The accretion disc glowed from below, lighting Kazban’s way through the vast emptiness. He set his intention, and the ship Celerity responded in flight, drifting toward the heartring.
Before them the shape grew of the greatest station on the heartring, the Palace. It was situated as a set of concentric tori, on a plane tangent to the heartring so that the inner half always faced the black hole called the Heart.
Kazban angled toward the center of the tori, to the docks. A lesser ship would have required a pilot skilled in maneuvering, but Celerity responded to Kazban’s desire, twisting itself toward the port that opened to receive them. It slid its skids into the grooves of the station until the ship came to a halt.
Kazban climbed down the ramp that slid out Celerity’s aft. It had landed among the needle-like machines of the Royal Fleet, composed of brassy-looking alloys shot through with veins of jewel tones. Celerity, the latest the rim could offer, was dusty and dun. She spread out in a boxy V shape. Wires spilled out of her conduits.
Two dockhands came up. Their faces were narrow, and their eyes too close together even accounting for that, giving them an insectoid look. Even as laborers they must have Royal blood, here at the center of the system.
Kazban waved at the two crates at the top of the ramp. They were packed with vernadia, a potent medicine grown on his homeworld. Nearly all that was produced was sent here to the Palace, to extend the already long life of the Royals.
“I need to take these to the Royal Quartermaster.”
One of the laborers, taller than the other, looked at his slate, then nodded. “We can take you.”
He went up the ramp, nearly tripping as the ramp jerked. Kazban felt a shock of anxiety. Not his own, but Celerity’s. The ship did not like strangers aboard. Kazban took a deep breath and thought of floating in the serene darkness, the gentle glow of the disc beneath. Celerity calmed.
The dockhands took Kazban through a maze of corridors, pushing the crates that floated above the enameled copper floors on cushions of magnetic eddy currents. The two made small talk with each other, some old fashioned sport that hadn’t been followed on the rim for centuries.
They came to a closed doorway with a pair of guards. Each wore armor in the style of the Succession Wars, padded at the thighs, abs, and pecs, but the metals and ceramics that showed were of the latest variety. Close-hung eyes stared out of visors in their brassy helmets. They gripped some sort of polearms, forked at the tip with green crystals entwined.
The one on the left spoke. He wore the insignia of Ensign. “Halt. Outsiders are restricted to the dock level.”
Kazban looked him up and down, noting his slim build, before staring evenly at him.
“My instructions are to deliver this shipment directly to the Royal Quartermaster.”
The Ensign shook his head. “I’ll sign for it.”
“I need the Quartermaster’s signature.”
The Ensign raised his faceplate. “Listen, convict.” He sneered, nearly spat. “I’ll take it from here. We don’t need your kind on Royal ground.”
Kazban’s back straightened. He felt his fingers twitch toward his belt, but his plasma pistol wouldn’t be there. It was in prison lockdown, back at the rim.
Kazban pulled out his slate. Through clenched teeth, Kazban said. “My directive comes from the Rimward Viceroy of Isle Yotta-12.” He showed the documents to the Ensign.
The man didn’t look. He stared at Kazban through narrowed eyes.
“You’ve heard my orders, convict. Leave your crates and get back on your ship.”
Kazban clenched his fist, and the Ensign smiled and shifted his foot back, taking his helmet off with one hand and leaning his polearm against the inner lip of the door with the other. A dockworker put a hand on Kazban’s shoulder, but he shrugged it off. Distantly, Kazban could feel Celerity respond to his feelings, turning on lights and rumbling its engines.
There was a sound of two voices beyond the doors. One high and loud, the other soft and low.
The doors parted. The Ensign and the other guard turned to see the two interlopers. The man was tall and gangly, hunched over in purple robes and wearing a bullet-shaped hat. He was half turned toward the other as he walked, a small girl, perhaps just reaching her teens. Emerald green locks spilled over her ears. Her eyes were barely separated by the bridge of her nose. Her head seemed to cut the air like an axe as she walked, legs kicking at voluminous skirts.
She stopped short, turning to look at the Ensign and Kazban, sensing the mood and seeing the Ensign with an incomplete uniform.
“What is happening here?” she demanded.
The Ensign bowed his head, staring at his toes. “We have a criminal rimlander attempting to access our inner station, Your Grace.”
The Princess caught Kazban’s gaze, sizing him up. “Is this true? Are you dangerous, sir?”
The man in the purple robes grabbed the back of Kazban’s head and tried to force him to look down. Kazban knocked his arm aside and pushed him back a step. The second guard lowered his polearm toward him.
It was unnerving to stare the Princess in the eyes, but he’d be damned before he looked away now.
“I am paroled, Your Highness. I am here at your government’s command.”
He handed her his slate. She read it with a furrowed brow.
“This isn’t parole, Your Grace,” said The Ensign. “This is his sentence.”
She waved him away, handing Kazban back his slate.
“Percilus,” she said. The man in purple bowed. “Take this man to the Quartermaster.”
“But, Your Highness,” he began.
She turned on him and held out her left hand. On her pinky she wore a ring that bore a stone that glowed with a Cherenkov sapphire.
Percilus bowed again, face pale.
“Come,” he waved at Kazban and the dockhands. They went through the doors. The Princess didn’t follow, but the Ensign’s glare did.