The Firebrand touched down on the wide landing pad of the Great Temple.
K’s orange eyes met mine as she spoke, and the four of us stood up slowly from the cockpit. “Not much air left… you sure Astraloth’s air is breathable for humans?”
I replied, “Yes. It’s true, we last longer in depressurized environments than humans, but we breathe the same kind of air.” I patted her shoulder, forgetting that it was covered in spikes. Luckily they weren’t sharp. “You will be fine.”
“Let’s open the hatch as soon as possible,” said Joëlle. “The air is pretty stale in here.”
We all hurried over to the exit ramp positioned on the bottom of the ship. I trailed behind everyone else as the ramp extended downwards and light filled the ship from Astraloth’s atmosphere. The sound of ships flying overhead and skythers talking echoed into the Firebrand, and we all took a deep breath as the fresh air rushed inside. I caught myself brushing my ears with my fingers, and ruffling my chest fur.
I was apprehensive. It had been months since I was home, and the last time I spoke with my mother, I had gotten into an argument with her about my life abroad. Honestly, I couldn’t even remember what details were said, only that it had happened. I hoped she had forgotten, but even if she had, she might be able to sense my thoughts, and remember it through me. It was hard to keep secrets from her, which may have been a factor in why I decided to study on Earth and work away from home.
She’ll be able to sense that I’m thinking about her ability to sense my thoughts, I thought, and then shook my head quickly and took a step outside, past Jonathan.
Joëlle and K were already standing on the platform, and I stood next to them. The Great Temple loomed above us, a collection of white pyramids with several giant red spheres suspended atop each point. The spheres seemed to defy physics, though I knew they were suspended via something akin to stasis technology. The pyramids themselves were made of a pearly solid compound, with evenly spaced balconies adorning the slopes. Long, straight staircases and perpendicular water canals (which collected rainwater to use for the temple’s amenities) crisscrossed each other along each slanting wall, and in all of the space between verdant flora bloomed. Trees and bushes and fruit grew in a lush rooftop garden, more like a forest, which covered each pyramid, providing much of the temple with ample shade and fresh air. There was a large city below us surrounding the temple on all sides, and vehicles flying through the sky, above and below us. The platform we stood upon protruded from a section of the Great Temple which was less than halfway up its side, but even so, hundreds of feet in the air. Above us, at the midpoint of the Great Temple, an entire floor was cut out and exposed to the open air. If you looked at it from the side you would be able to see straight through the temple. The two halves were held together by a grid of pillars, and staircases and elevators which took you from the open floor to the floors below and above. Beyond the city stretched jungle, mountains, and ocean, as far as the eye could see.
“Wow…” said K. “You… don’t tell me you live here?”
I chuckled. “I grew up here, yes.”
Joëlle took a few steps forward, gazing at the incredible vista. The sun glinted off her armour and made her purple hair appear to glow. “I’ve been to Astraloth before, but never to the Great Temple. Apparently, I made a mistake!” She turned to me and winked. I lifted my ears slightly.
Jonathan peered outside, and spoke softly. “Marvellous…” He paused, and I turned to face him. K and Joëlle were preoccupied with the view, so he spoke to me. “Osax, I’m just going to get a head start on the repairs.”
I tilted my head to the side. “Are you sure, Jonathan? You don’t want to come inside and rest first?”
He smiled weakly. “I’ll feel much better once the oxygen recycler is repaired.”
Joëlle caught the conversation and chimed in. “Do you even know how to repair one of those, Jonathan?”
He smiled, and nonchalantly spiked his hair to the side. “Actually, I do. When I was a marine, I took on some special ops missions-”
“Wait, you were a special ops guy?” asked K, smirking, and stepping towards him. “So, you’re not completely uncool after all! Your moustache still is, though.”
Jonathan shut his mouth and furrowed his brow, glaring at K. “You should remember, I saved your life back on Voren.”
K scoffed. “Yeah, from what, one guy? I could have taken him.”
“An invisible… ‘guy’,” said Jonathan. He rolled his eyes as he said “guy.”
Joëlle lightly grabbed K’s arm. “Leave him be, K.” She pulled her away, glancing back to Jonathan. “Well, if you know what you’re doing, go ahead. Just don’t wreck my ship!”
Jonathan bowed his head slightly. “Of course not, my lady. I shall treat it with the utmost respect.” I sensed a playfulness in his voice.
Joëlle glanced back at Jonathan with a face that seemed to say, “Stop being an idiot.” But I caught a slight smile when she turned away from him.
We stepped toward the temple, and three skythers stood in front of us, ready to greet us. The two on either side stood near to my height, around eight feet tall, and each wore full suits of armour. The armour was white, with red accents. Though the armour was surely protective, it was designed with ceremony in mind, not combat. They each held plasma spears, though the edges were inactive. Red woven fabric dangled in the wind from the base of the spearheads.
In the center of the three stood my mother, her arms outstretched. It was good to see her smooth, round face, her yellow eyes squinting warmly in the light. Her ears hung calmly, without tension, and she wore a gold, white, and red ceremonial outfit. Her mandibles were tucked politely under her face, which was tattooed with intricate black and red designs. Her furred torso was bare, but she wore flowing sleeves and jewelled necklaces befitting her title of queen. Fabric billowed from her waist in layered sheets of gold, white, and red, each sheet embroidered with the next colour.
Without thinking I tugged at the functional but plain armour piece on my forearm. I felt underdressed.
“Mother,” I began, stepping forward. Joëlle remained quiet, and I was surprised to notice that K did so as well. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
She stepped forward ahead of her guards, and gracefully, reached her arms toward me. I felt awkward in my movements by comparison, jerking my arms up to hold her hands.
She spoke to me in our traditional language, Skorali, but I will translate what she said. “Oh, Osax,” she said, lifting her ears and clasping my hands. “It’s been too long. I had a feeling I would see you on this platform today… I thought I sensed you coming.”
I responded, also in our language. “I… am glad. We needed to dock for repairs. We are on an important mission.”
She pulled me in for a hug. She was a foot taller than me, and pressed her head on top of mine. Awkwardly, I put my arms around her and returned the hug.
I heard K mutter, “I didn’t realize Osax was so short,” before snorting a laugh.
I felt my cheeks getting hot, and my mother let me go, holding me by the shoulders. She spoke again, in Skorali, looking me in the eye. “I’m sorry, Osax, I didn’t mean to embarrass you. It’s just been so long since I saw you.”
“Mother, it’s alright.” I rubbed my arm absentmindedly.
She glanced toward K, then back to me. “Do not worry, K is feeling more self conscious than you are. She’s just trying to hide it.”
“Mother!” I said, stepping out of her grasp. “We’ve talked about this-”
“Oh, right. Sometimes I forget that you aren’t interested in other people’s feelings.”
I clenched my fists. “It’s not that-”
“I know, dear. I can sense just how interested you are- You just think its rude for me to share other people’s feelings with you.”
“I think it’s rude to-”
“To listen to their thoughts in the first place, I know.” She sighed. “Just, forget I said anything.”
I took a deep breath, and my mother turned to K and Joëlle who were looking at us expectantly. She spoke, this time in English.
“K, Joëlle, welcome to Astraloth. I know you are only stopping here for repairs along a… perilous quest. But I hope the nature of your mission will not prevent the four of you from relaxing while you are here. It’s been many cycles since Osax has brought any friends home.”
“Mother…” I said, my cheeks flushing.
“Thank you,” said Joëlle. “It is an honour to be in your presence, Queen Suranos.” She bowed in a skyther style, and my mother returned the gesture.
“Yeah,” said K, before trailing off. “Nice place.” She nodded after a brief pause.
“I hope I will get to meet Jonathan in person once he is done with the repairs,” said the queen. “In the meantime, let us all head inside.”
My mother turned around gracefully, and began walking up the stairs of the temple. Her guards followed, and so did we.
K walked close to me. “So, she… actually reads minds?” She looked concerned. Rightly so, I thought, even if I was used to it.
I nodded. “Yes, yes she does.”
K started shifting her eyes around, and tapping her fingers together as we walked. “So… that doesn’t mean… you… you can’t read minds though, right?”
My ears lowered. “No, I can’t. Why do you ask?”
She shrugged. “No reason. I just… was curious.” I noticed she wasn’t making eye contact with me.
I shrugged it off. I had too much to think about already. The Shade Beam battlecruiser had already been under construction, and now, however far along it was, it was being stolen by the valicorr. Not only that, but what was that mysterious shape just out of sight behind the Shade Beam? It must have been some kind of spacecraft, but of what origin?
I gazed out across the breathtaking landscape around us as we continued to climb higher up the white staircase. The sun was shining high in the blue atmosphere, bright enough that you couldn’t see the nebulas in the sky, though I knew they were there. We were entering the shadow cast by the red sphere suspended above our pyramid.
Who is Duhrnan? I thought. The image of his body and face flashed across my mind. How did he get involved, and above all else, what is he? He certainly isn’t a human or a skyther, and he isn’t a valicorr either. He has four arms, but that couldn’t mean-
“A loro,” said my mother, pausing and looking back over her shoulder. I glanced up at her.
K and Joëlle spoke simultaneously. “What?”
“Duhrnan must be a loro, Osax.” My mother turned to face me, and so did K and Joëlle.
I shook my head. “I had considered the possibility, but that’s impossible.” I clenched my fists. “Besides, I’m the loro researcher. I would know.”
She bowed her head. “You do know, Osax. You’re just having a hard time accepting it.”
“But,” I said, looking down at the steps, “their culture is all about respecting, cherishing, and valuing life, and the universe. They were observers of, even protectors of life. They definitely weren’t sadists!”
“Uh, and they’re all dead, right?” said K, glancing between us.
“That too,” I said, “though… we don’t have proof that they’re all dead. There’s just a significant lack of proof that they’re still around.” I felt my heart beginning to race. “But if Duhrnan is a loro, then… there’s so much we could learn from him. So much we could learn!”
“Osax, listen to yourself!” said Joëlle, shooting me a fiery glance. “I don’t care what kind of things we could learn from him, I still wouldn’t let him live.”
“You saw what he was like; you can’t be suggesting that we try to talk to him, can you?”
“No, I…” I paused, trying to slow my breathing. “I’m not suggesting that, necessarily. I just, never- Never in my dreams did I imagine that I might encounter a loro who was alive. Imagine the kinds of knowledge he might have!”
K stepped in between us. “Hey, we don’t even know he is a loro. All we know for sure is he’s damn messed up.” She turned to Suranos. “So, I guess if you know about Duhrnan already, then you know about-”
“The Shade Beam… yes.” My mother sighed. “I’m sorry, I was trying not to pry, but you’re all thinking about it with such energy that it was impossible to ignore.” She turned to Joëlle. “Don’t worry, Joëlle, this doesn’t mean I won’t let you all relax here. I still believe, even in times of crisis, rest is essential.”
Joëlle let out a sigh of relief. “Th- Thank you, Queen Suranos. I think I’d feel better if we didn’t talk about this for a while.”
“You need rest, I know.” She paused, and shook her head slowly, looking at Joëlle. “You need not fear being alone, Joëlle. Look around you; you are not alone, even if you may feel that way.”
Joëlle’s expression hardened, and she lowered her head, gazing at the steps in front of her.
My mother turned back around, and continued leading us up the steps. “Come along, everyone. Yes, K, you can stay here as long as you like, though Osax would rather leave as soon as possible.”
K looked startled, and gave me a glance. “Why do you wanna leave so fast? This place seems great!”
“I just…” I trailed off. My eyes drifted to the sky, and I thought about Duhrnan, the mothership, and the Shade Beam, off somewhere in space, out of reach. Could he really be a loro? I thought. What else could he be…
I turned to K. “I’m surprised you don’t know.”