Princess Cornelia Augusta woke to inky blackness and started to sit up. There was a dull thud as her forehead encountered cold steel. Only then did she remember where she was – a packing crate on a military freighter bound for the war-torn planet of Usteron.
She pressed a hand to her head and grimaced. There was a nasty bruise developing by the feel of it. She was determined not to feel sorry for herself, though. If she was going to prove herself to her father by fighting in his army, injuries were going to become par for the course.
Reaching into the pocket of her chainmail jumpsuit, she pulled out her compact and flipped open the lid. The built-in light flickered into life, filling the crate with its cheery glow. She pursed her lips as she looked at her reflection. Bruise or no bruise, nobody could say she wasn’t beautiful with her flawless dark skin and long eyelashes. Turning onto her side in a vain attempt to get comfortable, she began gingerly applying powder to cover up the swelling.
Captain Deno stepped out of the elevator onto the bridge of her beloved pirate ship, the Ether, and settled herself in her battered seat. The eyes of the bridge crew turned towards her. She was less than five feet tall, yet she wore authority like a crown. “Top of the morning,” she said with a toothy grin. “It’s time to tango.”
Born and bred on the planet Felus Secundus, Captain Deno was part human and part cat. She had retractable claws and a muscular tail, and her delicate features managed to be both beautiful and feral at the same time. She was dressed in hot pants, thigh-length boots and a leather bodice that clung to her three breasts like a second skin, yet she got no lustful glances from the Ether’s crew. They had long since learnt she was off limits.
Logging onto the computer terminal in the arm of her seat, Captain Deno fixed her eyes on the inbuilt monitor, where a small blip marked the approach of their intended target – an imperial freighter packed with valuable weapons. It was so close to them that had it not been for the dense concentration of dust in the Augustine Nebula, it couldn’t have failed to detect their presence. That was what she loved about these dark nebulae – they were such good hiding places. The scanner interference worked both ways of course, but the Ether had overcome the problem with a few strategically placed signal amplifiers.
Hearing a grunt of impatience from the weapons station, Captain Deno turned her head and was mildly concerned to see Fletcher fingering the controls with a bloodthirsty expression on his face. Tall and broad-shouldered, with a pair of puckered scars on his face and a patch over one eye, Fletcher looked like the kind of man who would punch first and ask questions later, which for all intents and purposes, he was. She would have to watch him during the coming battle or he would end up blowing the freighter to kingdom come before they had a chance to steal its cargo.
The rest of the bridge crew had an air of business-like efficiency. She had Bopper to thank for that, she supposed. The first mate’s calmness in tense situations was infectious. Bopper too was a child of Felus Secundus, and the bandana tied around his head had the planetary flag emblazoned across its surface. A squat powerhouse of strength, he was stood at her shoulder with his arms folded and his eyes narrowed in concentration.
Studying the nebula on her monitor, Captain Deno tapped her finger at various coordinates to highlight them for her helmsman, Jonas of Arcs, a wiry veteran with greasy white hair. “Take us forward, Jonas,” she instructed.
Jonas nodded and fired up the engines. Captain Deno raised a hand to her throat, touching the tooth that hung there for luck. It was five years since her father’s murder, yet she still found it reassuring to carry this small part of him. “Okay Fletcher, begin deploying the mines,” she said as the Ether reached the first position.
“With pleasure, captain,” Fletcher replied, punching a series of buttons on his control panel.
Captain Deno’s lips quirked upwards in a cold grin as the first mine dropped into place. It didn’t matter how much weaponry the approaching ship had; once it hit one of the Ether’s EMP mines it would be helpless.
When the trap had been laid, Jonas took the Ether deeper into the nebula, where they could watch the freighter’s progress without being seen. They waited expectantly as it approached the mines. It passed the first without incident, but the next time, it wasn’t so lucky. Captain Deno smiled. “Looks like we got them, boys. Time to get some booty.” She turned to Jonas of Arcs. “Jonas my good man, let’s move.”
Jonas nodded enthusiastically and took them forward.
Princess Cornelia pulled a strand of hair from beneath her cap and twirled it around her finger, wondering why the freighter’s engines had stopped. Could it be marauders? She briefly considered climbing out of the packing crate to find out, but decided against it. If she gave herself away now and the problem turned out to be a simple mechanical failure, she was liable to find herself being frogmarched back to the capital. Then, she might never get to join the army.
She closed her eyes and began singing to herself softly. Whatever was going on, she hoped it didn’t cause them too much delay. Being shut up in a packing crate wasn’t much fun.
Captain Deno stood at the front of the Ether’s bridge, staring into the billowing dust cloud outside. The movement was strangely hypnotic, like the shifting colours of a kaleidoscope. She believed it had something to do with magnetic fields, though the dreamer in her liked to pretend she was witnessing the moulding of new galaxies from primordial chaos. She ran a finger along one of her claws as the freighter loomed out of the blackness. Thanks to inertia, it was still moving, but the engines were dead, suggesting that the EMP mine had done its job admirably. She turned to Fletcher. “Deprive her of her guns.”
“Your wish is my command,” Fletcher replied, his eyes gleaming. One by one, he targeted the freighter’s cannons and blasted them to oblivion.
Captain Deno was about to ask Bopper to assemble a boarding party, when Jonas of Arcs beckoned her over and pointed to two unidentified blips on the monitor in front of him. “Looks like we have company, captain.”
Captain Deno fingered her father’s tooth as she studied the monitor over his shoulder. The two ships were heading straight for them. It was possible their arrival was a coincidence, but her money was on them being an escort of some sort. She hissed irritably. Why was nothing ever simple?
Returning to her seat, she gave a loud cry of “Battle stations!” into the intercom system. There was no visible change in the men around her, but she could sense them tensing up. Each one of them was ready for battle – hungry for it, even – and so was she. “Drop back out of sight and power down, Jonas,” she said, turning to the helmsman.
Jonas moved the ship deeper into the nebula and shut off the engines. By now, the approaching ships had reached the freighter and were moving into flanking positions to either side of it. Hoping to take them by surprise, Captain Deno ordered Jonas to move in. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Fletcher’s hand hovering over the controls to the laser cannons and tutted. When would the man learn that brute force wasn’t always the best strategy? “We’ll fire one shot,” she said, looking at him pointedly, “then retreat into the nebula. Got that, Fletcher?”
Fletcher nodded grudgingly.
Presently, the enemy ships came into view. They were top-of-the-range imperial fighters – sleek and heavily armoured. Targeting the nearest, Fletcher fired his shot. Had it not been for the ship’s deflector shield, the blast would have taken out the cockpit, but as it was, it veered harmlessly off into space. “I hate it when they don’t play fair,” Fletcher grumbled.
“Why should they?” Captain Deno asked. “We never do.” She motioned to Jonas and the helmsman took them back into the nebula. One of the fighters came after them; the other stayed with the freighter.
“Where am I heading, captain?” Jonas asked.
“Straight for the nearest mine,” Captain Deno replied. “Full speed ahead.”
Jonas gave a knowing nod and began to accelerate. Captain Deno waited until they were almost on top of the mine, and then ordered Jonas to turn aside. As she had hoped, the pursuing fighter failed to realise the impending danger and hit the mine head-on. There was a flash of light as the device went off, frying the enemy ship’s electrical systems. “Take out her weapons and shield generator, Fletcher,” Captain Deno ordered.
Fletcher immediately unleashed a volley of laser fire, but instead of following her instructions, he targeted the fighter’s engines. The shots tore through the casing and the ship exploded in a ball of flame. Captain Deno flinched as a wave of metal fragments slammed into the Ether’s deflector shield. She glared at Fletcher, flexing her claws. “Did I order you to blow them to pieces? How many times do I have to tell you – we don’t kill unless we have to?”
“My apologies,” Fletcher replied, not looking sorry in the slightest. “It was an accident.”
Captain Deno didn’t press the matter. She had more important things to worry about, like the second fighter. She swivelled around in her chair, looking for Bopper, who was standing behind her. “I think it’s time we played our ace, Bopper. “Fire up your starfighter.”
Bopper looked torn. “Are you sure you’ll be okay without me?” he asked.
Captain Deno eyed him reproachfully. “I’m a big girl now. I don’t need you watching over me all the time. Now get moving!”
Rolling his shoulders as if he was about to engage the fighter in hand-to-hand combat, Bopper headed for the elevator.
Bopper seated himself in the cockpit of his fighter, Belle, which he had custom built using choice parts from vanquished vessels, and waited impatiently for the hanger doors to open. The only thing he liked better than being in this ship was spending time with the woman he had named it after, and sadly, she had long since left him for another man.
At last, the doors slid open and he powered forward. As it was a while since he had taken the ship out, it seemed sensible to do a quick test to make sure everything was working before heading into battle. Pulling back on his control stick, he swept back on himself in a graceful loop and let off a burst of laser fire. As he had hoped, the ship performed perfectly.
Suddenly, the quiet of the cockpit was shattered by a terse transmission from Captain Deno – “If you’ve finished fooling around, we have work to do.”
Bopper didn’t waste time defending his actions. When Captain Deno spoke, he obeyed. “What’s the plan, captain?” he said into his communicator.
“The usual,” came Captain Deno’s reply. “We’ll create a diversion; you bop the swine.”
“Got it,” said Bopper as the Ether pulled away. He fell in behind her until his computer told him he was about to become visible to the enemy fighter’s scanners, then brought himself to a stop to plan his line of attack. Deciding it would be best to approach from the rear, he circled around to a suitable vantage point and waited for the call to arms.
“Deno to Bopper,” said Captain Deno presently. “It’s time to tango.”
Rolling his shoulders, Bopper punched Belle’s throttle and hurtled forward. He smiled grimly, firing his guns. The enemy pilot had been so busy playing hit and run with the Ether that Belle’s arrival had taken him completely by surprise. He attempted to pull away, but Bopper stuck doggedly with him, bombarding him with laser fire and slowly but surely breaking down his deflector shield.
Just when it seemed like it was all over, however, the pilot gave up trying to shake Belle off and headed for the Ether. He gulped. Unless he missed his guess, the crazy fool was on a suicide run. He contacted Captain Deno on his communicator. “Back off! The idiot’s planning on crashing into you.”
The Ether started to pull away, but the fighter was coming in too fast. If Bopper and his comrades were going to win the day, he was going to have to do something radical. “For Felus Secundus!” he cried, bringing himself alongside the speeding fighter and barging into the side of it with his deflector shield to try and force it off course. The impact knocked out the other fighter’s shield, yet instead of yielding to him, the enemy pilot began pushing back, even as the side of his ship burst into flames.
The two ships buffeted against each other as they hurtled onwards. Bopper knew his own shield could give out at any second, but he didn’t care. If saving Captain Deno’s hide meant sacrificing his own, then so be it. He held his breath as they approached the Ether, trying to decide if they were going to hit it, then exhaled in a rush as they went soaring past with just inches to spare.
He pulled away from the enemy fighter and looped around into an attack position. Then, targeting its engines, he fired his lasers and finished it off.
“Nice shooting,” came Captain Deno’s voice over the communicator. “I guess we owe you one.”
“Don’t mention it, captain,” Bopper replied. He was about to say something else, when his stomach gave a low grumble. He looked down at it, suddenly feeling very hungry. Space combat tended to do that to him. Picking out a couple of cashew nuts from a bag in his pocket, he popped them into his mouth.
“Are you still there?” Captain Deno asked.
Bopper swallowed quickly. “I’m still here.”
“Well, how about getting your heroic little butt back to the Ether?” said Captain Deno with mock impatience. “There are weapons waiting to be stolen.”
Bopper headed for the Ether’s landing bay. “On my way.”
Princess Cornelia lay motionless in the darkness, listening to the banging and scraping outside. Her heart was racing and her throat was tight with fear. It had become clear from the snippets of conversation she had overheard that the freighter was being raided by pirates. Part of her wanted to slip out of the packing crate and find an alternative hiding place until they left, but that would mean turning her back on the cargo, which was out of the question. Not only was it her father’s property, but it was urgently needed by his troops on Usteron. The question was how to stop it being taken. She didn’t fancy her chances in a direct confrontation, so she made up her mind to let the pirates carry her aboard their ship in the packing crate and then try her hand at sabotaging it.
The waiting seemed eternal, but finally she felt herself being raised into the air. She held her breath, wondering if the pirates doing the lifting would notice a difference in weight between her crate and the others, but if they did, they didn’t remark on it. Her lips twisted into a grimace as she was buffeted repeatedly against the crate’s sides. Given how valuable the shipment was, she would have expected the thieves to take better care of it.
At last, the pirates reached their destination and dropped the crate on the ground. Bumping her face, Princess Cornelia reached for her compact to check for injury, and then stopped herself. The risk of someone hearing was too great.
She waited impatiently for the sound of loading to cease, keeping perfectly still in spite of a biting cramp in one of her legs. Only when she was satisfied she was alone, did she dare to move, flexing her leg and checking her reflection in her compact mirror. As she had feared, there was a livid bruise developing on her face. Hiding the mark beneath a layer of powder, she gave a satisfied nod. Now, she looked like a princess again.
Taking a deep breath, she opened the lid of the packing crate. She was about to climb out, when she realised she was not alone. Sitting in the shadow of a brightly coloured starfighter was a stocky pirate in a bandana. She had no idea what planet he came from, but he obviously wasn’t human as he had downy fur all over his body and a long tail. There was an engine part on the ground beside the pirate, which he appeared to be in the process of repairing, while munching on a plate of burnt sausages.
Princess Cornelia started to shut herself back in her crate, but it was too late – the pirate had already seen her. “Not so fast,” he said in a rumbling voice. “I think you and me need to have a little chat. You can start by telling me your name.”
Not knowing what else to do, Princess Cornelia stepped out of the crate and drew herself up to her full height. “I am Princess Cornelia Augusta, daughter of Maximilian the third.”
The pirate looked unimpressed. “My name’s Bopper, first mate on…”
“I don’t care who you are,” Princess Cornelia interrupted. “In the name of the galactic empire, I’m placing you under arrest for piracy.”
The pirate munched unconcernedly on his sausages. “I hate to break it to you, little girl, but you’re in no position to be making arrests.”
Princess Cornelia felt her hackles rise. How dare he refer to her as little girl? She was the emperor’s daughter for heaven’s sake. “The prisoner will address me as your royal highness,” she snapped.
“I can see we’re not getting very far,” the pirate remarked, putting down his plate, “so I guess I’d better take you to Captain Deno. She’s better at interrogation than I am.”
Princess Cornelia had no desire to meet the captain of the ship; nor did she want to be interrogated. What she did want was to give this lummox the slip so she could press on with her sabotage attempt. She folded her arms. “I’m not going anywhere with you.”
The pirate rose to his feet. “I’m afraid I must insist.” He took a step towards her, rolling his shoulders. “If you won’t go voluntarily, I’ll have to carry you.”
Princess Cornelia backed away. “You lay one finger on me and I’ll scream my head off.”
The pirate shrugged. “Feel free. Nobody here will take any notice.”
Princess Cornelia had a sudden vision of the pirate flinging her over his shoulder and carrying her through the ship, and cringed with embarrassment. “On second thoughts, I could do with a walk,” she said. “I dread to think how long I’ve been cooped up in that box. Do you mind if I bring my bag?” She waved her hand at her travel bag, which was lying in the crate behind her.
The pirate considered this, and then nodded his head. “That’s a good idea. If you leave it lying around here someone’s bound to steal it. We pirates can’t be trusted, you know.”
Bending over the crate to hide what she was doing, Princess Cornelia lifted up the bag and slipped her hand into one of the pockets, where she kept a small knife for self-defence. Freeing the knife from its sheath, she let the bag fall away and swung sharply around, only to find the pirate waiting behind her. With a cry of rage, she brought the knife sweeping down towards him, but before it could connect, his hand closed around her wrist. Slowly, he tightened his grip, forcing her to open her hand, and then snatched the weapon away from her.
“Shall we go?” he asked, as if the incident had never happened.
Nodding her head reluctantly, Princess Cornelia picked up her bag and followed him to the elevator.
Captain Deno’s eyes widened as the elevator doors slid open and a girl in a chainmail jumpsuit stepped out onto the bridge. There wasn’t much in life that she found disconcerting, but being confronted by complete strangers on her own bridge was one of the exceptions.
“You still there, Deno?” came the voice of Ricco Remus from the captain’s communicator.
Ricco, an upstart freedom fighter, had expressed an interest in buying some of the merchandise from the hijacked freighter and they were in the middle of negotiating a price. She turned her attention back to the image of his face on her monitor. “Sorry Ricco, something’s come up. I’ll have to get back to you.” Ricco opened his mouth to reply, but before he could do so, she severed the connection.
Raising her eyes from the screen, Captain Deno saw Bopper following the mystery girl out onto the bridge. She quirked an eyebrow at him enquiringly.
“I found her in the cargo bay, captain,” he said.
He was about to elaborate when the girl cut him off, saying imperiously, “I am Princess Cornelia Augusta.”
Captain Deno gulped. “As in the emperor’s daughter?”
“Exactly,” the girl confirmed.
Captain Deno felt suddenly sick. Stealing weapons from the emperor was one thing, but flying off with his daughter was another kettle of fish entirely. When he found out, he was likely to launch a full-scale attack to try and get her back. She rose to her feet, advancing on the girl. “Shiver my whiskers! What the hell is the emperor’s daughter doing on my ship?”
The question was directed at Bopper, but it was the girl herself who answered. “I’m here to arrest you. You and all who follow you.”
Captain Deno looked at Bopper, her eyebrows climbing up her forehead. “Is she mad?”
“Quite possibly,” Bopper replied.
“Surrender now,” the princess continued, “and I’ll put in a good word for you at your trial.”
“Sorry princess,” said Captain Deno, “but surrender’s the last thing on my mind. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to have a chat with somebody sane.” Laying a hand on Bopper’s shoulder, she drew him to one side, lowering her voice. “So Bopper, you found her; what do you suggest we do with her?”
Bopper thought for a minute. “That depends on whether she can cook,” he said. “If she can, I suggest we put her to work in the galley. Perhaps then they might manage to serve up something that isn’t burnt to a frazzle.”
Captain Deno looked at him flatly. She hoped he was joking, but it was hard to tell. “I think we can safely assume cooking isn’t one of her skills. She’s an aristocrat and what aristocrats know about work could be written on a speck of cosmic dust.”
“In that case, I guess we should ditch her somewhere,” said Bopper.
“My thoughts exactly,” said Captain Deno. “I trust I can rely on you to keep an eye on her while I make the necessary arrangements. I don’t want the crew trying to sink their anchors in her ocean, if you know what I mean.”
“Of course, captain,” Bopper replied.
Captain Deno clapped him on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, Bopper. Let’s tango.” Sitting back down, she punched up a list of local planets on her computer.
Princess Cornelia stared at the captain indignantly. “I don’t like being ignored.”
Captain Deno ignored her. Beckoning to Bopper, she pointed to one of the names on the screen. “We’re in luck. Look how close we are to Saraton. It could be weeks before the emperor traces her to a backwater like that.”
“An excellent choice,” said Bopper, “with some of the tastiest species of fish in the galaxy, I might add.”
Captain Deno sighed. “I hate to disappoint you, “but we won’t be staying there long enough to…” She broke off as Princess Cornelia walked purposefully past them and positioned herself in front of the main viewport.
“If any man here remains loyal to the empire,” the girl said in a loud voice, her presence seeming suddenly to dominate the bridge, “I call upon him now to aid me in arresting its enemies. In return, I guarantee leniency for your past crimes.”
Captain Deno snorted. For what the girl was asking, she should be promising a full pardon, not just leniency. Not surprisingly, no one took her up on her generous offer. “Nice try, princess,” she said coolly, “but I’m afraid nobody on this ship gives a flying fish about your beloved empire.” Looking at Bopper, she jerked her head in the direction of the elevator. “Throw her in the brig, Bopper. She’s starting to get on my nerves.”
Bopper nodded and took Princess Cornelia firmly by the arm, pulling her into the elevator. “Come with me.”
Captain Deno waited for the doors to close behind them, and then turned to Jonas of Arcs. “Plot a course for Saraton, Jonas. The sooner we get rid of our unexpected guest, the better.”
Princess Cornelia twirled a lock of hair around her finger as she watched the Ether blast off into space. So much for her sabotage attempt! Dropping her travel bag, she sat down on a rock and looked around the beach where the pirates had abandoned her. Bordered by a towering cliff with two suns blazing in the sky above, it was oppressively hot. The sand was a lurid shade of violet, the seawater was as thick as treacle and there were crystals of varying sizes rising up out of the ground on all sides like ethereal fingers. She reached into her pocket for her handkerchief and dabbed at the perspiration on her forehead. She had spent countless hours sunbathing at fashionable resorts over the years, but the heat here was too much even for her.
She moved into the shadow of the cliff, pulled out her compact and studied her reflection. As expected, there were streaks of colour on her face where her makeup had run. She was just in the process of powdering over them, when she was grabbed from behind by a clammy tentacle. She cried out in alarm, even as a second tentacle reached around her face and pressed a wad of pungent leaves over her mouth and nose. A wave of panic rose inside her. She struggled violently to escape, but could feel the strength in her body ebbing away. Her head lolled over to one side and her legs gave way beneath her. Then the world around her faded to black…
“Ten thousand,” said Ricco Remus.
Captain Deno stared at her screen in disbelief. Ricco had a reputation for driving a hard bargain, but even he must realise a price like that was absurd. “You’re joking, right?”
“Far from it,” Ricco replied. “Under the circumstances, I’d say the offer was more than fair.”
Captain Deno fingered one of her claws. “Exactly what circumstances are you talking about?”
“Surely you’ve heard about the emperor’s daughter,” said Ricco.
Captain Deno’s muscles tensed. “What about her?”
“She’s disappeared,” Ricco told her.
“So?” said Captain Deno, doing her best to sound disinterested.
“So, it’s not a good time to be carrying stolen weapons,” said Ricco. “There’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get caught.”
“I think you’re exaggerating the danger,” said Captain Deno. “She’ll turn up in a few days. She probably got lost on her way from one side of the palace to the other. You know what these bloody aristocrats are like.”
“The emperor doesn’t think so,” Ricco responded. “He’s putting up a five million credit reward for her safe return – no questions asked.”
Captain Deno’s jaw fell open. “Five million credits?”
“That’s what I’ve heard,” Ricco replied. “It’s a lot of money, isn’t it?”
For a minute, Captain Deno couldn’t answer. Five million credits was a lot of money, a hell of a lot of money. With five million credits she could retire from piracy and live the rest of her days in luxury. Not that she would – piracy was all she knew. “Sorry Ricco,” she said at last. “Once again, something’s come up. Do you mind if we continue this later?”
“Careful Deno; if you keep messing me around like this, I may lose interest,” Ricco cautioned.
Captain Deno shrugged. “That’s a risk I’m going to have to take. This is something I can’t put off.”
“Would it make any difference if I increase my offer to twelve thousand?” Ricco asked.
“I’m afraid not,” replied Captain Deno. “It isn’t about the money. It’s…”
“Fifteen thousand?” Ricco interrupted.
Captain Deno smiled. Perhaps Ricco wouldn’t drive such a hard bargain after all. “Goodbye Ricco,” she said firmly, terminating the connection.
She turned to Jonas of Arcs. “Looks like we’re going back to Saraton. Turn us around.”
“Aye aye captain,” said Jonas, programming a course into his computer.
“Shiver my whiskers, where in blazes is she?” Captain Deno asked, gazing up and down the beach. She pulled furiously on her father’s tooth and turned to her landing party – Bopper and five others – who were standing in the shade beneath the Ether’s sleek hull. “Don’t just stand there. Spread out and start looking for clues.”
The men nodded and moved off in different directions. A few minutes later, Bopper came up with a lead. “Over here, captain!” he called from the base of the nearby cliff.
Captain Deno bounded over to him. Perhaps this little fish of theirs wasn’t going to slip the net after all. “What is it?”
Bopper pointed first to a series of indentations in the sand, then to two sets of tracks – one human and the other unlike any Captain Deno had seen before. She pursed her lips as her mind settled on a likely chain of events – namely that some unidentified creature had sneaked up behind Princess Cornelia, overpowered her and carried her away. She followed the creature’s tracks to the cliff face, where they stopped abruptly, and ran her hand over the jagged surface. There was no sign of a hidden entrance, so presumably its next move had been to climb the cliff. Directing her gaze upwards, she smiled as she noticed a series of caves high above, one of which appeared to be lit. It had to be more than coincidence. “There!” she said, pointing at the emanating light. “If we’re going to find out what happened, that’s where we need to look.”
“But how do we get up there?” asked Fluff – so named for the sprinkling of downy fuzz on his face – the result of many years spent trying to grow a beard.
Captain Deno took a step backwards and planted her hands on her hips, gazing up at the opening. Although it was a long way from the ground, there were no shortage of footholds in the cliff face. “Like this,” she said, seizing hold of a handy crag and hauling herself upwards.
“You heard the captain,” said Bopper gruffly. “Get climbing.”
The other pirates moved towards the cliff, their weapons and equipment clattering loudly. Captain Deno cringed. A herd of elephants would have made less noise. “Belay that order,” she said hurriedly. “I think we should play it stealthy. I’ll climb up to the cave and see what we’re up against; the rest of you stay here and wait for my signal.”
The pirates nodded and Captain Deno continued her ascent alone. Propelling herself through the opening in a graceful somersault, she pulled her laser pistol from the holster at the top of her boot and looked warily around. A narrow tunnel extended away from her deeper into the cliff, passing through a wall of green flame a little way ahead. Holding her pistol at the ready, she crept towards this strange phenomenon. As she expected, it turned out to be artificial, formed by a ring of pipes spewing out jets of burning gas. She shifted her head about, peering through the gaps in the flames. In the distance, she could see a dimly lit cavern, filled with alien life forms – tentacled blobs covered in matted white fur with huge bulbous eyes. The creatures appeared to be holding some kind of market, though it was a far cry from the manic mayhem of the markets of Felus Secundus. Here, the stalls and goods were arranged with military precision and the crowd interacted with an air of calm decorum.
Captain Deno turned quietly away and started back down the tunnel. Getting the princess back wouldn’t be easy, but there were too many credits at stake not to try. She reached for her father’s tooth and tugged on it absently as she started to formulate a plan.
It didn’t take long for Captain Deno to collect what she needed from the Ether and climb back up to the tunnel with Bopper and the rest of the landing party. She sighed as Fluff hauled himself over the threshold and flopped onto his back, panting loudly. Perhaps she should consider instigating a compulsory fitness program for the Ether’s crew. If her pirates couldn’t handle a paltry two hundred foot climb, there was something seriously wrong. “On your feet, you lazy good-for-nothing.”
Fluff saluted awkwardly and scrambled to his feet. Rolling her eyeballs, Captain Deno led the way to the wall of flame, which they were intending to breach with fire retardant spacesuits. “Okay everybody, this is it,” she whispered. “Now, remember the plan – Bopper and I will grab a hostage; the rest of you form a defensive circle around us. Got it?” Her companions nodded, brandishing their guns in readiness.
Taking a deep breath, Captain Deno led them through the flames. As she had hoped, their spacesuits completely protected them from injury. She hurried to the end of the tunnel and peered at the cavern beyond. There were no shortage of potential hostages browsing the market stalls, but one in particular caught her eye – a child by the looks of it, small in size with fine fur. She pointed the alien out to Bopper, who nodded his head and started towards it.
By now, the aliens were becoming aware of the landing party’s presence. Some turned and fled in abject fear, but others came towards the group, brandishing crude weapons. Captain Deno couldn’t help smiling. If knives and cudgels were all the creatures had to defend themselves, rescuing the princess would be easier than she thought.
She glanced at Bopper. The first mate was chasing their intended hostage around a stall. Grabbing the creature from behind, he lifted it into the air in a vicelike grip. A few of the braver aliens tried to come to its aid, only to be cut off by Fluff and the others. She fired a shot into the air and shoved the barrel of her pistol into the captive alien’s mouth. “Back off! Or the minnow gets it.”
Straight away, the aliens stopped trying to break through the ring of pirates. Then, the largest of the group came forward, holding out a tentacle in a placatory fashion. Captain Deno was just about to explain to this creature what it was they wanted, when a second alien – the hostage’s mother perhaps – threw itself at the nearest pirate with a hysterical wail. Luckily the creature’s companions moved to restrain it or she would have had no choice but to order the man to fire on it.
Keeping her gun in the hostage’s mouth, she reached into a pocket of her spacesuit and took out a rolled up magazine. She flicked though the pages until she reached an article about the imperial family and then pointed to a hologram of Princess Cornelia. “We’re looking for this girl. Take us to her and nobody gets hurt.”
The large alien gave a small bow to indicate that it understood and headed off across the marketplace, gesturing for them to follow. Keeping in their agreed formation, Captain Deno and her men hurried after it.
“Let me go!” Princess Cornelia shouted for what must have been the hundredth time, struggling frantically to free herself. Being tied to a table was bad enough, but to be tied in a spread-eagled position without a stitch of clothing was more than she could stand. She glared at her captor, picturing herself strangling it to death with one of its own tentacles.
Judging by their location – a macabre gaslit cavern full of archaic apparatus and carefully preserved body parts in glass jars – the creature saw itself as some kind of scientist. At present, it was standing at a metal counter, drawing a picture of her breasts on a piece of papyrus – the latest in a succession of carefully crafted illustrations in which it had recorded her body from every conceivable angle. Her cheeks coloured as she watched the image take shape. How dare the alien violate her privacy like this? Still, at least while it was making sketches, it wasn’t cutting her open, which seemed to be what it had in mind if the box of barbaric tools on the table beside her was anything to go by.
When the alien was satisfied it had accurately captured the size and shape of the princess’ bust, it rolled up the sheet of papyrus and placed it on a shelf with its earlier efforts. Then, it came towards her.
“If you’re going to kill me, make it quick,” she said, amazed at how calm she sounded.
Rummaging through its box of tools, the alien picked up a scalpel and held it up to the light. Then, evidently deciding that the blade in question was unsuitable, it returned it to the box and selected another.
Princess Cornelia stared at the gleaming instrument with wide eyes as the creature placed it against her chest. Her heart was pounding, yet she refused to scream. She was determined to die with the dignity her father would have expected.
Slowly, the scalpel began to move. She tugged furiously at her bonds, but still, she couldn’t break free. She closed her eyes, only to open them again as the sound of laser fire rang out and the tentacle holding the scalpel turned to ash. Then, she saw them, standing in the doorway – Captain Deno and a group of her men. Princess Cornelia had never been so glad to see anybody in her life.
The captain aimed her gun at the alien scientist’s head. “Don’t move!”
The alien froze, staring at the weapon with a mixture of fear and curiosity.
Captain Deno moved closer. “Are you all right, princess?” she asked, sounding like she didn’t really care one way or the other.
Princess Cornelia nodded, hardly able to believe the pirates were really there.
Captain Deno turned around, addressing herself to her companions, “Look lively, you lot! This is a rescue attempt, not a daytrip.” Her gaze settled on Bopper, who was clutching a childlike alien. “Give the hostage to Fluff, Bopper. You help the girl.” Bopper nodded and shoved the captive alien towards a boyish looking pirate with the beginnings of a downy beard.
“Can’t I help the girl?” the younger pirate protested, eying Princess Cornelia lasciviously.
Captain Deno glared at him. “You’ll do as you’re told, Fluff! Bopper’s on babysitting duty, because Bopper can be trusted to carry the baby down the cliff, unlike some people I could mention. Besides, she seems to like him.”
“I don’t like any of you,” muttered Princess Cornelia, remembering abruptly how she had ended up in this terrible situation in the first place.
“Let’s get you down from there,” said Bopper, seeming not to have taken her remark personally. Picking out a knife from the alien’s box of tools, he sliced through her restraints and helped her down from the table. A violent cramp seized her legs and she had to cling onto him to keep from falling over. He put an arm around her shoulder to steady her. He wasn’t much taller than she was, yet his massive chest and bulging biceps made him seem like a god.
Suddenly remembering herself, Princess Cornelia leapt backwards, glaring at the first mate angrily. He wasn’t a god; he was an enemy of the empire – an enemy who was showing far too much interest in her nakedness, and he wasn’t the only one. She blushed furiously, doing her best to cover herself.
Bopper gave her a sympathetic look and retrieved something from behind a row of specimen jars. Princess Cornelia could have hugged him. It was her travel bag. Reaching inside, the first mate pulled a skimpy lycra swimsuit out at random and thrust it into her hands. “Put this on,” he said.
Princess Cornelia looked at him indignantly. “You’re not serious. I insist you pick out something else.”
“Put it on or stay as you are,” said Captain Deno, tapping her foot. “We don’t have time for you to be choosy.”
Princess Cornelia tugged on a strand of hair. How was she supposed to maintain her dignity if she had to go around looking like a contestant in a beauty pageant? Unfortunately, it didn’t look like she had much choice. Mumbling to herself about the injustice of it, she began pulling the swimsuit up over her body. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Fluff watching her intently. She was just about to turn and give him a piece of her mind, when the alien hostage he was holding opened its mouth and bit him on the shoulder. He gave a small yelp and let go of the creature in shock.
“Don’t let it slip the net!” Captain Deno shouted as the alien made a dash for the exit. “That little blighter’s our ticket out of here.” Two of the other pirates attempted to block the creature’s path, but somehow it managed to dodge past them. Rolling her eyes, Captain Deno propelled herself through the air, dropped to the floor in front of it and tripped it over with an arcing leg movement.
The two pirates who had attempted to intercept it threw themselves on top of it, pinning it firmly down. At the same time, the alien scientist, who had been momentarily forgotten, picked up a glass tube filled with noxious looking gas and threw it at Princess Cornelia’s feet. The princess shrieked as it shattered and the escaping gas billowed towards her.
Biting back a curse, Captain Deno shot the scientist in the head. The creature fell forward with a low gurgle, thrashed around for a moment, and then lay still, a pool of purple blood gathering beneath it.
Princess Cornelia coughed throatily as a tendril of gas found its way up her nose. She attempted to move away from it, but her legs refused to obey her commands. Overcome by a sudden wave of dizziness, she clutched hold of the table beside her, blinking frantically to try and clear her blurring vision. Through the haze of colour, she saw Fluff step in front of her and conduct a quick analysis of the gas cloud with a scanner in the arm of his spacesuit. “No need to panic,” he said. “It’s just a medium grade anaesthetic – nothing the respirators in our spacesuits can’t handle.”
“Brilliant!” said Captain Deno sarcastically. “What about the princess? She hasn’t got a spacesuit.”
The conversation continued, but Princess Cornelia found she could no longer focus on the words. She lurched to the side and was vaguely aware of Bopper moving to catch her. Her mouth opened on impulse to tell him to keep his hands to himself, but she was unable to speak. Slowly, the world around her slipped away.
Waking to the smell of freshly cooked sausage, Princess Cornelia propelled herself up into a sitting position and looked around. To her relief, she was back on Captain Deno’s ship, albeit in the brig. She grimaced as she became aware of a pressing need to urinate. There was a grubby toilet fitted to the adjacent wall, but given that her cell was open-fronted with only a transparent energy field sealing it off from the corridor outside, her bladder would have had to be on the point of exploding before she would have considered using it. The only other furnishings in the cell were a food dispenser and the bed she was sitting on – if you could call a slab of metal with a threadbare blanket stretched across it a bed. She frowned irritably. The pirates could have at least attached a mirror to the wall. Rising to her feet, she began pacing backwards and forwards, wondering why Captain Deno had come back for her.
“Ah good, you’re awake,” said a voice. “We were starting to worry.”
The princess gave a small start. She hadn’t realised there was anyone else around. Moving to the front of the cell, she peered along the corridor and saw Bopper leaning against a row of lockers with a half-eaten sausage in his hand. Her stomach rumbled as she watched him raise the sausage to his mouth and take a bite out of it. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a decent meal. “I might find that easier to believe if you hadn’t left me languishing in a cell for heaven knows how long,” she said.
“Captain’s orders, I’m afraid,” Bopper replied. “It’s the only place we can guarantee your safety. The crew go a little crazy around women.”
“Perhaps you should have thought of that before you brought me aboard your ship in a swimsuit,” said Princess Cornelia, looking down at herself.
“My apologies,” Bopper said insincerely, “but you know how it is in life and death situations – every second counts.”
Princess Cornelia folded her arms and pouted. “You can’t fool me. The only reason you wanted me dressed this way was to give yourself a cheap thrill.”
“Don’t flatter yourself,” Bopper replied. “There’s only one woman in the universe who can give me a thrill and she’s on Felus Secundus.”
“If that’s true, then you won’t mind giving me something else to wear now that we’re out of danger,” said Princess Cornelia.
Bopper shoved the last of the sausage into his mouth. “Of course I don’t mind. Just tell me what you want.” He reached into one of the lockers beside him and pulled out the princess’s travel bag.
Princess Cornelia looked surprised. She hadn’t expected him to be so accommodating. “If it’s all the same to you, I’d like to peruse my options. Perhaps you could give me the whole bag.”
Bopper waggled his forefinger. “Sorry, no can do. As I recall, you have at least one concealed weapon in here and I’m in no mood to be shot at or stabbed.”
Princess Cornelia did her best to look offended. “I’m not given to betrayals of trust.”
Bopper said nothing, but it was clear from his expression that he didn’t believe her.
“Fine, be like that,” she said sulkily. “There should be a fire-dye dress in there somewhere. That will do nicely.”
“I knew it!” Bopper exclaimed. “You’re going to try and set me alight.”
Princess Cornelia sighed. “Don’t be idiotic. They call it a fire-dye dress, because the design flickers like dancing flames.”
There was a long pause. “Okay, I believe you,” Bopper said finally, unfastening the bag and rummaging through the contents. “I’ll see if I can find it.”
“I suppose I should thank you for rescuing me,” said Princess Cornelia. “What happened back there anyway?”
“We carried your regal ass all the way back to the ship, that’s what happened,” Bopper replied, “with only minimal resistance from the aliens, I’m pleased to say. Taking a hostage really paid off. We even got them to shut off the flames across the exit.” He paused for a moment, pulling a few items of clothing out onto the floor, and then added with an air of triumph, “I think I’ve found it!” He started to tug something out the bag, only to freeze as the sound of approaching footsteps rang out in the distance.
Seconds later, one of the other pirates – a muscular individual with a scarred face and eye-patch – came charging along the corridor and swung a mace at the side of his head. He attempted to duck, but wasn’t fast enough. The mace hit him with a dull thud and he fell senseless to the ground.
The newcomer prodded the first mate’s body a few times with his foot to check he was really unconsciousness, and then stepped over him. Princess Cornelia shuddered. The expression on the man’s face put her in mind of a starving cat that had managed to corner a mouse.
“Do you like it?” he asked, holding up his mace and gesturing at the head, which was shaped like a human skull. “I five-fingered it from a museum on Fragillus. It belonged to their royal family.”
Princess Cornelia backed away from him. “Why don’t you cut the small talk and tell me what you want?”
“Of course, your highness,” the pirate sneered. “I want to spend a little time with you.” Princess Cornelia’s throat went dry. It was hard to believe such a simple sentence could be so loaded with malice.
“I’m warning you, you lay one hand on me and I’ll…” She broke off, uncertain how to finish.
“You’ll what?” the pirate asked. “Arrest me? I don’t think so! That would require backup and all I see in this bag of yours are pretty clothes.” Drawing back his leg, he kicked her travel bag onto its side, sending a bundle of dresses and other garments spilling out onto the floor.
Princess Cornelia puffed out her chest, trying to make herself look bigger. “You underestimate me. I’m tougher than I look.”
“We’ll see about that,” said the pirate. “Just as soon as I’ve disposed of our friend here.” Turning away, he dragged Bopper to a cell on the opposite side of the corridor. “Sorry about this Bopper, but we can’t have you getting in the way. At times like this, three’s a crowd.”
Stepping back out into the corridor, he activated the cell’s security field with a barked command and then smashed the control panel.
The princess’ eyes flickered from side to side as the pirate came towards her, frantically searching for a weapon, but nothing came to light. The pirate deactivated the security field across the front of her cell and stepped inside. She launched forward, attempting to dodge past him, only to run face first into his oncoming mace. Caught in a haze of pain and confusion, she toppled over.
When she came to her senses, the pirate was sitting astride her with his knees pressed against her arms. She tried to squirm out from under him, screaming desperately, but the weight of his body made it impossible. With a cackle, he yanked the strap of her swimsuit down and sank his teeth into one of her nipples. Her screams turned into sobs of pain. She hated the thought of him seeing her cry, but she couldn’t help it. Squeezing her eyes shut, she tried to imagine she was somewhere else.
Suddenly, she heard Bopper shouting angrily, “I hope you’ve made your funeral arrangements, meat puppet, because Captain Deno will have your guts for garters for this.”
“Perhaps,” the pirate replied, “but Captain Deno isn’t here right now.”
“Guess again, Fletcher,” came the voice of Captain Deno from the corridor outside. “Let’s tango.”
Princess Cornelia opened her eyes and saw the captain diving towards the would-be rapist with her fists outstretched. The blow hit him squarely in the chest, knocking him backwards into the wall. Then, as he started to struggle to his feet, the captain came at him again, slashing at his face with her claws.
With a howl of pain, the pirate wedged his foot against her stomach and kicked her away. “Tango with me and you’re going to get your head bashed in!” he exclaimed, grabbing his mace from the floor and hitting her in the face.
Captain Deno crumpled to the ground, spitting blood, only to jump up an instant later. “Don’t count your fish before they’re in the net.”
Princess Cornelia tugged at her hair as the fight raged on. If Captain Deno died, she would be right back where she started. It was time to lend a hand. She was just wondering how to do this, when Captain Deno knocked the enemy pirate off-balance with a well-placed kick. With a speed she hadn’t known she possessed, Princess Cornelia rolled into his path, sending him sprawling across the threshold of the cell. Before he could get up, Captain Deno seized the advantage and activated the cell’s security field with a shouted command, slicing him in two.
Princess Cornelia watched in horror as the severed halves of his body fell away from each other, gushing blood. They twitched convulsively for a few seconds, before finally lying still. She rolled onto her side and vomited. Then she rose quickly to her feet, an image of her father watching her disapprovingly flashing through her mind.
“Violent deaths knock you for six the first time, don’t they?” said Captain Deno, sitting down on the bed and rubbing a newly formed bruise on her cheek.
“What makes you think this is my first?” Princess Cornelia asked.
Captain Deno looked pointedly at the puddle of vomit on the floor. “Just a wild guess.”
Princess Cornelia scowled.
“Don’t feel bad,” Captain Deno went on. “I remember…”
“Can we not talk about this anymore?” Princess Cornelia interrupted.
Captain Deno shrugged. “As you wish.”
Princess Cornelia’s eyes strayed to her dead attacker and she shuddered. “Does it get any easier?” she asked.
“It did for me,” Captain Deno replied.
“That’s a relief,” said Princess Cornelia. “I’m joining the imperial army soon and I don’t want to throw up every time I see somebody die.”
Captain Deno raised one eyebrow. “You’re joining the army?”
“I am,” said Princess Cornelia defensively.
“No offence, but you’re not exactly army material,” said Captain Deno. “Your blood is blue – the blood of the aristocracy. What do you know about combat?”
“Very little,” Princess Cornelia admitted, “but I’m willing to learn. Perhaps you could give me a few lessons?”
The captain shook her head. “Not on your life.”
“I could make it worth your while,” said Princess Cornelia.
“How?” asked Captain Deno.
Princess Cornelia pointed to the bruise on the captain’s face. “I could give you a hand with that bruise, for one thing. I have some makeup in my bag that would hide it so well you’d never know it was there.”
“Sorry, but the answer’s still no,” said Captain Deno firmly. “Even if I wanted to, there isn’t time. We’re on course for the imperial palace, and as soon as we arrive, you’re out of here.”
“What if you kept me aboard for a few weeks,” Princess Cornelia pressed.
“That’s not an option,” Captain Deno replied.
“Why?” Princess Cornelia asked.
An avaricious gleam appeared in Captain Deno’s eyes. “Five million reasons. You look surprised. I suppose you think I rescued you out of loyalty for the empire. Well, I’ve got news for you, minnow – like most people in life, my actions are motivated by the potential for personal gain. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have things to do.” She moved to the front of the cell, deactivated the security field and stepped out into the corridor.
“Wait!” said Princess Cornelia, sounding desperate. If they returned her to the palace now, it could be months before she managed to slip away again.
Captain Deno did not reply. Resealing the cell, she crossed the corridor and set about releasing Bopper.
Captain Deno eased back the throttle as she piloted Bopper’s fighter down through the clouds. It was easy to see why the first mate was so proud of the ship. The speeds she could reach were breath-taking – a fact she would be taking full advantage of if the situation down on the planet turned ugly.
In the distance, she saw the crystal domes and spires of Caputula glistening like diamonds in the morning sun. The only building that didn’t glisten was the palace itself – an angular metal monstrosity that was typical of the emperor’s functional approach to architecture. Hopefully Princess Cornelia would give greater consideration to aesthetics when the reins of power passed to her. She certainly paid enough attention to her own appearance. Captain Deno glanced back at the girl and sighed. The expression on her face gave new meaning to the word ‘sulky’. As they neared the palace, she tried to improve her mood with a little conversation. “How’s it going back there?”
“Fine,” Princess Cornelia grunted.
“You must be looking forward to seeing your father again,” said Captain Deno.
“I suppose,” came the princess’s grudging response.
Captain Deno shook her head. It was like trying to get sunlight from an asteroid. She focused her attention on the runway at the top of the palace. As expected, the emperor was awaiting their arrival, surrounded by a large group of soldiers and advisors.
“Now, be sure to tell your father how I saved you from the shit,” said Captain Deno over her shoulder as she started their final descent, feeling it was important to impress upon the man how indebted he was to her in case she was ever arrested for anything.
“I’ll consider it,” replied Princess Cornelia noncommittally.
“That’s gratitude for you,” said Captain Deno.
“The thing is, it wouldn’t have been necessary for you to save me from the shit, as you so delicately put it, if you hadn’t dumped me there in the first place,” Princess Cornelia snapped.
As the girl had a point, Captain Deno let the matter drop. Landing the ship on the roof of the palace, she opened the canopy and climbed out. She raised her hand to the emperor in salutation and strode towards him, only to come to an abrupt stop as she heard the canopy start to close behind her. She spun around quickly. To her alarm, Princess Cornelia was making preparations to take off. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Princess Cornelia gave a tight smile. “Being motivated by the potential for personal gain.”
Captain Deno rushed towards her, but it was too late. Skidding to a halt she watched in shock as the ship blasted away.
“Arrest that woman,” the emperor shouted and Captain Deno was immediately surrounded by heavily armed soldiers. She gave a firm tug on her father’s tooth and raised her hands to signal her surrender. Tough as she was, she couldn’t hope to fight her way free. Princess Cornelia would live to regret this, though, as sure as fish were fish.