Duchess Seonid Min walked down to her private parlor. With a final twirl to display the fullness of the strapless gown, with its fluffy white tulle skirt, yellow satin overlay and white rose corsage, she grinned at the image in the mirror, clicking the heels of her white velvet boots together. She fiddled with her short shiny dark brown hair, admired the shimmering blue eyeliner that brought out her slender winged eyes and the pink in her creamy cheeks. She was no beauty-she was too overweight and too short (4"5 with heels) to look like those models on TV. But she wasn't going to dress like a nun just because she had a big butt and thick thighs, and she could still pretty up her round plain face a bit.

Satisfied that she looked perfect, she sauntered into the pale pink room with its gilded chairs, pausing only to adjust the vase of flowers on the table. For this was her room, and everything, from the matching, rose-printed dishes on the irewood table from the overstuffed, pink velvet wing chair in the corner, had to be just so.

On the opposite corner of the room, a large wallscreen with a holomap of the Rublex Galaxy resided. Seonid marched over to this sleek device, rather out of place in the frilly, old-fashioned room, and used her fingers to zoom in on a small solar system, which she scanned for minutes, her brow furrowed in concentration, until she reached the small silver dot labeled Oriolis. She tapped on it, and a list of figures and statistics appeared on the dark-blue background of the coat of arms of the galaxy.

"The two hundred fortieth meeting of the Rublex Royal Council will now commence," she announced to the crowded room, packed with men and women in expensive clothes, all sampling delicacies from silver platters and sniffing the floral arrangements. "First, I would like to welcome each and every one of you into my humble home. Please, make yourself comfortable. Secondly, we have three proposals we need to address-the Petrochemicals Guild has a suggestion on how to reduce emissions, the Screen Actors Association has been lobbying our local councils with some film-friendly bills, and the demands of the Granjan people and the ongoing discrimination they claim to be facing under our administration." As she spoke, the people in the room listened raptly, politely applauding when she was finished All of the people in the room were older than the Duchess; her round face and innocent brown eyes gave one the impression of a child, malleable and easily influenced. And yet it was clear who the leader in the room was.

Seonid Min had been born in the Earthen ghetto of North Side, a rough section of the Grand Centaurii City. Her parents were the children of Korean immigrants from Earth, and the tiny family apartment was barely big enough for the family's seven children. She was the middle child, the first girl, but expectations were hardly high. Her three older brothers and her father had all done jail time; the oldest, Kivran, had been sentenced to life for second-degree murder, and her father was always in and out of the house, dancing between prison and complete bankruptcy. But Seohyun Min hadn't lost all hope-she'd given her daughter another name-Gim Mirae, which meant "golden future" in Korean, and the names of two great Centauriian empresses (Seonid and Elysei, just to be on the safe side), so it seemed fair to say that Seonid was bound to be an extraordinary child.

Nevertheless, when Seohyun sent six-year-old Seonid to the same inner-city public school she had sent her two brothers, she was completely flabbergasted when the girl came back with a letter the first day claiming that that she has shown "exceptional promise" and would they not mind if they promoted Seonid to the sixth year, as she was not like to learn much in the first? Seohyun couldn't believe it. After all, both she and her husband had barely graduated from upper school. But she signed the form with a shaking hand, and subsequently, Seonid was on track to be very special indeed.

Suprisingly, Seonid didn't like school very much. Oh, she liked learning well enough, but school? Not at all. Pretty soon, she realized she was quite a bit smarter than many of her teachers, and often had to correct them, "to preserve the integrity of the lesson," as she put it. This habit caused two labels to be hung up on her, neither of which she liked very much-"genius girl" and "smarty pants." She didn't like "genius girl" because it implied that she had supernatural abilities, and she didn't like "smarty pants" because it prevented her from having friends. After coming in top in the nation-wide exam required to pass the sixth year, she then moved onto upper school. Upper school was different from lower school in several ways. For one, what year you were didn't matter. You just had to complete a certain number of courses and then you could graduate. Generally, it took students six years to finish upper school. Seonid finished all her required courses in two-and participated in every extracurricular activity her school offered, even sports, which she wasn't much good at.

Most geniuses, the ones you hear about a lot, are famous because of their contributions to math and science. Seonid was different. Her strengths were in language and public speaking. But she had no idea where to go with those skills. A helpful teacher had watched her at a debate team match, and had asked her afterwards, "I know you're finishing this year; what universities are you applying to?"

Seonid told him the names, all local schools, mediocre at best. He shook his head. "You're looking at the wrong places. You should be applying to the best, with skills like yours. Grand Centaurii University, perhaps?"

Grand Centaurii University?! Home of the best law program, the incredibly elite school only accepted-and oftentimes rejected-the very best. But Seonid had taken his advice, and before she knew it, she had applied applied, had been called in for an interview, had been called in for another interview (this one for a merit scholarship), and had finally been accepted.

University has passed by in a blissful blur, and she had come out top in her class again. Many of her peers wanted to go on for internships in prestigious law firms, but Seonid had a different goal. She wanted to help North Side, where she had been raised. And the way to do that? Get elected as Centauriian senator.

The empire divided its powers into Houses of nobility headed up by the emperor or empress, and the elected Centauriian Senate, which represented every single planetary system and galaxy within the empire. There was one representative for every planetary system (a planet and its moons). So politics within the established parties were cutthroat, nasty, and unwelcoming to outsiders. So Seonid and a few college friends founded their own party, put Seonid on the ballot, and waited.

What no one could have predicted was how popular Seonid would become. People, for some reason, really liked her. Probably it was because people liked her whole image-thirteen-year-old inner-city whiz kid Seo Min, her ability to sound smart without sounding pretentious, the way she could talk to all kinds of people, her persistence on issues she cared about but her willingness to compromise, her openness. Without really meaning to, she became a contender. And before long, she was planet rep and galaxy rep (the contest between the planet reps within the galaxy).

She would have been content to just stop there, but fate, as it would seem, intervened. Within a few weeks of her first term, Seonid received a letter that would change her life.

Apparently, the High King Selevar, head of House Onyx (the guardians of Centaurii and the leaders of the military) had caught sight of Seonid's exceptional rise to power and declared her Raised to the Imperium, Duchess Seonid Min of the planet of Oriolis of the Yancyl system of the Adeline Quadrant of the Dencë sector, First Duchess (duchess of the capital planet!) of the Rublex Galaxy of the Grand Centaurii Empire, and eligible for all ranks and privileges of that title.

Which was really a nice way of saying that the High Lord Cielaré, the real power in House Onyx, demanded that she ascend to the Imperium. One did not refuse such an offer, even if one had never heard of the Rublex Galaxy before.

And so, at the tender age of fourteen, she was a planet leader. Royalty.

It was all a bit hard to believe.

She examined the members of her cabinet fondly. Tall, thin Piengo la Chanve, Minister of Affairs. City Magistrate Ala Stinworthy, pale and elegant. Duke Cierno of the nearby planet of Long Gap. Rather unattractive, middle-aged Duchess Cal, Duke Cierno's wife. Other assorted royals, some she liked, some she didn't. And presiding over them all, white-haired ancient old High Lord Dunavain, the leader of the galaxy. She couldn't imagine a better group of people to work with. Or a more unlikely.

Houses Onyx (military) Diamond (diplomacy) and Emerald (finance) together made up the "Big Three." These were the most influential houses, the ones every noble wanted to be a part of, the ones with the most money, influence, and power. But naturally, there was a world of difference within the Houses, made up of multiple families who may or may not agree ideologically. Such was the case with Onyx, where the High Lord Cielaré's ultra-conservative militarism had made him more than a few enemies. So the High Lord had come up with a solution. Anyone whom he deemed likely to make trouble, he banished to the Rublex or other outer galaxies, cutting them off from main channels of power. So the Rublex was, therefore, an enclave of thought quite different from that of mainstream Onyx.

Seonid didn't care. The people she had met here were fantastic leaders, all brave and talented and wise. The High Lord had no idea what he was missing not having these people on his side.

High Lord Dunavain, their leader, stood up feebly. He was getting up there in years, but his mind was still sharp. At his side, his son Milos, the heir to the Rublex, a dignified gentleman who sat with his wife, dutifully giving his father his glass of water. As the older Dunavain rose, he quaffed the drink, then gave Seonid a conspiratorial wink. "Thank you for those kind words of welcome, Duchess. Now, before we address those issues, I have some of my own-Oh! I almost forgot!" He turned to a portrait on the opposite wall and bowed very low. "Good evening, High Lord Ruble."

As one, the leaders of the Rublex rose, and saluted the picture, which depicted a handsome, strong-jawed man with coffee-colored skin and a fall of rich copper hair that fell in long curls to his waist. Despite that, and his flamboyant silken raiment, the angles of his jaw and cheekbones left no doubt as to his gender.

High Lord Rythicæn Ruble was something of a legend among the Centauriians. He had been one of the original founders of the Celestial Empire, as well as the counterpart to the High Lord Cielaré's ideology, the founder of House Diamond. Like the High Lord, he was brilliant, but he was a sworn pacifist, holding to the vows of his religion, the Church of the Seven Angels. Despite his political rivalry with Cielaré, the two remained good friends. That was, until a final argument (no one was certain what it was about) had so angered Ruble that he fled the empire, never to be seen again. The Rublex Galaxy was his legacy.

To salute the portrait, here, under the command of House Onyx, was unthinkable, semi-blasphemous, in fact. But it gave the men and women of the Rublex their own little form of defiance, a small rebellion, in a way. They may have been relegated to the ass-end of the empire, as Dunavain liked to say, but that still meant they could act with style.

The only person who wasn't standing (or smiling) was her bodyguard, Tessa. Just taller than Seonid, the small woman had her perpetual poker face on. As a direct employee of Cielaré, the guard took her responsibilities very seriously.

As Seonid sat down, a tray of food was passed to her. She stared at the "simple and elegant" Rublex dinner in front of her. After two months in the galaxy, she was sick of their food, its subtle nuances and slight shifts in flavor. Today, a light yellow cream and a Rublex roll with fruit, all arranged in the most artful manner. It churned her stomach to look at it.

"Rondeman," she whispered to the uniformed attendant, "tell the chef to fetch me a deep-fried eekak bucket." She longed for the bold flavors of her home planet, even if it did take a toll on her figure.

The attendant nodded, walked away to give her order. As he did so, Dunavain flagged him down. "Oh, Rondeman!"

"Yes, m'lord?"

"Fetch one for me too." Seonid blushed, but Dunavain grinned. "I haven't had eekak in years."

The assembled nobles chuckled, and would have laughed more had not a horrible creak sounded above them, with a nails-on-a chalkboard quality. Everyone stopped, nervous.

Then all the lights went out.

All was darkness.

••

Tessa lounged in her chair, watching with fond disinterest the proceedings of the day. She had never been one for politics, but it did amuse her to watch her small, confident duchess twist these seasoned dukes and governesses around her fingers.

If only they didn't have to salute the portrait. It looked for a second like Dunavain was going to forget, but then he quickly remembered, and everyone got up to salute the damn thing. It always seemed fairly stupid to Tessa, nothing but a petty little way for these third-rate politicians to feel like they had a say in anything. Did they not realize their guards and servants were Cielaré's direct employees?

Many of the guards seemed to be forgetting that. They were wearing Rublex clothes instead of Onyx black, and they laughed and joked as they saluted the portrait.

Well, she wasn't going to do it. Someone had to be professional.

She supposed this was just her punishment. Though why anyone had to be punished for saving their employer's (such a strange word, employer, so technical) life was beyond her.

When she thought about the series of events that had landed her here, it was more like a series of flashes. A fancy ballroom, with long white tables, the flash of crystal and the spray of red wine as the crack of a bullet cut through the soft waltz that was playing. Standing up, fiddling with the trigger of her own gun. Burning pain in her side. Red dots spreading into wet splotches on the man's white shirt.

The doctors said she was incredibly lucky that the bullet fired by the man, who was, rather predictably, an Arkillion nationalist, had lodged in flesh rather than a rib. Even if it had lodged in a rib, she doubted she would have cared much. The High Lord Cielaré was safe. That was all that mattered.

But there was a problem. News of the assault on the palace had spread far and wide. People wanted to know about the brave guard who'd saved the High Lord's life. There would be interviews and fluff pieces and worst of all, photographs. All their work could be undone. And so, for the fourth time, all the files on her were erased, then re-edited into a new alias and a new location. She would travel to the remote Rublex Galaxy to guard someone named Seonid Min, far away from prying eyes and anyone who might recognize her from the Earthen newsfeeds.

She didn't want to. She would feel safer near the High Lord, preferably in his Miramoor Galaxy or in the Imperial residence at Lyria. But it was a promotion, and she had been nearly located with less, so all in all, it was a necessary evil.

Given how out of the way the Rublex was, Tessa saw no need to disguise herself. Few people knew what she looked like, although it was true she did possess an otherworldly beauty. At four feet seven inches, she was tiny, with a pretty, heart-shaped face that made her age impossible to gauge. She had large, dark eyes and dusky red lips highlighted by the barest touch of makeup. Soft olive skin, lighter than her thick dark hair, rounded out her unusual appearance. One might mistake her for a doll, with her haunting eyes and the way she rarely changed her facial expressions. Yet her slender arms were corded with muscles, and the too-large black jacket she wore bulged with knives. But with a face like hers, she was rarely taken seriously.

She was expecting some spoiled little brat, but Seonid wasn't at all like that. No, this duchess seemed like she needed Tessa, in some bizarre way. Needed her experience from four years of watching House Onyx politics, needed a shoulder to cry tears of frustration, anger, and grief on, needed an older sister. And so Tessa unknowingly became all of those things, for a little Earthen duchess who was truly a force to be reckoned with.

Am I getting soft? It was a valid concern. She wasn't supposed to be attached to anything or anyone. After all, her contract was almost up. One more year and she'd be able to leave, go wherever she wanted with as much money as she could ever need. She sometimes wondered if that's why she'd been assigned to guard Seonid-so that she would never leave.

But no. They had a deal. Five years of service in exchange for protection. And the High Lord Cielaré was a lot of things, but never dishonest. At least, not dishonest to her. That was why he needed to stay alive.

Mind on the job. she reminded herself, beginning to stare down Duchess Cal's bodyguard, a pale, nervously freckled young man. Duchess Cal, she had liked. But Duke Cierno always seemed like a false friend of Seonid's. The duke, she suspected, was probably responsible for the mass pullout of troops two weeks ago, an idea that would leave Oriolis completely defenseless. And Duke Cierno had hired this guard, who was probably only loyal to his paycheck.

If you try anything...She was neither the strongest nor the best-trained guard on the Onyx force, but she knew how to break a man. The guard looked away, blushing at the strength of her gaze.

Tessa was about to shift her gaze to Cierno when the lights went out.

All was darkness.

••

All was darkness, but not all was quiet. Some of the richer nobles were tittering nervously. Seonid could not help but smile. These coddled royals had probably never been in a blackout before, but Seonid's years in North Side had resigned her to the experience of blackouts-the way everything stopped, the waiting for the crews to come turn everything back on. She had an idea why the power had gone out, though. The mansion had just installed a new power system that was not all the way stable. But to have it happen now, during a meeting, was just bad luck. Of all the times for an outage...

It would be a pain to fix, though, because the mansion was on an island overlooking the city. They'd have to get Grand Oriolis City power teams up there, which could take weeks.

"Look!" cried Count Behran of the Smelziorg sector. "The city's out! Everything's black!"

"What?" Seonid scrambled to the window, only to see that he spoke the truth. The evening lights of the city, which could usually be seen from the mansion, were black as pitch, as was the sky above. Even the water of the river was shimmering obsidian, rippling below them.

A collective groan from the room. Then, chatter broke out. "What are we going to do?" "They can't get power teams up here for weeks!" "The Miramoor Galaxy could!" "They're too far away." "It must be something really big." "To get the whole city out, no less!"

"Everyone, quiet!" commanded Seonid. "Let us go to the command room and see if it's just our area. There's no reason to panic." Her words, she hoped, concealed the anxiety she felt. She had never lived through a blackout this big before, even in North Side. An entire city out...that had never happened before.

As no one had a better idea (the wall displays were essential to continue the meeting), they all got up and followed Seonid down the ornately carved stairs, the flashlights on their cellphones bathing the floor in a blue glow.

The house was frightening at night, without a doubt. Without lights, especially. Now furniture that was innocent at day took on a sinister feel at night. In the dim glow, Seonid saw Tessa's hand, clutching at her gun. She suppressed a shudder, then remembered how paranoid her bodyguard often was. It was probably nothing. Wasn't it?

The command room in the basement was powered by a generator, so was still lit. It was sparsely furnished, with industrial-grade metal tables and plastic chairs. The real power in the command room came from the new computerized walls which lined the entire room. The room was created to serve in case of extreme disaster, invasion, or war, which was why it was always powered.

The duchess spoke, "Initiating status report."

The walls responded with a series of clicks and beeps, then a map of the whole galaxy appeared.

All dark.

"The whole galaxy..." whispered Cal, horrified.

"I suppose we can call the Miramoor," said Dunavain reluctantly. Everyone knew he and the High Lord Cielaré were hardly on the best of terms. But if the whole galaxy was out he would need to do something.

As if on cue, the Apex in his hand, along with the walls and the halogen lights on the ceiling, flickered, and then went out.

"That...that's not supposed to happen." stammered Seonid. "The generators..."

Suddenly a grinding overhead split the silence, as though from the world's largest electric saw. "A ship." Tessa told Seonid. "Perhaps the Miramoor got a power crew up here."

They heard a thud, a couple crashes, and the grinding noise ceased abrubtly. All was eerily silent.

Then someone kicked down the door to the mansion.

"Oh, God," Seonid breathed. She heard similar exclamations from the assorted nobles below. Each intoned the name of their deity. Some of the really religious ones, like Governess Stinworthy, had set up a small pocket shrine and were actually praying. Though about what, Seonid didn't know.

Centaurii had never been invaded since Amadeus IV had conquered the universe in 1099. Never. But what was the kicking down of the imperial manor if not invasion? And how had the generators gone off?

Calm down. she told herself. There was no need to panic. Not yet. They didn't know who was above them. Beside her, Tessa tensed, listening to the heavy bootfalls of what seemed to be a small squad of...soldiers? They had the voices of soldiers, at least.

"Al-Almiarah, this place is huge!" one said in an unfamiliar accent.

"Centauriian dogs," his companion sneered. "They're all evil, all filthy-rich, bourgeoisie noks." He spat audibly.

"They could be anywhere, by al-Almiarah!" fumed the first again. "This place is huge."

"Will you shut up and look for them, then?" said a waspish female voice. "You're not going to find anything by admiring the furniture."

"Yes, Lady Castella." said the voice meekly.

"I found something!" called a voice triumphantly. "Some sort of secret room, it looks like!" There was a flurry of feet on the stairs. Seonid's heart pounded. He was standing just outside the command room!

"Yes." the acerbic voice of the woman came again. "They did say something about a hidden room." And then, after a pause, "Bring it down."

"Yes, milady!" the men called out enthusiastically. clattered over to the door, grunted, heaved, grunted, heaved, and grunted and heaved again. Boots pounded on the metal in a futile attempt to break it.

Inside, the Centauriians exchanged nervous looks. Their options were limited at this point. Bereft of their usual military escorts, who had pulled out only recently, they had only their personal guard to protect them, and who knew how many men waited on the other side of that door? Seonid looked to Dunavain. "What do we do?"

"Open it." Seeing their stunned faces, he smiled. "I've met this type before. In the Third Arkillion War. All bluff and not very many guns. They rely on a few fancy tricks to conceal their real flaws-like that business with the generators. A real threat wouldn't need to do that. They could just force their way in."

Seonid nodded. He has a point.

Duchess Cal didn't look convinced. "And if it gets hostile-"

"We've faced worse from the Onyx loyalists." said Milos Dunavain, which earned a laugh from them all. He turned to his guard. "Would you open the door?"

••

Tessa observed the strangers who streamed through the now-open door with some trepidation, eager to find out who they were. The majority were standardly trained fighting men, dressed in black bodysuits with new guns. But even from this distance, she could tell that the guns were shoddily constructed and the black suits were cheap. She suspected some sort of illegal private army. Boring.

There were two people in the room she was quite fascinated with, however. The first was, of course, the woman who called herself Castella. Castella was a standard humanoid, with dark blue skin that was obviously home-grafted (you could see traces of a lighter blue skin beneath.) and a shaved head. Yet she had golden flanged armor on that was clearly expensive, and carried two long crystal swords instead of a gun. Yet despite her outlandish outfit and appearance, there was a certain cadence to her accent that reminded Tessa of home. She seemed distinctly Earthen, which was puzzling. Now, where have I seen her before?

The other person was shrouded in a black robe covered in cabalistic symbols. He was also a standard humanoid, only his skin had been grafted on with bright green. Something in the shape of his jaw gave Tessa the distinct impression that this was a man who got his way, even though he appeared to be a mute or too important to talk.

What frustrated Tessa was that she couldn't analyze these people, couldn't classify them as threats because she knew next to nothing about them, couldn't classify them as non-threatening because of the way they had come in. She longed to grab Seonid and go, but even she couldn't fight her way through twenty soldiers at once, not to mention Castella and this man.

Seonid was not taking this well. "Who are you people?" she demanded rudely. Milos Dunavain put a steadying hand on her shoulder, but she threw it off angrily.

Castella ignored the question. "Are you the leader?"

"Who are you people?"

"Are you the leader?"

Tessa held her breath, wondering how the fiery little duchess would respond. In terms of seniority, she was not ranked highly, being only a duchess, but she was obviously the natural leader in all other respects.

Dunavain raised a hand. "I am the leader."

"Your name?"

"High Lord Helios Dunavain of the Rublex Galaxy." Dunavain responded, with a nonchalance of manner Tessa had never seen in him before. It's almost as if he's trying to provoke them. "Now, if you will. Our good First Duchess has raised an excellent question. Who are you and what are you doing in my galaxy?"

"That, I believe, I can explain." the robed man said suddenly. It was the first thing he had said all day. Tessa was stunned by the rich honeyed tones of his voice, strengthened with a fierce steel. Strange...

"Your Grace," he swept an elegant bow to Seonid, "and you lovely lords and ladies," here he made another bow, "it is truly a pity that you had to be involved in all of this...unpleasantness."

"Which is..?" Seonid's tone made it quite clear she wanted answers.

"My dear girl, this is a coup. A coup to restore the galaxy to the hands of its rightful owner, High Lord Regen." Seeing their stunned faces, he went on. "You see, a long time ago, there was a man named Regen, of noble birth, but the High Lord Cielaré saw an enemy in him. An enemy that needed to be snuffed out and destroyed. So he went to the King of House Onyx, who was-and still is-little more than a figurehead and used his influence to get Regen exiled on a wrongful charge. We are Regen's men. We returned today to take back the galaxy that would have been his-the Rublex Galaxy."

There was an unpleasant silence as he allowed this to sink in. Castella picked up. "Milord Regen wished to have all the nobles of the Rublex executed, but my good Lord Sever intervened on your behalf. He sees no reason to spill Centauriian blood. So, we will allow you to live, if you give up the galaxy to High Lord Regen, its rightful leader. We are sorry, my dear, that the High Lord mixed you up in all of this, took a barely trained girl and dressed her up in duchess's clothing. It is nothing short of despicable. "

"And to sweeten the pot for the loss of the galaxy, my good lords and ladies, a sum of two hundred thousand eekaks will be waiting for you on Centaurii when you arrive." Sever added. "Clever girl like you, you can put that to some use, and get a real job."

Two hundred thousand! Tessa's heart could have leaped from her chest. However, Seonid didn't look so pleased with the offer. She was trembling with rage, and her face had been growing steadily redder throughout Sever's speech.

"Don't patronize me." Seonid snarled. "I may be young, Lady Castella-" here she made a mocking suggestion of a bow, "but you will speak to me with the respect I deserve. And you!" she cried, turning on Sever. "You really must take me to be some kind of fool. You think I would sell my planet-my galaxy-for money? For a sum, I am sure, you have no intention of paying?" She was really getting into it now, like she did in her speeches. "I was chosen rightfully by my House and my Empress to lead this planet. It is I, not Regen, who is First Duchess of the Rublex Galaxy. I have far more claim than he ever will. Oriolis has become my home as well as my duchy, and to Oriolis I shall remain, to the death!" With that, she concluded proudly, daring anyone to contradict her. There were some shouts of defiance from the other lords, and Seonid smiled. "We of Centaurii are not so easily bought. Now run along, before we have to make you."

"You go too far!" Castella sprang forward with a cry, swinging her deadly crystalline blades with a skill that would have taken Seonid's head off, had not Tessa spotted this and jumped in front of Seonid, so that the tips of Castella's swords dug into her abdomen. As Tessa aimed her gun at Castella's aquiline neck, it was then that she remembered where she had seen Castella before.

"Careful," she said in a low voice. "Wouldn't want to hurt anyone with that."

A flicker of recognition glimmered in Castella's eyes, only to be replaced with cold concentration. "How's Lucas?"

"He's fine." Tessa replied smoothly, refusing to let Castella break her concentration.

"Castella, enough." Lord Sever's tone was carefully controlled, but domineering.

"But, milord, you must know who this woman is-"

"DO AS I SAY!" Sever's voice cracked like a whip. Castella suddenly froze, dropped her weapon, and slumped against the table, face-first, baring the back of her neck to Tessa for the first time. Embedded in the zaffre appendage's base was a small, silver square. Tessa immediately knew its function, and stared, horrified at Sever. His cold grimace chilled her in a way no one had done in years. Oh God...what did they do to you?

Castella finally managed to get to her feet, but her whole body was trembling, and her midnight-blue eyes were leaking tears. When Tessa attempted to make eye contact, Castella glared at her, as if it were her fault. My fault! Seonid was looking at Tessa and Castella curiously. Someone's been following this little chat.

Sever frowned. "Well, it seems you have left us with no choice, Duchess. If you will not relinquish control of Oriolis, we will have to take you to High Lord Regen." He appeared to sweep his eyes over the room, though it was impossible to tell through the hood. "All of you. You." He pointed at Tessa. "Put the gun down."

Wordlessly, she let it drop to the floor with a thud. The other guards followed suit. It felt like giving up, which Tessa hated. My life rests on the oratory skills of High Lord Dunavain, she reflected, seething. Cielaré would have never attempted to negotiate with these people. The Centauriians were white in the face by this point, but what could they do?

Sever turned, and Castella followed him out of the command room. The soldiers forced them to walk single file, pushing them in line with the butts of their guns. Every head was bowed, grim.

The Centauriians turned, walking up the stairs of the grand mansion, turning again and again, marching, marching, until they finally reached the grand door and the soldiers pushed them through, towards a sleek Miramoor-made shuttle parked on the island. The cries of the dark city could be heard across the water.

••

Sever and Castella were the first to enter the shuttle-Our shuttle! Seonid thought angrily-and then the contingent of soldiers pushed them in as well. The shuttle hadn't been made for quite so many people, but she was a Centauriian, a citizen of a land that thrived on overpopulation, and she'd been in bigger crowds in smaller places when she was a girl with her family of nine.

It took less than fifteen minutes to reach the Grand Old Clam. The Clam was a bulky, old fashioned war cruiser, not sleek like the new models they had in the Miramoor, its black hull and pointed rudders looked more suited to a tugboat than at home among the stars.

A hatch near the front opened, just big enough to fit the shuttle, and they flew in, landing with a thud. Seonid felt a sudden wave of claustrophobia, which was amplified when a soldier roughly tied a black strip of cloth around her eyes, blindfolding her. From the noises of indignation the Centauriian nobles were making, she guessed they were getting the same treatment.

They stumbled out of the shuttle like a troupe of fools. Seonid attempted to peer through her blindfold, making out two pinpricks of light through the sheer cloth. Hangar? Her musings were interrupted when she was shoved roughly from behind by the butt of one of those guns.

Everyone was forced into a kneeling position on the cold Astrotile floor, and with a single motion, the blindfolds were ripped off. Seonid stared into the face of the fattest man she'd ever seen in her life, wearing an antiquated set of golden armor too small for him-she could almost see the strain-with a straggly gold beard streaked with gray, beady black eyes, thick, full lips, and the most ridiculous-a golden helmet in the shape of a clam on his head. He sat upon a throne in the same design, with the words THE THRONE OF CLAMS on a piece of cheap printer paper taped to the base.

He opened his mouth, and she nearly fainted. His voice was high and squeaky, exactly like she thought a chipmunk would talk, if it could. "Welcome, goodpeople of the Rublex galaxy! I welcome you! Behold-" and here he threw out his arm in the general direction of the throne-"THE THRONE OF CLAMS! Tremble before its all-encompassing majesty. Tremble before me-once a lowly General Regen, now the mighty High Lord Regen!"

Seonid realized her mouth was open, and quickly closed it. It would not do for the Duchess of Oriolis to be gaping like a fool. "I know you are confused. Angry, perhaps, but wanting for answers. Well, fear not, my school of benevolent subject-fish. I shall explain everything. But-" he waggled his finger like a schoolmaster. "all in good time. I have summoned you hear for a great porpoise-a porpoise so great, you shall quake like a school of the Quaking Fish of the Reynor Sea-"

"Sir," Sever's voice took on a tired quality, as if he had been obliged to explain this point one too many times. "It's purpose, not porpoise-"

"Well, of course it's a porpoise! And a very good one it is, too!" screeched Regen, producing, rather triumphantly, from somewhere behind the throne, what appeared to be a live porpoise stuffed into a plastic garbage bag filled to the brim with orange juice. Some of the juice slopped onto the floor as he brandished his porpoise.

He's mad. Both Tessa and Seonid reached this conclusion rather quickly.

"His name is Reynor the Destroyer, after my father," explained the madman. "But we have many special names we call each other, such as Rabies and Insanity, Leprosy and Cholera, Fury and-"

The Centauriians made an effort to check their laughter.

Sever said, "Word has reached us, my lord-perhaps you could put away your porpoise-" And he whispered something in Regen's ear.

Regen chuckled. "Is that so? Good, good, good!"

"What?" demanded Seonid.

Castella curled her lip. "Children do not speak until spoken to, girl."

"I am no child!" Seonid exploded, meeting the haughty blue woman's stare head on.

Regen bounced like an excited baby. "Tell her, Sever."

Sever smiled unpleasantly. "It appears that your great empire is wiser than you, Duchess Seonid, or perhaps better at listening to reason. High Lord Dunavain, all the system and sector heads, indeed all the planetary systems, and the Empress herself have signed the galaxy over to us."

"I never signed any such thing!" Dunavain's voice quivered with outrage.

"Perhaps you are mistaken." Sever said smoothly, holding, just out of arms' reach, a paper with signatures on it. Seonid thought she could discern elements of relief in the false Lord's voice. He's worried about the wrath of the empire, and I don't blame him. Yet, he would be smugger if he believed the signatures were a forgery.

Dunavain stood, barely taller than Seonid. "I repeat, that is not my signature. I don't know how you got that, and I don't care to know. But know this, Regen-" he spat out the man's last name as if it were a curse-"I would not hand over my galaxy to the likes of you, not even if the Empress herself held the Twelve Destroyers of Ruble above this galaxy. Which I am certain, she has not."

"Excuse me," said Seonid. "Milord Sever, I have not signed my name to this document either. But according to Article Three, Sublevel Six of the most recent revision of the Cession Agreement, you require the signatures of all the senators and high arbiters also. Anything that could have gotten that many signatures is something that we would have heard about. Land is valuable here-we do not cede galaxies lightly."

Ha!

"Very true, Duchess Seonid." Sever said. "Have a look, if you will, everything is in order."

Seonid glared at him, certain he meant to pull some trick, but he met her gaze with a flat, expressionless stare. Tentatively, she moved toward him, and examined the document. Indeed it looked to be a real Cession Statement, but...

"Lord Sever," She put on her sweetest expression, intending to regain the control he had taken from her inside the house. "My signature is not among those assembled here. And, as the signature of every noble in the empire is required to give up land, it appears, that, for whatever reason, the Empress has declined to give you the Rublex Galaxy."

"Impossible!" Sever whirled to Regen, who had been playing idly with the clam designs on his throne, and said something in an undertone to the lunatic. Both began to re-read the list of names, frantically. Clearly, they could not find her name either, for they commenced doing it again. Castella was even dragged out from a panel behind the throne to read the list, but she too, couldn't find Seonid's signature.

Seonid thought she was going to explode from sheer laughter. This has got to be the most incompetent takeover in the history of the universe.

Finally, the frantic re-reading ceased, and Sever turned back to the Centauriians, who were now whispering and giggling like schoolgirls. His face appeared to have been carved from stone now. "Well, then, it appears we will have to remedy the Empress's incompetence. Duchess Seonid, sign the proclamation."

"No, I-" Seonid started to say, but she was interrupted by none other than the High Lord Dunavain, whose watery blue eyes sparkled with mirth. What little of his white hair remained bristled like a cat's, and his bushy white eyebrows writhed like sto-worms, carving lines on his tanned forehead.

"You, sir, are hilarious," he said, standing up. "I've seen a lot of things in my day, but none quite as ridiculous as this. Forgive me!" and he dissolved into giggles again, then appeared to get himself under control. "This coup, if you can call it that, was doomed from the start, what with such complete dunderheads spearheading the effort. You seem like you can't decide which story you want to spin for the masses-Unjustly Accused Noble Risks The Ire Of The Government To Reclaim Homeland, or The Government Is Letting Us Do This-See The Official Forms. Well, guess what, girls and boys! Show's over! No matter which way you spin it, your forger screwed up. You forgot the duchess-you think she's going to sign your 'completely legal' " (here he made air quotes with his fingers) "form? You, who can't even control your own pawns-" he pointed at Castella "without some sort of gadget on them-you're just going to convince her to sign it? So who's going to make her? Regen, the incompetent madman? So, no, she's not going to sign it, not on her life."

••

Another man appeared from behind the throne. He was as opposite to the the smirking, self-important Sever as one could be. He was tall and slender, and moved with a menacing, otherworldly grace. He had a shock of jet-black hair and dark brown eyes, and he wore a dark wool suit. His voice was pitched dangerously low, raspy where Sever's was smooth. "But her life doesn't have anything to do with it. It's yours she'll have to bargain for."

"Murakami." Sever's voice became cold, and tinged with something that sounded like fear. "We are handling this."

"Oh, I see that," Murakami's eyes swept the room disdainfully. "Allow me to assist you."

Tessa's heart had leaped into her throat, and she could feel it pounding away as if it was fighting to escape her body. No. It can't be. After all these years...Did you really think he was dead? the snide little voice in her head remarked. You've never been that lucky.

She forced herself to take a deep breath, to keep her eyes carefully dull as his own swept over her. I am nothing more than a bodyguard. She pulled her sleeves down until they covered almost her whole hand, pressing them to her side, carefully concealing her inner left wrist. To her relief, he did not appear to notice, but that did not stop the pounding of her heart, nor the unremitting desire to scrabble for a weapon, any weapon.

Regen's face, which had been growing progressively redder during Dunavain's speech, contorted, and his hideous slash of a mouth opened with a spray of saliva to scream out. "BRING OUT THE BONE-CRUSHER!"

"No, really!" Sever called, stating hopelessly at Murakami. "There's no need for this. Come on, milord. Surely you don't want to do this."

What the hell is a 'Bone-Crusher'? Tessa wondered. Her question was answered when three men in dark grey jumpsuits and round plastic helmets with dark faceplates appeared, rolling out what appeared to be a plank of wood attached to some crudely constructed wheels. Tight leather straps were attached to the sides of the device, fastened by constricting brass buckles, rusted with age.

Two men in the jumpsuits forced Dunavain to his knees again, then the third casually pulled on a pair of metal cuffs with embedded spikes, handed to him by Sever.

"NO! NO!" Seonid screeched. She broke away from the clutch of mercenaries that surrounded her, and jumped between the High Lord and his would-be tormentors. The cuffed man lowered his hands, unsure suddenly. "If you wish to get to the High Lord-"

Fast as lighting, Murakami moved, a shiny black staff with a intricately carved top in his hand. Wielding the staff with both hands, he swept Seonid off her feet, pushing her to the side. The cuffed man seized the opportunity to rain blows down upon Dunavain's head and neck. The spikes' cruel points opened up rents in Dunavain's black high-necked Rublex coat, tearing skin and fabric alike. Blood stained his white hair reddish-brown, ran down his unprotected skin from horrible scarlet scratches and holes. He groaned in pain. Regen laughed with glee as the Centauriians cried out in sympathy with their leader.

His bloody bruised body was forced onto the Bone-Crusher, and he was buckled and strapped in place, Slowly, they were forced to watch as the men in gray used the buckles to adjust the straps tighter and tighter, yanking on them to force a hoarse scream from his strangled throat, the leather strap digging further and further into his flesh.

Murakami smiled a tight little smirk, and Tessa shivered, feeling utterly powerless. And Regen, perched on his throne, laughed maniacally as the High Lord screamed, his agonized shrieks reverberating off the metal walls.

••

"Will you sign now, Duchess Seonid?" Murakami called above the screams (it appeared that his right arm and left leg had broken at the same time).

Seonid turned her gaze to Dunavain's broken form. Bloody spittle sprayed from his lips, but he still managed to rasp out, "Don't...sign...it...girl.." before breaking into incoherent screams again.

"Do you want to have his blood on your hands?" cried Sever.

Seonid tore herself away from Dunavain. Tears streaked her face, but her brown eyes smoldered with fury. "I will never sign your-" With a horrible crack, Dunavain's neck snapped, his lifeless head lolling to the side.

"MURDERER!" Ala Stineworthy shrieked. "MURDERER! We of the Rublex will never bow to the likes of you!" The cry was taken up by many in the crowd. In a detached way, Seonid noted that pale, coolly beautiful Governess Stineworthy was the last person she'd expected to have an outburst like that. Her own head was still reeling from the blood on the wooden slats of the Bone-Crusher and the gore smeared on the floor of the ship. It was one thing on Earth, but not here, in the Centauriian Empire.

"MURDERER!" Stineworthy's shrill cry was directed at Regen, who clapped like a child at the circus. "How lovely! Another volunteer." The men seized the Governess, shoving her toward the Bone-Crusher.

Stineworthy's usually calm, chilly voice was low and husky with urgency. "Don't sign it, Your Grace. Whatever you do, don't sign it." Yet when she faced the faceless men and the Bone-Crusher, no matter how hard the men beat her or how tight the straps constricted her, she did not make a sound, even until the end, where she, too, was hauled off the Bone-Crusher lifeless, her proud body broken, blood from her mouth dripping down her chin.

And still, Seonid refused to sign it.

••

Cierno went next, and Cal after. Tessa was amazed at the Centauriians' fortitude. One after one, these nobles, guards, and servants whom she had thought so soft and weak, stepped in front of Seonid and faced the Bone-Crusher stoically. Even when Regen devised new tortures, such as tying them to the Throne of Clams and cutting off one of their limbs at a time, they still defied him, each of them demanding with their dying breaths that Seonid not yield. Though Sever gnashed his teeth in frustration and asked how many deaths Seonid's willful behavior would cause, she refused to sign, though Tessa could tell it was an effort for her.

The last couple of deaths were particularly violent. Poor Piengo la Chanve was drowned in the bag of orange juice, and a young count who's name Tessa didn't know was literally burnt alive, soaked in boiling oil and lit afire. Why am I not stepping forward? I should...but I have to be here to guard Seonid, no matter what happens. But that's not all it is...

I'm afraid to die. I cannot embrace it as these people do.

She had always been afraid, she noted with some finality. She had always been frightened of death, of losing the only thing she had ever had to lose. And she had done anything, would still do anything, to stay alive. Even if that had been something that would haunt her afterwards.

Murakami wrinkled his nose in disgust at the oil on the floor, mixing with the orange juice to create a foul aroma, then composed his expression from one of condescending disdain to a perfect servant's-meek and always ready to please. "My lord Regen, it is clear that the foolish girl isn't quite getting the message. Perhaps some time in the cells will clear her head."

But I'm having the best fun I've had in years!" whined Regen. "Besides, there's one left-and she's pretty! I like you!" he said leering at Tessa. "She'll give good sport, I think."

Sever put on a placating tone, but his voice was shaking. The man had been pleading with Murakami up until the Bone-Crusher had been brought out. Tessa didn't blame him. Something like that-enough to break anyone's resolve. Anyhow, he's as guilty as they are. "That's why we should save her for later. More fun that way."

"Well, I suppose you're right." Regen sighed. "Guards, take them away to the cells!"

The men in grey melted away, dragging the Bone-Crusher with them. As Seonid and Tessa were led away, they looked back once, seeing their terrified expressions cast in the crimson relief that was all that remained of their fallen companions.

••

In her cell, Seonid screamed filthy words at the smooth white walls, willing one of them to morph and descend into Sever or Regen's face, or at least show some emotion. When none of this happened, she turned to screaming filthier words at the walls, then kicked them and beat upon them with her fists, even though all she got for her troubles was sore fingers and toes. After she tore all the skin off the knuckles of her right hand, the pain drove away the superficial façade of anger she had built up, and gave way to sorrow. She curled up on the all-white cot and dissolved into sobs.

It wasn't fair; it wasn't fair! Seonid had never seen murder up close, but that was then, and this was murder. This was the stuff of nightmares. People you knew, good, law-abiding people, weren't supposed to get murdered. But now they had and she had seen and she hadn't done anything, because what could she do? Something. I should have done something, and now it's too late.

Survivor's guilt. She'd heard the term thrown around a lot, in detective movies or Arquillion Massacre history shows. But hearing a word wasn't the same thing as feeling a word. Before, she'd laughed, thought, What do they have to feel guilty about? They've survived because they were clever enough to find a way to evade the injustice. But now she knew that they hadn't-couldn't have-done it alone. The reason that those people had survived was because they hadn't done anything to stop the injustice. I'm alive because good men and women put themselves between me and harm. I'm alive because other people would die rather than see me sell out the Rublex Galaxy.

She could have stopped it. She could have! She could have signed her name to Sever's stupid document, and no one would be any the worse off for it. She could have saved Dunavain and Piengo, and Ala...she could have saved all of them.

No one would be any the worse off for it.

Sitting up, she wiped the tears from her face with her blood-spattered skirt, chuckling at her stupidity. Everyone would have been the worse off for it. The citizens of her galaxy would never forgive her if she signed it over to a madman. She'd be vilified in every galaxy for a thousand light-years. "Duchess Seonid Min-The Traitor of Rublex." Not only that, she'd be shirking her duty. Tessa isn't the only one who guards people. As the Duchess of the galactic capital, I guard more people than she ever has. Because I'm the chief Duchess of my galaxy, I have one other, seldom-used title-The Guardian of the People. What kind of guardian yields to invaders?

No, I'm glad I did this, even though it seems more a loss than a victory. They died because they believed that I could fix this mess. Now it's my job to make sure Dunavain and Ala and all the rest didn't die in vain. I'm not just 'girl', I'm the Duchess Seonid Min, and I've got to make them remember that. Even if it's in their dying moments, I'll MAKE them remember it.

Seonid got off the cot, pulling on the white boots she'd kicked off during her fit of temper. Kneeling on the cold, white tile, she ran her hands over the walls, searching for a panel or something that opened to the outside. After all, there was always something like that in the movies. And there had to be in real life, too, because they had to feed the prisoners. Or not. She pushed that thought away. They would feed her. She was too valuable to waste.

She was scrabbling with her fingernails at a tile in the side, when the air vent in the ceiling clanged open, falling to the ground with a thump.

She tensed, ready for whatever would come out of the duct. But it was just Tessa, garbed in a baggy black shirt and standard-issue cargo pants that had been clearly made for someone a whole lot bigger than her. An impressive-looking military belt secured a small flashlight to her slim waist, and a pair of greasy flight goggles were jammed on her forehead. A long scrape marred her shapely jaw, but aside from that, she looked relatively all right.

Breathing heavily, she said, "Shall we?"

••

The guards hadn't seriously searched Tessa, and at any rate, they seemed a whole lot more interested in discussing various aspects of her body, trying to impress her with their clever lewdness. Needless to say, they had been quick work, and she'd left them tied up in a service chute. Then she'd found a small Splash8 computer on the third guard, plugged it into a port jack and seen a model of the layout of the ship.

Next, she'd gone to than equipment depot and grabbed some standard-issue clothes. Her relatively expensive shirt and pants would probably attract unwanted attention if she intended to sneak out, and Seonid's Rublex lace-embellished gown more so. She'd saved her shoes and jacket from the heap of things confiscated-shoes because she was rather attached to them, jacket because of the collection of knives and six boxes of matches inside.

As she moved from level to level, she'd opened as many of the fuel hatches as she could find, throwing matches inside, pleased when she'd heard the pop that signified the explosion of one of the cells, and the alarm that accompanied it. She'd acquired the goggles on the sixth level, snatching them out of the jacket of a maintenance worker. If she were stopped, she would, hopefully, look the part of a lowly engine repair woman.

She'd then located the air duct and crawled into it, sliding down the metallic tube until she reached Seonid's cell, marked in red on the schematic she'd seen on the computer.

Seonid was, however, being less than helpful. She was shaking, eyes wide, her hands fumbling as she took the clothes from Tessa. Exasperated, Tessa knelt to make eye contact with her. "Listen to me. Listen to me. We don't have a lot of time. I have the layout of this ship, and I know they have small-range shuttles in the hangar bay. We just need to get there."

"But if they catch us-" Seonid suddenly burst into tears. "Oh God, what if they decide to kill us like they killed Dunavain? Oh God, Dunavain had grandkids, did you know that? And now he's gone and so are their parents, you know? It's all my fault-"

"No. No, it's not. It's not your fault. It's the fault of those people up there. It's their fault and it's no one else's. But if you want to live, if you want to show them that you are more than just some powerless little girl, then you should do what I say."

Seonid nodded, nervously. "Can you help me with the back of my dress?"

Tessa attempted to untie the tightly lashed laces, failed, then ripped them off. The dress puddled around Seonid, who unlaced her underdress herself, pushing herself into her new pants and buttoning up the shirt. As soon as she was done, Tessa thrust her into the air duct, then climbed in herself. "Go," she hissed. And Seonid went.

It was dark and cramped in the silver tube, and a bit grimy too, but they ended up on the other side nice and easily. Well, as nice and easily as they could with a crystal sword pressed against both of their necks.

"Well, well, well. Look who we have here." Castella's slow, drawling voice was the most hateful sound in the world at that moment in time, thought Tessa. "Fun time's over, girls. Time to go back to your cells."

"No," said Seonid bravely. "No, we will not. You will get out of our way now."

"And why should I do that?"

"Because Tessa will kill you if I tell her to. Which I am thinking about doing right now. So unless you want your throat cut with your own sword, you will do as I say."

"Is that what you call her now? Tessa." She snickered. "Who would have thought the day would come when the Lady of Darkness would be saving people's lives? Although, to be honest, she isn't doing a very good-"

Tessa didn't wait for her to finish her condescending speech. She grabbed the crystal sword's blade with her hands, not caring about the streaming divots the sparkling weapon was rending in her exposed flesh. She yanked the sword, blade-first, out of Castella's hands, then flipped it around so that her bloodstained hands held the golden hilt. Castella smirked, and she pulled out an identical sword from behind her. As Tessa swung the sword at her head, she blocked it with uncommon ease.

It only took Tessa three cuts and a jab to learn she was hopelessly outmatched. Castella was undoubtedly the superior fencer-indeed, she had already cut Tessa's arm, a small, razor-thin slash on her upper arm, surprisingly deep. The crystal swords were wickedly sharp, and it was all she could do to parry the taller, stronger woman's lunges. I can't beat her with these, but maybe I can aim for another target...

Tessa changed tactics. Instead of swinging at her upper body and head, she fell to the floor, feigning injury. Seonid squealed. Castella was baring down on her, a triumphant smile touching her lips. Quick as a wink, Tessa slid across the sleek floor and stabbed the long glittering blade between the slits in the golden armor into Castella's calf.

Shock registered on Castella's face briefly, yet she compressed it behind a mask of bravado, falling into full-formed fencing. Tessa evaded these wild lunges, than leapt into the air, kicking the sword away, and pinned Castella to the wall by her periwinkle throat. Castella kicked and squirmed, but she held firm.

"Now," she said in a low voice. "What should we do with you?"

Castella spat at her, but her eyes were full of fear. Tessa reached into her jacket and pulled out a coiled length of barbed wire. "I always keep one of these with me. You never know...it just might come in handy. Wishing your neck was a little bigger?" She wrapped it around Castella's slim neck, and was pleased to see the Xia wince as the barbs dug into her flesh. She tied it to one of the utility pipes, suspending Castella by three feet. "You always were too fond of your neck, Miera."

The woman who called herself Castella choked, blood running down the splendid armor. Seonid was looking openly shocked, and Tessa suddenly felt a wave of self-loathing. In the end, this is all I'm good for. Displays of excessive cruelty. At least I left it tied where she can take it off...if she's clever enough.

"Let's go," she said, her voice deliberately hard. And Seonid followed, both of them making a pointed effort to not look back at the pole to which the woman was tied.

The rest of their flight was a blur to Seonid. Tessa had planned the escape well, apparently setting up small explosions throughout the ship. They ran at breakneck speed to the hangar bay, where Tessa commanded the steward to unlock one of the small shuttles. The man was so flustered with the alarms going off everywhere, he didn't even look at them twice.

The shuttle was small and compact. Seonid belted herself into a cramped seat, watching Tessa fiddle with the controls-a silver panel with an array of knobs that baffled her. Her ears began to pop as their altitude increased and they soared towards the hangar door.

The door had to open. It had to..

But she saw through the window the steward talking with some of those hired soldiers. He had not opened the door. Oh no...

And then the tiny shuttle shook with an ear-rattling screech of metal on metal. Again and again, Tessa rammed it into the door, punching a hole in the metal and making bright lights and loud beeps explode from the various panels and screens within the shuttle. The men were screaming into radios.

The shuttle burst through. The black expanse of space loomed before them, a prospect both frightening and exhilarating. Tessa slammed something, and the shuttle zoomed ahead, outstripping Regen's Clam. Lights began to flash, and an automated voice said something in a garbled tone. The ship began to spiral downward...downward...downward...

Her last thought was that Seonid didn't have a seatbelt on.