In the last chapter we learned of what had become of Captain Atrius and met the fiendish man-machine Dr Axon as the Magi of the Empire determined to search for the heart of the MacGuffinite engine complex threatening the galaxy. Now we return to Princess Taegan, Commander Lightyear and Captain Woz as they approach the Imperial Watch-Station orbiting Iratus Est Draco in a battered Zenithian Beta-Z saucer…
In the round room under the scuffed and scratched alumini-glass dome that kept out the cold deadly vacuum of space our three unlikely companions anxiously watch for their eyes to see what their poorly-functioning instruments appeared to have detected. Their goal, the Imperial Watch Station and a chance to warn the galaxy about the Zenithian pod-people plot! As once before in the past when faced with having to cooperate in order to survive in the Caverns of Yo-go the Princess and Commander Lightyear have been dealing with stress with.. political discussion.
“Surely Princess you must recognise that without Democracy people aren’t truly free.”
Both Lightyear and Taegan seemed oblivious to Woz’s groan and facepalm as they went at it again.
“On the contrary Commander. We have examined your democracy and found it as deeply flawed as our own past attempts. Corruption is rife, inequality becomes entrenched, there’s constant social turmoil as the majority tries to find minorities to rob and oppress for their own gain and those minorities then must strive to get their fair share they were supposed to be guaranteed from the start. In your democracies people with the most merit don’t end up in the position of best suitability instead the most important positions are filled determined by those most suited to politics and the hedonistic enjoyment or lack thereof of the position.”
“Your vassals are slaves by another name, the Empire is a strictly tiered system, besides, are you saying that I am not suited to my position Princess?”
“No, the case of the military proves the point, your military isn’t a democracy it just serves one.”
“And the empire doesn’t have problems with Nepotism when it’s high ranks are filled with princes and princesses? I don’t see any Dragon-men Generals.”
As tones became heated the Galacteer commander and Imperial Princess turned away from the cold stars to face one another, cheeks growing flushed and eyes sparkling as they fought.
“Simply because my father’s blood is full of strength and he chooses his concubines well. We each still have to fight to prove our loyalty and skill and worthiness for the positions we hold. The children of his Dragon-women consorts have as much chance to advance as I did. You see, a Benevolent Tyranny is the most stable form of government and ensures the freedom of people in unity, they rise or fall in place based on their merits and each contributes to the strength of all from the greatest general to the merest street-sweeper all through the unity under one continuous strong and wise ruler.”
“Even were I to accept that assessment, that’s all well and good for now, but…”
“Hey!” Interjected Woz.
“.. even with whatever the Emperor uses to keep himself so long-lived there’s no certainty that he won’t eventually die through accident, some unknown disease or even one of your siblings proving to be his match and overthrowing him and what then for the stable state? A Democracy is adaptable, tyranny benevolent or otherwise often collapse destructively or tear themselves apart once the tyrant is dead.”
“Hey!” Woz said louder this time.
“But that is beyond unlikely. Why even if i acknowledge the possibility purely hypothetically well..”
“HEY!” Cried Woz putting his hand on the tops of both their heads and turning them towards him ignoring the dangerous flash in the Princesses eyes at his daring to put his hands on her. He pointed outside. “Look!”
They turned and beheld, looming against the burnt umber hue of the world Iratus Est draco, dark but for just a few lights and scored with marks of battle was the Imperial Watch-station looking cold and deserted.
“What do you think happened?” Woz queried.
“Valkeeri” Lightyear responded with conviction. “That burn there, “he pointed to a big long scorch upon the red black and gold hull, “looks like a glancing shot of a pulse-blast and look near the hatch, the paint there looks like the same pink of the Valkeeri commanders uniform back at the Zenithian tower. Looks like someone docked and undocked in quite the hurry and didn’t mind scratching the duco.”
“Scratching the what?” Asked the Princess.
“Sorry, old Earth saying I picked up reading classical literature. It refers to the paint on a prized vehicle.”
“Ah. Yes I concur with your assessment.”
Woz groaned again as he leant back in the Saucers command chair, the vehicle instantly coming to a dead stop free of any hint of momentum the moment he took his hands off the Soma-pathic discs on the chair. “So that’s it, no-one’s home.”
The Princess put her hand delicately on his shoulder. “Don’t despair. This looks quite recent. There will be food and supplies on board. We will be able to communicate long-range and get an Imperial fleet here in hours if they aren’t already underway. The station is intact so it should be safe for us to dock and shelter till we can get each of you back to your people so the Zenithians can be stopped.”
Lightyear stood and checked his damaged gear. “Let’s dock Woz, there might also be wounded aboard who need our help.”
Woz put his hands on the thought-receiving pads and concentrated, and the Saucer moved slowly into position to dock with the stations hatch.
With a soft crunch that showed the effort and skill of the pirates piloting ability the alien vessel came to rest against the station and formed a seal with the station. Lightyear and the Princess, wearing Breathers in case the air on the other side wasn’t fully pure, tested to be sure that the pressure of the station was acceptable then opened the hatch, which came open easily because its locking mechanism had been artfully melted by precise Valkeeri artisanship.
Inside the station the temperature was surprisingly warm and a little dank. Clearly someone had adjusted the environmental controls past regulation. Their footsteps on the shiny metal floor rang and echoed loudly in the silence and stillness within. The small Zenithian illuminators being keyed uncomfortably outside the normal range of light were like thin weak pencils of light in the thick soup of the air inside, the darkness seeming to swallow and drain the light as if feeding hungrily upon it.
Just inside the airlock was the survival gear for emergencies. Lightyear kept a defensive position but, having used the power packs of all the Zenithian rayguns earlier with the Ice-teroid all he had for a weapon was a sharp and awkward piece of girder from the damaged saucer. The Princess unlocked the locker door, thankful that the code hadn’t yet changed. She didn’t scream when the bloodied hand holding the knife plunged out of the locker from between several Imperial spacesuits as the door opened, just plunged a blade of her own through the arm three times as she turned it aside. It wasn’t the first time Lightyear was reminded of why he was thankful that the Princess was wounded when he fought her hand to hand in the caverns of Yo-go, nor for the timely interruption of the gigantic dinosaur on that occasion. The owner of the arm though didn’t react.. the hand had fallen limply and the knife it held clattered to the ground.
“Not much blood flow. He was already dead. No rigor mortis though, he can’t have expired more than a few hours ago.” The Princess mused clinically.
“Poor devil. Crawled in wounded and locked himself in? What ever happened here must have been rough.”
The Princess examined the suits. “A couple of these have knife damage to them, presumably from when he expired, but there’s two here that should be ok.” The Princess put the Imperial armoured spacesuit on over her clothes, holding her breath and then exchanging the simple breather for the sealed suit helmet. As Lightyear was doing the same she took an imperial ray-pistol off the poor cadaver in the locker and checked it’s charge. “Fully charged too. Why would he have been in a knife fight when he had a fully charged raygun on his belt?”
“Some kind of duel?”
“Doesn’t seem likely to have been between Imperial soldiers, he’d either have died or received medical attention for his wound. And it just doesn’t seem right for the Valkeeri either.” The Princess kept the familiar weapon in her hand as they began to move deeper into the small station. As they moved the Princess paused started to lean slightly side to side.
“You feel that?”
“A very slight dizziness, I think the grav’s off alignment.”
“I didn’t notice anything…” but then, now that she mentioned it, he was starting to feel a tiny twinge of nausea.. “Oh wait, no I feel it too. Hope the reactor feed is steady.”
The Princess led the way while Lightyear spent much of the time past the first junction in their path walking backwards covering them from possible attack from behind. His battle-forged senses noticed the instant she stopped. He turned. She was examining a propaganda poster on a red-metal wall, and he watched as her hand came away marked with blood that had not yet fully congealed. She followed the splash marks with her fingers, tracing the ballet of death by its footprints.
“This was a wild frenzy, not anything like a disciplined fight. And again, knives.”
“Was this the injury to our friend back in the locker?”
“No, this wound was too high and much more immediately fatal.”
“Two knife victims? Things are getting stranger. Where’s the body then? And were they Imperial knives or something like Pirates carry?”
“Imperial.” Her voice cold and with a detached sounding curiosity.
“Pity,” Interjected Woz over the Saucer’s transmitter, “If it was Pirates we’d know where we stand.”
Taking one more left they entered the stations core-room, a mix of command room, mess hall and relaxation area if it could be called that. When space is at a premium rooms often have to serve multiple functions. This one had been repurposed, recently. Their thin wan beams of light illuminated makeshift barricades made of everything that wasn’t bolted down and a few things that once had been. But not barricaded against attack from the access corridor but instead the barricades were against the outer walls of the room as if to protect from attack from just feet away on the other side of the room. It seemed almost like what young students would make in their dorms for a spit-ball or pillow fight.. if it weren’t for the grim bodies scattered around the room, the light briefly flashing over ghastly faces of bodies bled dry, swarthy and olive skin turned grey, fragmentary glimpses of puddles of red blood spilled out like rivers floodplains and lakes.
Despite her bloodthirsty reputation even the Princess did not leave her light on those details for long. And Lightyear bowed his head for a moments respect for the dead, muttering quietly to himself “That’s no way for spacemen to die.”
“So,” Came Woz’s electronically transmitted voice again, “Everything ship-shape in there? Air supply going to last? Communications?”
“Almost there” said the Princess as she carefully moved amongst the bodies and upturned furniture to reach active controls. “Whatever happened here we must have just missed it, and only just. Keep an eye out in case they saw us on radar and are hiding.”
She kept the gun in one hand and the knife in the other while skilfully moving the levers and dials of the control panel.
“No sign of atmosphere loss, reactor good and stable. Communication.. that looks spotty but shouldn’t be as hard to repair as the Saucer.”
“Good. Till next time then Princess. Say hello to your daddy for me!” and the station echoed with the faint sound of the saucer disengaging from the stations hatch.
“What are you doing Woz?” Demanded a shocked Commander Lightyear.
“Isn’t it obvious? I’m politely declining her majesties hospitality. Oh she’s a nice enough lass and a good sort in a pinch, why I even trust her to keep her word about not sending me to the radium mines herself, but I don’t trust daddy or any of her commanding officers to do the same. Even Princesses get told ‘no’ occasionally.”
“You slimy dishonourable double-crossing…” The Princess stamped her foot as she shouted over the radio at him.
“Hey now Princess, don’t get upset, I was nice enough to make sure you’d last a while before marooning ya. Besides what did you expect, I’m a Pirate! Next time you two start debating politics you should read up on the Pirate Code, you’ll see this is all above board, and generous even.”
“You’ll pay for this you..”
“No Princess” laughed the pirate, “I don’t think I will. In fact depending on who gets their message to who first you might just end up landing me a profitable finder’s fee on a Princesses Ransom! So good luck on those repairs…” There was the sound of a small explosion…
“Oops, I think I just cut the booster off the stations antenna. Clumsy me. Still your signal will get there eventually, so you still will get a rescue before too long. Take care now till we fight again whether on the same or opposite teams” he then purposely let his voice trail off softly “Such a nice pair a kids, they should get married one day…”
“I’ll flay him. I’ll skin him alive and use it to upholster my command chair! I’ll strap him to the ramming prow and use him as a living rocket ornament, I’ll pull his teeth and..”
“I’m furious too, but if we want to avoid ransom or worse the auction block we better get that message to your or my people.”
“Yes.” she hissed in anger like her pet Vyper-bat. “Though chances are unless the Pirates are close we should have an Imperial patrol here first to find out why the normal operations messages have ceased.”
She started tracing the line for the fault while Lightyear continued to watch the doors… neither of them saw the eyes watching them from under a low table…
Who will be first to reach them, the Imperial patrol or the Space-Napping pirate cohorts of the traitorous rascal Captain Woz? What mystery lies behind the dead crew of the watch-station, whose malevolent eyes even now watch our heroic Princess? Don’t let yourself miss the next spine-chilling instalment of the Hydra serial Waaar Rooockeet The Missing Princess Chapter 12: Mastermind of the Star Zombies! Brought to you by Abel Fosdyk’s travel journal and C.H. Fort’s new Sky Sargasso Star-Weed tea, the Blue Tea.