Chapter 22: Back On The Case

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ABINAX
The Networked Planet
Silicon Sector
03-03-2338

Map of the North Abinaxian Coastline – circa 2338

We landed back on Abinax just ten hours after I ended that rather awkward call. I’d paid extra for an express shuttle, not wanting to have to explain to Huara why I wasn’t there by the morning, as we’d discussed.

It was still two or three hours before sunrise, and Abinax suffered from that same early morning chill that we had on Terra. I rubbed my hands on my upper arms to try to warm myself up a little and eyed Te’rnu’s insulated mechsuit with envy.

Tall skyscrapers, each housing thousands – some, tens of thousands – stood around us. Abinax was a planet of little land, and so they’d learned to built upwards early in their civilisation’s development. The lower floors of each building, perhaps the first four or five, were reserved for commercial and industrial enterprises. Great webs of pedestrianised walkways wound their ways from floor to floor, from building to building, weaving around one another and the roads of Abinax’s equally impressive shuttle network.

It had been just four days since I had stood in this exact spot, planning Te’rnu and I’s capture of the target that Solita, our informant, was going to point out to us. A lot, I felt, had changed in this time.

Te’rnu and I returned to the same hotel we’d been staying in the week before. It was of the more traditional sort; locals were employed to take payment, show you to your room, that kind of thing. All these tasks, normally, would be completed by the hotel’s AI, thereby eliminating any human error. But here, on Abinax, they preferred that personal touch – for reasons completely foreign to me.

‘How may I…,’ the hotel clerk began, looking up at Te’rnu and I. He raised an eyebrow. ‘Weren’t you guys just here?’

I sighed.

‘Oh, I… I… I don’t mean that in a rude way!’ he stuttered, fiddling absent-mindedly with his name tag, which showed that he had a solid 4-star rating and over 700 followers.

‘No, it’s OK,’ I replied, much to the clerk’s relief. ‘It’s… a long story.’

‘Oh?’ he asked, looking up at me.

‘…which I’ll keep for another time,’ I finished, giving him a knowing look.

The clerk nodded back. ‘Same room as before? Three bed, overlooking the square? It’s still available.’

‘That’ll do nicely,’ I replied.

‘Shotgun the corner bed!’ Te’rnu announced – the same way he had done the first time we checked in, too. I took a moment to once again regret explaining to him the rules of “shotgun”, then paid the clerk, and followed him to our room.

The hotel employee gave us the same spiel about our stay as he had the first time around, again encouraging us to leave him a 5-star rating and to give him a follow if he’d been at all helpful. I’d already given him a rating from our last visit – normally I wouldn’t bother with crap like that, but as it meant so much on Abinax, I broke my rule just that once.

Te’rnu, alongside his 5-star rating, also left a glowing four-paragraph review, explaining in great detail how the clerk was proficient in explaining the hotel’s facilities, giving tips on restaurants in the local area, and laughed at his jokes – something that even his friend, he stressed, did not do. The book of jokes from which he’d been reading went missing later that day, and I feigned my assistance in the thorough search for it.

I took a moment to stare out the window of our room. It wasn’t a bad view at all, especially considering the price range. Outside, we looked onto the central plaza – that same square on which we’d apprehended our original suspect. Crowding around the small, green space (and ensuring that it never really saw any sunlight) were the skyscrapers of the Central Entertainment District. Ostensibly, this area was where all the highest-rated Abinaxian celebrities lived and worked – but, really, it was mostly full of tourists and wannabes. I happened to know from my research that the truly famous Abinaxians lived further east, in the Almistac Peninsula. Or, if they were really well-off, they lived out on Aquilley Hills in mansions so huge that they had their own private land. Our investigation up until this point, sadly, had taken us to neither of those destinations.

If the window was a little further west – and a few dozen buildings weren’t in the way – we would have had a view of the Great Stadium. In lieu of it actually being in sight, a huge picture of the Stadium was positioned above our beds. It showed a massive metal compound, one central area with eight smaller venues dotted around, even the smallest of which could host a couple of hundred thousand people. “Go hard, or don’t go at all,” as the Abinaxians would say.

‘I’m going to pop in the shower quickly,’ I called out. ‘And then we’ll get back to work in… twenty minutes?’

Te’rnu shrugged. ‘Sure.’

I walked into the dark grey bathroom, and the lights automatically switched on – thin strips of blue that glowed from between the large tiles. I stripped completely, got in the shower, and sighed. I stood still for a moment, eyes closed, and enjoyed the sensation of the warm water washing away that increasingly-familiar grime that comes from a day’s travel. I was interrupted by Te’rnu walking in to use the toilet.

‘Te’rnu, would you mind…,’ I began – but was cut off mid-sentence by the whoosh of urine already being expelled from his bladder.

‘Yes?’ he asked, glancing over.

‘Doesn’t matter,’ I replied.

He didn’t give me a second look, instead only finishing up his business to leave me alone once more.

‘Are you sure it’s OK to be naked in front of him?’ a man’s voice asked.

Now clean, I pulled on some fresh clothes from my suitcase and looked up at Te’rnu staring at me impatiently.

‘It’s been twenty-two minutes,’ he said.

‘Yeah, so?’ I asked.

‘You said twenty minutes. I was ready to go two minutes ago.’

I shook my head and resisted the urge to roll my eyes.

‘Where are we starting?’ he asked.

‘I’ve been thinking about that very question the whole way over,’ I replied. ‘We’re pretty much back to square one, aren’t we? I figure our best bet is to find some seedy bar and ask about there. I’m sure we’ll find someone with a contact in there.’

‘Oh, we are going to a bar, are we? That is a surprise.’ Te’rnu responded, a smirk on his face.

‘Don’t push it,’ I told him.

We left the room, Te’rnu locking it firmly behind us – then double-checking it – and went downstairs. The same hotel clerk was still on duty.

‘Can I help you with anything?’ he asked, a wide grin on his face.

‘We were looking to get a drink,’ Te’rnu answered.

‘Great!’ came the reply, ‘My personal recommendation would be-’

I cut him off. ‘No. We’re looking for… Well, what bar around here would you be least likely to recommend?’

The clerk, hesitant at first, pointed us in the direction of a local bar that had a measly average review score of only 2.2 stars.

Our destination was not at all like I had imagined. Where I had imagined dust, grime, damp, there was nothing of the sort. The bar wasn’t entirely different to one back on Terra – there was the familiar table layout, booths at the perimeters of the room, and stools sat right up against the bar. Small lines of yellow lighting ran around the edges of the room, bar, and each of the tables, giving the place a warm, comfortable vibe. If this was the worst that Abinax had to offer, then maybe there was something to this habitual reviewing after all.

All of the booths were occupied – some with large, cheery groups, others with a lone drinker – so I sat myself down at the bar instead. I wasn’t ever one for sitting in the middle of a room.

Te’rnu sat down next to me as I ordered two whiskies from the bartender. He shook his head. ‘Not for me, thank you.’

I tried to retrieve the bartender’s attention, but he was already pouring. The woman sitting next to me watched the full interaction with a smirk on her face. ‘Two for me, I guess,’ I mumbled to myself, glancing at the woman, who had quickly returned to watching the screen above us.

‘Ask around, will you, Te’rnu?’ I requested.

He opened his mouth slightly in surprise. ‘Me?’

‘Are you not up to it?’

‘No!’ he replied. ‘I mean- yes! Yes, boss. I am on top of it.’

I swung back around to face the bar as the two whiskies were placed in front of me. I thanked the bartender, and took a sip.

‘Damn. Rykan,’ I muttered. I should’ve specified.

I couldn’t quite tell, but, from what I could see out of my peripheral vision, it seemed that the same woman was amused by me again.

I focused my attention on the screen as a holographic flashed onto it. The Great Stadium, illuminated for full impact, rotated slowly in front of the screen before an overlay began to appear in front…

ABINAXIAN OF THE YEAR, it read. ANNOUNCING THE FINALISTS.

Dramatic music played over the top, a heavy bassline willing me, the viewer, to care.

This is still going on, then, is it?

An overly-keen presenter opened a golden envelope announcing the first finalist: Turon Tara. The crowd at the venue went wild, as though this Turon had actually won… rather than having just been nominated. Turon took to the stage to thank the Abinaxian Academy for her nomination. It turned out, judging by her speech, that she was a tech genius, working out on Silicon Island, and had revolutionised… something. Part of me switched off when she got into the tech stuff.

The woman next to me scoffed, and I took a moment to look her up and down – probably not as quickly or as subtly as I imagined I was doing. She was dressed in all black, green hair cropped close to the scalp, complementing the pale green of the Abinaxian skin tone. Her narrow frame was matched by a long, thin face, which housed those fully grey eyes that were typical on this planet. As I glanced at her eyes, I couldn’t help but notice that there was something off about them – it didn’t seem quite like there was any life behind them.

I returned my attention to the screen before I could be accused of staring. A new presenter had taken the stage, holding another envelope, again ludicrously gold in colour. The crowd were no less enthusiastic to welcome the next finalist – a Cornar Pruta – to the stage.

I didn’t hear much to come out of Cornar’s mouth, because I was slightly hypnotised by his looks. While the typical Abinaxian frame was bulky – my friend at the bar here a notable exception – Cornar was bulky in just the right places. His hair, greying at the sides, was swept back, accentuating his features, and allowing me to look into his light grey eyes – the lightest I’d ever seen on an Abinaxian.

‘He’s not bad to look at, is he?’ the woman at the bar next to me said, shaking me from my hypnotic state.

‘I… err…,’ I started, mumbling, my cheeks going red at having been caught. ‘No. He’s not. Who is he?’

The woman shrugged. ‘Some trillionaire. Calls himself a philanthropist. I reckon that anyone could be a philanthropist if they had that much money, though.’

‘Cheers to that,’ I replied, clinking my whiskey glass with her highball.

The woman went quiet – that seemed to be the end of the conversation. I looked around at the bar, to see Te’rnu crouching next to a particularly short Turknani, who was very obviously not interested in talking with him.

I turned back to the bar. The woman next to me leaned in conspiratorially.

‘You know… Pruta’s split from his wife was in the papers recently. Never know, if you happen to run into him, you might be in with a shot.’

I simply laughed and shook my head, giving this woman no insight into my current relationship status.

She chuckled back. ‘Fair enough. Some of the papers are saying there might have been something untoward going on – maybe best to keep away from him, anyway.’

‘What,’ I replied, gesturing to Pruta, who was still on screen, ‘He might have done something wrong? This “trillionaire philanthropist”, as you put it? Surely it’ll have been the wife, no?’

The woman shrugged. ‘Who knows? Haven’t given it much thought. Chances of people like us meeting someone like him… One in a bazillion.’

I didn’t quite like the way she was grouping us both together in that sentence, but I let it lie. Instead, I checked in again on Te’rnu. He still seemed to be having no luck – this time at a booth full of young women, who, I suspected, thought he was trying to hit on them.

I’d like to see that.

‘What are you here for? Surely not the drink, or the company… Last I checked this place was only 2.1 stars, after all.’

‘2.2 stars, now,’ I responded.

‘Oh, really? They’re going up in the world. Props to them!’

I looked my drinking companion up and down one last time – and then took a gamble. ‘We’re looking to get our hands on the ‘Liks.’

The woman was visibly taken aback. ‘Really? You didn’t seem the sort.’

‘Do you know anyone? Who could help?’

She paused for a moment, pursed her lips as she weighed this up. ‘I don’t. But I could get to know someone. For a fee.’

For a fee? You didn’t seem the sort…

‘For a…,’ I started. ‘How much?’

Another pause; I could practically see the mental maths going on in the woman’s head. ‘Four thousand units.’

I shook my head to myself, looked around at Te’rnu one last time. He was still having no luck at the same booth.

‘Fine,’ I replied. ‘Half now, half… well, you know how it works.’

‘Excellent. Shouldn’t be more than a couple of days.’

We tapped consoles together, exchanging contact details, and I sent two thousand units over to her.

‘I’m Syl,’ I officially introduced myself. ‘Syl Raynor.’

The Abinaxian shook my hand. ‘Nice to meet you, Syl. I’m doing this right, aren’t I? The handshake? That’s right, isn’t it?’

‘Yeah, that’s what Terrans do. Shake hands.’ I trailed off, expecting the woman to offer her own name. 

She did not.

‘And… your name… is…,’ I prompted.

‘…Best left unknown. In my business it’s best not to leave any footprints.’

The woman downed the rest of her drink and moved to leave.

‘I’ll speak to you soon, Syl Raynor,’ she whispered as she left.

I looked at her empty glass – with not a drop of alcohol left in it.

My kind of woman.

I summoned Te’rnu back over. He made his excuses to the rather relieved group of young women, and shook his head as he approached.

‘No luck at all,’ he said.

‘No worries. I think I found someone, anyway. Should be in touch soon.’

His face grew sad. ‘I will do better next time.’

I screwed my face up in confusion. ‘Better? What do you mean? You did just fine, not your fault if nobody here knows about what you’re after. It’s just dumb luck most the time, this job.’

Te’rnu seemed a little cheerier after that. ‘I did have one thought,’ he said. ‘We should try our informant again – Solita, was that her name?’

‘Yeah, we could do that, Te’rnu,’ I replied, hoping to encourage him. ‘Yeah! Maybe there was a misunderstanding, or she recognised the wrong person in the shuttle terminal. She could still be useful, I guess.’

I began work on my second whisky while Te’rnu opened his console to send a communication to Solita.

A few moments later, Te’rnu piped back up. ‘Syl… I think I am doing it wrong again.’

I sighed away the frustrations of trying to teach a technophobe to use technology, and returned to him.

His console, however, was giving him an error that I’d never seen before.

ERROR: Identity not found.

‘Hmm,’ I commented. ‘That’s… weird.’

I restarted the software and typed our informant’s name in the send box… only to get the same message.

‘That’s very weird,’ I reiterated. ‘Our informant doesn’t seem to exist.’

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Chapter 21: Taming The Hillbeast

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STATION 34-ALPHA
“Voted the Iron Sector’s 6th Best Solarway Services in 2335 by Readers of Where? Magazine”
Iron Sector
02b-03-2338

Map of Station 34-Alpha – circa 2338

The lights of Station 34-Alpha glistened as the improbable starbase rotated in the darkness of space, artificially tethered to the orbit of the nearby moon.

Home – at last.

OK, maybe it wasn’t home home, but definitely it was the closest thing I had.

Our agency premises existed on the former site of an ill-fated Pritan bakery. Food poisoning was bad at the best of times, but when it came to Pritan cooking, it could be lethal – and this particular business learned that lesson the hard way. Fortunately for myself, however, the recent deaths on these premises meant that they came at a ridiculously low rate; nobody else was keen to be associated with such a tragedy.

As Te’rnu and I stepped out of the shuttle onto the base, we were quickly hurried out of the busy docking terminal. I stopped for a moment on the promenade to take a long, deep breath.

The smell of “home”: rust, fuel, and just a little bit of body odour.

Yum.

‘Are you coming?’ Te’rnu asked. I glanced over at him; his face suggested that he was asking this sincerely, and not just trying to hurry me up.

I’m not entirely sure there’s a single passive-aggressive bone in his body.

‘Yeah. Let’s get back,’ I replied. ‘I could do with a lie down.’

We wandered along the strip to our home – weaving between the busy workers, who pushed through the crowd with their out-turned elbows, and the oblivious visitors, who came to sudden halts in the most inconvenient of places – until we arrived at our dark and damp corner of the station.

Te’rnu pressed on the security panel… and was told that the door was already unlocked.

We peered into the room and saw that everything we owned had been thrown about or turned upside down.

‘What has happened here?’ Te’rnu asked.

‘We’ve been burgled.’

I walked into the room and began to do a quick mental inventory of our most valuable possessions.

‘But…,’ Te’rnu asked. ‘But why?’

I shrugged. ‘People just suck like that.’

‘Suck what?’

Everything we owned still seemed to be here, roughly in place, if now on its side or upside-down.

‘Do you see anything missing?’ I asked, brow furrowed.

Te’rnu glanced around the room. ‘…No.’

‘Look for clues,’ I instructed him.

‘Clues?’

‘Yes. We’re supposed to be detectives, after all.’

We avoided touching anything while we looked – and captured images of the site in its current state.

‘They have looked through everything, it seems,’ Te’rnu murmured after a few moments, ‘but taken nothing.’

‘What the hell would someone be looking for in here?’

Te’rnu shook his head; I pursed my lips in response.

‘Doesn’t make sense, does it?’

Unable to see anything that we’d missed, I sat down on the sofa – but not before repositioning the cushions.

‘We should sort out our security,’ I mumbled. ‘Didn’t think we’d need anything serious, but… apparently we do.’

I rubbed at the muscle in my right shoulder, wincing as I pressed too hard.

‘Te’rnu, why don’t you grab us some dinner. I’ll start cleaning up in here.’

‘Rykernite or Turknani?’

I shrugged. ‘Dunno. Whatever you want.’

‘Turknani?’

I flashed him a soft smile. ‘Great.’

Surveying the room in front of me, I still gleaned no ideas about why someone might have broken in here, if not to take anything. I figured that maybe I was tired after this case; perhaps in the morning, after I’d gotten some sleep, some revelation might present itself to me. Forsaking my promise to Te’rnu that I would begin to clear up, I closed my eyes and quickly drifted off.

I awoke as Te’rnu stormed back into the premises, a triumphant grin on his face, food under one arm, and a large case in the other. This did not bode well.

‘I have something for us,’ he announced.

‘Yeah,’ I replied, rubbing my eyes as I came to, ‘Food, hopefully.’

‘Yes. And something else.’

‘I can see that. What is it?’

‘You gave me the task of improving our security. I am pleased to say that I have done just that.’

I bit my lip, leaving a gap in the conversation which would otherwise have been filled with a facetious remark.

‘Imagine Z’h’ar,’ Te’rnu said, hands up in the air as he set the scene through wild gesticulation. ‘Away from the busy strongholds, many villages eke out an existence in the harsh environments of the Yr’yu foothills.’

Te’rnu paused for a moment, and looked down to find that I had pulled up a chair and was currently eating my way through the first of the takeaway food.

‘I’m enjoying this pitch so far,’ I told him. ‘Go on.’

‘Not only do these villagers contend with occasional landslides destroying their homes and sandstorms decimating their crops, but they must also fend off the vicious creatures that live in the peaks.’

‘Vicious creatures?’ I repeated, mumbling because my mouth was full, ‘Love it! Tell me more.’

‘They prowl silently on their four legs. Their keen eyes pick out their prey on the slopes below.’

‘What about their teeth?’ I prodded, my own mouth miming a knawing motion.

‘Yes!’ Te’rnu added, almost jumping on the spot with joy, ‘Huge, scary teeth! They could bite a person’s head off!’

I laughed softly, causing a little food to fall out of my mouth, which I sucked back in. ‘Am I supposed to believe you have one of these things in that box?’ I nodded to the crate that Te’rnu had placed on his desk.

He held his index finger up to me.

Te’rnu loves that ‘one moment’ hand signal so much, maybe I should teach him the middle finger one too. That’d blow his mind.

‘Not quite!’ he replied. ‘But something similar. I don’t know if you have met… I forget his name… S… Steve? I believe he is a man. I didn’t ask about his genitalia, this time, though.’

‘Steve?’

‘Steve. He is a Terran on this station. You really should socialise more.’

‘No, Te’rnu, most people just don’t speak to every single person who crosses their line of sight.’

‘Steve,’ Te’rnu continued, completely ignoring my dig at him. ‘Is a merchant of exotic animals. A very successful one, too, it would seem. I told him of our dilemma, of the Yr’yu hillbeasts, and asked him whether he happened to have a tamed one we could use as security.’

‘Just how big are these hellbeasts, Te’rnu?’

‘Hillbeasts.’

‘What?’

‘Hillbeasts. You said hellbeasts.’

‘Fine,’ I replied, shaking my head. ‘Hillbeasts. How big are they?’

‘About two and a half metres in length.’

I sighed. ‘And how wide is this room, Te’rnu?’

He narrowed his eyes and surveyed the perimeter of the room. ‘Perhaps… two and a half metres?’

‘Yes.’

Te’rnu scrunched his mouth up for a moment. ‘It would not fit, would it?’

‘It would not.’

The Arellian shook his head. ‘This matters not! Because I did not, in the end, put in an order for a Yr’yu hillbeast.’

‘I think that’s for the-’

‘Steve, however, being the helpful man that he is, told me about another, similar, beast.’

‘A more compact one, perhaps?’

Te’rnu tapped the top of the crate, chest swelling with pride. ‘Precisely. But despite its smaller size, this creature is still packed with dangerous features. It can see six times better than the average Terran, or four times better than an Arellian, and it has the highest-developed…’

He trailed off.

‘Highest-developed…’

And again.

He held up his index finger, and pulled a tablet from his back pocket. After pressing the button on the side, it whirred into life, and Te’rnu began to read from it.

‘It has the highest-developed binocular vision of all animals on its home planet.’

‘…which is?’ I butted in.

‘It has razor sharp teeth, spread across its wide jaw. Perfect for a stronger and wider bite!’

‘Did this Steve write this, by any chance?’

‘And rounded ears, designed to catch even the highest of frequencies.’

‘He’s a good salesman, I’ll give him that.’

Te’rnu continued to ignore me. ‘They can jump many times their own height, and, because they’re able to rotate their spine up to 180 degrees, they always land on their feet.’

Wait a minute…

I stood up and walked over to the crate, before unlocking the latch.

‘Wait!’ Te’rnu called out, eyes wide with fear. ‘Don’t do that! It is dangerous!’

The end of the box fell to the desk, revealing the supposed monster lurking inside.

The ginger cat looked briefly up at me with big green eyes, before returning to licking at its lifted paw.

‘That’s a cat.’

‘Yes,’ Te’rnu replied. ‘A “felis catus”, I believe is the technical name for it. It is, as I say, a vicious killing machine.’

‘You want a cat to guard our agency premises?’ I asked, eyebrow raised higher than I had known was possible.

‘Did you not hear me? They are vicious killing machines!’

A dinging sound echoed around the room as the cat scratched at its neck with a rear leg.

‘It has a bell on its collar!’

‘That is for safety! To warn us that it is around! And to strike fear in the hearts of would-be thieves.’

I pulled at the collar to get a look at the name tag; the cat seemed completely unphased by this.

Not a great trait in a guard animal.

I turned back to the Arellian. ‘It’s called Prince Piddlepants!’

Te’rnu’s mouth opened with awe. ‘It is royalty?’

I shook my head in exasperation. ‘No! It’s not royalty, it’s a cat! You know, like, a pet!’

‘It is not a pet! It’s a monstrous creature! With eyes that can see in the dark! And it’s able to… to sense prey from…’

Te’rnu’s attention was captured by the cat behind me.

‘Is it…,’ he continued. ‘Is it licking its own genitals?’

I turned around. It was.

Shooting Te’rnu a face that he was becoming well-accustomed to, I waited for the penny to drop.

‘…Steve!’ Te’rnu shouted. He began mumbling to himself as he stormed back out of the room, ‘…I thought you were…’

I didn’t quite catch what Te’rnu had previously thought of Steve, as he had charged out of earshot.

Now alone once more, I thought about actually beginning the clearing up process – but found myself strangely hypnotised by Prince, the cat.

He stared up at me with big, round, green eyes, as I slowed approached, hand out-stretched, meaning to stroke him. As my hand grew near, he stood up, and pushed his head into my palm, brushing himself against me.

‘You’re not even the least bit dangerous, are you?’ I asked him.

He began to purr – and that was all the answer I needed.

I played with him for a few minutes longer – before I was rudely interrupted by a cough at the door.

A client? Now? While our agency looks like this?

As I turned my head, the short, round Pritan came into view.

Not a client. Worse.

‘Saotchun,’ I muttered.

He smiled that same old smile; it was almost friendly, but just about warped into a snarl.

‘Did you have anything to do with this?’ I asked.

Saotchun laughed. ‘If only I had. Bet you’re wishing you stayed working for me, right about now.’

Prince started towards Saotchun, tail raised playfully, purring loudly. I pulled him back towards me.

No. We don’t like him, mister.

‘You know I don’t,’ I replied.

‘We actually paid to get new Laztec security installed last week,’ Saotchun boasted. ‘Thought it might be a worthwhile investment, and, besides, there’s plenty of money coming in.’

‘Good for you.’

‘Little harder than you thought, right? Running an agency? There’s more to it than just accidentally solving one large case, you know.’

‘We’ve solved other cases, Saotchun,’ I mumbled, pulling Prince back again. ‘Just finished a big one on Abinax, actually.’

Saotchun laughed. ‘The smuggling case? We’ll see about that…’

Before I had a chance to reply, I heard Te’rnu’s voice coming from outside, behind Saotchun. ‘Steve says there’s no refunds, because-’

Te’rnu stopped when he saw Saotchun standing in the doorway.

‘Excuse me, please,’ he said.

Saotchun remained still for a moment, staring Te’rnu down, before standing aside to make room. As Te’rnu entered, Prince’s eyes widened, and he made off towards his Arellian friend. I let him go.

‘So, are you needing to hire us, or…?’ I asked Saotchun.

‘Nope. Nothing needed. Just checking in on my favourite competitor, that’s all.’

‘Well… piss off, then. We have work to do.’

Saotchun looked around the room pointedly. ‘Yes. I can see that.’

He flashed us one last snarl before turning his back on us.

Te’rnu turned to me. ‘I am going to leave Steve a strongly-worded review on the Station listings.’

Without waiting for an answer, he spun around to his desk, meaning to tap on the in-built console… only to find Prince laying across it. Te’rnu picked him up and moved him to one side, but Prince returned to the same spot immediately.

‘I think he likes it there,’ I offered.

Te’rnu sighed. ‘I will do it later.’

He touched Prince’s paw gently, and Prince responded by tucking it under his belly.

‘Oh!’ Te’rnu called out, suddenly. ‘I meant to say: I also reported the burglary to the station police. They said not to touch anything until they come by. You didn’t start cleaning at all, did you?’

I shook my head.

‘Good. I didn’t think that would be a problem with you.’

I began to formulate a pissy response to that jab, but my console began to beep. There was a new communication coming in from the Abinax client.

‘Huara!’ I began. ‘How are you? Everything OK with the report?’

‘Yes, erm…,’ she started, and the tone of her voice made my heart drop. There was a repressed irritation, or even anger, to it. ‘Your report tells me that you successfully apprehended the smuggler?’

‘That’s… that’s right, yeah,’ I responded, less enthusiastically than when I had first answered the communication.

‘Well, I’m afraid to say that you haven’t done that at all. Quite the opposite, really – the Stirliks are… Well, they’re everywhere.’

‘Everywhere?’

‘Yes,’ she responded, getting more curt by the minute. ‘In fact, because you told the local police that you’d caught the culprit, they dialled down their operations. Which meant…’

‘Which meant that those who were distributing the ‘Liks had a bit more breathing room.’

‘…Yes,’ the client replied. ‘So you can see, then, that I’m not best pleased.’

I said nothing, not knowing quite how to best handle the situation. Somehow the silence was worse than anything that could have come out my mouth.

‘I can expect you to land back here first thing in the morning?’ Huara asked.

‘If not sooner,’ I replied.

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Chapter 20: Mother

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TERRA
The Mended World
Carbon Sector
28-02-2338

A Map of the London Delta in the year 2336.
Map of the Thames Delta, London, Terra – circa 2337

Te’rnu’s eyes grew wide as London appeared in the distance out the front window of our shuttle.

‘What do you think, mate?’ I asked, knowing that he’d give the same answer he always gave when visiting a new planet.

‘It’s incredible,’ he replied… giving the same answer he always gave when visiting a new planet.

‘You know you always say that, right?’

He nodded. ‘Each planet is incredible. They all are impressive in their own right.’

‘Even Br-’ I started.

‘Even Brin, yes,’ he replied. ‘They all have their own beauties. They all serve as home to millions of people.’

He pointed out of the window.

‘Down there, millions of beings all living their own lives, in their own ways, with their own customs. That is beautiful. That is incredible.’

‘And the tower looks cool, doesn’t it?’ I added, pointing at the third Crystal Palace, piercing the skyline high above the rest of the city.

Te’rnu scoffed at me. This was an annoying habit he was picking up as of late – too much time hanging around with that other Terran back on the Station.

‘You are just numb to it, I think,’ Te’rnu continued. ‘You grew up here. You saw this world every day for almost a lifetime. Perhaps the beauty has lost its appeal to you. But your home to me seems as beautiful as mine must have seemed to you.’

I said nothing.

Te’rnu continued to stare out the window, and then, eventually, did turn back to me.

‘What is that tower?’ he asked.

‘Ethics Export Office,’ I replied.

‘Is that what it sounds like?’

‘Does it sound like a pretentious organisation set up by the Terran government to make sure that all the planets in the galaxy follow the same code of law?’ I asked.

He nodded. ‘It does.’

‘Mm-hm. Ask any Terran and they’ll tell you: legality always reflects morality.’ I shook my head in exasperation.

‘You talk as though you’re not one of them.’

‘Sometimes I feel like I’m not,’ I replied with a sigh. I rallied myself back into positivity, and continued, ‘Anyway! I tend to stay out of the EEO’s way. They tend to focus on the big trade planets – not little spaceway stations like 34-Alpha. If we do one day run into them… you’ll see exactly what they’re like.’

Our shuttle finally docked at the Streatham Shipyards and Te’rnu and I made our way through the winding queues of Terran customs. When we reached the border control officer, I encouraged Te’rnu to go first.

‘Business or leisure?’ the officer asked my friend without glancing up.

‘What do you mean?’ Te’rnu asked.

‘Business or lei-’ the officer started, and then came to an abrupt halt when he looked up at Te’rnu.

There was a pause while the man in the booth looked Te’rnu up and down, and compared him to his travel visa documents.

‘Your name?’

‘Te’rnu.’

‘Last name,’ they clarified.

‘Te’rnu.’

‘Just Te’rnu? No last name?’

‘No.’

There was a pause from the officer as they stared at Te’rnu blankly. He shook his head. ‘OK… fine…’

He looked through the papers more thoroughly.

‘Species?’

‘Arellian.’

‘It says here you’re an Iyr?’

‘Yes,’ Te’rnu replied, anxiety starting to creep into his voice. ‘That’s the-’

‘I can’t let you in if your papers aren’t correct.’

I stepped forwards to assist, arriving at the booth by Te’rnu’s side.

‘Ma’am, please step back behind the yellow line.’ The border officer pointed at the ground behind me.

‘I’m with him, though,’ I retorted pointing at Te’rnu.

The officer looked blankly at me, but said nothing, so I continued.

‘Iyr and Arellian is the same thing.’

‘Yes,’ Te’rnu added. ‘Same thing. I am Arellian and I am Iyr. I know – it was a surprise to me, too.’

‘Don’t Iyr wear those suits?’

‘It is in my luggage.’

The man behind us in the queue coughed aggressively.

Bloody Terrans.

The officer shook his head, getting frustrated with this conversation. He looked at me. ‘You vouch for him?’

‘Yes.’

The officer shoved the travel documents back in Te’rnu’s hands and waved us through.

‘Next!’ he called out.

‘You come from a thorough people,’ Te’rnu whispered to me.

‘That’s a very kind way of putting it.’

We got into a local shuttle. Te’rnu, still impressed by Terra, spent the whole journey staring out the window – even occasionally gasping when he saw a particularly interesting street/shop/hat.

It wasn’t straight to Mum’s for us. We’d agreed to meet her for a fancy meal in the Lewisham Bay area; I figured this was because she was meeting someone new, and was ever keen to make a good first impression. Neither Leya nor I had inherited this gene, I suspected.

My stomach turned in a knot. This was the first time I’d thought about Leya in over a week. I had felt so hopeful that we’d find her, when I had decrypted that part of the journal on Z’h’ar – but soon our investigation soon lost steam. The transcribed section of her diary hadn’t given us much to go on; only where she’d initially been all those years ago, but little more information than that.

I’d suggested to Te’rnu that we go back to Z’h’ar. I’d figured we could use their equipment to decode more, and, while we were there, Te’rnu might want to see what had become of his people. But his eyes had widened, the few white hairs on his arm had stood on end. It was too soon to return, he’d said.

I left it at that for the time being – but if our investigation into my sister’s disappearance was going to progress, we’d have to return sooner or later…

The shuttle pulled up outside a building right on the waterside; this was our stop. It was a small building for the area – only around fifteen, twenty stories high – which typically suggested that it would be filled with fancy people.

I looked Te’rnu and myself over. Neither of us were wearing what I’d typically describe as formal attire. In fact, we’d dressed to travel, and so my clothes were perhaps on the baggier side.

We grabbed our bags and headed to the eighth floor via the transmat. Spotting the toilets right at the front of the restaurants, I motioned for Te’rnu to follow me in. He did so with a furrowed brow.

‘What is it?’ he asked.

I opened my luggage bag and chucked him one of my plain white shirts. ‘Put this on.’

‘Why?’ he asked, fumbling the catch, but successfully recovering before it hit the floor.

‘Posh place. We should look nice.’

‘Why does what we wear matter? I was comfortable in this,’ he replied, gesturing to the tracksuit I’d bought him a few weeks ago.

‘Doesn’t matter to me,’ I answered. ‘But it will to everyone else.’

Te’rnu changed into the shirt, which fit his more slender frame quite comfortably, even if he was an inch or two taller than me.

‘How do I look?’ he asked. ‘Is it flattering? Am I showing too much skin? What size is my bum?’

‘It’s a top, it won’t make your bum look big,’ I replied. A glimmer in Te’rnu’s eyes suggested that he was poking fun, rather than asking me sincerely – but I couldn’t quite believe that he’d developed a sense of humour.

I also changed into more suitable clothing, while Te’rnu entertained himself by breathing on the mirrors and drawing a self-portrait in the condensation.

‘Not bad,’ I commented.

‘I have decided I look good in this shirt,’ he told me.

‘Well… don’t get too comfortable. I don’t think your shoulders will fit so well after you go through the change.’

Te’rnu said nothing, his eyes growing… sad? Pensive? I couldn’t quite tell.

Note to self: stop mentioning Iyrogenesis.

‘Alright, let’s go.’

We exited the bathroom to find my mother standing, talking with a sharply dressed – bow tie and all! – restaurant employee. She caught a glimpse of me out of the corner of her eyes, and turned to smile at us.

‘Yes, table for four.’

‘Mrs…,’ the waiter began. ‘Raynott?’

‘Raynor,’ she corrected him.

‘Ah. Yes. Right this way.’

We followed the host across the restaurant floor to a table tucked in at the corner. Next to it were great glass windows, stretching from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall. Outside them: a view across the bay, Streatham island in the distance, and the monstrosity that is the Crystal Palace towering over it all.

‘Wow, not bad, Mum.’

‘Came recommended in Where? magazine. They usually know that they’re talking about.’

Mum turned her attention to Te’rnu, who had rushed to the window to look out, pressing his hands and nose against the glass.

‘And, erm…,’ Mum started, trying to get his attention.

‘Oi, Te’rnu,’ I offered.

He turned around, eyes wide, alarmed.

‘This is my Mum,’ I continued.

He nodded knowingly. ‘Yes! Cerra! It is nice to meet you.’

Te’rnu thrust his hand out fast, going for the handshake. Mum shook his hand, even though it was about in line with her face.

After all this faffing about, we eventually sat down.

‘It is nice to meet you, too, Te’rnu. I’ve heard a lot about you.’

‘Oh, yes?’ he asked. ‘And I have heard many things about you. Like how you-’

‘So, Mum!’ I interrupted. ‘How have you been?’

‘Oh, yes. Good,’ she replied, as though not quite sure of herself, before adding, more positively, ‘Yes! Good! I’m doing well, I think.’

‘Sounds like there’s a lot to unpick there,’ I commented.

Before Mum could reply, the waiter returned with the menu, giving one to each of us. Mum looked over hers at Te’rnu, warily.

‘So, Te’rnu, you are…,’ she started.

‘An Arellian. Or an Iyr,’ he replied. ‘Either is fine.’

I suspected that this wasn’t quite what Mum was asking, but she quickly moved on to the next question anyway.

‘And you’re Syl’s…’

‘Assistant,’ I interrupted.

‘Oh, right, yes,’ Mum replied. ‘And Te’rnu doesn’t assist with other things too? Like in the bathroom back there?’

‘Yes,’ Te’rnu answered, seemingly confident with his answer. ‘I helped her get changed into more suitable attire.’

Mum raised her eyebrows. ‘Oh! I see. That’s-’

‘He’s just an assistant, Mum. Just an assistant.’

‘Oh, right.’

Te’rnu lent towards Mum conspiratorially. ‘Did you think we were lovers?’

I put my head in my hands.

Mum smiled at him. ‘Yes, Te’rnu. I did.’

‘I can assure you,’ Te’rnu continued, ‘That we are not. I do not love, I only like.’

‘Thanks, Te’rnu,’ I mumbled.

Mum and Te’rnu began to warm up to one another, and the conversation began to flow better between them. Te’rnu did well to remember my lessons about small talk, and I felt comfortable tuning out from the conversation for a moment. I stared out over the empty fourth chair on to the view beyond. The sun was beginning to set over the London skyline, and long shadows wormed their ways across the ground, cast by the largest of the city’s skyscrapers.

I snapped back to reality when the waiter arrived at my side.

‘Are you ready to order?’ they asked.

Mum, without giving me a moment to respond, told him that we were. I fumbled for my menu and skimmed it for a suitable dish.

Risotto. That’s what you order at a fancy restaurant isn’t it?

‘I will have the lab grown burger, if that is OK,’ Te’rnu said.

‘And how would you like your burger, Sir?’ the waiter asked him. Te’rnu looked up at the man with an expression like a deer in the shuttlelights, presumably not having anticipated being asked any more questions.

‘I’m sorry, I don’t quite understand what you mean,’ he replied.

The waiter took the smallest of sighs. ‘Rare? Or medium?’

‘Medium,’ Te’rnu replied, and then corrected himself, ‘No… large! I have quite an appetite today, after all.’

I shook my head at the waiter, trying to signal to him to abandon the topic entirely. He didn’t take the hint.

‘Your choices, sir, are rare, medium, or well done. Which would you like?’

Te’rnu looked at me for help. I mouthed the words ‘well done’ at him. He turned back to look at the waiter. The waiter saw me mouthing the words to Te’rnu, and prompted him further.

‘Maybe you’d like it well done, sir?’

‘As long as the chef does it the best he can, I’m sure that’s good enough for me.’

This time, the waiter took the hint.

‘Very good, sir.’ He turned to me. ‘And for you, ma’am?’

‘The risotto,’ I replied. ‘Also well done.’

Te’rnu and I gave each other a knowing look, and I gave him a quick nod.

The waiter sighed gently. ‘Very… good, miss.’

Our server left us to it, and Mum immediately took the chance to get on my back about something else.

‘How’s work?’ she asked. ‘I saw you on the news the other day. Very impressive. My girl, out there, saving planets and whatnot. Janice – you know, the one from my book club – was very quiet that week. Didn’t like that the attention wasn’t on her kid for once.’

‘Isn’t this the one whose son is curing OTV?’

Mum nodded. ‘Yes. I mean: we get it, Jan, your son is saving lives. Give it a rest. When are you going to start hiring more people?’

The question kind of came out of nowhere. I glanced at Te’rnu, who had been on at me about the same thing for a while now.

Had he somehow been feeding her lines? Was it while I tuned out a minute ago?

‘I’m not,’ I answered.

‘You don’t want to expand?’

‘She does not,’ Te’rnu chimed in. ‘I have asked.’

‘See?’ Mum said. ‘This clever young man thinks you should expand too.’

Te’rnu grinned at the compliment.

‘Why should we?’

‘So that your business starts being worth more? So you can sell it one day? Maybe you could even buy me a nice place up north…’

‘So? Wcan handle it ourselves. We’re the people who saved Z’h’ar, right? I think we can manage a couple of missing persons cases.’

Te’rnu eyed me warily.

‘Well, yes. But lightning doesn’t strike twice, Syl. Might be worth riding this wave of fame while you-’

‘I’ll think about it,’ I interrupted, waving my hand in my mother’s general direction and looking away to stare out the window. I suspected that everyone sat at that table knew that I was not going to do any such thing.

The table went quiet – an awkward pause that I had created. I turned my attention back to them and attempted to fill the lull in conversation.

‘So how do you know about this restaurant?’ I asked Mum.

Mum’s cheeks went just a little bit pink. ‘Oh, erm… I was taken here.’

She took a swig of her wine.

‘…on a date. With a nice young man.’

Te’rnu’s face lit up with joy at the idea, while I only narrowed my eyes.

‘How “young”?’

Mum smiled at me, and gave me the answer that I didn’t want. ‘You don’t wanna know.’

‘Yuck.’

‘Is he handsome?’ Te’rnu asked.

Mum giggled a bit. ‘Yes… I suppose he is.’

‘What makes him handsome?’ Te’rnu asked. ‘Does he grow facial hair? Is that what makes him handsome?’

‘I…,’ Mum started, before pausing for a moment to work out how to answer Te’rnu’s questions. This was something that I, too, had done many times before.

It was my turn to take a sip of wine. I pretended I wasn’t here to hear the rest of this conversation.

‘He does have a beard, yes. And, yes, I suppose that does make him more attractive. But he’s also kind, and has nice eyes, and a nice-’

Te’rnu, fortunately, didn’t let Mum finish that sentence. Unfortunately, however, he instead asked something much, much, worse.

‘Was it your first date? Did you have sex afterwards?’

Mum laughed harder than I’d seen her laugh in years.

‘Yes, and…,’ she trailed off, glancing nervously at me.

I poured myself some more wine.

‘You know what?’ Mum continued, having suddenly rallied herself. ‘Yes. We did. I’m a grown woman, and I have needs… even if my daughter doesn’t like the idea of it.’

‘Mum…,’ I grumbled. ‘You don’t need to say it out loud.’

We finished our meal in cheery spirits, candid conversation flowing almost as much as the wine.

After our dinner, Mum took us out for her favourite dessert. We sat outside, in the warm mid-February sun, eating London’s best Nano-IceCream, and watching the off-word shuttles land at Streatham shipyard.

Of course Mum’s supposedly favourite dessert was calorie-free. Not like she could admit to herself that she actually liked fatty foods.

I kept my thoughts quiet, and allowed myself to enjoy this temporary respite from our arduous work. Little did I know it then, but it wouldn’t be long before it got more strenuous than ever.

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Chapter 19: Raynor Investigations

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NINE WEEKS LATER…

ABINAX
The Networked Planet
Silicon Sector
27-02-2338

‘Him!’ Solita shouted, pointing at an Abinaxian who had just turned the corner into the shuttle terminal. Her voice carried, alerting my target to our presence. Looking over, he saw Solita – my informant – gesturing towards him, and immediately began to sprint away.

‘Cheers,’ I said to Solita, both sincere and insincere in nature; she might have led me to my target, but she also got him sprinting away from me.

I don’t appreciate having to work for my fee, thank you very much.

At least I had planned for such a scenario.

After I charged out the shuttle terminal in pursuit of the fleeing local, I spotted him in the distance – crossing the station square. I weaved between shuttles as I crossed the road, causing their emergency brakes to automatically kick in, and resulting in a chorus of complaints from their passengers.

I’m doing this for your own good, idiots!

My console dinged with notifications as the inconvenienced locals left negative reviews on my Abinax profile.

Distracted by my depreciating Abinaxian standing, I tripped at the curb of the road, staggering for a moment before catching myself. I clambered upright and continued running. The ground squelched beneath my feet as I trampled what must be the only green area for miles around – the station square being the minimum requirement of parkland in urban areas as prescribed by the GMU.

In the distance, the suspect was fast approaching my first planned obstacle. The road ahead was completely blocked off, ribbons and crowds stretched across the walkways to mark the perimeter of the all-important Abinaxian of the Year awards. Well, maybe not so important – it was only the first rounds, after all.

The target, realising his mistake, darted right, leading him across the edge of the square. Perfect! I hadn’t planned for him to go left here – although that would have put him on the main road, which would take some amazing feat of agility to cross unscathed.

‘Approaching reroute point number two,’ I breathed into the console on my wrist.

‘Copy. Roger. Over,’ that familiar voice replied.

I jumped off the grass, onto the main walkway at the edge of the square, and, looking ahead, found that I was only 100 metres behind the target.

Maybe we won’t need that second obstacle after all.

I ploughed onwards, threading through the crowd of commuters that were heading for the shuttle terminal for their journeys home. My smaller form made this easier for me; I could slip through the smallest of gaps, whereas, up ahead, the suspect bumped shoulders with those around him, slowing him down.

As I gained on him, I began to hear the growing commotion. Commuters grunted at the barging man, while he himself seemed to be getting more impatient with those getting in his way. Voices ahead began to shout, but still the suspect continued onwards.

The suspect was fast approaching the end of the street – and obstacle number two – while I was only a few metres behind him. I reached my arm forwards, hoping to catch at the back of his jacket – although the chances of that stopping him was slim to none.

I snatched at the cloth, missing it by mere centimetres at this point – when the suspect turned the corner.

‘Wham!’ shouted Te’rnu, as he stepped out from behind his pre-determined hiding spot. He collided with the suspect, and, with the strength of the mechsuit backing him up, stood still standing, while the suspect fell to the ground.

‘Wham?’

‘Yes, you know: wham!,’ Te’rnu replied, folding down his helmet to reveal his smiling face. ‘Like the sound that nice coyote makes when he runs into those tunnels he draws for that bird. You know, the one in the Terran shows. This is like that: wham!

I said nothing for a moment, so he continued.

‘In this instance, I am the tunnel, and our suspect is the coyote.’

‘We really need to get you some more up to date references,’ I replied.

At our feet, the target began to scramble away. ‘Shall I…,’ Te’rnu began.

I nodded, knowing exactly to what he was referring. ‘Go on then.’

Te’rnu pressed at a button on his mechsuited wrist, and bolts of electricity shot from it into the escaping suspect, incapacitating him.

I pressed at my own wrist, too – but where Te’rnu had cool mechsuit functionalities, I had only my console. I sent my drafted message through to the local police, telling them that we had successfully apprehended the target.

‘Let’s see if you’ve got any of it on you,’ I murmured as I crouched down by our horizontal suspect. I patted him down, and found – to no surprise whatsoever – that he did indeed have some of the Stirlik capsules on him.

I looked up at Te’rnu. ‘Hey, you’re recording this, right? I don’t want there to be any doubt that these weren’t planted on him.’

Te’rnu nodded.

‘I suspect some of our competitors out there would plant stuff like this to get paid…’

The local police soon arrived – a local Abinaxian who seemed more preoccupied in smiling at passers-by than she did at handling our apprehended suspect. She nodded to us, and then, eventually, scanned the man that I was holding to the floor.

‘Ha. No wonder he’s a criminal,’ the police officer said. ‘Look at this.’

She turned her wrist to show me the information on her own console.

‘…Only thirty followers,’ she continued. ‘Surprised he didn’t resort to a life of crime earlier.’

I laughed along, pretending as though my own social media profile had more than twelve followers – among them, an overprotective mother, an employee who only recently left the village he grew up in, and a sister who had been missing for several years. Te’rnu knew enough to keep his mouth shut about this.

‘Will you have enough to prosecute him with?’ I asked. ‘Given that there’s a chance that his buyers won’t have memory of him any more.’

‘I think you overestimate him,’ the police officer replied. ‘Low-follows like him don’t usually have the brains it would take to program the ‘Liks in that way. I suspect those memories will be undamaged.’

I shrugged. ‘OK. Cool. Anything else you need?’

The officer shook her head. ‘Nope, all set – I’ll take him in. Thanks for your help with this. I’ll give you a five star rating.’

I shrugged. ‘No worries. I mean, we’re getting paid for this, not like we were just doing it out of the kindness of our hearts.’

‘Four stars, then, maybe,’ the police officer replied, before hauling the suspect into their van.

‘Maybe you should’ve-’ Te’rnu began, but then I nodded to show that I had realised my mistake there.

Small footsteps patted the ground behind us, and I turned to see Solita, our informant, running to catch us up.

‘I see you caught him. I guess your client will be happy?’

She patted me on the arm as if to say – good work.

A headache came over me, and I blinked back the pain from the momentary searing pain.

Fuck, that’s come on quick. Must be the hangover kicking in.

‘Well, that’s what you get when you hire the best detective agency in the galaxy,’ I replied, forcing a smile through the pain.

‘I am not sure about that,’ Te’rnu contradicted me. ‘By no metric are we the best; we do not bill the most, we do not have the highest rated reviews, we do not-’

‘Yes! Thanks, Te’rnu,’ I replied.

Solita approached Te’rnu, patted him on the upper back. ‘Oh, I’m sure you’re better than you think,’ she told him. ‘You caught a ‘Lik smuggler, after all. No easy feat.’

We soon parted ways, and Te’rnu and I headed back to the shuttle station – for transport off this planet. A big part of me was glad to see the back of it.

Once settled in our off-world shuttle, I began working on writing up a report for the client. This was my least favourite part of the job, but I couldn’t yet trust Te’rnu to describe the nuances of our work correctly. That is to say: his reports made our work sound too easy, and perhaps not worth the amount we were charging our clients.

I, on the other hand, enjoyed buying expensive things and running a profitable agency, so I tended to employ artistic license when writing up the reports that we sent with the invoice.

After this case, however, I had another reason to play fast and loose with the truth: I couldn’t quite remember everything we’d done. It was those damn famous Abinaxian cocktails that had done it – how could anyone say no to them? There were cocktails that changed flavour as you drank them. Some fizzed and popped and even buzzed in your mouth. Their most famous cocktail of all was known as Liquid Fire – very literally, an alcoholic plasma which warmed you as it poured down your throat. It was this drink, in particular, that meant my memory was a little fuzzy… and my head a little achy.

Te’rnu glanced over, eyes narrowed, as I tapped furiously at my console, keen to wrap up the report so I could relax for the remainder of the journey. My friend’s angry eyes were not enough to make me type more quietly, and he was far too polite and proper to speak up about it.

‘Told you we don’t need a team,’ I announced to Te’rnu as I sent off the final report and invoice – without, admittedly, spending the time to read it back to myself.

Te’rnu shot me a look which roughly translated to: “I don’t agree but I don’t want to have this debate again”. If he were Terran, he would have rolled his eyes in a big, big way.

Not minutes after I sent the report and invoice, the client contacted me. In fact, when accounting for the amount of time it would have taken for the signal to reach her, it was more like seconds. My console beeped to let me know that a communication was coming in.

I breathed a heavy sigh; a response this quick could only mean that the client was going to push back on the amount we were charging. I put myself into sales mode before answering.

‘Hello?’ I began, ‘I mean- Raynor Investigations, Syl Raynor speaking. How may I help you?’

‘Syl! Hi!’ the client responded. ‘I just got your message. I wanted to check that I’m understanding this right – you’ve finished the job already?’

Oh! It was going to be the opposite, then – not having charged enough.

‘That’s right, Huara. All sorted. Got the distributer, all locked up now, I believe. Shouldn’t be any more ‘Liks on Abinax any time soon.’

‘Oh, really?’ the Huara replied. ‘As easy as that?’

‘As easy as that,’ I reiterated.

‘I thought it would take at least a few weeks. Well… I guess I’m not complaining – means you’re charging less, after all.’

Damn it, I really should have stretched this case out a little more.

‘I mean… yeah. I guess we are. I sent my report along with the invoice – if you want to give it a read and then you can give me a buzz if there’s any questions?’

‘I’ll do that!’ Huara replied, and the line went dead.

‘Well… bye, then,’ I muttered pointlessly into the headpiece.

The call over with, I turned to smile smugly at Te’rnu.

‘Easy peasy,’ I said.

‘“Easy pea-”,’ he began to question, then changed his line of enquiry. ‘Do you remember…’

‘Remember what?’

Te’rnu’s brow was furrowed. ‘Do you remember how we knew that suspect was the one we wanted? It’s a bit of a blur to me.’

‘You got a headache, mate?’ I asked, pointing at the pained expression on his face.

‘Yes, I guess that I do,’ he replied.

I held a finger in the air – one moment – and reached into my bag, pulling from it a bottle of aspirin.

I threw the bottle towards him. Te’rnu caught it, opened it, and lobbed a couple of tablets into his mouth.

‘This will help?’

‘Usually helps me,’ I replied, noting that my head, too, was hurting – that hangover not yet having loosened its grasp on me.

‘Ah,’ said Te’rnu, pointedly, ‘Yes. Of course it does.’

If you’re gonna call me out on the drinking, Te’rnu, just go ahead and do it.

‘I think…,’ Te’rnu began, his eyes widening. ‘I think this might be…’

‘Iyrogenesis?’ I asked.

He nodded.

‘Well… let me know if the pain gets worse. Chances are it’s just a headache, though. We all get them – no need to get ahead of yourself.’

‘Not me,’ he murmured, and then sat back in his seat, strikingly still.

I checked the time left on our journey – still another good few hours. Not quite enough time for a good sleep, but certainly enough time to make a cup of tea or two.

Standing from the seat, I made my way over to the dispenser and programmed in my order.

‘Want one?’ I called over to Te’rnu.

‘No…,’ he replied, still not moving.

‘How’s that head? Getting better?’ I walked over to his seat and stood over him.

‘I think so.’

‘Good,’ I replied, and patted him gently on the shoulder. ‘No transformation for you just yet, then.’

The shuttle console beeped – we’d been assigned a landing time. There would be no queues on Terra today, not this once.

I sighed, sat back down in my seat. It was time to spend the remaining journey preparing myself – both mentally and emotionally – to once again face the single biggest challenge I had in my life: my mother.

This time, at least, I wasn’t alone.

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Chapter 18: A Brave New Z’h’ar

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I grabbed at the back of Te’rnu’s suit, pulling him in the opposite direction, away from the ten or so phaser rifles being pointed our way. We bolted back through the doors… and into yet more Iyr. This was it, then; we were, at last surrounded, with no more tricks up our sleeves.

Speaking of…

I glanced at the EMP device on my wrist. It was still rebooting, currently up to only 18%.

I looked around for a weapon, for an escape route, for anything… but came up empty.

Shooting Te’rnu a sad look, I put my arms up in surrender and slowly returned to the shuttle bay.

The Iyr squad leader gestured towards an empty wall by the door. ‘Our boss will want you up against there,’ they told us.

Without saying a word to one another, Te’rnu and I walked up to the wall, placed our backs against it, and faced down the group of armed Iyr.

‘No,’ the same Iyr instructed. ‘Face the wall. You will not have the honour of looking your killers in the eye.’

Te’rnu slowly turned around to face the wall. I remained still.

‘You do not turn around?’ the Iyr asked.

I sighed, and in a resigned tone, asked, ‘What if I don’t? What you gonna do, kill me?’

‘Turn around,’ the Iyr repeated. I ignored them, instead looking over my shoulder to Te’rnu.

‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered.

‘It is OK,’ he replied. ‘I think I have done, now, what I was born to do.’

Te’rnu’s voice was shaking, and yet his words sounded so confident. He showed strength in the face of death.

Reaching behind me, I gripped his hand, squeezed it gently.

‘Turn… around,’ the Iyr growled, ‘I will not ask again.’

The shuttle bay doors shot open and the Head of Guard stormed inside, followed by the same squad from the mainframe terminal. He took a moment to survey the situation here, before walking up to me.

The red-helmeted Iyr grabbed my right wrist and twisted it so that he could look at the EMP. Upon seeing that it was on only 21%, he nodded.

They looked down at my other hand and snickered.

‘Holding hands, are we?’ they asked.

I didn’t grace them with an answer.

The Head of Guard walked over to the side of armed guard squad, clearing their line of sight.

I glanced at my wrist again: 23%.

‘I know what you are thinking,’ the Head of Guard continued, ‘But that device you have is not going to save you this time. We will be done here long before it re-charges.’

‘“Done here”? What exactly does that mean?’ I asked. ‘You’re gonna shoot us? Why?’

The Iyr laughed. ‘Why? You ask why?!’

‘There’s no point harming us now! The damage is done! You’re not preventing the truth from getting out there, there’s nothing left to hide!’

The Head of Guard said nothing for a moment, and instead simply stared with those mechanical, glowing eyes.

‘You are criminals. You do realise this, am I correct?’

‘Yes, but-,’ I started to argue.

‘Perhaps I am not correct. Perhaps you think yourselves heroes. This is why your planet has the reputation such as it has, Terran; you believe that your moral compass, your ethics, are absolute. You do not consider, even for a moment, that there might be space for different ways of life out here across the galaxy.

‘And so, you, safe in the knowledge that nothing you do could be considered evil, head to our planet. You feel free to meddle in things that are none of your business. You destroy our way of life, and you justify it to yourself as being the “right thing”.’

‘It is the right thing!’ I shouted.

‘No,’ the Head of Guard replied. ‘Allow me to be the first to tell you this: telling the Arellians the truth about their situation was an evil act.’

‘How? What “evil” things have I done?’

The Head of Guard raised their voice in response. ‘You have destroyed a whole planet’s economy! You have doomed countless Iyr to poverty! You have destroyed centuries old traditions! You have-’

‘A good act is still a good act, even if it has some negative consequences!’ I argued. ‘What evil thing have I done?’

‘Let us see… thievery of Iyr hardware, impersonation of a council official, assault of a senior official, fleeing from justice… have I missed anything?’

‘Bringing an Arellian into the capital?’ another Iyr chimed in.

‘Yes! Bringing an Arellian into the capital! That too. Do they really let such crimes go unpunished on Terra?’

‘…We believe in rehabilitation,’ I replied.

The Head of Guard sighed. ‘Of course you do.’ They shook their head, and then turned to the squad.

‘If you’re so sure about all this, why are you bothering to debate me? You must know, deep down, that this isn’t right?’

‘No!’ they cried back at me. ‘You must pay for this!’

They paused again for a moment, and then continued, voice beginning to crack.

‘You must pay! You- you must! You…’

They trailed off, before shaking their head and riling themselves back up again.

‘Guards! Ready your weapons!’

Te’rnu closed his eyes, screwed his face up. I looked to him, squeezed his hand, and then turned my attention back to the Iyr.

But it was the contents of the security screens behind them caught my attention.

‘Stop!’ I shouted, hands outstretched to signal for the Iyr to halt. ‘Look at the displays! Look what’s happening!’

One of the Iyr turned to look, and then, captivated by what they had seen, nudged their neighbour to look too. One by one, the Iyr all looked over to watch the security screens.

Thousands upon thousands of Arellians marched on the capital, headed for the main gates.

‘Sir, we…,’ one of the Iyr guards started. ‘I think we will be unable to stop them all.’

‘Guards!’ the Iyr group’s red-helmeted leader shouted. ‘Back to your post! Raise your weapons!’

‘But, sir…,’ another piped up. ‘Look.’

Another member of the squad started tapping frantically at the security terminal. ‘Sir! It’s not just here… it’s the whole planet.’

‘Raise your weapons!’ the Head of Guard repeated, voice beginning to falter. The Iyr didn’t move, still transfixed by the marching Arellians on the monitors.

‘Come on, mate, don’t you see?’ I asked. ‘It’s over.’

‘You don’t need to do this,’ Te’rnu offered. ‘Z’h’ar is changing, it is happening before our eyes. Whatever world we had yesterday will be gone by tomorrow.’

‘He’s a smart one, really, isn’t he?’ I turned back to the Head of Guard. ‘Don’t you think it’s time to let it go?’

Our foe sighed, and remained still for a moment before reaching their arm up to their helmet.

‘No, don’t!’ I called out, wincing in anticipation of the weapon feature that I believed was to come.

But instead of pressing one of their helmt’s buttons, they began to remove it. Beneath it was an Arellian, but unlike I had ever seen before. This one had more striking features, a slimmer face, and bright green beautiful eyes.

‘Perhaps… you are right,’ they mumbled.

One of the Iyr guards noticed that their leader had removed their helmet, and followed suit. And after a few seconds, more Iyr noticed, and more. Soon, all the Iyr in the room had revealed their true face, and then those outside the room followed suit.

The Head of Guard turned to me and forced a reluctant smile.

‘I guess, perhaps, it is time.’

All of us – the Iyr, the Terran, and young Te’rnu – spent a few moments standing in silence as we watched the Arellian horde filter in through the main gates and spill out into the streets. There was a certain sense of beauty to it; being here as an entire population grew into themselves, as a whole world changed.

When the sheer awe began to wear off, the Head of Guard silently gestured for the Iyr to follow them. Soon it was only Te’rnu and I left alone in the shuttle bay, the changing Z’h’ar displayed on the security screens around us.

The hums of the building’s generators and the slight buzzes from the displays filled my ears. They seemed to grow louder with every moment that I spent in this room, perhaps even on this planet.

‘Te’rnu, I… I think it’s time for me to go,’ I whispered, nodding to the doorway. ‘In case they change their minds.’

‘You don’t want to see how this all turns out?’ he asked.

I shook my head. ‘I know how it goes. The exploited people rise up against their exploiters. They demand reform. The exploiters give it to them, because they’re outnumbered. Things… get better. It takes time, but overall… eventually… it gets better.’

‘This happened on Terra?’

‘More times than I can count.’

We fell into silence. I ambled over to the shuttle terminal, glancing at the door to check that no Iyr were watching me, that none were ready to change their minds, pounce, arrest me for my supposed crimes.

‘Where will you go?’ my friend asked.

‘First thing I’ll do is go see Mel. Make sure she got out OK. But then, after that, I’ll go wherever they send me.’

‘Who?’

‘My agency. There will be another case. Not as exciting as this one, I’m sure, but it’ll pay the bills. Maybe some quiet job would be nice after all this.’

Te’rnu went quiet, began to stare at his feet.

‘What is it?’ I prompted him.

‘Can I come?’ he asked. ‘Can I come with you?’

I furrowed my brow. ‘Te’rnu… this is your home here. Are you sure you want to leave? Just as things might finally get better?’

He shrugged. ‘I did what I had always hoped to do. I don’t know what I would do here, now. And I am not sure it is my home any more. I cannot return to Te’r’ok, my real home, and… I am not sure I would recognise it after all this. My real home does not exist any more.’

I paused for a moment to gather my thoughts, and pressed a button to summon a transport ship.

‘But what would you do for work? It’s expensive out there, and…’

‘I have some ideas,’ Te’rnu replied, a sly grin on his face.

‘Te’rnu… I mean… the whole point of… of all of this is that you can do whatever you want! If you want to get on this ship then that’s up to you. You don’t need my permission – or anyone’s, in fact.’

He nodded to himself. ‘…I guess so.’

The docking port opened with a whoosh, the transport ship having locked in outside.

‘Time to choose, Te’rnu. What’ll it be?’

He stood still, frozen to the spot.

I walked onto the ship, staring at him from across the threshold.

‘What do you think I should do, Syl?’

I shook my head. ‘I think it’s your decision. I can’t help you.’

There were a few more moments of silence. Te’rnu looked up at me, eyes wide.

‘Will you still…,’ he began, before trailing off.

‘What is it?’

‘Will you still be my friend? Out there?’

I laughed. ‘Of course I will, mate. Whether you stay or go, I’ll be your friend.’

Te’rnu nodded; one firm, confident motion. ‘OK.’

He stepped onto the ship.

‘Glad to have you aboard, Te’rnu.’

We sat down in the shuttle’s cockpit and I programmed in a route for the nearest station – where Mel was hopefully twiddling her fingers in anticipation of my arrival.

‘Is it scary?’ Te’rnu asked.

‘Is what scary?’

‘Flying through the stars.’

I shrugged. ‘Not sure. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to it.’

I started the engines, and Te’rnu’s eyes widened with horror. He gripped the seat firmly as we shot out into the atmosphere, and then, when it all became too much to handle, scrunched up his eyes.

‘Yeah, I guess I’ve just gotten used to it, then.’

I left him to it for a while, keeping an eye on my watch to see how long it would take him to calm down. In the meantime, I tapped at my console, hoping to get a message through to Mel; but the station was too far away, there was too much interference. In fact, everything was too far away from this damned planet.

There being nothing I could do for the moment, I took a few minutes to take the time to centre myself. The last few days had caused my muscles to tighten, my neck to ache, and there was this slight thudding pain in my temples. I closed my eyes, concentrated on my breathing, and before long, I had drifted off to sleep.

‘Are you awake, Syl?’ Te’rnu asked, the sound of his voice bringing me to.

‘Yeah…,’ I mumbled. ‘I guess so.’

‘I don’t see anything. Is that normal? It is all so… dark.’

‘Yeah, it’s normal,’ I replied, words still slurring slightly as I awoke.

‘But there are so many stars out here,’ Te’rnu continued. ‘So I thought it would be bright.’

‘There’s nothing for the light to bounce off, though.’

‘What do you mean?’

I shook my head, rubbed the sleep from my eyes. ‘I’ll explain another time.’

We sat still, staring out into the darkness, the lights from the control panel in front of us illuminating our faces in eerie shades of reds and blues. I looked down to notice that my jacket had been draped over me like a blanket. I shot Te’rnu a smile, but he didn’t see – instead he stared out at the empty spacescape, transfixed by the great beautiful nothing.

I became conscious of a stiffness in my legs from being cramped up in this spacecraft for however many hours it had been. I stood up, touched my toes a few times, and began to wander the ship – not that the ship was really more than one small room.

Te’rnu looked around and watched me.

I ran my hand across the edge of the ship, feeling every crevice. I soon came to a small U’kka dispenser, with long boxes of spare parts at its base.

‘You had U’kka before?’ I called out to Te’rnu.

‘No?’ he replied.

I pressed a button on the machine, but was presented with an error.

Faulty hardware. Please call technician.

I sighed. ‘Maybe that’s for the best.’ I could picture Te’rnu after getting a caffeine fix and the idea filled me with terror.

I next found myself in front of a storage container, running from the floor to the ceiling, about the same size as me. Unable to resist the temptation, I pressed the button on the control panel to open it up.

The cupboard whirred into life, the front folding away, and the interior repositioning to properly display its contents: a mechsuit.

‘Hey, Te’rnu,’ I called out. ‘Have a look at this.’

The mechsuit in front of me was decorated with a thick purple stripe, running diagonally across the body from the left shoulder to the right hip.

Te’rnu arrived at my side.

‘Looks like the Iyr have left you with a little gift.’

‘I am not sure that was their intention,’ he replied. His hands reached out to gently touch the suit.

‘Maybe not. But maybe you should be given one. You know… for services to your people.’

‘Do people get gifts for that?’ he asked.

‘They do on Terra. Well, they used to give titles rather than actual objects, but I think this is better in your case. Try it on!’

Te’rnu needed no further prompting – and stepped forward into the suit. It instantly came into life and adapted to his form, with all those satisfying whirring noises that accompanied such mechanical genius.

‘How’s it fit?’ I asked him.

‘It is…,’ he began, fumbling for the buttons on his helmet, but not finding any. Looking down at his arms, however, he noticed some, and pressed at a button. The helmet unfolded from his head, retreating back into the body of the suit. ‘It is good! Better than a title, I think, too.’

I laughed. ‘We shall see. Get on your knees.’

Te’rnu narrowed his eyes. ‘Why?’

‘Terran thing. Just do it.’

Reluctantly, he got to his knees. I picked up one of the longer boxes from in front of the broken U’kka dispenser, and tapped Te’rnu on either shoulder.

‘When you rise, you shall rise as Sir Te’rnu, knight of Z’h’ar!’

He looked up and broke into a wide grin. ‘Knight of Z’h’ar! I like that.’

‘Better than the mechsuit?’

‘Not quite. Sorry.’

I snickered again. ‘Fair enough.’

The control panel at the front of the ship beeped. Ahead, sparkling in the distance, our destination was just about in sight.


Arc 1 Epilogue

We collected Mel and landed on Itagurinatipilazutinafi, where her father welcomed us. Mel explained to him – sparing absolutely no detail, and going off on a lot of tangents along the way – how we’d been the ones to save her. Her father responded, in turn, by hugging each of us for several minutes. He was so happy, in fact, that Te’rnu and I each were left with a wet patch on our shoulders from where the tears of joy had flowed.

We were hosted by his family for several days, each day treated to new feasts, activites, and everything else that the planet had to offer. If solving every case was rewarded like this one was, I might have tried harder in my work.

On our second day on Itagurinatipilazutinafi, Mel, Te’rnu and I were given, free of charge, access to the planet’s premier spa. While Mel and I gushed in agreement that this was exactly what we both needed after everything we’d been through, Te’rnu tried to eat every product the attendants put on his face.

Leave the cucumbers alone, Te’rnu.

Between treatments, I received a message on the console from my mother which made my gut twist in horror. The communication, with no signs that she was speaking ironically or that she was under duress, told me that she was proud of me. When I replied, pressing her on this further, it turned out that our rescue of Mel had made galactic news – if a little overshadowed by the revolution on Z’h’ar.

If I had felt any joy in reading those messages from my mother, it was whipped away from me when a second communication came in – from Saotchun.

I groaned audibly as I realised that it was from him. Te’rnu’s face shot up from a mud bath when he heard this.

As always, I skimmed the agency message.

…where the hell are you? We have people ringing for you! Jobs to be done! … Heard about the bonus that the client sent you. Regulations stress that such bonuses must be paid directly to the employer, a.k.a. me. … I expect the units to be deposited by … If you wish to continue with your employment here at this renowned agency, you shall respond within …

I huffed and sighed as I skimmed it, and suddenly realised that Te’rnu was reading it over my shoulder.

‘This is your new boss?’ he asked me.

I rolled my eyes and nodded. ‘’Fraid so.’

‘I… have an idea.’

I turned to face him properly. ‘What is it?’

‘You remember when I boarded the ship for the first time? And you asked me what I would do out here amongst the stars?’

‘Yeah…’

‘I could work for you.’

I moved to speak, but Te’rnu interrupted me before I could.

‘Let me finish, please! I could work for you, and you could be the boss. I know you were sent a reward for your work. Do not give it to this… Saotchun. Use that to start your own agency, where you can take the cases you want, and where you get to take the rewards for yourself. You do not need to work for these people. You are smart. You are capable. I know this.’

‘And… you would work for me?’

‘Yes,’ Te’rnu replied, nodding. ‘You would teach me. I would be your assistant. If that would be OK with you, that is.’

‘I don’t know, Te’rnu… starting a new business, it’s difficult, and it’s hard to find new work and get off the ground, and…’

‘I read that message, Syl. There are people calling for you, this Saotchun says. I know that I know little of the galaxy, but my understanding is that there will be no shortage of work out there.’

I considered this for a moment. Deep down, I knew there was only one real answer:

Fuck the agency; it’s time to live for me.

‘OK.’

Te’rnu’s eyes widened. ‘OK? You will do it?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, watching as a smile took over Te’rnu’s face. ‘But we only take cases that will help people, if we can. Deal?’

‘Yes! Deal. I agree,’ Te’rnu replied. ‘And…’

‘And what, Te’rnu?’

‘I know you were not able to decode all of Leya’s journal. But we have a part of it. We can take jobs on planets that we know she visited. We can learn more. Perhaps we can decode more, too. Maybe we will even find her along the way.’

I found my mouth stretching into a smile. ‘Yeah. Maybe we will.’

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Chapter 17: Closing In

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As we entered the mainframe room, I stopped and turned for one last look. To my disbelief, there was still nobody on our tails. I did some mental maths – we had left the shuttle bay about five minutes ago, and it had taken us the same length of time to get there from the cells. If the Iyr were following in our footsteps, then they were arriving at the shuttle bay at that moment. We didn’t have long.

I rushed to the nearest security terminal, and tapped to bring up the live feeds once again. I was right – the Iyr were in the shuttle bay already. The Head of Guard pointed at their own security terminal, images of Te’rnu and I on their screens. We couldn’t count on having more than a couple of minutes to finish up in here.

‘Te’rnu, they’re coming.’

Te’rnu whipped his head around to look at me, face going white. ‘How long?’

‘Maybe a hundred seconds.’

Te’rnu nodded. ‘I will speak as quickly as I can.’

I rushed to the main terminal, bluffing my way through the user interface until I found the network communications package. As I worked, Te’rnu sat on his shaking hands.

‘Do we have time? To decode Leya’s journal?’

I glanced at the security terminal. The Iyr were close already, wasting no time in getting here.

I shook my head. ‘No. I don’t think we do.’

Te’rnu sat aside. ‘Go ahead.’

I turned to face him, brow furrowed. ‘But if we get caught, your people… they might never learn the truth.’

Te’rnu took my hand, and looked into my eyes.

‘Syl, if it were not for you, I would never have gotten this far. I would never have learned the truth. You deserve this.’

‘No, I-’

‘Decode the journal. Then we run. And-’

I interrupted my friend’s honourable rambling, exasperated in tone. ‘No, stop! Listen! We both saw that statue of Leya. We both heard about what she did for Nu’r’ka. She recognised the brilliance, the greatness of your people, Te’rnu. And so do I. Get ready to speak.’

I set the screen ready to record Te’rnu.

‘On my mark.’

‘On your what?’

‘When I say “go”, you speak. Tell your whole world the truth. Got it?’

Te’rnu nodded.

I got ready to press the broadcast button, but Te’rnu’s hand shot out to stop me.

‘Are you sure about this? What if you never find your sister because of this?’

I forced a smile, and it came out sadder than I had intended. ‘If we’re gonna find her, we’re gonna find her. We have a saying on Terra: whatever will be, will be.’

Te’rnu returned my smile. His was more sincere than mine was. ‘We have that expression here too.’

‘Ready?’

He pulled the head off his mechsuit, turned to me, and nodded. ‘Thanks, Syl.’

‘Go.’

I hurried to the door as Te’rnu began to speak.

‘Arellians. Please, listen to me, I don’t have much time.’

I poked my head outside, and was answered by a wave of phaser fire. I pulled my head quickly back inside, shutting the door firmly behind me.

They were at the end of the corridor already. It was a long way off, but still they would arrive before Te’rnu had a chance to explain himself.

‘My name is Te’rnu. I lived in Te’r’ok, just outside the Iyr capital, and I have dedicated my whole life to learning the truth that the Iyr have kept from us for millenia.’

A glowing light appear in my peripheral vision. I turned to the right. The ends of my hair, down by my shoulders, was burning – caught by the phasers. I patted it out as quickly as I could, before any serious harm could come to myself. Unfortunately, serious harm had already come to my haircut.

This one’s gonna be hard to explain at the hairdresser’s.

‘I was exiled from my own village for seeking the truth, but now, finally-’

‘Hey, Te’rnu?’ I called out. ‘Might wanna get to the point, buddy!’

My friend turned in his chair to face me. ‘Oh! Right! Yes!’

He whizzed back around.

I looked around the room, trying to find some way of getting an advantage over the approaching Iyr. In the corner, I noticed a gun rack – holding only one rifle for the two of us.

‘The truth is: the Iyr are not some other species! They are us!’

I picked the phaser up, held it in my hands… and accidentally fired a beam into the wall.

God, I hate phasers.

Te’rnu instinctively ducked in his chair, and turned again to shoot me a confused expression.

I pulled a face in response – and he turned back to the console.

‘The Mutation is not the end! It is only the beginning! Have you not wondered why the Iyr have always been so keen to help us with it? It is because it marks the beginning of us turning into them!’

I hurried for the door, and, having learned my lesson, did not peek out for a look. Instead, I held only the phaser outside, shooting beams around the corner – and almost certainly into the wall. I prayed that I didn’t hit anyone – killing someone would not go over well with my radical Terran conscience.

‘They are using us for their own personal gain! Our tributes to them are the basis for their entire economy! I implore you, all of you, please: stop giving the Iyr anything. They are doing us no favours. Arellians: stand up to them!’

Te’rnu slammed the broadcast button to end the recording, and rushed over to help me.

‘Quick!’ he shouted to me, at a volume I could just about hear over the sound of phaser fire. ‘Decode the journal! I will do my best to hold them off.’

Not needing to be convinced, I shoved the phaser into Te’rnu’s hands and rushed over to the console, plugging my diary in.

Behind me, the sound of phaser fire quickly faded.

‘Err… Syl?’ Te’rnu asked. ‘I think I have done something wrong.’

I turned to look at my friend to see him pulling the trigger with no effect.

‘You’ve put the safety on! Turn it-’

But it was too late. Te’rnu backed up slowly as a crowd of Iyr entered the room, the Head of Guard at the helm.

Te’rnu and I stepped backwards, away from the Iyr, slowly and cautiously. When my Arellian friend saw that I had raised my hands into the air, he followed suit.

The group stopped a few metres in front of the door, and a silence swept over the room for a few seconds. Tens of red eyes glowed in the dim light, like something out of an old Terran horror movie.

It was the Head of Guard who spoke first, voice swimming with rage, and punctuating each word with a pause.

‘You… are… wearing… my… suit!’ they roared.

Te’rnu gulped.

‘Only most of it,’ I mumbled, under my breath. Any louder and someone might have heard me.

‘What was that?’ the Head of Guard snarled at me.

Oops. They still heard me.

‘Nothing,’ I answered.

The Head of Guard nodded. ‘I thought as much.’

At a menacingly slow pace, they approached Te’rnu and I.

‘Do you know what you have done?’

I shook my head. Te’rnu nodded.

The intimidating Iyr stopped in front of Te’rnu and held their helmeted face with in front of Te’rnu’s.

‘You have doomed your own planet. Do you realise this?’

‘I…,’ Te’rnu began to murmur, ‘I haven’t doomed us. I have told the truth, that is all. We deserve to know.’

‘Why? Why on Z’h’ar do you believe that to be the case?’ the Head of Guard snapped back at him. ‘I was pre-Mutation, once, too, remember. I did my time. Every Iyr in this room did their time. And now that we are old enough to reap the spoils, you do this? You cannot possibly imagine the implications this will have.’

The Head of Guard stopped staring Te’rnu down, and moved on to me.

‘And you,’ they growled at me. ‘I knew from the moment I saw you in that bar that you were nothing but trouble. This is typical of a Terran. You have been brainwashed by your own people. You subscribe to your own sense of ethics, with no room for any other ideas to be considered.’

They chuckled a resigned laugh. I chose an ashamed grin as an appropriate response.

‘No!’ the Head of Guard continued, ‘Do not smile! Do not think you have done good here. I will not have you thinking this!’

They turned to the group of armed Iyr behind them.

‘Guards, ready your weapons.’

I put my arms out in front of me, pleading for them to back off.

‘Wait! No! You’re really going to kill a tourist?’

I didn’t wait for a response; the number of guns pointed towards my face suggested that it wasn’t going to be a good one. Instead, I grabbed at my right wrist, and activated that ever-trustworthy EMP.

Who needs phasers, anyway?

The whoomph echoed around the room as the lights, computer systems, and mechsuits all simultaneously went offline. We were enveloped in almost total darkness – the only source of light being the small window at the end of the corridor.

Without wasting a second, I sprinted towards the door, through the group of frozen Iyr.

‘Syl!’ a voice called out behind me.

Oops – Te’rnu.

I looked back, over my shoulder, but couldn’t make him out in the darkness.

With a sigh, I turned on my heel and rushed back towards him.

‘Ah,’ I said when I saw him. ‘Sorry. Forgot you’d be stuck.’

Te’rnu, like the rest of the Iyr in the room, was wrestling with the hydraulics in his suit – but getting nowhere.

I pulled at the clips around his limbs, one by one, releasing them.

Some of the Iyr guards had managed to move their arms to aim at us, but the click-click-click of the triggers suggested that the rifles hadn’t rebooted just yet. I knew, at least, that we didn’t have long; the phaser in the outpost hadn’t taken too long to re-start, and waiting around here for a more precise estimate was perhaps not a great idea.

My friend wriggled free of the last limb – a leg frozen in place on the ground.

‘The suits are beginning to reboot already,’ Te’rnu told me, voice anxious, ‘We don’t have long.’

‘We don’t need long,’ I assured him.

Te’rnu now free of his suit, we bolted for the door, weaving through the Iyr who were slowly moving to block our exit. We sprinted down the corridor, echoes at our rear of mechsuit feet occasionally hitting the floor as the Iyr trudged on.

We turned the corner at the end of the corridor, heading back the way we’d come – from the shuttle bay. I crashed into an Iyr, who was frozen in place by the rebooting mechsuit.

‘There!’ they called at another Iyr, standing nearby, equally stuck in their place.

They growled as I picked myself back up to my feet, and joined Te’rnu in continuing our escape.

A phaser beam shot over our heads. The phasers were on back online, then – but at least the Iyr were still struggling to aim.

Another shot came – closer this time.

‘Te’rnu!’ I called out, signalling for him to make a turn.

We shot down another corridor, off to our left.

‘We did not come this way?’ Te’rnu asked through heavy breaths.

‘No,’ I replied, equally out of breath. ‘But I didn’t fancy risking a third shot. I know the way.’

We turned another corner – bringing us back on route to the shuttle bay. In this corridor, fortunately, there were no Iyr to speak of. Perhaps because they were retracing our steps – and we hadn’t come this way before.

Soon, the doors to the shuttle bay were back in front of us. Our escape was in sight.

All we needed to do was get in there, barricade the door, and call a shuttle… and then I could get off this damned planet.

We burst through the shuttle bay doors – straight into a squad of armed Iyr guards.

‘We thought you would come back this way,’ one of them gloated.

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Chapter 16: The Truth Is In Here

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‘Leave,’ Te’rnu’s voice announced from the other side of the cell door. There was a strength in his voice, a determination that I’d never heard from him before.

More importantly: he had survived.

Come to save my life yet again, you brilliant Arellian!

And then my heart dropped. Once he broke us free, I would be the one who would have to tell him the truth. A knot formed in my stomach as I imagined breaking the news to him.

‘But-,’ the guard started.

‘Leave. Now.

There was an anger to his voice – one that I’d never heard before.

‘Yes sir.’

The guard stood to attention so hard that I could hear their foot collide with the floor from the next room.

There was a whoosh as the outer door opened, the guard leaving Te’rnu alone in the room.

It was our door, next, that opened.

‘I… Mel told me the truth,’ I told Te’rnu. ‘I know what the Iyr have been hiding. It’s… big. I don’t really know how to…’

The Arellian remained silent, the mechanic red eyes of the suit bearing into me.

‘Do you know already?’ I asked.

Te’rnu nodded.

‘How? Did you get to the mainframe?’

‘I was roped into a meeting.’

‘Been there,’ I muttered, meaning this throwaway comment to lighten the mood – but my heart wasn’t in it.

‘We should move. I think one of them is suspicious of me. I know not how much time we have. And there are thoughts of…’

He turned to Mel.

‘There are thoughts of killing you.’

Mel gulped. ‘Well I’m keen to get a move on! Shall we go? Let’s go. Which way? Left?’

‘I know the way,’ I told her. ‘Follow me.’

We stormed out of the cell block, Mel and I in front, and Te’rnu holding up the rear, so as to maintain our whole detainer-detainee dynamics. As we left the room, we turned right… straight into an Iyr.

This Iyr remained quiet for a moment, and looked Mel and I up and down. Their helmet, half the usual dark grey and half green, glistened in the Central Command’s neon lighting.

‘You,’ the strange Iyr commented when they saw Te’rnu. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Prisoner transfer,’ Te’rnu replied, this strange strength still underlining the tone of his voice. Whatever had happened in the past half hour had changed something inside of him. ‘We are taking them to a more secure location.’

‘We?’ the Iyr asked. ‘It looks as though there is only… one of you. This is, perhaps, not enough for two prisoners, would you not say?’

‘Maybe if it were anyone else, Ve’nua,’ Te’rnu responded, and I noted that he was calling them by name – this wasn’t their first run-in.

They went quiet; both Iyr staring the other down.

Mel inched closer to me. I felt her gently place something in my hand behind my back. The object felt hard, solid, like some sort of pipe.

What was it with all the pipes on this planet?

Ve’nua, currently distracted by Te’rnu, did not seem to notice Mel handing my the object.

Smarter than you look, Mel, I’ll give you that.

Ve’nua approached Te’rnu, and stood uncomfortably close to him. They stared into the mechsuit’s eyes.

‘Is it really you in there?’ they asked.

Te’rnu paused for a moment – just a very briefly, almost imperceptible to anyone that didn’t know him. ‘Of course it is.’

Another small silence as the Iyr tried to size Te’rnu up. ‘I would like you to prove it.’

‘How?’ Te’rnu asked.

‘Can you two hurry it up?’ I interjected, hoping to dissolve the tension. I tapped at my wrist, at an imaginary watch. ‘I have a prison to get to.’

Ve’nua turned to me, snarled viciously, and then whipped their head back around to Te’rnu.

‘Prove you are who you say you are. Remove your helmet.’

‘Ooh, yes please!’ I interrupted again. ‘I would just love to see what kind of body you’ve got hidden under there.’

Our accoster turned to me once again, and spat their response, ‘If you do not keep quiet, I have a function in this suit which will make it impossible for you to be anything but.’

This tactic isn’t working. Why do these Iyr have to have absolutely no sense of humour?

I gripped the object in my hand tightly and prepared myself to use it.

‘I- I cannot remove my helmet in front of the prisoners,’ Te’rnu responded, voice beginning to crack. ‘You know this.’

‘It is simple: you lock them back up, then you remove your helmet. If you are who you say you are, you then put the helmet back on, and continue on your way. If you are not who you say you are, then I kill the three of you where you stand.’

‘I- I-,’ Te’rnu began, turning to face me, clearing struggling. ‘I-’

I pulled the heavy pipe around in a flash, and rammed it towards the back of the Iyr’s helmet – just as Te’rnu had done to the real Head of Guard earlier. It careered into the small metal box at the bottom of the suit’s skull, but – whereas earlier it had caused electricity to envelope the user – nothing happened.

Oh. Not good.

The Iyr froze for a moment, and then, slowly, turned their head to look at me. I didn’t need to see a face to know that they were thinking: “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

‘Syl…,’ Mel started, slowly pulling me backwards away from the presumably enraged Iyr.

Te’rnu, in response to my failed attempt to resolve the situation, shot his hand to his helmet, pressing one of those handy function buttons.

An arc of electricity came forth from his suit, and encompassed our troublesome foe. As always, they froze for a moment, their muscles contracting with the voltage shooting through them, and then fell, with a thud to the floor.

‘You’re getting good at that,’ I told Te’rnu.

He didn’t reply, merely stood staring at the body on the ground in front of him.

‘You OK, bud?’ I followed up. 

‘Are they dead?’ Mel asked. ‘’Cos I would be totally cool with that if he was. I won’t tell anyone.’

‘No. Just unconscious. Right, Te’rnu?’

There was no immediate answer from him.

‘They’re just unconscious,’ I assured Mel.

I grabbed Ve’nua by the arms, and Te’rnu, without needing instruction, grabbed the legs. We heaved them towards the open cell door.

‘Do you always go around knocking people out?’ Mel asked.

‘Honestly?’ I replied. ‘More than we should.’

‘Cool! Cool energy. Like it! Really like it.’

I raised an eyebrow. Was this woman OK?

‘Thanks.’

I slammed the ‘close door’ button on the console and sealed the unconscious Iyr inside.

‘OK,’ I announced. ‘This time, for real: let’s get out of here.’

We wasted no more time. I, for one, had no idea how long these Iyr would remain unconscious. Glancing at the time on my console, I could see it had been a good few hours since Te’rnu had defused the situation in the barracks. For all I knew, the real Head of Guard was waking up at this very moment, rushing to the barracks terminal, letting the whole stronghold know what we had done.

We strode with purpose towards the shuttle bay; Mel and I leading the way, Te’rnu at our rear acting as though he was transporting us. We walked down countless long corridors, bare in decoration but for the screens every few metres and the small crevices that marked the doorways. As we marched, I noticed more and more Iyr glancing our way – but without being able to see their faces, it was impossible to know for sure what they were thinking.

‘Am I being paranoid, or are we getting more and more looks?’ I whispered over my shoulder to Te’rnu, while there was no hostile company in our immediate vicinity.

‘I have noticed this too,’ he replied, his voice strained, as though speaking through a clenched jaw. ‘Do they know?’

I shook my head; the smallest of movements, so nobody else would see that we were communicating. ‘If they knew, they would stop us; that suit wouldn’t mean shit.’

Mel, in spite of the situation, smiled a little at my response.

‘Still laughing at the Terran who swears?’ I asked, allowing myself to grin too. If we were about to get caught, there was no point Mel dying miserable.

‘A little,’ she replied.

As we approached the bay, the screens buzzed into life. I allowed myself a quick glance at them as we strode, and when I saw what they were displaying, I halted instantly. Te’rnu crashed into me from behind, and Mel stopped too, to see what all the commotion was about.

‘Oh, my…,’ Te’rnu mumbled.

‘Understatement of the cycle,’ I replied, equally hushed in voice.

On the screen, the Head of Guard – now risen from his enforced power-nap – shouted angrily and impassionately.

We didn’t waste any time listening to what he had to say. The jig was up.

‘Come on,’ I told Te’rnu. ‘We’re sitting ducks out here.’

‘Sitting-’ Te’rnu began to ask.

‘Come on!’ I repeated, moving now towards the shuttle bay with a sprint.

Mel and Te’rnu also picked up the pace, and we charged down the final corridor and into the shuttle bay. We were fortunate, really, that this building was as large as it was – the few Iyr inside could not hope to cover every room.

When Te’rnu, the last to enter, was safely inside the shuttle bay, I closed the door behind him and locked it from the inside – just as a precaution.

I rushed to a nearby docking terminal.

‘OK, Mel,’ I instructed, trying to make my voice sound as assertive as possible. ‘I’m pulling an empty shuttle in for you now. Get on it. It’ll take you to the nearest GMU station, and-’

‘You aren’t coming?’ Mel asked, her mouth open with disbelief.

‘We’re not done here.’

‘You’ve learned the truth! Your job is done! Your debt is paid! They could kill you if you stay here!’

I shook my head.

‘No.’

‘We need to tell my people,’ Te’rnu interrupted, talkative again for the first time since he return to us. ‘We can’t let them live on like this.’

‘You can message them from the station!’ Mel pleaded.

‘No. The settlement screens are wired in to Central Command only. We can’t do it off planet.’

‘Te’rnu,’ Mel continued to beg, ‘Tell her, please. This is your fight, not her’s!’

‘There’s more,’ I continued, ‘There’s more I need to do here.’

The shuttle docked and the doors opened behind her.

‘What do you need to do? What’s so important that’s worth risking your life for?’

I shook my head. ‘There’s no time. Get on the shuttle. With any luck… I’ll catch up with you.’

Mel went silent, shot me another perplexed face. As she entered the shuttle, I closed the door, but she shot her hand out to stop it.

‘Come with,’ she said, one last time.

I shook my head, and Mel removed her hand, allowing the door to close. The shuttle undocked and I wondered, for the briefest of moments, whether I would live to see her again.

‘Are they outside?’ I asked Te’rnu. He looked at me blankly in response.

I rushed over to the security terminal, and tapped to bring up the closed circuit monitoring system.

‘They’re not. Not yet.’

‘OK,’ Te’rnu replied. ‘Let us take a moment, gather our-’

‘No,’ I interrupted.

‘No?’

‘At the moment, they only know that we’re in the building. Soon as they see a shuttle leaving the atmosphere, they’ll know what room we’re in. We need to be as far away from here as possible.’

Te’rnu nodded. ‘I understand.’

I tapped at the terminal once more, bringing up live feeds to the screens. Tens of Iyr guards filled the images.

Hm. Just how much did I really want this journal decoded?

‘It looks as though our path to the mainframe room is clear for now – most the Iyr are at the cells still, retracing our steps. For now.’

‘I shall keep my hand on the Incapacitate function.’

We nodded to one another. This was it, then: our big shot.

Te’rnu and I rushed for the doors, sprinting down the corridors that were, according to the screens a few moments earlier, devoid of any enemy presence.

On we ran, fighting our breath as we ploughed down corridors, and praying with every corner that we turned that we weren’t about to run into an Iyr – and our almost-certain deaths.

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Diary Excerpt 2: “Crowdfunding For Deaths”

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The Diary of Leya Raynor
“Crowdfunding For Deaths”
Gu, 13b-05-2332

So it turned out that the deceased man’s daughter, Ti, was still two rotations out; she was taking the Megashuttle. This service was, in reality, anything but “mega”, and stopped at every so-called planet and ramshackled space station along the way. Clearly she wasn’t earning very much on Rykan. But then, Rykan wasn’t the sort of planet you work on if you’re trying to get rich. No. It’s the sort of planet you work on to have a good time. They don’t call it the “Party Planet” for nothing.

This meant that I was waiting around with the grieving family for a little while. Over time, I even became quite familiar to many of them – so much so that I became involved in the funeral preparations. To properly understand Gulien funerals (and, therefore, what I was up to over these rotations), you need to know a little history of the planet.

Gu was initially abundant in natural resources – even more so than most planets. As a result, their economy boomed for hundreds of cycles, and they became a key trading hub for the Iron Sector. Over time, the inhabitants got lazy, began to rely on these natural resources to sustain their wealth, and didn’t truly do anything to remedy this situation until the resources were almost completely depleted. By then, of course, it was too late. Surprise, surprise!

So suddenly everything became unaffordable. People had to adapt, and they started to reuse, recycle, and generally just become less wasteful. But that’s not where the problems arose.

The issues came about when all the businesses started to go bust, people lost their jobs, and then income and wealth tax revenues plummeted. Government budgets shrank by over ninety percent in less than one cycle. Suddenly all their services, their programmes, their subsidies and benefits were no longer viable investments. People, now, had to get by on their own.

So death rates spiked for a few years, everyone cut back on having children, people were generally miserable. They have a name for this period in their history… but I don’t remember what it is.

[Note to self: look up the name for the period of economic downturn on Gu, and try to remember to edit this bit of the entry later. If you’re reading this, and your name is not Leya Raynor, then, woops, I forgot – sorry.]

I’m not sure any other planet has gone through so much economic turmoil as Gu. Or, at least, there’s none that survived it with a written record. But the Guliens did – I guess that speaks to the ingenuity (and, I’ve come to realise, the obstinancy) of these people.

So, over time, the Guliens worked out other ways of providing the services that the population needed. Teachers would work for food, clothing, etc from the families of the children they taught. Guliens sold their bodies for medical testing from trans-galactic corporations so they would cover their healthcare bills. Many emigrated from Gu, and sought out new employment (and new lives) amongst the stars.

You get the idea; people changed. It’s funny how there’s that old adage that “people don’t change”. Gu is living proof that they do – when they have to.

Then, somewhere along the way, some Gulien had a bright idea. Out of work and in desperate need of a new shuttle, she reached out to strangers to ask for small donations towards her own personal investment. In return, these strangers would be given advertising space on her shuttle, in proportion to the number of Units they put forward.

The more successful local businesses jumped at the idea. So-and-so’s grocery store took a big chunk of the rear. Some mister’s tailoring service was plastered over the hoverpads. And the Rykan tourist board, bemused by the idea, paid enough to have the front of the shuttle dedicated to their new spa/hotel complex. (I suspect, perhaps, this wasn’t a great move on their part, seeing as most Guliens couldn’t afford off-world travel at this point.) Hopefully their ad man has since found other employment.

The out-of-work Gulien got enough Units for her shuttle, as well as enough to start her own electronics store. It was a rousing success! Hooray! People, both locally and across the globe took notice, and started to draw up their own plans…

So it was then that the Gulien crowdfunding phenomenon began. 

The reason all this is relevant is: Gu, still, to this day, does not provide public funeral care. So when this family that I was staying with lost their patriarch, funding became an issue. People emptied out their pockets, looked behind their proverbial sofas, and called up old friends for help. As I suspect is often the case on Gu, doing all this did not cover the full bill. And, as we know, whenever there’s a bill to pay on Gu nowadays… they turn to crowdfunding.

This left a grieving family, sat around their father/brother/uncle’s body, wondering how on Gu they were going to come up with a funeral idea novel enough that people across the galaxy would donate to them. At this point, while they were sitting around, having been up all night and craving a cup of U’kka, a stranger knocked on their gate. This stranger, of course, was me.

While I was waiting for the daughter to arrive with the information that I was after, I made myself as useful as possible. There were only so many cups of U’kka that I could make, however, and soon I was roped in to helping in other ways. The family sat me, an unbiased observer, down on the sofa to listen to their various crowdfunding pitches. I, they told me, represented the intergalactic community, and therefore if I liked something, there would be enough demand for it to be viable.

The first pitch, from the deceased’s two younger brothers, began with a sigh from all the other participants. They weren’t happy with this idea, they told me, but the brothers insisted that they were given a fair chance to present their concept.

They began by reminding me of the typical Gulien funeral process; words would be said about the deceased, before the body was covered in a local (highly-flammable) mineral, and set alight. The attendees would typically watch as the fire died out, and once there was nothing but ashes remaining, they would begin to celebrate the deceased’s life.

The brother’s twist on this would be: they would shoot the body up into the sky, packaged with huge amounts of the mineral, with a short fuse on it. The body, as well as few other explosives, would be set off in the sky, producing a brilliant light show for everyone in the vicinity.

They were perturbed when I said that this reminded me of an old Terran ritual, and when I brought an example of a fireworks show up on my holodisplay, the novelty of the idea quickly dissipated.

The sister, pitching next, began by playing some soft, gentle Gulien jazz from her console, setting the mood. Her idea, she said, was a classic – and a classic for a reason. She had heard of wealthy people on Terran who seek out and collected chunks of pressurised carbon, which they would often wear on their wrists or around their neck. Her idea was that they would collect the crowdfunding donations as a loan, use these Units to get the body cremated, and then pressurise the remains with overclocked sonar devices. The carbon, she explained, would be pressed into the form that Terrans so often sought out, and so she could sell the remains of the body at a profit. These profits would go back to the crowdfunders, thereby giving them reason to invest.

She was sad to hear me explain that diamonds had long-since gone out of fashion on Terra, and so I wasn’t convinced there would be that much of a market any more. Her dejected face made my gut twist with guilt, and I apologised – but she said there was no need. It was better, she figured, that they find that out now rather than later.

Finally, the son, Lo, came to pitch, bringing with him stacks and stacks of something I had barely ever seen before: paper. He dumped it down on the table in front of him, and declared that this was his father’s life’s work. Other families chimed in: he always was a madman, imagine using paper in this day and age, how wasteful, etc etc.

I asked Lo what exactly was written out here, and, more importantly, why it was even written out. I was told that it was some kind of medical study, but was largely incomprehensible to him. His sister, when she arrived, would be able to explain more. All that Lo knew, all the he’d ever been told, was that it was important – so important was it, in fact, that his father had refused to digitise it for fear of the information being illegally accessed.

Lo’s plan, therefore, was that something kept so secret must inherently be worth something. He would sell this work to the highest bidder; it felt fitting that his father’s life’s work would pay for his death.

In lieu of any better concepts, it was this last idea that the family agreed upon. The group of us – the grieving family and I – began to scour the pages to try to understand what they contained… and hoped that the sister would bring with her some illuminating knowledge.

It took even longer than expected for the dead man’s daughter, Ti, to arrive. Some unexpected meteor shower around Yrgg had meant that the landing queue times grew to over 24 hours, which was particularly frustrating for Ti, considering that she wasn’t even getting off there.

Anyway, she remarked when she arrived, she was here now, and they could get on with it. She was a decisive sort – the type of person that everyone listens to when they say something. I think I’m like that a little bit, so we were two like minds.

Ti put the seal of approval on the son’s funeral funding plan, and that seemed to be enough for the whole family to commit – except for one of the uncles, who studied her with wary eyes. He was weird, though, so nobody paid him much attention.

Once Ti had put to bed any remaining loose ends, she made some time to speak with me. Lo, Ti and I sat the father’s study, and Ti began to explain…

She didn’t know exactly what her father’s life’s work was allow about – he really did keep it that hush-hush. But, being only a young child at the time, she had allowed herself to eavesdrop a little. She remembered her father talking to another man about this work, almost as though the other man was in charge. Ti didn’t recognise the man at first, but soon became used to him slipping in and out in the night. Once, even, he showed up during the day, and Ti and Lo were allowed to speak with him.

This was where Lo spoke up. This strange man, he was sure, was Ira Raynor, my father. I showed Ti a picture of him, and, although she wasn’t completely sure about it, she seemed to agree.

Now that I had confirmation, I pushed Ti on it further. I could taste how close I was to finding him already – and it had only been a few days!

But Ti grew quiet, afraid, and did not like the idea of saying more aloud. Both Lo and I encouraged her to share what she knew, and, eventually, she did give in.

There was one thing she’d overheard my father and her’s discuss: telepathy.

Hearing this, all the memories I’d repressed flooded back: the way he’d been able to control me, to control Syl, even.

Of course, none of it was ever done out of malice, or ever intended to cause harm. It was all to protect us. It was to keep us away from potential partners he thought might hurt us. Or it was to keep us inside when the climate was dangerous. Whatever it might have been on that particular occasion, the protection of his daughters was at the heart of it.

But while he thought he was keeping us from harm, we were damaged in a wholly different way. That internal way, that damage to the heart, that might make a mother take ‘Liks to forget, or might make a daughter turn to alcohol to suppress.

In that moment I knew that I needed to own the dead man’s work, to understand what its value was to my father.

Although it wasn’t quite enough, Ti allowed me to purchase the documents with the contents of my savings. I worried that they’d struggle to send their father off properly if I didn’t pay the full amount, but the siblings simply smiled at me. They’d find a way, they told me; Gulians always do.

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Chapter 15: A Sheep In Wolf’s Clothing

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Six of the Iyr guards came into the room, all armed with those horrible phasers. I was beginning to see why Syl did not like them.

The guards, upon seeing Syl, aimed the rifles at her, completely ignoring me.

‘Alright, don’t shoot, I surrender!’ she cried out. ‘We don’t want an intergalactic incident on our hands, do we?’

At this point, I remembered that I was in disguise. Disguises were good, I decided. I would have to do disguises more often.

When the Iyr did finally see me, they stood up straight, put their hands to their faces, and shouted, in unison, ‘Sir!’

I knew from earlier that this was a sign of respect, that they thought themselves somehow inferior to me (or, at least, to the Iyr that I was disguised as).

Oh! No need for the instant kill, then.

Part of me was disappointed; I wanted to see what it did. The other, much larger part of me, knew that I didn’t want to have to live with killing anyone, even an Iyr. I pulled my hand away from the buttons on the suit’s visor.

I stood up straight, hoping that this was how the Iyr – the so-called “Head of Guard” – would have acted. 

‘Thank you, soldiers, for the reinforcement,’ I told the Iyr, putting on my deepest voice – a mark of authority, I reckoned. And then, realising that I would need to explain this situation in order to keep my cover intact, added, ‘I was just in the process of arresting this… intruder.’

The Iyr nodded, and remained silent.

Great! I am a convincing Head of Guard! I would never have known.

‘She…,’ I started, pointing at Syl, and then realised that the Iyr did not use that word. ‘They already knocked out one of the guards.’

I pointed at two of the Iyr.

‘You! Take this one to the medical bay.’

That got rid of two of them. Maybe I should have ordered more away.

‘Yes, sir!’ the Iyr replied, and picked up the guard I had assaulted by their limbs.

‘That looks comfy,’ Syl muttered. I tried to shoot her a disapproving look, but it was hard to get the meaning across from under this helmet.

The four remaining Iyr, angered by Syl’s characteristically irritating throwaway comments, aimed their rifles at her once again.

I watched in horror, frozen, as one of the guard moved their hand to the buttons in their visor.

Please not Instant Kill!

‘Wait,’ Syl began, ‘What are you-’

When the button was pressed, a huge wave of light came forth from the helmet and shot into Syl, who screamed and collapsed to the floor.

Oops. I should have acted sooner there. You need to be better at this, Te’rnu. Oh well. She is still alive. If a little hurt…

‘…not a fun feature,’ Syl muttered to herself.

The guards picked her up and threw her into the cell, closing the door behind her. I just had a chance to glimpse another occupant, looking tired, dirty, and sad, sat in the corner of that room.

This must be who Syl was looking for.

‘Sir, what should we do with the prisoner?’ an Iyr asked me.

Think, Te’rnu, think!

‘I… I will deal with them later.’

I was going to come back for her later, then. Perhaps in the meanwhile, I could use this disguise to gain access to the central terminal.

But without Syl’s technological knowledge…

‘Of course,’ a guard interrupted my train of thought. They looked at a display of some kind on their right arm. ‘It started a few moments ago, but I am sure they will understand your delay… given the circumstances.’

Meeting? What sort of meeting? Food, I hoped.

‘I… err…,’ I started, and then forced my mouth closed until I could formulate my response properly. ‘Yes!’

I pointed to one of the Iyr.

‘You. Keep guard here. You three: please escort me to the meeting.’

That should make it easier to break Syl out on my return.

One of the Iyr turned to me, grabbed me gently by the upper arm. I hoped my biology was not so different from the Iyr that they would notice the difference through the suit.

‘I do not mean to question your orders, sir, but should we not keep more than one guard on this post, given the security breach?’

I shook my head. ‘It is all resolved now. The damage has been contained.’

There was a short pause.

Had my disguise been seen through?

The Iyr nodded. ‘Of course, sir.’

…Apparently not.

One of the other guards opened the door, and gestured for me to follow. When it shut once again behind me, it dawned on me that I was alone. I did not have Syl to back me up. I was alone; a Guran amongst the Truvets, prey in the land of predators.

My newly-formed troupe of guardsman escorted me through the building, along the winding corridors and into the still mind-blowing transmats. In silence we walked, until finally we arrived at a large room.

This atrium was host to a large, long table, at which a number of Iyr sat, each with their suits decorated in their own unique way. If my suit belonged to an important Iyr, then these suits did too. Above them was a large, complex metallic web of glass, refracting the light in every which direction. This was art unlike I had ever seen before.

I tried my best not to be distracted by this complicated lighting mechanism – I knew that the real Head of Guard would have seen it many times before – but still it drew my eye. The table turned to watch as I approached the table, and took the last remaining available seat.

As I did so, the Iyr at the very end of the table announced, ‘I am glad that we could all make it.’

The table’s occupants all looked at me as the room fell silent.

The Iyr across from me but one, with a green upper-half of their helmet, coughed, and then told me, ‘That, I believe, was a cue for your to explain the reason for your late arrival.’

‘Yes, thank you, Ve’nua,’ came a voice from the end of the table.

‘Oh!’ I said, possibly in a more upbeat manner than was appropriate, ‘Yes! There was an intrusion. An off-worlder in the Central Command. It has since been dealt with.’

Many Iyr around the table nodded their agreement. The one at the end of the table, sporting an entirely purple helmet, asked, ‘We are not expecting any more intrusion, then, I trust?’

I nodded. ‘That is correct.’ A pause. I added, ‘…sir.’ It seemed to be the thing to do around here.

‘Well, then, as we are not going to be disturbed, may I suggest that we remove our helmets so that we may be comfortable?’

‘What?’ I found myself asking.

All heads turned to look at me.

‘I mean… I am afraid that I cannot… sir.’

‘And why not?’ the purple-helmeted Iyr asked.

I paused for a moment. It was better to gather my thoughts than to say something that wasn’t foolproof. If I got caught, an Arellian, here… then I might not be so lucky as to be let go.

‘Because I am the Head of Guard, sir. It is my duty to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice. If that means I must be less comfortable, then that is a price I willingly pay.’

Good. That felt good. Very smart thinking, Te’rnu.

A pause. The apparent leader nodded. ‘Very honorable.’

Ve’nua continued to stare, even once others had looked away.

Did they see through my disguise?

I felt my forehead begin to sweat, my heart rate start to raise. Was there a mechsuit in this room which could see such things?

I cast my doubts aside; there was something bigger at hand. I was about to see it: the face of the Iyr. Perhaps this would reveal the truth that I had spent my whole life searching for.

I stared at the Iyr leader, whose hands had risen to their helmet, fingers detaching it from the rest of the suit…

My own hands gripped the bottom of my seat in anticipation.

This was it! It was finally happening! It-

My heart dropped when the first head was revealed. I thought I was imagining what I saw. I blinked over and over as if to wash this hallucination from my sight. But it did not work.

How could this be?

Ve’nua spoke at me. But I could not listen. I could not make out the words.

They paused for a moment, and then repeated themselves. This time I could hear them, but as though they were at the end of a long tunnel – only an echo of their voice.

‘Are you feeling alright?’ they asked. ‘You are acting odd. And your voice…’

‘I… I am fine,’ I said back to them, with a dismissive motion. They did not seem convinced, but left it at that for now.

As I looked around the room, Arellian after Arellian revealed themselves. I could hear nothing of the debate at the table, only of my own heart beat. It pounded. Louder and louder it pounded, until my head was filled with nothing but the drums.

How could this be?

I looked again. They were Arellian… but not. Hair sprouted where it should not have. Wrinkles in the skin – like the sort Syl had a few of on her forehead – were pervasive on some of the faces. What had happened to these Arellians to make them this way?

How could this be?!

I clenched my hands on my chair. I breathed deeply.

It was almost as though these Arellians were… older.

Ur’tnu had been correct.

He had been correct; we could live on. We could live on past the Mutation. We could live on… here, in the strongholds.

But what would possess these Arellians to abandon their younger selves?

My hearing was beginning to return to me.

‘-must be released soon or else we risk war. Is that a policy which will aid our economic growth? I think not.’

I looked down the table. An Iyr at the leader’s right hand was speaking.

Another interrupted. ‘Then what do you suggest? You forget that they are an important person. They are related to the Itagurinatipilazutinafi – the one responsible for our GMU exit deal. If news travels that we have them, here, then what sort of trade deal can we expect in the future?’

They pounded their fist on the table.

‘None! We can expect no exit deal. All our work over the past three rotations will have been for nothing!’

They look like Arellians, but they do not speak as us. Their nature is that of paranoia, of harm. Who are these Iyr to rule over us?!

The original Iyr countered, ‘I see that we have two real options. Either we release the prisoner, and suffer the consequences, or we keep them where they are until the deal is finalised. As Head of Intergalactic Policy, I favour the former, but-’

‘We release them? Do you truly understand the implications of this? Not only will there be no deal to speak of, but the truth will be revealed to the Arellians. You are talking about the end of a several thousand year tradition!’

I noticed Ve’nua still staring at me, seemingly paying less attention to the debate.

A new Iyr spoke up. ‘Agreed! The Tradition must be preserved at all costs. Our economy depends on it. If we have no intergalactic trade deal as well as no willing manual labour, then we can forget about growth for ten – maybe even hundreds – of rotations!’

Ve’nua, only now looking away from me, spoke up. ‘There is… a third option.’

All heads turned to them. There was a silence, even from the leader and their enraged right hand Iyr.

‘They could be disposed of. Quietly. Nobody would ever know that we were involved.’

What? How dare they speak this way – deciding who lives and who dies.

I could feel my heart beat surging again.

Even the rest of the Iyr remained silent. Equally, however, none immediately voiced an opposition to this idea.

Ve’nua continued, ‘What is one life versus the quality of life of our whole civilisation? It is nothing.’

Some of the Iyr began to murmur an agreement.

I tried to keep my breathing consistent, but the anger was limiting my ability to do so.

‘You are correct,’ another spoke. ‘We should dispose of her.’

More murmuring.

Someone thumped the table.

‘No!’

I looked around to which attendee had done it.

Strangely, however, everyone was now looking at me.

Oh.

It was… me, who did that.

‘Do you have something to add?’ the leader asked.

I paused. Even I knew that my pause was for a moment too long. The stare from the suspicious Iyr across the table only confirmed this.

‘We are a proud species!’ I gambled. ‘We have evolved! We no longer need rely on the… pathetic Arellians.’

Was I overdoing it?

With the drums reverberating around my mind, it was hard to sound these sentences out before I committed them to speech.

A pause.

Soon, the leader spoke once more, this time with a tone of resignation. ‘Perhaps you are right.’

Still there was silence.

‘We shall return to this conversation tomorrow. I think there is value in each of us spending the night pondering this issue.’

As they rose, the rest of the table did too. The meeting was over. I had survived it.

I headed for the door – with as much speed as my cover would grant me – and felt Ve’nua’s stare follow me as I went.

A clear vision of the next hour formed in my mind. I would break Syl and the prisoner free. We would then, together, broadcast the truth to the world. I would do this no matter the cost.

Bonus Content: Diary Excerpt 2 – “Crowdfunding For Deaths”

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Chapter 14: The Diplomat’s Daughter

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Six Iyr guardsmen stormed the room, all armed with phase rifles – which they promptly pointed at me.

I threw my hands up in the air. ‘Alright, don’t shoot, I surrender! We don’t want an intergalactic incident on our hands, do we?’

The guards suddenly noticed Te’rnu, and all stood to attention. My friend, realising quickly that his cover was still – at the moment, at least – intact, pulled his hand back away from the buttons on his visor.

Quite handy, this disguise.

Te’rnu stood up straight, assuming the role of Iyr Head of Guard. ‘Thank you, soldiers, for the reinforcement. I was just in the process of arresting this… intruder.’

He was putting on a lower, deeper tone, pretending as though he had a voice to match his high rank.

‘She-,’ he began, and then restarted his sentence. ‘They already knocked out one of the guards. You!’

Te’rnu pointed at two of the Iyr.

‘Take this one to the medical bay.’

‘Yes, sir!’ the pair responded, and then picked the unconscious Iyr up by their arms and legs.

‘That looks comfy,’ I murmured, not quite being able to help myself. The remaining guards, enraged, picked their phasers up and pointed them at me once again. I was really starting to get used to looking down the barrel of an Iyr phase rifle.

One of the guards slowly moved their hands up to their visor.

‘Wait, what are you-’ I began to ask.

With the press of a button, bolts of electricity shot out of the Iyr’s helmet and into my body, enflaming every nerve in my body, and putting me in excruciating pain.

I screamed like a young child and fell to the floor, barely able to move. The guards approached and grabbed me in much the same way as they had their colleague.

‘That’s not a fun feature…,’ I mumbled.

Before I knew it, I was thrown into the cell, and the door closed firmly behind me. In one corner of the white, agonizingly bright room, sat a young Itagurinatipilazutinafi woman – Melonaitopila. I forced a reassuring smile in her direction, but in my pain, it came out instead as a distressed snarl.

‘Sir, what should we do with the prisoner?’ I heard one of the guards ask outside the room.

‘I…,’ Te’rnu began to reply, ‘I will deal with them later.’

Good thinking, Te’rnu. Use your disguise while you still have it.

‘Of course, your meeting,’ another guard responded. ‘It started a few moments ago but I am sure they will understand your delay… given the circumstances.’

‘I… err…,’ Te’rnu started, stumbling over his response. ‘Yes! You: keep guard here. You three, please escort me to the meeting.’

‘I do not mean to question your orders, sir, but should we not keep more than one guard on this post, given the security breach?’

‘It is all resolved now,’ Te’rnu replied. ‘The damage has been contained.’

‘Of course, sir.’

I heard the whoosh of a door opening and closing, and Te’rnu was gone.

I didn’t like that he was out there alone; his cover could get blown at any moment, and I had a feeling I knew what the Iyr would do to him when they found out…

And if he got caught, what hope did I have of escaping?

I turned to the cell’s other occupant, and flashed another smile at her – much more successfully, this time.

‘How are you feeling?’ I asked Melonaitopila.

She looked at me with incredulity, put her hands up in the air as if to say “what the hell do you think?

‘Sorry, stupid question,’ I followed up.

Melonaitopila shook her head. ‘No. It’s not. I’m sorry. It’s not been a good few days. Or weeks. Hard to tell, from in here.’

‘Week and a half, yeah,’ I clarified. ‘You’ve been in here all this time?’

She shrugged. ‘Pretty much. Since the evening after I saw it.’

‘Since you saw the face of an Iyr, you mean?’ I asked.

Melonaitopila nodded. ‘How did you know?’

‘I told you – I’ve been investigating,’ I replied, and, then, filling the silence that followed, I tried to ask, ‘What did you see, Melona- Melonat-,’

‘“Mel” is fine,’ she offered. ‘Any name would be fine, now, to be honest.’

I flashed her a smile. ‘Thanks. Oh! I’m Syl. Guess I should have said that earlier. Getting into bad habits what with never introducing myself properly.’

‘Thanks for trying to rescue me, Syl. I’m sorry you got caught.’

‘It’s OK,’ I replied. ‘I have a friend. He’s… out there, somewhere.’

‘Your friend? You think he’ll be able to come back for us?’

‘I fucking hope so!’ I replied – the stigma of swearing be damned.

Fuck! Shit! Crap!

Mel’s face twisted into the smallest of smiles. ‘You’re not like any Terran I’ve ever met.’

‘What? Why? Cos I swear?’

‘That… and I heard you and your friend assault that guard out there.’

I nodded, pulled an expression that said “I guess you’re right about that.”

‘Seeing as we might be here a while before Te’rnu comes back…’

‘You’re sure he will?’

Why did she keep asking that?

‘I’m keeping positive,’ I answered. Mel raised an eyebrow; she was less convinced, it seemed. ‘As we might be here a while, now might be a good time to tell me what got you into this mess.’

Mel took a breath and a moment to collected her thoughts. ‘I guess there’s no harm in it. Not most of it, at least. I tried not telling anyone and they still locked me up for what I’d seen.’

I held my tongue, resisting the urge to make any facetious comments that might put Mel off confiding in me.

Mel, now beginning to loosen up, began to ramble. ‘It started when my father invited me along on his business trip…’

He never invites me to come along with him, you see. But recently, I’ve noticed he’s started trying to be more involved in my life. I think it’s because he’s spent most of my life working, and we never really got to be that close. Now he’s realised he missed out on my whole childhood, and he’s trying to make up for it. I like that he’s making an effort, at least.

So, he invites me to come along to Z’h’ar with him. He’s got a lot of meetings to go to, because obviously he’s so involved with the GMU council and all.

Oh.

Maybe I should have started with that bit. For context.

Yeah, let’s rewind.

So my dad, he wasn’t involved much during my childhood because his work at the Galactic Monetary Union Council took up all his time. I don’t blame him, really, it’s not like it isn’t important work. My other dad always called it the “G-MUC” growing up, I remember. Well, no, he called it “that bloody G-MUC”, but that’s a whole other thing.

In his position, he’s involved in negotiating trade deals between planets in the GMU and those outside it. It’s a careful balance, he said: you want the trading to be mutually beneficial for all involved, but not so much that these external trade deals are actually better than between GMU members.

He was on your planet, actually, recently. What’s it called? Terra? Yeah, when your lot came out of the GMU there was all this stuff to sort out. I didn’t see him for a few months during that whole thing. But he did a good job, according to his superiors, and – as is always the case when you do a good job on something – he was given an even more difficult task: Z’h’ar.

Z’h’ar have been talking about leaving the GMU for a few cycles now, especially since Terra came out OK. So there’s been a lot of renegotiations going on, the GMU trying to propose new things to keep the Iyr on board. But it wasn’t going well, so, lo and behold, Dad gets roped in.

So we travel over, halfway across the galaxy to come here, and Dad is hoping we will get a little down time. You know, see the sights, spend some time together.

But… no. It’s the same old story as it always was: work needs him, he hopes he’ll see me later. I know that that means he will not see me later. So I have to go out and make my own fun.

I don’t know about for you, but for me, a good night out involves plenty of alcohol and some partying. Oh, right, good, I can see you smiling at that so I know you’re the same. You know how it is, then. You get to a new place, you try the local bars, you try the local spirits, you try the… locals.

I was at this bar, and I’m thinking: this isn’t quite the scene I was looking for. It’s cold, awkward, and a little bit hostile, even. But I make conversation with this local anyway – he’s drinking by himself, so I figure he might want some company. This Iyr, they tell me that these bars are where the Central Command drink, so it’s always gonna be not much fun. I ask them to take me somewhere that would be fun, and they do just that.

My date takes me to this underground place, no Central Command, just locals having a good time. I’ll tell you what, them having a good time is still quite a quiet night back on Itagurinatipilazutinafi, but at this point, I’m thinking, I’ll take what I can get.

I keep drinking, try some of the local Oy’ta – did you try that at all, by the way? No? You haven’t missed much. Fairly average. Gave me a nosebleed.

Anyway, all in all, I’m having an OK time, so I invite the Iyr to invite me back to their place. More trouble than it was worth, if I’m honest. We get back there, they take me to bed. I still have no idea what I’m dealing with in the groin area, cos of the mechsuits, you know? But I’m not fussy, I’m happy with anything, so I’m going with the flow.

And I expect my date to actually take the suit off… but they don’t. Or, at least, they don’t take most of it off. Just the crotch area.

I’m a bit annoyed, but don’t want to spoil the mood, so… you know. That.

But then immediately after, the Iyr gets up, and heads into their bathroom. I call after them, like, hey, wait, are we gonna, like, cuddle, or what? But they just shake their head and say they need to get my fluids off of them.

Bit rude, I think, but maybe that’s just a cultural thing, so I try not to take it to heart.

Anyway, I hear them in the shower and I think: this was all kind of underwhelming, maybe I can get them going again in the shower? Always sounds like a good idea, doesn’t it, doing it in the shower, but then you get there and you’re doing it, and you’re slipping, and…

Doesn’t matter, I’m getting distracted.

So I sneak in. And I’m kinda drunk so I’d forgotten the whole “no foreigner has ever seen a naked Iyr” thing. And then, with the door now open, the steam in the bathroom slowly clears… and I see them.

…And that’s where this story gets hard to talk about.

What if they’re listening?

What if they’re just waiting for me to slip up, and tell someone the truth?

What if they’ll punish me for it?

And I these same questions ran through my mind at the time. When I saw the truth, so much I knew about Z’h’ar suddenly made so much sense… It changed everything.

I ran. I was scared what the Iyr would do to me, if it meant they could maintain their rule on this planet. If I told anyone, you see, it could all come crashing down…

I couldn’t stay in the stronghold, not any more, so I ran off into the wastelands, to see the only people I thought might understand: the Arellians.

They aren’t how the Iyr describe them at all. They’re gentle, kind. About as far from “barbarians” as you can imagine. It all makes sense to me now, of course, but…

Anyway. I ran out. Found myself in a village called Te’r’ok, surrounded by these Arellians. And I wanted to tell them the truth, I really did! But… what would I do next? At some point, I had to return to the city – that was the only way home – and if I told the Arellians, I was only damaging my relationship with the Iyr…

I didn’t have any option, you see? There was no good choice.

Mel, tired, fed up, and despairing, put her head in her hands.

‘What did you see, Mel?’ I asked.

‘I told you; I don’t think I should say.’ She nodded to the ceiling. ‘Not when they might be watching… listening.’

‘We’re going to get you out of here, Mel. Te’rnu is gonna come back for us. But we need to know what we’re not seeing. We need to know what we’re missing.’

‘Why do you care so much?’ Mel replied. ‘Why endanger your own life with the truth?’

I paused for a moment; was that really what had happened here? Was I risking my life for his truth? Or was I just trying to solve the case? If the two hadn’t been so inextricably linked, would I be fighting so hard to learn the secrets of the Iyr?

‘My friend… the Arellian, he’s spent his whole life searching for this truth. And he doesn’t have long left now, he’s almost at the age of Mutation.’

Mel shot me a look which I didn’t quite understand – perhaps confusion at the concept? – but I continued anyway.

‘And he’s saved me a couple of times now, at great cost to himself. He doesn’t have a home any more, he doesn’t have a family, he doesn’t even have a friend in the galaxy other than me. And, to an extent, I caused all of that. By roping him into some stupid scheme. I think I… owe him this.’

My fellow prisoner looked down at the floor, picked at the skin on her fingers.

‘He’ll come back for us,’ I repeated. ‘He’s resourceful like that. He’ll come back, and we’ll get out of here.’

As I said the words, I had less and less faith in them. Te’rnu didn’t know the way of the galaxy, so how could he hope to blend in with them? And to get back to us, in the middle of perhaps the most defended building on Z’h’ar… it didn’t seem likely.

But I kept this to myself, not wanting to put Mel off telling me the truth. While there was any hope at all that Te’rnu was able to come back for us, I wanted to be able to give him the answers he’d spent his whole life searching for.

‘OK,’ Mel said suddenly. ‘I’ll tell you. But not because I think he’ll come back. I’m sorry, but that’s the truth. They’re paranoid, the Iyr; his disguise won’t last long.’

Mel sighed to herself.

‘No. I’ll tell you, because, with every hours that passes, I feel less and less confident that I’ll ever be free.’

‘He’ll- he’ll come back,’ I repeated, voice cracking with the realisation that I might now share the same fate as Mel. This time, I said it only to convince myself.

Mel shot me a sad look. 

‘The truth is…,’ Mel started, eyes glancing towards the door, as though someone was about to burst in and stop her. ‘The truth that you’ve been searching for is… You’ve seen an Iyr.’

I pulled a face. ‘I have?’

‘Yes,’ Mel replied. ‘Anyone who has been out into the Wastelands, or read about Z’h’ar, even, has seen them.’

What?

‘What does that…,’ I began to ask, and then the truth dawned on me.

‘The Iyr – they’re no mysterious species, no great benefactors to the lowly Arellians. They are the Arellians.’

‘Wh- How?’ I asked. ‘Why?’

‘The Arellians don’t die when they go through the Mutation. That’s not the end of their lives. The Mutation, it’s little more than…’ Mel paused, to find the right word. ‘The closest word we would have for it is… puberty.’

‘I don’t… I don’t understand. Why would they do this? The Iyr – why would they keep the Arellians in the dark about this?’

Mel shrugged. ‘It was tradition, probably, to start. All these things start with traditions, don’t they? And then you have this society, built up, so reliant on the resources farmed and mined for them by their youth… why would they ever want to change this set up? So they control them. They keep the fear of death hanging over the youths’ heads. The Iyr act as though they’re doing some great favour when they take a maturing Arellian away – but all they’re really doing is adding to their own population.’

I found my mouth hanging agape. ‘But that’s… that’s…’

Mel nodded. ‘Maybe now you understand what the Iyr would do to keep this a secret, then. How far they would go. What they would do to anyone who sticks their nose in.’

‘But- Te’rnu. He’s out there… If he gets found out…’

She nodded again. ‘They’ll kill him.’

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

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

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