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The Starlight Fortress

Chapter 3

Author: FionaR Total hits: 4613 User hits: 29 Date: 03-16-2014

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A few weeks flew by as Sterling settled into his new job. Just like most office jobs, it was quiet, cozy, boring, but at least he could walk on the ground, breath natural air, and sleep through the nights. He didn’t know that his boss, who started her job only a few months earlier than he did, was having a more difficult time.

I never applied for this job either, Geneva thought on a Friday afternoon, staring at a large stack of files on her desk. Alongside the military documents, a few roses grew timidly in a vase. That was how people imagined her life, wasn’t it? Flowers, music, pretty men and pretty women; waving hands and shaking hands, taking photos, and signing documents she didn’t need to read. That might have been her life if the war didn’t break out. Well, maybe it was time to think about a marriage.

The phone on the private line rang. She checked the caller ID and picked up the phone quickly. “Hi, Verona! … The Floating Flora? Of course! I don’t remember when was the last time I went shopping. Do you think you can borrow your father’s Nebufleet?” She sighed. “They took mine away last year. It was pretty much wretched, anyway … Okay, I’ll see if I can find one.”

So who was new here? She hung up the phone and tapped her fingers on her chin. Someone who didn’t know of her last accident. Her new assistant? She doubted he could afford a personal flier. She shook her head and resumed working. After a while she pushed a button on her desk, and soon Sterling appeared at the door.

“Why do we need newer models of the Instant Patching Devices?” she asked, trying not to take it personally.

He looked tired. “The newer ones could patch holes up to five feet in diameter. And they work faster.”

“And each of the new models costs seventy thousand dollars?” She raised her voice. “Can’t they just update our old ones? How many did you have on the Caparise?”

“I would say, about a dozen.”

“Don’t you think we are ripped off by our ally?”

Getting no answer, she leaned back in her chair. One day she’d develop something to have the Treagians pay her back!

“Do you have other questions for me, boss?” He was ready to leave.

“No … Oh, wait!” She put on a flattering smile. “I was wondering … do you have a Nebufleet?”

He hesitated. “Yes, but it’s quite old—”

“Great! Is it possible for me to borrow it?”

He made no response.

“I’m not going anywhere far.” She left her desk and walked over to him. “Just one of those shopping moons. I don’t want anybody to know, or I’d be walking around with a dozen bodyguards and maids.”

He frowned. “We still don’t know how the enemy got here last time.”

“Right, but they would’ve been spotted long before they came close to any of our planets.”

He thought for a moment and fetched out a key from his pocket. “Please be careful with it. I can’t afford a new one.”

“Already complaining about your salary?” She grabbed the key and slipped it into her pocket. “Thanks! I’ll be back before you know it.”

* * *

It was unusually warm on Saturday for an early spring. When Geneva left her palace for the city spaceport, the sun had cleared the morning mist and revealed a crispy sky. She almost wished they had chosen a regular mall in the neighborhood.

The city spaceport was a place where people took public transportation or rented their own spots for personal flier storage. Large ships were parked outdoors on a plaza. Those owned by corporations had their names proudly painted on the hulls. Small Nebufleets were stored underground or in the multi-level garages.

A Marabou-200? She stopped in front of the dull little ship she was going to board and prayed that it still functioned properly. Where would he go if he ever needed replacement parts?

She was supposed to pick up Verona from Rainprus, which was located on the opposite side of the planet, and then meet two other girls on the shopping moon. After turning on AUTOPILOT, she started wandering around inside the ship. There was a couch, a dining table set and a cabinet, all mounted to the floor. Personal items included a planetary model in the cabinet and a small picture above the couch. The model attracted her attention first since she majored in astronomy. Those small crystal balls represented the planets and moons of the Renaisun Quadruple System. The gelatin ring must be the Stony Band, the numerous asteroids of various sizes encircling Sunphere’s home system, the Renaisun-A. It didn’t take her a long time to figure out that the planetary arrangement had not been updated for two years.

She left the cabinet and stood in front of the couch to look at the painting. It was a courtyard viewed from the inside of a house, with a winding cobble trail connecting the house to a conservatory. On the left of the picture, eerie looking flowers surrounded a big tree. The right side was a playground. A woman wearing an apron was standing at the entrance of the conservatory. Without seeing the woman’s face, Geneva estimated that she should be in her fifties or so.

Did he paint it? Was this someone related to him? His military record showed he was an orphan who grew up with his foster father in the south. But this couldn’t be in the South, or anywhere in Sunphere. The tree and flowers didn’t belong to this planet. She stared at the painting for another minute and felt drowsy. Maybe he didn’t paint it. She lied down on the couch and slowly dozed off. In her dream, she saw dozens of similar paintings being sold in a gift shop …

* * *

She arrived at the capital of Rainprus three hours later—according to inner-space travel regulations, the Nebufleet had to fly at a speed far below its maximum. Verona was as pretty as usual. She had the perfect oval-shaped face that Geneva admired, and a pool of springy curls down to her waist. The denim shorts were nice, but Geneva knew they would look awful on her plump legs.

“Wait!” Verona stopped Geneva before she shut the door. “Stella was visiting me when you called last night, and she was wondering …”

“May I come in now?” A girl a head taller than Geneva strode inside followed by two maids. It was Anthony’s sister, Princess Stella of Rainprus. She had the typical look of a sweet princess with her light blond hair, a small face, delicate eyes and eyebrows—well, when she wore long sleeves that covered her well-built muscles.

“Hope you don’t mind me joining in, Geneva … What a nice piece of antique!” Stella looked around cursorily and sat down on the couch. Then she seemed to have remembered her maids, who were still awaiting further instructions. “Now you two can go home. If my parents ask, I’m at Geneva’s place. One word about this trip and you’ll be fired!”

In the past, Geneva was never congenial with the other princess. She would rather hang around with Anthony when she visited King Jonathan’s family. But the uneasiness with Stella’s arrival quickly vanished once they started talking about fashion and men at the table.

“That’s the rule, isn’t it?” Stella said as she clumsily dusted some powder on her face. “The weaker ones always get protected …”

A girl like you wouldn’t need protection, Geneva thought bitterly.

“I meet only two types of guys at college,” Stella continued. “Those drawn to my social status, and those repelled by it. Needless to say, the good ones always belong to the second category … But I’m not a picky person, as long as one doesn’t behave like Swinburne.”

Verona’s long eyebrows wrinkled. “What’s wrong with Charlie?”

“What’s wrong? I’ve never seen a guy as priggish as he is. It’s like he’s the last aristocrat in the world.”

“I think he is!” Geneva said quickly.

“He thinks every woman should be attracted to him.”

“I am,” Verona said. “He’s really hot!”

Geneva searched her memory. “You know, I haven’t seen him in a while.” Then she lowered her eyelash brush and wished she hadn’t used it. Now her eyes looked terribly large.

“Stupid girls!” Stella put on a black wig and showed herself to the others. “Which looks better?” A few seconds later, she replaced it with a pink wig. “Why do we have to disguise ourselves every time we go shopping?”

“Not the pink one,” Geneva said. “It makes you look like a prostitute, unless that’s what you want.”

The pink wig flew up to the air. “I’m glad you turned down my brother’s proposal, Geneva. It would’ve been a disaster for both of you.”

Geneva threw Stella a surprised look. They weren’t friends yet, but she had started to like her.

“I’d put more shadow under your cheekbones.” Verona studied Geneva. “To make your face look longer.”

Geneva sighed. “It’s no use. None of my officers takes me seriously however I dress myself.”

“That’s why they got you a military assistant?” Verona asked. “I saw that on the news. How is he?”

“A nice guy, but a little weird sometimes. He takes those old printouts from my secretary and uses the backs as scratch paper, as if my office had no stationery.”

“He sounds like a Ragged Wealth,” said Stella.

The name of that organization darkened Geneva’s face, but she shook it off. “Oh, and he hates my hair! Once, he dropped my folder like there was a dead mouse inside. Now I can’t comb at work.”

“Does he have a girlfriend? She’d better be a neat person.”

“Or bald!”

Everyone at the table started giggling.

After they all put away their cosmetics, Geneva looked around and took a deep breath. “Someone has to clean the ship before I give it back to him!”

* * *

RA-4 was a large planet. What Geneva saw through the window was a big blue ball decorated with white swirls. It took her several runs of scrutiny to identify the Republic of Ribbon Islands hidden beneath the clouds. Unlike Treagium, which was located on a cold continent at the back of the planet, Ribbon Islands had mild oceanic weather and were tourists’ favorite.

After the ship veered automatically, two of the planet’s five moons came into sight, including the one with the shopping center. Time to wake up the girls. Geneva was about to walk away when she noticed something in the distance, a group of moving objects. Ships? No, they didn’t look like manmade stuff. Failing to make out the details by eye, she resorted to the nearby screen connected to a telescope.

They were mini asteroids, fifteen or twenty of them, but something about those stones unsettled her. She looked away from the image and tried to recall the asteroids she had observed before. They had irregular shapes and rotated as they moved along. Always rotated. She checked the image—none of the stones showed the slightest rotation. Then she spotted the pink wig Stella had left on the table. A disguise! She remembered Sterling’s theory. That was why the enemy lingered at the Stony Band in the last battle. They were hiding the disguised ships there.

She turned to the couch and shook Stella and Verona. “Enemy! Our enemy’s coming!”

“Enemy? What are you talking about?”

“Where are we? Can’t find my earrings …”

“I don’t have time to explain. Our trip’s canceled.” Geneva rushed back to the front of the ship and modified the destination. “This ship doesn’t have enough transmission power to contact home. We need to get in touch with the nearest base.”

The Nebufleet made a sharp turn toward the nearby moon, on which one of Ribbon Islands’ military bases was located. A few minutes later, they were surrounded by three fighter planes.

“You are running toward a restricted area.” The videophone beside the telescope turned on automatically and showed the image of a pilot. “Stop where you are and reveal your identity.”

“This is Queen Geneva of Sunphere. I need to speak to your commander-in-chief.” Geneva couldn’t see much of the pilot’s face through his helmet, but she sensed his skepticism. “Listen, this is urgent! I suspect there are disguised enemy warships nearby. I don’t know about their target, but I’d like to warn your base and have you notify my Second Fleet as soon as possible.”

The pilot picked up an intercom.

“Are they going to shoot us?” Verona asked. “Maybe we should just leave!”

The pilot looked back at Geneva. “Stay where you are. You’ll be connected to the base shortly.”

Geneva leaned over to a window and searched outside. Those objects had turned around and were heading in her direction. Surely no asteroids could’ve done that.

“Your Majesty!” A senior officer’s image appeared on the screen. “Thank you for the information. I’m sending more planes to protect you.”

Too late! She heard Verona screaming as the fake asteroids cracked open one after another. “I’m fine, sir. Please contact my Second Fleet. It’s the fastest help you’ll get—” She couldn’t finish her sentence because the plane she had been communicating with had just exploded.

“Let’s get out of here, Geneva!” Stella grabbed Geneva’s arm. “We’re in their way!”

“Then we’d better stay put.”

Even if they had the fastest Nebufleet, its speed wouldn’t be comparable to the speed of a modern warship. Right now they could do nothing but watch the black shadows zooming by and pray that those Titans wouldn’t pay attention to a tiny civilian carrier. Just as they thought the danger had gone, a shadow appeared outside the windows. Soon that ship came so close that Geneva could make out its broadside batteries and the details of its insignia—a star at the center surrounded by four spiral arms. Then a metal cylinder protruded out and hit the Nebufleet with a loud bang.

“We’re captured!” Stella announced. There was no fear in her voice, only anger.

“We’re captured,” Geneva repeated, holding a chair nearby while the Nebufleet began accelerating toward the moon base. “And now we’re being dragged to a battlefield.”
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