The ship lurched before JT made it halfway to the guest quarters. Though the Queen Widow and Lady Elizabeth had not planned to stay very long, the captain assigned quarters in case extracting Windsor proved difficult. When the ship appeared astern of the Sophie, Captain Thalen ordered them, along with Edward and Mitsuko, to stay there.

JT raised his p-com. “CNC, Austin, are we under fire?”

“Off the channel,” said Friese. “We are most definitely under fire.”



A sarcastic response would have told him yes. Since she simply kicked him off the channel, he had to assume the ship was an unknown. His desire to know more increased as the next blast threw him into a bulkhead.

The five-minute walk to VIP quarters took ten with all the shaking. He found Windsor and Mitsuko pointing weapons at him. “Hey!”

“Get in here,” Windsor ordered.

“Who’s boarding us?” asked Mitsuko.

Boarding? JT thought. It would explain a lot. “Not Gelt, apparently. Fighters have been scrambled.” He spotted Queen Reiko and Lady Elizabeth. “You two okay?” The next blast reinforced his decision to ignore royal protocol.

The Queen seemed not to notice. “We’re all right, young man. Why are you here?”

“XO ordered me to stay with you in case‚Ķ”

“This is the captain,” came Thalen’s voice. “We are being boarded. All hands stand by to repel boarding party.”

That confirmed it. He grabbed the p-com again. “Austin to XO. What should I do with our VIPs?”

Instead of a snappish command to get off the channel, Friese said, “Get them to the hangar bay and power up your Falcon. Get them to the Marcus Aurelius as fast as you can. I’ll assign a fighter escort.”

JT started to clip his p-com back to his shoulder when Friese added, “Yes, I’ll assign Midnight Angel. Now, go.”

“Wasn’t asking, sir.” He killed the channel. “Your Majesty, can you keep up?”

The Queen scowled. “I’m unrejuved, not crippled.” Her Japanese accent came through more thickly. JT had expected her to speak with more of a French accent, like Mitsuko often did when she was angry.

“I’ve got point,” he said.

“I’ll bring up the rear,” said Mitsuko.

“Wait a minute,” said Windsor. “Who’s the senior Spec Force officer here?”

“At the moment, Ed, not you.” He waved his pistol toward Mitsuko without pointing at her. “She is. You are now a King, and outside my chain of command. Your Majesty. And give me your rifle. Your weapon makes you a target.”

“I still hold a commission‚Ķ”

“Oh, Edward, shut up,” said the Queen.

Windsor grumbled, unslung the rifle, and handed it to JT.

“Lead the way, Lieutenant.” Reiko turned to Mitsuko. “You really shouldn’t be taking up arms, either, dear. You may not be queen yet, but you will be.”

“I’m still on active duty, Aunt Reiko.” Mitsuko inclined her chin at JT. “Besides, there’s someone who’ll kill me if I don’t watch out for him.”

“His mother?”

“Close enough,” said JT. “Let’s move.”

They moved out into the hall, JT on point, Mitsuko in the rear. To JT’s surprise, she did not draw her sword. Then again, the sword would have been unwieldy inside the ship’s corridors. He’d seen her use it under those conditions, and sword work came in very handy against Gelt Warriors, who preferred close up work to the cold distance of firearms.

He kept his pistol down with both hands on it. For this part, he was glad Windsor was one of those he and Mitsuko protected. Windsor could read JT’s hand gestures and verbal shorthand, down to grunts, while the Queen and Lady Elizabeth would stop when he stopped. Looking back, however, JT could see the two civilian women losing patience with his caution at doors and corners. Yet before JT held a commission or had something resembling formal training on weapons, a pilot with the call sign Suicide drilled it into his head to check doors and corners before moving in.

“That’s where the enemy hides,” she warned him. He took it to heart. Four years of working off and on with Mitsuko Yamato under both Compact and their respective homeworlds’ defense had driven it home.

They passed Medbay, already bustling with activity. Windsor, still in spec force fatigues, poked his head inside. “Dr. McGann, everything under control?”

“Will be until the casualties come in,” said McGann, a tall man with the biggest hair JT had ever seen on a human male. He once wondered when he first met if McGann were some flavor of Belter, maybe from the Helios System, with its thriving outer planets and twin asteroid belts. But no, McGann came from frozen Demeter, one of JT’s ancestral worlds.

“Any word on who’s boarding us?” JT asked, his pistol now down at his side in one hand, finger outside the trigger guard.

“None,” said McGann, “but we’re getting reports of gunshot wounds and cuts and lacerations that don’t look like anything the Gelt.”

A Gelt woman standing over a patient looked up at JT and Windsor. The arm band on her medical smock marked her as a friendly from Hanar rather than the Realm. “The Foundation still gets its bladed weapons from the Realm,” she said, referring to her homeworld of Hanar. “They’re not capable of these types of cuts. It’s almost as if someone used non-energy power tools on the victims.”

JT did not like where that took his mind. He tamped down the speculation until he could see the invaders. He gave Windsor a faint nod to tell him they needed to move.

“Lock down Medbay,” said Windsor. “Stay in touch with CNC. Do not let casualties in until you know they’re not being used as cover.”

“Will do,” said McGann. “And good luck, Your Majesty.”

They headed down to the next intersection.

“How many people know about this?” asked Windsor.

“I think the Queen Widow and I coming aboard was a hint,” said Elizabeth.

“Quiet.” JT scanned the doorway, then stepped into the intersection.

A large suit of power armor raised an arm ending in a circular blade and moved toward him.

Move!” said JT, waving the barrel of his pistol in the air over their heads. He spun and pumped three rounds into the thing’s visor plate. It staggered a bit but did not stop. “Mechs. Combat mechs. Type I’ve never seen before. Get to Medbay. Go, go, go.”

Elizabeth hesitated while Queen Reiko calmly turned and followed Mitsuko down the corridor. Windsor drew his sidearm, only to have his arm grabbed by JT.

“Not your job anymore,” said JT. “Now move.”

Mitsuko now led while JT brought up the rear. He holstered his pistol and unslung his KR-27. The electronic sight returned mostly gibberish. He pushed it aside and went with the laser and the physical sight. The mech kept coming at him despite the shattered visor. The KR-27 barked several times and punched five holes in the chest. JT kept backing away as the mech came closer, its circular blade whirring, the other arm coming up as well. Its hand changed shape with a series of metallic clicks as it transformed into a gun.

He found himself on the floor. The emergency bulkhead for Medbay slammed shut inches from his feet. Windsor and Mitsuko stood over him.

“What are you wearing under that flight suit?” asked Mitsuko in a maternal tone JT had come to know well.

“Nano-fabric. Didn’t think we’d need armor.”

“We need armor,” said Windsor. “All of us.”

“I’ve got all the bulkheads down,” said Dr. McGann. “Hopefully, we’re safe in here.”

JT did not need a dose of realism just yet. He sat up and grabbed his p-com off his shoulder. “Austin to CNC. VIPs are trapped in Medbay. We’re locked down.”

Nothing came back.

“Austin to CNC.”

“Lieutenant,” said the Gelt medic, “there’s no feed from CNC.”

JT felt very cold. Mitsuko and Windsor both had gone pale.

“Austin to CNC.” He waited and still received no answer. “Austin to Captain.” Again, he waited, longer this time as Captain Thalen likely found his p-com flooded with calls at the moment. “Austin to XO.”

“CNC’s been taken.” Friese sounded breathless. “Only five of us left. We’re on the move.”

“Where to, Patty?” He felt a mild inner cringe at using Friese’s given name.

“Hangar bay,” she said. “Midnight Angel’s got a Falcon warming up. Where are you?”

“Medbay, with Yamato. We’ve got the king and his entourage. Bulkheads are down.”

“Stay put. I’ll call you when we’re aboard the Falcon. We’re going to try for the Aurelius. Friese out.”

JT pulled himself to his feet. “Well, that’s not good.”

“The captain’s a casualty,” said Windsor. “We need to see what options we have.”

Opening his mouth to say something, he stopped with a look from Mitsuko. It did not matter that Bonapartan law had taken Edward Windsor out of Naval service. He had not reported to the Tuileries to assume his new role, nor had the Navy formally discharged him from service. Thanks to a bunch of mechs from an unknown source, he was senior officer present.

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