Maud hugged her own shoulders. The cold, slightly rough texture of the armor felt familiar under her fingertips. Reassuring. The plan was to never wear armor again, but lately life had taken a baseball bat to all of her plans.
The floor-to-ceiling display only simulated a window, with the cabin itself hidden deep within the bowels of the destroyer, but the darkness yawned at her all the same, cold and timeless. The Void, the vampires called it. That which exists between the stars. It always made her uneasy.
“Are we dead, Momma?”
Maud turned. Helen stood a few feet away, hugging a soft teddy bear Dina bought her for Christmas. Her long blonde hair stuck out on the right side, crinkled in her sleep. From here she could almost pass for a human. But Maud had survived the crucible of Karhari, where the slightest hint of movement, the softest whisper of sound meant difference between life and death. Yet Helen snuck up on her, fast and silent like a cat. Or a vampire.
“No. We’re not dead. We’re traveling in hyperspace. It would take too much time to get where we need to go under normal propulsion, so we thread through the wrinkle in the fabric of space like a needle. Come, I want to show you something.”
Helen padded over. Maud swept her up – she was getting so big so fast – and held her to the display.
“This is the Void. You remember what Daddy told you about the Void?”
“It’s where the souls go.”
“That’s right. When a vampire dies, his soul must pass through the Void before it is decided if it goes to Paradise or to the empty plains of Nothing.”
“I don’t like it,” Helen whispered and stuck her head into Maud’s shoulder.
Maud almost purred. These moments, when Helen still acted like a baby, were more and more rare now. She would grow up and walk away before Maud knew it, but for now Maud could still hold her and smell her scent. Helen was hers for a little while longer.
“Don’t be afraid. You have to look, or you will miss the best part.”
Helen turned. They stood together, looking at the darkness of the Void.
It began as a tiny spark that flared in the center of the display. The brilliant point of light rushed toward the spaceship, unfurling like a glittering flower, spinning, its petals opening wide and wider, painted with all the majesty of stars.
Helen stared, her eyes opened wide, the lights of from the display playing on her face.
The glittering universe engulfed them. The ship tore through it and emerged into the normal space. A beautiful planet hung in space, orbiting a warm yellow star, a green and blue jewel, the turquoise veil of atmosphere glowing gently. It wasn’t Earth, but it could’ve been her prettier sister. Two moons orbited the planet, one large and purple, closer to the surface, the other tinted with orange, smaller and distant. The sunsets had to be spectacular.
“Is this the planet where Lord Arland lives?”
“Yes, my flower.” Maud set Helen on the floor. “You should get dressed.”
Helen scampered off, like a bunny released from its hutch.
The turquoise planet looked at Maud through the screen. The homeworld of House Krahr.
This was crazy. Certifiable.
If she went on logic only, she should’ve never come here. She should’ve never brought Helen here.
In combat, Maud made decisions in split second, but in something like this, a monumental shift in her life, she liked to take her time, weighing pros and cons. The first time a vampire proposed to her, she had taken two years to decide.
She was the daughter of innkeepers. Caution was in her blood.
An ancient agreement existed between Earth and the rest of the cosmic powers. Situated at the crossroads, Earth served as the way station for many travelers passing through on their way elsewhere. They arrived in secret and stayed at the specialized inns, equipped to handle a wide variety of beings. In return, the planet was designated as a neutral ground. None of the interstellar powers could lay claim to it, and the existence of other intelligent life remained a secret to all human population except for the select few innkeepers. It was a pact that persisted for centuries.
Her parents had been innkeepers, experts in all things galactic. That’s how she’d ran into Melizard. She could still remember the exact moment they met. She’d just came off the practicing session. She walked into the kitchen, sweaty and flushed, looking for something cold to drink, carrying her sword, and he was there, a young vampire lord, standing beside his father talking to Mom. Tall, handsome, imposing in his black armor, with a mane of chestnut hair and an arrogant smirk on his lips. He looked at her and that smile died. And then he kept looking, like he was struck by lightning, as she got her glass of water and left the kitchen.
He proposed to her at the end of that week. She turned him down.
Vampires were a predatory strain of humans. They lived in a structured society, where noble houses ruled, bound together in Holy Anocracy under the religious guidance of Hierophant and military leadership of the Warlord. They loved armor, conquest, epic poetry, and killing things with their weapons and teeth. She knew entering that society would be a challenge, and so she said no again and again, until finally Melizard convinced her, and she said yes.
Yeah, and so much good all that careful preparation did her. The memory of Melizard’s head on a pike flashed before her. She shut her eyes for half a moment and willed it out of her mind.
This time a vampire proposed to her after she knew him for barely two weeks. She said no. That was the right thing to do. And then she got her daughter, and boarded his destroyer, and let him bring them to his planet.
What the hell was I thinking?
The problem was, she wasn’t thinking. She was feeling. She was a mother; she couldn’t afford the luxury of simply doing something because it “felt right.” But she had done it anyway.
It was unwise.
The planet grew on her screen.
It would’ve been so much more prudent to walk away and stay in her sister’s inn. To relearn being a human after trying for so many years to become the perfect vampire. But every time she looked at Arland or heard his voice, her heart gave a little flutter. Maud didn’t think she had a heart anymore. Karhari had dried it up into a lump of hard dirt. Then he would say her name…
This wasn’t what she wanted. Jumping head first into vampire politics was the last thing she and Helen needed, especially House Krahr politics. Melizard had come from House Ervan, a smaller clan with a solid standing, respected but not influential. She’d had to claw her way to respectability. It wasn’t enough to be good, she had to excel to just get a pass. House Krahr was one of the premier Houses. Melizard would’ve cut off his arm to own this ship, and Arland drove it back and forth like it cost him nothing.
A sphere slipped from behind the curve of the planet. It didn’t have the usual pitted look of a satellite. She squinted at it.
What the hell…
She pinched her arm. The sphere was still there. Three rings wrapped around it, twisting one over the other, each consisting of a metal core bristling with latticework of spikes. From here the rings appeared delicate, almost ethereal. She touched the display, zooming in on the ribs.
Not spikes. Cannons.
House Krahr had built a mobile battle station. Her mind refused to accept the existence of so much firepower concentrated in one place.
Dear Universe, how much did that thing cost? Arland had mentioned that, because of her sister’s help, their House was doing well, but this, this was off the scale.
She couldn’t marry him. The gulf between them was too huge.
She couldn’t let him leave either.
So here they were. Her fingers went to the blank crest on her armor. The crest controlled the armor’s functions. It also granted her entry to the Holy Anocracy and permission to operate within its borders as a free agent. It marked her as a mercenary. If things got really bad, she could always grab Helen and go back to Dina’s inn, she told herself.
“Momma?” Helen asked. “Are we there yet?”
“Almost, my flower.”
She turned. Helen had put on the outfit they bought at Baha-char, the galactic bazaar. Black leggings, black tunic over a crimson shirt. She looked like a full-bloodied vampire. But she was half. The other vampires would not let her forget it. At least not until she beat every last one of them.
“Come here.” Maud crouched and adjusted Helen’s belt, cinching her daughter’s tiny waist. She checked Helen’s wrist band and the small pc attached to it. “All set.”
“All set,” Helen said. “Can I bring my teddy?”
“We’ll bring all our things.”
They had so little, it didn’t take them long to pack. Five minutes later Maud swung the bag over her shoulder, glanced one final time at the cabin and display, and took Helen by the hand. The door slid open at their approach and they stepped through it.