Don’t move. Don’t move. Don’t move. Sid recited melodically as the Droidhound sniffed at her neck. Even with her balancing on her tip toes, the metal hound reached an arm’s length over her head. She’d seen the robotic creatures in projections but the idea of meeting one in person terrified her, and with good reason. The Droidhounds were originally developed by the queen’s lead scientists to act as bodyguards for the Starblades but now that Sid was up close and personal with one, she was sure the hounds were more weapon than guardian. The one now standing in front of her looked to be almost half a ton of pure steel, shaped to mimic the muscle toned build of a canine creature from Colton’s home world. He called them Dobermans and as Sid looked up at the hound’s large face, she decided she hated Dobermans. The hound’s chest plate split in two, revealing a complex system of wires behind an acrylic wall that glowed a faint blue.
“What is it doing?” Sid whispered between clenched teeth. Her eyes stayed fixated on the Droidhound as it rammed its hard-shelled nose into her collarbone.
“He’s scanning you. To check your DNA. Aren’t you, boy?” Ashlan said enthusiastically. “You’ve never seen one do that?”
The hound turned to Ashlan, twisting the sharp points of its silvery ears to the side. The sound of metal rubbing metal made Sid cringe but she was relieved to have the droid’s attention off her. “I’ve never had one scan me before. What’s it doing with my DNA anyway?”
She didn’t answer, hoping he would read into her annoyed look instead. Luckily, he did.
“It can’t see you. It’s a droid.”
“And it needs to know which side you’re-” he paused, “if you’re a Citizen or not.”
Her eyes rolled before she could stop herself, “And if I’m not? Then what? It eats me?”
“What? No!” Ashlan reached up to pet the hound’s head though she doubted it made a difference to the droid. “It gives you clearance accordingly. You know, the droid hive mentality? So you don’t get zapped for being somewhere you’re not supposed to be?”
Sid had no idea what he was talking about. The only thing she knew about the droids Colton’s people built was their internal functions. When she was ten years old, she asked him to send her one for her birthday but when he refused — stating that it was too difficult to transport one in a supply pod — she settled for a three-dimensional hologram. She tinkered with the droid imposter for months, digitally taking it apart and putting it back together until she could assemble a droid with her eyes closed. Sid was even able to redirect the holograms API to her ship’s mainframe to make her false droid take on code commands the same way a real machine would. But a hive mentality? She had no idea that something of that caliber was programmed into the functions of the droids. Of course, she never had more than one hologram to work with. She snuck another glance at the Droidhound in front of her and added seeing the information processing unit to her mental bucket list.
“Which district did you say you’re from again?” Ashlan asked, looking her over.
Son of a Domer! Sid tried to think of an answer that could explain her pathetic lack of knowledge about the towers and the culture on the star. If she named a district that was far enough away from the city, he might be swayed to believe her ignorance.
“Uhm, one twenty-eight?” She said, shrinking with the words. “We don’t leave the dome that often.”
A relieved breath exploded from her lips, making the Droidhound rip its glare away from Ashlan and return its snout to her neck. Great! This again! “So how long does he need to, you know, scan me or something?”
“What? That? Oh, he’s already done. I think he just likes you!”
“How can a droid like anything? That’s actually the dumbest thing I’ve heard you say so far and that’s quite the statement.”
Ashlan turned his back to her and pressed his palms against the hounds puffed, metal cheeks. “Don’t worry, buddy. It’s not you. She’s this way with everyone. What’s that? Oh, I know! Tell me about it! She’s a handful!”
“Very funny, Ashlan. I know you can’t talk to him,” she rolled her eyes.
“Can’t I, though?” He smirked back, “And Ash is fine. Ashlan is what the queen calls me. And you are definitely not her.”
“Whatever do you mean?” She cooed and twirled before offering an exaggerated bow, “And here I was getting ready for the next ball!”
His laugh was infuriating. Or intoxicating, Sid wasn’t certain yet. “We don’t have balls. This isn’t some fairytale.”
Turning away, she hiked up her suit’s collar to hide her red cheeks and stormed away from him down the main hall of the tower’s entrance.
“Where are you running to? You don’t know where you’re going, remember?” He shouted after her.
“Then you better catch up!” She yelled back and turned the corner, hoping this was her chance to lose him. While the serene layout of the Queen’s Tower held many passageways and doorways, it also gave her a chance to duck away from him and be rid of the Starblade for good. This may have been her first time outside the ship but if there was one thing Sid knew well, it was how to find her way in confusing spaces. After all, the Arcturus was one big maze and she could walk end to end blindfolded.
Sid skidded to slow her pace and made a sharp left past a large painting of the queen’s mother holding a miniature replica of the Circulum System in her palms, finding herself in a fork of corridors. Who in the name of the star built this thing? She cursed and looked up at the painting.
Oh, she gulped. Right.
The woman towering above her was beautiful — not in the same sovereign way Queen Leona was — but beautiful nonetheless. Unlike her daughter, the queen’s mother had light features; blue eyes and long blonde hair that seemed to mimic the lightness of the glass tower’s interior. And while the reigning queen’s black eyes pierced with purpose, her mother seemed serene and lost in thought; as if she was dreaming of a world beyond this one. Perhaps she was. Perhaps she was dreaming of the world her raven-haired daughter would soon inherit. Sid wondered what it must have been like for Queen Leona to find out her mother had been stricken with Amperfuge. She didn’t learn much about the disease in her studies, mostly because lessons of biology and medicine bored her to tears, but from what she had gathered, Amperfuge was a deadly disease that affected Colton’s people who had come into prolonged contact to direct sources of the star’s magic. Sid always assumed the late queen contracted it while experimenting with procedures to create the ring and was filled with respect and pride. Anyone willing to die for two races to survive and live in peace was the type of ruler she could get behind. Too bad she’d never get to meet her. Sid was willing to bet the late queen was someone you could carry a proper conversation with. Not like that dumb Starblade, she thought, her thoughts rushing back to the present. Right or left? Which way, Sid? Oh, who cares!
She ran left at full speed and regretted the decision instantaneously.
A man’s heavy back collided with her forehead, knocking her to the ground so fast that she slid back on her rear. Sid was still rubbing the spot that was bound to bruise by morning when she heard a familiar — and very annoying — voice behind her.
“Pardon the girl, general! It’s her first time in the towers. I swear, I took my eyes off her for one minute and… Well, you know how these Domers can get.”
Sid was about to rebut the insult but an inconspicuous wave of Ashlan’s hand made her rethink it. It’s not that she trusted the fool but right now, she trusted him a lot more than a general in the queen’s army. At least he’d been moderately helpful so far.
“Ash! What a pleasant surprise! And please, Abbot is fine. Or do you forget who used to bathe you when your father was busy tending to army matters?” The general laughed, his breath catching in the grey strands of his overflowing mustache.
“For the love of the star, Abbot. What did we say about that story? It sounds alarming when you phrase it that way!”
The general let out another hearty chuckle and patted Ashlan on the shoulder. Sid could tell the attention was making him embarrassed in the way one would feel if their parents were telling stories of their childhood in front of their friends. Not that she would know. No one ever told stories about her and even if they did, there’d be no one to tell them to.
“So you picked up a Domer, did you?”
Sid wasn’t sure how she felt about this Abbot. She knew she didn’t trust him but beyond that, he was nearly impossible to read. The same way Colton was, she realized. It must be a general thing.
She watched as Ashlan took a step forward, positioning himself in front of her. “Just showing her the way.”
“The way to what then?”
“The cells?!?” Abbot bellowed, “What on the star would a Domer be doing in the cells? Most of them can’t tell right from left, you know!”
It was decided — Sid hated him.
“This one is pretty useful. A Domer is a Domer, I know, but she was sent for a job so the least I could do is get her to it.”
Pure power rushed below the thin surface of Sid’s skin. Why would Colton spend his time with these horrid creatures? They were nothing like him! He was kind and good and caring and this general was — she took a breath in — a monster! A real life monster! And so was Colton’s son! The two of them, standing around snickering about how stupid Domers were. They were the dumb ones! Him and his stupid mustache and bald head. Who died and made this guy feel so important?
Her stomach twisted into a knot so tight, she thought her entire body would convulse. Colton. That’s who. When he died.
“So, Domer girl, what’s this special job they have for you?”
A full breath later and Sid was able to tuck her magic back into hiding. She stepped out from behind Ashlan and raised her chin high to stare into the general’s brown eyes. “The droid malfunction two weeks ago, they think it might affect the blade battery circuit. Wanted me to check it out.”
“And you’re the best man, sorry, woman for the job?”
“Looks like it,” she scoffed, trying to sound as assuring as possible. Her ankles trembled in her boots.
“Where did you learn this very intricate task? There aren’t many technicians in the domes.”
Why was he asking so many questions? She needed to get out of there right away. “My dad was a technician. Taught me everything he knew.”
“He died a few years ago.”
The general reached his wrinkled hand to twirl his moustache, “What happened?”
Wow. Not even an ‘I’m sorry’ or something. What a jerk!
“Got too close to a live wire. Died on impact.”
“Hmm,” the general sighed.
“What?” Sid asked before she had a chance to stop herself. She should probably show more respect to this Abbot to pass as a real Domer. Workers would never be allowed to speak to an NSO general in that tone. To her relief, Abbot did not seem to notice.
“You don’t hear too many cases of Domers getting fried, with your connection to electricity and all.”
Sid thought about his comment for a moment, straightening her back and stepping closer to give him full view of her. “Everyone can die,” she said defiantly.
“That is very true, Domer girl.”
“My name is Sid.”
“Wonderful. And which dome are you from, Sid? You and your mother, I take it? Or is there a mister Sid in the picture? You seem quite young but I never know with you people?”
Sid’s fists raised and she took an aggressive stance but Ashlan veered in front of her, spinning her on her heels and away from the general.
“Will you look at that?” He exclaimed, “I didn’t even notice the time! I have dinner plans soon and we still need to get to the cells! So sorry, Abbot! We’ll have to catch up later, I cannot miss this dinner. You know how those Magistra girls get when you keep them waiting!”
He turned back and winked at the dumbfounded general before pushing her away toward the hall with the painting, and away from the general’s intrigue and Sid’s growing anger. This man was supposed to set an example for the rest of them. He wasn’t supposed to go around treating the workers like they were worth less than him. Sid didn’t feel like a Domer but she was offended on their behalf regardless. Colton would have never spoken to her that way, or anyone for that matter. He was a true general, not this grumbling old fool she just met.
“Well, that was a close call!” He yelped when they were out of Abbot’s earshot. “What were you going to do? Punch an army general on your first trip to the city?”
“Yes! I stardamned was but you interrupted! What is your problem, anyway?”
“My problem?” He sneered then raised his voice, “MY problem?!? You are not even supposed to be here! If anyone finds out that I brought you back here so you can fix the blade YOU broke, I’d be suspended for weeks!”
Her arms raised in mock defeat, “Oh, I’m so sorry! I wouldn’t want you to miss your special little dinner with the Magistra!” She wrapped her arms across her chest and mimicked a kissing motion, hoping she got it right since she’d never actually been kissed.
“There is no dinner. I just said that to get you out of there before you got both of us in mucking trouble!” He slapped her hands away from her chest, “Grow up.”
“Did you just curse?” She asked, a smile forming on her lips.
“Oh, my star! The proper, perfect specimen just cursed! I can’t believe it!” She slapped her thighs and laughed harder than she had in weeks, “Careful now! We wouldn’t want your face to crack from the profanity!”
A smile twirled at the edges of Ashlan’s full lips, “So you think I’m perfect, huh?”
“What? No! I didn’t say that!”
“Yeah, you did. Proper and perfect, in fact,” he grinned and she immediately stopped laughing.
“Forget it, just take me to the cells so I can fix that blade and be free of you already. Just in case you have some other fictitious dinner to attend to, you dumb liar.”
“Ha! You’re one to talk!”
“You know what I’m talking about. Your little story about being asked to look at the cells? Pretty believable.”
“Would you have preferred if I told him the truth? About your little blade and our fun run in?”
Ashlan shook his head furiously. “No! Obviously not! But you’re lucky I got you out of there before you started blabbing about going to the cells.”
“And what if I did?” She shrieked. “Why can’t I go wherever I stardamned please in this place? I’m here to work, aren’t I?”
“Because,” Ashlan said with caution, “only Domers with special clearance get into the cells and you don’t have one.”
“So how do I even get in there to fix your blade?”
He cleared his throat and threw her a salute, “With me! I thought that was obvious?”
“Fine. Let’s just get on with it. And I’m not that good of a liar, the general didn’t seem to believe a word I said.”
“Who? Abbot? Oh, don’t mind him! He’s that way with everyone. Domer, Citizen, droid, plant, you name it! Abbot hasn’t trusted anyone in his life except-” his voice caught in his throat.
“Your father?” She asked.
The melancholy covered his face in an almost physical sheathe, and for a brief moment Sid let her heart sink for the Starblade. His loss was her loss. They had lost the same person and they shared that grief even if only one of them knew it. What if Ashlan was just as lost without Colton as she was? What if he missed him just the same? Like his own leg had been torn off. What if they could be friends after all?
“You going to keep staring or do you want to actually fix what you broke?” He said from behind her.
Not friends. Not ever.
Sid followed him down the brightly lit hall to the cells. Soon she would be free of him and back to her mission. Finding the valve and getting the muck off this star and back to her ship. She glanced once more at the painting and let her eyes lock with the old queen’s gaze. Something about the way they shone made her feel like she was watching her. Laughing at her from behind ten coats of paint.