That evening I considered staying in the temple, but decided to sleep aboard the docked Firebrand instead. When I arrived, Jonathan was sitting in the cockpit. I told him I was also going to spend the night in the ship. He seemed to understand, commenting on how the Firebrand’s beds were surprisingly comfortable for a starship. We didn’t talk much.
That night I had difficulty sleeping. Even though we were just outside my home, I felt no comfort from it. I was anxious to leave. The room was silent, punctuated only by my own breath. I lay on the bottom bunk as I had before, but without K’s presence I felt strangely alone, even though Jonathan was just a room or two away. I shut my eyes and tried to control my breathing, but in the blackness of my mind I kept seeing arcs of red lightning; a wide set of teeth was smiling at me through the red storm. And then there was K, writhing in pain.
I shot up and stormed out of the room, half-awake, but too unsettled to sleep.
Panting, I ran in the moonlight. I wasn’t sure where I was going, I just needed to move. My entire body felt constricted. My ears trailed behind me, and my fur was ruffled in the cool wind. Each breath I took filled my nostrils with a fragrant, invigorating scent of the flora surrounding the temple. I ran down the stairs of the temple, out into the winding paths and streets of the city. I ran past trees and buildings and orange lamp posts. My eyes shot up to the temple, to the surreal floating orbs I knew so well from my childhood, as I darted down toward the ocean.
I ran across a wall overlooking the beach as sea breeze air filled my lungs. The dusty stone beneath my feet awoke my senses as I traced the edge of the wall.
I stumbled down the side of a hill toward the sand, and the rippling waves, reflected in the starlight. My toes kicked up the sand as I got ever closer to the crest of the water. A wave rushed toward me and for a moment I hesitated, before increasing my speed.
My lungs gasped. Cold water splashed around my legs as I waded into the ocean.
I was already half submerged in water, so I committed in a split second and lunged forward with my arms outstretched.
The sound of the waves gently crashing against the beach was like a soothing melody for my ears. I waded in the water, enjoying the shock the cold was giving to my senses. I was awake.
I looked up to the night sky- Astraloth’s sky- and in that moment I was no longer afraid. Birds quietly soared above, and I caught sight of a shooting star. And on the horizon, I saw the red nebula, the Thala nebula that had hidden the Shade Beam, and I simply stared.
“Great night for a swim!” I heard a voice call from the beach in Skorali. I could barely see their figure, so I swam closer to the shore.
“Yes… the water is quite nice tonight.” I said to the silhouette. I was fairly close, but I still couldn’t make out their figure. It was a skyther, I could tell that much from their voice and outline.
“Not many people come down and swim here this time of year,” said the voice in a low, friendly tone. “I admire your spirit.”
“Th- Thank you,”
The skyther began walking away down the beach, calling out a few more words as they left. “So many people these days, too caught up in machines, and the future and the past. Nice to see a fellow present-liver. To live so carefree, swimming in the calm of the night... Must be a good life.” They paused briefly, before finishing. “Enjoy this moment, alright?”
I felt conflicted for a moment, and I was about to protest, but they were already too far for me to yell to them.
They were right about one thing, though. To be so carefree, even for a few minutes, was what I needed. It was nice for a change, being in the moment.
All moments pass however, and soon the sun was shining and the valley was filled with the sounds of the city awakening. Joëlle and K were just returning to the Firebrand as Jonathan made himself some coffee and I drank some root beer in the small kitchen of the ship, the smell of our two drinks mixing as they filled the room.
“Joëlle,” I said. “Good to see you.”
“Morning!” said Joëlle with a smile on her face as she stepped in the door. I felt my heart lift instantly, seeing her happy for a moment. She must have had a good night in the temple.
Jonathan raised his mug to her and smiled. “The lady of the castle has returned!” he said.
Joëlle tilted her head. “It was a little charming the first time, but don’t make a habit of calling me lady, okay?”
Jonathan’s smile flickered for a second. “Ah- My apologies.”
She chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. Just don’t do it.”
He frowned, and nodded. “Fair enough.” Then his smile resumed as he took another sip of his coffee.
Joëlle passed through into the cockpit as K entered the room. She was clutching her head, and I noticed Jonathan’s smile fade.
“Hey Osax,” K said, smiling weakly as she groaned.
I stood up and went to her side. I was going to do everything I could to help her, starting now. “K, how are you feeling? Why don’t you take a seat?” I said, guiding her to one of the chairs.
She sat down and looked me in the eye. “Uh, thanks.”
Jonathan spoke up as I went over to one of the cupboards and K continued rubbing her head.
“So, having a migraine?” he asked. His mouth was thin and his eyebrow raised just slightly.
K looked at him suspiciously. “I guess.”
“I’ve got something to help with your problems!” I said, quickly. I retrieved a bottle of small white pills from the cupboard, and unscrewed the lid.
K looked at the pills, then back at my face. A smile crept up. “What are those?” she asked. Jonathan was eyeing me, his expression unchanging.
“They’re…” I stumbled over the words. “Th- Just something I synthesized last night, using the food synthesizers. I was looking at the scans of your brain, trying to come up with something to inhibit the changes…”
K started nodding. “So, this’ll help my headaches? And my blackouts?”
“Yes, it should,” I said, lifting my ears and smiling as best as I could with my eyes.
Jonathan said, “You never said you were a pharmacist, Osax.”
K looked at him with a sidelong glance “Never mentioned he was a prince either, but hey! He’s Osax. He’s full of surprises”. She grinned.
“Well…” I began, feeling my cheeks flush.
“Not that being a prince seems to mean much to you. You just do whatever you want, no extra responsibilities or anything! I guess you become king once your mother dies, right? Then you gotta lead your people.” She snorted, stretching her wrists as she extended her arms out. “Being free sounds more fun.”
K... One minute she would be brooding, the next she’d be so lively. I may have had a hard time living in the moment, but K had trouble getting out of it. Maybe that’s why we bonded; we each had something the other lacked. The star is brighter on the other side, I thought.
“Here,” I said, bringing over a pill and a glass of water. “Why don’t you try it, let me know if it helps?”
K picked up the pill between her blue fingers and held up to her eye. “How long does it take to affect things? You know, to work?”
I tapped my fingers together. “Well, I don’t know for sure, but it should help if you take one every morning. I expect the effects will show up within the day, even if it’s just minor. The pill is designed to counteract the growth development in your brain.”
“Growth development?” said Jonathan, quietly.
K glanced at the glass of water. “You want me to swallow it?”
K hesitated for a brief moment, before tilting her head back, opening her mouth, and holding the pill between her lips. She pressed her finger and thumb together and crushed the pill into dust with ease, brushing it onto her tongue. Then she picked up the glass and washed it down.
Jonathan and I were staring at her, and she stared back.
“What?” she said. “I don’t like swallowing pills.”
She slammed the glass on the counter, and stood up.
“Well… the headache seems gone for now,” she said. She took a step toward me, as if she was going to give me a hug, then paused, and lifted her fist toward me.
I returned the fist bump.
“You’re alright, Osax,” she said, smirking confidently. Jonathan kept watching us. “See you in the cockpit.”
K left the room, following Joëlle. My heart was racing.
I began following her, but Jonathan grabbed my arm as I was passing him. I looked down at him and he pulled me in close, glancing toward the cockpit.
“I’m impressed that you were able to create such a pill on such short notice, with such little information,” he said, his voice as low as the hum of the ship.
I gulped, nodding. “I- It was a challenge. I stayed up last night making sure it was perfect- Well, as perfect as I could make it with my limited knowledge.”
He nodded slowly. “So, that’s what you were doing at the temple,” he said, staring me in the eye. His fingers felt tight around my arm.
“Or were you doing it somewhere else? You certainly weren’t working on it in the kitchen, or in your room.”
“Wait,” I said, my eyes narrowing, “were you watching me last night?” I pulled away from his grip.
He sighed, and his expression softened. “I’m sorry, I must be coming on quite strongly. After our conversation last night, I couldn’t sleep. You seemed to be acting a little bit strange. On top of that, when I checked my spare eye…”
“You have a spare eye?” I asked. “An extra cybernetic one, I presume?”
He was flustered. “Yes. I- I don’t have a spare organic eye, that would be absurd. Anyway... well, I seem to have misplaced it… ah, never mind. It just- Things felt a little bit off. Maybe I was just feeling paranoid.” He shuffled his feet. “Anyway, when I wandered around the ship and noticed you were gone, even though you made a point of staying here instead of at the temple, I admit I was perplexed. And just now, you were acting rather suspicious. I want to make sure you know what you’re doing if you’re feeding drugs to K.” His robotic eye flared in intensity as it narrowed, and his orange one was as sharp as a spear. “What do you know?”
I noticed my mandibles were clenching. “It’s okay Jonathan, I… I know what I’m doing.”
“Really?” He said, “Because I don’t recall drug synthesis being part of the curriculum for theoretical biologists.” He glared at me. “I would know; I’ve studied theoretical biology as well. And I doubt skyther Princes are all trained in the arts of manufacturing medicine.” He stood up. “So you better be sure you’re not feeding her poison, because if you are-”
“Jonathan!” I exclaimed, before whispering, “It’s just sugar.”
Jonathan’s eyes widened slightly. For a moment he looked startled, then slowly his lips curved into a shallow smile.
“What’s going on back there?” Joëlle’s voice echoed through the ship.
“Just spilled a bit of coffee on accident, and it startled Osax, that’s all!” said Jonathan.
“Well, make sure you clean it up! Not only could that be a slipping hazard, but I don’t appreciate messy teammates!”
Jonathan smiled. “Will do. I’ll be in there in a minute!”
“You won’t tell K, will you?” I pleaded.
Jonathan shook his head. “As long as it’s not hurting her, I see no reason to hurt her myself.”
I felt a pang of guilt in my chest. I was lying to K after all, but what else could I do? I promised I would help her.
“I’ll see you in the cockpit,” I said plainly.
While alone in the hall leading to the cockpit, I jumped. My holo-gauntlet flared to life without me doing anything. My heart was racing. It was displaying a holographic image all on its own…
I tilted my head to the side, perplexed. It was a watermarked photo of two humans hugging. Then some white text appeared.
Didn’t want to hug you in front of Jonathan. Feels weird with him staring. Granted, this is probably weirder. Didn’t really think that through...
The text started deleting itself, followed by the image.
I entered the cockpit, and saw K fiddling on her holo-gauntlet. She glanced up at me, and smiled guiltily, scratching the back of her head.
“Uh, hey,” she said sheepishly.
“K,” I said. “Just because we paired our holo-gauntlets doesn’t mean you can use mine to open random files. If you want to talk to me, just do it in person, or give me a call.”
Joëlle glanced back at us. “You two paired your holo-gauntlets?”
K deactivated her holo-gauntlet. “What of it?”
“Well,” she said, “that’s not really meant for two people. It’s more for one person who has two holo-gauntlets, and needs to be able to remotely access them. That’s why it bypasses all of the security features.”
K and I looked at each other. She shrugged.
“Just, don’t overdo it,” I said.
“Just trying to show my appreciation,” she said, awkwardly.
I took a seat on the right side of the cockpit and spun the chair around to face them, lifting my ears with a little effort.
“So, Osax, your mother was worried about you last night,” said Joëlle.
I sighed and leaned forward, resting my elbows on my knees. “We don’t always get along. Unfortunately, yesterday was one of the times we don’t.”
“In any case, we’re ready to set out. I just figured you’d want to say goodbye to your mother before we leave.”
I looked out the window of the cockpit toward the Great Temple. My mother was somewhere there. I didn’t know when I would see her next, but I was still so furious with her. Maybe I should call her, I thought.
“It’s alright. I’ll see her again, after the mission,” I said.
K and Joëlle were silent for a moment.
“Well,” said Joëlle, “I’m glad you’re confident you’ll make it out of this alive.”
K nodded. “Yeah, as long as you remember to run away from falling debris.”
I lowered my ears at K, as she smirked at me.
“Anyway,” said Joëlle, “Queen Suranos was kind enough to give me this.” She tapped a plate-sized metal device which was fitted to the scanning console. “This is a rare quantum extender, one of a kind; it will increase the range of our scanner by… well, by a longshot. It only works for very specific energy signatures, but we should be able to use it to track the mothership- Duhrnan’s ship- from nearly anywhere in the galaxy.” She smiled confidently. “Well, as long as he’s not hiding in a sensor-scrambling nebula.”
“It’s that precise?” I asked.
“Yes, but only because we got close enough to get some detailed scans on the ship’s energy output. So, we won’t be able to track the Shade Beam itself with that kind of accuracy.” She activated the scanner and it flared to life, displaying a distant coordinate in the emptiness of space. “But it seems to be working on the mothership.”
K chuckled. “Well who cares. Duhrnan should be shaking in his boots. He may not know who we are, but he will when we come crashing through his front door.”
I nodded in agreement. “We still don’t have an attack plan, but since this scanner upgrade works, we should get going at once. At the least, by following him we can keep unraveling his plan.”
Jonathan stepped into the room. “So,” he said, “I guess we don’t need my scanning abilities anymore.”
“Probably best not to rely on you anyway, what with your directional deficiency,” said K. Then she surprised us all by adding, “I’m just kidding.”
“So, nothing left to do on Astraloth?” asked Joëlle. “You all still have the option to leave.”
I thought about my mother, and my ears twitched.
“We’re coming with you,” said K.
Jonathan and I nodded.
“Right.” said Joëlle, spinning her chair around to face the controls. The ship began silently and smoothly lifting off the ground. My eyes fell on the shrinking temple below us. “Last night I contacted Admiral O’Kane. I told her about Duhrnan and the Shade Beam.”
“And?” asked Jonathan nervously.
“She relayed the information to the other Admirals. It sounds like they’re not eager to take any actions just yet. And from the sounds of things, they’re more worried about the public finding out about the Shade Beam than about stopping the valicorr.”
“Hmm,” said Jonathan.
“So,” I said, staring down at my home, getting ever smaller as we breached the clouds. “We’re on our own for now?”
Joëlle nodded. “For now.”