Nearly a decade after the accident, the Navigator stood on the bridge of the ship, staring out the window at a large rust-colored world. Even from orbit, the planet looked lumpy, with deep scars cut all across the surface.
Flawlessly polished black boots marched their way into the bridge. The doors whooshed open, catching Nav’s attention. The droid turned to see his captain standing on the bridge in all her glory.
Although she was still small and young, Annie was a stern captain, everything about her was as steely and iron cast as the ship itself. Her blue uniform was kept impeccably tidy, and her peaked cap sat atop a tightly bound bun of straight blonde hair.
The robot saluted the star captain.
“Captain on deck!” He announced with a salute.
She returned his salute.
“At ease Mr. Navigator.”
He took a relaxed stance and nodded his appreciation.
Annie made her way up to the window, maintaining the formality she allowed the droid to break. She sniffed at the great brown world before them.
“We’ve been everywhere worth going in the Orion Spur mister Navigator,” she spoke without making eye contact. “And yet we haven’t been to Scrappis IV. Why is that?”
“Because it’s a dump, Captain.”
She shot a surprised look at the Navigator.
“Let’s not be judgemental Nav-”
He cut her off.
“No Captain, it’s literally an entire planet-sized trash dump.”
For just a moment a smile played at Annie’s lips before she forced them straight again.
“An interesting place to meet our trader. Is it not?”
“He lives here, Captain.”
Annie nodded thoughtfully.
Who would be desperate enough to live on a world like that? She wondered silently.
Far below, in one of the deepest trenches on Scrappis IV, was one such desperate girl.
Kaori Amani stood atop a broken police vehicle, tapping her foot restlessly and looking out over the trash piles.
She was a scraggly waif-like girl; stick thin with starvation. If her hair was ever anything but black, the oil and grease had removed any trace of it. Her left arm was gone, replaced with an ugly mechanical prosthetic, built from scrap.
Her stance was more than defeated, it was the posture of one who kept living only out of habit.
Around her was a massive chasm, impossibly tall and at least a kilometer wide.
Great machines at the top spewed rubbish into the gorge, like hideous waterfalls.
Immense swarms of strange fat birds fly lazily through the sky, they dripped with oil as they screamed with delight at the trash banquet that Scrappis IV offered them.
Kaori’s gaze studied a distant sight, a massive circular space station, wedged between the edges of the chasm.
Despite its size, the station still stubbornly refused to touch the ground.
Something approaching a smirk took hold of Kaori’s soot-covered lips.
Silently, she pulled a pair of goggles over her eyes.
With surprising speed, she leaped from the car and ran full sprint towards the station, still miles away.
Kaori found it to be a difficult climb up the cliffside, but one she was well practiced with. Her first year in the gorge she learned to climb, hoping against all hope that she could escape the pit. She could never reach the top, it was simply too high without quality climbing gear, and the trashgulls were far more vicious the higher you went. Still, she was more than up to the task of climbing up to a small open hatch she spotted on the station right next to the cliffside.
Her strong, if lanky arms soon pulled her close enough that she was confident she could make the leap from cliff to hatch. Kaori let herself dangle from the cliff with only her robotic arm while the other made an adjustment to it, turning on the high powered magnets in her palm. Perhaps too high powered, for her hand immediately tore away from the cliffs towards the station itself, dragging the panicked girl through the open air towards the metal station. She collided painfully with the wall with a shockingly loud clang. She let herself breath, trying to forget the fact that she was magnetized to a flat surface nearly half a mile off the ground. Kaori resolved to tinker with the magnet setting on her arm later, but for now, she focused on dragging herself to the open hatch with her free hand.
She let out a tired sigh as she realized she was out of reach of anything she could take hold of. She shoved all her body weight to the right, towards the hatch, and felt the magnet move about an inch towards the open door. It was a disappointing result, but it was helpful. She tried it again, to a similar effect. And then, she did it again.
After a half hour of shuffling herself closer, she finally reached the door with her free hand. She had been alone for too long to bother expressing her joy aloud, but her cheering was certainly deafening inside her own head. Now all she needed to do was deactivate the magnet- but she would need her hand for that. Recognizing her conundrum she spent a few more frustrated minutes shuffling closer until both her feet reached the ledge. Only then did she finally deactivate the troublesome magnet. Kaori was tired, but still far too excited at the prospect of plundering the station’s riches to let it stop her.
The interior of the station was surprisingly sterile, having been sealed shut, save for the small doorway. Yet, every edge looked worn, and every surface scratched, though nothing was terribly dirty. In truth, it was the cleanest and best-kept place Kaori had seen in years. she might have been tempted to move in if it was in a more convenient location. Though that was the lesser problem about the station. It was tilted at a troubling angle, causing her to lose her balance as she entered, nearly sliding down the slanted floor several times.
The flip of a makeshift switch on her arm activated a dirty industrial lamp, messily welded to the top of her wrist. Cautiously she shone it into the darkened structure, hoping to reveal areas the sun didn’t reach.
A small sign caught Kaori’s eye.
Kaori’s eye followed the direction of the arrow, seeing that it led deep down into the cavernous depths of the station.
She stood up straight, yet angled compared to the rest of the station. She was hesitating, but not for long.
The scavenger was reminded of her days before the gorge as she sat down on the station’s floor. She felt like a child about to go down a slide. She had liked slides, so she felt she knew what to do, and pushed herself downwards.
Yet, she didn’t slide. Remaining more or less stationary instead. She pursed her lips and returned to her feet. The friction seemed to be a problem.
With both her fleshy and metal hand she searched her countless filthy pockets until she found what she needed, pulling a small metal vial out of her tattered coat. Kaori unscrewed the top and doused the floor in front of her with greasy black oil.
With great care, she screwed the top back on and idly placed it back in her coat, though not the same pocket. Kaori found it more fun to have to search her pockets everytime she needed something. It was boring to already know. She began to wonder if the oil would really solve her friction problem, and so she tested it with the toe of her foot.
Which caused her to completely wipe out.
Kaori spat up the black oil that now covered her from head to toe as she went sliding down the angled hallway at a higher velocity than she was entirely comfortable with.
After the initial panic wore off, Kaori found it to be a fairly entertaining means of travel. It was quick too, certainly faster than walking would have been. Countless rooms flew past. It wasn’t easy to tell, but it certainly didn’t look like any of them were labeled “Engineering.”
But the one ahead of her certainly was.
Her scrap arm reached out and clutched at a small safety rail, stopping her descent and nearly tearing the arm off completely as the rest of her body tried to ignore the sudden stop. The oil made it difficult to stand, so Kaori was forced to wipe the bottom of her boots on the sleeve of her coat before entering the room.
Her eyes scanned the engineering room. There was a great deal to see, but little looked salvageable to her. A mess of cables here, worthless gears there and more old workbenches than she would ever need. Shelves lined the walls, filled with spare parts, tools as well as various greases and oils.
Eventually, her eyes caught what she’s was there for; a small radio system, partially assembled on a dirty work table.
She grinned and greedily snatched up the little box, stuffing it unceremoniously into her pack.
Triumphantly, she stepped out of the room as quickly as she came, taking a deep and confident breath.
She took her first step back up the slope, hating herself less than a moment later as the grease swept her off her feet and sent her sliding further back down.
It was going to be a long trip home.
The door slammed wide open to Kaori’s little metal shack hours later. Improvised lights with sparking wires flickered to life automatically as Kaori returned.
Her shack wasn’t much to look at, even by the standards of a trash world. Dozens of filthy and mismatched drawers overflowed with machine parts and tools. Here and there were attempted touches of things Kaori had a lifetime ago – a fridge, nearly brown with dirt and grime, a bed, or at least an imitation of one, crafted from a bus seat with rags as blankets.
Kaori practically dragged herself inside, exhausted and still covered in grease.
Despite her state, she was possessed with excitement, and couldn’t shake the smile from her dirty face. Her Greasy fingers rummaged through her pack and retrieved the radio system. She wasted no time, throwing the pack away dismissively and placing the radio on her workbench.
With a sweep of her arm, Kaori shoved a plethora of unfinished inventions clattering to the floor, revealing a large improvised rig with a slot exactly the size of the radio box.
She inserted the box into the rig with an audible click, then flipped a switch on the side of the device. Radio static filled the hut.
Kaori scrubbed her face with a filthy rag and took a seat on a diner stool in front of the radio.
Her lips approached the worn microphone, unsure what to say.
“I-Is anyone out there?”
She spoke with a voice that was not used to talking, but the nervous excitement still shone through. “My name is Kaori Amani. I’m seventeen – I- I think. I’ve been stuck in Scrapyard Theta for as long as I can remember.”
She paused, waiting for a response that didn’t come.
“I remember from when I was little that there were people outside the gorge. Can anyone help me?” Her face softened as she began to realize that no one was listening.
“Pl-please, I have- I had parents on the surface. They must be looking for me!”
The radio began to smoke and spark as the static cut out all at once.
Her quivering hands pulled the radio from the rig and threw it in the pile of dozens of identical non-functional devices.
Kaori threw herself into her bed, tears washing lines of grime from her face.
A question she didn’t want the answer to formed in her mind.
Is anyone looking for me?
The Nightingale drifted far above the crying girl in a controlled orbit around the scrap planet. It’s avian elegance and beauty was at odds with the ugly world below.
A second ship approached, it was some form of an old junker or a scrap hauler. Annie found the ships mismatched parts and junkyard grime matched the planet perfectly.
The junker pulled up beside the Nightingale.
Annie observed from the airlock as the Nightingale’s landing ramp lowered to form a bridge between the vessels.
The severe little captain was only distracted by the sight of the ship for a moment before she returned her attention to the task at hand.
Annie finished zipping up her miniature space suit.
The suit was equal to her clothes in terms of ornateness, being covered in badges and golden tassels, as befitting a great captain like herself.
Beside her, Nav stood at attention.
“Tell me again about this dealer.” She asked calmly.
“Yes, Ma’am. His name is Ashur. He’s an akkadar.”
Annie nodded at that, then held up her hand expectantly.
“And he’s religious?” She questioned.
The droid bent down and retrieved a small little glass helmet, adorned with a built-in captains hat, handing it to Annie.
“Like most akkadari, he’s obsessed with the relics of the Elders who inhabited the galaxy before us.”
The young captain placed the helmet on her head. A pressure lock sealed it with her suit with a quick swishing noise.
“Then it’s a good thing he doesn’t know what he’s found.” She stated before stepping up to the airlock and slamming a little fist into a big red button.
The door opened up, violently throwing air into the void and revealing the walkway between the two vessels.
“You understand he’s going to double cross you, captain?”
Annie shot him a look as though he was stupid.
Annie shook her head and picked up a large sealed case from beside the door.
Without another word, she stepped through the airlock.
The doors swished shut behind her.
And just like that, she was alone.
Annie stepped out into the open void, magnetic boots keeping her attached to the grated bridge.
The only noise she could hear in the openness of space was her own breathing, muffled inside her helmet.
After reaching the halfway point between the ships, she stopped and looked to the planet for a long few moments.
Even an ugly planet like Scrappis IV could look beautiful with the sun setting behind it like that. She liked that about space. Every planet had a different sunset.
The far doors opened, and out stepped the akkadar merchant.
He was a tall and thin alien creature, having to stoop down to pass through the improvised airlock of his ship.
Beneath his crude scrap suit, the akkadar looked a little like an Egyptian statue of Anubis, jackal head and all.
Most of his skin was protected by a thin shell, resembling polished black marble. The shell still left gaps for joints where his skin could be seen, withered and purple.
White face paint, reminiscent of Egyptian makeup, swirled across his face.
A dozen tiny robots crawled across the outside of his suit, resembling different animals and insects.
The jackal-headed creature loomed over the little Captain and smiled fiercely, baring long and sharp teeth.
“Star Captain Annie. Your reputation precedes you. The tales are…” He feigned a look of thinking deeply. “mixed.”
Annie was used to big spacers trying to scare her to get a better deal. It never worked.
“Trust your eyes, not your ears Ashur. This is an honest deal.”
She thought it best to cut straight to the chase and opened the case, revealing another small but inactive robot, resembling a vulture. Unlike Ashur’s little junk bots, Annie knew that the vulture was a masterpiece.
Ashur whistled but looked at it with the same malicious grin he had kept on his stony face thus far.
“You didn’t lie. It’s a thing of beauty.”
Annie nodded slightly and hoped the Akkadar had lived up to his end of the bargain.
Ashur poked at a small mechanical spider which crawled on his shoulder. The little robot scurried down to a pouch on Ashur’s suit, retrieving a worn handheld computer.
He stretched out his empty hand to Annie, the spider quickly ran up Ashur’s arm and placed the device in his palm.
Annie looked at him with bored eyes, doing her best to mask her excitement. There would be time for that later, for now, she had to make sure she didn’t blow this deal.
“Now this is the part where you tell me there’s a catch.” She remarked, already knowing there would be one.
Ashur’s eyes narrowed, and he pulled his outstretched hand back to his waist.
“You’re a clever child, aren’t you? There is a catch.” Ashur turned to the railing and leaned out into open space. “You’re worried that I’m a cheat, yes? A swindler? A con? Well, I worry the same about you, little Captainling.”
He looks to the little device in his hand. A miniature robotic chimp dangled from it with one arm, silently showing off for other little robots on Ashur’s cuff.
With a sudden motion, Ashur thrust the object back in front of Annie’s face. The chimp whirled off of the gadget but caught the railing before it could be flung off into open space.
“I don’t know what this is, little captain. I’ve hacked it, disassembled it, I’ve even tried turning it off an on, but I haven’t a clue what it does. It could be the most valuable item in the spur. I have no way of knowing.”
He looked thoughtfully at the little computer.
“But you know, Captain Annabelle. You know what this is. Tell me.”
A moment of silence passed between them. Annie was worried it would come to this.
“Tell me what it is or I walk right now.” Ashur hissed.
Annie closed her eyes, frustrated, and thought of a convenient lie.
“It’s the expedition logs of the former captain of my ship. My father’s logs. Sentimental value, nothing more.”
Ashur scowled and bared his teeth at her.
“I’ve known you for less than five minutes, but I can already tell you’re not a sentimental person. Last chance.”
A lime light shone on Annie’s face from one side of her helmet as Nav spoke to her.
“Don’t-” Nav called out, but Annie ignored him. She knew she had no choice.
“He was on an expedition to find the elder crown when he went missing. I believe his logs will show me how to find it.”
Ashur’s eyes grew wide at Annie’s words, he stood there, stunned.
“The elder crown.” He looked to the object in awe. “I have to keep this.”
He turned and began to stumble back to his ship. Annie knew she had lost, but gritted her teeth and shouted after him.
“You’ll never open it without me!”
He barely seemed to notice her.
“I’ll find a way.”
The green light switched on in her helmet again as the Navigator yelled in her ear.
“What are you doing, stop him! Shoot him!”
The light switched off.
Annie calmly touched her thumb to a communicator at the base of her helmet.
“We don’t do that anymore Nav, we’ll find another way.”
“Wait! Captain! We have another problem!”
Both Annie and Ashur stumbled across the walkway as a small kinetic weapon crashed into Ashur’s ship.
They both watched in horror as the device slipped from Ashur’s hands, sending it plummeting to the planet below.
Ashur sent a terrified glance to Annie.
“It’s going to break up in the atmosphere!” He shouted, no longer so predatory.
Not wasting a second, Annie pulled a small pistol from her hip and adjusted the settings. She barely needed to aim before firing a small blue shot at the falling gadget.
A blue bubble caught onto the little computer and swallowed it, protecting it as it fell.
Annie holstered her pistol wordlessly as Ashur sprinted back into his own ship.
She calmly made her way back to the Nightingale in long aggressive strides, stopping only to collect the little vulture bot.
A scant minute later saw her in the bridge, having rushed through the ship, wasting no time. The Navigator came rushing towards the door as she entered. Annie quickly removed her space helmet and handed it to the droid as she began to remove the rest of her suit.
“Give me a report, who opened fire?” She asked, doing what she could to restrain her rage.
She unzipped her suit but did not feel the usual joy she found upon seeing the spaceship patterned pajamas she wore underneath. Annie was a captain through and through and was aware they were childish, but she felt that more captains should take advantage of the confidence space jammies gave you.
“We received a warning message. They haven’t fired a shot beyond the first one.”
The last of her space suit came off and she handed it in a crumpled mess to Nav.
The little captain scowled, moving to the window to see a small black warship, far tinier than the Nightingale, a skull and crossbones was neatly painted on the hull. Pirates. No one was supposed to know about this meeting, she told no one, and she suspected Ashur was too paranoid to have mentioned the deal to anyone who could have interfered. So, was it just a coincidence that the pirates were raiding them?
“Put it on screen, mister Navigator.” She ordered, preferring not to speculate.
A holographic video screen flickered to life on the glass window.
A ship bridge appeared on screen, it was fuzzy, clearly shot with a low-quality camera. The bridge was dark, covered in shadows and Annie’s quick eyes were unable to spot any identifying features of the ship itself. Except for one. All the furniture was made of bone.
Atop a throne-like chair, sat someone who could only be a pirate. He wore a blood red Jacket, adorned with dozens of straps which connected guns, knives, and explosives to his body. His face was hidden by a mask that seemed to be made from the skull of some form of elk-like creature. A black hat decorated with a skull and crossbones completed the look.
“You only get one warning. Everything you have I am here to take, everything you are, I am here to unmake. Surrender unconditionally and your pitiful lives will be spared.” The pirate’s voice was terrifying, deep and textured. His tone was refined, yet Annie didn’t have a hint of doubt that this man was capable of savage deeds. “I am Captain Scarheart, scourge of Avalon, the breaker of ships and the taker of souls and I will not ask again.”
Annie frowned with concern.
“Scarheart. He’s supposed to be a fairy tale.”
The robotic navigator remained motionless.
“I never thought it could be true. They say he’s destroyed a thousand ships.”
Annie pursed her lips at that.
Captain Scarheart had too many legends surrounding him to sort out the fact and the fiction. Yet all tales agreed that Scarheart was the greatest and most ruthless pirate in the Orion Spur. It could be possible that it was a bluff, she had faced off against many pirates over the years who had claimed to be Scarheart, but each of them had been found lacking. No, she thought, looking to the pirate on her screen, this man was the real thing. Everything about him screamed “danger!” from his movements to his choice of words.
But there was something odd about the video.
She decided at once that this pirate simply looked scarier than he actually was. He spoke and moved with a level of precision that made Annie suspect that the video was rehearsed.
“Just because the pirate is real doesn’t mean the legends are, Mister Navigator. Prep an E.M.P.”
There was a thump as the Navigator dropped Annie’s spacesuit and helmet as he saluted. Without delay, the droid flipped several switches on a control panel.
Annie moved a small wooden chair in front of the steering wheel and climbed up, allowing her to see over the top. Her authoritative little hands grasped the wooden handles as she angled the Nightingale towards Captain Scarheart’s warship.
“E.M.P. ready captain.”
She grinned and pulled a trigger on the wheel.
A blue light washed over the bridge as the E.M.P. was launched. The blue bolt hurtled towards the black ship.
“Then I guess we will see.” the Navigator said, simply.
“I guess we will.” Annie responded, turning back to the Navigator. Her eyes caught something on the floor of her bridge that troubled her far more than Captain Scarheart. ”Mister Navigator, why is my spacesuit on the floor? I expect this tidied up immediately.”
The droid snapped to attention.
Captain Scarheart sat in his chair minutes earlier.
“-I am Captain Scarheart, scourge of Avalon, the breaker of ships and the taker of souls and I will not ask again.”
He sat in silence for a time, glaring straight ahead.
“Cut!” Yelled a synthesized woman’s voice coming from a small cluster of five floating spherical drones. The globes were covered in circuitry and lit in various places by a glowing lavender light. The largest orb in the flock had a camera mounted inside, which was currently facing Scarheart.
The pirate stood up and stretched. He hated that chair.
Scarheart pulled off his bony helmet. Under it all, he was just Nate, a dashing (if currently sweaty) teenager with a flair for the dramatic.
“Do we need another take Milah? That one didn’t feel right.”
From a small compartment on one of the drones popped a little metal hand, which gave him a thumbs up.
“No darling, that was fab, you were an absolute delight!” The drones responded in the woman’s voice.
Nate grinned, proud of himself. He stepped away from the intimidating looking set they were filming on and took a bottle of water from a stylish metal table.
“Thanks! So, you really think they have anything valuable? I mean, they’re orbiting a junk world.” Two of Milahs drones swooped over to Nate, the first wiped away much of the dirt and sweat on his face with a towel while the other fussed over his hair with a small comb.
“I don’t know for sure hun’, but according to messages I’ve intercepted, that nice ship came all the way from Alpha Centauri for this trade, so it must be something good!”
Nate gently pushed the drones away from his head and messed up his newly brushed hair with his fingers.
“I sure hope so. That was our last cannon shot we fired at them!”
“Don’t worry Nate! Have I ever led you astray? You just keep using your talents, and I’ll keep being the best manager in the galaxy. Besides, no one’s ever called our bluff befo-”
Nate felt the ship rock violently as a blue flash of electricity surrounded every surface on his ship. His feet were painfully shocked and he found himself on the floor, confused at what just happened.
The lights were all out, but he could see a little thanks to a window letting in starlight.
“Milah?! What just happened?” He shouted from the floor.
There was no response.
He felt one of Milah’s drones roll up against his leg. Milah generally floated, so he was certainly worried that she was grounded, but he was far more worried about the fact that none of the drones shone their usual lavender color. He was no robotics expert, but he knew what that meant. No light meant no Milah. No Milah meant Nate was very much out of his depth.
“This is very very bad.” He stated plainly to himself. It was an understatement.
Annie’s steely gaze was fixed on Scarheart’s ship, which was motionless and dark.
“A competent crew would have had that sorted out minutes ago.” Annie whispered under her breath.
The doors whooshed open behind her as Nav re-entered the bridge.
Annie held her eyes on the black ship.
“They’re bluffing. They don’t even know how their ship works.” She informed her Navigator.
Nav pointed instead to the side of the window, as Ashur’s junker began racing to the surface of the planet.
Annie’s eyes went wide as she saw it.
“He’s trying to beat us to the artifact!”
Nav took a few hasty strides to the wheel.
Annie chewed on her lip for a long moment.
All at once she had the plan, and stepped away from the wheel, allowing the navigator to take control instead.
“Scan the planet, see where the device landed.”
“I’ll have results ready within three minutes Captain!”
Annie nodded and headed to the door.
“The very second you know where the device is, get us there ASAP. If we don’t beat Ashur’s Junker there, you’re on tea party duty for a month.”
Nav stood up straight, surprised at the strict punishment.
“Yes, Ma’am. And what will you be doing?”
Annie stepped through the open doors, not bothering to turn to face her navigator as she marched out.
“I’m going to fetch a really big gun.”
Kaori pulled herself on top of yet another pile of scrap and waste. Asides from a few heating coils, she hadn’t found much of worth.
Falls of scrap flowed out from the edge of the chasm. Here and there larger machines poked out from the endless piles and trash dunes, yet none of it had anything of value to her.
Kaori’s tired eyes caught something unfamiliar.
A blue ball of energy came hurtling down from the sky at an immense speed.
Her gaze followed it as it came violently crashing down somewhere far off, yet, she was pleased to note, still close enough for her to investigate.
Somehow she knew, instinctually; it was her ticket out of here.
Without taking her eyes off the distant smoking crater, Kaori lowered her goggles back down over her grease-stained eyes.