Laden with packs, the three men hurried down the small side streets and alleyways of Carooine City. Kabi checked his chronos—they had time, he'd made sure of it. And the more convoluted their route, the more hidden passageways and secret paths they took, the less likely they were to be spotted by anyone who shouldn't see them. He looked over his shoulder and saw no one. The evening was getting darker, the second sun almost gone now, an orange sliver on the horizon. He nodded to himself. They'd be fine.
He allowed Benho and the chattering Niku to get a few steps ahead before coming into step with Maicee, walking companionably for a while in silence.
“Do you remember as a child when I would tell you bedtime stories?” Kabi asked eventually, his sandaled feet crunching in the dust as they walked.
Maicee looked at his guardian, no, uncle, out of the corner of his eye, wondering why he would want to discuss children's stories now. As far as he could tell, they were all in grave danger, though he didn't understand why. What he did understand was that he'd given up a chance to work at one of the best hospitals in the world in order to follow Kabi on a mysterious trip. And that someone, somewhere, was looking for him.
He shrugged sullenly. “I guess.”
“You might seem a little more enthusiastic,” Kabi said calmly. “I mean, you've been pressuring me about this arrangement we made for years now. I'm finally ready to keep up my end of the bargain, and you're too busy sulking to be interested.”
The young man sighed and eyed Kabi suspiciously. He couldn't help but think that the man was tricking him somehow. “And what exactly do children's tales of Angels and Archangels have to do with you keeping to the agreement and telling me about my family and my past, and about why the hell I have to keep the fact that I'm your niece and not your nephew secret?”
The boy's voice had risen in pitch, and Kabi glanced over to see if the others had heard. But Benho and Niku were deep in conversation themselves.
“Maicee, there is too much to explain all at one time. But there are certain things you need to know. Especially now, since, in case you haven't noticed—though I'm sure you have—we all seem to be in danger. Should anything happen to me, I want you at least to understand the basics.”
Maicee's eyes flickered. He felt confused, glad that he was about to get the knowledge that he'd hungered for, but now wondered if the information was really going to be worth it, really going to make any difference. “I'm listening,” he said quietly.
“I don't have the time to break this to you gently,” Kabi warned, their feet tramping in step. “So I need you to accept what I say. Accept it as truth. And the truth is that I am an Archangel. As was your mother, my sister.”
Maicee stopped, regarding Kabi with complete disbelief. “I ...”
“Keep walking,” Kabi said, taking his arm and propelling him forwards. “We don't have time to stop. I assure you that no matter how unbelievable this sounds, it is true. There were originally thirteen of us. We lived amongst the people, we protected the world, protected justice.” He smiled ruefully. “And there are always going to be those who are against the ones who wish to do good in the world. Now there are only two of us left.”
“But what happened? I mean, why? Only two?” Maicee's head was spinning with questions, but this time he kept on walking.
“I told you we don't have time for the full story yet. And this is just background, necessary for the important thing that you need to know right now,” Kabi said. They were beginning to climb a slope, and his breathing was a little more laboured. “When your mother was alive, she went by many names. To me, she was always my sister Aquarius. But here, those who remember her do so by the name Salamazi. Queen Salamazi.”
“Wait, hold up.” Maicee stopped again, this time clutching Kabi's sleeves and forcing him to turn and look straight into his eyes. “You're telling me that my mother was the Queen of Britannia? That...”
And suddenly everything fell into place. Maicee's mouth fell open, and Kabi couldn't help but smile.
“Yes,” the older man said. “You're the missing Princess Aicee, little Niku over there is the beloved pet of your younger sister, Princess Ausanne, and you, my dear, are supposed to be kidnapped and presumed dead by the world. And yet, here you are, very much alive.”
“Come on, slow coaches!” Benho's voice rang through the empty side street, breaking Maicee's trance.
“So maybe you can understand why we need to keep certain things secret and why leaving Carooine might be for the best right now?” Kabi whispered, pulling Maicee's arm and hurrying to catch up with Benho and Niku.
Still in shock, Maicee nodded. He needed time to think about all of this, and he needed the rest of the story from Kabi. Something that he obviously wasn't going to get right now. He...was a princess?
“That,” said Benho, stopping on the dark beach and looking at the ship floating a short way offshore, “looks very much like an Imperial Navy battle cruiser. Other than the fact that it's painted black, rather than white.”
“Very astute, Doctor Benho,” said a voice from the darkness. Lucia materialised out of the twilight. “The Freedom did indeed used to be a naval battle cruiser, until I liberated her. She is now, however, one of the finest pirate ships to ever put to sea.”
She beckoned them to a small transport boat that made enough splashing and chugging that conversation was impossible for the minute or so it took to cross to the ship. The boat glided up a small ramp, and Lucia alighted, once again beckoning for the men to follow her. She opened a large door and ushered them onto an open, airy bridge. In the centre of the room, a cylindrical holographic tower stood, like the trunk of a tree growing through the deck.
“The tactical overlay,” explained Lucia. “Now, allow me to introduce my small crew.”
Four women were busy in front of flat touchscreens, and each turned as she was introduced.
“Falorni, you know,” said Lucia, and the young scrub nurse smiled and nodded. “She's ship's medic. Then another familiar face, I believe—particularly for you, Doctor Benho—my agent and officer in charge of supplies on board, Sa-li.”
The young, black-haired girl turned and gave Benho an abashed smile. Maicee laughed as he watched his friend's mouth drop open in disbelief.
“And then we have Kate, the Freedom's navigator, and Pam, our weapons specialist.”
Both women turned and smiled.
“Lean, the engineer, is currently below decks; and Bettie, my first officer, is attending to some business in town and will be joining us very shortly. That's everyone. A small but very efficient group.”
Maicee's eyes narrowed. He'd lived on Carooine a long time and recognised all of the faces that he'd seen so far, though he didn't know Kate and Pam to speak to. “You seem to have drawn your crew from the young ladies of the town,” he said slowly.
Lucia laughed her bell-like laugh. “Quite the opposite, my dear Doctor Maicee. These women have been my crew for a long time; it simply behoves us all to have day jobs that take the eye of suspicion off us. These women came to Carooine because they joined me, not the other way around.”
Kabi nodded. “Your pirate band is very impressive, but there is something we need to speak of before we leave. Is there somewhere a little more private we could go, Captain?”
“I too must brief you. Come this way.”
Dropping his eyes so as not to spend too much time admiring the rounded backside of his new captain, Benho noticed that Lucia no longer wore her diaphanous gown. She was now attired in altogether more appropriate clothing, tight leggings clinging to shapely legs, a breastplate that left very little to the imagination. It was even more beguiling than the transparent robe. He sighed and followed the comely captain into a private office.
“Sit,” Lucia bade them, gesturing to large, comfortable-looking armchairs surrounding a low table. “Before we leave Carooine,” she said, “there is one task that I must undertake. One little … expedition, if you will.”
“That's fine,” Kabi said, barely even noticing the plan. “But there is something that you must know. It's only right that you are aware of what we're dealing with here.”
Lucia gave a small moue of interest, which defined her high cheekbones even further. “And that is, KabiOnn?”
“The Imperial Navy are currently searching for a survivor who was aboard the ship Sanosis,” Kabi began.
The captain waved her hand. “I know this already. I know all of this,” she said dismissively.
“What you don't know, then,” said Kabi, “is that the survivor the naval officers are seeking is currently on board your ship.”
He nodded at Benho, who opened his pack to reveal a curled-up, sleeping Niku.
“A Chamonkey.” Lucia laughed. “In all seriousness?”
“In all seriousness,” assured Kabi. “And the fact is that the Sanosis was attacked because the Ambassador of Britannia was carrying something of utmost importance to the Supreme Emperor himself. Something that, thanks to this little Chamonkey, is now in my possession. Something I urgently need to take across the sea to Britannia.”
“And something that the Supreme Emperor and his navy are still searching for,” finished Lucia. She gave a small smile. “I think, dear KabiOnn, that once more our interests collide. You see, I am not willing to leave Carooine empty handed. It would be terribly bad for my reputation. And the little expedition that I was planning will probably serve both of our needs very well. Allow me to explain.”
She leaned over the table and soon was telling the three listening men what she and her crew were planning.
The ceiling fan was still creaking on its incessant, circling journey in an attempt to keep the muggy air of the Director's office cool. With a sigh, Professor Lock-Tmy put down the reports he'd been handed. Removing his boxy spectacles, he rubbed the bridge of his nose and shook his head.
“It's a shame,” he said. “A real shame.”
Bettie, first mate of the Freedom, could see that he was already set on what he was to do, so she turned to leave. As she pulled the door closed behind her, she saw that Lock-Tmy was reaching for the com system on his desk to place the call. She smiled and let the door click into place. Her job here was done.
Waves splashed gently on the sides of the Imperial battle cruiser Argoni. The sound was soothing, rhythmic, lulling. The creak of the ropes, the slapping of the water on the hull, the soft groans of wood settling and moving. One of the two sentries posted by the ship's ramp yawned. Lamps lining the dock made small circles of yellow light, and a quick eye could see movement coming towards the ship.
“What's that?” grunted one sentry, pointing.
The two men concentrated, narrowing their eyes to focus, until they saw the familiar, staggering walk of one, no, two drunkards.
“Just boozers,” the second sentry replied.
And they settled back into their watch. In truth, few people dared approach the military vessel. Those who did would get a shouted warning, maybe a dip in the sea if they got too close. But there weren't many men on Archeonis brave enough to get that close. The sentries had little to worry about. It wasn't until a few minutes later, when the carousing, singing, and stumbling of the two drunks got near enough to be bothersome, that the older of the two sentries sighed.
“Go tell 'em,” he said to his partner, not wanting to walk down the ship's ramp himself. His knees were getting old, and the slope troubled him these days.
The younger man sauntered down the ramp, muscles bulging, full of the arrogance of youth. As he got to the bottom, one drunk clutched his stomach and bent over as though to vomit up his night's wine. The sentry slowed a little, not wanting to get recycled alcohol on his sandals. This one will definitely need a bath, he mused, thinking of the best way to capture two men and throw at least one over the side of the dock. So intent was he on logistics that when a large shard of crystal shot up from the ground, skewering him like meat on a stick, he didn't even have the time to process the pain. In an instant, he was dead.
The second sentry was reaching for the alarm as a whistling blast of air hit him. The dagger sliced neatly across his throat, and Lucia bent to retrieve it, wiping the knife clean on the sentry's uniform before standing and beckoning to the two men on the dock.
Benho stared at the pierced man in front of him, then back at Kabi, who shrugged. Apparently this wasn't the time for explanations, but the young man had never seen a display of such power before. Kabi pulled at his arm to lead him towards the ship, and Benho had to stop himself from flinching. The man could kill him with a look, and that both thrilled and scared him. Nevertheless, he followed Kabi unquestioningly. If only so that he didn't end up like the poor, skewered sentry.
Lucia searched the pockets of the dead man in front of her as her two companions ran lightly up the ramp onto the vessel. Just as they arrived, she found the security pass she needed and stood to wave it over the door scanner. Thinking quickly, Benho grabbed the dead guard's bolt blaster, something that could prove useful, following the others through the now-open door as he tucked the blaster into his belt.
The ship seemed empty, though that couldn't be so. But the only noises were the regular creaking and splashing sounds that one hears on board a vessel.
“A lot of the troops are in Carooine City tonight,” whispered Lucia, bringing them to a halt at a junction in the ship's corridors.
She looked left and right, then nodded. “All right, you two know the plans. Don't engage anyone unless you're forced to. We don't need troops of soldiers coming after us right now. You've got two hours. Anyone who isn't back here on this spot in two hours’ time will be left here to his fate. Understood?”
Kabi nodded, but Benho rolled his eyes.
“Stop worrying. We heard you at the briefing. We'll be fine; there's no need to nag,” he said impatiently.
Lucia smiled a little, knowing that the boy's impatience was only a show of bravado, covering up his natural fear.
“You'd better look after him,” she said to Kabi. “That impatience could get him killed.”
“I agree,” Kabi said, looking thoughtfully at Benho. “He'll stay close to me.”
“Now, let's get to work,” Lucia said. “We've got bombs to place.”
“And a ship to sabotage,” finished Kabi, grinning.
On board the Freedom, Maicee sat, fidgeting nervously and unable to keep still. He was supposed to be waiting for a signal from the infiltration team that had gone aboard the Argoni. His fingers tapped on the communication console, and Niku perched on his shoulder mimicking his tapping with her little fingers on his neck. He didn't know why he was so nervous about all this.
“Do you think they're going to be all right?” he asked Falorni, who was sitting on the bridge with him, keeping an eye on various screens.
“Hmm?” she asked, turning to him distractedly. “Oh, yes. Don't worry.” She gave him a bright smile. “The captain is a fantastic strategist; her operations are always perfectly executed. They'll be back in no time.”
Maicee smiled weakly in return. She was right. He shouldn't worry. He should have faith in this Lucia; after all, she was about to smuggle him out from under the noses of the Imperial Navy. And she had Kabi with her too, so what could possibly go wrong? He shifted in his seat again, noticing that his leg was jiggling up and down seemingly by itself. It was just that he had a bad feeling. The little shiver of danger ran down his back. Yes, he admitted. He did have a very bad feeling about all this.
“I have been expecting you, Captain. What took you so long?”
The older man sitting in the captain's chair of the Argoni snorted at his own joke.
“Come, come, bring her a little closer,” he said.
In response, the two soldiers who were restraining Lucia half-dragged her across the deck. Her hands were bound and her mouth was taped, but her eyes flashed fire as she was pulled in front of the portly, uniformed man.
“I'm forgetting myself,” he continued, looking at her quite benevolently. “Where are my manners? I know exactly who you are, and I've not even introduced myself. I am Admiral Stookie of the Imperial Navy. You'll forgive me if I don't shake your hand, Captain? You seem to be a little ... tied up at the moment.”
Once more he laughed, a high-pitched, almost feminine laugh, and rose from the large chair he'd been sitting in, coming closer to her. He nodded at one of the guards, who then kicked Lucia behind the knee, forcing her to kneel before the Admiral.
“Now, little one,” the Admiral said, close enough that she could smell his salty, sweaty scent. “Sabotage isn't very honourable, is it?”
She tried desperately to think, her knees digging into the wooden deck beneath her, her eyes darting back and forth. There were no other prisoners with her. That meant there was a good chance that Kabi and Benho were around somewhere, which in turn meant a fair chance of escape, especially with Kabi around.
The Admiral grabbed her chin, giving her a long, leering look. Bending, he whispered something disgustingly unrepeatable into her ear and laughed at the sickened look on her face. Then he reached out and tore the tape from her mouth so fast that she wanted to scream in pain. She caught the cry at the last moment and swallowed it down, refusing to give him the satisfaction.
“You are so beautiful,” he said, his hand still on her chin, turning her head from side to side to get a better look. “It's such a shame that you have to die.” He pretended to think for a moment. “Or do you?”
Curiosity got the better of her. “What do you mean?” she asked.
The Admiral sighed, let go of her face, and began pacing in front of her, hands behind his back. “Before you are two choices. You can give me the stolen data disk, and I will let you live. Or you can refuse, and I will kill you. It is simple, is it not, little one? Yes or no, black or white.”
Playing for time, she looked up at him as if puzzled. “What data disk? I have many data disks on my ship. Which one exactly do you want?”
His hand came out in a flash, swiftly slapping her across the face. She felt the burning pain and tasted the metallic, coppery taste of blood in her mouth. Turning, she spat onto the deck, and the Admiral giggled his strange laugh again.
“Dear, dear. Such a shame to destroy such beauty,” he said. Then he leaned in close, his face almost touching hers. “I want the data disk that you took from the Ambassador,” he growled, his grey eyes small and bloodshot.
“What Ambassador?” she asked innocently.
“Enough.” He waved a hand at one of the guards, who disappeared. “Don't take me for a fool, and don't waste either my time or yours. Your time in particular is very precious just at the moment.”
His hand dropped to his pocket, toying with something.
“A very reliable source of mine has told me that you have contacted an agent of this Ambassador. So, little one, spare me the lies and hand over the data disk.” He smiled a cold, hard smile at her. “And then I shall let you live. At least until the day of your trial, at which point I assume you shall be hanged for treachery anyway.”
His hand still toyed with whatever was in his pocket, and he appeared thoughtful before removing a small black canister.
“I happen to have with me a new weapon from the Imperial Research Laboratory,” he said in a conversational tone of voice. “They call it a sonic pistol. Apparently it can emit a lethal sound wave that can crush anything it comes into contact with.” He tossed the canister up in the air and caught it again. “And I've been dying for a chance to try it out.” He grinned at her. “This might be just the opportunity I've been waiting for. Shall we see what it can do?”
Without waiting for her answer, he shouted for a prisoner. Lucia's heart stopped. So they did have at least one of the others. She held her breath as the guard dragged a man into the room. Her eyes searched in panic for any familiar sign, and then she heaved a sigh of relief as she realised that this man was completely unknown to her.
With cool, measured strides, the Admiral walked across the bridge to the prisoner, pressed the black canister against his forehead, and pressed a button. In a split second the prisoner's eyes turned from horror-filled to lifeless, blood seeping from the sockets, mingling with effluent from his nose and mouth as it ran down his face. The Admiral nodded in satisfaction, and Lucia turned her head from the nauseating sight.
“Almost instant death,” noted the Admiral, turning back to Lucia. “Am I not kind?”
Casually he approached her, grasped the back of her neck in thick, strong fingers, and placed the canister against her head.
“Now, where were we?” he asked.
This day was fairly inevitable. She had played with fire for a long time without getting burnt. But now that it was here, she found that she really, really didn't want to die. She closed her eyes for a moment, making peace within herself.
When she opened them again, she glared defiantly at the Admiral.
“I know nothing,” she spat.
The Admiral shook his head, disappointed, and moved his finger over the trigger button.
Something doesn't feel right at all, Maicee thought. He went over and over the plan that had been hatched, trying to find the flaw. There must have been something that none of them had thought of. Because he still had that bad, bad feeling. He paced the bridge of the Freedom, muttering to himself as he thought, Niku watching him half in amusement, half in fear.
“Maicee, listen carefully.”
He looked up, but no one else had heard the voice. It was in his head. But it was familiar. It sounded an awful lot like Kabi.
“This is a trap. There was an ambush waiting for us here. You need to get the Freedom to safety fast. Save yourself. You are in danger.”
“It's a trap,” Maicee blurted out.
Niku stared at him, and he grabbed Falorni by the arms, turning her towards him.
“It's a trap. We need to get out of here. Now.”
Falorni looked at the young doctor, his face white with shock, his eyes darting around the bridge. “Are you sure?” she asked uncertainly, not knowing quite what had changed in the last second or so to make Maicee look so panicked.
Falorni shook her head. “I can't do that. I can't move the ship without an order from the captain or from the first mate. The decision isn't mine to make, Maicee.”
His hands gripped her more tightly. “We don't have time. We can't wait. We need to leave now. Right now.”
“Without Lucia or Bettie, I can't ...”
But even as she spoke, the bridge door slid open, emitting a short, stocky woman.
“Bettie, thank the Gods you're back,” said Falorni, obviously relieved.
The short woman gave a cheeky grin. “Glad to know you missed me so much.” She walked over to Maicee, who had let go of the ship's medic. “Bettie, first officer of the Freedom. Sorry I wasn't here to greet you when you came aboard,” she said, offering her hand.
“There's no time for introductions,” Maicee said, though he took her hand out of habit before realising what he'd done and letting it drop. “We need to get out of here. We have to move the Freedom.”
Bettie frowned. “Why, what's the matter?” she asked, her suspicions heightened by the nervous young man in front of her.
“It's a trap. The captain and the others have been ambushed. We need to move out in case someone reveals our position.”
The first officer reached into her robe and pulled out a dagger, pointing its lethal sharpness at Maicee's throat, though she noticed that the man didn't flinch. “Are you a spy?” she said sharply. “How do you know all this?”
“Kabi told me,” Maicee said, trying not to swallow in case the point of the knife hit him as he did so.
“Did you hear this communication?” Bettie asked, keeping the dagger level but turning to Falorni.
“No, ma'am,” the young medic said, quietly but definitely.
“I don't know how to convince you, but it's true,” said Maicee, getting desperate.
Bettie saw the true fear in his eyes and began lowering the dagger.
“I heard it too,” squeaked Niku from the control console. “I did, and it was Kabi. He can, he knows, he can talk into my head if he needs to,” the Chamonkey stuttered.
The first officer shook her head and sank into the captain's chair, dagger hanging from her hand. “A talking Chamonkey and a psychic message,” she said slowly. “And just what, pray tell, makes you think that I'm going to believe either one of you?”
“Because your captain's in danger. As are we if we don't get this ship moved,” Maicee said, more confident now that there wasn't a knife at his throat.
“And because moving the ship wouldn't do any harm,” Falorni added quietly. “If he's right, we avoid the trap. If he's wrong ...” She shrugged. “We have lost nothing.”
Bettie bit her lip, thinking, then nodded sharply. Getting up, she studied the tactical overlay column and pointed to a place on the map.
“Bear sharp to starboard. Leave green marker nine, twenty to fifty yards to port,” she ordered. “We'll hide the ship here.”
Kate, the quiet navigator on the far side of the bridge, keyed in an authorisation code. “Prepare for launch,” she announced over the ship's com.
But the Freedom simply shuddered, then stalled. A high-pitched beeping sound began.
“Ship reports engine error,” said Kate, not turning from her screen. She keyed something into the com. “Lean, Lean. Come in.”
An empty stillness crackled over the com.
“Falorni, you, doctor, go immediately to the engine room and check status,” Bettie said, moving around to a screen of her own, her eyes intent on finding out what was wrong with the ship.
Falorni grabbed Maicee's hand, pulling him off the bridge and down a series of corridors until they arrived at a metal door. Wisps of smoke emanated from the cracks around it. Falorni put a hand to the metal, noted that it wasn't hot, and, pulling her robe across her face, began opening the door. Maicee copied her actions, and as the door opened, a rush of smoke came out. When the fumes cleared, they could see Lean, the engineer, lying on the floor of the engine room. Quickly, Falorni moved to her, picking up her shoulders.
“Get her feet,” she ordered Maicee. “Let's get her to the medical bay now.”
Doing as he was told, Maicee saw the remains of a small explosive charge next to one of the engine controls. Small enough to disable them but not to sink them, he noted as he picked up the tall engineer's feet.
Depositing Lean onto a bunk in the medical bay, Falorni went straight to the com to report in.
“Lean injured but stable. Main engine offline. Will require repair before we can proceed.”
“Noted,” crackled back Bettie's voice. “Have activated ABDS. Over.”
“What's going on? What's ABDS?” asked Maicee, as Falorni ended the com call.
The girl shrugged. “It's the ship's automated boarding defence system. It's designed to repel boarders or those who might be on the ship without permission. Bolts will shoot through the ship's corridors if movement is detected.”
Maicee groaned and sat on the edge of a bunk. “The main engine is down, and bolts are shooting down corridors,” he said, looking horrified. “We can't move the ship.”
“We can't even move from the medical bay until the ABDS had been disabled,” Falorni told him.
He put his head in his hands. The Freedom was going nowhere. Which was exactly what whoever had sabotaged them wanted. There was no escape.