Kaori felt the kind of fear that only comes when you’ve found a life-changing opportunity and now need to try not to mess it all up. She was on board a spaceship. It was nicer than Ashur’s to be sure, but she’d happily settle for any ship that could get her out of the trench. The Nightingale, she had heard it called. Was that a type of bird? It sounded nice, but the only birds she knew were the shrieking oil-drenched trashgulls. She certainly wouldn’t compare the elegant ship to those ugly creatures.
It was hard to keep herself still with her nerves, but she did her best to focus on the meeting taking place around the wide table.
She hadn’t zoned out for long, and they were still giving their names.
“Captain Annabelle Constantine of the Nightingale.” stated the young blonde captain. She was everything Kaori had imagined in a space captain, but she wasn’t entirely sure that captains were supposed to be… children.
“First mate and Navigator aboard the Nightingale. Just Nav if you prefer.” presented a tall uniformed droid. The pair looked to Ashur next.
The tall alien licked his lips, grinning wide as he often did.
“Merchant-Captain Ashur Shabbas of the Unfamiliar Guest, formerly an adept provisioner of the Akkadar order.” Ashur stated the last part as if challenging the others to ask him more, but none did. The Akkadar order wasn’t something Kaori could remember much about from her childhood, but it conjured memories of holy wars and great archeological disasters.
“Hey, I’m Captain Nathan Regal of the Void Knave. Happy to be here!” The last captain chimed in. He was older than Annie but seemed at most a year younger than Kaori. Perhaps young captains were actually the norm after all? His smile made her… Uncomfortable? She didn’t really know what that particular emotion was, so she made a mental note to investigate later and returned her focus to the meeting.
“You may call me Milah, darlings. I’m Nathan’s agent and manager.” stated a small swarm of drones demurely. She spoke with rich and well-rounded tones that somehow seemed too sophisticated to possibly be anyone’s natural manner of speaking.
“Shall we get down to business then?” Ashur said, being the first to take his seat.
Nav, the first mate robot coughed. Robots didn’t need to cough, so it was likely just to make a point.
“I believe there’s another. Miss…?” He gestured openly to Kaori. All at once the group looked at her.
She felt very small. They seemed so dignified and so clean! Kaori felt like she could scrub herself for years and still be far dirtier than these pristine beauties. But that was only part of what made her feel so tiny next to all these people. She was in a room full of people from across the Orion spur, and she was just a girl who no one even bothered to look for. Their voices and accents seemed so incredible and exotic to her, and all so much grander than her rough scrap world accent. Kaori was way out of her league.
“Miss?” The Navigator asked again after Kaori didn’t respond.
“Give her a moment. She answers slow, but she’s not stupid.” Stated Ashur, excusing her. She still felt like she couldn’t trust him all the way, but she found it getting harder to dislike the manipulative trader.
Should she lie and make herself sound important? No, that was clearly not going to work. Best to be honest, humble even.
“I’m Kaori. I’ve been trapped in a hole for six years.”
That seemed to satiate them, and they took their seats.
The little blonde captain spoke authoritatively to the room.
“I’ll not mince my words people. We all want the device that Zaiah stole.” Kaori didn’t, but it hardly mattered. “You’ve all tried and all failed. I propose we pool our resources and work together. We can split the profits.”
“Perhaps you’re not old enough to know math, but we can’t split one electronic device between three ship crews.” Ashur interjected.
Annie nodded and took a deep breath.
“I’m not proposing that we work together to find the device, Merchant-Captain. I propose that we work together to decode the device and follow the map together.”
Ashur seemed stunned at the prospect, as though unable to comprehend.
“-And for those of us who haven’t had the pleasure of knowing what it’s a map to?” Asked Milah, inserting herself into the conversation.
Annie was silent for a time.
“Mr. Navigator, please disable your ability to lie for this next question. I don’t want them to doubt what I’m about to say.”
She cleared her throat.
“Navigator, to the best of our knowledge, what information is stored on the device we are seeking?”
The Navigator puffed his broad chest out even wider.
“The device contains the research notes of Captain Arthur Constantine and, according to our sources, contains a map to the last known location of the Elder Crown.”
Milah went silent, and Nate’s jaw dropped.
Kaori had no clue what any of this meant but suspected it was some form of valuable treasure by the reactions she was seeing.
Milah took only a second to recuperate.
“We’ll do it for one-third of the profits.”
Annie shook her head.
“Take half of any miscellaneous treasure we find. Ashur, you take the other half. I get the crown. Non-negotiable.”
“You can’t own the crown, fool girl. You don’t even have a clue what it is, do you?”
Captain Annabelle scowled at the Akkadar.
“And you do?”
“I have some ideas.” Ashur bared his teeth. “But that’s order business.”
“Fine. One third to each ship crew.” Annie concluded, “And we will deal with the crown when the time comes.”
“And me?” Kaori asked, meekly.
“You have a decision to make Ms. Amaris,” Annie stated evenly. “Help us get the device and I’ll personally pay you with a one-way trip back to the surface of your planet. If it’s what you want, you’re free to live out your days in a peaceful dumpster world life.” She paused. “Or you can come with us. I can offer you a place in my crew, a portion of the Nightingale’s share of the treasure and a journey greater than anything you could ever imagine.”
Kaori blinked. This was nothing she had expected. She could be someone. Out there; swashbuckling through the stars. For once she could do something incredible, and then- well, and then she’d never be forgotten again.
She saw a version of herself, standing proudly in a ship’s uniform. Not filthy, but clean, for once in her life. She had a new arm, filled with advanced tools and ancient wonders from across the galaxy. And she was rich, richer than she could ever have imagined. She could experience luxuries she hadn’t even conceived of. It was a dream come true.
But it was someone else’s dream. Her dream was much smaller. But she wanted it with every cell in her body.
“I’ll help get the device, then I want to go home.” Kaori stated firmly.
Annie nodded sadly.
“It’s a mistake. But it’s yours to make.”
It was only then that Kaori noticed that Nav had been transcribing the deal on a piece of high-quality parchment.
He presented it to Annie, who signed in a strict and precise cursive. Then, Annie offered it to the table.
The ‘Eternal Crown’ Charter
The captaincies of the ships:
each agrees to embark together on an expedition to find the Elder Crown.
All treasure to be found will be split evenly between the charter members.
Drafted in low orbit above Scrappis IV at 15:48 PM on October 24th, 2431.
Annabelle Constantine – TDF Nightingale
Nathan meekly took the treaty but looked to Milah for guidance. Her largest drone shifted slightly, which Kaori assumed was a nod. He added his messy signature before handing the charter to Ashur.
Ashur looked at it reluctantly. Several of his little scrapbots lined up on his shoulder and stared intently at the document.
“None of you have a clue what it is you’re digging into.” He ground his teeth together. “You fools are going to get yourselves killed trying to delve into the ruins of a civilization so great that they ascended into godhood.”He closed his eyes, but opened them up a moment later, bringing his predatory grin to bare. “So it’s good that you’re bringing an Akkadar along.”
Ashur’s black-shelled hand grasped the quill and signed the charter without hesitation.
The first half of a smile reached Annie’s lips before she spoke to the newly formed expedition.
“Let the crown expedition commence.”
“This plan is dreadful.” Milah said, to no one in particular.
“No.” said Annie, who was already getting sick of the wanna-be sophisticate drone. “It’s just simple and straightforward. Which is a good thing, simple and straightforward means that everyone can follow it without problems.”
Annie was grateful that her other companion, the scavenger girl, was fairly silent. Truth be told, Annie didn’t even know why Milah insisted on joining them, there wasn’t a lot she could do to help. There weren’t weapon systems in any of the drone spheres.
At least, there probably weren’t.
“Ah, but it’s just so dreadfully ordinary.” she complained. “Perhaps you should explain it again.”
The three of them were hiding behind a large ridge of compressed scrap. Annie peered overtop to view the castle. Zaia was still likely skulking about inside his castle while the revolutionaries built fortifications around the keep to ensure they were well defended from the King’s attack.
She ducked back down. It didn’t seem like they were in any danger of being overheard.
“Fine. The objective is to get the device. We have to get through the revolutionaries, the gigantic door on the keep and that nerd in the armour.” Annie explained.
“But can’t we talk our way through those poor people outside? We even have their hero out here with us.” She pointed a dainty metal finger at Kaori, who still had nothing to add.
“Indeed we could Ms. Milah, but Zaiah would see and keep his gate locked tight.”
“And my poor dear Nathan covering himself in filth helps how?”
Annie sighed. They had been over this before. But apparently, they were going to do so one more time.
Nate actually thought that the dirt was a nice touch, even if Milah was a bit prissy when she had applied it. Combined with the red sashes and cut up clothes, he looked like he had come straight from a war zone. He didn’t think there were any warzones nearby right now, but the effect mattered far more than the logic behind it all. He stood aboard the Nightingale’s bridge, prepared to give his speech. Nav was nearby, focused on flipping switches that seemed nonsensical to Nate. Kaori and Ashur had pooled their resources together to create a crude disguise for the Nightingale as well since it had previously been seen rescuing captain Scarheart. Now the ship was covered in fake damage, with a large painted red star on the front. The navigator claimed it was an old revolutionary symbol, and Nate had no reason to argue.
The navigator seemed in high spirits, so Nate decided to see if he could sneak out a little info from him about the strange child captain.
“So, I bet your captain’s parents are proud, huh?”
Nav didn’t look up from his tasks.
“Ms. Constantine’s parents would likely be proud if they ever met Annie again, yes.”
Nate was a bit of a gossip hound and was very much encouraged that he had struck gold right away.
“So they aren’t on good terms then?
“They are missing, Mister Regal. Since Ms. Constantine was a baby in fact.”
“She doesn’t have parents? Who raised her?”
“The captain raised herself, with my help.”
Nathan was floored. The droid had raised Annie? Was that why she acted so much like a robot?
“So if you raised her… doesn’t that kinda make you her dad or something?”
“No.” Said the navigator, making the final few adjustments.
“No? What? How does it not?”
Nav pointed to the front of the ship.
“Stay on task. We’ve reached the castle. Show us what you can do, Mister Regal.”
Bah, how bloody convenient. But he was right, it was time to get ready.
Nate liked old movies. He liked REALLY old movies. Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the Maltese Falcon, Transformers 3, really anything from the Hollywood golden age. He had seen a few movies by Sylvester Stallone, and while he was certainly no Humphrey Bogart, he felt like the right man to channel for his current role.
“Red Leather yellow leather. I am the law.” His voice felt like gravel in his throat and his words were slurred. He was ready.
“-so it’s not just to distract the revolutionaries, but also to draw Zaiah out. After Nate is done-”
Milah perked up all at once.
“Shush darling, he’s starting, oh he’s spectacular!”
The disguised Nightingale finished its approach, like an unwelcome guest. A small cannon-like device lowered from a port on the ships surface, but instead of firing a weapon, it projected Nate’s image into the air for all to see.
Annie could hardly believe how convincing the disguise was, he really did look like he had just been fighting in a jungle on the way here. A big red star stood behind him. It was just a scrap piece of metal Kaori had, but it somehow looked convincing with the lighting that Milah and Nate had set up.
“Listen up you royal idiot. They call me Gregor Diachev, the red nightmare.”
What was with that voice? It was somehow intimidating and oafish at the same time? Perhaps that’s why it was working so well. It sounded imperfect, and somehow more real because of that.
“On Valencia, I burned the Grand Duke’s palace for his crimes against the common worker. On Wheatstone, I led the farmers to rebellion and war.” He turned his gaze to the revolutionaries. “Comrades of the Theta trench! I have heard your call! Retreat now while I reduce yet another tyrant’s palace to rubble.” The crowd was stunned.
It was working.
Annie was certain none of those events Nathan had referenced had actually happened, but it’s not like the isolated trench scavengers were likely to have known that.
Gregor raised his fist to the sky.
“Long live the revolution!”
The gigantic sky screen cut to black, filled only with a digital clock counting down from five.
The effect was immediate. The revolutionaries didn’t even stop to retrieve their things, they just fled as quickly as possible, all shouting excitedly.
“Oh he did marvelously, didn’t he?” Asked the drone, full of pride.
“Aye, he did.” Conceded Annie.
The gates didn’t open immediately, they knew it would take Zaiah a few minutes. Annie took the initiative and continued from where she had left off before.
“So as I was saying, once Zaiah comes out then it will be time for Ashur to play his part.”
It wasn’t easy to blend in when you’re a large alien on a human world, but somehow Ashur managed it, having kept to the shadows thus far. He no longer needed to bother anymore as the humans fled. Ashur’s long legs brought him quickly beside the gate, stopping only to loot a few nice pieces of scrap that the poor dupes had left behind.
He reached a hiding spot just in time as the doors slammed open, King Zaiah charging out, full of fury. Ashur didn’t bother to take a good look at him, instead, diving through the door behind the king, who was too busy glaring at the gigantic spaceship that was theoretically about to turn his castle into a crater.
Which meant that Ashur had the castle all to himself.
He skulked merrily down the hallway, humming an Akkadarian hymn along the way, and swiping anything valuable he came across. There was no reason he shouldn’t maximize his profits from this after all.
And at last, he saw what he came here for. The vault. The plan was going swimmingly.
Of course, the two royal guards weren’t supposed to be standing outside the vault. That was certainly not part of the plan.
Ashur darted around the corner, but from the repeated clack of metal against stone that was getting closer to him, Ashur was keenly aware that he had been spotted.
Ashur was a religious man first, a stingy thrift master second and a con third, but he was a fighter last. A distant last, actually.
But he was also no fool and was prepared for situations like this.
His little scrapbots scurried along his body, as they always did.
“Hey, kids?” He said, flashing his sharp teeth.
A dozen tiny creatures rushed to the floor and brandished their small but potent defenses.
A taser from the mouth of the spider, a whirring buzzsaw on the mechanical squirrels tail, and so forth. They scurried towards the royal guards, who were about to learn that bigger doesn’t mean better.
Ashur snatched up his little nepth bot, which was preparing to charge down the hallway armed with a tiny pair of scissors.
“Not you. I can’t have you breaking down until we’re through the door.”
The little Nepth went limp with disappointment.
“Miss Amaris.” Annie began, cordially. “According to what we discussed, Zaiah’s heavy suit would be too strong for the Fuerza, correct?”
The girl seemed to think hard about Annie’s statement.
“And from what you told me if we attacked with the ship, Zaiah was likely going to change to what you called his ‘gripper suit’ which would allow him to climb to the top to try to fend off the Nightingale. We felt this was desirable as the gripper suit’s thin armour could be easily cracked by my gigantic gun that I’ve been extremely excited to use all day. Is that right?”
“So then, I’ll point you to the current situation and ask why I wasn’t informed that the king would not, in fact, be climbing up the keep in his gripper suit, and is instead wearing armour with wings and flying around my ship like some sort of pimple-faced wasp?!”
Kaori thought about it and shrugged.
“Didn’t know he had that suit.”
The King puttered through the air on ugly wings, leaving a trail of dark black smoke behind him as the suit guzzled cheap and noxious fuel. He slapped at her ship with a gigantic hammer, leaving massive, but mostly harmless dents. Even from here they could hear his nasally cackling.
Annie rubbed her temples. She was a good shot, but she had next to no chance of hitting Zaiah while he was flying so erratically.
Still, she wasn’t about to give up that easily.
She hefted her heavy gun at the sky and waited for her opportunity. Zaiah stuck himself to one of the ship’s walls a moment later. Annie took her shot. It hit exactly where she had aimed, but Zaiah had long since zipped away. Annie grimaced as her shot left an even larger dent in her ship than Zaiah had.
“None can defeat my flapper suit!” taunted the king of garbage from up high.
And of course, she brought the gun that could only fire three shots. Of course.
She had been so excited, the wood and brass on the gun were so pretty and the cannonball was so satisfying to shoot. This was supposed to have been fun.
Still, now wasn’t the time to be angry, and so she calmly loaded the second shot into the Fuerza.
“Surely your ship has some defenses against such things?” Milah asked, letting her nerves show under her flowery language.
Annie shook her head.
“It’s a frigate, it relies on smaller ships to defend it from small fighter craft. I have my own fighter inside the Nightingale, but my Navigator can’t leave the bridge during combat and I doubt your protege can pilot it, can he?”
Milah’s silence was her answer.
Annie saw the king flying towards them, which was a perfect opportunity to hit him as he wasn’t veering all over the place.
She rushed to finish reloading and took a hasty shot.
She cursed at herself. Rushing was never the answer, even in situations like this.
“I need to get closer.” She grumbled.
She scowled as she reloaded her gun.
“Captain, how much metal is in your ship?” Kaori asked absentmindedly.
Annie blinked at the odd question.
“It’s around ninety-five thousand pounds and ninety-eight percent void-grade steel, why?”
Kaori nodded slowly and seemed to be doing math in her head. She handed her severed metal arm to Annie, who took it in one hand, confused.
“Well, since the ground is mostly rubber and plastic, and the metal ship that forms Ashur’s keep is badly corroded, that makes the Nightingale the largest and most concentrated piece of metal in the area, assuming there isn’t something even bigger down below, but it would be badly rusted as well.”
Annie hadn’t a clue what the girl was getting at, but knew better than to stop someone mid-idea.
“Hold on tightly to this,” Kaori said, beginning to pull at a few wires on her broken arm with her remaining hand. “Hold on really tight.” She said simply, before pushing a button on the arm.
Annie found herself hurtling through the air, propelled by the magnetic attraction between Kaori’s arm and her ship. Countless pieces of metal rushed through the air below her, attracted to the magnet. Even Milah came rushing with her, with a great deal of protest.
Annie felt her respect for the mind of the scavenger. This was simultaneously the most brilliant and idiotic idea she’d ever heard. She held on as tightly as she could, nearly letting go as she impacted with the Nightingale. Only Annie’s quick reactions saved her from the swarm of scrap metal that followed her on the way up. She dodged the bullet-like shrapnel as best she could as it attached itself to the arm, but she felt dozens of small painful wounds as metal cut through her or embedded itself in her body. What’s worse, it felt like the metal was trying to dig itself deeper into her on it’s way to the magnet.
She was in agony but maintained her iron grip on Kaori’s arm.
“What a horrific turn of events.” Remarked Milah dully. All five of her drones were clustered in with the chunks of metal.
Unfortunately, so was Annie’s gun, and that was going to be a problem.
“Stop it!” yelled Zaiah’s obnoxious voice.
Annie took her mind off the pain to see Zaiah, his own metal suit dragging him slowly towards Annie, even as he beat his wings in the opposite direction.
Now was her chance.
But the Fuerza was stuck to the magnet! Even if she could angle it right, the magnet might interfere with the path of the cannonball.
And Annie understood exactly what idiotic thing she needed to do next.
Having no free hands, she angled her nose towards the button Kaori used to activate the magnet.
“You can’t do this! I’m the King!”
Annie yelled back.
“No, you aren’t! You’re a nerd in a garbage suit!”
She pressed her nose into the button.
As suddenly as she flew into the sky, Annie went falling back down.
She angled the Fuerza with one hand towards Zaiah, who was still close to her, even as she fell.
The cannon exploded with all of Annie’s fury.
The ball cracked Zaiah’s suit in two, and he went plummeting to the ground, screaming bloody murder.
Annie herself was launched backward from the shot, propelled far away from the shrapnel as well as Milah, who was beginning to stabilize herself with her thrusters.
Annie let the Fuerza drop from her hand and slammed her gloved fist into the magnet button.
She hurled back towards the ship, this time thankfully without all the metal fragments coming with her, though she took care to avoid the Fuerza, which had come to rejoin her and the magnet.
She collided with the ship.
She was battered, hanging a hundred or more of feet in the air by only a severed metal arm, her uniform was in tatters and she was in more pain than she ever had been in her life.
But she had won.
Since there was no one around to see, she smiled bloodily.