Middleham Castle. North Yorkshire. England.
Aspen Strong hummed to herself as she parked her hover bike in the underground parking garage of Middleham. Blanche had just come out with a new single and it was insidiously catchy. She was going to end up singing it all day, probably driving Jerome and Magpie crazy.
She brushed her braids back from her face as she locked the bike down. She’d gone last night to get them re-done and highlighted. Usually Aspen preferred a very dark silver in her black hair but a gold color had caught her eye and she was still adjusting to having the glitter catch her eye every time she turned her head.
Aspen yawned as she rode the security lift up into the castle proper. She was really going to have to talk to Jerome about switching watch shifts.
“Hey, morning Kami. How’s it going?” She caught one of the PR managers at the replicator. The diminutive woman smiled at her, grabbing her coffee and croissant from the machine.
“It goes, Aspen. Nice hair.”
She tossed her head, grinning and stepping up to the machine. Her metal digits slipped on the touchscreen.
“Thanks. I just got it done. Are you and Harm both here today?”
Kami nodded, taking a chunk out of her pastry. She held up a hand to her mouth and gestured.
“In the office?”
Kami nodded, and rolled her eyes.
“He’s still working on his coding for the, um, thing?”
Kami nodded and swallowed. “Yeah. He says he’s getting close to finishing it. He swears it’s going to revolutionize the way we find artifacts. I think he just hates doing field work.”
“Men, am I right?”
Kami snorted. “Yeah. Shame I married him, huh?” She checked her watch. “Speaking of, I should go make sure he’s not going off food again. See you around.”
Aspen nodded taking a sip of her coffee and winced. Too hot. “I’ll be around to do rounds in a tick.”
Kami left and Aspen made her leisurely way through the refurbished castle. The weak English sun was trickling through the hand-blown window panes. Thick tapestries, made as close to original as possible hung on the walls. A scrubbed wooden table, nearly the length of the hall, was sitting out. Plaques sat at every few feet, inviting guests to come and sit down to ‘experience life as it had been fifteen hundred years ago!’ People would tab the screen and trigger holographic tour guides and recreated historical figures to explain the history of the castle and Neville family. No one was here yet but Aspen thought she remember a group of kindergarteners on the schedule for later today.
Middleham had become the heart of a tiny kingdom of ‘historical fetishists’ as she’d heard it called in her time on the base. After she’d lost her arm during a drill of a interplanetary battle and been turfed into desk work, Aspen had jumped at the chance to work security for one of the ‘historical heritage’ bases under Magpie Jones. It was better than desk work, and quiet. Simple.
Aspen could appreciate simple.
At the end of the great hall, there was a modern staircase that led up the second story where the administration offices were. As head of entire endeavor, Magpie had been allowed where they wanted their offices to be located and had picked the rebuilt castle, of all places.
If Aspen had been in charge, she would have picked somewhere well, more modern. Or a pyramid. But that was her, and Aspen was the first to admit she didn’t really ‘get’ most of the long dead references Magpie liked to talk about, or the importance of the project Magpie liked to expound on every quarterly meeting.
“Knock knock!” She rapped on the door to Magpie’s office, peering in.
As always her boss was engaged in reading, hunched over their desk and square chin proper in their hand. They looked up and smiled at her, white teeth a smooth contrast to the dark purple lip gloss they preferred and looking expertly tailored as always. Aspen didn’t know how a person who spent ten to eighteen hours everyday in a decrepit castle always looked like they’d gotten professionally dressed by one of the designers from Monaco. But Magpie pulled it off.
“Good morning, Aspen. Have you checked in with Jerome yet?”
She shook her head, striding into the room. “Not yet, I’m going there next. Wanted to stop in first and check how the night was.”
Magpie dismissed this with a flick of their thin ochre fingers. A single diamond was glued to their pinkie nail, the rest merely polished to a high shine.
“Fine. Not as if we get much traffic passed one anyway. That’ll come with the off season. Go check with Jerome and let him go home. Then go swing by Harmony’s office. He’s getting close to being done with his coding.”
“Yeah that’s what Kami was saying. But, come on, Magpie. Do you really think that’ll work?” She scoffed. Magpie shook their finger at her.
“Don’t doubt human ingenuity. Asking ‘why not’ led to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the –”
“Yeah yeah, point taken, professor. Let me know when he makes his breakthrough or whatever.” Aspen turned and spoke over her shoulder. “Still just for bunch of artifacts.”
She laughed when Magpie muttered “Heretic,” under their breath.
Aspen spent the morning first, filling a report for her commander at Cairo and then walking the boundary of the castle. When she was on her way back, she swung by the office next to Magpie’s.
“Hey Harm. How’s the project coming?” She asked. The young man pushed his spectacles up his forehead and blinked blurrily. She could still see the lines of code reflecting against his ebony skin.
“Ughh. I’ve had code shooting into my eyes for the last eight hours. How do you think it’s going?”
She sat down on desk, staring down at the lines of code. With the visualization program, she could see actual building blocks and webbing of the coding.
“So what’s this gonna do?”
Harm rolled his eyes at her, grabbing a chocolate bar from his desk.
“We talked about at the last meeting, come on.”
“Using the global networking surveillance system it’s going to search and find matching data, forms and recognize historically relevancy globally.”
Aspen stared at him, and waved a hand over her head.
“Um in English Rainbow Miller. Not all of us went to the North African Academy of excellence in programing.”
Harm sighed. “It’ll basically find historically relevant artifacts for us, by matching them to preexisting images. So say Queen Elizabeth the second is wearing an item in a photograph. Her tiara. Well this program will take the image of the tiara and match against every single frame recorded by the global surveillance system. Anywhere there’s a camera, that’s where this program is.”
Aspen stared at him. “And how did Magpie get the Federation to pay for this again?”
“Uh, boss has massive steel -”
Kami swung into the room, carrying to cups of coffee. “Java?”
Harm groaned. “Oh yes, baby talk dirty to me.”
Kami wrinkled her nose. “You’re weird. It’s good that I like weird, otherwise this would be awkward.”
Aspen rolled her eyes. “Well I’ll be impressed to see what it can do when you finish.” Harm sipped his coffee and grinned at her.
“We’re testing it this afternoon. Boss’s orders.”
Aspen cast a dubious look at the visualization program. It still only looked half built to her. “Better get on that and stop flirting, huh?”
“I’ll work even faster when you leave, don’t worry,” Harm smiled sweetly at her. Aspen laughed as she left.
“And pigs will fly and snakes will talk…” she muttered to herself, walking away. Harm was one of the cleverest people she knew, and she didn’t doubt his coding ability. She doubted that it would work.
Magpie had wanted to view the testing herself so they gathered in one of the halls, with a projector already set up and Harm helming the thing. He was busy typing, bent over and tongue in between his teeth. Magpie was pacing tight excited circles around the room. They looked like an eager child, hope and optimism shining in their eyes.
“What do you want to find?” They asked the room. “Let’s go around and indulge ourselves with some fantasizing.”
“I did that before I came into work today,” Jerome muttered lowly to Aspen, who smothered her giggles in a cough.
“Jerome, you go first,” Magpie ordered.
The other security officer blanched. “Um, uh. Well I guess it would be cool to find one of the sunken cities? Florence or New Orleans. Or maybe L.A.? Heh, what if we found the old Hollywood sign?” He grinned, brown eyes glittering. “I always liked all those old 21st century movies, before the war.”
Magpie nodded. “That’s a good one. Aspen?”
Aspen shrugged. “Maybe another one of the lost kings? We’re still looking for some of those ones that were privately acquired, right?”
Magpie frowned ponderously. “Don’t remind me. Ugh, what a disgrace, selling history to profiteers.”
“Oh! I want to find the Area 34 facilities. Holy cow can you imagine all of the debates that would solve, if we could prove it was developing atomic weapons and not hiding aliens?” Kami put in.
“Atlantis,” Harm muttered, still typing.
“What about you, boss?” Jerome leaned back on the scrubbed hardwood table. “What do you want to find?”
“Well,” Magpie colored slightly, tawny skin going darker over their high cheekbones and the bridge of their nose. “I want to find Tyrell’s confession, if there is one. It would basically swing the greatest cold case of all time one way or another.” They cast an admiring look at the wall, where the calm visage of the most famous resident of the castle, Richard the III, looked over them.
He had been the primary motivator for Magpie moving their office here, rather than staying in Cairo with the other Federation regulated cultural projects. Aspen had heard that they were obsessed with the dead monarch but never truly appreciated how much love one could have for a dead white man until she’d talked to Magpie about their passion project. Jerome called it ‘historical voyeurism’, something he thought everyone of the academic they worked with at Middleham had.
“It’s very nearly some kind of mania. They get their claws into a person or a time, or a war and spend the rest of their life on the planet picking it apart like it’s a compulsion. It’s a little creepy,” he wheedled.
“Yeah, but hey, at least they’re passionate about something. So many people just take whatever job the Federation gives out now a days, not thought about why, they’re taking it, or how it’s going to impact the world.” She argued back. Jerome had rolled his eyes.
“So, what’s so bad about that? It ensures everyone is at substance level. Who said you need to do what you’re passionate about to be happy? That’s what the rest of your life is about, anyway.”
Aspen snorted and slapped her co-worker on the shoulder. “That’s good, cause I think the only thing you’re passionate about is whose in your bed.”
Jerome grinned and flipped his tight curls out of his face. “Nothing wrong with that.”
Aspen observed the phenomenon in full force as all of the historians crowded around Harm, who was leaning back and studying the program.
“I think that’s gonna do it.”
Magpie clapped his on the shoulder. “We’ll never until we try. Turn it on, and let’s see what turns up.”
That had been two hours ago. Kami was sleeping next to Harm, head propped on his shoulder. Harm was absently watching the screen, while playing with one of the new Nintendo 4-Ds. The room was punctuated with the sound of tiny holograms squeaking while they battled each other. while Magpie, Aspen and Jerome played Go Fish.
“Got any kings?” Aspen asked Magpie. She was sitting on 3, and just needed hearts.
“Go fish,” Magpie ordered.
Just then the program beeped, a pop up displaying a message that it the search had found something. Magpie threw their cards down in relief, revealing a hand of singles.
“I had you’re king, sorry,” Jerome smiled at Aspen who groaned and scooped up Magpie’s pile to reshuffle.
“Best three of five?’
Behind them, Harm was pulling up what the program had found.
“Huh, it says it from a public security camera. Um, in Paris.”
Magpie snorted. “I bet it’s of the La Gioconda.”
Harm tapped the board and shook his head slowly. “No. It says it’s from Place de la Concorde.” He pulled up the frame the program had focused on and blew it up so it filled the whole wall display.
The picture was clear, with only a little bit of bur around the edges. The colors were in HD, so Aspen could see the blue of the highlighted figure’s eyes and the sunshine reflecting off his dark hair. He was running, half turned and the camera had caught him in near perfect profile.
Magpie was already shaking their head. “That’s impossible. Pull up what the program is comparing it to.”
Harm silently complied and soon they had a side by side comparison to a facial reconstruction, based on a skull found in 2012. The contours, highlighted by the green grid overlaid flashed, and ‘100% Match’ flashed on the screen.
Magpie sat down, slowly in the chair next to Harmony who was frozen, hands hovering over the touchscreen.
“That’s not possible.” The words seemed to have scraped Magpie’s throat raw, and when she looked over, there were tears in their eyes. “It can’t be, can it?”
“Reincarnation?” Kami offered weakly after a moment. She ripped her gaze from the display to look around. “Cloning?”
Harm let out a choked laugh.
“That’s illegal under Federation law and you know it. Don’t you remember the Disney scandal?”
Magpie was still staring at the picture, hand pressed to their mouth. They seemed transfixed, but Aspen could see the processed being complied in their head.
“Harm, can you scan the rest of the video? Is there a part where his back is to the camera?” They asked urgently.
Harm’s hands shook as he did so. The man completed his turn and with his head down and arms pumping, he sprinted towards the transporters, following after two other running figures.
“Stop! Go back, right after he turns,” Magpie stood up and leaned forward, watching as the feed went back, and froze. The man’s mixed synthetic shirt pulled against his back, and the fabric revealed what Magpie had been looking for, but Aspen saw something different.
“Scoliosis!” They gasped.
“He doesn’t have an ID,” she pointed out at the same time.
Aspen and Magpie looked at each other.
“Oh my god. We found Richard the bloody Third.”
After that they came to an impasse. Aspen did a quick database search, and indeed discovered that Federation Special Forces had been ordered to Paris to track down ‘three renegade type four androids.’ However the order didn’t come from the Android Recovery Department, but all the way down from Chikara herself.
“The plot thickens,” Jerome muttered. Harm was busy trying to track where the man, King Richard, Aspen reminded herself went after he ran out of view of the Place de la Concorde cameras.
“What do we do when we find him again? Turn him into Chikara?” Kami asked breathlessly. Aspen hesitated.
Chikara was well known for her extremely protective view of the Federation. To the point where she’d basically pushed the Global Surveillance Program and Planetary Defense Corp single handly through Federation parliament. She was nearly a party of one. Chances were that if she had her sights set on Richard, it couldn’t mean anything good for him. What a dead monarch had done to offend the Head of Security, Aspen couldn’t imagine.
“Absolutely not.” Magpie’s voice rang out like a church bell. “He falls under historical reclamation and if you’ll remember, that’s my department. Chikara will have him destroyed, just like she campaigned to have so many of the heritage sights removed from the protected lands list.” Magpie shook their head gravely. “No. We cannot let Chikara get him. Harm, figure out where he went.”
“Then what?” Aspen asked. Magpie spun majestically.
“Then we reclaim him, for history.”