THE PRINCE AND THE PIRATE
by Andrea Tang
Like most trouble in the universe, Sabeena’s starts with a boy. Well, technically a man now – and heir to an entire planetary throne, so there’s that – but the princely designation doesn’t stop the guy from being a pain in her ass. If anything, that just makes it worse. The point is, the prince gets himself kidnapped, in that way that idiot boys do. Three days later, Sabeena gets a call from a woman designated a terrorist by Imperial-controlled space, a check authorizing a coin transfer, and a job offer.
“So.” Sabeena offers General Rei Kimura her most dastardly smirk, lazily scuffing one worn black boot along the shiny chrome floor of the General’s office. “I’m the only one for the gig.”
Kimura fixes her with an unimpressed eye. “More like the only contractor available on call.”
“The only contractor who could handle the work.”
“Everyone else has been deployed. We’re stretched too thin.”
“Which just leaves me.”
“There was no one else,” says the General in vaguely morose tones.
Sabeena dimples at her. “No one else who could get the job done.”
“No one else left on base, literally.”
“So I’m your only hope,” Sabeena presses, “which means there’s bonus pay, ain’t it? I mean, we’re not talking a run-of-the-mill illicit spice shipment here. We’re talking a real life, bona fide, golden-haired prince of a planet, not to mention the poster boy of your little rebellion against the Imperialists.”
General Kimura pinches the bridge of her nose, looking at some point past Sabeena’s head, no doubt calculating long term political strategies and other fancy things that matter more than one less-than-legal contractor’s fees. “We need him back. Prince August’s home planet is the largest base of rebel operations, and besides, the people love him. Without him…” She trails off, shakes her head as something grim crosses her gaze. The look she turns back on Sabeena is pure business. “So, can you do it? This isn’t like most of your other jobs.”
Sabeena shrugs. “If the pay is right. One shipment of laundered food rations, one holier-than-thou rebel space prince – po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe, right? If I can move one, I can move the other.”
Kimura squints at Sabeena, dark eyes slitted thoughtfully. “Didn’t you two know each other as children?”
It’s not a question Sabeena expects to field. “What, me and your revolutionary princeling? Sure, if you can call my mom being a servant in his household ‘knowing.’ It was only for one year, maybe two.”
“And what did you think of him?”
Sabeena rolls her eyes. “Does it matter?”
The General shakes her head. “I suppose not. I thought perhaps childhood sentiment might move you past your more mercenary tendencies. My mistake.”
That stings, just a little, which is stupid. Sabeena ducks her head and rolls her shoulders, carefully careless. “What can I say, General? A girl’s gotta eat.”
“Says the professional pirate.”
“ ‘Scuse me, that’s occasional pirate, usually accidental, and almost always on account of the harebrained work you hire me for.”
“You’ll take the job?”
“You think I make small talk with the likes of your effervescent self for shits and giggles? Yeah, General, I’ll take the job.”
“Very well then. Here’s your contract. Oh, and one more thing.” Kimura pauses – almost like she’s inviting dramatic effect – then adds, in a quieter voice, “He’s being held on a slave ship.”
Sabeena groans. Truth be told, she’d never have bothered aiding and abetting a revolution against an intergalactic dictatorship in the first place, if she’d known revolting would be almost as inconvenient as lawfully living under tyranny. “Okay, now really have to get me bonus pay for this bullshit. A slave ship? A slave ship, really? Really? What was he doing, running around playing do-gooder abolitionist army-of-one when the Imperialists caught up to him?”
Sabeena could be imagining things, but she swears the corner of the General’s mouth twitches. “Actually, that’s not an inaccurate descriptor.”
Sabeena heaves a great gust of a sigh, and flings out an impatient hand, fingers wiggling. “Figures. Whatever, here, just give me the contract and make the coin transfer. I’ll fix this.”
The General deposits a little silver drive into Sabeena’s palm. “You’ll get it done?”
Sabeena’s answering smile is sweet, and doesn’t quite reach her eyes. Her fist closes around the contract. “Ain’t I always, for bonus pay? You’ll have your abolitionist freedom fighter prince back, safe and sound. I swear it on my bank credit.”
Here’s the honest truth: when they were kids, Sabeena thought Prince August was basically the most annoying person ever to grace the galaxy. She didn’t talk to him much, really, because one, Prince August was very much space royalty, and Sabeena was very much not, which was bound to get awkward – and two, Sabeena figured out pretty quickly, mostly through unfortunate third party observation, that once you got Prince August talking, he didn’t really stop. For a kid who was probably just shy of twelve years old at the time, Prince August had a lot of feelings about a lot of things: the wage gap on outer planets, the degradation of resource-rich worlds, the evil of the Imperial government, the existence of the slave ships, the evil of the Imperial government, the rights of the people, the evil of the Imperial government, and so forth.
The inability to shut up probably isn’t entirely Prince August’s fault. Now that she’s purportedly a grown-ass adult, Sabeena’s charitable enough to realize that if she were the crown prince of a planet currently colonized beneath the thumb of an evil intergalactic dictatorship, she’d probably have a chip on her shoulder too. Hell, it’s not like most twelve-year-olds are the paragon of self-restraint and awareness. Sabeena was a quieter kid than most, but when you’re the bastard daughter of a low-ranking handmaiden, you learn to shut the hell up around your superiors, which is basically everyone. People are supposed to look through you, talk over you, see you as anything but a person, and you’re supposed to make that easy. So Sabeena shut up, and tried not to roll her eyes too obviously when Prince August didn’t.
The thing is, Prince August didn’t look through Sabeena. He didn’t look through anyone, ever. It was downright disconcerting. He’d talk to anyone, rich or poor, servant or noble, and when he talked – which was, Sabeena’s quick to remind herself, all the stars-damned time – he met your eyes, like you were actually the person with whom he really, truly wanted to share all his feelings about saving the trees on some random planet, or whatever his cause du jour was. Even if you were some servant’s bastard kid, he looked at you like he cared what you thought, like he expected things from you, which was almost worse than his stupid motor mouth. Every time he spoke to Sabeena, that big blue gaze – full of expectation, belief, focus – sat itchy in the back of her mind, the pit of her belly, sometimes for days.
When she bothers to remember the prince at all, that’s what she remembers him by.
Still, he wasn’t exactly a focal point of her childhood or anything, and when Sabeena’s mom got transferred to work for another prissy noble family in another prissy planetary quadrant, she barely thought of him at all for the next five years.
A lot happens in five years. For Sabeena, it goes something like this: girl’s mother dies; girl grows the hell up; girl bucks up and finds work. It’s not especially noble work, what Sabeena does now: shuttling goods between planets, dodging Imperial trade tariffs and finding clever ways to evade taxes on interplanetary imports of spices and honey and canned produce, but means she won’t die as someone else’s servant. There are worse careers for a bastard orphan than committing intergalactic trade fraud.
She mostly takes the brewing revolution against the Imperial government in stride. The totalitarian bastards kind of have it coming, truth be told. Besides, a war in space means both bigger risks and bigger rewards for Sabeena’s line of work. She starts taking contracts from General Kimura’s freedom fighters, mostly because as designated traitors against the Imperialist regime, they can’t really go turning their noses up at a bit of white collar crime. Sabeena’s no snob, and she knows how to survive. She spends her thinking hours on jobs, when they come her way. She doesn’t think about political ideals or grand expectations or saving the galaxy from itself, and she sure as hell doesn’t think about the dumb wide-eyed princeling she knew when she was twelve.
Or at least, she didn’t. Now, it seems, he is her job. The galaxy’s got a funny sense of humor like that.
Sabeena starts the job by accidentally stealing a cargo transport shuttle.
The “accidentally” bit of this incident is key. The plan was not to commit actual theft. The plan was to stowaway, which is by all counts a less serious and therefore less troublesome crime to commit, when one is in the business of committing crimes. Unfortunately, when one is in the business of committing crimes, one’s actual plans also tend to go to hell more often than not.
When the ship’s bleary-eyed captain discovers a strange girl curled up in his cargo hold, surrounded by packages of cheap canned food and instant noodles, Sabeena does basically the only thing she knows how to do when her plans are going to hell: she punches him out cold.
He’s unconscious for all of three and a half seconds before it dawns on Sabeena that a cargo shuttle can’t exactly dock on an Imperial slave ship without a captain. Swearing and shaking out a freshly bruised fist, she wrestles his uniform jacket off his shoulders and steals his cap, tucking her hair beneath. The guy’s a lot bigger than Sabeena, and his clothes are ill fitting, but no one pays much attention to delivery people anyway, and beggars can’t be choosers – nor can occasional, accidental space pirates.
Sure enough, when she docks the stolen shuttle, the mechanical guards barely spare her or her newly appropriated supply packages a second glance. It pays to be invisible. She waits until she hits an empty corridor, then drops the cargo and runs, praying to every god she even half-believes in that the map she got of the prison cell locations was legit. She hits the air vents on the tenth floor, and wrinkling her nose against the stench, pops in. Sabeena counts three, five paces, and gritting her teeth, opens the hatch.
Light beams up through the entrance, and Sabeena jumps. If this isn’t Prince August’s cell, some Imperial prisoner is about to have a really awkward interruption to solitary confinement.
She hits the floor, knees bent, and nearly careens into the cell’s occupant.
“I’m guessing you’re the cavalry,” he rasps.
The guy who’s caught Sabeena by the shoulders is young and pale, though the purple shadows under his eyes and the lines beginning to bracket his mouth could probably help him pass for older. Gossip rags and holovids call Prince August handsome. Sabeena just thinks he looks tired.
“Have we met?” asks the Prince.
“Once upon a dream.” Sabeena’s deadpan mostly through force of habit. She ducks her head around him to check for guards past the prison cell windows. “And while we’re at it: no, I don’t come here often.”
His jaw tightens, works for a minute, like he’s deciding whether or not to be offended at the quip. “Who are you?”
Sabeena gets to work on the lock, pulling a laser cutter from the belt beneath her stolen uniform. “Who do you think? I’m the help.”
“I’m supposed to believe you’re really a… delivery girl?” She doesn’t have to look up from her work to feel his gaze lingering on all the spots where the size-L men’s uniform doesn’t fit the body of a stocky five-foot-nothing woman.
“Sure.” One bolt clicks loose, then another. “And you’re the package.”
He inhales, no doubt preparing to continue his interrogation. Sabeena preemptively gives the laser cutter a last, violent wrench. Before the Prince can open his mouth, the final bolt clicks loose, and red light floods the corridor. Sabeena kicks the cell door open right as the alarms begin to blare, and grabs Prince August by the wrist. “Questions later!” she shouts over the shriek of the warning siren. “Prison break now!”
“Where are we going?” Great, more questions. Sabeena dodges a spray of blaster fire, dragging the prince out of harm’s way, then careens around the corner. At least he’s following her, stumbling on her heels, but taking her lead. Small blessings.
“Anywhere but here, Your Highness.” She pauses, drops his wrist to go for her own blaster, and fires back at the guard aiming for her head. “You okay?” she yells at the prince over the commotion.
“I’m not the one they’re shooting at!”
It’s a wry answer, and one that gives her pause, the beginnings of a new plan springing to life in her head. “Good point. Do you trust me? Never mind,” she adds quickly at his incredulous expression, and points the blaster at him. “Just play along.”
He really doesn’t look like he wants to play along. In fairness, Sabeena can’t really blame him. She wasn’t wild about the last time she had to stare down the barrel of a blaster either. “What in the stars-damned hell is going on?” he hisses. “What are you doing?”
“Rescuing you,” says Sabeena, shrugging at him over the weapon between them. “Appearances. You’re not just a slave to them – you’re a valued political prisoner. They don’t want to shoot you, which means they really don’t want me to shoot you.”
Her reasoning turns out to have the fun benefit of actually being true. Enemy blaster fire stops. Sabeena keeps her own blaster trained on Prince August, ushering him out of the hold. Escaping is pretty short work after that. Sabeena’s been a petty criminal long enough to know how to memorize the layout of a ship during the first run. She gets them back out to the docking platform, and makes a beeline for one of the Imperial transport shuttles – the cheap, standard issue kind, a model with easy-to-decode door locks. It’s not until she’s gotten them past those doors that she runs into real trouble.
“Let me out,” says Prince August.
“Ha ha,” says Sabeena. She punches codes for an escape route into the main dash, praying that no one back on the slave ship tries something stupid or terrible or deeply inconvenient, like firing on the shuttle.
His hand stills her elbow. “I’m not kidding. I told the others I wouldn’t leave them.”
“Other what? Prisoners?”
“Slaves,” says Prince August, with a quiet urgency that twists something deep in Sabeena’s gut that she doesn’t want to acknowledge.
“Not my package, not my problem.”
“Maybe,” says the Prince. “But I gave them my word. I can’t just run away and leave them –“
Sabeena jerks her elbow out from under his hand. “Sure you can. We’re doing it now.”
The brackets around his mouth deepen as his jaw sets. “I’m not going.”
Sabeena wants, very badly and briefly, to punch him. “Like hell.”
“You wouldn’t understand,” he insists, all flashing eyes and imperious anger now. “I’m not a criminal. As a royal, my word is my bond, and I have responsibilities –“
“Oh, responsibilities, is it?” Sabeena’s temper spikes. “Because you have responsibilities, right, I forgot, responsibilities are yet another privilege of you royals –“
“That’s not what this is about!”
“Then enlighten me! Preferably before the Imperials blow us to bits!”
The blazing eyes go soft. Distant, Sabeena thinks, and grave. “This is the entire point of being royal at all. To go where no one else should have to, to be there for the people who have no one else.”
His words hit her like a gut punch. Precious seconds crawl by, and Sabeena – hands flexing white-knuckled over the dashboard controls – makes a call. “Go.”
She pinches the bridge of her nose. “You’re costing me a pretty penny, I hope you know. You really haven’t changed.”
He sucks in a breath. “So it is you. I remember you.”
“From when we were kids.”
Heat thrums under her skin. It means nothing. It’s always meant nothing. “Yes, you’ve remembered a servant’s face, congratulations –“
“No,” he says, and almost smiles. “I remember the girl who looked ready to pass out with boredom every time I spoke.”
He remembers her. He remembers her, and she doesn’t have the time, doesn’t have the bandwidth to process any of this. “If you’re going to go, then go.”
Silent for once, he hovers at the door, for just a moment. And then he goes.
Metal slides shut behind him. Robotically, Sabeena punches coordinates into the dashboard, and lifts off from the slave ship while its owners are busy recapturing her stolen cargo below. There will be no pay. That’s how the business goes sometimes. She’s learned to live with that.
None of her realism accounts for the twist that runs from her chest all the way down through her gut as she hurtles away into space, time and time stretching between Sabeena and the prince on the slave ship.
“What do you mean, mission aborted?” General Kimura’s voice crackles down Sabeena’s comm line with the fury of a thousand exploding suns. Sabeena resists a completely teenage-esque urge to hold the comm link away from her ear and pull a face.
“I mean what I said,” goes Sabeena, calmly, like an adult. “Mission aborted. No go on the rescue. The Prince is still on the slave ship.”
“Why the hell didn’t you rescue him?”
“Because the asshole didn’t want to be rescued, that’s why.”
A slow, crackled exhaled on the other end of the line. And then: “He’s still trying to free them, isn’t he.”
The slaves, that’s who the General means. Sabeena screwed up the mission because a prince made a promise to the inhabitants of a slave ship. Sabeena wants to punch something.
“I don’t suppose there’s anything we can do about that,” says Kimura, and that’s when the thing that’s been building in Sabeena since the beginning of this whole episode finally shatters, fragmented into broken-glass words.
“You’re as full of shit as ever, General.”
Silence from Kimura.
Shit, thinks Sabeena, fingers practically spasming on the dashboard controls, shit, shit, fucking shit, did I really just say that? But the words keep coming, unbidden, glass-edged: “You wanted to free a prince on board a slave ship, but couldn’t be bothered to free the slaves? How do you think August got kidnapped in the first place, huh?”
“We need our prince.”
“You need your figurehead. You need your rallying point. Fine. You want him back? Save the people he was trying to. Otherwise, you can kiss his royal ass goodbye.”
A pause. “I didn’t think you cared for politics.”
“I don’t. He does. And so, I know, do you. Either commit the back-up to take the whole ship, or let him rot. That’s not my ideals talking. That’s his.” She breathes deep. “So riddle me this, General: how badly do you really want your prince?”
Kimura’s fleet arrives in under three hours, which is impressive, given the constraints of space travel. There’s a lot of gunnery firing, and a lot of dramatic running and shouting, slavers being carted off as war prisoners, slaves being shipped to med bays. In the commotion, Sabeena almost fails to notice August himself, and probably would have passed the scruffy-looking blond refugee guy, if his fingers didn’t crook their way into her elbow. “Hey,” he rasps.
She raises her eyebrows at his grip on her arm, and dips a curtsey. “Your Highness.”
He’s studying her with those hard gemstone eyes of his, like he can’t quite puzzle her out. “You came back.”
“Yeah, me and General Kimura’s fleet. You probably owe that woman a favor or five.”
“How do you figure?”
Sabeena can’t contain the snort of belief. “Come on, don’t all you princelings get put through the same fancy schools? Let’s not forget where all this trouble began.”
His expression goes wry, the corner of his mouth tilting upward. “I’d like to think you’re going to say, ‘the captain of the ship that was trafficking human beings into slavery on behalf of a corrupt intergalactic regime,’ but I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you mean me.”
“See? Fancy schools paid off.”
He bites his lip. It’s a curiously adolescent gesture for a young man of such political stature and conviction. “You should stay, you know. Help us fight.”
Her hands fly up, dislodging his fingers. “What is this, an unpaid rebel internship? And here you dragged us through all this drama because you were so very against the slave trade.”
“I’ve spoken to General Kimura. I’d like to take over your contracting vehicle.”
That can’t be right. “Excuse me?”
“I’d like to hire you. Personally. At a full time rate, not just to run illicit cargo and steal ships. I’d like to hire you to be a real player in this war: as a strategist and a soldier, not just the go-between girl.”
“Why?” Sabeena blurts out before she can stop herself.
He looks thoughtful. “You were the girl who looked ready to pass out with boredom – or put up a fight – every time I spoke. When we were kids,” he elaborates, as if this is any explanation at all. “You… challenge the status quo. You’re no one’s sycophant. And it means you think outside the box. Like today.”
“The General –”
“The General sent a fleet to take the ship because you convinced her to. Because you found a reason for her to spare thin resources.”
“Yeah, because she wanted you.”
“Yes.” He’s smiling. “I’m not stupid. I know the General’s a political animal. I know where I weigh in her strategic estimations. And so did you. And so the slave ship went down, its inhabitants freed. Whatever your motives, you helped me keep my promise.”
Sabeena pauses for a long moment, swallowing that. “I’m not like you, you know. And I don’t just mean in the obvious ways where you’re a prince and I’m not, and my mother was a handmaiden and yours was a queen. This ain’t my cause.”
“I’m not asking for it to be. But I am asking for your help.”
He’s looking at her, really looking at her, and Sabeena remembers being a kid again, scowling at him when they were children, and thinking: he doesn’t look through me. He doesn’t look through anyone. He sees me.
He’s seeing her now.
The sigh escapes her in a great dramatic gust, as she shoved her hands into her trouser pockets. “Ah, hell. Why not? Trying to take down a fascist intergalactic government is probably as honest work as I can get in these parts for honest pay.”
It’s not where Sabeena expected to find herself in life, or even at the end of this incredibly troublesome day, and yet here she is, and here they are: a prince and a pirate, shaking on a deal to sink slave ships, rebel against tyranny, and fight for justice. It’s positively uncanny is what it is, but what’s there to be done?
The trouble of the universe has a way of knocking at Sabeena’s door. This time, at least, she’s greeting it on her terms.
Andrea is a writer, foreign affairs wonk, and recovering liberal arts graduate whose word-wrangling has appeared in various venues and various forms.