimace. “Of course, we need to go back for Kiza and the crew. And apparently, I’ll need lawyers to take care of things at the Commonwealth. Kalique has offered to help with that.”

Or was she supposed to call her Lady Kalique? Jupiter still hadn’t gotten over being “immersed” in Regenex by the Abrasax in question. She wanted to learn what she could, but maybe she’d save the polite forms of address portion of her education for later.

Kalique stood serenely unconcerned, her aqua gown glittering in the misty light. Surrounded by her attendants, she observed Jupiter with a knowing half-smile.

“Come with me,” she called out in a trill, beckoning them toward her. “And we’ll make all the necessary arrangements.”

They walked through a passageway to a long open patio, the walls decorated in floral mosaics of variegated pinks and reds, glossy enameled tiles alternating with crystals and gemstones that sparkled in the light from three suns. The colors blended with the spill of flowers that trailed from enormous vases overhead.

Jupiter looked through the marble arches, carved to resemble twining vines, at the gardens on the other side of the Alcazar.

“No thank you,” she said to a servant carrying a tray filled with translucent blue snacks that looked like clusters of tiny bubbles.

On the left, stretching for miles in the distance, was an impossible hedge maze, studded with fat, waxy, indigo flowers, that seemed to absorb the light all around it, the interior surfaces dark as night. To the right, were intricate patterns of trees, and bushes in concentric fairy circles interspersed with covered paths, stone columns and gazebos.

“You have to try something,” Kalique laughed at Jupiter. “I insist!”

Kalique had taken a seat on one of the embroidered divans and plucked a crystallized sweet from a nearby tray. She bit into it with relish and licked at the sugar that stuck to her lips when she was done.

Jupiter accepted a glass filled to the top with golden liquid, and tentatively sat across from Kalique, balanced it in her hand, as she looked out toward the wild riots of flowers reaching up into the foothills of mountains that built to tall jagged peaks on the horizon.

Captain Tsing, Stinger and Caine remained standing, their military training betrayed by their stances, the way they’d automatically triangulated around Jupiter, alert to the surroundings.

It felt entirely too weird to sit and have a snack without them. Though, of course, all of Kalique’s attendants were standing behind her, ready to serve.

The drink was fruity and refreshing, bubbling and popping as it slid down Jupiter’s throat. The inside of her mouth, gums and tongue, overly sensitive to its touch though. Was that another side effect? She didn’t like to think about the Regenex being inside her, tried to unobtrusively swish the drink around like a mouthwash before swallowing it.

She caught Captain Tsing giving her an inquisitive look from the corner of her eye.

“I appreciate your offer of the lawyers,” Jupiter said to Kalique after one last fizzing gulp. “I’ll reimburse you for that as soon as I can. And I’d really like to make use of your library. Maybe I can get back to you about attending the board meeting and the gala...”

Jupiter didn’t know how many days she’d have in this timeline. She’d been on Titus’s clipper ten or eleven days--it was hard to know exactly. They hadn’t kept Earth time on his ship.

She’d just have to get as much done as possible, in whatever time she had.

The problem was it was so hard to focus. She was bursting with all this energy, resisting the urge to tap her foot against the marble floor. Maybe she could just burst into a brisk jog up and down the patio for a few minutes. Though it’d be hard in this closely fitted dress. The cool breeze that flowed in through the open arches, ruffled the whispery light fabric of it around her sensitive skin.

She didn’t dare look over at Caine, a few inches to her left, the shape of his arms and shoulders outlined in the glow of one of the smaller suns, red and low on the horizon.

She was afraid if she so much as met Caine’s eyes right now she wouldn’t be able to hold herself back, she’d just slam into him full force and hold on tight, all clinging arms and legs and desperation.

She shook her head to clear the image away. That really wasn’t what she’d been thinking of when she’d decided to give him some space.

Kalique smiled calmly, apparently unaffected by the Regenex. Was Jupiter having an unusual reaction to it then? Or was Kalique just used to it, immune to the side effects after thousands of years?

“The choice is yours, my dear,” said Kalique. “But you really needn’t return to Orous at all. Stay here with me while the Aegis retrieves the others in your party. I can send the lawyers on your behalf. And your people are certainly welcome to make use of my medical facilities here. I assure you they are far superior to anything in the public sector. I will be happy to see that everything is taken care of. I’ll speak to my brother, Titus, about signing the Lycantant over to you. It’s the least he can do. That rascal.” She gave an especially big grin. “In any case, he does owe me a few favors.”

Jupiter worried about how many favors she would owe Kalique after she was done here.

“I appreciate your offer of help,” said Jupiter hesitantly. “But I’d really like to learn exactly how everything is done, and to take care of these things myself.”

“This is how things are done, Jupiter,” Kalique said with a little laugh. Jupiter bristled at the condescending tone. Kalique didn’t bother to call her by her title she noticed. Not that she wanted that necessarily, but...

“You’ll need to get expert advice and delegate when necessary,” Kalique explained. “Unless you and your people are planning to spend the next fifty years in line at the Commonwealth.”

Stinger and Captain Tsing’s expressions of military discipline fell away for just a moment as they exchanged looks of utter and absolute horror at the idea.

“I don’t know what kind of business or management training you’ve had?” Kalique inquired silkily.

“The usual, I guess,” muttered Jupiter. She really didn’t feel like elaborating on her “business training” just then. She stood up, shaking her skirts out where they clung to her legs.

“If you’ll just excuse us, I need to stretch for a moment and take the chance to check in with my people.”

Jupiter walked back inside the Alcazar and down the hallway a bit.

She did want get as much done as possible, make sure she didn’t leave Caine or Kiza or Stinger in the lurch if she disappeared, and do everything she could to make sure Earth was protected.

It irked her, but probably Kalique was right. It wouldn’t do any good for her to be standing around waiting for things to happen on Orous.

When the other three had gathered round she spoke in a low voice.

“Would you mind going back to Orous without me to pick up Kiza and the rest of the crew?” she asked. “I do think that there are some things I could learn from Kalique if I stay here for a bit.”

“I don’t think it’s wise for you to be here alone,” said Captain Tsing.

“I’ll stay with Her Majesty,” said Caine.

Jupiter was still chilled from the mist—that must be the reason she’d broken out in goose bumps all of the sudden—not the low rumble of his voice or the way he was radiating heat from where he stood behind her.

She had to clear her throat so that she could speak again. “Um, good.”

She looked at Stinger and asked, “Would you feel comfortable with Kiza getting her treatment here?”

“I’m sure the facilities are better than on Orous,” he said. “But—

“You think it’s not safe?”

“I think it’s safe for Kiza. I’d worry about yourself, Majesty. Kalique Abrasax has a reputation for being charming, but she’s also known for getting what she wants. You’ll need to be careful.”

“I will,” she assured him. “Has there been any word on how my family is doing back on earth?”

“A team has set up a perimeter around the house and there have been no hostile activities reported, so far, Your Majesty,” said Captain Tsing. “After doing some research, two of the team members made contact with your family, taking the disguise of something called the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Unfortunately they were met with an unfriendly reception”

“Yeah, I’ll bet.”

“However, they were able to make visual contact and ascertain that the entire family was in residence,” she said. “The team also seemed very enthusiastic about the discovery of Deep Dish Pizza.”

Remembering Aegis rations, and the choice between the two colors of food cubes, Jupiter could really understand why pizza would appeal.

“What about the Keepers back on Earth?” she asked. “Is there any way I can get them off the planet? Actually, do you think they have them here?”

Jupiter wanted to know what sort of dangers she should be on the lookout for, though considering Keepers could be invisible, or disguise themselves as human, she wasn’t sure how she could be on guard against them really.

“Keepers are restricted to use on harvest planets, Kalique Abrasax wouldn’t have them near her home. Balem owns those on Earth, but they are also under supervision of the Aegis and follow strict codes and regulations.Their commanders were notified of the change of planetary ownership as soon as we learned that Your Majesty had secured her title. They are currently in the process of withdrawal. You'll be able to hire your own force, if you wish, ” said Captain Tsing.

“I think I’ll pass on that for now.”

Good to know though. The Keepers could be called off, so long as she had her sigil and was able to contact the Aegis.

So that just left about a million other things for Jupiter to learn and take care of.

Where to start next?

She did want to see that library...

She was so restless right now it was hard to imagine actually sitting down and reading though.

There was that rush of energy coursing through her. At least half her focus was fixed on just keeping herself from staring at Caine—though her gaze kept sliding back in his direction.  

They returned to the patio where Kalique and her attendants were waiting.

“Excellent!” Kalique said on hearing that Jupiter would be staying. “I can have the lawyers activated immediately and give you a briefing once they have reported back. Maledictes will gather some informational sheaves for you to look over. You can start with the Entitled Codes if you wish. ”

“I’ve already memorized those actually.” That was one thing she’d been able to do on Titus’s clipper.

“Oh,” said Kalique, with a look of surprise.

“If we’re going to a board meeting, I guess I should start learning more about the family business?”

Other than mentioning the opportunities available if Jupiter was willing to keep her eyes closed, Kalique hadn’t told her any specifics. Maybe she preferred not to think too closely about those genocidal baths?

“All in good time, Jupiter. I’ll be more than happy to guide you in every aspect of the business, but I can see that you’re feeling restless,” she gave a look toward Jupiter’s fingers, which unbeknownst to her had been drumming a pattern on the cushion of her chair. “It’s natural to have a little excess energy after a treatment, especially if you’re not used to the effects. Why don’t you make use of the recreation facility and we can make plans once you’ve had the chance to relax?”

“Okay,” said Jupiter.

It probably was a good idea to let off some steam so that she could think straight.

What kind of workout equipment would there be in a high-tech alien rec room: anti-grav treadmills or something?

She had been meaning to ask Caine to help her train, to learn how to fight better. Just in case it ever came down to mano a mano with one of her enemies again. (She didn’t have much hope of taking on a Sargon- but there must be a few things she could learn.) But even the idea of wrestling around or practicing holds with Caine was way too much more than she could handle right now.

Maybe something like ping pong though. She’d gotten pretty good back in her school days, she could probably handle a sweaty hour of table tennis. There was nothing very sexy about that.

“But I’m not exactly dressed for...” Jupiter said, gesturing to her lavender gown.

Everyone was looking at her as if she’d said something strange.

“I’m sure they’ll have whatever you require on the premises,” Kalique said.

“Okay,” Like a fancy spa with free robes? They’d have what? Complementary gym shorts?

The truth was she was totally out of her element here and she’d just have to be okay with not knowing everything immediately. She’d never been afraid to ask questions, she wanted to know how things worked—but she was also good with learning by doing.

Two silver and blue android ladies with diaphanous capes and pleasantly neutral expressions came forward to lead her away.

“I guess I’ll see you as soon as you’re back from Orous,” she called out to Stinger and Captain Tsing as she turned to leave the patio.

Caine was still standing next to Stinger though.

“Aren’t you coming?” she asked him.

He’d agreed to stay close, so she assumed he’d be with her.

It was so weird to think of it, but she was probably too used to having him on a chain. Maybe that was why she’d just latched on to him earlier, used to grabbing on to that stupid metal cylinder that had connected them whenever they’d walked around Titus’ ship.

She didn’t even want to think about Titus’ innuendoes about her and Caine and chains. And how it turned out he’d been right, there was something she’d really liked about certain aspects of that. She couldn’t even let her brain start down that path.

Caine turned to her, surprised.

“Alright,” he said, a little more reluctant than she would have expected.

The androids started to lead them to anti-grav lift at the end of the corridor, but Jupiter wasn’t feeling in the mood for that. Standing close to Caine in a glittery blue beam was probably more than she could handle.

“Are there any stairs?” she asked.

“Certainly, Your Majesty,” said one of them, though her face popped out and back as she looked at her companion in dismay.

“Oh no!” said Jupiter. “Can you walk down stairs alright?”

“Yes, we are capable of walking both up and down stairs,” she said determinedly. “Please follow.”

And they took off down the wide curving staircase at an awkward trot, legs out to the sides and knees bending up and down as they hopped from step to step, capes bouncing behind them.  

“I hope you don’t mind being the one to stay here with me?” Jupiter asked Caine. “I didn’t think to ask if there was anything you wanted to take care of back on Orous.”

“No, that’s fine,” he said. “I agreed to work for you, Your Majesty.”

“Yeah,” said Jupiter. He wasn’t too enthused about it though. He seemed to be tense, very reserved all of the sudden. It would take a while for them to get to know each other all over again, she guessed.

“Well, for some reason I totally have the idea of ping pong stuck in my head right now.” She wasn’t going to bring up the other ideas her brain and body were stuck on. “So if there’s anything remotely like that we’re going for it first thing.”

Caine looked puzzled.

How to explain?

“There’s a table with a net, balls and paddles?” Jupiter made a swatting motion with her fisted hand to demonstrate.

Caine just squinted at her a little before looking away in confusion.

Maybe it didn’t translate.

God, this Alcazar was enormous! They must have walked down fifteen or twenty flights of stairs before they reached their destination.

A short round splice in a peach colored apron, her pattern of smooth white, brown and black swept-back facial hair suggesting she was part guinea pig, greeted them in front of a curtained doorway.

“Welcome, Your Majesty,” she said in a squeaky voice. “Please come in.”

She led them in past marble pools of steaming water and what looked to be a massage area.

A contraption hanging from one wall looked like something Uncle Vasily had been hooked into for traction at the hospital when he’d broken a vertebra...but somehow different.

There were rows of glass cabinets filled with androids in different color schemes. With...really detailed anatomy. One with a sort of squid shaped attachment at the crotch that made Jupiter do a double take and stare in spite of herself.

“I can have that activated for you if you’d like, Your Majesty.”

“No thanks, “ said Jupiter, tearing her eyes away to continue walking forward.

The recreation room wasn’t quite what Jupiter had been expecting.

It was all very elaborately outfitted, with satin covered platforms, and round cushioned beds. There were anti-grav areas and actually quite a lot of vigorous exercise taking place...

Not a treadmill or ping-pong table in sight though.

“We also have pleasure splices,” squeaked the attendant, whiskers around her nostrils quivering, “if you require another one?”

Jupiter turned to look at Caine, if her face got any hotter there’d be steam coming off it.

“I’m not a pleasure splice,” he said, expressionless. “It’s up to you, Your Majesty. Did you want me to join in or just watch?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Jupiter stood there, flushed and confused, as Caine waited for her response. The trouble was, he was probably expecting something coherent.

She’d been trying so hard not to look at him, to find a distraction, something to help ignore this compulsion coursing through her, threatening to take her over.

Once her eyes met his, though, she was stuck.

Join in or watch?

She was all tangled up in his, “It’s up to you, Your Majesty.” His low voice reverberating through her.

Was it her imagination? Or did his face change as she stared at him? No longer quite expressionless—his green eyes now the slightest bit curious.

If it were up to her...

She had a sudden, intense vision of taking him into one of the alcoves across the way, pressing herself against him, as he stood there, solid and unyielding.

She was tempted to test him, see if she could crack that careful façade even further. Push her fingers through his hair and attack his mouth with her own.

If it were up to her, she’d run her hands along his arms and chest, palm the slopes of his shoulders, then press him down, hard, until he was on his knees in front of her.

She’d shimmy back into a tall pile of pillows, let her legs, already weak at the thought, fall open to the sides.

Draw him forward. Take his head in her hands and guide him to where she wanted him most. Gather her dress in bunches and handfuls to her waist and let it spill down to cover him.

It wouldn’t take more than a quick snap of teeth for him to tear away her panties.

It really didn’t matter that Caine wasn’t a pleasure splice; she already knew what he could do to her with his fingers and mouth.

She imagined him licking into her, the memory of it pulsing through her.

If it was a bad idea, why did it suddenly seem like such an incredibly good one?

There was a loud noise from behind, an unexpected groan that made Jupiter gasp in surprise.

She turned and saw a threesome, writhing, on a rotating platform, elevated by anti-grav beams. A splice with dark purple skin and glossy silver feathers, hips undulating, butt thrusting back and forth in a particularly hypnotic motion.

Oh God, was she actually panting?

What was wrong with her?

She shook her head to snap out of it, looked over at the guinea pig splice and two android ladies who were still waiting expectantly.

She took a step backward, away from Caine, so that he was out of her reach.

Quickly, before she could change her mind.

“I didn’t know this...” she started.

She felt a little crazed, gave up entirely on the idea of trying to explain ping-pong again.

“I—

The air was too heavy though, too difficult to drag into her lungs.

“I have to get out of here,” she said, turning for the door. “Is there a way outside?”

 

***

 

The androids escorted them out.

Down one last, long flight of steps, they found double doors that led to the garden. A wide stone walkway, inlaid with swirling patterns of dragonflies and blossoms, made a path between bushes and trees.

“I just want to walk around for a little while,” Jupiter said, pausing beneath a flower-covered arch, before taking off with a brisk stride.

Two, three...seven hours should just about do it.

Caine kept pace, a step behind her, as they walked through corridors of flaming red and pink blooms, some alien variety of giant azalea bushes pressing in along the sides of the path.

“I didn’t know what kind of recreation....” she started to say to him. She was floundering. “I don’t want to... I mean, I totally want to, but...”

She turned to look at the androids, who’d fallen a bit behind.

“I’m sorry, what are your names?”

She was embarrassed she hadn’t thought to ask before now; she’d been distracted.

“Stacia, Your Majesty,” said the one on the right. “And this is Marga.”

Marga nodded.

“Would you mind returning to the Alcazar and bringing me back a glass of cold water please?”

She desperately needed something to cool her off, and she wouldn’t mind a few minutes of privacy to talk.

“This whole situation is messed up,” she said to Caine, once they’d left.

She couldn’t let herself look at him, concentrated instead on studying the patterns of dappled sunlight that danced through the leaves.

“You don’t even know me, and I do know you...” she tried, but that didn’t sound right.

Uncomfortable as it was, she had to tell him the truth.

“Something kind of like this happened to me before—with you. There was some sort of drug in the food and...” she let out a rush of breath.

Better not to think in too much detail about that night, or she’d just be tempted to jump him all over again.

“It just makes everything too confusing,” she said, in frustration. “I don’t want that to happen again.”

She took a fleeting look at his face; saw the frown between his brows.

“We had sex after eating something drugged.” He didn’t sound too surprised somehow. “And that’s why you smelled like me before?”

“Yeah, sort of... You did the—Wait, what do you mean before?” she asked. “I don’t smell like you anymore?”

“No,” he said. “You smell like Regenex now.”

“Oh.”

She’d actually liked the idea of smelling like him though. There was something sad and overwhelming about smelling like Regenex instead.

It made her feel sick inside.

“I guess you know what they did to me, then?”

“No,” he said, and there was a growl in his voice. “What did they do?”

Caine was so protective of her, ready to defend her, no matter what the time line. After all, he hadn’t known much more than her name, the first time he’d caught her, risked his own life to save her from falling.

Maybe that was just part of his coding, or part of the job. It probably shouldn’t make her melt inside.

She wanted to get better at saving herself.

Still, there was something she really, really liked about it.

And...

She had to focus, she thought, picking up her pace again.

“Kalique Abrasax gave me a Regenex treatment,” she said.

He didn’t say anything in response, still waiting to hear what’d been done.

He didn’t get it.

“It’s doing all these things to me, to my body, that I don’t want,” she started to explain.

“It’s a common reaction, Your Majesty. It’s stronger if you’ve never had it before, but most people don’t mind. They enjoy it. In the Legion, a soldier usually takes to their bunk for an hour or so after a treatment. It won’t last much longer than that.”

She let out a stream of air; she was still having a hard time breathing normally.

But, okay, she could hold out for an hour—as long as she didn’t get stuck on the idea of Caine “taking to his bunk.”

By himself? With someone else?

Best not to imagine it in too much detail.

“It’s not just that though,” she said. “I didn’t want Regenex used on me at all. Ever. Not even a drop. I know how it’s made. I’ve seen people hooked up to the machines in a refinery. I realize that everyone in your world is used to it, but I don’t want to be. It’s disgusting and horrible.”

“I understand,” he said, slowly. “It is horrible. But...splices don’t get a choice—the option of whether to use it or not. At least not in the beginning. It’s an intrinsic part of us. It’s how we’re made.”

“What do you mean exactly?”

“No matter how skilled the splicer, the process doesn’t work without some small amount of Regenex. It’s like a catalyst, without it the splice wouldn’t take. They add it to the amniotic fluid we’re grown in, we breathe it during gestation.”

His words were flat, straightforward.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean—

She felt awful. It wasn’t his fault. It‘d been something done to him, something he’d had no control over. Just like her.

“It doesn’t matter,” he interrupted, shaking his head.

They walked along silently for a while. The breeze had picked up miniscule flower petals that floated on the air, caught the sunlight, all around them.

“Regenex is just one name for it,” he said. “It’s the cheapest, most common brand. But now that I think about it, I doubt that was used on you, Your Majesty.”

She stopped in her tracks, couldn’t help but look at him as he closed his eyes, and drew a deep breath in.

“The scent’s pretty much the same, “ he said. “But yours is actually Abrasax. It’s purer. More refined.”

“More refined? You mean they have to kill more people to make it?”

He nodded.

“I see,” she said.

“If you don’t want anything to do with it though, why are you here? Why get involved with the Abrasax family? They’re the most ruthless, the most powerful family in the galaxy. Abrasax Industries is the biggest producer. ”

“I’m hoping—if I can learn enough about it—I can figure out a way to stop it, to take it down.” She wasn’t quite sure if she smiled at him or winced. “Want to help?”

 

 

****

 

Jupiter spent two hours with a sheave on the culture and customs of the micro-planet Heladffia, before dropping it into her lap with a groan. On the table next to her was an enormous stack of the sheaves she hadn’t got to yet. At this rate it would take her weeks.

“How does anybody do this?” she asked Caine. “Learn all of these things, about so many different planets?”

He sat on the sofa on the other side of the fireplace, squinting at an enormous, black leather-bound book.

Jupiter was feeling normal again, after an hour of walking in the garden, a little more energetic than usual, but that was fading the more she read.

Still, she’d thought it best to put some distance between Caine and her, just in case.

There was plenty of room in Kalique’s library.

Ten stories tall, the circular tower was lined with shelves, all along the walls, up to the very edge of the domed glass ceiling.

And there were actual books mixed in with the sheaves. Though, for all she knew they were written in languages she didn’t understand.

There was an intricate golden contraption, elegantly entwined and curved around the shelves, that delivered any book or sheave in the library within moments of speaking a title, author or subject.

Jupiter hadn’t had the chance to try it more than once. She’d whispered, “time travel” into the delicate mouthpiece and an ancient, two-thousand-page monster of a book, written in an arcane, dead language had been delivered into the golden cage.

Caine had gone to work reading it, agreed to tackle it with help of his implant to translate, to report on anything important.

So far, it’d been slow going.

There’d already been an enormous stack of sheaves, waiting for Jupiter when she’d returned from the gardens.

She’d kicked back in the comfy chair by the fire, determined to at least make a dent in it.

“I don’t read books or sheaves very often,” Caine said, looking up from the pages of his book. “I usually do a scan with my implant, if I want to find specific information.”

“Okay, but then, even if I were to get an implant, how could I talk to anyone, constantly having to scan for information and double check translations and connotations on everything I say? How could I have an actual conversation?”

He just looked at her for a moment.

Huh.

Was he scanning through something right now? Trying to figure out her and her Earth customs?

Marga offered Jupiter a plate piled high with crispy cheese pastries.

The two android ladies had been cycling in and out of the library on some sort of set program, offering her tidbits of food and drink and information.

Though they looked identical, Jupiter was beginning to tell them apart.

Stacia was eager to please and wore her cape thrown back over her right shoulder.

Marga was the one who didn’t approve of Caine. She didn’t offer him any snacks and tended to rotate her faceplate toward him at a somehow disdainful angle.

“I don’t have that many conversations,” Caine admitted. “When I was in the Legion, I sometimes had to relay official information, but those were pre-scanned for cultural sensitivities. I memorized all the Legion protocols a long time ago, as part of my training.”

“Well,” Jupiter said, holding up her sheave. “Have you ever heard of this one? Apparently, any mention of waterfowl is a grave insult to Heladffians, something about the heritage of their Queen-God. So that’s another thing to cross off my list of conversational topics.”

Stinger and Kiza walked into the room as Jupiter was talking. Kiza rosy cheeked and with a bounce in her step. The treatment seemed to agree with her.

“Your Majesty,” she said, walking closer to stretch her hands toward the fire. “How often do you usually talk about ducks and geese at parties? If you don’t mind my asking?”

“It’s not exactly my go-to,” Jupiter conceded. She gestured to the overflowing stacks of sheaves beside her. “Ugh. It’s just, I have more than three hundred planets to cover if I’m going to learn about all of the home worlds of board members and the guests at this “small” gala I’m attending.”

“But Queens don’t have to do all that,” said Kiza.

“I want to learn as much as I can. I need to know what I’m getting into,” said Jupiter. “But never mind that, are you feeling better? Did your treatment go well?”

She tried not to wince as she said it.

“I’m loads better,” Kiza said. “I honestly don’t know how I’ll ever repay you. For that, or for getting me out of those lines back on Orous. Except... maybe I can start with giving you a tiny bit of advice?”

“Go ahead.”

“It’s no use asking these two about things like conversations and galas,” Kiza said, gesturing to Caine and Stinger. “They don’t keep up with any of that. Dad wouldn’t look at a gossip feed to save his life. Weapons’ ranges and tactical formations on the other hand... Well, military do have to deal with protocols and regulations. But Entitleds can be as bad as they want to be. If you’re Royalty, the more offensive you are, the more the feeds love you.”

“I don’t want to be offensive though—‘

“Trust me on this one. We’ll get a vid-player and you can take a peek at what everyone is up to in the gossips. Just don’t let me look at any porn feeds right now, I’m too charged up as it is.”

Kiza plopped down on the sofa and grinned at Caine.

“You stay the hell away from my daughter,” Stinger growled at him.

“What?” Caine said, all innocence, quickly scooting to the far corner of the couch. “I didn’t...”

“Please dad.” Kiza rolled her eyes. “Caine’s more your type than mine.”

Stinger just sputtered.

Jupiter laughed and bit into one of her pastries, unthinking grabbed another one and tossed it over to Caine.

He caught it in his hand, just before it could hit him in the nose and looked at her in surprise.

“Are you throwing food at me now, Your Majesty?”

“No more than you deserve,” muttered Stinger with a baleful look.

“No! Well yes, actually,” said Jupiter. “I just thought you’d like it. Give it a try.”

Caine bit into it.

“It is good,” he admitted.

“Want another?”

He shrugged and nodded.

When she tossed him the next one, he caught it in his mouth.

“I see you’ve found a use for the Lycantant I’d never even considered,” called a familiar voice outside the doorway. “And he’s reading a book no less. How quaint!”

Titus Abrasax sauntered into the room, his sister Kalique at his side.

“Ooh,” whispered Kiza, under her breath “He’s pretty though.”

Jupiter brushed off her hands and stood to face them, dreading whatever the Abrasax siblings were up to this time.

Caine had been on his feet, nostrils flared, before Titus even crossed the threshold. He and Stinger looked tensed and ready for a fight.

But Titus was all smooth charm, ignoring them. focused on Jupiter.

“Your Majesty,” he said with a bow, “I am Titus Abrasax, third primary of the house of Abrasax, and it is my profound honor to meet you.”

Jupiter held back what she really wanted to say in response, forced herself to give a polite smile as he took her hand and kissed it.

She’d noticed the glossy black sheave with Caine and Stinger’s pardons that Titus held in his other hand.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Jupiter didn’t know exactly how she’d gotten into this position: Pinned against the library shelves, with Caine solid at her back. She’d spaced out for a second and forgotten a move. Maybe she should be taking notes.

She only knew that after hours spent reading, she’d wanted a change of pace.

If she squinted, she could just make out the engraving on a sheave inches from her nose. Moments ago, she’d tried moving her leg to hook it around, but Caine had shifted his stance to contain her without missing a beat.

With a sigh, she relaxed and closed her eyes.

A week had passed without being kidnapped, held captive, knocked unconscious, given Regenex or pulled backwards through time again, and she’d had the chance to get a few things done.

They’d spent hours every day in Kalique’s library. Stinger approved because the place was easily defensible and Caine liked the height of the room, occasionally using his boots to explore the ten-story tall space.

The light of Cerise’s three suns came in from different angles through the curved glass ceiling and made it bright throughout the day.

Jupiter was leaving soon for the Abrasax board meeting. The stack of sheaves, left neglected next to the fire had grown taller in the last few days.

Unfortunately, she hadn’t found any secret manuals with instructions for bringing down the Regenex trade. Not that she’d expected to—but it would have been nice.

She was trying to prioritize, reading a lot, learning and memorizing everything she could.

She’d assigned the gossip feeds to Kiza, who sat now, on a couch across the room, eagerly catching up on everything she’d missed during her Earth years. She’d been reporting back on Entitled life according to the feeds.

Caine had spent hours deciphering the ancient time-travel book before informing Jupiter with a frown, “This is only a science-fiction, fantasy story, Your Majesty.”

It turned out there was nothing in the library that could help Jupiter figure out her time loop problem.

So Caine and Stinger had worked on defense—for Jupiter and for the Earth. Since they didn’t know how long she’d be with them, they were focusing on what the lawyers could get through at the Commonwealth in this timeline, and hoping that it would stick in others, making plans for if, or when, she’d loop around to meet them back on Earth again.

And the androids, on instructions from Kalique, had gathered more and more sheaves for Jupiter to read each day.

It was possible Kalique was trying to drown her in information, to wear her down so that she would fall for...whatever nefarious plan was up that glittering sleeve.

Jupiter couldn’t tell for sure. Caine hadn’t caught Kalique in any lies. And there was an incredible amount to learn.

Endless hours cramming her head full of facts, day after day, were almost enough to make her think fondly of cleaning toilets again. Her eyes were blurry and if she read another sheave right now, her head would explode.

Which was why she’d decided to go for another round with Caine.

When they’d first started off, he’d been hesitant, worried about hurting her, but she’d thought she was getting better, getting the hang of things.

She hadn’t mentioned the violent purple bruise on her right hip from the day before yesterday when they’d crashed hard to the floor.

Right now, she was stuck. Her arm held firmly, she could feel the delineation of his fingers and glove through the fabric of her shirt.

Maybe it was pathetic, enjoying this, but it was nice having him pressed against her, something soothing about his chest moving steadily as he breathed, the rumble of words as he talked. She’d slumped back into his warmth and was thinking about maybe taking a nap.

After so many nights on Titus’ clipper, she’d gotten used to sleeping with Caine, hadn’t slept well here in the Alcazar, restless, waking up floating in mid-air when the chamber presence caught her falling off the bed.

She missed him, but at least, after that first day, the effects of the Regenex had worn off and she hadn’t been entirely crazed with lust. She been trying to give him some space, let him make a move towards her if he wanted to, give herself a chance to figure things out.

Still, when she imagined him holding her, it didn’t usually include Stinger, behind them, calling out instructions, or Kiza giving the occasional sarcastic comment.

How long had it been now?

Caine and Stinger were debating positions and leverage and she was beginning to wonder if they’d forgotten her.

“You need to put your weight behind it, Majesty,” said Stinger, for about the millionth time.

Jupiter let out a yawn.

“This isn’t working,” Caine said, releasing her and stepping away to look at Stinger. He brushed aside the strands of hair where her ponytail had clung to his beard.

“You were going too easy on her,” said Stinger. “That’s the only reason she brought you down last time.”

In spite of their earlier protests, Caine and Stinger were trying to teach her how to fight.

It had taken a while for her to convince them. She realized now that she’d inadvertently insulted them by even suggesting it. They were too well trained to mention anything though and seemed to have chalked it up to Tersie eccentricity.

According to everyone, Queens didn’t train for physical combat.

It was taking a while to figure out which sorts of techniques Jupiter should use though and how much of a challenge they should give her.

“You’re being too softhearted, Your Majesty,” Stinger complained. “You have to fight like you mean it. You’re not going to hurt him. Don’t hesitate. Aim for the soft parts.”

Jupiter winced.

She was okay with punching Caine or knocking him down—mainly because it didn’t actually seem to hurt him. But she really didn’t want to gouge him in the eyes—or other soft parts, as Stinger kept saying. And she couldn’t bring herself to kick him hard in the leg once they’d explained she was aiming to dislocate a kneecap.

Ugh.

She should’ve practiced on Titus while she’d had the chance. But he’d been helpful—for once—giving Caine and Stinger’s pardons as a gesture of goodwill, in exchange for her promise to come and dine sometime soon on his clipper.

Not that she intended ever going back there again.

The problem was, she kept finding herself in places and times she hadn’t intended.

Jupiter was fine where she was for the moment, wearing her own clothes, jeans and plaid shirt, comfortable and easy to move around in.

Pacing the length of the room, shaking out her arms and legs a little, she caught Caine looking at her in concern and smiled at him, “I’m fine, really. We’ll figure it out.”

He hesitantly returned a half-smile.

She stopped to grab a handful of tiny crystalline chrysanthemums from a bowl and popped them into her mouth, felt them melt as they touched her tongue. They had something like caffeine in them, crucial, since there was no coffee on Cerise.

Kalique and her ladies walked in, just after Jupiter had taken a second mouthful.

“Come, dear,” Kalique called with a smile and outstretched hand. “Let’s dress you for the meeting.”

There was one thing, beyond a doubt, Jupiter had learned about her in the last week: Kalique really liked to dress her up.

 

*******

 

A team of androids descended on Jupiter as soon as she entered the wardrobe galleries. Within minutes, she was made-up with shining dark eyes and glossy lips, hair piled high and twined with something like diamond-studded barbed wire.

A gold gown with long tight sleeves, jutting angles of stiff metallic cloth around her hips and ankles, pinched in at her waist and came up behind her head in a collar that framed her face in gleaming sharp points.

She looked like an evil space queen, which was kind of cool, also kind of uncomfortable.

“Perfect!” said Kalique, with a smile of delight. Her own outfit was a silver variation on Jupiter’s, with a lower neckline and different angles on the skirt and pointed collar. Jupiter wasn’t quite sure if she was trying for mother-daughter matching outfits.

Royal business wear, apparently, meant metallic and somewhat threatening.

Caine and Stinger met them on the landing platform.

“You’re welcome to bring your people,” said Kalique, “Theoretically, they won’t be needed as XR47-9 is a class-two business planet. I’ll be bringing along a few guards as well though.”

Two rows of six guards each were lined up, ready to go.

“I’d like to bring them,” said Jupiter firmly. “And the Aegis has agreed to meet me there—along with an Advocate in case I have any questions.”

“There shouldn’t be any difficulties,” Kalique said. “Everything will take effect immediately, upon your signature, it only needs to be witnessed by the board.”

Sheave work had been drawn up to cease operations on all the worlds Jupiter had inherited. Kalique seemed to think it was only temporary and Jupiter hadn’t told her otherwise.

“I want to have it filed at the Commonwealth too. And what, exactly, does a class-two planet mean?” Jupiter asked.

Kalique waited until they’d settled into the seating area of the ship to explain.

“It’s a neutral planet. All proceedings tax-exempt, of course, 130% gravity, a calming gas in the atmosphere that prevents violence. It also prevents anything very productive from being accomplished, but that’s to be expected.”

Kalique smiled and said, “I have pills that counteract the effects. Would you like one?”

“No thanks,” said Jupiter. It seemed like too many medicines contained Regenex. “I never did get a copy of the agenda.”

“It should be fine, Jupiter. Your presence is mainly a formality. You’ll sign to acknowledge your inheritance and the plans you want to put in motion. Titus and Balem may protest, after all, many of those planets had belonged to them. But there’s nothing they can do about that. We’ll all cooperate, and behave in a civilized manner so that things can run smoothly.”

“And if one of us doesn’t cooperate, things won’t run smoothly?”

Kalique gave a small laugh.

“I’m certain the Abrasax Corporation will continue on as it has for millennium, regardless of any mistakes that are made. However, I’m here to look out for you, to make certain you have the life you’ve always dreamed of.”

They arrived a few minutes later, an anti-grav beam depositing them on the landing pad of a skyscraper, surrounded by hundreds of other, identical dense steel and glass buildings.

Inside the conference room, people pushed back chairs to stand as Jupiter and Kalique made their entrance.

The stronger gravity and strange atmosphere were immediately noticeable, Jupiter suddenly slow and heavy. The rectangles of dim light emitted from the low ceiling, made it difficult for her to see out the windows into the gray sky.  

On one side of the long table, she recognized Famulus, standing next to three dark, shadow figures—literally, three humanoid shapes made entirely of a particulate shadow substance.

On the other side of the long table were Chicanery Night, Advocate Bob, another android, and a tiny old man with tufts of faded orange hair, crumpled, asleep in his chair.

“Your Majesty,” said Advocate Bob. “I am pleased to be of assistance. The Aegis crew is in orbit, awaiting your command.”

“Thank you,” she said. She looked back toward Caine and Stinger who’d taken positions at the door. “I suppose Captain Tsing and the crew are fine where they are for now?”

Stinger nodded.

“Mr. Night,” said Kalique in surprise. “Lord Balem is not attending?”

“No, my lady,” he said obsequiously. “He sends his regrets and has authorized me to act in his absence.”

“That is unlike him,” said Kalique. “I do hope he’s well?”

“Certainly,” he said with a stiff grimace. He didn’t elaborate.

Jupiter struggled to sit down gracefully in her spot between Kalique and Advocate Bob.

“Who are they?” she asked in a whisper, pointing at the shadows.

“Each one represents a faction of many smaller shareholders, Your Majesty,” said Bob in an excited voice. “They may change in number depending on the course of the meeting.”

“And him?” Jupiter gestured to the sleeping man. “Should we wake him?”

“He is—

Kalique shushed them. “Do let him rest.”

The other android started the meeting in an officious, droning voice that soon had Jupiter fighting off sleep again.

“I have an additional item for today,” said Kalique as things were drawing to a close. “A transfer of property and deeds to record.”

There was a sudden uproar.

“This is highly unusual, My Lady,” said Famulus, standing in protest.

The shadow figures were grumbling, splitting apart and reforming, doubling in twos and fours until they filled the other side of the room.

“Go ahead and sign it dear,” said Kalique, placing a sheave in front of Jupiter with a determined smile. “It’s everything we discussed.”

“I’ll need a chance to look it over, and have my Advocate read through it,” Jupiter said.

There was so much noise in the room, everyone trying to talk at once. Apparently, she was the only one here who hadn’t taken something to counteract the sedative gravity.

“Seraphi!” cried a thin voice, barely audible over the noise.

It was the tufty-haired old man, awake and looking straight across the table at her.

“No,” said Chicanery. “It’s just the recurrence.”

“Your Majesty,” the man said in a creaking voice. “Will you continue with our plan?”

“She’s not Seraphi,” said Chicanery dismissively. “Lord Balem will not stand for this My Lady,” he said, turning to Kalique.

“Lord Balem is not here,” she answered. “Go ahead and sign it Jupiter.”

“I’m sorry,” said Jupiter, trying to be heard over the uproar of voices. “It might take me a while to look at everything.”

Kalique had done everything she’d claimed so far. But Jupiter still didn’t trust her entirely, and was suspicious of everything she was given to sign.

As she lifted the sheave with her left hand, her right arm felt strange and tingling, like she’d suddenly lost control, the long golden sleeve constricted, twisting around it, pulling her sigil toward the sheave.

Jupiter quickly handed it to Advocate Bob. “Would you mind taking a look at it first, actually?”

Had she imagined it? Was it some result of the extra gravity? Her arm felt normal now.

“Maybe you could summarize things while we’re waiting?” Jupiter asked Kalique.

“It goes into quite a bit of detail.” Kalique said with a sigh, “I’m afraid it will take a long time to go over everything.”

“Lord Titus would be more than happy to have you as his guest and assist with any legalities, for as long as you require,” offered Famulus.

“No, I—

“Your Majesty,” called the old man again. “There are matters to discuss.”

“I’m sorry what is... ” Jupiter started to ask his name, but the dress felt suddenly heavy, pulling her down so that she could hardly sit upright, constricting her ribs. She gasped for breath, her heart beating too fast, chest too tight.

Caine was behind her in an instant, lifting her from the chair and into his arms. Something released and she shifted up with a lurch and slammed into him.

“I’m afraid Her Majesty is having a bad reaction to the atmosphere,” said Kalique. “Let’s return to the ship.”

The shadow figures were dividing ever more rapidly, taking over the room.

“That’s probably a good idea,” Jupiter agreed weakly.

She was able to stand now, with assistance, and started to walk from the room. As she turned to look behind her, the sheave in Advocate Bob’s hand exploded and burst into flames.

 

*************

 

Caine responded to a muffled scream from Jupiter’s room later that night. Found her trapped, wrapped tight in a blanket, floating above her bed.

It took a second to untangle her once the chamber presence had lowered her down.

“Caine?”

She appeared confused.

“You screamed,” he explained, looking at her carefully. In spite of the dark, he could see her face was flushed. Her breathing quick, the sharp edge of adrenaline pushed through the smell of sleep. He was determined to ignore the way her body looked in the thin nightgown.

“Are you okay?” he asked.

“This has happened before,” she admitted. “I get tangled up and start to fall off the bed. Not usually screaming, but I had a dream tonight—everything was exploding and my dress was attacking me. I guess that was the blanket. Kind of a crazy meeting, huh? And you came to my rescue. Again. Thanks,” she finished in a small voice.

She’d explained to him, about all the times he’d saved her in her past. It was the reason she trusted him, the reason she wanted him to work for her.

Except that hadn’t really been him.

And this one hardly qualified as a rescue. It didn’t seem right somehow, for her to thank him for it.

“I’ll let you get back to sleep,” he said, turning to leave.

“I’ll never sleep now,” she said with a groan. “Stay.”

He stopped.

“Please, stay, I mean,” she smiled. “God, I’m getting bossy. I have to watch out for that—giving too many orders. I just want to stand out on the balcony for a little while and get some fresh air. Will you come with me?”

He nodded and followed her out though the carved marble arches.

The air was carrying her scent to him, so he moved to stand on the other side of her, upwind, so it wouldn’t be as much of a distraction. He looked off at the mountains in the distance, struggled to find some topic of conversation.

“Why do you want to watch out for that, Your Majesty? Giving too many orders? You are the boss.”

Boss was a strange word though, an Earth term, not exactly right. He knew what it meant, but there wasn’t any real equivalent for him. Entitleds were Lords. Caine’s splicer had been Master. The Legion had owned him too, but that was slightly different, there was a chain of command.

Jupiter was Her Majesty—boss didn’t come close to covering it.

“We’re all ready to follow your commands,” he told her.

She was quiet, still looking out at the dark night, at the small stone buildings lit up on the other side of the canyons of waterfalls and hydro-generators.

It was hard to resist studying her face, her loose tangle of hair.

“Yeah.” she said. “But I want to give you a choice. I want you to say no, if there’s something you don’t want to do.”

She turned to look at him, her face intense, “You can say no, can’t you?”

“No,” he said, deadpan.

Her eyes started to widen in horror, and he couldn’t keep his face entirely straight.

“Ha! Okay, I get it,” she said with a rush of breath. “But seriously, I don’t want to command you to do something you don’t want.”

“If you command me, if you want me to do something, I want to do it for you,” he said.

And he meant it. It surprised him, but it was clear to him that it was that easy, that simple for once.

“And that’s the obedience, that thing that Lycantants are bred for?” she broke off and turned away from him, shaking her head.

Something was wrong—had she been talking to Stinger?

Stinger was the only one who’d ever figured out Caine’s obedience coding was faulty. He said it didn’t matter to him; the whole thing was bullshit anyway. Caine followed orders well enough. It didn’t matter that he’d occasionally questioned things, liked to figure out how to do things his own way. Bee splices made the best soldiers, as far as Stinger was concerned, and they’d never been coded for obedience.

Stinger liked Jupiter though; he probably thought she deserved to know exactly what she was getting into with Caine. And he was right.

“Lycantants are bred for a lot of things,” he said hesitantly. “Sometimes it works out better than others.”

She’d said she knew them both, trusted them. She knew about Caine’s attack against the Entitled. But maybe she hadn’t known everything. Maybe, when she’d offered to buy his commission, to have him work for her she hadn’t realized how defective he really was.

““I guess, buyers want loyalty and obedience,” he said slowly. “We’re like dogs that way.”

She took in a deep breath and he waited for her words; there was something she was holding back.

“I don’t know exactly what Stinger told you,” he said after a while, “But I’m defective, I probably haven’t even figured it all out yet, all the ways that I’m messed up.”

“I don’t think you’re messed up,” she said in a rush. “You can’t help the way you’re made. I just—I don’t know what to think about you being obedient to me. It’s really throwing me.”

“It’s not that important,” he said.

Except he knew it was. One more flaw in a list that was already too long. That’s why he’d always hidden it.

“I can be loyal, follow your orders without question. It’s not a problem. It’ll be the same as with Stinger.”

“It’s not the same to me,” she said.

Maybe she was right. It felt like it wouldn’t be any problem, obeying her completely, but he’d probably just mess up again when he least expected, maybe without even knowing why.

“What if I didn’t own you? Hold your commission?”

“You don’t want me to work for you then?” he asked. His throat was tight for some reason.

It made sense she didn’t want him anymore—he wasn’t sure what had changed, but she’d been under some stress, maybe she was just beginning to see things clearly.

He hadn’t been very useful to her, in their time here. He could do research, but it wasn’t his strong point. He was good at tactics, but Stinger was just as good and more experienced. He could save her from tangled blankets and heavy dresses on business planets, but she didn’t need a defective Lycantant for that.

“I do want you to work for me,she said. “I just don’t want to own you. Can we do that? Would that make the difference?”

“Whatever you want,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference for me. I’ll follow your orders the same, either way.”

The wind was coming up cold from the water and it must have stung her eyes, because they were suddenly wet. She wiped at them quickly before looking away again. Goosebumps had sprouted along her bare arms and he wanted to run his hands up and down them, warm her.

He didn’t know where that idea had come from. In spite of her easy affection with Stinger and Kiza and even the androids, he’d noticed she was keeping her distance with him.

“Well,” she said with a sigh. “We’ll figure out a way for you and Stinger to hold your own commissions. You’re set to get your wings next week. Maybe we can just see what happens after that. You can decide if you want to go back to the Skyjackers or work for me. I might not even be here...”

“You don’t have to worry about Stinger and me, Your Majesty, we’ll be alright.”

Chapter Text

Jupiter pressed against the cold marble ledge until her hands were like ice, the chill sinking through to her bones.

“You should be able to do what you really want,” she said.

Caine stood, arms crossed, like he was holding something back.

“It’s up to Your Majesty,” he said slowly. “Whatever you choose is fine.”

She was still trying to understand, come to grips with what he’d told her.

She had liked that he deferred to her, that he followed her lead. But she didn’t know what to think about this.

She couldn’t quite comprehend what it meant for him to be obedient, forced to follow her commands whether he wanted to or not.

How could they have done this to him? To anyone? Just the idea of it was horrible.

All those times he'd saved her, flying into a hurricane to get to her—had he wanted to do any of it? She had hoped that he’d risked it because he felt something for her. But it turned out something else had compelled him all along. Some strange biological imperative designed to control him.

Did that mean that when she’d kissed him—?

No. She couldn’t have gotten everything so completely wrong.

Although, it wouldn’t be the first time she’d gotten her signals mixed up. She’d always been cursed with stupid wishful thinking and bad luck when it came to men.

She couldn’t believe it, though. Not this time. Not with Caine. There had to be something she could do, some way to get around this.

He said it didn’t matter whether she owned him or not.

Was it something to do with his Entitled instinct then? He was upset, at Stinger’s, the first time he’d learned she was Royal. And he’d always switched allegiances from Titus to her—because she was higher in rank?

Genetically ingrained loyalty and obedience. How did that even work? But then, how did any of it work? How could he track a gene through the universe or smell when someone was lying?

She wanted to ask him more, get to the bottom of it, but she could tell it was a sore point. And...What if he just told her what she wanted to hear? Was that part of being obedient too?

“Caine, “ she said, “do you—

“Your Majesty,” Stinger called from the doorway, walking out to where they were both standing. “Is everything all right?’ he looked from one to the other of them, frowning.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she explained. “I was having a nightmare about that dress.”

“I got the results back from the material scan,” Stinger said. “The fabric of your dress had nano-bots to maintain the shape. But no more than usual. It’s possible someone hacked into them, but there was no sign of tampering.”

“Okay,” said Jupiter. Nano-bots in the clothing. And that was usual. “Anything else?”

“The man at the meeting,” he said. “Sir Erkanbald Keteri. He was Seraphi Abrasax’s chief advisor, presumed dead for the last five hundred years. Apparently, not as dead as everyone thought. He sent an FTL an hour ago. He’ll be at the Gala tonight and wants to meet with you there.”

“Do you think it’s still safe for me to go, after that last meeting?”

“The entire moon of Zao is shielded. Inaccessible to any transport without the proper authorization code,” Stinger said. “The guest list has been run through security clearance. We’ll go over the layout before we get there. It should be safe. Just one problem.”

“What’s that?”

“Caine’s record came up. They won’t let him in without a muzzle.”

“What? There must be—

“Doesn’t matter,” Caine interrupted in a tight voice. “I’ll do it. Didn’t plan to use my teeth anyway.”

He turned away from them both, back towards the inner room. “I’ll meet you in the library when you’re ready,” he called out as he walked through her room and out the doorway.

“Something wrong?” asked Stinger.

Jupiter didn’t even know where to begin with that one. She shook her head.

“Well,” said Stinger, “Kiza had an idea for you. I think you’re gonna like it.”

 

A little while later, Jupiter had changed into a simple black shirt and leggings (they didn’t have any nano-bots—she’d checked) and stood facing Kiza and Marga, the android, in the library.

“So what are we doing here exactly?”

“Well,” said Kiza, “You’re having a problem with your training. Dad says you’re too softhearted. You don’t want to hurt the big puppy.”

“I can hear you, Kiza,” said Caine. He was in the far corner of the room, looking at some kind of schematic.

“I know,” Kiza called over to him.

He grumbled something under his breath. Jupiter thought she caught the word “puppy”.

She didn’t want to think about that right now though. Hurting him. The possibility, the probability, of somehow doing that, whether she meant to or not.

“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” she said.

She thought of Titus and Balem though, still out there, still gunning for her.

“Actually, I take that back. There are definitely a couple people that deserve some pain from me.”

She looked over at Stinger, who was standing by the fire.

“I don’t think I’m softhearted exactly. But—even when I do want to hurt someone, I don’t feel triumphant afterwards, when it’s all done—just jittery, shaky, like something’s wrong with me.”

“That’s an aftereffect of the adrenaline,” said Caine.

“It’s normal, Your Majesty,” Stinger said. “Happens to a lot of people. You’ll get used to it after a while. In the meantime, figure out a way around it, or a way to use it. You want to learn how to use everything you’ve got.”

“So,” said Kiza, “I figured out something else you could use, if you want. I asked around and Marga volunteered to be the one to train with you. She uploaded a combat module and adjusted her sense receptors so you’ll get accurate responses—as if you were hurting someone. We can adjust the difficulty according to the data she collects during practice.”

“Okay. Sounds good,” said Jupiter, looking at Marga, considering.

The android had cocked her faceplate at a mocking angle and taken a fighting stance. The usual diaphanous half-cape was gone.

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass,” she said, “and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

“Oh, yeah,” Kiza said with a grin, “We uploaded some Earth one-liners. I’m not sure about that part yet.”

“It’s cheesy, but—I actually kinda like it,” said Jupiter. “Thanks.”

She needed some way to work through all this stuff, to get away from the turmoil in her head.

“Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker,” said Marga.

“Okay, that might get old,” said Jupiter, tightening her ponytail. “But let’s do this.”

Kicking ass sounded good about now.

 

 

*******

Jupiter was glad she’d had a chance to pummel something beforehand.

She should have known better than to expect the Gala would go well.

The setting was beautiful: A floating island on an ocean-covered moon, a pale green gas giant dominating the entire night sky with its eerie glow.

But things went bad right from the start.

Sir Arkenbald must have died minutes after they’d arrived.

They found him alone, collapsed in a chair. By then it was too late. She swore she caught a glimpse of a familiar rat splice, skulking on the edge of the crowd that gathered while the doctor performed a scan. There was nothing suspicious about what had happened. Though it was highly unusual.

He’d died of old age.

“How very perverse of him,” said Kalique.

Determined, she dragged Jupiter away from the scene.

She was in her element here, the Second Primary of the House Abrasax, flitting from group to group, smiling and charming, showing off her mother’s recurrence.

Jupiter tried to enjoy the rest of the night, breathing in the strange, salty air of the green-lit moon—in an entirely different galaxy—the kind of thing she’d always dreamed about. All of these people, hundreds or thousands of years old. They must have seen so much of the universe, done so many things that people on Earth couldn’t begin to imagine.

But couldn’t someone talk about anything other than the fact that she was just like Seraphi Abrasax?

The food was delicious, at least. There were thin fritters dipped in a sauce so spicy she could feel it burning a path right through her, icy, bite-sized sour melons and flaming skewers of tangy fruit, caramelized on the outside and like cream when she bit into them.

She wanted to share some with Caine, who’d been standing behind her the whole night. But she couldn’t since he was wearing the muzzle. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been: A curve of vertical bars that wrapped the lower half of his face. He could still talk.

“It’s only for form’s sake,” Kalique declared. “And that’s quite an elegant one really.”

It was from somewhere in the depths of her Alcazar—part of a collection apparently. Jupiter hadn’t asked what kind of collection.

Caine said he didn’t mind. But she worried that he would say that, even if he did.

She was tempted to sneak him a bite of food—there was space to slip her fingers between the bars to his mouth.But he probably wouldn’t take it the way she meant it.

There was one other thing, actually, Jupiter heard, over and over again, whispered everywhere she went that night: How ignorant the new Abrasax Queen must be to keep a defective splice.

 

“I thought that went exceedingly well. All things considered,” Kalique said, once they were back on her ship.

Jupiter, sitting in a frothy pile of skirts, paused in the struggle to remove her shoes and looked up. Caine and Stinger were talking quietly in the opposite corner. Kalique caught her watching, as he removed the muzzle, ran a hand over his beard and mouth.

“Jupiter,” she said. “I know you’re quite fond of the Lycantant. However, splices are valued for the level of skill in their breeding, the possession of certain traits. Now that we know he’s defective—

“Yes, I am “quite fond” of him,” Jupiter interrupted.

Caine looked up and caught her eye.

“I know you’re still accustoming yourself to how things are done,” said Kalique. “And, I will admit, I’ve grown rather attached to my own Maledictes over the years. However, you must remember they’re not like us, my dear. They’re really little more than animals.”

“I don’t see it that way,” said Jupiter.

She yanked the shoe off with a vicious tug and pushed herself up out of the chair, walking barefoot over to Caine and Stinger.

She needed to talk to them about the one useful thing she had learned at the Gala: A conversation she’d overheard between two guards about various types of planetary defense.

 

****

Eight days passed and Jupiter hadn’t looped back through time again.

She watched from a window far below as Caine soared through the sky, sunlight shining through his feathers. She’d caught sight of him as he flew toward the Alcazar, dropped into the atmosphere by a passing Legion cruiser.

She’d missed the sight of him flying, more than she’d realized.

After landing, he stood a moment, extending his wings, shaking them out, before folding them down against his back and turning to walk down the landing pad toward Stinger.

“I’m going up to meet him,” she said.

“I’ll be right behind you,” said Kiza.

Jupiter headed for the stairs.

It was a long way up, ten flights of stairs to the top. She liked the climb though, liked the feel of her muscles working. She’d been getting stronger, honing herself.

She’d gotten better at self-defense, spending hours training every day. (Primed to fight as soon as she heard any of a dozen one-liners. That particular programming hadn’t lasted beyond the first two days actually. Though she swore she’d heard Marga muttering under her breath just this morning, “Go ahead, make my day.”)

Caine had finally returned from getting his wings—Stinger had gotten his a few days before. They were both now commissioned to work as her Royal Guards through the Legion.

Jupiter had wanted to find a way for them to own themselves, to buy a way out for them. But the laws were written so that splices couldn’t be independent. They’d revert back to whoever owned them last: Titus, the Aegis, the Legion, their Splicers. Even the penal system had a claim on Caine, in spite of his pardon, and could yank him back to the Deadlands if someone else didn’t take him first.

It seemed impossible.

Working for Jupiter was the best option for now. And they could go back to the Legion this way, if they wanted. She’d been meaning to ask them about that again, waiting until some of the sheave work had gone through.

There was something else she had been meaning to ask too, something she was completely stuck on. She kept trying to think of a way to talk to Caine, some way to figure things out with him.

It would have been good if there were something she could ask him that wasn’t stupidly, ridiculously awkward, but she was worrying less about that these days.

He worked for her. And was compelled to obey her.

She was more worried about finding something she could say that wouldn’t take advantage of his genomgenering.

And the more she thought about it, the more complicated it was. Because it really did seem like he would do absolutely anything for her. Which probably meant it was unfair for her to ask him anything.

There was something going on with him and Stinger, some tension about seeing their old unit, working with command again. She’d noticed he was restless the other day, before leaving for the Legion outpost.

Stinger had told her an hour ago that they needed to talk; he’d been waiting for Caine to return.

She stopped to catch her breath a moment and heard their voices from the floor above her.

“So,” said Stinger, “did that fucker Grent ask you to come back to the unit or not?”

“Yeah, you were right about that,” said Caine.

What?

She couldn’t make out anything else as she continued up the stairs, just a low rumble of voices. But their words were clear when she came around the next landing.

“We need to go,” said Caine.

“I don’t know how Her Majesty’s going to take it,” Stinger’s voice was grim.

“She won't be happy,” Caine said.

Kiza caught up with Jupiter a few seconds later as she stood there, stunned.

“Your Majesty?”

“Tell them I—I’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said, turning to go back downstairs. “I just have to... go and do something.”

Jupiter ran down the long winding staircase until she couldn’t go any further. Went outside to a long overlook near a waterfall’s edge.

She needed a minute to think, to calm down.

It was totally possible they were talking about something else entirely. Maybe it only sounded like they’d decided to go back to their old Skyjacker unit. But she’d said she wanted them to have a choice. And if they’d chosen to go back, she wanted to prepare herself, figure out a way to convince them that she was happy about it, that she’d be fine without them.

******

 

Caine was surprised the old unit wanted him back. He’d known they’d take Stinger in a second, but him?

He hadn’t been there to talk to Grent or the others though. He’d been busy, between getting his wings and digging for information, going through every channel he could.

As a Royal Guard, in charge of Her Majesty’s security, new resources, new intel had opened up to him. It’d taken a while, but he’d gotten access, through a backdoor, into some of Abrasax Industry’s restricted files. It'd take days to go through all the information. The bottom line was: Jupiter wasn’t safe there anymore.

They needed to leave Cerise.

“Where’s Her Majesty?” he asked Kiza as she came down the hall toward them.

 

 

*****

 

Jupiter turned at the sound of footsteps behind her on the walk. The last thing she expected was to see Balem Abrasax stepping through a shimmering portal.

“There you are,” he said in a rasping whisper. The long, bat-like sleeves of his gleaming black jacket shifted sinuously as he moved toward her. Greeghan stepped out behind him, and the portal closed.

“What do you want?” she asked, edging away from them.

“I am—

“I know who you are,” she said.

“Do you?” he asked thoughtfully. “I suspected as much.” A pained, sinister smile slowly cracked the surface of his face.“There’s no reason for this to be difficult. I have brought the notice of abdication with me.” He held the sheave out toward her. “Sign it now and I will leave you be. You need never hear from me again.”

“Or what? You’ll kill me? Like you killed your mother? Save your breath. I won’t sign anything for you.”

He stepped closer, staring at her with an intensity that made her skin crawl.“You must have been there when the device was triggered,” he whispered.

“What device?” she said, backing further away.

“My failsafe.” He smiled. “Did you think I wouldn’t have one? That was my mother’s very last lesson to me.”

He looked down a moment, seemed to be collecting himself.

My mother seemed invulnerable, immortal. She'd reached the pinnacle of existence, ruled all she surveyed for far more than the span of your wretched so-called civilization. She did it all with a style and grace you could never hope to achieve Jupiter Jones.”

He spat out her name, looked suddenly as if the very sight of her gave him pain.

“Do you know how easy it was in the end? To crush her, reduce her to nothing in the blink of an eye?” He smiled again, gently, and horribly.“I learned that one must have a last resort against death. I was told it would be dangerous. However it took a far greater toll than I’d realized. I was placed into stasis for days in order to recover. How did you survive it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said.

“Don’t you? We’ve been through this before you and I.”

“I’m not your mother,” she said stonily.

“No, you’re not.” He looked at her, unblinking. “The last thing I remember was your shooting me in the leg, after the Lycantant came. But that wouldn’t have been enough to trigger it. What happened afterward? What did you do to me?”

Jupiter glared at him, silent.

“I could kill you now. I still remember, the way you looked at me, the last time. Your eyes.”

She hauled off and punched him, hard, in the mouth, put all her weight behind it and felt the skin on her knuckles tear from the impact with his teeth.

Greeghan growled.

And still, Balem stared at her, unwavering while he brought one hand up absently to his bloody mouth.

“It is tempting. However I wonder... is it preferable to wait, to watch you suffer, struggle?”

“Jupiter!” Caine called from above.

She looked up to the sky. Saw him fly fast in their direction, and then close his wings to dive, dropping down like a bullet to reach her.

He landed before her in a hard thud, impact shaking the ground, shield engaged, mauler trained on Balem.

“May I kill him?”

Jupiter hesitated a second too long with her answer.

Greeghan launched himself at Caine in burst of brute strength, pinning Caine and Jupiter, crushing them back against the stone ledge.

Caine handed Jupiter his mauler and then kicked off the wall, pushing forward to ram Greeghan with his shield.

In an instant, they had taken the fight mid-air, then disappeared out of sight around the side of the building.

Balem advanced on Jupiter, grabbing for the gun.

“No!”

She kicked out at him viciously, heel slamming into his knee. She really hoped she had dislocated something.

The force knocked him stumbling back.

“You will never get the Earth from me!” she said, aiming the gun at him.

“That planet is my right. And there is nothing you can do to keep it from me. I have a vast system in place, designed for one thing and one thing alone: To ensure my supreme position in this universe.”

His voice was choked, straining.

“I will send endless armies after you. I will bathe in Regenex every day if that is what is required. I will only emerge from this stronger.”

Caine and Greeghan came around the other side of the Alcazar, tearing into each other. Jupiter watched horrified as Greeghan snapped Caine’s wings back with an awful sickening sound. Saw them hanging at a broken angle as he and Greeghan, still tangled, went plummeting into the falls.

She shrank back from a touch to her face, realized Balem had reached out to stroke her cheek.

Struggling, she pulled herself together, pushed Balem away and lifter the mauler once again.

But she felt suddenly, strangely weak.

“You can’t hurt me now,” he said with a sneer, "It’s happening again. Can’t you feel it?"

He stepped closer and she clocked him in the nose with her elbow, watched as he fell back in pain.

“I will hurt you,” she said, panting. “And I’ll stop you.”

"You will be hurt, damaged, irreparably. You will age and decay. You have neither the resources nor the will to do what is necessary to stop me.”

“Your Majesty,” Stinger was there in a blur of golden wings, pinning Balem to the wall.

She was trembling again. From adrenaline, or worry for Caine, she didn’t know.

Then everything went black.

 

 

***

 

 

Jupiter woke to the sound of the alarm blaring and Mama commanding, ”Jupiter get up. Make the coffee.”

This time she’d do some things differently. This time she had a definite plan.

She’d made it with Caine’s help. He wouldn’t remember that, of course, but as long as he was still alive, as long as he was here, they could work the rest of it out.

She’d made her way in through the maintenance entrance to the Willis tower. Took the freight elevator up to the ninetieth floor and walked toward the east end of the building, to where she could see him, standing in the shadows.

Her breath caught when he turned to face her, mauler in hand, light from the window falling across his face.

The relief that washed through her at the sight of him was so strong she felt like she could fall over.

Or maybe that was the exhaustion—it was back again.

“Katherine Dunlevy?” he asked.

“No, my name is Jupiter Jones. We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

Jupiter watched as Caine came away from the window, moving past walls of plastic sheeting and steel beams. His stride as he walked toward her in his boots, long black jacket and gloves, his black-rimmed eyes and pointy ears—all the details, things that made him so him—she took them in one by one. She was so incredibly relieved to see him again...but also feeling so incredibly lost and tired.

She took a deep breath, trying to focus.

“I’m supposed to say ‘Drexfall 9’ —as proof that you can believe me, that everything I say is true—even if it sounds too strange to believe.”

“Drexfall 9?” he said with narrowed his eyes. “Stinger Apini must have told you about that.”

“Not just Stinger, you both told me. I realize you don’t know me, that this will seem incredible, impossible to you, but I’ve met you before.” She ended on a sigh, “I’m a time traveler.”

How many times would she have to meet Caine all over again, see his lack of recognition as he looked at her? It really hurt this time, knowing it was only going to keep happening, again and again.

“I don’t know what Drexfall 9 means,” she admitted, leaning heavily against the doorframe. “Kiza badgered you for days, trying to figure it out—I only know it’s a some secret—and that you and Stinger both thought we could use it as a kind of code.”

“Alright,” he said, hesitantly.

“You can’t take me to Titus Abrasax” she said. “He’s hired you to find me because I’m a Royal recurrence—his mother’s recurrence.”

She rolled back her sleeve to show him her glowing sigil.

“Titus plans to trick me into marrying him and then kill me for my inheritance.”

He frowned, but he was still listening.

She didn’t want to tell Caine that Titus had hoped he would be that one that killed her, planned to use his faulty coding against him, that Caine hadn’t been hired for this job just because of his tracking abilities.

“That’s just the beginning of the story,” she said. “This whole thing’s a crazy mess, and we have to get to Stinger’s place as soon as possible. I’ve got a car parked a block over, I’ll explain it more on the drive.”

He just stood there, looking at her curiously, as if trying to figure something out.

They didn’t have time to hesitate though. Wasn’t he supposed to be obedient, now that she’d told him she was a Queen?

She took a step closer to him, stumbled and reached out to steady herself by grabbing his arm, the feel of him warm and solid giving her some strength.

“We really need to go now,” she said.

Your hand is bleeding,” he said looking down at where she touched his sleeve. “You can hardly stand. What’s happened to you?”

“I’m okay,” she said. “Or I will be, once I’ve had a chance to rest.”

At least, that was what she hoped. Her hand did sting, the knuckles torn from punching Balem in the mouth—it hadn’t been any part of the self-defense she’d practiced, instead some deep-seated instinct to hurt him, the way he’d hurt her—but that injury was the least of her problems right now.

“Alright,” Caine finally said, “I’ll go with you.”

Wearily, she wondered if his response was due to his obedience coding, but she really couldn’t tell.

 

***

 

 

During the drive she started to fill Caine in on everything that had happened to her, and to him, in the other timelines, everything they’d been able to figure out.

She called Stinger—and after about fifty rings Kiza finally picked up the farmhouse’s old rotary phone and got her dad on the line.

It took a little while to get Stinger to listen to her, but they’d gone over it all together—all the things she should say that would convince him this was real. By the time she got off the phone he’d agreed to contact the Aegis.

Caine had been mostly quiet, listening to her explanations as he drove, intent on weaving his way through the Chicago traffic the same way he must have dodged and cut his way through the field of war hammers, fast and unnervingly close.

Jupiter, after struggling to remember everything she needed to do and say for the last hour, was trying not to fall asleep, or more likely pass out. In spite of the quick turns and accelerations of the car, she could feel herself drifting off.

“You smell like me,” Caine said out of nowhere, “That, as much as anything, convinced me what you’re saying was real.”

“You never explained that to me,” she said groggily, “that Lycantant sex smell thing...” Oh god! Had she actually said that out loud? She sat up straight, tried to shake herself awake. “...But, um, uh, that was weeks ago and you told me it was gone, washed away by the Regenex.”

He turned to give her a quick glance before looking back at the road, not quick enough, she thought, to miss her bright red face. He didn’t say anything though.

“Basically, I jumped you,” she blurted, and once the words escaped she couldn’t seem to hold them back. “You kissed me—but you were chained up and couldn’t help it and I... it shouldn’t have gone down that way. I didn’t know. I mean, would you ever...? Would you really want to...?”

“Would I want to what?” he asked, swerving into another lane and hitting the gas hard.

His didn’t look her way again, keeping his eyes on the road, his face inscrutable. He must have some idea what she was talking about, but he didn’t say anything else.

And what could he say? And what was she even doing, bringing this up, with this version of Caine, who’d only met her an hour ago.

“I don’t know what I’m—why, uh...” she babbled hopelessly, tiredly. “I didn’t understand back then, about Queens and Lycantants—and your coding...” she ran out of steam and stumbled to a finish.

“It’s not sex,” he said slowly, as if the jumbled mess of her words had finally filtered through to him. Eyes still forward, he didn’t look horrified by the idea at least, just confused.

“Well,” she said. “From my perspective, we’ve been together almost every day for weeks. Maybe that’s what you smell.”

It felt like only hours ago—had it been? —that they’d stood together behind his shield. She didn’t want to remember the horrible sight of him, wings broken, tumbling out of sight down into the waterfall.

“It’s not only that. It’s something else—I don’t understand—“ he shook his head. “I can’t identify it—” He started to take a deep breath, but stopped part way with a grimace, “The smell of this car doesn’t help.”

“Yeah, sorry bout that,” she mumbled. She’d been better prepared to leave home this morning, packed herself a small bag and taken a few precious minutes to clean the garbage from Vladie’s car. In this summer heat though, the car really still stunk, in spite of the rolled down windows. It must be torture for Caine.

This whole situation was torture in some ways, living the same days over and over, trying frantically to escape danger and protect the Earth when she felt like she could fall over at any minute. And dragging Caine into this mess alongside her—because it was no use trying to avoid him, he’d just track her down and take her to Titus.

She didn’t want to avoid him, but she was still trying to wrap her head around things, understand whether or not it was even fair of her to ask him for help.

Him being obedient might be all right—as long as he really didn’t mind it. As long as she could somehow make sure she wasn’t taking unfair advantage of him. But how was she supposed to figure it all out now?

It had been tricky enough when they’d gotten the chance to know each other a little bit. Now she’d have to start all over again.

And anyway, she couldn’t even let her brain get stuck right now, wondering whether Caine would ever actually choose to be with her. She had more than seven billion other people she had to focus on protecting.

And she hadn’t even finished telling him everything yet.

“We made our plans before I knew Balem Abrasax was the one behind the time loop,” she said, gathering her thoughts. “It doesn’t change too many things, I guess. My top priority is still to keep the Earth safe, my family, you and Stinger and Kiza.”

She’d hoped before that if they could take care of those things everything else might be okay. Maybe because that was the only thing she could think, the only thing that would allow her to keep going through this.

She didn't feel quite so hopeful anymore.

“Balem said he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to kill me or watch me suffer,” she told Caine. “But either way, I don’t understand: Why create a time loop? Why go through the same few days over and over? Wouldn’t it have been better for him to go back earlier in time—without me—before anyone else had learned about me being a recurrence?”

“You said that he’s not entirely sane.”

“Well, he’s fixated on me, or on his mother. I don’t know if he can entirely tell the difference between us, if he can decide, whether he thinks I’m her or not. He’s arrogant and unstable, but I don’t think he’s stupid—unfortunately.”

“It could have been an accident then. If, as you said, there’s no information, no current research on time travel. Could be something experimental, out of his control. Something gone wrong.”

“Maybe,” she said, with a sigh. “I need to find more ways to make things go wrong for him. Some way to stop him. He said he would send armies after me.”

“I can go after him,” he said, voice suddenly dark. “Stop him before he has another chance to get to you.”

“No,” she said. “I’m can’t ask you to do that again. Last time, he was caught off guard by the ruptured grav-hull. That won’t work again. And he’ll be prepared for an attack.”

She didn’t want to say it, but it might be a suicide mission. And if anyone were to do it, this time it should probably be her—especially if she were trapped anyway, stuck in this time loop for the rest of her life.

“I’m not ready for anyone to go after him yet,” she said. “There’s too much I don’t know about his time device: How it works, if he can trigger it again. Even if I bought my own armies, started an all out war against him, would it change anything? Or would he just escape again? I don’t know what’s at risk. Every time I’ve looped, you and Stinger have gone back to exactly how you were, the first day I met you. But we can’t count on that always happening, this must end somehow, someday— right?”

He didn’t answer. They’d made it through the city traffic, the open interstate stretching out before them; he was looking forward, focusing on the horizon.

“I can get hurt,” she said softly. “If I die, I’m guessing that’s it for me. No do-overs. But Balem? I just don’t know. I don’t want anyone getting hurt going after him, not when we have no solid ideas about how it all works.”

“Then you go with your original plan, fight him with laws and injunctions. Hope that you can stick it out.”

“Yeah, “ she said. “It’s not safe for me on Cerise anymore though. He can get to me too easily there.”

“Then we’ll find a way for you to go into hiding once we reach Orous,” he said.

 

****

 

Jupiter woke blurry eyed, staring at a familiar grey ceiling, a sound ringing from the door across the way.

“Come in,” she called out, pushing herself up to sitting.

She recognized her surroundings as a room onboard the Aegis cruiser. The door slid open and Caine and Stinger walked inside.

“Your Majesty, you’re awake,” said Stinger, going to his knee before her, his tone deferential.

“No, it’s okay,” she said, rubbing her eyes. She was still feeling a little dizzy. “You don’t have to do that. And please feel free to call me Jupe.”

Not that anyone ever seemed to take her up on that.

“Caine filled me in on the plan while we were waiting for the Aegis,” said Stinger. “Captain Tsing sent a team to protect your family back on Earth. We’ve checked in with the Commonwealth, everything’s in place.”

“Your pardons and Legion re-instatements?” she asked.

“We’re listed as under your command: Royal Guard,” said Stinger.

“I hope that’s okay,” she said.

“It’s an honor,” said Stinger, Caine nodded his head in agreement, standing back near the door, arms behind him and eyes to the floor.

“And did you bring Kiza?” She didn’t really know whether it was safer for Kiza to come or stay behind, it’d been left up to her to decide.

“Once she knew she was invited, I couldn’t convince her to stay,” he said with a rueful smile.

“I’m not surprised.”

“The portal restrictions have also taken effect,” said Stinger. “No registered craft can come in or out of your system without approval. It might not keep everything out, but close enough.”

It turned out Jupiter had inherited not just the Earth, but also the whole solar system from Seraphi, everything within two light years of Earth’s sun (including her namesake planet- which only seemed fitting). If Balem wanted to send anyone to threaten the Earth, it was going to take a long time to get there without portalling.

“I don’t know if it’ll be enough to keep Balem, trapped, at the refinery,” she said. “He has some kind of personal portal that he can just walk through.”

“The restrictions won’t keep him there forever, but they’ll slow him down, ” said Stinger. “He’ll try accessing illegal location codes, but it’ll take a while to get hold of them, and if he wants to get to you he’ll have to find you first.”

“Okay,” said Jupiter, with a feeling of relief. “I guess we pulled it off. Thank you so much for going along with all of this. I know this whole thing is so bizarre.”

“Majesty, I’ve been around long enough this doesn’t rank in my top ten for bizarre assignments. Yesterday this time, I was headed to Wal-Mart,” he said with a look of pain. “Reinstated with honor, getting my wings back. I’ve got no complaints.”

 

*****

 

A short while later, Jupiter and Caine came round the far side of Orous, landing their short-range craft at a run-down docking area. They’d taken off from the cruiser a few minutes earlier, with directions from Captain Tsing to an Aegis safe house for the night. Stinger would be in contact after he’d had a chance to check in with the Legion command.

Caine reached to give Jupiter a hand, and she climbed out of the ship, taking a moment once she’d stepped out on solid ground, to steady herself, looking around.

The strange misshapen buildings twisting overhead were gleaming glass and steal, but the squat buildings down at street level were mostly decrepit, crumbling stone. Overcrowded streets, thick with people and splices and androids of all varieties pushed along in chaotic rhythm. Everything around her was moving, humming with sound, it was hard to know what to look at first.

As they left the docking area, stepping into the flow of pedestrians, she caught herself staring at some species of alien with tiny obsidian eyes and skin like black velvet, a deep dark black saturated with color. The alien met her eyes and jostled into her as they passed, brushing against her hand. The velvet skin was actually prickly like the minute tentacles of sea anemones, and an electric tingle passed quickly through her. Caine growled and the alien stepped hastily, apologetically aside.

“We don’t have to walk through this, Your Majesty,” he offered in a dark undertone. “I can carry you, fly you straight there.”

It was tempting, but...

“No thanks,” she said. “ I am tired, but I don’t think I could sleep again right now. And I really want to see everything, do everything I can. What if I don’t get another chance?”

She stopped for a moment, wobbling, looking up to see the enormous spinning bundles of brightly wrapped packages for sale, suspended mid-air over the heads of men wearing silver caps with anti-grav beams.

It would have been hard for Jupiter to move even a step forward if she didn’t have Caine at her side, pushing a path through the throng for her. Vendors shouted over each in a dozen different languages she couldn’t understand, 3D hologram ads twisted overhead, danced and exploded from all directions.

Her dark glasses protected her from the glare at least. They were part of her disguise, in addition to a scarf around her face that did double duty as an air filter—in case someone recognized her as Seraphi Abrasax. (It turned out there were statues of the former Queen on hundreds of worlds.) She’d been excited when Captain Tsing suggested a disguise, imagining some cool space tech. But it turned out Aegis tech would only draw more attention to her in this area.

She heard a low bark at her side and turned excited, expecting to see her first alien dog—maybe something purple, floating on an anti-grav leash or something—only to find Caine covering his mouth in a cough.

“What?” he asked, abashed, surprised to find her staring at him all of the sudden.

“I thought I heard...something.”

“The air’s not so good,” he mumbled.

The air was thick with smog, but she wanted to be out in this, experience all this. She knew Caine would protect her, catch her if she had any problems, and she didn’t want to miss anything, crowded and smoke filled as it was. The frenetic energy, the hustle of being on the crowded streets was somehow catching, counteracted her fatigue.

They passed a cat splice selling spinning skewers of plump orange fruit and grilled white meat. As usual, after looping through time, she really needed some food.

“Can I get one of those?” she asked. “Is it safe to eat the street food?’

“Yeah, should be alright.” Caine passed over some money and handed her a skewer.

“Oh my god, this is delicious!” she said, after lifting the scarf away to take the first bite, mouth full of the salty sweet charred food.

Caine handed her a napkin to wipe the juice from her chin.

“Is this chicken?” she asked, “Or do I not want to know?”

“It’s...something like chicken,” he answered.

“Do you want a bite?”

He shook his head.

“Well, we have to get something for you. How about those,” she said, pointing to a stall selling those triangular cheese pastries. “I know you like those.”

“I do?” he asked, uncertain.

She kept getting confused, thinking he already knew her, that she already knew this version of him. But he was the same person wasn’t he? And somehow she couldn’t help but be happy to be here with him, happy that they were both still alive, in spite of everything.

“You absolutely do like them,” she said with a smile.

She insisted on getting a big batch of them, hot and crisp, ate one and passed the rest to Caine and when she looked over a minute later they were all gone.

It was only a short walk to their location. She stood close to Caine as he tapped in a code and they were beamed up into a building suspended in the sky.

“What is this place?” she asked, after he’d keyed in another code and they entered through a door into a set of shadowy rooms.

“It’s like an apartment, Your Majesty,” he said simply. “Lights fifty percent,” he called out in a voice that carried through the rooms. “Security setting ten.”

He walked quickly through, checking things out, calling out other commands for temperature and time settings.

“So this is normal? A place like this?”

She followed him, walking from room to room. There were two sleeping areas, a living room, a wall of gadgets that was probably a kitchen—everything simply furnished, with less elaborate looking versions of the tech she’d seen in Kalique’s and Titus’ dwellings. There was one of those weird robo-toilets in the bathroom. She'd been caught before by its disconcerting habit of shooting warm water into her face when she leaned over and activated the wrong sensor for flush. At least it was always clean water. It wouldn’t get her this time though, she vowed, glowering at the thing from across the room.

She looked out the wall of windows to the rings and satellites that hung in the darkening sky and Caine stopped to stand beside her.

“Normal?” he’d taken a moment to think about her question. “Only an Entitled could afford something like this. The Aegis must keep it for the higher ups. It’s probably not up to Royal standards though.”

“No, it’s fine. I’m not fussy." she said, walking back into the living area to look around. "All I need is a safe place to sleep, I just hope that by tomorrow I’m feeling more myself again.”

She plunked herself down on the sofa and took off her shoes, watched Caine as he stopped to take off his coat before doing another scan of the rooms.

“It is kinda hot in here though,” she said.

“The temperature should come down quickly now that the presence has been activated, Your Majesty.”

She leaned back into the sofa, fighting off the overwhelming fatigue, lulled by the heat.

And she remembered—she had to call her mom.

She had no idea how it worked, something to do with FTL satellites or something, but her phone actually worked—at least for calling back home. She took it out and stared at it a moment, bracing herself. Aleksa had been skeptical before, but she’d seemed to believe the story Jupiter had come up with back on Cerise.

“Hi mom,” Jupiter said when she picked up. “I’m sorry I’m not there with you and Nino, I totally didn’t mean to flake on you, but something came up at the last minute.” She spoke quickly, hoping she could get it all out before her mom had a chance to cut in, struggling to remember everything she’d said the last time she’d made this call.

“Katherine had these tickets to a two-week Bahamas cruise and her friend bailed at the last minute. She said she’d pay me to come along and keep her company, so I can make it up to you when I come back home. We took a flight out first thing; on the ship right now. I’m sorry I didn’t call you sooner.”

“Jupiter! What the hell are you talking about?”

“It’s a free cruise mom—

“We are at Dunlevy’s house now,” her voice was grim. “Cleaning the bathroom since you are not here. I can see she is in the living room. Should I get her on the phone for you?”

Oh crap! It was the wrong time; she was a day too early!

“Oh, no. Did I say Katherine, I meant Katrina, remember, from High School, I...”

God, this had been so much easier to pull off last time.

“Jupiter, what is going on?” Aleksa asked.

“I...

“You are an adult now,” she said reluctantly. “I cannot force you to tell me the truth, but do not insult me by lying to me.”

“Umm..I”

“Are you safe?”

“Yeah, I am,” for the time being at least, she thought.

“Is it a boy?”

“I—

“Is he a good boy at least?” she said wearily, as if she didn’t have much hopes for the possibility. She’d yet to approve of any of the men Jupiter had ever gone out with.

“Yeah, he is,” she said, looking over at Caine. “He’s a very good boy.”

Caine looked at her curiously from across the room.

“Well,” Aleksa said reluctantly. “Two weeks? We will be talking more about this when you get home,” her voice was ominous.

“Okay, I promise. Love you.”

Jupiter hoped she would get the chance to tell her everything...someday.

After the call she did her best to settle in, brushed her teeth and hair, changed into cotton shorts and a comfy tee shirt to sleep in. She could hardly hold herself up any longer, but she dreaded the thought of trying to sleep. She’d passed out earlier, on the drive to Stinger’s, but it might not be so easy again, in spite of the exhaustion.

Caine was across the room, talking to Stinger through his implant, making plans for the next day. She couldn’t face the thought, just then, of everything that was before her though.

“I’m going to sleep,” she called over and he nodded in response.

She went into one of the bedrooms, pulled back cool clean sheets and climbed inside the bed, felt the heaviness of her body, sinking down.

No matter what it took, she couldn’t let Balem win. She had to do this, too many people were counting on her, too much was at stake. She didn’t know what the effects of the time travel were on her body—some kind of cellular damage, Kalique had said. For now, she could handle it, she could keep pulling herself together, over and over again, day by day, but how long would this go on? She didn’t know anymore, if she would take Regenex again, if it came down to that, if it was the only way. But what if she did choose that, and in the end, it didn’t even do any good?

At least, she didn’t have to make that choice today.

 

An hour later, she woke in a cold sweat unable to catch her breath.

She'd been afraid this would happen. No matter how tired she was, she couldn’t sleep through the night anymore, ever since the Regenex treatment, ever since Cerise.

During the day, she could keep it together, but most nights she was filled with terrors; the worries and doubts she’d pushed aside coming back to haunt her. She would dream of falling, or being trapped underneath a pile of dead bodies. At the bottom, weighted down by cold slack limbs, she'd strain, pushing against ribcages and tangled hair, gasping for breath. And always, when she escaped in the end, she looked back at the pile of pale dead bodies to find that they were her family.

“Your Majesty?”

Caine stood in the doorway, even in the low light of the burnt lemon moon outside her window she could see his look of concern.

“I’m okay, she said, though he could probably hear the lie in her voice. “Really, you should try to get some sleep.”

“I wasn’t sleeping.”

“What are you doing? Sitting in the dark keeping watch?”

He nodded.

“I’m listening, tracking patterns in the environment. Looking for discrepancies. I can hear that your heart rate is too fast.”

“Yeah,” she admitted.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Not really,” she said.

“Alright.”

When he turned and started for the door she felt a sudden panic at the thought of him leaving.

“Actually,” she called out quickly. “Could you sit with me, a few minutes, if you’re not sleeping anyway? I don’t know, maybe tell me a story. Something to take my mind off things.”

“I don’t know any bedtime tales,” he said slowly, as if he were choosing his words carefully. “I don’t think any of the stories I know would be useful for soothing fears.”

“Oh,” she wanted to protest, but maybe he was right. “ Could you read me something? Look up a story on your implant?

“A story from Earth?”

“Or from your planet, if you like. What is it called? I can’t believe I’ve never asked you that before, I don’t even know where you’re from,” she said.

“There’s not much to know. Not a planet, only a small artificial satellite, no stories associated with it that you’d want to hear.”

“There must be...” but she trailed off, stopped by the look on his face. “I’m sorry. An Earth story would be great then.”

It took him a few minutes before he settled on something:

“Maybe this will suit Your Majesty,” he said and started to read aloud:

“It was a dark and stormy night. In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind...”

 

She lie awake for a long, long time as he read to her, thinking that he would stop eventually, but he didn’t.

It soothed her, listening to the sound of his voice in the dark, her tensed muscles slowly relaxing, her heart slowing bit by bit, until it no longer felt like it was crawling up into her throat.

“Caine you can stop now if you want,” she finally said, after what might have been hours.

“Do you want me to?”

“Not really.”

“Then I’ll keep going. Don’t you want to hear what happens to Meg and Charles Wallace?”

“Yeah, I do,” she murmured settling back down into her pillow.

At some point in the story she must have finally drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Balem surfaced from sleep.

Turning over, black silk sheets sliding slowly from his body, he sat up in bed and took notice of his surroundings. Once again, he had returned to his bedchamber at the refinery.

He felt lethargic, body heavy. He hurt—and when he lifted a hand to his face and felt it crusted with blood, he remembered why.

It was because of her.

“Mr. Night!” he called out.

A moment later, the rat splice scurried into the room and stood hunched before him. “My Lord?” His voice quivered with nerves.

“What report have you on the recurrence?”

“The woman never arrived at the clinic yesterday. She has disappeared, My Lord.”

Yesterday—which meant that Balem had slept an entire day. Once again.

“However, an Aegis cruiser was tracked leaving Earth for the Commonwealth earlier that day,” Mr. Night continued. “I have initiated a planet-wide search of Orous and am receiving continuous updates.”

“And why wasn’t I informed of all this sooner?”

“Your chamber presence revealed your deep resting state, My Lord. I would not dare interrupt your sleep.” He winced, as if expecting an outburst.

There had been an outburst—last time. But it had brought Balem little satisfaction then; he wouldn’t waste time repeating it now.

The fact of the matter was that he had, once again, woken too late, giving her an advantage.

He suspected that as long as this continued he would wake at this time, on this day. His servants were too well trained to interrupt his sleep.

He held back his frustration, reminding himself, once again, that he still held all the other, more important advantages.

His first journey backwards through time had left him gravely damaged—seconds from death, days of stasis required to repair the trauma. However, these last two trips had only been tiring, and without additional memory loss, so far as he could tell.

In the end, it would not matter that she had escaped him at the clinic. In fact, it was her absence there that had first suggested a change, suggested that she had somehow changed. Everything else had remained consistent, only she had deviated from her past actions.

He had guessed that she had somehow been caught within the field of his device. Now he knew it to be true.

He would track her down more quickly this time, hire more hunters, send spies to ensure she hadn’t taken refuge with Kalique.

“Have my re-coding bath readied for me at once,” Balem said. “I will want another update on the recurrence within the hour Mr. Night.”

“A re-code? So soon, My Lord? Your last was only two days ago.”

Balem merely narrowed his eyes in response.

“Certainly. Of course. I’ll see to it right away.” Chicanery Night had backed halfway out of the room before he hesitantly said, “I am afraid that I have one other problem to report.”

“Yes?” This was new.

“It seems the recurrence has claimed her title and properties with unusual speed and...” Mr. Night gulped. “She has passed portal restrictions, My Lord. We are under a ban in this location.”

“Get me illegal codes then.” He gritted the words in a harsh whisper. “As many as possible.”

“Yes, certainly, but...”

“I want them IMMEDIATELY!”

“But My Lord, surely you understand the danger. The slightest error and you would disappear into the void, and the danger of a collision, I can’t imagine you would risk—

“They will be tested first, of course. Have Mr. Skallikan report to me once you have the codes. He can be our first volunteer.”

“Yes, yes, very good,” Mr. Night practically ran from the room.

Balem sat for a moment, rubbing thoughtfully at the minute imperfection on his right hip.

The small golden disk imbedded beneath his skin had imploded upon activation. The only remnant of the fail-safe time device now was the tiny scar of too-smooth flesh—and with the next re-code, that too would be gone.

He’d been warned that an erratic counter-reaction was a possibility. In any case, there was no remedy now but to see it through.

No matter. If it took millennia, he had determined that he would outlast it, outlast her.

Slowly rising to pull on a robe, he walked over to stare at the portrait facing his bed, gazed at her features, still youthful, as he preferred.

You no longer have the luxury of time Mother. You wanted to give up everything that we had achieved, to renounce all that you had taught me.” The memory of her treachery washed over him anew. “I do wonder... if you will regret that betrayal now.”

He smiled in anticipation and was startled by the sting of discomfort to his mouth.

Since her death, no one else had been able to injure him. That had changed, however, the day he had met Jupiter Jones.

He pressed his lips together hard, felt the broken skin crack freshly open. It was right somehow, that she bring him pain once again.

 

*****

 

Jupiter was on Orous three more days before the bounty hunters caught up with her.

Caine sat to her left, at the ship’s controls—he’d opted for a small, fast, Legion-issued craft. It was just the two of them for now—Stinger and Kiza would catch up later.

Jupiter looked through the window as they pulled around in the docking area. That was when she saw them: the crow splice, the monocled man with the air cannon and the pigtailed woman on the moto-speeder—a hundred feet from where their ship had just pulled out.

“They must have come in right behind us,” she said.

She didn’t know if the trio was working for Balem or Kalique now—and she didn’t want to find out. For once, she actually planned to make it off Orous without being abducted.

“I ran into them before,” Caine said. “At the clinic, the night before you came to me.”

The woman on the moto-speeder pulled up beside them, purple hair blowing in the back draft. She flipped her goggles over her eyes and trained her guns.

Caine pulled back on the controls, gaining more altitude—just as they were hit, rocked by a blast from the air cannon below.

He turned to Jupiter, “I got this, Your Majesty. You buckled in?”

“Yeah.”

He took a split second to look around, as if charting a course, then accelerated so hard Jupiter felt like someone had pulled her backward by the skin of her face.

That was when the sensors started screaming, lights flashing.

“Looks like they brought some company this time,” said Caine.

Three larger ships had appeared on the screen, suddenly in pursuit and closing in behind them.

He threw his body into the motions of controlling the ship. Rushing through the crowded sky, they dodged and weaved, steering around sky-high buildings and slow moving craft, shapes blurring as they passed.

A spindly, cloud covered tower was coming up fast—dead ahead. And for one crazy moment, she wondered if he somehow didn’t see it, his eyes darting to the sides and the control screens to look behind them.

“Caine—

Inches from crashing, he swerved at the last second, squeezed through an impossible tight spot between two satellites, sparks flying as they side-swiped a rusted-out section of Orous’ ring.

Explosions burst behind them, visible in the peripheries as they came out into empty sky.

They were clear. They’d lost their pursuers.

Jupiter felt light headed with relief, almost had the chance to let out a sigh—that was when Caine pulled back so hard on the controls she wondered vaguely whether she was going throw up before or after she’d passed out.

A few quick maneuvers later, she was somehow holding it together though, and they’d made it above the highest structures, Orous growing small in the distance behind them.

Caine set the controls for a portal away, and she braced for the stomach-wrenching lurch. A moment later, they’d come out the other side, hopefully, leaving the hunters far behind.

“You okay?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said. It didn’t sound too much like a groan.

She looked around anxiously for a few moments more, waiting for someone or something else to appear in the space around them.

“Looks like we lost them,” said Caine.

They’d made it. She’d left Orous on her own—for the very first time. That had to be a good sign, right?

It took another minute before she was able to take a deep breath and draw it all the way into her lungs though.

Looming before them, an entirely new planet glowed ethereal in the darkness of space.

“What did Stinger call this place?” she asked.

“Kh 3710b,” he said.

“Not exactly a catchy name,” she murmured, looking out ahead of them.

Erie wisps of bright clouds grew larger as they flew into the atmosphere. The ship suddenly surrounded by curls of pale green light that streaked the night sky.

“Is this normal?” she asked.

“They’re clouds of solar particles,” he said. “When they collide with the atmospheric gases they emit photons.”

“Photons?”

“They’re colored lights, Your Majesty. Safe enough to travel through, it won’t interfere with the craft.”

“Oh! It’s an aurora. We have them on Earth too—I’ve never seen them in real life though,” she admitted. “Wow.”

The lights were beautiful, edged with violent pink fire in the distance, illuminating the snow-covered ground now visible far below.

“And just so you know, I trust you to fly us through anything,” she said. “What exactly is this place that we’re going to?”

“According to Stinger, it’s uninhabited,” he said. “A reclusive King used to live here. Everything went to the Commonwealth after his death. It’s under Aegis control now, a safe place.”

“No bounty hunters then?”

“Shouldn’t be any.”

“Good.” She’d been feeling restless, cooped up in that apartment on Orous for days. Trapped there—after Stinger had heard rumors of hunters searching for her across the entire planet.

She’d been busy at least: able to hire more lawyers in her war against the Abrasax family, put more of her plans into action—and get some sleep.

She’d woken feeling hopeful again this morning—ready to see and do what was next, ready to face the day. Except, of course, for the fact that it was now night again.

It took some getting used to, keeping track of the passage of time with space travel.

At least she wasn’t exhausted anymore. A little tired, yeah—but years of alarm clocks blaring at five AM meant tired was nothing new. And the fears that took her over sometimes—that she wouldn’t be able to save the Earth, that she’d spend the rest of her life inside this time loop, that she’d have to use Regenex—those worries were easier to push aside after a few restful nights.

Talking to Caine now, sitting beside him, reminded her of the sound of his voice wrapped around her, reading to her in the dark.

He would hardly look at her in the light of day, though. He didn’t seem entirely sure what to think about all this, what to think about her yet.

As they flew lower, she could see the reflected glow of snow-covered mountains, shadows of crumbling stone structures in meadows and clearings between enormous trees.

“This planet must have been inhabited at some point,” she said. “There’re ruins down there. Do you think it was Harvested?”

“Might have been,” he said. “A long time ago. Either that or the population was moved off-world, so the King could have the whole place to himself.”

A castle rose up out of the forest in front of them, pale stone towers illuminated by the green skies overhead, hundreds of windows reflecting the night like dark eyes.

“Really? A whole planet?” she mused, as they slowly came into the landing area. She did like that explanation better than the alternative though.

They stepped out into the icy night air, walking down a wide cobblestone path to the courtyard before the entrance of the castle.

It was incredibly beautiful, like something out of a fairy tale. On closer inspection, it was kind of spooky though, as if locked away, deserted for a hundred years. Capped with snow, icicles dripped from the turrets and crenellations.

“Nobody’s here at all?” she asked, shivering.

“Probably some staff inside, Your Majesty. They might need to be activated though.”

There was an ornate metal portcullis covering the thirty-foot-tall entryway—and apparently it was locked tight.

“Stinger got cut off part way through the transmission,” Caine said. “ So I didn’t get complete details on the place. Geo-thermal energy source though, everything’s supposed to be operational.”

He was fiddling with some sort of controls in the stone wall. It didn’t look like it was working though.

“Geo-thermal means heat right? It’s freezing here. I guess I should have brought a warmer jacket, but it was ninety degrees and humid when I left Chicago.”

She was rubbing her arms up and down to stay warm, at this rate she’d have frostbite in a minute or two.

“Power’s off here, Your Majesty,” he said turning to look back at her. “I’ll have to let you in the side door.”

He took a blue-lit gadget and placed it against the wall, creating a glowing opening that allowed them to step through five feet of solid stone.

“Nice,” she said.

Inside they faced the same problem though. It was still freezing cold—and a whole lot darker once the wall had closed up behind them.

She turned around and walked straight into Caine. He was definitely warm she noticed.

“Sorry.” She stepped back. “I can’t see anything in here.”

He found her hand in the dark and took it in his. “I can see well enough. There’s a hum coming from the power source. Sounds like it’s down a few levels.”

They walked together through the maze of shadowy rooms, down a long black hallway, footsteps unnervingly loud in the stillness.

“The lifts are off,” he said from beside her.

“Stairs?”

“This will be easier.” He hoisted her up into his arms. “If it’s all right with you, Your Majesty.” His lips moved against her hair as he spoke.

“It’s fine,” she said, swallowing.

He stepped into empty air, and they dropped fast for a split second before he slowed their fall with his boots. Several stories down, they reached the bottom, and he set her down to her feet again.

“There must be an access point down here somewhere,” he said.

She could hear him moving away from her in the dark as he spoke.

“What’s that smell?”

“Sulfur,” he said.

Sulfur?

It had been dark upstairs, but it was impossible to make out even a shadow here. The area must be large though, the way it echoed, the timber of their voices bouncing off the walls and ceilings from far away, a strange indescribable quality to the sound.

“Here it is,” he said. And there was the sound of something being opened on metal hinges.

She reached out a hand in front of her, but couldn’t tell the direction his voice had come from. She’d gotten turned around somehow.

Startled at a sharp crackling sound, she did a series of exact bad moves involving steps in the wrong direction, a trip over a ledge, and a surprisingly long fall backwards.

With a splash, she was engulfed, over her head in hot liquid.

She found her feet and stood, sputtering for breath a few seconds later, the liquid chest-high and dragging at her sopping wet clothes.

Then Caine turned on the lights.

“Do you need a hand, Your Majesty?” he asked from across the room.

She’d fallen into an underground hot springs, a giant indoor pool. Cavernous, ceilings curved high overhead. Warm steam rose off the water in front of her.

It was...really nice actually. The perfect temperature. A shiver of relief passed through her as her skin reacted to the warmth.

“No,” she called over to him. “I’m okay. I think staying in here is my warmest option at this point actually. I mean—this is just water, right? Not some alien goo?”

“Just water,” he confirmed, turning to look at her and take a breath in. “And some sulfur smell, and a lot of minerals.” He turned back to working with the control panels, adjusting different settings.

It was a struggle for her to pull off her waterlogged shoes though. She stripped all the way down to her panties and a tank top, and reached up to put her heavy, wet clothing on the tiled floor before ducking back down into the warmth of the pool.

She floated on her back, looking up at the gleam of the vaulted rock ceiling, saw that it was studded with natural formations of green and blue crystals. Her hair spread out in a circle in the water and she stretched out her arms to do a lazy backstroke.

“This is so much better than walking around in the freezing cold,” she called out to him.

“It will warm up quickly in here,” he said. “Now that the is power on. I’ll go and get you some dry clothes from the ship.”

“You don’t want to swim? It’s really nice in here, you might as well come in,” she said. “I’m not planning on getting out until it’s a whole lot warmer out there.”

“That’s alright, Your Majesty.”

He’d walked over to the edge of the pool, but was looking at his feet instead of her.

“Don’t you know how to swim?” she asked in concern.

“That’s not—

“I’ll teach you! Really, I don’t mind at all.”

“No, I—

“It’s a safety issue,” she said. She stood and placed her hands on her hips, looked at him. “You should really learn how. I insist.”

“Your Majesty,” he started, and then seemed to give up, shook his head with a sigh and started undressing.

Okay. That was more like it.

A few seconds later, she thought, that was really more like it. He was really, very, inexplicably good at doing that—taking off his clothes. How had she not noticed that before?

Though she probably shouldn’t just stare at him with her mouth hanging open.

She ducked her head backward into the water, so that she could smooth her hair out of her face, and when she’d stood up again he was swimming toward her.

He surfaced a few feet away, eyes closed, water running down his skin. He smoothed a hand up over his face, through his hair to clear the droplets away, and then opened his eyes to look at her.

“I can swim, Your Majesty,” he said. “Part of basic Legion training. I wouldn’t mind if you skipped the dog-paddle jokes though. Pretty sure I’ve heard every variation by now.”

“But you don’t—

He swam pretty well from what she’d seen.

“I don’t anymore,” he said.

“Oh, well that’s not fair,” she said. “Everyone swims funny when they’re starting out.”

“I wasn’t the only one learning to swim, but I was the only Lycantant in the group. Easy target.”

He didn’t seem particularly bothered by the memory though.

“Yeah, I see what you mean,” she said, somewhat distracted.

There were other things she could see too now, as the steam shifted in the air around them. But she was trying to look at his face, not gawk at his other parts.

“Um, you’re naked,” she blurted.

“Didn’t want to get my clothes wet.”

“Yeah, I see what you mean,” she said, like a broken record. She somehow held back from saying, “You’re naked” again.

Maybe she should take off the rest of her clothes too. Maybe she’d been over-thinking things with Caine.

She took a few steps closer to him, felt the water against her skin, nipples pushing hard against the fabric of her wet tank top, the warm currents swirling around her thighs as she moved.

When she'd come to stand right in front of him, she opened her mouth and then closed it again; unsure exactly what she wanted to say to him.

He tilted his head to the side, watching, eyes following as she licked the water from her lips. Leaning closer, she lifted up on to her toes and brought her face toward his.

“Do you—

“There you are,” Stinger called in a voice that boomed out unnaturally loud.

They turned and saw him coming down the last of the stairs in the far corner of the room.

“You don’t know how many ships I had to shake off our tail to make it here,” Stinger said.

Then he stopped short, taking a closer look at the two of them.

“We brought supplies,” said Kiza from behind him. “Captain Tsing said they had only Aegis rations here.”

“Everything okay?” asked Stinger. “Everything was dark up above.”

“Power was down and Her Majesty decided to test the water temperature.” Caine said. “She wanted me to prove that I could swim as well.”

“Hmm,” said Stinger.

“I’ll help bring in the supplies,” Caine said, walking back toward the edge of the pool. “And get you those dry clothes from the ship Your Majesty.”

“Good idea,” Jupiter said quietly.

 

********

 

Several hours later, they’d managed to get most everything up and running. They’d had a simple meal in one of the smaller dining rooms. It was comfortable, bright and warm now, a table for four set next to a fireplace that chased away the last of the chill. The room was decorated in vibrant reds and golds, deep forest greens, elaborate patterns cut into the wooden ceilings overhead, carved moldings and pillars of forest animals, flowers and trees.

“Diomika tells me they powered things down last month when the crew came here on patrol,” Stinger was saying. “Birds kept nesting in the shield sensors and setting off alarms.”

The household servants had been activated and were going about their duties around them now. A golden android with huge dark eyes and a button nose smiled shyly at them as she cleared their plates from the table.

Stinger set out a stack of sheaves from the Commonwealth on the table before them.

“We got the defensive shield back up again, Your Majesty,” he said. “And since you said you didn’t want any android guards too close by, we set them up to stay on the outer perimeters of the castle.”

“And that will be enough?” she asked. “When Balem Abrasax said he would send armies after me, I imagined I’d be stuck in an underground bunker somewhere, surrounded by spaceships firing lasers or something.”

“We can find you a bunker if you want—but this is probably safer, and more comfortable. The planet’s coordinates are uncharted. Only a handful of people remember its existence anymore. The Commonwealth is trying to keep this place a secret until they decide exactly what they’re going to do with it. ”

“I still can’t get over the idea of someone having a whole planet to themselves.”

“It’s more common than you’d think,” said Stinger.

“Yeah, I suppose. Kalique has her own planet too, now that I think of it, but she didn’t move the rest of the population away. This just seems so much more isolated.”

She stood up to stretch her legs and went over to look through the window.

“It is beautiful here,” she said, looking out at the glowing green skies. “But twenty hour nights? That’s gonna to take some getting used to.”

“Only in the dead of winter, Your Majesty” said Caine. “And twenty hour days in the summertime.”

“Yeah, I want to see that,” she said. “But I don’t think I’ll be here that long.” She went back over to the stack of sheaves on the table. “Maybe long enough to get through most of these if I’m lucky.”

Stinger had checked in with the Legion on Orous and she could see where his golden wings folded up against his back now when he stood to walk across the room. Caine planned to get his own wings on the next trip out. They’d put through the sheave work for Kiza back on Cerise and she’d been able to get her re-code treatment expedited this time around.

Kiza was curled up on a sofa, glowing with health again, her nose buried in a vid player, looking at the feeds. Jupiter wondered if every time they met, the girl would spend the first week away from Earth catching up on the same gossip. Probably.

In some ways, Jupiter was just spinning her wheels, doing the same things over and over again. But most of those things were easy enough to accomplish, even if only temporarily. She might be stuck in place, but she wanted to repay Stinger, Kiza and Caine for helping her.

If only everything else were as easy.

Sometimes she imagined going back to the planet Jupiter. If she could somehow make it through the hurricane, she’d search out Balem’s time machine—find his fail-safe device, as he’d called it. She’d confront him, mauler in hand. When she shot him this time, she wouldn’t aim for his leg.

But how could she make sure Balem was really dead? What if he only escaped again?

And the thought of going back to the refinery was a whole other nightmare of its own. She could still see the piles of bodies when she closed her eyes, still feel the heat from the explosions, her lungs straining for oxygen, limbs flailing desperately for something, anything to grab on to as she fell.

She wasn’t ready yet.

There were still other plans, other ideas for things she could do first.

She’d been slowly working her way through a series of sheaves on tax laws, wondering if she could find any way to trigger an audit on Abrasax Industries, maybe freeze the company assets.

She had filed an affidavit yesterday, saying she’d witnessed Balem’s confession to the murder of Seraphi Abrasax. Jupiter’s word might not be enough to convict him, but at the very least it would start an investigation, cause him some problems—Regicide was a crime taken very seriously.

Caine stood to join Stinger across the room and the two of them spoke in low voices so as not to disturb her.

She watched them for a moment and Caine turned to look at her in inquiry before she smiled and shook her head and pretended to go back to her reading.

It was probably for the best, that Stinger and Kiza had walked in on them, when they were down in the hot springs.

Or so she kept trying to convince herself.

Caine didn’t mean anything, by stripping down and jumping into the water with her.

Everyone in space took off their clothes at the least excuse—way more casual about nudity than on Earth. She should have remembered that.

Caine had been great about working for her, going above and beyond, helping her with everything she’d asked of him since she’d first explained her story. But she knew he was still wary of Entitleds, and for good reason.

She didn’t want to abuse her power over him. Didn’t want to start thinking it was okay to use people, the way the Abrasax family did.

Anyway, Caine was going first thing in the morning—for who knew how long. And she didn’t want him to leave with anything weird between them.

She didn’t want him to leave at all really—but he was definitely the one for this mission. Once he’d got his wings, he was going to track down Seraphi Abrasax’s former chief advisor, Sir Erkanbald Keteri.

Sir Erkanbald had been trying to tell Jupiter something before he died, maybe something important. Especially if what Titus had said was true—that Seraphi had been making changes, renouncing the Regenex before she died.

It was worth a shot, now that Jupiter had another chance.

The problem was, no one else had seen or heard from the old man for hundreds of years—which was where Caine’s tracking skills would come in handy.

 

 

******

 

Hours later, still night, Jupiter lie looking out the window, watching as the lights gradually, almost imperceptibly, changed shape and color in the bright sky. She was tucked into the fancy carved bed that had belonged to the King, the velvet curtains and bedding embroidered with golden lions and swans. The walls of the room were painted with scenes of the forest that surrounded them.

In the distance, she could hear the sound of wolves, or something like them, howling. It seemed this planet was only uninhabited as far as other humans were concerned.

“Why do they do that?” she asked.

Caine was sitting across the room from her on a wooden bench set into the window. He’d been reading until a few moments before, when he’d stopped to listen to the wolves.

Still, she was surprised her when he actually answered her.

“One of them is separated from the rest of the pack,” he said. “They’re calling out to find each other.”

“Really? So much noise just for that?”

“They howl more when it’s a wolf of high value—one they all miss.” She saw the outline of his shrug against the window.

He’d come in a while ago to sit with her, as he had every night since the first.

She half-suspected he felt sorry for her, like she was a child afraid of the dark, lost in time. Still, he seemed to enjoy choosing the stories to read —he must have found somewhere that children’s books were Earth custom for bedtime reading.

His voice sounded too far away tonight though, all the way across the room. And she kept remembering that he would be gone in the morning. Or whatever passed for morning here.

“You should get some sleep,” she said to him. She’d heard him stifling a yawn earlier.

He might not need as much sleep as her, but he couldn’t stay up reading to her every night.

She didn’t bother to say that she’d be fine without him. He would know that she was lying. Anyway, she’d be alone tomorrow. The nightmares were bad, but she always woke up from them—eventually. She might as well start getting used to it again.

“I’m fine, Your Majesty,” he said. “I told Stinger I’d be here with you, and you had us set the other guards far away.”

“Oh for God’s sake,” she said, feeling unaccountably grumpy. “You can’t just sit on that bench all night long and then fly out in the morning. What if you have other ships chasing you again? Don’t you need to be alert?”

“Skyjackers are accustomed to 72 hour shifts.”

“And how long have you been awake now?”

“Longer,” he admitted. “But I can close my eyes for a little while and still stay in an alert state, on guard, while you’re sleeping. It’ll be enough. And they’ll put me under for hours when I go to get my wings back tomorrow.”

“That doesn’t exactly sound restful,” she said. “And that bench looks pretty hard. At least come sit over here. You’re too far away over there.”

He was silent for a moment before he finally said, “There isn’t any chair, but I can probably find one somewhere.”

He got up and started to leave the room to find one.

“No. Stay,” she said.

And he turned to look at her.

She scooted over on the bed and patted the spot next to her. “Right here is fine. I won’t bite.”

He took his boots off and climbed up on top of the blanket. Leaned back a bit to sit against the soft pillows pilled against the head of the bed and stretched out his legs next to her.

“That's gotta be more comfortable.” she said. “You can close your eyes now if you want. I don’t need you to read to me anymore tonight.”

“If you’re sure, Your Majesty.”

“I’m sure.”

He did close his eyes then, and they were both silent, listening to the wolves again, howling in the night.

“It wouldn’t bother me,” he said after a while.

“What?”

“If you bit me. You’re teeth aren’t very sharp.”

“Oh yeah?”

“You’re the one who mentioned it.”

She lie there on her pillow, looking up at his face. His eyes were closed, but his ear quirked now and then, listening to the sounds outside.

Did he want her to bite him?

The idea was...interesting. The urge becoming somehow irresistible, the more she thought about it.

She ran her hand along his arm where it rested a little way away from her on the bed, saw him open his eyes to watch her turn toward him.

She took his hand and brought it near her. Looked into his eyes as she held his wrist and opened her mouth around the thick of his forearm, where the muscle bulged below his elbow.

Her teeth sank into his flesh, just the tinniest bit though.

She felt sort of silly, was starting to pull away when something in his eyes stopped her. Made her reconsider.

Instead, she bit down harder, pressed her teeth just short of breaking the skin, as his eyes widened and he drew in a sharp breath.

When she pulled his arm away from her mouth, she could see she’d left a mark.

“You’re of high value to me, Caine, and I'll miss you when you're gone,” she said. “Really. I wish you would get some sleep though.”

He closed his eyes again, after she'd put his arm back down and turned to lie flat again. He was quiet, but she didn’t think he had gone to sleep.

She settled back in to look at the night sky. Honestly, she didn’t know what she was doing. But that didn’t seem to stop her much lately.

Chapter Text

Caine sat with eyes closed, listening to the dark. The calls of wolves had faded, only wind outside the castle now, and closer by, the deepening breath of Jupiter asleep on the bed beside him.

He couldn’t make sense of her—the meaning behind her actions. There was the scent of her: always changing, though constant underneath. Nights her heart raced and she smelled of terror. Days she was fierce with determination, occasionally looking toward him with some question in her eyes.

She wanted to keep him, told him she depended on him as part of her team. He knew that she was reluctant to send him away.

Was that why she’d bitten him? To stake a claim? To remind him that he belonged to her?

He’d liked her mouth on him, could still feel the slight sting left behind by her teeth.

Nobody had ever bitten him before.

He’d spent a while afterwards looking at Earth customs. Found nothing about biting beyond advice for misbehaving children, stories of vampires and something called love bites—none of which were relevant here.

Turning in her sleep, Jupiter threw her arm across his belly, and he opened his eyes to see her face pressed against his hip.

His pants were rough against her soft skin, and he’d edged away before, slowly, not wanting to wake her. She kept following his movements though. At this rate, she’d chase him off the edge of the bed.

This time he stayed, allowed himself to reach down and push the hair back from her face so he could see her.

He’d miss her too, the strange little Tersies Queen. He didn’t know how she would sleep at night when he’d gone. She wouldn’t ask anyone else to sit with her, wouldn’t want anyone to know she was afraid, that the weight of her world was too much for her sometimes.

She was stubborn.

Maybe that stubbornness was why she’d pressed her teeth hard into his skin—maybe she thought he’d challenged her to it. Maybe he had. He wanted something from her, even though he should know better.

He still didn’t understand why she smelled like him though, what that odd variant on his own scent was, or what it meant. But he didn’t feel the need to instinctively push it away, to resist it anymore.

At first, his scent on her had been too overwhelming, his heart speeding up, that strange feeling in his gut. But he’d gotten used to it, as he’d come to know her. Gotten so he liked the feeling, sought it out, sought her out. He realized it was somehow inexplicably good just being near her.

Hours passed, and slowly, inch by inch she moved toward him, pushed her half of the heavy blanket over him, kicked out her small foot to latch around his leg.

It was time for him to leave, but she’d trapped him underneath her.

“Your Majesty,” he said.

He couldn’t justify staying any longer. He’d already tried to lift her away without disturbing her. Each time she grabbed on and wouldn’t let go.

“Hmmm?” she looked up at him sleepy eyed.

“I need check in with Stinger before I leave.”

“Oh.” She started to move away—then stopped a moment, found the mark on his arm and softly brushed it with her lips.

She sighed as she lay back and watched him putting on his boots.

“I wish things were normal,” she said in a voice so quiet he wasn’t sure at first if she’d meant him to hear. “That we were normal.”

“You don’t want to be a Queen?”

“It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be,” she admitted.

He thought about it. Being a normal Lycantant, not defective—what would that mean?

There was a time he’d wanted it more than anything, but somehow it didn’t seem as important anymore.

If he had the chance now—to go back and be in a squad with the others, take the place that would have been his if not for his flaws, be a part of the pack—he didn’t know if he’d want it anymore.

“If I were normal,” he said. “I wouldn’t be here with you.”

“Yeah, I know,” she said.

Did she? He wasn’t sure he knew what he meant; the idea was strange—that he preferred being defective, if it meant belonging to her.

“You’ll be alright here, Your Majesty,” he said, putting on his coat. “Stinger will make sure no one gets to you while I’m away.”

“It’ll be good for you to have your wings again,” she said quietly. “You should go.”

He felt there was something else he should say to her, but he didn’t know what it could be.

A few moments later they’d said goodbye and he walked out.

 

*******

 

A week and a half later, Jupiter looped around through time again.

And then, after a couple more weeks, it happened again.

Six, seven—was it eight more times in all? She was losing track.

She thought about putting a mark on her arm for each loop, to note the passage of time. But in the end, that idea was just too depressing.

In any case, she wasn’t sure she wanted to know anymore. What good would it do?

She must be getting older, but not by much. It had only been a few months, less than a year. She was a little more tired each time, but it was only debilitating for the first two or three days. It wasn’t so bad; she could still pull it together.

She didn’t know how she continued to beat Balem every time though. She kept expecting him to walk through a shimmering portal one morning, just after she’d woken back at home. Kept expecting that one day he’d abduct her before she’d even had the chance to get out of bed.

It hadn’t happened yet.

Each time she was able to contact the Aegis, re-claim her title and put her protections in place through the Commonwealth—before Balem could make any move against her or the Earth.

Each time she evaded the bounty hunters and made her way into hiding at the snow-covered castle. Each loop she carried through with more of her plans, figuring out new ways to thwart the Abrasax family. She read sheave after sheave, trained hard and continued to learn how to fight.

She still woke with nightmares most nights, but she was getting more used to that.

Each time she assembled her team to help her—and she did everything she could to help them too.

She still wanted to find a way to be with Caine—but she’d never been good at subtlety, she couldn’t quite figure it out. She was worried about forcing him into something he really didn’t seem to want.

Caine went away to get his wings, to hunt down Sir Erkenbald—which was starting to seem like an impossible task.

Maybe someday it’d be possible, the two of them—if she ever found her way out of this time loop.

Anyway, there were endless lists of other things to do. Important things. The things that should have been her entire focus, her top priorities.

Once, she had tried asking Stinger about Lycantant obedience coding, wanting to get more details, trying to understand exactly what it all meant. But Stinger wouldn’t say a word on the subject—as if he were indignant on Caine’s behalf.

When Jupiter tried reading about it, about how splices were coded, about genomgineering, she was horrified, overwhelmed with sadness—not just for Caine, but for all of the splices, the way they were used and manipulated, the fact that they had absolutely no rights of their own.

And there was something else that left her horrified and sad when she dared think of it: Though she didn’t mean to feel this way, she was growing more and more distant towards everyone, the longer this all went on.

Her family were always the same: Vladie whispering about the fertility clinic, Nino talking about Venus forming an aspect with Mars, Aleksa cursing that someone had used up the last of the whole milk.

Every morning the same, each time Jupiter came back.

In the beginning, it had been poignant: seeing their faces, knowing each time might be the last she ever saw them.

But she was always so tired those mornings. And after a while she’d started to feel more cranky than anything—and then annoyed with herself for being cranky.

And then, slowly, bit by bit, she started to feel numb, as if she weren’t really there at all anymore.

She grew weary of explaining the same things to Caine, Stinger and Kiza. Over and over again.

She was changing, but nobody else ever seemed to.

It wasn’t any of their faults. They couldn’t help it—any more than she could—but she was feeling more and more that they were all trapped in this time loop, in their own different ways.

 

****

Caine heard the elevator, caught a scent on the air and turned to watch a woman walking toward him from down the hall.

“Katherine Dunlevy?” he asked.

“No,” her voice was weak. “My name—

She crumpled in on herself and he had to fly fast to catch her head before it hit the floor.

Holding her, he shook his own head to clear away a strange scent, one that didn’t make sense. Putting his finger to the implant point on his neck, he said “Tell Titus I have the woman.”

 

****

Jupiter woke with a start, trying to catch her breath.

She looked at her surroundings—the room strangely rustic: the walls a pattern of round, bright, variegated stones, high rafters with thick metal beams overhead, a large silver pipe running from one end of the ceiling to the other.

In spite of her heart racing from the nightmare, her muscles ached with fatigue. Which was a good thing, she convinced herself—it meant no one had used Regenex on her again.

She was lying on a bed, still in her own clothes, Caine’s mauler on a side table next to her. Across the room, Caine sat looking out a window, the innards of some tech spread out on a table next to him.

She reached out to take the gun.

“I thought it would make you feel better when you woke up,” he said without turning to face her. “But be careful,” he warned, as she swung her feet off the bed and sat up. “You’ve been asleep for twenty hours.”

She started across the room toward him, the mauler heavy in her hand.

“It works better if you flip the switch by your thumb.” He still hadn’t looked in her direction.

She put the gun down on the table in front of him.

“I’m not planning on using it—not right now.”

“It’s up to you.” His voice was lower, rougher than usual, a large, half-empty bottle sat on the windowsill beside him.

Had he been drinking? She’d never seen that before. He’d always wanted to be alert when he was with her, when he was on duty.

“Where are we?” she asked.

“We landed here yesterday. It’s a small agri-moon—run by two sharecroppers. We can stay with them until the next transport comes.”

She went to stand across the table from him, next to the window and looked outside.

They were on the second floor of the small cobblestone farmhouse (could you call it cobblestone if they were moon stones?) surrounded by a yard blooming with herbs and flowers, paths leading out in all directions.

Looking up, she saw a curved ceiling a hundred feet above, geometric patterns of transparent material, bright artificial sunlight shining down from glowing rods, the deep blackness of space visible beyond.

In the distance, paths led to a series of smaller interconnected domes, filled with green, stretching out into infinity.

She looked over at Caine, confused.

“I think it’s what you’d call the middle of nowhere,” he said, still facing the window. “Twenty million acres of food crops. We won’t go hungry.”

She had been preparing to give him her speech, the same one she’d given time after time lately, every time when he first met her again.

But something was wrong here. Something more than waking up in a strange place.

Something seemed wrong with Caine.

“But how —? Why are we here? I must have passed out, but we were in Chicago last thing I knew.”

“It’s not a pleasant story,” he said. He picked up the bottle, took a swig from it and finally turned toward her as he held it across the table in offering. “Root alcohol, not bad once you get used to it. You might want some.”

“No,” she shook her head. How much of it had he had? “Just tell me what’s going on.”

He was scaring her though; she’d never seen him with this hopeless expression.

He looked away again.

“Titus Abrasax hired me to find you,” he started slowly. “I guess he must have wanted me to save you from the attack. I didn’t know about it beforehand. He didn’t tell me... Titus might have known it was a possibility—that if he told me what was going down I’d try to save them instead of you.”

He was quiet, the silence stretching for a while before he continued.

“There was an attack on your planet, on Earth. Everyone within a two-hundred-mile radius of Chicago was obliterated in seconds.”

“No, it can’t...” Her voice was small, pathetic and weak in protest.

Her family.

All of them gone.

Obliterated.

Icy cold spread through her, turning her body to stone.

“Some people I knew, someone who used to be a friend of mine...” Caine broke off. “They didn’t survive. They couldn’t have, they had no warning.”

Stinger and Kiza.

“We were aboard one of Titus’s ships when it happened.” Caine continued. “The ship was damaged from incoming fire. I got you out in an escape pod before the second blast hit and the ship exploded. I slipped us out through a portal behind one of the Harvesters. The pod took some damage too. I’m surprised we made it this far—a second later and we wouldn’t have made it at all.”

“Harvesters?”

“There were thousands of them. I’m sorry,” he said. “But everyone on your planet has been taken by now.”

“Everyone?”

He nodded his head slowly.

“You’re safe here though. No one will be looking for you, no one will imagine you survived.”

She was safe, only her. Only one person alive, out of a planet of seven billion.

She couldn’t grasp it, the number too vast, suffocating, an impossible weight pulling her down. Too much, too many people dead because of her.

It couldn’t be true—she wanted to think that it couldn’t.

But, of course it was true. She’d been dreading something like it, every day since this started.

She’d finally messed up.

Balem had had his chance and he’d taken it—more quickly than she’d imagined.

She’d thought he’d capture her again if it came down to it. She’d figured he couldn’t resist torturing her with some horrible deal. She’d thought she would somehow get another chance, even if he caught up to her...

But did it matter now?

Everyone was dead –and it was her fault.

She’d imagined endless variations of it, night after night in her sleep, death and destruction everywhere. Time after time.

Somehow, she still wasn’t prepared for it to be real.

“It’s not real though,” she said softly, in realization.

She was surprised to hear laughter and realized it was coming from her, she was hiccupping with it, choking on it all of the sudden.

None of this is real,” she gasped. “It will all go back again. Everything will be okay.”

Caine took another drink from the bottle, watching her now, waiting for her to catch her breath.

“You’re in shock,” he said.

“No, but—

Maybe he was right though. She felt like she was in shock. There were tears streaming from her eyes. Maybe she was on the verge of totally freaking out.

But that didn’t mean that she was wrong. That didn’t mean it couldn’t be true. Everything could go back to the way it had been.

She wiped her face and tried to take a deep breath.

None of it had to be real. Not permanently.

“We made an emergency landing here yesterday,” Caine continued his story. “The pod couldn’t make it any further. Their FTL satellite is down. I’ve been looking over the unit from the pod, trying to fix it, but there’s too much damage.” He gestured to the piles of wires and microscopic circuit boards before him; she could see that some of them had melted in spots. “We’re stuck here for now, the next transport ship is due in three weeks.”

She didn’t want to be here in three weeks though. She needed to go back to Earth again, go back in time, have another chance to make things right.

After hoping to escape it for so long, the only thing she wanted now was for the time loop to happen again, at least one more time.

“I’m a time traveler,” she said, the words coming out too quickly, frantically. “I know it sounds impossible, but Balem Abrasax caught me in a time device. I keep looping around, going back into the past, over and over again. It seems hopeless right now, but this can all be undone. I can be faster next time and fix everything.”

Caine didn’t seem like he was listening though. She knew she was flustered and explaining things out of order, she wasn’t saying anything right.

“We can save Stinger and Kiza!” she said.

That got his attention at least.

“How do you know about them?” he asked.

“I’ve met you all before,” she said. “And each time you’ve helped me save the Earth—more times than I can remember. We can do it again.”

And if by some chance, she weren’t still stuck in the loop, she would go after Balem in three weeks and make him reset the device one more time. Whatever it took, she would do it.

What other option was there?

At least, if she were forced to go to him, that might be an end to this. She was so tired of it all.

“I don’t know,” Caine said. Was he was slurring his words?

“You can believe me,” she said with a sigh. “You know that I’m not lying. We can fix this—somehow. I promise you. I can explain it all later, answer all your questions—maybe when you’re not drunk...” she trailed off. “I guess there’s no hurry now.”

“I don’t know how you got mixed up with the Abrasax family,” he said carefully. “But something strange is going on with you. I don’t know how Titus did it—but there’s something about your scent, my scent...”

That again.

“It’s nothing to do with Titus,” she said, exasperated.

Caine watched her, waiting for an explanation.

But he had never explained it to her.

It was sex—or not sex— that part seemed to change. Depending on whether or not they’d had sex recently?

But she’d hardly allowed herself to be near Caine in the last few time loops. It was too painful anymore, she’d sent him away each time, after they’d been together for the first few days.

What was it he smelled?

She was so frustrated with herself, couldn’t believe she’d let this happen, time after time. All the things she’d wanted to tell him, all the things she’d wanted to ask—and she’d let herself get stuck every single time.

“You want to know why I smell like you?”

She felt the sudden need to move, to shake off the fatigue and the frustration, everything welling up inside her as she paced the room in front of him.

“I really don’t know,” she said, on a laugh that came out wrong. “Maybe it’s some kind of warning—from your future self—to watch out because I’m desperately, hopelessly in love with you...” she stopped, realizing her voice was breaking and somehow it wasn’t as funny as it had seemed a few seconds earlier.

It wasn’t funny at all.

He stared at her silently.

“I’m sorry,” she said with a sigh. “I’m probably still in shock.”

Everything was wrong and she’d had to go and say that. What could she possibly expect?

Nothing.

She didn’t expect anything.

He didn’t know her. It was all too weird—just like it always was when she met him again.

“Just—never mind,” she said. “If I’m right, if we’re lucky, time will re-set and this will all go away. Someday soon, you won’t know me anymore, won’t remember that we ever had this conversation.”

“Who are you?” he asked.

She opened her mouth to say the lines she’d memorized, the same things she’d told him so many times before —but did it matter anymore? She didn’t want to deal with any of it right now.

“I’m nobody,” she said.

In spite of everything thrust on her, wasn’t it true? She was supposed to be the Queen, supposed to save her world. Except she hadn’t been able to pull it off this time.

Right now, she might as well be nobody.

“Balem Abrasax wouldn’t incinerate twelve million people trying to kill a nobody,” Caine said.

“You’re right. That’s my fault. I take full responsibility for it and I’m going to find a way to fix it.”

She refused to believe it couldn’t be done. Somehow, she would find a way.

But it wasn’t going to happen today.

“You can call me Jupiter, if you want.” She slumped down in a chair next to him. “I already know you Caine Wise.”

She reached out a hand, but it was her left, she wasn’t looking for a handshake from him this time.

“Could you pass the bottle? I think I do need a drink.” She took a long swallow; it tasted like vodka and gave her a warm feeling going down. “And can I get something to eat?”

 

Chapter Text

Jupiter followed Caine down a narrow staircase at the end of the hall, the bottle of alcohol held tight in her hand. What she really needed now was food though—she was light-headed, weak with hunger.

When she stumbled on a stair, he turned to catch her, their faces suddenly close. Though he’d been slurring his words, he was steadier than she was, his hands firm where he wrapped them around her upper arms.

“Thanks,” she said.

He stood completely still a moment, focused on the movement of her lips as she spoke, his eyes intense. She could feel the heat radiating from him. He shook his head then, seemed to realize she’d found her footing, and took his hands away, turning to continue down.

The large open room below was an odd combination of rustic charm and weird space tech—the same colorful stone walls as upstairs, wooden furniture, a fireplace and an entire wall filled with kitchen gadgetry that looked like it belonged in a science lab.

A woman walked toward them from beside the rough-hewn table in the middle of the room. Everything about her light and flowing, swaying silvery hair, translucent pale skin with the slightest tinge of green to it, her faded skirts and long draping sleeves rustling as she moved.

“Remarkable,” she said, grey eyes piercing, examining Jupiter closely.

“Io, this is Jupiter,” said Caine, looking between the two of them.

“Io?” asked Jupiter in surprise.

“Yes, Ionidine Trembt,” she replied.

“Oh—Io is one of Jupiter’s moons. That is, the planet Jupiter, not me.” Was she babbling? The effort of making herself understood suddenly seemed too much.

“Is Jupiter a planet of some significance?” Io asked.

“Significance? I guess not really.” The universe was so vast, and what Jupiter knew of it still so little. It was overwhelming sometimes, how much she had to learn. The planet had always seemed important to her of course. It was the biggest in her solar system; anyone else from Earth would think it significant. But then it hit her again: There was no one else from Earth, no one else left alive but her.

She needed to find a way to save them all permanently. The time loop would bring them back, but she never wanted to wake again and find that she was the only one left.

Her knees felt wobbly, as if she’d forgotten how to stay upright when she wasn’t moving forward.

“Sit down,” Io said in a gentle voice, “And I’ll get you something to eat.”

“Thank you. That would be great.”

“Other than transport pilots, no one ever comes around here,” said Io. “It was a welcome surprise to see your face.”

She walked over to the wall of translucent tubes, metal knobs, control screens and drawers. An array of incomprehensible gadgets.

“Do you care for grunyaquats?”

“I don’t know.” Jupiter answered. “I’ll try it...them?”

She watched as colorful items flew through the tubes, ingredients entering whole on one end, jets of water and flashes of lasers as foods moved along various paths. A minute later, Io opened a door and brought out a steaming bowl of food.

Jupiter took a bite of the spicy vegetable stew with mummer of appreciation.

She watched Caine as she ate, as he slowly paced the edge of the room, restless. He’d declined the offer of food—for once, he didn’t seem to have an appetite.

“I suggested giving you something for your fatigue,” said Io, looking closely at Jupiter’s face, “But Caine wouldn’t let me near you. He’s very protective.”

“I appreciate it,” Jupiter said to him. “I really prefer not having any medical treatments.”

His only response was a nod.

Io watched her, unnervingly. Then, in a sudden swish of fabric, she moved to open a cupboard, brought out some glasses, and plunked them down on the table.

“Will you join us?” she called over to Caine.

He shook his head.

She shrugged, gently took the bottle from where it was still clenched in Jupiter’s left hand and poured out generous portions for them both.

Then she lifted her glass in a toast.

“In celebration of your arrival,” she said, and tossed back her drink in one gulp.

Once Io began to talk, and it was like a spout had opened, her words pouring quickly out.

 

“It’s been nine-hundred and eighty-six years,” she mused. “We stayed behind after everyone else left. I couldn’t have done it without Ell, of course. She’s the real genius, keeps everything running—I don’t know if you had the chance to meet her before.”

“Um, no,” said Jupiter, swallowing a mouthful of stew. “I just woke up a few minutes ago.”

Io just stared. There was definitely something strange about her. Other than the faintly green skin, she looked human—but who knew what sort of creature she might be. Maybe she was just out of practice talking to strangers. She seemed friendly enough, giving them food and a place to stay.

“We’ve kept everything self- sufficient,” Io continued. “Expanded the agri-domes, increased profits. It’s kept corporate from looking too closely into any of our practices.”

She didn’t seem to require more than an occasional nod, as she spoke, so Jupiter focused on her food.

She had that odd yet familiar feeling of waking up in a new place, fatigued and wondering what sort of world she’d found herself in. There was nothing she could do right now but eat, try to rest, build herself up for the next time around.

In spite of the odd manner, there was something soothing about Io’s voice as she talked.

"The residential complex was too large for just the two of us, so Ell designed this house, with extra rooms for when the children came. They’ve all grown up and moved away now, families of their own, five generations.”

“It’s a very nice house,” Jupiter murmured between bites.

“We’ve continued the research, kept the project going,” said Io.

“Are you talking about our research, dear?” a voice said as the door swung open. “There’s no end once that gets started.”

The woman who entered had close-cut fuchsia hair and a wry smile. A tattoo of iridescent flowers curved around her left eye and temple, the intricate pattern bright against her dark brown skin.

She unfastened a heavy bag of equipment from around one shoulder and hung it on a hook by the door, revealing a pink vest that matched her hair and tan pants with a multitude of pockets overflowing with yet more gadgets.

“Hello.” She held a hand out to Jupiter as she came closer. “My name is Ell.”

“Jupiter,” she said in response, noticing the firm handshake and the way the other woman took her measure.

Ell walked over to Io, smoothed a hand down her hair and leaned in for a quick kiss.

“Are you sure?” she asked quietly.

“I’m sure,” said Io.

Ell fixed herself some food and Jupiter watched in a daze as the whizzing wall of tubes went into action again.

After a quick bite to eat, Ell headed back out, muttering something about checking the lines in sector 439. Io continued on with her strange, mostly one-sided conversation. Maybe she just wanted someone new to listen to her theories? Though Jupiter was far from the best audience right now.

She let the words wash over her.

Slowly, hours passed with food and drink and talk.

Caine looked on, mostly silent. Since he’d passed Jupiter the bottle upstairs he hadn’t had any more to drink.

Day faded into evening and everything seemed more and more hazy, unreal.

He was keeping his distance, Jupiter realized.

She shouldn’t have told him that she loved him; she should never have let that slip. But maybe it was for the best.

She’d always wondered before—if his obedience coding would kick in once he knew how she felt. She’d worried he’d be forced to follow her lead. She’d feared she might coerce him into a relationship without realizing it.

That didn’t seem to have happened.

Although, she realized with a sinking feeling, she hadn’t told him that she was a Queen yet.

What if he suddenly changed once she told him? It was horrible, imagining he’d somehow be compelled to love her in return, or pretend to.

She didn’t know what she would do if that happened. But at least she would know. She’d make sure, if need be, that she never said anything about it ever again.

Right now, he looked just look troubled, and maybe confused. By her? By the whole situation? She hadn’t told him their story yet. He seemed quieter than usual.

Did he blame her for what had happened to Stinger and Kiza? He probably should.

Or maybe he wasn’t entirely put off by her after all.

When the room started to feel like it was spinning again, Caine scooped Jupiter up and carried her back upstairs to lay her down gently on the bed.

 

***

She woke headachy; her mouth feeling like it was pasted shut. She’d hoped the drinking would knock her out cold. Instead she’d been sunk into an endless dream state, dragged down into nightmares, pulled under until she was gasping for breath.

Still, she’d had some sleep, and she felt marginally better for it. She got herself together as best she could, went downstairs, and found Caine sitting alone.

“Can I get you something to eat?” he asked.

“Yes, please.”

She walked over and stood next to him at the wall embedded with gadgets, watched as he punched in a few numbers and ingredients flew through the tubes.

“How does this work exactly?”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like it before,” he said, turning to see her standing close by. “Ell invented it. She suggested this combination.”

He drew out something that looked like a fruit covered pancake and handed it to her.

She sat down at the table with her food, as he programmed more numbers into the machine.

“I asked about this one in particular,” he said, looking over at her.

She watched as tiny brown dots flew through the tubes, puzzled as a minute later he drew out a steaming cup and put it before her expectantly.

“You’ve been asleep for a long time,” he explained. “I thought you needed something to revive you.”

The smell hit her.

“Oh my God, is this coffee?”

“Isn’t it a favorite drink on Earth?”

“Definitely for me, but how? I’ve never had coffee anywhere else before.”

“I don’t know how closely you were listening to Io. But they grow everything in the ‘verse here.”

“Yeah, I was fading in and out for a while there,” she admitted.

“She was very intent that you know about their research—interesting, considering they only told me they were sharecroppers.”

Jupiter took a sip of the hot coffee. There was something slightly different about it, but it was actually pretty good.

“Thank you for this,” she said. Something else occurred to her. “If you know about coffee, that means you can still look up information about Earth? It’s all still out there somewhere?”

“FTL satellites are constantly collecting information—from all around the universe. I can’t access anything new from here, but I uploaded everything in your computer systems two days ago,” he said, touching his implant. “I can store more than a thousand times the data of your internet.”

“Okay,” said Jupiter taking a deep breath, “I’m probably more than a little crazed right now and need some perspective here, but somehow, knowing there’s coffee and the Internet— well it actually helps a little.”

“You said that you could bring them all back, that there were things you wanted to explain?”

“Yeah,” she said. She took another bite of food and a fortifying drink of coffee and then she began her story.

She told him all the things that always convinced him she was a time traveler—she’d memorized her lines.

She watched him closely as she spoke. It was strange, how she missed him when he was right there in front of her. She had to hold back sometimes from touching him, keep from reaching out to see if he were real.

She told him about the first time she’d met him, when he’d saved her at the fertility clinic. She told him the story of how he’d stopped her wedding with Titus, and how they’d escaped Balem’s exploding refinery and made it safely back to Earth.

She told him about her first loop backward through time, when they were captive on Titus’s ship. She told him about her time with Kalique and getting lawyers to work for her at the Commonwealth, how she’d filed his and Stinger’s pardons and reinstatements, gotten them their wings and made them her Royal Guards.

She explained that she’d gone into hiding after Balem told her about his fail-safe device, after he’d begun sending endless bounty hunters after her. She’d been training in combat, reading histories and laws, putting through more sheave work and protections each time.

“You’re a royal recurrence?” he interrupted at one point. “A Queen?”

“Yeah, I’m afraid so,” she said. “But I know about your entitled instinct and all your so-called defects and I trust you completely. You’ve saved me so many times it’s ridiculous.”

She wanted him to know that she didn’t consider him a danger to her—at all.

“It sounds like you’ve done just as much for me,” he said, still frowning.

“I don’t know how I’ll be able to put through your pardon and re-instatement this time or get you your wings.”

“That doesn’t matter,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to ever get my wings again.”

“It matters to me,” she said. “If I could contact the Commonwealth, everything I’ve done in the other time loops would go into effect. I don’t understand how it works exactly, but the Minister of Seals and Signets said it’s time locked. There’s sheave work filled under my title, but none of it exists until I officially exist, until I scan my sigil. That’s why Balem was able to beat me. I didn’t get to the Aegis in time.”

She thought she’d gotten good at this—convincing him.

Usually, after the first few minutes, Caine came around, but this time he looked so skeptical—and she wasn’t sure quite where she’d gone wrong.

She let out a long sigh. Maybe it helped going to Stinger’s, meeting up with the Captain Tsing and the crew. Everything was out of order, off kilter this time. Too much had gone wrong.

“But why would Balem Abrasax re-set the time device again?” Caine asked. “He has what he wants. He’s survived, he’s harvested the Earth, he believes that he’s killed you.”

“It’s not that he’ll re-set it, exactly... I don’t think he knows how to stop it. He told me his device was a fail-safe against death. When it was triggered at the refinery, I think I just got dragged along in its wake.”

She took another bite of her food, tried to think about how she could explain it.

“We don’t think it’s in his control,” she said. “Because if he could have stopped it, he would have. I’m absolutely sure of that now. There are other ways he could get at me, better ways. The time loops—going through this over and over again—it doesn’t make any sense.”

“And why haven’t I gone after him?” he asked. “Why haven’t I killed him for you?”

She knew Caine had wanted to go after Balem.

He’d suggested it before. Time after time.

But she didn’t want to risk him. It wouldn’t be right when had no real choice in the matter—when his coding obliged him to protect her. And she didn’t want him going on another suicide mission just because she was a Queen.

“There are always other things to do,” she said. “New ideas, new plans to put into action against Balem, against Abrasax Industries. And I don’t know if killing him would even work. He might have another fail-safe device.”

Caine still didn’t seem convinced for some reason.

“You have to believe me,” she said reaching out, putting her hand over his where it rested on the table. “The time loop will happen again. And when it does we’ll have them all back: Stinger and Kiza, my family, everyone on Earth.”

“I believe that you’re a time traveler,” he said his voice low, quiet. “And that you’ve met me before. There are too many things that you know.”

“Okay...”

“I’ll help you in whatever way I can,” Caine said, “for as long as you’re with me. But how—

He broke off as the door opened and Io and Ell came into the room.

“You’re awake!” Io said with an excited smile. “Please come with us. Everything is ready for you to see.”

 

***

 

They went down one of the paths in the yard outside, into a dome filled with flowering trees.

“We’ve accelerated the growth factor by a hundred,” Ell said. “The fruit will be ready here by tomorrow.”

“Wow,” said Jupiter, kind of automatically, truth be told. When she considered the wonders of space, she hadn’t really thought about space agriculture.

It was only polite, to let their hosts show them around the place. Even though what she really wanted was the chance to talk to Caine some more. She could tell there was something still troubling him, something about her story he didn’t seem to believe.

A large metal disk slid open in the ground as they approached, a blue anti-grav beam shooting up from inside.

“Please, follow us,” said Io, and she and Ell stepped into the beam and began to lower down.

Jupiter looked to Caine and saw his eyes widen as he sniffed the air, his hand hovering over his Mauler.

“What is it?” she asked him.

“It’s...strange,” he said slowly. He took his hand away again. “But it’s alright I think. I can go down first and check it out if you want.”

“I’d rather we go together,” she said.

They stepped into the beam. It was a long trip down, thirty or forty feet. The space huge and dim, spreading out below them, wall to wall banks of rectangular tanks that radiated the only light in the place.

Once they’d landed, Jupiter stepped forward, drawn toward the mysterious green glow, trying to make out the shapes behind the semi-transparent material.

She put a hand against one of the tanks, found it was smooth and damp, fibrous, it moved against her palm, seemed to almost breath. She pressed closer to see what was inside.

Then she screamed.

There was an eyeball, and once she’d recognized that, she saw the shapes of organs and something that looked like a sheet of skin, everything floating in a jumbled incomprehensible mass.

She backed away in horror as the lights came on all around them, everything suddenly bright.

“I’m so sorry Your Majesty,” said Io, coming to stand by her side. “That’s only the recycling. Please come this way. I’ve prepared the labs for your tour.”

“What are you recycling?” Jupiter asked in disgust. “What is this place?”

“We’re recycling the cloned materials. We isolated those parts for research, to compare the effects on various tissues and organs. We’ve stopped producing the cloned Regenex here of course.”

Regenex. Jupiter couldn’t seem to escape it. It was everywhere she turned.

“You produced cloned Regenex here?”

“Yes,” said Io. “We did for quite some time. Ell needed it maintain her longevity and we continued to the run tests. We were able to prove conclusively that there is no difference between the laboratory product and that of the farmed harvests.”

“Farmed harvests?” said Jupiter in disbelief. “That’s what it’s called when an entire planet is killed?”

“Yes,” Elle said, matter of fact. “And other than color and consistency, the cloned product is identical. We’ve proved it.”

“I’m afraid,” said Io, standing by her side, “that the lie about genetic in-plasticity was far too effective however. Those rumors may have helped Abrasax Industries corner the market, but the public will never believe cloned product is safe now, Your Majesty.”

“Why are you calling me Your Majesty?”

“Ell only ever saw you from a distance,” said Io. “But I recognized you right away. I’ve kept the research going in anticipation of your return. We’ve been able to develop the plant-based alternative that you hoped for Seraphi. Or do you prefer the name Jupiter now?”

 

***

 

“It’s plant-based?” asked Jupiter, holding the glowing green vial up to the light. “Like juice?”

 

“Something like juice I suppose,” said Ell. The two women seemed to trade off talking as they explained everything. “It’s actually microscopic flora, suspended in a growth solution. When consumed it establishes a living plant-microbe symbiosis within the human body, reversing cellular decay. One dose of the VegeCell will completely reverse your illness, Your Majesty.”

“I prefer the name ‘Abrasax-Green,’” said Io. “It has a better ring to it, I think. But we’re just the bio-engineers—we’ll leave that part to the marketing department.”

“And that’s why you’re green?” Jupiter asked Io. “From drinking this stuff?”

“No, Your Majesty,” she said with a smile. “I’m a tree splice—naturally long lived. I take some benefit from the formula, but it is optimized for use in animal based life forms. Please do try it, it will help you.”

Jupiter looked at Caine, uncertain. There was definitely something mad-scientist about the two women, but that didn’t mean they were evil mad scientists necessarily.

“Are they telling the truth?” she asked him.

“Yes,” he answered simply. “Do you want me to try it first?”

“Um..” she hesitated. He was always putting himself at risk for her, and she couldn’t entirely decide how she felt about it.

He took the vial, dipped the tip of his finger inside and licked it clean as she watched.

“It’s good,” he said with a small smile.

Still, she hesitated. She knew she needed to be faster in the next time loop—though she hadn’t wanted to think about exactly how that would happen.

If this was a possible solution, she had to try it.

She braced herself, put the vial to her lips and drank it steadily down as the three of them looked on.

At first, she didn’t feel anything. Then, slowly it spread through her, from her chest outward, like perfectly warm spring sunshine after a long winter.

It was different than the feeling of the Regenex, lighter, happier, she felt somehow buoyant.

“I like it,” she said, giggling.

 

****

 

Io and Ell wanted Jupiter to stay in the lab and look at graphs and reports with them, but she just couldn’t do it.

For the first time in months she actually felt good. She needed to be outside in the sunlight—even if it was artificial. She wanted to be moving, not stuck down in this basement looking at numbers.

“Later, I promise, I’ll look at it all,” she told them, holding back another laugh.

She grabbed Caine by the hand and pulled him along with her toward the anti-grav beam.

“I’ll be able to survive this now,” she said happily, standing close, grinning up at him. “I can do this!”

Caine smiled, caught up in her excitement. She just felt so giggly and giddy. And, well, she’d already told him that she loved him...

She grabbed him by the ears, brought his face down toward hers and kissed him for all she was worth.

They must have stopped floating through the air at some point and stepped out of the anti-grav beam, because eventually, when she felt the shower of tiny fruit blossoms fall down around their heads, and they pulled back to look at each other in surprise, she realized her feet were back on the ground.

She couldn’t tell when it had happened though. She still felt like she was floating.

“I don’t know, if you really understand what it means,” he said hesitantly. “That I’m a splice and you’re a Queen.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, suddenly heavy again, weighted down. She could have sworn he was just as enthusiastic as she was, the way he’d leaned into her kiss, tilted his head and opened his lips so she could taste him. “Just because you’re obedient, you don’t have to...”

“I’m not though,” he said with a frown. “You said that you knew that.”

“What?”

“I’m not obedient, not the way Lycantants are supposed to be. That’s never worked out for me—I can follow orders, but...I assumed that Stinger or I had told you. You said that you trusted me in spite my faulty coding.”

“I...” she was stunned, didn’t know what to say to him. All this time she’d thought...

“I thought something must be wrong,” he said quietly. “It didn’t make sense—that you knew me, that you could know what I am and what I’ve done. It didn’t make sense that you could be, as you said, hopelessly desperately in love with me.”

“What? That’s the thing you can’t believe? You can believe that I’m a time traveler, but you can’t believe that I’m in love with you?”

“I’m defective and you—

He looked at her closely, reached out a finger to touch one of the tiny white flowers that was caught in her brow, brushing it away. “I think you must depend on me, because of the time loop, because of everything that’s been happening to you. But once you find a way out of this, you’ll understand, you’ll learn what it’s really like to be Royalty.”

“You’re wrong,” she insisted. “I see now that I misunderstood some things. And it’s true I’m still learning how everything works, but I am in love with you, that’s not going to change.

He stood close to her still, he hadn’t backed away yet, but he looked as if he didn’t know what to believe.

She slid her hand up his chest, felt his heart beating fast beneath her palm, felt an echoing pulse inside of her.

She was giddy, with this new energy, with the idea of him and all that was suddenly possible. Everything he’d done in their past, she realized, had been his own choice, his own free will.

And there was an alternative to Regenex.

She was a force to be reckoned with.

“We’ve got two weeks,” she said, sure of herself for the first time in far too long. “If you don’t believe me now, I’ll just have to find a way to convince you.”

Chapter Text

Io stood beside Ell in the underground laboratory, watching as Jupiter and Caine ascended in the glowing anti-grav beam, eyes widening as the new Abrasax Queen pulled the Lycantant in for a kiss.

Interesting, thought Io.

And not particularly surprising, considering what she’d seen of them so far: Caine’s careful, protective manner, the way Jupiter’s eyes followed his every move.

Would history repeat itself?

Caine didn’t look anything like the other Queen’s Lycantant. Io still remembered him—as if his image had been seared into her brain. More than seven feet tall, he’d dwarfed his Queen as she stood before him. Dark haired, with fierce black eyes and dusky olive skin, so hard and distant he could have been carved from rock. Though that adamantine stillness had been so eerie, so unnatural...under the circumstances.

The two Lycantants were so different. Caine much paler, smaller, more human in scale—except... maybe something similar in his eyes when he first came to them—something stoic and pained.

Io shuddered to think of it. For all of their sakes, she hoped that this time, there’d be a happier ending.

It had been a risk bringing them down to the labs, exposing the secret of the Abrasax-Green. For such a long time, no one but she and Ell had known what lay beneath the surface of this moon.

Hundreds of years ago, in the chaos and confusion following Seraphi Abrasax’s death, Sir Erkanbald Keteri had contacted Io, offered funding to continue the research in secret.

She’d made a choice. Instead of turning over the research, the facilities, turning herself over to Balem Abrasax, she’d hidden it all—faked her own death and taken on a new identity in order to continue the work here.

They’d known that Balem would shut everything down if he ever learned of it. After all, Abrasax-Green was designed to replace Abrasax Industry’s most profitable product.

It was fortunate that the Abrasax holdings were so vast and far ranging. This small self-sustaining agri-moon was unremarkable in and of itself. Plagued with meteor showers and unable to maintain an atmosphere, terra-forming had never taken hold outside of the geodesic domes.

It was fortunate Seraphi had been so secretive about the project. It had been surprisingly simple to keep everything hidden.

Everyone involved in the operation had been mind-wiped and transported back to Orous. Everyone, that was, except Ell, who had noticed Io missing from the transport line and slipped away to find her. The young bio-engineer, dreading finding her next research position, pleaded with Io to let her stay on and help. Io hadn’t realized at the time how instrumental Ell would be in keeping everything going—or that the two of them would eventually fall in love.

Io looked over at Ell, her fuchsia hair standing out bright. She’d been through every color of the rainbow in their hundreds of years here together, but the hot-pink color was a favorite.

Hand in hand, they walked the length of the giant subterranean lab; each lost in their own thoughts, passing through the rows of tanks, the walls of refining equipment, metal doors that lead to cold storage rooms. Io's skirts and long sleeves flowing around her as she moved, soothing. Sometimes she imagined them as an extension of herself, like a distant sense memory of rustling leaves.

In the end, her subterfuge had bought her nearly a thousand years of freedom—no easy feat for a splice. She’d never intended to remain here forever though. It was time the rest of the universe learned their secret. Time to see what would happen next.

“I trusted in your decision,” said Ell. “But...it’s still difficult to believe that this woman is the new Queen. I hardly saw Seraphi Abrasax—she appeared older, hair going grey. Mainly, I remember her energy, the air electric around her, everyone jumping to her command.”

Io thought of Jupiter at their kitchen table yesterday, hardly able to hold herself upright, her eyes dark with purple shadows. She’d been a ghost, insubstantial, not quite there.

“Jupiter has been ill, “ Io said, “And traumatized. Caine told us that her home was destroyed, her planet harvested. ”

“I’m not sure what I was expecting,” Ell said. “It’s been so long... Don’t you worry at all about what will happen?”

Io opened one of the cold-storage rooms and switched on the light. Inside were rows of glowing green vials as far as the eye could see.

“She seemed very pleased with the Abrasax-Green,” Io said, checking the temperature readings.

“VegeCell,” Ell insisted. “But—she didn’t look at the projections, the graphs...”

Io turned off the lights and shut the door, and they continued on their walk.

“Not everyone appreciates a good graph as much you do my dear.” Io smiled at her. “It may take her some time to recover completely, but I think she has a certain spark. She responded well to the treatment. And perhaps we’re better off if the recurrence is less commanding. Seraphi Abrasax was unpredictable. Changeable. If the air was electric around her, it was often with trepidation. She could be swift and cruel.”

“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that,” said Ell. “Yesterday, I went into the data stores, looked up the histories on the Abrasax family. Some of the stories about Seraphi... You never mentioned Splice Rights—or the execution...”

“That was more than four thousand years ago,” Io said hesitantly. “I was young when it happened and it wasn’t a pleasant memory.”

“You knew then? It’s hard to believe Seraphi Abrasax once proposed giving splices equal rights.”

“It hardly matters now. I doubt it ever would have happened,” said Io with a sigh. “There was some public sentiment in favor of Splice Rights, but also tremendous opposition. The Entitleds insisted it would destroy the economy.”

They walked into a room full of controls and monitors. Io checked moisture levels while Ell fine-tuned the heat in the temperate zones.

“In the end,” Io continued, “Seraphi Abrasax was only interested in her own agenda. She wanted her Lycantant, one of her Royal Guards, to be her Prince Consort. It was illegal for a splice to hold such a position—that was the only reason she was interested in changing the laws.”

“And then she decided to turn on him, and kill him instead,” Ell said grimly.

“Well,” said Io, turning to look at her. “He was plotting to murder her. Of course she was upset.”

“Upset!” Ell scoffed. “She commanded him to stand before her while she carved out his heart!”

“I know,” Io said quietly, sitting down. “I saw his execution. It was required viewing, even for children. A cautionary tale. Something to put splices in our proper place.”

It had given her nightmares at the time. The blood spattering Seraphi’s face and gown. The horror of it. Why hadn’t he moved? Or screamed? Why hadn’t he simply taken the knife from her hand? If someone that strong could be taken down, what chance could a tiny splice, lying alone in her bed at night, have against a Queen wielding a knife that could cut through bone like water?

The memory was still too vivid, primal, even though she was too old for such childish fears now.

“How horrible,” said Ell.

“Some of the older girls thought it romantic —if you can believe it—that the Queen desired to kill him by her own hand.”

Ell made a face of disgusted disbelief. “She made an example of him, and then did everything in her power to destroy Splice Rights. I never knew... How could you work for her, after all that?”

“She owned me,” Io said simply. “I was terrified when I watched the execution. But as I grew older, I realized that she was no different than any other Entitled—And he had planned to kill her.”

“No,” said Ell. “Didn’t you know that part of it?”

Io shook her head in confusion, “Know what?”

“The histories said it was Balem Abrasax. He manufactured the evidence against the Lycantant. When it was discovered, centuries later, he claimed he’d done it to protect her, and was widely praised for his initiative.”

Io doubted that Seraphi had praised Balem for it. Though perhaps she had forgiven him—eventually. Why had he done it? Could he really have hated or feared splices so much? Was it ambition—or some sort of twisted love?

“When Seraphi Abrasax first spoke to me about this project,” Io said. “She looked like a much younger women—but she was worn down, as if from tragedy or some terrible knowledge. Perhaps she had learned by then what Balem had done. Or perhaps, it was simply that she finally regretted the many other things she herself had done. She bloodied her own hands with that execution—but her real death toll was far greater.”

“I’d never understood it completely,” Ell said with a sigh. “Why you didn’t want our children to have any part of your genome, why you didn’t want them to be splices. I’ve been away from the world for so long, I’d forgotten what it’s like.” She reached out to take Io’s hand. “I only hope it wasn’t a mistake to trust her with our secret.”

“She’s our best option,” said Io. “And perhaps she’ll feel indebted to us now. I believe her ailment was fatal. We likely saved her life.”

“Indebted?” asked Ell. “But Entitleds don’t think that way.”

“She’s from an underdeveloped world," said Io. "A Tersies, not an Entitled.”

“If she’s the Queen’s recurrence, she’s an Entitled." Ell insisted. "She's the same person, and that will come through eventually.”

“That is what they say,” Io agreed. “But Entitleds are actually quite primative in their scientific knowledge. There are many things they use but don’t fully understand. They are old-fashioned, superstitions—epi-genetics doesn’t fit into their dogma. They don’t consider that genes can express themselves in a variety of different ways—external signals change an organism without changing its genome."

"External signals? Ah, like growth factors, hormones..."

"Our children have your DNA, but they grew in my uterus.” Io said with a wink.

“You’re right of course” said Ell. “I don’t know why I hadn’t considered it.”

“Well...Few do.”

“But—the splicers—they must know.”

“Oh, I suspect they’ve got their own games to play.”

Io thought again of Caine’s eyes—how they reminded her of that other Lycantant’s from so long ago.

Seraphi had once declared her lover the epitome of his kind—the perfect Lycantant. In retaliation for his betrayal, she’d had all the others from his gene pool destroyed.

But what if some splicer had found the stock, thought it safe to breed his kind once Seraphi had died?

Or was Io merely feeling superstitious as well?

On one of the far monitors, she could see them, Jupiter and Caine standing close, beneath an apricot tree that had just shed its blossoms. Her hand was resting over his heart.

“I don’t know exactly who Jupiter Jones is yet,” Io said. “Or who she will be, but she’s not Seraphi. She’s from an entirely different time and place, and that will shape her. She’s more than a genetic sequence.”

Chapter Text

“You don’t have to convince me,” Caine said.

He’d leaned closer—or had she? Through his shirt, Jupiter could feel the heat of his chest, hard beneath her palm. She couldn’t quite read his expression, but he was here, standing in front of her. Though when she thought about it, she realized: She had been the one missing in action lately...lost.

Not anymore.

Another laugh bubbled up and she bit her lip to hold it in, unsure exactly why she kept giggling—though he did look a little silly, a few of the white blossoms stuck his hair.

“Maybe I want to convince you,” she said with a smile.

She had so many pent up thoughts and feelings, all this stuff—held in for too long, ready to let loose.

If words could prove she loved him, she would supply them—give a speech, a catalogue of reasons, a litany, a bullet-pointed list.

She was overflowing.

The longer she’d known Caine, the harder it had been to resist him. Dose after dose of him flooding through her veins. The heat of his skin, the sound of his voice, her heart picking up speed whenever her eyes met his.

She was exquisitely attuned to him.

But it was more than those things. It was everything. Everything he did, everything he was. The very fact of his existence—the way he’d survived everything that should have destroyed him, his supposed defects only making him stronger, better.

In every single timeline, she’d been caught up in him. She couldn’t help it. Even worn down and focused on survival—convinced she should keep him at a distance...

But she had hope now. She was bursting with it.

She wanted to choose the right words, tried to read the expression in his eyes—some combination of a smile and a frown.

Was it too much? Was she too much?

He’d only known her for two days now. She’d been unconscious—or in shock, or drinking herself into a stupor. Not exactly her best...

It was all too much—

There was no way he could feel the way that she did. Not yet.

But... he seemed interested.

She realized she was beaming up at him, her smile too big and goofy. She opened her mouth and then closed it again, trying to decide exactly what she wanted to say.

He glanced down before bringing his eyes back to hers.

“I believe you,” he said, though there was something uncertain in his voice. “You have all the chemical markers, the physiological signs of love. I can smell—

“Are you sure?” she challenged, pulling her hair to the side and tilting her head. “Maybe you need another sniff?”

That got her a small smile—a quick glimpse of sharp canines—over too soon. He shifted his stance, and she was sure he was going to say no, step away.

Instead, he lifted his hand, brushing it along her shirt collar, a skitter of blossoms falling, tickling, catching inside her bra, before his hand curved around the slope of her shoulder.

His head moved toward her slowly—achingly slow. When he took in a deep breath, tiny hairs rose up in response, a whisper of sensation along the length of her neck.

Then he drew back again, and they were face to face.

“Everything’s messed up,” she said quietly, “It’s out of order. I know that. I realize that you don’t know me.”

“It seems that I should know you somehow.”

There was something intense in his stare, the way he was looking right into her, searching.

She wasn’t prepared for it, couldn’t resist. She couldn’t resist him –pressing up into another kiss before she’d realized what she was doing, lost in the texture of his lips, his taste.

Familiar—but not familiar enough. She’d learn him again and again if that were what it took.

Or did she need to slow down, give him time?

Reluctantly, she drew her mouth away again. Though she couldn’t pull away completely, lingering a moment, their foreheads touching, his exhale soft against her lips, the scruff of his bearded cheek beneath her hand.

“It’s not just me, is it?” she asked, pulling back to look at him.

“There’s something—“ He shook his head, seemed to realize that his hand was pressing firm into the curve of her back, holding her. He let go, and took a step away, looking concerned. “I don’t think it’s a good idea though.”

“It’s a great idea.”

“Your Majesty,” he said, looking down at his gloved hands. “It’s a bad idea for you, I’m defective, dangerous.”

“No. You’re not.”

“From what you’ve told me,” he said. “Titus hired me because he wanted me to kill you.”

“That was a part of his plan,” she admitted, “but obviously it didn’t work.” She thought back to that night. What had Titus said? “He gave you a drug designed to tap into your instincts. He thought you would attack me...”

“What happened?”

“You kissed me,” she said simply.

His was quiet, frowning in thought.

“Caine, I trust you with my life. It doesn’t matter to me that you’re a splice—No” she caught herself. “I does matter. Everything about you matters. I just—I wish it didn’t matter that I’m a Queen. I didn’t ask for any of this Abrasax stuff. I don’t want it factor into this, the two of us.”

Probably her words weren’t enough, weren’t coming out quite right, but at least he seemed to be listening, considering.

And strangely, she wanted to laugh again, maybe just because they were here, together, and her lips were still tingling from their kiss. She couldn’t keep from smiling.

“Can I just?” She reached out a hand towards his head and he tilted his head to the side, looking at her in puzzlement.

She reached up to smooth the flowers from his hair and he watched her face while she did it, leaning into her touch.

He’d always been receptive to her, she realized; let her in close, let her into his space. She’d thought it part of his obedience coding, but that wasn’t it after all. And she’d noticed he kept his distance with everyone else.

She’d tried giving him time before. She wanted to give him a choice, didn’t want to come on too strong—but maybe he needed strong.

She smoothed her hand down his bare arm to brush away the last few blossoms. When she got to his hand, she twined her fingers through his and grabbed on tight, as if the feel of him would anchor her.

She halfway felt like if she moved away from him, she might spin out, flying into the sky, and stick like a balloon against the top of the dome.

Was it a side effect of the Abrasax Green? Or some euphoric rush—just from feeling healthy and full of energy after dealing with exhaustion for such a long time?

Maybe not entirely.

It was also him.

“I know this out of nowhere,” she said. “The two of us are out of sync with each other, but—if do you believe me, why not give it a chance? Maybe it will sneak up on you. Maybe I’ll sneak up on you.”

“Your Majesty doesn’t seem particularly sneaky.” His voice was dry.

“No?” She smiled again, couldn’t hold it back. “Well, that’s just to put you off your guard, so I can surprise you later.”

He seemed to consider, was starting to say something else, when a siren blared out, three sharp blasts of ear splitting sound.

Caine dropped her hand and straightened up, instantaneously snapping back into Skyjacker mode.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Something incoming,” he said, focused on the distant sky.

There was an electric buzzing sound coming from somewhere high above them. Above the trees-- branches already filling with half-grown leaves and tiny green fruits—there was nothing but the top of the dome and clear black sky beyond.

Then she saw it: hurtling forward, growing larger by the second. A giant rock was flying, tumbling and falling, on a trajectory straight toward them.

It was vaporized in a sudden blue flash that shook everything around them; a cloud of dust raining down, pelting the outer surface of the dome like a hard rain.

Then all was quiet.

Caine listened for another moment before he looked back at her, his expression serious.

“You’re safe for now,” he said in a grim voice. “But if you want to surprise someone, surprise Balem Abrasax. Kill him before he has another chance to get to you. Better yet, let me go after him and kill him for you.”

“I—

The large metal disk opened up in the ground beside them then, and they moved back as the blue anti-grav beam shot up from inside.

Ell stepped out with her tool bag, looking up toward the debris-covered dome, before turning her gaze toward Caine and Jupiter.

“The shield defense destroyed it in time, there doesn’t seem to be any damage,” Ell announced. “Though there’s a bit of a mess.”

She took a device from her bag, punched in some codes and an army of miniscule drones appeared out of nowhere to clean and inspect the surface.

“I thought you were going for a walk, Your Majesty?”

“Yeah,” Jupiter felt her face turning red. How long had the two of them been standing here together?

She took a few steps down the path before turning to Caine. “Will you come with me?”

He nodded, and walked toward her. She couldn’t help but notice Ell’s troubled look—as if the sight of them together worried her.  

Jupiter remembered the Gala with Kalique: Caine forced to go muzzled, the Entitleds’ shocked whispers behind her back, their surprised dismay that she would keep a defective splice as her guard.

She might bring Caine around to her way of thinking, but the rest of the universe probably thought it was a bad idea too.

In which case, Jupiter would just have to accustom herself to their disapproval.

 

Chapter Text

Caine walked with Jupiter on a path through fields of iridescent purple—tall stalks bending heavy overhead with grain.

“You’re right,” she said quietly.

She’d been silent for several minutes, her earlier laughter faded away. It was as if she'd been spooked by the sudden meteor strike. He wasn’t sure what he’d been right about, but she didn’t sound happy about it.

“Balem should be dead,” she said, turning to face him, eyes dark. “It’s my fault, what happened to Stinger and Kiza. I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

Caine had thought about it, over and over again, in the days since it happened. If anything, the fault was his. Stinger wouldn’t have been on Earth in the first place if it weren’t for him.

“I can fix it,” she said. “I will. But it never should have come to this, ever. I thought, if I learned enough, I could outmaneuver Balem. But he’ll never accept Earth is mine. Killing him is the only way to keep everyone safe. I see that now.”

There was that grim determination, the glimpse of steel, he’d seen before, when she’d vowed she’d save them all.

She didn’t sound anything like an Entitled—more concerned for her planet than herself. He’d never heard of a Queen apologizing, or using her power to defend the weak. Royals had no concept of duty to others, only what they demanded as their own due.

In some ways, it might be simpler if Jupiter were selfish, focused more on her own safety—and on vengeance.

“It’s not only about Earth, Your Majesty. It’s personal. Balem Abrasax will kill you if he gets the chance. For that alone he needs to die.”

Caine didn’t know why the need to protect her was so overwhelming—it had been since the moment he’d caught her falling.

“Balem’s not the only one out to get me,” she said. “I don’t even know how many people have me on their hit list right now.” She looked up, past the prickly clusters of purple above, towards the blackness of space beyond the dome, her eyes distant. “I can’t kill them all.”

“Then I’ll do it for you,” he said, matter of fact.

His other reactions to her were too confusing, he'd shied away from them, kept trying to push them out of his mind. He’d caught himself yesterday, mesmerized by the thick sweep of lashes on her heavy-lidded eyes, her bottom lip, wet from her tongue—

Persistently forced himself to look away.

But he hadn't been able to ignore the instinct to keep her safe.

Leaving Earth, once they’d boarded the ship sent to retrieve them, he’d justified the need to stay close to her, convinced he was only watching over his target. Caine realized now, that if he’d allowed them to take her away from him, she would have been lost as soon as the explosions hit.

A cold weight settled in his gut when he remembered her: unconscious, helpless. He’d do whatever it took to see she wasn’t in that position again.

“I know you’d do it.” She covered her concerned look with a smile, caught his hand with her cool fingers and gave it a squeeze. “You’ve always done a great job protecting me.”

He looked down, flustered by her words as much as her touch.

“It might come down to that,” she said with a sigh. “But I’d rather you didn’t kill anyone if we could avoid it—if it isn’t absolutely necessary. And the problem is we still don’t know that Balem can be killed. He’s like Voldemort. Who knows how many devices he has to escape death?”

“Who’s Voldemort?” Caine felt his hackles rise at the name. “Another of our enemies?”

She stopped and turned to grin at him, her smile so big he couldn’t help but hesitantly return it –though he didn’t understand. The path had narrowed, purple stalks curving in to form a tunnel around them. She was standing close, her eyes full of mischief.

“Voldemort—so far as I know—is not one of our enemies. He’s an evil wizard, from children’s books—you’ve read some of them to me before, actually.”

“Alright,” he said, staring at her, unsure.

She kept telling him things outside his previous experience. Different versions of him that were somehow specific to her. It was unsettling—he couldn’t quite tell if he liked the feeling or not.

“What if trying to kill Balem starts another time loop though?” she asked, serious again as she turned to walk. “Who knows when or where I’d wake up next. What happens if you get dragged in too?”

“If Balem’s death is the trigger, I can keep him alive, question him for as long as it takes to find out how to stop him.”

Caine had been trained in Legion torture techniques, used them on occasion. He didn’t take pleasure in inflicting pain the way some did—but this time might be the exception.

 

They walked through rows of translucent vegetables, thorn covered trees filled with glowing red orbs high in their branches.

“Weird space fruits,” Jupiter called them, and gave him a sheepish look when her stomach grumbled. “Do you think they’re okay to eat?”

He activated his boots and flew a few feet up, plucking one from overhead. Gave it a sniff to check for toxins before landing in front of her, to hold it out in offering.

“Your Majesty?”

“Thanks.” She smiled, pleased, and took it from him.

He watched as she bit into it, the red juice bright on her lips. He kept thinking about her mouth on his—remembering, wondering if she would kiss him again.

“Mmmm,” she said. “It’s like half-raspberry, half-plum.”

A bee hovered around her head—attracted to the juice, Caine first thought. But it was attracted to her. It lit on her forearm and she stilled, watching as it danced across the surface of her skin. More bees came, in twos and threes, until a swarm surrounded her and she circled, playfully lifting her arms to move and sway among them for a few minutes.

Then with a gentle pass of hand, she shooed them away and went back to eating her fruit. A few flying in erratic circles as they departed, slowly, as if drunk from her presence, but obeying her unspoken command.

She talked to Caine as they walked, telling him things from her different timelines. Their different timelines, she insisted. Though none of it seemed quite real, he could imagine it all happening, like a distant dream.

She was constantly reaching for his hand or to touch his arm, smiling at him. Planting a kiss on his cheek when she caught him staring at her. As if he were a skittish animal she planned to tame, accustoming him to her hand.

It might have been amusing if it weren’t so effective. His response to her was already too strong. She’d somehow trained him to her touch, imprinted herself on him before he’d ever met her.

What could it mean that she was in love with him? There was something in it he couldn’t comprehend.

He recognized each of the chemicals—the dopamine, norepinephrine and oxytocin, vasopressin and adrenaline, endorphins. Taken individually, each one could have a variety of explanations.

Their molecules surrounded her in clouds of color. Radiating out, pulsating around her. The glowing scents, vibrant hues, drawing him in. The aura unique to her, stronger every time he looked at her, every time she stood near.

His own scent was so tied up in it all, so intertwined with hers, he couldn’t distinguish where she ended and he began. It’d never happened before—he should be able to unknot it, pull it apart and analyze the strands one by one. But he was somehow stuck. He was the one coming undone.

It felt dangerous—like a warning, as she’d said. But he was beginning to think it was something else.

It wasn’t a good idea. He knew that—even if she wouldn’t admit it. But if it was what she desired, he might not be able resist it, might not be able to resist her. He didn’t want to anymore.

 

****

 

That night, after dinner, Jupiter looked at charts and figures, sheaves spread across the table, listening to Io and Ell as they explained their research in more detail.

“Please, call me Jupe,” she said. She didn’t know if they’d take her up on it, but it was worth a try. “Your Majesty” got old after a while—from everyone but Caine.

“It was customary,” said Io, “for recurrences to take their predecessor’s name. Is that no longer the practice?” She looked up from her graph, pushing the slide of silvery hair from her pale green face, looking at Jupiter inquisitively.

“No one’s suggested it,” said Jupiter, surprised. “Maybe they were waiting to spring that one on me.”

The idea was creepy. But then the Abrasax family had built their empire on creepy. Kalique asking to call Jupiter by a dead woman’s name was nothing compared to those candlelit Regenex baths.

Still, a shiver passed through Jupiter at the thought of being called Seraphi.

“You appear to be doing much better,” said Ell, watching her from across the table, eyes narrowed. “Your energy is improved. Did you notice any side effects from the VegeCell?”

“Would the urge to giggle be a side effect?”

“I haven’t noticed it myself, but it’s certainly possible,” Ell said, inputting a note on one of the sheaves.

Jupiter had also had the urge to touch Caine, over and over again today, whenever she was near him. But she didn’t mention that, pretty sure it was only her normal impulse—nothing like when she’d had the Regenex, and practically wanted to crawl out of her skin.

“Would you allow me to do a med scan on you?” Ell stood up to take a tool from her endlessly useful bag. “I am trained as a doctor.”

“Sure,” said Jupiter.

Ell’s air of expertise, her competence, were undeniable, but Jupiter could tell the other woman was suspicious of her, reserving her judgment. She hadn’t accepted Jupiter nearly as easily as Io. Both had been observing her carefully—but while Ell was wary, Io seemed more curious than anything else. Maybe tree splices were just easier going by nature.

A few moments later, when the results came from the med scan, Jupiter let out her breath in relief. She was in perfect health.

“Based on recent tests,” said Io. “Each dose should remain effective for at least one hundred years.”

“It’s been 117 years since I had it last, Your—Jupe,” said Ell. She looked no older than her early twenties. Her dark skin completely smooth, no wrinkles, not a single line to mar the bright tattoo encircling her eye.

“I had some sort of...cellular damage before,” Jupiter said. “If I were exposed to the same conditions, would I need another dose?”

“What sort of conditions?” Io asked.

“I’m not sure exactly,” Jupiter hesitated. She was wondering if the exhaustion would come back after she looped through time again. “But for instance...um...radiation...space radiation? Would it protect against that?”

“First of all, I would suggest you wear a protective suit,” Ell said with a frown. “But no, another dose shouldn’t be necessary. Constant extreme conditions might reduce the efficacy by a few years. We haven’t tested for such scenarios—though there could be a use for that.”

“I’m sure that we’ll branch out into different uses, different formulas eventually,” Io said. “Our first challenge will be getting consumers to accept the concept of Abrasax Green.”

“I don’t understand, ” Jupiter said. “Why wouldn’t everyone want this?”

“Entitleds are slow to change,” said Io. “Their technology may appear advanced, but many are fixed in their ways. They have their rituals, established habits they will be loathe to relinquish.”

“The discovery of VegeCell might also bring more scrutiny to the problems with Regenex,” said Ell.

“Problems?” Jupiter scoffed. “Well, the whole genocide thing is an obvious drawback.”

“Yes, but I was actually referring to the cognitive problems,” said Ell.

“What sort of cognitive problems?” asked Caine, who’d been mostly quiet until then.

“Luckily, these problems have never arisen in splice development,” Ell said with a sympathetic look. “But in mature humans there are adverse reactions in one out of ten thousand uses—perhaps more. Unfortunately, the research has been suppressed and we don’t have all the data. Most people tolerate Regenex well long term. But in others.. it affects the brain cells, and the mind can adjust in ways that are...unpredictable.”

“Huh,” said Jupiter, “that actually might explain a few of the people I’ve met.”

 

*****

Hours later, Jupiter climbed the stairs to bed. It seemed like a dream—finding an alternative to Regenex. She hadn’t been having enough good dreams lately.

It was the solution she’d been looking for—the solution to her one of her problems, at least.

She hadn’t told them she was a time traveler, looping over and over again, out of control. From her perspective it might be months, even years before she could come back to this moon. At least now she’d live long enough to find the next solution. And she’d be back...eventually.

She let out a yawn. Even with her magical green elixir, she was ready to call it a night.

“Your Majesty,” Caine said from behind her, as he reached the top of the stairs. She turned at the sound of his voice and he stopped before her, some fleeting question in his eyes—lost when he looked to the floor.

“What is it?” she asked.

He’d agreed to help her, to protect her, but she really hoped he didn’t plan to sit outside her door all night guarding her again.

“Caine?”

It was hard to figure him out sometimes—but she couldn’t get stuck again. And maybe...possibly he wanted the same thing she did. He just needed her to make the first move.

She came forward, on her toes, one hand on his shoulder as she leaned into him, brushing his lips with a soft kiss.

When he pressed back eagerly, she ran her hand through his hair, pulling him closer. An edge of impatience suddenly riding her, as she barraged him with quick kisses everywhere she could reach, the corners of his mouth, his chin, nipping at his jaw. More insistent than she’d intended, coming back to his mouth to tangle her tongue with his, urgent, desperate.

It wasn’t just her.

She pulled back to suck in a deep breath and smoothed her hands down his arms. His muscles were quivering with restraint beneath her.

Why should they restrain themselves though? either one of them? She didn’t want to hold back anymore.

She’d hated sending him away, hated putting distance between them. Hated the feeling that she couldn’t approach him, that she shouldn’t—for his own good.

Emotion swelled in her, overwhelming.

She let it out in another deep kiss, devouring him. He made a sound low in his throat and cupped her head in his hand, biting at her lip just enough to sting, his other hand against her back, fingers splayed, as she arched closer into him.

She couldn’t get close enough. Her breasts pressing into his chest. Hips and thighs pushing against him, seeking. Closer. Backing him up against the wall until the heat of his penis was hard against her belly.

“Do you want this?” she asked, breathing hard. It had to be his decision too.

For a moment, he was silent—and she worried she’d gone too fast.

Then he ducked his head and put his mouth against her ear. “I want this.” His voice a low rumble that reverberated through her, brought goose bumps to her skin.

She took him to the bedroom and shut the door behind them. His chest expanded and fell with each breath, as he stood before her, otherwise motionless, his eyes gleaming in the dark.

She propelled him back onto the bed, followed him down, knees driving into the mattress on either side of him. Leaning in for more kisses, openmouthed, as she moved on top of him, grinding into him—it wasn’t enough. There were too many clothes in the way.

She sat upright, and Caine lifted forward onto his elbows, following her, the move thrusting him into the spread of her legs, a moan overwhelming her, so breathless and strange that she laughed at the sound of it. She couldn’t tell if she were happy or nervous or excited.

All of it, she decided.

He was watching her, waiting to see what she would do next.

She caught a fistful of his shirt and wrenched it away in one quick tug.

“I love this shirt,” she said with a smile, dropping it to the side so she could smooth her hands down his torso, fingers at the waist of his pants, before she stopped, considering.

She wanted him naked, fast. And her jeans were way too constricting.

“Your Majesty?” he asked.

“Take off your clothes,” she said. “And just...wait here.” She gulped. “I’ll be right back.”

She forced herself to walk instead of run to the bathroom, turned on the light and saw Caine taking off his boots as she shut the door.

Then she rushed to get her clothes off. The skinny jeans were the problem. They’d thwarted her before: trapped in her own pants, denim turned inside out and bunched around her ankles.

Though that date would never have ended well.

She hopped on one foot, yanking the fabric hard over her instep. Then tugged the other leg free. She scrambled to find the hygiene wand, quickly passing it over the crucial areas. Thank God for space tech, she thought, giving a quick sniff at her pit.

Though...maybe Caine liked her a little stinky? He inhaled a lot when he was near her. And he didn’t seem particularly squeamish—now that she thought about it.

Hmm...

Well, if things went right, she’d be sweaty again soon.

She left the light on in the bathroom, kept the door cracked open so she could see him when she walked into the dark room.

He lay back on the bed, naked, hands folded behind his head.

Her breath caught at the sight of him.

She knew he was strong, engineered to take more than a regular human. But it hit her again just how strong he was—the idea strangely exciting. She was curious exactly how much he could take. She already had some idea of what he could do to her. What could she do to him?

He held perfectly still as she came closer, watching her cross the room. He’d probably stay like that all night if she asked him. But she wanted his hands on her now.

She knelt on the bed and leaned into him, her breasts against his hot chest, her hair falling around them as they kissed. She ran her hands up his arms and caught his wrists, held them pinned for just a moment before pulling them toward her.

“I want you to touch me,” she said sitting back on her heels.

“Where, Your Majesty?”

Anywhere. Everywhere.

“Wherever you want,” she said.

He sat up beside her—and surprised her.

His look focused, as he swept his fingers along her hairline, the curve of her ear, the hollow at the base of her throat where her pulse rose up to meet him.

He stroked her face as if he wanted to memorize it. The slope of her nose, the line of her jaw, gently resting his thumb on her bottom lip to part her mouth.

It was too much. Or not enough. She couldn’t quite tell.

She needed to feel him up against her, heat and muscle and skin, taste him—

She licked his thumb, and then nipped at it. Noticed something darken in his eyes. Climbed to straddle his lap and kissed him deeply. She took his hand and guided it between her thighs, his fingers finding her, sliding against her, into her.

Her head spinning, she pushed against him, a gasping sound escaping that didn’t sound quite human.

She needed him inside of her.

Now.

With the slightest push of her palm against his chest, he fell back on the bed, watched as she took his erection in hand, biting her lip as she pressed her hips down to take him in, shifting so she could work the full length inside of her.

He cupped her butt, spreading her, as she settled onto him. His fingers wrapping around to pull her in tighter.

“Oh God,” she whispered, sitting back a moment.

Then she tilted forward, moving over him, slowly at first, then riding him hard and fast as he rose up to meet her. She was so full and aching she was shivering with it already, so close to coming she couldn’t catch her breath.

He reached for her, finding her clit with the pad of his thumb, working her with just the right pressure as she rose and fell on top of him. She whimpered softly, deep in her throat, her body slowing on his, unable to move, as she hovered above him, caught.

His hips circled slowly beneath her. His size enough for friction in spite of her wetness, pressure as he dragged against her, torturously slow, pulling at her, breaking her apart.

She shuddered, and melted as it washed over her. Unable to hold herself upright, losing her balance, slumping into him, boneless.

She didn’t know how long she lay sprawled on top of him, his hand slowly stroking up and down the length of her back. She’d stay here forever, she decided, she didn’t want this to end.

Though, she might not be resting for long. She could still feel him, hard and deep inside her.

“I think I’ve figured it out,” Caine said softly. The sound of his voice made her shiver and clench around him all over again. “My scent on you,” he said. “The way I react when you’re close...”

She pushed up, bracing against his chest so she could look at him “It is a Lycantant sex thing.” She smiled and moved against him again. “I sorta figured that one out.”

“Not exactly,” he said, though his hands went back to her hips and he tilted up into her. His eyes were serious, cautious. “It could be a Lycantant thing. I wouldn’t know.”

“Okay,” she said hesitantly. She already knew he didn’t have a pack, had lived apart from other Lycantants.

“I never thought—” There was something, hesitant, almost shy in his voice as he broke off. “I don’t know how it happened. But it’s not a warning. It’s a more like a clue, a....reminder.”

“A reminder of what?”

“That I belong to you.”

“A reminder that you work for me?’

“No,” he said, shaking his head. Closing his eyes as he thought about how to say it. “The chemicals that I can smell on you, your physiological responses...mine are the same.”

He opened his eyes again, looking at her intently, as if willing her to understand.

He hadn’t said he loved her—not exactly. But wasn’t that what he meant? It didn’t matter about the actual words--it was already more than she'd expected.

She smiled at him, something warm going through her, something she hadn’t realized she was missing.

“I don't know why--" she started to say, then leaned in to kiss him, overwhelmed. “I should have asked you...”

“You can ask anything of me, Your Majesty.” He took her hand and kissed the back of it, turned it to press his mouth against her palm, her wrist. “I don't think it matters if I’m out of sync with you. I can catch up.”

There was a lump in her throat, her eyes suddenly wet. She blinked hard and took a deep breath in, trying to get a hold of herself.

“And I can ask you anything, huh?” she said.

She sat up straight and slid her hand down his abdominal muscles, and then lower, her fingers finding where they were joined.

There was still more work to be done here.

“Yes,” he said on an intake of breath.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” she grinned wickedly.

She shifted, rolling her hips in a slow grind, until he let out a soft growl.

“Do you like that?”

“I like everything that you do.”

His hands slid up to cup her breasts, shaping them against his fingers. Her skin thrumming with the sensation. He moved down the sides of her waist, curving around her hips. His strong fingers kneading her thighs, her muscles slightly trembling with strain. He smoothed down her calves and then grabbed on to each of her feet, enveloping them with his hot hands.

She looked at him in question.

“Let me take care of this,” he said.

“Uh...okay.”

He hinged forward at his hips, back lifting off the bed to sit up beneath her, bending his legs so that she moved with him, settling into his lap. Suddenly face to face, noses bumping— so close her vision blurred his two eyes into one. She smiled and closed her own eyes and kissed him as he unfolded each of her legs and wrapped them around him, one by one.

His hands encircled her waist and lifted her slowly, shifting her on top of him, sliding her around him, against him.

Then he was moving underneath her. Curving into her, thrusting and retreating. His hips working impossible circles, like a perpetual motion machine set into action, picking up speed. His abdominals clenching, rippling as he ebbed and surged, coursing into her.

Pounding and sliding. Waves of strength, moving steadily through her, building in her. Until it burst through her all at once, hit her so hard, she couldn’t bite back a scream.

“Your Majesty?”

“No,” she groaned. “I’m good. Don’t stop.”

He slowed down, between times, so she could catch her breath. But he was good at following her directions-he didn’t stop.

She was beginning to think he never would. She buried her face in his neck, light headed, after she’d come the fourth time.

“What do you want?” she said against his skin.

“This is good.”

Okay, yeah. This was good—incredibly way more than good, she thought, pressing kisses to his neck. But she was starting to worry about walking tomorrow.

And she wanted to get to him. Wanted to make him lose it.

She held his shoulders, fingers digging into his muscle for balance, her teeth scraping down the side of his neck—and he stilled for second to suck in a sharp breath.

Huh.

Then he pulled her into him so that they were flush, her breasts and belly and hips up against his hot skin. All of him hard against her. He started to move again, picking up speed. Building the momentum, slowly at first, until it was he was surging into her with that maddening rhythm, everything barreling through her again before she knew it.

She bent her head, lips finding his trapezius where it sloped down thick from his neck, opening her mouth around it.

She bit down on him hard, teeth sinking into his skin.

Then hummed against his skin in satisfaction as she felt his body shake in climax beneath her.

He collapsed back with a groan, dragging her with him.

“Your Majesty,” he murmured, rolling them over sideways, kissing a hot trail across her breasts. His hand came up and cupped her cheek, thumb stroking over her mouth, his eyes gleaming in the low light.

She turned into the heat of his hand, smiling, as they lay there, tangled together, breath slowing.

“You asked me what I wanted,” he finally said, his lips moving against the underside of her breast as he pulled away from her.

“Hmmm?”

He kissed his way down to her navel, then lower, his hands finding her knees and parting her legs. He stopped, his mouth just above the spread of her thighs, taking in a deep breath.

“May I?” he asked.

 

Chapter Text

Jupiter was drifting. Completely worn out—deliciously so, every inch of her body warm and heavy and sated—a little sore—but in the very best way.

Caine had shifted from between her legs and curled against her side, resting his head on her belly.

It was nearly too much effort to lift her hand and run lazy fingers against his scalp, through his hair, along the tip of his ear as he turned to nuzzle into her with one last scattering of licking kisses that were halfway to being bites. The scruff of his chin might have tickled if she weren’t so drowsy. Or maybe she’d gotten used to the feel of it moving against her—softer than it looked, just the slightest bit abrasive as he pressed his mouth into her skin.

Anyway, she was all out of giggles, the most she could muster was a sigh that curved her lips into a smile, as the weight of his arm across her thighs, his hot hand curving around her hip, pulled her down into sleep.

 

***

 

When she woke hours later it was with a start, catching herself, muscles tensed, surprised to find the bed was beneath her at all.

In her dream, she’d been screaming, her lungs on fire, limbs flailing as she fell—endlessly —toward piles of bodies far below.

Her throat was still tight, the sound trapped inside, as she turned toward the wall and pulled her legs into her chest, pressing her forehead hard against her knees, the sheet sticking to her skin where she’d drenched it in a cold sweat.

She remembered where she was—that she was safe. But the strange night outside the window felt too heavy, the black sky pressing down on the shell that encased them. Why weren’t there stars? she wondered, suddenly frantic, unable to catch her breath, trapped like a bug in a terrarium.

The answer came slowly, pushing through dense layers of dreams and sleep to reach her, as she looked blurry eyed at the stone wall gleaming faintly with streaks of silver blue...reflecting the light from distant domes. Sunlamps—good for growing green things in space, she thought dimly, not so good for stargazing.

The stars were still out there, though, somewhere.

She forced herself to suck in a deep breath and then let it out slowly.

The bed shifted beneath her, a blanket covering her, and she turned her head to see Caine as he settled back down beside her, his expression worried.

Worried for her—though something about that didn’t quite sit right.

“I’m okay,” she insisted, her voice cracking, strained, as she unlocked her arms from where she’d clamped them around her shins, unfolded her legs so she could turn to face him.

He was naked.

They both were, she realized.

And she was way more out of it than she’d known. For a moment, she’d completely forgotten everything that had happened that night.

She scooted closer to him and shifted the blanket to cover them both, immediately warmer next to the heat of his bare skin.

“Why were you all the way over here?” she said, trying to sound normal, to feel normal, wondering if she could summon up a smile. She touched his arm, her hand slightly clammy, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“You were kicking in your sleep,” he said softly.

“Sorry,” she said. “I guess I’m not the easiest person to sleep with. ”

He dismissed that with a small shake of his head. “What’s wrong?” he asked, smoothing her hair back where it stuck to her face. Slowly, somewhat unsure, as if he were still getting used to the idea of her, of them. If this was new for her, it was even more so for him.

“It was just a dream,” she said, her voice stronger. “A nightmare, but it doesn’t matter. I’m okay, really.”

And she was. For the first time in months she was actually good. She wasn’t the one they needed to worry about.

The dreams had happened so many times before. She knew they weren’t real. She was used to telling herself that. Over and over again. She wasn’t at the refinery. Wasn’t falling through burning air, grasping desperately for something, anything, to hold on to.

That part wasn’t real.

Although this time...

The other images, the ones she could walk through scene by scene, like a horror movie she’d watched too many times...

The grotesque machinery.

All the people of Earth herded like cattle, collected and strapped to conveyor belts, tubes inserted beneath their skin. The discarded corpses, piled high in stacks, like garbage, once they’d been drained of life.

At this very moment—as much as she hated it—that part was probably real. And she couldn’t completely shake it off, couldn’t quite escape that part of the dream.

She remembered the rat splice boasting about processing capacity as they’d walked down the refinery’s endless, echoing halls. By now, Balem Abrasax had probably killed everyone.

Next time, she’d take the fight to him, find a way to eliminate him as a threat—one way or the other—make sure it never, ever happened again. But she couldn’t exactly undo it—not here and now, not in this timeline.

All she could do was hope. Hope that by saving everyone the next time, they’d all be okay in the end.

The only problem was she’d never understood how it all worked.

Causalities. Paradoxes.

Everything about this was impossible.

She’d never run into another Jupiter Jones. As far as she knew, there was only one of her, and too many ways for her to fail.

She had to push the worries away, ignore the things she couldn’t deal with or understand. Some part of her brain wasn’t satisfied with that solution though, wanted to work the problem—bringing her back to it, over and over again, every night in her sleep.

Still, she knew from experience that her heart would stop racing if she only waited long enough.

She didn’t want to think about the nightmares anymore tonight, really didn’t want to talk about them.

Caine was silent, stroking her hair, tentative at first, before she’d leaned into it with a tilt of her head and a sigh.

There was one other thing that she didn’t know what to do about either, how to deal with. Still, she was surprised to hear herself say it out loud.

“I don’t know what happens to you,” she said.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“When I leave, when I loop back through time, I don’t know what happens here. Do you keep going forward in this timeline without me? Or does this all just disappear once I’m gone?”

He didn’t have any answer of course.

“I mean, I know it sounds stupid,” she continued. “Egotistical to imagine that this whole universe only exists while I’m in it. But I think that’s sorta how it works. I think everything just re-sets. Goes back to that same morning again, as if none of this had ever happened. The only thing that changes is me—and Balem—and the sheave work that gets put through at the Commonwealth, oddly enough. The problem is that I don’t know for sure. Most other times, I was able to get your pardon, have you reinstated into the Legion—just in case. But now...I can’t stand to leave you here without even that.”

She knew how vulnerable splices were in his world.

“You don’t have to worry about me Your Majesty.”

“Yeah, you’ve said that to me before,” she smiled at him sadly. “But, let’s just say—not worrying? —isn’t as easy as it sounds. I don’t like even the remote possibility of you stuck with Titus still holding your pardon. If there were some way for me to contact the Aegis, I could make sure you’re protected, but...”

“You said that you’d chosen me for your Royal Guard,” he said with a frown. “That would mean it’s my duty to protect you, but—Queens don’t—you’re not obliged to—

She quieted him with a kiss, lingering soft and slow against his lips, before drawing back to give him a serious look.

“It’s not an obligation.”

“Jupiter, I—

He stopped, at a loss for words. She knew he wasn’t used to anyone else looking out for him or wanting to take care of him. Except for Stinger maybe. But in this timeline, Stinger was gone.

“I think it re-sets,” she said. “And that everything starts over again. It’s the only thing that makes any sense to me somehow. But I don’t have any real way of knowing. There could be parallel universes, or multiple versions of everyone. There are way too many things I don’t know.” And the uncertainty of it all was so frustrating. “But I do know Stinger and Kiza and my family are out there somewhere, and I’ll find them when I go back to Earth. I’m sure of that much.”

She really didn’t want to leave Caine here—or have to start all over with him again. But this time, for everyone’s sake, she had to hope that she would go back in time.

“You’ll be there again too,” she said, “I’ll find you. Or you’ll find me. We’re always the same people. That part doesn’t change.”

She wasn’t entirely sure if she was trying to convince herself or him.

“Are you the same?” he asked. “Even after all of this?”

She’d told him a lot of her story, but she wasn’t sure if even she remembered it all anymore. The last few time loops, things had started to blur together, time passing in a haze of weariness.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “I never wanted to change. I didn’t want to become a typical Entitled—or worse, an Abrasax. But I’ve just been making it up as I go along. Trying avoid being kidnapped or killed, trying to learn enough to protect everyone.”

“I don’t think there’s any danger of you becoming a typical Entitled,” he said. “An Abrasax wouldn’t concern themselves with protecting an underdeveloped planet—or a Splice.”

She couldn’t help but be concerned about those things. Worried about being able to protect him. Still, she didn’t want to let those worries take her over, to get in the way of being with him here and now.

Sometimes, when she’d woken from nightmares, the idea of being light years from home had been overwhelming, made her feel incredibly small and alone, worn down and hopeless.

But tonight, lying here, she wanted to remember the excitement, the wonder she’d felt when this had all started. She thought back to all the days of cleaning toilets, when traveling to distant worlds had been an impossible dream.

“I keep thinking everything will work out in the end,” she said smiling again, and this time it felt a little more natural, almost real. “I don’t know how it can happen exactly. But things have got to be better now. I was just too tired before.”

His eyes were dark in the low light, something new in the way he looked at her tonight, something she’d caught in glimpses before, fleeting before he looked away. Something she’d hoped for, but feared wasn’t possible. The fact that Caine was here with her now—shouldn’t they take advantage of that while they could?

“Your Majesty said that I...read stories to you,” he said it as if the idea were strange. “Would it help for me to do that again?”

“Um, you could,” she hesitated.

She knew he’d enjoyed the stories, always curious and slightly surprised as they unfolded. The childhood adventures and happy endings foreign to him, unlike anything he’d known in his own hard life.

He’d read them for her sake. But maybe they’d appealed to him more than he would have admitted.

She liked the stories too. But some nights, what she’d liked most was just the sound of his voice, knowing he was near once she’d closed her eyes. She didn’t need an excuse, any reason to keep him here tonight. Didn’t have to wonder if there were somewhere else he’d rather be. He was right where she wanted him: Close—though he could be closer.

She moved into him, closed the last few inches of space between them, pressing her lips against his clavicle, her legs stretching out to tangle with his.

He slowly stroked up and down her back, running his hand along her spine until the chill from her dream had completely eased from her bones.

It wasn’t exactly relaxing though. If anything her heartbeat had picked up speed again.

“Caine,” she said, touching her fingertips to the spot where she’d bitten him earlier, where just the faintest indent was left behind on his skin.

His breath caught, and he was completely still for a moment.

“Your Majesty?” He shifted so they were farther apart, looking at her in question.

“Sorry, am I too close?” she asked.

There was something about him she still hadn’t figured out. Some caution in his manner, somehow different than simple shyness or reserve. He’d told her once before that she could take advantage of him, but what exactly did that mean? More Queen and Splice stuff? Or was it something more about the two of them? Maybe it was impossible to entirely separate the two. But she needed to be careful with him, wanted to be sure.

“No, you’re not too close,” he said, resuming the slow stroke of his hand down her spine.

“This is nice,” she said. “But—maybe instead of a story, we could try something else.”

“Alright,” he said, voice husky.

“What I have in mind,” she said, slowly kissing her way up his throat, over his chin, until her mouth had found his. Her hand moved over his chest and abs, down to his waist, and she pulled back just enough to say against his lips, “It might take some work on your part.”

“Whatever Your Majesty requires.”

When she reached down to wrap her fingers around the length of his penis, he was already completely hard.

 

****

 

The next morning El asked Jupiter to accompany her out into one of the domes, a determined look in her eye when she said the Queen should learn how they programmed their swarms of drones.

“Okay,” Jupiter said, feeling agreeable as she nursed her second cup of coffee. She waved Caine away when he offered to accompany them. She had the feeling there was something El wanted to tell her in private. Maybe it was too trusting of her, but so far, she’d felt safe enough with them here.

They were only a few minutes from the house when El brought up the real purpose of their walk.

“Your Majesty,” she said, handing Jupiter a sheave, “I formally request your consideration of this offer to purchase the Splice Ionidine Trembt.”

Last night El had seemed like she was loosening up a tiny bit, taken to calling her Jupe and even cracked a few dry jokes. Her tone was stiff again now though, her words careful. “We’ve calculated her worth according to all relevant parameters. You’ll see in the charts and tables here an estimated payment schedule, the interest rate calculated in the third quartile.”

“Ok-ay.” Jupiter was surprised for a moment when she understood what the other woman was asking. She wanted to buy her own wife? But that was how things worked, of course. Io couldn’t own herself. If anyone had to own her, if there were a choice, it should probably be Ell.

“Is this what she wants too?” Jupiter asked.

“It would be considered inappropriate for Io to approach you about this matter, but yes, it’s both of our idea.”

“I don’t care about being appropriate, I need to check in with her on this before I decide anything.”

Jupiter scrolled through the figures in front of her. She’d learned some things about space currency, but she hadn’t covered anything exactly like this. There was an amortization chart scheduling payments going forward eight thousand years.

Which didn’t seem quite right. Kalique had told her most Splices were cheap—a well-crafted android could run nearly twice as much. But apparently, working for the Abrasax family didn’t pay very well.

“Once we get the Vegecell out into the market,” Jupiter said. “And all the patents or trademarks, or whatever the space equivalent is, are sorted out...the two of you will be rich.”

“I don’t understand,” El said, her face carefully expressionless.

“You invented it.”

“We invented it while we were working for Your Majesty. We have no claim on the product. All of the rights will belong to you.”

“Well...I’ll obviously have to give you a bonus then—for work well done. And a raise too, it looks like.” Jupiter frowned. “That is, if you choose to continue working for me.”

“We’d both like to continue the research,” El said hesitantly, as if she couldn’t quite understand all that Jupiter was offering.

“Okay then. We can go over the necessary sheavework once I’ve had the chance to talk to Io about all this. But I don’t see any reason why we can’t do this.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty. You’re very gracious.”

“There is one condition though,” Jupiter said, her voice serious. “I want your promise that if anything happens to me, Caine Wise can stay here with you, in secret, for as long as he chooses.”

“Certainly,” El said, puzzled. “He’s more than welcome to remain. But what might happen to you? You’ve fully recovered your health.”

“I don’t know what might happen, it’s only a just in case. But I want your promise on it,” Jupiter said, resolute.

“I promise, Your Majesty.”

“Good,” she smiled. “And actually make that two conditions. I really do prefer you calling me Jupe.”

 

***

 

The days passed quickly.

Jupiter kept herself occupied, finding things to do each day that took her mind off the uncertainties ahead.

She continued her reading, as she’d done in the previous time loops. She dutifully learned everything there was to know about the agricultural operations, and the production of the Abrasax Green, as Io called it. (She had decided she preferred the name Vegecell too—but chose not to pick sides in that battle for the time being.)

She convinced Caine to help her with her combat training. She’d learned some new fighting moves since the last time she’d trained with him, back on Cerise. Her work with the androids had been paying off, but she still had a hard time getting the best of him for more than a few seconds at a time.

Until she made it a challenge—for them both—to figure out how she could get him on his back and at her mercy.

Which led to the absolutely best distraction of all—her, not surprisingly, very favorite new way to spend all of her time.

Well, not all of her time.

She’d decided they should spend no more than a few hours each day in bed. Not including sleep, of course.

Or naps.

She wasn’t tired anymore, but it turned out an awful lot of naps were required during the day.

“Are you sure your obedience coding doesn’t work?” she groaned, rolling off him to collapse, slightly out of breath, on the bed beside him. “You’re kinda scary good at following orders.”

She'd figured out by now she had to be careful telling him not to stop when he got started with something—for fear he'd take her too seriously and end up killing them both.

He was unnaturally still beside her, the tips of his ears going red.

“Oh God, I didn't mean—

Her stupid mouth, she hadn't actually even meant to say that out loud. She knew this was sore point with Caine, though not in the way she'd once thought. It was a sore point with her too for that matter. A stupid misunderstanding that had kept them apart for no reason.

It was just—he never minded her telling him exactly what she wanted from him, if anything, he seemed to get off on it.

“I am sure that my coding is faulty in that area, Your Majesty.” he said in a careful voice. “If I seem obedient, it is perhaps because I enjoy doing what you ask of me. And your requests are quite reasonable. If my coding worked properly I wouldn't have a choice. I’d be compelled to follow your orders, no matter how abhorrent I found them.”

“So if I ask you to do something that you don't want, you won't do it?”

This was what had been so confusing before. Even if it was awkward, she wanted to understand this, especially now that it was out in the open. It was hard enough meeting him over and over again—she didn't want to be going around with bad info anymore.

“It's slightly more complicated than that,” he said. “If I work for you, I am supposed to follow your orders.”

“But say it’s not in a Queenly capacity, and I give you a choice, if I asked you to...” she strained to think of something he’d hesitate over. She already knew he had no qualms killing for her. So...maybe something off-putting and gross. But not too gross or obviously horrible “Say I asked you to...clean some gunk out from under my baby toenail.” She waved her foot up through the air. That seemed innocuously unpleasant enough, didn't it?. "In a totally non-sexual way," she added quickly, she didn’t want him thinking she was trying to hint at some kink.

"Your "baby toe-nail"?" he questioned.

"Yep, the littlest piggy, the smallest one."

“At times, Your Majesty’s brain works in very strange ways,” was all he said.

“But would you do it?”

“I can think of worse things, but I don't feel the slightest bit compelled to do that for you. I might well pass on that interesting offer Your Majesty. Unless, of course, you were in danger and it was poisonous, life-threatening—toe-nail gunk—as you called it,” he said, giving her a look, as if he found her extremely odd, but still somehow more appealing than he could quite understand under the circumstances.

 

***

 

Jupiter was almost asleep; one arm flung over Caine, her face smushed between the rumpled sheet and his shoulder, when a strange sensation, a tingling buzz, like a mild electric shock passed suddenly through her body. Opening her eyes, it took a moment in the dark to realize where she was.

Caine was gone.

The red numbers of the digital alarm clock glowed 2:36AM, and she could hear the snores of Mama and Aunt Nino from across the room.

She’d gone back three hours earlier than the other times. Or maybe she’d always come back this early, and slept until the alarm went off?

This time she wasn’t exhausted though. She felt fine.

She crept silently around the dark house, checking on each of her family in turn: Mama and Nino, Vladie, Mikka and Moltka, Vassily, Irina and Lyudmilla.

She didn’t know what she’d say if any of them woke and found her staring at them in the dark, but she really needed to see each of their faces.

Luckily, no one woke.

She scribbled a quick note saying that she had to leave in a hurry, and she’d be back as soon as she could. Vladie would explain everything, she wrote.

It served him right, she thought, remembering how he’d talked her into going to that clinic in the first place, demanded the larger cut of the money.

Anyway, he was so much better at bullshit than she was. And it might keep him busy for a bit; maybe prevent him from buying that stupid TV.

She took his car and drove out into the night to find Caine.

 

*****

 

Stinger Apini prided himself on his ability to handle anything that came at him—and handle it well. He had a reputation for doing as much, and during his time in the Legion it had served him well. Much as he'd complained about being stuck on that backwater planet called Earth, he’d known he might have ended up somewhere a lot worse if it weren’t for his reputation and the connections he’d made. He was known for being pragmatic, someone who could get the job done.

Once he’d been satisfied that Jupiter Jones was a Royal, and that her story was real, he hadn’t bothered to question it much further, shifted his focus to how he could prove himself of service, how he could work this unexpected change to his and Kiza’s best advantage.

Still, he thought, looking across the room to where the Queen stood with Caine Wise, there was something strange going on here that he didn’t quite understand.

 

Chapter Text

On the farm, in the dark hours of morning, Stinger had held the heavy telephone to his ear. Kiza looking on, arms folded across her chest, as he’d listened to the voice emanating from the primitive Earth tech.

He’d been suspicious at first. But at some point, the story of the Royal recurrence and her time travels—well, it didn’t exactly make sense—but there were things she told him that couldn’t be ignored or explained away.

 

“Sorry if I was a little abrupt over the phone,” Jupiter Jones said as she walked up the steps to the front porch an hour later, Caine Wise a step behind.

Standing in the cool, humid air of dawn, she was somehow smaller than Stinger had expected.

“It’s just that—from my perspective at least—we’ve been through this a whole lot of times before,” she smiled.

She was young, hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, simply dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt with sleeves rolled partway up the arms.

Older than Kiza, but not by much.

The sun rose beyond fields of corn in the distance, something else, like a thick shimmering mist, swirling up around them.

Bees.

Stinger felt the buzz in his own blood—that unbidden response to Royalty—as he bent to his knee before her and bowed his head.

“Your Majesty,” he said.

“Please,” she said, “that part’s totally not necessary.”

He rose to his feet, squinting into the light, uncertain of the protocol.

“But, maybe...” she hesitated, “brace yourself, cause I’m gonna hug you.”

There was a quick impression of soft yet strong arms, silky hair as the top of her head brushed his jaw—over by the time he’d patted a hand to her shoulder, his stance still stiff.

“You too,” she said, going after Kiza and wrapping an arm around her. Kiza threw him a look of surprise, but remembered her manners enough to hold back making a face at least.

Royals were often eccentric. Hugs didn’t usually enter into it, but he could think of worse.

Her Majesty came away with damp eyes, looking between them as if memorizing their faces.

“Sorry, but getting to know people the normal way—over and over again. I guess I’ve kinda lost patience for it,” she said with a shrug. “I’m diving in head first these days.”

It made sense, he supposed—though it was a bit off-putting.

Caine was silent, carefully expressionless by her side and Stinger wondered how her introduction to the Lycantant had gone earlier.

“The thing nobody tells you about looping through time?” she said. “After a while, it makes you kinda weird. I mean, I know I’m a complete stranger to you—well, a stranger stranger now than I was a minute ago,” she rolled her eyes. “But it’s so good to see you again. Really, you have no idea.”

 

Aboard the Aegis Cruiser, Jupiter Jones accessed Commonwealth records and activated files with her sigil.

Stinger studied her carefully as she spoke with Captain Tsing and the crew. So far, he hadn’t been able to fit her into any category he was familiar with. Found she didn’t fit any definition of Tersies or Royal he’d encountered before. It’d be best to figure it out as soon as possible, though. Know what to expect from her going forward.

It was obvious to him she was familiar with the ship and everyone around her, though she made an attempt at hiding it.

“I want to hold off on the portal restrictions for now,” she murmured.

Portal restrictions were one way to keep enemies from entering her territories.

Crude, but effective.

According to her, they’d have at least a full day before the restrictions needed to be in place.

She scrolled down an endless list of other edicts while he and Captain Tsing exchanged looks of surprise behind her. How long had it taken to put so much sheavework through?

Diomika was tactful enough not to say anything about it. He’d told her there were things he couldn’t divulge. The two of them knew each other well enough to leave it at that.

Diomika Tsing was playing everything straight from the book these days. Keeping her nose out of the sort of Entitled politics that cost people like them their jobs, she’d told him.

Easier said than done, Stinger had found.

Still, it was a relief to see his old comrade-in-arms again. Good to know she and Caine were both at his side.

In case things got ugly.

Though truth to tell, he wouldn’t mind a bit of action. Getting back in the thick of things.

Cornfields and beehives were all right for a spell, but they weren’t what he’d been trained for,

Earth wasn’t where he belonged. For one thing, he’d never been able to keep a goddamned grin plastered to his face all the time—as protocol suggested in order to blend in with the inhabitants.

Aegis weren’t same as Legion, but if he knew Diomika, she’d gathered a good crew here.

Gemma Chaterjee showed Kiza something from the latest feed that made her burst out giggling. Her laughter turned into a cough, but it was over soon. And for the first time in years, Stinger didn’t feel that wash of dread pass through him.

Instead, something like relief took its place.

Her Majesty was a bit strange—something about her eyes when she looked at them all, the way she anticipated questions before they were asked. But, if anything, that seemed to prove her story true. And she was otherwise straightforward, easier to deal with than any Royal he’d ever met.

He’d have to get Caine alone, get his take on her. Though the Lycantant had been sticking close to her side so far.

“Well, it’s official,” she said, turning toward them. “You’re now my Royal Guards.”

“It’s an honor, Your Majesty,” Stinger said.

Caine exchanged a quick look with her before nodding and turning his gaze to the floor.

 

Once they hit atmosphere on Orous, Her Majesty and Caine split off to the Aegis safe house while the rest of them headed for the Commonwealth.

He and Kiza went to the Health Authority to get her re-code. Stinger holding his breath while the clerk checked the sheavework was in order.

Somehow, this was the hardest thing to believe out of all of it.

A time-travelling recurrence of an Abrasax Queen?

He’d had heard of weirder things in his day.

But an expedited re-code for Kiza?

That seemed too good to be true.

In his experience, nobody did that for a Splice—at least, not without expecting something big in return.

Maybe Jupiter Jones really was only doing it to help them, as she’d said. But knowing she’d survived this long with the Abrasax family gunning for her...it was likely she had hidden depths.

He wouldn’t be surprised to find there was some catch, some hidden agenda she hadn’t revealed.

Not that it’d matter. Long as Kiza got what she needed, he’d do what Her Majesty required.

He’d do anything for his daughter.

Kiza was all he had.

These last years on Earth, it’d been just the two of them. And once they’d realized she had the bug, he’d kept her close. Worried she would fall ill without him, that someone would treat her with primitive medicine. Or worse, discover she wasn’t the kind of human they’d expected.

It would be a while before Stinger felt right about being separated from her again.

She was bursting with excitement when he left her though. Bouncing on her toes, her low-pitched buzz vibrating through the air around them.

The scraggly ostrich splice next to them noticed it. Grunting in annoyance—between bouts of adjusting an ugly hat and poking at a neck tumor the size of a koobafruit.

Stinger took in the scene a moment—a smile of reassurance for Kiza, a glare of warning to the bird—before heading out the door to find Jupiter and Caine.

Orous had smelled bad as he’d remembered. But it had been good to be back, good to fly, wending his way through crowded skies, testing the speed of the ship he’d picked up from Legion Command.

He’d taken a circuitous route to the Aegis safe house. Kept an eye out for bounty hunters along the way. It was in the distant hemisphere—half a world away from the Commonwealth—but someone would pick up on the trail eventually.

He'd paused in the entry, arms full of gear, the acrid, chemical air still thick in his lungs, as he looked at Jupiter and Caine standing close together across the room.

He’d come into the middle of something, but he wasn’t sure quite what.

 

The dwelling met with his approval. Reinforced walls and blast proof windows. Double coded entry. Not the sort of place anyone would expect to find a Queen, but comfortable by Earth standards.

Caine had been in contact since they arrived and given no reports of trouble. Still, he looked worried—an unusual expression for him.

Stinger had had mixed feelings when the other man walked up yesterday morning—back from the goddamned dead.

They hadn’t had a chance to hash things out yet. Stinger holding back on his first urge— to give him a sound thrashing.

Other things had taken priority.

They’d always worked well together in the past. Been through hell and back on some missions. Under normal circumstances, there was no one he’d rather have watching his back.

His instinct was to trust him again, in spite of everything. But following his gut had got him in trouble before where Caine Wise was concerned.

He rolled his shoulders as he walked further into the room, couldn’t help but notice the pull of tight, scarred-over flesh where his wings had once been.

“Got the gear you requested, Majesty,” he said, clearing his throat. He put everything down on the table next to a stack of sheaves. “Top of the line tech: grav boots and body armor, distortion shield. The weapons should fit your hands nicely.”

“Thank you Stinger,” she said.

“We do our job right and you won’t need to use any of it,” he said. “The long-range ship is ready in the dock and we’ll move you to the next location soon.”

Caine stepped away from her, walking the length of the room. He looked out the windows, as if checking the perimeter. But after the first pass it was apparent he was pacing. Restless— though it was unlike him to let it show. Caine usually kept it bottled in, waiting to let loose in battle.

Jupiter looked like she’d been preparing for something—and considering the story she’d already told, Stinger couldn’t help wondering what came next.

“We have a change in plan,” she said, giving a brief look toward Caine before focusing her attention on Stinger. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of Kiza or the crew. But maybe this way, if something goes wrong—well just say you didn’t know what I was up to.”

“What are you up to?”

“We’re going after Balem Abrasax,” she said.

“All right,” Stinger said slowly, confused.

He’d figured it was something worse.

“If you don’t mind my saying, Majesty, there’s no need for all this.” He gestured to all the military gear she’d requested. “We can’t get the Aegis involved in a Royal assassination, but Caine and I’ll do the job done once you’re secure at the long-term location.”

Caine should have suggested as much already.

“I’m going,” she said. “That’s already been decided. I need to be there to confront Balem and find out about the time loops. And it has to be now, before he finds out I’m still alive. I want to catch him by surprise. Caine’s coming with me, but there are some things for you to do from this end.”

She’d surprised him again. He’d never heard of a Royal risking their own skin when they could send someone else to do the job.

Stinger looked over at Caine, still pacing.

He hadn’t thought much of him being quiet. Figured it was his wariness around Entitleds. Or things left unresolved between the two of them.

But something was strange here.

It was possible the Deadlands had changed him, that he wasn’t up to the task. Hard to believe, but could be he’d gone soft.

“I can go in Caine’s place—if there’s some problem Majesty.”

“Is there a problem?” she asked Caine.

“No,” he said, voice low, coming to stand at her side. “We’ve been over the plan. We’re good to go.”

His tone was resolute.

“Okay then,” she said with a look of relief.

Stinger watched as she took Caine’s hand in hers, running her thumb over the back of it.

The Lycantant took in a slow breath and seemed to settle back into his skin.

“Could you go over things with Stinger while I change?” she asked. She went to gather up the gear and started for the other room.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” she turned back to them. “Can you wait until later to beat each other up? Let’s save it for the bad guys right now, huh?”

“Alright,” Caine agreed, looking oblivious.

“Bad guys?” Stinger changed the subject.

“She has a list, broken down into different categories. It’s here somewhere,” Caine said, indicating the stacks of sheaves.

“So what’s my part in this?” Stinger wanted to know.

“Once we make planet, I’ll contact you to put her portal restrictions in place—to prevent Balem from ordering any strike on Earth. He finds out about that, he’ll know she’s still alive. But we should have a while before he notices. After that, everything stays on lock down until she gives the word.”

“Seems easy enough. Not much of a job there.”

“If you don’t hear back...” He handed Stinger a sheave along with a cream colored envelope. “These are instructions, and a letter she wants you to give to her mother.”

“Did you try talking her out of it?” Stinger asked.

“I offered to go alone,” he said, “but she wouldn’t let me do it. I’ll make sure she comes out of this. We’ve got a good plan. Gone over the layout, tapped into surveillance. There’s regular traffic on and off the planet right now. Getting through the gate should be simple—long as they’re not looking for her.”

“Does she know how to use the gear? Grav boots are tricky for beginners.”

“Says she’s used them before. She mostly wants them as a back-up against falling.” Caine frowned. “I’ll operate the distortion shield. She’s been training in combat, but I don’t want it come to that.”

“Good. Training isn’t the same as being battle tested,” Stinger said. “A little knowledge might be dangerous, make her overconfident.”

“I think she’s the right amount of confident about it.”

Stinger thought it though.

“A quick strike on a unsuspecting target. You could do it in your sleep. But it doesn’t feel right sending in a civilian, much less a Royal under my guard.”

“It’s her decision,” Caine said.

“And you’re good to go?”

“Yeah.”

“Then what’s going on here, man?”

Caine just looked at him, face impassive.

“Is her story true?” Stinger questioned.

“She’s not lying —the time loop, knowing us—that’s all true.”

“And what’s your read on her?”

He didn’t know exactly how it worked. All Lycantants had a keen sense of smell, but with Caine it went beyond. He could smell a person’s intentions, character even. There was some sort of chemistry behind it, years of practice. But he had an uncanny ability to translate scent, understand it in ways Stinger had never heard of before.

Stinger watched in surprise as Caine opened and closed his mouth, starting and then stopping, as if he didn’t know what to say.

“There’s an undertone of green. Growing things, forest and grass, something flowering.”

He looked into the distance for a moment, and Stinger stared at him. Wondering if he was going to start reciting poetry.

Caine shook his head and came back from it. “I haven’t come across that before. It’s something new, she said, a kind of green Regenex formula. It binds with her cells and protects her from the time-travel.”

“Well, what else?”

“She’s...good,” he said slowly, the worried look returning to his face.

“That’s it?” Stinger asked. “Good?”

Maybe he should have left it there. But he’d been Caine’s commander for a long time. It was still second nature to try and help if he could.

“She told me she—

Stinger waited. But whatever it was, Caine was incapable of saying it.

“She smells like me.” The words escaped him in low rush. “It’s something instinctual—bees don’t—you don’t have any sort—?” he stopped short, catching himself.

“What are you asking?” Stinger tensed.

You didn’t ask another Splice about their ways. It wasn’t done. Caine knew that. There were certain things Splices only talked about among their own kind.

But then, Caine had always steered clear of other Lycantants.

“Nothing,” he said. “Forget I said anything.”

“Already forgotten.”

But it was obvious Caine needed help. Even bringing that kind of thing up in the first place...

A lot of information about Splices was common knowledge. Everyone knew Lycantants needed a pack, for instance—though Caine had seemed the exception to that rule. Most likely there were other things Lycantants kept hidden though, so they wouldn’t be used against them.

Most splices had figured out ways of communicating among their own kind. Secrets passed down.

Mating habits? Stinger thought, looking at his old friend. That's what they were talking here, wasn’t it?

Apis Splices had these intricate dance rituals, and all kinds of—well he sure as fuck wasn’t getting into that.

“She smells like you huh?”

“She said it means she belongs to me—“ Caine said, shaking his head. “But that’s bullshit. A Queen can’t belong to a Splice. She doesn’t know what it is either. She’s trying to be...nice. She’s nice to me.”

He said it almost miserably. As if the very idea of someone being nice confounded him.

“I don’t know about your stuff, man,” said Stinger, “and I’m not going to tell you about mine. But I don’t see any problem here. If she’s on board with it...”

Caine didn’t seem convinced.

“You’ve gone your whole life without having what you need,” Stinger said, “but even you can’t fight your instincts forever.”

“My instincts are the problem. I’m all kinds of fucked up, Sting. You should know that as well as anyone. What if my instinct is to kill her?”

“Is it?”

“No,” Caine said, with a sigh. “Right now it’s the opposite. I want to keep her away from Balem Abrasax—but that’s where we’re heading.”

“Let’s get through this and you can figure the rest out later,” Singer advised. “Let me look over the schematics, show me what you’ve got so far. Sounds like you could use another pair of eyes on it.”

 

A few minutes later, Jupiter came out dressed in black body armor, boots and gloves.

Stinger had to admit she looked a lot tougher in the gear—but she was still just a tiny thing.

Activating the boots, she lifted until she was foot off the floor, her face breaking out into an enormous smile.

If Caine were right about her—well it’d be a shame to see someone good ruined by the likes of Balem Abrasax.

It didn’t seem right to let her go in there. Especially not when she’d hired him to do this sort of job.

“Majesty, it’s not too late for me to take your place. You don’t have to do this.”

“I do have to do this.”

She was stubborn; he’d give her that.

“Chances are, anything you run into is going to be bigger, faster and stronger than you are. Doesn’t matter if you’ve had a bit of combat practice. You don’t want to engage unless it’s a last resort.”

“That makes sense,” she said.

“If anyone grabs you—the body armor will only protect you so far, there are vulnerable spots.”

“Show me,” she said, lowering to the floor and walking toward him.

“Here,” Stinger said, reaching—

She lunged at him. Drove her shoulder into his gut and flipped him over. His back slammed hard to the floor, wind knocked from his lungs.

He looked up to find a gun trained to his chest.

Her aim was slightly off.

“Don’t worry the safety was on,” she said calmly, tucking the gun back out of sight.

He drew in a wheezing breath.

“Sorry,” she winced. “I know you weren’t expecting that. But the element of surprise is important—which is why I need to go now. ”

“That was pretty good. But next time aim a little more to the right,” he said sternly, jumping to his feet, just as spry as if his bones didn't ache he told himself.

He turned in time to catch Caine in a big tooth-baring grin.

"Wow! I've seen how fast you are Stinger.” It soothed his ego that she said it with a genuine tone of amazement. “I didn’t think I could actually pull that one off. It didn’t hurt, did it?”

“No,” he grumbled, disregarding the urge to rub at his tailbone. “Still better if you don’t engage at all, Majesty.”

“You’re right. I have absolutely no intention of wrestling with Sargorns.”

“Humph.”

“I don’t want to go back there again,” she added, more seriously. “But I can’t avoid it anymore. You helped us the first time. You came back when you didn’t have to—maybe in spite of your own best interests.”

This was new. A part of the story she hadn’t told him before. He couldn’t imagine what they'd have a falling out over. He'd have no reason to betray her. No other allegiances. Except...Kiza.

And suddenly it made sense-why she’d been so insistent on taking care of his daughter.

“Things get complicated sometimes,” she said. “I don’t know why. But I do know that you understand about family, Stinger. I want you to look after mine if anything happens to me. ”

“You have my word, Majesty.”

He meant it.

There was a lump in his throat, or his chest maybe, like she’d lodged something there when she’d sent him head over heels a minute ago.

He’d given Caine up for dead when they’d sentenced him to the Deadlands, watched him dragged away in chains. Been sure it was the last he’d ever see of him.

For that, as much as anything, he’d wanted to knock his fist into that blockhead when he’d first seen him again.

Years ago, stripped of his wings and banished to Earth, it’d been decided. From there on out, he wasn’t looking out for anyone but himself and Kiza.

It was too risky.

Last thing he needed was some one else worming their way into his heart.

 

***

 

“Are we good?” Jupiter asked Caine.

They were in the ship, almost ready to go. Sitting close in the little cockpit as he familiarized himself with the controls.

Something was bothering him though. He’d said there was something he needed to tell her, just before Stinger walked in, but he hadn’t brought it up again.

She studied his face, pale skin reflecting colored lights from the control panel. He leaned over, and she met him halfway in a kiss that was sweet and lazy and slow.

She got lost in tasting him for a minute.

“You’re very good Your Majesty,” he said against her lips.

“Mmm. Don’t try to distract me,” she said, trying to ignore the goose bumps his low voice sent sliding along her skin. “You were going to tell me something before.”

He hesitated. “Maybe when we’re done with this,” he said, reluctantly pulling away.

“Just tell me now. I insist,” she said, softening her command with a smile.

“When you found me in Chicago...” he stopped.

She thought back to that hour in the dark with him in the Willis Tower. Her breath caught, a wave of sensation running through her at the memory of it.

“That was pretty intense,” she gulped.

Was he trying to distract her again?

“My blood was running hot back there,” he said, dragging his hand across his face.

“Well, yeah. Mine too I guess.”

“No, you don’t understand,” he said, his voice grim. “It’s not—it’s a physiological state Lycantants go into. It helps me heal faster. I don't remember it coming on, maybe I thought it’d be safe, thought I’d be alone when I did it.”

He’d been hit by a blast from one of the bounty hunters. She’d seen the wound on his shoulder, along with the feral look in his eyes when she walked into the room.

He’d been healed by the time they’d left for Stinger’s.

“It’s not safe for you to be near when I’m like that. I won't let it happen again. But if you come looking for me next time, at the same time...”

“Caine. I trust you. Completely. That’s not even an issue for me.”

She’d told him this so many times before. It wasn’t his fault she was the only who could remember it.

“You shouldn’t trust me though—not when I’m like that.”

“It was fine,” She wanted to reassure him, didn’t understand why he was upset. “More than fine. I liked what happened. A lot. I thought you did too.”

“I wasn’t in control of myself. We were just lucky nothing bad happened.”

“But—

“It’s too dangerous, Your Majesty,” he said and his voice was dead serious. “I don’t remember how it happened. But they told me afterward: My blood was running hot when I attacked that Entitled.”

Chapter Text

 

“Wait,” said Jupiter, “you attacked someone when you were like that?”

Caine looked away and fitted his fingers to the ship’s controls. For a moment, the faint hum of the engine was the only sound in the cockpit. “I tore his throat out,” he said, his voice flat. “They told me it was a defect in my genes, that I was feverish, unaware of my surroundings. The fact that I can’t remember any of it...my blood running hot is the only thing that explains all that.”

He turned to look at her cautiously, as if expecting her to be repulsed by him now that she knew.

She remembered yesterday morning, remembered his skin had been unusually warm—but him attacking someone when he was in that state?

“Caine,” she said, bewildered, “that doesn’t make any sense at all.”

 

******

 

Driving into the Loop at three in the morning had been different. Everything quiet and deserted. She’d had no trouble finding a parking spot across the street from the Willis Tower.

Jupiter was different too. This time, instead of worn down from time traveling, she was wide-awake and full of energy—which meant the Vegecell was definitely working.

She had been ready to fall sleep for the night in the last time loop, so that probably was going to hit her eventually. She was too excited to feel tired now though, excited to be back, and have everyone else back too.

The Earth was safe, her family was alive. She’d make sure everything stayed this way –permanently, if there were any way possible.

She walked along the sidewalk, past piles of black, plastic-bagged garbage and rows of concrete planters. She slipped past the parking lot attendant wearing ear buds in his booth and went through the unlocked maintenance door.

In the elevator up she thought about everything she would say.

It would hurt –when Caine saw her and didn’t know her all over again. But she was trying to convince herself that this time wouldn’t be as bad. She knew he would believe her story and agree to help her. And this time, she would tell him how she felt about him. Maybe not the very first second she saw him—but sometime soon.

She walked from the elevator, everything dark other than the glow from a few fluorescent tubes. At the door, she stopped to look around.

Everything seemed empty.

A noise came from the shadows in one of the far corners.

“Hello?” she called out softly. She stepped between two metal beams and around a spool of wire, walking toward the sound.

Caine sat on a blanket on the floor. His boots planted wide, he was leaning forward, chest resting against his bent knees, head hanging low.

“My name is Jupiter Jones,” she said, approaching him. “I’m the one you were hired to find.”

He slowly lifted his head, but didn’t turn to look at her. His shirt was off and he was sweating, breathing hard, ribs expanding and falling. His Mauler lay on the floor in front of him, untouched.

It seemed like he was paying attention to something in the distance. Maybe he’d just come from a fight and was still listening or waiting to catch some scent, perceiving something beyond her senses.

She’d noticed it took time for Caine to come down from his hyper-alert battle mode. For that matter—though he tried not to show it—he was usually dialed up to ten on the vigilance, ready to react to anything that came at him.

She wasn’t sure whether it was a legacy of his years with the Legion, or from his time in the Deadlands, or maybe something in his nature. It could be all three.

But no, she realized, her eyes adjusting better to the dark as she stepped closer. He wasn’t on the alert for anything right now. If anything, it was the opposite.

He hardly seemed to realize she was here.

“Caine?”

He tilted his head and there was some strange look about his face. Not suspicion or a lack of recognition—she was actually used to those by now—this was different.

“I just want to talk to you,” she said, keeping her voice calm, palms up and out to show that she wasn’t a threat. “There are things I need to explain...”

He wasn’t listening. Or he didn’t understand her words. He took a deep breath in, his nostrils flared.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

He sat up, and a crumpled piece of fabric dropped from his hand. It was soaked with blood—a lot of blood.

“Oh my God, you’re hurt!” She knelt beside him to get a closer look.

It looked like a weapon blast had hit him in the shoulder. The skin near his armpit above his tattoo was all torn up, but there wasn’t very much blood.

“Where are you bleeding?” she asked.

He was still silent, he hadn’t said a word, but he looked directly at her for the first time since she’d entered.

His eyes were black, pupils completely dilated. And there was something else, something strange.

She knew he was a Splice, but aside from his teeth and ears, his face had always looked human to her. Stinger’s eyes flashed gold, but she’d never seen anything like that from Caine.

Until now.

A wild animal looked out from his eyes. As if his normal human consciousness had been stripped away. Not dangerous exactly, more unguarded...vulnerable almost.

“Caine?”

His gaze fell to her neck.

And when he moved it was fast.

He grabbed her waist and pulled her in. Pressed his face against her throat.

Too fast.

He twisted off balance and fell, taking her down with him.

“Ow!” Her head knocked back as he came down on her, the blanket barely softening her impact with the floor.

She landed pinned by his torso half on top of her, his leg on hers holding her trapped. He shifted a bit, buried his nose deep into the crook of her neck, and wrapped an arm around her.

Then he let out a sigh as he closed his eyes and melted into her completely.

Was he asleep?

She tried moving and he tightened his hold and gave a small whine.

Which meant he wasn’t unconscious, she guessed. Unless something had changed with this timeline he should be okay. He always had been before.

She checked his head, fingers searching for injuries, vaguely remembering something about dilated eyes and concussions—but she couldn’t find any blood or bumps. Carefully, she moved her hand over his body, inspecting as far she could reach. There was nothing. He felt...fine. Though she might have a hard time explaining why she was running her hand over his butt if he actually woke up.

His breathing was heavy, but it was even. And the wound on his shoulder looked better than it had a minute ago. It was knitting itself together, healing as she watched.

So maybe that was where the blood had come from then.

She put her fingers next to the injury; his skin was warm, vibrating to the touch, giving off a strange sort of buzz. He must have used Regenex on it. Maybe it was taking longer, some different formula than what she’d seen used at Stinger’s house.

Caine was a little heavy, but she didn’t mind that. There was something comforting about the press of his weight against her side, strangely endearing, in the way he’d nuzzled into her after looking at her with those wild dark eyes.

She was tempted to let him sleep. He hardly ever rested while she was around. She stroked her hand through his hair again, this time just to feel it beneath her fingers.

She’d been prepared to talk—naptime with her favorite Lycantant wasn’t exactly part of the plan. She traced the brand on his neck with the pads of her fingers, thinking about what lay ahead of them.

The furrow was gone from between his eyebrows right now, his eyelashes soft against his cheek. Tenderness welled up, as she studied his sleeping face. Sometimes it seemed like he was invincible—a one-man army—but something had hurt him this morning. She didn’t like to think of him injured and alone.

And all that blood...

As much as a nap, he probably needed food—and they really did need to get going.

So what were her options? She couldn’t exactly get him down to the car like this.

His skin was getting warmer, that tingling sensation stronger, going through his whole body now, passing into her wherever they touched.

Was this what Regenex felt like? This strange electric surge?

Jupiter hadn’t been awake when Kalique had used it on her before; she’d only known the aftereffects. Gross and disturbing as it was, she still remembered the powerful feeling flowing through her veins, how she’d liked it in spite of herself, how it had affected her like some kind of aphrodisiac.

Okay, that line of thought really wasn’t going to motivate her to move anytime soon.

She tried to clear her head.

She could call Stinger. Have the Aegis meet them here? Though Balem’s people were looking for her in Chicago—it would be better to get out of town...

She squirmed enough to reach her phone from her pocket and Caine gave a little grunt and moved against her. His thigh shoved closer between her legs, pressing right into the flesh of her labia, some fastening on his pants sliding up against her clit.

Whoa!

This was an interesting development.

She swallowed and blinked and stared at the phone blankly for a moment.

Stinger. Phone call, she thought determined.

She tried ignore to the way her skin tingled everywhere Caine touched her, the way the tiny hairs were rising up all along her skin. Ripples of energy kept pulsing through him. It was like he’d pulled a trip-wire low in her belly, connecting the aching full feeling between her legs to her nipples, suddenly hard and tight.

Another wave of vibrating warmth passed into her, and she gasped and dropped the phone from nerveless fingers.

Her hips strained up against him—but she wasn’t trying to get free.

She must have touched the Regenex on his shoulder, she thought, practically panting. The stuff was on her now too.

That was her last coherent thought, just before an orgasm slammed through her.

 

*****

 

Caine emerged slowly, breathing in tandem with someone else, a heartbeat fast beneath his ear.

His skin was singing, his cock throbbing hard in his pants, his face pressed against fabric and cool skin. Someone was moving, quivering beneath him.

On his lips was the salt taste of sweat.

And the scent.

It was everywhere. Barreling through him, filling him up, surrounding him.

He didn’t remember where he was, how he’d got here, what was going on.

Whatever this was, it was overwhelming and perfect.

He wanted more.

As much as he could get before he woke up and found it was only a dream.

He lifted his head and saw a woman with dark hair, eyes closed, scent emanating from her in waves of color, an overpowering chemical rush. Her head was thrown back, face flushed.

She opened her eyes and a wide beautiful smile broke over her face.

“You’re awake,” she said with a relieved laugh.

She was happy to see him.

No, more than that, he thought, confused.

There was some synthesis here he couldn’t grasp. The sight of him pleased her, was somehow entirely and unequivocally good.

No one had ever looked at him like that before. Or been relieved to see him—unless there was fighting involved.

Was there fighting involved?

He smelled blood, his own. Stronger than that, was the smell of arousal on her.

“Do I know you?”

He realized the words were wrong as soon as they were out of his mouth. But there was something tripping him up, something else he recognized was important but couldn’t quite understand.

“I know you Caine Wise,” she said it as if there were some joke, but she didn’t explain it.

She pushed at him, and he rolled off of her.

“I fell asleep then?” He frowned.

“Only for a few minutes” she said. “I kinda think you needed the rest. Do you feel better now?”

“Yes.” He felt wonderful, but strange.

“Good, because we need to talk.”

She sat up and he felt a moment of panic that she was leaving him.

“I’m sorry, I...” He wasn’t sure what to apologize for though.

She brushed tendrils of hair back from her face and looked at him closely.

“It’s okay, really.” She rested a smooth hand against his cheek and leaned over to kiss him.

He pressed up into the fleeting brush of soft lips, over too soon, as she began to move away.

He reached for her, drawing her down, and she came back and kissed him harder, opened her mouth so he could taste her.

There was something...

Her tongue ran along the edge of his teeth as she slid her hand down the front of his pants and curved her fingers around him.

She pulled away from him and sat up, but she was smiling again, eyes sparkling.

“Just help me get all these clothes off,” she said, already working at the buttons of her shirt. “We have to be quick.”

He was out of his boots and pants in record time. Watched mesmerized, as she shimmied out of her own things and tossed them aside in a rush.

Each thing about her was a new revelation. The slide of her naked skin, her sleekly muscled arms pulling him close, the strength of her thighs, the feel of her slick and tight after she’d taken his cock in hand and drawn him into her warmth, soft curves pressing and bouncing on top of him.

He wanted to touch and taste her everywhere.

They weren’t quick.

 

Afterward, they searched the room for her clothes and she spotted his hygiene tech in with his gear

“Oh, thank God!” she said, giving herself a fast once over before reaching for her jeans.

There was a mark on the inside of her thigh. He vaguely remembered it happening. He must have forgotten she was smaller and had tender skin, bitten her harder than he’d realized. He’d let himself get out of control, overwhelmed by his reaction to her, forgotten to be careful.

He still felt like he was half-asleep. She’d been talking to him, explaining some things. Her voice washed over him, warm and soothing, but he had the feeling he hadn’t caught her every word.

“There’s actually this whole speech I have memorized,” she said. “Code words and existential arguments to convince you that everything I’m saying is true.”

Jupiter.

Her name was Jupiter. He remembered that.

She still seemed like a dream somehow, Caine couldn’t entirely believe she was real.

“I’m all discombobulated,” she said, buttoning up her shirt. “But that was pretty crazy just now.”

He finished connecting his boots and grabbed his Mauler.

“We probably shouldn’t have stayed so long,” she said, “but I am hours ahead of when I usually wake up and there won’t be traffic this time of day. Let’s get down to the car and I’ll tell you everything else on the way to Stinger’s.”

“Alright,” he agreed.

She’d told him the Abrasax family were all trying to kidnap her or kill her, and that she needed to get to the Aegis for help.

“And, oh, we should get you some food. You lost a fair amount of blood.”

He didn’t remember that part, but it probably explained why things were fuzzy.

“Do you like donuts? That’s probably the only thing that’s open this time of day.”

Donuts? He looked over at her.

She was fixing her hair back into a smooth tail and for the first time he noticed the glowing blue sigil on her wrist.

His heart sank into his stomach.

“You’re Entitled.”

“Yeah,” her voice was soft. “I’m a Royal recurrence that’s why everyone is after me.”

Cold fear passed through him as he remembered biting her. He hadn’t been thinking straight. He’d been out of control earlier and anything could have happened to her.

She must have seen the worried look in his eyes.

“I won’t say it doesn’t matter—that I’m Queen and you’re a Splice. But it doesn’t matter to me.”

Not only an Entitled then, she was a Queen.

She stood and placed her hand against his chest, looking up at him with big eyes.

She swallowed hard.

“I love you.” Her voice was strained. “I guess...I thought you recognized it, recognized me somehow.”

He wanted to reassure her, but he was suddenly stiff and unsure himself.

She loved him. That was what this was.

“I know that I smell like you,” she said. “You told me before it means...it means that I belong to you.”

There was some uncertainty in those last words though.

“You do smell like me,” he said finally.

He slid his hand over her hers and she let out the breath she’d been holding in.

He kissed her. He wasn’t really sure what else to say or do, but he’d figured out that she liked his kisses.

From now on, he’d have to be a lot more careful though.

 

***

It turned out Caine did like donuts. But not nearly as much as he liked Jupiter Jones.

She bought him a dozen and insisted that he eat them while she drove them out of the city. He devoured the warm sweet dough and watched her face while she told him her story. The food helped, he was starting to feel more coherent.

At Stinger’s place, she brushed the powdered sugar from Caine’s beard and kissed him briefly before he steeled himself to go and see his old friend.

It wasn’t until that night, when she’d curled up trusting next to Caine on the bed in the Aegis safe house, and he’d watched over her sleeping, that he realized what must have happened that morning.

His blood had been running hot.

He’d been injured when she’d found him, but he didn’t remember using Regenex, didn’t remember any of it. He must have slipped, not felt it coming over him, not fought it off in time.

It would have been alright for any other Lycantant, nothing more than a way to rest and heal. He still remembered when he was very young, the way the others had watched over anyone injured or ill, looking out for them while their guard was down.

Caine never let himself run hot though, he didn’t have a pack to watch over him and so he’d fought it off the few times he’d felt it coming on, used medicine instead.

He had only slipped and let his blood run hot once before that he knew of. He’d learned the hard way that he couldn’t trust what he might do in that state.

He’d had a lot of time to think about it while Jupiter slept, sifting through everything he could remember from that morning, worrying about the parts that he couldn’t. Agonizing over what might have happened to her.

He had decided he had to warn her. He had to let her know the danger—even if it meant she’d never look at him the same way again.

The only a question had been whether he should tell her before or after they went after Balem Abrasax.

 

***

 

“I don’t understand it either,” Caine said. “I don’t know why I attacked him when I was like that. I only know what they told me.”

Jupiter couldn’t believe it though, something about the whole thing seemed off.

“I hurt you yesterday,” he said in a grim voice. “It could have been worse, Your Majesty. Please don’t risk it again.”

“You didn’t hurt me,” she started, but she knew she had to be honest with him. “I mean, okay, I bumped my head when you fell on me, but it hurt for like a minute. The only real danger was severe snuggling.”

She couldn’t stand to see him looking so miserable and ashamed. ”And, um, I might have humped your leg a little—or a lot—which is funny if you think about it...”

She gave him a cheesy grin, trying to lighten the mood, but his face was still somber.

“Even after I woke up,” he said. “I wasn’t completely in control. I bit you, I saw the mark that I left.”

“I wanted you to bite me,” she said. She’d actually been expecting him to do it for a while now. She knew he’d considered it, wondered why he’d never done much more than graze her with his teeth. “I liked it. You don’t have to be that careful with me. I’m not fragile. I’m not afraid of a few bumps and bruises.”

“I could kill you.”

“You would never do that.”

“I’ve killed a lot of people, Your Majesty. I would never hurt you on purpose, but I don’t know what I’m capable of doing when I’m like that. If it happened once, it could happen again.”

“I’m starting to doubt it ever did happen that way Caine. I really don’t see how you could have attacked anyone. When I found you, you could barely sit up.” The more she thought about it, the more the whole thing seemed fishy to her. “Maybe someone used you. After all that’s the way things work in your world, isn’t it? Everybody using everybody else for whatever they can squeeze out of them. Maybe somebody got away with murder because they were able to blame it on a Splice.”

“I don’t think it’s only my world that works that way, but yes, I suppose it’s possible,” he didn’t look like he believed it though.

She wasn’t sure what made her angrier right now, the idea that someone had used Caine. Or the way the whole thing had made him doubt himself, doubt his own worth.

But there were other things going on here. And she’d hit him with a lot of stuff in the last day too. Maybe he could catch up to her, but she needed to be patient. She couldn’t expect him to see things her way all at once. Couldn't expect him just to understand how important he was to her, how much she needed him.

Or maybe it wasn’t that she needed him. Maybe she’d learned enough that she could go it alone if she had to, if that were the only way. But she didn’t want to do it without him.

Still, Caine had been without a pack for a long time. It might take him a while to learn how not to be alone anymore. She trusted him—but she couldn’t expect him to trust her, not completely, not yet.

“You’re a good person Caine. I trust you completely. And I know that you would never hurt me. But if it makes you feel better, I promise to steer clear when or if your blood is running hot—at least until we figure it out better.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“Are there any other secret wolf-y traits I should know about while we’re at it?”

“No,” he said. His face had turned a bit red though.

Huh.

“Wait,” she said. “I just thought of something. Can you grow back a finger, or a limb, if it gets chopped off?”

He looked surprised, took a moment to consider her question.

“Only if it’s a full moon, Your Majesty,” he said in a slow, serious voice. “Unfortunately, two more would sprout back in its place.”

“Oh. My. God. Are you serious?”

He was completely straight-faced for a moment. Then he smiled.

“Ha!” she laughed. “Okay, you got me. Well if you’re sure there’s nothing else... Are you ready to go kick some Abrasax ass?”

 

***

 

The craft was Legion designed, built for speed and agility but disguised to look like a standard delivery ship. They had no problem getting in through the storm gate and landing in one of the side docking bays.

The second they were in, Caine contacted Stinger to have him activate the portal restrictions.

Earth was safe now, no matter what. Jupiter, on the other hand, felt anything but safe.

Caine would defend her, and she’d been learning to defend herself—but there was something primal about being back at the Jupiter Refinery again.

The smell of the air, the hum of the generators, the dark orange clouds that filled the skies. It was the scene of all her nightmares. She could already feel herself breaking out in a cold sweat.

Chapter Text

  

Balem Abrasax woke at the Jupiter refinery, looking through heavy-lidded eyes at the vaulted ceiling of his bedchamber. Reluctantly, his gaze moved down the wall—and stopped on the portrait of Seraphi.

That familiar, cold dread washed through him.

He’d had her painting removed—time after time.

In one timeline, he’d destroyed it, tearing at her face in his rage, desperate fingers rending the canvas until the paint flaked and crumbled, the particles so thick on the air that they’d choked his throat and left a rancid taste in his mouth.

Despite it all, Seraphi smiled down from her vantage once more.

Mother was back again.

And so was Balem.

“My Lord?” Chicanery Night spoke from across the room. “I am afraid the recurrence never arrived at the clinic.”

Of course she hadn’t.

Jupiter Jones never went back to that clinic. She hadn’t since the first time his Keepers had attempted—and failed—to kill her. The first time that she’d slipped through his fingers...

Balem held back a groan.

It was happening all over again.

He ignored the rest of Mr. Night’s words, the pathetic string of explanations and excuses. He’d heard them all before.

He was so very weary of this.

He lie there, limbs limp, averting his eyes from her, watching the relentless fall of burnt orange light through the leaded glass windows overhead. It filled the room with a smoldering glow—as it always did.

But—Balem had been elsewhere. Hadn’t he?

He felt an odd expectancy, as if something had changed—something important. Though, time after time, nothing changed here.

A dream? He couldn’t remember.

Everything in this place suffocated him, the air pressing down, too thick for his lungs, the silk of his bedclothes too heavy against his sensitive skin. Keeping him in place. Holding him captive.

It was unbearable.

Moving deliberately, Balem pushed the sheets aside and sat up, determined to ignore the panic bubbling up beneath his fatigue.

He would maintain his calm; ignore the cold trickle of sweat dripping from under his arm—so undignified. He would not bother asking yet again if the atmospheric controls were properly set. He already knew that they must be. He’d had them checked, and re-checked, so many times before.

And still, Mr. Night’s voice droned on, unheeded.

Something had happened in the last timeline, something that had broken through this endless monotony. Balem felt certain of it. And yet...

The memory came to him, at last.

 

Jupiter Jones was dead.

 

He collapsed back into his pillows with a sigh of relief—no, triumph—as he remembered.

It hadn’t been a dream.

 

***

 

Somehow, in the last timeline, he’d woken and found the recurrence had not claimed her title. He’d ordered an immediate attack on her city—and then he had witnessed the aftermath.

His Keepers sent images from Earth and Balem walked through the scene of her destruction, looked on the ruined skeletons of steel protruding from heaps of crumbled concrete, the desiccated beds of vaporized lakes, the fields burnt black, stretching to the horizon.

Nothing had survived.

She must have been incinerated instantly.

Had there been a moment, one second, for her to realize Balem had defeated her?

Perhaps it had happened too quickly.

He watched from his window as the fleets of Harvesters came down through the Stormgate, filling the docking stations on every level of the refinery. There was more than enough of the population left alive after the attack to ensure a profit.

He looked down upon the multitudes of Earth, streaming from his ships in wave upon wave, flooding into every entranceway. Their bodies made bare, their skin wet from the decontamination process, their bald heads gleaming in the golden light of the storm. The heavy, fleshy sounds of their footfalls, building, and gathering like thunder, until they reverberated through the buildings all around.

A shiver went through him.

Not that he was disturbed by the realities of production.

Their deaths gave him life.

The strong prospered. The weak submitted to greater force.

Balem Abrasax was the greater force. He always had been. He always would be. He felt no qualms about that.

He had seen people drained before. However, he had never witnessed this compelled march, the enormous mass of an entire planet moving as one.

The word genocide passed through his mind—a whispered voice that sounded like hers. That was nothing to do with a Harvest. They were from an underdeveloped world, grown for this very purpose. Each and every one of their lives belonged to him.

This was his right.

The Harvest administrators oversaw everything from stations around the refinery, ensuring all was done to code. One of them turned in Balem’s direction, and he instinctively slunk back into the shadows. Had they caught him watching?

It was uncouth for an Entitled to observe the Harvest. This was strictly business, not an entertainment. There were protocols to be maintained.

Balem should keep his distance.      

But something compelled him, some heretofore unknown need. Something left unsatisfied by her unseen death. He could not turn away from the opportunity to experience what was happening here.

He called for his chariot.

Balem kept his expression coldly superior as he rode past the administrators in the great hall. None of them dared to speak a word in protest.

His presence among them was unprofessional, in extremely poor taste. It was unheard of, for one of his stature to be directly involved in this process. If rumor of it surfaced, it would detract from Abrasax Industries’ reputation for strict quality standards—perhaps even lower their stock price.

But then, if time were rewritten, who would ever know?

Balem traveled further into the great hall, closer and closer, watching as Earth’s former inhabitants jostled awkwardly forward, step-by-step. An old woman with bony elbows and drooping breasts, a knock-kneed teenager with too large hands and feet—at close range, they were disappointingly ordinary.

There were a few more pleasing specimens: a broad shouldered man with powerful muscles and satin skin, a sleek, long-limbed woman with plump lips and cheeks.

Though they may as well have been corpses.

Even without this Harvest their primes were all too fleeting, their lives painfully short.

A small boy passed close to the chariot, ears protruding ridiculously from the sides of his head, glowing translucent pink as they caught the light.

For a split second, Balem was tempted to poke at one. Would the child feel anything? Could it react?

The urge was quickly overridden by revulsion, then panic, as someone bumped against Balem’s golden vehicle. He wobbled erratically there, floating, helpless as the crowds grew thicker, and began to surround him.

“Guards!” he called out.

The red robes stepped forward in formation and formed a barrier. They parted the seas of people going forward, so that he could continue on, unmolested.

Balem could not stomach the thought of that doomed flesh touching him. In any case, there was something else that drove him, something more than crass curiosity.

He watched their blank faces and glazed eyes, their brains overridden to remove fear and sensation, programmed to cooperate with all instruction.

Unaware of what awaited them.

Balem was aware—of everything.

Everything that they did.

Everything that they now were and would become.

It was all at his command.

They took their places in the machines, and it was all so effortless, so painless. He was doing them a mercy.

He watched avidly as vial after vial was filled to the top with the precious fluid.

Everything becoming clear to him once more.

This was an affirmation.

Each drop of their life drained proved his own superiority—his own power in this universe.

Among these vast hordes, Balem alone was eternal.

They had been naked and weak—stinking of disinfectant—no more than the raw material for his machinery.

Trapped in the loop of repeated days, Balem had feared he was growing dull; he had felt overwhelmed by forces he did not understand.

But with his dominion over them—and his victory over her—he had regained control.

 

***

 

“My Lord,” Chicanery Night’s voice brought Balem back to the present. “I have ordered more hunters to search for her.”

“Don’t bother,” Balem said, relishing the words as they passed his lips. “The recurrence is dead.”

“But, My Lord—

“It is done.”

“How—

“I am not in the mood to be questioned further, Mr. Night.”

“Yes, My Lord.”

It was frustrating that he did not know how he had gained the advantage over her in the last timeline. It must suffice that it had happened. She was gone—turned to dust.

The Keepers had searched—their grey fingers sifting through the ashes of countless dead—microscopic bits of burnt flesh and bone the only remains after the walls of fire had passed through the city.

Now, with another time loop begun, even that dust was gone—erased—as if it had never existed.

It felt incomplete, but would have to be enough.

For now.

Balem smiled at her portrait, although his eyes slid quickly away, unable to meet hers.

It had been an ignominious death—impersonal this time—but no more than she deserved.

He had defeated her. Exterminated her—along with her precious planet.

His planet now.

With time reset, Earth’s population was restored, but the recurrence could not come back to life. She had been made vulnerable, taken out of time—like Balem...

“Ready a Regenex bath for me,” he ordered.

“But...”

Balem sat up again and glared, narrowing his eyes at the worrying movements of the rat splice’s fingers, the nervous gulp.

“Yes, My Lord, right away.”

“And have my ship prepared to leave.”

“But—

Now!” The whispered shout stained his throat.

There was nothing he wanted here.

Re-harvesting the Earth could wait. Fifty years, a hundred—it hardly mattered now.

This planet had become his prison. Time after time, dragged back to this same morning.

Trapped.

In the last time line, he’d finally escaped the refinery, made a brief trip to Orous and spent time at his alcazar.

Balem had been brought back again, but he refused to remain. He was determined to put this place behind him…for as long as he was able.

 

 

**********

 

Somewhere in the refinery, halfway down a corridor lined with forty-foot tall stone columns and lit by only the shifting skies overhead, Jupiter Jones stood in the shadows.

Caine had stopped beside her, listening—or maybe he had smelled something on the air?

He must smell her fear, though he hadn’t said a word about it. He’d given her a concerned look when they first stepped from the ship, along with a small nod of reassurance. It probably wasn’t Legion protocol to mention that one of your team smelled anxious—not good for moral when they were on a mission.

And they were on a mission, as surreal as it seemed. Hard to believe they’d actually come back here, and that this wasn’t just another bad dream.

Jupiter was still trying to get over the nightmare feeling of this place.

The grav hull was intact in this timeline, she reminded herself. Nothing was exploding or on fire—yet, at least. The floor was solid beneath her boots. She knew it might turn transparent and show something sinister happening beneath her—but it wouldn’t be happening to her family. This time, they were safe at home, guarded by the Aegis crew.

Maybe that weird feeling along her skin was from the constantly raging storm outside. She didn’t want to think about how the grav hull counteracted the crushing gravity of this planet, how it managed to hold back the poison gasses.

When she wondered too much about things like that, it was suddenly hard to breathe.

And okay, she hadn’t quite talked herself out of this feeling of trepidation—but it didn’t matter.

This had to be done.

Balem needed to be stopped. Jupiter needed to get some answers from him. And if she had to inflict pain to get him talking? Well—she’d been practicing.

She didn’t fear Balem. She worried about what he could do to Earth. She didn’t like the idea of going up against his Keepers or Sargons, his armies of guards—or some of those bounty hunters for that matter.

But Balem himself?

Ever since she’d whacked him upside the head with that pipe she’d seen him for the cowering man-baby he really was. She didn’t fear him.

It was this place that got to her.

At least, it had been easy so far, flying straight in and walking around unchallenged.

No blaring alarms, or creepy android guards firing at them.

Surprisingly easy.

Too easy?

The sound of footsteps—a lot of footsteps—came echoing through the hall.

Great, she’d jinxed it!

A line of guards came around the corner in their direction and Jupiter stepped back closer to the wall and held her breath.

“Take this,” Caine whispered, handing her the distortion shield.

The shield made anything behind it invisible. If anyone looked closely, they might notice the way the illusion warped around the edges, but it was dark enough here that they’d be okay.

Jupiter watched, incredulous, as Caine stepped away from her and into the guards’ line of vision.

He pulled something from his pocket and—dusted the carvings in the stonework?

The guards continued on, as if they hadn’t even seen him.

“You should breathe,” Caine said softly, once the guards had all marched past.

She sucked in a deep breath, then said on the exhale, “How did they not see you?”

“Stinger got us into their system. We’re tagged to register as cleaning crew. Anything tech-based can see us, but will probably just ignore us.”

“Well, yeah, that would work,” she said rolling her eyes. Even in space, no one noticed the people cleaning their toilets. “But if it’s that easy then why—

“Why what?” He cocked his head, uncertain what she was asking.

“Never mind.” She wasn’t sure how to put it, and she didn’t want to shift his focus. They had other things to do.

“Alright. Better if you stay behind the shield. We don’t want your face on the surveillance. But unless we run into someone, we can talk quietly—and breathe.”

“Gotcha,” she said.

This whole operation was going a lot more smooth than she’d expected somehow. She thought about all the times she’d seen Caine fly into action, gun in hand, chaos breaking out on all sides.

Who knew Caine could be so stealthy? Or had she just not noticed it because it he was being...stealthy about it?

What stuck in her mind most were those do or die moments—most of which left her feeling ready to barf actually. Chases through canyons of skyscrapers in Chicago. Last minute rescues—way too many last minute rescues.

He’d stopped her wedding by literally crashing it, with a spaceship, through the ceiling.

Not too subtle.

Though, admittedly, that had been spur of the moment.

The vibe this time was totally different though, more like a super sneaky high-tech jewel heist. Too bad the thing they were here to steal was Balem Abrasax.

“Something’s changed,” Caine said, turning to look from one side of the long hallway to the other.

He’d been focusing on something when he’d stopped before, but he seemed to know exactly where to go. Which was way more than Jupiter could say. Couldn’t she have at least memorized the layout after seeing this place so many nights in her dreams?

Apparently it didn’t work that way.

Everything had started to look the same. Cavernous room after room—all with the same death cathedral theme.

Had she been down this giant hallway once before?

 

“I guess Balem might smell kinda like me,” she said, in case that was any help.

Caine frowned at her in confusion.

Hadn’t she told him? She forgot exactly which parts of the story she’d gotten to this time around.

“Since I have the same exact genes as his mother...” she began.

She really didn’t like it—but if she was genetically identical to Seraphi, that meant half of Balem’s genes were the same as hers. Did that mean he sort of was her son?

Ugh, no.

Blue lightening flashed from the window of a building far above them.

“He’s having a re-code,” said Caine. “That got in the way for a minute, but I’ve got him now—his scent is similar to his brother Titus.”

Caine created a glowing blue opening in the stone wall and they stepped out into the sky together.

Jupiter was unsteady for a moment as she adjusted her boots to hover and Caine cupped his hands around her upper arms as he said, “But no, Your Majesty, Balem Abrasax doesn’t smell anything like you.”

 

***

 

Balem rose, invigorated, from his bath, fingers trailing through the viscous liquid as he pulled free. Servitants stepped forward to dry him, removing the last of the unctuous fluid that clung to his eyelashes and rested sweet on his lips.

He contemplated the situation

The re-code had put him to rights, soothed his unease on waking at the refinery again.

Calmer now, he wasn’t actually surprised to be back again.

He had hoped that the time loop had ended—certainly something had been different in the last timeline, something that had allowed his victory. But he’d seen no other changes; nothing to indicate the counter reaction to his device was faltering.

The time loop might, in fact, continue on for a while.

It shouldn’t matter.

Now that he was free to travel again, free of her miserable portal restrictions, he would find some way to turn this anomaly to his advantage.

Balem absently lifted one foot, then the next, as he was dressed in sleek black trousers. A heavy, jeweled cape was fastened in place, and the fabric settled around his shoulders in a pleasing manner.

“Is my ship ready?” he called to his chamber presence as he strode to a floating divan.

“It is being prepared My Lord.”

He slouched against the low back of the seat, cape falling aside as he folded his fingers over the smooth pale skin of his abdomen, thoughts drifting, as they too often did, to her.

Her defeat had been inevitable considering Balem’s vast resources, his superior knowledge.

It disturbed him, that he would never know exactly how he had defeated her. However, he had made the right choice in striking when the chance presented.

He’d wasted the opportunity to kill her at Kalique’s alcazar, so many timelines ago.

He should have commanded Greegan to shoot her on sight then.

But he’d wanted her to see him—to acknowledge him…

He’d paid for that indulgence.

She’d escaped, claimed her title, and disappeared from Orous without a trace, time after time.

Balem had wanted her to fear him, wanted her to understand that his trap was closing around her—instead she had trapped him.

He had searched fruitlessly for a functional portal code. It hadn’t mattered to him the odds against success. He had thousands of ships at his disposal—thousands of lives.

He’d sent them off, one by one.

Had it been the possibility of escape that first excited him? That feeling of anticipation, his heart picking up speed, as each vessel paused at the mouth of the Stormgate, the portal opening before it

Or was it something else? That moment, as the portal closed around each ship. That sensation, that minute frisson passing through him, as a ship disappeared into nothing—forever—the comm lines falling permanently silent.

He had always wondered about death, of course, wondered what it felt like, what that silence held.

He would never experience it himself.

He’d sent them to their deaths, one by one, in search of his escape route. Surprised the first time they came back to life again. And again in each new time line— an endless self-renewing resource to use in his search.

Any amusement he derived from the exercise had scarcely satisfied for long.

He hadn’t once found an escape.

Though he still took pleasure in killing Mr. Skallikan each time.

It had become a ritual. Sending the Sargon into oblivion, crushing him into nothing, in spite of his size and strength, over and over again.

He’d never forgotten that Skallikan was to blame for Jupiter Jones escaping him the very first time.

Balem unclenched his fists.

It was over now.

He had won.

He gestured one of the hovering servitants to bring him a drink. Though drinking the cool beverage failed to soothe the tightness in his throat.

Eventually, everything would return to the proper order.

Balem had time. With his stores of premium Abrasax, he had all the time in the universe.

And when this all ended, as it must, he’d ensure he that he came out of it more powerful than ever.

“Pardon me my lord,” Mr. Night’s hurried forward, “but it would seem the new Abrasax Queen has placed portal restrictions in this system.”

Impossible.

“I need to leave the refinery now,” Balem said, his voice almost breaking.

“At top speed your ship will take several weeks to reach the interstellar medium. Once there, you will be free to portal, in spite of any restrictions, My Lord.”

“I don’t have time for that!”

He wouldn’t make it halfway there before he was dragged back through time again.

“Perhaps you’d like to negotiate with Her Majesty via the Aegis?”

“She’s dead!” Balem said “I saw it. I killed her myself!”

“My Lord, I am speaking of Jupiter Jones, your mother’s recurrence,” Chicanery Night clarified. “Not the former Queen, your mother”

“How dare you!” Balem’s voice was cold, but he could feel himself shaking with emotion. “Get me portal codes, unauthorized codes, as many as you can find. I don’t care what the cost. I want them now!”

“My Lord, the risk—

“Now!” he said, demanded. “And send in Mr. Skallikan. Immediately!”

“Yes, My Lord.” Mr. Night walked quickly from the room.

Balem seized a heavy crystal vase and heaved it hard at her portrait. It knocked the edge of the frame as it cracked against the wall, and the painting was left hanging askew.  

He turned on the servitants, hovering anxiously nearby. “Leave me at once, all of you!”

When they weren’t fast enough, he grabbed up nearby objects to hurl at them as they fled for the doors.

Alone, at last, he let out a scream of pure frustrated rage.

 

***

 

“That’s him,” Jupiter whispered to Caine. Hidden behind the shield, they hovered outside the window, the sound easily reaching them through the glass. “Just guessing here, but I think maybe he’s figured out I’m still alive.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Jupiter stepped onto the narrow ledge next to Caine and powered down her boots.

Through the window, she could see Balem, his face pale in the shadows, dark cape fluttering behind him as he moved through the room like some kind of big-headed bat.

All they had to do now was sneak inside, grab him, smuggle him to the ship and fly out through the storm gate before anyone noticed.

What could possibly go wrong with that scenario?

She tightened her grip on the distortion shield that hid them from sight and smiled hesitantly at Caine, not sure if she were more relieved they’d made it this far or uneasy about what came next.

Caine grinned back. He looked more bloodthirsty than nervous, the points of his teeth peeking out at her.

The sight of him here, with the dull orange storm swirling overhead and the vertical drop looming below, tugged at her memory.

He wouldn’t remember that other time, but she did—catching their breath together after he’d found her in the collapsing refinery, smiling, even as everything came apart all around them.

Back then it had been explosions, space suits forming around their burnt and battered bodies, and—well, this was totally different.

Good different—she hoped.

Jupiter felt the reassurance of her boots’ controls beneath her fingers. This time she wouldn’t be falling.

How long had it even been since that day?

Months, definitely.

A year? More?

She honestly had no idea.

Her hair was longer now. It had been growing shaggy at the ends, but she hadn’t exactly had time to ask Nino for a trim.

She had been growing, learning—trying to at least.

Was she still the same person?

Had she changed?

The first time she’d been here, she hadn’t been able to kill Balem.

She’d been threatened and beat up, running for her life, adrenaline surging, gasping for air. She’d felt that urge, the primal instinct: to finish him off, to protect herself and her family.

Part of her had wanted to hurt him, yeah, but she’d stopped short at bashing his head in, felt sick at the thought of cracking into his skull with that metal rod, throwing it away from her in disgust instead.

This time she’d have to see it through, make absolutely sure that he could never threaten any of them again.

First, she needed to get some answers though.

There must be something Balem could tell her about the time loop. Caine had offered to interrogate him—which probably meant torture. At this point, that didn’t sound as bad as it maybe should have.

Balem deserved pain.

But then what? She couldn’t turn him over to the Aegis. Not after everything he’d done—everything he would do again if given the chance. He’d had too many thousands of years to devise his plots and escape plans. Who knew what other tricks he had up his sleeve? She couldn’t allow the possibility of him ever coming after her or the Earth again.

Caine had also offered to kill Balem, and that was the obvious solution.

But then, if that were the right thing to do, shouldn’t she do it herself? Being Queen should mean doing what had to be done, not just ordering others to do it for her. She could pull the trigger as well as anyone.

Wasn’t that what she’d been training for?

Jupiter set her sights on her victim, listening as Balem’s voice rose and fell in harsh whispers that broke as they grew louder.

 

***

“It’s always you,” he said. “Tormenting me!”

Mother’s portrait stared down at him, silent and reproachful.

“I gave you everything you ever asked for," Balem insisted.

She’d groomed him to please and obey her. To adore her.

And he had.

Was it his fault that he had never been enough?

To truly conquer, she’d taught them, one must inspire both fear and love.

Balem had taken it to heart—all three of her children had.

Had they understood all along that she meant to conquer them as well?

Only Kalique had dared challenge her, attempting to overthrow her control. Mother had ensured that she suffered for it.

Balem had devoted himself to her, devoted himself to the Abrasax name. He’d wielded the power that came with his birthright, learned how to inspire fear, and to relish it.

But that other thing.

Love.

It was so much more difficult.

He’d never had Titus’ slick charm, or the bright smiles Kalique could summon at will—both were lies, of course, which only made it all the more frustrating that Balem’s attempts should fall so short.

He’d never learned how to hide his contempt for others. He’d strain to curve his lips upward, to pretend delight, but no one came eagerly when Balem summoned –not as they did for his siblings.

His appearance was as it should be: handsome, elegantly clad, refined.

He’d been assured of that.

His smiles were off-putting, however, people cringed when he beckoned.

He’d adjusted, learned to use it to his advantage, but…

“Did you laugh at my efforts?” he asked her.

She’d always played the three of them against each other, made them compete for her attention.

Balem had other strengths. He thought he’d proven it to her.

He watched the shadows in her eyes. Something hidden in her expression, a secret knowledge that eluded him.

It didn’t matter.

He would have the last laugh.

“I understand now.” He tore his gaze from her face. “It was never enough to kill you. You only find new ways to torture me.”

Memories.

Dreams.

This recurrence from Earth.

It made no difference, it was always her.

“Titus and Kalique might charm and smile, but I will do what is necessary. I will do what they would never dare. I’ll bend you to my will, once and for all.”

 

***

“There are guards in the outer corridor, Your Majesty, ” Caine whispered, looking in. “But there’s no one in the room with him. He might be talking on his comm. I can disable it.”

Jupiter had noticed Balem turning to a painting on the wall though, a portrait that looked like—

Oh my God! What was it with these Abrasax kids and their shrines to her?

“I think he’s talking to that painting of his dead mother,” she said.

“Alright.” Caine was all business. “Do you think he’ll tell it any information that you can use?”

“Maybe?”

She had been able to make out a few of his words through the glass.

Torment and torture. Bending someone to his will.

Typical Balem stuff, she guessed.

“A Sargorn’s stopped just short of the door,” Caine’s voice was suddenly intense.

“Can we wait here a sec and see if he goes away?” She’d just as soon avoid them getting tangled up with one of those things again.

Caine studied her face for a moment before nodding in agreement.

Who knew, maybe she’d get lucky and Balem would divulge his evil secrets while they waited here, hopefully just a little bit louder—and with better enunciation—those sibilant whispers made it sound like he was speaking in parseltongue.

Jupiter watched as he talked to her dead doppelganger. She didn’t want to rush in, but they couldn’t wait forever.

She so needed to get this over with.

 

****

In the corridor outside Balem’s chambers, Chicanery Night was arguing with Mr. Skallikan.

“You will relay my message for me Mr. Night,” the Sargorn growled in a low voice.

His cold, loamy breath washed over Chicanery’s face as he spoke, the smell ancient and disturbing, like an unearthed tomb. Chicanery’s nose quivered involuntarily, but he wasn’t so easily intimidated. The guards behind him would enforce Lord Balem’s orders if need be.

I won’t go in when he’s in this mood, Mr. Skallikan. My Lord Balem has summoned you.”

“I am occupied with the search for the Earth woman,” Skallikan’s hulking, scale-covered body, loomed over him, effortlessly radiating pure menace. Impressive—but it would do him little good with Balem Abrasax indulging in one of his temper fits.

If anything, a show of strength would only aggravate him further.

“He’s called off the search. I don’t know why. Perhaps you could reason with him Mr. Skallikan,” Chicanery offered.

He’d found manipulation and guile to be most effective in dealing with their master at such times. Though perhaps Skallikan lacked skill in such areas. Chicanery had never been able to judge the intelligence, or lack, in those reptilian eyes.

Skallikan frowned at the door. “Who is he talking to now?”

“No one.” Chicanery refrained from rolling his eyes.

He had caught Balem Abrasax talking to that portrait more than once before.

 

****

“I will create my own destiny Mother!” Balem hissed at her. “Random chance will have no place in my designs.”

Even if it were a million years before another recurrence appeared, it would be too soon.

And yet…

He remembered the last time he’d touched her—the cool flesh of her throat, the delicate structure of her trachea against the palm of his hand, the thrash of her arms and legs struggling against him.

Her enormous eyes.

Jupiter Jones was nothing like her.

Nothing.

And yet somehow she managed to survive, again and again.

How much longer must he endure this? Dragged back to this hellscape where he’d nearly died? Reliving the same progression of days?

All of it due to that woman, that genetic fluke.

I will control it next time Mother,” he warned her. “Control you. Create you. Build you anew,” He grew more and more excited. “Shape you to my whims. Give birth to you in all of your beautiful monstrosity. Make you my creature.”

To clone a queen was abomination, but it could be done—for the right price.

Balem would ensure that no trace of genomgeneering tainted her—and that no one else involved in her creation survived to tell the tale.

When it was done, he could rule with her once again--as it should be.

His mouth watered at the thought: Seraphi, as he had never known her, young and vulnerable, malleable to his will.

Who better than he to guide her, to teach her the Abrasax ways?

“You summoned, my Lord?”

Balem startled, and turned to see Mr. Skallikan stepping into his chambers.

As the doors closed behind him, the Sargorn lifted his weapon and scanned the surroundings, his massive arm swinging quickly round, his line of fire stopping abruptly—an inch short of Balem’s head.

Balem steeled himself, straightening his stance instead of shrinking down as he was tempted to do.

“How dare you raise your weapon in my presence?" His voice was like ice.

“Forgive me, My Lord, I sensed—“ Skallikan frowned toward the window, then shook his head and lowered his weapon, looking confused.

Something here was not right, Balem thought uneasily.

Usually, when he summoned Skallikan, it was to one of the vast, great halls, where he could sit surrounded by his guards.

He had called him here on impulse today, not realizing the Sargorn would seem so enormous alone and at close range. Skallikan towered over him, dominating the small space. However, Balem refused to cower before any Splice.

In any case, this one had already proven himself worthless.

“Mr. Skallikan, you have failed me,” he announced sharply. “Under your command, a simple seek and destroy operation on an underdeveloped world has turned into an expensive and unsuccessful interplanetary chase.”

Instead of the usual excuses, Skallikan was silent, tilting his head this way and that, as if studying something in the distance.

“I will allow you one last chance,” Balem continued, annoyed. “However, you must ensure you are successful in this new task.”

Skallikan was all but ignoring him.

This was new, Balem thought, troubled. It shouldnt be new. It had always gone the same way before. It was never new.

Skallikan should have come to him subdued, defeated, ready to beg for his life. Instead, there was something aggressive in his flared nostrils, his clawed hand still hovering above his holstered weapon.

He said something under his breath then, almost inaudible.

A single word:

“Lycantant”

What treachery was this?

“Are you in league with that Lycantant?” Balem demanded.

Was this how the recurrence had escaped him?

“I do not associate with Lycantants My Lord,” Skallikan spat the words out with distaste, his wings flaring out behind him in agitation. But there was something shifty in the way his small eyes moved around the room, as if waiting for something.

“Did Lord Titus pay you to betray me? “

“I have belonged to My Lord for over two thousand years,” he answered, wings settling back down again. “Lord Titus does not pay well enough for my betrayal.“

“Then he has tried to bribe you?”

“Is this some sort of test?” Skallikan asked, scowling.

A test! Balem was the one being tested.

They were all plotting against him.

The recurrence.

Titus, Kalique.

Mother and her Splices.

“It is too late for tests!” Balem said. “Time after time you have failed them all!”

“My Lord?”

At last, he had the Sargorn’s attention.

“Do you know how many times I have killed you?” Balem enjoyed the way the words formed slowly on his lips. “How many times have I listened to your pathetic screams? Your cries of fear? I’ve watched as you were crushed into nothing. Obliterated over and over again.”

Skallikan looked straight at him then, his gaze dark and fathomless, meeting his eyes for much longer than was proper.

Something cold traveled the length of Balem’s spine.

Did the animal dare to judge him?

At last, Skallikan lowered his eyes and said in a careful voice as if trying to calm himself, “My Lord, forgive my mistake. What is the task that you have set me?””

“It is not merely a task. It is the only way for you to redeem yourself after your failures.” Balem straightened to his full height and pushed out his chest as he spoke, more than ready to reassert his authority. “Mr. Night has a ship waiting for you in the hanger. He will provide you with a special portal code to enter into the navigation system.”

“A special code? Only the Commonwealth can generate authorized codes. Anything else is a death sentence, My Lord.”

This part Balem had heard before.

First would be the grumbling, then would come the whining, he thought, bored.

Instead, the Sargorn narrowed his eyes and slowly lifted his weapon once more.

Balem leapt across his bed and dropped to the floor on the other side, screaming, “Guards! Seize him!”

The red robes swarmed in en masse and surrounded him.

Struggling to untangle himself from his cape, Balem peeked cautiously over the edge of the bed, expecting a melee. He had witnessed a Sargorn take down a whole phalanx of guards once before.

He was surprised to see Skallikan give up at once, without a fight. He calmly surrendered his weapon, crossed his arms behind his head and proceeded to walk from the chamber.

Encircled by the guards, he paused for a only moment to take one last look around the room and then back at Balem.

“Forgive me, My Lord, I was overexcited. I will accept your task without further trouble.”

“See to it that he is on that ship, Mr. Night.” Balem commanded, straightening his collar as he rose to stand.

“Very good My Lord,” Chicanery said.

“That will be all for now.”

“I heard voices inside earlier,” The rat splice said tentatively, looking nervously around before clearing his throat and continuing, “And your chamber presence indicated—“

“Leave me, Mr. Night, I am weary.” When he was alone once more, Balem whispered. “Chamber presence deactivate.”

 

****

 

“That was close!” said Jupiter, stepping into Balem’s sight. She turned to Caine at her side. “His gun was pointed straight at you. Do you think he knew we were here?”

“You,” Balem whispered.

How did he manage to make his voice sound so creepy all the time?

She trained her gun on him.

“You wouldn’t dare,” he said.

“We’ve already been through this. Last time I shot you in the leg. I won’t make that mistake again.”

She stepped closer and pressed the muzzle into his bare chest, hard enough to dig into his sternum. He winced at the pressure.

“This ends now,” she said. “You don’t get another shot at the Earth. Or me, or my family.”

“Only I control when and where this all ends,” Balem smiled. “Nothing you do can stop me.”

“He's lying,” said Caine calmly.

“How quaint.” Balem drawled. “You brought your pet Lycantant. Mother was fond of her playthings too, I’m afraid it never ended well for them however.”

Caine ignored the taunt.

“I can put you out of your misery now,” said Jupiter. “Give me one reason not to do it. One piece of information I can use. I don't believe you can control the time loop. If you could, you would have ended it by now. I think you’re bluffing.”

He gave her a calculating look.  "You're not capable of killing me. You’re nothing like her. She found a visceral pleasure in taking life with her own hands. It connected her to the sacred, she said, that brief taste of mortality, after living for so very long. She never flinched, never hesitated, even with those she loved.” His eyes closed as if in fond rememberance as he said, “Who do you think I learned it from?”

Jupiter was momentarily speechless.

“You understand so very little. Your life span no more than that of an insect. So ignorant, so self-righteous. You have no idea—

“You really do love the sound of your own voice don’t you?" she sighed.  

She hadn’t come here to listen to another round of Balem’s inspirational life talks.

Was there anything at all he could tell her?

Or was he just trying to goad her into killing him, so that he could somehow escape into time again?

Jupiter didn’t have time to figure it all out now.

She pulled the trigger and Balem fell toward to the floor with a stifled yelp, a look of surprise frozen on his face.

Crumpled into a heap, he lie motionless, except for his eyes which moved slowly from her to Caine.

“I'm looking forward to interrogating you,” she tried giving a wicked smile, but it just felt inappropriately goofy. “You’ll have to start talking eventually.”

“It’ll be a few minutes before this wears off enough for him to move his mouth again,” Caine said. “Let’s get him out of here.”

A minute later, Caine had shoved Balem into a large bag and dragged him over to the window.

It was nice, having a boyfriend who could heft your enemy over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, she realized, admiring the flex of Caine’s bicep.

Was Caine her boyfriend?

A muffled grunt came from inside the bag.

She couldn’t get distracted by that line of thought right now. They still had to make it out of here alive.

And figure out a way to deal with Balem.