Chasing Stars: Chapter 6

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After completing the tour, the group returned up to the shuttle and flew over to Orbital One. It was late evening when they finally disbanded.

"We have some things to go over before the start up tomorrow," Sasha reminded Sadhika.

"Of course," Sadhika conceded with some apparent reluctance as she bid farewell to the Bowlands. "It's been fun showing you around the ship. We're obviously very proud."

"Markus, we'll need a final answer from you by the end of tomorrow." Wiremu said. "Whether it's you or someone else, we need a name and we need a chance to check them out."

"I understand."

The four turned to leave and made their way up a stairwell to the promenade's upper level. "What do you think?" Markus asked Molly as he gestured around, indicating the station itself.

The station was four times as big as the New Horizon, but of a similar design. Much of the design for the ship had come from Orbital One's sister facilities Orbitals Two and Three. They served as relays and shipyards, and as such only had amenities for workers. Orbital One was the playground in the space, Sky Vegas as some called it.

This meant that the habitat ring of Orbital One was reminiscent of the main corridor on New Horizon, just much larger. He could see much more floor stretching out in front of him as it curved up under the ceiling, which had a similar curve but had a glass strip along the middle showing the other side of the ring a couple kilometers away. Up on the left and right was the second level with matching curves, which the New Horizons team had just disappeared into.

"How can something be so big but also so claustrophobic at the same time?" Molly asked.

Under the second levels were shops with their store fronts facing the main concourse where the they were standing, buffeted by passers-by as they tried to huddle out of the way in the row of tall, manicured live shrubs lining the middle of the corridor.

"Probably has something to do with all the people," Lucas suggested before changing the topic. "So, dinner time. Suggestions?"

"Place over there is good," Markus pointed towards something called 'The Space Outback Bar & Casino'. "It's kind of loud but the food is pretty good, I've eaten there a couple times. It's definitely not the best food here, but it's definitely… you know, here here."

"Works for me," Molly said as she headed over without further consideration. "Those fanatics didn't even have the decency to feed us lunch, I'm starving!"

Lucas looked over at Markus as they started to follow her and dramatically mouthed 'starving', and then a look of being unconvinced. Markus swatted his arm in protest but left it at that.

They arrived and took a seat at the bar with Markus in the middle with Molly on his left. A man in his late forties with prominent lines on his weathered face handed them menus and asked them what they'd like to drink with an Australian accent. Markus asked for a beer and Molly a martini, but Lucas said he wasn't sure yet and the bartender left to grab drinks for the others while he decided.

"You know what?" Lucas asked. "I'm going to get out of here. I'm really not feeling this menu and it's been such a long day I just want to hang out alone. You get it right?"

"Of course," Markus offered, "I'm pretty beat myself. We'll see you tomorrow."

"Cool." Lucas got up off of his stool as the man was returning with drinks for Markus and Molly. "Decided to just turn in," he lied before turning to leave. "Night all."

"Have a good night Lucas," Markus said as Molly also politely said goodbye.

"Excuse me, I don't want to be rude," the Australian said as they took their first drinks, "are you Maggie King?"

"Haven't been asked that sincerely in quite some time!" Molly laughed. "No, I'm a simulant of her. Name's Molly." She extended her hand for him to take it. He gave her a queer look before taking her hand and shaking it. "Maggie King is sixty-eight now, my friend! Tell me I don't look sixty-eight!" she teased him.

The man's hair was dark auburn, his stubbled chin a mix of white, brown and bright red. He rubbed his stubbled chin thoughtfully as he regarded Molly. "Simulant hunh? No shit? Me too!"

Markus suddenly felt like a third wheel.

"I don't recognize you…" Molly stated with no hint of insult, "you a private job?"

"Yeah… Had a farm with a lovely woman in the Upper Hunter Valley. I died and the poor old bird couldn't take the loss, so she had me made to replace him, but then… well too few years later she then died herself."

"And you came here?" Molly marveled. "How does that even happen?"

"Not sure to be honest…" he admitted, stopping to scratch his scalp as he ran fingers through his hair. "I mean I remember coming here? But the why is kind of lost on me. When she died she left me everything in her will; no kids, you know? But sims can't legally own property until they officially 'transition'," he made air quotes with his fingers, indicating that he either didn't believe in it or maybe felt too much emphasis was placed on it.

"You haven't?" Molly asked, surprised.

"Well I think I have, but who's to say, it's uh… subjective you know? Someone who is well beyond is obvious, but before that there's no trigger, nothing you can objectively look at. They just have these fucking 'experts' who make up their 'expert' fucking opinion-"

He stopped and put his hands up. "Not that you fine folks need to worry about any of that. Anyways, sorry about that. Can I get you something or are you still going to need a minute with those menus?"

"I'm definitely going to need a minute," Markus said, a little too quickly.

The sim bartender pursed his lips and nodded before pushing off of the bar and moving over to speak to some other patrons.

"Interesting fellow," Markus observed with curiosity.

"Don't be jealous," Molly teased.

"I'm not…" he sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I'm not jealous. I am hungry though."

"Well then let's eat!"

Business picked up and they didn't have much more opportunity to speak to the bartender. When they were finishing their food, Markus received a DM on his scroll from Sadhika asking if he was free to meet up to discuss the procedures tomorrow. He found it odd that she asked him to come alone; he was suspicious that she had some illicit intent, but if he was being honest with himself that was serving more as a draw than a deterrent.

"Sadhika would like to meet up with me." He wasn't sure how to specify that she wasn't invited. Fortunately, she saved him the trouble.

"You go on without me, I like this place. I'd like to hang around for a while."

Markus looked around and observed how much the place had picked up since they'd arrived. "Warming to parties are we?"

She put on a playfully innocent face as she went to drink from her straw. "I've decided that I like them," she said with a wink.

Markus smiled. "Good for you."

"Besides they've got that piano in the corner. I haven't performed in that way since I was made."

"Wouldn't that be like… copyright violation or something?" he teased with a laugh, and she took it as he'd hoped.

"Get out of here you asshole," she teased back.

The outer regions of the habitat ring could be somewhat labyrinthine. Sadhika had included a room number in her message, and the navigator on his scroll had asked the ship's corridor panels to direct him, which left him following a thin green line down the hallway wall to her door.

He found himself more anxious than he was expecting to be. He knew Sadhika was flirting with him but sensed that she was a disciplined enough woman to keep it at that. He was also unsure how he would respond if he was wrong, or even how he wanted to respond.

The door slid open and Sadhika got up from her desk to came greet him, fully clothed Markus observed with a sly smile within the privacy of his own head. He entered to greet her, and the door closed behind him.

"Glad you could make it," she offered as she waved an invitation for him to join her at her modest desk. These appeared to be basic accommodations. Either there was no money left for anything more luxurious, or they just usually bunked on their ship.

She looked at him for an uncomfortably long amount of time. She seemed to be waiting for him to say something. When he attempted to say something, she interrupted him.

"I like you Markus."

'So much for discipline…' Markus thought to himself. She was smiling, but it struck him as the smile of a cat which knows the fate of its prey and is just settling in to enjoy the process.

"I think you like me too. But I also think we've both probably been around the block enough times to know it's just chemistry. Correct?"

Markus nodded. He felt so taken off guard he was borderline uncomfortable, but compelled to see where she was going with this.

"Well," she resolved as she opened the bottom drawer of her desk and pulled out a bottle of brown liquor. "I'd like to find out if I like you."

Markus found some ease. He did know exactly what she meant. She was curious about him; she wanted to get to know him, find out what might be left when that chemistry has exhausted itself.

She was asking him out on a date.

"I have a girlfriend."

"Do you…" Sadhika said in a way that was not a question as she pulled out two glasses and poured from the bottle into both.

"Look Sadhika, I don't want to ruffle anything for my brother or the company here, but I take sim rights very seriously, and if you're suggesting-" Sadhika put a finger to his lips to stop him after handing him a glass, which he had taken without thinking.

She moved over to sit on the bed, but did it in such a way that made clear he was welcome to join her, but also equally as welcome to remain at the desk.

"I'm not questioning her personhood Markus," she hesitated. "I'm questioning her girlfriend-hood."

"Why, because a girlfriend can't be a girlfriend if she's a simulant?"

Sadhika flashed impatience. "Do I strike you as a bigot Markus."

"No." he answered definitively after a moment. "No you do not."

"Then stop putting words in my mouth."

"Then stop with the riddles!" Markus flashed impatience back at her.

Sadhika's head tilted slightly to the side and she smiled with half of her face. He wished he knew what she was thinking. Maybe she wasn't used to people standing up to her.

She paused, seeming to consider what exactly she wanted to say.

"You two seem very close for sure, but your relationships seems… well to me at least, more… mentor mentee. You two don't seem on equal footing in your relationship,"

"That's a lot of big assumptions for not knowing me very well."

"It is," she conceded, holding out her drink as though its reason for being had now been revealed. "I know what that's like," she said as she looked away, revealing genuine vulnerability for the first time in the short time he'd known her. "The great Sadhika Sengupta…" she said distantly. "Hard to find someone who can be on equal footing with all that, you know?"

"I do." He took a drink to signal his willing participation in the conversation now, and had to stifle the instinct to cough at the strong burn worming its way down to his core. Sadhika nodded in acknowledgement and there was brief silence as the two shared a drink.

"Especially since most people who make it to my level are snarling psychopaths!" She laughed that wonderful uninhibited laugh.

"Oh I'm well aware," he said dryly. The kinds of people who got to that level were a lot of the reasons why he stayed away as much as he did.

The woman was somehow managing to be vulnerable without being weak, and Markus envied her for it. It was a talent he had long wished he had the capacity to develop. He imagined it was her total self-confidence, her certain knowledge that she was stronger than anything that could hurt her. Markus considered that this probably just isolated her further.

"So, I recognize it." She took another sip and he obliged by doing the same. He decided to move over and sit on the bed with her, and she tactfully failed to acknowledge it.

"I don't know what we really are…" he admitted. "Neither of us do. I don't know what will happen."

"She'll outgrow you Markus," Sadhika said, "that's what will happen."

Markus didn't say anything; he knew she was right.

"You've already grown, already become what you're going to be. Me too! But her? She may look like a sex pot but she's still just a child. The intellect of an adult but no more personal experiences to draw on than a toddler. She's going to become something very different than she is today."

"But I won't."

"We won't," she corrected him with a sigh.

He met her gaze and it lingered too long, so he stood up and she watched him slowly pace the room.

"So I'm wondering…" she continued, "would you rather stay here, knowing how that all turns out, and then be left alone, just older and more rarified, finding it ever harder to relate to others… or do you want to join a family and become something larger than yourself. I'm offering you the chance to experience family Markus… and never feel alone again."

"You can't promise that…" he argued. "And besides, I think you're setting up a hellscape for the people along the way. They'll be born into slavery! No choices, zero options in their lives other than to serve your wishes from cradle to grave. How can you do that to those people?"

Sadhika's expression turned stone sober. "Because it needs to be done." She stood up and began slowly pacing orthogonally to him. "Because nobody gets to decide what they're born into. Not me, not you, not them."

Markus stopped pacing and watched her. "Personal experience I take it? There's not much information about your early life out there."

She turned around and he thought he perceived distress in her eyes, but it vanished when her expression turned back to mischief. "What can I say, I'm a woman of mysteries… If you come on the ship you'll have the rest of your life to learn all of my secrets," she winked.

Markus smiled and looked away, unsure of what to say. "I've heard your elevator pitch answer for why do all this, but tell me about when you had the idea. Tell me how a crazy idea became a plan. What was the trigger?"

"Honestly?"

"Honestly."

Sadhika finished her drink and then got up off the bed and went back to her desk to pour herself more. "It was the Mormons," she shrugged. "I hated that they went first. I hated that they were the only ones going." She sat back down at the desk and sipped while Markus sat on the bed and listened.

"Why?"

"Seriously? Why? You were happy having them be our sole emissaries to the stars?"

"I honestly didn't think much about it at all," Markus admitted.

"Well I thought about it a lot. A lot a lot… My family was very religious. I escaped early and never looked back. I don't talk about it. I'm a science loving secularist to my core Markus, and I just kept thinking about random events that could end human civilization on Earth that would leave them being the only ones up there, thriving, speaking, and living for all of us. I just couldn't stand it."

"So all this." Markus concluded. It was hard to imagine so much could come from that, but it made sense.

"That's why we didn't just hollow out an asteroid and use off the shelf parts. I had something to prove. This mission is a scientific mission at its core. They were escaping, but we're exploring. This mission is to counterbalance that starship in the grand cosmic scales. That's why we put so much energy into the lasting archives. The other ship took an incomplete archive, they cut out anything that contradicted their religion which was so, so much Markus…" she seemed genuinely sad.

"So that's why." Enough tear had welled up in her eye that she needed to wipe it away before any streaked down her cheek.

"I suppose it was inevitable that somebody would try, regardless of who." Markus considered. "It's a story as old as time really… place you are isn't working out for one reason or another, pull stakes and move over the horizon. Now there's nowhere new left on Earth and there's nowhere in the solar system we can live without support from Earth… leaving the solar system behind is the only next logical step," Markus shrugged.

Sadhika got up from her seat and finished her glass before setting it down on the table. She approached him with an expression of intent that he recognized and didn't turn away. She was only slightly shorter than him, allowing her to look up into his eyes a bit. She had her hands in her back pockets and her eyes searched his like she was scanning his brain for a very specific piece of information.

Neither one of them kissed the other. They approached slowly, each a bit at a time and met by the other until their lips trembled and touched. Their kiss was brief, but it was soft and tender, and ample exposure to put their chemistry to the test, which Markus felt react strongly.

Markus pulled away. The look on her face suggested that she'd felt the same thing. It was something he hadn't felt in a long time; something that now scared him.

"I should go," he said, careful not to impugn the moment with how he said it.

"Okay." Her expression suggested she wanted to say more, but she had that discipline he so envied. He took her hand and squeezed it before letting go and turning to leave. When he got to the door and ordered it open with his brain chip he turned and looked back at her.

"You should go," she repeated but with different meaning.

"I know."

Markus returned to the Space Outback to find Molly sitting at the piano, entertaining several dozen people with a song from an old musical, more animated than he'd ever seen her. It was discordant for him to see his confused little mouse so boisterously entertaining a large crowd. He wasn't sure what it meant.

He sat at the bar. She saw him and smiled through a lyric. The song she was singing seemed nearly over.

"Thank you boys and girls, thank you so much, but I'm gonna need to take five now!" she said as she excused her way through the crowd to her boyfriend. She sat beside him and drank down half of the glass the bartender had put in front of her.

"I've never seen you like that," he observed.

"I've never been like that," she answered with a charming laugh. "Well, not me me…"

"Figured out how you're going to handle that?" he asked.

"Hunh?" She hadn't made the connection he'd hoped she would.

"If you're going to claim those memories," he reminded her, "refer to them as your own or as hers."

"I was actually talking to Hank about that just now."

"Hank?" Markus asked.

"Hank." the sim bartender said as he put out his hand for Markus to shake, which he did after a moment's hesitation.

"And? What did you come up with?" he asked.

"It doesn't matter," she laughed. "Mine, hers, what's the difference. They're both in my head, as long as I know which is which when I need to what difference does it make?"

"I'll drink to that," Markus offered, and got into the drink Hank had brought for him as well, a repeat of his earlier order.

"Been having fun then?" he asked.

Molly widened her eyes as she drank some more and nodded her head. "Hank is such an interesting story, and they love me over there!" She turned around and waved to her former crowd and got some hoots in response.

"You want to stay," he realized.

"If you don't mind, I'm having such a great time. You don't want to?"

"I'm tired… and well old I guess," he laughed. "I'm going to go back to our room. You have fun though, really, enjoy yourself! I just need to decompress after today, you know?"

She knew him well enough to understand. He was generally pretty introverted so long days of playing the part of sociable Markus really drained him.

"You're sure?" she asked, seemingly concerned it was some sort of test.

"Super sure sweetheart," he said as he got up and leaned over to kiss her on the forehead. "Have fun."

"Markus?"

He woke up to her sitting beside him on the bed. She was crying.

"Molly? What's wrong? What time is it?

"He's just so wonderful and we have so much in common I'm sorry I didn't want to but I really wanted to and I've never done something like that with someone I wanted to because I wanted to and-"

"Hey, hey, hey," Markus said as he put his arms around her. "Slow down, slow down… What happened?"

"I kissed Hank."

Markus laughed which seemed to severely confuse Molly. "What is it? Why are you laughing?"

"Because I kissed Sadhika," he continued to laugh. She got the joke and laughed with him while she grabbed a pillow and hit him with it.

"You asshole…" she said noncommittedly.

"Tell me about it." he said.

"I like him. I've… I've never liked anybody before," she said with a shrug.

He tried to mask how much it hurt to hear her say that, but failed.

"Oh I'm sorry honey, it's just-"

"Hey. It is what it is," he interrupted her to concede.

"I don't want you to think I don't care about you, but…" she shrugged. "I think you'll always be a client who was really good to me, you know? Our sexual relationship was based on purchase, our… intimacy based on… transaction." He could tell she'd been talking this through with somebody before she arrived at these conclusions, but they were fair observations. "I don't regret it though Markus, I… I love you so much."

"I know." He said as he pulled her into a tight hug. "Hey, I know, okay? I really do."

She nodded. "But him? I just… I just really like him, you know? Not because I'm programmed to, not because he's a client, I just… I just really really like him," she giggled.

Markus chuckled as he laid back down. "Yeah, we call that 'chemistry'…" he said as he laced his fingers behind his head, reflecting on his earlier conversation with Sadhika. "It's somehow at once the most and least important thing in the world, but I'm glad you've found it." He looked over at her in the dim light. "I really am Molly."

"Thank you."

"I never wanted to keep you," he said. "I just wanted to help you."

"I know. Thank you. For all that, but… for all this too."

Markus sat up and fiddled with his fingers. "We just broke up didn't we?"

"Yeah…" she looked at him and acknowledged with a sad face.

"I think I want to go, Molly."

The woman nodded with understanding, and then her eyes sparkled as she remembered, and she hit him with the pillow again. "Sadhika? Really? Oh you dog!" she laughed. He pulled her into a cuddle and they kissed goodbye before falling asleep in each other's arms for the last time.