My heart was beating hard. I glanced to Jonathan, hoping for some reassurance. But he was seated to my left, and couldn’t see me with his robotic right eye being broken. Instead he breathed slowly, obviously trying to calm himself. I looked to K, and she was sitting perfectly straight- I didn’t even know she could do that- and her face was almost completely neutral. Almost, except for a tiny hint of fear. Her horns stuck out on either side of her head, like some sort of blue demon. She didn’t look my way, and I realized staring at her might make her uncomfortable, and her job a lot more challenging, so I averted my gaze. I looked forward, straight into the eyes of a valicorr soldier. Its pitch black sockets gazed into my soul, and it hissed through clenched teeth. It took a step toward me, and I leaned back in my seat. Though I stood around eight feet and the valicorr only seven, I was seated, so it loomed over me on its lanky digitigrade legs. The talons on its feet clawed at the metal floor of the shuttle.
Jonathan turned to it. “Back off,” he said. “The prisoner is to be unharmed.”
It twisted its head creepily toward him, and silently stepped backwards. The other valicorr kept their distance.
The shuttle touched down with a shake. The deep growl of the mothership’s heart permeated the atmosphere and I felt a low vibration coursing through my body. Jonathan stood. K copied him, and lifted me to my feet. Then the doors of the shuttle opened, and we all stepped out onto a catwalk.
We had entered the mothership from a hangar on its underside, and the shuttle was clamped from the ceiling of the hangar. We stood on a silver catwalk that led towards a ledge, with doors lining the wall that led deeper into the mothership. The interior was lit with round white lights mounted on the walls and ceiling, and the walls were grey-purple.
The hangar was circular, with a massive door beneath us that lay open to the atmosphere of Malum. I looked down from the side of the catwalk at clouds, and the orange sand miles below. It made me dizzy, so I quickly stopped. Rows of catwalks and ships hanging from the ceiling lined the circular ledge, suspended in the air above the opening below us.
Valicorr officers stared at us blankly from above, through a high glass window on the far wall which led to a control room of some kind that oversaw the hangar. As we were led to the edge of the room, the bay door closed, sealing us inside the mothership. A valicorr approached us, with a scar across the grey skin of its face, adorned in purple and black clothing. And to my surprise, it spoke to us.
“Wellsworth,” it rasped. “The Emperor demands your presence.”
Jonathan cleared his throat, and stood up straighter, putting his arms behind his back. “Well, good,” he said. “I’m sure he’s happy to know that, as per Ryner’s orders, I successfully neutralized the pests, and even brought one of them with me as a prisoner.”
There were valicorr guards all around armed with wrist-mounted cannons and swords. The captain replied, “The Emperor will not be happy unless you follow me to his chambers. You must bring the bioweapon, and the prisoner.”
Jonathan nodded. “Yes, of course.” He opened his mouth to speak, and paused. “What of the other prisoner? Is Joëlle already with Duhrnan?”
The valicorr snapped its eyes to Jonathan, looking down at him. “I do not know what prisoner you speak of,” it said. “Perhaps they are already dead.”
“What are you talking about?!” I blurted. I stepped forward, and it took K a second to realize she was supposed to be restraining me. She grabbed my arm tightly, and held me in place.
The scarred valicorr hissed at me, then turned back to Jonathan. It said, “Keep this one quiet. We do not tolerate enemies aboard our sacred vessel. It only lives because the Emperor demands it.” The valicorr looked at me, with anger burning in its eyes.
Jonathan nodded. “You heard them,” he said to me. “Stay quiet.” He stared at me with grave intensity.
“Duhrnan commands that the prisoner be placed in a holding chair.” As the valicorr said this, two more pushed a hovering metal seat my way. Without warning, the valicorr cut my bonds, then shoved me so I was seated on the floating chair. They slammed my wrists to the arm wrests and my ankles to the metal legs of the hovering chair. A second later, metallic straps began to materialize over top of my limbs. The holding chair itself must have had some kind of nanotechnology, building solid restraints out of nanites, tiny robotic particles that were stored inside the chair.
Their footsteps echoed as the valicorr led us out of the hangar, and I looked back at K, who was pushing me forward in the floating chair. Her eyes darted to mine briefly, before returning ahead.
We were led silently by six valicorr, plus the scarred one, through a maze of hallways, rooms, and elevators. Some of the walls sported glowing engravings, reminiscent of the central chambers of the loro ruins. So, I thought, the mothership was designed by the loro. It was all starting to make sense. If Duhrnan was a loro, and the valicorr were loro bioweapons designed to be servants of the loro, then of course the mothership was of loro design as well. That explained why the armour was so sophisticated, the size so impressive, and the weaponry so destructive. The loro didn’t mess around… when they built something, they went all in.
I couldn’t help but wonder how Duhrnan was the leader of the valicorr. He was so unstable. It didn’t add up… where did he come from? What made him appear now? The loro were supposed to be extinct. I imagined him, his wild, frenetic demeanour… it was incongruous with the loro that I had studied. What were the chances that the first and only living loro that appeared would be Duhrnan? Nothing I had found in all my time as a loro researcher indicated that a majority, let alone any loro, were this evil, or volatile, or unsettled for that matter. Yet, because of the valicorr’s DNA, they had no choice but to follow him, simply because he was a loro. It reminded me of the ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ program.
My eyes were constantly darting around the greyish halls, looking for anything noteworthy, trying desperately to get my bearings. All of the markings and signage on the ship were written in ancient loro characters. K pushed me onward as I concentrated hard, trying to recall the symbols for words like ‘power’, ‘generator’, ‘core’, or anything similar, and seeing if I recognized those words on any of the walls. In order to sabotage the ship, we would first need to find the source of its power.
But before I could think any more about it, the valicorr halted before a large door.
Jonathan gulped. K glanced at me. Then Jonathan frowned, and glared at me. “Come on,” he said, gruffly. He led us toward the door, which slid open into the ceiling automatically.
The thrum of the ship’s engines reverberated through the floor as we entered the room. The door which we entered through was the only one in the room, and it slid shut behind us with a hiss. The floor was detailed with dimly glowing purple engravings. Ornate pillars stood on either side of a raised platform on the far side of the room. It held a towering throne, which faced away from us toward a massive window. The view revealed sky and clouds below as the mothership hovered in the atmosphere of Malum.
A drop of blood hit the floor from the ceiling, and I glanced up, ears peeling back. Duhrnan’s furry beast was huddled, clinging to the ceiling, with something fleshy in its mouth. The massive monster’s black and blue fur shimmered in the sunlight from outside. It had red accents on its face and back, and its six legs. The razor-sharp barb on its tail flicked back and forth, and its pure white eyes landed on me.
I started in my seat as it fell to the floor with a thud, and snarled at us, dropping the meat and revealing a set of jagged teeth. It must have been almost four meters long, and far too close for my liking. It raised its hackles, and lowered its muzzle to the ground, ready to pounce.
“Come, Lupaph!” Duhrnan’s voice slithered out from behind the throne. The beast gave a low growl, then snatched up the chunk of meat and trotted around the room to him. I felt my blood beginning to boil.
The throne rotated to face us automatically, and Duhrnan stepped out of his seat on his digitigrade legs, rising up to my height. He wore purple, brown, and red robes, with black armour plates on his shoulders, arms, and torso. Hanging from his shoulders was a wide black cape, with a fancy collar around his neck. Four E-pistols adorned his legs, two on each side. His pale snout contorted into a freakishly wide grin of sharp teeth. His eyes were wide, and seemed to faintly glow violet. His four arms stretched up and outward as he rose, before falling to his sides. He inhaled through the slits of his nostrils. Then his eyes fell on me, and I felt a chill run down my spine.
I felt K’s grip on my arm tighten.
Jonathan took a step toward him. “Emperor Duhrnan, it’s an honour to finally meet you in person.” He feigned a smile, but Duhrnan wasn’t looking his way.
Ignoring him, Duhrnan pressed a button on his wrist, and several panels in the ceiling slid open. One by one, twelve drones hovered down from the ceiling, and began floating in the room, circling us. They were round black robots, with insect-like appendages sticking out at various angles. Duhrnan closed the gap between us, and reached up a hand to my face. He grabbed my cheeks with a cold set of fingers, and tilted his head to the side, grinning. “I’ve never seen a skyther up close before,” he said.
“Yet you destroyed Astraloth!” I spat.
He recoiled, dropping his hand to his side. He looked genuinely upset, and wiped away my saliva from his clothing. Then his eyes narrowed. “You must be Talcorosax, son of the late Queen. Well I am Duhrnan.” I flinched as he spat right back at me.
K lunged forward, and shoved Duhrnan back with a snarl. He stumbled backwards, and the monster behind him shot up, growling. In unison, the drones whined as yellow energy guns activated on each one, and they aimed at the three of us. Jonathan gestured to K.
“K!” he said. “You can… stop guarding the prisoner now.” His eye was wide with intensity, and K glared at him, but relented. She resumed a neutral position, though I could tell she was clenching her jaw. So was I.
Duhrnan raised his two left hands toward the beast. “Be calm, Lupaph. All is well.” He then turned his attention to Jonathan, and slowly crept toward him as the ship’s engines hummed. He smiled ominously.
The three of us glanced around nervously at the drones. Duhrnan leaned forward as he paced back and forth, eyeing us. He grinned, clasping both sets of hands together. “Jonathan, Jonathan, Jonathan… You must make sure you keep a tight leash on that K, or things might get unpleasant.” His words were venomous.
Jonathan breathed calmly. “Of course, Duhrnan.”
I kept my mouth shut. Duhrnan and the beast watched us as the drones hovered around slowly, tiny yellow sparks flitting from their barrels.
Duhrnan stood up straight, and stretched his neck to each side, before sighing. He stepped up toward me, and I could sense K tensing. He reached a hand up to me and grabbed my headset, the earpiece which Joëlle had given to me. He removed it, looked at it, then placed it in Jonathan’s hands. “Deal with this,” he said. “Talcorosax will not need it anymore as a prisoner aboard this vessel.”
Jonathan nodded, and put the headset inside his coat. I clenched my mandibles.
“Have Talcorosax escorted to the brig for now,” said Duhrnan.
“It will be done,” said Jonathan nervously.
I smelled blood as Lupaph rose onto its massive paws and barked at me. Duhrnan raised his hands. “Don’t get too excited, Lupaph! I haven’t decided how I want to play with him... yet! But when I’m done I’ll be sure to give you the leftovers!”
Eyes wide, I glanced at the meat at Lupaph’s feet, then to Jonathan. He shook his head at me silently. K trembled faintly, struggling to contain herself. I could tell she wanted nothing more than to grab Duhrnan by the chest and throw him out the window. But with those drones surrounding us, she knew that she wouldn’t be fast enough to kill him without at least one of us getting hurt, or killed. Depending on how things went, it might be our only choice.
Jonathan hesitated. “While we were in the cave, Duhrnan, my cybernetic eye was damaged. I… left a replacement on the Firebrand, somewhere- Joëlle’s ship. Could- could you direct me to it?”
Duhrnan whirled around, and took a few steps away from us. His tone was mocking. “Oh, Jonathan. I’m so sorry, but you must be confused. The Firebrand isn’t aboard the flagship.”
“What?” I blinked. Then where is it?!
Jonathan stuttered. “I- I ordered the Brotherhood troops to bring her to the mothership. They escaped on the Firebrand. They should have docked with the vessel hours ago.”
Duhrnan faced us, frowning absently. “I don’t know what happened to them.” He paused, looking at his hands.
I was expecting him to say more, when suddenly, the door behind us opened. The scarred valicorr stepped forward, and kneeled before Duhrnan, who gazed down at it with disdain.
“Why the interruption?” Duhrnan asked impatiently.
The scarred one replied in a hoarse voice. As it spoke, Duhrnan stomped towards the valicorr, his cape flowing behind him. “My Emperor, Duhrnan… I do not know how-”
He bent over, and picked it up by the throat with his top two hands. He bared his teeth. “What. Do. You. Want?” It choked and coughed. I winced, unable to look away.
“A- A-” The valicorr struggled to speak. It almost looked like their three eyes were going to pop out. “Aszzt-”
“What is it?” Duhrnan whispered intensely, shaking the valicorr. “What is it?” His voice was like a whip.
At last, it coughed out a response. “Astraloth. Astraloth!”
Astraloth?! I leaned forward, restrained by the chair, ears raised in anticipation.
Duhrnan paused, then dropped the valicorr to the ground. It scrambled onto its clawed feet.
“What about it?” Duhrnan growled.
“Astraloth...” the valicorr began, “Astraloth exists!”
Silence seeped into the room. Only the vibration of the ship could be heard.
“What?” I said. My mind was racing. “What do you mean?! Astraloth-”
“Quiet!” Duhrnan cried. Pain shot up from my cheek. His hand smacked me across the face. Blood dripped down my mandibles. My heart was racing.
Duhrnan turned to the valicorr. “That is impossible,” he said. “I destroyed it. With the Shade Beam.” He chuckled, then thrust his hands out triumphantly. “It vanished before the eyes of the galaxy!”
The valicorr was motionless. “Yes,” it said bluntly. “But the planet reappeared. Astraloth exists!”