A dull pain pulsed through my whole body. Blinking, with a groan, I pushed my hands against the console in front of me, sitting up as straight as I could with the Firebrand’s nose dipped so low. The sound of tiny stones tumbling across the ship’s exterior slowly faded. The bottom half of the windshield was completely submerged in orange-brown dirt and rocks, but it remained unbroken. Some wiring must have been damaged because I could smell metallic and rubber fumes from somewhere. The Firebrand was angled down nearly forty degrees; I braced my toes in the corner between the floor and the bottom of the console in front of me so that when I unbuckled my seat belt I didn’t tumble forward.
I stood in the off-kilter cockpit and stretched my neck and shoulders. Joëlle and Jonathan seemed to be alright, wincing, but slowly following my lead and unbuckling out of their chairs. K on the other hand never had buckled in, and was sprawled across the half-broken weapons console with her arms out in front of her touching the edge of the window and her right cheek planted on the console. The horn on the right side of her head had speared the remains of the weapons panel, half-buried in metal and plastic. I grabbed hold of the leathery back of the pilot’s chair with both hands and climbed up and around it, and slid a few inches down the tilted floor toward K.
I grabbed hold of her arm just as she was beginning to stir. “K, are you hurt?”
She wiggled her arm out of my grip, and tugged her head away from the console once, though it remained stuck. She paused, then pressed both hands on either side of the console and pushed. The metal sheared away with a screech, and she stood upright, taking a moment to stabilize herself on the sloped floor. A chunk of the console was pulled away, touching her face and still speared to her horn. She turned to face me, blood covering her forehead and nose, and lifted both hands to the chunk of debris, tearing it in half like a piece of paper, freeing her horn. She dropped the clanking bits to the floor, and wiped some of the blood from her forehead. Then she smirked, and laughed.
“I’m good, Osax,” she said, her orange eyes full of life. “Ready for anything.”
I hopped a few feet down from the landing ramp, which due to the angle of the crash was sticking out parallel with the ground, suspended in the air. My feet hit the warm, amber stones. The ground was rough, and rocky. My cloak blew behind me in the wind as I marched forward out from under the Firebrand’s shadow and into the light of Malum’s trinary star. Sandy dust grazed my cheeks as I squinted my eyes and raised my hand to shield them from the sunlight which came at me directly ahead of the Firebrand’s exit ramp, which faced away from the front of the cockpit. We had crashed at the edge of a mesa. Ahead of me was a vast desert speckled with large rock spires, and a pale-green sky. The clouds were wispy and thin, but in the far distance I could see a storm brewing. I took a few more steps away from the Firebrand, waking up my thighs as I bounced up and down the uneven terrain, and spun around, the breeze playing with my cloak. The air smelt fresh, and somehow alive.
Just ahead of the Firebrand’s nose, and to the right, a looming cliffside rose up from the mesa. The cliffs continued on to the right for quite a long way. Had the sun been in a different section of the sky, we would easily have been in the mountain’s shadow. To the front and left of the Firebrand, there was another cliff, this one inverted, dropping down a long way into a lush jungle. We were well above the treeline on the plateau. Beyond, on all edges of the horizon, distant mountains both barren and lush covered the landscape. There wasn’t a hint of civilization in sight.
The wind whistled calmly and echoed across the mesa and against the cliff walls. I gazed up to the sky and activated my holographic eyepiece. Far off in the sky across the desert the valicorr fighter continued, a faint glow behind its shadowy body.
I deactivated the eyepiece and switched on my holo-gauntlet, tuning into the Code-Alpha broadcast. Despite the atmospheric interference which would be distorting certain signals, the timer appeared instantly and unwavering.
I took a deep breath and continued to scan the horizon as K, Jonathan, and Joëlle stepped onto the ramp behind me.
I spun around and looked up at them, huddled on the ramp in the shade of the Firebrand’s smooth black exterior. “Could you get the food synthesizers working?”
“No,” Joëlle shouted at me. “We’ve got three major system failures. Firstly, food synthesis. We need that to survive. Secondly, the engines. We need that to get off this planet. And thirdly, the weapons system...” She looked to K, then back to me. “Well, we don’t necessarily need them, but if we can get the engines back online it would be nice to be able to defend ourselves.”
K lowered herself down the ramp with one hand, and touched down onto the rocks. She glanced up to Jonathan and Joëlle before making her way over to me, squinting slightly in the sun. She was dabbing the last of the blood away from her face with a white cloth that she then cast aside, blown away in the wind to litter the ground somewhere. Her skin had already stopped bleeding.
“Any ideas, Osax?” she said.
“Well,” I said, activating my holo-gauntlet and raising it up for a general area scan. “No sign of civilization on the surface so far. And no sign of the valicorr other than that fleeing starfighter.” I pointed off to the horizon. Then I spun around to face my comrades. “Priority one is ensuring our own survival, which means securing food and water. Everything else comes second. At the very least, we can use the Firebrand for shelter, even if we don’t get it moving.”
“That’s a good short-term goal,” said Joëlle, “but in six days Duhrnan will destroy Earth.”
“I know,” I said. “We have to take things one step at a time.”
“Agreed,” said Joëlle. She removed her helmet and brushed her purple dreads out of her eyes.
“To maximize our chances of survival, I think we shouldn’t leave any solutions unattempted.” I said. “We should try to make repairs to the food synthesizers as soon as possible. If we get those finished we can work on repairing other parts of the ship. In the meantime, somebody should go looking for a water source in case we don’t fix the synthesizers by tonight.” My mouth felt dry. I regretted not drinking more at breakfast. “And one more thing; we should try to get some help from the TAU. They might have some soldiers to spare, or at least a transport with supplies.”
“Good thinking,” said Joëlle. “Well, Jonathan and I can work on repairing the synthesizers. K, are you any good with fixing-”
“Nuh-uh,” said K, raising her hands defensively. “That’s a definite no.”
Joëlle nodded. “How about you, Osax?”
I gazed out at the vast landscape before us. I wasn’t particularly skilled at repairing starships, and I knew next to nothing about food synthesizers, but I did want to help Joëlle. At the same time though, we were standing on Malum. So few people had been here, how could I not want to explore? The thought of stumbling across a loro structure seemed exhilarating. And beyond that, if I somehow ran into Duhrnan...
My blood boiled.
“I think I’ll be on the exploration team.” I replied.
“Alright,” said Joëlle. “You and K can stick together.” She hesitated, then said “I’ll be right back, I’ve got something you might be able to use, just need to find it.”
She disappeared back into the Firebrand, and I noticed Jonathan who had been standing quietly this whole time gaze at her forlornly. Then he stepped to the edge of the ramp and sat down, dangling his legs over the edge and gazing blankly out into the desert, his gloved hands gripping the edge of his seat. I furrowed my brows and my ears lowered. I turned away and took a few steps from the Firebrand further into the sunlight.
K stepped up beside me, her blue skin shining in the sun. We were several meters from the Firebrand. We gazed out at the alien world together in silence.
“Ah-” she grunted, and shook her head, covering her temple.
“Headache?” I asked.
She nodded, and then shook it off.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
I tilted my ears at her. “You don’t understand what?”
She bent over and picked up a baseball sized stone. Her eyes pierced the clouds. She hurled it off into the distance, impressively far. “Well, a lot of things I guess. But I’m thinking about...” She turned to face me. “Why would Suranos lie to me?”
My heart sank. I lowered my eyes to the ground, and picked up my own stone, unease soaking into my limbs. I spun around and threw the stone as far as I could; barely a tenth as far as K’s throw, and the rock was much smaller.
“Maybe she was just trying to be a good host. Sharing interesting stories...”
K exhaled, and her eyes trained the ground. She kicked a few rocks casually. “She didn’t seem like she was lying. But… obviously...” She sighed. “Obviously those spheres didn’t save Astraloth.”
“I always loved the story about Astraloth’s ultimate defense,” I said. I took a deep breath and gazed up at the sky. Images of my mother filled my mind. “She would tell me not to be afraid of danger, because Astraloth would always be safe. I would ask how, and she would tell me it was a secret. But that the red spheres of the Great Temple weren’t just extravagant decorations… they housed a power capable of saving Astraloth from destruction.” I felt my fingers clenching into fists. Behind my eyes I could sense tears, and heat flowing to my cheeks. “Deep down I always knew it was just a story she made up, to cheer me up, but...”
“But she told me that story,” said K. “I didn’t need cheering up...”
I rubbed my eyes.
“You know,” I said, “The last thing I said to her was… to leave me alone. I yelled at her. I said she was smothering me… and I meant it.” I grit my mandibles. “But at the end of the day, I don’t know if any of that mattered, even if it was true.”
The subtle, persistent wind filled the silence.
“Is it really worth lying to someone just to make them feel better?” said K.
My breath caught in my chest.
She looked at me with utter confusion in her face. “Life is too short for lies. I’d rather have shitty truth than perfect lies.” She frowned, and crossed her arms. “I don’t know. Why complicate things, right?”
“Right...” I said, my heart pounding. I could feel Jonathan’s gaze on the back of my head, as though his thoughts were drilling into me.
“But hey,” she said, her lips curving into a smile, “at least, even after all this shit, both our homes destroyed, doomsday knocking on our door... we’re stranded together, right?” She grinned and carefully placed a hand on my shoulder. “Never thought I’d have someone watching my back, besides me.”
I swallowed hard. “K,” I mumbled, “I don’t know how to say this, but-”
“You two, come over here!” Joëlle’s voice called out to us.
We jogged up to the ramp, and I shoved that thought deep into the back of my mind. Jonathan was still sitting there, and Joëlle tossed us two hard grey backpacks, made of some kind of plastic. The backpacks each had fabric pouches on the back and sides for quick access over top of the hard exterior. K and I slid our arms through the straps, and I helped K get it over her shoulder spikes.
“Those bags are full of empty containers you can fill with water, if you find some.”
She then tossed K and I each a small rectangular device as wide as my palm and as long as K’s forearm. Equipped with arm straps, we started putting them on.
“Those are wrist cables,” she said. “They’re quite strong, and should help you if you find yourself in any precarious… vertical situation.”
K aimed hers at the bottom of the Firebrand, grinning, and fired. A thin, gold-coloured cable shot out from the wrist-mounted box, whiffling through the air. The tip unfolded into a three-pronged grappling hook, and ricocheted off the bottom of the hull.
“It doesn’t work,” said K, frowning and retracting the cable into its case.
Jonathan interjected, “It has to have something to hook onto. Shooting it at a ceiling won’t do you any good.”
“That’s not how they work in Defenders of Earth. In that game, you just shoot at whatever, and fwip!” She flattened her hand and shot her arm diagonally to the sky. “You just got propelled.”
Joëlle smiled and laughed, and I suppressed my own giggle. Jonathan smirked. But it seemed like it was forced.
“Anyway,” said Joëlle, “I forgot to mention that each of our earpieces are equipped with a tracking device.” Jonathan’s gaze snapped to her before she continued, and his smirk faded. “Just in case somebody gets separated, we should be able to track one another’s locations.”
“Great,” I said. I adjusted my black cloak at the neck, then glanced at my holo-gauntlet.
My ears lowered. “Alright, let’s stop killing time. You ready to head out, K?”
Joëlle said, “I’ll contact the TAU, see if I can get anyone to come by and help us.”
Jonathan stood up. “Actually, I think I should contact the TAU.” He glanced between us, frowning. “You know your food synthesizers better than I do, you can get a head start on the repairs. I’ll see if I can call for help.”
“Alright,” I said, “Well, we’re going to check out the jungle down that cliff. For the plant life to grow there, there must be water,” I concluded.
Joëlle nodded. “Okay. Stay safe, you two.” She bowed farewell to me, and I returned the gesture.
“We’re on Malum,” I said sarcastically. “We’ll be safe.”