Chapter 2: Beyond Heat Seekers and Laces
Taren sat in the pilot’s seat and strapped on his harness. It was almost comical to see Kylee—Princess of Doeline, the biggest country on the planet—in her enormous wedding gown and elaborate hairdo, pulling levers, flipping switches, and typing commands into the computer. But, outfit aside, she was in her true element.
Kylee began secretly racing at the age of nineteen. Hidden by her helmet and protected by her alias, The Golden Mare, she’d been the undefeated champion of the underground. Although her first love was her fusion cycle, she’d done research on speeders, hovercars, and spaceships, learning all there was to know about their interworking and controls. Taren couldn’t have asked for a better copilot.
Two minutes later, the cargo cruiser was pulling away from the ground and accelerating into the sky. Taren turned the pitch dial with one hand and carefully rotated the yaw-roll joystick with the other hand, all the while keeping his eyes on the compass at the top righthand corner of his navigational screen, which also served as the front window. They experienced some turbulence as they left Jurthaan IV’s atmosphere, but that only succeeded in rattling Taren’s teeth a little. The true challenge was going to be the Mireling ships stationed just outside neutral space.
There were four destroyer escorts and two royal yachts. Yachts weren’t built for combat but for comfort, and needed the destroyer escorts to protect them. Taren was sure the escorts would stay with the yachts, only firing on potential enemies until they were out of range.
“They’ve locked heat seekers on us,” Kylee said as the screen lit up with warning signs. “Why are they locking heat seekers on us?” She wrinkled her nose. “Not to sound overly conceited, but don’t they realize I’m in here?”
“They must think we’re trying to attack them,” Taren muttered.
She twisted the blue switch levers in charge of diverting the power of the ship. “Shields up.”
Taren flexed his fingers over the steering dial and joystick. “Ready for one last race, Golden Mare?”
“Oh, yeah.” Kylee tightened the straps of her harness. “Let’s do this.”
He slammed a foot against the accelerator. The cruiser surged forward, throwing the two of them back against their seats. Taren spun the pitch dial and yanked on the joystick. The ship spun through space at a reckless speed. When the torpedoes were launched, they raced across the black backdrop like shooting stars.
“Flares!” Taren shouted.
Kylee pressed the appropriate buttons. They left a volley of white fire in their wake. The heat seeking torpedoes scattered in all directions, smashing into the flares and creating miniature explosions that rocked the ship. Taren’s grip on his steering mechanisms tightened so that the ship wouldn’t be blasted off course. Kylee swore as one of the torpedoes struck the back of the cargo cruiser.
“The shields will hold,” Taren said.
“Against one or two, maybe. We still have eight torpedoes on us.”
“I take it we’re out of flares.”
Kylee typed another command into the computer. “Yep.”
“Laser cannon?” Taren asked.
“Since when do cargo cruisers come with laser cannons?” the princess squeaked.
“The man who owned this ship had it specially outfitted with one. Maybe he was paranoid or had a previous run in with space pirates.” Taren shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. It’ll help. Use the yoke.”
He continued exercising evasive maneuvers as Kylee pulled the yoke closer. He saw her side of the screen light up with a red targeting system out of the corner of his eye.
“I wasn’t trained to shoot accurately while flying in a ship that spins and dives every two seconds, so bear with me.” Kylee squinted at the screen before pulling the yoke triggers. “Okay, so I wasn’t trained to shoot at all. Maybe you could stop spinning the ship for a bit?”
“Trade me,” Taren said. He pumped the pedal between the brake and accelerator.
The princess yelped in surprise as the panel holding the steering dial and joystick swung over to her side of the control board, switching places with the yoke. The manic twirling stopped, and the ship’s speed slowed for a heartbeat. Then the princess was slamming her foot against her own pedal and handling the dial and joystick like a pro. Taren called up the targeting system to his side of the screen. The eight torpedoes lit up like fireflies on the grid. Once he had lined up the shot, he opened fire. Flashbacks of hours spent at the Guard Institute’s target range helped sharpen his focus. It took time, but he eventually got them all.
“Are we out of range?” Kylee asked.
Taren turned on the rear camera. A small video box popped up at the bottom corner of the screen. He enlarged it to reveal the Mirelings’ ships. “Out of range.”
The cargo cruiser leveled out.
“Well,” Kylee said, out of breath, “that was fun.”
Taren sputtered out a laugh. “Yeah. Let’s never do it again.” He breathed deeply. His dancing heart and the blood coursing through his veins began to slow. He allowed himself to relax for the first time since he woke up that morning. They were in the clear. They were all right.
Kylee lifted a hand as if to run it down her face but paused, grimacing. “Do you think we’re out of danger?”
“For now. It’ll take time for the Mirelings and your mom to round up the cavalry.” Taren pumped the middle pedal again, returning the steering mechanisms to their rightful place. “You can head upstairs to the bathroom and shower. There should be a spare change of clothes in the captain’s cabin.”
“I’ll need your help extracting my homing beacons,” Kylee said, pulling on the latch that would free her from the harness. “I have one in my hip and one in the sole of my foot.”
Taren nodded. “I’m pretty sure this ship was outfitted with an infirmary. Just let me know when you’re ready.”
She hefted up her skirts and rose with difficulty. “I’ll need your help getting out of this dress too.”
Taren typed in the coordinates to the nearest space station, his face aflame. “How many servants did it take to get you in it?”
“Shouldn’t be too hard for the two of us then,” he said with a forced chuckle. He put the ship on autopilot before freeing himself from his own harness. Then he followed the princess out of the cockpit and into the hallway beyond.
She climbed the metallic staircase and waited for him at the topmost deck.
“Bathroom’s through there,” he said, pointing. “I’ll see if I can find you some clothes.”
She bobbed her head in a nod.
He ambled over to the captain’s cabin. It was a modest room with a queen-sized bunk, a dresser, and a desk. A horizontal window cut across the wall beside the bed, giving him a clear view of the stars beyond. Taren pulled out some lounging pants and a shirt from the dresser before returning to his princess.
Upon entering the bathroom, he was met with multiple shower cubicles, stalls, and sinks. Cubbies along one wall held folded towels and toiletries. Taren draped the clothes over one of the sinks, then turned to face Kylee. Memories like fireworks burst in his mind:
Kylee, amazed and confused when she realized Taren wasn’t going to tell the queen about her secret racing.
Kylee, sweating and exhausted, but determined to defeat him in hand-to-hand combat during their self-defense lessons.
Kylee sitting beside his hospital bed with tears swimming in her eyes after he barely survived a bomb that had been meant for her.
Kylee dressed in a gorgeous blue gown, blushing with pleasure when he asked for the first dance at her birthday ball.
Kylee grabbing his tie and pulling him close, daring to kiss him for the very first time.
Kylee standing before him, horrified and panic-stricken, when she learned he’d been fired.
And now, standing in the bathroom on a stolen spaceship. She must’ve washed her face while he was in the captain’s cabin, because it was clean now. She looked worn out but content.
She chose him. A thrill Taren couldn’t even begin to describe made every hair on his body stand straight on end.
Kylee’s slow-spreading grin brought him out of his thoughts. “I’ve never seen you speechless before. It’s adorable.” She gestured down at herself. “Are you afraid of the dress?”
“Me? Afraid?” Taren blew a raspberry. “No.”
The princess turned away from him. There was a crisscross of laces running down her spine and ending in a bow at the small of her back. “Let’s get started then.”
Taren’s lungs tightened. He stepped forward and carefully tugged at the bow. “How can you breathe in this thing?”
“It’s not as tight as it looks,” she assured him over her shoulder. She held her arms up so that he could slip the bodice over her head once he got the laces undone.
Thankfully, his hands remained steady as he helped her undress. He schooled his features into a determined sort of look—one that wouldn’t betray his unease. The top layer of material was light. It came off easily enough. Removing the skirt was the tricky part; Taren had to untie two laces, a hook, and a few buttons to clear all the layers of imitation crinoline and chiffon. When Kylee wore nothing but her undergarments, Taren moved to leave.
He paused. “Hmm?”
She smiled and pointed up at her hair. “There are at least a hundred pins in there. Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” he said, returning to her side.
They worked together, digging through her hair to extract all the pins. The little metal pieces, along with the string of pearls, joined the dress on the floor. Kylee sighed, running her fingers over her scalp now that her hair was free. She shook her head from side to side, unaware of the affect she had on him.
He backed away yet again, his mouth dry. “I’ll be outside if you need me.”
“Taren.” His name was a sigh on her lips.
He froze in his tracks.
She smiled lazily and held out her hand. Quite without meaning to, he reached out and took it. She pulled herself toward him, rose on her tiptoes, gave him a kiss. His arms curved around her.
“Are you really going to let me shower alone?” she whispered once they’d parted.
He touched her forehead with his, his mouth curling at the corners. “Well, it wouldn’t be gentlemanly if I offered to join you, Princess.”
“You’ve been a gentleman long enough.” She cupped his face in her hands and kissed him again.
The beeping of his watch woke Taren several hours later.
His head snapped up from the pillow. Kylee gave a sleepy groan and burrowed into the mattress, curling her body into a tighter ball beside him. He blinked down at her. At his arm around her. At her exposed shoulder, peeking out from beneath the blanket. A smile stretched across his face—one so big it made his cheeks hurt. He settled back into bed and pressed his nose to her hair. She smelled like vanilla. He tightened his arm around her waist and brought her closer.
His watch beeped again. He shut his eyes, intending to ignore it. Then he remembered.
Taren sighed and rolled out of bed. He was careful not to jostle his princess. In the dark, he found a shirt and some pants to wear. Then he swiped the watch off the dresser top. Taren stepped out of the room and pressed the correct button. A holographic image of his old friend from the Guard Institute popped up.
Axel Jepson had a wide, pale face, black hair, and a scraggly black goatee. His left ear was made of metal and smaller than his right—the result of a childhood accident.
Axel exhaled in relief and grinned. “You’re alive. Good. When you didn’t answer right away, I thought maybe you’d been caught.” Wiping his face against his arm, he quickly added, “Not that I doubted you or anything. It’s just that I’ve never helped anyone break the law before.”
“I understand,” Taren said. “Thanks for lending me your toys. They really helped.”
“No problem.” Axel frowned. “You’re all over the news, Taren. Queen Miyako’s calling you a terrorist. If anyone found out I helped you…” He shuddered and then reached for something off screen. Bringing a bottle of pills to his lips, he tossed his head back.
Taren might’ve been worried if he didn’t know those were antacids his friend was chewing on.
“I wouldn’t last a night in prison,” Axel said around his tablets. “It wouldn’t matter that I’ve made most of the weapons and gadgets that are currently in the hands of Doeline’s finest soldiers. I gave a few prototypes to an old friend to aid in the abduction of his one true love. That’ll make me an enemy of the crown along with you and worthy of prison time, if not execution.”
Taren nodded. “Thanks again.”
“Anything for a friend,” Axel said with a nervous chuckle.
“Have my parents been brought in for questioning yet?” Taren asked.
Axel returned the antacids bottle to its original spot off-screen. “They’re being kept out of the media to protect your dad’s reputation, but my sources at the palace say they’ve already been interrogated and cleared.”
Taren nodded. “Good.”
“Don’t look so relieved. This isn’t over. Not by a long shot.” Axel’s features softened into something like concern. “I hope she’s worth whatever comes next, Taren.”
His friend shifted uncomfortably. “Remember that the choker uses retrodium batteries. Those can only be purchased at high-end gadget shops, so use it sparingly. The watch and the sunglasses, on the other hand, can be charged with your Personal Digital Assistant tablet.”
“I left my PDA in the shift-change locker rooms at the palace,” Taren said, leaning against the chrome wall. “Couldn’t get it back.”
“Then that’s the first purchase you’ll need to make once you get to”—Axel shrugged—“wherever you’re going. The smart metal has microscopic neosite battery chips embedded within the sheet.” He tapped his chin. “Those are solar powered to an extent. Theoretically, you could charge the smart metal by letting it sit in the sun for a few hours.”
Taren listed his head to the side and quirked an eyebrow.
“Prototypes, remember?” Axel said. “I hadn’t gotten around to developing proper charging methods before I let you ‘borrow’ them.”
“Anyway, the disguisable sidearm works just like your standard blaster. The ultra-thin laser magazine was originally built for—”
Taren grimaced. “I, uh, dropped it at the cathedral. I’m sorry.”
“I’ll program it to self-destruct then.” Axel pulled the keyboard to his torso and typed something before turning his attention back to Taren. “The cane uses custom-made explosives, so you won’t be able to refill it.”
“I’ll keep it as a souvenir.”
“Right,” Axel said with a smirk. “I could probably scramble the signal two or three more times to avoid alerting the crown’s off-planet communication’s security program if you need to contact me again, but I recommend putting some time in between calls so it doesn’t look too suspicious.”
Taren shook his head. “This will be our only call. I’ve endangered you enough.”
“Are you sure?” Axel asked, leaning forward, his forehead scrunched. “What if you need help?”
“I’ll deal.” Taren smiled. “Don’t worry.”
Axel gave a grim nod. “Okay. You can deactivate the watch’s connection to the Cyber Ore Network in the settings menu. No one will be able to track it then, even if they do figure out its IP address.”
“I’ll do that,” Taren said.
“Take care of yourself.”
“Yeah.” Taren cleared his throat. “You too, man.”
The hologram flickered and then vanished. Taren numbly tapped on the watch face to find the settings menu. His index finger hovered over the deactivation order for a breath before he let it fall.
“You are no longer connected to the Cyber Ore Network,” the watch face read.
It might as well have said he was no longer connected to his home. The pinch in his chest brought horrible guilt and self-doubt with it. At twenty-five, he was known as the youngest guard to ever work at the royal palace. Now? He was the most wanted man in the entire solar system. He’d attacked the guards he’d worked alongside for a whole year. He’d put the princess and his country, both of which he’d sworn to protect, in jeopardy for the sake of his own happiness. How could he call himself a good man if—
He turned with a start.
Kylee stood in the doorway. Her damp hair was crumpled from sleep, but those dark eyes were alert. One hand kept the sheet wrapped around her slight frame; the other reached out to him.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
At the sight of her, that painfully large grin stretched across his face again. He pocketed the watch and held out his arms. “Come here.”
She stepped into his embrace with a shy smile. His arms rested against the small of her back. She pressed her cheek against his chest, arms folded between both of their bodies.
“Everything is perfect.” Swiveling slowly from side to side, he added, “I love you.”
“And I you.”
A screech sounded throughout the ship. Taren and Kylee jumped apart.
“Ships approaching,” a female robotic voice said through the speakers in the walls.
“Damn,” Taren hissed, sprinting toward the staircase. He jumped over the last few steps, landed on the middle deck, and continued his mad race to the cockpit. Falling into the pilot’s chair, he pulled up the rear camera. A Mireling destroyer and two Jurthaan IV escorts were closing in fast. Taren strapped himself in, his eyes fixed on the screen, his mind racing.
A squeak of alarm tempted him to look back and see if Kylee was hurt. Instead, he reached across the control board to activate the shields. A glance at the copilot’s side of the screen told him they were still half a parsec away from the nearest space station. Taren swore again. They needed to find someplace else to hide.
“I could use your help right now, Princess!” he shouted.
“I’m coming!” Hurried footsteps sounded behind him, and then she slipped into the copilot’s chair.
“We’re being hailed,” she noted as a text message box appeared on her side of the screen. “It’s the Mirelings. They’re giving us a chance to surrender before they activate their tractor beam. If we resist in any way…” She glanced at him. “They’re threatening to open fire.”
They shared a knowing look.
“You steer. I’ll shoot. Get strapped in.”
Taren pumped that pedal to bring the yoke to his side of the control board again. “Ready?”
The princess worked quickly to override the autopilot command. She wiped the sweat from her brow and then gripped her steering instruments. “Yeah.”
The ship nose-dived through space. Torpedoes whizzed by, bursting into clouds of white light in the distance. Taren fired back when the ships popped up on his targeting system. Kylee yanked the joystick to the side to avoid another volley of torpedoes. One managed to hit their left side. There was a terrible crash and a groan of straining metal.
“Shield generator has been hit,” the computer reported. “Shields at fifty percent and dropping.”
The ship rocked to the side again, and blasts like peals of thunder followed the impact.
“Shields at thirty percent and dropping,” the computer said.
“Another hit like that and we’ll be stranded,” Kylee said.
Taren stared at the dizzying error codes scrolling across the top of the navigational screen, his heart thumping. What more could they do? Where could they go? The rear camera box took up most of his screen, but a pale gray planet hovered innocently off to the side. Taren dismissed the rear camera by pressing a button on the keyboard.
“Hang on.” He smashed his foot against the middle pedal, returning the joystick and dial to his side of the control panel. Then he hit the accelerator.
“What are you doing?” Kylee asked, her voice rising in panic. “The space station is—”
“We’re not going to make it to the space station.”
The cargo cruiser twisted and spun, avoiding yet another spray of torpedoes. Taren stayed focused on the pale gray planet.
“If we manage to make a halfway decent landing, we can find someplace to hide and then—”
The ship was jostled as a torpedo burst along the side, missing them by a hair.
“Terry…” Fear made Kylee’s voice wobble.
But he couldn’t spare her a glance. Not yet. “It’s going to be fine,” he said.
As Taren steered, the ship spiraled and jerked and dipped, like a fish swimming frantically away from danger. The gray planet remained at the center of his screen the whole time, becoming larger every second. The Imminent Collision message appeared as the planet’s gravitational pull yanked their ship forward.
Taren released the joystick to reach for Kylee’s hand. He kept the pitch dial steady despite the tempestuous atmosphere threatening to tear their ship apart. Fire licked up the sides of the window. Clouds roiled like mist across the glass. The ship took another hit to its rear, sending them careening to the side. Taren released Kylee’s hand to grip the joystick and keep them level. They broke through the clouds and entered darkness. It took a moment for Taren’s eyes to adjust, but then he glimpsed smooth, brown sand in the light of his burning ship.
“Try starting the landing cycle!” Taren yelled over the computer’s chorus of, “Warning. Warning. Warning.”
Kylee obeyed, flipping the correct switches on her side of the control board. He glanced at her. She looked pale. The large men’s shirt and pants she wore clung to her in places where she’d sweat in anticipation.
“If I’d known you’d be this much trouble, I never would’ve gotten involved,” he said, cracking a smile.
Kylee gave a shaky laugh. “Yeah, you would’ve.”
“Yeah. I would’ve.”
The ground rose up to meet them with a mighty smash.