Anna couldn't keep her eyes off Elsa as they walked down the slowly widening trail. It led down a dip that was slightly marshy, their boots squelching over a mud-covered bridge with handrails crudely carved out of a few skinny logs assembled with tongue-and-eye roped together. "Now that's a metaphor," Anna said to herself.
But Elsa, she couldn't help but watch Elsa as they walked. She shouldn't be thinking in terms of physicality, that was so crude and unfair to do to a queen. Anna bit her lip. It wasn't unfair when she did it to other people. It wasn't unfair when a lover did it to her. Admiring the other person's body was part of admiring the other person, a few of the many threads that bound people together. Yet, if all her previous relationships had run out, as she had told Elsa, did that mean that the spool of thread that held a relationship ran out as well?
She had to get her metaphors under control. Maybe she'd get better with practice.
To her right, a large concrete platform surrounded with gravel drainage came into view as they cleared the trees. Two aerodynes sat on the platform, power and fuel lines attached to maintenance ports. Elsa gave the landing pad a single glance before starting toward the packed gravel road that went off to their left and up to the mansion. Anna hurried to follow her.
The air erupted with a loud attention-getting siren followed by a mechanical voice saying, "Code Blonde. Code Blonde. Code Blonde at the Crew's Quarters. The Princess's location is in all navigation devices. Code Blonde. Code Blonde..." The message repeated.
Elsa looked at Anna, then both watched as four security officers ran to one of the two big aerodynes parked on the edge of the tarmac. What Anna expected next didn't happen: the door to the aerodyne never closed. The engines didn't roar. Instead, the officers got out and ran to the other big aerodyne. It likewise refused to fly. "Come on," Anna said, and began heading toward the emergency.
Elsa followed. "Officer!" Anna shouted. "What's happening?"
"The ships are locked down!" one of the soldiers. He gestured. "I can't get it to fly. All the main command screens show is the royal crest and 'access denied!'"
"But.. .what's the emergency?"
"Code Blonde!" he said. "Princess Rapunzel is in danger." He looked closer at her.
"What?" Elsa said. Then she looked at Anna. "It can't be a coincidence. This is what the Vessel did when it used the laser platforms. They had to have a few of the Royal Keys to order the attack, which means that whoever did it is here and has those same keys." Elsa looked up at the soldier. "Follow me."
"Yes, er, Your Majesty." Elsa ducked her head into the aircraft, walked forward to the flight deck, and placed her hands on the controls. She had a look of concentration on her face, then smiled. The turbines started.
Anna stared at her. "Elsa! How are you..."
"I have a copy of the Keys, Anna. I may not be invited to use them, but I can override a local lockout of almost anything within my reach. The protocols on Corona feel different but they're still descended from the original Keys."
"But if you don't have permission from the central computers, we won't have autopilot," the security officer replied. "None of us knows how to fly."
"What?" Anna said. "But we know where we're going?"
"Sure. It's right there on the navigation map." He pointed to a screen that had come to life under Elsas' touch.
Anna shouldered her way past them and sat down in the seat next to Elsa. "Strap yourselves in."
"Anna," Elsa said as she took the co-pilot's chair, "Are you sure you know how to fly one of these?"
"Elsa, I've flown VTOL, uni and multi helo, and fixed wing, along with all the gravitics Manticore has ever given me. I'm pretty sure I can fly this thing."
"Pretty sure and very sure aren't the same thing, Anna."
"Then you'll have to hope they're close enough." She looked down. She'd watched Calhoun closely on the two flights she'd taken with the other woman. The controls really were familiar. "Okay, here goes." The turbines whined, and she quickly learned how to read the vector indicators, which were similar to those on a jump jet. The controls were forgiving, too; even without autopilot, this thing was designed to compensate for an inexperienced pilot. The aerodyne lifted slowly until Anna felt confident in its power, then she swung the blunt, boxy lifting body toward the spot on the map and tilted the thrusters back. The aircraft shot forward.
"What in the blue blazes is Code Blonde?" Calhoun said, looking up from her monitoring chair in the comfortably apportioned security annex.
The other man, one of Corona's palace security technicians, said, "It's the code for when Princess Rapunzel is in... oh no." All the screens went dark to be replaced with the Corona sun-seal and a text message: "By order of His Majesty the King, this facility is on lock-down pending investigation."
"And what is that?"
"I... I don't know." He stared at it, then tapped his wrist comm. "Field report. Everyone, check in." There was no reply.
"My Queen is out there and you don't have any coverage right now?" Calhoun snarled.
"My Princess is at the Crew Quarters and she's in trouble!"
"Well then, you'd better come with me to the landing pads so we can go rescue them both." Calhoun kicked away from her station and ran for the door.
As she passed through the mansion proper she passed the short engineer guy that spent his days holding Captain DuVar's ship together. He said, "Ma'am! What's happening?"
"I don't know."
"Where are you going?"
"Landing pad. Keep up with me if you can." To her surprise, the engineer did manage to keep up, even though his legs were much shorter than her own. The rest of the mansion's security squad, six men total, followed behind them. The pad was only five hundred meters from the mansion, down a bend in the road and a thick stand of trees that dulled the sound of the turbines from disturbing any royal guests. She arrived just as one of the aerodynes took to the skies. "What the hell? Who's in that?"
"Queen Elsa, a redheaded woman who was with her, and a four-man security squad," said a woman in a red maintenance jumpsuit at the edge of the platform. "I don't know how they got it to fly, though. They were talking about a lock-down."
"They shouldn't have gone at all. Damn it!" Calhoun watched the aerodyne disappear over the lake with furious frustration. "Let's see if the other one will fly." The hatch was open, the seats clear. The security people followed behind her. "Locked. Damn it, damn it, damn it!"
"Ma'am, if you'd mind your potty mouth, I'd very much appreciate it."
"What are you doing?"
Felix ran his hands over a panel on the wall above and slightly behind the co-pilot's chair. "Ma'am, that's my captain in that craft. If you think I'm going to abandon her when she's about to go into battle, you are out of your mind." He glanced at the device on his wrist, which seemed to be much bigger and more complex than a standard wristcomm. "Ah!" He pulled open a small latch, reached in and pulled something out. The screens all went blank. Fumbling about in his pockets, he came up with a multitool, flipped it to be a pair of pliers, reached into the panel and twisted something. The screens came up, with the lock-down notice missing. "And there is not an aircraft in the universe I cannot hotwire." He touched the co-pilot's panel, and the turbines whined with new power, the entire aerodyne shuddering back to life.
"Say," Calhoun said, looking at Felix with new and appreciative eyes. "You're a very handy guy to have around. Can you fly?"
"Many things, Ma'am, but I've never flown one of these."
"Sit down and get a lesson."
"Yes, Ma'am. Word of advice?" Calhoun regarded him. "Try not to fly too high. I think I, ah, took out some of the life support controls getting to the wires."
Calhoun's eyes narrowed with appreciation of the problem. "Treetops it is. Everyone back there secure?" She didn't wait for an answer. She opened the throttle wide and the second aerodyne vaulted into the sky.
The intercom crackled. Flynn looked up hopefully but the purring menace of Gothel's voice poured from the speaker. "Oh, Rapunnnnnzel! Where are you, little mouse? Come out, come out."
"She wants the Keys," Rapunzel said, holding her wrist.
"Can you delete them?"
"No," Rapunzel said. "They're in here." She pointed to the back of her left hand. "I'm supposed to have access to them all the time. Not that I can do much in here with... nothing."
"Now I see why Elsa calls it a curse," Flynn said. Rapunzel's mouth tightened. "If Gothel wants them, we have to find a way to keep them away from her. There has to be some way to delete them. Or destroy them. Could we--" He tapped around his pockets. They rattled. "Multimeter. Knife. Toolkit. Wait!" He pulled out the slim cylinder that had been resting in a zipped bottom pocket. "I don't clean this jacket out enough. Will this work? It's an EMP grenade. It's one of the ones the attackers used to get into Elsa's palace." He pulled the cap open, began reassembling it. It took only a minute. "There."
"But Flynn, your heart--"
"You'll set it off, Rapunzel. I'll be over here on this side of the room. That should be far enough away. It won't even hurt you. It didn't hurt Elsa when one went off next to her." He hesitated. "Damn. It didn't hurt Elsa. It didn't damage her Keys, either. Right after the battle she disappeared. She was able to commandeer the surveillance system and hide her tracks. The chips must be heavily shielded."
"They're supposed to be. Gothel explained to me how they're encased in a shield of gold. Then--" Rapunzel reached up, pulled off the glove. "It has to go. Before she can get to them, you have to. I heard you say you have a knife. You have to take it out. Cut it out of me."
Flynn felt his eyes widen as he looked at the pale back of her slim, delicate hand, where a slight, square rise of skin no bigger than his fingernail showed the location of the chip. His stomach flopped as he considered what she was asking for. "Rapunzel! I, I couldn't!"
"You have to," Rapunzel said. Tears filled her eyes. "This is one of those things, I guess, that it means about being a Princess. I can't let Gothel have the Keys. She... she would be able to rule all of Corona. There's no limit to what she could do."
"We have to hurry. Before she finds us."
Flynn took her hand. "Follow me."
Anna kept her eyes on the navigation tracker. It led over the lake to a spot less than twenty kilometers from the mansion. The controls felt natural in her hands. Vanellope would have the time of her life flying one of these. Flynn had said that the economic slack in Arendelle, and presumably in Corona too, meant they had more time and money to put to the better things, like highly responsive and compensatory flight controls.
A buzzer began screaming. Anna looked at the main display: Missile Alert. She looked out and saw the track coming right at her. "Missile! Hang on!" she shouted even as she banked the aerodyne leftward, into what she guessed might be the turn space of the missile. If she could dodge it and make the turn tighter than it could handle, it might overcompensate and miss on the turnaround.
The missile was fast. Anna was faster, and that was her first mistake. The agile aerodyne suddenly became as frenzied as a ferret. Aerodynamics didn't really apply to an aerodyne; it was entirely about shoving force around with turbines. The aerodyne flipped over in a barrel roll even as she vectored out of the way of the missile, a move so wild the missile's on-board computers had no scenario for it. It shot past them, its exhaust trail disintegrating in the whirling windstorm created by the aerodyne's roaring thrusters.
Anna's naval training kept her brain on keel even as the world spun before her eyes and in her ears. She swore as she underflew the roll controls and the aerodyne righted itself. She checked the radar. "It's coming back!" she said. Would chaff or flares matter, or did it have visual matching and prediction? Did this aerodyne have any defensive points? "Elsa, look for some defense controls!"
The other woman was frantically scanning the controls. "I don't know how!"
The missile came streaking back from above. Anna watched it and made a split-second decision, pitching the nose down to present the smallest possible target and yawing to port. It almost worked.
The missile clipped the tail of the aerodyne and exploded. Turbine eight disintegrated in an ear-shattering explosion that ripped through the aerodyne with more violence than the missile itself. The screams of machine and man pierced Anna's attention. "We're going down! Brace yourselves!"
The aerodyne's computers worked with Anna to keep the ship upright, but one turbine was completely gone and two more were blinking bright faults. Anna saw a building up ahead. Well, I got us here. She struggled with the machine. "Come on!" she shouted as it pitched hard. Anna knew the poor flight systems were trying to figure out its new configuration, but it didn't have time. The ground was coming up awfully fast.
Flynn led Rapunzel to the couch. "Don't sit on it, just next to it, so you can put your hand on it. God, I can't believe we were making out in here less than an hour ago and now we're running for our lives from a killer cyborg." He pulled out his pocket knife, and a pair of tweezers. "It's a good thing I keep this sharp. Rapunzel, are you sure about this?"
"There's no other way. Not in the time we have."
"I wish there were."
"Eugene," he said.
"It's Eugene," he said softly. "Flynn is my middle name. I tell people to use it because, well, because Eugene isn't very sexy."
She looked into his eyes, and he shivered. "I think you're very sexy, regardless of your name. And I think I like Eugene better."
"Well, you'd be the first. I hope you still like me after I've cut open the back of your hand." He looked down. He held her hand tightly in his, and it looked so delicate. His knife hand trembled.
"Do it," she said.
"Do it," she said, narrowing her eyes in determination.
He lowered the blade. The knife bit easily into the back of her hand, and she jerked hard, but he held tight and wouldn't let her go. She whimpered. "Hurts, oh God, Eugene, it hurts!"
He dropped the blade. With his thumb he pulled the wound open, and with the tweezers fished under it, found the golden chip in its setting, tugged. "Deep breath," he said, and pulled hard. Rapunzel screamed as the chip came free. "Got it."
He dropped it on the couch, pulled off his shirt and wrapped one long sleeve over her hand. "Put pressure on it. Stop the bleeding. We have to hope the rescue team finds us before she does." A loud "whump!" outside the building caught his attention, and he saw a trail of smoke in the air. "Oh, no."
Elsa momentarily lost consciousness. The impact had been brutal, but the seats of a modern warcraft were designed to keep the occupants alive and unhurt if at all possible. When she came to, she smelled burned talcum powder and saw a white, mesh-covered bag deflating in front of her eyes. "Elsa! Elsa, are you okay?"
"I... I think so. I feel strange, as if my muscles are buzzing." She looked up. Anna's face was hard in a way that reminded Elsa all too well of Calhoun at her most professional.
"Oh, good," Anna said. "That's fear. That's power. Use it. I am." She reached down and started unlatching Elsa's belts. "We're down, but I got us close to the building. Can you move?"
Elsa flexed her arms and legs. "Yes. I think so. You're bleeding." She reached up to touch Anna's forehead.
Anna followed her. "It can't be a big cut. Real head wounds bleed like a fountain. I'll be okay. Come on. Your neck is going to hurt, but that'll come later. The doctors can fix you up, too." She reached out a hand. Elsa took it and Anna helped her up.
In the crew compartment, two officers were kneeling over a third. The fourth officer, standing next to them, shook his head. "Hal's not going to make it."
"We can't just leave him here."
"Go," said the man on the ground. Elsa blanched as she saw a pool of blood underneath him, growing ever wider. "Go save the Princess."
"You heard him," said the standing security man, his teeth grinding in frustration. "Alec, stay here with Hal. Don't lose him. Don't leave him."
"Let's go," Anna said to the two officers remaining. "Elsa, you should stay here."
"No," Elsa said. "I'm not leaving my cousin."
"But if you're both killed..."
"If we lose the Keys, there's no kingdom worth returning to," Elsa said. "As Buzz said, there's no promise there isn't a second entanglement capsule plugged in somewhere on Arendelle."
"I guess I can't override a queen. Come on."
The day was still bright and cool as Anna and Elsa left the crippled aerodyne, the security guards sprinting after them. Elsa could feel the energy of the accident in her veins, pushing her, pumping her forward. The building they were near was a kind of bridge filling the narrow valley from side-to-side, four stories tall, with glassed walls and green, growing terraces on the outside. A fluted tower rose up from the middle of the building into the sky, topped with an observation disc. As they ran, they heard a woman scream. It sounded like it came from the tower. "I'm coming, Rapunzel," she gasped as they ran.
A banging sound from the floor caught Flynn's attention. A segment of the rug parted and a trap door flew open. The metallic bulk of Gothel's body heaved itself through the doorway. "There you are!" she said. "Did you think I didn't put stairs in my own tower?"
Flynn scooped up the chip into his hand. Gothel pounded toward them, her hands reaching out for Rapunzel as Flynn ducked out of her way. The machine leaned over the princess. "Enough with the games, Rapunzel. Now you're going to give me the Keys."
"Hey!" Flynn said. "Hey, Mother!"
Gothel's head turned. "What do you want, Flynn?"
Flynn held the bloody chip out between his fingers. "Leave her alone! This is what you want, isn't it?"
Gothel looked down at Rapunzel, who was still lying on the floor next to the couch, holding her hand, whimpering. "No!" she said.
"Yes! Come and get them, you monster."
"So I'm a monster now? Fine." Gothel's whole body pivoted toward him, stalking across the floor. "Now I'm a monster." It reached for his left hand.
With his right he thumbed the safety cap off the grenade. "Good. Because monsters rot in hell," he said. He jammed it up against her shoulder and pushed the trigger.
Gothel didn't even scream. The robot body just collapsed in front of him, falling over like a store mannequin.
His human and ordinary brain was, like every brain, an electrochemical miracle. The electromagnetic pulse momentarily disrupted the electrical part, giving him a blinding flash and a tingling numbness throughout his body. It didn't matter; his artificial heart was dependent upon the kinds of electronics the EMP grenade was designed to disrupt. Even as his vision cleared he was already experiencing the panic that comes with a lack of blood flow. He was dying. Technically, I might already be dead. He had one last look at Rapunzel, staring at him across the room, running toward him. "Eugene!" And then there was nothing.
Every door in the facility was wide open. Anna ran as if she knew where she was going, and maybe she did. Elsa followed her, her heart pounding in her chest, her body on fire. Anna led them to the center of the building, found an open door with stairs going up. "This way!" she shouted. "I hope." They went up.
She had no idea how Anna kept moving. Her heart must be on the verge of exploding, but they kept going, floor after floor, the security guards fighting to keep up with Anna's relentless, fury-driven strength. Anna vaulted through the trap door, the guards next, Elsa last.
Gothel lay on the ground, unmoving. Rapunzel lay over Flynn's body, crying. "No, Eugene, no. Why?"
"Eugene... Flynn, he had an EMP thing with him. He let Gothel grab him and then set it off. His heart..."
A wave of anguish hit Elsa. She reached down to touch Rapunzel... and felt something. "Can you save him?"
"I could, if I had my Keys!" Rapunzel held up her hand. "We had to destroy it to keep it away from... her."
Elsa swallowed at the still-bleeding gash on the back of her cousin's hand.. "You cut the Keys out? I... I don't know if I could do that." She knelt next to her cousin, put her hand on Rapunzel's back. "I'm so sorry... what?" Rapunzel's hair had begun to glow. Elsa felt feedback through her hands, unfamiliar telemetry that was soon eagerly incorporating authorized protocols. It felt much like the interface she'd had with the aerodyne. Permission.
"Your Keys," Rapunzel said. "It's responding to your Keys! You can save him!"
"Tell it, you want to find his heart. Think about the direction you want it to go, and move it." Elsa nodded. She could feel something in her hands, something weird and alien as the hair wriggled then plunged toward Flynn's body. Each strand became needle-sharp at the tip and slipped into his flesh, going deeper. Rapunzel leaned down toward the body. "Find his heart. Give it power. Give... Please, Elsa!"
"I'm trying! I've never done anything like this!"
"The hair has some AI. Let it. Just, just tell it. Before it's too late."
"Live," Elsa whispered. She clenched her fist in Rapunzel's hair. The loose strands dug into Flynn's body, found metal, invaded it. Elsa hated the cybernetic mind's eye of Anton's Curse, but the list of options included "Attempt restart" and "Emergency power." "Emergency power," she whispered.
The hair surged; the glow faded, but Flynn body jerked and took a deep breath. He groaned hard, and his eyes opened. He looked up at the shocked faces around him. "Oh, Eugene!"
"Your hair," he said, touching his chest. "How are you doing this? It's, but, your Keys--"
"Elsa's here. Her Keys are doing it."
"Oh," he said. "Not much power in that hair. I don't feel right."
"Don't move," Anna said. "You, officer, go find us a way home. Find us communication. Get an ambulance with cardiac support, possibly heart/lung, and a full security detail immediately. You," she said to the other man as she walked toward Gothel's body, "I want you to shoot that glass out, and then you and I are going to heave this machine over the side. Got it?"
"Yes, Ma'am," the man said.
The command steel in Anna's voice made Elsa smile. I could so love you. Flynn coughed, and Elsa turned her attention back to keeping him alive even as bullets broke through a pane of safety glass. The glass was tough; bullets weakened its matrix but Anna and the squad man had to kick it out with their boots. Elsa barely heard the thud of Gothel's steel body hitting the grass far, far below.
Minutes later, Calhoun and a squad of security men burst through the trapdoor. Anna converted them all into a rescue team on the spot. "Felix!" she said. "I'm glad to see you. I need a read on how much power Rapunzel's hair has left, and if you can rig up an alternative power source."
"Will do, Ma'am!" Felix said, fumbling about with the tool on his wrist. "I wish I had a real multimeter."
"Jacket... pocket..." Flynn gasped. Felix found it.
"Ma,am, I can't raise anything," said the officer she'd tasked with finding them a way home.
"Then we have to go. Is your aerodyne functional, Captain Calhoun?"
"Yes, Captain DuVar."
"Then let's go. You two, hospital carry the wounded man. Those two women are both his life support, and their range is the length of the Princess's hair. Got it?"
Flynn, Rapunzel, and Elsa all had to be moved down the stairs as one. It was an awkward maneuver, but they eventually got out to the working aerodyne. Calhoun took the pilot's seat, Anna the co-pilot's. "Our life support's shot, so we're going in low and fast. This ain't no rowboat on a placid lake," Calhoun shouted. "Hold on tight!"
As a royal security vehicle, the aerodyne was equipped with twin fold-out medical bays including stretchers. Flynn lay on one, Rapunzel holding onto him, Elsa holding onto Rapunzel, a guard firmly behind both to make sure they didn't lose contact. Felix stood nearby, the closest thing they had to a doctor.
There was a body in the other stretcher, the cloth covering the face. Hal hadn't made it.
The aerodyne powered up and clawed its way into the sky.