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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