We spoke long into the night. While Te’rnu, a group of other Arellians, and I sat around the remnants of a once scorching fire, I told stories of my life so far. I spoke about my childhood, about going to school, about breakups and heartbreak; even the most tedious of stories they were fascinated by. I’d never before had such a captivated audience, and I lost myself in the storytelling.
Once the fire had gone out, and the sky was dark with the dead of night, did I remember why I was out here in the Wastelands.
‘Do you guys mind if I ask you a question? It has to do with why I’m here.’
They all nodded, almost in unison.
‘I’m actually looking for someone. An off-worlder, like me. That’s why I’m on Z’h’ar – or, more specifically, here in Te’r’ok. They were an Itagurinatipilazutinafi, although, I guess… you don’t know what that is.’
They were now shaking their heads.
‘No,’ Te’rnu replied, ‘Although I suspect we can guess.’
‘What’s that mean?’ I asked.
‘There was another, before you, who came here. Looked different to you. They had clearer skin.’
‘Well, thanks,’ I replied, although Te’rnu didn’t seem to recognise the sarcastic undertones.
‘They weren’t here long, we weren’t able to get much information out of them. Not like you.’
‘If I show you a picture, can you tell me if it was her?’
Back to the nodding again.
I pulled up my left sleeve, revealing my console. All eyes were trained upon this strange device. I tapped in the relevant commands, and brought up the Z’h’ar case file. I put the target’s image on the holodisplay.
‘Her name’s Melonaitopila. She-’
But I stopped when I looked around at the crowd. The wide eyes and continued nodding suggested that this was indeed the person who had been here.
Use your words!
‘She was here?’ I asked, beginning to wonder if the Arellians treated nodding and shaking their heads to mean different things.
‘They were,’ one of the Arellians piped up. ‘Their hair, though, was different. Not so… pristine, as it is there.’
‘And their eyes,’ another added.
‘What about her eyes?’ I prompted.
‘There was pain in them.’
Right. Pain. In her eyes. Not exactly much to go on as far as my investigation was concerned.
‘She was scared,’ Te’rnu explained.
‘Do you know where she went? After she left here?’
The was a moment where I felt the whole group draw a sharp intake of breath. Only Te’rnu seemed to feel comfortable replying.
‘She didn’t leave. Or at least, she didn’t intend to. She was taken.’
‘Just like Ur’ntu was.’
‘Why? Did she know something?’
This wasn’t a simple run-away case, then, nor just a young woman out doing some partying. This woman really was in trouble. This meant, sadly, that I needed to take this job a whole load more seriously.
There was a longer pause this time, even Te’rnu initially being loath to answer.
‘She…,’ Te’rnu began, ‘She said she saw the face of an Iyr.’
I had a sense that if the Arellians didn’t possess such a naturally blue skin tone, they would have gone white at this point. Fear was plastered all over their faces.
‘Why is that such a big deal?’ I asked. ‘I know they’re quite shy about it, but…’
‘No, you don’t understand,’ Te’rnu told me. ‘Nobody outside of their own race has ever seen the Iyr’s true face.’
‘Well what did she see?’ I asked. ‘That got her so scared?’
Te’rnu shook his head. ‘We don’t know. She was too afraid to talk about it.’
‘They were afraid, yes,’ a younger Arellian interrupted, ‘But they didn’t say that was the reason they didn’t tell us. They said they didn’t think we would want to know.’
‘I wanted to,’ Te’rnu insisted.
‘But she didn’t tell you?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he replied.
‘They said it was in our best interest,’ the young Arellian confirmed.
‘What could she have seen, Te’rnu? You must have some idea. Maybe Ur’tnu said something?’
‘The Elders say we shouldn’t speak of Ur’tnu,’ the youth continued.
‘Well, don’t tell them, then, Pr’atu,’ Te’rnu responded, like a teenager dealing with a nagging younger sibling.
Pr’atu took Te’rnu’s point, and went quiet.
‘Ur’tnu didn’t say anything about this, no,’ Te’rnu continued, ‘But that doesn’t mean to say it’s not related.’
I said nothing for a moment, instead trying to work out our next move.
‘If I didn’t think it could cost me my life, or at least my freedom, I’d say my best chance of finding Melonaitopila would be to get a look at an Iyr for myself.’
The group remained silent, but I could see a sparkle of excitement in Te’rnu’s eyes.
I soon fell back into the rhythm of being interrogated by the Arellians about my past life. It was less passionate, now, with the locals starting to tire, and before long it was just Te’rnu and I by the pile of ash that had, a few hours earlier, been a fire.
Te’rnu had become tense, and I could tell there was something he was hoping to ask me.
‘What is it, mate?’ I asked.
Now that he felt he had permission to say it, Te’rnu blurted, ‘Should you ever see the skin of an Iyr, would you come back, here, and tell me? I would like to know, before I die.’
Cautiously, I nodded. ‘OK, Te’rnu. I can do that. But…’
I was feeling like misbehaving; it had been almost a day since I had done anything wicked.
‘We could always go take a look for ourselves, now, if you’re up for a little spot of mischief?’
Te’rnu looked at me with those wide, wary eyes. ‘…How would we do that?’
‘Is there anywhere we might get an Iyr alone? Force ‘em to give us a look?’ I asked, a plan already forming in my mind.
The Arellian thought about it, and then, nodding, said, ‘Yes. The outpost. There should only be one Iyr at night. Around now.’
‘They’re not exactly too worried about their security, are they?’ I asked.
Te’rnu shook his head. ‘Why would they be? They’ve beaten us into submission.’
‘You’re up for a little act of revolution, then?’ I asked.
He looked at his feet. ‘I don’t know… I shouldn’t… if we got caught…’
I clapped my hand to his shoulder. ‘Come on, I thought you were Te’rnu – the only Arellian who breaks the rules! The only one too rebellious to be made an Elder!’
‘There’s a limit, though. Sneaking into the stronghold is one thing, but… assaulting an Iyr? I don’t know if they’d let me go if I did that.’
‘Then let’s not get caught!’ I replied.
He remained silent, still not convinced by my argument.
I continued. ‘Come on, we have a chance to change things for your people here. We can finish what Ur’ntu started. Maybe, then, you guys can have a better life here.’
Te’rnu thought about it some more, and then, nodding to himself ferociously as though psyching himself up, said, ‘OK. I’ll do it – on one condition. They will shoot me on site if I get too close to the outpost, so we must have a plan to stop that from happening..’
‘That’s not true, I went up there earlier. Took a rest in the shade of the building, and they didn’t shoot me.’
‘You’re not an Arellian, though,’ Te’rnu responded.
‘I see,’ I replied, ‘Well, then, let’s use that to our advantage.’
There was a scuffling sound behind us. Te’rnu and I both spun our heads around to look for the source. Part of me imagined that it was an Iyr, here, somehow foiling our plan before it ever really began.
But, no, it wasn’t them. It was the young Arellian, Pr’atu, who had been outspoken about not repeating Ur’tnu’s conspiracies, earlier.
‘Pr’atu, what are you doing?’ Te’rnu asked.
‘How long you been there, buddy?’ I added. I didn’t trust the young’un to keep this plan to themself, and I sensed that we wouldn’t want the Elders to hear about it.
‘Oh, erm…,’ Pr’atu responded, ‘A little while… You’re planning to look upon the Iyr’s flesh?’
Te’rnu and I looked at one another.
‘I mean, I wouldn’t describe it as “looking upon their flesh” because that’s a super creepy way to talk about it, but that’s the crux of it, yeah. You can keep this to yourself, though, can’t you, Pr’atu?’
‘I, erm… can I come with you?’ the youth replied.
‘Why would you want to do that?’ I asked.
‘I thought you didn’t believe in Ur’tnu’s theories,’ Te’rnu added.
‘It’s not that I don’t believe,’ Pr’atu replied, ‘Only I didn’t want you getting in any more trouble with the Elders for talking about it. So, I can come?’
I looked to Te’rnu for an answer.
‘I guess the truth is important for you, too,’ he decided.
The three of us soon crept off into the night, heading northeast for Outpost WS1, and leaving the village sleeping behind us.
In the darkness, the outpost used huge lighting units to illuminate the area around it – to a good 150 metres radius. Te’rnu had been right; there was no way we wouldn’t be spotted when we approached.
Crouching behind the peak of a dune, just outside of the illuminated area, I turned to Te’rnu.
‘Definitely clear on the plan?’ I asked.
‘You wait for us to get into position, distract the guard, and then we creep up behind them. Then, we remove their helmet. That’s it.’
‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘I guess it’s not really that complicated a plan, is it. You definitely want to go ahead with this? Last chance to back out.’
Te’rnu nodded. Pr’atu, watching for Te’rnu’s response, then nodded as well.
‘OK,’ I said. ‘And if there’s more than one guard?’
‘There won’t be. There never is,’ Te’rnu replied.
‘OK, yes, but if there is? What’s the plan?’
‘I guess… we run?’ Pr’atu answered.
I shrugged. ‘Good enough for me.’
Te’rnu and Pr’atu, keeping low, began to skirt the edge of the outpost’s lit radius, and I began to count.
When the predetermined one hundred and eighty seconds had passed, I stood up, and the plan began in earnest.
I walked, as casually as I could manage, straight for the outpost.
As I got closer, I kept expecting to be seen, to be shouted at… but there was nothing.
Was the guard asleep at their post?
I arrived at the door, and, feeling in a particularly risky mood, opened it.
The room inside made up the whole of the ground floor, with the exception of a small transmat room right in the middle. The door to this room was closed, which presumably meant that the guard was asleep up above.
On my left, I noticed something: a computer terminal with that same symbol on – the symbol of Central Command. This was my chance, I realised, to decrypt some of Leya’s journal.
Forgetting about my mission, and the two Arellians slowly creeping up on the other side of the outpost, I instead plugged the diary into the computer terminal.
It took me a few moments to muddle through the interface, being that it was in the Iyr’s private language. Fortunately, I was familiar enough with dodgy user interfaces to figure it out – I did work on Station 34-Alpha, after all, where the main terminals were nothing if not a complete mess.
A progress bar appeared; this encryption was complicated enough that the local processing power of the machine was struggling to handle it. While it was slow, it was still, just about, working.
That is, until the console started to overheat. What with this planet’s high average temperature, this couldn’t have been a rare occurrence – and indeed the alert that suddenly popped up confirmed this.
A siren sounded throughout the outpost, designed to alert the inhabitants to the computer malfunction. Instead, however, this seemed to stir the Iyr guardsman into life, who appeared at the exit of the transmat room just as the two Arellians arrived at the main doorway.
‘Who are you?’ the guard shouted, emerging from the room armed with a huge phase rifle. ‘Identify!’
Definitely making up for something, these Iyr are.
Before either Te’rnu or I could think, the young Arellian Pr’atu charged at the Iyr, jumping onto their back and catching them by surprise.
The Iyr, out of reflex, fired a shot from the rifle, hitting and completely frying the computer console that the diary was tapped into.
My heart lurched, just for a moment, before I recognised that the diary was unhurt. I grabbed the journal and ran for cover, dodging the beams as the Iyr fired clumsily around me, the Arellian youth still clinging to his back.
I slid behind a low table, and peered around at Pr’atu and the Iyr. Pr’atu was pulling, now, at the Iyr’s helmet, and I could see a glimpse of dark blue skin in the crack that formed.
Te’rnu, having previously been frozen out of fear in the doorway, suddenly realised that Pr’atu needed help, and started rushing towards the tussling pair.
The Iyr stopped firing at me, and instead began to focus on the Arellian trying to remove their helmet. They jumped backwards, landing on Pr’atu, and the Arellian’s grip was loosened enough that the Iyr wriggled free.
The guardsman pointed their rifle at the young Arellian on the floor, and shouted, ‘Stop!’ to Te’rnu and I.
Te’rnu ceased moving mid-step.
The four of us remained still, quiet, and each tried to figure out our next move.
It was a stand-off. I could see the Iyr’s itchy trigger finger. If either Te’rnu or I approached to save Pr’atu, then we – or Pr’atu – would be fired upon. Pr’atu remained motionless on the floor, also terrified about what might happen if they moved.
Te’rnu and I made eye contact. I tried to communicate “don’t move!’ to him non-verbally, which was received with only a slightly confused expression.
And then, whether intentionally or not, Te’rnu moved, putting his until-now hovering foot back down on the ground.
That was all the provocation that the Iyr needed. They spun on the spot, pointing the phase rifle at Te’rnu, and began to fire.
Te’rnu dived out of the way, the shot hitting the wall behind him. As another shot charged up, Te’rnu ran for the door.
I edged forwards towards Pr’atu, hoping that Te’rnu would divert the Iyr’s attention away for long enough, but I was out of luck on that front too.
Te’rnu leaped out the door, a beam barely missing him as he did so.
Once the older of the two Arellians were out of sight, the Iyr turned to face Pr’atu and I.
I was still over ten metres away from Pr’atu, with no chance of grabbing them before the Iyr could fire.
And then, the guardsman spoke.
‘Leave,’ the Iyr told me. ‘Involving a Terran would reflect badly on me, especially at this critical juncture.’
‘Can I take them?’ I asked, pointing at Pr’atu.
The Iyr shook their head. ‘No. Only you. This one stays.’
‘I can’t leave without them,’ I told the Iyr.
‘Then I am forced to take you in.’
The Iyr raised their phase rifle to point at me.
‘OK!’ I answered, realising that at this point, there was no reason for both of us to be caught. ‘I’m sorry, Pr’atu,’ I told the young Arellian, and then turned to leave the outpost.
Outside, Te’rnu was waiting.
‘What happened back then? Where was the Iyr? Why did you not stick to the plan?’
Te’rnu’s eyes were narrowed, angry.
He was perfectly right to be annoyed; this was – at least in part – my fault. If I hadn’t been distracted by the terminal, if I had just called for the guard’s attention from the doorway, maybe I could have lured him into a better position for the ambush.
But why did Pr’atu have to run at the Iyr like that? Couldn’t they have seen that this mission had been a bust?
‘We’ll get Pr’atu back, Te’rnu,’ I told him. ‘We’re not leaving until we do.’
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