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.
Kazban raced back to Celerity, doing his best not to jog. Too much time had passed.
The dockworkers took their own pace. The Ensign wasn’t there on the way back. No one stopped him. No one looked at him. Nothing else mattered besides the signature of the Quartermaster on Kazban’s slate, and the speed with which Celerity could drive him from the Heart’s gravity well.
He must have taken a wrong turn through the port, because instead of coming out into the docks opened onto room with a grated floor. Heat washed from the room, causing a quick sweat to break from him. A man stood in the room, naked to the waist and with a short shock of ruby red hair on his head. He faced the other way.
“One of you cretins must be worthy of my challenge!” he shouted, looking to his right.
Men and women were arrayed naked in the room. Some had collapsed to the floor. Others were posed with their elbows cocked in a half-raised pushup, faces contorted against the strain.
Another man fell.
“You!” The ruby-haired man shouted, pointing at the prone woman next to the man who had fallen. “Pluck out his eye.”
The woman balked.
There was a sapphire flash from his hand. The woman’s eyes went glassy, and she crawled toward the fallen man.
The ruby-haired man began to turn toward the door. Kazban felt a hand on his elbow, a hand that yanked him behind the doorway. It was one of the dockworkers. The other held his finger over his lips. The door slid shut.
“You do not want to catch the eye of the Prince, rimlander,” whispered the first dockworker.
The pair quickly led him back to the docks.
With less than a thought, only a wish, Celerity began its preflight warmup procedures. It knew what to do, it merely needed his confirmation to do it. The ramp came down and he ascended. It wasn’t home, but compared to the cold clanging floors of the Palace docks, it felt like a warm embrace.
Celerity rose from the docks and shot out into space beyond.
Kazban pulled out his slate. The timer at home, out at the rim, climbed alarmingly fast, twenty-five minutes for every second this close to the Heart. He let the slate slump to his lap. Ionia would be waiting for him, floating in amber, in a dreamless slumber. At his mental request, Celerity sent their ETA to his slate. Only two weeks subjective, but four point three years, rim time. There were fifty-four months left on the stasis lease. Just enough time to return, find a new job and home. Somewhere with grass for Ionia to run and jump.
Kazban awoke in his cabin. Celerity turned on his lights. He had dreamed of his former crew, before he had been arrested. It was a fanciful dream, a job they had never pulled. But Neal had been there, planning the heist and running the tech. Dud, the brute, had held a guard in each hand.
Kazban shook his head. Something felt wrong, out of place. Kazban walked across the way to the galley, trying to shake off the residue of the dream, but the feeling stuck with him. Drinking a glass of water, he became alert enough to realize that the feeling originated from Celerity, though the ship couldn’t place it.
The bridge lights came on above the console as Kazban came in. His seat nearly swallowed him in plush leather. Data holos swirled in cyan above the console at Kazban’s commands.
Engines and mechanicals were in good order. Fuel levels were holding. Hull was intact, shields were deflecting micrometeoroids and dangerous radiation. Celerity’s parasentience was intact, needing only his executive control slotted in through his empath cortex to have a complete artificial mind. Life support was operational.
But here something was odd. Kazban brought up more details. Oxygen was cycling more rapidly than expected, though not more than Celerity could handle. Similarly, more water had been dispensed than he had consumed.
Kazban’s spine tingled eerily. He mentally commanded Celerity to scan itself for an intruder, but it should have already alerted him to another person onboard.
It didn’t find anything.
Kazban pulled open a cabinet and grabbed a hefty wrench. He wished Ionia were here. Now, more than ever, he missed her quiet strength and keen nose.
There weren’t many places to hide in the cockpit. Under the console, in a storage cabinet. When Kazban left and Celerity shut the door, he sealed it by turning a bolt with the wrench. Not even the ship could open the door now without Kazban unlocking it.
He went room by room. There weren’t many. He started opening the cabinets in the galley when one shot open. He swung his wrench, missing a white rolling blur.
The command tore through him, freezing his muscles and bringing him painfully to his knees. His head hung down, and all he could see were pale sandaled feet sticking out from loose white pant cuffs. But they reflected a sapphire glow.
“Look at me,” she said.
He struggled against the command, out of orneriness as much as anything, but his head tilted up.
The Princess stared down at him imperiously, hand raised and ring flashing.
Confusion and fear wormed through his mind, and it took Kazban a moment to realize that they weren’t merely his own. Celerity could see her through his eyes, but couldn’t sense her heat, her pressure on the floor. Celerity felt his mind drawn away by the stone, and it panicked.
Kazban felt something like a shield around his mind, separating him from the Princess’s thrall. He swung inward with his wrench, striking her hand and the ring.
There was a flash of sapphire light, and the pressure lifted from Kazban’s mind. She wailed, her scream burbling up from her core like a babe’s, primal and intense. Shards of the ring were scattered around her as he stood over her. She lay, cupping the mangled hand in her good one, sobbing.
The surgery arm was there in the corner of the galley. Kazban gently braced the Princess while the chrome limb anesthetized her hand and began aligning the metacarpals, then pinning them. Celerity could see her now, and without her ring, she seemed harmless. She cried a little, and squeezed Kazban’s hand with her good one.
When it was over, Celerity injected her hand with healing agents. The cells and nanobots would seal the flesh in hours. Celerity asked Kazban, wordlessly, if it should inject her with anything else, but Kazban declined. He had a Royal stowaway to question, and he needed her awake.
They sat at the galley table. The Princess cupped a mug of orange blossom tea in her good hand. Kazban sipped whiskey.
“You must take me to the rim,” she said at last.
“You have a fleet full of shuttles.”
She shook her head. “No. It must be a secret.”
Kazban finished his drink and set the glass on the table. The Princess stared at her mug, insectoid eyes glassy, probably from the pain. She seemed small then, and he realized how far from home she had traveled already, and how much a child she still was.
“Does time truly pass differently out on the rim?” she looked up at him.
He knew she must know, that her tutors had told her of time dilation near the Heart, how the Royals live near it and thus live slower and longer than the less fortunate out on the rim. But she had never met someone from the rim before.
He pulled out his slate and showed her his timer.
“Time passing here, and time passing out on the rim.”
Her eyes hardened, and she nodded. “Then that is where I must go. For six years.”
“And what will you do out on the rim, young one?” he asked.
She narrowed her eyes and raised her hand, but then looked down at her missing ring. Her injured hand dropped back down to her lap, making her wince.
“Princess!” She frowned.
“Princess.” He inclined his head.
She seemed mollified. “I had hoped to find a home. Just some shelter for the time. I brought my tutor,” she pointed at her head, “And my ring.” She glared at him with the last words.
He didn’t apologize, or even acknowledge. He lifted his bottle and filled up his glass again.
“Why the rim?”
“If I live on the rim for six years, how much time will pass on the Palace?”
Celerity answered the question on the slate.
“Only a couple of days. You are fortunate that the Palace will be in an inferior conjunction at that time, or the travel time would be much longer.”
Kazban had traveled nearly two years to reach the Palace in an arc around the Heart. The Princess could return in a couple of months, subjective.
“My brother is to reach his Ascension in a week. Did you know this?”
Kazban shook his head.
Her face grew dark.
“He is a bad man, and will make a bad King.”
“What do you mean, Princess?”
She turned away. “He hurts people.”
Kazban thought of the ruby-haired man at the Palace. But one Royal was like another to him. None had done him any good. The current Queen had ruled for six hundred years, as the rim reckoned time, and her edicts had brought him little pain or joy. But he saw the Princess’s plan, and admired it.
“So you will out-age him. Reach the age of Ascension before him and thus take his throne.”
“Is it legal?” he asked.
She nodded again. “At least,” she said, “the law may be read that way.”
Liquid hydrogen ran in his veins then. A split succession could mean a civil war. While one king or queen meant little out on the rim, a war could spill over the whole disc, drawing in every last creature until peace itself was swallowed by the Heart.
Kazban gave the Princess his berth in the aft and unrolled some spare blankets in the galley. He folded a washcloth over his eyes against the glaring lights of the food print station panels, not designed to dim at night.
Kazban missed the weight and warmth of Ionia curled against his side, her soft, short, golden fur under his hand. When trucks rumbled past or mobs fought in the streets, he would hold her in his lap and sing drinking songs to her until she steadied and drifted off.
He pulled out his slate and thumbed to his videos. He played one from before he was taken in, and she was taken from him.
They were on a freighter that he piloted, Bastion, which disapproved of their play. He threw Ionia a ball, and she kicked off the floor to sail through the air to intercept it, then twisted and ricocheted back toward him. They collided and flipped. Kazban laughed, and Ionia wagged her tail, shaking her body in the zero g in response, smiling her canine grin. “I love you, K,” she said, unable to pronounce “Kazban” even with her engineered voice box. “I love you, too, Ionia,” he said, reaching out to scratch her ear. She closed her eyes and accepted it, tail wagging, grin flashing.
He would take the Princess to the rim and set her free. Maybe she would make it, and maybe she wouldn’t, without her ring. If she did, and she returned to take the crown — well, the disc only went so far. Kazban would steal a ship, and he and Ionia would sail so far the Heart couldn’t pull them, and the great glowing accretion disc that lit their civilization would be just one more speck in the black.
Celerity spiked an alarm. Kazban bolted upright from his pallet, then shuddered as the alarm ran through him like a chill. A ship was approaching in an interception trajectory. Kazban picked up his fallen slate. Celerity bucked as twin bolts of plasma had crossed their path, too far ahead to have been lethal threats.
A signal pinged on the slate, and Kazban urged Celerity to send it through. A face appeared, dark and angular, with eyes too close together. The Ensign.
“You have an hour to comply, kidnapper. Return the Princess.”
Kazban rushed to the bridge. Their trajectories were mapped out on the console. So close to the Heart, their paths were deeply curved, both by the gravity and by the frame dragging of space as the Heart spun. The Ensign had to have been going very fast to have caught them, and then must have projected a lot of mass to slow to their velocity again and not overshoot. He now trailed behind them prepared to fire again.
Kazban opened the channel. “If you destroy the ship, the Princess will die.”
The Ensign glared on the screen. “I will disable it, criminal. You will be tortured and executed for your crimes. If you surrender, perhaps you will only be executed.”
Kazban closed the channel. He wondered if the Ensign could do it. His ship was evidently faster, and his first shot had not been designed to hit. With the resources of the Heart at his disposal, it wasn’t out of the question.
The Princess stood next to him, perhaps awoken by Celerity’s maneuvers. She grabbed his arm.
“You must not let me go with him. If my brother comes to power, it will mean suffering for the whole system.”
He wouldn’t die for her. Not even if it meant only his own life, but it wasn’t just his own. Without him, Ionia’s stasis lease would expire. A gamma burst would be shot through her brain, and her body would be dumped into the disc.
He looked down at the Princess. She seemed sincere. But how bad could one Royal be over another? She had tried to subdue his mind with her stone. She would enslave him just as soon as her brother would.
He had no port, no way to dock with the Ensign and trade over the Princess. To return her, he would have to return to the Heart. He thought a command, and Celerity did the calculations on his slate.
In the excess time it would take, Ionia would be dead.
“We will go to the rim, Princess,” he said.
She smiled up at him.
“You will not regret this.”
She turned away back toward the galley. She looked back over her shoulder with her eyes open wide. “He cannot really shoot us, can he?”
Kazban kept his face blank. “Of course not. She’s called Celerity for a reason.”
Kazban waited until her footsteps had receded and were silent. He had Celerity open a channel to the Ensign and typed out a silent message on his console.
They sat in the galley, strapped to chairs which magnetically gripped the floor. Periodically Celerity would lurch as it evaded a shot from the Ensign. So far there had been no damage to the ship, but the Princess looked haggard, and while she had always been pale, now she was wan.
Kazban sucked beef stew from a pouch, not trusting a dish.
“Eat,” he said.
She clutched an unopened pouch in her hands. In this moment she looked more like a child, and less like a political time bomb.
He cleared his throat. “What will you do on the rim?”
She looked up at him from the table. Her eyes, so close together, were still unnerving.
“I am not sure. I do not have my stone.”
She glanced down at her ring. She had pulled out the last of the shards and wires, so that it was just a golden band with an empty round setting on top.
Kazban went cold. A typical Royal plan, to dominate her subjects.
“I still have my tutor.” She touched her brow. It activated something inside her skull that Kazban couldn’t see. From his timeline, such technology would be centuries old. “I will still learn history and math, and all that sort of thing. And I can learn how people live on the rim.”
This gave him pause. How long had it been since a Royal had visited the rim? Millennia? Normally they appoint a suitable Viceroy and leave them to enforce decrees, or to make laws in their stead. So long as the technology and resources made their way toward the Heart, the Royals cared very little about what happened on the rim, whether they starved or thrived. Whether they had the materials necessary to build out faster than their populations grew. Whether their economy could provide enough jobs for their adults. Whether the laws were enforced equitably. Perhaps this Royal could be different.
She popped open her pouch. “I must learn what motivates them. I may need forces if I am to take my brother’s place on the throne.”
Kazban put down his pouch and folded it closed, no longer hungry.
Kazban awoke to strangled screams from the berth. It had been quiet, and he had managed to snatch a few hours’ slumber on the galley floor without being jostled. Now he stumbled into the Princess’s chamber to see what was amiss.
She lay still, grunting the shriek of those immobilized by sleep. She looked small in his bunk, tucked under blankets tightly so she wouldn’t be flung out if Celerity bucked.
Kazban knelt and put a hand on her shoulder, then shook her awake.
“Princess,” he said.
She opened her eyes, barely a centimeter apart. They looked up into his. Then she slid up to sit with her back against the wall.
“I dreamt the guard took me back to my brother. And he-”
She stopped, shuddering.
“We know.” She said, looking away. “The Royal family does. That the rim is starting to slip away. My brother has promised to restore its obedience.”
“And what will you do, Princess, if you are Queen?”
She stared ahead and bit her lip. “We must have a unified system.”
He waited for her to say more, but she didn’t. After a moment, she slid back down.
He stood to leave.
“Wait,” she said. “What is it that you did?”
“What do you mean, Princess?”
“You are a criminal, right?” The edge of excitement was clear in her voice. “What did you do?”
“I was convicted of theft.” He hoped she would leave it at that.
Her close-knit eyes were bright. “What did you steal? Platinum? Weapons?”
The Princess frowned, looking at the empty setting on her ring.
“These were a pair, each as big as a duck’s egg,” Kazban continued.
“For my parents’ crowns,” said the Princess. “But those arrived. You didn’t steal them.”
He shook his head. “We did not steal them. We sought to destroy them.”
The Princess gasped. “Destroy them? A sovereign stone that large could command a platoon. If you sold them you would never want for another thing in your life.”
“I will not be party to slavery,” Kazban growled.
“Slavery!” The Princess put her hand to her face.
“What else do you call it, Princess, when you command people’s minds? Or when they follow orders because they fear you might do so?”
The Princess looked down and bit her lip.
“What happened?” she asked at last.
“It is not easy to steal from a parasentient ship. I piloted it for a long time. Bastion. We trusted each other. I shipped across the rim. Then there was a shipment of stones for the Royals. The first plan was simply to open the crate and shoot the stones, but they proved too durable for this.”
He unfolded a seat from the wall.
“We had prepared fakes to switch out. We were going to send Bastion on with the fakes and use more powerful explosives off the ship to destroy the stones.”
“And then what?” She slumped sleepily into her pillow.
“We were caught making the switch. The governor gave us long sentences. Bastion’s mind was wiped clean.”
There was much to regret of their failed plot, including the government’s recovery of the stones. But poor Bastion’s mind wipe was as good as death as far as Kazban was concerned, and he had led her to it.
He took a breath. “But there aren’t many empath pilots willing to fly to the Heart, so my sentence was to make the run in the Celerity.”
She furrowed the sliver of brow between her close-hung eyes. “Why would they trust you with another ship and precious cargo?”
Kazban lifted his shirt. A pink gem was embedded into his chest, just over his heart.
“If I was too late to the Palace, or didn’t get the Quartermaster’s signature, then Celerity would detonate this. And if I don’t return home with Celerity in a timely manner, then same. It’s a deep protocol, something I can’t talk Celerity out of.”
“What is so wrong with sovereign stones?” she asked. “You command Celerity.”
Kazban shook his head. “I do not command her. I listen to her, to her information, to her wishes. And then we decided on the best course of action together.”
She nodded slowly, slumping back into her bed. She was quiet a moment.
“Will you sing to me? My tutor can sing in my head, but its voice is cold. You have a nice voice.”
“You don’t know if I can sing as well as you’d like.”
“Please,” she said, small and curled up in her bed.
Kazban picked a song his mother sang to him with he was ill. It was about ranchers who flew their cattle from one rim isle to another, seeing exotic places, but longing for home. His mother, already old before he left, would be dead now, aged to dirt during his sentence, and plowed under the farmland on the isle.
He sang song after song until the Princess drifted off listening to verses of the rim.
The deceleration tugged at them as Celerity slowed its approach toward Rim Isle Yotta-12. The Dozen, Kazban’s home and origin, was nestled as a dark blot against the orange glow of the disc. As the cylindrical blot grew, its own lights became apparent, a technicolor kaleidoscope that guided Celerity to the docking station at the far end.
Kazban sat staring at his console. Abruptly, he made his decision. Celerity directed his call. It took a lot of swearing and not a little begging, but soon his plan was arranged.
The station was lit by the transparency of the large panels that screened out the worst of the spectrum from the glow of the disc — the x-rays and UV — but allowed in the light that gave their world a circadian rhythm. Kazban and the Princess walked down the gangplank and into a dockyard. Longshoremen in exosuits moved crates of the myriad grains grown here on the Dozen.
“Where are we going?” the Princess asked. Her hand was cold and sweaty in Kazban’s.
Kazban said nothing. He scanned the crowd, not yet sure what he was hoping to see.
“This way,” he said at last, guiding her to a nearby bar. The Princess looked wary, but didn’t hesitate. Perhaps she was curious.
The haggard barman didn’t seem fazed, but didn’t offer the girl a drink. Kazban ordered an ale. They sat on stools mid-bar. He sipped his ale while the Princess fidgeted with a coaster.
“What are we doing here?” she asked. Kazban didn’t answer.
The Princess wandered to an old woman who played an upright two stringed instrument with a bow. The woman taught the Princess to draw the bow while the woman fingered the strings. The Princess smiled and giggled as they played a song she recognized, one that Kazban had sung the other night.
Kazban watched with creeping dread. He wanted another ale, but asked for water. Soon the woman shooed away the Princess, who returned to her stool, quickly bored again.
It wasn’t much longer before the door opened. A figure walked in, armored and with a brassy helmet. It carried a polearm. The Ensign.
The Princess jumped to her feet and turned toward the back of the bar, but Kazban grabbed her arm.
“Be still, Princess,” he said.
The Ensign approached, raising his faceplate. His eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“Come with me Princess. I will take you home.” He held out a hand.
She didn’t move. Neither did Kazban.
The Ensign lowered the crystal of his polearm at Kazban. “It is time to release her.”
Kazban let go of the Princess’s arm.
“This isn’t the sort of place you ought to point that,” Kazban said.
The Ensign looked around. Men from the docks shifted in their seats. Some reached toward their belts.
The Ensign reached out and grabbed the Princess’s shoulder and dragged her toward him, shifting his polearm around. The dockworkers eyed him as he backed out of the bar, dragging the Princess.
“Kazban!” she called, as the door slid shut.
Kazban ran out the back door, ducking through an alley and sneaking out onto a side street. He pulled out his slate as he went, sending a message and searching the recent docking manifests. It wasn’t hard to find the Ensign’s landing site.
He got there first. The ship was angular and brassy, run through with lines of sapphire. A crowd of pilots and engineers stood around it, muttering and whistling.
The crowd parted, revealing the Ensign, still dragging the Princess by her arm.
“You can’t take her,” Kazban said, standing between the Ensign and the ship.
The Ensign lowered the polearm. The crowd stepped back, murmuring.
“She must return to the Heart, traitor.”
The Princess tried to yank her arm away. “I will not go back there! Release me!”
The Ensign ignored her.
Kazban stepped forward. “You’re in the wrong place, far from home, Ensign. The Royalty are not loved on the rim. No one will help you here.”
The Ensign waited a moment, then began to lower his polearm more, lining it up with Kazban’s chest. Before he could do so, a silver bolt erupted from the crowd and caught him in the head.
Much of the crowd ran, leaving only six, four men and two women. One of the women held a heavy rifle lowered by her hip, still pointed at the Ensign.
A grey mist floated where the Ensign’s head used to be. A nanobot slurry rose from his body, reforming his head.
“A simulacrum!” shouted one of the men, a very short one with a long brown beard.
The simulacrum of the Ensign began to turn toward the woman who shot him, but another man heaved an axe over his head and cleaved the simulacrum’s shoulder, lopping off the arm with the weapon.
The short man pulled out a large slate and tapped and swiped at it furiously. After a moment, the simulacrum froze in place, then dissolved into a puddle.
The Princess ran to Kazban. He knelt to hug her.
An antipersonnel cannon dropped from the underside of the ship, angling to point toward Kazban.
If that Ensign had been a simulacrum, then it made sense that someone had remained to control it. The cockpit sunshields cleared, revealing the true Ensign.
The Princess reached up, putting her arms around Kazban’s neck.
“You cannot shoot him without shooting me!”
There was a brief moment of silence. “If I can’t return with you, Princess, then I must not leave you either.”
Kazban’s blood turned cold. He nodded at the short man, who tapped at his slate again.
“I tried to warn you, Ensign,” Kazban said. “You are far from your land. Worse, you are far from your time. Since you left home, more than four years have passed. When was the last time your security protocols were updated? You were obsolete before you took off.”
The gun retracted. Kazban stood up. The Ensign slapped at the controls in front of him.
“You won’t get away with this. The Viceroy will send the guard.”
“No one is coming, Ensign. The locally elected governor doesn’t care for Royal interference.”
The short man raised an eyebrow, and Kazban nodded. The short man tapped again at his slate.
The Ensign tapped at his board for a moment, then clutched at his neck. He stood and started pulling at levers in the cockpit, none of which seemed to do any good.
“What is happening to him?” The Princess asked.
“Look away, Princess. His life support has been changed to pump out his air.”
She didn’t look away, and Kazban didn’t make her. It didn’t take long.
The six people came up then, arrayed before Kazban.
“Neal,” Kazban said, shaking the hand of the short man. “It’s been a long time.”
Neal grunted. “Didn’t think to see you again, if I’m honest.”
The man with the axe glared at Kazban. Dud. “This is it, Kazban. You’re done with the crew. No more jobs.”
Kazban nodded. Dud was still a beast, but his bulging muscles were slack with age.
Dud glared at Kazban. His eyes were colder than the Heart.
Neal interceded. “Dud has the right of it. He got picked up right after you did, Kazban, only he couldn’t fly no ship. He did seventeen years, no time dilation. Just one minute at a time.”
Kazban stood, holding the Princess’s hand.
“The ship is yours, Neal, as we agreed.” Kazban said. “The body?”
“We’ll toss it into the disc.”
Kazban stepped past his former crew, leaving them to begin their operation. Probably they would take it to a remote location before beginning their salvage.
“What now?” asked the Princess.
“What is your name?” Kazban asked. “I can’t call you Princess. Not here.”
She frowned in thought, as if considering.
“Kyrie,” she said at last.
There was a lot to do. Check into the prison to confirm his completed sentence. Return Celerity. Find a job and a home. There would be a lot of work to start a life here and teach Kyrie the way of the rim. But some things had priority.
“Well, then, Kyrie. Let’s go get Ionia.”