"So how'd you manage to lose that thing anyway, Riko?" a tall, thickly-accented Scandinavian security guard questioned the scientist.
"It... Well, I, uh... I lost it."
"You 'lost' it," snapped the decidably huskier scientist on Riko's other side.
"One minute I try using the thing, and the next it's gone. Disappeared. I don't even remember what happened or even how long I've been here."
"You tried using it. You tried using the Endorphic Core without any prior experience in doing so."
"I didn't know it was a GRIMACE device," Riko said rather matter-of-factly. "The pirate had been using it to empower himself, so I thought I'd try it on myself. Everything's kind of fuzzy after that."
Scientist eighteen sighed exasperatingly. "Thirty-one, how many times have you been told to not test experimental technologies on yourself? Dozens? Hundreds?"
"Not enough, apparently."
"Shut up. How about you make yourself useful for once and find the Core? Do you even know where to look?"
"The pirate probably has it. We just have to get it off of him somehow. Besides, you're tracking the Core, aren't you?"
"There's a lot of interference, Thirty-one," replied Eighteen, glancing at his handheld scanner. "All I can tell is that the core is somewhere in the vicinity of 'below us'."
Riko, Scientist eighteen, and the security guard set off down the corridors of deck fourteen, close to where Riko awoke after the core was stolen. Down below them, a pirate, carrying their objective, was climbing up above an ornate chandelier to make her grand entrance. Far above, a passenger-turned-orator was giving the speech that would lead to riots throughout the ship. All around, intruding space pirates would drop their disguises and attempt to cripple the ship and kill its captain. But in this last minute of solace before the utter pandemonium that was to come, an eerie silence punctuated the halls.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"Sandman, it's been fun. But now I have to kill you. Goodbye!" Syvex pointed all of his unoccupied arms at the kitchen floor around Tamerlane and fired pulses of Caliginostic shadow. Each pulse exploded against the tiled flooring, fracturing the underlying support beams in multiple places. Before Tamerlane could react, the floor collapsed below him, and he crashed to the floor below. As he pulled himself up from the rubble, Syvex leapt down the hole after him, arm-spikes prone to strike. The sand mage stumbled out of the way in time to avoid the brunt of the attack, only receiving a deep gash in his right leg. Even with this injury, Tamerlane's face betrayed little in the way of pain.
Syvex quickly disappeared into a portal as Tamerlane fired a bolt of light at him, once more barely dodging the deadly projectile. The ceiling above Tamerlane exploded, showering him with debris which he could barely hold back with a barrier of sand. The serpent had placed him in a disadvantageous position - small, abandoned crew quarters underneath an increasingly unstable ceiling. Another explosion from above forced him to spring into action. He whipped a large quantity of sand into a makeshift grappling hook and tossed it into the room above, latching onto a grated vent on a stovetop. He hoisted himself up as quickly as possible, jumping to the side immediately to avoid another projectile from the serpent.
Syvex, growing increasibly agitated at his nearly-implaceable foe, ducked back into the dining hall. Tamerlane followed suit, brandishing the light-ballista and preparing to fire another bolt. Syvex dodged into another portal, but wasn't fast enough to dodge the sandman's attack this time - the sudden close of the portal cleanly sliced off the back of his tail, spraying blood across the dining hall and the room above. He stopped to think - what the hell was he doing? His nemesis, as it were, had managed to acquire a weapon that would likely be able to kill him in a single shot, and he was still jumping in and attacking with his usual strategy!
A section of the floor burst open in a puff of sand, and a familiar grappling hook latched onto a well-secured cabinet. Syvex snatched a potted plant from under the window and tossed it at the sand mage as he ascended, only for it to be shattered by a burst of sand.
"Wait!" Syvex interjected as Tamerlane leveled his ballista at him.
"What is it? You're finally giving up? You're going to beg for your life now, is that it? I have no use for you, serpent. You're much more useful to me dead."
"No, I would never stoop that low."
Syvex pointed a hand at the large, plated window. "Put the gun down, or I'll shatter the window and send us both hurtling into space. I don't know how much you even know about space, but here's a hint. There's no air out there. I can survive out there, Sandman. I already have once, and I can do it again. The question here is, can you, Sandman?"
Tamerlane, stopping to consider, very slowly lowered his weapon, then dropped it to the floor.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Tiberius Reed slowly lowered his gun and sat back in his chair. For all these years, Matthew Gallagher had only been waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Ever since he had joined Reed's crew, he had only been scheming and conniving against the captain. He had no regard for life, no regard for anything. Well, that wasn't quite true. He had only cared about money. Taking down the pride of the Empire's fleet so close to home - it would have been the perfect heist. Gallagher had only forgotten one thing in his meticulous plans - he was dealing with Captain Tiberius Reed, the most accomplished officer in the Fleet, the man whose strategies and skill at the helm had won the Battle of Kamatayan for the Empire. He wouldn't go down so easily.
Notified of a transmission from the Infirmary, the captain immediately opened communications. "Dr. Neriya to the Bridge! Is someone there?"
"We've still got the Bridge under control," replied the captain. "What's wrong, Doctor?"
"Marrow's dead, captain. Third-class passenger posed as a patient, then shot him once he was on the operating table. We're critically understaffed here, and casualties keep pouring in. It's good to hear that you've got things under control up there. We need access to proper medical facilities as soon as possible!"
"We'll be landing in roughly twenty minutes, doctor. Keep things together as best you can down there. We've had enough deaths as it is."
Captain Reed slowly turned his gaze to the body of Edon Kadare. A promising young officer, just promoted and appointed as Operations officer before the Thunderhead departed. Two teenage sisters living with their parents back on Varran, as well as a girlfriend. Had his whole career ahead of him, cut short by some trigger-happy nutjob.
He then turned his attention to Halyna Pavlyuchenko's body. A loyal officer, having been in his service for six full years. Always the first one up in the morning, eager to perform her job even in the worst of times. One brother on Varran, no other family to speak of. Shot down unexpectedly by the same psychopath that killed Kadare.
The captain felt it was his responsibility to personally inform the dead officers' familes of the tragedies that had befallen them. There was little he dreaded more about his return to Varran then this inevitability. Even if they found out about it beforehand - with the utter chaos that had befallen the ship, military action would likely be required just to neutralize the threats and save as many lives as possible.
But even then, Kadare and Pavlyuchenko were on the captain's bridge crew. He felt, in some way, responsible for him. Why hadn't he been more attentive to the bridge's entrances? Something was obviously wrong, why hadn't he been more careful? A man had died under his watch, on what was supposed to be little more than a cruise. It wasn't right. The one responsible was dead, and yet the violence raged on. Reed sat forward, gun clutched in his hand. He would be ready for any further intrusions.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
A trail of bodies were left in Eureka's wake as she slowly strode through the Thunderhead, seemingly ignorant to the rampant chaos all around her. She had cleaved her way across several decks, taking her time to toy with each of her victims before she slew them and retreated to the shadows. She crouched behind a large potted palm tree, the fronds easily disguising her from anyone who passed by. Not that many people were still out by this point. What remained of the security team had been distributed throughout the ship in a mostly futile effort to regain control. Thousands of passengers hid in their quarters, huddled under their beds or behind their couches, vainly trying to protect themselves from the threat of pirates and riots. Eureka giggled to herself. Pirates... riots... they even rhymed! She had taken a detour or two into a few unfortunately unsealed passenger suites, taking the opportunity to have a little more fun along her path.
But as she went, it become more and more boring. Sure, it was a little entertaining to see rich and poor alike plead for their lives. They'd offer her riches, they'd plead that they had a family... It was hilarious at first! But as with anything, it became less interesting with each passing kill. She needed to find some more interesting people to assault, not these bland photocopied templates of humanity. As best as she could figure, she could have a lot more "fun" with the crew of the ship instead of its passengers. By and by, she was slowly making her way to the center of the ship. There lay the bridge, the infirmary, the kitchens, the security offices... Everything necessary for some good entertainment.
As she passed the large, gray "DECK 10" sign, she took a brief glance at the map posted underneath. Besides all the obvious things, the airlocks were also on deck zero, not far from the bridge itself. Of course! Once the ship landed, she could leave through there! There was no doubt that many more interesting types would be about in whatever dock they were headed for. Maybe even someone with power. Those would be the most fun to kill of all. She could hardly wait.
But, she couldn't forget the whole "Phenomenal Fracas" deal. She supposed she'd have to hunt down and kill her five designated opponents at some point. After all, it was the only way for her to escape the whims of this "Prestidigitator". But for now, that could wait. They weren't going anywhere, after all, and they would probably take each other out as she dealt with much more interesting matters. Ascending another stairwell, she took note of a short, nervous-looking man in a blue uniform, clutching a gun tightly in one hand. The weapon was noticeably shaking - he was obviously not used to the stress of situations such as these.
Eureka decided to confirm his fears. She adjusted her grip on the bloodied meat cleaver as she ascended the staircase.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"Five minutes to atmospheric re-entry, Captain!" exclaimed Commander Ferdinand, the Thunderhead's helmsman.
"Excellent, Commander. I'll announce to the crew as soon as we enter the atmosphere. It'll relieve them some after all they've been going through." The captain gazed at the bridge's viewscreen, watching the serene blue ball that was Varras grow steadily closer and closer with each passing second. After three weeks of command and one day of hell, the placid beaches of Salacia would come as a much-needed getaway.
Although, even then, trouble seemed to follow the captain. Just beyond the doors to the bridge, Tiberius Reed heard shouting. At least five or six different voices could be picked out from the cacophony, each making no effort to conceal their intent to storm the bridge and murder the crew. Foolish of them to do so.
"Lieutenant Nicusor, seal the doors!"
Lieutenant Nicusor, the bridge crew's secondary operations officer, rushed to a small control panel on the wall, and began fumbling with a variety of buttons and switches.
"I've got the doors sealed, captain. We're safe."
"Good. Resume your post for now. We're almost-" The captain was interrupted by a distinct high-pitched whine from the doors.
"They've got Resonifes, sir! At least one Hummer, from the sounds of it. I can activate force fields, but they'll need at least five minutes to charge up first!"
"Damn it! All officers, prepare to defend the bridge! Commander, you keep piloting the ship!"
As soon as the captain had finished giving his order, the doors were smashed in, and a squad of angry passengers poured in from the outside hallway. At the forefront was a very large, muscular man, wielding in his hands a massive Resonife. The others behind him carried various weapons of their own, from plasma rifles to kitchen knives. At least ten of them had poured in, and more doubtlessly waited in the hall.
"More pirates, then? Working under that son of a bitch Gallagher won't get you any benefits. He's dead, and it's too late. You can't stop the ship now."
Rather than answering, the Hummer-wielding passenger leapt forward, yelling like a maniac, and swung the Hummer directly at Captain Reed. Reed stepped backward swiftly enough to avoid being chopped in half, and immediately drew his gun. Two pulses found their marks on a duo of pistol-wielding rioters, killing them instantly. Reed jumped to the side to avoid another Hummer slash, narrowly avoiding a collision with Commander Ferdinand. Lieutenant Nicusor, under assault by a wild-eyed man wielding a meat cleaver, dove toward the recently-felled corpses and took hold of both dropped plasma pistols. The cleaver-wielding maniac was easily shot dead, as were two other rioters.
Several more passengers poured in from the hall, each carrying their own improvised or stolen weaponry. Reed continued dodging a barrage of Hummer sweeps, unable to get a clear shot on the inexorable psychopath wielding it. Thinking quickly, he baited the rioter into swinging at the late Lieutenant Kadare's chair, dislodging it from its base. The captain picked it up and immediately tossed it at his foe, throwing him off-guard long enough for Reed to punch him square in the jaw. Reed proceeded to kick the Hummer out of his hand, sending it spinning across the bridge floor.
Lieutenant Nicusor took this opportunity to kick back a dirty, Resonife-wielding man, sending him tumbling directly into the still-vibrating Hummer. He hurried back to the panel, watching as several more rioters prepared to storm the bridge. A green light lit up with a loud "beep", causing him to almost involuntarily slam a large, red button. A red, glowing field of energy appeared in front of each door, stopping the rioters in their tracks. The few remaining stragglers were easily dispatched. The bridge was secured, just in time for the ship to enter the atmosphere of Varran.
Concealed in darkness, a cloaked figure watched the spectacle in grim satisfaction. Everything was going according to plan.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Syvex slowly edged towards Tamerlane, hand still extended toward the window. The ballista, the one weapon the sand mage could actually kill him with, lay on the floor beneath him. All he needed to do was get a hold of it. If he did that, he could blow up the window and toss it into space, killing the sandman in the process. Carefully watching Tamerlane for any sign of movements, he slithered closer and closer, raising a second hand for added effect. Without warning, an unseen intercom roared to life.
"Attention, passengers of the Thunderhead. This is your captain speaking. We've still got the bridge under control, and we're preparing to make our descent. We've just entered the atmosphere of Varran, and we'll be landing in about five minutes. Please stay calm and out of sight. We're dealing with the 'situation' as best as we can, and our first priority is your safety. Captain Reed out."
The small grin Syvex held on his face slowly died out as the announcement continued. The one advantage he held over Tamerlane was quickly disappearing. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, he turned, knocked the light ballista away with his newly-regenerated tail, and smashed the window to bits with a single burst of energy. Despite the suction from rapid decompression, Tamerlane still managed to catch the ballista as it sailed toward the window. He quickly secured himself with hooks of sand until the pressure equalized.
Syvex, on the other hand, had barely managed to hang onto the window frame, slicing up the palms of four of his hands on the sharp glass. Tamerlane slowly trode toward him, ballista in hand.
"It appears you've put yourself at quite a disadvantage, serpent," he calmly gloated. "It looks like our endless rivalry stops here. Goodbye, serpent." Tamerlane pointed his ballista at the serpent's head, but was briefly interrupted by a scaly, bloodied hand on his arm.
"I'm not finished, Sandman." Syvex tightened his grip on Tamerlane, then let go of the window frame. Before the latter could react, the two were falling toward the ocean far, far below.
The lower atmosphere, though significantly warmer than the depths of space, was still extremely cold, far colder than Tamerlane had ever experienced. He could scarcely keep his grip on his weapon, which was cooling by the second. The only plus side to this situation was the fact that it was daytime; in fact, it was close to noon. With the sun directly overhead and no clouds to speak of, the serpent would have a hell of a time fighting back against him. It was also slowly warming up as he fell - soon enough it would reach (relatively) bearable levels.
Syvex was falling at a much faster rate than his foe. The endless, watery expanse far below was quickly growing closer, much too quickly for his tastes. He spread his body out as much as possible to slow his fall, though it didn't help all that much. Worst of all, it was too bright for him to make use of portals. At this rate, he was going to hit the water before Tamerlane, an impact that would shatter his body beyond any hope of regeneration. Thinking quickly, he decided that there was only one way he could save himself.
He would get Tamerlane to shoot him.
Twisting his body around to face upwards, Syvex threw his upper hands in the air, and fired weak shadow pulses at his enemy. Only as bait, of course - even the one that found its mark was too weak to do much to him. Nevertheless, it worked exactly as planned. Tamerlane drew his weapon, hands shaking from the freezing temperatures, and fired a bolt of light at the serpent. Just before the bolt could hit him, Syvex opened a portal behind him, taking advantage of the extreme radiance of the projectile. He fell through the adjoining portal, directly behind Tamerlane, just before the momentary shade dissipated and the portals disintegrated into nothingness.
Syvex, now directly behind Tamerlane, now had the opportunity to make his move, to properly disarm his foe. For just a moment he took on a divebombing stance, catching up with Tamerlane before breaking off this position. He immediately twisted his body toward Tamerlane, and in one motion, pulled the sand mage toward himself and ripped his arm off with his teeth. Tamerlane gazed in shock as the arm, along with the ballista, disappeared into the sky. He swiftly formed a bandage of sand around the wound, but even this small act took almost all of his willpower. He was weak, defeated. All he could do now was hope somebody died before he hit the water.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Kenneth Westergaard, the previously-mentioned GRIMACE security guard, non-lethally stunned yet another violent passenger. None of the three could say why, exactly, the passengers of the Thunderhead had suddenly began rioting. All they could tell was that there were potentially hundreds of rioters throughout the ship, and they didn't show signs of stopping very soon.
Scientist Eighteen continued fumbling with his scanner, attempting to, at the very least, discover the source of the interference. He had no luck, though; the most he could contribute at this point was that the Core was "still somewhere below us". None were very pleased with this result, but nothing much could be done about it.
For a moment, Riko thought he saw a figure standing at the end of the hall, perfectly still. As soon as he looked directly at it, though, it disappeared into the shadows, little more than a blur.
"Did either of you see that?"
"See what?" questioned Westergaard.
"I don't know. It looked like someone was watching us."
"You're probably still high on the Core, Riko," replied an irate Scientist Eighteen. "You're just seeing things, because there's no one nearby that isn't unconscious!"
"We could at least look. What if Ripper's sneaking around out there?"
The trio cautiously approached the end of the hallway, half expecting to just run into another rioting passenger. At the end of the hall, however, they discovered a map of the ship stuck to the wall with a knife. In blood red ink (or possibly actual blood), someone had scrawled an "X" over the Deck 45 promenade, along with the words "HURRY UP".
"What the hell?" mumbled Eighteen.
"...I, uh, I guess we should go to Deck 45, then?" asked Riko.
"Are you really that- Nevermind. I don't even need to ask. Have you even considered that it might be a trap, perhaps?"
"Trap or not, it'd take us to the Core. Isn't that worth the risk?"
"I suppose so. You. Westergaard. You're in front."
Without warning, an announcement reverberated throughout the ship. "Attention, passengers of the Thunderhead. This is your captain speaking. We've still got the bridge under control, and we're preparing to make our descent. We've just entered the atmosphere of Varran, and we'll be landing in about five minutes. Please stay calm and out of sight. We're dealing with the 'situation' as best as we can, and our first priority is your safety. Captain Reed out."
The trio rushed to the nearest stairwell, descending multiple flights of stairs as quickly as possible. If Ripper were to leave the ship, he would become much harder to find among the swathes of civilians that likely awaited its return. As they approached Deck 45, it became clear that there likely wasn't a trap - among the cacophony all around, they could clearly hear the shouts of the pirate. He wasn't trying to stay hidden, that was for sure.
Ripper finished off the last of the security team sent to apprehend her as the GRIMACE team appeared on the promenade. Behind her namesake mask, a smile grew upon her lips. The easiest prey in this battle had just wandered right up to her. She supposed she might as well finish him off - she wouldn't want someone competent getting a hold of those vials he always carried around.
Westergaard was the first to approach Ripper, gun trained on her head. "Pirate. Hand over the core, and I won't be forced to shoot you. This is your only warning."
"You kidding me, ya lubbers? No one threatens Ripper Blackmask and lives to speak of it!" Ripper rolled to the side to avoid an energy bolt, and immediately returned fire. Her shot grazed Westergaard's side, leaving him with severe burns as he fell to the ground in pain. In spite of his injury, he shakily raised his gun for a second try. Before he could pull the trigger, a red boot collided with his hand and knocked the gun several meters away. Surprised, he turned to discover the pirate standing right next to him, gun trained on his head. He closed his eyes, accepting both his failure and his imminent death.
"Ripper, put the gun down," Riko announced.
"Ha! What're you tryin' to do, Riko? Save your little friend here? Tell me then, why shouldn't I kill him?"
"Your quarrel is with me, Ripper. Leave these two. I'll take you on myself."
"Riko, what the hell are you doing?" hissed Eighteen. Riko ignored him.
"Fair enough then, Riko. Get your lackeys outta here, and we'll have a good, honest fight to the death."
"Eighteen. Take Westergaard and go. I'll handle this."
"Riko, you're a fool."
"I know, Eighteen. Get out of here!" Eighteen lingered for a few moments, then helped Westergaard out of the central promenade. The latter, though burned, would hold out long enough for the GRIMACE ship to return.
"I know you're not going to just give us the core. I'm going to have to take it from you, Ripper. I'm not leaving this 'Phenomenal Fracas' without it."
"Don't worry about that, Riko," the pirate spat. "When you're dead, I'm closer to gettin' out of here." She whipped out her pistol and fired at Riko, nearly shooting him in the head straight away. Riko ducked behind an overturned bench, and began furiously rifling through his collection of vials. [i]"Breathe fire... no. Reflex... barely anything left in that one. Perception... Untested, but full. Might as well make use of it."
Riko immediately downed the contents of a vial labeled "PERCEPTION-31". A wave of sensory information rushed through his head, as if it were trying to burst out. He was suddenly aware of everything - every movement of the pirate, the tiniest of sounds from decks away, every nuance of the potion's horrid, metallic taste. Any observer would note his pupils dilating astronomically, his irises becoming almost nonexistent. He jumped out from behind his cover, aware of every passing iota of time, of the exact, perfect positioning of every minute part of his body.
He immediately charged at Ripper, watching intently every tiniest bit of motion she made. He narrowly dodged a series of pulses from her pistol, knowing well in advance the trajectory of each. He lunged behind her and landed a kick squarely in the back of her head, knocking her to the ground before she could tell what was happening. Her pistol flew out of her hand, clattering across the floor before it collided with a wall. Riko leaped over the downed pirate and executed a precise dive, picking up the gun and twisting around to face Ripper before landing on his feet. He fired once, his shot finding its mark directly on Ripper's upper arm.
He would have been at a loss to explain what he was feeling - it was as if he was truly experiencing reality for the first time, unclouded and distilled. He couldn't lose to this pirate now - he was always ten steps ahead, able to do anything he wished with perfect execution. Not even the Endorphic Core could compare to this utter perfection.
But with superiority came overconfidence. Riko decided it would be such a waste of his newfound abilities if he utterly destroyed the pirate that quickly. It was for this reason that he allowed her to slink away to one of the guard's bodies and commandeer a cutlass-sized Resonife. He even allowed her to insert a smattering of jewels and precious metals into the Core. Ripper wouldn't be able to hit him with it, Riko reasoned. It would only serve to make things a little more exhilarating before he requisitioned the Core from her. She charged at him in a frenzy, Resonife raised to strike, but he simply sidestepped at the last second, confident grin on his face. He ran backwards, then baited her again, dodging once more at the last second. A voice came over the intercom once more, but he paid it no heed.
Riko had never had much of an interest in bullfighting, but he reasoned that this was the next best thing. An increasingly-aggravated pirate charging at him with a deadly weapon that she couldn't manage to hit him with no matter what she did - it was invigorating like nothing else. Riko eventually decided to land a kick on his foe as she charged, knocking the Resonife from her grip. He caught the weapon in midair, discarding the pistol to the side. He then daintily, mockingly sauntered up to her prone position, tossing the Resonife from hand to hand.
"Well, Ripper, it's been fun and all, but I need that Core n-" Riko was immediately siezed with an intense pain. His perfect vision, his finely-tuned senses - they were leaving him. He involuntarily dropped his sword and clutched his head, shaking it back and forth. Perception had decided to abandon him while he still needed it. In an instant, he found himself sweeped to the floor by a very angry pirate, a boot planted on his chest.
"D'you know why they call me 'Ripper', Riko? Y'don't get a name like that without a good reason." Ripper took a handful of diamonds and poured them into the Endorphic Core, which began pulsing with energy. Riko watched helplessly as her muscles swelled exponentially before him. Unable to move, he felt a muscular hand grab hold of his elbow as the boot was pressed down even harder. He yelled in pain as each individual muscle and sinew in his shoulder snapped one-by-one, and watched in disbelief as his left arm was tossed to the ground beside him. The pirate mercilessly continued to his right arm, performing the exact same procedure. He was already losing consciousness from shock and blood loss by the time Ripper had moved onto his legs, and lapsed out fully just as the last one was torn from his body. Not a minute later, Riko was dead.
"And that's what you get for crossin' paths with me," the pirate announced. She walked away confidently and collected her newly-found weapons from the ground before disappearing, taken by the Prestidigitator once more.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
The H.M.S. Thunderhead touched down on the surface of Varran, not far from the royal palace itself. The Drenwellian Imperial Peacekeeping Force, notified earlier by the captain, immediately stormed onto the Thunderhead, pacifying rioting passengers and pirates alike. Friends and family of the rioters would attest that they had never had violent tendencies before the incident on the Thunderhead, and had no idea what had happened. Casualties were carefully catalogued, and sordidly released later on to the hysterical masses. All hell had broken loose, and there would certainly be consequences for it.
But in spite of the violence, the Empress had still come to commend the captain for his outstanding performance, especially in the face of such unexpected perils. Captain Tiberius Reed slowly walked down the rolled-out red carpet, mind racing with equal senses of accomplishment and failure. The Empress stood at the end of the carpet, perhaps more beautiful than Reed had ever imagined. Under any other circumstances, he would have greatly enjoyed this occasion, this great opportunity. But the deaths of crewman and passenger alike weighed heavily on his shoulders, a great burden upon the accomplished captain. As he came close to the carpet's end, the Empress stepped forward and approached him. He knelt before her immediately.
"Congratulations, Captain Reed. In spite of the horrible tragedy that befell the Thunderhead, you stayed resolute and saved the lives of thousands. It is truly commendable."
"Your Highness. I do not deserve such praise. Hundreds still died under my watch. Two of my own bridge crew. I should have done something."
"There was nothing you could have done, Captain. Don't blame yourself. You did what most could never even dream of doing. That is what truly separates you from many officers in the fleet. Captain, I would like to forma-" The Empress suddenly stopped speaking midsentence. Reed saw blood run down her goldenrod dress, dripping to the ground. In shock, he leaped from his feet, only in time for the Empress to fall in his arms, a large steak knife buried in the back of her head. A dirty, wild-eyed young woman, still wielding a bloodied meat cleaver, grinned at him before disappearing into nothing.
The Empress of the Third Drenwellian Empire was dead.