The first thing Sam Lincoln noticed as he journeyed along the shadowy road to consciousness, was the pain. It was dull at first, like a headache that seemed a few hours off. It didn’t take long before the subtle ache became intolerable agony. It was like being struck with hammers, all over his body. Sam screamed into the blackness, shouting his torment into the void. But then there was a cold feeling through his veins and his body went numb; he slept.
His eyes fluttered open after a blessed eternity of silence and stillness.
He was lying down in a bed, a hospital bed. But this was no hospital.
The room was dark, almost unnaturally so. A set of window blinds were barely open, sending small slashes of light across his bed.
He saw his body, covered in bandages and casts. His limbs felt numb all over. He hoped against all odds that he wasn’t paralyzed.
“Thanks for joining us, Blondie, we love having you here.”
There, looking like a nightmare from a long-gone era, was the detective. That reckless madman who tackled him off the ramp. Sam groaned.
How did everything go so wrong so fast? The plan looked so straightforward this morning. Or had a day already passed? Sam had no clue how long he had been asleep.
But he had to stay strong. This was bigger than Sam, and he knew it.
Besides, this whole setup seemed cheesy to him. Like it was set up by someone who had only ever seen this sort of thing on TV. Of course, Sam also had only seen this sort of thing on TV.
“Nice room you set up here, detective. You see this in a movie or something?”
“Nope. I saw it in a lot of movies.” He leaned back in his chair, seeming to bask in the harsh shadows in the room. He was flipping through Sam’s wallet. “Samuel Lincoln. Good name. You go by Sam?”
“Can I ask for a lawyer?”
“Sorry blondie. I’m afraid the real cops are out on this one. Did a sweep, found nothing. They gave up pretty quick though, you know how the Republican police are. Humans go missing every day.”
Well, wasn’t that ignorant. It seemed to Sam that this detective was yet another bitter bastard who was lashing out at the republic.
“They’re trying their best detective. You have a problem with aliens?”
The detective smirked.
“Nope. I like em just fine. You know what’s odd though? You seem to be fairly fond of the law, for a criminal.”
“I’m not a-” He stopped himself. He supposed he was now, wasn’t he.
But the detective was getting the better of him already. Best to stay quiet.
“So,” said the detective after noticing Sam’s silence. “We’ve got a detective, a criminal, and a nice shady room. What’s missing from our little Noir flick?”
Sam sighed. The detective clearly wasn’t taking this seriously.
“Normally our lawman is smoking. Adds a nice effect. Textured lighting and all that.” He pulled an old matchbook from his coat pocket.
Who in their right mind had matches anymore?
He struck a little sulfur stick against the book, causing a miniature flame to hiss into existence. “Of course, those things’ll kill ya.” He lowered the match down towards Sam’s body.
Was this crazy cinephile planning to light him on fire? He wriggled desperately but found himself unable to move in his bandages.
The detective laughed huskily.
“Let’s not get the wrong idea blondie, I ain’t lighting you up.” The match connected with a small candle beside the bed, causing a lazy string of smoke to waft through the room. The detective smiled cheerfully. “Isn’t that better? Hard to beat classic cinematography.”
Sam clenched up. He was being toyed with and hated it. The anticipation was worse than anything this fedora-wearing psycho could do to him.
“Just ask me where the damned Major is.”
“Nah. You won’t tell me unless I hurt you, and that’s not my style.”
Sam’s eyes went wide.
“Then what are you going to do to me?”
“Nothing at all actually. I’m not going to do anything to you.” The detective stood up off his chair and opened the door, causing light to pour in. “Of course, that means I won’t be giving you another dose of painkillers either. Far as I know, you’ve got a half hour before the current ones wear off. Just shout when you’ve decided you want more!” He shut the door behind him.
Sam felt a cold splash of fear hit him. If the agony was anything like what he suffered in his dreams, it was only a matter of time before he talked.
Annie, Becca, Jenna, and Nav were waiting for Nate in the study. It was a big room, full of well-stocked bookcases and comfortable looking armchairs. Annie and Becca were chatting away about their new hairstyles – Becca was for it, while Annie was strongly against. Nav crouched beside the fireplace, staring deeply into it as he contemplated stocking another log. Jenna sat in a leather loveseat, trying to focus herself on a book. The nervous tap of her foot signaled to Nate that it wasn’t working. The book practically fell out of her hands as Nate entered the room. Her big eyes pleaded with him for answers.
“The poor lads screaming seems to have stopped,” Nav said, still staring at the fire.
“Yeah well, it worked. He gave me an address, so I gave him something for the pain.” Nate said.
“Did he… did he say anything else?” Asked Jenna.
Nate shook his head.
“Blondie was delirious by the time he was ready to sing. I only got the address.”
Jenna was already walking to the door, failing to suppress her nerves.
“Well, what are we waiting for?” She asked.
“We can’t all go,” Nate said. “My gut still tells me there’s more to this.”
Annie nodded at that.
“Mister Navigator, find where Kaori went and guard the mansion until we return. If Ashur will cooperate, have him help.”
Nav looked reluctantly at the fire. He tossed the log he was holding into the flames with far less artistry than he clearly wanted, and got to his feet.
“Aye, ma’am.” He saluted.
“You’re coming with me?” Nate asked, a little surprised.
“Captain Regal, I doubt you could win a fight against Becca, let alone what is no doubt a team of kidnappers.” Annie unholstered her stun-pistol and joined Jenna and Nate at the door.
“Annie, I know you’re tough, but I really think we should bring Nav as well. We can’t know how many there are.” Jenna said, putting on a thick fur coat.
“Let’s bring uncle Nav!” Shouted Becca, only really understanding that it meant more time with her favourite robotic plaything.
Annie’s eyebrows scrunched together as she thought.
“Fine, Navigator, tell Kaori she’s on guard duty instead, then meet us out front.” Nav saluted, and jogged out to complete his orders. “Miss Becca, you’ll be staying here.”
“No! I wanna come fight bad guys!” She was already turning red with fury.
“I’ll teach you to shoot when you’re older. Now isn’t the time and you’ll be safe here.”
“But you already said I could beat up Regal! Why can’t I go?”
“Because it’s important that you stay alive.”
Becca’s protest ceased as suddenly as it started, but she still seemed flustered. She sat there, thinking as the others made their final plans. As the rescuers filed out of the room, Becca called after them.
“Annie, come back safe! That’s important too.”
Annie’s face hardened, and she nodded resolutely to her friend.
On one hand, Nate was happy to see that it was Nav who was driving, rather than Annie. On the other, it seemed anti-climactic for the detective to be in the back seat.
At least Jenna was there with him.
They were exchanging furtive glances. They hadn’t really spoken much since they kissed. Nate wanted to get close, but still somehow felt frightened by the girl. Something seemed to be holding her back too. She seemed to be actively restraining herself from touching him.
Outside, the rain continued to flow across the artificial streets.
“The two of us seem to go together like bad luck and gamblers, don’t we?” Nate said.
“You’re still doing the detective thing?”
“Have to, at least till the case is done.” He looked into her smoky gaze. “You still playing it mysterious and sultry?”
She crossed her legs and straightened out her posture. Her lips twisted into a smirk.
“I think I can keep it up another hour or two.” Nate loved it, the whole persona, but he was far more excited at the idea of learning who she really was. Old movie tropes were just characters, after all, he wondered who she was underneath. But what if he didn’t like what he saw? “So who are you when you aren’t Detective Regal.”
She beat him to the punch.
“I’m an actor.”
“I haven’t heard of you.” It wasn’t dismissive, it was an invitation to brag. Nate didn’t bite.
“I don’t take many roles anymore. I’ve been traveling.”
“He’s a pirate, Jenna,” Annie warned.
Jenna’s gaze focused far more intently on Nathan.
Nate shrunk into his seat.
“Kind of. Not really,” he said.
Jenna revealed her teeth in a friendly grin.
“Don’t worry about it. Annie likes to treat me like she’s my big sister, but-” She stuck a tongue out playfully at the little girl in the front seat, “-she’s neither of those things. So, why is an actor playing the part of a pirate instead of taking real roles? I’m sure you could do great things in the Gold Spire.”
Jenna wouldn’t let him just back out that easily.
“So? What’s stopping you.”
“The Gold Spire is amazing and all… but,” he swallowed, “It’s not Hollywood.”
“Does that mean you’re looking for lost-earth?”
“I guess it does.” The words were true, but the severity was a lie. He wasn’t looking for earth ‘I guess.’ He wanted to find it more than he had wanted anything. It was all-consuming. But he couldn’t say it out loud. Somehow it always felt stupid.
Jenna leaned her head against his shoulder.
Apparently, Jenna didn’t think it was so stupid.
The warehouse was full of boxes and shelves, but the absence of people made Nate uneasy. He had expected guards, but they went unopposed. Corner after corner they rounded, Annie and Nav aiming their pistols warily, yet they found no one.
It took ages for them to pick up on a loud mumbling noise, which was nearly drowned out by the aggressive hum of the industrial lights.
They followed their ears and soon found Mark, gagged and tied to a chair.
“Dad!” shouted Jenna, running forwards. Nate felt his stomach drop to the floor. His instincts told him something was very, very wrong.
Jenna pulled the gag from Mark’s mouth.
“They weren’t after me!” He shouted in a panic, the moment he could speak.
“Mister Whitley?” Annie asked cautiously.
“They only grabbed me because they couldn’t find it! They’re after your father’s logs!”
Nate felt sweat beginning to bead on his skin.
“Annie, who has the logs right now?”
“I left them with Miss Becca.”
Kaori wasn’t entirely sure what guard duty entailed, so she just wandered the manor and tried to pay attention. Which was a losing battle against her thoughts.
What was the best hair colour? There had to be an objective best. Nate had black hair, and she liked Nate’s hair a lot. It looked good to her in a way she couldn’t quite describe. Still, she was bored of her own black hair, so that wouldn’t work.
Nate certainly seemed to like the hair of that girl in the dress, he kept looking at it. Does that mean that red is the best hair colour? Somehow Kaori couldn’t stomach the thought of dying her hair to look more like Jenna’s, so red was out.
Nearby, Milah drifted down the hallway, humming quietly to herself.
“Milah!” Kaori called after her.
The drones spun around lazily.
“What do you need dear girl?”
“What’s the best hair colour?”
Milah thought about it for a moment.
“A nice rich brown tone.”
That seemed boring.
“A blonde woman must be glamorous, a woman with black hair must be exotic. A brown haired-woman however, may be anyone they want.”
That didn’t seem particularly helpful. Kaori supposed that a drone who seemed to be a rip-off of three hundred-year-old movies might not be offering the most modern advice. Still, she didn’t have anyone else she could ask.
“What about blue?”
“You can’t be serious, blue isn’t even a natural tone. It’s wretchedly-”
A brutal blast rocked the building, causing Kaori’s feet to fall out from under her and her ears to ring violently. Debris and dust were everywhere, the manor had turned into a war zone in a single instant.
She took a moment to finish her thought before reacting.
She was definitely going to dye her hair blue.
Now that it was settled, she needed to decide what to do about the task at hand. Nav said to stop any intruders and to protect Becca. Whoever had just bombed the manor had likely not gotten far inside. If she found them and subdued them quickly then that would mean Becca was protected. Sounded simple enough.
She left the shrieking drone swarm behind and charged down the stairs towards the lobby. Five men with big rifles that had flashlights on them were spreading out. Flashlights on rifles? That sounded like the kind of dual-purpose invention she liked, although the flashlight certainly sounded more useful than the gun.
The men were mostly wearing street clothes, with bandanas and sunglasses to hide their identity. Each bandana was a different colour, and Kaori found it to be an easy way to identify them. Green, Red, Blue, Yellow, and White.
She could see them reasonably well, but the invaders’ flashlights turned the dusty air in front of them opaque. They would soon realise that it was better to turn them off, but until then, Kaori would be functionally invisible to them.
A smart scavenger never rushed in when she had the choice, so Kaori planned her attack as best she could. If she had her bionic arm then this would be easy, but as a one-armed flesh-only girl, she had to limit her expectations. She reckoned she could break and steal three of those rifles before getting overwhelmed. That simply meant that she’d settle for two rifles then retreat as quickly as possible.
She leaped from the banister on top of the stairs she was on, tackling Yellow, who was the closest of the invaders to her. They collapsed to the floor, a struggling mass of aggressive punches and kicks. She aimed a purposeful punch on his sunglasses, feeling them crunch under her knuckles. It hurt her hand, but with any luck, it had hurt his eyes too, and that felt like a good trade.
She rolled off of him and yanked the rifle from his hands, tossing it into a mass of exposed wiring that was sparking dangerously. She spied her next target, Red. He was isolated now, nearby a hallway and far away from the others. They were all shouting and waving their guns all over as they searched for their assailant. Kaori wasted no time and charged at the gunman.
“Over here!” Red fired a messy stream of rifle shots in Kaori’s direction, but she was prepared, diving underneath and sweeping out Red’s legs. His arms flailed as he fell, causing his gun to clatter to the floor. Kaori snatched it up and darted down the hallway, only narrowly getting around the corner before a hail of bullets thundered down after her.
“Ah! My friggin’ arm!” Shouted Red. Kaori took an educated guess that a stray round must have hit Red. Probably in his friggin’ arm. The plan was going well so far, but now it was time for a second plan. She looked at the rifle in her hands. Kaori felt it was quite a stupid weapon, likely to kill someone if the wielder wasn’t careful. It wasn’t much good to her anyways with only one arm. Still, a scavenger had to make use of any available supplies. She pulled out a few tools from her jacket and made some light-speed alterations. She left the gun on the floor in an obvious place before continuing down the hallway towards the kitchen.
Kaori looked through the kitchen supplies and got to work on her next contraption. She was halfway through building her frying pan catapult when she heard the sabotaged gun go off in the other room. One man was screaming bloody murder, while another was content to just shout a few expletives of pain. Kaori was aware that the screaming guy probably lost a few fingers from the exploding gun, but it was hard to feel too bad for a guy who was trying to kill you. Besides, bionic fingers were pretty commonplace as far as she had seen.
“Forget her! Find the device! Find the little girl!”
Well, that wasn’t good. She was really quite excited to fling catapults at them. She saved the design in her mind for later, the pan flinger would just have to be built another time. Or perhaps she could make it portable?
Ashur rushed out to the top of the lobby stairs in time to see Kaori’s wild attack. The Akkadar felt proud of her. She was like him in a way, discarded, left behind, but of so much more value than anyone knew. He banished the thought from his mind. He had no use for it.
He had no idea what they were here for, but as far as he cared they could have it. All save the only thing in this building he cared about, the log device. Becca had it. Ashur had sneered his disgust as a piece of technology that could lead to the uncovering of the Spur’s holiest treasure was handed over to a disgusting humanling. And now he had to protect the drooling little creature. Perfect.
He plucked his spider-bot and his squirrel-bot from off of him.
“Slow them down then come to Becca’s room.”
He went to find the child while his psychotic miniature robots activated their tiny buzzsaws and charged down the stairs.
“Girl thing?” He called as he opened the door.
The room resembled many of the scrap heaps on Scrappis IV, though made almost entirely of toys and various pink items. Under the bed cover was a lump of scared human.
“Make them leave us alone!” Shouted the sobbing thing.
He wouldn’t get far trying to drag Becca to safety, it would be far more effective to get her on his side.
Ashur didn’t have a lot to work with, so he sat down on the bed next to her. He clutched at an odd yellow rubber toy. It had some form of beak and various feathers all over its body. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he resolved to have a scrap-bot made of it first chance he got. Perhaps Kaori could build him one?
“Why are you scared?” He asked softly.
“Bad men are breaking my home.” she whimpered back.
“Do you think you deserve it?”
The little girl seemed to think about it. Ashur hoped she thought fast, he could already hear the shouting and gunshots mixed with whirring mechanical saws.
“Because my family has always been nice.”
“Is your friend Annie nice?”
Becca peaked her head out of the covers.
“Things like this happen to her every day. Do you know what she does?” Ashur was talking up the infuriating little captain more than he’d like, but he knew how to play to his audience.
“She shoots stuff?”
“She stays brave. Can you stay brave Becca?”
She nodded slowly, wiping away her tears.
“We need to get somewhere safe. Can you tell me the safest place in the house?”
She thought about it.
Ashur grinned with malevolence.
Nav and Mark were the first to rush into the burning building, Jenna and Nate close behind, while Annie’s young legs made her lag far behind the rest. Inside was chaos beyond what they had expected. Four men, one with a handgun, three with rifles, and two injured men were pressed up against a wall, including Blondie. It seemed like the attackers took the time to retrieve their lost companion. Ashur was struggling to figure out how to use a Storm-era infantry rifle, while Becca was laughing like a maniac firing countless bolts of inaccurate laser blasts all over the room with a crude crank gun. It was doubtful she had hit anything, but it was enough to keep the attacker’s heads down. One of the assailants felt brave enough to peak around the wall to take a few shots. The room rang out with a clang as a frying pan smashed into his face.
Kaori was intent on loading another frying pan into a bizarre ramshackle catapult. It was an odd talent that scavenger had, but it was undeniable talent.
By the time Nav and Annie opened fire, the attackers had already made their decision to flee, dragging their wounded with them. They poured out a gap in the wall, crying for mercy.
“You didn’t need our help?” Nate asked.
“I did it!” Yelled Becca, still in hysterical laughter.
“By the Lost Earth, are you okay?” Mark rushed forwards, sweeping up his little girl.
“Did they get the device?” Asked Jenna.
“I protected it!” said Becca, tossing it to her sister.
A mysterious dread poured through Nate as the device flew through the air. That same bad feeling that had been haunting him all day.
He rushed ahead and caught it ahead of Jenna.
Only then was he certain it was over. Whoever those men were, they had failed. They were safe.
Then Nate felt a gun press against his back. It clicked as Jenna cocked the revolver.
“Give it to me.”
Nate had never felt anything like it.
No injury hurts quite like a betrayal. And he had no one to blame but himself. He saw the signs, but he ignored them all. Even now, with a gun aimed at him, he just wanted to forgive her, to tell her that it would all be okay if she just put down the gun.
“Isn’t this how the movie always ends?” He asked instead.
“Regal, I’m sorry. None of this was supposed to happen, but you need to give me the logs.”
“Jenna?!” asked Mark, disbelieving his eyes.
“You’ve seen the movies, Jenna, you told me you did. You know this doesn’t go your way.”
Nav had a gun trained on them now.
“This isn’t a movie Nate. You can’t let them take the crown. You don’t have a clue what you’re getting yourself into.”
“I thought we had something, Jenna. I really did. What have those clowns been telling you that would turn you against your own family?”
“Shut up,” she sobbed. “They were just supposed to destroy the device, not… not any of this.”
Nate shut his eyes. Thinking hard through the sorrow that weighed him down like a thick blanket.
“I-I would have liked to go to Hollywood with you.” She whispered into his ear.
Nate felt tears fall from his eyes. That never happened in the movies.
But like she said, this wasn’t a movie.
He tossed the device through the air to Annie.
The gun exploded into his back, ripping through his chest.
He rolled as he fell. Despite it all, he wanted to see her one last time.
She was horrified, her eyeliner streaked with tears and her face contorted in shock and grief. The gun slipped from her fingers in slow motion and she cupped her hands over her mouth.
They stared into each other’s eyes in a moment that felt to Nate like an eternity.
There was betrayal in his eyes, but not hatred. He didn’t think he could hate her, not even now.
A blast of blue electricity from Nav’s gun flew past Jenna’s shoulder. She was forced to look away from Nate’s fading eyes. She fled into the night. As his world turned black, Nate hoped no one chased her. It would have been nice to run away with her, instead of watching her from the cold stone floor. That would have been nice.