The sky exploded, with a flash of blinding light and a shriek that echoed through the jungles of Bungirba. The explosion dispersed clouds, forcing them to assume the shape of a monstrous ring in the evening sky. It fell, spiralling downwards; a small spacecraft, billowing black smoke in a long trail behind it. A man watched it fall, sitting comfortably in his perch atop a thick tree branch. His ears pricked up, forcing the hood of his black rain jacket to fall away, revealing flowing golden locks of hair, and long, white, rabbit-like ears. He watched the spacecraft’s uncontrolled decent with curiosity, through narrowed eyes of bright crimson- blissfully unaware that he was witnessing an omen; an omen that would change not only his life, but the galaxy, forever…
June 27th, 2486 - The Imperial Flagship ‘The Phoenix’.
‘Don’t even think about unbuttoning that shirt, Ichiro- can you imagine what would happen if a Captain saw you?’
Ichiro Gorkanja straightened his back and effortlessly moved his hands from the top button of his tight military shirt, to the short, black hair of his head, pretending to flatten and style it.
‘You move like a peasant- too quick with your hands… but you’re in high society now, any purse snatching won’t go unnoticed.’
Ichiro half turned his head, lips pursed in a wry smile, to face his accuser; Olivia Mar Kolla had piercing blue eyes, flaxen hair tied in a tight bun behind her head and a pout on her lips, made more pronounced by her permanently raised chin. Her posture was so perfect that every time Ichiro looked at her, he became suddenly and ashamedly aware of his own, less than perfect hunch- a result of hard labour throughout his childhood in various colonies across Imperial Space. He tried not to think about his past; it was time to think about the boundless future that lay ahead of him. There would be time to work on his posture, as well as what he was expecting to be a considerable pension thanks to his new station, in the coming months…
‘What are you smirking at?’ Olivia asked, her tone almost threatening.
‘Relax a little, Agent Kolla’, he said, his voice as cool as a morning breeze on the vast plains of a frontier world. ‘It sounds like the Princess will need… unconventional handlers. Aren’t you a little too conventional, for the job? You won’t keep this salary if you’re so severe all the time.’
Olivia turned up her nose even further, pouting furiously, her piercing blue eyes narrowing to angry slits. ‘We aren’t going to get along, are we?’ Ichiro thought, a nervous bead of sweat forming on his forehead. Before Olivia had time to tell the peasant upstart exactly what she thought of him, the doors to the hallway suddenly burst open. Olivia bowed quickly, and Ichiro hurried to do the same. Butterflies danced in his stomach; he was about to set eyes on royalty for the first time in his life. A booming voice filled the hallway; the voice of an attendant or Butler of some kind, Ichiro wasn’t sure which. His eyes remained fully glued to the glossy black material of the floor, the white walls seeming to glow brighter by the second, rapidly encroaching on the corner of his vision…
‘All bow to The Princess, Abiona Var Oostabar Gan Kuji the Third, eldest child of Emperor Finlay Var Oostabar Gan Kuji and Heir to the throne of the Blessed Wulver Empire!’ the booming voice said, trembling theatrically.
Tap, tap, tap.
The footsteps were light and subtle. Someone with a slight build was approaching… although Ichiro recalled that in his time at the mines on one particularly vile colony planet, the footsteps of cutthroats and burglars had been just as delicate. Perhaps it had been obscured by the sound of his heartbeat hammering away in his ears, but Ichiro hadn’t heard exactly when the footsteps stopped.
‘Raise your heads’, a soft voice commanded. It felt like less of a command and more of a powerful suggestion, one which Ichiro and Olivia obliged carefully. Standing before them was a young woman, similar to them in age, but certainly not in appearance. Princess Abiona Var Oostabar Gan Kuji’s dark eyes were obscured beneath long, even darker lashes, her chestnut coloured, curly hair arranged delicately around her neck, held back from her face with an ornate circlet of gold, tied with bands adorned with almost imperceptibly small jewels. Her cornflower blue dress cast a warm glow against the drab white walls and uniforms of the attendants, and of the two new bodyguards that stood before her. There was no doubt about it; Abiona was royalty.
‘I- I am Olivia Mar Kolla, and this is Ichiro Gorkanja. We are honoured to serve as your executive protection agents, your Royal Highness.’
No sooner had she said the words, a cloud seemed to descend upon the princess. She let out a tiny huff and turned suddenly, walking away from the lightly panting Olivia, and the mildly surprised Ichiro.
‘Very well… it was only a matter of time before he hired more bodyguards’, Princess Abiona sighed. ‘You may escort me to my chambers… just where my father wants me, until the end of time it seems…’
Ichiro couldn’t help but scoff- the very concept of a Princess bemoaning her lot in life baffled him. Olivia elbowed him in the gut, hard; apparently he had scoffed too loudly.
‘Which one of you was that?’
The Princess whirled around, the tiny jewels in her hair sparkling with the sudden motion. Her eyes were wide with genuine, innocent curiosity.
‘I am so terribly sorry-!’ Olivia began, but before she could finish Ichiro interjected.
‘That was me, your Royal Highness.’
‘What did you find so funny?’ the Princess asked.
‘In all honesty- the idea that the richest girl in the universe might be made unhappy by mere a curfew. I’ve done my research- with all due respect, his Royal Majesty the Emperor wouldn’t have to keep firing and hiring new bodyguards if you’d just accept an escort whenever you leave your room in the middle of the night’.
Olivia had turned sheet-white. She turned her head, slowly, mouth agape and eyes practically bulging, to stare at Ichiro. He didn’t notice how her jaw had fallen, and how her back had arched like a scared cat. He was too preoccupied with the Princess, whose lashes raised along with her eyebrows; whose lips were beginning to part in a smile.
‘I like you, Ichiro’, she said at last. ‘Come and walk beside me- I believe that we will have much to talk about’.
If looks could kill, Olivia’s piercing blue eyes would have become shards of ice so cold they practically burned; and they were aimed firmly at Ichiro’s back as he stepped cautiously towards Princess Abiona. Olivia opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say anything the Princess had already turned away, stating, ‘you may walk three feet behind me, Olivia- I will need someone watching my back.’
Ichiro knew that even the magnanimous generosity of the Princess was hardly a consolation prize to the crestfallen bodyguard. He gave an internal sigh of relief as he approached the Princess; his gamble had paid off.
June 29th, 2486 - the Imperial Flagship ‘The Phoenix’ - Personal Quarters of Princess Abiona Var Oostabar Gan Kuji the Third
‘What’s it like, out there, amongst the stars?’
Princess Abiona sat on the sill of the enormous window, staring out into the vast ocean of stars beyond. Ichiro raised his eyes from a book and gazed over at her, his bright grey eyes ringed with the marks of innumerable sleepless nights.
‘You keep asking, and I keep disappointing you’, he replied bluntly.
The chestnut hair was devoid of jewels that night; instead, the simulated natural glow of the dim internal lighting brought out flashes of auburn and red which her messy curls naturally possessed. In shorts and a t-shirt, sat against the backdrop of endless space, Ichiro suddenly became aware of just how small she was. Without the jewels, gold and silk, she was just an ordinary girl, not much younger than him. It was because they were so close in age that he had been chosen, according to the Marshal responsible for Ichiro’s transfer to The Phoenix. The hope was that, despite being mostly isolated from the public, the Princess might be less inclined to run away if she had people her own age to talk to on hand… and not just suitors from other noble families. The best marksmen with the cleanest criminal records in the Corps, both of whom were no more than two years the Princess’s senior- Ichiro and Olivia had been prime candidates for the job.
‘I saw very little of the galaxy- I was too busy keeping my head down and try to get a gig like, well… this.’ Ichiro said, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly.
‘Low effort, but high paying?’ the Princess said, smirking.
‘You already know me too well’, Ichiro chuckled.
The room was large, but cosy. An entire wall was dedicated to the heavily reinforced window, through which a keen viewer could make out various constellations, as well as the vibrant pink and violet swirls of distant galaxies. There was a queen size bed, a hand-crafted oak desk on which a tablet computer sat, and comfortable chairs; but most of the floor space was taken up by stack after stack of books. Some, although very few, were paperback with the majority consisting of digital-hardcopies. The digital-hardcopies were an expensive novelty that Ichiro had only recently discovered; each was a small, tablet-like device loaded with a single book and a plastic rendition of the book’s cover. Of the dozens of books that filled the room, the vast majority were historical non-fiction. Specifically, the Age of Space Piracy seemed to be a recurring theme. Ichiro gently turned the page of the paperback he was reading: a detailed account of the life and death of one such Pirate, the dashing and mischievous Farlorn Norkaza.
‘Do you know how Norkaza died, Ichiro?’ the Princess asked, unexpectedly.
‘I hadn’t gotten to that part yet’, Ichiro replied, raising a dark eyebrow.
Princess Abiona gazed out of the window, the starlight splashing patches of pale light across her dark skin.
‘He died saving a child’, she began, her tone quiet and oddly nostalgic. ‘Farlorn Norkaza fought the Empire from planet to planet, plundering riches and finding romantic encounters at every turn. He killed two hundred people during his brief life, and it is said that not one was innocent. He died young, only a few years older than me… by throwing himself in front of a blaster bolt to save a young child.’
‘Spoilers.’, Ichiro said jokingly, but quickly noticed that the Princess’s demeanour had not changed. He watched as her eyes shimmered and danced with the golden light of the cosmos.
‘I must have read that book a hundred times… but don’t you think it’s romantic… to be free to live as you wish, but wise enough to live by a moral code?’ the Princess asked the sparkling void beyond.
‘I think Norkaza would have lived to a hundred and three if he’d known when to quit’, Ichiro replied dryly, closing the book and placing it on the bed.
‘Not that you’re any stranger to risks, Ichiro Gorkanja. A sensible Princess might have had you fired on the spot for what you said when we first met… but I think you knew that. You had done your research, after all… I’m a runaway. I can’t help it, I know I should appreciate all that the Empire’s wealth affords me… but I’ve never been happy in this ivory tower.’
‘You want to be free to live as you wish.’
Ichiro watched the Princess for a moment. There was the cause of her despondence and impulsive desire to escape; it was a total disillusionment with the restrictive nature of her station. Without warning, an impulse flooded his body and Ichiro found words tumbling out of his mouth.
‘I can’t give you the stars…’ he began, slowly. ‘… but I can get you pretty close.’
July 2nd, 2486 – the Imperial Flagship ‘The Phoenix’ – Loading Dock 20M
‘I can’t believe I’m doing this…’ Ichiro hissed, his eyes darting between each of the entrance ways to the enormous loading dock. Loading Dock 20M was reserved for transport and delivery vehicles, and Ichiro was counting on it being almost empty in the early hours of the morning. ‘Follow me, and keep your head down’, he whispered to his companion.
His companion, a young woman, tugged on the material of Olivia’s ‘borrowed’ military uniform, which was particularly tight around the chest. She nodded her confirmation beneath the rim of a star-studded black cap, and following Ichiro’s lead; they slipped out of the shadows of the service corridor and crossed the glassy white floor of the loading dock.
‘Excuse me officer!’ Ichiro called to a portly man wearing a thick moustache and wide-rimmed spectacles, standing guard beside one of the smaller delivery vehicles.
‘Well, if it isn’t the two new Royal Executive Protection Agents- to what do I owe the pleasure?’ the portly man asked in a snarky tone. ‘Ichiro Gorkanja and… Olivia Mar Kolla, I believe?’
‘That’s right’, Ichiro said, raising his chin confidently and fixing his grey eyes on the portly guard. He could be very intimidating when he wanted to be. ‘I‘ve got orders from the top to search this vehicle- take a fifteen minute break and don’t speak a word of this to anyone. Got it?’
The portly man narrowed his eyes and stared down the bridge of his nose at Ichiro and the young woman disguised as Olivia Mar Kolla.
‘Well, at least you’ve got enough dignity to talk to me- unlike your little friend there’, the portly man said suspiciously. ‘You know, I caught a glimpse of you both yesterday, can’t say I remember Miss Olivia being so short, or… no, something’s off about you all together.’
‘I got a tan’, the young woman croaked, turning her head away quickly.
The portly man scoffed, and his belly shook. ‘It’s a very dark tan, but it checks out I suppose… you lot, finding time to tan yourselves and live it up on the taxpayer’s money… it just ain’t right. It’s unlocked; take your sweet time… damn kids.’
As he hobbled away, Ichiro and the young woman breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Quickly, get inside’, Ichiro hissed, and the young woman quickly bounced past him into the delivery vehicle.
The delivery vehicle was a B-class port-to-port spacefaring ship, unable to handle atmospheric pressure but perfect for delivering goods from a space port or orbital elevator to to an Imperial Flagship.
‘Right, we’ve got fifteen minutes- you can take a quick look around, try not to press anything, and then we have to scram’, Ichiro said, closing the door carefully behind him.
The door hermetically sealed with a quiet hiss, and the dashboard lit up automatically, filling the cramped little delivery ship with a wide spectrum of multi-coloured lights. The Princess Abiona Var Oostabar Gan Kuji removed her cap, and grinning from ear to ear, hugged Ichiro tightly.
‘You’re the best Ichiro!’
Ichiro blushed, almost drawing back, but she was already gone, adrift in a world of her own, examining the technology and occasionally throwing out anecdotes from her impressive knowledge of spacecraft.
Olivia Mar Kolla stared blankly at her locker. Her clothes were missing. She felt her nose upturning, her chin raising and her fists clenching in quiet fury. This had to be Ichiro, she just knew it; he had given in to the Princess’s whims, been taken in by her charms and was no doubt being used by her for some ridiculous scheme. She cursed under her breath. She was well researched too; fully aware of the Princess’s antics around her former bodyguards- she would not be taken in by her royal charm, or lose her job to the young woman’s stupid games. Pouting ferociously, Olivia turned on her heels, still in civilian dress, and made for the entrance to the locker room. She was going to check the CCTV footage, she was going to find that peasant upstart and she was going to get him fired.
Ichiro relaxed into the little chair in the corner of the cabin. His heart skipped a beat when he heard the ship’s engine purr into life.
The Princess sat in the pilot’s chair, hand pressed firmly to the gearstick, wide eyes innocently staring Ichiro down over her shoulder.
‘Sorry, Ichiro… you were really nice, and I’m sorry you’ll probably lose your job because of this, but I need to get out of here. You can leave the ship now of your own volition, but just know that if you try to stop me I will step on the gas and take you with me, whether you like it or not…’
‘Dammit Abiona don’t do this!’
It was all slipping through his fingers- the massive pension, the status, the wealth- Ichiro leapt from the chair, lurching towards the Princess, his fingers almost reaching the back of her neck- the whole ship shuddered, throwing Ichiro off balance as it raised into the air. He fell to the floor, rolling and barely grasping hold of the passenger’s seat for support.
‘Close the gates, don’t let that ship out! The Princess is on-board!’
Olivia barged into the loading bay, sprinting towards anyone who would listen- the guards merely laughed, of course they would, she was in civilian clothing after all, and before she could do anything to stop it- the ship hurtled from the loading bay, passing through the force field at the gate and disappearing into the darkness of space. Olivia stamped her foot and swore loudly.
July 2nd, 2486 - Planet Bungirba, The Kongabaar Jungle.
The ship lay in tatters of peeling metal and melting plastic. A fire was starting in the cockpit- if it reached the engine, the whole ship would explode. The man’s rabbit like ears twitched, as he approached the delivery vehicle’s carcase noiselessly. He knew as well as anyone, that no-one could have survived a crash like that. Or so he thought. The man leapt back in surprise- a human, a young male of the species with short black hair clambered from the wreckage, groaning in pain. He yanked, hard, pulling the unconscious body of a young female of the same species behind him. The man watched in fascination, his crimson eyes growing large. The male human collapsed on the jungle floor, the female strewn on top of him. He was breathing heavily, his chest heaving and contracting violently each time he coughed. He caught sight of the man.
‘Think you could give us a hand?’ the Human male wheezed.