“Why do they keep staring at us?”
Farien nodded toward the dance floor and Davi realized all eyes in the Bar Electric were focused on them.
Sweet, fruity perfumes contrasted with stale sweat from gyrating bodies and afflicted Davi’s nose. “I told you we looked good in our uniforms,” he joked as his eyes turned back to his friends. After twenty-one years, he’d never gotten used to it.
Farien stood shorter by almost a foot than his friends, but made up for it in a bulk which filled out his gray uniform. The shiny gold buttons and shoulder insignia appeared ready to pop loose at any moment. Yao was the tallest, thinner than the others. A humanoid from the planet Tertullis, he could pass for human if it weren’t for his dark orange tinted skin and purple eyes.
“I think they’re staring at you, Prince Rhii,” Yao said.
Like an old habit, Davi forced a grin and waved casually as the crowd watched his every move. “And to think I felt like just another cadet at the Academy.” He looked around. “Serve-bot!”
Metal feet pounding on the floor mixed with flashing lights and the electronic tones of a recent pop hit blasting through speakers overhead. The automated robot waiter waded through the crowd toward their table. Other cadets, a few officers, and regular citizens were scattered between the dance floor and tables as identical serve-bots worked the room with drinks and food.
The serve-bot stopped at their table on one corner of the dance floor. “How may I serve you, sir?”
“A round of drinks for everyone, on me,” Davi instructed.
“On you, sir?”
Davi chuckled. Bots’ vocabularies were simple, practical, devoid of any colloquialisms or idioms. “Bill it to the Royal Palace, please.”
“I’d need authorization—”
Davi sighed, holding up his ID. The serve-bot scanned it, its facial LEDs lighting up with recognition. “Right away, Prince Rhii.”
Yao and Farien chuckled as the serve-bot hurried off.
“Come on, Davi, when are you going to drop the childhood nickname and use your real name, like a man. Xander sounds much more mature than Davi.” Farien’s face was serious, yet Davi couldn’t help but laugh.
“It may be a nickname, but it’s one I like.”
Farien rolled his eyes. “Haven’t you been teased enough over it? Don’t you want to be taken seriously as an officer? We’re not kids anymore. We’re going into the world as adults.”
“Let the man choose his own name, Farien. No one’s asking you to change yours even though it sounds a little feminine.” Yao and Davi exchanged a look and laughed.
Farien scowled. “It’s not feminine! It’s a family name!”
Davi and Yao just laughed harder as Farien took a huge gulp of his beer. After a moment, Yao turned serious again. “Now that you’ve made the public happy, how are you going to deal with the other crisis?”
“What other?” Farien asked.
Davi and his friends came to the bar to celebrate after graduating from the Military Academy. After receiving congratulations and hugs from their friends and family, the three headed off to Bar Electric to discuss their assignments and dream about the future awaiting them—which meant Davi had skipped out on the celebratory dinner planned in his honor at the Palace.
“They’ll get over it.” Davi dismissed it with a wave.
“When have they ever gotten over it?” Yao asked with a knowing look.
Davi sighed. “Yeah, they’ll make me pay, won’t they?” They both laughed. “Let’s make it worth it then!”
“Vertullis,” Farien muttered as he took another sip of his favorite off-world beer. “Babysitting slaves, great.”
Davi chuckled and sipped his own beer. “What did you expect—some grand adventure?”
“No, but maybe at least an assignment on one of the distant planets with breathing apparatuses, aliens to encounter...”
“We can make our own excitement, as usual.” Davi pointed at Farien and grinned. Farien rolled his eyes and they gave each other a high five.
“You’ll be there supervising work crew guards. I get to be supervised by some newbie fresh out of the Academy like you,” Farien complained, a glint in his eye. “Funny how your Uncle couldn’t pull strings to get you a cushier assignment.”
“You’re a newbie fresh out of the Academy,” Yao reminded him, shaking his head as Farien grinned.
“You can shut up, mister star-student-professor,” Farien answered. Yao had received the most prestigious assignment of all.
His uncle’s explanation was that Davi needed to earn the people’s respect, not just count on it because of his uncle’s favor or position. But Davi did sometimes wish his uncle would relax a bit and use his influence on his nephew’s behalf.
Seeing his friends staring, he brushed it off and reached over to squeeze Yao’s shoulder. “Yes, congratulations, Yao, it’s well deserved. The Presimion Academy is a fantastic school,” Davi said, proud of his friend. The ceremony had consisted of the usual speeches, and faculty aggrandizing, but Yao had won recognition for his skills with math and sciences, and Davi had received the leadership medal.
“Instead of serving alongside newbies fresh out of the Academy, he gets to prepare pre-Academy newbies.” Farien downed the last of his beer in one long sip and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Anyone else want another round?”
Davi and Yao shook their heads as Farien rambled toward the bar. “We’d better slow him down or there’ll be trouble,” Yao commented.
Davi motioned to the door as three girls they’d seen on the front row at the graduation ceremony entered. “I think the diversion we need just walked in.” Yao turned toward the doorway as Davi stood, making his way toward the three beauties.
He approached their table and smiled. “You all look even better than you looked at the graduation.”
“You remember us?” the dark-skinned one asked as the girls exchanged shy looks.
Davi laughed. “Of course. Who wouldn’t notice you three?”
The music swelled as Davi asked their names and chatted with them a moment. Then he offered them his arms. They giggled as they stood, two of them looping their arms under his as he led them back toward the table.
“You know who I am, right?” he asked as they neared his table.
The girls all nodded. “Of course, Prince,” the dark-skinned girl said.
Davi preferred the rare woman who didn’t, but he nodded and bent to kiss her hand as they stopped at the table where Yao and Farien waited.
“Yao, these beautiful ladies are Bela, Jaqi, and Vivi,” Davi said, helping the girls with their chairs. They smiled at Yao, ogling his uniform as Bela and Jaqi sat on either side of him. What was it about Tertullians that seemed so irresistible to women? Davi took the seat next to Jaqi. The sweet scents of the girls’ perfumes teased his nose and made him smile. Vivi sat down on his left.
“We saw you at the graduation,” Yao said, smiling awkwardly as Jaqi slid her arm into his.
“Congratulations on your awards,” Jaqi said. “You must be very smart.”
Yao blushed. Despite the fact they seemed drawn to him, he’d never been as comfortable around females as his two friends. “Well, I studied hard.”
“Yao’s being modest. He’s been appointed a professor at Presimion Academy,” Davi interjected.
The girls exchanged a look, then Jaqi scooted closer to Yao, resting her head on his shoulder. They’d worn beautiful gowns at the ceremony, but now their form-fitting pants and low cut blouses flattered their impressive figures. The most exotic of the three, Vivi’s dark skin hinted at mixed racial blood, but Davi couldn’t guess which.
Farien returned with another beer and smiled at Davi. “I see you two didn’t waste any time.”
“Meet Bela, Jaqi and Vivi,” Davi said as Farien took a seat between Bela and Jaqi.
“So pleased to make your acquaintance,” Farien said, as he put his arm around Bela. She smiled, snuggling up to him.
“Are you going to be a professor, too?” Bela asked.
Farien grimaced as Davi and Yao stifled laughs. “I’ll be serving on Vertullis, making sure our worker population continues to produce at proper capacity.” It came out with such bravado that Davi and Yao couldn’t hold back.
“Oh, Vertullis. I always wanted to visit another planet,” Bela said, looking impressed as Farien shot his guffawing friends an annoyed look.
“What about you, Prince Rhii?” Vivi smiled at Davi. Her accent was Southern with slow and precise words. He wondered why her family hadn’t moved to another system with the others.
“Call him ‘Davi.’ He doesn’t like formality.” Ignoring sharp looks from Yao and Davi, he pressed on: “Our fearless leader will be leading the workers as well,” Farien said, ignoring the fact that Davi would be his supervisor.
“Oh,” Vivi said, her eyes sparkling. “I always wondered what the workers are like. I’ve never met one.”
“Me neither,” Davi chuckled. “We failed to offer you ladies libations. What can we get for you?”
As Davi turned to search for the nearest serve-bot, a group appeared in the doorway—Bordox and three of his cronies. A huge, hulking cadet with light yellow skin and a dark beard, he sneered as he spotted them, then led the way to a corner table across the dance floor. Davi frowned. He hadn’t seen Bordox at Bar Electric in months. Why today?
His mind flashed back to an incident at the Academy after he’d beaten Bordox on the flight simulators. Bordox let slip about a rumor claiming the “royal prince’s blood wasn’t so royal”—an attempt to rile Davi up and create a distraction.
Davi and his friends had demanded to know what Bordox meant.
“Who’d have known you’re so fond of folk stories, Bordox.”
“If it’s a folk tale, I guess you’re the folk lore prince,” Bordox cracked. “A starport rumor about a baby who arrived in a courier craft from the stars and landed near the palace, adopted by a lonely princess with no offspring.” Then he and his friends had laughed loudly.
Farien had wanted to tackle him, but Yao and Davi managed to hold him off. It took their professor threatening to charge Bordox with impugning the reputation of another cadet without cause to end the incident, but Bordox had never really let it go. From that day forward, he and Davi became fierce rivals at everything. Bordox was not as smart or coordinated, and far less likable than Davi, but they each had their crowd and were very competitive. Since the incident, each set his goals of achievement at a level designed to ensure he could better himself over the other.
Davi sipped his beer and reached down to finger the necklace he’d worn around his neck since childhood. His mother had given it to him, insisting he never take it off, even though the symbolism of it was lost on him. He’d never gotten around to asking her about it, but he’d never seen another like it, and he knew many regarded it as a symbol of his Royal heritage.
“Would you like to dance?” Vivi’s question broke him out of his reverie. He spotted Farien and Bela out on the dance floor, and Yao had taken Jaqi’s hand and was leading her there.
Davi stood and extended his hand to Vivi. “Absolutely. I thought you’d never ask!” Vivi laughed and took his hand as he led her to an open spot on the floor.
Davi hadn’t danced long when Bordox and his friends came onto the dance floor. Not finding immediate partners of their own, they began tapping the shoulders of other men, looking menacing if they showed any reluctance. Then, paired with the former partners of the frightened men, they maneuvered themselves to the area surrounding Davi, Farien and Yao.
Davi and his friends danced as if nothing mattered until the song ended, then Bordox smiled and leaned close to Davi. “So, folkloric prince, what assignment did you draw?”
“It’s nothing as glamorous as yours,” Davi replied, doing his best to ignore him. The music started again and Davi and Vivi resumed dancing.
“Lieutenant of the Lord’s Special Police,” Bordox responded with pride. The LSP was indeed a respectable assignment. Only the cadets deemed most loyal and sure to serve with lifelong honor at the High Lord’s beck and call would ever be chosen. It didn’t hurt that Bordox’s father, Lord Obed, ran the LSP.
“We’re going to Vertullis to keep the workers in line,” Farien said, breaking the lull.
“Glorified babysitters. I wondered if they’d let you three do any real work,” Bordox replied as he swung his reluctant partner around them. The girl seemed too afraid to do anything but try and keep up.
“Yao will be teaching math and sciences at Presimion Academy,” Davi responded.
Bordox’s smugness faded a moment, before he recovered. “Presimion, well, at least one of you was smart enough to draw a real assignment.”
Davi wanted to reply but Yao and Farien maneuvered their dates in between him and Bordox. He did his best to maintain his composure, but Bordox had gotten him fired up.
“Are you hungry?” Vivi asked as the song ended.
Davi smiled. Not many girls would be so direct knowing who he was. He liked this girl. “Yes, I am, as a matter of fact. Would you like to order something?” She smiled, then nodded and he led her back to their table. Farien and Yao followed with the others.
As he helped Jaqi into her chair, Yao leaned toward him. “Don’t let him get to you. It’s all petty jealousy. You’ve always bested him at every challenge.”
Yao’s eyes met Davi’s as Yao slid into the opposite seat. Davi smiled, calming the raging storm within. It was true. Despite the constant challenges, Davi had always come out ahead. Bordox was still looking for an opportunity to prove himself better. Davi sighed, as he glanced over the menu. Perhaps Bordox’s LSP assignment would keep him off their backs. At least Bordox could feel superior for the moment, if he wanted. He didn’t have to know that Davi would have turned down the LSP if he’d been asked. It held little interest for him.
Davi saw Bordox motion for a serve-bot, as he and his friends requisitioned a nearby table. They threatened the occupants, who stood and hurried for the door, while Bordox and his friends helped themselves to the food and drinks the party left behind.
Davi glanced over to where the bar manager and Bouncer-bot stood watching the events unfold. “Aren’t they going to do anything about it?”
“His father’s head of the LSP, remember?” Yao said. “They can pull bar licenses whenever they want.”
Davi started to stand but Farien reached over and pulled him back down into his seat. Both of his friends shot him warning looks.
“Maybe you ladies would like to find somewhere more romantic to dine?” Davi suggested.
Their dates smiled. “That would be nice,” Vivi said.
Davi and his friends stood, taking the ladies by the elbows and leading them toward the exit.
As they waited beside the air taxi post outside, Davi glanced through the Bar’s window and realized that Bordox and his friends had abandoned the requisitioned table. The blue air taxi arrived and Davi’s group climbed onto the two benches behind the cab-bot driver. As the door shut, Bordox and his friends appeared at the taxi stand, waiting impatiently for another taxi.
“He never gives up, does he?” Farien asked.
“Let’s make ourselves hard to follow,” Davi replied. “Taxi, take us to the starport please.”
“Of course, sir,” the cab-bot whirled around and steered the auto taxi into the flow of traffic.
Their dates’ faces lit up. “The starport, really?” Jaqi said.
“We’re gonna take a little tour before we head to the restaurant,” Yao said.
The cab-bot consisted of a torso with two arms and a head, on which lights lit up when it talked, attached to a seat facing the control panel at the front of the air taxi. Created to take over simple tasks like answering phones or loading cargo, newer bots now performed even more complicated tasks, including some trusted with the safety of humans.
Davi relaxed as the air taxi turned between a row of buildings and rose up onto the main artery running through Legon, the capital city. While Davi and the others enjoyed the ride, chatting with their dates, the auto taxi executed a few more twists and turns on the transportation corridor before turning onto an off ramp marked with signs for the starport.
“You’re not gonna fly us to some remote star restaurant, are you?” Bela asked.
“Not really. We’re just trying to lose our friends,” Davi answered as the air taxi threw him forward against the safety bar. There was another bump as something hit them from behind.
They all whirled around to see another air taxi with the cab-bot disabled. Bordox was at the wheel.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Yao muttered.
Davi turned to the cab-bot. “Please outrun that taxi and take us to the north shore.”
The cab-bot’s facial LEDs lit up in the shape of a smile. “I am attempting to adjust our velocity, sir.”
The taxi jerked as Bordox rammed them again. Davi leapt over the safety bar and pulled the manual override lever, pushing the cab-bot to one side and placing himself at the controls.
“Do you know how to drive this?” Vivi said, alarmed.
“Davi’s the top pilot in our class,” Farien said and smiled.
“Let’s see what this thing is made of.” Davi began pushing buttons, bringing the air taxi to a much faster speed.
Bordox launched another run at them, but Davi braked, and then slid in behind him, taking an onramp back up onto the air highway overhead. As he turned onto the onramp, Bordox’s frustrated face appeared in the rearview mirror. Bordox’s bulky body looked ridiculous behind the wheel of the air taxi. His dark beard couldn’t hide his aggravation as he struggled to turn the air taxi around.
As they merged into traffic, Davi couldn’t see Bordox behind them.
“Maybe we lost him,” Bela said.
“I doubt it,” Yao said as he and Davi exchanged looks.
In a moment, Davi saw another taxi racing up from behind. “Here he comes.”
Davi weaved their taxi in and out traffic, trying to keep Bordox at a distance, but the other air taxi continued to close on them.
“What’s his problem anyway? Why won’t he leave us alone?” Vivi said, her voice shaking.
“It’s a long story,” Davi replied, braking and bringing their taxi in behind the other. “Who’d have thought he’d fall for that twice?”
Yao and Farien laughed as Bordox hit the brakes, forcing Davi to dodge and bringing them side by side.
Bordox looked over—-his face a mask of bitter resentment. His friends stared at them with sneers of contempt. Bordox and Davi wove their air taxis through traffic, each trying to keep the other at bay.
“We’ve gotta get away from this traffic before someone gets hurt—” Davi was silenced by a jolt as Bordox slid his air taxi in behind theirs and slammed into them again. The windows around them cracked loudly as veins creeped out in all directions covering the panes.
“Better get us down to the lower airways,” Yao suggested, “before the windows disintegrate.”
Davi nodded and dove onto the nearest off ramp. Bordox followed. Now, buildings surrounded them, but the traffic had thinned. A group of barges plodded along ahead of them. He aimed the air taxi straight at the rear of one of them and accelerated.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Yao inquired as he leaned over the safety bar close to Davi’s ear.
“Just secure everybody back there, okay? I have an idea.” Davi said.
“May the gods help us,” Yao answered, shaking his head. “You ladies might want to get into those safety harnesses now,” he said, motioning to the girls, as he and Farien began strapping themselves in. As the girls grabbed for their harnesses, and Yao and Farien turned to help secure and adjust them, Bordox rammed them again from behind.
The windows in both vehicles shattered, glass exploding around them with a deafening crash. The girls screamed. The wind blew against their faces, strengthened by their airspeed and pressing them back against the seats.
“Hold on,” Davi said. Slowing a bit as they approached the rear barge, he suddenly accelerated and pulled the air taxi up over the top of the barge.
Alarms blared from the speakers overhead. “Warning. Violation!” a computer voice screamed.
“Is this even safe?” Jaqi screeched.
“He knows what he’s doing,” Farien assured her.
Bordox’s air taxi cut across the incoming traffic lanes, zipping around the barge as Davi slipped between the two barges. In seconds, Bordox had squeezed in behind them again.
“I thought Bordox sucked at flying?”
“I guess he’s been practicing,” Farien said with a shrug.
Davi saw the first barge enter an intersection as Bordox accelerated toward them, and smiled. He had a plan. When the air taxi’s front passed the corner, Davi made a sharp turn, whipping everyone to one side and landed safely on a corridor to the side.
Bordox’s air taxi accelerated straight into the back of the second barge. Bordox and his friends looked shaken and confused, covered with blue Daken feathers from the barge’s shipment of the frightened, squawking birds.
Davi and his friends exchanged high fives, laughing. “That ought to hold him for a while.”
They watched as Bordox struggled to stand despite the slippery feathers all around him. His eyes met Davi’s in a hateful stare barely visible amidst the feathers dangling from the sweat on his face.
“He doesn’t look much different than he did before,” Farien joked. Yao and Davi laughed.
“Can we please get out now?” Vivi asked, trembling.
“Just a few more minutes. We know a great place on the north shore you ladies will love,” Davi said, relieved as he accelerated again and turned onto another corridor.