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My eyes fluttered open slowly. I twisted, and the smooth grey covers I was wrapped in rustled lightly. My head rested gently on the feathery pillows and I yawned blearily. White lights dimly illuminated the room from the corners of the walls. The sleeping black computer and chair to accompany it were all that filled the room, aside from the bunk bed I found myself sleeping on. Everything was quiet except for the faint, low hum, gently vibrating through the hull. A vaguely metallic scent brushed my nose, followed by something sweet.

My eyes landed on a figure, and a smirking blue face came into focus. K’s lips curled up around her tusk-like teeth, and her brows lowered. She was wearing a long-sleeved black leather jacket underneath her usual armoured vest, and rugged, fingerless gloves. My eyes lazily scanned her arms, noting the holes she’d cut (or ripped) into the outfit about her shoulders, arms, and backs of her hands, letting her pale-blue growths stick out, leaving the outfit free to otherwise fit snugly to her toned arms. About her neck and shoulders she was wearing a dark grey cloak, unripped and draped carefully over her spikes. It fell to the back of her waist, and sported a hood, which she wore down. It would be difficult for her to wear it over her head anyway, given her horns. At her side was a retracted molecular sword, and a sleek black pistol was holstered across her chest for quick access.

She was humming a song, the same melody I heard her hum back in the observation lounge on Kronos. She raised up one of her hands which held a clear glass of a bubbling dark liquid, equipped with a bendy straw.

I sat up slowly, and rubbed my head. “What time is it?” I mumbled.

My throat felt dry. When I touched my right hand to my head, it began to ache dully. I looked at it, and tried flexing my fingers. I was able to flex them, though it hurt quite a lot. The medical gel was doing its job. K’s music quietly wafted into my ears.

K handed me the drink and I began to sip it as she responded. “It’s time for you to get out of bed. We just made it to Malum.” She sat down on the bed beside me as I threw my legs over the side. “We would have woken you earlier but… we all thought it was best to let you sleep, while you were able to.”

Thanks,” I said. “And thanks for breakfast.”

 

Joëlle sat alone in the cockpit. I stood beside her as I looked at the planet in front of us, centered in the frame of the window. Joëlle was already wearing her silvery-blue armour, with her helmet resting on the console beside her. I ruffled my chest fur with my fingers.

The planet was reflected in her helmet’s smooth visor. Malum was primarily orange looking from up here, with several notable storm clouds raging about the surface. Green and blue splotches dotted the landscape. My eyes narrowed on the blocky text of the timer. It had taken us nearly a full day to get to Malum from where we were when Duhrnan sent the broadcast.

From here,” I asked, “how long would it take us to get to Earth?”

Joëlle glanced up at me. “Slipspace travel is fickle… I’d feel comfortable giving us a full twenty-four hours, if we want to be safe.”

I narrowed my eyes, staring at the planet below.

So, the plan is to find out how to stop the mothership, stop it, and then intercept the Shade Beam when it arrives at Earth in six days, and stop it too?” she asked.

I nodded. “Precisely.”

The planet started getting bigger as we approached.

It’s a good thing you knew about Malum’s connection to the loro,” said Joëlle, “because while you were sleeping the mothership disappeared from the scanners.

So it’s emissions got scrambled?”

Exactly. But we know where to look.” She winked at me.

Malum is one of the most hostile planets either of our species have discovered,” I said. I remembered hearing that the atmosphere of Malum scrambled several types of signals; it was just one of the many dangers we would face upon landing.

I wanted to thank you,” I said, looking her in the eye.

For what?”

For holding my hand,” I said.

 

I suited up in a black undersuit, and my familiar armour. My right hand was still bandaged, and I probably wouldn’t take the bandages off for another day. Joëlle gave me a black cloak like the grey one I’d seen K wearing. I asked if I could cut holes in the hood for my ears to fit through, and she said it wouldn’t be a problem, so I went ahead with my DIY project.

She also gave me a pistol, smooth and silver, designed specifically for charged shots. She’d explained that the pistol she gave to K was actually an automatic gun, claiming it suited her combat style better. She described her as “an unchained lion,” and while I thought K was more akin to a wild athurlist of Astraloth, I agreed with the statement. Besides, I thought, as of yesterday, the athurlist is extinct. I wouldn’t let the same fate befall the creatures of Earth.

The smell of coffee wafted into my nose. The kitchen counters were all bare and reflective, illuminated by a white light centered in the middle of the ceiling, complemented by strip lights in the four corners of the room. Jonathan wore his usual getup, a stylish black and white long coat with grey armour plates on his chest, shoulders, and boots. He had his own pistol, black and reflective, holstered safely at his hip. He was wearing the same black gloves I’d seen him in when I first saw him in the generator room, his fingers wrapped around a coffee mug with a TAU symbol of Earth on the side. He gazed at his mug with a forlorn stare, as he leaned back onto one of the counters.

K was seated at the table in the center of the room, with a glass of water at the ready. She clutched the side of her head with one hand, fingers laced around her bull-like horns, and winced in pain. I stepped over to her, handed her a pill and activated my holo-gauntlet. Ritually, she tilted her head up and crushed the pill into her mouth, washing it down with the water, while I added today’s scan of her brain to my growing collection of data that I had no idea what to do with. I met eyes with Jonathan as he held his mug to his lips, and his expression was unreadable, as usual.

I lowered my eyes, looking at K. “It’s bad this morning, is it?”

She burped, generating a chuckle from Jonathan. “Yeah,” she said, “but since I’ve been on your medicine I haven’t blacked out, so, I think it’s working.”

Despite my best efforts to keep them raised, I felt my ears sag a little. “Well you- Your scans are looking good…”

My heart was beginning to race. I glanced up at Jonathan.

He exhaled in satisfaction as he lowered his mug. “Good thing you’ve got Osax looking after you, K.” He smiled, his robotic eye closing a little.

K rubbed her temples just in front of her horns, and looked at him. “We look out for each other,” she said. “And you’ve got nobody, Jonny. You’re just jealous.”

Trust me,” he replied, “I am not jealous of you.” He took another sip. “And don’t call me Jonny, it makes me sound so unprofessional.”

If you ask me, your moustache is unprofessional.”

So,” I interjected, “we’ll be in landing range of Malum’s surface in just a few minutes. We’ve got no time to lose finding out where the valicorr went, and what Duhrnan wants here. Better finish that coffee, Jonathan.”

He nodded, downed the rest of the mug in one swig, and placed the mug on the counter beside him. Then his body shook a little, and his lips became a frown, his eyes turning to a thousand-yard stare.

My brows snapped down, and I hesitated. “Are you… alright?”

He blinked, smiled, and looked me in the eye. “I’m fine,” he said. He stepped away from the counter and brushed his coat down with his gloved hands, then proceeded to adjust his prosthetic eye. “Why do you ask?”

I stared deep into his eyes and felt a chill run down my spine. His organic eye was red and irritated, as if he had been crying. There was something he was holding back, something painful that I sensed he wanted to tell me, but couldn’t.

No- No reason,” I said.

Don’t worry about me, Osax,” he said, stretching his arms to the ceiling. “We’ve all got to worry about ourselves… and isn’t that enough to do?”

I took a long breath in through my nose, and looked to K, who met my eyes, oblivious.

We’re entering the atmosphere,” said Joëlle, her voice coming closer.

She stepped into the room, wearing a long hooded cloak of a grey-blue colour, as she fitted her helmet to her head and it pressurized with a hiss. She was wearing her E-pistol and molecular sword, and the transforming multipurpose rifle she had been using on Voren. She casually tossed something to me and I fumbled to catch it; it was a retracted molecular longsword.

You ever fight with swords?” She asked, her voice muffled slightly through her helmet.

I nodded. “Actually, I was one of the top duelists back at the Great Temple, back when I was taking lessons from my mother,” I said, “I just prefer to keep my distance from my enemies if possible. Well, I prefer to avoid fighting, actually...” I held the handle of the deactivated sword in my right hand, weakly. I was right handed, but until my hand fully healed I’d probably be better off using my left hand. “Skyther swords are somewhat different… they’re longer, thinner, curved, and usually-”

Osax, how many more things can you do?” K said. “You’re a biologist, a linguist, a duelist...” She laughed. “You know, if you’d opened with that back when we met on Voren I’d have warmed up to you a lot faster. You must know so much stuff!”

I shrugged. “Well, I’ve lived around twenty-six times longer than you,” I said, lifting my ears.

Joëlle proceeded to toss Jonathan and K each a small black earpiece, which they fitted to their ears. “We can all communicate via holo-gauntlet, but with these earpieces we can keep our hands free, and it’ll be a little less conspicuous if we run into trouble and need to make a call.” Jonathan and K nodded. I looked at Joëlle and she smiled, revealing another device for me.

I caught it, and glanced at it. It was a headset, fit for a skyther, with a wire that wrapped around the base of the ear, and a silver strip which outlined the left side of my face. I put it on, and a green holographic eyepiece materialized in front of my left eye. I blinked, getting used to the device’s HUD, which could recognize and pinpoint my comrades as living beings distinct from the inanimate objects around us, outlining them in green.

Joëlle stepped up to me. “An old friend gave that to me,” she said. “He thought I might find a use for it someday, so I’ve kept it until I might find a skyther who could make good use of it. It’s also connected to our communications, like those earpieces, but it’s obviously got some special features.” She motioned to the E-gun she’d given me earlier. “The targeting system is linked up to that pistol.”

I drew the gun and powered it on with a whir, careful to keep it aimed away from Joëlle, Jonathan, and K, the tip glowing a faint green. Immediately I noticed a new detail on my headset. Wherever I aimed the gun, I could see through the holographic display a straight green line like a laser-sight extending out from the tip of the pistol to my target, overlaid on top of my surroundings.

Keep the sword just in case,” she said, “but this should help you keep your distance from things.” She smiled through her helmet, and tapped a button on the side of my headset, which deactivated the holographic display.

Thank you,” I said, and bowed. I deactivated and holstered the E-gun.

Hey, why don’t J and I get those sweet targeting headsets?” K said.

Don’t call me J,” said Jonathan. “That feels very wrong...” He paused, then waved his hand dismissively. “It- it’s not very specific with Joëlle around.”

Abruptly my insides lurched to the side as we all stumbled toward the walls of the room, away from the center. The Firebrand shook violently and I slammed my head on the table, barely bracing myself with my injured hand. Jonathan fell to the floor on his hands, and K held on to the edge of the table, crushing it between her gloved fingers. Joëlle leaned her elbow against the wall. An alarm started blaring throughout the ship’s speakers, and the lights changed to a red hue.

What’s going on?” cried K.

We’ve been shot by something!” Joëlle exclaimed.

I gripped the table and with a concerted effort pushed myself to an upright position against the force which was pulling me to the side. The ship was spinning. I glanced up to Joëlle, who, bracing herself against the wall, was stumbling toward the cockpit. I stood up to follow her, and was thrown against the door frame to the cockpit with another shake of the ship.

Somehow, the valicorr must have discovered us as we entered the atmosphere. I knew coming to Malum would be dangerous, but I hadn’t expected for us to be thrust so quickly into a life and death situation. It seemed odd to me that they were able to snipe us out of the sky so quickly and efficiently. Even if they had noticed us as soon as we breached the atmosphere, wouldn’t they have needed time to assess their scans of us, to determine if we were a threat or an enemy? Then again, the valicorr may have considered any unidentified vessel an enemy; it would be consistent with their known behaviour. In any case, they were right to shoot us, but I felt like it all happened too fast.

The four of us stumbled into the cockpit. The view was dizzying in the daylight. The sky was a bright greenish colour, and the line where it met the orange rocks of the surface was spinning clockwise at an alarming speed. Joëlle struggled into the pilot’s seat, and wrestled control of the ship against inertia, leveling us out. We all stumbled to the side when the ship became balanced at last, our bodies readjusting. But the Firebrand was still descending at a staggering pace.

Joëlle glanced around at the ship’s instruments. “The engines were hit directly!” she stated. “I’m not reading any power from them.”

I felt my head aching from the stress as I sat down on the seat to her right. The smell of burning rubber assaulted my nostrils. “Where’s the attacker?”

I glanced at the scanning console, and through irregular blips I could pinpoint an energy source of some kind above us. I leaned forward and craned my neck to see a black spidery valicorr starfighter soaring smoothly away above us, as if it had lost all interest in us after its initial strike. Why didn’t it finish us off? I looked ahead at the ground which was steadily rising to meet us and considered that perhaps it didn’t need to.

Jonathan took his usual seat on the far left, and buckled in. Joëlle and I took a hint and did the same.

Joëlle struggled against the controls, and lifted the ship up a little so it was gliding more smoothly through the air, but still dangerously fast.

We have to take out that fighter!” said K, stumbling into the seat between Joëlle and Jonathan. She looked down at the remaining half of a weapons console in front of her, and muttered, “Oh, right.”

My heart was pounding. “Buckle up, K!” I shouted. The sandy orange rocks below us were getting larger and larger until they filled the entire view of the cockpit, and the Firebrand was whirring and humming in a way I had never heard before.

Lungs ready to explode, I screwed my eyes shut, and dug my fingers into the armrests of my chair. The air ahead of us whistled and screeched desperately in the last few seconds it could spare scraping against the windshield before the solid rocks below would take its place.

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About the author

Seb Woodland

Bio: I'm a writer, game developer, artist, and musician. Just a creative guy working on art and trying to make his way in the world.

-There is always hope-

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