The Void Princess 5: Him and Her


Laika is also cleared with surprising speed, but we don’t head off into the void immediately. I’ve got something very important to do on Cyclops first.

I have to go shopping.

It’s a full two weeks’ journey to Pegasus, and from there it could be months to further cities, depending on how they align. I’m not doing that journey in a dead woman’s ill-fitting clothes, completely devoid of proper safety equipment and, most important of all, with no entertainment. If I have to spend a fortnight staring at Laika’s interior walls I might rip levers out of his control panel and shove them into my eyes myself.

I officially register our bond, clear Laika to access my accounts to stock up on fuel and stuff (he knows better than me what he needs) and go in search of reasonably priced goods. This is something of a chore on Cyclops. Reasonably priced good certainly exist in the city – the locals have to trade with each other, after all – but they’re not found in any of the kitschy tourist areas, which is, well, the entire surface of the city. Getting anything at a decent price means convincing one of the elevators to take you down into the subsurface, where most of the city’s industry takes place and the less wealthy residents live. This is an extremely difficult thing to do when you’re a visitor – Cyclops’ economy relies on fleecing visitors for as much money as possible, which is why I once spent nearly two hours arguing with an elevator while Tascia watched in amusement and waited for me to finally cave and go buy overpriced sandwiches with her. But I’m older, wiser, and better at bullshitting AIs now. I approach the nearest elevator and bare my soul.

He opens without protest.

Hmm. Okay. I head down into the city and, as I exit, ask why. Apparently he automatically approves princesses. That makes sense; the city wants to attract as many tourists as possible, and you don’t do that by making the bus drivers and traders unwilling to come.

Not that princesses are likely to want to spend much time inside. Being under the surface of a city is pretty much like being inside a massive dragon, with the added benefit of consistent gravity. People who spend most of their time holed up inside a dragon’s cabin aren’t generally excited to spend more time holed up inside a bigger cabin. A city has an open sky; why not use it?

Anyway, a little diplomacy and a lot of stubbornness finds most of what I need at prices that are only a bit absurd instead of completely absurd, with the exception of safety equipment. You cannot find replacement climbing rig parts or a decent EMP shielding helmet anywhere on Cyclops. And I mean anywhere. I spend a good few hours down in the fucking oyster farms in the deep interior, shouting over the whirr of the massive tidal pumps, trying to get the farmers to tell me where they buy their safety lines. No dice.

Well. We’re only a fortnight out from Pegasus. Pegasus is a very dragon-focused city, being the last port of call for travellers heading for sunward frontier. They will have very affordable equipment for space travel, and the route there should be pretty populous; it’s very unlikely that we’ll face any emergencies before Pegasus. Lyllania’s old equipment should surely do just fine.

When I go to meet Laika, he’s not in his hangar. I ask Cyclops and find him crouched on the low wall separating Septimon from an unknown dragon named Lotus, the three apparently deep in some mysterious dragon conversation. I go to fetch him and he huffs at me.

Oi, fuckstick, he essentially projects at me. You’re ruining our party.

You’re a brat, I tell him, and request a preferred departure time. His meeting can’t be that important, because he briefly touches his tiny nose to each of the larger dragons in turn and then crawls out into the hallway with me. Laika’s tiny, but he’s still a dragon, and his bulk takes up the entirety of the human-designed space. I briefly consider telling him to find a less inconvenient way back to the hangar, but think better of it. Who cares if he scratches up some walls and gets in people’s way. It’s not like we ever intend to come back here.

Back in his proper hangar bay, I’m able to pack my stuff and strap in for launch. As we pass through Cyclops’ atmospheric shield and out into space, I finally let myself relax. This is better – just me, and Laika, and the void.

For two entire weeks.

And then, after Pegasus, more of that. It’s not like Laika’s big enough to carry passengers for company.

Also, I’m a Princess now. Shit. I’m in my dragon. Not just someone I’m rescuing. Laika is my dragon.

I stare through his head cameras out into space for a little while.

Soooo, I send him. What sort of stuff do you like?

He sends me some apparently random data on the mineral composition of asteroids.

Asteroids. I don’t know shit about asteroids. I tag a positive emotion to it and flick it back. I like asteroids.

He sends me doubt. You don’t know shit about asteroids.

You’re a brat, I tell him again.

He projects agreement.

We fly in silence for a while. I dig through my new media, but I can’t decide what to watch or read or listen to, so I end up just scrolling through lists for ages.

Eventually, Laika sends me the location of Cyclops as an enquiry. I ask for clarification. He sends it again, and this time tags a negative emotion to it. Why don’t you like Cyclops?

I send him the mental equivalent of a shrug. Hurt.

He hurt you?

No. Someone else. I send grief, which is the closest thing to heartbreak that a dragon is likely to understand.

He sends acknowledgement. He’s not telling me on purpose, but I can feel that underneath it, he’s thinking of Lyllania.

It seems a bit premature in our relationship to ask what the fuck was up with her, so instead I do a little detective work. First mystery: why can Laika override his own manual override controls? It makes absolutely no sense to build a dragon like that! It’s not just a matter of trust; the controls are there in case something goes fundamentally wrong. They’re an emergency brake system in case of a corrupted AI, false sensory data, or one of a million other things that can cause death and danger in a dragon. They’re a fundamentally necessary safety feature in any dragon.

I know that Laika’s manual override controls function; I used them to sedate him after I discovered Lyllania’s body. But for some reason, he can turn them off. The obvious reason for this, in conjunction with his various other modifications, is as an anti-theft and anti-capture measure. Laika is too small to carry passengers; if the only one expected to be in here was Lyllania, then there’s no reason for his emergency controls to be clearly marked, so long as she knew where they were. So there’s probably a set of ‘true’ override controls, hidden but easily accessible, that he can’t ignore.

I rummage around among Lyllania’s tools until I find an appropriately sized screwdriver, and then I start to take Laika’s main control panel apart.

I pause after a couple of screws to see if he’s going to ask me what the fuck I’m doing, but he doesn’t seem to consider my behaviour particularly remarkable. Someone like Lyllania probably tinkered with him on long journeys all the time; he might think that this is just normal princess behaviour.

Another advantage to being in a tinkerer’s custom dragon is that everything is easy to disassemble with tools on hand. No proprietary parts designed so that you have to pay the company for maintenance when they break. Just a screw and a screwdriver. I remove a panel to get a good look at the underside of the emergency controls, follow their wires to some very small electronic switches, then follow them further to where they merge with other wires before heading into the guts of the machinery. Backtracking on the wires they merged with leads to… some buttons inside a small storage compartment in the control panel, behind some chocolate bars. Excellent. I take careful note of each control, eat a chocolate bar, and put everything back together.

At least I have access to emergency controls, for when we’re heading out into dangerous frontier space. Not that I expect any emergencies any time soon.

Anyway we’re three days out from Cyclops when we have an emergency.

One moment I’m dreaming of running my fingers through Tascia’s fiery red locks; the next, the emergency siren is screaming in my ears and I’m instinctively checking my sleep restraints and pinging Laika for details before I’m even fully awake. I’m not dead yet, whatever it is, so unless Laika starts tossing me about the cabin with complicated flight manoeuvres I should have time to get to the space suit and…

Laika sends me nearby coordinates and a ship ID, which confuses me for a second. Pursuit? I ask.

He tags a distress signal notification to the message about the ship. Oh. We’re fine. They’re in trouble.

That gives me pause. Who uses an internal emergency alarm to answer a distress beacon? I mean, I’m not an expert in these kinds of protocols, but I have ridden a lot of dragons to go and save other dragons, and ‘we are in danger, prepare for life-threatening circumstances’ is a very different message to ‘we have received notice that someone else is in danger’. I have never seen any dragon treat danger to another as exactly equivalent to danger to the self.

Is Laika some kind of rescue dragon, perhaps? Is that why he’s prioritising others so? But I’ve been in rescue dragons and they are, if anything, even more clear about danger levels to different individuals than the average dragon. Besides, none of his engineering eccentricities scream ‘rescue modifications’. Considering danger to other dragons to be equivalent to danger to the self is a terrible idea for a dragon that’s likely to deal with emergency situations; the logical result is basically no sense of self preservation. Who would build that?

As I strap myself into the pilot chair, I can’t help but reflect on the name. Laika, the first astronaut. Chosen to be disposable, sent knowingly to her death, to pave the way for more important future astronauts. I run a comforting hand over his control panel and request information.

The dragon in question is called Carabine, and he’s very close, almost close enough to show up on Laika’s cameras. About a day’s travel away to starboard. He’s carrying nine people, something’s taken out both of his solar sails, and his radio amplifiers are heavily damaged to the point where even Laika, close as we are, can barely hear the signal. If we weren’t here, the chances of anyone coming to the rescue in the vast expanse of space is very slight. Carabine might be recoverable, but the passengers would be dead.

Laika is already turning to respond without me telling him to. We identify ourselves and request further information.

Hello. Hello, can you hear me?

The message is strained, our souls barely within reach of each other even with Carabine boosting the other end, but audible. I have Laika boost mine. Yes, I hear you. This is Sha – uh, Princess Shana. Are you all alright?

This is Princess Tetri. Nobody’s badly wounded, just bumps and minor burns. Our… our supplies are running low, though.

I look around my cabin. The best response would be to pick up the humans and then push on to Pegasus to alert a rescue team to go back for Carabine, but there’s simply no way that ten people can fit into Laika. The physical space, the heat and oxygen cycling… I could get another two in here, maybe, and that’d be cutting things pretty close.

What supplies do you have? How many days?

About three days’ worth of food, I think. The water cycling isn’t working properly either, we’re losing water each cycle; we can hold on for maybe a week?


Oxygen is working.

I nod to myself. I have food, of course, and emergency water, but ten people go through supplies a lot faster than one. If we budget for two days for us to reach Carabine, and two days to get back on course for Pegasus, me giving them my supplies doesn’t help all the much; it’s a one step forward, nine steps back sort of situation.

Okay. Don’t worry. We’ve got your signal, and we’re going to get you rescued. To Laika, I said, Scrape all the data you can from Carabine, and resume course for Pegasus.

Laika sends me the mental equivalent of a dismissive snort and Carabine’s location.

I already know where Carabine is. I acknowledge and tell him to change course. He refuses the order, sends Carabine’s location again, and pulls up on the main screen Carabine’s self-diagnostic, highlighting the problems that need fixing to get him flying again.

I sigh. Laika, I’m not an engineer.

You fix him, problem is solved.

I can’t! I don’t know how1 I don’t have the skills, I don’t have the tools –

He brings up a list of the tools aboard the ship. I scowl and switch the display screen off.

I still don’t have the skills, I’m not remotely experienced in engineering in a vacuum, the space suit on board doesn’t even fit me properly, and there are ten lives on the line if I screw up, not including ours! I’m not going to go out there and start screwing around and –

I won’t abandon ten people.

I’m not asking you to abandon them! I’m asking you to get them the help they need! We’re in a major shipping lane. We’re bound to run into signal range of other, bigger, more equipped dragons, who can mount this rescue or inform the rescue authorities. If we go blundering out there ourselves, we waste time. Four days of it; two out there and tow back, and if their engineer can’t fix the problem, there’s no way that I can. They have a far better chance if we stay on course and notify other dragons.

If we meet no other dragons?

That’s not likely. It’s a major shipping lane, somebody will come within range.

If we meet no other dragons?

I don’t know! I don’t control space, okay? But we still have a much better chance of helping them by going for help rather than charging off out there and wasting more of their precious time!

You can fix.

I can’t. I’m not an engineer.

Lyllania could fix –

I’m not Lyllania! Lyllania’s dead! I’m pretty sure I manage to cut off the message before the twin sentiment, And look how well charging off into dangerous situations worked out for her. Pretty sure I managed to keep that part to myself.

Pretty sure.

Either way, Laika doesn’t respond. He shields his entire soul from me as he turns back towards Pegasus and begins broadcasting Carabine’s distress signal.

I slump back into my chair. Good. Mission fucking accomplished.

I can’t bring myself to go back to bed and try to sleep, though.