The four of us stood atop the sandy dune, the sun beating on our backs. Desert stretched as far as the eye could see. And scattered around us in a mile radius were the chunks of the mothership. Dark fumes rose from each piece. I glanced down to the burning wreckage of the queen’s ship behind us. My arms felt heavy, bearing the weight of her body.
K broke the silence. “Are you sure you don’t want me to carry her?” She said.
“No,” I said. “I can do it.”
Jonathan gazed at me mournfully, but said nothing.
Joëlle’s purple hair flicked in the wind, and she gestured down the side of the dune to another hunk of black metal, only it wasn’t a wreckage. The Firebrand was nestled in the sand a ways down the hill; she must have landed it just after K and I touched down.
“Now there’s a sight for sore eyes,” said K.
Joëlle led the way, and I followed close behind. I could feel Jonathan and K’s eyes on my back as we descended, my feet sinking into the hot sand with each step.
After we entered the Firebrand I laid my mother’s body upon one of the spare beds. I stared at her motionless face. Her eyes were closed, and she looked serene. My companions gathered around me, waiting for me to look at them or to say something. I trembled, and quickly turned away from my mother.
“I can’t look at her anymore,” I said.
Joëlle nodded. “Osax… I am so sorry.” She frowned at me, eyes tilted with concern.
I couldn’t look at her face either. The world seemed to shrink around me, and for a brief moment I forgot where I was. I was trying to process so much at once. I walked silently into the kitchen.
They followed me, watching warily as I raised a shaky hand toward the food synthesizer.
“Osax…?” K said.
Root beer filled my glass. I lifted it to my face and put my mouth around the straw. I closed my eyes and leaned my ears forward around the drink, sipping slowly. The sound tingled through my ears and for a moment I forgot myself. I felt strength returning to me as I drank.
I let out a sigh of relief, and turned to face everyone. “You have no idea how happy I am that you’re all okay,” I said.
Jonathan and Joëlle each smiled weakly.
K on the other hand, frowned. “But you’re not,” she said.
I raised my hand up. “I know you’re concerned K. I know you all are. But please, right now, I don’t want to be the center of attention. I… I’ll be okay. Let’s just- Just figure out what’s next.”
K sighed. “Osax. You can’t just ask people not to care about you.”
Joëlle cut in. “I think we all need some breathing room.” She grabbed a glass of water for herself, and one for K. K took it, and began to drink. “Of course we should debrief in a few minutes. I’m going to get the Firebrand moving, and head for your home at the Great Temple, Osax. In the meantime, take a breather. Everyone… meet in the cockpit when you’re ready to discuss what comes next.”
I nodded, and so did K.
Suddenly Jonathan cried in pain, and fell against the wall. He winced, and grabbed at his thigh. I hadn’t noticed before because his coat had covered it, but he was cut pretty badly, from the looks of it by a valicorr’s plasma blade. It must have happened when he used the mothership’s cannon to take out Ryner’s starship. That must have been why he was limping.
“That looks bad,” I said.
He glanced with his remaining eye toward us. “Joëlle, can you give me a hand?” he grunted. “I- I think it’s worse than I thought. It… needs class-6 medical gel. Can you-”
Joëlle stormed past him toward the cockpit, not even looking his way. “I’m done helping you. You know where the medkits are,” she said flatly.
K scoffed. “Hey, that was pretty cold!”
The door shut behind Joëlle, and Jonathan slid down into the corner of the wall, groaning. I put my glass of root beer down and knelt beside him. “K, can you get the medkit?”
“Uh…” she said.
Jonathan shook his head, gasping for air through the pain. “It’s no use… K hates me. Rightly so.”
“No,” K said, furrowing her brows. “I don’t. Actually… I’m glad you didn’t die.” Her face was rigid, but I recalled the tears I saw floating in her helmet after the mothership exploded.
Jonathan was silent for a moment. “R- Really?” He winced. “Then, would you please get some medical gel?”
She scratched her neck. “Heh, I uh… Don’t know where the first aid kits are.”
Jonathan and I looked at her, dumbfounded. “You were there when Joëlle gave the tour,” I said.
“You think I payed attention to that?”
“But,” said Jonathan, “you’ve been living in here for weeks.”
After a brief pause, I stood up, and hurried out of the room. “I’ll get it,” I said.
I came back with the medkit and knelt down to begin work on Jonathan’s wound, but K cut me off.
“Osax… you take a break. I’ll help him.” There was something noble about the gleam in her eyes.
“Will you need any help?”
“I’m fine, Osax,” she said, turning to Jonathan.
“Okay,” I said, quietly. “I’ll be in the cockpit.”
I grabbed my soda and stepped out of the kitchen into the hall. When the door slid shut behind me and I was alone, I pressed my back against the wall, and shut my eyes. I sipped some more root beer, and tried to calm myself.
Then I heard K and Jonathan speaking quietly through the door.
“I just apply the gel directly and then wrap a bandage around it, right?” she said.
“Yes. Have you… never taken first aid?”
She snorted. “When would I have had time to do that?”
“I’m sorry… I didn’t know what your education included, when you were being raised at the station. I thought it might have included first aid.”
There was a pause before K replied. “For the one who made me, you sure weren’t very involved in my life. I don’t think I ever even met you until the attack on Voren.”
“Well, we did meet, when you first awoke, and-”
“Yeah, but I don’t remember it.”
“Now I just apply the bandage?” K said.
“Yes, just don’t make it too tight. Ah! Careful!”
“You could probably squeeze my leg clean off…”
“Yeah, I know. I’m trying not to.”
“Is it that hard to restrain yourself…?”
“Are you talking mentally? Cause no. I don’t want to hurt you… anymore. It’s just hard to know my own strength sometimes.” K sighed. “You need to lighten up.”
“…But I’m… I’m responsible for so many bad things… How could you forgive me so easily?”
“Easily? Now that’s a big assumption. I thought scientists didn’t make assumptions.”
“I...” Jonathan trailed off.
“I don’t know, Jonathan. I don’t know how I forgave Osax for what he did either. I think it had to do with me realizing that everyone else was constantly forgiving me, for everything I was doing… So I could forgive to. It wasn’t really a choice, just kinda… happens.”
“But you deserve forgiveness. Most of your mistakes were honest ones- accidents. Everything I did, everything I created, was bad.”
“…But you made me,” K said in a low voice.
“Yes,” Jonathan said. “I did.”
“Am I bad?”
K waited. “While I was falling to the planet, I thought about what you said. About being kind of like family.”
“Yeah. Maybe it’s messed up- Maybe you’re right and I’m not bad, but you are. Or maybe you’re wrong and you’re good and I’m the bad one. Or maybe we’re both just both. Just a mix. Maybe everyone is.”
“And I guess… well… When I was falling, I thought for sure I was gonna die. And I couldn’t help but think how grateful I was that at least, in my short life, I got to make a friend before that happened. A real friend. Something I never thought I’d get to have.” Her voice choked up a little.
Tears welled in my eyes.
“But then I thought, how sad is it that I never had a family?” Eventually, K continued. “I dunno. Osax seems like he had a kind of hard relationship with his mom. But obviously, he really cared about her. And she cared about him. Maybe in a way only family can?”
“I don’t know about that… Family can be a strong bond… I loved my parents. I looked up to my dad… practically wanted to be him. But sometimes, parents let you down. And sometimes… you let them down…”
“Sure… but… I guess it would be cool to have a dad. Or a brother. Or whatever. And I just kept wishing that if I survived the fall, somehow I’d get to experience that feeling… of having a real family. Even if I’m gonna pass out one of these days, and not wake up…”
“Jonathan…?” said K.
After a shaky sigh, he responded. “Thank you for tending my injuries. For a first time, you did an excellent job.”
“…I am a fast learner,” she said. “Well, when I want to be. So… anyway…”
“I think I’m good to stand now. Let’s get to the cockpit. I don’t want to keep them waiting.”
“Oh… okay. Then, I’m gonna grab something to eat first.”
“An excellent idea. I’m starving.”
“So...” said K, finally. “Since you created me… do you think… that you might be able to cure me?”
I clenched my mandibles.
Jonathan sighed. “I… wish I could.”
“Do you know what’s wrong with me?”
“Not for certain, but I do have a theory... Your body is agitated at a cellular level. It’s what’s responsible for your accelerated growth and learning. It’s what made the ‘Sheep’s Clothing’ possible. I believe this genetic alteration had unintended consequences, and that it’s what’s causing the growths, and the headaches, and blackouts.”
“Whoa,” said K. “That’s... weird.”
“Theoretically, if I could neutralize the part of the cell that is causing this...” Jonathan sighed. “But I don’t even know if my theory is correct. I don’t have enough information, and I don’t know how to get it-”
“Maybe you could use Osax’s data, he’s been taking scans…”
“You’re right, K. Maybe I could.”
Really? I thought. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. Jonathan probably had the expertise to really help K. I tried to restrain my excitement. She had a chance! Maybe if Jonathan and I worked together…
“Wait-” said Jonathan.
“Osax’s holo-gauntlet was destroyed. By the myrok. Remember?”
In my excitement, I had forgotten. I felt a crushing sensation in my chest. Neither of them said anything for a long while.
I left them to themselves, heading for the cockpit.
When I sat down in the cockpit, Joëlle, still wearing her armour, was seated in the pilot’s chair, silently looking at the landscapes which zoomed by below us as she flew the Firebrand.
I savoured the sweetness of my drink, and rested my aching muscles.
“What happened?” I asked finally.
“You mean how did I survive?”
“Yes,” I said. “Joëlle… You were forced back onto the Firebrand by Brotherhood soldiers. They commandeered the ship. We thought for sure that you were captured and brought aboard Duhrnan’s mothership. That’s part of why we surrendered ourselves to Duhrnan. We were trying to rescue you.”
“I was trying to rescue you!” She exclaimed. “The last thing I saw before being corralled onto the Firebrand was you, crawling through the smoke, surrounded by dead bodies. I thought Jonathan and K were going to kill you. I’m so glad they didn’t!” She stared at me, a desperate look in her eyes. After a second, she regained her composure with a deep sigh.
“I’m glad you’re okay too,” I said, my ears tilting forward in attempt to show my compassion. “How did you escape after all?”
“Escape? Oh,” she said. “The Brotherhood soldiers took off with the Firebrand, and locked me inside one of the cabins. I could hear them talking through the walls about how they were going to rendezvous with Duhrnan’s ship. None of them even seemed to care that their companions had just been killed by Omega’s grenades. It’s almost like they were brainwashed. Completely emotionally detached.
“Anyway, I didn’t waste any time. I activated the Firebrand’s boarding defense mechanisms.”
I blinked. “Defense mechanisms?”
She shot me a sidelong glance. “My holo-gauntlet has a direct link to the ship… kind of like how you linked your gauntlet with K’s.”
“Okay… but, what defense mechanisms?”
She smirked. “The oxygen recycler can actually synthesize a kind of sleeping gas… puts anyone- any human, at least- fast asleep after just a few breaths. Not sure how it works on skythers, but it’s probably a similar effect.”
I sat back in my chair, aghast. “So you could have put us all to sleep if you wanted at any time? Why didn’t you tell any of us about that before?”
She trained her eyes on the horizon. The sun spilled in from the windshield, highlighting her face. “To be honest? I wanted to keep at least one card up my sleeve. I was pretty sure I could trust you all, but not completely.” She rung her hands around the control levers. “Turns out I was right. I couldn’t completely trust everyone.”
My ears drooped. “You know Jonathan renounced the Brotherhood now, right?”
She sighed. “He said so. But does that really make up for everything he did? All that he is responsible for?” Her eyes drilled into me. “I don’t think so.”
She looked back ahead.
I cleared my throat. “So, you must have been able to vent the gas into all of the rooms of the ship except the one you were in, to put them all to sleep.”
“Exactly,” she said.
“But they were wearing helmets… Don’t TAU helmets filter the air?”
“Yes, they do,” she said. “But I know TAU technology. It took me a while to setup, but before I activated the sleeping gas, I rigged the Firebrand’s computer to hack into their helmet’s digital displays and their communications. I just blasted them with visual and auditory noise.”
“And that’s when I activated the gas.” She paused. “Two of them got wise to what was happening, and kept their helmets on despite the noise. But they were practically incapacitated already. I vented the sleeping gas, and once it was clear, I unlocked my door and knocked those two out. The problem is, one of them fired a shot at me in the cockpit, and damaged the controls.”
She gestured to the console in front of her, which looked scorched in places. Now that I was looking at it, I was sure that there were some different parts in place than there used to be.
“I made sure to engage the cloaking device as soon as possible. Then it was just a matter of flying the ship down to the surface, and throwing their bodies outside. It took me a few hours to repair the controls… it was technically flyable, but the controls were fighting me. I needed to replace parts, and re calibrate everything.
“After I finally reoriented myself and the ship, I suited up and activated the scanner. I wanted to see if you were still alive. To my surprise, I pinpointed all three of your communicators clustered together, somewhere in the mountains.
“The signal was spotty, but I did what I could to rush to you as soon as possible. I knew you were in great danger as Jonathan and K’s captives.” She lowered her gaze. “So I locked onto the tracker in your eyepiece, and set full throttle.
“What did we miss?” K said, barging into the room with Jonathan. They each held sandwiches in their hands. K took a seat next to me on the right side of the cockpit, and Jonathan limped to the far chair on the left. Joëlle kept her back facing him.
“Just telling Osax how I put all the Brotherhood soldiers to sleep using gasses, and took control of the Firebrand.”
“Badass,” said K.
Joëlle chuckled. “Thanks, K.”
K leaned forward, munching loudly on her sandwich. “So how’d you and Jonathan get here?” she mumbled.
Joëlle replied, “Well, I was tracking Osax’s eyepiece, which led me to hover, cloaked, beneath the mothership. When I noticed it suddenly course correct and jump into slipspace, I made sure to fly close enough that I was caught in its slipstream. I had no idea where it was going, but I wasn’t about to give up on Osax. So it dragged the Firebrand along into orbit around Astraloth.
“At that point, I thought you and Jonathan were both enemies. So I didn’t bother following your earpiece, K, when the ship started to self destruct and you split off from the others. According to my instruments, Jonathan must have had Osax captured, because both their signals were so close together.
“Wait, what happened to your eyepiece?” K asked.
I glanced to Jonathan. He paused, then jerked his hand up, indicating she should wait just a second. Then he reached into his coat pocket, and retrieved my headset.
“Right,” she said. “Duhrnan made you take it off him before everything went down.”
Joëlle said, “So when I saw Osax’s signal enter a hangar after all of the ships had been ejected, I flew in for a desperate rescue attempt. To my surprise, I only found Jonathan.” She gave him a sidelong glance. “I let him onboard.”
“For which I am eternally grateful,” he said.
“As you should be.” She turned back to us. “After that, Jonathan explained that he renounced the Brotherhood, and that you were a sleeper agent, K, but that your mind was restored. So I started tracking you. Which is when I saw your signal plummeting to the surface of the planet.”
“We tried to get here in time to catch you,” said Jonathan. “Or something… But we weren’t fast enough.” He turned to Joëlle. “K told me Suranos saved them with telekinesis.”
K glanced to me. “It’s the only explanation.”
“You’re right, K,” I said. “She saved our lives.”
Joëlle exhaled. “That’s amazing…”
The room fell quiet.
“Somehow, we all made it out alive,” said Jonathan.
“Except you told me Omega sacrificed themself fighting a myrok…” said Joëlle.
I hung my head. “It’s true.”
We shared a moment of silence. Then Joëlle said, “It’s strange, but… I miss them already.”
“So do I.” I said.
“Me too,” said K, to everyone’s surprise.
Clouds wafted past overhead, and green landscapes shot by below. The Firebrand hummed steadily.
“But…” I began, “here we are. The four of us.” We exchanged glances, even Jonathan and Joëlle. “I don’t know if it was skill and determination, or just luck, but we made it out alive. And Joëlle, we did it. We destroyed the mothership!”
Slowly, she smiled to herself, a deep, warm smile. “God, I can hardly believe it. But you’re right. Despite everything...” She spun her chair away from the window so she could see us all just by turning her head, then she cleared her throat. At last she grinned. “Mission accomplished, team.”
“Woo!” K cried, crumbs flying from her mouth. Instinctively, my ears tilted away from her line of fire. “Hell yeah! We showed that bastard who’s boss!”
“Though, it wasn’t without losses...” I mumbled.
Jonathan interjected, “Our mission isn’t over. Duhrnan escaped. The Shade Beam is still out there. The timer is still ticking.”
K looked at us, dumbfounded. She shook her head, gesturing with her sandwich. “Can we just celebrate a little? For once?”
I looked at her, willing my ears to lift. “You’re right. It’s… not all bad. We did some amazing things.” I couldn’t keep my ears up, despite my efforts.
She frowned, and slumped over, sighing heavily. “Okay, you don’t have to pretend. A lot of bad shit happened.”
Joëlle stated, “There’s got to be a balance between grief for our losses and joy for our successes. We have to give space for both.”
After a brief silence, Jonathan and I nodded in agreement.
Then I noticed just how heavy my body felt. “I think you three should celebrate. I… need to lie down.”
“Okay,” said K, watching me as I stood.
“Let me know when we arrive at the temple,” I said quickly.
Joëlle nodded. “Will do, Osax. Hang in there.”
Hazily, I stumbled into mine and K’s room of the ship. I took a few minutes removing the pieces of armour I had been wearing for the past several hours, and carefully removed the loro nano-suit from my wrist, placing it gently on the counter. I’d have to send that, along with K’s, to the loro research community and report my findings. I flopped onto the bed, dimming the lights in the room. I couldn’t help but think that if we hadn’t destroyed the mothership, mom would still be alive. It was a piece of debris from the ship which destroyed her vessel; it was a piece of debris that killed her. I could hardly believe she was dead. And I could hardly believe we were on Astraloth. In fact, nothing felt real. I shut my eyes, and it made no difference. It was as though I was in a fever dream. I was so glad that Jonathan and Joëlle were here, that they had survived. But even that I couldn’t believe. My skin felt hot, my thoughts disturbing. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t.
Soon we’ll be home, I repeated in my head, over and over. Soon we’ll be home. Then my thoughts wandered to the floating spheres of the Great Temple. Somehow, they must have saved Astraloth from the Shade Beam. We were on Astraloth right now, after all. But how exactly had it happened?
With eyes tightly shut, I forced myself to focus on that thought. It was a good distraction; something miraculous to be eager about.
We arrived at the Great Temple; the floral pyramids watched over the city like sentries, but to my astonishment, they stood entirely exposed to the sun. The great floating spheres were gone, as if they had vanished into thin air.
The Firebrand’s ramp hissed open. We stepped onto a platform protruding from the exposed middle of the pyramid, soaking in the sunlight that beamed down on us from above. Crisp air rustled the leaves of the trees that covered the sloping roofs of the pyramids. Water filtered down the canals of the temple, cascading on either side of a bridge which connected our landing pad to the pillared, open midsection of the pyramid. I held my mother, scooped up in my arms. We caught the attention of some skyther guards, adorned in their ceremonial armour, who rushed over, and started speaking to me in Skorali. I don’t remember what was said. I was too overwhelmed. But they were in shock, unaware that Suranos had even left the temple in the first place.
My arms were shaky, so I passed my mother to the guards. The skyther fleet returned from space after driving the last of the valicorr fighters away. Astraloth was safe.
The High Priest of the temple, Kaia, upon learning what had happened to my mother, told me I would need to be inaugurated as king. Then I broke down. I apologized to my companions, and to the skythers. I told the High Priest that there was no time. I held up Duhrnan’s timer so she could clearly see. I told her that for now, she would have to lead the people in my mother’s stead.
She nodded, slowly and solemnly, clearly distressed to see me acting this way. Distressed about the turn of events.
We, the High Priest, my companions, a few guards, and I, stood under the ceiling of the upper half of the temple. My mother’s body had been taken away. Around the temple, starships flew to and fro at a distance.
A cool breeze wafted between the pillars. Kaia’s wistful eyes watched us sorrowfully from under a red hat. She grew up at the temple like me, was only a few cycles older than me, and had recently taken her place as High Priest after the last one had passed away peacefully. Her crimson robes waved in the breeze, made of a thin fabric. Her mandibles twitched in the silence. None of us knew what to do or say.
At last, I took in a deep breath through my nose. I looked up at her. “Kaia,” I said, in English so the humans could understand us.
Gracefully, she stood up straighter. “Osax…”
“What happened to Astraloth?” I said. “It should have been destroyed. But it wasn’t. And the spheres are gone. Were the stories really true?”
She bowed her head. “Yes, Osax. The stories of the spheres were true. In our time of need, Astraloth was protected by them.”
Silence lingered. My gaze lowered, as I tried to process what I was hearing. Obviously Astraloth had been saved… obviously the stories were true. But somehow, that didn’t make it easy to believe.
“How?” K asked, taking a step forward. “What actually happened?”
Kaia hesitated. K and I exchanged glances. Jonathan, who had his head down, shifted his eye back and forth across the crowd. Joëlle crossed her arms.
“High Priest,” she said, “please tell us. We need to know.”
She gazed past us, and responded. “He will help you.”
I heard someone approaching from behind, and the hairs on the back of my head began to rise. We all turned to face the figure. It was a skyther clad in grey armour, and a white helmet which masked his face. He wore a black hooded cloak which draped over his shoulders and head. He paused just a few feet away from us.
“If you follow me,” he said, “I will tell you how it happened.”