The Gebelese Games, an interplanetary contest of skill and strength held every five Osiran years, were being held on Osiris itself for the first time in living memory. The planet's gravity, highest in the Ra system, made it the most popular place for athletes to train, and the least exciting one for them to compete. There would be no records set these Games.
Not that the disappointment had stopped people from throughout the system from flocking to Osiris. It had reached the point where the Royal Star Navy was out in force, fleets of starjumpers orbiting like flocks of great birds high above the planet's clouds, just waiting for someone to cause trouble.
Or, as Ensign Rasmi called it, "stupid babysitting."
The more optimistic Ensign Khepri preferred "getting paid overtime to watch the opening ceremonies."
"They shouldn't be paying you at all, then," said Rasmi flatly. All the screens in her jumper's cockpit were tuned to the empty starfields above, broken occasionally by a passing cargo ship or the silver sliver of Osiris' moon, Tatenen. Only her comm speakers, by virtue of being tuned to her fellow ensign's cockpit, were picking up any of the Games. "Even if there's not enough worry to justify calling us all up here, we should act like it."
"And miss all this great dancing?" laughed Khepri. Her foremost screen was playing the satellite feed of the ceremony; she wasn't watching any of the others. "There's about a hundred ballerinas from Nefertem twirling in sync right now. I think they're supposed to be dressed as water lilies? Switch over, just for a minute, so you can tell me if I'm completely off base."
"Oh, come on. There are two Sailor Senshi on the ground in the city, and one has the Star Crystal on her. Who's going to be stupid enough to try anything?"
"Princess Amirah, peace upon her, hardly counts," pointed out Rasmi. The twelve-year-old crown princess of Osiris, first of her generation to claim the mantle of Sailor Senshi from her mother, had only transformed once so far. Everyone, whether or not they were too polite to say it, thought it was ridiculously young. "And even if she did, Sailor Senshi can't solve ev—"
"Shush!" interrupted Khepri. "Queen Sopdet's coming out!"
She ignored Rasmi's harumph of disapproval, watching the screen with a broad grin as the ballerinas parted to make way for their monarch.
Queen Sopdet of Atum wore a pale-blue gown with a long trail of crushed satin, accented with strings of diamonds and pink tourmalines. Her warm brown skin seemed to glow in contrast, as did her hair of such an icy pink it was almost white, circlets of blue-white fabric holding it in two buns with long twintails streaming out behind her. She waved to the crowd for almost a minute, then held out her hand and revealed, as if out of thin air, the form of the Star Crystal: a jewel of deep rose, with five glittering points.
The brilliance that followed baffled the cameras. Streaks of pink light seared their lenses, impossible to digitize even on the high-definition feeds, making Khepri's small screen go all but pixelated. She groaned. At least it must have been impressive in person: the crowd was going wild.
"Atum Planet Power," added the Queen, "Light Up!"
To observers, the transformation was over in a flash. Although the Queen was approaching her middle years, with a seven-year-old daughter back in her home castle, some magic granted her the ability to look dignified in a uniform with a short pink skirt and lots of periwinkle-blue ribbons. The Star Crystal sat at the clasp of her pink collar.
"Sun Lily Fog!" exclaimed Sailor Atum, casting her attack high into the air. In response to some unheard calibration, it dissipated over the entire arena, covering the spectators and performers with a sweet scent and a light morning-dew chill.
At that same moment, out beyond the atmosphere, proximity alarms started going off.
Queen Banebded of Osiris was not enjoying herself.
The Atum section of the procession had given way to the performers from Isis, who were doing their best but couldn't hope to measure up without a Sailor Senshi of their own to display. The only other senshi present was Sailor Osiris, and as per tradition, the groups would advance in planetary order from Ra outward, meaning by the time she came around the audience would be almost full up with parades and itching to move on to the events.
Not that Banebded blamed them. If not for the pride of seeing her own daughter standing up there, and of course the political value in paying respect to her fellow planets, she would have ducked out of the ceremonies already.
Spandex-clad acrobats from Isis were throwing paint on each other when one of her military advisors appeared at her elbow in the lavish open-air skybox. "Your Greatness, we may have a situation."
For a split second, she almost felt grateful.
"Unidentified craft approaching at ten o'clock, thirty degrees from orbital. Juu Squad, let's greet 'em. Guard up, but keep your weapons stowed and stick to formation. We don't want any trouble we can avoid."
Rasmi was already pulling her jumper into position. Within a few moments her proximity sensors were registering a perfect V of individual fighters, Khepri off to her left, all of them approaching the blip of a craft that the AI could find no label for.
As the visitor's bulk took shape in her visual, reflecting little light but blotting out stars, Rasmi could see why the computer was baffled. She might be just an ensign, but she knew her ships, and this was no model made on any of Ra's five planets within the last century.
"Weapons present but not armed," reported the lieutenant's voice from the head of the squad, sounding as uncertain as they all probably felt. Jaunting from one star system to another was no small effort. And maybe it was a design quirk of whatever alien planet had spawned the thing, but Rasmi would have said it looked...wrecked.
Fleetwide speakers crackled as the AIs compensated for an unfamiliar signal.
Then a new image pixeled into place on their comm screens.
Humanoid, in all but the green skin and wide pointed ears. Apparently female, although from what Rasmi knew of eir species, their biology didn't quite work that way. A single floodlight plus some intermittent sparks from a panel in the background lit up eir rosy eyes, eir mass of straw-colored hair with two lavender streaks in the front...and eir outfit, all green-black leather and torn lavender ribbons, accented by clasps and rings of some silver-white metal worked into exquisite vinelike designs.
No way that was a military uniform. On the other hand, it just might be....
"I am needing help," ey said, in a stilted and accented version of Modern Standard Ra. "I am a Sailor Senshi. Please to be taking me to your leader."
A high screen at the foot of the room showed a first-time gymnast from Hathor taking gold in the high jump, while at the oblong table below a hasty conference of the Ennead gathered.
The Ra system's interplanetary mediation council consisted of Banebded, Sopdet, the other two Queens, and an elected representative from each of the five planets. (The Republic of Nepthys kept petitioning to have a second representative, in view of its lack of a Queen; the others, citing its low population, kept voting the proposal down.) All except Banebded, Sopdet, and the Osiran representative were present only by hologram. At the virtual two-thirds of the table, advisers and interns kept flickering in and out of frame.
In a seat between Banebded and her elected counterpart sat the treeperson who had identified eirself as Sailor Makaiju.
"We have heard your story, and will do our best to come to a plan that benefits all," said Banebded smoothly. Her words were repeated by the interpreter, also present by hologram between the two Isis chairs. Ey was old and wizened, dark green skin the texture of an overripe plum, and evidently hard of hearing; but ey was the closest they had to a native speaker of the visitor's language, having emigrated as a child back before the interstellar flightlines went bust. "Allow us to offer you a room in my own palace while we deliberate."
"I thank you for your consideration, Your Greatnesses," said Sailor Makaiju in eir own language. "My planet will be deeply indebted to your help." Standing, ey switched back to Modern Standard Ra and added, "Peace upon you."
"Peace upon you," echoed the Ennead in ragged chorus, and remained silent as one of Banebded's aides led em out.
Once ey was out of earshot, all Hades broke loose.
"Does she think we have Sailor Senshi to spare?" demanded Sopdet, the Star Crystal flashing in its setting on her gown's chest. "As if we're a bunch of shiftless teenagers with nothing better to do! Three of us have queendoms to rule, one is a child, and one is still unawakened since that pesky revolution."
"Your Greatness will watch how she speaks," snapped the Nepthys representative. She wore a dark suit and tie with a topaz stickpin, clearly a product of the planet's mines. "There are more populists on Atum than you may like to admit."
"We can't just do nothing," said the Isis representative. His suit was similar, but decorated with flowers at his wrist and in his hair. "The treeperson community is a valued and respected part of the population of Isis. How will they feel if we ignore this plea from their homeworld?"
"We could send a battlestar," put in the Queen of Hathor. Red hair tumbled in a fiery waterfall over her golden skin. "Even if we can't loan her a senshi, enough well-trained shock troops with guns ought to make up the difference."
"All we have is a single person's word!" protested Banebded. "I for one will not order loyal soldiers of Osiris into unknown deep space that easily!"
The Isis representative glared hard at her. "Are you saying you don't trust em? Isis does not hold with that kind of speciesist rhetoric."
"It doesn't have to be an order," said the diminutive Queen of Isis, trying to make peace. "How many people would jump at an opportunity like this? Especially some of these kids who might never have made it offplanet if they hadn't joined up. Now they're offered a chance to explore strange new worlds beyond the system, to boldly go where no—"
"To boldly be exploited, you mean!" said the Nepthys representative. "The working class are always the first to—"
"Balderdash," snapped the Queen of Hathor. "If I didn't have a government to run, I'd be first in line myself."
"'Run' is such a strong word..." began the Hathor representative, beside her.
"Not now," said his Queen testily. The representative shut up.
"If any of us could go...." said Banebded, suddenly thoughtful. The prince of Hathor was the eldest of the next generation. Not quite of an age to take the throne, as she recalled, but that was what advisers were for. "How old is your son?"
"Are you seriously suggesting I leave a fourteen-year-old boy in charge of a planet?"
"The elected council would be more than capable of...."
"I said, not now."
The Nepthys representative looked pointedly at Sopdet. "A revolution would be pretty helpful right about here, wouldn't it?"
"Over four hundred thousand people died in your revolution," said Sopdet cheerfully, "so, with all peace and respect, go soak your head."
Her elected counterpart, the Atum representative, would ordinarily have stepped in here and done damage control for the youngest of the Queens. Not today, though. Today, he had spent the entire session more-or-less covertly watching the Games.
Banebded had her mouth open to propose something else when there was a flash of light in the middle of the room, and Sailor Osiris appeared on the table. Or rather, a few inches above the table, leading to her falling and landing on her butt on the mosaic surface.
At the door, both guards automatically raised their laser rifles. "Stow your weapons!" shouted Banebded. The holographic members of the Ennead stopped bickering and pulled up short, looking all around their respective meeting rooms as if by turning their heads the right way they could make a projection of the new arrival appear.
It was a shame they couldn't see her, Banebded thought. Amirah was a natural in the uniform. Banebded herself had the dark green hair of the Chronosian line, which clashed with the orange of the Sailor Osiris skirt, collar, and stockings. Amirah's hair was the same sun-gold as the uniform's ribbons, glove trim, and ballet flats: a beautiful match for skin dark as the richest soil. And although she was still a kid, all knees and elbows, she had somewhere found the grace to wield a staff taller than she was.
"Settle down, everyone," Sopdet told the assembly. "Princess Amirah, peace upon her, is abusing her newfound teleporting powers, that's all."
"I want to go!" blurted Sailor Osiris.
Sopdet nodded. "Door's that way."
"That's not what I mean!" Using her staff, a striped shepherd's crook inlaid with jewels and a tiny pair of wings, Sailor Osiris levered herself to her feet. "Mama, let me go with Sailor Makaiju!"
"Darling, please," said Banebded, looking up into her daughter's face. Now she was glad the others couldn't see: even with firsthand knowledge of the modest bodysuit built in, that skirt was really terribly short. "This is complicated, adult business."
"It's sailor senshi business," corrected the princess. "I'm a senshi."
"You're barely old enough to be transforming, much less—"
"I'm old enough to do the right thing!" Sailor Osiris stamped her beribboned foot. "That's what you said being a Sailor Senshi was all about. Being brave, and helping people, even if it meant risking your life. Just like Sailor Makaiju risked her life to get here and find allies!"
"'Allies' doesn't have to mean you."
The princess looked from Sopdet to the other two Queens, though of course they couldn't look back. "Was one of you planning to go?"
The Queen of Isis shifted uncomfortably in her seat. The Queen of Hathor opened her mouth to say something, then closed it with a huff.
"We all have armies," said Banebded gently.
Sailor Osiris' gloved hand tightened on her staff. "She needs me."
"You're sure you don't want to get in on this?" asked Khepri. She was carrying two of her bags down the halls of the H.M.S. Lord of Silence, while Rasmi hauled the third. "They just might take a last-minute application."
"This whole thing has been last-minute," said Rasmi. "And even if I wanted to go, they had more than enough contenders. There was practically a riot on Atum when the shuttle with their share of the crew took off, didn't you hear?"
"I'm not surprised." Khepri paused for a minute to wrestle her long brown curls back into a fresh ponytail. "It's not every day you get a chance to escort a Crown Princess into deep semi-charted space. But what I mean is, they would take a last-minute app from you. You've got, what, the eighth best in-flight marksmanship on Osiris?"
"Eighteenth. And, listen, it's not too late for you to defect. Someone else would gladly take your spot."
"Are you kidding? ...This is my cabin." Khepri turned into the small, undecorated box of a space, furnished with two bunks in military brown. "I know you're not the biggest sailor senshi fan, but c'mon, what's the worst that can happen?"
"Sailor Makaiju could be leading you into a trap?"
"What could possibly be eir motivation for that? And even if ey were, what could be harder to trap than a fully-staffed battlestar?" Khepri tossed one bag onto the upper bunk, pushed the other up against the wall, and turned to Rasmi. "Hug?"
"Better make this good," said Rasmi, embracing her. "You know, in case I never see you again."
She was trying to make a joke. It fell flat.
"Don't worry," said Khepri against her ear. "You will."
The afternoon's Games were canceled, the matches postponed to another day. Except for a few diehard badminton fans, everyone was glad to have no distractions for a liftoff.
Sailor Makaiju, who had not left her transformation once in all the days she had resided on Osiris, stood in front of a crowd of dignitaries and cameras and made a short, prepared speech. "You will be the heroes of my planet," she told nearly every waking soul in the Ra system. "Thank you all!"
In orbit, at an angle to Osiris' moon, the battlestar waited. It was staffed with the very best and brightest the military had to offer, pulled from the eager volunteers of all five planets. The starjumpers in its hangar were fitted with the finest lasers, the toughest engines. All the replicators had recently been tuned, and there was a four-star chef on duty in the mess hall, just in case.
In the shadow of mangled radio signals cast by Tatenen hung Rasmi's starjumper.
She wasn't authorized to be flying it. She certainly hadn't been ordered to do something like fly alone in the wake of the Lord of Silence. When the excitement planetside died down, someone was going to mark her AWOL, and probably pin the theft of a military jumper plus a couple crates of MREs on her shoulders.
So be it. She had a bad feeling about this whole thing, and would rather be dishonorably discharged than ignore it.
For once, her main comm screen was tuned to a broadcast from the surface. In this area it was jumpy and often pixelated, but she could see the podium where the sailor senshi from Makaiju stood, the camera angle wide enough to take in the airstrip behind em. A starjumper from the Lord of Silence waited to carry em up out of the atmosphere as soon as eir speech was over.
The senshi gave one final wave to a crowd shouting words of praise and hope.
On her wrist, one of her thick gold bracelets glinted in the sun.