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

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‘Argh!’ Te’rnu shouted.

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

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

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

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

‘Where’s the pain?’ I asked Te’rnu.

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

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

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

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

‘Hmm.’

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

‘Here,’ I told Te’rnu, ‘Drink this.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Too much? Too much gin?’

‘Yes. You’re hungover.’

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

‘No. You wouldn’t.’

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

I nodded. ‘Yeah. Partially.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No!’ he moaned.

‘Yes!’ I countered.

‘I can’t!’ he insisted.

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

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

‘That’s all I’m asking you to drink.’

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

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

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

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

‘Yes,’ he groaned.

‘Good.’

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

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

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

It was just like Leya to forget to teach moderation.

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

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

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

‘So what’s the plan?’ I asked.

‘The plan?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But what if we weren’t?’

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

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

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

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

‘What do you mean?’

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

Te’rnu said nothing.

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

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

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

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

‘Even better!’ I cried out. ‘Where?’

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

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

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

Te’rnu nodded, brow furrowed.

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

‘What? As well as finding Melonaitopila?’

‘Yeah. You remember this?’

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

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

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

Te’rnu shrugged, eyes vacant. ‘Sure.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How did it go?’ Te’rnu asked me.

‘Nobody around. I just left it there.’

‘Will they know it’s yours?’

‘That’s why I left a note.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The sewers,’ Te’rnu replied.

I nodded. ‘Of course it is.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘No you didn’t,’ I replied.

‘Oh. I meant to.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Good answer.’

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

It didn’t budge.

‘It’s locked,’ he told me.

‘Yeah, I assumed.’

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

‘Ah,’ he suddenly said.

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

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

But there was nobody in sight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Te’rnu!’ I whispered after him.

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

‘Too hot?’

‘Yeah…,’ I barely managed to croak.

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

‘I do not see anyone…,’ he mumbled.

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

Te’rnu shrugged.

‘That doesn’t fill me with confidence.’

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

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

‘I dropped it,’ Te’rnu clarified.

I pursed my lips. ‘Yes.’

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-oh.

‘Stop!’ an Iyr’s voice shouted at me.

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

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