Nate placed one foot out of the Void Knave and onto the surface of the planet. He, Milah, and the Knave travelled across the stars; they had been to nearly every human planet but somehow it always led them back here, Terra Secundus. Where he was born. The first human star colony, and now the beating heart of human culture. Here, humanity lived in great floating metropolises, safe from the toxic gasses spat out by the flora living on the surface. And, as everyone man, woman and alien in the Orion Spur knew, there was no metropolis greater than the Eight Spires. eight great towers of glittering glass and flashing lights that housed nearly three hundred million souls when they were built. Of course, the number wasn’t quite true anymore. Everyone wanted to live in the Spires these days, and so more had to be built. There were eleven currently, with six more under construction. The name stuck though. From the docks of Chrysanthemum spire, Nate could see the megastructures being built off in the distance. They were taller than mountains and were massive beyond what most could comprehend. The surface of each half-built spire seemed to be moving, as though they were covered with ants. In truth, tens of thousands of builder bots were scrambling atop each other as they constructed the great complexes.
“At least looking is free, darling.” Milah commented as she floated down from the landing platform. Nate frowned. According to Milah, the docking fees had cost them the absolute last of their cash, give or take a few measly Republican units. To make matters worse, the fuel tank was bone dry.
“The other captains probably won’t give us a loan, will they?”
“Doubtful.” She intoned.
Well then, it sounded to Nate like finding his way to cash and supplies was going to be a priority while they were here. As if it was just that easy. Money takes time, and they just didn’t have any. Milah had been warning him all week that they couldn’t trust the other captains. He was beginning to suspect that the other crews would happily leave him and Milah behind if they knew they were having money trouble. It was, after all, better to split the profit two ways instead of three. So that meant getting money, getting it quickly, and getting it quietly. Milah whirred off towards the docking master to negotiate, while Nate did his best to brainstorm.
The landing ramp of the Unfamiliar Guest lowered down nearby and out came Ashur, stretching like he just woke up from a nap. Little scrap bots crawled across him, several of them mirroring the tall alien’s stretch. He smiled slightly at Nate, though not in the untrustworthy way he normally did. He trudged over to Nate and clapped a hand on his shoulder a little too hard for Nate’s taste.
“First to the ground, are you? Like the fresh air?”
“Uh, yeah. I guess.”
Ashur looked out at the planet and whistled. He seemed like he was in an uncharacteristically good mood.
“Nice to be on a real planet again. Haven’t been off Scrappis IV for years.”
Nate couldn’t quite tell if the alien was being genuine. He doubted it.
Nate smiled back, non-committedly.
Nate wasn’t terribly interested in talking to an alien that seemed like he’d be more than happy to crush Nate like a bug if it seemed convenient. Fortunately, he was saved from an unwanted conversation as the Crew of the Nightingale finally left their craft.
“Why would I let you downgrade our sub-light thrust computer? We’d be slower.” Captain Annabelle asked, reading from a soot-stained list.
“Not much slower.” Insisted Kaori, “Much simpler. And we won’t get stranded in spa-” The girl’s eyes went wide as she saw the Spires for the first time.
“Go take a look. You’re on shore leave after all. Stay in the area for now though.”
Nate was surprised to see Kaori perform a grateful military salute before scrambling to the ledge with Nate and Ashur. She was different from the last time he had seen her. For one thing, she was certainly cleaner. Her complexion somehow still seemed pale and ashy, but she was no longer grey and black with grease and dirt. Her clothes were different too, not looking quite like a scavenger anymore, but an actual uniformed crew member. It was a spiffy outfit too. Nate hated the idea of uniforms since he’d never willingly force himself to wear only one outfit all the time, but he had to admit, the blue clothes that his fellow expeditionaries were wearing had a certain appeal.
But perhaps the biggest difference in Kaori was in her eyes.
Or were they always that bright? No, Nate was sure he would have remembered those sparkling brown eyes if she had them before. Gone was the gloomy scavenger girl, a wide-eyed explorer in her place.
Though she was still certainly no less odd of a person. Her eyes were wide while she stared at the spires, yet her jaw hadn’t dropped. She stood perfectly still as she stared. Nate wasn’t sure he was even capable of standing that still. It was bizarre.
“Better than our home, isn’t it girl?” Ashur stated, leaning over the railing.
It didn’t seem like she had actually heard the alien until eventually, she nodded a long moment later. Perhaps Nate had lost some of the wonder from being here so frequently since his companions were spellbound by the horizon.
Nate felt an unexpected pang of jealousy that he couldn’t take in the sights in the same way as the garbage girl. Still, knowing the place already did give him some advantages.
“See those strange things blowing through the air?” Nate casually leaned up against the railing.
Both Ashur and Kaori looked beyond the structures and saw what looked like pieces of tan coloured cloth riding the breeze. Most of them appeared to have frayed, as though their edges were messily torn from another piece of cloth. There were thousands of them in the sky, tens of thousands.
“The sheets.” Stated Ashur appreciatively.
“That’s right. The sheets. They’re not paper though. They’re alive. You’ll see a few of them caught on buildings in the Spires. Up close you can even see the veins.” He directed his comment mostly to Kaori since Ashur already seemed to already know a thing or two about the topic.
“Birds?” Kaori asked.
“Uh. N-no.” Nate blinked a few times at the odd question “They’re more like fleshy plants. They float around convert all the poisoned air into oxygen we can breathe.”
She scrunched her brow and looked to Nate.
“Did we make them?”
Nate honestly didn’t know. The sheets were the only reason that humans could survive on the toxic world of Terra Secundus so it would make sense if humans made them. His gut told him otherwise though.
“I think they were already here when we found it.”
“But I think we all know who put them here.” Ashur said calmly out into the open air.
“Who?” Kaori asked naively.
“The Elders.” He spoke reverently, and Nate felt for the first time like Ashur wasn’t trying to con anyone with his words. Still, that only meant Ashur believed them. Nathan did not. He didn’t believe in the creepy aliens from the distant past.
“Who were they?” She asked, perking up, “There were stories from when I was young. I don’t remember them.”
“They’re just a myth. There are plenty of extinct aliens, not one all-knowing dead elder race like people say.” Nate said.
“Of course there were others.” Dismissed Ashur, “But only two that mattered. Only two that spanned the galaxy.”
“Who was the other?” Kaori asked, her interest peaked.
“Just that.” said Ashur, “The Other.”
Nate saw Kaori shiver. She was clearly formulating a question in her head to learn more about Ashur’s ridiculous fairy tales. Nate was relieved to hear Nav approach and call out to them.
“Docking’s complete. We’ll need to leave immediately if we want to make our meeting with the engineer.”
And so they went. Walking through humanities most bustling metropolis. All around them were grand structures, built on the inside of the spires. They passed agricultural blocks, with rolling fields of golden grains that rivaled the great fields of Wheatstone. They passed the impossibly majestic corporate buildings of dozens of alien megacorps. They passed through markets filled with skilled traders and mechanists, capable of trading, building or fixing anything imaginable.
As far as Nate could see, Kaori took each slice of spires life with the same wide-eyed silence. She never asked questions though, so Nate stuck close and explained what he could.
He pointed to an odd looking reddish-brown alien with leathery and hairless skin. The creature stood like a human on two legs, though it was a little hunched. It was short and seemed to have a small frame when compared to the almost unnatural amount of muscle it was boasting. It wore a simple human t-shirt and a pair of jeans that were likely custom made for his odd alien proportions. It had a relatively flat and featureless head, which it corrected with extremely well-applied makeup that gave the illusion of an angular face with a healthy amount of bone structure.
“See over there, that guy is an Ontillian, one of the four citizen species in the Coreward Republic.”
Kaori made no move to acknowledge him. She rarely did. Nate supposed that years of talking to no one must have left her with that particular quirk.
“They uh… they come here a lot. Ontillians like to travel. Only the young ones though, they get pretty boring as they get older.”
“Is he selling hats?” she asked, cocking her head slightly.
It was always hard to know what she would be interested in. Here he was showing her an alien from twelve-thousand light-years away – and she was just interested in the hats.
“Yeah. Yeah, he is.”
“Cause people like hats I guess.”
This time she seemed to be the confused one, scrunching her brow as she talked.
“But hats aren’t useful, why would anyone buy them?”
Nate felt butterflies from the excitement. He was being asked to teach fashion to the garbage girl! Now he was in his element. He wasn’t a makeover kind of guy, but he was still thrilled to be consulted. The others weren’t far ahead, and he felt confident that he could catch them after a quick two-minute lesson on looking sharp.
“Because, my fine scrapworlder, they look sweet. If you wear them right at least. For example-” He scanned the racks until he found a fancy looking old fedora, “-that hat there would make me look like a try-hard. Unless-” He wheeled about, looking at a rack full of coats they had passed earlier. He found a camel coloured overcoat and put it on, tossing the last of his units to the shopkeeper. Nate returned to the Ontillians shop-stall and flipped the hat on his head. “-Unless I had the right accessory for the job.” He shot a finger gun at Kaori, “Here’s looking at you kid.” She looked at him, completely deadpan. He couldn’t see what was wrong. Nate liked the detective look. “Come on, who doesn’t like Humphrey Bogart?”
Kaori’s next question nearly caused him to faint.
He was incredulous.
“You know, Humphrey Bogart? One of the all-time greats?! Detective Philip Marlowe?”
Kaori shook her head.
“How do you not know Humphrey Bogart?! Have you been living in a-” Nate stopped himself. “Oh. Yeah.”
Kaori didn’t seem to mind at all. She stared carefully at the hat racks before making a choice. She picked up an old-fashioned motorcycle helmet, with goggles of course. She stuck it onto her head and looked to Nate with a big toothy smile.
“Do I have the right accessories?”
It was a bit of a dumpy looking helmet, but it actually did match her worn out charcoal-coloured coat. Plus, it was hard to argue with the enthusiasm behind that smile.
He found himself smiling too.
He had to borrow a few of Kaori’s units that she had been paid on her first week on the Nightingale, but Nate chose to buy the hat. Bogart was a good look.
They caught up with the other expeditionaries a minute later. Only Ashur seemed to have noticed their absence. He grinned evilly at Nate, before making a mock kissy face at him. Nate gave him a mean look. He was just being polite to the poor garbage girl. Why on earth would clean and glamorous Nate want to make a move on a girl who was roughly two-thirds dirt?
Although, she was cleaner now.
He shook his head to dismiss the thought.
Before he knew it, they had arrived at an old manor house. It was old and everything seemed outdated. It was still well maintained though. Most significantly, it was huge. Nate knew that this engineer would have to be absurdly wealthy to afford a place like this.
Out front was a spectacled and intellectual sort of man, likely in his fifties. His eyes were perpetually squinted, and at times it was difficult to tell if they were even open. He wore an old tweed vest with brown trousers, but more significantly, he wore a long threadbare Terran Star Armada officer’s coat that any reasonable man would have thrown out long ago. In one hand he held a cane, in the other he held the hand of his young daughter.
She was a freckle-faced little girl with frizzy red hair. The girl seemed to be roughly Annie’s age, but unlike Annie, she actually looked the part. She was clothed in a crumpled pink dress and was crowned with a plastic tiara on her brow. In her other hand was a teddy bear that seemed like it had been through a sticky warzone.
She grinned with the force of a raging star, despite numerous missing teeth.
She looked excitedly up at the older man, who nodded his approval.
Immediately the little girl surged forward, seemingly without any control of her limbs which seemed to be flying out of control as she ran.
“Annie!” She cried out, colliding into a hug with the little captain.
The normally stiff girl loosened up. She didn’t return the hug but seemed comfortable in it. She patted the other girls back affectionately.
“We meet again, Miss Becca.”
“What did you see in space?!” Miss Becca seemed to have no volume control, but Annie didn’t seem bothered in the slightest.
“A great deal, shall we have tea with your bear? I can catch you up.”
The two little girls went their own way, oblivious to the other expeditionaries who were standing aimlessly at the gate.
The older man gave them an amused smile.
“I wouldn’t go after them. Those two don’t seem to be able to notice anyone else is in the room until they’ve had a few hours to play.” He bowed to them curtly, “I’m Mark Whitley, an engineer, and likely the closest thing little Annie has to a father.” He looked deliberately to Nav. “Well, I suppose I’m the second closest.”
The Navigator saluted.
“Artificial Intelligences are not designed to have a family, Major Whitley.”
Mark saluted back with humour in his eyes.
“Stubborn as always. And it’s just Mark, the war’s over Nav; we lost.”
“As you say, Major.”
Mark shook his head good-naturedly before looking to the others.
“And you all must be the other expeditionaries.” He adjusted his glasses and looked at each of them before stopping at the scavenger among them. “You must be Kaori, I’m told you’re quite a talented mechanic.”
She considered his words. He smiled and sarcastically checked his pocket watch.
“Not a mechanic, just a scavenger.”
“Ah, but one quickly becomes the other with practice. I think you and I will have a lot to discuss.”
He switched his gaze to Milah. “And is this a Skykea Air Swarm twenty-eight-hundred? Very good model!”
Milah’s main drone tilted slightly.
“Oh you dear man, it just won’t do to comment on a ladies chassis like that!” She purred. A metal flap opened and she extended a frail metal utility arm. “Milah.”
Mark took the hand and kissed the top.
Nate seemed to be next.
“And you’re a handsome young lad, Annie called you Nate in her message, is that correct?” Nate nodded appreciatively. Mark winked at him. “I have a daughter your age. Stay away from her please.”
Nate felt a chuckle build inside himself. He took off his hat and held it to his chest, he bowed slightly.
“I’m a perfect gentleman, Mister Whitley.”
The engineer shook his head sadly.
“I believe you, but I’m afraid my daughter won’t be a perfect gentlewoman in return.”
Nate couldn’t bring himself to say he would stay away, she sounded interesting already. He put his hat back on and broke eye contact.
Lastly, Mark cast his eyes on Ashur.
“An Akkadar.” There was clearly bitterness in his voice.
Ashur bared his teeth.
“The Akkadar weren’t involved in your war, human.”
“Of course not. You’ll just have to forgive an old veteran’s prejudice.” He forced a smile back on his face. “Now, let’s have a cup of coffee and some lunch, shall we? We’ll hold off on discussing your device until Annie and Rebecca are done catching up, yes?”
The food was delicious, though it was hardly a meal. More like an array of refreshments. Tiny sandwiches, fine cheeses, and mini pastries littered the table. Nate savoured each bite but minded his table manners. Milah had taught him civility after all. Milah had not, however, taught the same to Kaori, whose single hand seemed to be retrieving more food than Nate had thought possible for the wirey scavenger to be able to eat. It was hard to watch, so Nate looked at anything else. Ashur and Nav had no use for the food, the first being incapable of digesting it, and the second being a robot. They were deep into a conversation about supplies that would be needed for the expedition. Nate had nothing to contribute and found it to be the dullest exchange he had heard all day. Meanwhile, Milah was shamelessly flirting with Mark. She swirled a glass of wine that she had no ability to drink in her extendable arm and laughed enthusiastically at nearly everything Mark said. Apparently, Nate would have to start his own conversation.
“So, uh, Mister Whitley, how did a star armada engineer manage to afford a place like this in the Spires?”
Milah shot him what he supposed was a mean look. It was difficult to tell since she didn’t have a face.
“Nathan, that’s a terribly rude thing to-”
Mark raised a hand to halt the controversy.
“No no, it’s quite alright.” He smiled. “I built it.”
“You built the manor? The land still must have cost a fortune though!”
“No no, I didn’t build the manor.” He smiled as he paused for dramatic effect. “I built the Spire. Or at least, I designed it.”
Nate’s jaw dropped. This guy was way more important than he expected. If he designed the Chrysanthemum Spire, he must be one of the richest men in the Spur. He couldn’t imagine the incredible intelligence he must have to have built one of the Orion Spurs few mega-structures.
“This was thirty years ago of course. That’s how Arthur found me. Ah, the funding I had back in those days with the Star Armada. We were doing great things.” He smiled dreamily.
“All good things come to an end.” Ashur interjected.
Mark’s face turned sad.
“I suppose they do.” He slowly rose to his feet. “If you’ll excuse me, I do need to check on a project I’ve been tinkering with. I’ll be back in just a moment.”
Nate stood up too, he had drunk far more coffee than he had intended to.
“Before you go, the bathroom?”
“Left of the entrance where you came in.”
He nodded his thanks and exited. Already he could hear Milah attempting to scold Ashur for his behaviour and Kaori for her dining habits.
He reached the grand entrance hall. It was classy and old in a way that Nathan loved. He had seen old movies with similar buildings. Victorian, he thought it was called, though he didn’t know who Victoria was. Something about the old-fashioned building made him feel the urge to be old-fashioned too. He took his coat and hat from their hook beside the double doorway and put them on. He knew it wasn’t exactly the same era, but he didn’t mind; Bogart was a good look.
He didn’t need the bathroom quite as urgently as he thought and he found himself staring at an old portrait on the wall. It was Mark, when he was younger of course. He had the same uniform that he still did now, only it was new and fresh. With him, was a young and beautiful red-haired woman. She wore a lab coat with a cream coloured cable-knit sweater underneath. The two clutched at each other in a way that could only be love. Mark’s smile was so big and vibrant that Nate understood that Mark’s current smiles were just a pale imitation of a happier time.
“Friend of my father, are you?” said a sultry voice from behind him.
Nate turned to see a woman whose appearance enthralled him, even as his instincts screamed ‘danger.’
A teenager who could only be the daughter of the woman in the portrait stood by the doorway, watching him. At first, he restrained himself from looking her up and down, but she was clearly doing it to him, so he let himself look.
She had the same red hair that all the Whitley women seemed to have had in common. This one, however, kept hers in a cascade of curls that tumbled dangerously down her shoulders. Her families freckles were there too, but Nate hardly noticed them, his gaze being drawn to her smokey blue eyes and her dark red lipstick. She wore a short red dress that could only be described as slinky. Her polished black heels lent to the effect, giving her legs that seemed to stretch on forever.
A voice in the back of his mind yelled that he needed to run, he needed to get away while he still could, that he needed to escape before she had him hooked.
But then she spoke again, and it was too late.
“Jenna Whitley. My father doesn’t usually have such young friends.”
Nate was a charming guy, but what can you say to a girl like that? He fell back on what he knew. He was wearing the hat and the jacket. And it didn’t matter what a detective said, as long as he said it mysteriously.
“More of a colleague, actually. Nathan Regal.” He took off his hat, politely.
“Are you a detective, Mister Regal?” She smirked and the butterflies in his stomach twisted with her every word.
“I’m known to be. When the need arises.”
She walked towards him. He couldn’t bare how close she was getting with every click of those heels against the stone floor. She stopped right in front of him, too close to deny the terrible attraction that flowed between them.
“You know who you look like?”
She smelled nice. Like cinnamon. He swallowed.
“I was going for Humphrey Bogart.”
She leaned in close and whispered with hot breath right in his ear.
“You look a little more like Glenn Ford to me.”
He did his most charming shrug as she pulled away.
“Know any good Rita Hayworths?”
“I have one in mind, but I’ll keep an eye out.”
Either the spell only went one way, or she had far more willpower than he did. She walked away.
She made it to the double doors without looking at him. Jenna took her first step outside.
“Tell my father I’m going out.”
The door shut conclusively behind her and left Nate alone in a room still filled with whatever tainted electricity had just been generated. Whatever that was he didn’t like it.
But he needed more of it.
Nate found himself wondering what one is supposed to do after such an encounter.
He decided to pee. It was why he came here after all.
Nate did not pee in peace, however. A ferocious roar of pain rang out through the old halls, followed by the footsteps of every last individual in the house to investigate. Except for Nate, who was fumbling with his zipper. He would get there eventually, but no matter the emergency, it was worth washing his hands first.
He did finally arrive in Mark’s workshop several minutes later to the sight of a smashed window and countless broken pieces of a technology. There had been a struggle here.
“What’s going on?” He asked cooly, trying not to be inappropriately excited.
“I’m afraid Major Mark has gone missing.” Nav said in a quiet voice, hoping not to upset Becca, who already seemed to be on the verge of tears.
It was perfect.
“No one touch anything!” Nate ordered the room. Everyone froze, even Annie and Ashur.
It sounded like they needed a detective.
And Bogart was a good look. Or Glenn Ford. Or whoever.