For a moment, all became silent. Not even the sound of my breath could be heard.
Gazing at the unblinking stars, it was as though the very lenses of my eyes had cracked in a hundred places as space around me seemed to distort and jut out at odd angles. I blinked, trying to reorient myself.
K and I faced each other, holding tightly to each other’s arms as we flew upward toward the space battle, and the planet beyond. The visual distortion didn’t seem to affect K as I watched her face tense. Our eyes met through the clear visors of our nano-suits.
Then blinding white light painted her underside, reflected off the armour covering her horns, arms, and every crevice of her suit. Despite there being no air around us- no path for a vibration to travel- a wave seemed to roll over us, shifting our bodies back and forth and sending us tumbling.
We had no way to stop ourselves from spinning, now that it had begun. There was no friction, no way for us to propel ourselves. As we drifted helplessly, my eyes fell to the mothership. It was obscured by a searing white sphere of energy. A moment later, and the cracks in reality seemed to reset themselves, first slowly, starting at the edges of the rupture, before accelerating, imploding back in on the mothership. At once the stars realigned, and the white glow was gone. The mothership had been sliced into countless pieces from inside out.
Then, in one final burst of light, the engines exploded. Rings of white energy expanded outward from the epicentre, and the blackened remains of the craft launched outward in all directions.
Relief bubbled in my chest. Where once a terrifying threat loomed, now there was only stardust and rubble. The mothership was no more.
K and I locked eyes. My eyes traced the shape of her face, her sturdy lip, her dark eyebrows, her tusks. Her eyes were wet, and I noticed tiny droplets roll off her eyelashes, floating around, quivering weightlessly within her helmet.
I felt my own eyes well with tears. I shut them tightly, and forced my sorrow to the back of my mind.
Arcs of energy lit our visors. I glanced around frantically as we spun. The remaining valicorr fleet was entangled with Astraloth’s defense force, and we soared through the center of the battle. Energy weapons fired silently all around us. Starships burst in flashes of fire before breaking apart, or were sent helplessly toward the planet. Time seemed to stretch on, and though I knew it was unlikely that we would be hit, I couldn’t help but imagine a stray energy bolt searing me, breaking K and I apart, puncturing my suit.
I heard myself begin to hyperventilate, and willed myself to take deep, slow breaths. I unfocused my gaze, thinking about my breathing. The sound of it was deafening in my mask. Almost terrifying. Though I breathed slowly, my heart was firing like a machine gun.
Before long, the flickering lights of weaponry and destruction were behind us. I let out a sigh of relief. K’s mouth hung open, her eyes flitting around as we spun. Then I felt warmth glowing on my skin.
I could make out the details of a distant cloud rushing toward us. A moment ago I felt we were drifting, but now we were decidedly plummeting. We spun once more and I caught sight of the starships far behind us, though the space they inhabited seemed to lighten as we fell into Astraloth’s atmosphere.
K and I began to rattle. My visor began to change hues, engulfed in orange wisps of flame that licked the outside of my spacesuit. The temperature was making me sweat. I pulled myself closer to K, wrapping my arms around her. I tucked my helmet over her spiked shoulder.
The heat grew, and with it so did the flames. I felt myself getting lightheaded, fighting to hold on, both to K, and to my consciousness. My eyes focused tightly down to my forearm, which pulsed with heat. Tiny strips of armour melted into thin air from the friction, and those nanites which remained struggled to fill the gap before my suit was ruptured more seriously. We were still too high… If we lost the integrity of our suits- even if our bodies didn’t begin to burn up- without our suit’s oxygen we could suffocate. The air was still too thin up here.
But to my relief, the flames vanished. The loro suits maintained enough integrity.
If we had jumped from further away and had more time to build momentum it might have been a different story. But as it was, Astraloth’s atmospheric drag slowed our descent quickly enough that we didn’t burn up. And the loro nano-suits’ compressive strength was high enough that we didn’t explode against the atmosphere. I took a brief moment to be grateful for that. But I knew, even if these suits could survive atmospheric entry, we wouldn’t survive contact with the ground at these speeds. We were still too high and moving too fast for me to make sense of the land below us, so instead I tried desperately to slow our fall.
Carefully, I moved my hands down K’s arms until they met hers. We held hands, and I extended my body out horizontally, shooting my legs out into a star pattern, shaking against the whistling air. I hoped she would follow my movements, and thankfully she did. We kept our bodies outstretched, trying to create as much air resistance as possible. Until we got closer to the surface, we would have to slow our descent as much as we could. Then, seconds before landing, we would have to reposition ourselves depending on where we fell. If we hit water, our best bet would be to pierce the surface like a pencil- If we smacked the water we wouldn’t be any better off than if we landed on concrete, because water doesn’t compress. I wondered if K knew that, and what our chances of survival really were…
On the other hand, I thought, if we landed on something solid, our best bet would be to land firmly on our feet. While this would mean all of the force of our landing would be focused on our legs, they would at least absorb some of the momentum. The one thing we needed to avoid at all costs was landing head first; even face first might be better. Even in a best case scenario, with plenty of padding beneath us, having slowed as much as possible before contact, we would be injured. Seriously injured, in all likelihood, even if we could avoid death.
We passed below distant clouds. The sky was a bright blue beyond them. And the ground began to take shape below. As my eyes focused on the vast desert sands below us, I knew there was no real chance for survival. Sand wasn’t the worst thing to land on, but we were still falling much too quickly.
My eyes caught sight of a wreckage which fell past us, bursting into the sandy dunes. Then another, a mile away. Plumes of sand rose where these pieces collided with the ground. Black chunks of debris fell all around us, shot to Astraloth from the mothership’s explosion.
The sandy ground filled my vision. My heart pounded. Wind shrieked in my ears through the helmet. My fingers curled around K’s. More and more pieces of the mothership dotted the ground as time passed. In just a few moments, so would our bodies, nothing more than lifeless debris.
At least we stopped the mothership, I thought, vaguely. I didn’t have time to think anything else.
Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed a blur of motion. Something bright, not dark like the mothership’s debris. I twisted my head to get a better look; it was a skyther ship!
Not just any skyther ship, but the Queen’s sleek, spherical shuttle. My mother’s starship! And it zoomed straight for us, kicking up sand as it flew. The sun danced on its shell.
In just ten seconds, K and I would breach the ground, splattered like insects. But suddenly, I felt a force pulling me back. Something was lifting us up, slowing our descent. Ten seconds passed, and though we still soared toward the glimmering yellow sand below, we hadn’t yet hit it. K and I glanced to the white orb. As her starship flew closer to us, it slowed, matching our ever decreasing rate of descent as it approached us.
I tried to move my limbs, to brace myself for a landing, but found myself unable to budge. I jerked my body against an invisible force; only then did I realize what was happening. I glanced to the shuttle.
My mother must have been piloting her ship. I could hardly believe that she was alive, along with the planet. But somehow, she had found us! And in order to rescue us she was slowing our descent with her mind- with telekinesis! The concentration that required must have been immense. But it was working!
In my mind’s eye, I saw her gaze. Her eyes were brilliant, shining with energy like the stars. Never before had I been so happy to be related to a psychic.
We were only several meters from the ground now, but I was no longer afraid. We were falling as gently as feathers now. I couldn’t help but laugh. We did it! I thought. We survived!
And it was true. My mother had saved us. But…
With no warning, her shuttle exploded.
My eyes gaped in horror. A limb of the mothership had fallen from space like a spear, straight through the shuttle. It pierced through the starship like a knife through an eggshell. Then it jabbed the ground, and a shockwave of sand and wind blasted us away.
Our bodies fell, crashing the final distance to the slope of a dune below. We landed, I on my side, coughing as the air was pushed from my lungs and I rolled down the hill away from K. I caught myself weakly, hands digging in the soft sand, and gazed up at the sky. It darkened with a swarm of falling debris, all remains of the mothership, and beyond, the space battle continued above. But where my mother’s ship should have been, a great ball of flame roared in the sky. White metal smouldered and spun through the air. The bulk of the Queen’s vessel crashed behind the crest of the dune, and my veins seemed to freeze.
Pain pulsed through my body.
“No!” I coughed. Blood dripped from my mouth.
Legs quivering, I struggled to my feet. Coughing and panting, I rushed to the top of the hill. With each footstep I sank back into the sand, sliding away, struggling to propel myself onward. Ash and metal rained down upon the desert.
Before I reached the top of the dune, I glanced back toward K. She had tumbled a ways down the hill, and come to a halt. I paused, watching breathlessly. I saw her body move as she struggled to sit up. At least she was alive.
Then I crested the hill. The wreckage of my mother’s ship spread out below me, blackening where fire roared around it. My gaze fell to the cockpit. I didn’t wait a moment longer, and charged down the hill, running and sliding my way to the crash site.
Please don’t be dead, I thought. Please don’t be dead.
I ducked into the remains of the ship, haphazardly, barely conscious of the flames and smoke that engulfed my suit. The inside was barely recognizable, torn apart and scorched from the explosion. My nostrils filled with the scent of sweat, and the sound of crackling fire absently knocked on my helmet, beneath my panicked breathing.
I swallowed hard. The door to the cockpit.
I knew what I was going to find, but I didn’t want to believe it. I had already begun to grieve her, thinking that Astraloth had been destroyed. And it was a miracle that it wasn’t- that she had survived the Shade Beam’s attack. I still didn’t know how it happened. But to have her taken away once more was too much to bear.
I wrapped my fingers around the metal door, and slid it open. I stepped inside.
On the floor next to the pilot’s chair was my mother. She was motionless, face down. Her regal robes of red, white, and gold were stained with blood. Though the ship had room for copilots, and a few extra skyther crew, there were no other bodies. Just Suranos. Just my mother.
I collapsed to her side. “Mom!” I screamed through my helmet. I yelled in Skorali. “Mom!”
My hands hovered over her body, shaking. Then I felt around my chin and neck, searching for a way to release my helmet. My fingers kept slipping on the purple metal. I whipped my hand to my wrist, jamming buttons on the device until the suit began to decompose, beginning with the helmet, melting back into the bracer.
Fire roared just beyond the doorway. The sun warmed us through a wide, shattered windshield. My eyes darted outside. The last of the mothership’s pieces met the planet, scattered in the sand.
I rolled her onto her back, and leaned over her, bracing her head with my hand. Her tattooed face was etched with blood, her eyes half open. Then my eyes fell to her chest. A jagged piece of metal pierced through her fur. It was large, and lodged deep inside, right next to her heart. My vision blurred, and I wiped away some tears, sobbing.
“Mom,” I said. “I’m sorry!” I pulled her up and hugged her tightly, my head resting on her shoulder. “Don’t go! Please don’t go!” I shut my eyes. “I thought I didn’t need you, Mom, but I do!”
Her hand gently touched my face, and I gasped. I pulled away from her, and looked into her half-closed eyes. She struggled to open them, lifting her ears slightly. Her hand caressed my cheek as I held her. Her yellow irises contracted in the sunlight. “Talcorosax…” she whispered.
She clutched my hand.
She lifted her ears weakly. “Osax… I’m dying.”
“No! Mom- Don’t go. Don’t go! I know I don’t deserve you- You were just trying to help me, you always were, and I… I just-”
“Shh…” she said, gently touching my mouth with her fingers. Her breath was faint.
“Please, don’t leave me…” I was shaking. “Don’t go.”
“I must go,” she said, warmly. Her voice was so quiet. So fragile. “No one lives forever-”
“But you can’t die!” I cried. “You’re not- You’re too young. Astraloth needs you. I need you.”
She pressed her hand against my mouth once more. “Shh, Osax. You are wrong.”
“Astraloth no longer needs me.” Her eyes glimmered. “They need a hero, Osax. They need you.”
My heart caught in my throat. “But, I can’t do it without you, Mom. I just can’t.”
“Yes,” she said calmly. “Yes, you can. I know you can.”
She coughed violently.
“Osax… child… do you forget? I can read your thoughts. I can feel your memories.”
I clenched my mandibles, fighting back a sob.
She continued, “You have already done so much, believing that I was gone. You’ve proven yourself, Osax. You have met danger with skill… fear with courage… and despair, with hope. You didn’t give up, even though you wanted to. I know you will save Earth, just like you saved Astraloth.”
I shook my head. “I- I didn’t save Astraloth, Mother. I just- How can I… I can’t lose you, too! I can’t do it alone!”
My voice cracked into sobs. I struggled to keep quieter than my mother’s voice. I was desperate to hear her.
“Listen to me,” she said gravely. Her eyes locked to mine. “You cannot change it. And what you cannot change, you must accept. I am out of time. But you… You can do it. You will not be alone. Do you hear me? Even when I’m gone… you will not be alone.” Her eyes left mine, and peered outside the window. I followed her gaze to the top of the sand dune.
With her nano-suit deactivated and blue face clear in the sun, K stood atop the hill, gazing down at me. A second later, two more figures appeared from the crest. I gazed in wonder. Jonathan’s white coat blew in the wind as he limped, walking next to Joëlle, who trudged behind K, adorned in silvery power armour. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Jonathan, and Joëlle.
Yes. Somehow, they had survived. And here they were. These people I had grown so fond of in such a short time… I knew they were each flawed human beings, but they looked angelic, like guardians descending from the heavens, watching over me. They approached the wreckage of the shuttle, searching for me.
I turned to face my mom. I lifted my ears, weakly. “I… I think I understand.”
“Good,” she said, smiling. “Osax…”
She coughed up some blood, and her breathing became shallower.
Her eyes gently fell to mine. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Mom…”
Her ears lifted.
Then her eyelids froze. I could hear the crackling fire, and the sound of my breath, but not hers. I held her close, and rocked back and forth, letting the truth of the situation flood into my core. There was no point in fighting it now. My mother was gone.
I didn’t bother to conceal my emotions, belting them out over the flames even as my companions approached, and entered the wrecked shuttle. I had no idea how Jonathan and Joëlle had gotten here, but it was not time to ask questions. They crowded around us, my mother and I, watching the scene. For this moment, nothing could preoccupy me. I was fully present in sorrow.
But all moments pass, and eventually, the sobbing subsided. A solemn silence filled the room, and I rose from the floor.
I turned to face them. Jonathan, with his broken eye, and straightened lip… Joëlle, with her damp eyes, her quivering smile… And K, with her eyes of amber, and wild tusks on either side of a frown. They jolted me with emotion.
My gaze fell to the floor. Then I lifted my eyes, and reached my hands toward my friends. K stepped forward, and wrapped her arms around me carefully. Joëlle stepped up, and joined the group hug. Jonathan frowned, staring at us from the side.
“Oh, come on,” said Joëlle in a hushed voice. She pulled Jonathan close. He broke down, tears streaming down his face as he leaned in, and wrapped his arms around me, Joëlle, and K.
I don’t know how long we stood there, but it was a good long while.