"That was the most amazing noise I've ever heard," I said, collapsing into the couch along one wall. I was completely exhausted.
Anni grinned at me. "Yes, it was rather impressive, do you not think?" She glanced at the box on the table. "What is that?"
"I don't know," I admitted.
"Pal must know. It would not have gotten in here without her knowing." It was wrapped in gaily-colored ribbons and silvered paper and on top was an envelope. Anlestin ended part of the mystery by opening the envelope. "Ah, they are from your beloveds."
I had a feeling that I knew what was inside, but I held my breath. It was for Anlestin to find out what miracles the box contained if my suspicions were correct. The golden ribbon that actually held the box closed parted with a single tug from her slender fingers. "Lightbulbs!" she gasped, gently picking the vase out of the box and showing me the low, shrublike collection of nondescript flowers. In the dark, though, they would wink and glow with many different colors. "There are twenty here! Where is the note?" She found it. "'Princess, friend and beloved of our beloved, the lightbulb flowers have long meant love and warmth. May this double spakeeh of those flowers warm your new world and the love between you and Ken. With compassion, Aaden and P'nyssa.'"
I smiled. Such delicate flowers were once so rare that local regents applied the death penalty to any non-nobles who picked them. "Oh, Ken! Your beloveds are more than thoughtful! How could P'nyssa and Aaden put so much into preserving these?"
"Aaden already had a collection of them before the war. I don't think he ever meant to let them go to waste just because the rest of your planet was being re-engineered with the biosphere the rest of us use." I stretched out onto the couch. "Besides, I suspect that they've been modified to be more robust and survive out here."
She smiled. "That is cheating!"
"No," I said. "That's taking advantage of what we can do. I mean, was it cheating when your ancestors finally figured out what soil for them to grow in, or culled the weak ones to emphasize the strongest genes?"
She took a seat next to me, leaning her head against my shoulder. "I suppose it is not."
"By the way, have I told you how wonderful you looked?"
She stood up and turned around. "Do you really think so?" she said.
She had worn a bright yellow dress with a narrow brown trim about the arms, skirt, and collar, the last of which came down to a point at her throat and was held closed with a small circular sigil of the Queen's mark. Over the left breast was a red diamond imprint of the planetary flag. A brown, filigreed trim closed the top of the dress. The skirt came down to just scant of her knees, exposing a lot of her very lovely calves and a bit of thigh.
It was completed with golden bracelets about both wrists and of course a golden crown. The old one had been destroyed in the bombing of the Llerkin, but craftsmen had made a new crown, light and beautiful, two narrow towers of gold pointing toward the stars. Simple yellow slippers of silk, embroidered with red, completed her ensemble.
"I really think so," I said. "That has to be the most elegant and beautiful dress I've seen you in in a long time."
"You are just saying that because it is an easy thing for you to get me out of."
"Oh, guilty as charged," I admitted. I let my hand stroke her delicate back, my fingers easily distinguishing between the zipper and her supple spine. "You're very beautiful," I said, letting my lips brush her cheek softly.
She giggled, then pushed me away gently. "I have to tell you something important." She said it with a tone of voice I'd never heard from her before, one that made me sit up and listen. "I think I have found a husband."
The look on my face couldn't have been more clear. Even I could feel the smile. "Anni! That's wonderful! I'm so glad."
"You are not... upset?"
"I suppose I should know the details," I admitted. "But I'm glad you found someone you could be happy with. I know this has been a big deal for you and your people the last few years. Who is it?"
"It is young Rulyon. He will be my Great Husband." She grinned, reached down and touched my cheek. "Will you be content as a secretive Lesser Husband?"
"It's hardly a secret that you and I are lovers," I pointed out. "Will he be upset?"
Anlestin was quiet for a moment. "It is a noble marriage. It carries with it all of the usual privileges of such an arrangement. And... I like him. I do. I think that that is the most important thing. It is not the most political marriage I could arrange as there were other suitors with better power bases and more ancient wounds to appease, but Rulyon Reffom's family is an excellent one from which to draw a husband. The Reffoms are southerners, which is expedient these days, as that split still exists and still appears to be our greatest conflict." She sighed, running her hand up my thigh gently and suggestively. "I would have thought a century on Pendor would have erased such differences."
"They exist only in the mind, and that's much harder to erase. At least, with our laws and traditions. But... It seems I have a great deal of reading to do with regard to Great Husbands."
"Yes, I expect that you do. But no, I do not think he will be upset to know that my bed is sometimes occupied by other males, yourself included. It is what one expects of a Queen. The battle for fitness is not won merely on the battlefield."
"I am not contributing to the battle, am I?"
"Only in that you keep me in great shape for it," she said with a grin. "Oh, Ken, I do love you, and I am so happy that you're not upset at this news?"
"Anni, it's good news. For you and for your world. It comes between us but no moreso than any other responsibility you might have. And that you have found one who will also be a friend is something else I think is wonderful. You've needed male companionship for a long time. I certainly can't give it to you all the time."
She grinned and slid her hand up my thigh. "At least Ipsi will be leaving me alone now."
"Until she finds something else to think about," I muttered, thinking about the serious, almost emotionless minister who saw to the political realities of the house of Stevves, Anlestin's noble family. My hands found their way into Anni's elegant outfit almost by magic. I certainly didn't guide them there by conscious thought, but soon I had parted the back of her dress open, exposing her soft, smooth hide. I ran my fingers along her spine again and enjoyed the reaction as she arched her back and cooed. "You want something," she said.
"You." I reached up and tugged on the sleeves, pulling the front of the dress forward. It slipped off her shoulders easily, the top half dropping into her lap.
"Let's get you out of those silly clothes," she said. "Stand up."
"By your command, your Highness," I said. She stood up and shimmied out of the remainder of her dress, leaving her standing in only her necklace, bracelets, and ear decorations. I watched and waited. Now naked, she walked up to me, her little black triangle of a nose pointed upward with high impertinence. She let her hands trail down the clasp at the front of my shirt, the fabric parting magically under her eager guidance. She soon had it off. "You have another layer underneath?" she said.
"The lightness of this cloth speaks to its value, but it shows off too many underlying details. The undershirt covers those. And I like the feel of it more."
"Well, take it off," she said. I did as she asked even as her hands sought the same clasps down about my waist. She was soon opening my pants. I stiffened momentarily to the feel of her cool, slim fingers stroking my erection through the boxer shorts I wore. "It always seems so much bigger to me than it really is." I kissed her and heard her sigh, but it was not a sigh of pleasure. I looked at her, and she smiled. "I hope I will not find myself comparing you to Rulyon."
"You will. We always do."
"Perhaps that will not be such a bad thing, though," she said. "What a handsome object." Her cool fingers reached under the elastic and began playing with the head of my cock. Her delicate touch made me sigh with wishes.
"I thought I came here to give you relief, not the other way around."
"We all do what we must," she said with a giggle.
I reached down and lifted her into my arms. She immediately nestled her head against my shoulder. "I should miss you so much in the coming years."
"The missing will be mutual," I agreed. "But we'll have our opportunities, Anni. It's not as if we are going to be completely separated."
"I know it. But it is still hard. I do hope..."
I knew what she was had thought, and suppressed, and I did not resent her for it. She hoped that Rulyon would grow into the kind of mel she loved. She hoped his love would be an adequate exchange for her freedom as a Princess. "I do too."
"And I so love you. You do understand."
I carried her to the bed and lay her down on the coverlet, then covered her body with my own. "As well as I can. I have the luxury of understanding." I kissed her neck, her shoulders.
She sighed. "And you are so attentive!"
"I don't think I could be anything else," I said with a grin. I kissed her chest, my tongue picking up a salty sweat that was utterly unlike anything mammals created, a unique taste. Her chest was completely devoid of distinguishing marks, a uniformity of pale green fading to white along the midline of her body, the little hints of gold between the tiny scales speaking of centuries of deliberate and careful selection of mates. She was as beautiful as her species could make her.
I kissed her belly, watching as she flexed it with each slight tickle, listening to her giggle as I worked my way down further. She had no navel. She moaned as I trailed my tongue over her mons veneris, and then kissed at the gently clasped lips of her vulva. "Open," I whispered, and she spread her thighs apart just a touch. I looked into her sweet sex, at the white film that lubricated and protected her insides from the harsh outside world, and the funnel-shaped opening barely two centimeters wide that led into her depths. I slid one finger about that opening and listened to her moan.
I eased my way back up her body, touching her, caressing her hide. She was easily one of the most ready women I had ever known, but she deserved more than a few mere kisses. We rolled over onto the bed, and this time she understood what I wanted, kissing me hard, her mouth pressed against mine. The solid ridge of her teeth bit gently at my lip, and her body was cool atop my own. "You are a wonderful mel," she said.
"And you are an incredible fem." We turned over again, and this time I eased my way down between her legs, but only to kiss her thighs, knees, and those sweet, sculpted calves. Her feet were next, and I adored watching her squirm as I kissed and licked her toes. "You..." she gasped. "Stop that!"
"Maybe," I said. I relented, and turned around until I was again eye-level with her sex. I kissed her atop her mound.
"Yes," she gasped. "Please."
I gave her what she asked for, finally, kissing the inner lining of her cup, licking at the sensitive places. Every llerkin fem is different in that regard, the places where she is most sensitive somewhere within the vaginal cup. Anni had two distinct spots, and I had long ago learned where they were as I licked at the sensitive, white tissues. She twined her hands in my hair. "Ohhh," she gasped as I found her pleasurable core, her sensitive spots, her warm interior. "Yes, yes!"
I could feel one climax roll through her, followed by another. It was that easy when she was ready, and right now her defenses were down with her exhaustion at a full day of pomp and pageantry, and I was ever willing to take advantage of my Princess when she was in such a state. "Ken, Ken," I heard her moan. "Fuck me, please."
"Ah, sweet music to my ears," I said as I slid up the length of her body and pressed myself into her. She guided me into her sex and soon I was nestled within, joined at the hips, her slim, smooth figure open and vulnerable under mine. I looked into her yellow eyes and she smiled back. "I love you," I whispered to her.
"I have always known such," she replied as our lovemaking become real and urgent, our bodies gentle meeting and separating, in and out, the rhythm of our lovemaking a happy compromise between the styles of two different species. Her sex was, as always, much tighter than almost any other, but the juices she produced much slicker than those from mammals. She held onto my arms as we made love, and when I came it was a gentle thing, moderated by my own tiredness, a happy thing.
I lay beside her, recovering just enough to get ready for sleep, and she was already snuggling up beside me. "Don't you want to clean up?" I said.
"The pillowcases will clean up for me," she sighed, indicating a pillow she had placed between her thighs. "It is the seventeenth century, after all."
I chuckled. "For you. For us it's only the eleventh. For Terra, the twenty-ninth." I kissed her. "But, you're right." We would both wake up with most of the mess effectively consumed by the self-cleaning mechanisms in the bedclothes-- which were still indistinguishable from the highest quality cottons. I suppose I was just excusing the fact that I could barely keep my eyes open and had no desire to totter off to the bathroom.
I was thinking about trying to make it there anyway as sleep overtook me.
Duke Conta siss-talek looked up as the door to his sitting room opened without any announcement or prelude. He had expressly ordered that he was not to be disturbed for any reason and now scowled as Marhn, his senior aide, walked in. He slapped the young aide he had been 'assisting' on the buttocks. "Out, boy. We'll conduct further business later."
The young mellerkin began closing his shirt. "Y... yes, sir."
Marhn scowled at the retreating back of the boy. One of these days he was going to walk in on the Duke just a little later than now and find the Duke in the final throes of ravishing one of his pageboys across the expansive desk. Marhn believed in the Duke's vision of a new llerkin, one saved from the malaise that had gripped its collective soul. Marhn also knew that some days the Duke could be a little distracted by the beauty with which he surrounded himself. Marhn understood that nobles were supposed to be a little unusual in their tastes. The Duke's tastes ran to simple sodomy, hardly the sort of minor offense that invalidates one for the status of savior of the people.
"You asked to be notified when Shardik and Anlestin retired. That time has come."
The Duke's face lit up. "Excellent."
"You should be aware, my Duke, that security around him has been increased significantly. There was an incompetent attempt upon his life a year ago."
"Yes, the assassination attempt on Terra. I heard about that. Terrible thing. So sad that the assailant missed so completely. Is it a problem?"
"Not particularly. My only concern is that, if we still intend to act soon, then the radius of that security may well include the target."
"I have an opening, Marhn. I would prefer that it happen when he is nearby, perhaps even with the target in his hands. That eggless, loveless, bestial whore is an obscenity to the throne on which she sits. I will not allow it. For the sake of all llerkin, Anlestin must die."
I awoke in the middle of the night with a suddenness of clarity that would have made me jealous at other times. Something felt slightly off; I could feel it, but I couldn't quite make out clearly what that something might be. I eased myself out of bed and made my way to the bath, where I cleaned up. I found myself waiting for hot water-- the builders had actually used pipes in the palace, a necessity on llerkin where something tinkered with Einsteinian space, shoving it around in slight but unpredictable ways, ways that made getting lock-on with SDisks much harder than anywhere else in the explored galaxy. It was a phenomenon that had generated much research, and few answers. There were a few SDisks in the castle, but the technology needed to support them was so absurdly great that they were there as luxuries, not necessities. Nothing in the Castle depended on SDisks.
Looking at myself in the mirror, I decided that I still like what I saw after all these centuries, and there was nothing wrong with the eyes that stared back at me. "Good for you," I said. I reached into the gray duffel that I had carried in here and pulled out some clothing more appropriate to the casual life of the palace.
I quietly made my way out to the elevator, which silently lowered me down to the living quarters, and found my way to the small kitchen that had been set aside at Anni's (Gods forbid I should ever start thinking "the Queen's") request. Yes, she had at her beck and call an entire phalanx of personnel ready to cook her anything she should desire, but she liked to get her own cup of tea. I looked at the time: it was early in the day, but too late to justify going back to bed. "Another day," I sighed and set about making myself coffee. She actually had some, bless her (or Pal's) hearts, and I set about the process of grinding, measuring, and steeping myself an extra-large cup's worth. It was that kind of morning.
I became aware of someone standing at the door. I looked up to hear her say, "You're awake. Reeds said you were here."
Ipsi was watching me. She was a youthful and beautiful femllerkin, which meant that I had to be twice on my guard because underneath that facade beat the hearts of a ruthless bureaucrat. Her entire role in life, as far as she was concerned, was to make sure that Anni made conservative decisions most of the time and kept the noble houses of llerkin in business. Her power depended upon it. I don't particularly like bureaucrats. Unlike any other profession, bureaucracy attracts those who want to do good for someone or something, usually themselves. But even well-meaning ones are problematic. The only tool they have is the power of government. The outcome of any bureaucratic decision is inevitably the restriction of someone's freedom. But I needed to address Ipsi. "I am awake," I agreed.
"I wanted to talk to you alone, before Anlestin awoke. I assume by now that she has told you about her recent decision?"
"Regarding Rulyon?" I said.
"Yes, regarding Rulyon. I wanted to know what you thought of it?"
"What is there to think of it?" I said. "I'm very happy for Anni. She's found someone that she thinks she can spend the rest of her life with-- or at the very least be pleased with her choice of a partner. It's much more complicated, I imagine, with the knowledge that the marriage must last at least until she steps down, if not longer."
Ipsi nodded. Her face was even more expressionless that ever. I had never really liked Ipsi, certainly not as much as I liked Chamberlain Maerts who, for all his tireless chatter, at least smiled once in a while. In a dishonest way, of course.
The chime went off and I turned to look at my coffee. I was reaching for a bottle of sweetener when I heard a grunt behind me, felt something sharp and painful jab me in the back, and then my whole world went black.
My consciousness clawed its way back to clarity like an infant turtle clawing up through the sand, only to find a long walk to the life-giving ocean. Something in my back burned with a reptile's poison, and a strange whirring sound filled my ears. I kept my eyes closed, but a momentary shudder ran through me enough to tell me I was lying in a puddle of something thick, sticky, and far too cool to be what I thought it must be. I thought for a moment and called up my internal medical display.Critical condition. You have lost 1104 ml of blood. Circulatory system disrupted.
Great, I thought. How is it I'm alive?Internal self-repairing armor has been re-purposed from the neck as patch material for damaged arteries and veins. Self-repairing armor has also isolated source of trauma. Circulation provided by nighttime rest pump.
I'm a fucking mess. I keyed up another display in front of my eyes. Reeds? No answer. REEDS! Nothing. Fuck. Great. I lay there in a pool of my own stale and cooling blood, brought back to life by our own incredible medicine, but there's nothing I can do. I'm still in the same palace with my abortive murderer, and since I can't reach the local AI I'm going to assume he's dead. I reached out, further... nothing.
There's one thing about being an ancient that helps sometimes. I remember the backdoors into things. If I'm lucky, the last few SDisk connections are still in the SDisk's memory, especially on llerkin where SDisk connections are intermittent and unreliable. I worked my way past the basic UI and got a root node accessor, looked through the lists of lists it gave me, found the one I wanted and entered it. I looked and found the cache for the medical SDisks on my body. Nothing. The SDisks themselves were trashed. How was that possible? The kind of energy it takes to ruin an SDisk is hard to come by, unless whoever it was who had stabbed me had access to some technology I wasn't familiar with.
I was still lying there, taking shallow breaths, hoping there was no one in the room with me to notice that I hadn't stopped breathing, when a small miracle happened. Ken?
Lance! Oh, rings, am I happy to hear from you!
Are you okay?
Holy dragonsnot, you're a mess.
Thank you for that vote of confidence. I'm dying, Lance. Help me? Please?
You know I'll do ... can for you, the AI said, the silence in between streams painful by themselves. But from the ... gradio I'm going to assume that you're ... in the palace. You ... disabled all of the SDisks everywhere in the Imperial City. I don't know ... I have reports of them having to be close to an SDisk to do it, but there aren't .... SDisks in the city.
They got all of them?
Every one ... inventory. And every one on your body, too.
Yeah, I noticed that. Wait. There might have been one they missed. Lance, can you access the cache for the hot water heater in the basement?
The cache? ... Reeds off-site. He's alive, ... but not running at the moment. I-- ... There's an entry here I'm not ... with.
Can you access it?
The line cleared mysteriously. Yes! Yes, I can. What is. Oh. Interesting. But it's so low powered, Ken, what can I do with it?
It's mobile, Lance. Can you give Reeds enough CPU to tell you about it?
Yes, and I... okay. I've got the access rights to it. Oh, and it has a camera! What an excellent little platform. Lifting off. I'm coming to find you.
I waited, my eyes closed. I expected to hear something. Voices. Footsteps. Gunfire. Instead, it was deadly quiet all around me, the only sounds the whirring in my chest, the gentle push of my second heart, and the castle's heating and ventilation systems.
It took long minutes for Lance to show up. "I see you," he said. "Hold still."
"I'm not going anywhere," I assured him silently. I felt a touch on my back. I heard a high-pitched whine and felt something spread over my skin.
"Surveillance is down in the palace. I'm getting more details, Ken. Duke Conta Siss-talek is proclaiming that in the interests of the people of llerkin he is declaring a state of emergency. Apparently, he's not alone in this. There's a large minority of nobles and clergy with him. They're declaring that with the return of the llerkin people to llerkin, the interstellar experiment is over. 'It has been a disaster for the moral and intellectual health of our people. We thank the Pendorians for their efforts, but their ways are not our ways, and we bid them leave.'"
"It's a fucking coup."
It took him a few seconds to respond. "Of course it is," he agreed. "By the way, the people aren't buying it. The nobles are not in line with their constituencies, apparently; they like what Pendor has done for them and are resisting. Even in achla, where there's strong local-rule sentiment."
"How am I doing?"
I heard a heavy thud beside me as the thing in my back fell to the ground. "I take it that's a good sign?" I said.
Another delay. "You're in shitty shape but provided you don't get stabbed or shot again you'll live. You need a new heart, though. Your backup won't do you very good for very long. Don't run any marathons."
"I don't plan on it." I opened one eye and looked. I was still in the kitchen. I was lying in a puddle of my own blood. "I could use some of that back."
"I've given you some in your type, light on the plasma and heavy on the plates. You need it. It'll help transport oxygen in case you have to be more active. It might make you feel tired. You're in a kitchen. When you can, get up and drink water. A lot of water."
"Thanks," I said. I turned over onto my back. The dried blood tried to glue me to the floor, but I fought and won. "Where's Anni?"
"I don't know."
That was what I expected to hear, but I wasn't exactly happy to hear it. "Well, are you monitoring the situation?"
"Of course I am!" he said, sounding frustrated. "Why wouldn't I be? It's just that there isn't much information coming out of the capital city right now."
I sighed. "Lance, can you get me some weapons through that thing?"
"You're going to look for her, aren't you?"
"You're going to advise against it, of course. But I can't just leave her in the hands of those... shit. Calling them rebels is too romantic. This is murder." I stood up slowly. "Urrgh."
"You're not going to not be in pain for some time," Lance advised. "I'm not going to mitigate for you and I'm grateful you don't have an onboard that you can program independently. Call me selfish, but I want you back."
I chose not to argue with him. He knew better than I did the condition I was in. We had reached an agreement of sorts-- he would let me go find Anni, and I would let him tell me when I was pushing it too far.
I briefly considered looking at myself in one of the many mirrored surfaces one can find in a kitchen, but I had other things to do. I filled my coffee mug with water, drank, filled, drank again. "Okay, Lance. Can you tell me anything about the observational systems in the building? How many people are here?"
"High-resolution images of the Castle suggest that a very small core contingent has taken it over, and that the majority of people inside the castle, if they are still alive, are loyal to Anlestin," Lance said. "Reeds is down, and he was the sole sources of information handling for the city. There is heavy encrypted traffic going on all around you, suggesting that the rebels have a few people and very little automation, but they're well-organized against a population that doesn't know how to live without an AI looking over their shoulder."
"I have no doubt that this coup is doomed to failure. The llerkin are like Terrans rather than Pendorians; they evolved. They will not tolerate this situation for long. It will take a few days, perhaps only a few hours, for them to get organized against the rebellion, but at the moment the rebellion can pretend it has the upper hand. Only lives are at risk."
"I don't like it any more than you do."
"I don't like seeing one of my favorite worlds going to hell for the second time in as many centuries." I sighed. "Gotta find Anni."
"I advise against it."
"You've said that already." I tried the door. It came open easily and I stepped out into the hallway. There was no one waiting for me to come to. This was definitely a case of not seeing the body. Mine. I walked down the hallway, listening carefully, my auditory skills jacked up to painful levels, the pain carefully regulated down.
I turned the corner and spotted two guards, in palace formal suits of all things, standing in front of the large conference room doors. A metal bar had been shoved between the doorhandles to reinforce their status as a barrier, but they were both armed only with pistols. They must not have regarded their captives as particularly dangerous. "Ken," Lance whispered, and I felt something in my hand. "Here. Get ready."
An explosion ripped through the far side of the castle. There were shouts, and the two guards ran past. I tossed whatever it was Lance had given me after them, and both of them fell to the floor two seconds later. "What was that?" I said.
"Just a tranquilizer."
After removing the bar, the doors were still locked. "Lance?"
"Just a second." The delivery portal on the showerhead was only a few millimeters wide and Lance was obviously trying to find the sweet spot between delivering material to work with and transmitting power to operate it, but in a few seconds I heard the door open with a click. "Damned SDisk failures," he muttered. "This is taking too long." I picked up one of the guard's pistols, a heavy thing with a grip for a llerkin hand, and slowly opened the door.
"Shardik!" The voice was oddly familiar as I looked in quickly, peeked around, and then pulled my head back. I had the impression of prisoners, so I looked back in quickly. There were Palace staff all about the floor, sitting on tables and chairs. Most were disheveled, and all had the tired look of people who had been caged for more than a few hours.
"Who addressed me?"
"Me, sir," said a tall (for a llerkin) femllerkin in contractor's garb. She wore a little identification badge that said, "Tona Rycis."
"Do I know you, Miss Rycis?"
"You might not remember me, sir. You rescued me when a bookcase fell on me during the construction of the Palace."
"Oh, yes," I said, smiling. "Did you shoulder heal well?"
"Yes, sir," she said.
I was in no mood to argue with her use of the word 'sir' today. I looked around the room and saw functionaries and bureaucrats of all sorts of stripes. These were the people I had to work with today. "Where's Anlestin?"
"We don't know, sir. We think they took her to her office. She does have the physical backups there for many of the security systems." Others around the room nodded. Anni's office was only a few doors down from here, so if they were there, they were being damned incompetent. Maybe the explosion earlier had distracted most of their resources. Suddenly she was looking at me with concern. "Sir, you're hurt!"
I nodded. "Secretary Ipsi stabbed me and tore a hole in my heart." I sagged suddenly, feeling very tired. "I'm only being held together with patchwork."
"Sir!" She ran and caught me as I fell to the floor. "Sir, you can't be allowed to..."
"Rescue Anni," I said. The world was getting grayer. I handed her the gun. "If not you, someone else. Someone here must have been a soldier once. Rescue your queen." I leaned up against a wall, and someone brought me a blanket. I looked up into a worried face, someone I did not know.
Tona, to my surprise, pulled back the slide to make sure there was a round in the chamber, checked the safety, and said, "Yes, sir."
"There's another, in the hallway." I felt dizzy and weak. I hated thinking, I'm going to die here. There's only one of me. I don't back up often, and I don't believe in backing up. Aaden and P'nyssa will get me back, but I don't want to die here.
Commotion around me. The sounds of gunfire, only a short distance down the hallway, and screams-- mellerkin screams. I hoped it wasn't whomever Tona had found to assist her. There was a bustle at the door, and then I heard her. "Ken!"
"Anni," I sighed. "Anni... I'm going to die."
"I forbid it." She looked at me and I saw the Queen Anni, the woman in charge, ready to take on the world. She was more ready to rule the universe and wipe out evil than a million priests had ever been.
Tona said, "We have to get out of the castle. Find a rescue system big enough to get us out of here."
"The GEVs!" Anni said.
"The town is taken. You'd never get past them. And GEV's won't handle the forest."
"No," Anni said. "The water."
"But the cliff..."
"I can do it," Anni said. "I can do it without Reeds."
I wasn't so sure, but I held my own counsel. She was probably right. Tona said, "We should get moving. They'll check in with the guards regularly. When Anni's detail doesn't check in, they'll come looking for us."
"All of you!" Anni said. "We have four pistols now. Split up into four teams of three each. Tona, you and your companion will come with us. I want the other three to take random routes out of the castle. Create confusion and chaos." She shrugged off her coat, handed it to a fem about her height. "Try not to get killed."
"Yes, your highness," she said, looking more determined than she deserved to feel.
I pushed myself to my feet, Anni helping. "Are you okay?" I said.
"They did not torture or rape me. They still have some respect for their queen. The leaders are probably hoping for a show trial. I will not give it to them." I had never heard her so brusque or so angry. "The stairs are this way."
Tona and the other mel led us to the stairwell. "Why aren't the doors locked?" I said.
"They can't be," Tona said. "The Palace was built to be a public place, not a secure facility. Once you're past the main doors, most of the palace is publicly accessible, and in those spaces fire escapes are more important than securing the building."
She led us into the stairwell. I looked at the wall and in the blocked, square script of llerkindi learned that we were on the 18th floor. I sighed. "It's a long way down." The stairwell had the humid, cold feel of concrete and steel.
"I'll help you down, sir," the mel said.
"Thank you," I said. I didn't want to let on just how weak felt. I had lost more blood than I cared to admit, even with Lance's help, and my strength was ebbing even as they led me around more stairs.
We had reached the fifth floor when I heard a door open several flights above. "Go!" Anni whispered. We began moving down the stairs even faster, the mel with his arm around my shoulder, helping me down the stairs. Tona took up the rear, covering us with her pistol. I hoped she didn't have to use it.
We reached the first floor. "Basement 3 is what we need," Anni said. I nodded. We kept moving even as a voice far above said, "Stop now!"
"Go!" Tona shouted, giving away the game even as we ran for the door. We reached the basement and headed out into the open parking garage. The big open space echoed every shooed footstep, and the wet smell of young cement hovered in each breath. The GEVs were nowhere in sight. "This way," Anni said.
There were several vehicles in the garage. We walked around the stairwell and then I could see the GEVs at one end, tucked into a corner. We ran for them. Shots rang out over our heads and I ducked behind a support column. I heard a scream. "Tona!"
She lay on the floor not three meters from me, on her back, clutching at her waist. I could see blood on her hands. "Lance, Tona," I ordered.
"I'm on it," he said. The little showerhead dove down to her. I couldn't see what he was doing, but I hoped whatever it was it would save a life. She looked up at me, pain in her eyes. "Here!"
Her pistol scooted across the cement floor to me, and I scooped it up. Lance could see four guards from his position and told me where they were. They were running up, apparently unaware that we, or at least one of us, were armed, as they all had their pistols down. "Lance?"
"It'll cost you," he said.
"Better me than Anni."
He swore, "History is fucking dead!" I stepped out from behind the column. I had the four llerkin who were coming around the corner in sight immediately, aimed, and fired. Three went down immediately. The fourth had time enough to pick up his gun and get off a shot. He missed. I did not.
At least, I thought he had missed. I heard a groan behind me. "Anni!"
"It's... it's okay." She had a wound in her calf, a clean shot that missed the bone. She smiled. "The targeting system he was using wasn't ready for a human."
"Some consolation." It was bleeding badly. I tore off what was left of my shirt and wrapped it around the wound. Already I could see the nanochine going to work as the blood flow closed off.
The mel came up to me. "Sir, we have to get you out of here." He picked up Anni and carried her. "Can you operate one of these without your leg?"
"Maybe," she said.
"Let's go." We ran for the GEV even as I heard the echoing sound of a door opening and booted feet running. I threw open one of the gull-wings and sat down. The mel put Anni down next to me. I regretted not knowing his name as he pushed down the door and locked it. I pulled down my own as Anni went through the checklist. "Thank Zhal for fly-by-wire," she said.
Bullets pinged off the shell. "No!" Anni moaned as our last guardian went down in a hail of gunfire. The GEV started up, and in seconds had achieved ground effect. The tilt of the six underskirt fans adjusted readily to the even ground and we were backing up when a hand pounded on the glass of the door. Anni snarled "Traitor!" and banked the GEV in his direction. They opened fire. Part of me thought her action courageous, another thought it petty. There was no way for us to escape the tungsten, steel, and lead with which they pummeled the GEV, but it didn't matter. It was built to Pendorian specs. Everything in Anni's life was built that way.
We would have to revise.
She maneuvered the GEV deftly in the tight confines of the underground parking lot and shot for the exit. The door was wide open. I marveled at that.
"Jeeps!" Anni shouted. I looked over to my left and saw a pair of the wide-bodied, wheeled military pursuit vehicles heading our way, but Anni surprised them by shooting around the edge of the castle, building up speed for her run at the cliff. They didn't try to follow. "Hold tight!" I paled, thinking of what she was about to try.
The GEV shot out over the cliff. I wondered, for just a second, if it would be like something from the movies-- slow motion, silence, that kind of thing. Like when that assassin shot at me. But no, this all happened at full speed and the roar of the GEV's motors grew louder than ever as the fans looked for something, anything, to press against. Anni was pulling back hard on the power lever, her teeth clenched as the water came up on us, fast. We slammed into it with force that made my neck vertebrae compress with a sickening grinding sensation, the chairs doing all that they could to keep us from harm as the water washed completely over us and we sank beneath the waves. Then we bobbed to the surface and the rear jets were on as hot as ever. The ride was uneven for a few seconds and then I appreciated what Anni had done: angled the fans, three on each side, inward, into a point so that the air would break the wall of water before the body of the GEV hit. She could have torn off the skirt that way.
Then I grayed out for a few seconds.
When I came to, we were going full-tilt for the horizon, the engines screaming. "Anni?"
"They're going to come for us," she said. "Someone's going to come for us. Hear that?" I heard the beeping sound, loud and alone over everything else, the sound of a collision avoidance system working without AI guidance. I looked at the display and saw that, whatever it was, it was coming fast on our rear, an intercept. Anni looked at me. She reached out and offered her hand to mine. I took it. "Ken, I love you." She looked out the window. "I hope that's one of ours."