I trotted over ancient debris in the dim light. Each time my foot knocked aside a broken rock, each time I took a step, sand-coloured dust rose in a slow, billowing plume, accompanied by the crisp sound of crumbling stone which echoed in the dark cavern. We each wore a headlamp, and our holo-gauntlets were equipped with flashlights. The dust seemed to glow in the cones of light we emitted as we traversed the depths of the ruins. We had no reason to believe there was anything dangerous within the ruins, aside from Joëlle’s suspicions about the valicorr, but we hadn’t seen any signs of them outside the site. I decided not to tell K about her theory, because she didn’t seem to want to talk, and Joëlle herself had said nothing was certain. Even so, since our encounter with the beast in the snow fields was still fresh on our minds, K strode around with her molecular great sword in her hands, extended and ready for battle. The blade was thick, and at least a foot wide. It looked like I could stand on its edge in a full suit of power armour and it wouldn’t break. The sword looked unreasonably heavy, but K held it as though it was nothing. She was avoiding eye contact with me.
I stopped for a moment and looked around at our dark surroundings. We were deep underground, which I was used to. Many loro sites were built into the ground, often using materials such as stone or clay in favour of more advanced metals and alloys. This perplexed many scientists; why would they intentionally forego sturdier, more reliable materials in favour of more natural building blocks? No one had a clear answer, but it was evident in the carvings on the walls that these structures served some kind of artistic and perhaps spiritual purpose, that might not be the same with more advanced technology. My people had created similar monuments in our early history, using wall carvings to depict the rise and fall of leaders, and heroes, and to tell stories of loss and of victory. I was lucky enough to visit some sites on Earth which were similar to the loro ruins as well. It seemed primitive to us, humans and skythers, because such carvings reminded us of our history, when technologically we were less advanced. But I knew to presume the loro as primitive would be foolish. Their same symbols, their same architecture and statues spanned several star systems, and that was only what we had discovered. We had discovered some of their computers, though always with a fair amount of memory corruption. How many more sites had these people stood upon? They had once traveled the stars, and they had stories to tell.
Most of the inscriptions and carvings on the walls were damaged, either partially or completely, due to age. I was hoping to find a database I could access somewhere within the ruins, though not all loro remnants housed one. But my mind was hardly focused on the ruins, as wondrous and mysterious as they were. A more urgent mystery was on my mind.
I inspected K once more. She seemed to be doing fine, if distant. She had donned a thick fur suit which had been stored in the hover-car. I took note that the cut on her forehead was already hardly visible. She caught me staring at her, and I turned away, continuing down the uneven stone floor.
I was wearing a thermal outfit to keep warm, but the water vapor from each breath of mine condensed and dispersed into the chasm. I glanced back at K, who was now looking the other direction at the walls. I counted the time between her breaths by each wisp from her lungs- around seventeen breaths per minute, I guessed. That seemed to be within a normal range.
“What are you looking at?” She spun around, her sword trailing behind her.
“I-” I looked away, but quickly looked back, knowing that it wouldn’t solve anything. “I’m making sure you’re okay.”
She snorted, and looked away. “Well, I am okay. So, drop it.” Despite her hostility, looking at her eyes, I thought I could sense sadness, not aggression.
I obliged, and we continued on in silence for a while, until we entered a large chamber. I recognized this type of architecture. As we stepped inside, shining flashlights on the intricately carved walls and pillars, I led the way toward the center of the cylindrical hall. Wide stone steps led up to a large pillar in the center of the room, and eagerly I clamoured up to it.
When I reached the base of the pillar in the center my headlamp illuminated a metal panel on the wall. I wracked my brain for a moment as K caught up behind me. I remembered the symbols on the buttons from my studies, and began punching in commands. Each button press was accompanied by an electronic beeping sound, which echoed calmly in the chamber. After a few button presses, a green light emanated from the terminal, and just as I had predicted, began tracing it’s way up the pillar in the grooves of the carvings, spreading out like water flowing through canals as it spilled over into every etched detail on the ceiling and walls. When the light reached the tops of the other pillars, as it passed by them it began snaking down each one until the darkness of the room was expelled completely by the now luminescent walls, pillars, and ceiling. The lights were dim enough as to not be blinding, but since the green glow came from all directions, the room was now well enough lit that even the far end could be seen.
K had been staring in awe as the light spread and now that it had completed its activation, she turned to face me, wonder in her eyes. “Whoa.”
I lifted my ears in joy. Wonders like these were what had drawn me into the loro research community. I remembered the first time I encountered a control room like this, with other researchers at a loro site on Ki-Luum. I was speechless for a long while, and not much help to the others, honestly.
I pulled out a device from a compartment on my armour, and began searching the terminal for a port.
“What’s that?” said K.
“It’s a device for interfacing directly with loro computers. Thankfully, in our research we discovered they had their own universal design for data ports.”
K just nodded slowly, looking confused.
“Once we figured that out...” I grunted, straining to pull off a panel which had become stuck closed, presumably after ages of being left alone to slowly warp and contract underneath the main buttons. K stepped forward and gestured for me to move aside, so I did.
I watched curiously as she knelt down, reaching a horned blue hand to the panel, turquoise in the light, and with one effortless motion pulled the panel off. Normally it would have swung open, if it were working correctly, but with a crack the entire thing came off, as easily as if K had simply brushed aside a pebble. She stood up, awkwardly holding the panel, and stepped aside looking at me. “You were saying?” she said.
“Ah, thank you.” I stepped forward, and knelt down, holding up the device so K could see. “Once we figured out that they had a universally designed physical interface, it was just up to the researchers to design a device that would be able to, well, interface with it. So they came up with this.” I plugged the device into one of the slots hidden behind the terminal, and it generated a blue hologram, displaying some text using skyther symbology.
I stood up and brushed some sand and dust off my legs. “That should copy any uncorrupted data from the computer to itself. It’ll take some time, but from there, it can be downloaded onto another computer, for further study.”
“Cool.” said K, though I noticed the wonder and interest fading from her face. She turned around, taking in the surroundings of the strange, luminescent room. She breathed deeply and tossed the panel gently down the stairs where it bounced with a clank.
I looked back at the hologram, which told me it would be a while until the process was done. I walked over beside K and sat down, looking up at her. She glanced down at me, and sat on the stair as well. She was frowning in the silence.
I scanned the room, trying to think of what to say, but she spoke first.
“So, Osax.” She sat with her sword resting between her legs and across her shoulder.
“These loro guys, I guess they’re all… gone now.”
I nodded, looking at her, though she was staring down the steps. She continued.
“How long do you think it took them to build this place?”
I paused, trying to make an estimate. I wasn’t really an architect and I knew little about construction. “I’m not sure. I suppose it all depends on their tools, how many people were involved... But it probably took them quite some time, given the detail.” I looked up at the ceiling, noticing the intricate glowing artwork depicting a four-armed loro standing on their digitigrade legs, battling some kind of creature with a whip-like weapon. The creature looked similar to the one that had just tried to kill us outside.
I pointed up at the image. “Look, that creature- it looks similar to the one we encountered in the snow, only smaller! They must have been here for countless generations.”
K strained her eyes to see. “Huh.” After seeing the picture, she lowered her head.
I waited, staring at her.
She didn’t look to me. Humans were puzzling.
I took a deep breath. “K,” I said at last, “you fainted just a while ago. It could have been caused by any number of things, but I get the feeling you already know the cause.”
She remained silent, tightening her jaw.
“Why won’t you tell me?” I said, and then a brief moment later I felt my fists clench. “Why won’t anyone tell me anything on this damn planet!” I was surprised to hear myself so agitated. Apparently, skythers were puzzling too.
She shot me a look, still frowning. “Why do you care?” The question seemed genuine.
I wasn’t sure how to respond. “We almost died. And that’s partly because of whatever your condition is that caused you to faint.” I wasn’t trying to accuse her, and I wasn’t even sure that was why I was curious. In fact, I knew her fainting hadn’t really put us in much more danger than we were already in. I simply was curious about her… but how could I explain that? Shouldn’t every feeling, every thought have an explainable, justified cause? And if not, then what?
She shot back angrily. “Hey, it’s not like I decided to faint! It’s not like I decided to be like this!” She stood up as she spoke, staring at me with unmasked anger, gesturing to herself. Then she pointed at me. “You’re alive!” She yelled. “Isn’t that good enough for you?!”
I stood up slowly, my arms raised defensively. “Hey,” I said calmly. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to agitate you.”
“Well nice job!” She spun around and walked a ways down the steps. I followed slowly.
“Why do you care?” She whipped around, orange eyes almost glowing. “Why do you care about any of this? None of it is going to last!”
“I…” I hesitated, not quite sure what she meant. I guessed she was referring to the ruins. “It will last if we preserve it.” I motioned to the interface device.
She shook her head. “Osax, you don’t understand.”
“No, I don’t,” I confessed. “So will you enlighten me? What’s going on? You’re a bio-weapon, but how did you get here on Voren, working as a mercenary at a classified TAU station? Who found you? Why are you inexplicably fainting? How long has that been happening?” I paused for a moment, K’s eyes narrowing at me. “And you bled so easily, for a weapon. Why didn’t your creators just make a combat robot? Why did they make you?” My words cut through the air, leaving a vacuum.
Holding her sword in one hand, K ground her teeth, took a step closer to one of the pillars, and tightened her fist. “I. Don’t. KNOW!”
My heart skipped a beat. In a blur of motion her spiked fist collided with the pillar. Instantly, a large segment of the pillar cracked and discharged away from K, slamming against the wall in an explosion of dust and debris. Luminous green fluid began spilling out from the ceiling and out of the pillar, and the whole room shook. A second later, the top of the pillar began collapsing in chunks, and a strange odour began filling the room. K stepped back from the pillar, disbelieving, and I lunged for the interface device.
My heart was pounding, the light in the room slowly pouring out of the ceiling and down the stairs. Everything shook and I heard the echoing sounds of stone collapsing. The hologram told me the transfer was 85% complete. If I disengaged now I might corrupt the files.
I glanced back at K, who was staring up at the ceiling and staggering backwards. I caught a glimpse of her eyes for a moment, and she looked terrified. Cracks were spreading in the ceiling, and more of the glowing fluid began dripping down from them, along with columns of dust.
I looked back at the device. 87%.
I heard K exclaim, “Goddammit!” I turned to face her and saw she was already at the exit. She glanced back at me. “What are you doing? Osax!”
My mind raced. I glanced back at the device. 88%. I slammed my hand on the side of the central pillar as I knelt there. “Come on…” There was no way to know what knowledge this archive held. It could be the key to understanding why the loro disappeared, or how they advanced so far. It could be anything. I wasn’t about to give up now. I wasn’t about to screw this up.
I held my breath. I could feel my heartbeat.
The rumbling continued, and a drop of the green fluid splashed on my arm, but I kept staring at the hologram. 89%. 90%. 91%.
I heard K’s voice from the edge of the room. “Let’s go! Grab it and run!”
I yelled back, “Go!” I didn’t turn.
92%. As soon as it was complete, I would dash out of here. I thought about the mechanic who had harassed me in the vehicle bay, and my blood boiled. I needed to succeed. I was the right person for this job. I deserved this.
My eyes widened. There was an awful lot of fluid dripping onto me from the ceiling. I looked up.
I froze. The cracks had stretched out to the ceiling above me, and with a roaring crash a huge stone from the ceiling began hurtling toward me. I couldn’t move away.
Suddenly dust burst from the center pillar, and debris fell all around me, but I wasn’t crushed. When the dust cleared, protruding from the column several feet above me I saw K’s molecular sword, shielding me from the falling debris. I spun around to face K, and saw her standing near the exit with her body forward and her arm to the side, following through on her throw. Electricity sparked from the pillar, and looking at the hologram I noticed it had turned to a red colour indicating a major error. After all that, everything was probably lost.
But I was alive. I pulled the device from the slot and sprinted down the stairs, almost slipping on the pooling, glowing liquid. To my surprise, K waited for me, and when I reached her we ran together through the dark ruins, headlamps and holo-lights guiding our way. A few moments later, I turned back, and saw the room’s entrance collapse. And then, without another word, we continued, until we burst into the bright, icy world outside.