Spending so much time with humans was certainly interesting. I had studied all about them of course, during my university years. Learned their language. Learned their differences from us, of which there were many, and their similarities to us, of which there were also a surprising number. Humans had always intrigued me, being the only friendly species us skythers had encountered in space. But it wasn’t just that humans were the only spacefarers possible for me to be interested in; they were also undoubtedly complicated, emotional creatures. Though, I concluded that, like many skythers, many humans enjoyed pretending their emotions didn’t exist. Or perhaps they enjoyed pretending they controlled their emotions. Personally, I had difficulty knowing what to feel at times, but that didn’t stop the feelings from happening.
I looked up at the human soldier standing across from me by the mechanical doors of the dropship, shaking in my seat occasionally from the turbulence. He eyed me suspiciously, our heads at about the same level despite being seated myself. I nodded at him slowly, to remind him yet again that I was here to help, and that I was no danger to the vehicle or its crew.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about working with humans was that they had a very hard time reading my facial expressions. Maybe it was because of human mouths being so different than a skyther’s; they had lips placed on the front of the face instead of mandibles underneath. And to humans, emotions seemed to have everything to do with the mouth.
Sarcasm was often wasted on them for this reason, but I found it hard to break the habit of cracking those kinds of jokes. I remembered a time several cycles ago when I applied for a cross-species cooperation program. It was a three Earth year program, and I was sent along with several other skythers all the way to Earth to the University of Victoria. It was one of the oldest universities on the planet, and the architectural history alone was quite fascinating. Thankfully it had its own private landing pad, which made it eligible for the program, and helped facilitate travel for field studies in other Earth ecosystems. I tried to make friends with my human peers, but they rarely understood my jokes. One time I said to someone “I will kill you if you touch these samples”, and they must have taken it seriously. They never said a word to me again, until the program ended.
I was of course joking; at the time, I never imagined that I would one day kill a human, skyther, or any other creature. I was of course trained in the use of weaponry and martial arts by my mother, Queen Suranos, as all skyther princes and princesses are. But I never really expected I would have to put those skills to use.
Still, I carried an energy-pistol at my side just in case. You never knew what you might find when exploring ancient ruins, and hostile alien creatures have been known to be a threat in such locations.
While my mind wandered, I heard the human pilot’s voice through the ship’s speakers state that we had finally arrived.
The turbulence stopped with one final jolt as the ship landed, and the soldier in front of me stepped aside as the mechanical doors slid open. A blinding light cut through the apparently dim atmosphere of the ship’s interior as I stood up from my seat. A chill air rushed inside the hull from the open door, and the white fur on my dangling ears ruffled as my foot crunched into the snow that covered the platform.
It was nice to feel the snow between my toes after spending so much time sitting still on the dropship. It reminded me of another curiosity about humans; human bodies are very susceptible to negative effects from “extreme” temperatures. And they wear shoes almost constantly, blocking the nerves of their feet from touching the ground and sending useful information to their brains. I understand it’s to protect themselves from sharp objects. They seem, in many ways, fragile by comparison to us. I looked at the heavily armoured and padded boots of the soldier as he too stepped outside into the snow.
The fully armoured man began leading me across the landing pad we had just arrived on towards a large structure. It was snowing hard enough that he already had white flecks coating his helmet and shoulders, and even though we couldn’t have been more than a few yards away from the entrance to the facility, it looked like a looming, hazy spire, blank and barren, any clear shapes or details obscured by the snow.
“Hey there, watch your step,” said the soldier when he noticed my gaze wandering up to the top of the silhouetted building instead of looking down at the bridge ahead of us, safely railed, but suspended hundreds of feet in the air. Even a skyther wouldn’t survive a fall from up here, and it was kind of him to say something in case I might eagerly throw myself over the human-sized railing by accident. Though, he may have sounded more scared for his job than for my life.
The landing pad we left behind was one of several attached to the facility here. I glanced back through the swirling snow as we were entering the door and noticed the pilot and a few other military personnel walking towards us from the small dropship.
I held the control to keep the door open for the other humans as they passed me. The pilot said, “Thanks,” and again, I simply nodded in response. The door shut behind us with a hiss, and the blinding white atmosphere was replaced with a metallic, industrial hallway, lit by long white lights flush with the ceiling where it met the wall.
The floor was reflective and smooth, and the hallway was tall enough for me to walk comfortably. Thankfully this was standard design for the Terran Astral Union, as having architecture of this size made transporting large equipment manageable. It also made TAU-skyther interactions a lot more comfortable, if such interactions were to happen.
The soldier I had been watching stopped and looked up at me saying, “Alright, you should be able to find your way from here. The control room is on this floor, down that hallway.” He pointed at a door off to the side of the entrance hall.
I assumed he was still wary of my presence, and wanted to part ways as soon as possible. While I found it odd that a soldier would harbour such irrational fears or discomfort, I wasn’t particularly surprised to see it in a human after all my experience. Most humans who had tried to befriend me had a falseness to them, as though they were just seeking the status of someone brave enough to talk to a skyther. I had never done anything to harm a human in those days, so the fear seemed unwarranted, but after studying only a brief amount of human history it became clear to me that they often fear things that appear different from them, even other humans.
“Thank you very much,” I said, nodding my head once again. “I can find my way from here.”
He seemed to step back ever so slightly when he heard the words come out of my mouth, as though he was surprised to hear me speaking English. I supposed it would take him a while to get used to being around skythers, but since I was the only skyther on the planet, maybe he wouldn’t need to. I figured that our brief interactions today might help set him on a path of acceptance… or maybe that was just wishful thinking.
I strode across to the door he had pointed to and stepped through as it opened automatically. It led to a long hallway with windows on either side letting the natural light of Voren’s sun in. As I walked I looked to my left through the windows facing away from the rest of the facility, down to the icy plains far below the plateau this structure rested on. It was difficult to see anything of note; the snowfields of the planet Voren were like vast white blankets covering the ground. Nonetheless, the view was impressive from way up here, even through the thick falling snow.
I continued traveling through the facility, running into a few scientists, soldiers, and workers of another kind I couldn’t identify. Most of them tried to hide their surprise when they saw me, though some clearly already knew I was coming today, or were used to seeing skythers, or were simply trying to be polite, and paid me little attention.
I think I may have gotten a bit lost on my way to the control room, as I shuffled awkwardly through a lab full of scientists and computer monitors, as well as a room full of people sitting around a table, discussing something of importance, before I found my destination. When I entered the control room it was noticeably darker compared to the outside hall, with blue lights on the ceiling and floor. The room was circular and fairly large with two levels. I entered on the top floor which circled the outside wall of the room and also had four spoked bridges to a central circular platform. At various points were ladders leading down to the bottom floor of the room, which like the top floor, was ringed with computers of various designs and functions. From the center of the tall ceiling a large robotic armature hung, and at its bottom was a set of four computer monitors, arranged in an upside down T pattern.
Workers wearing the TAU standard Earth-sky blue colours were stationed at almost every computer, and on the central platform on the top floor stood a man in a smoothly ironed uniform. He wore a hat signifying his position as Active Director. He had short, curly black hair, which hung down each side of his tanned face, and connected with his stubble, completely outlining his face with hair. When he noticed me he smiled, and waited for me to approach him on the central platform.
“Director Aali,” I said, mirroring him as he reached to shake my hand.
“You must be Prince Talcorosax, am I right?” His grip was firm, and he shook my hand confidently. I nodded in response.
“When I was told they were sending a skyther to help us, it piqued my interest. You probably noticed that we currently only employ humans here.” He turned away, pushing a few keys on a computer as he spoke, before turning back. “When I realized that you were the Prince of Astraloth, I was even more interested. I read your files. Graduated with honours in both fields of theoretical biology and linguistics? And I hear that the royalty of Astraloth is trained in martial combat as well?”
“Yes. It’s tradition for skyther monarchs to teach their children the ways of-”
“You must have spent a long time in school,” he interrupted with a slight smile, oblivious to what I had been saying. Had I been speaking quietly? I didn’t think so.
I walked with him as he led me toward one of the walls on the upper level. The wall-plating rotated like industrial blinds, revealing a clear window as the mechanical plates automatically rose up into a stack above.
“...I spent many cycles studying many different fields,” I replied, hesitantly. “I spent several years studying and living on Earth, in fact.”
“So I read.” He activated his holo-gauntlet, a tiny computer worn on the wrist, and a small holographic projection appeared above his arm as he tapped away on tiny buttons, manipulating some sort of data. He was clearly a multitasker. The sound of murmuring discussions and electronic whirring filled the silence.
“How long have you been working in the field?” he asked, pausing from his holo-gauntlet to give me a sidelong glance. “I’ve never worked with a loro researcher before.”
“It’s been three cycles- around four Earth years.”
“Hmm…” he replied, gazing out the window. My ears drooped involuntarily. It was clear that after all, he really didn’t care what I had to say. He pointed off towards the horizon. “I’ll be sending you there to investigate the ruins. None of my people are qualified to examine them. We’re a bunch of physicists, biologists, engineers, and soldiers.” He turned to face me. “But none of us have any experience with the loro civilization, and most of us only speak one language.”
“Well, it’s good that I am here to decipher whatever we find there,” I said plainly.
“Yes,” he replied. “Talcorosax, do you have much experience working with others? I want to send a mercenary with you, one we’ve been working with for some time.”
This was news to me. I had assumed I would be going alone, and I didn’t understand why I might need a bodyguard.
“Do you expect there’ll be trouble out there? Dangerous wildlife?” I asked, and then hesitantly added, “have you encountered any valicorr here on Voren?”
The Director looked out the window again and sighed slightly. “It’s nothing like that. It’s just the way we do things here. No one takes unnecessary risks. There are some dangerous predators, though they usually only come out at night.” He hesitated. “We haven’t seen any valicorr here... yet. But having such a well-stocked facility, full of fuels and valuable resources… and of course the thing valicorr love to take most: human life… well, I would be lying to say the valicorr threat wasn’t on everyone’s minds.” A look of genuine concern passed over the Director’s face.
When the valicorr first appeared to us twelve cycles ago, most humans and skythers alike thought the talk of space piracy was just a hoax. They were the second living spacefarers that either of our species had encountered. The first reported attack was on a skyther cargo transport, but they soon discovered humanity as well. And it seemed that once they discovered us, they decided to pour all their efforts into raids against us. For the past twelve cycles, the valicorr had been a constant threat to both the TAU and skyther authorities. Maybe it’s because many of my people were already speaking English at the time, but soon enough the valicorr began to speak using the same words, though often only to intimidate us or make demands. A lot of human hotheads started throwing around the phrase “the only good valicorr is a dead valicorr”. I can’t say I supported the message, but I also can’t say I blamed them. I’d never heard of a good valicorr; their very species was synonymous with destruction.
I contemplated what he’d just told me, and replied. “Director, if you’re concerned there’s a chance I might be ambushed by a valicorr raiding party amidst the snow, I hardly think sending one mercenary will save my life.” I didn’t phrase it as a question, but the Director got my message.
He smiled weakly, and said, “Well, the mercenary I spoke of is… special. A mutant, with superhuman strength. Grown to be a weapon of some kind by... some unsavoury group, but made too powerful. When she was found by the TAU, she had evidently broken free from her laboratory restraints without much effort.”
I waited expectantly for the story to continue. It did not. Apparently Director Aali thought this was a good enough explanation, so I decided not to press the matter. It was likely that other details about this mysterious mercenary were classified anyway, just like the details about the facility we currently stood in. My sole purpose here was to investigate the loro ruins they’d accidentally discovered, and it was becoming clear that Director Aali was a busy man, who’s facade of welcoming was growing tired.
I shifted my weight from leg to leg as I stood idly by, watching the Director work on his holo-gauntlet some more. “Director Aali, is there any place in this facility where I might eat- maybe have a shower- before I begin the expedition?” I knew it may have sounded like a strange request, but I wasn’t eager to leave the station just yet.
He gave me a look of bewilderment, as though the thought that a skyther might wish to be well-fed and clean was absurd, but quickly regained control and resumed his false smile. “Ah, food, yes,” he muttered. “Lucky for you the showers and kitchen are on the same floor, two above us.” He paused briefly. “Though, uh, you might find the showers to be a bit low for you.”
“That won’t be a problem,” I responded. “I’ll contact you if I need anything in regards to the expedition.”
“Please do,” he said. “But you should know I’ve already made arrangements for a ground transport for you and Kay to take to the site, whenever you’re ready of course.”
“Kay? The mercenary, I presume?”
“Yes.” He looked outside the window, then back to his holo-gauntlet, turning his body completely away from me. It was clear that his patience was entirely spent at this point, and he wanted to end our interaction. “Just head down to the ground bay when you’re ready to leave. I’ve given instructions; just tell them you’re there for the expedition.”
I wasted no more of the Director’s time, and after saying thank you, I left the control room, searching for the nearest elevator or stairwell. I found the stairs first, so I started to climb.