Eight days passed. Jonathan was apparently having difficulty getting the scanner to work, so we were exploring space more based off of educated guesswork than hard facts. According to Jonathan, we had some leads, but I wasn’t totally convinced. K lost most of her enthusiasm by the end of the first day, and Joëlle was struggling to stay optimistic, but not one of us uttered any word of complaint, or any hint that we should give up. Not even K. I think we all knew that to hear another person explicitly express their doubts might shatter our resolve, and bring us all to the brink of a listless sadness. To my surprise, Jonathan was holding our spirits together. He had the strength to offer up words of hope and encouragement that we weren’t far behind the ship in moments of silence, even though we all knew the more time passed, the harder it would be to track the mothership.
In a way, I was glad. We didn’t exactly have a plan for what to do once we found the ship. In the first day at least, Joëlle informed us that the Firebrand was equipped with a unique, experimental cloaking device. It didn’t literally turn the ship invisible, like the valicorr shadow scout that attacked us in the generator room. Instead, it made it impossible to detect via most scanners, meaning the mothership would have to spot us visually, from a window. If we kept our distance, that would be very unlikely in the vastness of space. The downside was, the ship’s weapons couldn’t fire while the cloaking device was active. Still, it comforted me that if we ran into the mothership, it wouldn’t instantly notice us and obliterate our spacecraft.
We’d agreed to sleep in two shifts. K and I were one shift, Jonathan and Joëlle were the other. There were several hours of overlap where everyone was awake, but this way, there were no times when we were all asleep. Since we were out in space, we had to set our own schedules anyway, with no sunrise or sunset to guide us. I noticed over the course of the week that Joëlle and Jonathan seemed to be getting along well. They looked at each other often, during the hours when the four of us were awake, and Jonathan even made Joëlle laugh every now and then. I realized I hadn’t heard her laugh until then, at least not since the attack on Voren at any rate.
Jonathan also talked to K a fair amount, often asking innocuous questions about her. She mostly shrugged them off or gave half answers, and seemed much more comfortable talking to me when we were alone. Joëlle and K seemed comfortably distant. I think Joëlle tried to be friendly with K, but K didn’t really respond to her much. It got me wondering about why she had opened up to me as much as she had. K made some jokes, but continued to seem fairly reserved. I didn’t notice her suffering from any more headaches or fainting, which was good. I tried to push away any thoughts that she might be a sleeper agent.
The Firebrand was equipped with a galactic communicator, and I’d been contemplating calling my mother, but something kept holding me back. My mother was the queen of Astraloth. She rarely had any time for me these days, though she tried to be supportive of my work as a researcher and scientist. She hadn’t ever outright said it, but I could tell over the past few cycles that each time we talked, she was more uncomfortable. I believe she was concerned that if I continued down this life path of exploring and putting myself in danger, that I might die, and there might not be an heir to the skyther throne. My father had passed away many years ago, and I was an only child, so it probably brought my mother great stress to think about me, and how I wasn’t with her to learn more about our people’s ways, and what it meant to be king. I was grateful that she had never explicitly told me these concerns, because if she did, then I’d have to tell her the truth; I didn’t want to be the ruler of Astraloth. It’s a beautiful planet, and a wonderful place to live, but I was called by the world beyond our planet. My heart was drawn to the stars. But if I was being honest with myself, that wasn’t the only reason I didn’t want to acknowledge my lineage. It was also because I knew I was unfit to take my mother’s place. I wasn’t a leader.
I found myself alone lying on a bottom bunk bed in the left wing, where K and I had been sleeping. K was piloting the ship right now, or at least watching to make sure the autopilot functioned correctly. We were traveling through slipspace to our next destination, one Jonathan was “absolutely certain” was the right trail, but none of us were convinced.
I’d connected my holo-gauntlet to the Firebrand’s communications system, so I could make calls using my gauntlet as long as I was within range of the ship. My hand hovered over my mother’s number. I had no idea if she was busy right now. I had no idea where she was on Astraloth or what time of day it would have been where she was. I had no idea what to say to her. I just felt as though, maybe, I should talk to her, and update her on what I was doing, and the attack on Voren.
I shook my head and deactivated my holo-gauntlet. I didn’t want to have to explain what was going on just yet. I still felt like my mind hadn’t settled down enough. And I had no idea how she would react, but we didn’t always get along.
Instead, I took out the transfer device, sat up, and went over to a computer console. I plugged the device in and ran a diagnostic. After a few seconds, the computer beeped faintly at me.
My ears lifted. Apparently it had salvaged some information from the ruins after all. Most of it seemed compromised, but I started decompressing the data. The computer screen flooded with images and text files and symbols. Immediately, I remotely connected with the loro research servers and began uploading all of the raw data, updating them on the findings so that they could study it themselves. I took a few minutes to fill out a report of the mission on Voren, making sure the information was sent in full to the TAU and Astraloth. When I was satisfied, I returned to browsing the data the transfer device had recovered for my own interest. I was fairly skilled at translating loro languages, but not all of them were the same. I didn’t know what to look for, but I decided since nothing else was happening on this expedition so far, I may as well spend my time deciphering some of the data. I was happy to have something familiar to do. It was relaxing, and also exciting. Each piece of data recovered from the ruins hadn’t been seen by anyone since the loro vanished from the galaxy. I was the first person, right there, on that small spaceship, to gaze upon these pieces of loro history.
I paused on a photographic image of a loro. It wasn’t the first image of a loro that had been recovered, but nevertheless it was exhilarating to see. This loro was standing, holding a double bladed sword of some kind in her two left hands. She was wearing some kind of ceremonial garb, and a mask covering her face, which was typical of the loro. To my knowledge, no one had yet found a picture of a loro whose face was uncovered. It was standing outside a temple or structure in a lush jungle. The structure had what appeared to be large laser turrets on the top of it. The image was colourless, like all loro photographs. They didn’t appear to have words for any colours in their language, at least not that anyone had yet deciphered. The belief among researchers was that the loro were completely colour blind. But even in greyscale, the image was striking. The sun was in the sky, and upon looking closely I could see two much smaller stars next to the primary star. From the look of things, this planet orbited in a unique looking trinary star system. I couldn’t recall any loro ruins being discovered in trinary star systems… which meant this was a clue to finding more undiscovered loro remnants.
I spent the next few hours parsing the data from the transfer device, and translating anything I could. I wanted to find the planet; I thought it would be a good way to keep myself entertained. Eventually I was able to link some coordinates to the image I was looking at. I uploaded the data to my holo-gauntlet and walked into the cockpit.
K was leaning back on the front left chair, with her legs propped up on the central one. Her holo-gauntlet was active, displaying a holographic screen several feet in front of her. Some kind of three dimensional virtual world was displayed on the screen, and in her right hand was a holographic gun, which she aimed at the screen. Faint sounds of virtual gunfire sounded through the cockpit, and she had a look of intense concentration on her face as she played the game. Her left hand held a holographic controller.
She looked up at me, startled at first, and then smiled. “Hey, Sax, help me out.”
“I’m playing ‘Defenders of Earth’. It’s got a drop in coop feature, apparently.”
“Huh.” I said, and sat down beside her. “I came here to use the ship’s navigational computer, actually.”
“Oh,” she said as she kept playing. “Well, that’s boring.”
“I’m trying to conduct some research.”
“Yeah, boring,” she said, smirking. I shook my head, and started inputting the coordinates and timestamp from the image into the navigational computer.
“It’s quite exciting, actually. I’m trying to find the location of some potentially undiscovered loro structures. By plugging in the coordinates and timestamp from a picture I recovered-”
“Oh hey, so I didn’t destroy all the data after all!”
I paused. “No, you didn’t. Can I finish?”
“I can use the navigational computer to retroactively determine what planet would have been at those coordinates in relative space at the time it was taken.”
“That sounds complicated.”
“Yes, it is. That’s why I’m getting the computer to do it.”
I wasn’t totally sure if it would work.
“Is that gonna take long?”
I glanced at the progress bar. “Yeah, looks like it will.”
She turned to me. “Alright, come on.” She beckoned me.
I lifted my ears. “I’ll play, if you admit that research is both valuable, and interesting.”
She groaned. “Come on, I’ve never played this game coop. No one has ever wanted to. Everyone at the station either was really busy all the time or just didn’t want to spend their free time with me.” I felt a twinge of sympathy.
“Well, you have to be nice to me if you want to hang out.”
“Actually,” she said, “we’re kind of stuck together on a tiny spaceship. I don’t really have to do anything to hangout.”
“Alright,” I said, and I stood up to leave.
“No, Osax!” she pleaded, and then laughed. “The computer AI sucks! I need a real person controlling the gun turret at this part. I haven’t been able to beat it.”
I turned to her and stared at her, lifting my ears. I put my hands on my wide hips.
She sighed. “Fine. Research is good and not boring.”
“Thank you,” I said, and then laughed. K chuckled too. I sat down next to her and activated my holo-gauntlet.
“I’ll send the game to you. Oh, let’s pair our holo-gauntlets!”
I raised a brow at her. “Pair our holo-gauntlets?”
“Yeah!” she said, excitedly. “That way we can send each other files whenever we want. Our computers will be directly connected!”
“Why not just request a file transfer? I’ll approve it… If our holo-gauntlets are linked, won’t that mean that you’ll be able to access my holo-gauntlet remotely?” I asked.
She crossed her arms and smirked. “Well, yeah… but come on, I wouldn’t do anything to mess with your gauntlet. And if I did, you could do it right back! Not that I would,” she said. “...And if I did, it would only be for fun.” I sighed. “Not that I would,” she added.
“Well, alright,” I said.
We paired our holo-gauntlets, and then K sent me “Defenders of Earth.”
“Thanks. You’ll have to teach me how to play.”
“Okay.” She shook her head, chuckling. “You’re probably bad, I don’t know why I wanted you to join me.”
“We’ll see.” I narrowed my eyes and booted up the game. A holographic screen faded into view, and controls appeared in my hands. I didn’t really feel like playing, but I wanted to help keep K entertained. I felt a bit bad for leaving her alone in the cockpit for the past few hours. I connected to her game, and started helping her fight virtual alien enemies.
“Calculation complete,” said the computer.
I practically leaped out of my seat. “Finally!”
K lifted her arms in frustration as my holographic display disappeared, and hers displayed the text, “Game over”.
“You could have saved me from that sniper!” said K, staring at me.
“No I couldn’t have, I didn’t even know there was a sniper,” I said, honestly.
K turned off her game. “Fair enough, I guess. You weren’t too bad after all. That sniper was ridiculously well hidden.”
I blinked, staring at the navigational computer’s screen. It had indeed found a planet to match up with the picture, but it confused me.
K noticed my motionless, puzzled expression, and stood up out of her chair, taking a step towards me and leaning over my shoulder. “What’s up?”
“Apparently that picture was taken on MM094, or at least that’s the closest planet the computer could find,” I said.
“Osax, you just said a bunch of letters and numbers. Should I know what you’re talking about?”
I looked at her. “Malum. The planet is also known as Malum.”
She raised an eyebrow at me.
I continued. “Malum got its name because of how incredibly dangerous and hostile the environments on its surface are. Creatures with hide that can resist E-guns, and strength beyond what should be possible for them. There’s already so much that makes Malum a significant point of interest, but now, apparently there were once loro structures there as well. That means, there probably are still loro ruins. It makes sense that the loro would be interested in such a place…”
K pursed her lips. “Well, wouldn’t the wildlife have destroyed all those structures by now, if they’re so hostile? Even by accident, can’t the growth of plant life degrade structures?”
“Hmm,” I stroked my mandibles. “Possibly, but maybe not. I suppose we’ll never know unless we go there.”
“We?” she asked, smirking.
I sat up straighter. “I guess I’m getting ahead of myself.”
Abruptly, K clutched the side of her head. She closed her eyes and scrunched up her face in pain again. I reached out a hand to stabilize her, and surprisingly she didn’t recoil, letting me clutch her arm.
“Are you alright, K?” I asked, trying to sound calm, but my mind was racing.
The veins on her forehead were pulsing noticeably. She groaned.
“I’m- I think I’m okay.” With difficulty, she lowered her hand and tried to sit up straighter. Slowly, the pulsing veins faded until they were flush with her head.
We sat in silence for several moments, as K looked out the window.
“We’re almost at our next destination,” said K, looking at the navi-computer. “Should probably wake up Jonathan, so he can redirect us.”
“K…” I said, my ears lowered in concern. She gave me a look, and I could see concern on her face. She sighed and looked away, tapping at the computer console with her finger.
“Look,” she said, turning back to me. “You want to know what’s going on with me?” she asked, her orange eyes fixing me with an intense stare.
I nodded. “Yes, I do.”
K paused for a moment, before at last speaking again. “I told you already, but you didn’t believe me.”
I tilted my head to the side and raised and ear. “What? Really?”
She nodded. “When we were on the ledge, outside the base, underneath the mothership. I told you I was dying, but you didn’t believe me.”
I stopped breathing for a moment. Slowly breath returned to me. “You- I was trying to calm you down. I thought you were just having a panic attack of some kind. It’s something I deal with from time to time...”
She looked at me as though she didn’t know what that was, but then continued. “No, I’m dying.” She took a deep breath. “The doctors who raised me… they told me that because of all of my accelerated growth, I was at risk of dying prematurely. As I got older, they changed their diagnosis; I am dying. Something a little like cancer, they said, but then they also said it’s nothing like cancer, so I don’t know. If it was cancer they’d have been able to treat it in some way.”
The air felt cold and still to me. “Do you know how long you have?”
She shrugged. “They said they didn’t know. Anywhere between a few weeks and a few years.” She began touching her hands and rubbing the spikes protruding from them. “Apparently my growth is so unpredictable, they can’t really give an estimate.” She shook her head and furrowed her brow. “Not that an estimate would really be helpful anyway. It’s not like I can change when I die.”
Her expression was solemn. Her skin was a beautiful shade of blue, and even the horns growing on her arms and face were not unattractive. Her orange eyes were mesmerizing. I felt an urge to show her the galaxy; to take her through my own life’s journey and share with her all the wonder and heartbreak and insights that I was able to experience in my time in this universe. But beyond that, I could tell she had a complex inner life. Emotions and thoughts and new discoveries all swirling around in her brain, not like a bioweapon, but like a human. Not just any human. My friend.
I noticed tears streaming down my face.
She looked at me. “Are… you okay?”
I sniffed. “No,” I said, my voice breaking. “We are.”
She smiled, but she still had the weight of sadness over her. “Yeah. We are.” She patted me on the arm, and I winced. “Gah, sorry. I was just trying to-”
“I know,” I said. “I know.” I wiped away my tears. “Is there anything I can do to help you?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“Let- Let me study you,” I said. She looked at me, as if to say “Osax, just give it a rest,” but I persisted. “I’m a biologist. I’ve extensively studied alien zoology, and theoretical biology. Maybe if you let me study you I can figure out what’s going on! Maybe I can help you!” I lifted my ears and leaned forward. “My holo-gauntlet is equipped with some high-end bio-scanning technology.”
She shrugged. “If it makes you feel better…”
I activated my holo-gauntlet and began scanning her body. She sat fairly motionless, and the room was quiet aside from the hum of the scanner and the buzz of the ship.
“I’m going to get a detailed scan of your brain, if that’s alright,” I said.
She sighed. “Yeah, that’s okay. Thanks, Osax.”
I slowly moved the scanner around her head. “Of course. You’ve been getting a lot of headaches, so it’s likely that there’s something wrong in your head.”
She chuckled. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“I mean biologically. If you don’t mind, I’d like to scan your head area every day or so, that way I can compare data over a period of time and see the fluctuations and changes in your body. From that data I might be able to find a cause, for your headaches and fainting, and once I find that, I might be able to cure you!”
She looked at me, apologetically. I looked into her eyes and could imagine what she was thinking. I’m glad this is making you feel better, Osax, but I’ve already accepted that I’m going to die.
I thought back to when she fled the ruins with me. She clearly has a sense of self-preservation. She couldn’t understand why I had put my life at risk for the research data. And why would she understand? I’ve spent years of my life focusing on the goal of research; it’s become part of my identity. But to her, it seemed like a waste of life. From her perspective it made no sense that someone like her, who might only live for a few months, or less, would desperately guard their own life, but someone like me who potentially has decades, countless cycles left to live, would risk it for something like that. She had some wisdom.
Suddenly the silence was broken by the voice of the Firebrand’s computer. “Distress signal detected.”