August 2008 Volume Two Issue Five
The Girl-Prince - Merrie Haskell
Once upon a future time, in a spindle-tower held high by antigravity and the will of engineers, a woman slept, a poisoned trap for princes.
The tower's true meaning had been forgotten by even the most ancient of databanks, and all anyone knew was that the tower was a graveyard for the foolhardy, an unscaleable fable with no discernable prize at the top but the rumor of a woman no one remembered.
The galaxy's bravest and silliest boys threw themselves at the tower for centuries without stop, until one day, on an artificial planet circling an artificial star, a girl-prince came of age.
Finally allowed to access restricted databanks without parental oversight, the girl-prince stumbled across the story of the tower and was enthralled. She downloaded the information to show to her parents. "I can do this," she told them. "I can save the princess."
"Impossible," said her mother. "Not only does no one know the tower's location, seven thousand princes have lost their lives in quest of that princess."
"Just because others have died does not mean that I will lose my life."
Her father sighed, and said to her mother, "My darling, we have failed. I thought that by having a girl, we would avoid all of this."
"Girls have assailed the tower before, Father," the girl-prince pointed out.
"But we have spent your whole life ensuring your extreme heteronormativity, daughter," said her mother. "My womb was flooded with all the right hormones, we gave you all the right toys, and we told you all the right fairy tales. You should have no desire to gallivant about the universe rescuing people!"
The girl-prince wondered why the desire to rescue things was considered a particularly masculine trait. And even if it weren't, she'd been raised in a galaxy full of strong women, a galaxy which included her own mother. Why had her parents thought she wouldn't notice these things?
She squared her shoulders, raised her chin, and said, "I am both girl and prince -- one person, but not merely one thing."
Her father hmphed. "We should have locked you in a tower."
Her mother cried, "Oh, I know! We shall hold a ball, and when you look into the eyes of the right boy-prince, you'll fall in love and forget all about this silly quest."
"I don't want a ball," the girl-prince said. "I want to breach the tower."
Her mother buried her face in her hands, and could be heard muttering, "That damned tower. Have we made such a child that she would risk death on such an obviously Freudian symbol?"
Her parents sent her to her room with its pink-kitten wallpaper while they discussed the situation; whereupon the girl-prince packed her dresses, loaded all her favorite romantic horse novels on her small voidship's computer, and was gone before her parents could officially forbid the quest.
The girl-prince searched for the tower long and hard. She sought the counsel of historians and sneak-thieves, archaeologists and weapons experts, folklorists and physicists. She listened to every rumor of the tower's defenses, and prepared herself for each one, no matter how outlandish, spending a sidereal year of her home planet arming herself with skills and knowledge and equipment.
Eventually, the girl-prince found a gravitational cartographer who had discovered the tower from a safe distance, though he hadn't dared to publish its location. It was marked on all charts as a very boring black hole.
"And, truthfully, it is a black hole," the cartographer said, looking into the girl-prince's beautiful dark eyes. "The sort that traps souls instead of objects." The girl-prince wished she had six more beautiful dark eyes, so that she could roll them all at once to truly illustrate her contempt.
Sensing her discomfort but not the cause of it, the cartographer apologized. "Sorry. I didn't mean to get so deep, princess."
Rather than point out that people who announced their depth seldom had any, she just pointed out that she was a girl-prince, not a princess.
"What's the difference?" the cartographer asked.
"One is a sovereign, and the other is a commodity," the girl-prince said, which chagrined the cartographer and his very deep soul -- so very deep that he had no trouble with the commercial enterprise of selling the tower's address for a handsome fee.
When the girl-prince found the tower, she was surprised to find it standing alone on an oblong asteroid tumbling alone, disbalanced by the artificial gravity of the tower. The asteroid was surrounded by the wreckage of hundreds of ships that had not been sufficiently cautious of the asteroid's eccentricities.
The girl-prince studied this situation for some time, and her vigilance revealed a long-held secret of the debris field: a one-person escape pod orbited among the smashed ships.
The girl-prince pulled back her ship, magnetized her hull, and lured a thick stream of debris away from the asteroid. Once away from the asteroid, she singled out the escape pod and brought it aboard her ship.
Inside the pod, which was of a design long out of date, the girl-prince found the hibernating body of a prince close to her own age. His clothing contained an unfathomably useless number of pockets. His head was shaved in the fashion of the third and most famous emperor of Lampur, an empire that had risen and fallen over a hundred life-spans ago. He was paler than the current human average, with dark lashes lying luxuriantly against his cheeks. The girl-prince, sighed, and wondered if she had narrowly avoided falling in love by being unable to look into his eyes.
She was unable to revive the prince from his hibernation state. She thought that perhaps she should retreat to known space and find medical care for him, but she could not bring herself to give up the tower. It was like a physical compulsion. Hoping she was not caught in some unimaginable telepathic thrall, she resealed the escape pod, ejected it safely into space, placed a beacon on it for later retrieval, and went on her way.
She landed the voidship within view of the tower. Bleached bones piled high around the perimeter, looking like a white thorn brake from a distance; it was only as the girl-prince drew close that she saw them for what they were: human remains caught in transparent stickyfoam.
Staying well away from the perimeter of the stickyfoam graveyard, she circled the tower once, twice, three times, looking for a weakness in the defense, examining the bodies from afar. Mostly, there were skeletons, though a few bodies moldered in varying states of decomposition. The girl-prince marveled, wondering what sort of engineers had thought to introduce microbes or fungus or some such agent of decay into the tiny micro-environment of the tower. The same capricious engineers, she decided, who created a gravity pocket on an asteroid and then built a spindle-tower that needed anti-gravity to support it.
The local agents of decay were quite finicky, it appeared, eating voidsuits and clothing, human flesh and human hair, but they leaving alone the rock, the tower, and the bones. The girl-prince could think of no reason that they would not eat the bones as well, except perhaps that this barrier acted as a deterrent as well as a trap.
On her third circuit of the tower, a feeble wave from an unsecured hand alerted her that one of the bodies was still alive. She tried to address the hand's owner on every available frequency, but had no luck making contact. The hand fluttered and stopped, fluttered again and stopped, in a pattern that was neither random nor automated.
She fought back an urge to charge in, grapple hooks akimbo, and ascend up to rescue the prince. He had lived for some unknown amount of time in the stickyfoam. She had to assume that the universal forces of irony would not cause him to die when help was so close.
From her backpack, the girl-prince selected a small robot and sent it bounding off toward the stickyfoam perimeter. Two small nozzles sprouted from the tower's smooth surface and, shooting ropes of stickyfoam at the robot, brought it down with unfeeling efficiency. The robot kicked futilely until the foam hardened; then it kicked no more.
Noting the timing of these events, she sent two more robots after the first in quick succession. The first one was shot down just as before; the second darted close-but-not-too-close, snatched a stickyfoam sample before it hardened, and darted back to the girl-prince. She retreated with the robot and its sample to her voidship to run tests.
Her makeshift laboratory was up to the challenge of the stickyfoam, and in short order, she had a solution. She set some molecules to cook and some microbes to evolve while she dined on dull proteins from ship stores and slept on the voidship's narrow bunk. When the timer on her antistickyfoam concoctions buzzed, she called it a new day, and began afresh her assault on the tower.
The girl-prince dressed again in her heavy-duty miner's voidsuit before spraying a tank of her first potion over herself and her equipment. She strapped on a tank full of the second potion and advanced on the perimeter and the prince.
The tower sprouted its nozzles and aimed; stickyfoam rained over her and slid off, repelled by the structures of the molecules in her first potion. Puddles of stickyfoam hardened at her feet; she left them behind, climbing atop the pile of bones and foam until she reached the prince who might yet live. His free hand did not move at her approach, and she feared that he'd died after all. Nevertheless, she shot at him with her second potion, and watched with grim pleasure as her engineered bacteria dug into a delicious meal of stickyfoam.
Once released, the prince fell in a heap of others' princely bones towards the asteroid's surface; but the girl-prince was fleet of foot and accomplished with her gravity boots, and she was there to catch him.
The prince lived, though he was emaciated -- nearly cadaverous, even -- and did not regain consciousness when the girl-prince got him out of the voidsuit that had sustained his life. He'd managed to survive thanks to the ruthlessly efficient air and water recyclers in the suit, though he'd depleted his nutrient packs around the time that the girl-prince had been speaking to the depthless cartographer.
The girl-prince hooked the boy up to her voidship's medical system, but it was outclassed by the level of the boy's malnourishment and atrophy, and told her so. It would be best, the medical system said, to put the boy in stasis and get him to a hospital.
She knew the medical system was correct, though she was reluctant to shut the prince away. She liked the way his dark hair grew to a point at the center of his forehead. She wondered if she had again narrowly avoided falling in love by not being able to look into his eyes, either.
So the girl-prince took once more to the void, where she found the escape pod that she had rescued the day before. She lashed her own pod to the ancient one after placing the new prince in it, and left both princes safe and beaconed, beyond the grasp of the asteroid and the tower.
The stickyfoam was merely the first barrier. Though it had obviously proven effective over the years, the girl-prince could not have been the only one cautious and smart enough to breach it. So once she had cleared a path to the doorless entrance of the tower with her microbes, she employed the tactic for breaching the tower that she had developed during her investigation: she hooked herself into the previous room using the sort of timer-clip developed for asteroid mining slaves, and deployed one of her stock of small robots developed for derelict space ship exploration to go ahead of her and look around.
The robot was immediately defeated by an electromagnetic pulse. The girl-prince was prepared for this eventuality; EMPs were one of the most common security measures around, and only a fool wouldn't have prepared for one. The girl-prince hadn't known where in the lineup of traps a pulse might be employed, but her both ship and suit were hardened against EMPs, and the backpack that carried her robots and a few other necessities had been constructed to serve double duty as a Faraday cage.
Other princes had not been so wise; a few bodies were scattered inside the tower's door, lying in attitudes that suggested interesting electrical failures in their voidsuits. But these were all very old suit models; present-day voidsuits were all built to withstand coronal ejections and similar radioactive events.
The girl-prince's timer-clip ticked off the last seconds and released her, and she crept through the blank, white room, picking her way around the fallen princes -- noting with interest that the local agents of decay were not active in this room -- to the room's single feature: one staircase, leading up.
Once on the first stair, the girl-prince clipped herself again and deployed another robot. The robot climbed the stairs and stopped at the top to beckon her forward. She climbed to the end of her timer-clip tether and waited for it to release her, wondering if the timer-clip notion would ever prove to be useful to her.
When she finally drew even with the robot, she found another blank white room with another staircase leading up on the other side. The floor between the staircases was studded with an array of princely bodies held down by heavy nets. She urged her little robot onward. It had not traveled far before a heavy net shot from the ceiling and smashed the robot to the floor. Once the robot was down, small hooks emerged from the net's weights to dig into the floor.
This was a trap that could be gotten out of with brute strength or the proper equipment, as evidenced by shredded nets lying here and there around the room. But the greater majority of nets lay over silent, voidsuited lumps spread across the floor.
Just in case there was someone left alive here, the girl-prince tried all the frequencies at her disposal. No one answered. Perhaps there was a communication-jammer in the tower. She wished she had some device that monitored life-signs, but in all her planning, she had not considered the possibility of running into other princes yet alive. And yet, she'd rescued two boy-princes. It didn't seem impossible that she would rescue more souls.
Fewer than a hundred bodies lay in the chamber, but from this distance she could see no signs of life. She would have to check each net.
The girl-prince had purchased a shadowsuit in the same system that had yielded the cartographer; she'd anticipated using it to achieve invisibility to a variety of sensors sooner or later in the confines of the tower, and so had carried it rolled in the bottom of her backpack. She slipped it on over her voidsuit and activated it. Holding her breath and a knife, she stepped forward into the room.
No nets came careening down onto her head immediately. She considered. If she attempted to move any of the bodies, either to turn them over to see through faceplates or to lift arms to check gauges, the movement would be targeted by the system.
The antiquity of most of the voidsuits made a detailed examination unnecessary. A cracked faceplate or a blown gasket told her everything she needed to know, and in most other cases, she could peer at the arm gauges. The few princes who had landed facedown atop their arm gauges numbered only six. The girl-prince gave a nervous glance at the smooth white ceiling, wondering where the nets came from and where the motion sensors were, then turned over the wrist of the first of these six.
The net flew much faster than she anticipated. She almost dodged, but one of the weighted grapples clipped her shoulder -- hard enough even through the voidsuit's padding to bruise her. She sank to her haunches, breathing hard and rubbing her shoulder, grateful that the grapple hadn't torn the shadowsuit. When she caught her breath, she examined the prince's revealed gauges: empty. Long empty.
Hoping the first was the worst, she went on, but the fourth net caught her, managing to pin her left leg to the floor. Her knife was at the ready, however, and she sawed slowly through the net and continued on.
There were no victories in the net room, no lives to save. Somehow, given the effort she had put forth in checking, she expected more of a reward than the cold comfort of knowing she'd tried.
Once safely across the room, the girl-prince activated the timer-clip and deployed another of her diminishing stock of robots on the stairs. The robot climbed ahead of her for a long way and stopped at the top to whistle an all-clear. She climbed up after, waited for the timer-clip, and when she finally drew even with the robot, ordered it to scooted into the next blank, white room -- where it promptly sank through the floor and disappeared from sight.
The girl-prince immediately attached the timer-clip again, this time setting it for a two-hour release. Then she crawled forward, poking the floor before her. In short order, solid floor gave way to liquid: slow ripples spread away from her finger.
She took a sample of the liquid and stowed it away, and sat back on her haunches to assess the situation. Was she meant to swim? There was no staircase on the other side of the room. Instead, a ladder hung down from the next level, far above the height that even the most athletic prince could reach by surging out of the liquid. And though the liquid was as opaque and as white as the walls of the room, she suspected that the utter absence of bodies here indicated not -- as she had first hoped -- that no one had died on this level, but that they had sunk to the presumably distant bottom of this bizarre swimming pool.
She lay down on the last step and put her hand out flat over the liquid, intending to see if she could touch the bottom of the pool. It wouldn't be typical of the tower's designers to use a nonlethal deterrent here, but there was always the possibility that the pool was only knee-deep. Wasn't there?
But she hesitated. Something seemed rotten. Was it stickyfoam redux? Did the liquid lure the unsuspecting in with the promise of easy wading, only to eat through their voidsuits, or to suck them under? Or were there Carapellian squid waiting beneath the surface?
The girl-prince held her hand above the surface so long that her arm trembled. In pulling it back, the palm of her glove smacked the surface of the liquid -- and instead of rippling, the liquid held firm. The girl-prince jumped to her feet. Of course! It was a shear thickening fluid -- a type of oobleck, which became more viscous when agitated, acting like a solid under impact. She could run right across the surface of this fluid, and as long as she didn't stop, she wouldn't sink.
Since she had some time to waste before her timer-clip released her, the girl-prince took off her shadowsuit so she wouldn't render it completely ineffective by covering it in goo, and spent some time feeling around in the oobleck, trying to see if she could reach bottom, or... But she could reach nothing with her arm, and though she had the timer-clip and its sturdy, space-rated tether, she knew that now was not the time to explore the oobleck. She tossed a beacon onto the liquid, watched as it first bounced around and then sank below the surface. She would use the beacon to orient her voidship's cannon beam, and blast a hole in the side of the tower to let out the fluid and discover what -- and who -- lay hidden beneath.
When the timer-clip released her, the girl-prince didn't pause to even think. She simply ran. And the oobleck held her up.
When she reached the ladder hanging down, she jumped once -- twice -- three times before reaching the bottom rung. She clung there for a long while, catching her breath, and then began the climb.
The cautious use of the timer-clip made the journey take forever, but also gave her time to ease her burning arms, for no configuration on her gravity boots gave her enough of a boost to ease the strain. The ladder passed through an increasingly small passage; occasionally, the lights went out, and the girl-prince had to continue on in the unwavering but tiny beam from her helmet. When she came to the trapdoor at the top, she almost didn't believe it. She had begun to think that she would just climb forever, that the tower was actually a wormhole, and an endless one at that.
The narrow passageway was not conducive to setting a robot to scout for her, so she simply set her timer-clip and opened the trapdoor, hoping that she wouldn't be pelted with lasers.
The room was the same blank whiteness as the other rooms of the tower -- but for a splotch of color on a distant wall.
Against the wall was a couch. And on the couch, glowing like an ancient jewel, lay a beautiful woman. Her hair shone a rainbow of colors from blue to blonde, and her silky dress and smooth skin melded in a pattern of skin tones ranging from ebonywood to polar snow. The girl-prince felt monochromatic and plain of a sudden, and desired nothing more to possess this woman -- no, to be this woman. She took an involuntary step up the ladder, then another, and another.
The rise and fall of the woman's perfect bosom was a testament to the atmosphere contained in the room. Almost -- almost -- the girl-prince reached for the snaps to unfasten her helmet, but something held her back. Unbidden, her feet climbed the last rungs of the ladder -- and then she stopped, held back by the twined nanofilament ropes attaching her to the timer-clip. She looked down, away from the sleeping woman, and remembered her past actions as though they were in a fable from another land: Oh, yes. I put that there, because this is a trap.
Then girl-prince was looking at the woman again, and for a long moment, she forgot everything about herself, from her name to her favorite novel. She longed only to reach the woman, to stroke her hair, to join her on the couch in tender sleep.
The girl-prince was spellbound.
When she came to herself again, the girl-prince realized she was half-bent over and walking in a comic parody of a dog running in place while straining against a leash. The woman was gone, and what was here instead amazed her.
At least two dozen princes stood still in a variety of senseless poses, as though frozen in time. Here one had an arm raised as though to dance. There, one was half-bent with lips pursed -- as if kissing someone. Another was caught as though removing a ring from his finger. Most of the princes had taken off all or part of their voidsuits, the girl-prince realized -- though a couple were still caught in the act of opening their helmets or removing a glove, and one stood stoic and fully dressed for hard vacuum, with an old-fashioned disc-nosed rayblaster aimed at the wall. Thirty princes, she counted, all frozen.
She checked her chronometer. Fifty minutes had passed while she strained, insensate, against the timer-clip. She felt the ache of that straining in her legs and shoulders. She had not managed to take a step beyond the trap-door.
And the timer-clip deserved the credit for why she was not frozen like the other princes. Clearly, whatever device did the freezing did not take effect until a prince was well and truly inside the room.
She had to leave. She really had to. But the timer-clip wouldn't allow her to. A frightening thought came to her: if the sleeping woman returned, would the girl-prince turn into a senseless zombie once more? And how long would the compulsion last this time? Quickly, before she could talk herself out of it, the girl-prince leaned down and added two more hours to the timer-clip.
There. That decision had been made. Now she sat down on the edge of the trap-door to think. There had to be a holographic projector at play. And an emotional resonator. Something that hijacked the brain as well as the eyes. She glanced around at the passion play staged around her. They were like a photo book shuffled out of order -- the holographic projector probably moved the image around to avoid having princes bump into one another -- but if one could mentally reshuffle them, the princes were arrayed like a series of tableaux vivants. There was the prince just come up the ladder, who first caught sight of the woman; then the prince took off his (or her, for there were several other girl-princes scattered around the room) voidsuit and approached the couch. He (or she) kissed the woman, embraced her -- the princes stuck in the attitude of embracing a woman who was not actually there looked acutely uncomfortable -- comforted her, knelt down, proposed marriage . . .
The only prince who didn't fit the pattern was the one aiming his rayblaster at the wall. The girl-prince squinted, and made out that his finger was on the trigger.
She didn't quite manage to think her next thought before the woman appeared again.
The girl-prince came to herself again, this time on the floor. She had once more been straining against the timer-clip, but she hadn't even been able to make it to her feet and had simply attempted to crawl to the woman on the couch.
The memory of the driving, urgent need to reach the woman faded quickly enough that the girl-prince just felt foolish for having fallen for the emotional resonator again. But there was no fighting that sort of bio-electrical stimulation for the duration of its attacks, she knew. She wondered which neurotransmitter it had exhausted to give her this temporary reprieve, and how long she'd have before it tried a new method of enchantment.
Seventy minutes had passed this time. She was terribly glad that she had reset the timer-clip, and now she reset it again. There was no telling what would happen next, and even though there had been a six-minute lapse between projections last time, a trap as complex as the tower wouldn't rely on a simple pattern.
It was time to perform some experiments. She could not head back to her voidship, thanks to the trusty timer-clip, but she still had one robot left in her pack. She let it loose in the room, and observing as it approached a prince, slowed, and then halted nearby, and its blinking tail lights stuck on solid amber. She wished she had another robot to verify, but time was acting strangely in this room, as though there were small instances of time dilation peppered throughout. The robot acted like it had approached an event horizon, rather than suffering from mechanical failure.
Using her helmet's internal cameras, she snapped still pictures for later comparison. Then she set the timer-clip to its maximum span, and hunkered down to wait and to think.
The princes were not frozen; they were just moving very slowly. Each had entered the tower's final room lifespans apart; each now lived out his moment of triumphant rescue in a private world. The ring-giving prince was blinking, about once every fifteen days, she estimated, and a tear coursed its slow, inevitable way down his left cheek with the speed of a glacier. A tear of joy? She wondered, but it didn't matter.
She wasn't yet certain what sort of device was holding the princes captive in time, and right now that didn't matter, either. She had to get free of the emotional resonator first. And she just didn't know how, other than to wait it out.
The girl-prince knew that she could survive -- not healthily or happily, but she could survive -- in her voidsuit for nearly forty days, just like the prince she'd rescued from the stickyfoam. It might take that long to hit the random point when her timer-clip would release her while she wasn't being manipulated by the tower. There was an equally good chance that the tower would win that game instead, but the girl-prince had been brought up to be an optimist.
In between bouts of mindless adoration of, and endless crawling toward, the illusory sleeping princess, the girl-prince had time to study the princes arrayed around her. They were not all handsome or beautiful, not all tall; in fact, some of them were clearly products of the random trait selection that came from natural conception. But there were not a few attractive specimens in the bunch, and the girl-prince surprised herself by not falling in love with a single one of them, even in the cases where she could see their eyes. The eyes, after all, were all that it would have taken to fall in love with the first two princes she'd rescued, or so she'd thought at the time. Now... now she didn't know.
She had come to the tower with mixed intentions. She'd been driven by a morbid curiosity combined with a daredevil streak, and the belief that, through sheer force of will she could change the universe for the better. And while she had considered the possibility of rescuing whatever princess might lie sleeping at the top of the tower -- or that she would at least reveal that there was no such princess -- she had not considered that she would actually save anyone's life.
She lost count of the number of times her senses had been assaulted by the hologram and the emotional resonator, but her chronometer informed her that three days had passed. She wondered if she was mad yet, trapped as she was; she did not have even the luxury of time-slowing, as the other princes did. Every time the projectors let up she dropped into exhausted sleep, and dreamed of the woman on the couch, of unclipping the timer-clip and slipping into her own private bubble of space-time.
She slipped all too easily from dream to false reality, coming to herself just long enough to remember who she was before everything was consumed once more by the need, the desperate need, to reach the princess. The girl-prince recognized it, and hated it, and found she was crying -- and that she had been crying for days. She hadn't realized it before, between the manipulations of the emotional resonator and the water recycling action of her voidsuit.
Her misery came to an end when a flash of light turned the world to shimmering gold. The image of the beautiful woman on the couch disappeared abruptly. With a jolt, the girl-prince realized she was finally free of the emotional resonator.
The princes still stood in their spheres of slowness, but from the nose of the voidsuited prince's rayblaster, a continuous stream of light played, lovely and bright as it bored a slow hole in the wall.
The girl-prince sat down heavily and giggled with relief. She laughed until her voidsuit's oxygen rationing alert advised her to stop. She checked her gauges. New oxygen flow had decreased another five percent. Her suit's meager food supplies were gone, though enough nutrients remained in her water cycle to keep her alive for weeks. She took a sip of water and had to force herself to swallow it; in spite of the efficient recycling system, every sip held that faint taste of body matter and suit-oil.
With rationality restored, the girl-prince finally noticed that the hologram projector had been hiding. Each and every prince was trapped in a slow orbit around a tiny orb of light: Hochberg universes, just like she learned to make in physics class, along with atomic clocks and steam-powered rocket sleds and oobleck. Another Hochberg universe waited for her a few steps beyond the end of her timer-clip tether, between the trap-door and where the image of the sleeping woman had been projected for her.
It was a most diabolical trap.
The girl-prince had been prepared for any trap she could imagine, and one of the items in her supply kit included a can of sensorsol, used to identify archaic laserbeam traps. None of the advisors she had consulted could agree that it was a necessary tool, as laserbeam traps and the like were long out of fashion -- if indeed they ever were in fashion, a point over which a number of historians liked to argue. Better overprepared than underprepared, though, and she had carried the can with her since entering this solar system.
She pulled out the can and dispersed its contents around the room, then waited for the manufactured fogbank to settle. The particles that entered each individual Hochberg universe slowed to a crawl, while the particles that stayed in the local time-space of the tower settled to the floor. When the local-time particles were out of the way, the influence of each Hochberg universe was perfectly delineated by a thin layer of particles trapped on the absolute horizon, and would be for some time. She now knew exactly how far the radius of each distortion extended.
She had nearly ten hours before her timer-clip would release, and that was ten hours to think through her next move. She could conceive of a way to free one prince in relatively short order, but she had no method to free them all -- nothing in her backpack, nothing even in her voidship.
After modifying a few of the pieces of mining equipment that had come with her voidsuit, the girl-prince sat very still for another hour, waiting for the ping of her released timer-clip. Now it was time to brood. She might very well kill the prince with this plan -- or all of the princes. She might kill herself. She might be overlooking some obvious solution to rescue everyone at once. But in the end, she had to go with the plan. There was no other way.
Her timer-clip released. She took the grapple-gun from her waistbelt and aimed carefully at the free Hochberg universe that had been meant for her. It was a very useful sort of grapple, known to have saved millions of lives in various void-related jobs, being made of a multifunctional substance that could be programmed to act like a magnet towards any one of a hundred generally solid substances -- including the omnipresent element of carbon.
She fired the grapple, and waited.
The firing mechanism was powerful, the distance was short, and the grapple's attraction to the carbon of the tiny universe speeded it through the space-time bubble. It was nowhere as fast as the rayblaster's light beam, but once the grapple passed the absolute horizon, she figured she only had to wait a day or so for the universe to adhere to the grapple. She settled down to wait.
When the moment of contact was imminent, she steered the grapple filament towards one of the princes. She'd chosen the prince with the rayblaster; he had freed her, and she wished to free him in return. But it was more than a sense of parity and fairness; he was the only other prince who had sensed the trap, the only other prince who had not succumbed entirely to the emotional resonator and the holographic projector. He was perhaps the only prince who would, once freed, be able to help her free the rest of the trapped princes.
Finally, the Hochberg universe bobbed on the end of her filament like a tardigrade fish on a line -- and then, still treating the apparatus like a fishing line, she whipped it along towards the blaster-prince's Hochberg universe. This balletic manipulation occurred in extreme slow motion, though once the absolute horizons of the two miniature universes meshed, things began to move faster. The universes jumped towards each other like magnets. Time shifted, sped and slowed then sped again -- the blaster-prince was turning, was frozen, then was leaping. He jumped right at her, was knocking her down the trap-door chute and tumbling after. Behind them, an explosion sent a lick of fire down the chute, and the whole tower shuddered.
The girl-prince had enough time while falling to remember what waited at the bottom of the shaft. She was falling head first, and she rather had to; the shaft was too narrow for any sideways falling. Once clear of the shaft, she'd have to angle enough to get her shoulder down first: a good, rolling impact ought to be enough to keep from sinking into the oobleck below. She only hoped the prince behind her would be able to do the same.
The white surface of the pool was coming towards her, and she did manage to get in position for a roll. Her shoulder -- her bruised one from the net room -- absorbed a great deal of the impact and went immediately numb, in spite of the roll. She forced herself to continue rolling until she got up onto her feet, and then pelted across the chamber. When she reached the safety of the distant staircase, she was amazed that her body had been able to do what she asked.
She turned to look behind her for the blaster-prince, and he smacked into her again.
This time he didn't manage to tumble her down the stairs. Instead, they landed in a heap, with the top step pressed painfully into her spine and his boot jammed into her neck.
They disentangled, and spent the next few moments trying various frequencies for communication, and failing -- certainly, her suspicions were correct, and the tower jammed all frequencies -- in the end, they had to use helmet-to-helmet communication for their first conversation. Through their visors, she finally saw his eyes -- a deep and luminous green that shone like lamps from his dark, lustrous skin.
It was inevitable. She fell in love. Just a little. But that turned out to be enough to last until she got to know him, and like him.
She explained only a little of how she had saved him and how he'd saved her before they retreated from the tower together. Once aboard her voidship, they shared a meal from her supplies, and where once the ship's stores had seemed humble and dull, they were now salted with hunger and the thrill of being alive. The blaster-prince ate well enough, but not with the same desperation as the girl-prince; he had spent only a day of his life traversing the perils of the tower, and only an hour of it in the room at the top.
The blaster-prince had the pierced earlobes of a race that had died off a three generations before; though it broke her heart, the girl-prince showed him this truth in the voidship's databanks. He read the entry of his people's conquest and disappearance several times in silence, before saying, "It is not the outcome I would have wished for, but when a prince embarks on a quest, he dies in the moment of departure. Does he not?"
The girl-prince didn't think so, but then, she was clearly a different sort of prince. She eyed her narrow bed longingly.
"You are tired," the blaster-prince said. "I will sit up here at your console and familiarize myself with the changes in the cosmos that I left behind so many years ago. You rest. And then..." He hesitated.
She yawned. "And then, we will rescue the rest of the princes?"
"Are you asking?"
"I am asking if you will join me. If you do not, I will rescue them alone."
She didn't know him well enough then to know, but the smile he gave her then meant that he had fallen in love with her in turn.
"Yes, I will join you," he said.
"And then we will destroy the tower?"
"Yes," he said. "That, too."
"You don't wish to find out who built the tower, and why?"
He shrugged. "If it was for some purpose beyond the trap it became, it does not matter. Perverted or intact, the tower's purpose will die with it."
"I am glad that you are practical," said the girl-prince, and fell asleep.
When she woke again, they found the remains of the blaster-prince's ship, which was well-equipped to blow a hole in the side of the tower. With the ship's engines, they created a controlled dark plasma field that drew all the Hochberg universes out of the tower, and rescued the princes thereby. Afterwards, they sifted in vain through the oobleck, hoping that some prince was alive in his or her voidsuit at the bottom, but they found only the dead.
In the end, the remaining princes tore down the tower and destroyed the asteroid that had housed it. The girl-prince and the blaster-prince returned the survivors to their homes, those that still had them, and incinerated the princes who had not survived.
The girl-prince brought the blaster-prince to her home, where they married. Together they became co-kings, once the girl-prince's parents forgave her for the crime of not waiting to be forbidden to do what she wanted.
The co-kings and the other living princes erected a monument to the tower's lost. Many came to see this monument, believing it to be a triumphal piece, but left disappointed by the simplicity of the statue and the words inscribed on the pedestal: In memory of the princes we could not save.
- END -