The Void Princess 1: Body And Soul


Minotaur is my favourite city in all of colonised space.

I know what you’re thinking. ‘Minotaur, Shana? Really? The City of Mediocrity? Too close to Earth to have any interesting frontier action, too far from Earth to be involved in any interesting Earth news; too old and fixed in its ways to have an interesting youth culture but too young and changeable to have an interesting historical culture; far enough away from everything else that the lag connecting to the Truesoul is frustrating, but not far enough to have connection dropouts and allow an interesting microculture to develop? The only interesting thing about Minotaur is how boring he is.’

And you’d be right, of course. But Minotaur is my hometown. When I walk his streets and bare my soul to his, I fit in a way that I never will on the more exciting frontier cities. My childhood is here, indelibly absorbed into his soul. My family is here.

I don’t get to visit him as often as I’d like, being a dragon tamer. There aren’t exactly swarms of feral dragons hanging out this close to Earth. So when I do get home, I try to make the most of it, which is why I’d booked an entire month of vacation to attend my sister Ilya’s graduation party.

And it’s why I was ignoring the low-level alarms that Minotaur started pinging me as I headed to the nightclub we’d booked for the party. Minotaur has an emergency response force and I’m not on it. It’s not an alarm telling me I’m in danger, and if there’s a shielding or gravity failure somewhere, it’s not my problem. I’m on vacation.

The streets of Minotaur are peaceful, to be generous in description; the narrow paths between towering metal buildings are almost completely unoccupied. There are very few transports on the transport cable above and I’m certainly the only pedestrian; as the sun disappears behind a tall titanium spire of homes almost hidden beneath the greenery of vertical gardens, the paths around me are dark except for a single trail of lights leading to the party venue, lit for me and only me. Dad had asked whether I’d wanted to take a transport with her, but I’d turned her down; it’s not often that I get to walk these streets.

The warning rippling through Minotaur’s soul spiked a little in alarm. It’s still not high; just an upgrade from ‘there’s an anomalous reading that might be a problem’ to ‘there’s an anomalous reading that’s almost definitely a problem’. This low alarm level doesn’t tell civilians what the problem is, and I refuse to pull up my clearance to find out. I am on vacation.

The venue for Ilya’s graduation is Dramatika, a tired old club that seemed oh so cool when we were young adults and didn’t know any better. Next to the frontier bars I’m now used to unwinding in after a long day subduing feral dragons, it’s unimpressive, just a big room on floor twenty eight of a thirty floor building full of art studios and low-tier restaurants and illegally sublet apartments disguised as warehouse space, trying to hide its worn floors and uninspiring atmosphere under the soft glow of coloured lights. The elevator doesn’t have any soul at all, not even a basic ID check; I have to code my destination in manually by pushing buttons.

Dramatika’s playing music – real music, with actual speakers, not merely transmitting it through Minotaur’s soul – and the thrum of the bass crawls up my wildly impractical dress shoes (no dragon tamer would wear heels like this on duty, but I am on vacation) and up my spine to settle in the base of my skull. I bare my soul at the door to prove I’m on the guest list and he clicks open for me.

The music is, of course, louder inside. The room is dark, with the large windows long blacked out by layers of aesthetically appropriate posters, the lights strobing, the scent sharp with whatever piped-in artificial scent is currently in style (I don’t recognise it), and most of the patrons significantly younger than me. I skirt around them and make my way to the VIP room, booked for Ilya’s event.

The VIP room is quieter, brighter, and sparsely populated. I don’t recognise most of the patrons. These are Ilya’s friends, all about five years younger than me and probably from her school. I scan the room’s network for familiar souls, but before I find Ilya, I feel her arms wrap around me from behind.

“Shana! You made it!”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.” I disentangle myself so I can turn around and hug her properly. “I’ve gotta get my goodbyes in before you run off to live with the halfkind, or whatever.”

She giggles. “I’d die in a week. Do you have any idea how high the gravity is on Earth?”

“Oh, getting qualifications and clearance to work in proximity to the planet doesn’t come with automatic gravity resistance? Too bad. But you wouldn’t die within a week, it’d be at least a month before 1g caused you any problems even without adaptation training.”

“Oh, like you’d know.”

“Of course I’d know! Have you ever tamed a dragon? Those things can and will drag you around space in high atmospheric pressure under ridiculous g-forces.”

“Oh, well then, on my sister’s grand wisdom I’ll be sure to illegally run off to live with the halfkind for slightly less than one month.”

“And then I can visit you in jail next time I take a vacation.”

“Oh, so in a decade, then?”

“If you get imprisoned for interfering with the halfkind, I’ll take my next holiday early.”

“Bribing your little sister into crime! What would our parents say?” Ilya’s eyes go distant for a moment, and I know she’s scanning the souls in the room. “Where are they, anyway?”

“Probably late,” I sigh. I ask Minotaur about their transport and, yep, it’s still ten minutes away. “Mum probably needed an extra hour to pick the perfect earrings.”

“Unlike you, who always put so much effort into your formal attire.”

“Hey, these are my good, formal pantaloons.”

“I’m aware, because they’re the same formal pantaloons that you wore to your own dragon academy graduation, twelve years ago.”

“Style is timeless. Anyway, I bought new shoes. High heels and everything.”

“They go so well with the climbing rig on your belt.”

“A dragon tamer never leaves her toolkit behind!”

“You’re on vacation!”

“I know! That’s why I’m wearing the heels and the pantaloons!”

“You’re hopeless. I’m buying you jewellery next Penumbral Day.”

“I’m buying you bad Frontier alcohol again. Speaking of, you want anything from the bar?”

“No thanks. I’ll have plenty of time to get plastered later.”

I grin. “Typical procrastination. As the responsible sister, I’m going to get started now.”

Dramatika’s bar hasn’t been updated since I was first old enough to be allowed in; the chips, scratches, and I’d swear even some of the beer stains are as familiar to me as my one pair of formal pantaloons. I collapse onto a stool, adjust the metal hooks on the climbing rig hanging on my belt so they don’t dig into my hip, and bare enough of my soul to the bartender that she can verify my age. Not that it should be necessary, I didn’t get these grey hairs and wrinkles being a teenager, but central cities like Minotaur are always sticklers about that sort of thing.

I’m two drinks in when my parents arrive, wearing matching ties and high heels because they’re the dorkiest people in the city. Ilya rushes over to greet them, and I decide to give the three of them a few minutes together before heading over myself.

Minotaur’s alarm spikes higher, and he finally issues a civilian alert” get inside, lock all doors, and shelter in place.

Oh. Well, that’s not too exciting. Nothing about bracing for movement, so it’s not an orbit problem, earthquake, or impact. Nothing about ensuring a contained atmosphere in the building, so the atmospheric shielding surrounding the city must be fine. Nothing about heat or radiation. Shelter inside sounds like a minor collapse or a transport crash or something. I drain my third drink just as I notice the creeping sort of apprehension, something brushing on my soul.

With a frown, I scan for problems. No alerts in the transport system, so maybe it’s not a crash that –

Something up in the sky. My heart drops like a first stage rocket. There’s a soul up there, and it’s not a human one.

I ping him for an ID, but get no response. He’s not openly wearing his name, his model number, or his Princess’ identity, but he radiates a half-coherent aura of rage and threat and disorientation that I know far, far too well.

There’s a feral dragon above our building.

How did a dragon go feral this deep in colonised space? That’s a question for later. For now, I leap to my feet, stagger, and nearly fall over right as Minotaur reaches out to tell me that I have an urgent alert from the Queen Magistrate. It’s exactly what I expect – an emergency call to action, I tell her I’m on vacation, more for the principle of the thing than anything, and she responds immediately with the full law that compels dragon tamers to leap into service in an emergency situation even when off-duty. (Did she just have that law on hand?) I’m already halfway to the door at this point, and I mentally flag the bartender, baring enough of my soul to show her my qualifications and requesting the dose of Soberup that such establishments are required to provide emergency personnel for free.

She hurries over with a large bright blue cylinder and I jam the active end of it against my thigh, feeling the autoinjectors pierce my flesh and ruin my one pair of formal pantaloons. Injecting the drug takes seconds, and soon I’m handing the tube back and heading out into the main room of Dramatika.

Other patrons have noticed that something’s up, too. The street lights are all on, and actual streetlight bathes the interior of the Dramatika for what is probably the first time in decades as patrons pull posters off the window to gawk outside. Stumbling atop my high heels and lingering intoxication, I bring my qualifications to the forefront of my soul and slap a big bright digital Emergency Responder tag on them. Bright-haired and makeup-clad young adults of varying degrees of sobriety part for me until I’m pressing my own face to the window and looking up.

I can feel the dragon, I know where he is, but we’re too many levels down for me to see him. I use my emergency response qualifications to unlock the window and step out onto the tiny decorative balcony. There’s no safety rail, and the ledge is barely the width of my body, but I’m not worried; the gravity on Minotaur is low enough that even a fall to the ground shouldn’t do more than break a bone or two. I’ve had much worse falls.

Minotaur’s collective soul is pressing heavily on mine, and I’m suddenly aware of just how many people are watching me. The people in Dramatika, of course, and probably anywhere else in the building with a good enough vantage point, but also peering out of the windows of all the neighbouring buildings, floor upon floor of observers. Even those in the area who can’t see me with their eyes are probably tracking me with their souls. I’m not used to working with an audience.

Minotaur sarcastically reminds me that the building has elevators as I strap on my climbing gear, but the reminder is faint under the dozens of other impressions he’s pushing on me. I withdraw from his soul as much as is reasonable and the chatter dies down to something easy to ignore. I don’t need uninformed bystanders telling me how to do my job; I can climb a lot faster than I can get back in and use an elevator, and anyway, I want my eyes on the dragon as quickly as possible.

A tamer’s climbing rig is pretty simple. It’s a long, high-tensile rope with an all-purpose grapple on one end, and four climbing hooks – two designed to strap into the heels of the hands, two for the toes of the boots – that can maintain grip strength and climbing dexterity far better than my puny human muscles can. It does mean I have to keep wearing my stupid high heels, because I can’t put the foot claws on my bare feet, but soon I’m scaling the last couple of floors up onto the roof and pulling myself over and then I see him, gliding over the neighbouring building.

He’s beautiful.

I’d been hoping that when I laid eyes on him, I’d be able to identify what model he was, since his soul doesn’t tell me. But this dragon is clearly a small run, or possibly a completely custom build. For one thing, he’s tiny, about fifteen metres long, and most of that is neck and tail. His torso, minus the legs, looks to be about three metres long internally and perhaps two in diameter, which… that’s barely room for the Princess, certainly no room for passengers. He doesn’t look to be a cargo hauler or a building rig, so what’s the point of him? How many uses can a one-person dragon have, other than that?

Even at a distance, I can tell that his carefully layered scales of metal and synthsteel are an artisan’s work, not the clumsy easy-assembly pieces you see on mass produced models. His solar wings are folded carefully away to protect their delicate panels and sails, but still visible above his fully extended in-atmosphere gliding wings. I’m not an expert at in-atmosphere dragons, but they look to be built more for compact manoeuvrability than for distance. His long tail is thin and broad, sacrificing cargo storage in favour of making it an atmospheric rudder, and is that… some kind of claw or grabber appendage on the end? It’s really hard to tell as he lands on the neighbouring building and lashes it irritably.

His neck, too looks unreasonably long and thin, extending the length of his body without adding much in the way of cargo storage. Neither neck nor tail look to be all that much wider than my torso. His head’s about a metre wide and two metres long, with large ears tucked behind huge metal horns. His eyes are built from one of the more sophisticated types of camera arrays, the kind I’ve only seen in dragons for high-end mining work, and as I pull myself up onto the roof next to his, he fixes them on me, waiting.

Still shaking off the last of the effects of the alcohol in my system, I bare my soul to him.

Dragon taming is a complicated thing, and it takes a very specific sort of person to do it well. Dragons don’t have minds that can handle language, in the way we humans understand it – most will eventually form a working pidgin with their Princesses, but you cannot simply ‘talk to’ a strange dragon. A feral dragon is clever enough to be suspicious and dumb enough to be hard to deceive, so the most effective method of gaining his trust is to make sure that you’re truly, sincerely the right kind of person when your souls meet. You need to be somebody who is patient, somebody who is powerful enough to be respected yet still nonthreatening, somebody who is both willing and able to help him, somebody worthy of his trust. When his soul touches yours, you need to be able to project this impression through every fibre of your being, without words.

The impression that I’m projecting right now can be summed up as, Oi, fuckstick. You’re ruining our party.

With a snort, the dragon takes to the sky. One push with its powerful back legs distances it from the buildings enough to use propulsion, and the cold jets in its heels activate when it’s right above me. I’m only just outside the blast range and feel the ripple of air against my face, ruffling my painstakingly styled hair and leaving me painfully aware of how vulnerable I am right now, standing on a flat roof with no body armour, no service weapon, no EMP shielding, no backup, horribly inappropriate clothing and the chilling artificial sobriety of an emergency Soberup dose. This is so fucking stupid.

But it’s my job, so before the dragon can gain too much distance I sprint along under it for the length of the roof and then jump, hurling the weighted grapple at the end of my climbing rope. I’m ignoring Minotaur as I work, but I still feel him pause as countless eyes watch both me and the rope fly, waiting to see if…

The grapple bounces off the leg I was aiming for and I prepare for a painful landing (on the next rooftop if I’m lucky, on the ground far below if I’m unlucky), but then the dragon changes direction with a flip of his glider wings and a long sweep of his rudder tail, and the tail moves right through the space currently occupied by my climbing rope; the rope wraps around it and the grapple catches on. My hand claws grab the rope and suddenly I’m being dragged through the air by my wrists at a frightening speed.

This sort of thing happens to me more than I’m comfortable admitting, and as usual, I try not to let fear get the best of me. Minotaur is kind of beautiful, stretched out below me, or at least the parts of him I can make out at high velocity through the air tearing at my eyes are. We’re high enough that above, I can see the faint glow of the atmospheric shield that holds the air around our low-gravity city without impeding traffic flow, or maybe that’s just the light of the stars I’m seeing, diffused by the tears in my eyes. It’s hard to see much around the dragon’s tail anyway.

There are a couple of things that can kill me right now. If my climbing equipment fails, I’m as good as dead, flung off the dragon at a speed great enough to crush me against the first solid surface I encounter. But I’m not worried about that; my equipment has never failed me before. No, the far bigger danger is the tail above me; the dragon doesn’t seem to have noticed that I’m still here, but if he whips that thing around too quickly to change direction again, he could very well hit me and crush me with the impact, or simply pull my body apart with the inertia of a few quick turns. I need to get somewhere safer, right now.

I climb the rope until I reach dragon metal, which is relatively easy to do; this is exactly what my climbing rig is made for and the claws do all the hard work. Navigating the tail itself is trickier. I’m nearly at the end of it, which gives me a chance to get a closer look at the end and yes, right behind the large rudder fin (which looks to be made of separate sections that can fold down flat), there is some kind of a claw thing. It looks similar in design to my climbing claws, able to adjust its shape to some degree to grab a wide variety of objects, like a human hand.

Speaking of climbing claws and hands. Climbing onto this tail isn’t an easy feat. It’s thin enough for me to wrap my arms and legs around if I want, but its length is covered in overlapping synthmetal scales with no obvious grip points. There’s no sign of compartment handles or hinges anywhere to grab onto, just scales like a long metal snake.

They’re not in good condition. Mottled and scorched and covered in patches of solar fade and carbon soot, many of their edges are warped or chipped. Pity for this dragon tugs at my heart, along with rage for a universe that left him alone long enough for this to happen. It’s not surprising – a dragon usually has to be away from his Princess for quite some time before the human-dependent parts of his AI break down enough to send him feral – but it upsets me every time, the thought that we build these beasts and then let so many of them slip through the cracks like this. What has he suffered out there, alone and confused, looking for people to help him?

The warps and chips in the scales are enough of a grip for me. I wrap my rope around the tail and tie it to my waist (I refuse to get flung off at this point) and start to slowly crawl my way forward. I’m almost at its back legs when the tail whips again and jars me violently to the side, and he must notice my weight then, because a metal head descends to look under his belly, two mechanical eyes fix on me, and the full weight of a dragon’s soul is suddenly pressing on mine.

Okay, now I’m certain that he’s an unregulated custom job, because the careful craftsmanship obvious in his mechanics does not extend to his interfacing, and there are none of the usual safety filters or protocols in place. As our souls brush each other, my mind is flooded with information that I have no hope of being able to process, raw data and digital concepts and dragon sensory information all designed to be understood by an artificial mind.

Ah. This has some worrying implications. It’s also why dragon building is supposed to be regulated. Most dragons go feral in dangerous or isolated or poorly regulated places when they become separated from suitable human souls for too long; their Princess dies somewhere isolated, or they suffer interface damage, or they end up locked in some warehouse or independent port that’s really bad at paperwork, and their minds start to break down without human minds to calibrate them against. But if whoever cobbled this beast together screwed up the interfacing itself, if he was built unable to communicate properly, then this dragon was destined to be alone and feral from the moment he was born.

I hope I’m wrong, because if he was built that way, then I need to track down some amateur shade engineer and break her teeth for what she’s done to him.

An inability to communicate properly is going to make wrangling him more difficult, but I’ve dealt with plenty of damaged dragons in the past. I know what to do. If I can get into the cockpit, I can manually ride him down, and he can be the AI techs’ problem. I shove the confusing data away from me in the sort of mental equivalent off someone pushing a heavy animal off them and hoping it doesn’t bite, and request his cockpit hatch location.

Usually, there’s two possible results to such a request. Most dragons will just give it without thinking about it, even if they’re fighting with you; it’s an inbuilt reflex. More rarely, smarter ones will gruffly ignore the request until you make nice with them a bit. I figure there’s about a fifty per cent chance I’ll get one of these reactions, and about a fifty per cent chance I’ll get garbled nonsense, if he even understands the request at all.

What I don’t expect is to be overwhelmed with a perfectly focused beam if pure, cutting rage.

I stop breathing. I can’t feel my heart beating. It’s a good thing I’m using my climbing claws, because if I was holding on with my hands I’d have let go. There’s nothing in my life except the red guidance lights of two dragon eyes and the overwhelming hate of something that very suddenly wants nothing in the world except for me to be dead.

When he opens his mouth I think, for just a moment, that he’s going to bite me in half. I try to scramble back and shield myself as best I can behind a leg, but I can’t move.

By the time I realise his true intention, he’s already roaring. Below us, the street and building lights wink out in the EMP blast of a dragon’s roar, and the world is dark and I am suddenly, intensely, unavoidably alone.

Have you ever had your soul interface disabled by an EMP? I have, of course, several times; it’s part of the dragon tamer retraining we have to take every five years, just in case anyone is ever stupid enough to go toe-to-toe with a dragon without their helmet. But that’s in a controlled environment, with a trainer holding our hands and standing in our field of vision and telling us that it’s going to be alright. Not out here, in the dark sky where suddenly there is nothing, just me and the endless space of the universe above the fragile gravity well I’m currently dangling at a pretty dangerous height in.

Minotaur is gone. The people below me are gone. I know, logically, that the only thing between us are some walls, and that they’re still right behind those walls, but I can’t feel them there, I can’t feel a single other soul in the universe. Even the thing I’m clinging to doesn’t feel alive; it’s just a huge chunk of metal that might be a moving sculpture or an unmanned machine. The part that looks like a face moves, but that might just be the wind up here; I certainly can’t feel any mind directing it.

People shouldn’t be alone. Isolation is death. People live in groups and colonies and cities, and even if you’re travelling the vast distance between frontier colonies, you have at least one other mind – the dragon carrying you – with you, and if it dies far from civilisation then you too are dead. People can’t be alone.

But I am.

And the universe is vast and empty and devoid of help.

And then the lights come on and the souls come back and I allow myself just a brief moment of relief and joy in my community before focusing back on my task. That was so, so much worse than in training; below me, the people of Minotaur panic (most of them have probably never been trained for such a thing), and I push their minds aside and focus on bringing down this fucking dragon before he tries something like that again.

He reacted to my access port request, meaning he can hear me, at least. And his emotional reaction was clear enough, so maybe the only interfacing problem is the lack of safety protocols to shield me from his unintelligible computer thoughts. I hope so; that’ll make his redomestication easier. But, contrary to my job title, the actual redomestication isn’t my job. My job is gaining his trust and getting him to someone who can do it.

Well, gaining his trust is a lost cause. But I can do the second thing.

The dragon is no longer looking at me; if I’m lucky, he might have decided to ignore me. He adjusts his wings and swings upward, activating his heel jets once more and heading for the sky. No problem; I can bring him down when I get inside. On a dragon with a cockpit this small, there are really only two sensible locations for the access port – belly or back. I drag myself forward – well, it’s upwards, now – and quickly verify that there’s no ports of any kind on the dragon’s belly. Which means I’m going to have to move around to the top of the dragon, unlatch my safety rope, and climb what is currently a vertical surface between the top of its tail and its shoulder blades. This is going to suck.

I’m still planning my ascent when I realise that oh, hey, we’re still rising and oh, hey, the atmospheric shield around Minotaur is getting awfully close.

Ah. This is… not great.

The thing about the open void of space outside the atmospheric shield is that this dragon can exist in it, no problem. Indeed, that’s the entire point of dragons equipped with solar wings; to fly through space. The other thing about the void of space outside the atmospheric shield is that humans, famously, cannot exist in it no problem. That is also the entire point of dragons equipped with solar wings; to keep humans nice and safe inside them as they fly through space.

|So being outside the dragon, heading for space, is not a great position to be in.

I have three options. One: die in space. Not a great one. Two: locate the access hatch and get inside this dragon in the twenty seconds or so before it gets to the atmospheric shield. That’s simply not going to happen. Which leaves three: jump off.

We are very, very far above Minotaur. And I don’t have gliding gear. I don’t even have body armour. But the possibility of cracking my skull open on the hard turf of my own city is a fuckload more inviting than the certainty of suffocating in space, so I let go of the dragon, push away with both legs, and spread my body out for as much air resistance as possible, praying I reach one of the high rooftops and not the distant street.

Leaping and landing are everyday tasks in dragon taming, and though I’m supposed to be doing this in safety gear, I know what to do. Fortunately, the dragon is flying almost straight up, so there’s not too much lateral movement to worry about. A rooftop is approaching fast; I curl my body and prepare to roll.

Several bones in my right arm and hand shatter on impact, and I feel various observers flinch in sympathetic pain, then relax a little as I stagger to my feet. Nothing seems immediately wrong with me that some medical attention and healing time won’t mostly fix. Minotaur’s alarm drops to almost base level and the lockdown is revoked as the dragon makes his way back off into space. I receive a message from the Queen Magistrate; I can tell from the tone without even reading it that it’s a note to congratulate me and take me back off duty.

Minotaur’s soul rings with the cheering of his citizenry. I’ve done my job as an emergency responder, and Minotaur is safe. The dragon is unlikely to be back; he’ll probably wander space until he encounters a city better equipped to wrangle him, where he can get the help he needs.

It’ll take a long time. Months, maybe years, wandering space. Alone, disoriented, blinded with anger and confusion and pain.

I watch him rise, a twinkle of moving metal among the stars, almost at the edge of my transmission range already. With all my mental strength, I pull myself into a specific mood and hurl it right at him.

Oi! Come back here! I’m not done with you!

He ignores me. That’s fine. If there’s one thing I know how to do really well, it’s piss off a dragon.

Did your boorish pig of a Princess teach you those manners?

That draconic rage hits my soul once again in full force as he wheels around and drops. I knew it would. It was obvious from the moment I’d figured out why requesting his access hatch had set him off.

The usual reason for a dragon to go feral is when his Princess can’t contact him any more. The most frequent reason for this is death. Any dragon who’s lost his Princess will grieve her, no matter the circumstances, but some deaths are worse than others. Usually, a Princess will die away from her dragon, in any number of normal ways – illness, accident, violent conflict, whatever. But it’s worse if she dies when she isn’t away from her dragon.

He doesn’t want me inside him because the woman he loves most in the world is in there, and she’s dead.

He roars again, and I am once totally alone in a suddenly dark world, this time with one useless arm and something metal and furious barrelling right towards me. The silence in my head allows me to focus on just how fucking stupid calling him back was for the momentary eternity before everyone exists again, and he is right on top of me and moving extremely fast; I leap out of the way and stumble on my stupid high heels just as he hits the building with full force, knocking me onto my arse. The roof cracks and I automatically check the vicinity; the floor immediately below us is empty and the civilians in the building are descending as quickly as they can and the Queen Magistrate is going to tear me to pieces for this if I survive but it’s all her fucking fault for making me face a dragon when I’m supposed to be on vacation. If I survive, because if he decides to kill me, I’m dead. I’m just dead.

He doesn’t, though. He stands over me and throws the full unprotected weight of his soul at me, and in a moment of possibly suicidal spite, I do the same to him, opening up completely and forcing it all on him whether useful or not. The targeting lights on his eyes brighten as he stares at me, head cocked. For a long, tense moment, neither of us move.

He’s hurting so badly. He’s hurting, and with no shields between us I can feel the raw depths of every piece of it even though I can’t understand how or why. The source of his pain is inside, rotting him from the inside out, a treasure and an infection and a blessing and a curse and something that it desperately hurts to remember but that he is terrified to forget. Slowly, I get to my feet, and step forward, and put my working hand on the end of his long, smooth nose.

He doesn’t pull away.

Through the barrage of dragon feelings I don’t understand and my own human feeling that I don’t understand either, I manage to cobble together a request for the location of his access port. The location he sends back is exactly where I expect it – on the back, between the wings. I pull up the closest thing to ‘soothing’ I’m capable of projecting right now and hope it keeps him still as I climb, one-armed, onto the dragon’s back. The hatch is as battered and charred as the rest of him, but I know the design – it’s a standardised model. Apparently even custom junkies don’t fuck with proven quality when it comes to building pressure vessels. The nameplate above the hatch is blackened and slightly warped, but I can still make out the letters of the dragon’s name – LAIKA.

I open the hatch, and drop inside. The interior lights are still on; it’d seem almost welcoming, if it wasn’t for the smell of decay.

Then I see the Princess, and freeze in shock.

She’s belted into the pilot’s seat, as expected. She’s dead, as expected. She’s clearly been dead for quite some time, as… well, I hadn’t have any expectations either way on that front, but it’s not surprising. No; the surprising thing is the manner of death.

So far as I can tell, it looks like this Princess tore two levers out of the control panel in front of her, and rammed them through her own eyeballs and into her brain.