27: Gothel's Tower
Flynn admired the calm seriousness with which Rapunzel operated the two-seater aerodyne. The tiny, snub-nosed lozenge of an aircraft had intimidated him much more than the large, military-style vessel that had brought them here, which in turn had been quite more worrying than the military shuttlecraft that had carried him from Winterkiss to the palace. Each vehicle had offered progressively fewer protections in case of misadventure, and Flynn wasn't particularly fond of misadventures. He trusted Captain DuVar's judgment; she'd survived the most massive laser hit a naval vessel had ever taken, gone into combat with no idea what she was facing and prevailed, and survived at least one assassination attempt. Her injuries had been severe, and every time he tried not to think of her lying on the ground like that he rubbed his own chest, recalled his own surgical history, and thanked his lucky stars that he hadn't been shot by either side and hadn't been hit by one of those EMP grenades.
He snorted. He still had his show-and-tell piece in one of his many pockets. It was fairly small, the size of a fat pen. He had disconnected the battery so it was safe and inert. He meant to analyze it someday, try to see if there was a defense against the thing going off. It might take an EMP blast to disable its internal electronics, which made the cure just as bad as the disease.
His mind was rambling. He looked instead at Rapunzel and a surge of new fondness swept through him. So much for the "no nobles" pledge he'd given Lady Captain DuVar. He snorted. There was another beautiful woman, but he hadn't been at all attracted to her, and it was clear her eyes were firmly on Queen Elsa. Now there was a beautiful woman. Flynn could admit that. When she was happy and she turned those eyes on him something in his throat constricted with an aesthetic reaction far beyond the bounds of propriety. But it was strictly an aesthetic reaction. With Rapunzel, it was something else.
"Well, yeah," Flynn said to himself. "You've kissed her."
"What? Sorry, I was just, um, talking to myself." They weren't wearing either headphones or helmets; the cabin had excellent sound-cancelling software that mitigated the roar of the turbines and the rush of the wind to little more than a deep, rumbling hum. He had to watch his tendency to narrate his own story out loud. "Bad habit."
She smiled, flipped a switch, then reached out to caress his cheek. "Well, if you have only one bad habit, I think I can live with that one."
"I, ah, I mean, I'm sure I have others. Everyone does." Grief, how did she fluster him so? It wasn't like either of them were blushing virgins. Flynn had managed a few casual flings and even a decent relationship here and there in his thirty-odd years. Rapunzel had admitted to dallying with several men in her past, all of them commoners and none of them seriously. Flynn wondered which side had ended the relationships. It had probably been mutual. Possibly contractual, but Rapunzel hadn't actually given Flynn a deadline and Flynn hadn't asked for one.
He'd done much more than kiss her. Rapunzel didn't quite qualify as a full-on man-eater, but she was short of inhibitions, long on desires. She was also a delight to the senses. He couldn't help but remember last night with anything except fondness. Sleeping with a princess was certainly a memory worth keeping. Sleeping with one that was so damned energetic, well, he had memories of the things she did with her mouth that he would keep forever. All he had to do now was fight the impression that the princess herself could be kept. That would have been ridiculous.
"If you're not buckled, lock in," she said. "I'm putting this thing down."
The warning was entirely unnecessary. Rapunzel may have thrown the aerodyne into the sky with nuclear-powered defiance of the laws of gravity, but her skills with the aircraft were on par with that maniacally-grinning Von Schweetz woman and the touchdown was so gentle only the trees outside and the powering down of the turbines told him the flight was over. Rapunzel let out the sort of sigh Flynn had heard a few times last night. "That good, huh?"
"Oh, I love flying," she said. She unbuckled in a flurry of hands and clicks, and then leaned over to kiss him. She had the softest lips he'd ever encountered and was far and away the best kisser he'd ever met. "But it's not as good as kissing."
"You have such a way with words, princess."
"Flatterer," she said, grinning at him. "I like you, Doctor Flynn."
"I'm glad you do," he said. "But there's even less room in this thing than the traditional groundcar with a back seat, and you did promise to show me this tower."
She giggled. "Okay, Doctor Fitzhubert. I'll show it to you." She pushed a few more buttons and the cockpit's gull-wing doors opened. Flynn spent a minute figuring out where all the buckles were on his restraint harness, then stepped out into cool mountain air.
"Whoa," he said. The "tower" wasn't that tall. It was barely ten stories, but it erupted out of a ground-based facility that occupied a healthy chunk of a narrow valley and seemed to dive into the very heart of the mountain on either side. "Where are we? What is this place?"
"The Crew Quarters."
"The Crew Quarters. The crew of the terraforming effort. This was their home." He looked skeptical. "I thought a man of science like yourself might be interested to see it."
Flynn swallowed. "Is anyone here... now?"
"Well, Gothel comes here now and then. It's her home as much as it was theirs. But they all died, eventually. There weren't as many of them as there were that remained behind on Arendelle. Only Mother Gothel really had the force of will to stay, well, animated all this time."
Flynn looked up. He had to admit that if there was one place he wanted to see more than any other, it was the Corona equivalent of Module Two. He just didn't know if he wanted to see it without backup. The Crew Quarters was within the Royal Family's vacation zone, safety range of Corona's Royal Security as mandated by the Crown, so supposedly this was some of the safest, most heavily monitored territory on the planet. "Okay," he said, putting on his most confident voice. "Lead the way, Princess."
She palmed the lock and it let her in without complaint. Lights flickered as they entered the front hallway. To Flynn, it looked like little more than any other industrial science facility: clean walls, gleaming chrome near the egress, exposed steel, concrete, HVAC, power and water lines further in. Everything had to be accessible in case of an emergency. Every duct had to be exposed for rapid repair.
His eyes were drawn to several of the lines threading overhead. Rapunzel may not have known what they were, but he recognized airborne biohazard management lines when he saw them. That made a sort of sense; a lot of early-stage terraforming involved releasing anaerobic reducing bacteria and fungi, which had to be replaced a few decades later with more robust oxygen-managing varieties. Still, it surprised him to consider that those sort of experiments had been conducted at a ground-based facility; that was the sort of thing where orbital bombardment was suited for seeding and robotic probes were used for sampling. Coming groundside to do the work was curiously superfluous.
"What sort of attraction does this place have for you, Rapunzel?"
"Oh, Flynn, it's so romantic, don't you think? Going off into space, taking such marvelous risks, never knowing if you'll actually get to your destination or what you'll find there, working so hard, and all of it a sacrifice for generations that will be, I don't know, nothing like you." She pointed. "Most of the rooms are sealed, old experiments in terraforming. But I used to go up into the tower and spend all day reading, and dreaming, and looking out the window wondering if I'd ever see anyplace other than Corona. I wondered if a light would appear in the sky, a sign that Earth had found us. I guess it has." They reached an elevator which opened at her touch. It went up.
The door opened onto the observation deck of the tower. The outer rim was lined with glass, as was the outermost tier of ceiling tile, giving them a full view of the sky and mountains in every direction. Although the deck was fairly large the only furniture was a large conference table in the center of the room, surrounded by a ring of comfortable-looking couches, half of which had backs, half of which didn't. On a raised dais in the center of the table was a rock about the size of Flynn's fist. "This was why I would come up here. To look at this. I suppose it's almost the same view as the one I have back home, but here... here I felt like I was close to those ancestors. The ones who gave up their humanity to give me a home. Does that make sense?"
"Plenty," he said, reaching out and taking her hand. "I hope you don't have romantic ideas of giving up your humanity, though. I pretty much like your body the way it is."
"You're a sly one, Doctor Flynn."
"So the ladies tell me."
She giggled and turned toward him. "I don't think there have been that many ladies in your life."
"No, not that many. Enough so I'm not a completely blithering idiot when a beautiful woman asks me what I want, but not so many I'm jaded. Or immune to someone as beautiful as you." He extended his arms toward her.
She fell into them, her head on his chest, and gave a deep, happy sigh. "This is nice," she said. "I don't know why I feel so good with you. Everyone else was fun, you know, but they didn't really end up as my friends. I feel like... like I could be friends with you."
Flynn didn't have the words to express how he felt so he just held her. He felt her head shift, looking up, so he looked down. She smiled at him. He led her to one of the backless couches and they sat down, side by side. "So, tell me, uh, how many of your previous boytoys have you brought here?
"You're the first. I've never brought anyone else here ever. A few times security had to come in and get me when I stayed too long, but they haven't dared to do that in a long, long time."
"Oh." He looked at her wide, expectant eyes and the slight pout of her lips, and leaned over to erase that pout, putting one hand to her cheek as if to guide her to him. Rapunzel's forceful response kiss nearly bowled him over onto the couch, but he instead guided them down until he was lying face-up and she was on top, kissing him hard. The couch was yielding but industrially firm against his back, Rapunzel was unyielding but angelically soft against his chest. Her hair naturally draped against his cheek but he didn't care.
Flynn could have made out with Rapunzel for hours. Flynn thought he'd long since gotten past the "making out" part of life. It wasn't that he was a cad or rake, but at his age his most recent partners knew what they wanted. Rapunzel obviously knew what she wanted too, but it involved a lot of kissing ahead of time. Flynn could happily live with that.
Not to say his hands were idle. He caressed her small back, his hands roaming her slim body. She gasped aloud as he caressed the twin curves of her ass. He was glad neither one of them had worn anything extravagant. The tight black jeans and tailless pink shirt perfect for her, and for him, as he could feel every millimeter of her through the fabric. Even if he'd had his hands all over her every night for the past three nights, well, he would gladly trade one more experience for all the memories he already possessed.
Well, maybe not. He had to be honest with himself.
Where were her hands going? It was a bad sign when a man started woolgathering in the middle of a kiss. He turned his attention back her lips, her tongue, God what she could do with that adorable little tongue of hers. Flynn shifted. They rolled off the couch and onto the floor.
"Ouch!" Flynn said as he landed on an elbow.
"Did you hurt yourself?"
"Mostly my dignity," he said, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Rapunzel rolled over to kneel next to him. "I think I'll be fine."
"I think we should wait until we have a bed."
"Hey, Rapunzel," he said. "Kissing you is sexy enough."
"Well, I want more of you," she said. "But it can wait."
"Good to know," he said. They picked themselves up off the floor.
"Come see," Rapunzel said. She led him toward the glass, and he looked out. The valley stretched in both directions, a stream running through the center of it, an idyll of verdant green and growing things.
The only place in the 360-degree view where there was any blockage was where the elevator rose from the ground floor to deliver people to the tower. Flynn stood a little to one side of it and looked out at what his brain thought of as the "back" of the facility, and his eyes were drawn to a narrow network of green pipes that covered one part of the building. He had seen something like them before, and not too long ago. "Hey, Rapunzel?"
"What's down at that end of the building?" He pointed.
"I don't know. Mother Gothel says that a lot of the building is closed off. No power, no maintenance, and there might be some biohazards."
"If that's true, why are there hydroponics..." He broke off as he remembered. "Rapunzel, are you sure the rest of the crew is, you know, dead?"
"As sure as I can be. Nobody's ever seen any others of them, and as far as I know nobody from Corona has joined them. I mean, some people might be tempted by the idea of living for four hundred years, but we already live half that and what Gothel's had to do to make it this far is really, um, I'm not going to make any excuses for her but she's, um..."
"She's a little creepy," Flynn said quietly. Rapunzel nodded, blushing with the admission. "The reason I ask is because those pipes over there, see them? The green ones." Rapunzel squinted to see, then nodded. "I've seen them before. On Vesselton. They're part of the blood purification and nutrition recycling system for the crew. For both the conscious ones, and the ones in semi-permanent suspension. There aren't as many here as there were there, but if what you're telling me is true there shouldn't be any."
"Do you think she might be hiding something?"
"I think it's possible," Flynn said. "And I think I want to know."
"Let's go find out!" Rapunzel said, heading toward the elevator.
"Rapunzel, wait! What if it's dangerous?"
Rapunzel's hair, to his amazement, glowed briefly. "Nothing is dangerous to this," she said, pointing to her head. "There isn't a lock I can't pick, or a computer I can't suborn, on all of Corona." She held up a hand. "The machines of Corona do I what I tell them to."
"I hope you're right," Flynn said. The elevator took them down a floor, and then Flynn led them in the direction he thought he'd seen the pipes. The doors opened for Rapunzel as they made their way. And then one door... didn't.
It wasn't marked as dangerous. It wasn't marked at all. It was a plain, metallic door, much like the one behind which Vesselton's "mystery girl" had been hidden, the one who was still in cryogenic suspension back on Arendelle. "End of the line?" Flynn said.
"No," Rapunzel said. "Not yet." She took off her glove and put her hand on the lock. She frowned briefly, and then her hair came to life, tiny tendrils that slithered into the lock. She frowned more, then took off the other glove with her teeth and held her left hand high in the air while her right continued to feel around the lock. "Ah!" she said. The door opened.
"How did you do that?"
"It's all in the hair," Rapunzel said, brushing it back as she slipped the gloves back on. "I just looked inside until I found the paths that actually activated the door mechanism. I routed around the lock completely."
"That is really useful, Princess. You shouldn't let people know you have that power. They might find it, and you, really useful."
Rapunzel frowned. "You're not freaked out by it, are you, Flynn?"
"I'm not freaked out by it. I'm just surprised by the technological qualities of your hair. Where did it come from?"
"It doesn't grow out of my head, if that's what you're wondering. It's a self-maintaining net that resides along the shafts. I have to feed it a repair goo, but that's just part of washing it. Gothel designed it for me. She thought it would be something fun. It inter-operates with the Anton cybernetics."
"I see," Flynn said.
"Well, shall we see what's behind the door?"
"By all means," he said.
The room beyond lit up. It looked like a storage corridor, but it was much cleaner, and made to be easy to clean, than the hallways he'd seen already. It looked like a medical facility. The next door opened with a simple touch.
There was one cryogenics chamber inside. "What the?" Flynn walked over and looked down into the small glass portal over the face. It looked exactly like... "Her!"
"The one person on Vesselton who was in cryogenic suspension. We couldn't get a tissue type off her. We got a DNA sample, but we never matched her with anyone in the Arendelle DNA tissue banks. Which seems almost impossible. Buzz told me there isn't anyone on Arendelle, living or dead, who hasn't been typed and recorded. So who the heck is she?" Flynn looked around. Just like the facility on Vesselton, this room lacked any labels whatsoever. The monitors were silent. Only the hissing of pumps, the soft hum of electricity, and the coolness of the suspension tube itself indicated that anything here was working at all.
The door to the room opened. Flynn turned to confront the tall, mechanical figure of Mother Gothel. "Well, what have we here? Getting a little too curious for your own good, are we now, Rapunzel?"
"Mm... mm.. Mother Gothel."
"Don't stutter, Rapunzel. You know how much I hate the stuttering. I thought we'd broken you of that." The cyborg stalked into the room, one hand gesturing dismissively.
Rapunzel's eyes darted to the cryogenics chamber, then back to Gothel's gleaming figure. "But... who? You told me no one was left."
"No one is left, Rapunzel."
"Then who's that?" Rapunzel asked, pointing to the cryogenics tube.
"Oh, her. That's me."
"Me, Rapunzel." Gothel tapped on the chamber with one claw. "Me. My body. My DNA. A new host body for this brain in here." Gothel tapped on the metal shell of its chest. "I created it out of my own eggs and embryos, tuned it with my own DNA, and grew it here. I had a couple of false starts, but this one is perfect. It won't reject my brain upon transplantation."
"But if you want the body... won't you kill... her?"
"Oh, she's never had a real life, Rapunzel. Much like you! So coddled and protected from the real world, both of you. Her entire existence has been in simulations since birth. The only reason to give her an existence at all was to make sure the body had the right mix of hormones, which can only really be done with an active brain. I think you understand, Rapunzel. You have a brain. I know you do. I've seen pictures of it. I've written AIs to coordinate with it."
"But, that's horrible," Flynn said.
"Of course it is." Gothel's voice lowered down to a menacing purr as she turned toward the couple. "Nothing worth having in life is won by being good. Behind every great history is a megadeath, give or take a few." Gothel gestured off-handedly. "Take a look at your own line, Rapunzel! The House of Anton. The House of Anton. Your family took sides in the Famine War, virtually started the actual shooting part of it. Your family murdered poor Josef Arendelle's descendents, and what of his entire line they didn't shoot they left to starve to death. Your ancestors rewrote the corporate charter into a monarchy. A monarchy! And now another monarchy is going to come in and give the whole idea of monarchy some legitimacy? I don't think so!" Gothel lunged forward faster than Flynn could have imagined to grab Rapunzel by the wrists. "This whole colony should have been mine. Mine! Arendelle for Josef, and this, this Corona should have been named after me."
"Both stars are named after you! What more do you want?" Rapunzel gasped.
"Justice," Gothel hissed. "Justice and life. I want my body back! I want my youth back. I want justice for Josef. Justice for me. It was convenient that you accepted the hair I made for you. So close to the Keys, it had all the time in the world! I had hoped it would crack all the Keys for me by now, but its processors just weren't powerful enough. I've cracked some of them-- enough to shut this planet down if I have to, but not enough to turn it back on again." Gothel's mechanical head leaned forward menacingly. "And now I'm going to get them all, even if I have to rip that chip out of your hand."
"No!" Rapunzel's hair glowed and lunged forward into the crevices around Gothel's joints.
Gothel shrieked. "Rapunzel, what are you doing?"
"What I have to! I'm shutting you down!"
"No!" Gothel threw Rapunzel away from her. Rapunzel hit the wall and grunted once before she fell to the ground. Gothel staggered and fell over. "No!" the mechanical voice blurted, then only garbled noises came from it. The robotic body continued to twitch.
"Rapunzel! Are you okay?" Flynn leaned down next to her.
Rapunzel nodded. "I think so. Are you?" Rapunzel gasped.
He nodded. "We have to get out of here." He took her hand, mindful of the wince. Gothel must have crushed her wrists. They fled back out into the corridor. "Did you disable her? I mean, permanently?" he said.
"I don't know. I don't know."
Flynn couldn't remember his way back through the facility. Some of the doors were closed and locked, and he didn't know if he could rely on Rapunzel's hair to unlock them quickly. "Your wristcomm!" he said.
"Your wristcomm. Can't you call for your security?"
"Oh my god! You're right!" Rapunzel pulled back the sleeve of her windbreaker and tapped on it. "It's not working. No signal."
He looked up. "Wait. That's the elevator to the tower. If we go up there, it'll work."
Rapunzel nodded. The elevator still operated, and the two of them took it. Flynn said, "I'm not comfortable being in a small box, knowing that there might be a killer cyborg after us."
Rapunzel gasped, her eyes wide with terror as the full effect of Gothel's betrayal hit her. "I can't believe it. It was Gothel all along?"
Flynn shrugged and tried to be nonchalant. "Who knows what happens to someone who's been in that kind of body for years and years and years? People with implants change. Maybe with enough of them, you... you lose touch with who you were."
The elevator opened. "Signal!" Rapunzel said, and jabbed a finger at the black surface of her wristcomm. "Corona Security! Code Blonde! Code Blonde! Code Blonde!"
"Code Blonde?" Flynn said.
"Nobody was gonna forget that one, huh?" Rapunzel said, giggling.
"Princess!" said a tinny voice through the wristcomm. "Are you hurt?"
"I'm at the Crew Quarters! It's Mother Gothel. She's out to kill me. Help!"
"We're on our way! Stay--" The wristcomm suddenly cut out. The reliable hum of electricity in the tower died, the lights flickered, and went out.
"Oh no." Rapunzel shook her wrist. "What do we do now?"
"We wait," Flynn said. "And we hope."