The cruiser Sanosis skimmed across the waves. Finally, the darkness of night was fading, and a soft golden glow from the first of Archeonis's suns was creeping across the deck of the ship. The woman on the foredeck let her hands relax at last as the first rays of warmth touched her, knuckles aching from gripping the railing.
She was Ausanne, princess of Britannia, tall, blonde, and with the kind of face that swam strangely between beauty and ugliness, depending on the light. It had been a long night, a very long night. She rolled her shoulders, easing the tightness in her muscles, her long red cape swirling around her. Inside metal-plated boots, her feet were sore, and her young cheeks were flushed with the cold sea wind. Not much longer now.
Ausanne moved a hand to her belt pocket, checking for the millionth time that it was still there. Her fingers pressed against the familiar shape of the data disk, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Closing her eyes, she turned her face into the wind and let the ocean spray calm her, licking salt from her lips as she smiled.
The disk. If what her spies had told her was correct, this disk contained plans for a weapon so powerful that it could destroy half of Archeonis with a single blast. So why was she smiling? Because up until just a few hours ago, the disk had been in the possession of the Supreme Emperor. And now it was hers.
Ah, the Emperor. She was a princess, she had met him, and her mind wandered back to a state dinner many moons ago when she had been a child and he had been the guest of honour. Hulking, that was the word for him. Big, hulking, and bear-like. But also crafty, intelligent, powerful, and mysterious. He was always wearing a mask, and stories had it that he had been enthroned more than a century before the Unification War. But there were some who believed that it was the mask, being passed from one successor to another, thus making him ‘immortal’.
The Supreme Emperor of Great China terrorised all the lands of Archeonis with an iron fist. And he had been unopposed, at least until recently.
Two months ago, the Supreme Emperor had demanded that the traditional tribute to Great China be increased tenfold. Britannia along with several of her allies, including Americani, Israelue, and the Tri-Alliance, had put her foot down against it. A strongly worded petition had been sent to the Supreme Emperor declaring that the tribute increase was unfair, unwarranted, and impossible for them to pay.
To everyone's surprise, the petition had been accepted equably, the request for the tribute increase withdrawn, and the matter seemingly settled. And for a few weeks, the politicians and statesmen of Britannia and her allies had celebrated. Perhaps the Supreme Emperor was not a tyrant after all. Perhaps he was a man who could be dealt with. A man who could be negotiated with. Even, dare they think it, a man who could be deposed if necessary.
And then the rumours of this weapon had begun to trickle down through the lands.
The people spoke of the weapon as though it was a dragon, fearsome, terrifying, but a legend. The politicians knew better. With a weapon like this, the Supreme Emperor would be free to do as he wished, and suddenly his calm acceptance of their petition seemed a lot more worrying than it had before.
Ausanne once more touched the data disk in her pocket. Still there. Getting it out of the palace had not been easy. But with the help of spies, her loyal crew, and her own royal status, it had been managed. Getting as far away as possible from Great China, where the Supreme Emperor had been residing, was proving to be more difficult.
She stroked the railing of the ship, feeling the salt-corroded metal under her fingers. The Sanosis had served her well. Sneaking through the Imperial Navy’s defences, Ausanne had made a snap decision to turn towards the Lawless Sea, rather than risk further pursuit by the Emperor's ships. But now she had other problems.
The route back to Britannia was longer through the Lawless Sea, and, well, it was called the Lawless Sea for a reason. Battle-hardened pirates determined to keep their smuggling routes and hideaways secret made sailing through the Lawless Sea no joke. Ausanne patted the railing of her ship. Yes, the Sanosis was armed to the teeth and had not one but two pulse cannons, but even so, she wouldn't fancy their chances if they had to face a pirate fleet.
Every now and again, one of the twelve island nations of Archeonis would dispatch their navy into the Lawless Sea to rid themselves of the threat of pirate raids, and not incidentally to gain a little treasure and a few valuable trade routes for themselves. And every single time, the island's navy would return with its tail between its legs, half-burned ships carrying the bodies of men that had been fished from the sea. No, Ausanne thought, she didn't fancy their chances at all.
So far they'd managed to avoid the pirate patrol boats under cover of a moonless night. But their luck couldn't last much longer, and it was a full two days sailing back to Britannia. And two nights. Nights that by the laws of astronomy couldn't possibly be as moonless and dark as the last had been. Ausanne sighed and patted her belt pocket again. But it was worth it. Softly stroking the railing of the ship, she closed her eyes and muttered a prayer to the God of Providence. She needed all the help that she could get.
She didn't even get the chance to finish her prayers before the alarm sounded. A shrill wail broke the peaceful dawn, interrupted by the robotic voice of the ship's security system.
“Alert! Alert! Unknown ship approaching. Bearing three hundred and forty-eight degrees. Alert! Alert!”
Ausanne squeezed her eyes more tightly closed for a split second, and her wrist communicator began flashing red and emitting a series of coded beeps.
“All hands to battle stations. Non-combatants to safety chambers. Alert! Alert!”
As the warning alarm faded into the night, Ausanne opened her eyes. And there, on the horizon, she saw it. A dark, sliding shadow. An unmistakable profile. A dreadnought. Her palms began to sweat; her heart threatened to beat out of her chest. A dreadnought could only be commanded by a Magi Lord, one who took orders directly from the Supreme Emperor himself. This was not good. Not good at all. She swallowed and could have laughed about her foolish fear of pirates. A dreadnought. The ship was approaching slowly, and she took a deep breath. Her hands and legs were shaking. Her ship was going to be cannon fodder. But she didn't want to give up her Sanosis, her crew, or her life without a fight.
Wrenching herself away from the railing, tearing her eyes from the hypnotising sight of the oncoming dreadnought, she fled towards the door to the inner deck. Just as she was reaching for the door scanner, a brief flash of light caught the corner of her eye. A pulse cannon shot. She fumbled, trying to open the pressure lock that hadn't been released because the scanner couldn't read her sweaty hand. The light grew stronger, blinding her as it closed in, and still she grasped uselessly at the lock, waving her hand again and again over the scanner.
“God, help me!” she cried, breath coming in short, sharp gasps.
She shut her eyes against the glare and could almost feel the warmth of it on her skin. And then, to her sobbing, desperate relief, her plea was answered. The door swung open, a hand appearing out of the darkness to grasp her arm, pull her inside, and slam the door tightly shut behind her. Even as the door closed, the cannon shot hit the ship, swaying the vessel from side to side, making the lights flicker. But the strong scent of ozone told her that the ship's plasma shields had done their job; the shot was blocked. She shivered at the thought of what would have happened to her, caught in the sheen of the plasma, if she had still been outside.
“What the hell were you doing out there?”
She shook her head, unable to speak yet, unable to even pull rank on Dan, his voice sharp with anger. He was her personal bodyguard, and she knew that the anger was fear, really.
“You trying to get yourself killed? Eh?”
Deep breaths had calmed her fear a little, and adrenaline began pumping into her veins. “Er ... no, no. I just wanted a little fresh air. I stepped out for a few minutes, and then the alarms went off.”
He grunted, irritated. And despite herself, Ausanne bit back a smile. He took his job very seriously and had been with her since she was a small child. She was rarely allowed to roam alone, and even as she'd sneaked out of her cabin earlier, she'd known that Dan would be mad when he found out what she'd done. And he always found out.
“Sorry, Princess,” he said, thinking that he could cheerfully throttle Ausanne at times.
He loved the little princess and always had. But she was more than a handful. She had her own mind and her own will, and it was going to lead her into trouble one of these days. Well, if being fired on by a dreadnought wasn't trouble enough.
Ausanne gave him a sharp nod, then softened it with a smile.
“You need to get into a safety chamber,” he said, more gently. “The plasma shield charge won't last much longer. Come.”
He held out a hand, but as Ausanne reached for it, the ship once again rocked violently. Dan grabbed her by the wrist.
Dan pulled her through the narrow corridors, pressing them both against walls as crew members dashed past them. The Sanosis vibrated as her own pulse cannons charged, and Ausanne felt the ground tremble under her feet. A quick change of pressure made her ears ring.
“Brace for a cannon hit,” Dan yelled, pulling her to the deck.
He covered the princess as much as he could with his own body, as he'd been trained to do, and felt her shaking beneath him. God dammit, he thought. There was no way of escaping this. No way could he save her. In the pit of his stomach, he felt the deep weight of failure. He could not protect his princess. As the pulse struck the ship, it tilted acutely to port, and Dan's fingers scrabbled to get purchase on the smooth floor to stop both of them from sliding into a wall. And then there was blackness. The ship was instantly silent, until a soft hum began, growing louder and louder until, with a flicker, the emergency lights came on.
Ausanne pushed Dan off her.
“We go to the bridge,” she said firmly.
Dan gave her a hard, cold stare before nodding. She was right. The ship had just suffered a full-on cannon shot, which meant her shields were down. They needed to know what was going on, and frankly, though he kept the thought to himself, he didn't think that a safety chamber was going to be of much use anymore. Springing to his feet, he pulled Ausanne up, and the two began running, turning onto the main corridor of the ship.
Ausanne ran full-force against the bridge door, jolting it open in one movement; and as she stepped over the sill and into the large cabin, she was struck by the cool, poised calm inside compared to the rushing chaos outside. The captain looked up from his screen and pulled himself to attention, saluting.
With an airy wave, Ausanne dismissed his formality. “What's the situation?” she asked quickly.
Captain Gundro pursed his lips. “Dead shot,” he said. “Straight into the main engine. We've lost shields, weapons, and thrusters—all are offline. The enemy is no longer firing.”
“Just as well since we have no shields,” said Ausanne, acidly.
“I assume they're preparing to board us, Princess.”
Ausanne nodded and noticed that Gundro looked almost excited by the prospect of a close-quarters battle on his ship. Her ship, she reminded herself. She wondered briefly if he'd been a pirate at some point. Such skills could come in handy right now. From the large bridge screen, she could see the shadow of the dreadnought creeping closer to the ship. Her ship. Like a giant spider, the dreadnought looked predatory, hungry. No. She would not let them take the Sanosis. Her ship.
“Stall them, Captain,” she ordered, turning back to Gundro. “For as long as you can. Understand?”
He gave a brisk nod and picked up his comm. “All hands to battle stations, and prepare for boarding. We will repel with lethal force. We will not surrender. Repeat. We will not surrender.”
Even through the thick walls of the bridge, Ausanne could hear the raucous cheers that greeted the captain's announcement, and her heart quivered with pride. These men were her men, and every last one of them was ready to lay down his life for Britannia. She drew herself up to her full height and sent one last prayer up to the God of Providence. A prayer not for herself but for her men.
Dan exchanged a grin with the captain. Both were fighting men, and both knew that this battle would be lost. But the enemy would pay with their blood and pay dearly. Old hands, they nodded at each other, saying in their movements what they wouldn't say with words. May your God go with you. May your death be fast. May you take many of the bastards with you as you depart.
Glancing at Ausanne, he saw a tear trickle down her cheek, just one, and knew that she too knew that none of them would live to see another dawn. The Magi Lords didn't take prisoners. He, the captain, the princess, all would die here today, unless a miracle occurred.
Ausanne swallowed and opened her eyes.
“Thank you, Captain,” she said. “I hope only that our deaths are not in vain.”
Gundro again pulled himself to attention and saluted. “It's my greatest honour to serve you, Your Royal Highness.”
This time, Ausanne didn't dismiss him. With a trembling hand she returned his salute, holding herself still for a long moment before relaxing and exiting the bridge.
Somehow, the sure knowledge of their deaths, of what was going to happen, had cleared Ausanne's mind. Followed by a cursing Dan, she flew down the corridors of the ship. She had a mission, and she was damned if she was going to fail. What she needed was someone to deliver the package for her, and there was only one person who could do the job. Well, ‘person’ is stretching the definition a little far, she thought as she reached the door to her cabin.
Dan caught up with her just in time to catch her as she fell, the ship careering to one side as a huge explosion ricocheted off its hull. Again, Ausanne heard the men cheering. Her hands shaking, she managed to unlock her chamber and was still grasping the door as a roar echoed through the vessel and she tilted abruptly to starboard.
“Rammed,” said Dan, grimly.
Even as the dreadnought pushed itself into the smaller vessel, energy bolts began streaming through the ship, bouncing off walls or people. They exploded into small fireballs, and the cries of battle rang out through the corridors. Hastily, Ausanne pushed through the door, pulling Dan with her and slamming the cabin door closed behind her. They didn't have much time.
“Niku!” she cried, her eyes darting around the room but not seeing her beloved pet. “Niku!”
“Here,” said Dan, pointing at a small basket in the corner. “She slept through the whole thing.”
Ausanne glanced down at the small grey furball and shook her head in wonder. Niku was a Chamonkey and had been her soul mate since childhood. Ausanne hated what she had to do, but she knew that she had no choice in the matter.
“Niku, wake up,” she whispered, covering the small creature's body with her hand. “Wake up.”
The tiny animal sleepily opened large black eyes and stared up at Ausanne in confusion. “What's going on?” she asked.
“There's no time for explanations. We're under attack from a dreadnought.”
Niku's eyes opened wide in horror. “Magi Lord.”
“Yes, and Niku, I don't think we're going to survive this.”
The animal looked like she was about to speak, but Ausanne shook her head in irritation.
“I don't have time to argue with you, Niku. I need you to do something for me.”
Niku nodded, and Ausanne was already undoing the belt pocket and withdrawing the data disk. She pressed it into the Chamonkey's hand.
“Take this, find help to get home, and give it to Father. Let no one see it, and if you have to, destroy it. Do you understand, Niku?”
“Yes,” Niku said in a small voice. “I understand. And I will not fail you, my princess.”
Ausanne had to quickly blink away tears as she picked up the small animal and lifted her into the escape capsule that was mounted on the wall of her cabin.
“Godspeed, Niku,” she said as she closed the curved door.
Niku looked at her with wide eyes as Ausanne reached out to press the release button. And as the capsule detached and floated unnoticed into the ever-lightening sky, Ausanne whispered a prayer of safekeeping and sadly watched as her beloved Niku slowly flew into the dawn.
She took a deep breath and put her hand to the hilt of her sword, feeling the scream of metal against metal in her arm as she unsheathed it.
“And now,” she said, turning, “it's time for battle.”
Dan looked at his warrior princess and again felt the throb of failure deep in his gut. He knew he shouldn't speak, but he couldn't help himself. Rubbing a large hand against his lined, weary face, he gestured slightly to one side.
“There's another capsule, Princess,” he said quietly. “You don't have to fight. You too can go.”
He saw the fire in her eyes and knew that his battle had already been lost. But then, he'd known that even before he’d spoken.
“I will not dishonour my name,” she spat. “I will not leave my men here to die while I flee to safety. If you wish to insult me, Dan, then you shall be my first kill.”
She waved her sword threateningly at him, and he took a step back to dodge her quick weapon. Then he grinned at her.
“Very well, Princess,” he said. “Let us fight.”
He reached for the huge, double-bladed axe that hung from a rack on the wall, lifting it as though it weighed no more than a pillow. Hefting it thoughtfully, he turned to Ausanne.
“But I go first,” he said and activated the EM shield on the battle axe, which would allow him to parry off the energy bolt.
The corridor outside the room was charred and littered with bodies. To his satisfaction and pride, Dan saw that most of the dead were Black Knights, the feared soldiers of the Magi Lords. His men had done well here. An energy bolt whooshed down the corridor, skimming so close to them that they could feel its heat, before smashing into a wall and exploding. They could hear the cries of battle coming from not far away, and Dan braced himself before turning to the princess.
“Ready?” he said.
“Ready,” she responded.
And without looking back, he led her around the corner and into the heat of battle.
The ship's men were in phalanx, the front row of fighters equipped with portable plasma shields that could protect those behind from the searing energy bolts that flew around them.
“Men!” shouted Dan over the cries and screams and shouts. “To death!”
The phalanx parted, enveloping Dan and Ausanne into its dark centre, and the corridor vibrated with the cheers of the ship's crew. Goddamn if they aren't enjoying this, Ausanne thought.
She had never been in battle before, and the smells and stenches were unfamiliar to her. As too was the steady thrum of adrenaline through her body as she parried and stabbed and fought with the others to keep the phalanx moving forwards, to stop the Black Knights from getting past. Her arm ached with the weight of her sword, but still she pushed on, knowing that death was inevitable and welcoming it with every thrust of her weapon.
An energy bolt flew past her head, singeing her hair even as she ducked. And when she regained her balance, she saw that the bolt had hit the man to her left. Quickly, she sheathed her sword, catching him under the arms just as he was about to fall. The strict rectangular formation of the phalanx was already beginning to spread, as more and more Black Knights appeared, and it was easy for Ausanne to pull the young officer sideways and out of the line of fire.
Propping him up against a wall, she saw where the bolt had hit his armoured shoulder, and she knew that the armour itself was now super-heated and injuring him even further. Wrapping her hands in her cloak, she tugged at his armour, which ripped off with a sickening sucking sound that meant she had taken flesh as well as metal. Looking at the officer, she was grateful that he was still unconscious, but he wouldn't be for much longer. Desperately she searched the soldier's pockets for his pain annihilator, and after what seemed like forever, she found the small capsule. With hands slippery from the officer's blood, she managed to uncap the shot and plunge it deep into the meat of his thigh. When he woke up, if he woke up, he would feel nothing. And if the Gods were merciful, the Black Knights would think the man already dead and leave him to tell the story of the Sanosis.
Ausanne laid a hand on the officer's forehead, then took his bolt blaster from his hand. He had no use for it now. The bolt blaster had only five of the eight shots left. She searched his utility belt for extra energy cartridges. There were none. She would have to make do with the five and make them count.
Wiping the sweat from her brow, Ausanne stood and surveyed the corridor. Dead soldiers from both sides were scattered around, and the phalanx had finally broken apart with too few men to sustain it now. Raising the bolt blaster, she fired through the open corridor, taking down five black-clad officers who were encroaching upon her men. One after another, the Black Knights fell; and, pleased that her marksmanship skills hadn't weakened, Ausanne tucked the blaster into her belt. No more men followed their fallen comrades, the flood of Black Knights seemed to have paused for a moment, and she saw Dan leaning on the handle of his axe. She was about to go to him when there was a flash of movement and a small silver ball rolled down the very centre of the hallway.
“Sonic grenade!” shouted Dan, jumping so that his axe clattered to the floor.
He sprang towards her, hitting her full in the stomach, pulling her down and rolling around the corner just as the grenade exploded. The sonic wave rushed down the hallway, crushing the internal organs of those unfortunate enough to be in the way. Those who had sheltered behind walls were rendered immediately unconscious, and Dan's last thought as he faded into blackness was that he had saved his princess.
In the wake of the sonic grenade, a new flow of Black Knights streamed down the corridor, slaughtering everything in their way and meeting no resistance. The princess's garb was unmistakable, and as soon as a Knight spotted her deep red cloak, they were upon her. But Dan was beginning to regain consciousness, and he felt the trembling footsteps of the Knights as they approached.
With bleary eyes he blinked, trying to make his synapses connect, trying to put the pieces together, until finally a picture emerged. Grabbing at the first weapon he could find, the bolt blaster tucked into Ausanne's belt, he stood, legs shaking, and faced the oncoming Knights.
His finger hovered over the trigger until he was sure he had a fatal shot, and then he pulled. And pulled. And pulled again. Only after the third time did he recognise the empty hiss of the blaster. The damn thing had no charge. It was empty. So. This was it. This was death. And a rush of manic energy overtook his body. Gods be damned, he was going to fight like hell and take the bastards with him. Laughing like a madman, he reversed the blaster in his hand, lashing out at the first of the Black Knights with the handle, beating at him, driving the blunt weapon hard into the man's skull. Blood dripped down his fingers, running down his wrist as he turned to see who would be his next victim.
But there would be no more victims.
At the end of the corridor, a tall, thin man in a long black robe pointed his index finger at the princess's bodyguard, and a jet of blue flame shot through Dan’s chest.
“No!” Dan said, feeling the energy drain from his body. “No, Magi Lord, no. Ausanne ...”
His legs collapsed, and his energy pulled out of him before he even hit the floor. He fell with his princess's name on his lips. Paralysed, unable to move or speak, he could only watch helplessly as the Magi Lord slowly and carefully picked his way down the corridor, stepping over bodies, unhurriedly making his way towards Ausanne.
When he reached the girl he extended his finger again, a small blue flame glistening from the tip. And as he touched his finger to the girl's lips, she screamed in agony, her eyes flashing open.
“Awake, Your Highness?” he asked in a hollow, teasing voice that scratched through Dan's ears and rang through his bones.
Ausanne had never felt such pain in her life. It forced itself through every nerve ending on her body with no abatement, no let up, just constant burning pain so that the few seconds it took the Magi Lord to drag her up from the floor felt like an eternity. It stopped only when the Magi Lord flung her into the arms of the nearest Black Knight, as if the act of pulling his hand away from her pulled all the strings of pain out through her fingertips. She struggled against the hold of the Black Knight, kicking uselessly against his shins.
“We leave,” ordered the Magi Lord.
He turned, his robe swinging around, and strode back down the hallway, his Black Knights following him.
The figure of Captain Gundro appeared at the end of the corridor in the blink of an eye, as though he had magicked himself there, though Ausanne knew that wasn't possible. The Magi Lord halted.
“Lord Hansola,” said Gundro again. “I do hope that you have not forgotten our agreement.”
And it was then that Ausanne knew that Gundro was the one who had betrayed her. For a second, anger overcame her fear; but the low, rumbling sound of the Magi Lord's laughter terrified her once more.
“I have what I came for,” the Magi Lord said. He turned to a Black Knight next to him. “Kill him. Sink the ship.”
Hansola swept down the hallway, his cloak stroking the faces of dead men. Ausanne's captor walked just slowly enough so that she didn't miss the hiss of the sword that cut her captain's throat. Slung over the Black Knight's shoulder, she looked at Dan, his helpless body lying in the middle of the corridor. He could only watch as his princess was taken from him.
“My Lord,” said a Black Knight, as the Magi Lord and his entourage crossed from the Sanosis to the dreadnought. “Someone has fled in an escape capsule.”
“Destroy it,” hissed Lord Hansola. “Destroy everything.”
And as the powerful thrusters of the dreadnought pushed the ship away from the Sanosis, Ausanne saw shot after shot fired at the black dot of the escape capsule, barely visible across the horizon. And then a brief orange flare exploded where the capsule had been, and Ausanne knew all hope was gone. She sank into a deep, dark dream and hoped that she'd never awaken.
She came to in an interrogation chamber, her body pressed against a damp wall, her wrists clamped into metal restraints, forcing her to hang, her feet just brushing the floor. The door creaked, and she realised that it had been the clink of the lock that had woken her. Two Black Knights entered, opening the door wide and then standing on either side of the doorway to allow the Magi Lord to enter the small cabin.
“Princess Ausanne, welcome to my humble ship Orion. I do hope you like your quarters,” said the Magi Lord, his skull-like face beaming.
“What do you want from me?” Ausanne said, teeth gritted against the pain in her arms.
“Ah, my princess, straight down to business. I like that. Very well. I need your aid in a few matters.”
“Never,” said Ausanne.
Lord Hansola smiled. “I think that you and I need to speak in private.”
With a wave of his hand, he dismissed the two Black Knights. Even as the Magi Lord began speaking, the Sanosis was sinking, travelling deeper and deeper, down into the black abyss. And as fire caught hold of the ship's engines, one final, huge explosion created a shockwave that pushed the small, damaged escape capsule further away, closer and closer to safety.
The dead body of the young girl lay on the floor. The masked man carefully wiped his letter opener on a corner of his yellow silk gown and smiled as he looked down at the spy in her white naval uniform.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said, still smiling, “for finally bringing the last phase of my plan into action.”
And then the Supreme Emperor laughed, a bitter chuckle.