It was slow going in the deep parts of the cave. To my initial surprise, it turned out that the entire cave system was quite large and seemed to go on for a long time. But after thinking about it, as we ventured into a brighter part of the cave where more of Malum’s luminescent crystals grew, I realized that the landing zone we had found must have been made intentionally. The ground was so smooth, and the tunnel leading away from the pad was so level that it must have been carved out. Which meant the path must lead somewhere, even if it didn’t lead to another exit.
Our footsteps echoed ahead and behind us in the tunnel. We brushed past hanging vines of purple and green, and I glanced into the corner and we all paused, gazing at the crumbling remains of an ancient pillar. It was half stuck in blue glowing crystals, and it was ornately carved. I immediately recognized the symbols as ancient Loro writing. I lifted my ears in excitement.
We kept going. Jonathan and Omega seemed wary of each other, (I couldn’t blame them) and Jonathan kept stumbling on the path as it transitioned into ruins. With his eye damaged he was having more difficulty finding his way. But never once did he complain. He kept his lips tightly sealed, aside from the occasional grunt when he nearly slipped, but he knew better than to make a fuss about Omega’s attack on him. I admit, I felt a sense of retribution was deserved for what he had done, and I couldn’t help but feel it was poetic that the part of him which was destroyed was the cold, mechanical part, a device with only the ability to observe and judge the world in digital perfection, but not the heart to find love or meaning, or the truth of each of us that lies just under the surface of our physical bodies. That heart was still Jonathan’s.
But my mind wandered back to Joëlle and K. Joëlle, along with her ship, was captured. Omega and Jonathan and I agreed that she was probably already a captive aboard Duhrnan’s mothership. I found myself sweating at the thought that she would be harmed, but Jonathan pointed out to me that Duhrnan would find it much more amusing to draw out our suffering by keeping her safe. Isn’t that part of why he broadcast the time of Earth’s destruction? His greatest pleasure it seemed was giving people just enough hope, before crushing it utterly and replacing it with despair. He thrilled himself by playing with other people’s emotions. He probably expected Omega and I to make a rescue attempt if we found our way out of the mountain caves. And he would be waiting.
But we were determined not to let him get his way. Somehow, we would save her.
K, on the other hand, must have still been at the landing site. That is, unless she climbed her way out, or found another way into the tunnels. But with her “Sheep’s Clothing” programming, she was another pawn of Ryner. And since Ryner and Duhrnan were working together, we could assume that she would follow Duhrnan’s orders, if he gave any. The one advantage we had, we agreed, was that we might be able to get to her first, and take her out of her trance.
A slow, stocky creature, no more than a foot tall, waddled away from us, swinging its yellow striped tail. We had just reached the summit of a large staircase in a massive open area. The ceiling was lit with glowing crystals. I saw the light of the sky shine through in beams from a long crevice which ripped through the violet mountains above. Water cascaded down into an underground lake beside the building from the mountain’s ancient wound. We stood upon a structure of dusty stonework which resembled a massive temple, built and buried beneath the natural caves of the mountains above. It was as though the Loro had lived within the beating heart of the mountains. The stones were cool and dry under my feet. A cool breeze whistled in past the waterfalls, and carried on it a fragrant, fertile smell. The cave was full of patient, sleepy organisms, but the smell reminded me of the teeming, dangerous world above the surface.
Omega had reached the top of the stairs first, with an unsurprising elegance. As I waited for Jonathan to catch up, I closed my eyes and tilted my ears toward the sound of the water. Sunlight warmed my eyelids even as my lungs filled with crisp, fresh air. My ears tingled at the soothing white noise of the waterfall dripping and splashing below, and misting as it fell through the air.
“We should find the center of the ruins,” I said after a long silence. “We may be able to learn something from the loro database, assuming there is one, and that it’s still functioning.”
Jonathan paused, panting. He pulled himself up to my level, and dusted off his coat. Omega watched him with their round, black eyes. Their legs were together and they stood with perfect posture.
Jonathan said, “What do you hope to learn from the ruins?”
I narrowed my eyes. “Duhrnan is a loro. I don’t know how, but he must be. Maybe the ruins will help us find a weakness.”
“That seems like a longshot,” said Jonathan.
“Maybe,” I said. “But we might as well take it. The database should be just up ahead, if I’m right. We can take a short rest. And we can come up with a plan to find K...”
Of course, I thought.
I gestured enthusiastically to Jonathan and Omega. “The tracking device!”
A smile crept across Jonathan’s face.
Omega blinked. “That is how we will find K?”
“Her earpiece,” I said. “She was wearing it in the battle. We can use it to track her. She’s probably still wearing it. I wonder if she realized that by now… Jonathan, do you think-”
He shook his head. “No, I see no reason why she would have removed it. Unless she determined that wearing it conflicted with her orders. She probably doesn’t realize that our aim might be to track her down and deactivate her. And I suppose we should keep it that way.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Yes. Part of the ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ means that she is programmed to prevent others from deactivating her… aside from her masters.”
“So, what exactly does that mean?” I asked, nervously.
“If she knows what we’re doing, then she’ll just… close her eyes. If she doesn’t see the deactivation symbols, she won’t revert to her normal self. The alter-ego doesn’t want to revert, unless her masters wish it.”
I shivered. “Alright… well, when we do find her, our plan needs to be airtight, then. We’ll have to surprise her.”
“Remember,” said Jonathan, “K’s mind is split into two personalities. While some of her memories are cross-compatible, others are only accessible by one personality. Think of the activation symbols as a light switch. She can either be on, or off. And there is a unique set of symbols which she must see in order to be turned on, or off- one for each. The ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ program was designed based on the idea that once the brain forms a strong enough connection with anything, a visual symbol in this case, it is impossible not to have a specific, predetermined reaction upon seeing it. It doesn’t need to be a logical reaction. It just needs to be severely reinforced… which is why the program can only be applied to subjects like K, during a period of enhanced learning.”
“But,” he continued, “the point is, she can’t control her reaction to the symbols. It’s a reaction… not a response. So, it’s really quite simple. If we get her to see the deactivation symbols, the old K- the real K- will return, and the Brotherhood agent will disappear… at least until she sees her activation symbols again. But if she’s got her eyes shut, and she doesn’t see the deactivation symbols… then she will not revert to her true self. It simply will never happen.” His expression was grim.
Omega tilted their head to the side, curiously. “If K closes her eyes, can we not force them open?”
Jonathan and I sighed.
“In theory? Sure,” I said.
“But that would mean getting close enough to her to do so,” Jonathan chimed in. “She could rip any one of us apart with a flick of her wrist. We have to keep our distance until the exact right moment, then display the symbols so that she doesn’t have a chance to react. She has to be looking at them when they are activated, or she might figure out what we’re doing.”
“But,” said Omega, “with her eyes closed, K will not be able to defend herself. She will be easy to destroy.”
I raised my hands up. “Omega. We don’t want to kill her.”
“But is she not a member of the Brotherhood?”
“Well…” I said.
“She has not quit the Brotherhood, like Jonathan,” said Omega.
Jonathan stepped up next to them. “But if you kill her, you’re also killing a hero. The K who volunteered to fight Duhrnan, and to protect the galaxy.” His tone was firm. “The only way to stop the Brotherhood agent and save the hero is to deactivate her.”
Omega waited, calculating. At last they nodded.
“Besides,” said Jonathan, “I’m the one who activated her. If she dies because of it… I may as well be dead too.”
My ears drooped. “Jonathan, don’t say that.”
He shrugged. “I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. It’s hard enough as it is.”
We were shocked at what we found when we descended the stairs into the central chamber. Just like the ruins on Voren, a loro database connected to a pillar in the center. The room was massive with several columns holding up the ceiling, and ornately carved images and symbols covered every surface. Just like on Voren, a luminous liquid coursed through the indents of the carvings, green in colour, making the room dimly glow from every corner. But, contrasting the dusty remains of the ancient civilization, modern equipment, including computers, containers, desks, and cables littered the room, lit by white lamps mounted on tripods.
My skin began to crawl. There were corpses scattered throughout the room. Human bodies that were ripped apart, with clothing and armour scorched in places. I tried not to gag at the smell of decay that permeated the air, and I wished we were back atop the pyramid instead of inside. The bones had little flesh; they had rotted for some time now.
I screwed my eyes shut, fighting off the urge to puke. When I opened them again I breathed carefully through my mouth.
Omega’s black eyes scanned the room, their lips frowning ever so slightly. At a glance, they seemed completely fine. But Jonathan on the other hand held his mouth open in disbelief, struggling to find words. His brows contorted in confusion, trying to make sense of the situation.
“Something terrible happened here.” He spoke quietly, as if scared that something might be listening.
I spotted an insignia on the jacket of a nearby corpse. The cloth had been charred all over, but the symbol had been missed. It was an angry white skull, the symbol of the Brotherhood.
The sound of our footsteps and breath mingled with the faint hum of the researcher’s computers, still active even since their users had perished months, maybe years ago. The entire room felt suffocating. The sickly green walls seemed to close in around us even as we stepped deeper into the open.
Jonathan and I bent over one of the bodies. The closer I got to it, the faster my heart raced. It was missing an arm and a leg. The skull was dry and blackened, as if all the hair had been burnt off. And just above the eye sockets was another hole. It had been punched straight through.
Jonathan shivered, and our eyes met.
“We should get out of here as soon as we can,” I whispered.
Omega blinked. “Brotherhood members were killed here. But there is no sign that it was recent. We might not be in danger.”
Jonathan looked at them aghast. “I- Well, maybe you’re right, but...”
My heart skipped a beat. Something shifted on the other side of the room.
It must have.
No. I only imagined it.
“Jonathan, see if you can start tracking K’s earpiece. Now would be a good time to get reoriented.”
He gulped, and nodded slowly. Neither of us wanted to have to confront her, but anything seemed better than staying here.
“Osax… the Brotherhood would have been studying these ruins for a reason. It’ll take me a minute to calibrate the scanner- You might as well glance at what they were studying.”
I nodded. “Omega, keep an eye out for anything. I’m going to check out one of these computers.”
Omega locked eyes with me, and nodded. I thought I noticed some moisture on their skin, as though they’d begun to sweat slightly from anxiety. Strangely, that made me feel a little better. At least I wasn’t alone.
Jonathan fiddled with his holo-gauntlet in the dim light. Omega perched on a desk, surveying the room. I covered my nostrils, trying to filter out as much of the smell as I could, and stepped over a skeletal arm nestled between ancient loro debris.
I approached a solid computer screen. The monitor was black; I assumed it had automatically powered down from inactivity. But the computer it was attached to hummed faintly, and tiny lights blinked from it.
Hesitantly, I stretched out my fingers toward the mouse and keyboard. My hand shook, though I willed it to stay still. I brushed a layer of dust off the keyboard, and wiggled the mouse. Jonathan’s holo-gauntlet beeped behind me. A moment later, the computer screen activated.
There were multiple documents open at once, but my eyes immediately fell to an image file which was open in the center of the screen. It was colourless, clearly a loro image which had been recovered from the temple’s database. And it depicted a masked loro with four outstretched arms, standing on a stone, above a crowd of…
“Hey-” I said. I waved Jonathan and Omega to my side, and they hurried over.
We all crowded around the computer screen. There were text notes attached to the image file, which must have been taken by one of the Brotherhood researchers. Jonathan began to read segments of the notes aloud.
“It is evident that… the valicorr are not just random pirates… but instead… creations. Tools. Bioweapons, designed by the loro in a time long forgotten...”
I read, “The valicorr are indeed loyal to nothing but the loro. They are biologically imprisoned to follow their master’s lead. They were created to be soldiers for the loro, so that no loro blood would be spilled in conflict...” I swallowed hard.
Omega glanced at Jonathan and I inquisitively, then continued where we had trailed off in their nasally voice. “Without the presence of their masters, valicorr will resort to violence and raids in order to satisfy their craving for purpose, as documented by the loro in ancient times. It is, after all, why they exist. It seems as though the loro had doubts about their decision to create the valicorr. Nonetheless, this is evidence that creating an army of bioweapon soldiers is indeed achievable. If only we were able to make contact with a loro, then perhaps through them we could become allies with the valicorr. But common knowledge suggests that the loro have entirely disappeared from the galaxy.”
Omega stared at us silently. I looked into Jonathan’s eye.
“The Brotherhood knew about this connection between the loro and the valicorr for some time now,” I said. “Possibly years.”
Jonathan was dumbfounded. “It seems that way. But they never told me.” He sighed. “It makes sense though. That’s how Duhrnan has got them all on a leash- The valicorr must obey him... It’s their purpose.”
If the valicorr were compelled to follow Duhrnan’s lead, then his ability to command them made a lot more sense.
I shot Jonathan a glance. “I’m starting to feel like we’re the only ones who aren’t bioweapons.” He exhaled shortly and smirked. I continued, “Jonathan, how close are we to tracking K?”
He lifted his holo-gauntlet, which projected a three-dimensional crude scan of the area. “It should have been able to lock on to her signal by now...” He tapped on some holographic buttons, and a bright dot appeared in the air.
Beep… Beep… Beep…
The gauntlet signalled that K was close to us.
“What...” said Jonathan. He whirled around to face a door on the wall away from us, and Omega and I followed his gaze. Instinctively, I gripped the handle of Jonathan’s pistol, and flicked it on. It whirred to life in a rising pitch. All our eyes were fixed on the shadowy door, outlined with glowing engravings on the walls beside it.
I rested my finger on the trigger of the E-gun. Sparks of energy began to froth at its barrel. I raised it up to my eye.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
My heart was racing. If it was K, could I even bring myself to shoot? What was our plan? How could we ensure that she would see the deactivation symbols? We would have to be quick.
Jonathan took a step back behind me and Omega. I glanced at the holographic map of the area. The glowing dot had stopped just behind the door. I turned back to face it. I held my breath, trying not to inhale the putrid air.
Sound exploded. Chunks of stone catapulted toward us, and I raised my arms to cover my face. Plumes of dust shrouded the doorway, and the glowing green liquid began to drain out from the archway onto the floor. As the dust began to clear, I caught sight of a figure. K stood alone, with a blank expression on her face. Her grey cloak hung from her spiked shoulders. Her horns pointed straight at us. Her holo-gauntlet was active. Just like Jonathan’s, it showed a three-dimensional scan of the area, with two blinking points of light, right where Jonathan and I stood.