TITLE: This Ain’t The Bathhouse
AUTHOR: Jos Mous
DISCLAIMER: Not owning any characters, not making a profit.
NOTE: Writing a good, exciting race sequence is pretty damn hard. Lucky for me then there’s surprisingly little racing in this fanfic.
“Ladieeees aaand gentlemeen. . . the contestants!”
The announcer’s voice rolled all over the starting grid, almost drowning out the roar of the crowd. Lily ignored it, as she usually did. She knew who she was going to race against, so why bother getting told that now in bite-sized one-liners?
“The mild-mannered engineer. . . John Tanaka!”
Lily walked over to her machine, the white-and-pink Bunny Flash. Lily had performed quite well in the last race, which meant the machine was located near the back of the grid. When she reached the bulbous racer, she stood and waited for her cue.
“The girl soldier. . . Lily Flyer!”
Lily looked up and waved at the roaring crowds. She didn’t understand why this kind of display was necessary, although the cheers from the audience did make her feel kind of good. She’d never told her superiors this, though. They probably wouldn’t understand.
“The bodyguard with a grudge. . . Antonio Guster!”
Lily opened up the dome of her machine and got inside. The dome closed around her, muffling the outside noise. She quickly checked if all systems were working properly. They were, which didn’t surprise Lily much. She hadn’t spent an entire day off at the base fine-tuning her machine just to make sure it wouldn’t work after all.
“The desert princess. . . Princia Ramode!”
Lily’s head snapped up when she heard the phrase being shouted. Princia, in her knee-high grey boots, inefficient outfit and red shoulderguards with pink hearts, stood next to her sleek yellow machine and positively sparkled. With a radiant smile on her face, Princia waved at the audience and somehow managed to convey to everyone that she was smiling just for him. Or her. Blowing one last kiss at everybody in particular, Princia climbed into the Spark Moon and disappeared from Lily’s view.
Lily returned her focus on her machine’s systems. Nothing had changed so far, everything was still functioning perfectly. Then, glancing around guiltily as if someone could see her right now, Lily carefully took something from the inner pocket of her jacket. It was a little statuette of a frog on a string, which Lily hung on one of the control sticks. She realised that having a trinket like this in her machine was probably against regulations, but she liked having it there. And besides, she told herself, she’d been racing in the Bunny Flash for two full seasons already and that sort of made it more her machine than the military’s.
Lily did hold her arms out in such a way that it obscured the little frog. Just to be on the safe side.
A sudden outburst of even louder noise told her that the commentator had probably just announced Captain Falcon, the absolute favourite of the F-Zero. This probably meant that it wouldn’t take long before the race actually started. Captain Falcon was always announced last.
“Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!”
Lily flipped the G-diffuser switch and felt the Bunny Flash disconnecting from the track and remain hovering a few inches above it. She turned on the engine and took a hold of the controls. She quickly glanced at the frog figurine for luck, then focused on the track in front of her.
“Three. . . two. . . one. . . GO!”
Lily slammed on the accelerator at the same time as everyone else. Skilfully weaving through the slower starters, Lily soon found herself nearing the front half of the racing pack. With the bulky Fire Stingray pulling up next to her, Lily was forced to go wide on the first turn, losing two more places to the Space Angler and the Queen Meteor. Muttering a bit of profanity under her breath, Lily managed to overtake the Fire Stingray again and swerved right in front of it, just to spite Samurai Goroh a little.
Having made her point, Lily lined up her machine for the second turn, preparing to make a sharp turn to the right.
And then the lights went out.
There was beeping. The beeping came at constant intervals and, after a while, Lily figured out it was the sound of a heart monitor. She wondered who it was hooked up to. Then she wondered just where she was and why she had her eyes closed.
She experimentally opened her eyes and felt large chunks of white-hot ice getting stabbed into her brain.
Lily closed her eyes again.
Taking a deep breath, Lily carefully opened her eyes for the second time. The vision that slowly swam into focus was a white and grey room, obviously in a hospital somewhere. It was mostly bare, except for the medical equipment and the balloon tied to the other end of her bed.
Lily frowned. How on earth did a balloon get there? She didn’t know anyone who’d do something like that and last she heart hospitals didn’t go around distributing them to patients.
Maybe she’d been put in someone else’s bed by accident.
Still, Lily had to admit it was a nice balloon. It looked like a fluffy bear holding a “get well soon” card.
Lily groaned and rubbed her forehead. The white-hot ice was coming back and had brought some cold steel with it for that extra bit of pain. She lay back down, closed her eyes and fell asleep.
When she woke up, the room wasn’t empty anymore. Lily wasn’t entirely surprised about this. She’d expected there to be a doctor or nurse or possibly an officer. She didn’t expect to see a princess sitting next to her bed though.
Princia smiled. “Lily! You’re awake again. The staff told me you’d woken up, but when I got here you were sleeping again.”
“Oh,” said Lily. “Are you even allowed to be here? I mean, you’re not family.”
“No, but I’m a princess,” said Princia. “We can get away with just about anything.”
“Oh,” said Lily again. “So. . . why are you here?”
“Ah, well. . .” Princia looked down at her lap, very briefly looking uncomfortable. Then her royal training kicked back in. “Frankly, it was me who rammed your machine into the railing and, well, I feel a bit responsible for putting you here.”
“It was you?” Lily growled.
“It wasn’t entirely my fault,” Princia said. “The Crazy Bear slammed into me, causing me to, well, slam into you. And he only hit me because he got swiped by the Big Fang.”
Lily held up a hand. “Wait, wait, what happened exactly?”
“There was a rather big crash in the second turn,” said Princia. “Well, not as big as the crash, you know, but it was still pretty big. The only one who rode away from that mess was old man Silver and he forfeited the race because he felt racing all by himself wasn’t any fun.” She laughed. “He’s such a character, don’t you think.”
“Err. . . yes,” said Lily. “So, what happens now?”
“The F-Zero Committee has decided to hold the race again a few weeks after everyone’s out of hospital.”
“Makes sense I guess,” said Lily.
“Oh and they permanently banned Black Shadow from the F-Zero.”
Lily looked cheerful. “Really? Why?”
“Well, he caused the wreckage, didn’t he? It was stupid of him, trying to fight out his grudge with the Falcon in a sharp turn like that,” said Princia. “And besides, the Committee’s been looking for an excuse to get rid of him for ages anyway. So, how’d you like the balloon?”
Lily blinked at the sudden change of topic. “Sorry?”
Princia nodded towards the bear balloon. “The balloon. I got it for you, you know. Well, it’s the least I could do.”
“Oh. . . err. . . it’s nice,” said Lily. “I like frogs better, though.”
“Really?” said Princia. “Frogs aren’t very huggable.”
“I think they’re cute,” said Lily.
“Well, well,” said Princia, smiling. “How are you feeling anyway?”
“I have a headache like you wouldn’t believe, but other than that I’m fine.”
“Well, according to the doctors you’ll be out of here next week or so. Consider it a vacation.”
“I’d rather not, actually,” said Lily. “I’ll get out shape if I just lie here all the time.”
“Well then consider it a vacation until your head stops hurting, hmm?”
“Yeah, OK,” said Lily.
“Splendid. Well, I need to be going. See you later?”
“What? Oh. . . err. . . sure. Sounds nice.”
“You don’t sound very sure,” said Princia in a light-hearted tone of voice.
“I’m not very used to getting regular visitors,” said Lily.
“No? Shame. Well, bye.”
Lily watched Princia leave the room and then walk down the hallway. After she really couldn’t see her any more, she looked up and stared at the ceiling. She was feeling tired. Talking to Princia had taken a lot of energy. Energy she’d been pretty happy to spend, but still. She decided to get a bit more sleep. It wasn’t like she was going anywhere.
When Lily woke up again she found a second balloon tied to the end of her bed. It was a frog this time.
Lily threw her bag into a corner of her hotel room. She’d been discharged from the hospital today, which had meant that a couple of doctors and nurses had wanted to do a few last-minute tests on her. It had been so exhausting that the girl now plodded towards her bed and let herself fall on it.
After enjoying the softness for a while, she turned around on her back and watched the stainless ceiling. While she’d been in the hospital those last two weeks, no military officer had come to visit her to question her about the crash, which probably meant that they’d come here tomorrow or something.
The growling of her stomach made Lily aware of the fact that she’d also been eating hospital food for quite some time now. This was a situation Lily was eager to remedy.
The hotel dining room was brightly lit, tastefully decorated and, this being a hotel reserved for the F-Zero, had a large and well-stocked bar. It was also very nearly empty. Lily didn’t mind very much. It just meant there wouldn’t be a lot of people getting between her and her seafood. Lily could hear the muttered conversation of the Arrows over by their window table and the noisy drinking of Bio Rex at the bar, but other than that everybody was pretty quiet. Now, if only someone would be kind enough to turn off the television, Lily would’ve been really happy.
“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this special newscast.”
All faces, including Lily’s, but excluding Bio Rex’s, turned to the television screen.
“Princia Ramode, princess of the desert kingdom Magica and celebrated F-Zero pilot, has been kidnapped earlier today. Magica officials. . .”
Lily’s hand gripped her fork so tightly, her knuckles became white. Looking around, she saw Captain Falcon and the Arrows had stood up, radiating righteous indignation.
“The kidnapper, the notorious emperor of evil Black Shadow, is holding Princia prisoner inside his Grand Fortress of Doom and has promised to release her unharmed if the F-Zero Committee admits him back into the Grand Prix. King Royl, Princia’s father and current ruler of Magica, has requested the F-Zero Committee not to acquiesce to Black Shadow’s demands and instead has promised a reward of one billion space credits for the person who returns Princia unharmed.”
Someone whistled softly. Lily noticed James McCloud suddenly looking very pensive.
“We now return to our regular programming.”
“Right,” said Captain Falcon to nobody in particular. “Black Shadow’s gone too far this time.”
“I agree,” said Super Arrow. “Let us join forces and put an end to his reign of terror.”
“Agreed,” said Captain Falcon.
“Oh no you’re not,” said Mrs. Arrow.
“But. . . but dear,” said Super Arrow.
“Don’t you ‘but dear’ me,” said Mrs. Arrow. “You promised to watch the baby tonight, remember?”
“But, but, justice awaits,” said Super Arrow.
“I know, that’s why I’ll be going,” said Mrs. Arrow. “Do you have a problem with that?”
“No dear,” said Super Arrow.
“Good. That’s settled then. Captain Falcon, when you’re ready.”
“Hey guys, mind if I tag along?”
“James?” Captain Falcon said. “Sure you can come, but. . . why?”
James McCloud grinned. “Hey, a billion bucks is not be sneezed at. I may be a mercenary by trade but for that kind of figure I wouldn’t mind trying a little bounty huntin’ on the side.”
“Very well. Anyone else?”
“I’ll go too,” said Lily.
“Aren’t you a bit young, dear?” Mrs. Arrow asked.
Lily shrugged. “I’ve been trained to be a soldier since birth. Besides, Princia’s my. . . friend. I think.”
“All right then,” said Captain Falcon. “We’ll take my spaceship to get there. Let’s go.”
The Falcon Flyer set down in a blackened forest some way away from Black Shadow’s fortress. The small group of would-be rescuers gathered in the cargo hold.
“We’ll take our machines for the rest of the way,” Captain Falcon said. “Here, put these on.” He handed out a few old-fashioned headsets. “They’ll help us keep in touch in case we split up.”
“We’d better split up at some point,” said James, trying to get his headset on without his sunglasses getting in the way. “We’re gonna need to comb one big fortress after all.”
“Don’t worry, I know the inside well enough,” said Captain Falcon. “Well then, any more questions?”
“What about weapons?” Lily asked. “I only brought my gun.”
“Same here,” said James.
“Don’t worry,” said Captain Falcon. “Black Shadow plays by the book. Knowing him, you won’t need much more than a gun.”
“Which book would that be?” Lily asked.
“The standard villain handbook, obviously,” said Captain Falcon. “No self-respecting galaxy-conqueror can be without it.”
“Really? Well, if you say so.”
“OK then people, let’s do it,” said Captain Falcon.
The cargo hold opened and soon after the Blue Falcon, Queen Meteor, Little Wyvern and Bunny Flash sped out on a direct course for the fortress. Shortly after leaving the forest, Lily’s display screen started bleeping urgently.
“According to my sensors there’s another group of machines a few kilometres west of here.”
“You have sensors in that thing?” Mrs. Arrow asked.
“Do you think it’s a group of Black Shadow’s henchmen come to intercept us?” Captain Falcon asked.
“No,” said Lily. “They’re heading towards the fortress as well.”
“Samurai Goroh and his gang,” said Captain Falcon.
“You don’t sound very happy about it,” said James.
“They’re thugs. Goroh gives us bounty hunters a bad name.”
“You think he’ll cause trouble,” said Mrs. Arrow.
“I don’t think he’ll cause trouble, I know he’ll cause trouble.”
“Well then it’s obvious what to do,” said James.
“Yeah? What?” Lily asked.
“I’ll head over there and guide them away from the fortress,” said James.
“You think you can do that?” Captain Falcon asked.
“Hey, I’m the best damn fighter pilot in the known galaxy. Goroh and a bunch of his lackeys shouldn’t pose a problem to me.”
“Your machine isn’t very sturdy though,” said Mrs. Arrow.
“Trust me. I’ll get those guys of your backs, you go and worry about rescuing Princia, all right?”
“All right,” said Captain Falcon. “Thanks James.”
“Just don’t forget my share of the money.”
And with that, the Little Wyvern broke away from the group. The three remaining machines soon pulled up in front of the ominous walls of the Grand Fortress of Doom.
“OK then, how do we get inside?” Mrs. Arrow asked as she climbed out of the Queen Meteor.
“More importantly, shouldn’t we be worrying about perimeter defences or something?” Lily asked.
“No, Black Shadow plays by the book like I said,” said Captain Falcon. “There’re only a few patrols about, but I don’t think we can get in through the main gate all the same.”
“So we go through the back door, right?” said Mrs. Arrow.
“What makes you think there’s a back door?” Lily asked.
“Sweetie, there’s always a back door.”
“She’s right,” said Captain Falcon. “Unfortunately, the controls for it are in the security room on the second floor of the fortress and I left my C-4 in my other spandex suit, so I can’t blow the back door up either.”
“The second floor?” Mrs. Arrow asked.
“No problem,” she said confidently.
Mrs. Arrow hunched up, look critically at the wall, then propelled herself upwards from the ground and gracefully cleared the wall.
“Wow,” said Lily. “Can you do that?”
“Jump over walls? No, it’s a superhero thing,” said Captain Falcon.
“OK you two, I’ll contact you again when I reached the security room,” Mrs. Arrow said.
“We’ll be waiting,” Captain Falcon responded. He turned to Lily. “Come on, the back door is this way.”
The two casually sauntered along the wall. So far, there wasn’t a single enemy in sight. This unnerved Lily somewhat.
“So you and Princia are friends,” Captain Falcon said.
“I think so,” said Lily. “She came to visit me in the hospital a couple of times.”
“Must’ve been nice,” said Captain Falcon.
“It was. She’s a nice person and, well, I guess I like her.”
Captain Falcon chuckled.
“Oh nothing,” he said. “Well, here’s the back door.”
“Right,” said Lily. “So. . . how’d you become a bounty hunter?”
“That’s not something I like talking about.”
Lily and Captain Falcon looked around helplessly, unsure of how to keep the conversation going. Then the door went open with a hiss.
“Mrs. Arrow, was that you?” Captain Falcon asked.
“That was me all right. I’m alone in the security room right now if you don’t count the unconscious henchmen. There’s a bunch of cameras around, but I’m the only one paying attention to any of them.”
“Good,” said Captain Falcon. “OK then Lily, come on. And be careful.”
The inside of the Grand Fortress of Doom was black, impressive and, it seemed to Lily, horribly inefficient. It almost looked like it had been designed for looks, not keeping out unwanted visitors. Lily decided this was probably one of those strange villain things.
“OK, the cells are that way,” said Captain Falcon, pointing. “You go there and rescue Princia, I’ll go and find the control room.”
“Why?” Lily asked.
“I’m going to have a long talk with Black Shadow,” said Captain Falcon. “I’ll try to impress on him the importance of not kidnapping people.”
“You think he’ll listen?” Lily asked.
“I’m planning to use mostly body language.”
“Ah,” said Lily. “Good luck then.”
“Same to you.”
Her gun drawn, Lily hurried through the dark corridors. There were a guards around, mostly patrolling in pairs. They weren’t paying a lot of attention, though and Lily had no problems sneaking past them. It didn’t take her long to reach the cell block. Much to surprise, it was guarded by only one man sitting in a chair and snoring. A bunch of keycards were hanging from his belt in plain view. It occurred to Lily that perhaps the first rule in the villain’s handbook was to hire incompetent henchmen. Nevertheless, she had a job to do, so she took her gun and aimed it carefully at the man’s forehead.
“OK, I’ve arrived at the control room.”
Lily cursed silently and held her hand against her headset. The guard hadn’t noticed a thing and kept on snoring.
“I take it you’ve shown Black Shadow every corner of the room,” said Mrs. Arrow.
“He wasn’t there,” Captain Falcon answered, sounding a bit worried. “Blood Falcon was there, though, but he didn’t put up much of a fight. Lily, how are you?”
“I’m at the cell block,” she whispered. “And I’m about to get the keys to the cell.”
“Good, you get Princia out. Mrs. Arrow and I will head back to the Falcon Flyer. Meet us there.”
“Roger,” said Lily.
Her headset silent again, Lily refocused the barrel of her gun. Her finger squeezed the trigger and then hesitated. She frowned. She had no qualms about killing. She was raised a soldier, killing was her job.
Still. . .
It wasn’t Princia’s job and while the princess had probably seen a lot more than Lily, a man bleeding from his skull with his brains plastered all over the floor and walls was probably something Princia hadn’t seen yet. Perhaps, Lily reasoned, it would be best if she wouldn’t get to see something like that just yet.
Lily carefully walked over to the sleeping guard, who was completely oblivious that he just nearly escaped sleeping forever.
“You should thank me,” Lily whispered, before hitting the man with the butt-end of her gun.
The guard slumped in his chair. Lily quickly relieved him of his cardkeys. After a quick search, Lily found Princia’s cell. She unlocked it, stepped inside and froze at the sight of the kidnapped princess.
She was reading a book and looked quite bored doing it.
Princia looked up and smiled. “Lily! You’ve come to rescue me then!”
“Err. . . yes,” said Lily. “Are you all right?”
“Oh yes,” said Princia. “Bored out of my mind, though, but otherwise fine. Shall we go?”
“But. . . you got kidnapped. Aren’t you at least a little scared?”
Princia laughed. “Please, I’m a princess. I get kidnapped all the time. Frankly, the novelty of it wears off after the first few times.”
“Oh,” said Lily.
“Come on, let’s get going.”
“Right,” said Lily. “Follow me.”
The two girls made their way back through the fortress, easily evading the patrolling guards yet again. Lily was about to turn a corner when she felt Princia’s hand on her arm.
“This way,” said Princia.
“But the exit’s this way,” said Lily.
“Yes, but the garage is that way,” said Princia. “I’m not leaving without my machine.”
“Oh. OK then,” said Lily.
The garage was vast and filled with machines of all shapes and sizes, but the Spark Moon was still easily located - it was the only one that was brightly yellow.
“Right, I’ll drive,” said Lily.
“Excuse me? It’s my machine,” said Princia.
“No offence, but I’m the better pilot of the two of us. Let me handle it.”
“Oh I know that,” said Princia. “It’s just that you can’t. In order to make sure my machine would never get stolen, my servants rigged the controls so that only someone with my DNA could use them. And of the two us, I’m the only one with my DNA.”
“Good point,” said Lily. “But then, how did it get here if none of Black Shadow’s men can use it?”
“Well, there is such a thing as tow trucks, you know.”
“Of course. Well then, after you,” said Lily.
Princia clambered into the Spark Moon, closely followed by Lily. The cockpit was quite roomy for one person and only mildly uncomfortable for two. Princia pulled off her long gloves and started pressing buttons left and right.
“Right, hang on.”
Lily could feel the Spark Moon disengaging from the ground before darting away at a high speed and into a tunnel.
“I wonder why there’s such a long tunnel between the garage and the outside,” said Lily. “Seems inefficient.”
Behind them, a door in the side of the tunnel slammed open and the massive bulk of the Black Bull entered the tunnel.
“So that’s why,” said Lily. “It’s a trap.”
“It’s also our only way out at the moment. Hang on,” said Princia as she activated the boosters.
“Not to be the bearer of bad news, but he’s gaining on us.”
“I know,” said Princia.
“And in these close quarters and at this speed, he’ll only have to slam into us once to total this machine.”
“I’m aware of that,” said Princia.
“And I can clearly see Black Shadow in his throne cockpit thing.”
“Right,” said Princia, starting another boost.
Lily got up to a crouch. “Can you open the dome on this thing?”
“Not when it’s going this fast. It’s built-in, you see.”
“Pity,” said Lily, drawing her gun.
“What are you planning exactly?” Princia asked.
“I’m gonna take a few pot-shots at Black Shadow,” said Lily. “Maybe they’ll distract him for a bit at least.”
“I hate to break it to you, but the dome is bullet- laser- and nuclear-proof.”
Lily made a face. “Your servants thought of everything, didn’t they?”
Princia risked a glance behind her. “Not everything, no.”
The Spark Moon jolted as the Black Bull rammed it from behind.
“Damn, he’s caught up,” said Princia.
“You don’t say,” said Lily. “Got any boosts left?”
“Just one more I’m afraid. And I can’t really spare the energy for that one.”
“Try to stay in the middle then,” said Lily. “He has to get next to us to do serious damage.”
“Yes, thank you for stating the obvious.”
“Don’t mention it, I’m pretty stressed too at this moment.”
“Really? I thought you did this sort of thing all the time.”
“Getting kidnapped, yes, not participating in high-speed escapes.”
Lily grabbed Princia’s hands and yanked the controls. The Spark Moon spun around a few times, managing to knock the Black Bull off its course behind them and into a wall, without slamming into a wall as well.
“That was some quick thinking,” said Princia.
“Yeah, well, it’ll only distract him for a little while,” said Lily.
“No worries. The exit’s coming up anyway.”
“Good, ‘cuz he’s already closing in as well.”
Again, the Spark Moon jolted as it was hit from behind. Inside the cockpit, a lot of lights started flashing red.
Then they were clear of the tunnel and into the open fields around the fortress. Princia instantly made a sharp turn to the right. The Black Bull tried following them, but didn’t manage to make quite so sharp a turn, putting a bit of distance between the two machines.
“It doesn’t look like he’s giving up,” said Lily.
“What? We cleared the fortress! He’s supposed to give up,” Princia shouted.
“I think he thinks one of us might be Captain Falcon.”
“I hope not,” said Princia, making a sharp turn to the left.
A grey blur appeared from the nearby forest and caught the Black Bull’s side.
“Hey guys. Looks like you could use some help.”
“James!” Lily cried relieved.
“You two get back to the Falcon Flyer. I’ll catch up.”
“Do you really think you can handle the Black Bull?”
“Best damn fighter pilot in the known galaxy, remember?” said James, ramming into the Black Bull again as if to make his point clear. “Don’t worry, I’ll be right behind you.”
“Just remind Princia of that reward for me, will ya?”
Lily snickered. “Of course.”
“Are we all here?”
“We are now,” said James as he sauntered into the Falcon Flyer’s cockpit.
“OK then we’re out of here,” said Captain Falcon.
“No, wait, my machine’s still sitting at the fortress,” said Lily.
“Sorry, but the fortress has probably been put on alert by now,” said Captain Falcon.
“You know, I think perhaps we can make pass over the fortress and use the grappling beam, don’t you think?” said Princia. She was smiling, but there was an edge to her voice subtly suggesting this could change at any time.
“Falcon, I suggest you do as the lady says,” said Mrs. Arrow, who wasn’t even trying to hide the edge to her voice.
“All right, we’ll go pick up the Bunny Flash before we go.”
“Thanks,” said Lily.
“It’s not me you should be thanking,” said Captain Falcon.
The second the small group set foot in the lobby of their Mute City hotel, they were accosted by the manager.
“Oh Your Highness, I do hope you are well,” he said, looking worried.
Princia dramatically put her hand on her forehead. “I’m feeling a little faint as a matter of fact. I’d like to go to my room now.”
Lily frowned. Princia hadn’t shown any signs of faintness on the trip back here.
“Of course, of course,” said the manager hurriedly. “I’ll fetch some men to escort you directly, Your Highness.”
Princia put her arm around Lily’s shoulder, much to the girl’s surprise. “No thank you. My brave rescuer will help me, won’t you?”
“Err. . . sure,” said Lily.
The manager’s smile faltered for a moment. “Then perhaps I should send some food up to your room, Your Highness?”
“No thank you,” said Princia. “I’m sure you have much to organise. Many people to talk to, so to speak.”
The manager’s smile disappeared completely. He coughed. “Yes. I suppose that’s true, Your Highness. In a sense.”
“I thought so. Well then, don’t let me detain you. Coming Lily?”
“OK what was all that?” Lily asked as she stepped into Princia’s room along with the princess.
Princia let herself fall on her bed and sighed with content.
Princia waved her hand. “Anyone who’d escort me wouldn’t be hotel staff, but members of the press trying to get the scoop before anyone else got the scoop. I wasn’t really feeling up to that right now, they’re such a drag.”
“Oh,” said Lily.
“Come on, sit down.”
“There aren’t any chairs.”
Princia patted the fabric beside her. “You can always sit on the bed, silly.”
“Uhh. . . would that be appropriate?” Lily asked.
Princia sighed. “Lily, how often have you called me ‘Your Highness’?”
“Never,” said Lily.
“Exactly. So don’t you start now. Sit down.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Lily, sitting down on the edge of the bed.
Lily stared at the wall for a moment. It looked almost exactly like the wall in her own room.
“Lily?” Princia asked from behind her.
“I take it my father offered a handsome reward for my saviours?”
“And if I’m not mistaken, any money given to you will be taken from you by the military?”
“So why’d you come along with Captain Falcon and the others to try and rescue me?”
“Well. . . we’re friends. . . right?”
“Right,” said Princia. She sounded pleased.
The room was silent again for a while.
“Didn’t you once say you envied the freedom of others?”
“In an interview, yeah,” said Lily. “I got into a bit of trouble for saying that.”
“I take it the Galactic Space Forces don’t like their children to think like that.”
“I suppose,” said Lily. “They put a lot of money into raising me.”
“Yes, I can imagine,” said Princia.
Lily turned around. “Why are you asking me all this?”
“Oh, I’m just. . . thinking,” said Princia, staring at the ceiling.
Princia looked at her and smiled. “The press conference. Any moment now the reporters and camera crews will show up in front of the hotel.”
“So you’re thinking about what to say.”
A mischievous glint appeared in Princia’s eye. “You could phrase it like that, yes.”
The hastily improvised press conference was noisy and crowded, but fortunately not a lot of people seemed interested in Lily. All the questions got directed at either Captain Falcon, greatest bounty hunter that ever lived, James McCloud, leader of the legendary Galaxy Dog team that had taken down the entire Poisinian armada, Mrs. Arrow, former F-Zero model turned superhero and Princia, the charismatic princess. Compared to those names, Lily was more than a little inconspicuous and she felt grateful for that. All that attention would’ve made her very uncomfortable.
When the questions started to subside, Princia walked up to the assembled microphones.
“Thank you all for your kind questions and words of encouragement,” she said, smiling as radiant as always. “But before this press conference ends, I’d like to make a few announcements.”
There was a murmuring from the crowd as everyone tried to hear her even better than they already could.
“As you all know by now, my father promised quite a reward for my rescuers. Obviously, Mrs. Arrow has refused any kind of reward because she’s a superhero. James wants his share of the money to help support his wife and son and for Captain Falcon it’s just payment for a job well done. Lily, however, is quite a different story. While she came to my rescue out of the sheer goodness of her heart, I nevertheless feel that some kind of reward is appropriate.”
Lily frowned. She wasn’t quite sure she liked where this was going. The assorted press, meanwhile, had pressed even closer together, hanging onto Princia’s every word.
“As any F-Zero fan knows, Lily is one of the many orphans adopted and raised by the Galactic Space Forces to become a soldier. As such money is of no use to her and the best I could offer as a reward would be some kind of trinket and that just won’t do, of course.”
Their was a murmur of agreement from the gathered press. Lily felt that they’d also be murmuring in agreement if Princia had just declared the sun was really made of cheese.
“I have therefore decided to give Lily something a bit more immaterial,” Princia continued. “Immaterial, yes, but priceless all the same. With the permission of the Galactic Space Forces and, of course, Lily herself, she will become my personal bodyguard and a free citizen of Magica effective immediately.”
Noise erupted from the press. Lily saw a lot of people turning to their notebooks or cameras to report this latest development, but most were screaming questions to Princia, almost begging for attention.
Princia smiled brightly, filling the air around her with sequins. “No further questions, thank you very much.”
Princia lay sprawled out over her bed and watched Lily pace up and down the room. She was looking rather amused, which infuriated Lily even more. And Lily really was furious, although she wasn’t sure just what she was furious about. Furious at Princia, yes, for doing what she did without asking first, but that was about it. Princia had practically cut her loose from the military, the only thing she’d known, and Lily wanted to be angry at her for that. But for some reason, she just couldn’t. She had been raised to be a soldier, her training had begun before she’d even had a full set of teeth. Already she’d seen more battlefields than anyone else. Her whole life revolved around the Galactic Space Forces. Even the F-Zero had been just another part in her training.
To have all that taken away from her was, was. . .
Liberating, actually. And frightening. So very frightening.
But Lily had been raised never to show fear.
“It won’t work, you know,” said Lily.
“No?” said Princia.
“The Galactic Space Forces will never let me go. They invested too much in me.”
“Only to have you survive as much wars as possible, that’s all,” said Princia. “I know about that orphan project they’re running. You’re all just cannon-fodder to them. Highly durable cannon-fodder, yes, but cannon-fodder all the same.”
“Yeah? Then why’d they let me enter the F-Zero?”
Princia laughed. “PR, obviously. Oh for you it was all about training your decision-making skills, I know, but for your superiors it was for more commercial reasons. The only reason why the top brass is investing so much in orphans is simply because they lack volunteers. Nowadays, people aren’t very eager to join the military and that’s really hurting their ranks. While Jody may be the spokesperson of the Galactic Space Federation as a whole, you were chosen to represent the Forces in particular. And that’s exactly why they can’t refuse my request. Well, apart from all the political considerations, obviously.”
“Sounds to me like they’d never let me go,” said Lily.
“Oh, but they must. If they accede to my request, it would be a grand gesture of goodwill and benevolence, showcasing that in the Galactic Space Forces even a lowly grunt can rise to great heights. If they refuse, however, they’d be the big bad ogre that imprisons its people and takes away their freedom forever.”
Lily nodded. “You can be really nasty, you know.”
Princia smiled. “I’m a princess,” she said.
“You mentioned politics?”
“Oh, the Galactic Space Federation has been wanting Magica to join it for ages. We’re about the only human planet left that hasn’t, after all, and we’re more technologically advanced than they are so it’s easy to see why. And perhaps, handing you over to me would positively influence Magica’s ruling classes and pave the way for Magica’s membership.”
Lily frowned. “So now I’m just a political tool, aren’t I?”
“You’ll learn to live with it,” said Princia. “I did. Of course, all of this hinges on whether or not you really want to be free and spend ungodly amounts of time with me.”
Lily stared pensively at the wall for a few minutes. “I’ve got one, no two questions.”
“Do I still get to race?”
“I’ll buy the Bunny Flash and pay your entrance fee myself if I have to.”
Lily nodded. “Second, do I have to let you win?”
“If you do, I’ll fire you.”
“Right,” said Lily. She took a deep breath. “All right, I’ll do it.”
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
Lily looked out the large window behind the bar and watched the unmoving stars. Because the F-Zero Grand Prix was held on a host of different planets, the F-Zero Committee had long ago procured three spacecrafts to ferry the pilots to the next course. Lily had always thought this to be a bit inefficient. After all, including Black Shadow, there were only 44 pilots racing in a total of 41 machines. They didn’t need three spaceships. But the Committee felt that they did, one for the really popular F-Zero pilots, one for the less reputable pilots and one for everybody else. Up until now, Lily had always travelled in the third craft.
Technically speaking, Lily had been a free citizen of Magica for two weeks now, but so far she noticed little difference. Probably because she was still in the F-Zero season. The only thing that’d really changed was that Princia insisted on having Lily stay in her hotel room with her, even though there was only one bed. One very large bed with ample room for two, yes, but only one bed all the same.
“Hey Lily, how’s the life of luxury?”
Lily looked up. Jack Levin had sat down next to her at the bar. He was smiling his most charming smile and it was a very charming smile. Lily supposed you couldn’t be a teen idol for years without being charming.
“It’s OK,” said Lily.
“Working for Princia must be pretty demanding, though.”
“She can be a bit fickle sometimes, but. . .” Lily shrugged. “I don’t think she really considers herself my boss. It was just an excuse to get me out of the Galactic Space Forces.”
“You must have made quite an impression on her then,” said Jack.
“I guess so,” said Lily.
“I know you made an impression on me.”
Lily frowned at him. Jack smiled back, charmingly. Girls a few light-years from here were probably swooning.
“All the time really. You move so gracefully.”
“No I don’t,” said Lily. “Kate Alen moves gracefully. I just move.”
“Not at all. You move with the beauty of an angel.”
Lily gave Jack a blank look. “I’m going to go to my cabin now,” she announced. “You stay here and have fun.”
“Do you think Jack’s on drugs?” Lily asked as she walked into her cabin.
Princia, who was sitting at the vanity, carefully put her hairbrush down. “What are you talking about?” she asked, turning around to look at the girl.
“Jack came over to me at the bar and said a lot of weird things.”
“Really? Like what?”
Lily told her.
“Yes, that sounds like Jack all right.” Princia laughed. “Oh Lily, you are so delightfully naïve.”
“Hey,” said Lily, mildly offended.
“Sweetie, Jack was hitting on you.”
This time, Princia was the target of a blank look. “What are you talking about?”
“Please, didn’t they teach you anything?”
“They taught me enough,” said Lily.
“Enough to be a soldier, no doubt. Not enough for a human being, I’d wager.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s just that Jack really misses the groupies that came with his previous job. Just don’t ever go to his bedroom with him and you’ll be fine.”
“A kind of very dedicated fan,” said Princia. “And also the kind of fan you or I will probably never have.”
“I’m not one of Jack’s fans,” said Lily. “I never even heard his music.”
Princia smiled. “I have no doubt. Well, I was about to go to bed. Care to join me?”
“Yeah, it is getting late, isn’t it?” said Lily. “I’ll go sleep on the floor then.”
Princia blinked. “The floor?”
“Well that bed certainly isn’t big enough for both of us. The floor’ll be fine.”
“No it won’t,” said Princia. “I’ll go talk to the captain directly. You’re getting your own cabin.”
“Princia, please, it’s fine. I’ve slept on much harder things in my time. The floor will do.”
“I’m not happy with this.”
“You don’t have to be. As long as I can get some sleep.”
“Well. . . all right then,” Princia relented. “But really, I’d be more than happy to share my bed with you.”
“No, it’s OK. Really.”
Princia sighed. “If you insist.”
“. . . three. . . four. . . five. . .”
It was probably early in the morning, although it was hard to tell on a spaceship.
“Err. . . Lily?” came a voice from the bed.
“. . . eight. . . nine. . . hey, when’d you wake up?”
“Just now,” said Princia. “Also, why can’t I move?”
“Thirteen. . . fourteen. . . I increased the artificial gravity,” said Lily.
“Why?” Princia asked.
“I’m doing push-ups.”
“You’re doing. . . what?”
“Push-ups,” said Lily. “I need to stay in shape, you know.”
“And what a shape it is,” said Princia. “However, I’d really appreciate it if you readjusted the gravity back to regular. Right now, as a matter of fact.”
“Nineteen. . . twenty. . . Oh fine.”
After Lily had turned the room’s gravity back to normal, Princia got up and got dressed. For Lily it was a real education to watch Princia getting dressed. Lily considered clothes to be something to keep out the cold or, possibly, to keep out enemy bullets. But for Princia, getting dressed was an entire process. It started with shedding her night-gown, obviously, but then she’d put on a bathrobe, which was presumably something to wear before she actually put on something to wear. Then she went and brushed her hair with meticulous care before tying it up into two tails. After that she’d actually put on some clothes, but that didn’t mean she’d finished dressing. Usually, an entire layer of make-up had to be added before Princia considered herself presentable.
Lily just couldn’t see the point of the entire exercise, although she did enjoy watching Princia prepare her slender body for the day. She wasn’t quite sure why she enjoyed it so much, but then again, she didn’t really try to find out either.
She simply enjoyed it.
And Lily sometimes got the distinct impression that Princia enjoyed it too, so that was OK.
The glistening city of Aeropolis was large, bright and sterile. It had been designed and built to efficiently, yet comfortably, house thousands of people. The result was a city that was at the exact same time both sparkling and inviting and cold and impersonal. Still, Lily preferred it over cities like Mute City or Port Town, where the sky had such interesting colours because of the mass pollution. Aeropolis didn’t have much in the way of spectacular sunsets, but at least you could breathe easily without fear of lung damage.
The hotel booked for most of the F-Zero pilots fitted right in with the rest of the city: it was large, bright and very clean. The receptionist greeting the new arrivals did so in a monotonous voice with little enthusiasm. Mostly because he was a robot.
“ID cards please.”
Lily and Princia handed over their F-Zero license cards. The robotic receptionist took them, input them in a slit somewhere in his chest area, rattled for a bit, then took them out again.
“Room #714,” he said, handing Lily her card back.
“Thanks,” said Lily.
The robot ignored her and turned to Princia. “Penthouse #3.”
“Oh no, that won’t do,” said Princia.
The robot stared blankly at her. “Penthouse #3.”
“Yes, I heard you the first time,” said Princia. “And I’m not taking it. I want Lily in that penthouse with me.”
“Lily Flyer, female, aged 16, machine #37 Bunny Flash, room #714.”
“You don’t have much in the way of AI, do you?” said Princia.
“He’s just a receptionist bot,” said Lily. “You can’t really blame him.”
“Oh, watch me,” said Princia. “Look you, those penthouses you have here are big enough to store entire families. I’m sure you can let me share mine with Lily.”
“Complaints must be taken up with the management,” said the robot.
“Well, at least you have some human qualities. Let me speak to the manager then.”
“Mr. Davis is currently unavailable,” said the robot. “Please come back later.”
“And how do you know he’s unavailable?” Princia asked.
“Mr. Davis is currently unavailable. Please come back later.”
“Now you listen here. . .”
“Princia, please, it’s not worth it,” said Lily.
“Not worth it?” Princia said. “I’m not having you stay in some mediocre room.”
“Yes, but mediocre to you is luxury to me, you know.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it,” said Princia.
“Uhm, excuse me, you’re holding up the line.”
Princia turned around and glared. Draq flinched back, his huge pink hands raised defensively.
“On second thought, we’ve got all day, right?” he said.
“Do you even know who I am?” Princia asked the robot.
“Princia Ramode, female, aged 18, machine #36 Spark Moon, penthouse #3.”
“Yes, but do you know who I am?” she said. “Or even where I’m from?”
“Processing. . .” said the robot. “Princia Ramode, female, born October 22nd 2314, oldest daughter of King Royl Ramode and Queen Ducha Fren-Ramode of Magica, current heir to the throne of Ma. . . gic. . . Ah.”
“Quite so,” said Princia.
“Mr. Davis is currently available. One moment please.”
Two minutes later, Mr. Davis arrived. Ten minutes after that, Princia and Lily were standing inside penthouse #3.
Lily looked out the window, taking in the view of the glittering skyscrapers stretching away above and below her as well as the angular streets teeming with movement.
“Why’d you do it?” she apparently asked the glass.
Lily turned around and looked at Princia putting her clothes away in a closet large enough to be regular room.
“Go through all that trouble. Why is it so important to you that I’m near?”
Princia hesitated for a brief moment, then continued unpacking. “Because you’re important to me, Lily. And I’m not sure you know how much.”
“Why? Because I helped save you from Black Shadow?”
“Oh no, not that,” said Princia. “Although I admit it was a pleasant surprise.”
“Well why then? Why am I so important to you? I’m just a grunt. Used to be anyway.”
“No,” said Princia. “You’re not. Never have been. A grunt, sure, but not just a grunt.”
“I don’t understand,” said Lily.
“No, I didn’t think you would.” Princia closed the closet doors and leaned against them, turning to face Lily. “Has anyone other than Jack Levin ever told you how beautiful you are?”
Lily blinked. “Sorry?”
“You were always just around. Just another girl, just another racer, just another soldier. Even I saw you like that, once. Then the accident happened, and you got hospitalised. It gave me a lot of time to think, really. When I first came to visit it was only because I felt guilty for putting you there, but. . .”
“But. . .?”
“I saw you there, unconscious, tubes sticking out of you, hooked up to machines and I can remember being struck by how innocent you looked,” said Princia, more to herself than to Lily. “So peaceful, a sleeping beauty so to speak. And then I thought ‘this is a soldier, she’s fought battles, she’s killed people, she must have seen countless horrors already. How can she still be so innocent?’ I couldn’t find an answer to that. But I did know that that innocence would one day be ripped away by a bullet or a laserbeam in some insignificant little war or petty skirmish. I couldn’t let that happen, I couldn’t let such beauty be so callously discarded. So I decided there and then to do whatever it took to preserve that beautiful innocence and I’m not about to stray from that decision.”
“Gosh,” said Lily, her face red from blushing.
Princia laughed, her solemn aura evaporating. “You have absolutely no idea what I just said, do you?”
“No, I think I got the gist of it.”
“Well I think you didn’t,” said Princia. “Which is also my point, in a sense.”
“Well. . . thanks all the same.”
“I meant it,” said Princia. “Even the words I didn’t say. Especially the words I didn’t say, in fact.”
“What are those then?”
Princia winked. “Wouldn’t you like to know. Come on, let’s go.”
Lily blinked twice, trying to catch up with Princia’s mental processes. “Where to?”
“The track, obviously,” said Princia. “The last race is two days from now, so we might as well get practising. One race just the two of us, three laps, loser buys dinner.”
“But. . . dinner is free,” said Lily.
“Well something else then,” said Princia. “I’m sure I can think of something.”
“No,” said Lily.
“Oh please,” said Princia said.
“No. Absolutely not. Not now, not ever.”
“But you’ll look adorable.”
“I don’t want to look adorable. Especially not if it means having to wear a dress.”
“But it’s such a pretty dress.”
“Well, you wear it then. It’d look a lot better on you anyway.”
“Thanks,” said Princia. “Well all right then, not the dress. How about some jewellery then? I bet you don’t even have a bracelet.”
“Oh come on.”
“No dresses, no jewellery, no nothing. Besides, why are you insisting on buying something for me anyway?”
“You beat me,” said Princia. “And since I can’t buy you dinner. . .”
“That’s it? You drag me all the way to this expensive mall because of a practise run?”
“Well. . . yes.”
Lily gaped at Princia. “I don’t believe you.”
“No really it’s the truth.”
“No I meant I don’t believe you’d actually do something like that. I mean, what if I lost. I don’t have any money. Would you expect me to buy you something?”
“I’m sure we could’ve reached a compromise,” said Princia. “Now won’t you please let me buy you something?”
Princia rolled her eyes. “Because I’m incredibly selfish and really feel like giving you something. So I’m going to give you something whether you like it or not.”
“You’ve already given me more than enough.”
“Oh yes? Like what then?”
“Well, the chance not to get shot dead before I turn twenty springs to mind.”
“Don’t say that,” Princia snapped.
“Just. . . don’t, alright? It’s not a thought I can bear.”
Lily blinked. “Uhm. . . OK. Sorry.”
“It’s alright. Say, how about a plush animal?”
“I bet you never had a teddybear or something growing up?”
“Not really, no.”
“Great! That’s settled then.”
“What? Wait a. . .”
“Come on, store’s this way.”
Twin moons flooded the penthouse with their pale light. One of the things Lily had learned about Princia was that she preferred to sleep with the windows uncovered to give her better view of the night sky. She simply revelled in the fact that the heavens looked different everywhere she went.
The moonlight was so bright Lily could easily see everything in the entire room, even though it was in black and white. She stared up at the now greyish ceiling, a plush frog in her arms. She wondered if perhaps she should name it. She’d picked up somewhere that kids named their first or favourite plush animals.
On the other hand, she wasn’t exactly a kid anymore, was she?
Still. . . it was a very nice frog.
Given to her by a very nice girl.
Lily sighed. Of course she’d be thinking of Princia again. It was about all she did lately. The girl was incredibly fickle and quite clearly expected things to go the way she wanted them to. She’d be annoying if she wasn’t so likeable.
Why was she so likeable anyway? She was charismatic, yes, but that didn’t equal likeable in Lily’s book. She did try to be nice to everyone. Well, most of the time anyway. As a princess she really didn’t have to do that. Lily was very much used to dealing with people in command and they tended not to go out of their way to be nice.
Lily looked away from the ceiling and, propping herself up on an elbow, looked at Princia. She looked peaceful, asleep in the moonlight. Her face was refined and gentle and appeared to be smiling, even in her sleep. Princia had spoken of beauty earlier today, but Lily didn’t think that term really applied to her. Someone else was far more worthy of that description, even if she did look kind of white and grey in the moonlight.
“Do you like what you see?”
Lily gasped. “I didn’t know you were awake.”
“I wasn’t,” said Princia, opening her eyes. “But I always wake up when someone’s watching me. It’s a princess thing.”
“I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to wake you.”
“Don’t worry about it. I don’t mind being woken by you,” she said. “So, do you like what you see?”
“Uhm. . . sort of,” said Lily.
Princia smiled. “Are you blushing?”
“No,” said Lily.
“Liar. I can see it even in this light.”
“I’m just embarrassed that you caught me staring, is all.”
“Oh is that all?” said Princia, obviously amused. “Well don’t be embarrassed. You can stare at me all you want.”
Although she didn’t think it was possible, Lily started blushing even harder. “It’s just that. . .”
“Oh no, you have to tell me now.”
“It’s just that I enjoy watching you, you know. It makes me feel good somehow.” She chuckled. “God, I sound pathetic.”
“You’re not pathetic,” said Princia. “So. . . do you think I’m pretty?”
“You know you are.”
“By fashion designer standards, yes. But do you think I’m pretty?”
“You know I do.”
“Guess I do now,” said Princia. “Lily, I want to ask you a question and I want you to think about it.”
“You got your wish. After the Grand Prix you’ll be free to live and love like the rest of us.”
Lily chuckled. “I can’t believe you remembered that.”
“It was very hard for me not to,” said Princia. “Anyway. . . do you think. . . you could love me?”
Lily looked at her. “I. . . I don’t know.”
“I’m not sure what love is, really. I’ve never. . . experienced it.”
“Very roughly speaking, love is when two people make each other feel good about themselves,” said Princia. “Of course the love I’m speaking of is the more. . . romantic kind.”
“Well. . . you do make me feel good about myself and I do like being around you most of the time. Plus you’re constantly on my mind nowadays and the mere thought of you being somewhere I’m not hurts, but. . . I don’t know. Is that love?”
“A kind of love certainly,” said Princia. She sighed. “Oh, what was I thinking? Nobody’s ever told you anything important. You were just taught how to effectively kill people. God why are we so stupid?”
“Maybe that’s true,” said Lily. “Maybe I don’t know a lot about life. But I do know I want to be with you, something deeper than just friends.”
Princia gave Lily a half-hearted smile, reaching up to brush the girl’s cheek. “Oh Lily, if you only knew what those words mean to me.”
“I think I have a pretty good idea, actually.”
Lily carefully leaned forward, acting on. . . what? Instinct? Urge? Compulsion? Whatever. Terms didn’t matter right now. What mattered was the feeling of Princia’s lips brushing against hers, the princess’s arms wrapping around her and pulling her closer, the shared warmth of their bodies.
Was this love? Lily still wasn’t sure. But love was nothing more than a word anyway. A word that didn’t even come close to describing the feeling that now filled her entire body to the brink.
“Ladieeees aaand gentlemeen. . . the contestants!”
Lily stepped onto the bright Aeropolis starting grid, cheered on by the crowd. She didn’t hear them, all her senses focused more or less onto her right hand, which was holding Princia’s left hand. She wondered if it was appropriate to walk like this in public, with hovercamera’s flying around recording them, but even if it wasn’t Lily didn’t quite care. It was almost as if, right now and in this place, nothing could possibly go wrong.
She felt. . . safe. Amongst other things.
“Well, here we are,” said Princia.
Lily hadn’t even noticed they’d reached the Bunny Flash. If it had been up to her, they could’ve just kept walking.
Princia gave Lily a quick kiss on the cheek. “Have a good race.”
“T-Thanks,” Lily stammered, her face red.
Princia laughed, turned around and focused her attention on the public at the exact moment the announcer mentioned her name. Waving, smiling, her hips swaying, the desert princess walked over to her machine. She stepped into the cockpit, smiled one last time at Lily in particular and disappeared from Lily’s view.
Realising there was still a race to race, Lily got into her own machine and powered it up. After the obligatory introductions had been made and the countdown started, Lily tried to push all thoughts of nubile young princesses into the corners of her mind and focus. She wasn’t having much success, but enough to make sure she was off the starting grid mere nanoseconds after the word “Go”.
The Bunny Flash dashed forward, quickly overtaking the slow starting Hyper Speeder. Dodging the Red Gazelle, Lily saw the first bend in the road coming up, along with the jump plate dead ahead. If she’d take the jump, she be able to cut a few corners, but if she went with the track she’d get the chance to hit a boost plate which, considering her machine’s engines, might be the better option. Lily had nearly turned her machine into the curve and towards the boost plate, when the Sonic Phantom passed her on the left, ruining her chances of making a smooth turn. Cussing softly, she yanked on the controls, hit the jump plate and was launched into the air. For a brief moment, the swirling mass of racers beneath her looked like a collection of children’s toys. Then the Bunny Flash landed back on the track again -in front of the Sonic Phantom, much to Lily’s delight- and sped towards the 90 degrees turn she knew was coming up.
Lily raced on, barely noticing the other contenders unless they got in the way. She was in that state of mind where she couldn’t tell where she ended and her machine started.
A sleek machine with an almost garish yellow colour pulled up next to her, making Lily look up. In the cockpit next to her, Princia waved to her, winked and sped away. Lily blinked and slammed down onto the accelerator. Lily managed to catch up to the Spark Moon on a large vertical patch of track. Smiling, Lily paused to stick her tongue out at Princia before overtaking the yellow machine completely.
As the track flattened and became more or less horizontal again, Lily knew that pretty soon now Princia would catch up to her again. The reason why she was so sure of this was because she’d taken her foot off the accelerator for a moment.
Eventually, the race blurred from Lily’s mind. There was the track, the Bunny Flash, the Spark Moon and nothing else. The simple game of “catch me if you can” quickly changed into the two machines swerving around each other, getting close, breaking away, crossing paths; a mating dance at over 1,000 km/h.
After the race ended, Lily felt the incredibly, yet easily explicable, urge to be alone with Princia somewhere, but she didn’t get the chance. The Aeropolis course had been the last one of the season and the award ceremony would start the moment after the last machine had crossed the finish line. The pilots had to drive their machine over an alternate track towards the place the ceremony would be held in single file, the last one in front, number four at the back. Only after all those machines had arrived would the top three make their way to the ceremony together, no doubt cheered on by an enthusiastic crowd.
Princia had managed a pitiful 26th place and so had to leave early. Lily knew that the princess didn’t mind being so low on the ranking board and that she only raced for the fun of it, but still Lily felt determined to make sure Princia would do better next year. When they’d reached Magica they’d be training a lot if Lily had to say anything about it.
After the Spark Moon had left, Lily carefully counted the thirteen machines following it, then joined the procession as well. Driving over the rather boring straight track, Lily focused on the glowing engines of the Wonder Wasp in front of her. With little to no cheering from the crowd and the announcer merely shouting racing statistics into the air, it was quite probably one of the more boring moments of Lily’s life.
At the end of the track, Lily dutifully turned her machine into the garage and powered it down. She clambered out of the cockpit and managed to take a few steps before finding herself pinned to the side of her machine with the smell Princia’s body all around her and the feeling of the princess’s lips on her own.
Suddenly, things weren’t quite so boring any more.
“I am so incredibly smitten with your right now,” Princia whispered.
“I could tell,” said Lily.
“I should’ve snatched you away from the military years ago,” Princia said, now slowly running a hand through Lily’s short hair. “That race was sheer poetry in motion.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” said Lily. “But it was fun.”
“Fun? My dear girl, it was delicious.” Princia leaned closer. “And if it wasn’t for all these people around here I’d show you just how delicious you made me feel back then.”
There was something about the tone of voice that made Lily blush hotly.
Princia laughed. “Oh dear, I crossed the line there, didn’t I?”
“No, no,” said Lily. “It’s just that I’m feeling a little. . . flustered.”
“Well I should hope so,” said Princia. “Well, actually, I was really hoping for something else, but flustered will do quite nicely for now.”
Lily looked at her. “You know, sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I know,” said Princia, smiling. “But that just means I get to teach you everything. And let me tell you, I’m looking quite forward to it.”
“On the subject of teaching, I’m going to teach you how to race better. 26th just isn’t good enough for you.”
“I’m looking quite forward to that too,” said Princia. “Come on, time to go watch the Captain get his next gold medal.”
Princia grabbed Lily’s hand and turned around. And only then did the two girls notice that every single pilot in the garage was staring at them, apart from Mrs. Arrow who was ineffectually trying to hide a smile behind her hand.
“Does anyone has anything they’d wish to say?” said Princia, in the kind of pleasant voice that promised much unpleasantness if anyone had anything they’d wish to say.
Predictably, everybody was suddenly very much interested in something completely unrelated to two particular girls.
“I love being a princess sometimes,” Princia said to the universe at the large.
Lily stepped onto the launching platform and stared at the hulking spaceship waiting for her and Princia. It was red and covered in the white insignias of Magica’s royal family.
So it was really happening then.
One quick trip to the army base that’d been her home for as long as she could remember to pick up her stuff and then Lily really was going to the desert planet Magica to live in a palace and to spend her days in freedom.
Freedom. What a strange word. She didn’t really know what it meant. She was a soldier. People gave her orders and she carried them out and that was that. So what would happen now? Who would tell her what to do? Who would tell her what to be? Who would tell her who to be? She couldn’t do all that just by herself, she didn’t know how.
Lily took a step back.
Already halfway to the ship, Princia turned around.
“Lily, is there something wrong? You look pale.”
Lily looked at her. “I’m. . . scared.”
“Of what?” Princia asked.
“I. . . I don’t think I can deal with being free.”
Princia smiled. “Don’t worry, you’re just scared of the dark.” She held out her hand. “Just give me your hand and I’ll take you through the night. I promise.”
Lily wanted to turn around and run away. Go back to her superiors, explain it was all a mistake, move back to the base and be the soldier she’d been raised to be.
And then she’d never ever see Princia again.
With her fists clenched and fear clutching at her heart, Lily walked towards Princia and the spaceship waiting for them.