Chapter 4 – A Key’s Family
“Why the hell are we here?”
“Do we really need to explain ourselves again?” Mote retorted impatiently, “we’re here so that you can pack your things for leaving Earth.”
“And my stuff isn’t even here in the Bay,” Pierce countered. “It’s all down at Caltech. There’s no point in coming here!”
“Oh? That’s not what you said yesterday.”
“That was before I knew you dumbasses would insist on tagging along. I don’t need you all up in my business.”
“So you do have things at home, then? You just don’t want us to see them.”
“Listen here, you entitled fuck, that’s not what I’m saying…”
Saito sighed warily from his seat at the front of the self-driving car as Mote and Pierce’s heated exchange dominated the atmosphere. Barely fifteen minutes had passed since Saito, Mote, Pierce, and Conrad had entered the car en route to Pierce’s home near San Francisco, and virtually every minute had been filled with Pierce and Mote’s arguing. I know Mote has a hard time making new friends, Saito mused, but this is just ridiculous. Did something happen between them…?
“I’m telling you, this is for your own—”
“Don’t you fucking tell me that this is ‘for my own good’. You know what would be, though? If we went where my shit actually is!”
“Alright, you two, cut it out,” the Colonel finally interjected, “you clearly aren’t going to convince each other of anything, so cut your losses and save your breath.”
“Colonel’s got a point,” Conrad quickly added from his seat in the back of the car. “Wouldn’t it be easier if we all just took a nap?”
“Figures you’d want a nap at a time like this,” Pierce muttered. “How the hell do you manage to take naps all the time?”
“Well, currently, I’m not. Which is part of why it’d be nice if the two of you quieted down. It’s hard to nap when people are arguing near you.”
“You must be joking,” Mote replied, his tone deadpan. “How irresponsible can you be?”
“Mote,” Saito cut in sharply, “let’s not start with the arguing again.”
“Leave it, Lieutenant.”
“…Understood, sir,” Mote responded stiffly as he turned to face forward in his seat beside Saito at the front of the car.
The Colonel released a quiet sigh in response. It wasn’t often that he had to pull the rank card to get Mote to listen to him — something must have agitated Mote to a far greater degree than normal. Now that I think about it, he seemed a little irritated last night, as well. …Well, there’s no time to talk at the moment. I’ll have to wait until later to catch him alone…
“Heh. Not so feisty when your boss is around, huh?”
“That goes for you, too, Bradley,” Saito quickly declared, turning his head just enough to look Pierce in the eye. “Enough with the arguments. Cut it out.”
“Don’t think you can just boss me around like you do with Mote,” Pierce countered irately. “I didn’t sign up for this shit, you know!”
“I’m well aware, but that doesn’t change the situation. As it is, the current arrangement is a courtesy to you. If you want to keep acting up, then we can just throw you in a brig until the date of departure, and then you won’t be able to pack anything or see any of your family before you leave.”
“Harsh,” Conrad muttered.
“This is bullshit…” Pierce added under his breath, though still loud enough for Saito to hear. The Colonel could see Mote’s brow furrow in response, and he began turning to respond, but Saito subtly shook his head to stop Mote.
“…Think of it this way,” Saito began after a moment of silence, “this is an opportunity to spend a year on another Homeworld! Not many people get that chance. Hell, you might actually be the very first Earthians to get that chance.”
“I didn’t say I was opposed to hanging out on Nimalia,” Pierce replied. “It’s this whole military shit that’s nonsense.”
“Well, while you’re on Nimalia, your only concern will be learning how to better use your abilities. You won’t have any SERRCom duties for at least another year, maybe even two. Maybe, if you’re lucky, something about your circumstances will change before then.”
“Is that a threat?”
“No, it’s a statement of fact. Regardless, for someone who dislikes the thought of joining SERRCom so much, you sure are putting up quite the fight against going home.”
“…Yeah. Because, like I said earlier, my stuff isn’t at home.”
“Do you not want to see your family? In the very least, it could be useful for me to explain the situation directly to your parents.”
Pierce’s brow furrowed as he turned away to stare out the car window. “…I am an adult, you know. I’m even old enough to drink. My parents don’t speak for me, and you don’t need to speak to them on my behalf. I can do that.”
“…Okay, then.” Saito shifted his attention to Conrad. “What about you? Do you feel the same way?”
“…Eh.” Conrad shrugged noncommittally. “I don’t really care either way. I guess there’s some stuff from home I could grab. Probably wouldn’t be very convenient for you, though.”
“Kids these days,” Saito muttered. “Neither of you care about seeing your family, do you?”
“Not while you’re around,” Pierce shot back.
Saito shook his head warily before returning his gaze to Conrad. “Do you want to drop by your home, or not?”
“I guess,” Conrad replied. “If we really are going to be gone for over a year, then I might as well say goodbye to my favorite bed… or, wait!” His eyes momentarily widened. “What’s the limit on stuff we can bring with us? Can I bring my bed?”
“Your… bed?” Saito sighed in disbelief. “…We’ll see. I can’t make any promises.”
“Oh… oh well. Worth a shot.”
“Right…” The Colonel leaned over toward the car’s console and brought up the navigation display. “Well let’s get this over with. What’s your address…?”
30 Minutes Later
“This… is where you live?!”
“Yep.” Conrad yawned and stretched after stepping out of the car. “I don’t visit too often, though.”
“I can hardly see why…” Saito muttered as he and Mote stood next to Conrad in stunned awe, both of their attentions directed up at the large house standing in front of them. A luxuriously manicured lawn and shrubbery were blocked off from the sidewalk by a metal fence, with a locked gate standing guard over the walkway that lead up two short sets of steps to the front porch. The house itself overlooked the porch and extended to the side both ways for many meters; it was only after looking for the side of the house that Saito noticed a garage and driveway hidden by shrubs and another gate, accompanied by a rather expensive-looking car parked in the driveway. Two trees stood on either side of the house, growing up alongside it to give the large building the impression of being nestled into a forest, despite being located in an affluent suburb. From the outside, little about the house itself stood out other than its size, but the Colonel could see an extravagant chandelier through one of the windows, and a highly decorated dining area through another.
“I didn’t think you lived in such… extravagance,” Mote muttered.
“I’ll fuckin’ say,” Saito commented. “You sure as hell won’t see a house this big in Japan.”
“Houses get bigger in other parts of the country, you know,” Pierce pointed out.
“Bigger, sure. But not so decorated or kept quite so nicely. And that car over there…” the Colonel nodded toward the sleek silver vehicle sitting in the driveway. “That’s a human-drivable model, and it looks new. Newer than the grandfathered-in cars, at least. And it’s a Mercedes, too. Do you have any idea of how much those cost?”
“Eh…” Conrad glanced over at the car. “…Oh, that one’s Angela’s. I guess she’s home, then.”
“That car is owned by one person?!”
“Yeah. My parents each have their own car, too. And another one that my Dad uses at the track.” Conrad shrugged. “I think it’s a little over the top, but hey, what are you gonna do? Anyways, let’s go inside.”
“Uh… sure,” Saito muttered, dumbfounded as Conrad stepped up to the front gate and flashed his wrist over a scanner. As the gate unlocked and Conrad and Pierce began to move through, Mote approached Saito and leaned over to whisper in his ear.
“Sir…” he said warily, “this… this isn’t a normal house, right?”
“No, Mote. No, it is not…” Saito sighed wearily and then began walking up the pathway to the house. “Well, let’s… see what’s inside, I suppose.”
“Right… sir,” Mote replied stiffly.
Even Mote is surprised, Saito mentally observed, and then turned his attention to Conrad, and the young man’s plain outfit of a cheap gray t-shirt and shorts. Though you can hardly blame him, with how plainly Ashworth dresses. I thought he was just joking earlier when he asked about bringing his bed with him, but now… oof. What a place.
“Well… welcome to my family’s house, I guess,” Conrad said as he opened the front door, revealing a large entryway with a small fountain to the right. A blue rug covered the tiles leading from the front door to the back of the room, which itself consisted of two stairways up to the second floor, and a hallway leading out from each of the three walls in the back. To the left, opposite of the entryway from the fountain, was a large oak-and-glass display case that featured a vast collection of photos of people Saito didn’t recognize.
I guess this is his family? Or not… The Colonel frowned in confusion as he looked over several of the pictures. In one, he saw an older man with a light complexion and blond hair, standing in front of a shiny black car with a smile on his face; in another, he saw the same man and a woman with similarly light skin and red hair sitting at a small, romantically-lit table overlooking a majestic forested valley, with both of them smiling at the camera. On a different shelf, he saw a photo of two women sitting around a smoldering campfire in the morning light; one of the women had a toned, athletic build with dark skin and wild, frizzy black hair, while the other possessed lighter skin, silky straight black hair, and a face that Saito was instantly able to identify as east Asian, likely Chinese. Who are these people? Friends of the family…? the Colonel wondered, as he passed Conrad a surreptitious glance, taking note of the young man’s naturally tan-colored skin and brown hair. Or… wait… When he returned his attention to the display case, he found himself looking at one particular photo that was centered and emphasized over the rest: a photo showing the older man and woman, standing in the back; in front of them were three women, two of them matching the two Saito had already seen, with the third possessing blond hair and the same light skin tone as the older couple. And then, standing to the side of the three women — and looking several years younger than them — was a tan-skinned boy with long brown hair. Is that… Conrad?
“Oh… you found the family portrait.”
“Hmm?” Saito glanced over at Conrad as he stepped up to the display case. “So that is you?”
“From four years ago, yep.” Conrad nodded, and then pointed up at the older couple in the portrait. “That’s Mom and Dad, and my sisters in front of them. The blond woman in front of them is Angela, the Asian one is Caecilia, and the black one is Katarina.”
“Surprised they don’t look like Conrad?” Pierce questioned with an amused smirk. “Heh. Most people are. Just goes to show that you shouldn’t assume shit based on someone’s appearance, huh?”
“You were even more surprised back when you found out I was adopted,” Conrad commented.
“Wha—! Look, I was in middle school! That’s way different!”
“Still, that’s pretty interesting to know,” Saito remarked as he turned back toward the display case and the myriad of photos stored within. “Looks like you have a happy family.”
“Well of course it does,” Conrad retorted. “You’d never show the bad in a display like this.”
“…Oh. Well… of course.”
“Still, I don’t really blame you for being surprised. Katarina and I have always seemed to have that problem. Angela and Caecilia never did, though…”
“Perhaps because you wear such plain clothes?” Mote suggested.
“Katarina doesn’t wear plain clothes,” Conrad countered, and then pointed at one of the photos showing the dark-skinned woman posing in a party dress with an expensive-looking purse and shiny earrings.
“I mean, just spit it out, dude,” Pierce declared. “It’s because she’s black, and you’re latino. The answer is right fuckin’ there.”
“I think immediately jumping to ‘racism’ is too simple.”
“I think it’s exactly as simple as the average person’s thought processes.”
“Says the white guy?”
“Tch. I’m just saying, man. I’m sure Katarina would agree, too.”
“Well… I guess you aren’t wrong, there.”
“I find it rather interesting that you’d imply that people have an easy time believing that an Asian would be rich,” Saito commented. “Can’t say that’s been my experience.”
Pierce turned toward the Colonel and opened his mouth to respond, only to stop himself. “…Uhhh… well…” He glanced away uneasily.
Saito chuckled in response. “I’m just messing with you. I know you Americans have different expectations and stereotypes from us Japanese.”
“Conrad,” Mote suddenly stated, distracting both Saito and Pierce as he focused his attention intently on Conrad. “…You say you’re adopted. Do you know your birth parents?”
“Mote, come on, now,” Saito quickly interjected. “You can’t just ask these things.”
“Nah, I don’t mind,” Conrad replied, and then shrugged. “Though, no, I don’t. Never really thought about trying to find them, either. Just doesn’t seem worth it.”
“So you never knew them? When were you adopted?”
“According to my parents, as a baby. I’ve been with this family my whole life.”
Mote stared at Conrad for a moment in silence, before snorting in disdain and turning away.
“…Well, anyways,” Saito spoke up again, “we do have business to attend to. Conrad, lead the—”
“Well, well, well, would you look at this. The disappointment has returned… alongside a couple of lapdogs.”
“Who goes there?!” Mote demanded, sparks momentarily wreathing his arms as the four men turned their attention to the top of one of the staircases — where a young woman with long, blond hair now stood. Her clothes appeared casual, with a simple red blouse and fitted jeans, but Saito could tell that the fabric was immaculate; paired with her subtle jeweled earrings, the Colonel could tell at a glance that the woman’s ensemble spared no expense.
“Hey, Angela.” Conrad offered the woman a casual wave.
“Don’t just ‘hey’ me,” Angela retorted, her brow furrowed, and her nose turned up in disdain. She descended the steps, but stopped just before the floor level, keeping her eye level just a couple inches above everyone standing in the entryway. “What do you think you’re doing, returning home unannounced?”
“You never complain when Katarina comes unannounced,” Conrad replied.
“Yes, because she’s actually accomplished, and working toward something worthwhile with all her heart.”
“She’s working toward a Ph.D in geology…”
“And what of you, hmm? What are you working toward?”
Conrad simply shrugged in response. “Eh, I’ll find out one day.”
“Hmph.” Angela shook her head. “And this is why you’re the disappointment.”
“If you say so.”
“Man, you really haven’t changed, have you?” Pierce interjected as he glared up at Angela. “Just as massive a bitch as always, huh?”
“And you’re just as vulgar as always,” Angela shot back. “I knew you would be a terrible influence on poor Conrad the day I met you, and lo and behold, I was right.”
“Terrible influence my ass. I don’t fucking berate Conrad for not meeting some arbitrary worthless standard.”
“No, but you do drag him away from the one worthwhile thing he’s ever done…” She moved her gaze over to Mote and Saito, at which point disgust clearly washed across her features. “…And to the military. Not just any military, either. But SERRCom.”
“I guess that would make us the ‘lapdogs’ you mentioned,” Saito replied with an amused smirk.
“I’d like to know just why you think that,” Mote growled.
“Typical SERRCom.” Angela snorted in derision. “You think you can just go anywhere you like and take whatever you want. Hmph. Well that won’t work here, not in this household.”
“C’mon, Angela, lay off of them,” Conrad spoke up. “You haven’t even properly met them.”
“I don’t need to meet them to know who they are and what they do,” she countered. “And the fact that you don’t seem to care about what’s happening to you is simply astounding. Like it or not, you are an Ashworth, Conrad. You are destined for something better than lowering yourself to the level of a cog in a massive machine of murder. And you deserve better friends than ones who would drag you down to that level.”
“SERRCom is not a ‘machine of murder’,” Mote snapped.
“And I wasn’t even the one who ‘dragged’ him down, anyways!” Pierce exclaimed.
“Ah, it’s fine, guys. Just let her vent.” Conrad shrugged and began walking toward the ground-level hallway leading out of the room to the left. “I’m gonna go get my stuff.”
“Wha—! Conrad, I’m not done with—!” Angela jumped down the rest of the steps and took a step after Conrad, but he had already disappeared around the corner. With a huff, she crossed her arms and glared at the hallway he had just left through. “Hmph! That ungrateful…”
“Oh, yeah, sure, Conrad is the ungrateful one,” Pierce retorted.
“Don’t you get snappy with me, Pierce Bradley.” Angela whipped around to shove her finger into Pierce’s sternum as she glared up at him. “I know how people like you work. You only got close to Conrad for the wealth.”
Pierce returned the glare as he swiped her finger away. “’People like me’? Seriously? Piss off. No amount of money is worth having to talk with your bitchy ass.”
“Hmph! This is exactly—!”
“Excuse me,” Saito spoke up, immediately drawing the attention of both Angela and Pierce. “If you don’t mind me asking,” the Colonel continued, “what is it that you do? As a job, that is.”
“Oh. Of course.” Angela stepped away from Pierce and cleared her throat, taking a moment to clear some of the ruffles in her blouse before answering, “I work as an Aerospace Engineer for Boeing. Already, I’m the lead on two different projects — one of which being Boeing’s new mainline commercial airliner. And still, I have the time and ability such that I’m able to return home to meet with our parents about managing my father’s company.” She grinned proudly, though her brow was still furrowed into a haughty glare. “As you can see, I’m quite accomplished.”
“Very impressive,” Mote deadpanned.
“Actually, unironically, yes. Very impressive.” Saito nodded in approval. “Now, if you don’t mind me asking, what is it that you don’t like about SERRCom? We have a wide variety of engineering projects that benefit the public, you know.”
“Yes, like that oversized dam you’re building across the mouth of the bay?” Angela snorted. “You can’t fool me. It’s obvious that SERRCom has ulterior motives with each and every ‘public works’ project you embark upon. At the end of the day, you are still a military — your leader is a General, after all. And the only reason any military exists is to kill; I refuse to support such murder. And the fact that everyone else is willing to do so, merely in exchange for their own benefit, is appalling.”
“That isn’t even close to true—!” Mote exclaimed, but stopped himself as Saito held up his hand.
“It’s alright, Mote,” the Colonel commented, “I’m sure the lady has valid reasons for feeling the way that she does.”
“I’m surprised to hear that from a member of SERRCom itself,” Angela spat.
“Just as I’m surprised to hear such a nuance-lacking anti-military opinion from a Boeing engineer,” Saito countered. “You are aware that your company has been working on ‘defense’ contracts for the US military for well over a hundred years now, right?”
“Wha—!” Angela’s eyes went wide as she drew back, apparently caught off-guard by Saito’s assertion. “W-well, yes, of course I knew that. But the defense division is a separate part of the company. Nothing I do benefits it.”
“You really believe that? Heh.” Saito snorted in amusement. “I’ve seen more than enough development contracts in my forty-nine years to know that military and civilian development cross-pollinate ideas and technologies at an incredible rate. Military engineering trickles down to civilian projects, and civilian techniques make their way into military hardware. Hell, SERRCom’s own C-01 Pelican courier aircraft makes use of the same model of jet engines that civilian airliners use today.”
“The Pelican doesn’t use the same engines that Boeing aircraft do,” Angela countered. “They have incompatible mountings…”
“That was just one example of a military vehicle that uses civilian parts. The point is, when you work for a company that has an explicit division that works on military hardware — somehow, someway, sometime, your work is going to contribute to that hardware. Even if it’s just by keeping the company afloat.”
“…Hmph. And just what does a silly military officer know about engineering?” Angela shook her head as she turned around to ascend the stairs. “What you say might apply to other companies, and even to the Boeing of the past, but the current company is different. Now, I’ve had enough of your nonsense; do whatever you came here to do, do it quickly, and then leave.”
Saito, Mote, and Pierce watched Angela disappear up the steps and down one of the second-floor hallways, leaving silence in her wake. A second later, the silence was broken by the sound of Pierce laughing to himself.
“Heh, that was pretty good.” He turned toward Saito with a smirk on his face. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Angela so flustered!”
“It’s what you deserve when you make so many baseless and unreasonable claims,” Mote asserted, his gaze still directed upward at the hallway Angela had disappeared into. “Arrogance is never productive.”
“That’s fucking rich coming from you.”
“Says the inexperienced Chaotic who had the gall to attack me.”
“Oh, screw you.” Pierce scowled before turning on his heel and making for the door. “I just remembered that I have some shit I need to take care of. I’ll be back before Conrad’s done.”
“Wait, what? Hold on—!” Mote quickly reached to grab Pierce, only for the latter to open the front door and then disappear in a puff of wind. With an irate scowl, Mote made for the door himself. “That irresponsible—!”
“Hold on, Mote,” Saito interjected, placing his hand on Mote’s shoulder to stop him in his tracks. “Let him be.”
“What? But, sir!” Mote protested, “he just ran off! Are you going to let him escape SERRCom so easily?!”
“Relax. We already know his identity, so he can’t run away forever. Besides…” Saito turned toward the door himself and stepped toward it. “…I have an idea of where he went. You stay here and watch Conrad. Try not to get into too much trouble; I’ll go find Pierce.”
“…Understood, sir.” Mote offered a quick salute. “Good luck with finding him.”
“Ah, I shouldn’t need it,” the Colonel remarked as he stepped through the door. “I’ll see you soon.”
30 Minutes Later
“So this is it…?”
Colonel Saito stared up at the apartment building in front of him, and then at the block around him. The afternoon sunshine clearly illuminated the dilapidated and run-down nature of the buildings on the street, as though the city was barely able to send regular cleaning or maintenance crews. Clusters of five- and six-story apartment buildings rose just high enough into the sky to cast shade over much of the block, yet not high enough to evoke the feeling of a well-built up urban center. Trees were planted along the road every several meters or so, but the rest of the block was covered in cold, gray pavement — pavement which featured several cracks from wear and tear, and haphazardly laid asphalt lines from previous attempts to fix said wear and tear.
After taking a moment to investigate his surroundings, Saito finally moved toward the entrance to the apartment building in front of him, where he was met by a small, run-down lobby. His eyes swept across the deflated couch and cracked floor tiles that featured prominently in the lobby, and he scrounged up his nose as a faint, unpleasant smell wafted through his nostrils. Is that… cigarette smoke? The Colonel stopped for a moment to pull out his phone and compare his current location to his desired destination; after confirming that they were the same, he stashed his phone and approached the stairs, doing his best to ignore the latent smell of smoke.
Half a minute and three flights of stairs later, Saito found himself standing at the end of a fairly short hallway, with several apartment doors on both sides — and no windows to the outside world. All that met his senses was the dim light of old, naked bulbs, and the continued smell of cigarette smoke baked into the walls. He took a deep breath and began walking down the hallway in search of a particular door… and just as he found it, it opened up. Out stepped an older man, with a receding hairline, average height, and pudgy build, covered by a slightly wrinkled polo shirt and jeans.
“Oh, hello,” Saito greeted, only for the man to turn his way and stare blankly at him. A moment passed with no response; when it became clear that the man wasn’t going to say anything, Saito continued, “…apologies for intruding. I’m Colonel Kaji Saito, from Space Exploration, Reconnaissance, and Response Command. You probably know it as SERRCom.” He then pointed at the door that the man had just stepped out of. “Does Pierce Bradley live here?”
“…I’m his father,” the man slowly replied.
“Ah. Good.” Saito nodded in acknowledgment. “Is he here now?”
“Well, as you may have heard, Pierce has recently… been recruited by SERRCom. I’m here to help him pack his things, and explain to you and his mother just what lies in his future. If he hasn’t already told you.”
“…I see.” The man grunted in acknowledgment and began walking forward, pushing past Saito to approach the stairs. “You can talk to his mother about that,” the man replied as he reached the stairs and began descending. “I have some business to attend to.”
“…Okay, then,” Saito muttered to himself as he bemusedly watched the man disappear down the stairwell. I think I can see why Pierce didn’t want us to come here… still. I do have business to—
“Riley, what the fuck?!”
The Colonel glanced back at the now-closed apartment door, through which he heard a shout that he could easily identify as coming from Pierce. He stepped up to the door and prepared to knock, but stopped momentarily as more voices drifted into the hallway.
“Damn it, Riley,” came Pierce’s voice again, “what did I tell you about leaving your shit everywhere?”
“It was there for literally five seconds, you impatient asshole,” replied a younger, female voice. “I’ll move it when I’m done cleaning Cooper’s kennel.”
“You can clean the damn kennel without leaving a bucket of water in the middle of the walkway!”
“And where else would it go, huh? Do you want me to clean the whole living room, too?”
“It’d sure as hell be nice if it was clean…”
“Well tell Mom and Dad to do it, then. It’s their mess.”
“Are you serious?! The last time I told Mom to move all of her shit out of the living room, she cried about it for hours!”
“So how do you think I feel, huh? Since you graduated and left, I’m the only one who’s had to deal with this crap! Literally!”
“That still doesn’t mean you can leave a fucking bucket of dirty, soapy water sitting on the floor! This was the only damn pair of jeans I brought with me!”
“Maybe you should’ve brought another pair, then!”
“Oh look at miss jeans over here with two fucking pairs of jeans just wherever she goes. Aren’t you rich!”
“You’re the one with a fucking millionaire best friend, what the hell are you complaining about?!”
“Alright, now you listen here, Conrad isn’t just…”
At that moment, Saito withdrew from the door, with a wary frown on his face. When Pierce had protested against going home earlier in the day, the Colonel thought that he was just being hard to work with — the rest of the recruits had behaved similarly, after all. But now, after seeing where Pierce was living, briefly interacting with his father, and then overhearing an argument with who Saito assumed to be Pierce’s sister…
There is no world in which me stepping into that apartment will improve things, he thought to himself warily. With a sigh, he slowly turned away from the door, and began to approach the stairs back to the lobby. The recruits wouldn’t need to leave Earth for another week, after all; there was no pressing need for him to speak to Pierce or his family. For now, the Colonel decided to retreat to his hotel, and see what the following day could bring.