The Void Princess 4: Mind and Motive


The journey to Cyclops takes three days, and Septimon remains a persistent speck in Laika’s rear camera the whole time. In a city, the distance would be huge, but by space travel standards, he’s tailgating us. He’s far enough back that a critical manoeuvring failure won’t send us crashing into each other and probably kill Laika and me, but no more.

One problem I find pretty quickly is that, in what I can only assume is some act of prescient sadism against any poor innocent soul her dragon might kidnap after her death, Lyllania’s entertainment files are all password protected. Which doesn’t leave me all that much to distract me from the whole, well, situation.

I spend some time planning my next moves, but there’s not really all that much to plan. As soon as we get within range of Cyclops’ soul, I’m bound to get swamped with the panicked messages that I’m sure basically everyone who knows me sent as soon as the news of a feral dragon kidnapping someone in the middle of colonised space got out. I have to assume that Septimon and Orlani are keeping security updated, so everyone presumably knows I’m fine, but they’ll want to hear it from me. So that’ll be a tedious afternoon.

And there’ll be the psyche evals and registration of Laika, of course. That might be tricky. Out on the frontier, if a tamer and a feral dragon take a liking to each other and neither have any other commitments, the registration process is little more than a formality and a waiting period to see if any of the previous princess’ next of kin show up to claim any expensive property. But the more ‘civilised’ central areas of colonised space tend to be a bit more stringent, and I can probably expect to be held to higher standards here. Also, the whole kidnapping thing. They’ll want to look into that.

The important part will be to rush through the process with as little disruption as possible and get out of there before anyone gets too suspicious about Laika’s unusual capabilities. I don’t think anyone’s likely to go poking around – whatever Laika did, it was pretty far away, and just giving him to me gets rid of the problem faster than a proper investigation – but that assumes that he behaves himself in the den on cyclops. If he pulls more escapology or kidnapping bullshit, they’re going to treat him like a threat. We can’t afford that.

Oh, and I’ll need to quit my job, too. We’ll be busy with this ‘secret’ thing, and anyway, nobody employs princesses as dragon tamers. An existing primary bond with one dragon makes it a lot harder to connect with and subdue others. A princess with dragon taming experience can deal with some of the easier ferals, but it’s a pretty severe detriment, and it’s generally preferable to quit rather than to force everyone through the awkwardness of firing you.

I’m not worried about that in the long term. Laika chose me out of desperation, with limited options; once we’re off on this journey he’ll meet people better than me, and his it off with someone who deserves him more, and after we deal with this ‘secret’ thing I can hand him over with my blessing and get back to my job. But it does mean that we’re doing this trip funded by savings, which isn’t ideal. I don’t have all that many transferable skills to pick up odd jobs on the way. Most princesses end up doing whatever their dragons are most suited for (hauling or scouting or security or whatever), but I don’t think that’s an option for us. Whatever Laika was built for, the hidden compartments, untraceable bespoke machining, and custody-escaping features suggest that it’s not the kind of work you want to be doing on a nice low-risk journey where you’d prefer to avoid attracting the ire of the law.

That’s all future stuff, though. First, I need to survive Cyclops. And I’m not looking forward to Cyclops. I’ve only been there once, and I never went back on purpose. At least it shouldn’t be for long. Hopefully.

I take a peek at Laika’s flight plan. Cyclops, then past Pegasus, and after that, things start to get vague. Now, if you’re a central space girl, you probably consider a vague flight plan to be a red flag – either Laika’s hiding something from me, or he doesn’t know what he’s doing. But no, for frontier work, this isn’t suspicious.

Nothing in the universe can stay still for long. Everything in colonised space is at the mercy of that giant gravity well on fire that we call ‘the sun’, so the cities… well, you get it, you’ve been to primary school. You know how orbits work. ‘Oh, but Shana,’ you might say if you’ve spent your life in central space, ‘just because we orbit the sun doesn’t mean travel is unpredictable. Cities still hold their positions relative to each other; from one, you can find the rest.’ And, yeah, that’s true, close to earth. For the central cities, expending a little energy to keep one’s position relative to everyone else, for trade and travel reasons, makes sense. But that becomes less practical the further you stray from Earth’s orbital path. Head in close to Venus, and trying to maintain an orbit slow enough to hold position relative to Earth means you’re constantly fighting being dragged toward the sun. Head towards Mars, and you have the opposite problem – trying to keep up with Earth means constantly correcting to avoid drifting off into space. And that’s not even getting into cities built off the orbital plane. Head too far polar North or polar South, and you simply cannot stay at that position polar North or South and maintain an orbit around the sun, because of how 3D space works. You have to intersect the orbital plane twice per orbit or spend ridiculous amounts of energy not to, and if you’re not close enough to Earth to be part of a consistent interrelated central space trade network, it just isn’t worth that kind of energy. Carefully mapping out flight paths with respect to nearby cities is often pointless on the frontier, because if you get delayed in a port for too long then all of your destinations ahead of you move position. Which changes the predicted time to reach them, which makes further destinations move position more.

And even if Laika did have a perfect estimate of how long our journey will take (impossible), I still don’t think he could build a stable flight path for that many cities ahead, because I’m not sure he even knows what cities are out there. There’s simply no way that this teeny tiny dragon with a teeny tiny cabin and high manoeuvrability thrusters and in-atmosphere glider wings was ever intended for these sorts of long-distance journeys, and asking Minotaur for a detailed map might’ve been risky given the whole kidnapping and secrecy thing. So ‘Cyclops, then Pegasus, then Out There Somewhere’ is the best I’m going to get.

Most of Laika’s cameras are still pointed in the direction of our eventual destination, which at least gives me some information. Most notable is the fucking sun in the corner of every image, obscuring any decent view of navigable stars. We’re headed inward, towards Venus, which is new for me – Cyclops is about as far inwards as I’ve been. I word on the frontier outward, towards Mars. We also, so far as I can tell, seem to be sticking more or less to the orbital plane, although that’s not easy to determine from a vague camera image; we’re certainly heading to a destination that’s either on the orbital plane or at the very least much closer to it than I’m used to working. We’re also heading solar West – that is, in the opposite direction to the orbit of the planets – at… perhaps forty degrees? Thirty? – off straight inward. I’ll ask Laika for details when we get some up-to-date maps when we’re on Cyclops.

By day 2 of the journey, I’m passing the time by trying to interpret Lyllania’s various schematics and diagrams. The ones I can read at all aren’t interesting, they’re mostly designs for dragon wings and thrusters and stuff, which isn’t surprising – anything revolutionary enough to be interesting is probably far beyond my ability to understand as an amateur. Once I run out of patience for engineering bullshit, I start trying to jimmy open locked drawers and break the computer passwords. This is stuff I have a bit more experience with (every dragon tamer has had to break into a particularly stubborn dragon or two), but the locks are well designed, and I can’t bust them open without risking breaking them. I’d rather not damage Laika over idle curiosity. I don’t have any cryptography programs handy, so trying to break the passwords involves the intense, high-skill activity of guessing a bunch of most common passwords and, when that fails, just whining at Laika in the hopes that he’ll relent and tell me what they are. He does not.

How can I find secret if I can’t see the files? I ask sulkily. I’m worried that the question might be too non-emotional and speficid – we’ve only been together a couple of days, we haven’t developed a princess/dragon pidgin yet – but Laika sends me an enquiry back.

What files do you need?

I flash him some images of random movies, to which he responds with a sort of indulgent amusement.


Yeah, yeah, Cyclops is close, I know. But I’m bored now.

Fortunately, our last day leaves little time to be bored, as it’s filled with me hurriedly washing my one set of clothes that actually fit in the little clothing cubicle in the shower and then hanging them from the ceiling and Prompting Laika to adjust the temperature and humidity to dry them. I clean myself up to Peak Respectability with the tools at my disposal and make sure that Laika’s cabin is clean and sparkling. I’m about to undergo a psyche and compatibility assessment for a dragon registration, I will not walk out onto Cyclops looking like a stowaway. I will look nice, and we will get this over with, and then we will move on.

I should probably wait on Cyclops until my arm heals, but I’m not going to. It’ll heal just as well in Laika, and it’s not like a cast requires intense medical supervision.

I’m having one last try at trying it jimmy open a drawer without breaking it when the sudden deluge of messages from the truesoul lets be know that we’re approaching Cyclops. I let Laika negotiate our landing with Cyclops while I politely confirm that I’m fine to worried friends, less politely confirm that I’m fine to colleagues teasing me about being dumb enough to get kidnapped, and craft more careful and heartfelt messages for worried family. (‘Yeah it’s all good’ doesn’t seem like an appropriate response to Dad’s one hundred and eighty seven increasingly hysterical enquiries.) I have to be careful in these discussions, because security forces technically aren’t allowed and shouldn’t be able to monitor my personal soul-to-soul communication even if it’s being transmitted long-distance through the truesoul, but there’s no such thing as too paranoid, and my whole defence of Laika relies on the idea that we totally agreed to hang out together before he jumped off a city with me.

By the time I’m done calming everyone down, we’re coming in to land on cyclops. The cabin shakes a little as Laika undergoes the complicated mechanical process of folding away his solar wings and pulling out his atmosphere wings, and below us stretch out broad shiny streets and brightly coloured rooftops.

Cyclops has the garishmess I’m used to from frontier holiday destinations, but shares the disconcerting neatness of other central cities. Everything is clean and smooth and none of the pain is chipped; large statues and fountains of clean water stand in public areas; vendors sell vetted and registered wares from carefully curated stalls. One seller is selling strings of real genuine pearls from the city’s underground oyster farms, and I watch her, struck with a sudden memory of buying a string from such a merchant – possibly this exact one – and hanging them around Tascia’s neck while she giggled. Then my view is cut off as we descend into the dragon den and the ceiling closes over us.

One thing about the landing and disembarking process from such a tiny dragon: it’s quick. As I leap down from Laika’s back, Cyclops informs me that Septimon will take a full hour longer to arrive and settle. He then offers me a long list of shops and eateries where I might like to kill time, and I politely cut him off. I’m not here to sightsee.

Besides, I’m a little worried that if I leave Laika alone too long, he’ll snatch someone else and run off again. He shifts restlessly behind me, and I put a hand on his snout to calm him.

I’ll need to go in a little bit, I tell him. Wait for me.

You will come back.

I will come back.

He lies down and closes his eyes. I can only hope it’s not a feint.

Orlani, when she arrives, turns out to be a tall woman with rich red hair and a no-nonsense expression. She sweeps a critical eye over the sleeping Laika, then her eyes land on me and soften.

“Are you alright?” she asks.

“I’m fine,” I say. “It’s good to stretch my legs, though.”

“Yeah, he doesn’t look like a guy designed for long distance travel. Where are you two heading?”

“Frontier. I’ve spent most of my life working out there.”

“In him?”

I shrug. “It’ll be easier once we’re out there.”

“You want to grab a coffee?” She opens her soul to me, and I reciprocate. The security princess is doing the psyche eval? I skim the open layer of her soul and, yes, she is qualified for this assessment. Alright then.

Be good, I tell Laika as we leave the hangar, but I don’t think he’s paying attention. We head out into the bright city streets of Cyclops, everyone’s go-to holiday destination in central colonised space.

“You seem upset,” Orlani notes as we walk past a young couple sensemelding on a public bench with no shame whatsoever.

“I don’t like Cyclops,” I admit. “I got my heart broken here once.”

That’s not entirely true; Tascia and I had continued to date for a good three months after our Cyclops holiday, a whole three months for me to get my shit together and stop being such a fuckup, which I didn’t. But ‘the love of my life took me here once and didn’t dump me but it was still kind of pivotal and I don’t like being here’ is a bit of a complicated topic to dump on someone you’ve just met.

We stop at a little open-air cafe advertising high gravity filtered coffee, which sounds super fancy to people who don’t know they just make it in a centrifuge. Same as how they filter it in zero G. So, for those of us who do a lot of space travel… normal coffee. I order a cheap local beer while Orlani gets some kind of fruit juice thing I’ve never heard of. I double-check the public-facing part of my soul to make sure that nobody assumes we’re on a date and tried to sell us pearls.

Some people are staring at us. Presumably because of the whole Laika thing. But they don’t approach.

“So how did you meet Laika?” Orlani asks. A stupid question that she already knows the answer to, of course, but she’s not looking for the facts. Her full attention is on my emotions, and I know that even if I close myself off to her, she’ll still be able to see deeper into my soul than most. I hate psyche evals.

“You know that already,” I shrug. “He showed up on Minotaur right in the middle of my vacation. I was celebrating my sister’s graduation and suddenly, surprise! Time to go to work, Shana!”

“I saw the footage. How’s your arm?”

“I have to assume it’s healing fine. Broken bones are broken bones, you know how it is.”

“It was really impressive, how you called him down onto the building all furious like that, and calmed him down in just a few seconds,”

I shrug. “It’s my job. I’ve been doing it for decades.”

“And now you two are heading out to the frontier?”

“Yeah. Laika’s got friends out there.” I’m pretty sure this isn’t true – if Laika has friends out there, why did he come all the way into central space instead of going to them? – but given how little I do know, I’m hoping the deception won’t be obvious or flag as important. “I normally work out in the other direction, but I can’t tame when I’m a princess anyway, so there’s no real reason to head back out that way anyway.”

“What about your friends?”

I shrug. “When you do work on the frontier that involves a lot of travel, you leave friends all over. That’s what the truesoul is for. Having friends at the other side of colonised space isn’t all that different to having friends four cities over.”

“Fair enough.” Orlani finishes her juice drink thing. “Thank you for your time, Shana. I’ve put in approval for the match with Cyclops, so you can complete your registration once Laika’s eval is complete.”

“… That’s it? I’m gonna be honest, I expected this to be a lot more rigorous.”

Orlani shrugs. “Lyllania’s contacts have been investigated, and while the investigation of her death is still ongoing, it seems that she’s left no next of kin or heirs. As such, nobody but Laika can make any claim on her property, so there’s nobody to contest your inheritance of him or anything inside him. Our chief concern was that he might be holding you against your will, which is a matter of special concern when a dragon comes up with a mysterious suicide case inside it, but your love and trust in Laika is obvious and undeniable. I’m sure the dragon psychologists will have questions for him about Lyllania’s death, but if they determine that he’s not a clear and immediate danger to you, there should be no barriers.” She stands up. “But even if they clear him, be aware: that doesn’t mean he’s safe. It means that they haven’t detected anything immediately and obviously dangerous. It is entirely possible that he did something to make Lyllania kill herself. Maybe he did something to her soul; maybe he just trapped her and flew around space until the isolation drove her mad. Before you register this bond, my advice is to make absolutely sure that you can trust Laika.”

Orlani closes her soul and walks away. I stare at my beer. Some random tourists stare at me. Now that the security princess is gone, a couple look like they might be gathering the courage to approach me, so I finish the beer and go for a walk, removing my name from the public-facing part of my soul for some anonymity.

Did Laika kill Lyllania? No. That’s ridiculous. Dragons can’t… well, most dragons can’t do that, because they have emergency manual controls that prevent them from just flying off against their princess’ will. But Laika can override those manual controls, so maybe he could. He wouldn’t, though. It’s obvious that he wouldn’t kill his princess like that, not on purpose.

But something had made her do that to herself. And now he wants to take me out to the middle of nowhere and show me what did.

Is this a good idea? Or is this long journey just going to end with me shoving two control levers into my brain?