Chapter 13: Mechsuits – The Top Trend From Z’h’ar Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2337

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Standing in front of me, phase rifle armed and ready to fire, was the Head of Guard. The red stripe on their helmet glistened under the neon lights.

‘I know you!’ the Iyr declared.

‘Yeah? I know me too, so what?’ I replied.

The Iyr paused. I couldn’t see under their helmet, of course, but they almost seemed taken aback. After all, taking people aback was a speciality of mine.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see an alarmed Te’rnu sneaking away. I did my best not to glance at him, so I wouldn’t give his position away.

‘What are you doing in here?’ the Iyr demanded.

‘I came to report a crime,’ I replied.

‘What?’

‘A crime. I’ve come to report one.’

‘You came… here for this?’

I feigned confusion. ‘Well, you are the city’s guards are you not?’

Another pause; longer, this time.

‘Do you take pleasure in irritating me?’ the Head of Guard asked. ‘You disturb on our first meeting, and then you break in to my place of work? Is it me that you are after?’

I forced a giggle, flashed the Iyr a smile, and did my best to gaze longingly at them. ‘Do you want it to be?’

‘No! Stop this!’ the Iyr demanded, getting increasingly frustrated. ‘I demand that you tell me why you are here.’

‘You’re all business, aren’t you? I quite like that in a-’

‘Tell me why you are here!’ The Iyr aimed down the scope of their phaser. 

‘OK!’ I replied, putting my hands up in the air to express my defeat. ‘OK. I’ll tell you.’

I took a breath.

‘Do I need to have my hands up in the air? It’s just I get pins and needles if I leave them up too long, and that’s uncomfortable, and-’

The Iyr guard bashed me in the face with the butt of their rifle.

I fell to the floor, and tried to catch myself. My right hand slipping on the fresh patch of blood that my now-broken nose had so recently created. In a daze, I tried to blink my vision back into focus.

‘What the…’

‘I will not take any more of this from you. Tell me why you are here!’ the Iyr screamed.

‘I’m here to cast more of those pesky doubts, I guess,’ I muttered, blood splattering from my mouth.

Now that my arms were no longer held in the air to signal my innocence, I as subtly as I could pulled back my right sleeve and prepared to activate my EMP.

‘You think you’re going to convince me that we, the Iyr are in the wrong, here?’

‘Wait, what? What are you talking about? What might you be in the-’ I began, only to be interrupted by a roar erupting from the next room.

Te’rnu jumped out at the Head of Guard, swinging a long, metal pipe above his head.

Te’rnu brought his weapon crashing down with a crack into the Head of Guard’s head. Sparks flew from the damaged helmet, causing the Iyr to cry with pain, before dropping to the floor.

‘Thanks, Te’rnu.’

‘That’s OK,’ he replied, ‘Are you OK?’

‘Yeah,’ I told him, trying to sound convincing, ‘Just a broken nose. Nothing a med-sonar can’t fix in two minutes.’

Te’rnu looked on at me as I held my jacket against my nose, trying to stop the bleeding.

‘You are sure?’ he asked.

I nodded, and Te’rnu instead turned his attention to the guard, nudging them. ‘Do you think they are alive?’

‘I don’t know if we should stick around to find out.’

Te’rnu nodded, and we hurried up the hallway in search of the armoury – and the prized mechsuits.

‘You can be very annoying when you want to be,’ Te’rnu commented as we searched.

‘Thanks,’ I replied, voice muffled by the cloth across my face, ‘I pride myself on it.’

We soon came across a room that housed three of the suits. It didn’t feel like an armoury, in fact – between the desk and chair – it actually felt more like an office. I noticed an electronic frame on the desk and picked it up.

In the display was a family photo; two Iyr with their arms around one another, gazing at the camera. The couple each wore a mechsuit, so it was hard to tell exactly what was going on in the pictures, but it felt to me like a tender moment. The Iyr on the left, I noticed, had that same red stripe on their helmet – it was the Head of Guard.

I prayed that we hadn’t killed them, that we hadn’t deprived someone of their partner. I couldn’t handle that kind of guilt.

I put the frame back down on the desk and turned to face Te’rnu. He had wasted no time in getting into one of the suits. Each mechanical limb hung loosely around his body, like a kid in their father’s top.

‘Doesn’t look like it’s fitting you very well, huh?’

Te’rnu frowned, looked down at the suit, and tried to move his legs. He had no such luck.

‘I believe it is switched off,’ he clarified, before pressing the very obvious red rectangular button on the chest area – one that I had been itching to press since the moment I saw it, all of half a second ago.

The suit jumped into life, adapting in size to fit Te’rnu’s form with all the wondrous whizzes and whooshes that you would expect from a powered mechsuit. Once the helmet attached itself to Te’rnu’s head, I could see that same red stripe marking this suit too. Either this was one of the Head of Guard’s spares, or that decoration wasn’t so rare as I had initially thought.

‘How is it?’ I asked Te’rnu.

He wiggled his limbs about, trying to get a better feel for the suit.

‘Surprisingly comfortable,’ he replied.

‘Can it do anything fun?’ I asked, remembering that the guidebook had told me that these suits were often upgraded with interesting features.

‘There is a button on the viewscreen called “instant kill”. Should I activate it?’

‘No!’ I replied instantly. ‘At least… definitely while I’m not standing in front of you, thank you very much.’

‘What about “incapacitate”?’

‘Are you serious?’ I asked. ‘Are you trying to hurt me, Te’rnu?’

I heard a snickering from inside the suit. ‘I am joking, Syl. I have noticed you like jokes. Was I wrong?’

I smiled, shook my head. ‘No… you’re not wrong. But maybe we need to work on your sense of humour. Is there a button for that in there?’

A pause.

‘No, I don’t think so.’

A longer pause.

‘Oh, that was a joke, too, wasn’t it?’ Te’rnu asked..

I flashed him a grin, nodded, and then tried to get into one of the mechsuits myself.

Instant kill? Incapacitate? This was going to be bloody amazing.

I slipped into the suit as Te’rnu had, and keenly pressed at the button.

Nothing happened.

‘What’s going on?’ Te’rnu asked. ‘Is it broken?’

‘I don’t know.’

I pressed the button again.

A voice from inside the suit announced, ‘Incompatible biology detected.’

Damn.

‘I guess it doesn’t take Terrans,’ I said, after a deep sigh.

‘What are we going to do? Our plan was dependent on us having disguises. If you still look Terran…’

I flattened my lips. ‘I know. Erm…’

I paused for a moment. My now-suited Arellian friend stared silently at me, mechanical red eyes glowing at me in the dim light.

‘I could be your prisoner?’ I suggested.

‘How would that work?’

‘You grab a phaser – must be one around here somewhere – and-’

‘I could take the one from the Iyr we knocked unconscious.’

‘Perfect. And then you lead me back to Central Command?’

After a moment of contemplation for the Arellian, he nodded. ‘And if anyone asks… I have been ordered to bring you in.’

I bit my lip. ‘Think it’ll work?’

‘I think it is the only plan we have,’ he grumbled.

‘Fair point.’

With the possibility that more guards could return to the barracks at any moment, we wasted little more time; stopping only to stuff the Head of Guard’s body in the corner of a store room.

‘Think we should…,’ I began to ask, gesturing at the Iyr’s helmet.

Te’rnu shook his head. ‘The more time we spend here, the greater our chances of being caught. If everything goes to plan, then…’

‘…Then we’ll know everything anyway,’ I finished for him. ‘Fine. Let’s go.’

We slipped out the back door of the guard barracks, and made our way towards our final destination: Central Command.

The impressive cubic building soon loomed over us – as, indeed, it did most things in the Iyr capital. Te’rnu stopped for a moment, stunned, when he first noticed it.

‘You can’t be stopping to admire the view now that you’re an Iyr,’ I told him. ‘They see this every day.’

‘It’s bigger than it looks from the Wastelands.’

‘Yep, that’s generally how perspective works. Come on – we should hurry.’

Te’rnu and I assumed the “law enforcement and prisoner” formation – me walking in front, Te’rnu walking behind, phase rifle pointed in my direction.

‘Just make sure you leave the safety on, eh?’ I asked Te’rnu, and then realised that I would do well to actually explain the concept of a “safety” to him, before he accidentally shot me.

We approached the main entrance to see that it was being guarded by two armed Iyr. I could feel Te’rnu’s pace slow behind me, the reality of the danger he was putting himself in now being realised.

As we reached the main door, Te’rnu prepared to tout his reason for bringing me in.

‘I am here to-’

The Iyr guard waved us through.

‘Oh,’ Te’rnu whispered. ‘I see.’

‘Rifle on the rack there,’ the guard reminded him. Te’rnu responded with a curt nod, placed the phaser down by the Iyr, and turned to me.

He paused for a moment before grabbing me by the wrists and twisting them behind my back.

I played along – put up a little struggle, but essentially let him do it.

‘Sorry,’ Te’rnu whispered in my ear.

‘Don’t be,’ I replied, ‘At least, not so audibly.’

Te’rnu pretended to force me up the stairs in the main atrium, which led to a series of long, narrow hallways. We proceeded onwards, Te’rnu acting as confidently as he could in the direction he was taking me, until I saw a small maintenance room coming off the corridor to our left. I signalled to Te’rnu, and we crept inside.

‘Alright, keep watch,’ I told my friend. He manned his post, peering through a small gap in the door.

I looked around the room for the inevitable control panel. On one side, behind the cleaning equipment, I found one.

‘Pfft, easy,’ I muttered, and then hoped I hadn’t just jinxed it. 

I plugged my console into the panel, and ran a scan for accessible systems.

There was only one: emergency exit procedures. A diagram of the building filled the screen, arrows suggesting the fastest way to exit Central Command.

‘Shit,’ I murmured, and then, realising that maybe I was getting a little carried away with this whole swearing thing, added, ‘Excuse my French.’

‘What is that?’ Te’rnu whispered. ‘This… “French”?’

Alright, fair enough, this time, Te’rnu. That’s a Terran thing, after all.

‘It’s a dead language, back where I’m from. On Terra.’

‘So you were speaking French?’

‘Well… no, that’s just an expression. It means I said a rude word.’

‘Oh,’ Te’rnu replied in a hushed voice, ‘So the French were a rude people, then?’

I thought about it for a moment; this conversation was going on far too long considering what we were doing, and so an easy answer was required.

‘Yes. Very rude.’

I played about with my console some more, hoping I was going to suddenly find some advanced hacking abilities that I never knew I possessed. I had no such luck.

‘All I have is emergency exit systems,’ I told Te’rnu – and saying this out loud made me realise something. ‘But that means I do have the building’s schematics…’

Te’rnu remained quiet, letting me continue with my train of thought in peace. I tapped frantically at the screen, looking for our destinations.

‘…which means that I can figure out where the core mainframe servers are… And, look! I mean, no, don’t look, stay over there keeping watch. But, if you were to look, you’d see: there’s a room marked ‘cells’. Not far from here, either.’

‘OK. How far to the mainframe?’

I furrowed my brow. ‘Mainframe? Don’t you think the prisoner is the first priority here?’

Te’rnu whipped his head around to face me. ‘Yes. I am sorry. I apologise. I have been searching for the truth for so long… I forget what my priorities should be. We go now and save Melonaitopila, and then we can find out the truth.’

I touched Te’rnu’s arm. ‘We’ll find it. Soon. I promise.’

We proceeded through the corridors and trans mats of Central Command through the route I had memorised, me signalling directions to Te’rnu with the smallest of nods. Without running into trouble of any kind, we arrived at the entrance to the cells.

As we walked into the room, a guard, who had been standing almost invisibly still, suddenly stood to attention and saluted Te’rnu.

‘Sir!’

Te’rnu was taken aback. ‘Oh! Good! I look as though I am in charge! We don’t need to knock you out, then!’

Both the guard and I turned to Te’rnu, a look of incredulity on my face (and presumably on the guard’s too).

‘…mate.’

Te’rnu, realising what he had just said, rushed his hand to a button by his visor.

‘Incapacitate,’ I could just about hear the suit’s in-built voice announce.

A wave of electricity shot out of the helmet and into the guard, rendering him unconscious.

‘Sorry,’ Te’rnu mumbled.

I said nothing, only shook my head in exasperation.

‘At least we know now why those sparks came out of the Head of Guard’s helmet earlier. Back when I stopped you being killed.’

I rolled my eyes, but couldn’t help myself from smiling. ‘OK, yes, you saved me back there. Point well made. Let’s just not give the game away again, huh?’

I thought that Te’rnu was going to question the phrase “give the game away”, but he let it slide this time.

In front of us, next to where the Iyr guard had been standing was a translucent door, an electronic panel to one side. This could only be it – where the prisoner was being kept. I pounded on the glass-like material.

‘Hello? Anyone in there? Melonaitopila?’ I asked.

Silence.

‘If there is… I’m not an Iyr! I’m here to save you! Your dad hired me!’ I pleaded.

‘…he did?’ a voice asked from behind the door. ‘Who are you?’

‘My name is Syl Raynor. I’m an investigator. We’re-’

‘Oh!’ Te’rnu said, suddenly, ‘Why don’t we just press this?’

I had only just enough time to shout, ‘No!’ before Te’rnu selected the “Open Cell Door” option.

‘Oh,’ Te’rnu replied, ‘Why not?’

His question was answered by the alarm springing into life.

Both Te’rnu and I turned to face the door to the corridor, from which direction a stampede of footsteps fast approached.

We glanced at one another, and Te’rnu’s hand once again returned to the buttons on his suit’s visor.

‘Activated: instant kill.’

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Chapter 12: They Don’t Have Aspirin On Z’h’ar

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‘Argh!’ Te’rnu shouted.

I jumped to my feet. ‘What is it?!’ I called out to him.

I looked around to find Te’rnu on the floor, clutching his head.

‘No!’ he screamed. ‘The Mutation! It has started!’

Other Arellians in town watched on – but didn’t seem too worried. This definitely wasn’t the same reaction as the locals had had in Te’r’ok. But maybe that was because…

‘Where’s the pain?’ I asked Te’rnu.

‘In my head!’ he cried out. ‘It is awful! And my mouth feels so dry!’

I was starting to get a clue what was happening here.

‘Isn’t the pain supposed to start in your groin? What’s happening down there?’

‘My groin is fine! It is my head that is hurting!’

‘Hmm.’

I stood up, grabbed a bowl of water for him.

‘Here,’ I told Te’rnu, ‘Drink this.’

He lapped timidly at the water bowl that I gripped in my hands, much as I had done when I had first arrived in Te’r’ok.

‘Yeah… I think we’re gonna have to get you some hair of the dog, buddy,’ I said.

‘Dog hair? What will I need that for?’

‘Not… not actual dog hair. It’s an expression: “hair of the dog that bit you”. It means-’

‘No,’ Te’rnu replied, shaking his head (and then clutching it again when doing so caused him pain), ‘I’ve never been bitten by a dog. Animals tend to like me.’

‘Oi, listen! It means…,’ I repeated, ‘Having more of whatever ails you.’

‘But it’s the Mutation!’ Te’rnu cried out.

‘It’s not the Mutation, buddy,’ I answered, resisting the urge to laugh about it. ‘You just drank too much last night.’

‘Too much? Too much gin?’

‘Yes. You’re hungover.’

Te’rnu moaned. ‘Well, I don’t like it.’

‘No. You wouldn’t.’

‘This is why you passed out, back near Te’r’ok?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah. Partially.’

‘I understand now,’ Te’rnu replied, now no longer clutching at his head but instead using his hands to block the sunlight from hitting his eyes.

I laughed. ‘Oh, Te’rnu… You won’t be doing that again in a hurry, will you?’

Did I really just say that? Was I turning into my mother?

I remembered Leya and I sneaking some of Mum’s wine when we were younger. Or rather, I remember us stealing some of her “painting juice” as she would call it. Once Mum had gone to sleep, Leya and I took turns swigging from the bottle. I didn’t really like it at the time, but my sister seemed to, so I pretended I was having fun too.

Was my current level of alcohol consumption in any way related to that night?

Leya and I awoke in the morning, complaining of flu symptoms. Mum, understandably, was shocked – especially because the flu virus had been eradicated over a hundred years earlier. It didn’t take her long to find the empty bottle of wine hidden under my bed.

My Mum held Leya and I’s hair, as we spent the day throwing up into the toilet and a large bucket, respectively. I assumed that I was assigned the bucket simply because I was younger, and not because there was any favouritism going on. Maybe there was, thought, looking back on it now.

‘No,’ Te’rnu replied. ‘I won’t. I’m never drinking again.’

‘Yeah, we’ve all said that one before, mate.’

My friend vomited up last night’s dinner on to my sister’s feet. I couldn’t help but enjoy the symbolism – just a little bit.

He moaned. ‘Ohhh… they won’t like that.’

I grabbed a nearby bowl, put it next to him, and repositioned Te’rnu’s head so that it was over this container rather than this town’s monument to their Saviour. Thankfully, Te’rnu didn’t have hair he would need someone to hold up – I didn’t massively fancy that job.

‘Yeah, don’t worry, I’ll clear it up,’ I told Te’rnu, feigning exasperation.

I grabbed a spare bit of cloth that seemed to have been left behind after last night’s feast, and used it to wipe the vomit off the statue – hopefully nobody was missing a headscarf or anything. I tossed the cloth behind some crates – just in case.

Seeing that the container of gin still had some remnants at the bottom of it, I scooped some up. Some of the alcoholic fumes wafted upwards into my nostrils.

Whew! Even I didn’t fancy any of that right now.

I offered it to Te’rnu, who recoiled, like I had, at the smell of it.

‘No!’ he moaned.

‘Yes!’ I countered.

‘I can’t!’ he insisted.

‘You can, it’ll make you feel better.’

Te’rnu sighed. ‘OK. Just a tiny bit, though.’

‘That’s all I’m asking you to drink.’

My Arellian friend sipped a little of the alcohol and immediately vomited again. He groaned.

‘OK. Maybe a little too early for that,’ I told him. ‘We’ll try again later, when your stomach is settled. Just keep sipping that water, will you?’

There was no reply. Te’rnu sat with his head in his hands.

‘I said: will you keep sipping that water?’

‘Yes,’ he groaned.

‘Good.’

I left Te’rnu to his own devices for a while. Walking slowly, so that my own hangover wouldn’t lead me to collapse again, I headed towards the top of a nearby hill.

From its peak, I could see the Iyr capital in the distance. The nearby sun rose just to the right of it, from where I was standing, and its rays reflected off the taller buildings. In this light, the city was beautiful.

I sat down for a while, watching distant ships land in the capital’s shipyards, and occasionally turning my attention to the Arellian village below. The locals were beginning to rise, and, like Te’rnu, they weren’t in the best of states.

It was just like Leya to forget to teach moderation.

Over the course of the day, the Arellians slowly returned to their usual selves – their bodies becoming less hunched, their voices becoming less raspy, and their moods becoming less irritable.

When I felt that Te’rnu had recovered enough to have a serious conversation, I approached him about what we’d discussed the night before – about how I could help him.

I coaxed him part way up the hill, away from prying ears.

‘So what’s the plan?’ I asked.

‘The plan?’

‘Yeah, the plan. I told you I’d help, didn’t I? What’s the plan?’

‘There is no plan,’ Te’rnu clarified. ‘I need help with that bit too.’

I sighed. ‘OK, right. Well, then, let’s start brainstorming. What is it we want to achieve?’

‘We want to know the truth about the Mutation. And, perhaps, any other secrets that the Iyr are hiding.’

‘Great! So…,’ I asked, ‘If we could do anything at all, go anywhere we wanted, how would we find this out?’

‘I suppose we would go to Central Command. If there are files on the Arellians anywhere, it would be there.’

‘Central Command?’ I thought of my case – of the diplomat’s daughter having been taken by the Iyr. ‘Is that the same place they would have taken Melonaitopila?’

Te’rnu shrugged. ‘It is likely. But getting inside would be impossible for us.’

‘Why?’ I asked, more to play devil’s advocate than anything else.

My friend looked at me incredulously. ‘“Why?” We… we are an Arellian. And a Terran.’

‘But what if we weren’t?’

‘You want us to… change species?’ Te’rnu asked, looking no less sceptical than before.

‘No, obviously not. But how would they know what we are under a mechsuit?’

Te’rnu’s eyebrows raised so high, I thought they were going to fly off his face. ‘You want us to steal mechsuits?!’

‘What, you have moral qualms about stealing from the people who have been stealing from you your entire life?’

‘What do you mean?’

I stood up and began to pace, using my hands to gesticulate, punctuating my argument. ‘I mean… if you’re right about the Mutations, then the Iyr really aren’t doing you any favours by taking Arellians away. So what are the tributes if not thievery?’

Te’rnu said nothing.

‘I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, here, Te’rnu.’

He began to nod. ‘OK. You are right. If they can steal from us, then we can steal from them.’

‘That’s the Arellian I know!’ I said, voice raised with excitement.

‘I know where they keep them,’ Te’rnu followed up.

‘Even better!’ I cried out. ‘Where?’

‘There is a guard barracks. The Iyr took me there a few times, when they caught me in the city. It is near the gate. I can get us there.’

Satisfied that this plan was coming together, I took a seat back next to Te’rnu, and stared out onto the village.

‘We can do this, Te’rnu. We can find out the truth, and then…,’ I gestured to the town in front of us. ‘All their lives will be different.’

Te’rnu nodded, brow furrowed.

‘There’s something else that I’d like to do, while we’re in there…,’ I began.

‘What? As well as finding Melonaitopila?’

‘Yeah. You remember this?’

I pulled Leya’s journal from my bag, put it in Te’rnu’s hands. He brushed the sand from the front and inspected it, fascinated by the technology.

‘Yes… you said it was your sister’s diary?’

‘I’d like to decrypt it. Well, I’d like to decrypt the part of it that looks like it’s in the Iyr’s language. I tried, back at the outpost, but… the encryption is too complicated, it couldn’t handle it. I figure… the truth about the Mutation – if it exists – will be on their central computer libraries. If we can access that, then we should be able to decrypt the journal at the same time.’

Te’rnu shrugged, eyes vacant. ‘Sure.’

Oh yeah, never used a computer before. Note to self: dial back the tech-talk around Te’rnu.

‘It sounds like… we have a plan, then?’

‘Yes,’ Te’rnu replied, a slight smile on his face. ‘I think we do. At this time tomorrow…’

‘You could know the truth about the Mutation,’ I finished for him. ‘And I could save a young woman’s life, save my job, and maybe work out where my sister is. Wouldn’t be bad for a day’s work, would it?’

Te’rnu grinned – fully this time, his brilliantly white teeth catching the sun.

‘It would not be bad at all,’ he said.

We watched the villagers of Nu’r’ka in silence for a while. They went about their usual business, some cleaning up the feast of the night before, others simply going off to work. I let the sun wash over me, and mentally prepared myself for the day that was about to come.

We firmed up the details of the plan over the next few hours, and then waited until nightfall. Te’rnu had told me that we wouldn’t stand a chance of getting into the guard barracks undetected if we went during the day. What’s more, at night, the number of guards on duty would be minimal – most would be at home at this time, he had previously discovered.

Even at night, however, Te’rnu had often been caught. We could only hope that this wasn’t one of those times – an Arellian sneaking through the streets was one thing, but being caught breaking into the barracks would be so much worse.

We said our goodbyes to the town of Nu’r’ka and told them we would be back to visit soon. It seemed as though they had enjoyed our company – any excuse for a party, right? – even though both Te’rnu and I had potentially made fools of ourselves in our drunken states.

We headed off into the night, Te’rnu’s arms gripping me tightly as we took the shuttle-bike back towards the stronghold. When we were close, I slowed to allow him to jump off, and I continued on to return the rented bike. I definitely wasn’t going to risk the overtime fees out here, not after all my previous encounters with the abrasive Iyr.

I was pleased to see that there was nobody at the stall at this time of night, and so I would be able to avoid any irritating conversations with the local merchant. Having parked and locked my shuttle-bike up with the rest, and leaving a hastily scribbled note on it, I walked back into the wastelands to meet up with Te’rnu.

‘How did it go?’ Te’rnu asked me.

‘Nobody around. I just left it there.’

‘Will they know it’s yours?’

‘That’s why I left a note.’

Te’rnu nodded, small talk complete, and led us towards the stronghold’s walls.

‘The gate’s that way, Te’rnu,’ I reminded him.

Te’rnu shook his head. ‘We’re not going in through the gate. They would catch us that way. I have another way in.’

I said nothing, putting my faith in Te’rnu’s knowledge of the capital, and continued to follow him through the darkness.

We weaved through the gaps in the floodlights, taking our time so as not to be spotted, until we came to a small, rusty, grated entrance to some kind of tunnel.

‘What is it?’ I asked, as Te’rnu pulled the grating away from it, allowing us entry.

‘The sewers,’ Te’rnu replied.

I nodded. ‘Of course it is.’

I cursed myself for not wearing thicker shoes when I had left the hotel a few nights earlier. That said, who could have known that a trip to a bar would have ended up like this?

We squeezed into the tunnel and creeped down it. I was conscious of the water level increasing with every step.

Yes, ‘water level’. Let’s pretend this foul brown liquid is water. Lovely refreshing water.

Thankfully, before long, we reached an access point. Te’rnu, giving me a nod, began to climb up.

‘I told you it was no great distance,’ Te’rnu said.

‘No you didn’t,’ I replied.

‘Oh. I meant to.’

He signalled for me to be quiet, and then, slowly, as quietly as possible, he opened the hatch. Through the minutest of gaps, Te’rnu watched, waiting for the path to clear. It took some time, but eventually, sure enough, he was able to open the door, and we climbed out into a quiet backstreet.

‘So this is how you always get in, huh?’ I asked.

Te’rnu responded by shh-ing me. ‘No time to speak.’

He waved me over to the cover of a large waste bin, and we crouched until the road was clear.

‘This way,’ Te’rnu whispered, before rushing quietly to a gap between the buildings.

We continued like this for a while – me struggling to keep my trap shut, and Te’rnu masterfully navigating us through the winding alleys of the Iyr stronghold. Finally, we came to the back entrance of a building bearing some of the Iyr’s symbols, and Te’rnu turned to face me.

‘This is it. This is the guard barracks.’

‘Lovely,’ I replied, ‘Last chance, then – want to back out?’

Te’rnu took a moment to consider, and then shook his head.

‘You sure? If they catch us…’ I trailed off, and left the result to his imagination.

‘I am sure,’ he replied. ‘This is it. This is what my life has been heading towards.’

‘Good answer.’

When the coast was clear, we crept up to the back door, and Te’rnu pulled on it.

It didn’t budge.

‘It’s locked,’ he told me.

‘Yeah, I assumed.’

Te’rnu stared down at the ground, a look of deep concentration on his face. Then, he looked around at the exterior wall.

‘Ah,’ he suddenly said.

Next to the door, down by the ground, was a small metal grate. I could see exactly where this was headed.

Te’rnu pulled on the grate, and it fell to the floor with a clang. Terrified that we had alerted an Iyr to our presence, we both looked around, terrified.

But there was nobody in sight.

Te’rnu crouched to get into the now-open ventilation shaft.

‘First creeping through sewers, and now crawling through air vents. You do know how to have a good time, don’t you?’

My friend ignored this, and gestured for me to quickly enter the ventilation behind him.

If Z’h’ar as a planet was hot, then it was nothing compared to this particular building’s ventilation shaft.

Oh, boy. And I haven’t even put deodorant on in three days.

Hot, humid air blasted us in the face as we crawled, as quietly as we could, through the enclosed space. Te’rnu began to steam ahead, less affected by the heat than I was, and went past the first possible exit.

‘Te’rnu!’ I whispered after him.

He peered over his shoulder as best he could in this limited space, and eyes widened when he saw me.

‘Too hot?’

‘Yeah…,’ I barely managed to croak.

He nodded, and then crawled backwards to get a look through the first grate.

‘I do not see anyone…,’ he mumbled.

‘Think you can get this grate off without it crashing to the floor?’ I asked.

Te’rnu shrugged.

‘That doesn’t fill me with confidence.’

With his delicate fingers, the Arellian pried the edge of the grate away from the shaft… and promptly lost his grip on it.

A clanging sound echoed around the hallway as it crashed to the floor.

‘I dropped it,’ Te’rnu clarified.

I pursed my lips. ‘Yes.’

Quickly realising that being cramped into a small confined ventilation shaft didn’t give us the best chances in a fight, I instructed Te’rnu to jump out – quickly.

Suddenly adept in the art of covert operations, he dropped silently to the ground and took cover in the nearest room.

I took a quick look at the drop. It wasn’t far, maybe two and a half metres, and would put me in the middle of the barracks’ central hallway. It was a long, narrow room with many doorways at its perimeter

I dropped, slightly more clumsily than my partner, and grabbed the wall to catch my balance.

Behind me, I heard the familiar whooom of a phase weapon being started up.

Uh-oh.

‘Stop!’ an Iyr’s voice shouted at me.

I slowly raised my hands, and turned to face the Iyr whose trigger finger would determine if I lived or died.

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Chapter 11: All This Life Amongst The Stars

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I rushed towards the statue in the centre of town, leaving Te’rnu behind at the shuttle-bike.

The heads of the local Arellians turned to look at me as I sprinted, but there was something different about their reactions this time. In Te’r’ok, my Terran form had been enough to elicit gasps, stares of awe, even mouths left hanging agape. In Nu’r’ka, however, there was no wonder on the faces of the Arellians. They’d seen my type before – not just an off-worlder, apparently, but specifically a Terran. In place of awe, there was only confusion.

Why is this strange Terran rushing up to our statue with such a look on her face?

As I got closer to the monument of my sister, the smaller text on the plaque became more legible. Underneath Leya’s name, it said:

“Saviour of Nu’r’ka”

Not a bad title.

I grabbed at the arm of a passing local, who flinched away and turned to look at me with wide eyes.

‘Why…,’ I started, and then realised I might have offended the Arellian. ‘Sorry for grabbing you, I just wanted to… can I ask you something?’

Te’rnu appeared at my side, having rushed after me. The locals, who had been sporting such stiff and uncomfortable body language since I arrived, seemed to be relieved to see that I was travelling with a fellow Arellian. Their shoulders unclenched, their movements became more fluid.

‘What is it that you would like to know?’ the Arellian I had semi-assaulted asked me.

‘Why… why do you have this statue?’ I replied, still trying to get to grips with the concept of my sister being here – and on top of that, being their “saviour”.

‘Leya is our saviour,’ the Arellian replied, as though that was enough of an answer.

Yeah, I can see that from the plaque.

‘But… how? Why? What did she do?’

The local Arellian looked at me with a furrowed brow, as though I was asking a stupid question.

‘She saved our town.’

Oh my god…

‘Yes, but how did she save your town?’

‘By renegotiating our deal. With the Iyr.’

Suddenly the improved technology and the abundance of food in Nu’r’ka was beginning to make sense.

‘She helped you? Why? I can’t say I’ve ever known my sister to put much effort in-’

The local Arellian’s grew wide.

‘You are the sister of Leya Raynor?!’ the local exclaimed, sheer joy on their face.

Other locals immediately stopped what they were doing and turned to face me, only now adopting the same look of awe that I had received in Te’r’ok.

The village began murmuring excitedly, and there was a very perceivable sense of delight in the air. I could even hear an Arellian using their radio to spread the news to others. It was almost like a queen had come to visit.

I felt like a con artist. I was no queen, I was an underpaid private investigator, who hadn’t ever really helped anyone in any meaningful way. In fact, I was only even here because a number of unfortunate circumstances had conspired to put me here.

The Arellian I had first spoken to approached me with their arms spread wide.

‘Oh, err,’ I started, ‘What’s happening here?’

And then their arms closed gently around me.

‘It is called a “hug”. Your sister, the Saviour, taught it to us.’

Were we talking about the same Leya Raynor?

I hugged the Arellian back. It was only polite.

Once the Arellian let go of me, another approached to do the same. Over and over it went, hug after hug. I received more displays of affection within these five minutes than I had in my entire life to date – although, admittedly, that problem was largely due to my bad choices in romantic partners.

Towards the end of this five minutes, I found myself being hugged by Te’rnu.

‘What you doing there, buddy?’ I asked him.

‘Oh, I, err…,’ he began to reply. ‘I thought we were all doing it.’

I laughed and hugged him back.

One of the older locals, after completing the supposedly traditional display of affection, turned to the rest of the now large crowd, and announced, ‘Tonight, we feast!’

I insisted that Te’rnu and I help prepare this feast, and the locals lauded my family’s generosity. I must come from a kind bloodline, they told me. I denied this, and told them I actually came from a bloodline of unsuccessful artists. This response was a mistake – as it meant that I spent more time describing the galactic art industry and the economics surrounding it, than I did actually helping with the cooking.

Te’rnu, on the other hand, was elsewhere, collecting raw materials for the fire with the stronger locals, as well as helping decant a “special surprise liquid” which the village was eager to share with us. There were not eager, however, to tell us exactly what it is – we would just have to taste it, we were told.

I was conscious that the past day or so had been a real detour from the reason I had originally come to the Arellian Wastelands – to find Melonaitopila. But the discovery that my sister had been here was too much of an opportunity to pass up. If it was a toss up between finding the target (and keeping my job) and finding my sister, well, family just had to come first. I swore to myself that once the feast was over – and I had sufficiently questioned the entire village about my sister’s time here – I would return to the task at hand.

The feast itself began in much the same way as dinner in Te’r’ok had. All the villagers sat in a circle, with a designated few serving the food – this seemed to be the way it was done in the Arellian wastelands. In Nu’r’ka, however, the town was populous enough that there were several circles, with the inside circles on lower ground so that all participants still had an equal view.

The Arellian who announced the feast, who I had correctly determined was one of Nu’r’ka’s Elders, instructed me and Te’rnu to sit in the central circle, right next to the now blazing fire. This must have been the prime placement, reserved for anyone held in high esteem – but, not being used to this warmer climate, I could really have used being further away from the fire. I kept this preference to myself, and hoped nobody would notice – or failing that, hoped nobody would care – about the sweat building up on my back.

The food, here, in Nu’r’ka, was absolutely incredible. It was similar in consistency to the food in Te’r’ok, but the flavour here was so extraordinary you could even taste it on the air floating up from the bowl. I tucked in, hungrily, and was pleased to see my bowl get refilled several times.

I could get used to this whole ‘being treated like a queen’ thing.

When I had eaten all the food that I could stomach, I returned to the matter at hand. It was time to ask about my sister. I turned to the Elder next to me, leaving Te’rnu alone, licking his lips as he ate his meal.

‘I was hoping to ask: what exactly did Leya negotiate for you that she is revered so much?’ I asked.

‘Have you seen other Arellian settlements?’ the Elder asked. ‘I say this not out of malice – we were once like them – but they have little food or resources, or even time for themselves. Their existence is a basic one.’

‘And now…’

‘And now we have more food than we know what to do with.’

‘Hence the feast,’ I added.

‘And,’ the Elder continued, ‘We have some of the Iyr’s spare technology, which Leya taught us to fix, to maintain. Some of us are so well-versed in these devices that they are even improving them. As far as I am aware, we are the first Arellian village to have an Elder of Technology.’

They pointed across the circle to an Arellian who seemed to be wearing some sort of device on their head.

‘That is them, over there.’

Yeah. With the thing on their head. Got it.

‘All of this… we would not have if not for your sister. She came here, she saw how we were living. Then she spent time here, understanding our lifestyle. Once she realised that it was the Tradition which was stifling our lives, she went to the Iyr, demanded a negotiation.’

‘And how did she convince them?’ I asked.

‘We know not of this. These negotiations were done in the Stronghold, where we are – still, even now – not allowed to travel.’

‘You don’t have an inkling, even?’

‘What is this? “Inkling”?’

‘You don’t have any idea? Whatsoever?’ I asked, rephrasing.

‘If we did, we would tell you. We would tell anything to the sister of our Saviour.’

Leya being called a saviour was really starting to get annoying.

I could be a saviour too, if I wanted to.

‘So… her negotiation means that you don’t pay tribute any more? You just keep all your food to yourself?’

‘Why?’ the Elder asked. ‘Do you think that is selfish?’

‘No, not at all. As far as I’m concerned, if you guys are farming it, putting all the hard work in, then you should be keeping it.’

The Elder smiled. ‘Good. We don’t keep all of it, however. When the Mutation begins-’

The Arellian cut themselves off.

‘You know of the Mutation?’ they asked.

‘I do,’ I assured them.

‘When the Mutation begins, and the Iyr come for the dying, we pay the Iyr the tribute then. But only then.’ They paused, grinned at me. ‘You are lucky. To have family like this.’

I pursed my lips. ‘I don’t.’

Te’rnu, now finished his food, turned to listen in to the conversation.

‘You do not?’ the Elder asked.

‘I haven’t seen her in many years. Nobody knows where she’s gone. In fact, we assumed she’d been dead, she had been gone so long.’

There was a moment of silence, the two Arellians acknowledging my pain.

‘I am sorry she is missing,’ Te’rnu offered me.

Another silence.

‘Do you…,’ I began. ‘Do you know anything? About where she might have gone?’

‘We know little. We know she was looking for someone, as you are her.’

‘Looking for someone? Was it our Dad?’ I asked.

The Elder shook their head. ‘I am afraid we know not. It could have been, but she did not say.’

‘So that’s why she was here? She was looking for them on Z’h’ar?’ I pressed.

‘On our planet? No. She was here for something else.’

‘Do you know what it was?’ I asked.

The Elder shook their head once again. ‘I wish we could do more to assist you in your search.’

Te’rnu put his hand on my arm in an attempt to console me, copying as I had done to him after the trial.

Suddenly, an Elder approached us. Behind them, four Arellians carried a huge metal container.

‘Is this the liquid?’ Te’rnu asked.

The Elder, in answer, announced, ‘There was one other gift that your sister presented us with: knowledge. Specifically, she taught unto us the secrets of distillation. I present to you… Arellian Gin!’

Yep. It was definitely my Leya who had been here.

I burst out laughing – to the confusion of everyone around me.

‘She always loved her gin, that one,’ I informed them.

They responded with a faint smile, as though still not quite understanding what there was to laugh about, and then began to pour the gin into smaller bowls.

Most, if not all, of the Arellians were served the gin, and drank happily – even the children. Whereas most races might frown on giving alcohol to children, Leya clearly hadn’t parted that wisdom onto the Arellians, and it seemed were yet to learn this lesson for themselves.

I watched as Te’rnu took a hesitant sip. As he tasted it, his eyes widened.

‘I like this!’ he announced, and other Arellians around him cheered in response. A wide smile spread across his face, momentarily replacing that melancholy expression he had been sporting since the trial.

We drank long into the night, and it was my first experience seeing the Arellians actually loosen up a little – Te’rnu in particular. The joy of these villagers was contagious; a night of drinking, dancing, and making stupid jokes had me feeling like I was a teenager again.

‘It’s funny!’ I told a passing Arellian.

‘What is?’ they replied.

‘You give people, of any race, alcohol, and their evenings become this. No matter how proud, or cold, or… whatever a species is – when alcohol is involved, they learn to love a good party.’

The Arellian smiled politely in response; clearly this wasn’t so funny to them. Maybe you needed to have had seen more of the galaxy.

Te’rnu grabbed me by the arm and insisted I joined him and a group of locals in dancing. They taught me their moves, and laughed when I taught them some old Terran classics: the chicken, the robot, flossing. They found the chicken particularly funny – which was kinda weird, because birds didn’t exist on Z’h’ar.

Many of the locals partnered off over the course of the night, leaving a smaller and smaller crowd dwindling behind.

As is always the way, eventually the plentiful supply of alcohol was no longer enough to keep my energy levels up. I soon found myself lying down, on the bare ground, in front of the monument to my sister.

I stared up at the stars. The constellations were so different on Z’h’ar; many clusters of stars were dotted about the night sky, some even bright enough to cast faint shadows.

Te’rnu’s face suddenly blocked my view as he stood over me.

‘Are you OK down there?’ he asked.

I said nothing, just waved frantically at him to join me.

He didn’t take the hint. ‘Why are you lying on the ground? There are beds for us.’

‘Lie down, Te’rnu, for god’s sake!’

‘What is “god’s”?’

I shook my head. ‘Remind me to tell you another time.’

Te’rnu laid down on the floor next to me, and too looked up at the stars.

‘You have pretty stars here,’ I told him.

‘Would you like me to tell you about them?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, go on then.’

Te’rnu pointed up at a particularly bright cluster. ‘Those, there. We use those for navigation. When we used to travel back to Te’r’ok from the farm, late at night, we just followed them. The Returners, we called them – they’ll always bring you home.’

He took a moment to collect his thoughts. Perhaps the memory of Te’r’ok was getting to him.

Te’rnu pointed at another set of stars.

‘And those, do you see a face?’

I grunted in acknowledgement.

‘We say the stars are smiling at us. If we can see the Smiling Stars in the night’s sky on the first day of spring, we know that the crops will grow strong that year.’

‘What are your favourites?’ I asked Te’rnu.

‘I never really had any.’

‘No?’

‘No. For me, I mostly dreamt of adventuring amongst them, like the spacemen do. But I was always told: that is not the life I was given.’

‘That’s just the thing, though, Te’rnu. Nobody gets to tell you what kind of life you have to live. Maybe you’ll be the first Arellian, out there, travelling the cosmos.’

We said nothing for a few more moments, and simply stared up at the sky, appreciating its beauty.

‘Earlier today, Syl, you said something.’

‘Oh, no. Since getting drunk, you mean? What did I say?’ I responded.

‘No, before that. Before we arrived in Nu’r’ka. You told me that one person cannot hope to change the world.’

‘Yeah, I remember.’

Te’rnu gestured at the monument to Nu’r’ka’s saviour – to Leya.

‘Maybe one person cannot change our world, but they can still make things better: village by village, person by person. Your sister is proof of that.’

I said nothing.

‘Maybe,’ Te’rnu continued. ‘You would consider helping me?’

‘How would I help you?’ I asked.

‘I would like to continue our investigation. I would like to know, for certain, whether we Arellians can live on, beyond our Mutation. Would you help me find the truth?’

I stared up at the looming statue.

Saviour of Nu’r’ka.

‘OK, Te’rnu. I’ll help. To hell with changing the world – let’s just try and change your world.’

‘What is “hell”?’ Te’rnu asked.

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Diary Excerpt 1: “Dear Diary”

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The Diary of Leya Raynor
“Dear Diary”
Gu, 12e-05-2332

Dear Diary…

Is that a cliché, starting this like that? It feels like a cliché. Like I’m thirteen years old and I’m about to write about my crush who was mean to me in school today or something. No. I’m not doing that.

I’ll start again.

Dear Reader….

Too formal?

Ah, fudge it. Who cares? I’ll feel this out as I go.

I said my goodbye to Mum today. It was a “goodbye” rather than an “au revoir” because I don’t know how long this journey is gonna take me. Could be weeks, could be years. Hopefully I’ll stop by on Terra every now and then if it ends up being years. It’s not like I expect anything to happen to me or anything.

Mum didn’t take it very well. The reason I’m going, that is. I mean, I didn’t really expect that she would; last time she had any clue what Dad was doing, she got hooked on the ‘Liks. I’ve sent Syl a message to stop by at home soon, to make sure Mum has support if need be. Can’t have her relapsing.

My first destination was the planet Gu. It was the only place I could really remember Dad going on any regular occasion, so it made sense that I would start my search for him there. I had an address, which I took from an old diary of his. It was scrawled in the margins of it, like he was in a rush. That scribble had always felt important to me.

I went there as soon as I landed, not even bothering to try to find a place to stay. I only had a backpack with me, I should mention; I didn’t pack much. Just a few changes of clothes, the basic sanitary items to keep me going, and a hairsonar (I might not always be dressed perfectly on this trip, but I’ll be darned before I have bad hair). Anything else that I do need, I can pick up as I go.

Sorry. I’m realising now how rambly this is all coming across. I’ll make more of an effort from now on to write better. I never did well in Terran language class, after all.

See, there, I’m doing it again – going off on a tangent! I’ll stop. Really, I’ll stop this time. I’ll make it read more clearly. Like you’re reading an actual professional piece, or something.

Right. Where was I?

I went straight to the address that was scribbled in the margins of the diary, letters clipped at the side of the page where the stylus crept off the pad. It was a small house, barely average in size by Gulien standards, that stood in the poorer outskirts of one of the cities.

I buzzed at the front gate, and was immediately welcomed by a full body scan. Head to toe, x-ray, sonar, the works. You name it, they had it. Clearly this was where all their money had gone. After taking a small sample of my blood, a message popped up on the screen:

Relative of Ira Raynor.

There it was: proof that I was on the right tracks! Without asking me any questions, the house’s inhabitants granted me entry, and I walked in through the open gate.

I didn’t know what I had really been expecting to be inside, but it wasn’t this. The house was bustling with people, all with dour expressions on their faces, all dressed entirely in black. Of course, I just had to have been wearing a bright red coat at the time, so I could stand out like a sore thumb.

A young man came up to me, introduced himself as the son of the man who I had been looking for, and explained to me that his father has passed away just this morning.

Typical! I faff about for years before I start my search, and the man I begin with passes away on the very morning that I leave home. I kept this to myself, of course.

This wasn’t my immediate reaction, I should add. I’m not a sociopath! I offered my sincerest condolences, and then asked if there was anything I could do. There was indeed something I could do, it turned out: I could help with the U’kka run. Once the hot drinks were divvied out amongst the grieving family, the son sat me down and asked about the reason for my visit.

He seemed like a kind man, taking the time out of his day to ask about me, acting sincerely interested in what I had to say about my father, and how he might have known the deceased. The son confirmed this – he remembered my father visiting when he was a child. He told me that my father was always courteous towards him, occasionally brought him gifts, and always wore a smile. I had to check we were definitely talking about the same person.

The son showed me pictures. Of Dad. He really had been there, and it seemed as though he was, dare I say it, chummy, even, with the Gulien. In some of the pictures he even had an arm around the deceased’s shoulders.

I pressed the son as much as I could about the nature of my father’s visit, but he struggled to give me any information. He was too young, he said, to remember properly, but his sister might know. She was older back then, more likely to have had some clue about what was going on.

Of course, she wasn’t around yet. She worked on Rykan (lucky her!) but was on her way over for the funeral already.

The son invited me to stay with him, until she arrived, as long as I didn’t mind sleeping on a sofa. I suspected he liked the look of me, but maybe I was imagining things – he was grieving his father at the time, after all.

I made myself as useful as I could around the house, which mostly involved making U’kka, and waited for the sister to arrive with the information I was searching for.

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Chapter 10: One Person Can’t Change A Galaxy

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I sat at Te’rnu’s side, hand placed on his arm, and hoped that this was considered a gesture of consolation on Z’h’ar, as it is on Terra.

‘It’s OK, Te’rnu, you’re too good for here anyway,’ I told him.

There was no response – no verbal or non-verbal sign that he had heard me. It was as though he had gone into shock.

I spent the majority of our allotted hour trying to get through to him, but nothing worked. He remained still, barely a sign of life in him.

Soon, the Elders came for us. A shadow loomed over the doorway as the Arellians blocked the light.

‘It is time,’ Ra’ntu announced, clearly taking great pleasure in informing us of this.

Smug little thing.

I tried to budge Te’rnu, tried to lead him out of the building, but he wouldn’t move.

Before long, the stares of the Elder grew piercing. They began to advance on me. I could sense that they would next resort to physically removing Te’rnu and me from the village.

I had to give up. I stood and began to walk to the door.

Behind me, Te’rnu followed, head held low, staring at the floor. Even in his hollow state, he finally recognised that he had no choice here.

We proceeded in silence, the two of us walking through the village as the rest of the inhabitants looked upon us. Pair after pair of sad eyes followed us – or, rather, followed Te’rnu.

We left the town without turning back, and I moved in the direction of the shuttle-bike. It was only two rotations previous that I had abandoned it in my sunstroke-inflicted haze, but it felt like a lifetime ago.

Te’rnu continued to follow, his head still hanging low, towards his chest.

‘How we doing, there, buddy?’ I asked him.

I got no verbal response from my friend, but he did at least make eye contact with me. And then, he sighed. His sigh carried all the weight of a lifetime lost.

‘I’m sorry, you know, Te’rnu. That I convinced you to do this,’ I told him. ‘It was stupid, really. For a moment there, I thought we could learn something which would change your world, make things better for you guys. I really did think that.’

Te’rnu remained quiet, brow furrowed. I could sense that he was considering this thoroughly. I continued to proclaim my regret.

 ‘But our plan was doomed before it even began, wasn’t it? People can’t change things, not really, not on their own. Life just works that way – it crushes you, puts you into a hopeless job, into a broken family, into an uninspiring existence. I should have remembered that.’

I shook my head, trying to rid myself of these depressing thoughts.

‘Anyway,’ I continued. ‘I’m sorry.’

Te’rnu looked up at me. ‘It is not your fault. At some point I would have done it anyway. The truth… must always be known.’

I flashed Te’rnu a hopeful smile. ‘I couldn’t have said it better myself.’

My Arellian friend laid his eyes upon the abandoned shuttle-bike.

‘Where are we going to go?’

We?

I paused for a moment. ‘You’re coming with me?’

Te’rnu shrugged. ‘You said it yourself, back there, in the trial: you are the only person that I know, now. You are my only friend.’

He hesitated on this last point.

‘You are my friend, right?’ he followed up.

‘Of course, Te’rnu. Of course I am,’ I reassured him. ‘But… are you sure you want to come with me? I won’t be on Z’h’ar forever, and much less in the Wastelands…’

‘There is nobody else I know,’ Te’rnu repeated, his voice hollow.

I took a moment to process this. I couldn’t abandon Te’rnu here, after he had saved me, after he had agreed to help me in that doomed mission. My case could wait; I had a friend in need.

‘OK. Well how about we visit another Arellian village? Maybe we can rest there, figure out our next move?’

And maybe you’ll begin to realise that there are plenty of other places out there that you can call a home.

‘OK,’ Te’rnu replied.

I started up the shuttle-bike. ‘So, erm…,’ I began, ‘Where is the next village?’

Te’rnu pointed to the west. ‘Nu’r’ka. It’s that way.’

‘Alright, hop on,’ I told him, doing just that myself.

He stood still, didn’t move.

‘You alright?’ I prompted him. ‘What’s the hold up?’

‘What do I do?’ Te’rnu asked, looking terrified by the prospect of sitting on a shuttle-bike.

‘Just sit behind me, leg either side like I am. And hold on to me – tight. So you don’t fall off.’

Te’rnu, cautiously, did as instructed, sitting on the bike behind me and putting his arms around my torso in order to hold on.

‘OK, great! I’m just gonna…’

I pulled Te’rnu’s hands away from my breasts, where they seemed to have ended up, and moved them down to my belly.

‘Perfect,’ I assured him. ‘Now keep holding tight, yeah?’

I started up the shuttle-bike’s engine, and as it purred into life, I felt Te’rnu’s grip tighten.

‘It’s OK, Te’rnu. It’s perfectly safe.’

There was no reply.

I pulled on the accelerator and we sped west, undulating over the dunes in the early morning sun.

Before long, Te’rnu’s arm stretched out to my right.

‘There,’ he said. ‘It is Nu’r’ka.’

And indeed it was. The Arellian village sprawled out before us. It was bigger than Te’r’ok; there were more houses, more people. Most notably of all, the locals from Nu’r’ka seemed to be in possession of their own technology. Some carried transporter sonars, with which they were carrying their plentiful supply of food. Others spoke on radios to faraway villagers.

‘It has changed,’ Te’rnu commented.

‘It didn’t used to be like this? The size? And the radios?’ I guessed.

‘No,’ he replied, a cautious tone to his voice, ‘It did not.’

I pulled up outside the village, just past the last of the town’s buildings, and something caught my eye.

A tall statue, made from the local orange rock, stood tall in the central square, next to Nu’r’ka’s own Iyr beacon. Maybe this wouldn’t have been striking in and of itself, but to me, it most certainly was.

The monument, as confirmed by the nameplate at the bottom, was of Leya Raynor.

My sister had been here. Here, on Z’h’ar. In Nu’r’ka.

Maybe it was about time I looked at her diary again; and at what little I had been able to decrypt.

Bonus Content: Diary Excerpt 1 – “Dear Diary”

Note from the author: Leya’s diary excerpts serve as bonus content – they’re not vital to the story, but give a little more insight into the galaxy of the 24th century, outside of what Syl and Te’rnu directly experience. If you’re interested, check them out! Otherwise, you can jump straight to the next chapter using the links below.

Also! In celebration of reaching our tenth chapter, I’m posting two parts this week! Jump straight to chapter 11 now.

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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 on a different platform, please head over to my subreddit /r/reymorfin or visit me on Patreon!

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Chapter 9: An Investigation On Trial

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We couldn’t wait long – at any moment, Iyr reinforcements could turn up to take poor Pr’atu away. In fact, if their response time was anything like it had been for the screaming Arellian earlier, then we only had a maximum of around three minutes.

‘What are we going to do?’ Te’rnu repeated for what must have been the fifth or sixth time.

‘I’ve got… some idea,’ I replied.

I fumbled at the device on my right sleeve; this was my only real advantage against an armed guardsman – and I intended to use it.

Te’rnu spotted me touching at my sleeve.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

‘An EMP. Electro-Magnetic Pulse. Disables all electronics in the area. Comes in handy every now and then.’

‘Would carrying a phaser not be easier?’

‘I don’t like phasers,’ I snapped at him, and then, when I realised I had sounded vicious, added, ‘Sorry.’

Te’rnu ignored the nasty tone –  or perhaps was simply oblivious to it. ‘How is this EMP going to help us? It will shut down the lights?’

‘Yes. And the phaser too, hopefully.’

‘Hopefully?’

‘There’s a chance the phaser is fitted with a backup battery. If that’s the case…’

I trailed off. Judging by the look on his face, Te’rnu seemed to have no trouble filling in the blanks.

‘What are the chances of that?’

‘I don’t know… maybe ten percent?’

‘So one in every ten times that you run into a room like this, you get shot?’

I grimaced in response. ‘It usually works out OK.’

Te’rnu and I looked back at the outpost.

‘Well… no time like the present, I guess,’ I sighed, resigning myself to what I was about to do. I looked over my shoulder at Te’rnu as I began to hurry back to the outpost.

‘Stay here.’

I hoped that the lone guardsman was still otherwise preoccupied with their prisoner. If not, then in all likelihood I was about to get shot at.

Hooray.

I prepared myself to jump out of the way.

Luck seemed to be working in my favour; I reached the outside wall without any trouble. Perhaps the Iyr thought they had sufficiently scared us off, and that we wouldn’t be coming back any time soon. If Te’rnu and I had been entirely sane, then the guardsman would have been completely right.

I placed my hand on my wrist right in readiness to activate the EMP, and stepped through the door.

Inside, Pr’atu was pressed up against the transmat room’s wall, too afraid to make a break for it and risk being killed. We made eye contact. As soon as the Arellian saw me, they relaxed slightly.

The Iyr guardsman was still in the room, tapping at a computer terminal, their phase rifle rested on the top.

I edged forwards, hoping to only use the EMP at the last possible moment, so I could make the most of the confusion that would inevitably follow.

Suddenly the Iyr stopped typing.

I froze.

They looked up – straight at me.

‘Hi again!’ I greeted them.

Within the next two seconds, three significant things happened.

First, Pr’atu began to make a sprint for the opposite door, which meant that the Iyr’s targets were split – one to their left, one to their right.

Second, the Iyr reached for their rifle, picking it up, and swinging it to point in the direction of Pr’atu. They fired their first beam prematurely, missing the Arellian but instead hitting the controls to the door panel, completely frying them – and making the door itself unusable.

Lastly, I activated the EMP.

With a quiet, deep whoomph, the power of the outpost went offline, leaving the room in almost total darkness.

The Iyr, surprised, made some sort of “acckk!” noise in exasperation, and instead tried to turn to train their rifle on me – but struggled, their mechsuit having jammed up due to the EMP.

Instinctively, I jumped out of the way – but no shot came. All I heard was the familiar clicking sound of an offline phaser failing to discharge.

Now knowing that I was safe, I charged at the Iyr, tacking them to the ground. I flicked my left wrist, releasing the blade, and pressed it on their throat.

‘How long do we have? Until more of you get here?’

The Iyr, seemingly unphased, replied, ‘At most, two minutes.’

I looked up at Pr’atu. The youth’s eyes were wide with terror. ‘We should go.’

I nodded – and the Arellian began to run. I gave Pr’atu a few seconds headstart before I, too, began to sprint away from the outpost, releasing the Iyr in the process.

We exited the outpost, still sprinting, and Te’rnu’s face dropped when he saw the speed we were travelling at. Without stopping to ask questions, he began to sprint too – back in the direction of Te’r’ok.

Soon an alarm began to blare behind us; the mechsuit hadn’t frozen for long, it seemed.

We ran as fast as we could – over the steep dunes, fighting against the loose sand. A few minutes later, I turned back to look at the outpost in the distance.

A ship, only now, was landing. They were late.

I called to Te’rnu, drawing his attention to the landed ship.

‘Here!’ Te’rnu called, pointing at a small outcrop of rock. The three of us jumped in, huddled up tight, and stayed as still as we could, hoping to avoid being spotted.

But more and more minutes passed, and there was no sign that we were being pursued.

Perhaps the Iyr didn’t think it was worth the effort, or perhaps they knew better than to try and find Arellians hiding in their own territory. Whatever the reason, we were safe.

Confident now that we’d got away with it, we continued back to town at a slower pace, allowing our aching muscles some respite. As Te’rok came into view in the distance, the sun was beginning to rise, and the other villagers were up and about.

This meant, of course, that they had noticed our disappearance.

‘Where have you been?’ an angry Arellian called out at Pr’atu. They stormed over to the young one and grabbed them by the arm. ‘You do not disappear like that, you understand me?’

As they dragged Pr’atu back into the village, they turned to look at Te’rnu.

‘And you. You should know better.’

Ra’ntu, too, stared at us with an irritated expression upon their face.

‘We were just trying to see if we could see an Iyr’s face!’ Pr’atu argued with their parent. ‘Te’rnu says we should know these things!’

Elder Ra’ntu began to speak. ‘You drag Pr’atu into this mess? At that age?’

Te’rnu looked down at the floor, ashamed.

‘Where did you go?’ Ra’ntu asked.

‘The Outpost. WS1.’

There was a moment of silence.

Elder Ra’ntu raised her voice when they spoke next – not out of anger, but out of proclamation.

‘Te’rnu has exceeded even his own prior recklessness. Te’rnu has brought shame to our village! Te’rnu must be put to trial!’

Ra’ntu paused, and I couldn’t help but think that this was only for effect.

‘No,’ they continued, staring deep into my eyes, ‘They all must be put to trial.’

I looked to Te’rnu, who stood, despondent, eyes fixed on the ground.

Ra’ntu walked closer to us, and whispered so that nobody else would hear, ‘Let this be a lesson to you. Nobody breaks with the Tradition.’

We were ushered into the same building that I’d first been brought to, while the Elders prepared for the trial. Te’rnu and Pr’atu waited anxiously, while I seriously debated simply standing up and leaving.

I couldn’t justify leaving Te’rnu, though – not after he’d saved my life. So I stayed – and hoped I could save him from whatever hardship Ra’ntu had planned.

Soon, we were moved into the largest of the village’s buildings, which had enough space for about a dozen people.

Three Elders – Ra’ntu, Or’ane, and another that I didn’t recognise – sat at the end of the room, on higher chairs, facing the rest of us. No matter where you go in the galaxy, nobody could resist the idea of nothing being higher than justice. It was the concept of justice, on the other hand, which seemed to change from planet to planet.

Te’rnu, Pr’atu, and I were sat at the front, on a long, uncomfortable, bench. I looked at the others; what a bunch we were. Like some heroes of old: The Three Musketeers, or the Three Amigos, or the Three… I dunno, Tenors?

No.

In the eyes of everyone around us, we weren’t heroes, we were villains. Criminals, even.

Ra’ntu made a noise to draw my attention, and I span back around to face the front.

‘We are gathered here to rule on the punishments for Te’rnu, Pr’atu, and the off-worlder, for breaking with the sacred Traditions, and assaulting an Iyr.’

There was a slightly whispering behind me, from the trial’s onlookers.

‘Wait,’ I asked. ‘So this isn’t even about whether we’re innocent or not? Just what the punishment is going to be?’

Te’rnu glared at me; obviously speaking at this point was a massive faux-pas in the eyes of the Arellians.

Elder Ra’ntu humoured me. ‘The Elders have already convened and determined that the three of you are indeed guilty. I stress, also, that now is not the time for you to speak.’

I pulled a face… but said nothing.

‘We will first hear from Pr’atu. If you will please stand.’

The youth to my left did as was commanded. I could see them shaking, having succumbed to their nerves. On the opposite side of Pr’atu sat Te’rnu, and I could see that he had recognised the young one’s fear too.

‘Would you please describe the events that led to you travelling to outpost WS1?’ Ra’ntu asked.

Pr’atu took a moment before they responded, the nerves meaning that they were struggling to get words out.

‘I, err…,’ Pr’atu started, casting a look at Te’rnu and I. ‘I was still awake, late, last night, listening to the off-worlder’s tales. After a while, they thought-’

‘Who is “they”, Pr’atu, if you wouldn’t mind clarifying?’ asked Or’ane, a kind smile on their face.

‘Te’rnu and the spaceman,’ Pr’atu clarified.

‘Thank you. Go on.’

‘So they – Te’rnu and Syl – thought everyone else had gone to sleep, and they were discussing the skin of the Iyr.’

Pr’atu paused for questions, but none came.

‘And they started talking about how they might see it for themselves. They planned to go to the outpost, and sneak up on the guard.’

‘And how did you become involved in this scheme, Pr’atu?’

‘Oh. I asked if I could come,’ Pr’atu replied.

The Elder gave each other knowing looks – and damning ones, at that.

Uh-oh.

‘You are saying that you willingly volunteered to help Te’rnu and the off-worlder break with Tradition?’

‘I, err…’ Pr’atu looked over at Te’rnu and I for help. We weren’t able to give any. ‘Yes. I did.’

‘Thank you, Pr’atu, I think we have heard enough,’ Ra’ntu announced. ‘If, Te’rnu, you will please now stand.’

Te’rnu did as he was told, before beginning to talk, unprompted. Even I knew that by now, this wasn’t right and proper decorum.

‘May I speak freely? Before the questions begin,’ Te’rnu said, and then continued without waiting for a response. ‘It is very kind of Pr’atu to cover for me, but I am afraid their story was not reflective of the truth. It was me, in fact, who convinced Pr’atu to join us.’

‘And why would you do that?’

There was a brief pause before Te’rnu replied. Only Pr’atu and I could know that this was because he was inventing a new version of the story.

‘Because we needed a third. We though Pr’atu was young, and impressionable – so we we encouraged them to join us.’

The Elders remained silent for a few moment, and then Ra’ntu turned to focus on me.

‘Is that correct, off-worlder?’

I stood up to address the council. ‘Yep! That’s right! We convinced Pr’atu to join us. They were resistant at first, but we told them that it was important for the village that they come too.’

I hoped my lying was up to snuff; I could feel the words coming out of my mouth become stilted, unnatural. Elder Ra’ntu nodded in response to this testimony.

‘We have one more question for you. Did you hurt the Iyr? Or cause damage to them in any way?’

Te’rnu shook his head.

‘No,’ I lied, remembering the damage that we had caused to the outpost and the computer system. ‘None at all.’

‘Can you confirm this for us, please, Te’rnu.’

He looked at me for a moment, pain in his eyes, and then turned back to the Elders.

‘That’s right. No harm was done.’

‘Thank you,’ Ra’ntu replied. ‘I think you three have answered everything we have. We will return momentarily to rule on your punishments.’

The three Elders left the building, and Te’rnu and I sat back down.

‘What sort of punishments are normally given out in these?’ I asked.

Te’rnu took a moment to respond.

‘These are rare, so my experience with punishments are few. Some are assigned work to do, to benefit the community, and others…’

Te’rnu paused.

‘Others… what?’ I prompted, dreading the answer.

‘Exile.’

‘Oh. That’s not that bad. I was thinking, like, death or something.’

Te’rnu looked outraged. ‘Death? What good would that do anyone? That would be an awful punishment.’

‘Yeah. I guess,’ I replied. ‘I was being paranoid, maybe.’

‘Do not think exile is “not bad”, however, Syl Raynor,’ Te’rnu continued, his voice solemn. ‘Imagine being cast out of the only world you have ever known. Imagine being thrown out there, into the great unknown, and knowing nobody and nothing. You would have to start your whole life again – because your last had ended. In a way, it is not wholly different from death.’

Point taken.

‘Well,’ I said. ‘If it comes to that – and I’m sure it won’t – at least you’ll know me.’

Te’rnu smiled at the idea. ‘It is nice to know this.’

We waited in silence – me unphased, Te’rnu worried, and Pr’atu practically soiling himself. I turned to the young one.

‘It’s OK, Pr’atu, they won’t come down hard on you.’

‘How do you know?’ Pr’atu responded.

‘We told them we coerced you into it, didn’t we?’

‘Yes,’ the young Arellian replied, ‘But how do you, as an off-worlder, know whether that will be enough?’

‘It would be a terrible justice system if it didn’t,’ I answered.

The Elders didn’t take long to deliberate, and returned to the room within a couple of minutes. This, I suspected, was not a good sign.

It was Elder Ra’ntu who stood to deliver the verdict – and the smirk on their face made it seem like they took great pleasure in doing so.

‘We have reached a conclusion,’ Ra’ntu announced, and what little murmuring was still taking place in the building came to an immediate halt. All eyes were on Ra’ntu.

Exactly as they liked it – all attention on them. Couldn’t have anyone else upstaging them, could we?

‘The off-worlder brought disquiet to our village. She brought a rage, and an unwillingness to let us live our lives as we wish for them to be lived. She has disrespected the great Tradition, and so a punishment will be assigned to her.’

I laughed. What a ridiculous idea this was. ‘I mean, there’s not a huge amount you can make me do, is there? I could always just… walk away.’

‘Then why haven’t you?’ the third Elder asked.

I shrugged. ‘Guess I was curious.’

‘And it has nothing to do with ensuring that Te’rnu is not punished too severely?’ Ra’ntu asked, knowing eyes staring deep into mine. This wiped the smile from my face.

I couldn’t formulate a smart retort in a reasonable time, and the absence of one was telling.

‘Te’rnu,’ Ra’ntu continued, ‘Has again and again sought to undermine the fragile ecosystem of our village. Te’rnu cares little for the arrangement we have with the Iyr; the very generous deal by which the Iyr relieve us of our pain. If Te’rnu were to have their way, we would all end our lives in agony. It is my personal belief that if Te’rnu’s presence in this village is continued to be tolerated, it would spell an end for Te’r’ok. For Te’rnu’s crimes, a punishment will be given.’

I looked to my friend. His mouth hung agape, his skin pale.

‘And, finally,’ Ra’ntu went on, ‘There is Pr’atu.’

Pr’atu rose from their seat for their verdict.

‘The testimony given by both Te’rnu and the off-worlder seem to clear you of any wrongdoing.’

Pr’atu looked immediately relieved.

‘However!’ Ra’ntu continued. ‘Should the given testimony ever be proven to be false, or otherwise inaccurate, we shall have to re-visit this decision. We will be keeping a close watch on your behaviour, young Arellian. For now, however, with your guilt unproven, you will receive no punishment.’

Pr’atu nodded. ‘Thank you, Elder.’

‘You may leave,’ Elder Or’ane instructed Pr’atu.

This left just Te’rnu and I at the front bench.

‘We have deemed that equal crimes deserve equal punishment,’ Elder Ra’ntu announced. ‘And with that in mind, we rule that you both shall be punished with exile.’

Te’rnu shrank into his seat, his face gone white.

‘How the… fuck… is that an equal punishment?’ I asked, astounded.

I’m getting really good at this swearing thing! Maybe I should try it more often. No, stop- Focus, Syl.

‘This, here, Te’r’ok, that’s Te’rnu’s whole life! I’m just a visitor! Let’s face it, I was going to leave soon anyway, and chances were that I wouldn’t come back.’

‘You wouldn’t?’ Ra’ntu asked.

‘Are you kidding? No! There’s a whole galaxy out there, and you think I’d want to come back to the one village that you live in?’

Woops. Maybe too far. Dial it back.

‘I’ll happily leave and not come back if that’s what you want – but Te’rnu should be able to stay.’

‘Our decision is final,’ Ra’ntu insisted.

Exasperated, I turned to Te’rnu, and began to plead with him. ‘Come on, mate, say something! Make your case! This is ridiculous.’

He only shook his head. ‘There’s no point. As they say: the decision is final. It always is.’

‘You will be gone within the hour,’ Ra’ntu instructed.

And then, the Elders, having apparently decided that the conversation was over, left the building.

Only Elder Or’ane stopped to look back. ‘I am sorry, Te’rnu. If I had had my way…’

They trailed off, went silent for a moment.

‘I’m sorry,’ Or’ane repeated.

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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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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 on a different platform, please head over to my subreddit /r/reymorfin or visit me on Patreon!

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