We were preparing for the day when Jupiter’s young man arrived. I didn’t know he was Jupiter’s young man; I just knew that there was an agitated man banging on the door and that all the dogs in the neighborhood were barking at the tops of their lungs. At five in the morning, that will get the neighbors on our backs. I opened the door and asked, “What is it?”
“I’m Caine Wise, ma'am. I’m a friend of Jupiter’s. Are you her mother?”
Jupiter came running to the door. “No, she’s my aunt Nino. Caine, what are you doing here?”
“Your Majesty, you and your family must flee this house. Titus Abrasax is maneuvering to have the authorities of this world arrest you.”
We all got very still. “Which authorities?” Jupiter asked, barely breathing.
“Something about a bartending license? I only saw 'inns’ and 'ice’ before the message was deleted from my communicator.”
I knew what that meant “INS and ICE!” I yelled to Aleksa.
“Coming!” She yelled back, banging on Vassily's door. “Tell Vladie to get dressed! He's filling in!”
A sleepy voice came from the door. “What?”
“Immigratsiya!” yelled Aleksa, running down the stairs, and we were out the door.
Caine showed us to a small car idling in the street. As we piled in, Jupiter leaned over to him. “Is this one stolen too?” she asked.
“I had rented it already,” replied Caine sheepishly, “so I could buy some furniture.” He sat up very straight in the driver's seat next to me as we sped off.
As Caine drove toward the highway, I turned back to join Aleksa and Jupiter's conversation in Russian.
«Jupiter, who is this man? Why did you think he had stolen the car? How does he know that ICE is coming? Can we trust him? What have you gotten us mixed up in?»
«It's okay, Mom. He's my boyfriend. We've been through a lot together. Remember when I tried to sell my eggs and there was an accident at the clinic and you didn't see me for a couple of days? He's the one who got me out of that whole thing safely.»
That wasn’t enough for me. «Is that when he stole a car? Why does he call you „Your Majesty?“ Who is Titus Abrasax?»
Jupiter stared at her left ring finger for a few seconds. «Yes, that’s when he stole the car. It got back to the owner, I checked. Titus… is a bad man who tried to get me to marry him to steal the Earth from me. And Caine calls me „Your Majesty” because I own the Earth.»
What? Had Jupiter had some sort of psychotic break when we weren't looking? Had she been taking drugs with this stranger?
Aleksa had a different theory. She turned to me and switched to Georgian. „Is this more of your astrology bullshit?”
I shook my head violently. „None of this comes from me!”
Jupiter sighed and said in English, “I can understand you both! So can Caine. They have some sort of translation technology up there and I got it when I left the planet.”
Aleksa turned back to Jupiter and said in Georgian, „ათვლის ინერციულ სისტემაში სხეული უძრავია ან მოძრაობს უცვლელი სიჩქარით, ვიდრე მასზე რაიმე ძალა არ იმოქმედებს.”
Jupiter responded, “In an inertial frame of reference, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.”
Aleksa sat back in her seat, silent. Either Jupiter had secretly learned Georgian to eavesdrop on us, or there was something true in what she was saying. I still wasn't certain she hadn't just learned Georgian.
Caine chimed in from beside me, “Yes, ma'am. Her Majesty would have received a standard translator treatment before meeting with Calique Abrasax.”
I turned back to him. “Another Abrasax! Is this a whole family?”
“Yes, they're brother and sister.” said Jupiter. “Their family owned the Earth until I showed up. They own many planets.”
I took a breath and thought. People who own planets. But rich people are rich people wherever you go. Our Jupiter had pissed off an oligarch. Not good, but at least comprehensible. First step, determine the size of the problem. “Is this Calique going to get involved too?” I asked.
“Not unless I ask her to. She sent me a very nice note after I got her other brother killed rescuing all of you from him.”
Jupiter got someone killed? My brain ground to a halt, so I just looked out the window for a while. I watched the cars slowly driving into the city as we drove quickly out of it in the sunrise light. As we exited the interstate I remembered why we were in the car in the first place. “Wait, where are we going? What are we going to do about the immigratsiya?”
“I'm not sure, Aunt Nino,” said Jupiter, “so we're going to some friends who can keep us safe while we figure it out.”
More strangers. “Are they trustworthy? Will they turn us over to this oligarch Titus?”
“Stinger is a good friend and would never sell us out to Titus. Well, not again.” She stole a look at Caine.
“We're here,” said Caine as we arrived at a farmhouse covered in beehives.
“He's a beekeeper?” I asked as we approached the door.
“I'm pretty sure he's part bee,” said Jupiter. “He can be grumpy, but his daughter is really nice.”
I half expected compound eyes and antennae, but the young woman who answered the door looked entirely human to me. “Your Majesty!” she shouted, giving Jupiter a hug.
“Hi, Kiza. This is my mother Aleksa and my aunt Nino.”
We shook hands, and a handsome older man came into view. He scanned the windows as he approached, then changed his expression to a half-smile and said, “Stinger Apini, Aegis Marshal for the planet Earth. Welcome to my home, Ms. Bolotnikova and Ms. Jones.”
We came in and sat on the couch. Aleksa looked around and some for the first time in almost an hour. “Well, I don't think anyone from ICE will look for us here.”
As Mr. Apini turned to close the door behind us, I tried to get a look at his back side, but there was something on his back blocking my view. It wasn't until he had already turned back that I realized the something was a very large pair of wings. His wings were attractive too. I supposed I was getting used to this day if I could notice that.
“So what brings you city folks out to our house at farmer's hours?” asked Kiza.
Caine pulled a phone out of his pocket. No, something like a phone. He did something and unfamiliar letters appeared in the air above it.”I got a message this morning from the assistant of Titus Abrasax, but it wasn't meant for me. I think someone realized that, because I only got a glimpse of it before it was deleted. It was requesting assistance from agents of Titus in a scheme to use local authorities to make life difficult for Her Majesty.”
Mr. Apini frowned. “What sort of authorities?”
“Immigration Enforcement,” said Jupiter. “None of us are documented. I don’t even have a native country to be deported to.”
“We wanted you to be born here so you wouldn’t need to worry about such things,” I said, holding her hand. “But you were in a hurry.”
“Her Majesty was born in transit?” asked Mr. Apini.
“I was an extra stowaway on a freight transport across the Atlantic Ocean. Mom and Nino fled Russia after mobsters killed my father.”
“He was a good man,” said Aleksa, beginning to recover from her shock at this entire conversation. “Not always wise, but a good man.” She whispered to me, «how the fuck are you doing so well with all of... this?»
I whispered back, «I've always known there was something out there in the stars, and I've always known Jupiter was destined for something great. I'm still freaking out.» That reminded me of a question Jupiter had refused to answer many times, and now I knew why. I lifted my head as Jupiter finished telling the story of her birth. “Mr. Wise, do you have an astrological sign?”
“Yes, ma'am. I was born under the sign of something you might call a goose. Very auspicious for Lycantants, but I didn't believe it for a long time.” He smiled at Jupiter.
That was a good sign as far as I was concerned, but I was going to have to ask for more details later.
Aleksa asked, “What are we going to do about this Titus?”
Mr. Apini hadi opened some sort of computer and was reading something off the display. “Titus Abrasax is still under a travel and communication interdict from the Aegis and confined to his home planet. He has to work through an intermediary, but he has always had very good intermediaries. He also lost a significant amount of his holdings in the financial chaos after Balem Abrasax died.”
“Who acquired those holdings?” asked Aleksa. Finance is a lot closer to math than revelations about aliens, and she was on more secure ground.
Mr. Apini did something else, and tables of figures filled the display. “Most of them are now in the possession of Calique Abrasax, who had the foresight to bet on Her Majesty prevailing in her interactions with the Abrasax family. Some of them fell through the cracks in various financial arrangements and returned to Seraphi Abrasax, from whom they were automatically inherited by Her Majesty.”
Jupiter added, “Seraphi was their mother, and I have the same genes as she does, so I got, and apparently still get, a lot of her stuff.” She took a breath. “Including the Earth.”
Aleksa looked at Jupiter. “So what does he want? The Earth? Does it matter to us who owns it?”
“Yes, it does.” Jupiter nodded fervently. “And he knows I would never give it to him. But he may want me to give him back his other holdings. Stinger, his other holdings that I own, are they planets?”
“Planets and shares in planets, Your Majesty. It would not be a bad thing to hire a staff to keep track of these things.”
“I won't give him any planets. I'm holding on to anyone I can rescue from that family.”
I wasn't sure what that meant, but Mr. Apini clearly approved. He smiled broadly and said, “Excellent, Your Majesty” with an extra emphasis on the Majesty part. I suspected he didn't smile much, and I wanted to see him do it again.
“So,” said Aleksa, “we can't give him back his pla–” she paused, then continued, “his assets. What else do we have to bargain with so he leaves us alone?”
“His current home-planet arrest is for offenses committed against Her Majesty and Mr. Wise,” said Mr. Apini. “They could drop the charges and restore much of his freedom.”
Caine growled. “I still wish Your Majesty had let me kill him when I had the chance. But if it were necessary, I would legally forgive him for kicking me out of an airlock.”
Jupiter shook her head. “His staff would have killed you. Mom, Stinger, we can at least put that on the table.”
“Then how do we get him to that table?” I asked. “Back in the motherland we'd find a functionary, then use them to set up a very scary meeting where a lot of vodka happened and hopefully you got out with everything you needed and without losing too many things you'd miss too much.”
Mr. Apini chuckled grimly. “We have a key advantage over that situation. As the owner of the planet, Her Majesty can summon Titus's representative here for an audience.”
Kiza sighed. “The good dishes are still filthy from all of the explosions the last time we had representatives of Titus Abrasax here. I'm not washing all of them.”
Jupiter laughed. “And here I thought I didn't have any job skills that transferred to planet ownership. Set up the meeting, Stinger. Come on, Kiza, we'll show you how the professionals do it.”
Preparing for a royal audience was a respite of normalcy in a very strange day. The Bolotnikova women bossed Caine and the Apinis around as we turned that farmhouse living room into an receiving chamber fit for a monarch. Caine and Mr. Apini were very good at taking directions, and Kiza kept us in good spirits pointing out which parts of the house had been repaired after Titus's bounty hunters had kidnapped Jupiter from the house, only to turn on each other and take her to Calique instead.
“Your cough sounds entirely better,” said Jupiter at the end of one of Kiza's stories. “Did you get it fixed?”
“Yes, and not with a recode like my dad wanted. Once you got him his pardon and an honorable discharge, I was able to work with Aegis Medical Services to get a direct treatment. And my cough is related to an Earth disease, so they've tipped off some researchers in Finland, who are working on a vaccine. We can save a lot of hives with it.”
Mr. Apini and I overheard this conversation from the kitchen where he was drying the dishes I was washing. “It must have been scary for her to be so sick,” I said softly.
“The worst part was knowing that there was a cure but I couldn't get to it. We were exiled here for a long time until Her Majesty your niece showed up and changed everything. I blamed Caine for the exile, so I blamed him for her sickness too. I did things I'm not proud of.”
I held his hand for a moment while I handed him a spoon. “We do things we're not proud of to help the children we care for. Aleksa and I don't tell Jupiter all of the story that got us from St. Petersburg to Chicago. She knows the important parts, and that will have to do.”
Mr. Apini wiped his eye with an unused corner of the drying cloth. “Kiza knows more about the things I've done than I'd prefer. She forgives me for it anyway.”
“They do that too,” I said. “Even when you think you've cursed them.”
Mr. Apini had set up the meeting for sunset so that the bees would be
subdued. Caine and Mr. Apini stood outside with truly frightening rifles while the rest of us stood just inside the door. Except for Jupiter, who was settled on an armchair that draped with three layers of fabric, including a sheer curtain we found in a box in the attic. Kiza thought the box had been in the house when they'd moved in.
As the sun touched the tips of the grain in the field, a semi-transparent spaceship dropped from the sky. It was elegant and beautiful and strangely disconnected. For a few seconds I felt like I was looking at myself from above. Despite what I had told my sister, all day part of my brain had been insisting that this was just some game that Jupiter was playing with some friends. But the spaceship was proof. There were aliens, they were here, and they were coming to this house, because as far as they were concerned, my niece was the owner of the Earth. I told my body to take some deep breaths and pull it together. I didn't cross the Atlantic Ocean in a cargo container just to fall apart at the first proof of extraterrestrials.
The woman who stepped down from the ship looked a lot less normal than the other aliens I'd seen that day. Not for her skin, which was a shade I see on the streets of Chicago on a daily basis, but for her ears, rising on the side of her head well past her temples, and some sort of horns, hiding under her hair with only partial success. Caine whispered to me, “deer, or perhaps gazelle.”
We had previously agreed that Mr. Apini would act as the spokesperson. He snapped to attention and declaimed, “Greetings to you, Famulus of the household of Titus Abrasax. Her Majesty Jupiter Jones bids you welcome to her home planet of Earth.” His voice still had its appealing gruffness, even saying the aristocratic words.
Famulus stood just as straight, but more relaxed. Her delivery was more fluent as well. Clearly this sort of meeting was all part of a day's work for her. “Greetings to you as well, Stinger Apini of the Aegis Marshal Service, and resident subject of Her Majesty Jupiter Jones, first divergent primary of the House of Abrasax. I thank Her Majesty for her welcome and you for your personal hospitality.”
Mr. Apini nodded and beckoned Famulus in. Aleksa and I took seats at the side of the room, while Famulus took a seat on a couch that we had cleaned to an inch of its life, then quickly reupholstered with a nice blanket and a nail gun.
Jupiter cleared her throat. She was much less comfortable, but pushing through it. “Good evening, Famulus, and thank you for coming. It's nice to meet on a more level playing field than last time. What message do you bring us from the second primary of House Abrasax?”
“My lord sends his thanks for hearing his servant. He offers to pledge to cease all interference in Your Majesty's affairs if Your Majesty will ask the Aegis to restore some fraction of his former stature.”
“We have heard pledges from Titus Abrasax before. Why should we believe them now?”
“When my lord was arrested after his interrupted wedding, he was allowed to designate one person as his intermediary to the wider universe. All other communication must go through the Aegis or through his immediate family. He is very interested in reconnecting to his resources, and would do almost anything to do so. Perhaps his desperation will gain Your Majesty's trust where his past behaviour fails.”
Jupiter thought for a minute. “Wait a minute, you and Calique are his only non-Aegis way to get information off his home planet? What would happen if you stopped communicating with him?”
“Eventually he would be able to designate a new intermediary, but that would mean dealing with the Orous bureaucracy, and he would have to do so through Calique and the Aegis, neither of which is particularly interested in helping him at the moment. However, if Your Majesty is threatening me, I must point out that any act of violence against an entitled's intermediary carries the same 27/B penalties as violence directly against that entitled.”
“Jesus, Famulus, I'm not trying to kill you, I'm trying to hire you!”
The deer-woman blinked. “Your Majesty?”
“As Stinger points out, I have assets. Other planets than this one, all containing people whose lives I would like to save from this universe that wants to chop them up into a fancy anti-aging treatment. I have no idea how to do this, and I don't think anyone does. But I'll need someone who knows how things work, like, in a real-deal way, and I think you'd be great at it. If it keeps Titus off our backs, even better. So how about it?”
Famulus smiled. “We will have to negotiate some things, but I look forward to working with Your Majesty.”
Mr. Apini laughed and all of the room’s tension evaporated. “Kiza, open a bottle of the good mead! This calls for a toast.”
“I'm a lot less formal than Titus,” said Jupiter, tossing aside the robes we had cobbled together.
Kiza brought around the glasses and we raised them to a new future. I winked at Mr. Apini as I lifted mine, and he winked back at me. He leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I hope we'll have more opportunities to work together, Ms. Bolotnikova. I'd like to get to know you better.”
“You can start by calling me Nino, Mr. Apini.”
“Then you should call me Stinger.”
He scanned for watchers. Jupiter was showing Kiza and Caine some video on her phone. Aleksa was taking to Famulus about interplanetary finance. Satisfied, Stinger took my hand and quickly kissed it. I hadn't believed he was part bee, but I was certainly buzzing.
“What's your astrological sign, Stinger?”
“How much time do you have for an explanation, Nino?”
“I have all the time in the world. Apparently Jupiter can lend it to me.”
Stinger smiled again. I don't think I'd ever take that smile for granted. But I could certainly get used to it.