The galactic core, the ultimate prize.
Princess Mariko Mitsubi stood on the bridge of the battlecruiser and Armada flagship Yamato, gazing upon the galactic core through thousands of multisensory receptors funneled into her neuralink.
Soon, my child, Mariko said to the near-term fetus inside her, soon, the galactic core shall be yours!
No more wars, no more retreats.
An end to constant bickering between Empires, to the tides of conquering and capitulating, to treacherous dealings in stealth and poison, to whole worlds denuded to stamp out rebellious populations, their skies littered with the orbital detritus of defeated navies, thousands of years of civilization ending abruptly in sudden annihilation.
An end to two centuries of constant war.
I will bring war to an end, my child, Mariko told her unborn, her first-born daughter, her heir. Third in line for the Mitsubi Throne.
Mariko stood to inherit nearly a quarter of the Milky Way, eldest daughter of Fumiko Mitsubi, the Matriarch of the Mitsubi clan and Empress to their domains. The Mitsubi Empire ballooned across the Delta Quadrant, straddling most of the Norman Arm, the lower Scutum-Crux Arm, and the mid Carina-Sagittarius Arm, the largest Empire in the Milky Way.
But we'll always be vulnerable to the Empire that captures the galactic core, unless we capture it ourselves.
Mariko signaled through her neuralink to the armada behind her. Above, below, port and starboard, phalanxes of fighters, destroyers, and battleships edged forward until they came abreast her ship's position.
Below them, the Iberia outpost Tarifa lay quiescent at the rim, the blazing core nearly swallowing the puny base in light. Berthed at Tarifa was the Fourth Fleet of the Iberia Navy. After that, just two more outposts to conquer before the Mitsubi juggernaut swept away all resistance and dominated the galactic core, the ultimate prize.
They and their rivals had fought each other over this and similar installations since before history began. The Mitsubis, an ancient peoples, had pursued the claim for the galactic throne numerous times, proclaiming for centuries the mandate of heaven to rule the reachable universe, as they had since their origins on old Earth, over three thousand years before, on a sword-shaped set of islands called Japan. Like the islands, the sword-shaped galactic arm had become too small for their ambitions.
She who controls the core, Mariko thought, controls the galaxy!
Tarifa appeared incognizant that it lay naked to evisceration, the talons of the Mitsubi Armada poised to rake it apart. Monitored communications from the base evinced no alarm, and nearby bases, although parsecs away, showed no evidence of scrambling their defenses.
On the bridge, Mariko ordered her fighters forward, two lines each leaving the Armada branches and hurtling from four different directions at Tarifa, followed by smaller contingents of destroyers, her battleship held at bay for now.
If we destroy the Fourth Fleet and take Tarifa, then the core is nearly ours, Mariko thought, the display a forty-five degree surround in all directions, the neuralink brightening the area where she brought her attention. Sitting at battlestations around the arc behind her, her lieutenants held tactical links with their squadrons in the field, taking their orders from her through the neuralink.
Fighters converged on Tarifa, and the first pinpricks of light flared on its surface, eight squadrons strafing the base.
Mariko launched the battleships, leaving a reserve to defend the flagship Yamato.
Activity spiked on the monitored Iberian comchannels, fighters trying to scramble and base-mounted turrets coming to life. Eight lines of fighters swung back to strafe again, plums of smoke now billowing from multiple points. The destroyers turned parallel in unison and launched a barrage of broadsides just after the fighters cleared a second strafing run, and a half-dozen Iberian ships able to launch were pummeled to pieces.
"Destroyer launch from Tarifa!" called a lookout over the neuralink.
At her command, a battleship hurtled after it, the remaining five battleships continuing to hover outside the destroyer-held perimeter. The pursuing battleship launched multiple missiles en route, staged alternately with decoy confetti and intercept-avoidance devices.
A lone fighter dove for the base command compound and five emplacements blew it out of the sky, revealing their locations, and the next strafing run took out those emplacements while a destroyer followed them in and obliterated the compound in its first pass.
A cheer rose at its destruction, the happy neuralink chatter heartening Mariko.
The sound of victory, my child, Mariko said in her mind, even though no neuralink connected her with her fetus, which some mothers chose to install. Knowing they weren’t victorious yet, Mariko brought the fighters in for another strafing, and launched another destroyer barrage.
The surface of the asteroid looked like a torch, roiling in smoke and flame, the image before Mariko a thrill to see.
"What in Izanami's name are you doing?" The face of her mother the Empress filled the neural viewer.
Mariko's heart sank. "Buddha curse you, Mother, not now!" And she shoved with all her mental might to block out her mother's neural connection.
But the neuralink between mother and daughter could not easily be put asunder. "Disobedient child, I told you not to attack now, not with my grandchild in your belly!"
"How often must I say it? That's the time it’s least expected. Now get out of my mind so I can finish these Iberian scum! Out!"
And to Mariko's surprise, the Empress Fumiko Mitsubi withdrew.
Where the battleship had been was a fiery inferno.
Mariko found the Iberian destroyer that had bested the battleship, a midget-giant match-up it should never have won. It was now under full thrust right at the flagship Yamato, right at her.
Two battleships moved to intervene.
They dropped off the neuralink grid, their chatter silenced, their vid feeds dead.
"Com, what's happening?" she shouted.
"Signals disrupted, your Highness."
Mariko wished they wouldn't call her that. "Why, blast it?!"
"I don't know, your Highness."
The two battleships on screen erupted in flames, and the Iberian destroyer slid between them, its broadsides ripping chasms into their sides, the two battleships looking like helpless beached whales, the shark in between tearing them to pieces.
She committed her three remaining battleships and brought the destroyers to bear on the enemy ship. "Battlestations!" and klaxons sounded throughout the flagship, as did red alert signs, the alert superimposed on onto retinas. Mariko ordered the fighters into formation and launched her fighters into the fray.
The attacking fighters dropped off the neuralink grid, the Iberian destroyer beating back the fighter wave.
"Your Highness," the First Mate Hideo Kobaya said, "Advise retreat."
"Full reverse!" she shouted, and the flagship dropped backward while destroyers and battleships converged on the seemingly untouched enemy ship.
Mariko leaned against the acceleration, anxiety beginning to gnaw at her. A hundred and sixty fighters erupted in flames—minus a few who had already fallen. Mariko stared at the slaughter, aghast.
"Belay there!" she shouted. "All ships, cover retreat!"
Her navy as one changed course to converge instead on the flagship's path of retreat but, one by one, began to drop off the neuralink grid.
Another battleship, the fifth, erupted into a fireball, leaving one battleship and a handful of destroyers between the Iberian ship and the flagship Yamato.
Their retreat picked up speed. How are they doing that? Mariko wondered, sweat stinging her eyes.
"Your highness, they have some sort of—"
And the neuralink in her head went silent.
"—disruptor," her science officer said, standing across the bridge over a display. Doctor Setsu Uruga looked at her. "And they've just disrupted our neuralink."
Feeling suddenly vulnerable at having been reduced to tactile, visual, and auditory signals, Mariko yanked the plug from her head with a pop. "Everyone, pull out immediately. We'll run the ship manually."
"Forgive me, highness, but how?"
"Electronic backup systems online. You've all trained to run the Yamato without a neuralink, so let's get to it, people!"
The forward displays showed a gaining destroyer with the flaming hulls of her armada in its wake.
"We're being hailed, Highness!"
Our flagship is a helpless babe without the armada that it commands, Mariko thought. Why haven't they destroyed us too? "On screen," she said.
A face snapped into view. Sub-Commander Xavier Balleros smiled. "Surrender, your Majesty, or be destroyed."
"Go suck on your Christian Devil's hind penis!"
"Now, now, your Majesty, mind your language. Such filth will surely cause you to be reborn as one such penis, now, won't it?"
"What do you want, Commander, eh? You're not going to blast us out of the sky no matter what I call you, because you'd have done so already. So what do you want, ball-less Balleros?"
The bridge crew behind Mariko chuckled.
A vein rippled on the Commander's forehead. "You bitch! I'll … Insult me if you must. Your crew—all that's left of your armada—you can still save your crew."
"I'd gladly give my life that they might live, but their loyalty is to the Empress Fumiko. Even if I were to order it, they'd disobey me. They’ll protect her daughter's life with theirs, whatever my orders."
Sub-Commander Balleros threw his head back and laughed. "Your conceit exceeds your intelligence, always a suicidal combination. No, your Majesty, it isn't you I want." He smiled to someone off the screen.
The Yamato slewed wildly, an explosion shaking her, alarms erupting, lights flickering. Mariko barely kept herself from falling. The vid skewed to one side, twisting the image.
Rhythmic pounding to aft alerted her to a barrage, repeated a moment later to starboard.
"You see, your Majesty," Balleros said, "we don't need you alive to claim the prize we seek."
She placed both her hands under her enlarged belly. "Never, Pendejo!"
"They're boarding us, Highness!"
The pounding continued around the bow.
Her first mate grabbed her. "This way, Highness!" He pulled her toward the lifepods.
"No!" Mariko yanked her arm from his grasp and pulled her phasegun from its holster. She shook her fist at Balleros. "You'll never capture me, Cabrón!" And she aimed the phasegun at her belly.
Stars exploded across her vision like the core across her neuralink. The floor twisted under her and slammed into the side of her head. Bewildered, she wondered why First Mate Kobaya hadn't fallen and why the butt of the phasegun in his hand was bloody.
When he aimed it at her head, Princess Mariko Mitsubi understood finally that the enemy hadn't possessed a disrupter to throw her ships off the neuralink. Her first mate Hideo Kobaya had betrayed her.
He fired, killing her.
"Look at her," Foreign Minister Xavier Balleros said.
Below, the young woman parried on the practice floor. Her ease made her two opponents look like sloths, as she deftly turned aside blade after blade without apparent effort or even sometimes motion.
"She'll be perfect, Amigo. She has the balance of a ballet dancer and the spirit of a tiger. You're to be congratulated. Where is she now in her studies?" Balleros asked the other, not taking his eyes off her. They stood in the observation booth, fifty feet above the arena, the seats empty but for others about to practice and the occasional vicarious observer. Of the latter, Balleros noted a greater number than might be expected at a university fencing practice.
"She graduates in six months from the aerospace engineering—"
"What about government? I told you to have her in government. She must be able to navigate the highest reaches of the Iberian Empire."
"Of course, Lord Minister. She completed those studies two years ago. When she finished her political science and interstellar relations degrees, she begged her Padre to enroll in engineering, swore she'd complete it before her twenty-first birthday."
"She finishes in two months, Lord, summa cum laude. She was disappointed she couldn't attend the diplomatic mission to the Mitsubi Capitol, Lord—a rare opportunity for an intern of any caliber. The Lady Ambassador Xochitl Olin personally sent a com to express her disappointment that her protégé wasn't able to attend."
Balleros smiled. "Ambassador Olin herself, eh? Ambitious, isn't she?" he nodded to indicate the supple, athletic woman dancing between two opponents below.
"Beyond all expectation. The engineering program is a six-year course of study and—"
"Why are all those people here?" Balleros wasn't interested in her prodigious academic ability.
"I wondered about that, Lord, and from what I can tell, they only gather when she's here to practice."
The lithe form on the floor back-flipped from between a two-pronged attack, stepped in to one opponent's reach and thumped the back of the rapier hand, which emptied itself, then spun through the other opponent's guard with what looked like a pirouette and disarmed the other opponent similarly.
A round of applause erupted from the observers. She bowed to them, then to her opponents, and headed for the locker room.
"Does Minister Balleros wish to speak with her?"
He shook his head, seeing how his plans might be accelerated. "No, not necessary. Thank you, my friend. It's enthralling to see, truly impressive. I'm not sure the value of the engineering but it'll be useful at some point, I'm sure. Well done. I'll contact you soon."
And Balleros strode from the observation deck and out of the arena.
"I can't believe Mother is still grieving that fool sister of ours," Keiko Mitsubi said.
Yoshi Mitsubi looked around the room to see if anyone had overheard. The sisters were in an anteroom off the main audience hall, dressed in ceremonial silks spun from strands of Camelopardalis-spider silk, the strongest to be found, the fabric light, airy, and impenetrable.
Awaiting the arrival of the Nahuatl Empire Ambassador, Xochitl Olin.
"Hush, younger sister," Yoshi said, "or Buddha may bring similar grief to you!" Seeing no one in earshot, Yoshi smiled placidly at Keiko, third of three daughters to Empress Fumiko. "No mother should endure seeing her daughter die before her, never mind that it was twenty years ago." And never mind, Yoshi was thinking, that I'm Regent Empress because of it, and I'll order you to bite your tongue if I have to because I'm quite tired of your impertinence and backbiting, so unbecoming of a princess and the dutiful daughter you should be.
"But she should have—"
"I said hush, and if you won't mind me, your elder sister and Regent, perhaps a three-month vacation on an asteroid might help." Yoshi kept her voice low and her stare fixed upon her sister even though they both knew it an empty threat, for their mother remained so stricken with grief that she would immediately rescind any such order, saying she couldn't bear to have either of her two remaining daughters away from her for a single moment. She makes me Regent, Yoshi was thinking, and then questions or countermands my every decision. Errrgh! I must have given someone conniption fits in my last life to have been born into such misery as this!
"Forgive me, Sister," Keiko said, bowing slightly. "I meant not to be so vexatious."
"Eh? What?" Yoshi hated it when she didn't understand what others were saying.
"I knew what you meant," Yoshi said, knowing she didn't. "Twenty years ago, it was. She'd be twenty years old, that girl, if she'd lived."
The two sisters changed a guilty glance, both sad that their sister had died but glad it had been before she'd given birth. Had the near-term fetus survived, they both knew, the child would now be Regent, instead of Yoshi.