We could still hear the rumbling, leaning against the ice-lined hull of our hover-car, catching our breaths, panting heavily. Slowly the rumbling ceased, and I gazed toward the temple-like structure, half-collapsed from age, and now also from our meddling. Despite the size of the entrance and the surrounding obelisks, the snow was so thick that the sandy coloured stone was almost invisible. K’s fur coat was picking up snow incredibly quickly, and she turned to me with a strange half-smile. I wasn’t sure why she was smiling. A moment ago, she was so angry. She’d punched a pillar across the room. She had put us both in extreme danger, and likely destroyed any chance at recovering data from the ruins.
“I’m freezing like hell,” she said. “Let’s get inside.”
I nodded, and we both opened our doors as the wind picked up and ice pelted our faces. We hurried inside and closed the doors, this time seated on opposite sides, the howling wind outside now muffled by the insulated hull.
I turned to her, my eyes narrowing, my breathing strained from the exertion and the cold. “Why are you smiling? We almost died,” I said.
Her smile faded as she stared at me. “I- Because we escaped, that’s why.”
I continued, “The transfer device malfunctioned when your sword hit the pillar.” I held the device in my hand, staring at it as my ears lowered. “I don’t think it retrieved anything.”
K’s face hardened. “What the hell is wrong with you?” She glared at me. “I saved your life! And honestly, that was a pretty impressive throw.”
I felt a pang of guilt, but I persisted. “You saved me, and it was very impressive,” I conceded, “but you were the one who put me in danger in the first place.”
She scoffed in disbelief. “Look, I may have caused the ruins to collapse. That was an accident. But I didn’t save you from me, I saved you from you!”
I was silent. She continued.
“I didn’t mean to make the ceiling collapse, but you did mean to stick around while it was happening. You could have run, but instead you stayed in the middle of a collapsing cave. And for what? Do you really care about research more than staying alive?”
She had a point. I had put myself at unnecessary risk.
As I pondered this, a hollowness filled my heart. I stared out at the frigid, barren wastes, and I felt guilt. I knew from my first encounter with K in the station that she had difficulty judging her own strength. I glanced down at the dashboard in front of me, my eyes landing on the crack from her hand. Of course she hadn’t meant to destroy the ruins. Perhaps I was being unjustly harsh to K.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I was being unkind. I agitated you in the ruins, by prying too much. I am a curious person, and sometimes I can’t help but be frustrated by secrets. You saved my life. Under any circumstances, that is worthy of my utmost gratitude.” Despite her anger and recklessness, she put her own life in danger by staying around to make sure I got out. I bowed my head low. “Thank you, K.”
K stared at me. “Yeah. Well, you’re welcome.” She scratched the back of her head. “Sorry I ruined the mission… and put you in danger.”
I raised my head, and we sat in silence for a moment. After a few seconds, I decided to take the controls and the car came to life with a hum. The interior lights flickered. To my surprise I let out a laugh, and immediately my solemnity was replaced by gratitude for being alive.
“This mission has gone absolutely horribly,” I said, smiling.
K let out a chuckle, rolling her eyes, and replied, “Yeah, glad you agree. Honestly, what the hell happened today?” She shook her head, amused at the absurdity of it all. “I mean that creature; no one ever told me the wildlife could get so massive on Voren. I honestly was not prepared for that. We should have been given a more well armed transport. Definitely with some gun turrets.” She turned to me, her face puzzled. “How did you shoot that thing anyway, I never asked?”
I scanned the horizon as we sped onward. “I’ll- I’ll tell you later. It is strange though. Perhaps we were the first to encounter that creature since the facility was constructed.”
K rubbed her chin. “Yeah, maybe. But, I don’t know.” She seemed to be gazing out into the distance. “Wouldn’t someone have found at least some sign of those creatures? Shouldn’t we all be driving around in tanks for safety?”
“You’re right… a creature of that size and mass would leave its mark. Trails in the snow as wide and deep as this vehicle. But it’s possible that the creature simply had never wandered close enough to the station to be noticed.” I wasn’t sure I was convincing myself. “Then again, this facility, it is impressive in scale. To construct and maintain such a place… this facility must have been in operation for several months, at the very least. Perhaps years. If we are to believe the Director that the loro ruins, all the way out here, were discovered by biologists, than we must assume that for as long as the station has been equipped with ground transports and thermal outfits, biologists from the station have been exploring the wastes outside, searching for signs of life.” I turned to K, concerned. She mirrored my expression. “You’d think that they would have encountered such a creature…”
K looked away, clearly deep in thought. We kept driving for a few moments. Had the people at the station intentionally let us leave unprepared?
“Then again,” I said, “that creature moved incredibly fast, faster than our hover craft’s maximum velocity. Which means, it is capable of travelling great distances in a short time. So it’s possible that until very recently, it was living too far away from the station for any away teams to catch wind of its existence, and only recently sprinted into the vicinity.” I looked over to K, and brushed a sizable amount of snow off her coat. “Plus, we know how quickly the snow cover builds up out here. Any tracks, even massive ones, might be invisible within hours. In order to find its tracks, you’d need to be in exactly the right place during a very small window of time, unless the weather cleared up.”
“It practically never does,” said K. She looked a little uneasy. “You’re probably right.”
After a brief pause, I slapped my head, feeling silly. K looked at me, one spiked eyebrow raised.
“What?” she said.
I reached forward to the dashboard and began pressing some buttons. “The ship’s communicator- we could have contacted the station at any time. I had completely forgotten about it. I should inform them of how the mission went; and maybe we can ask some questions.”
K began to smile in a sly way, nodding along with me. “Aw yeah, let’s get some answers. I’m tired of being left in the dark.”
I felt empowered having K at my side. It was nice knowing I wasn’t the only one who felt out of the loop, and also, having K with me might make my case stronger. How can you run an operation if your agents aren’t being given all the information they need? The communicator began connecting, and I waited eagerly for someone to pick up. A flash of dread hit me when I remembered I’d have to explain that we destroyed the ruins… but I shook it off. I figured I could lessen that news by playing up how we were almost killed by that monster earlier. In fact, I wouldn’t really need to exaggerate anything.
K’s arm shot out and canceled the call. I spun to face her, and noticed a franticness in her eyes. “Don’t- don’t tell them I fainted,” she pleaded. I hesitated, before nodding. I wanted desperately to ask her about that, but considering how it went last time, I decided to wait. Her breathing slowed and she relaxed in her seat a bit. “Knew I could count on you, Sax.”
“Please don’t call me that.” I said, though my ears were smiling.
“Okay O,” she said, the smile returning to her face. “‘O’ ‘K’.”
“Just call me Osax, K.”
“Was that like, ‘K’, or like, ‘kay?’”
I turned and punched her arm, jokingly. Then she, laughing, punched me back. I could tell she was trying very hard to do it lightly.
Nevertheless, my heart raced as I tried to regain control of the vehicle. We swerved several meters off course with a jolt. After a second, K laughed heartily.
“Just let me drive.”
“Hey, if you punched me and I was driving, we’d still be gliding straight as an arrow.” Her smirk was charming. She had so much life in her, but I couldn’t always understand where that energy was being directed. She held a lot of anger and resentment, and it seemed as though she was far more comfortable joking around than letting herself be vulnerable.
I realized that was true for me too.
“Seriously though,” she said, “can I drive?”
I was concerned I’d have to take over for her, in case she started to faint again. I looked at the longing in her eyes. She really wanted this.
I moved the armature over to her side, and she grabbed the controls eagerly, the fire returning to her eyes. No sooner than she held the controls did we accelerate to our top speed. I had to hold onto my seat while we were accelerating, but once we hit our maximum velocity, I punched in the communication code and waited for the call to connect.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
It was taking longer than I would have expected for this kind of planetary comms device. I turned to K.
“Does it always take this long to connect?”
Just then the communicator flashed crimson. “Unable to connect.” The computerized voice continued. “Unknown Error. Make sure you are using the correct code. If the error persists, try resetting your device.” It continued to drone on, repeating the error message, until I shut it off. I tried again, but to no avail.
K looked at me. “Maybe it got damaged when we were running from that thing?”
Just then, something dark blotted out the sun above us for a second. I craned my neck to peer out the front window. It was something flying across the sky, some kind of bird perhaps, headed the same direction as us.
I caught sight of a tiny trail of light behind it, and realized it must have been a spaceship of some kind. It kept flying steadily ahead of us.
“Did you see that?” I said to K. She shook her head.
“Some kind of ship, flying toward the station!” She stared at me. “I wonder what it was…”
Then I remembered Joëlle’s warning, and my mind began to race. A mysterious ship was spotted in the system just weeks ago. Apparently it was larger than anything she’d ever seen. Looking up into the sky, I had no way of judging the ship’s size. But its appearance was somehow foreboding. I couldn’t really make anything out, but I felt uneasy.
“We’d better hurry back, just in case.”
“Well, I’m already going top speed. We’ll get there when we do.” K looked at me. “You don’t think… it’s valicorr, do you?”
I shook my head. “No, of course not.” My ears folded back and I began twiddling my thumbs. “I’m sure it’s just another TAU ship.”
K obviously didn’t believe me, but she didn’t ask any more questions. She did however mutter to herself, “Wish I still had my sword…”
And after that, we drove on through the snow.
I liked her. Maybe every emotion didn’t need a logical explanation after all. At the very least, I was starting to think that my quest for logical emotions was in vain- something I should have realized long ago, given the blatant contradiction of words. Even if some emotions came from evolutionary roots which I could justify, I knew well enough that they often manifested in unusual ways. But the desire for companionship was almost universal, at least it was shared between skythers and humans. I hoped when we got back that K and I would spend the evening sipping root beer and laughing about the day, getting to know each other better. But somehow, I didn’t think that would happen. My eyes trained on the black shape in the sky, getting slowly smaller, drifting into the distance ahead of us. Things were about to change.