Chapter 8: The Face Of The Iyr

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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.’

‘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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Chapter 7: The Arellian Conspiracy

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I turned to see Te’rnu standing in the doorway, a curious look upon his face.

‘Is everything OK?’ he asked.

‘Yes, it’s just…,’ I started, then walked outside again, Te’rnu following. ‘What was that? On that screen?’

‘Oh, it was the daily broadcast. Updates on-’

‘Yeah, but the symbol – what was the symbol?’ I asked.

‘It is… the Iyr’s Central Command. Their…,’ he trailed off, trying to find the word. ‘What do they call it? Their… government.’

That didn’t make any sense – what would such a symbol be doing in Leya’s journal?

‘They’re the ones we have to pay tribute to,’ Te’rnu continued. ‘The ones we have to farm food for, metals, everything.’

‘Why? What’s in it for you guys?’

Te’rnu shook his head. ‘I can’t talk about it. It is a private matter. Only an Arellian would understand. And, besides, I am not even sure that I can answer that question and be sure I am telling you the truth…’

There was a certain solemnity to Te’rnu’s expression which stopped me from pressing the subject any further. Instead, I glanced back down at the encrypted journal in front of me.

‘What’s it mean? That symbol,’ I asked. ‘Like, I know what it signifies, if its the logo of the Central Command… but what does the symbol mean?’

Te’rnu shrugged. ‘I don’t know. None of us here will know. That is the language of the Iyr. Only they will know.’

I pulled out the journal and showed Te’rnu the relevant section. ‘All these symbols, on these pages, are they all from that language?’

He nodded.

‘How would I go about translating this?’ I asked.

Te’rnu looked at me warily. ‘Theoretically, any Iyr would be able to do that for you, if it is a simple translation. If it is using their code… you would need to log on to a console that’s connected to the Central Command’s mainframe.’

‘Interesting,’ I replied, and then came to the obvious question. ‘How do you know all this, Te’rnu?’

He shrugged. ‘I have been investigating for a few years now. Most of my life, really.’

‘And how old… are you?’

‘Twenty. I know; I am old.’

I raised my eyebrows. ‘If you’re old at twenty, then I’m absolutely ancient. People from Terra are normally not even finished with their studies at this age.’

‘Their studies?’ Te’rnu asked, brow furrowed.

I took a moment to work out how to explain this one. ‘Yeah… like… learning all the things they need to know for their jobs.’

Te’rnu laughed, eyes wide. ‘It takes them twenty cycles for this? Farmers: you put seeds in the soil, you add water. Cooks: you put food on a fire. What more is there that they need to know?’

‘I…,’ I began to reply, then shrugged. ‘I guess we’ve over-complicated it where I am from.’

My Arellian friend looked at me again. Not that he hadn’t been looking at me already, but this time… he was really looking, almost as though his eyes were piercing into my soul.

‘What did you study?’ he asked.

I sighed. ‘You’ll laugh.’

‘Why would I laugh?’

‘Because it’ll seem ridiculous to you.’ I wasn’t sure I could name a single concept that would be more alien to Te’rnu than the answer to his question.

‘I will not laugh.’

‘Is that a promise?’

‘It is a promise, Syl Raynor,’ he replied. The addition of my name to this reply added a level of sincerity that was maybe unwarranted for such a topic of conversation.

‘Marketing,’ I answered. 

‘What is that?’ 

Hmm. Well… at least he wasn’t laughing.

‘Like… making people buy things.’

‘Buy? Like the Iyr do? Getting things in exchange for money?’

‘Yeah, exactly. So-’

‘The Iyr,’ Te’rnu interrupted, ‘They are always after money in exchange for information. But I do not have money, where do they think this would be coming from?’

He shook his head to himself.

‘So how do you make people buy things? At phaserpoint?’

‘What? No! Just, like, with adverts,’ I answered, and then, when Te’rnu’s confused face made me realise my mistake, I explained, ‘Adverts are images that tell you about products. Or services.’

I breathed deeply, buying myself a short period of time in which to collect my thoughts.

‘And I used to work out where the best places to display these adverts were. That whole thing used to be a lot harder, and then we left the GMU – which was significant because it meant our laws changed. Suddenly we could start using data collected by console to target our ads.’

I noticed that Te’rnu’s eyes had glazed over.

‘So… if I was on Terra and was talking with someone about how I didn’t like how I had got this new mole on my trip to Turknan, ‘cos the sun there is so strong, then I might start seeing ads for UV protection injections, or replacement skin grafts. You see?’

Te’rnu paused for a moment. ‘And why did you cease doing this?’

I shrugged. ‘When Leya disappeared it stopped seeming important. I guess maybe I knew it wasn’t important all along, but while it was paying the bills… I didn’t mind the harm it was doing. But then, when I lost someone… I dunno, I guess it seemed like the galaxy had enough people making people buy things they don’t need and not enough people helping people find the things they do need.’

There was another moment of silence. It felt as though Te’rnu considered himself out of his depth. Soon his mouth opened once again.

‘If you stopped studying a few years ago, then how old does that make you?’

‘I mean… it’s rude to ask a woman her age, and all, but… I’m twenty-four.’

‘Twenty-four?!’ he repeated, absolutely astounded by this concept. ‘You Terrans can live that long?’

‘We live up to around, like, a hundred and ten, Te’rnu.’

‘A hundred and-,’ he started replying, mouth agape. ‘Maybe Ur’tna was on to something…’

Before I could get a chance to ask him what on Terra that meant, there was a scream from one of the buildings.

Te’rnu’s head spun to face the source of the noise, and his face turned glum.

He looked at me, pain in his eyes, and said, ‘You wanted to know why we pay tribute to the Iyr? It looks like you are about to find out.’

A crowd was quickly amassing about the entrance to one of the huts, everyone in it wearing a frown upon their faces. From inside, the groans and screaming continued. It sounded as though someone was being tortured in there.

Elder Ra’ntu arrived in the doorway, having presumably been checking on the screaming Arellian, and gave a nod. Upon receiving this signal, a member of the crowd rushed to the Iyr antenna, and pushed the red button.

The system produced a few beeps, and soon, a countdown appeared on the screen.

‘What’s that mean?’ I whispered to Te’rnu.

‘That is how long until they get here,’ he replied.

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘I think you know the answer to that question,’ replied Te’rnu. He was right; I most certainly did.

Sure enough, the Iyr soon arrived. A small ship floated down from the sky, landing just outside of town. The exhaust from the ship scattered the remaining bowls and food from dinner, but none of the Arellians seemed to care about that in this moment.

Two Iyr jumped off the back of the ship as it landed and strode towards the group of Arellians. One of them noticed me, a Terran, standing among them, and turned their head to stare at me as they walked – but said nothing.

The crowd parted for these two Iyr, allowing them access to the house, and even Elder Ra’ntu stood aside.

The Arellians clustered back together, blocking my view, so I stepped onto a rock for a better look at what was going on. Inside, the two Iyr crouched down beside the screaming Arellian. They looked at one another, nodded, and then picked the local up by the arms, dragging them back outside and towards the ship.

The other locals, as the screaming Arellian was dragged through them, came together in a hum. It was an almost religious response to the situation, as thought it was a ceremony.

‘What’s happened to them?’ I asked Te’rnu.

‘They are twenty-one,’ he replied. ‘They are dying.’

Suddenly I understood why the Arellians were almost childlike in innocence. Even at their oldest, they were barely out of their teens. They didn’t even have the chance to develop cynicism, or bitterness, or anything of the like. They were a pure species, and their limited lifespan was the very reason why.

The Iyr loaded the dying Arellian onto the ship – and the engines whirred into life once again. As it took off, the remaining villagers watched him go.

‘So… that’s it? You never see them again?’ I asked. ‘No… no more ceremony than that?’

Elder Ra’ntu appeared at our side, and spoke. ‘Once it begins, there is no time for any formalities. They must go.’

‘Once what begins?’ I asked.

‘The Mutation,’ Te’rnu replied.

That doesn’t sound particularly promising.

Elder Ra’ntu explained, ‘As an Arellian grows older, their chances of beginning the Mutation get greater. It happens to all of us.’

‘And what exactly is this Mutation?’

‘The Arellian’s loins begin to change. They swell, and clench. It causes them huge pain.’

‘Hence the screaming,’ I added.

‘Yes. They say that only the Iyr ever experience that amount of pain. Only they can understand what we Arellians go through. That’s why we send our mutated to them; they relieve the pain for the dying Arellian as best they can. As soon as the process begins, we summon them, and pray that they do not take long to arrive – for the dying’s sake.’

That is why we send tribute,’ Te’rnu added. ‘Supposedly.’

Elder Ra’ntu ignored this last word uttered by Te’rnu. ‘They are our saviours. Some would do well to remember that.’

Te’rnu, incensed, continued, ‘How do we know this? How do we know they are doing anything at all to help our dead? We have no evidence!’

‘No, Te’rnu,’ Elder Ra’ntu replied, raising their voice for the first time in my presence. ‘We have faith!’

‘Faith?’ Te’rnu replied, outraged by the idea. ‘Having faith only means that we know nothing for sure! They are exploiting us, do you not see?’

‘I-,’ I began, only to get cut off by Elder Ra’ntu.

‘Generations upon generations of Arellians have paid tribute in this way. It is not for you to decide to break with tradition! This is exactly why you were never made Elder, Te’rnu. And at this rate, you never-’

‘What about Ur’tna?!’ Te’rnu suddenly interjected.

Elder Ra’ntu looked exasperated. ‘Do not fill the spaceman’s mind with stories of Ur’tna’s nonsense. We have already had that Trial, we have already ruled that these stories were little more than the ramblings of a lunatic.’

‘Forget the trial! We didn’t know-’

‘Te’rnu!’ Ra’ntu insisted. ‘Enough! The off-worlder does not need to hear this!’

‘I’m happy to hear what he has to say,’ I butted in, shooting Te’rnu a smile. ‘He saved my life, after all. Who was Ur’tna?’ Part of me was just happy to finally get a word in.

Te’rnu shot me a brief smile in thanks. Ra’ntu, on  the other hand, looked less than impressed.

‘They were an Arellian. Lived here, in Te’r’ok. Ur’tna was absolutely convinced that there was more going on with the tributes than met the eye.’

‘And was also… mad,’ Ra’ntu added.

‘That does not necessarily mean Ur’tna was wrong,’ Te’rnu replied.

‘That’s true! I’ve known plenty of completely mad people who were almost always right,’ I added, trying my darndest to support the person who’d saved my life. I was, however, complete ignored by the both of them. Old quarrels die hard – on Z’h’ar as it is in Terra.

‘Nobody else ever believed Ur’tnu,’ Te’rnu continued, ‘But Ur’tnu was convinced that the Iyr were doing something with the people they had taken.’

‘Like what?’ I asked.

‘Experimenting on them? Enslaving them? Selling them? Ur’tnu never quite got to the bottom of it.’

‘All little more than conspiracy theories!’ Ra’ntu interjected. ‘Please don’t pay attention to this one, spaceman. Te’rnu’s mind was warped by Ur’tnu’s babbling, and it never quite recovered, it seemed.’

I was already fascinated by the idea of there being a conspiracy, though. Who more likely than the irritable, foul-tempered Iyr to be behind some sort of scheme like this?

‘Did Ur’tnu ever get any proof?’ I asked.

‘Not really,’ Te’rnu answered. ‘But there was this one thing. Towards the end, they kept repeating this one idea: that the Mutation doesn’t have to be the end for us. That we can live through it, but the Iyr don’t want us to. Maybe we get too powerful, or smart, or some other trait which might give us more of an advantage than the Iyr want us to have. It wasn’t until Ur’tnu said this that they disappeared.’

‘Ignore this one, spaceman. Te’rnu is at the end of their life. They fear their own mortality, and so they speak these conspiracy theories as a way of avoiding facing that fear.’

‘I fear nothing!’ Te’rnu argued. ‘Well, I fear some things, yes. But not this!’

‘And yet you have no proof. Once again, you simply exist to cast doubt upon the Tradition. Tradition which has served this community well, I might add!’

‘I have proof!’ he shouted. ‘That is where I have been! I have found someone inside the Stronghold who was willing to talk with me.’

‘You have been where?’ Ra’ntu asked.

‘They told me, Syl, they told me: Ur’tnu didn’t just disappear, they were taken.’

‘As is the Tradition!’ Ra’ntu insisted.‘No! You don’t understand! Ur’tnu was taken before the Mutation started. The Iyr, they weren’t trying to save them, they were trying to silence them!’

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Chapter 6: Te’rnu

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When I awoke, an Arellian was fanning me with a dry, browned leaf. I was in a small hut, lying on a bed, with a good number of other Arellians standing around me, staring in fascination with their wide, blue eyes.

‘Give them space,’ one of the wastelanders told the others, and all but the one cooling me stepped backwards.

The Arellian who seemed to be in charge looked around at them with exasperated eyes.

‘I mean for you to leave,’ they reiterated. The group dissipated, leaving me with just the two of these strange folk. As I blinked my vision back into focus, I recognised the Arellian with the leaf as the one who had been escorted out the stronghold earlier in the day.

‘I…,’ I started to speak, but found my throat dry, little noise escaping from it.

One of the remaining Arellians put a small bowl to my mouth, filled with a red-brown liquid.

‘Drink,’ they instructed. I sipped at the medicine, taking only a small mouthful at first.

‘You were poisoned,’ the Arellian told me. They were looking at me with kind eyes, concerned eyes – not the sort of eyes I would have expected to see on a so-called barbarian.

‘Was it the Iyr?’ the other wastelander asked, wide eyes looking up at me.

‘Poisoned?’ I asked, voice hoarse. ‘No… I wasn’t poisoned… I was just… drinking…’

‘Drinking?’

‘You know… like, alcohol,’ I explained.

The two Arellians looked at each other with blank faces. I waved dismissively.

‘For fun? Tastes good, takes the edge off?’ I added.

They still both looked lost. ‘What is “the edge”?’

I shook my head. ‘It doesn’t matter. It was just the heat getting to me, anyway, I think.’

‘You come from a cold place?’ asked the one in charge.

‘Yeah, I…,’ and then I trailed off, instead asking, ‘Do you have water?’

The leader nodded, turned to the other Arellian, and said, ‘Te’rnu, get this one water. Much of it.’

‘Yes, Elder.’

Was that a name or a title?

Te’rnu rushed out, and it was just the two of us now.

‘That one saved you, you know. They had been away – who knows where they had gone this time – and found you as they returned to us. Carried you here.’

‘Yeah? I’ll make sure to say thanks.’

‘Do. They need to feel valued, that one.’

Te’rnu came rushed back into the hut, clasping a bowl of water in their hands. I drank at it hungrily, finishing the whole thing before I even stopped for a breath.

They continued to stare, eyes wide.

‘What is it? Do I have something on my face, or…?’ I asked.

‘No,’ the Elder replied, ‘It is just that we have never seen a creature like you before. Like you… but different. You are… a spaceman?’

I smiled. ‘Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am.’

I’d never been the first Terran someone had seen before.

‘What do we call you?’ Te’rnu asked.

‘You mean… my name, or my species?’

‘Both! Everything! Tell us all that is out there!’ they answered.

‘Hush, Te’rnu,’ the other Arellian interrupted. ‘Don’t bother them. They need rest. There will be time for this later.’

They put a hand on my shoulder, gently instructing me to lean back to the bed again.

‘Relax,’ the Elder whispered. ‘There is no rush.’

I soon fell asleep once again.

It wasn’t until the sun was low in the sky once again that I awoke. Between staying up all night drinking and suffering from heat stroke, maybe my broken sleep schedule shouldn’t really have been a surprise.

I sat up, slowly, testing how painful moving was going to be. Short of a headache and some achy muscles, I didn’t feel too bad – whatever medicine the Arellians had given me had worked.

In the corner of the room, wide blue eyes stared at me.

‘Hello, Te’rnu.’

‘Hello. How do you feel? Can I ask you questions? Have y-,’ they started, only to be interrupted by the Elder returning to the room.

‘I see you are awake. Has Te’rnu been bothering you?’ the Elder asked.

‘No, not at all, he-,’ I caught myself. Was Te’rnu a he? I decided to bite the bullet. ‘I’m sorry, is it “he”?’

Te’rnu looked confused, so the Elder stepped in to help him out. ‘We have no concept of gender. We all act as one.’

‘Oh! Erm, so… in terms of pronouns…,’ I began to ask, trying to feel out whether this question would be deemed as offensive.

This time, it was Te’rnu who helped me out. ‘“He” is fine. For me, at least.’

He flashed me a smile.

The Elder continued, ‘The others typically use “they”, but I would doubt they would care, if I am to be honest with you.’

‘What… what pronoun would I use if I were to describe you, then?’ Te’rnu asked.

‘“She”,’ I told him.

Te’rnu smiled again, the concept amusing to him, and began to try the word out. ‘She. I like that! She is here. She is good.’

‘She is!’ I confirmed.

The Elder flashed me a look, and I remembered what she had told me during the brief time that I was conscious earlier in the day – that Te’rnu had been the one to save me.

‘Hey, erm, Te’rnu…,’ I started, and the Elder slid outside. ‘Thanks for saving me earlier. I think there’s a lot of people on this planet who wouldn’t bother.’

Te’rnu smiled again, brilliantly white teeth catching the glare of the sun. ‘That is OK, we all need to look out for each other in this world. You think the Iyr would not have helped you?’

‘I suspect not,’ I replied.

Te’rnu nodded. ‘I think not too. But do not tell the Elders I said this.’

‘Elders? There’s more than one?’

‘Yes! The Elder you have met, Elder Ra’ntu, is a gifted doctor, but there are others too. All the older Arellians in this village are Elders. That is… all except me.’

Te’rnu’s furrowed brow gave away how irritated this fact made him – a strangely Terran trait.

‘Why’s that?’ I asked.

‘They do not trust me.’

He shook his head, as if ridding himself of these thoughts.

‘Can I ask you questions now? I’ve always wanted to meet a spaceman.’

‘Go for it,’ I replied, ‘Seems like a fair trade for saving my life, after all.’

‘How many? How many questions would be a fair trade?’

I smiled; there was an endearing level of innocence about the Arellian sitting in front of me. ‘Loads.’

‘But how many? I shall have to prioritise.’

‘I’ll tell you when you’re running out.’

This seemed to satisfy Te’rnu as an answer, and he jumped straight into the questions.

‘How many planets are there?’

‘Oh, err, countless. Hundreds of thousands. Millions, maybe, even.’

Te’rnu’s eyes widened like a child seeing a magic trick for the first time.

‘Only a small handful actually support life, though.’

‘What is your planet called?’

‘Terra.’

‘Terra? That’s a pretty name. And, erm…,’ Te’rnu paused, a sudden shyness overcoming him. ‘And what is… what is your name?’

Woops. I’d forgotten that bit.

‘It’s Syl. Syl Raynor. Sorry. I should have told you that already, really. I’m still a bit out of it, I guess.’

‘Sylraynor is a pretty name too,’ Te’rnu added, no longer making eye contact.

‘Just “Syl” is fine.’

‘Syl.’

‘Yeah.’

He went quiet for a moment, processing everything that I had been telling him, and then question after question began to escape his lips.

He asked about Terra, about what life had been like there. He asked how we travelled amongst the stars. He asked why I looked different to him, and whether other aliens looked different too. He asked and asked and asked until I was seriously considering telling him there actually was a limit to how many questions he was allowed.

Finally, a ringing noise came from outside. Te’rnu’s eyes lit up again.

‘Dinner! Do you have dinner on Terra?’

‘We have dinner, yeah. My favourite part of the day,’ I answered.

‘Mine too,’ Te’rnu replied, grinning. He stepped over to where I was laying, grabbed my hands, and pulled me to my feet.

‘Thanks, Te’rnu.’

As he led me towards the door, I glanced back at my bag, which was being left alone, at the side of the bed.

‘Oh, Te’rnu, will my bag be OK in there?’

He looked confused. Again. This was becoming a real regular occurrence.

‘Yes. Why would it not be?’

‘Nobody would steal it?’

Te’rnu didn’t reply, only maintaining his perplexed expression. I took this as an answer.

Out in the centre of the village, the inhabiting Arellians were sat in a large circle. All held food bowls in front of them, some full, some about to be filled. Te’rnu handed me an empty bowl, and we sat down at a gap in the circle.

To the side of the circle, I noticed, was a tall antennae – next to some kind of screen. It stuck out like a sore thumb in this Arellian village; they were centuries off this kind of technology. It had to have been placed here by the Iyr.

On the side of the antenna, I noticed, was a big red button. Every fibre of my being immediately wanted to push it – how could someone resist a temptation like that?

I turned my attention away from the Iyr technology and back to my hosts. The Arellian who was serving the food poured it into my bowl with a kind smile on his face.

‘This is Elder Or’ane,’ Te’rnu told me. ‘They are in charge of meals.’

I thanked Or’ane, and then, when they were further away, Te’rnu leaned in close, and whispered, ‘That is the role I wanted.’

I poked timidly at the food. It was curry-like in texture, viscosity, colour, like the dhal that an old boyfriend of mine used to make. I sipped a mouthful. It didn’t taste like dhal, but that didn’t mean it was bad. There was a sweetness to it, that Terrans wouldn’t normally have in their savoury dishes.

‘You like it?’ Te’rnu asked, eyes wide with hope.

‘I do. It’s very sweet. If this is how sweet your main course is, then I can’t imagine what your second course will be like.’

‘What did you say? Second course?’ Te’rnu asked.

Woops.

I shook my head. ‘Nothing. Ignore me.’

He happily did, and instead continued to sip away at his bowl. I finished mine, too, and resisted the urge to burp. There was no knowing what was offensive to different cultures, so I tended to play it safe when it came to this sorta thing. Maybe they didn’t even know what burping was! I kinda liked the idea of the whole circle seeing me do it and wondering what on Z’h’ar that was all about.

No, Syl. Resist. Resist!

‘Te’rnu, I… I have to ask.’

‘What is it?’

‘I’m curious, I’ve never met a species without gender before.’

‘You want to know how it works? Biologically?’

‘Yeah, like… can you get pregnant?’

‘I can.’

‘And you can also impregnate people?’ I asked, and then, in order to diffuse the awkwardness that maybe only existed in my mind, teased, ‘Not that I have anything planned.’

‘I can impregnate people too, yes.’

‘So is that all in one organ? Or do you have, like two different things, each with their own purpose? And you just choose which one you’re going to use? Sorry if this is weird to ask. I’m just interested.’

‘Maybe we don’t talk about this at dinner,’ Te’rnu suggested, and suddenly it seemed like he was the more mature out of the two of us.

I looked around the circle. Most, if not all, of the local Arellians were stealing glances in my direction. When I made eye contact with them, most would look away, embarrassed.

I felt a hand on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw Elder Ra’ntu. ‘Please, excuse them,’ she told me. ‘It is only because they have never seen an off-worlder before.’

I smiled an answer back at her, and she patted me on the shoulder three times, before moving around the circle to find an empty space herself.

I turned to Te’rnu.

‘Can I ask, how do you survive out here?’

‘What do you mean?’ he replied.

‘In these plains. There can’t be much to live on.’

‘There are plenty plants around, if you know where to look. We farm some, in the shade of a hill, not too far away. We keep what we can, which is usually enough, but of course the Iyr take their share.’

‘What-’ I began, but suddenly the screen shot into life, illuminating the circle with a blue hue.

That same blue symbol appeared again – the one I’d seen before the broadcasts in the city. And, just like last time, everyone around me was transfixed by the message to follow. The only difference in the broadcast out here was that it was in a language that my universal translator could understand.

It spoke of crop harvests declining, of where and how the Arellians might farm more food. The locals nodded along, grateful for this information, some even bowing their heads in respect. Only Te’rnu watched the broadcast with a snarl.

As the announcement ended, I saw the symbol yet another time. This time, however, it clicked where I’d seen it before.

I shot up from my feet, alarming Te’rnu and some of the other Arellians around me. I rushed back into the building where I’d been resting and pulled Leya’s journal from my bag. I skimmed through it, until I stopped at the section I was looking for.

Sure enough, there it was: that same symbol.

Leya had been here. On Z’h’ar.

Suddenly I had hope that I would see my sister again.

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Chapter 5: Where You Belong

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Footsteps pounded the ground around me as the group of four fled the scene. The Iyr who had been drinking in the corner, a red stripe across their helmet, stormed towards me. I didn’t need to see this Iyr’s face to know that they were furious with me – the body language said it all. And – let’s face it – this was a reaction I’d provoked dozens of times before.

As he got closer and closer, I suddenly found myself fearing for what was about to happen. I’d seen, just a few seconds ago, how the Iyr liked to respond to even the most innocent of frustrating situations. And if they were intimidated enough by this one to run away, then it didn’t exactly bode well for me.

At the last second, the bartender stepped between us.

‘I’ll handle this, sir,’ they told the charging Iyr.

“Sir”? So was that stripe some measure of seniority, perhaps?

The other Iyr slowed to a halt, breathing furiously. They looked at the bartender, then to me, then back to them again. ‘If you must,’ they replied, before walking back to their seat.

My saviour turned to me.

‘Thanks, I guess,’ I said to them.

‘You’re causing a scene. Get out.’

‘Oh.’

So much for “my saviour”.

I remained still on the floor for a few moments longer.

‘Why? All I did was accidentally knock a drink over, surely that happens all the time in here…’

The Iyr shook his head. ‘It does. That is not why you need to leave.’

They turned their head to glance over at the Iyr in the corner. He had returned to his drink, but looked up sporadically.

‘If you upset the Head of Guard, then you cause trouble for my business.’

Head of Guard, eh? Very fancy title.

‘Upset them? I asked them a few questions, that’s all.’

‘Yes,’ the bartender replied. ‘But asking those sorts of questions around here… often means you’re never seen again. If my customers start disappearing, the rest will stop coming. You understand?’

‘What, I’ll be taken away somewhere just for asking where someone is?’

They groaned. So far, the only emotions I’d been able to elicit from the locals had been irritation and rage, which was saying something, even for me. ‘Stop asking about it.’

‘No!’ I retorted, and the volume of my own voice caught me off-guard. Maybe I had had a little too much to drink.

‘Look,’ they continued, leaning in so that they could whisper. ‘The last I heard, the woman you are looking for was heading out into the Wastelands. Somewhere near Te’r’ok. Is that enough information to make you leave?’

I nodded.

‘Good,’ they replied, and then pulled me to my feet by my arm. Raising their voice once again, they called out, ‘And do not come back to this establishment! We do not need your sort in here.’

They threw me out onto the street, and, in my drunken state, I only just about managed to remain on my feet. I looked around; the city was emptier now, only a few stragglers still walking or shuttling about. At this time in the early morning, you might even describe the atmosphere as peaceful. I could take in the sights, enjoy the slightly cooler temperature, and the sun was slowly rising against the horizon, hidden currently behind the tall stronghold walls. Suddenly the city seemed like an oasis of calm.

I walked south, towards the perimeter gate, hoping to get a view of the wastelands beyond the stronghold’s wall. As I approached, the guard towers loomed over me, two monoliths of such great height as would strike fear in the hearts of any invading force. Not that the Arellians, as far as I knew, stood any chance against the Iyr, were they to venture out of their humble lands.

At the base of the towers there was a transmat station, presumably intended to save the guardsmen from having to climb the hundreds (if not thousands) of steps to the top. There didn’t seem to be anyone guarding it, nor were there any signs saying not to use it, so I stepped in for a look at the lands beyond.

The transmat whirred into life, and shot me upwards at a rate I’d never experienced before.

Weren’t there laws about these kinds of things?

Reaching the top in only a few seconds, I began to feel nauseous – although it was possible that the alcohol was as much to blame as the transmat. I plodded out of the transmat area and held myself against a nearby pillar, counting on it to hold me upright.

A lone guard looked warily on – but said nothing.

Good – it’s not against the law to be up here, then. That’s handy.

When I’d largely recovered from the journey up, I looked out through the glass. As far as the eye could see, desert dunes paved the land of the beyond, looking almost as though they were the waves of the great seas of Terra. But, no, they were still, peaceful, and proudly golden. The sun, rising to the south-east, cast shadows from the great dunes, peppering the land with darker patches, and illuminated small Arellian settlements in the distance. Compared to the stronghold, they seemed like nothing more than villages, small tribal encampments like in the Terran days of old. Conversely, the few Iyr buildings that stood a few kilometres outside the city limits were tall, piercing the skyline, spoiling an otherwise beautiful view.

I remained up here for a few more minutes, until the glare of the guard became excruciating, and then prepared myself for the transmat back down. It didn’t seem so bad on the return journey; I only had to rest for a few seconds at the bottom.

I heard a commotion in the distance. Looking down the road, I saw two guards hauling a person along by the arms. I didn’t recognise the species; blue, lanky, their hands in weird proportions compared to the width of their limbs. This blue person didn’t seem to be resisting in any way, only meekly submitting to being dragged along.

I followed at a distance, this situation having piqued my curiosity. What crime had this person committed to deserve such a treatment?

Probably spilled someone’s drink.

When the guards reached the perimeter of the city, they threw the person onto the ground, in much the same way as I had earlier been thrown out by the bartender.

I suspected that I had skimmed over the section of the Z’h’ar guidepage that referred to the Iyr’s hobbies:

“The Iyr, a quiet people, typically enjoy throwing people around and just being generally lairy.”

‘Go. Back to where you belong,’ one of the guards muttered at their victim, and then turned to leave them, alone, on the ground.

They were an Arellian, then, this blue creature. The guidepage hadn’t had a picture of them; presumably this wasn’t because such an image didn’t exist, but because the Arellians were such an unimportant footnote in terms of information about Z’h’ar.

The Arellian stood up – but only once the guards had turned their back on them and left them well alone.

I looked on at the Arellian for a moment, as they stood their, motionless, eyes surveying the city in front of them as though they were considering coming back in.

They caught me staring at them and we held eye contact for a few moment, before they turned, shoulders slumped, to trudge back out into the wastelands.

I thought about approaching them, but, what with all the trouble earlier for something as innocent as asking a question, I thought it best to not be seen associating with an apparent criminal. Instead, I walked up to a local salesman, who was pitched up outside the city gates, and seemed to be renting shuttle-bikes to clueless tourists.

‘How much?’ I asked them, knowing better than to try opening with small-talk with an Iyr.

‘Three thousand units,’ he replied.

‘To buy?’ That was rather cheap, in fact, I’d thought.

‘To rent. One rotation.’

‘Oh,’ I replied, not bothering to hide the disappointment on my face. ‘Bit rich for me.’

‘In that case,’ the Iyr went on, ‘We shall do a deal. Three thousand units for two rotations.’

‘Oh, we’re haggling? Three thousand units for seven rotations.’

‘No. Not seven.’

‘For… five rotations?’ I asked, hesitantly.

‘Three.’

I remained silent for a second, prompting the merchant to continue, ‘And I will throw in a free Guran. My partner made too many for me. I am on a diet.’

I shook my head. ‘No, thanks, keep the rat. Three thousand units, for three days, and you tell me how to get to Te’r’ok.’

‘Deal,’ the Iyr replied. ‘The easiest way: follow the road to WS1, and then head south-east, not far by bike.’

‘WS1?’ I asked, as I transferred the units to the merchant using my console.

‘Outpost. Outpost WS1,’ the Iyr explained, and then, only after checking that the units had been transferred, asked, ‘Why do you want to head to Te’r’ok? It is an Arellian village. There are only barbarians out there.’

I shrugged. ‘Just trying to see everything while I’m on your lovely planet.’

The Iyr seemed convinced by my answer, even though I’d described Z’h’ar as a “lovely planet”, which was obviously a lie. The merchant pulled out a shuttle-bike – a dirtier, older model – and handed it to me.

‘Any chance I could get a newer one?’ I asked.

‘You paid three thousand units. Three thousand gets you this one.’

I shook my head in exasperation, sat on the bike, and started the engine.

Despite being an older model, there was still a huge kick to the acceleration when I pulled on the throttle. If I pulled on it too hard, I feared I would be sent flying off the back. It felt as though these had been designed, really, with only the heavier Iyr in mind, and not dainty and delicate tourists like myself.

As I shot through the desert, I soon saw a figure in the distance. I slowed as I passed them, hoping for a glance at them, and I recognised them as the Arellian from earlier – the one who had been in trouble with the Iyr.

My kind of person.

We made eye contact again – only for a split second this time, though, being that I was speeding past him on a shuttle-bike. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hang around a so-called “barbarian” anyway.

The road was flat, cutting through the dunes, and took me safely west for a few kilometres. I got a chance to have another look at the outside of the city. It really was built to be imposing, I now realised – a fortress to keep the Arellians at bay.

Soon I came to a junction. A road sign, protected against the sand and dust by a sonar barrier, told me I would need to turn left for Outpost WS1. I did, just this once, as I was told.

The outpost loomed in front of me – one of the few Iyr buildings outside the city limits, which I’d earlier decided ruined the view. If it had been inside the city, it would have in fact been a smaller structure, however out here, in the desert, it was still large enough to be striking.

I took a breath in the shadow of the building; the heat, once again, was building and a thudding pain was growing in my head. Terrans weren’t built for this kind of climate. I removed from my satchel my trusty water bottle and took a swig. Over six millennia of Terran civilization, and we still hadn’t come up with a better system for hydration than just carrying around water in a bag.

‘You can’t be here,’ I heard a voice call from over my shoulder. An Iyr guardsman leant out of the door to the outpost.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘You can’t be here. Iyr only.’

‘I’m just taking a rest in the shade, that’s all.’

‘It does not matter. You can’t be here. You are lucky you are not an Arellian, I might have shot you.’

I shook my head. Alright, misery guts.

‘Move,’ the guardsman reiterated, moving his arm to his phaser.

I put my hands in the air. Don’t shoot!

‘Alright, alright. I’m moving, I’m moving,’ I told the guard. ‘No need to start killing tourists, yeah?’

I packed my water bottle back into my bag, took a breath, and headed back out into the heat, where my shuttle-bike was parked. My break in the shade hadn’t been enough; there sun was still bearing down hard, and the pain in my skull kept growing. I started the engine with one last look at the guard, who was still staring on, and zoomed off in a roughly south-easterly direction.

Now off-road, I had to become more confident navigating the dunes. I was hesitant at first, taking them slowly, but as soon as I became sure that the shuttle-bike could hover over the troughs sufficiently, I sped back up. Before long, I was speeding up them, jumping off the peaks, getting some air before the bike had a chance to register the change in height and plummet back down again.

If my head wasn’t pounding harder now, with the sun bearing down on it, I would have taken a long route, enjoyed myself more; but sadly, that was not to be. I tried to ignore the throbbing pain in my head, and continued onwards.

Soon, I saw a small Arellian village in the distance. They really were like the old Terran tribal settlements: small huts, made from more primitive materials, were scattered around what resembled a central socialising area. I pulled at my throttle to get closer for a better look.

As I approached the village, I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. I slowed, hoping to glimpse it again, but there was nothing. My head was hurting too much to focus on anything while I was moving, so I came to a stop on the side of a dune. I put my hand to my face, trying to shield my eyes from the sun so that I could see better.

A figure was approaching, not fifty metres away. Was that… an Arellian?

The sun was higher in the sky now, and, without the shade and air conditioning units of the stronghold, I was really struggling to ignore the thumping sensation in my head. My body, too, began to feel weak, heavy.

Ack. If I was in the habit of swearing, now might be a good time.

‘Fuck,’ I tried out, ‘That hurts.’

I looked around. The Arellian was gaining on me, getting closer now. However, in the bright sunlight, as well as the reflection from the sand itself, it was almost impossible for me to see.

Why were they walking towards me? What did this wastelander want with me? I needed to get going.

I stepped backwards, towards the dune, trying to get to higher ground in case of an attack, but my leg gave way beneath me. I fell to the ground and my vision began to dim.

Laying on the sand, I tried to blink my vision back. My eyes weren’t having any of it, though, and what’s more, I started to feel like I was going to throw up.

I felt the sand move around me as the Arellian approached.

It was at this point that I realised just how much trouble I was in. I was weak, collapsed, and the only people who could possibly help were the local barbarian population.

My head was searing with pain now, and I could no longer think straight, not any more.

I glimpsed the Arellian standing over me, wide blue eyes staring down.

My fate was in their hands now.

‘Fuck,’ I uttered one last time, before I vomited and passed out.

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Thanks for reading this chapter of A Galaxy, Alive – I hope you enjoyed it!

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Chapter 4: A Cold, Quiet and Lonely Type of Folk

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Z’H’AR
The Lonely World
Boron Sector
27f-11-2337

The planet Z’h’ar turned out to be halfway across the galaxy from Station 34-Alpha. Of course it was; this was the sort of luck I was having nowadays. While I’d heard of it, I didn’t know much about it, being that it didn’t impact much on my day-to-day life. Being the responsible employee that I was, I spent the journey reading up on my destination.

Z’h’ar was populated by two intelligent species, but to group both into one category was kinda disingenuous.

One species, the Iyr, were an advanced species, key members of the GMU, and known particularly for their head-to-toe mechsuits. These suits were installed with a number of programmes giving the user new abilities. They might provide extra strength, night vision, in-built assistants – you name it, they had it. Of course, not every Iyr would have every function included in their suit – such abilities were expensive – and typically only owned programmes relevant to their employment. Most notably of all – or so the guidepage would have you believe – nobody outside of their race had ever seen the face of an Iyr.

The other supposedly intelligent species, the Arellians, were little more than barbarians – the equivalent of Terrans over two thousand years ago. A desert-dwelling people, they tend to keep to themselves, farm the land, and were barely even aware of the existence of people from other planets. As such, little was known about their species.

I stared at the planet as we approached, wondering to myself how on earth I was going to solve this likely unsolvable case, on this planet I had never before visited. It was, if nothing else, a long shot.

I suppose I could go work in a bar somewhere. I’d always fancied doing something like that. Maybe I’d be happier there, anyway. No travelling involved, of course, but at least I could count on regular tips. Let’s face it, that would be more than this job ever gave me.

We touched down and I was greeted by a rather cold customs official. There were none of the smiles of home, only a long stare up and down, and a look that seemed to say “what on Z’h’ar are you doing here?” …but it was hard to tell exactly what expression they were pulling from under that helmet.

‘I see you left this part of the form blank,’ the border guard said, pointing at the visa application. ‘Referring to where you will be staying on your visit?’

‘Ah, yes,’ I replied. ‘It was kinda a last minute thing, so I don’t have anywhere yet, but I’ll be staying at a hotel in town, I guess.’

‘I can’t let you through until you have somewhere to stay.’

‘But I-’

‘I can’t let you through until you have somewhere to stay,’ the guard repeated, their tone exactly the same as the first time around.

I shook my head in exasperation, tapped in ‘Z’h’ar hotels’ on my console, and booked the first one that came up. It took a whole five seconds to do. Maybe I could have found a better price if I had browsed for a little while, but I was too petty to pass up on an opportunity to be passive-aggressive.

‘There,’ I replied, showing the guard the confirmation page, ‘Ut’r’a hostel, Central Stronghold.’

The guard nodded, waved me through, and shouted, ‘Next!’ to the queue behind me.

I passed through security and summoned a shuttle from my console. Before I could jump in it, a larger Iyr pushed in front of me, chucking their luggage into the back.

‘Hey, that one’s mine!’ I called out to the Iyr.

The only response I was given was a mildly irritated grunt. They closed the door, and I was forced to summon another. That was a whole thirty seconds of my time wasted already. Not that half a minute was going to make the difference between me finding this girl and not.

After checking in to the hotel (and, of course, spending a good quarter of an hour simply lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling), I headed out to the target’s last known location. There was no time like the present – especially when my job was on the line.

My best chances, really, were in the target returning home by herself. That’s if home was where she actually wanted to be, and this wasn’t just another runaway situation. But it seemed unlikely – she was old enough now that she would have soon been making her own way through life anyway. Maybe she was just caught up somewhere – a party, a brothel perhaps? Although, looking around at the stern, armour-plated Iyr, I couldn’t imagine that either parties or brothels were in particularly heavy supply around here.

No. If I found her, it would be down to my own abilities as an investigator, rather than dumb luck. Perhaps this was why Saotchun was so keen on using this case as a test.

I looked around at the city I found myself in. The central stronghold, operating as the capital here on Z’h’ar, was a desolate place, even for a desert planet. High walls surrounded the vertical city, guard towers posted around every gate. In the city itself, everything was about function; there was no art, no music, only blank screens posted on every street corner. This wasn’t a planet that I would be returning to for a holiday.

The local Iyr kept to themselves, heads facing down, walking with purpose as though they all had somewhere that they desperately wanted to be.

Outside the city, as far as I could tell, was no better. On the plus side, there were none of these charmless Iyr about. On the other hand, they had to deal with a lack of air conditioning, which I didn’t myself fancy in this heat.

I thought it was supposed to be winter here? What do they do in their summers? Melt?

The target, Melonaitopila (which was supposedly a short name for an Itagurinatipilazutinafian), had, by all accounts, last been spotted at a local U’kka shop. The store, while indeed serving U’kka, seemed to in fact specialise in Guran kebabs – a rather grandiose term for what turned to be simply a rodent cooked on a stick. When it came to my turn to order, I stuck to drinks only.

‘Say…,’ I started, ‘Have you seen this woman, recently, by any chance?’

I showed the store owner a picture of the target on my console’s holodisplay. The Iyr shook his head.

‘Not seen her.’

‘Are you sure?’ I prompted. ‘She was here, about a week ago?’

‘In this store?’

‘Yes. In this store.’

‘I have not seen her,’ the Iyr repeated.

I thanked them for their (lack of) help, and sat down to drink my U’kka. When the shift changed, I asked the new Iyr behind the counter the same questions, and received the same result.

This wasn’t a great start, and it wasn’t as though I had a massive number of leads I could follow. I repeated the experiment outside the store, but found that Iyr were unwilling to stop for a stranger from another world. Even when I stood their way, many would ignore me, and the few who did stop were less than helpful. The local Iyr would have me believe that nobody had seen this woman.

I’d landed fairly late, and so the day soon turned to night. Not wanting to be standing around in a strange street after dark, I decided to abandon my post, regroup, and try again tomorrow. Maybe, just maybe, a new route of investigation would occur to me by then.

As I headed in search of somewhere to drink (real drink, not any more U’kka, unless I wanted my bowels to resent me), the screens posted around the city all suddenly blinked into action.

A symbol appeared, glowing in blue on the screens, one that I could have sworn that I recognised from somewhere. An equilateral triangle, with a kind of zig-zag hanging out the bottom. This must have been a character in the Iyr’s own language – one that nobody outside their own race was able to understand, even with universal translators. The Iyr really were a private people.

Around me, all the Iyr had stopped to stare at their nearest screen, and were transfixed by it. The symbol, then, was replaced, by an image of an Iyr, sitting, facing the screen. He spoke in the common tongue for a few minutes, during which time, everyone else remained still, silent, fascinated by what they were being told. I listened in; little of it was of interest to me, covering only topics like the local economy, updates on the negotiations with the GMU, and the weather.

Surprise, surprise – it’s hot again.

And then, just like that, it ended – the blue shape being shown again, upside down this time, on the screens. The nearby Iyr took this as their cue to continue with their days. I shook my head in bemusement at the whole situation, and I, too, carried on.

I found a bar open just outside the Iyr capital’s Central Command building. It was an impressive structure, almost perfectly cubic but for the doors and windows. Stretching across the whole of the front face, two symbols were painted in a brilliantly-white tone, presumably meaning “Central Command” in the local language. I took one last look at this monument to government, and entered the bar.

The Iyr’s ambivalence towards the arts meant that their interiors were minimalist, functional. A smooth, concrete bar stood tall along one side of the room, sharp, square corners matching the style of the Central Command building. I assumed this similar motif was unintentional rather than designed – I couldn’t yet imagine an Iyr with that much creativity. Next to the bar itself, a number of (largely empty) bar stools hovered, facing away from the square tables behind them. It was at one of these stools which I sat.

With no bar staff currently in sight, I took a moment to look around at the other customers. A group of Iyr sat, having a quiet, civilised conversation at one of the tables. A young Pritan trained his eye on the Lonely Galaxy’s guide to Z’h’ar, and accidentally spilt his green drink down his “I heart Z’h’ar” t-shirt. In the corner, another Iyr sat alone, his helmet marked with a red stripe.

I pulled my console from my pocket, with the intention of looking up the meaning of this red stripe, when the bartender suddenly appeared.

‘What would you like?’

‘You mean, to drink? Or just, like, generally?’

‘To drink,’ the Iyr replied, and I could only assume that there was a stern expression under that helmet.

What a humourless bunch.

‘Whisky,’ I replied. I wasn’t risking the local stuff, not after that spit-roasted rat I’d seen earlier.

‘Terran or Rykan?’

‘The real stuff,’ I answered. ‘Spelled with an H.’

The barman (or barwoman – it was impossible to tell from under these mechsuits) poured a glass, and I timidly took my first sip. Recognising that it really was the good stuff, I downed the rest of the rather small portion.

The Iyr bartender, still standing and looking at me, poured me another, and asked.

‘I shall leave the bottle, shall I?’

I shrugged – and the Iyr correctly construed that response as a “yes”. I topped up my glass, filling it to the brim, rather than having barely a splash, as suggested by the bartender’s serving.

As I sipped quietly, allowing the warm liquid to run down my throat, I pondered everything that had happened over the past few days.

This job, potentially my last, hadn’t gotten off to a good start. I had no real leads, a population of locals entirely dedicated to being unhelpful, and the heat was almost unbearable. No wonder this case had been the bottom of the pile, the last to be picked.

Trying to distract myself from the inevitability of me failing to complete this job, I pulled out Leya’s journal and skimmed through it again. It was a waste of time, without knowing how she’d encrypted it, I wasn’t going to be able to understand it. Looking through it now, it seemed as though there were sections, each cipher using different character sets. It didn’t seem like she had encrypted the whole thing at once, but maybe every now and then, when she had the chance? I put the journal away again in a huff; I felt destined to fail with that, too.

I spent another hour and a half or so in wistful contemplation; remembering the days of old, and pondering the route I had in front of me.

Only when I realised that my mood was turning sour, did I look around the room once again; it was time for some company. I didn’t fancy wasting my time on any more of the humourless locals – neither the quiet group nor the lone customers with the red markings – and so I fixed my eyes on the Pritan.

Soon, he caught me looking at him, and quickly, embarrassed, shifted his gaze to focus back on his book. I could tell, now, that he was staring at the page, reading the same passages over and over, distracted by me gazing at him. It didn’t seem like he was going to take the hint that he should come over.

I sighed, collected my glass and the bottle, and walked over to his table. The Pritan continued to pretend that he was transfixed by his book.

If you like that guidebook so much, why don’t you just… step outside and actually experience the planet you’re reading about.

I resisted the urge to open with this suggestion, and instead sat opposite him, continuing to look over in his direction. I was conscious, already, that the alcohol was starting to go to my head. I wasn’t usually like this; it must have been the heat.

‘Good book?’ I asked.

‘Yeah… yeah, it’s good,’ the Pritan replied, barely glancing up at me.

‘Want some of this?’ I offered, pointing at the bottle of whisky. ‘It’s good.’

As if to reinforce the point, I downed another glass.

The Pritan shook his head.

‘So, how comes you’re here? On holiday?’

Sensing that he wasn’t going to be rid of me any time soon, the Pritan put down his book and diverted his attention to me.

‘I’m… I’m, err,’ he began, stuttering over his words. ‘I’m just travelling the sector. I just finished studying and… and my dad, he said he’d pay for me to see some of the galaxy.’

‘Ah, I get it. He thought it’d put some hairs on your chest?’

The Pritan, in addition to looking nervous, now looked confused as well. He glanced down at his own, hairless chest. ‘Well… I don’t know about that. But he thought it would be good for me, if that’s what you mean.’

‘And you’ve seen a lot, sitting in bars, reading guidebooks?’ I asked, hoping the smile on my face would be enough for the Pritan to understand that I was just poking fun at him.

‘I’ve been out, too!’ he replied. ‘It’s just… Z’h’ar’s a bit of a lonely place, isn’t it?’

‘Tell me about it. That’s the reason I chose you to come over and bother, rather than this lot.’ I nodded my head in the direction of the group of Iyr, who were currently sitting in silence, sporadically sipping from their glasses.

‘Oh. I see,’ the Pritan responded, and then, when I didn’t carry the conversation any further, asked, ‘So… so why are you here?’

I looked around the room. Nobody seemed to be listening; the group were talking amongst themselves, the lone Iyr was staring into space.

To hell with it, who’s gonna care anyway?

‘Here for work. Looking for someone. Diplomat’s daughter. From Itagurinatipilazutinafi.’

‘Good pronunciation.’

‘Thanks.’

‘So, she’s missing?’

I shrugged. ‘Seems that way. Chances are I’m wasting my time looking for her. The people here… haven’t exactly been helpful. Don’t suppose you’ve seen her?’

I showed my new friend an image on my console’s holodisplay. He shook his head.

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘I guess that was a longshot.’

I raised my glass took another gulp.

The Pritan, loosening up a little now, leaned in close. ‘What about that guy? You asked him?’ He pointed to the lone drinker in the corner.

‘What, I wouldn’t ask him cos he looks so scary?’

The Pritan pulled a face which suggested that he thought that was exactly the reason that I wouldn’t have asked him. ‘Tell you what, if you do it, I’ll pay for a quart of that bottle you’re drinking.’

‘Make it half.’

‘No,’ he responded.

‘OK. A quarter it is.’

How could I refuse such a generous offer?

I stood from the table, set my eyes on the Iyr in the corner, and began walking over to him. Catching myself on the edge of one of the tables, and mumbling, ‘Ouch,’ to myself was enough to draw the lone drinker’s attention. He stared me down as I approached.

‘Hi, how-re you?’ I asked, slurring my words a little, but surely not enough that anybody would notice.

The Iyr remained silent, still, and stared at me.

‘I like your… your red bit… up there,’ I continued, pointing at the stripe on the Iyr’s helmet.

Still I got no response. Despite this, I carried on talking.

‘So, anyway, I was looking for this-’

‘Leave,’ the Iyr interrupted.

‘What? Why?’

‘You ask of things that concern only the council.’

‘Concern the…,’ I began to ask. ‘What you on about?’

‘The…,’ the lonely Iyr started… and then fell silent. For a few moments there was only the vacant stare of the mechsuit’s eyes, the inhabitant apparently taking a moment to think about their response.

‘No,’ the Iyr started up again. ‘Leave. No more questions.’

I turned to look over to my new friend, accidentally stepping on the Iyr’s foot in the process. They grunted a noise of irritation, but didn’t wince, so I acted as though it hadn’t happened.

My friend shrugged, and I shrugged back at him in response. Not wanting to shout across the bar, I mimed in his direction the action of taking a sip of drink. He nodded; he would indeed pay for the promised amount of whisky.

I walked back towards him, meaning to skirt around the quiet group of Iyr, but accidentally collided with one as they stood up. Their drink was knocked from their hand, spilling as the glass dropped to the table, a clunk echoing around the bar.

For a moment there was only silence, and then the Iyr whose drink I had spilled raised their arms at me, throwing a punch in my direction. I tried to dodge it, the blow softened as it only barely caught my arm.

So these Iyr aren’t so dull after all!

‘Bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?’ I asked, as I struck my foot forward to sweep my assailant’s leg. ‘All I did was-’

The Iyr dodged my attempt to floor them. Now even further enraged, they struck me in the side of the head, dizzying me, and sent me tumbling to the ground. They stood over me, broadening their shoulders as though trying to intimidate me..

Through their legs, I saw the Iyr in the corner stand up, and begin marching towards us. When they, too, noticed this, the rest of the Iyr scattered in fear.

‘No more!’ the lonely Iyr called out as they strode. ‘I will have no more of you in here! Nobody casts doubts upon the Iyr!’

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Chapter 3: Not Bad For A Terran

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STATION 34-ALPHA
“Next Services: 7.5billion Kilometres”
Iron Sector
25c-11-2337

I spent the journey flipping through the encrypted pages of Leya’s journal, to no avail. Not only did I not see any way of easily decoding it, but I barely recognised some of the languages being used. It was split into sections – which I could only assume were ordered chronologically – each using a different set of characters. Beaten by this puzzle, I slammed the book shut and returned to staring absent-mindedly out the ship window.

When I docked back at Station 34-Alpha, I was welcomed with the familiar hustle and bustle of the central promenade. Businesses lined the Strip – a great many of them owned by fine, upstanding members of our great galaxy. There was a Gulian restaurant that served food which would fill you up as quickly as you wished – a single bite for those in a hurry, or several courses for those travelling for leisure. A bar, manned by a mute Iyr (who never seemed to remove his helmet) sold some of the purest alcohol on the galaxy – just don’t expect great service. And who could talk of 34-Alpha without mentioning the great Trunon, the best plasma-spinner in the sector.

Other businesses, such as the one I worked for, were not held in quite so much high regard. The shop front was coated in a thick layer of dust, the door’s opening protocol needed fixing up, and the ageing holosign was more often than not hacked to instead display pornography (courtesy of the kids of the promenade). These three issues conspired to give the agency the illusion of being a strip club, and attracted all the wrong sorts of customers.

As I entered the agency premises, a small, rotund Bringla looked up from his desk. Well, mostly he did – two of his eyes remained trained on his console. Typically he would be sat, locked up, in his office, but today he was using the communal desks, perhaps taking advantage of nobody else being around.

‘Raynor. You’re late. Expected you back here two rotations ago,’ he started.

‘Yes, sir. Sorry. Came from Terra, other side of the sector. Traffic was a nightmare.’

‘Ah, yes, I forget that you’re one of those. From Terra. Maybe keep that hush-hush for the time being, eh?’

‘What? Why? What’s going on?’

‘You mean to say you haven’t figured it out yet? What sort of detective are you? Come on, Raynor. I’m sat out here, my office door closed, what do you think is going on?’

Oh, leave it out, mate.

‘Maybe, sir, if you sent me on those training programmes you promised when I signed on at this agency, I’d have worked it out.’

Hutch sighed, rolled a few eyes in exasperation.

‘Well, good news and bad. Good news is the company’s been purchased, everyone with shares gets a payout.’

‘I don’t have shares.’

‘Oh? Really? Shit. Just bad news for you, then. You have a new boss. He’s been waiting for you. Everyone else has come and gone.’

Hutch nodded to the closed office door. I noticed that his name had been programmed out of the nameplate, replaced by the name of a P Saotchun.

My former boss nodded at me. ‘Yes, go on. Don’t keep him waiting any longer than you have to.’

What’s the worst that could happen? They fire me? Maybe I should get out of this hellhole anyway.

I walked, cautiously, up to the office door, and poked my head around it.

‘Mr Saotchun?’

Another Bringla sat at Hutch’s old desk. He, too, was small and rotund. Maybe they were just all like that; I couldn’t remember ever meeting a Bringla before Hutch.

‘Ah, you must be Ms Raynor, is that right?’

Without waiting for an answer, he brought my file up on the holoscreen in front of him.

I sat down on the chair opposite and opened my mouth to speak. In response, Saotchun put his hand up to my face, signalling that he needed longer to read my file.

If I’m as late as Hutch seems to think I am, couldn’t he have read it in the meantime?

I analysed his face as he continued to read. If this Bringla’s facial cues were the same as Hutch’s, then he was getting less and less impressed the more he read. I hoped that I was wrong.

Eventually, he began to speak. ‘So I assume Hutch filled you in outside?’

‘Not really. Only that you’d bought the company.’

‘That’s right. And, like any business-savvy individual would when taking over a new company, I began with performance reviews. I’m happy to say that over sixty percent of your colleagues passed with flying colours! The others will be fired.’

Oh.

‘Well,’ I began, a smile on my face, ‘I look forward to working together!’

The Bringla looked me in the eyes for the first time since I entered his office.

‘Oh, you assume you have passed, do you?’

‘No, no, I don’t mean that, I just mean… I was just being polite.’

‘Hmm.’

The room fell silent again for a few more moments.

‘Your performance reports do not impress.’

‘Well, I’m fairly new here, and I haven’t had much in the way of the training that was promised yet, and-’

‘So you’re blaming the lack of training for these average results?’

‘Well, I- Wait, average? I thought you said my performance was bad?’

The Bringla seemed to tut at me. Bringla don’t tut, do they?

No, I said your performance “does not impress”. I like to pride myself on only employing investigators who exceed expectation. You do not. At least, you don’t by my usual standards. But it says here… you’re a Terran?’

‘Did my stunning good looks not give it away?’ I asked, and then immediately regretted this flippant response. Sometimes I just couldn’t resist saying these things.

‘They did not, no,’ Saotchun replied, giving me a funny look. ‘If I were to judge you against my usual standards, I would fire you straight away, but…’

He trailed off, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was just for dramatic effect. I remained silent, waiting for him to finish his train of thought.

‘Can you say “fuck” yet?’

I raised an eyebrow. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘This word: fuck. I met another Terran once, he refused to say it. He was insistent that to use such a word would go against everything that he, and all Terrans, hold dear: their morals.’

‘I mean…,’ I replied, ‘I could say it if you really want…’

I could picture my mum shouting at me, horrified that I would say such a thing.

Young woman, you wash that mouth out this minute, you hear me?

‘Can you?’ Saotchun replied. ‘That’s not a rhetorical question, I stress. You see, all the Terrans I’ve met have been missing that certain… quality. That edge, that investigators need in order to do their jobs well. That ability to bend the rules, to break them if they see fit. I’ve never known a Terran to do that. In fact, they go the other way: they look to spread their sense of morality amongst the stars. I’ve never known a race without religion to be so preachy. So, with this in mind, I ask you: will you say it?’

‘Yes, I can say it.’

‘Well, then…’

A pause. Only by giving in could I fill the empty air.

‘F… fuck.’

Saotchun roared with laughter, clapped some of his hands together with joy.

‘I wish I’d recorded that. A Terran, swearing! Who would’ve thought it!’

He waved his hand over the desk communicator, opening a line to the outside office.

‘Hutch, come in here, will you? And bring the last file.’

After a scuffling from outside, the door opened behind me, and Hutch stood at the threshold to the room, file in hand.

‘Did she pass?’ he asked, mouth hanging slightly open.

Well don’t look so surprised, mate.

‘She’s on probation,’ Saotchun replied. ‘Give her the file, will you?’

Hutch ambled on over, placed the tablet on the desk in front of me.

‘This case,’ the new boss told me, ‘Will either cement you as a permanent member of the team, or will be your last case. You understand?’

I nodded.

‘Now, unfortunately, I let all the employees who arrived back here on time choose their own cases, and so this one… this one is the case nobody picked.’

I looked down at the file in front of me. It was a missing persons case. Of course it was – my colleagues were no fools.

‘So I-’ I began to ask, before I was interrupted by Saotchun.

‘So if you solve this case, you stay on the team, yes.’

‘But it’s a missing persons case! We solve maybe one in ten of these.’

‘Well, then,’ the Bringla replied, an overtly fake grin on his face, ‘Maybe you’ll arrive on time for your next performance review?’

I nodded, looked down at the console, and skimmed through it.

‘Missing daughter… government minister…’

‘Yes, very sharp man, he was,’ Saotchun added. ‘An Itagurina… Itagurinato… Itagurinatipi…’

‘Itagurinatipilaz,’ Hutch offered.

‘Yes! One of them. They’re a very sharp species, aren’t they? You Terrans could learn a thing or two from them! Anyway, yes: missing daughter of a government minister. Last see on Z’h’ar, amongst the…’

Saotchun’s eyes scanned the document. ‘…Amongst the Iyr – oh! That’s an easier one!’

As I skimmed, I saw something else on the page, which made my heart drop.

‘It says here this is a “no win, no fee” contract? How do you expect to turn a profit with that clause in our contracts?’

Saotchun laughed. ‘Well, Ms Raynor, I expect us to turn a profit by having employees skilled enough to solve these cases. And that’s precisely why some of your colleagues had to go.’

He shot Hutch a damning look, and my old boss suddenly became very interested in his shoes.

‘Look, it’s not just me, or my colleagues – nobody solves these kinds of cases. Nobody! Usually, by the time we even receive these cases, the target is long gone, off-planet, maybe even dead. You’re really gonna give me this as the only chance to save my job?’

‘I am, yes.’ He lent in close. ‘Look, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in your position before. I didn’t inherit my position, I worked for it, and, at the very start of my career, I, too, was the latest recruit in some crappy agency which barely turned a profit.’

Hutch opened his mouth as if to argue this point, but then thought better of it.

‘But you know what I did?’ he asked me.

‘What?’

‘I worked. Hard.’ Saotchun sat back in his seat, no longer pretending to be sharing some big, dark, secret with me. ‘And I solved cases like this. And then I got promotions, and I learned to manage people, delegate. And, after a great many years of hard work, I now own a chain of detective agencies throughout the sector. I am living my dream. So, if I were you, I would work hard, solve this case, and think about where you want to be in five cycles.’

Saotchun stood up from his desk and opened the door for me to leave.

‘Solve this, or you’re out, understand?’

I nodded.

‘Good. I’ll be keeping three of my eyes on you.’

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Thanks for reading this chapter of A Galaxy, Alive – I hope you enjoyed it!

If you would prefer to continue reading on a different platform, please head over to my subreddit /r/reymorfin or visit me on Patreon!

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Chapter 2: Home Is Where The Nightmares Are

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TERRA
The Mended World
Carbon Sector
22-11-2337

Map of the Thames Delta, circa 2336

The transport ship glided down around the Crystal Palace, a tall glass spire piercing the heavens, with the EEO neon sign standing proudly towards the top. I watched the waves lick at Streatham Island’s flood defences as the ship queued to dock at the local shipyard.

This city had changed a hell of a lot over the past few hundred years. Until the mid 2100s, London was one of the largest capitals in the world. Of course, the Climate Crisis soon put an end to that, with large swathes of city being taken over by the sea. It wasn’t just in the continent of Europa, either. The capital of the Americas, Rio de Janeiro, was completely wiped off the map, with locals being relocated to the higher lands of Brasilia.

Where the Americas still had empty space, Europa did not. It had already grown hugely overpopulated by the time of the Climate Crisis, and so there was no land left on which to relocate anyone. Instead, we built upwards – towering structures pierced the skyline, and none peaked higher than the third Crystal Palace.

A long, winding bridge protruded from the northwestern-most point of Streatham Island, connecting the north side of what used to be London to the remaining strongholds in the south. This bridge snaked around the heavily-fortified Buckingham Palace, which was abandoned long ago, even before the last days of the monarchy. Then, it proceeded to the southernmost tip of the Great Willesden Estates, skirting around the now-uninhabitable Soho Marshlands.

‘Marshlands’ was an informal name, of course. There was nothing particularly marshy about Soho nowadays, except perhaps for the high water level. Instead of tall reeds and fine grasses, it was rubble that sprouted from the water – bricks, metal and the like.

We finally touched down at the Streatham Shipyard, and I joined another long queue: customs. It was almost laughable, the idea that a Terran might try to smuggle something into the planet. No Terran I’d ever known would have been capable of breaking the law in such an overt manner. How would they reconcile that with themselves? In fact, the worse I had ever seen a Terran do was drive their shuttle through a yellow light – and that was enough to elicit audible gasps from everyone in the vicinity. Full disclosure: I was that Terran.

It was visitors, I supposed, that the Terran government was concerned about. Who knows what such immoral species might bring on to their wonderful (if half-destroyed) planet? But they couldn’t just wave the Terrans through, of course. Treating species differently like that would have caused international outrage. Understandable, really. So we had to suffer through it in silence.

I brought up my console while I was in the queue, gave my mother an estimated time of arrival. She read the message and sent no reply. Typical. Or maybe she was just busy.

I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this time, Mum.

When I eventually got through the shipyard security, I summoned a shuttle, threw my lightly-packed bag in the back, and programmed in my mum’s address. This was the last time I would see this place, I noted; she was moving home tomorrow. I thought of those younger years spent in that home, in that cramped, dim space, and of staring out the windows that faced only other apartment blocks. It held a special place in the heart that was reserved only for a childhood home.

The shuttle wound through the overly-complicated shipyard transport network, until, finally, it brought me out on to the main road heading north. My Mum’s place – my Mum’s old place, I began to condition myself – wasn’t far from the shipyard, just a few miles north. This would be the last time I would have such an easy journey. The transport network around the Woolwich Peninsula, on the other hand, was nowhere near as smooth – not that anyone on Terra would be so negative as to admit such a flaw.

I exited the shuttle outside the block of flats that had paid host to my childhood home, and I looked up at it, taking it in one last time. Every few floors were painted a separate colour, each relating to a certain profession. The idea had been that neighbours who worked in the same industries would have more in common, and it would make for a more civilised living arrangement. This was classic 2290s New Age nonsense.

I took the transmat to the thirty-first floor (which was a pale fuschia, signifying that artists lived there), and the front door sensor alerted my mother to my presence. The door, recognising me as a trusted user, opened automatically, revealing my mum crouching beside a pile of hovering metal crates.

‘Syl! You’re here!’ she called out, acting surprised, as though her Home System hadn’t already told her this.

‘Yeah, I’m here, Mum. How are you?’

‘I’m good sweetheart, I’m good,’ she replied, wrapping her arms around me. ‘And how is my little girl?’

‘I’m twenty-four, Mum. This “little girl” business has to stop at some point.’

‘Oh,’ she replied, waving dismissively at me, ‘Let me have that one.’

I looked around at the apartment, which was still, largely, unpacked.

‘I see it’s going… well,’ I said.

‘I know, I know! I’m behind. What’s new? That’s what you’re here for, though, isn’t it? To help?’

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. ‘Yes, mother. Can I at least get a cup of tea first?’

Mum asked the house for two cups, and the machines in the kitchen whirred into life. In my youth, the equipment had been new, operating silently but for a soft purr. Now, after years upon years of use, the gears in the machines were beginning to grind, the pipes were slightly clogged, and, to be honest, it could all do with being ripped out and replaced. But we don’t do that, not on Terra, not any more.

‘So how have you been? Really?’ I asked.

She shrugged. ‘I don’t want to say things have been hard. I mean, we live on Terra after all. It’s not like there’s anywhere better out there.’

‘You’d be surprised, Mum.’

‘Maybe there’s places for you, Syl, but not for an old girl like me. Terra’s the only place I’ve known… it’s too late for me to start anywhere new. Right now, though, this just doesn’t feel like home.’

‘Turknan is supposed to be nice at the moment? Since the droughts ended.’

Mum shook her head. This was a pointless exercise, it seemed.

‘Is this anything to do with the move?’ I asked.

She looked me in the eyes, a pained expression on her face, and nodded. ‘There’s just no work for me, here, not any more. The whole floor is moving – art isn’t important to Terra like it used to be. Government’s preoccupied with standard of living, but what’s the point of living in a world without the arts?’

‘I know, Mum I know…’

‘It was that…,’ she paused, bent towards me conspiratorially, her hand partially covering her mouth, and whispered a word I’d never heard her say before. ‘…bloody GMU business, wasn’t it?’

‘Woah, Mum, no need to swear like that!’ I responded, in both jest and horror that my own mother would use a word like ‘bloody’.

‘I’m sorry, Syl, I’m just so wound up by it all. Didn’t know I’d lose my home, did I? Thought leaving the GMU was just about preserving our culture, it wasn’t like they explained all the nitty-gritty trade details to us. Not like I knew that Terran arts were propped up by GMU subsidies…’

She shook her head, forced a smile, and continued, ‘Sorry. You don’t want to hear about something as boring as trade agreements when there’s a whole galaxy of adventures out there, do you?’

‘No, Mum, it’s OK, honest. I get it. I’m sad to lose this place too.’

‘The new place will be nice, too, though,’ she replied, her voice wobbling in that way it did when she was lying to herself.

‘Have you seen it?’

‘Yeah. Set up the transmitter there yesterday.’

‘You got a transmitter? Very posh!’ I said, encouragingly.

‘Comes as standard with state-provided housing, don’t you know! Saves you loading all your stuff in a shuttle, which, let’s face it, is the worst thing about moving.’

When I needed a break from my mother, as all daughters often do, I offered to start packing in the study. My mum, grateful for any help that I could give her, told me to have at it.

I remembered Dad using the study a lot. It was one of the few memories I had of him. He would position himself in the corner of the room, in a large armchair, sat facing the very left hand side of the window, where you could see a small slither of the view to the south. I never knew what he was pondering so deeply, but even then, I could tell from his body language that it was important.

Nowadays, Mum had set up shop in there for her art. A huge digital tablet, her pride and joy (even more so than me) sat on an antique wooden easel.

Now, you have to be careful with this, Syl, it’s very old, from the twenty-second century. Do you know how long ago that was? That was over a hundred years ago! You’ll be careful, now, won’t you?

Yes, Mum!

I trod slowly about the easel, heading first for the desk in the corner of the room. Mum kept it tidy – really, she had little need to use it – and so I was surprised when I found an old journal in the drawer.

I pulled the diary from the desk, and fumbled for the on-switch on the top. It whirred into life, and I was shocked when I read the lock screen.

Diary of Leya Raynor, 2331 to 2336.

I remembered the moment Mum had rung me, back in early ‘32. I remembered the tears when she’d told me that Leya was missing; both hers and mine. I remembered us agreeing that we would do our bests to find her.

And yet, this journal was here. How could this have been? How could-

‘Mum?!’ I shouted. ‘What on Terra is this?’

When my mother poked her head around the corner, her face soon dropped. She lunged towards me, meaning to grab at the journal, but I pulled it away from her.

‘You have Leya’s diary? From while she’s been missing? And you didn’t tell me?!’

‘I knew if I told you, you’d want to take it. And didn’t want you losing it.’

‘I’d lose it? What are you talking about?’

‘Well, you know… since you started drinking you haven’t exactly had your life completely in order, have you?’

‘Mum! You can’t say something like that to your daughter! Not like you don’t have your own vices, is it? And to keep something like this from me?’

I paused, realising that maybe I’d gone too far by referring to her Stirlik addiction. ‘What does… what does it say?!’

She shrugged.

‘I don’t know. I’ve tried decoding it. I’ve taken it to every specialist on Terra, but… nothing.’

‘Can I try?’ I asked.

Mum looked at me with sad eyes. ‘I… she sent it to me…’

I could see that this diary meant more to my mother than I had realised. It was her last remaining memento of my sister, and I could see the parallels with her losing the journal, too.

‘Please…,’ Mum continued, holding out her hand.

Repressing both sadness and irritation, I gave the diary to her. She held it to her chest, close to her heart.

‘You could have told me you had it.’

‘And you wouldn’t have tried to take it from me?’

I said nothing; we both knew the answer to that.

‘I need some air,’ I said suddenly, surprising even myself.

I took the transmat down to the ground floor and allowed myself to walk around the area one last time.

Like everywhere on Terra, the streets were pristine. So clean were they, in fact, that I could see that their spotlessness even in the dark of the evening light. Long had issues like littering been eradicated and the cleaning process itself perfected.

Where once my mother’s street had been full of art galleries, restaurants, bars, there was now nothing. All commercial enterprises had been placed by more residential properties. The charm that this area once had was now gone.

It was the lack of bars that particularly frustrated me.

A Terran man turned the corner in front of me, heading towards me. I waved him down as he grew closer.

‘Hey, do you know where the nearest bar is around here? I used to go to the Woodsman, but…’

‘The Woodsman?’ he replied. ‘That’s not been around for a few years now. You want a drink, you’re better off heading to the main road.’

The main road was a good half hour walk away. I hadn’t been expecting my search for a drink to require so much physical exertion.

‘Thanks,’ I told the man, letting him go… and then I called after him again. ‘Hey, do you work round here?’

The man shook his head. ‘Not any more.’

‘What were you, a waiter, barman?’

‘Something like that. Why’d you ask?’

‘Where do you work now?’ I grilled him, completely ignoring his own question.

‘EEO. Ethics Export Office. Down at the Crystal Palace.’

I pursed my lips. ‘Yeah, I know what it stands for.’

The man smiled at me. ‘I suppose everyone does.’

With that, he turned away from me, and continued on with his life without me in it.

My quest for a drink turning out to be unexpectedly convoluted, I instead turned back, heading for my childhood home.

When I returned, Mum was already asleep. I poked my head into her bedroom – to see Leya’s diary sitting on the pillow next to her.

I resisted my very un-Terran instinct to steal it from her while she slept.

Instead, I went to Leya and I’s childhood room, which was preserved exactly as it had been when we’d lived here, and fell straight to sleep.

I awoke in the night to screams.

This wasn’t the first time this had happened in this apartment. During my childhood, I’d often be rudely awoken in the night by the sound of a woman shrieking. Always, the source was my mother.

I rushed to her room to find her sitting bolt upright in bed, slowly coming back to the land of the conscious.

My Mum looked up to see me standing in the doorway.

‘It’s OK,’ she reassured me, ‘It’s OK.’

I sat down on the bed next to her. ‘I think I’m the one who is supposed to be saying that to you.’

Mum laughed gently – that kind of laugh where you breathe ever so slightly harder than normal out of your nostrils. Clearly her heart wasn’t in it.

‘I thought you weren’t having these nightmares any more. Not since…’

I trailed off, but Mum finished the sentence for me.

‘Not since the ‘Liks. It’s OK, you can say it.’

‘I mean… yeah. I thought whatever memory was causing these nightmares, they’d overwritten.’

‘Once upon a time that was true. But one of them has been coming back to me. Over and over, every night.’

‘For how long?’ I asked.

‘Months now. Three… maybe four.’

‘Mum…,’ I began. ‘You could’ve told me.’

‘Oh, I didn’t want to worry you. I know you have lots on your plate already with that job you have.’

‘What is it? The memory?’

‘I don’t know if I should say, Syl. Some things you’re better off not knowing.’

‘First the journal, now this. Mum, you can’t protect me forever. I’m not that little girl you still seem to think of me as.’

My mother paused, looked at me for a moment as she processed this information.

‘I know,’ she said at last, ‘You’re right.’

‘Tell me.’

‘I don’t know if you’d believe me.’

‘Trust me, I believe all kinds of things.’

‘It’s about your father. I…’

She trailed off. I prompted her to continue.

‘Go on.’

‘I remember him… controlling Leya. I don’t mean verbally. Or even physically. But like… a puppet master might control a puppet. Or a brain might control its body. But it wasn’t his body, it was her’s.’

‘You’re talking about telepathy. Telepathy doesn’t exist, Mum. It’s a myth. We’ve known this for decades.’

Mum looked at me, tears in her eyes. ‘I knew you wouldn’t believe me.’

I felt my gut wrench in the way that only disappointing a parent can make happen. ‘Sorry. I believe you. Go on.’

‘I would’ve thought I was imagining it, too. But Leya… before she left, she told me, she remembers it happening to her. It was innocent things at first, like stopping crying fits, but then it got more sinister. He stopped her from going out, from having friends, until all her free time was spent in the house. Here. With him.’

‘How…,’ I began, not quite sure if I wanted to hear the answer to the question I was about to ask. ‘How does she remember being made to stop crying? Wouldn’t she have been a bit young?’

Mum burst out in tears. ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I should have stopped him sooner!’

‘It was me, too, wasn’t it?’

Mum forced the sobs to stop, and nodded, her eyes red. ‘You were too young to remember, Syl. But Leya… she wasn’t. She has to live with it.’

‘And you think these are the memories you overwrote with the ‘Liks?’

‘Yes. Well, some of them, at least. But how can I know for sure what I’ve erased from my mind?’

This was getting all too much to process.

‘So… you made Dad leave? Because of this?’

‘I…,’ Mum began to reply through sobs, ‘I think so.’

‘Mum, this is…’

I trailed off, and we sat in silence for a while, processing everything that had been said.

Eventually, Mum piped up again. ‘There’s something else…’

I looked at her with wide eyes, afraid to ask the necessarily question.

‘What else?’

‘Leya, when she left… She told me she was going to go looking for him. Get answers about what he did to her. And to you.’

I touched at my cheek and found that it was wet. I’d been crying.

‘She went looking for him?’

Mum nodded.

‘You need to give me that journal, Mum. I need to find out where she went. You can’t protect me from this any more.’

She nodded again, still remaining silent, but reached for the diary, passing it to me.

I took it, and stared blankly into the distance for a few moments.

‘You’ll tell me what you find, won’t you?’ Mum asked. ‘I promise I won’t use again. I’ll live with the truth this time.’

‘When I find anything, I’ll tell you,’ I lied.

The console on my arm began to vibrate. It was the agency again:

Holiday’s over. We need you in. ASAP.

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Chapter 1: The Planet Yrgg Is Really Lovely At This Time Of Year

Welcome to the opening chapter of the new web serial A Galaxy, Alive – I hope you enjoy reading it!

First Chapter Table of Contents Most Recent

YRGG
The Planet of Dust
Iron Sector
20a-11-2337

Map of the known galaxy in part 1 of 'A Galaxy, Alive'.

No matter where you go in the galaxy, you’ll find that every planet has all the same issues as there are on Terra. Pride? Check. Wrath? Check. Envy? Check. Well, actually, the Guliens don’t have that last problem, but there’s definitely something weird going on in their wiring. Not that lacking envy is a bad thing, by any means; sometimes I wish I could be like them.

It’s these very problems that pay for my lifestyle. Think your partner is cheating on you? Good chance they are. Got a missing child? They probably got sick of your crap and ran away. Convinced there’s an intergalactic security organisation monitoring your every move because of your research into wormhole technology? Yeah… unlikely, mate, but I’ll still gladly take your money.

Whatever it is, my agency can handle it. And, by “handle it”, I mean they’ll send me to go through the motions of solving the case, and then take their 70% share of the revenue without really contributing very much. Work is hard to come by, nowadays, much less well-paid work, so I take what I can get. Let’s face it, it’s rare that any single person gets to do anything particularly special with their lives. Certainly most don’t do anything to change the galaxy for the better, even if we aspire to it. Instead, we slave through our work each and every day, just trying to make sure we have enough Units to pay the bills.

It’s on one of these mind-numbing – albeit bill-paying – jobs that our story begins.

My assignment was a tall, beautiful Yrggian, who, according to her partner, was definitely, 100%, not an iota of doubt, cheating on him. Still, that didn’t stop him from hiring my agency to make sure. These wealthy business types had more Units than they knew what to do with… not that I was complaining.

I had been following the target for several days, but she was yet to do anything out of the ordinary. There was no other special someone in her life, it seemed. All she really spent her time doing was going to work, going to the gym, and then seeing her friends for U’kka (where she would lie about going to the gym – she just naturally has this figure, she would say).

Normally, if there really was someone else in the target’s life, I would have known by this point – rarely did they spend more than a few days at a time without getting their fill. That wouldn’t stop me padding it out to a week or so in my reports, of course – I was paid by the hour, after all.

I watched from inside my parked Shuttle as the target left her home. She carried no gym bag, she wasn’t scheduled for work, and she’d seen her mates just a few hours earlier in the day. This, at last, was her doing something new.

She pulled up her sleeve, revealing her Console, from which she summoned a shuttle. As she entered, I quickly programmed my own shuttle into manual overdrive. Without knowing where my target was going, I was going to have to drive it myself. For many, doing so would have been unheard of, but in my profession it was necessary. Perhaps Private Investigators were the last remaining drivers in the galaxy.

Sure enough, the target led me to a new building, one that she hadn’t been to before. I couldn’t immediately determine its function; it looks like a corporate building, but as more and more Yrggian companies were merging, lots of these structures were being repurposed.

I jumped out of my parked shuttle still surveying the building, and failed to immediately notice that the target had turned to look at me over her shoulder. I began to walk away from her, in the other direction, hoping to throw her off the scent. The target shook her head and continued walking. Presumably she was content that I wasn’t following her, or about to mug her, or whatever, because she continued into the building. I thanked my lucky stars that she hadn’t paid too much attention to me, and proceeded after her – at a distance – into the building.

There was no doorman in the lobby, but it didn’t matter to the target – she knew exactly where she was going. But instead of moving to the inter-level transmat, she proceeded down the stairs, to the basement. Exactly what kind of kinky shit was this woman in to?

I continued after her, stopping at every corner to carefully look around before I followed. Being seen twice by a target was never good. I knew this from experience; on one of my first cases, my target – a lonely Pritan – had caught me watching him a few times, and had called the local police. That was not a good day for me.

The Yrggian turned into a room. Creeping forwards, and then crouching at the doorway, I peered in.

It was a large hall, with a ring of chairs at the centre. In the corner, there were cheap baked goods carefully positioned on an old table. There was the unmistakable stench of regret in the air. It was one of these sorts of meetings, then; the kind that my mother used to go.

Stirliks Anonymous. 

The group inside said their hellos, their how-you-doings, and they soon began to get serious. I needed to get closer, so that I could get clear evidence of this meeting for my client. He’d need proof, after all.

Even for me this felt like a breach of privacy, taking a photograph of someone at one of these meetings. I could picture myself reacting to the hypothetical news that my mother’s meeting had been intruded upon in this way. Nothing in the galaxy would be able to calm me down. Nothing, except perhaps cupcakes.

The attendees sat uncomfortably in their seats, picking nervously at themselves, barely making eye contact with one another. Most were positioned so that they were most of the way off their chair – and most of their way towards the door.

Mum had started using the ‘Liks after Dad left. Something had changed in her in those last few months. My youthful self was perhaps unable to perceive exactly what was plaguing her. Whatever it was, she took the ‘Liks to forget. That was what they did, of course: they took in old memories, bad ones, and they re-wrote them to be happier. Why live a miserable life when you could live a joyful one?

It didn’t matter to these addicts too much that it wasn’t real. Whatever it was that Mum had experienced to drive her to this, we would never know – her memories of the period were no longer a reflection of reality.

I’d been about eight and my sister, Leya, fourteen. It had really been Leya who had run the household for for those few years; trauma like this had a habit of making adults out of children. I had always intended to thank Leya for all she did for me back then, but as I watched her walk out that door that final time, the words were lost from my mouth.

I needed to see Mum. It had been too long. I was getting lazy with how often I went back to Terra. I plugged this in as a reminder on my console, and set my eyes on the job at hand, and getting closer to the group.

Spotting a strategically-placed bench to my left, I slowly, silently, crept towards it.

‘Please welcome, new member: Syl Raynor,’ an automated female Yrggian voice announced.

Hmm. Ok. Not ideal.

The group all turned in their chairs to look at me, crouched down in the corner of the room.

‘…Hi,’ I offered them.

‘Welcome, welcome!’ a particularly jolly Aflet called out to me. He was the organiser, then. ‘Come on in, don’t be shy!’

I looked to the door. It was still open. I could still turn around and walk through it… but I would lose my opportunity to solve this case. I rose timidly into a standing position and proceeded towards the group.

My target, eyes widening as she looked at me, stood up and pointed. ‘It’s you!’ she shouted. Then, looking at the organiser, added, ‘She’s the one that’s been following me! She’s been stalking me!’

OK, maybe outside this building wasn’t the first time she’d seen me, then. My agency really needed to send me on more training courses. Always the Terran who got passed over for them, wasn’t it?

One of the attendees, sitting with their back to me, pounded a fist onto his knee. He stood from his seat, rising to a height of maybe two and a half metres. Not a little lad, by any means. Slowly, he turned to face me, and I could see the anger on his face – the nostrils flaring, the brow furrowed. The host held out his hands in instruction – or perhaps in appeal – for the Yrggian to remain calm.

‘Now, what do we do when we feel these negative emotions?’ he prompted. There was no reply from the tall, broad, attendee staring me down.

‘That’s right,’ the host continued, even though nobody had said anything, ‘We communicate how we feel! Can we try that now?’

‘You dare,’ the Yrggian began, voice raised, ‘Interrupt one of these meeting? Is nothing sacred any more?’

He pointed at my target.

‘This poor woman has been through enough! She does not need you following her, giving her more to worry about. What the hell do you think gives you the right to barge in here?’

All signs suggested that my time in this room was about to come to an end. I whipped out my headpiece from my satchel, and without even bothering to put it on my head, aimed it in the direction of the target to capture her image.

Most of the group simply stared at me, faces pulled in various states of incredulity; it was only the Yrggian that took action. Face going red – even for an Yrrgian – he began to plough towards me. With my height being as it were, it was almost certainly clear to anyone in the vicinity that this was a fight I would lose – were we to count on strength alone. I rolled up my right sleeve, revealing a device on my wrist, and grinned slyly as I switched it on. The EMP whirled into action, letting out a wave of radiation, and the lights went out.

‘Ahaha, see you later, motherfli-,’ I began.

‘Backup lighting activated,’ the automated voice announced, and once again I was in plain sight.

‘Dang,’ I uttered through pursed lips, ‘I’m really starting to hate her.’

The enraged Yrggian barrelled towards me, grabbed me by the clothes and hoisted me up effortlessly.

Now dangling, and unable to pull myself free, I asked my assailant, ‘You wouldn’t hit a woman, would you?’

He looked at me, eye narrowing, eyebrow raised. ‘You are a female of your species?’

I scoffed, pulled an overtly unimpressed face at him. ‘Woah, what’s that supposed to mean, mate? Rude.

In one smooth flick of my left wrist, I whipped out my hidden blade, and held it to the Yrggian’s throat.

‘What we gonna do now, then?’ I asked him.

He looked at me, his forehead clenching involuntarily, in that way Yrggians do when they’re thinking too hard.

Eventually, he released me, and I tumbled clumsily to the floor, landing on my arse.

As I scrambled backwards for the door, the broad Yrggian called after me. ‘We have your name, Syl Raynor!’

I fled the scene, trying to suppress the guilt that was blossoming in the pit of my stomach. It maybe hadn’t been my finest hour.

I entered my shuttle and activated the pre-programmed route back to my hotel. I watched my rear keenly for the next few minutes, and only once I was confident that nobody was following me did I send off the images to the client.

Soon, I got a reply from him, telling me that my contract was fulfilled, and that the payment would be sent to my employers.

No tip, then. Damn. What was it with these posh types and not tipping?

It didn’t matter, at least the job was complete. I could now head to a local bar, relax, try out the Yrggian brandy which I’d heard so much about. I freshened up, and was about to head out – when my Console beeped.

There was a new message… from the agency. My heart dropped; this wasn’t expected, and so the likelihood was that it wouldn’t be good.

‘What the hell is this?’ the message began. I skimmed the remainder of it, getting the general point: they were annoyed with me. At the bottom, I found an attachment.

Beneath a security image of me, taken in the basement where the meeting had been held, was a message in bold, red letters:

Wanted for questioning: Syl Raynor.

It was time to get off this planet for a while.

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A Note From The Author

Thanks for reading this chapter of A Galaxy, Alive – I hope you enjoyed it!

If you would prefer to continue reading A Galaxy, Alive on a different platform, please head over to my subreddit /r/reymorfin or visit me on Patreon!

Or, if you’d like to sign up receive the latest chapters straight to your inbox, please use the form below.

Otherwise, continue reading using the navigational links above.

Coming Soon: A Galaxy, Alive

A Small Town Mystery…
…On A Galactic Scale

.

Syl Raynor knows that PI work amongst the stars is just as dull as it is on Terra: missing persons, cheating spouses, and conspiracy theories. But when she’s given one last case to determine whether she’ll keep her job, Syl is catapulted into the middle of an intergalactic mystery with far-reaching consequences.

On the remote planet of Z’h’ar, Syl will have to learn to be a real investigator if she’s going to keep her job… and her life.

Meanwhile, the diary of her missing sister burns a hole in her pocket. Does Z’h’ar hold the key to decrypting it?

.