Footsteps pounded the ground around me as the group of four fled the scene. The Iyr who had been drinking in the corner, a red stripe across their helmet, stormed towards me. I didn’t need to see this Iyr’s face to know that they were furious with me – the body language said it all. And – let’s face it – this was a reaction I’d provoked dozens of times before.
As he got closer and closer, I suddenly found myself fearing for what was about to happen. I’d seen, just a few seconds ago, how the Iyr liked to respond to even the most innocent of frustrating situations. And if they were intimidated enough by this one to run away, then it didn’t exactly bode well for me.
At the last second, the bartender stepped between us.
‘I’ll handle this, sir,’ they told the charging Iyr.
“Sir”? So was that stripe some measure of seniority, perhaps?
The other Iyr slowed to a halt, breathing furiously. They looked at the bartender, then to me, then back to them again. ‘If you must,’ they replied, before walking back to their seat.
My saviour turned to me.
‘Thanks, I guess,’ I said to them.
‘You’re causing a scene. Get out.’
So much for “my saviour”.
I remained still on the floor for a few moments longer.
‘Why? All I did was accidentally knock a drink over, surely that happens all the time in here…’
The Iyr shook his head. ‘It does. That is not why you need to leave.’
They turned their head to glance over at the Iyr in the corner. He had returned to his drink, but looked up sporadically.
‘If you upset the Head of Guard, then you cause trouble for my business.’
Head of Guard, eh? Very fancy title.
‘Upset them? I asked them a few questions, that’s all.’
‘Yes,’ the bartender replied. ‘But asking those sorts of questions around here… often means you’re never seen again. If my customers start disappearing, the rest will stop coming. You understand?’
‘What, I’ll be taken away somewhere just for asking where someone is?’
They groaned. So far, the only emotions I’d been able to elicit from the locals had been irritation and rage, which was saying something, even for me. ‘Stop asking about it.’
‘No!’ I retorted, and the volume of my own voice caught me off-guard. Maybe I had had a little too much to drink.
‘Look,’ they continued, leaning in so that they could whisper. ‘The last I heard, the woman you are looking for was heading out into the Wastelands. Somewhere near Te’r’ok. Is that enough information to make you leave?’
‘Good,’ they replied, and then pulled me to my feet by my arm. Raising their voice once again, they called out, ‘And do not come back to this establishment! We do not need your sort in here.’
They threw me out onto the street, and, in my drunken state, I only just about managed to remain on my feet. I looked around; the city was emptier now, only a few stragglers still walking or shuttling about. At this time in the early morning, you might even describe the atmosphere as peaceful. I could take in the sights, enjoy the slightly cooler temperature, and the sun was slowly rising against the horizon, hidden currently behind the tall stronghold walls. Suddenly the city seemed like an oasis of calm.
I walked south, towards the perimeter gate, hoping to get a view of the wastelands beyond the stronghold’s wall. As I approached, the guard towers loomed over me, two monoliths of such great height as would strike fear in the hearts of any invading force. Not that the Arellians, as far as I knew, stood any chance against the Iyr, were they to venture out of their humble lands.
At the base of the towers there was a transmat station, presumably intended to save the guardsmen from having to climb the hundreds (if not thousands) of steps to the top. There didn’t seem to be anyone guarding it, nor were there any signs saying not to use it, so I stepped in for a look at the lands beyond.
The transmat whirred into life, and shot me upwards at a rate I’d never experienced before.
Weren’t there laws about these kinds of things?
Reaching the top in only a few seconds, I began to feel nauseous – although it was possible that the alcohol was as much to blame as the transmat. I plodded out of the transmat area and held myself against a nearby pillar, counting on it to hold me upright.
A lone guard looked warily on – but said nothing.
Good – it’s not against the law to be up here, then. That’s handy.
When I’d largely recovered from the journey up, I looked out through the glass. As far as the eye could see, desert dunes paved the land of the beyond, looking almost as though they were the waves of the great seas of Terra. But, no, they were still, peaceful, and proudly golden. The sun, rising to the south-east, cast shadows from the great dunes, peppering the land with darker patches, and illuminated small Arellian settlements in the distance. Compared to the stronghold, they seemed like nothing more than villages, small tribal encampments like in the Terran days of old. Conversely, the few Iyr buildings that stood a few kilometres outside the city limits were tall, piercing the skyline, spoiling an otherwise beautiful view.
I remained up here for a few more minutes, until the glare of the guard became excruciating, and then prepared myself for the transmat back down. It didn’t seem so bad on the return journey; I only had to rest for a few seconds at the bottom.
I heard a commotion in the distance. Looking down the road, I saw two guards hauling a person along by the arms. I didn’t recognise the species; blue, lanky, their hands in weird proportions compared to the width of their limbs. This blue person didn’t seem to be resisting in any way, only meekly submitting to being dragged along.
I followed at a distance, this situation having piqued my curiosity. What crime had this person committed to deserve such a treatment?
Probably spilled someone’s drink.
When the guards reached the perimeter of the city, they threw the person onto the ground, in much the same way as I had earlier been thrown out by the bartender.
I suspected that I had skimmed over the section of the Z’h’ar guidepage that referred to the Iyr’s hobbies:
“The Iyr, a quiet people, typically enjoy throwing people around and just being generally lairy.”
‘Go. Back to where you belong,’ one of the guards muttered at their victim, and then turned to leave them, alone, on the ground.
They were an Arellian, then, this blue creature. The guidepage hadn’t had a picture of them; presumably this wasn’t because such an image didn’t exist, but because the Arellians were such an unimportant footnote in terms of information about Z’h’ar.
The Arellian stood up – but only once the guards had turned their back on them and left them well alone.
I looked on at the Arellian for a moment, as they stood their, motionless, eyes surveying the city in front of them as though they were considering coming back in.
They caught me staring at them and we held eye contact for a few moment, before they turned, shoulders slumped, to trudge back out into the wastelands.
I thought about approaching them, but, what with all the trouble earlier for something as innocent as asking a question, I thought it best to not be seen associating with an apparent criminal. Instead, I walked up to a local salesman, who was pitched up outside the city gates, and seemed to be renting shuttle-bikes to clueless tourists.
‘How much?’ I asked them, knowing better than to try opening with small-talk with an Iyr.
‘Three thousand units,’ he replied.
‘To buy?’ That was rather cheap, in fact, I’d thought.
‘To rent. One rotation.’
‘Oh,’ I replied, not bothering to hide the disappointment on my face. ‘Bit rich for me.’
‘In that case,’ the Iyr went on, ‘We shall do a deal. Three thousand units for two rotations.’
‘Oh, we’re haggling? Three thousand units for seven rotations.’
‘No. Not seven.’
‘For… five rotations?’ I asked, hesitantly.
I remained silent for a second, prompting the merchant to continue, ‘And I will throw in a free Guran. My partner made too many for me. I am on a diet.’
I shook my head. ‘No, thanks, keep the rat. Three thousand units, for three days, and you tell me how to get to Te’r’ok.’
‘Deal,’ the Iyr replied. ‘The easiest way: follow the road to WS1, and then head south-east, not far by bike.’
‘WS1?’ I asked, as I transferred the units to the merchant using my console.
‘Outpost. Outpost WS1,’ the Iyr explained, and then, only after checking that the units had been transferred, asked, ‘Why do you want to head to Te’r’ok? It is an Arellian village. There are only barbarians out there.’
I shrugged. ‘Just trying to see everything while I’m on your lovely planet.’
The Iyr seemed convinced by my answer, even though I’d described Z’h’ar as a “lovely planet”, which was obviously a lie. The merchant pulled out a shuttle-bike – a dirtier, older model – and handed it to me.
‘Any chance I could get a newer one?’ I asked.
‘You paid three thousand units. Three thousand gets you this one.’
I shook my head in exasperation, sat on the bike, and started the engine.
Despite being an older model, there was still a huge kick to the acceleration when I pulled on the throttle. If I pulled on it too hard, I feared I would be sent flying off the back. It felt as though these had been designed, really, with only the heavier Iyr in mind, and not dainty and delicate tourists like myself.
As I shot through the desert, I soon saw a figure in the distance. I slowed as I passed them, hoping for a glance at them, and I recognised them as the Arellian from earlier – the one who had been in trouble with the Iyr.
My kind of person.
We made eye contact again – only for a split second this time, though, being that I was speeding past him on a shuttle-bike. I wasn’t sure I wanted to hang around a so-called “barbarian” anyway.
The road was flat, cutting through the dunes, and took me safely west for a few kilometres. I got a chance to have another look at the outside of the city. It really was built to be imposing, I now realised – a fortress to keep the Arellians at bay.
Soon I came to a junction. A road sign, protected against the sand and dust by a sonar barrier, told me I would need to turn left for Outpost WS1. I did, just this once, as I was told.
The outpost loomed in front of me – one of the few Iyr buildings outside the city limits, which I’d earlier decided ruined the view. If it had been inside the city, it would have in fact been a smaller structure, however out here, in the desert, it was still large enough to be striking.
I took a breath in the shadow of the building; the heat, once again, was building and a thudding pain was growing in my head. Terrans weren’t built for this kind of climate. I removed from my satchel my trusty water bottle and took a swig. Over six millennia of Terran civilization, and we still hadn’t come up with a better system for hydration than just carrying around water in a bag.
‘You can’t be here,’ I heard a voice call from over my shoulder. An Iyr guardsman leant out of the door to the outpost.
‘You can’t be here. Iyr only.’
‘I’m just taking a rest in the shade, that’s all.’
‘It does not matter. You can’t be here. You are lucky you are not an Arellian, I might have shot you.’
I shook my head. Alright, misery guts.
‘Move,’ the guardsman reiterated, moving his arm to his phaser.
I put my hands in the air. Don’t shoot!
‘Alright, alright. I’m moving, I’m moving,’ I told the guard. ‘No need to start killing tourists, yeah?’
I packed my water bottle back into my bag, took a breath, and headed back out into the heat, where my shuttle-bike was parked. My break in the shade hadn’t been enough; there sun was still bearing down hard, and the pain in my skull kept growing. I started the engine with one last look at the guard, who was still staring on, and zoomed off in a roughly south-easterly direction.
Now off-road, I had to become more confident navigating the dunes. I was hesitant at first, taking them slowly, but as soon as I became sure that the shuttle-bike could hover over the troughs sufficiently, I sped back up. Before long, I was speeding up them, jumping off the peaks, getting some air before the bike had a chance to register the change in height and plummet back down again.
If my head wasn’t pounding harder now, with the sun bearing down on it, I would have taken a long route, enjoyed myself more; but sadly, that was not to be. I tried to ignore the throbbing pain in my head, and continued onwards.
Soon, I saw a small Arellian village in the distance. They really were like the old Terran tribal settlements: small huts, made from more primitive materials, were scattered around what resembled a central socialising area. I pulled at my throttle to get closer for a better look.
As I approached the village, I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. I slowed, hoping to glimpse it again, but there was nothing. My head was hurting too much to focus on anything while I was moving, so I came to a stop on the side of a dune. I put my hand to my face, trying to shield my eyes from the sun so that I could see better.
A figure was approaching, not fifty metres away. Was that… an Arellian?
The sun was higher in the sky now, and, without the shade and air conditioning units of the stronghold, I was really struggling to ignore the thumping sensation in my head. My body, too, began to feel weak, heavy.
Ack. If I was in the habit of swearing, now might be a good time.
‘Fuck,’ I tried out, ‘That hurts.’
I looked around. The Arellian was gaining on me, getting closer now. However, in the bright sunlight, as well as the reflection from the sand itself, it was almost impossible for me to see.
Why were they walking towards me? What did this wastelander want with me? I needed to get going.
I stepped backwards, towards the dune, trying to get to higher ground in case of an attack, but my leg gave way beneath me. I fell to the ground and my vision began to dim.
Laying on the sand, I tried to blink my vision back. My eyes weren’t having any of it, though, and what’s more, I started to feel like I was going to throw up.
I felt the sand move around me as the Arellian approached.
It was at this point that I realised just how much trouble I was in. I was weak, collapsed, and the only people who could possibly help were the local barbarian population.
My head was searing with pain now, and I could no longer think straight, not any more.
I glimpsed the Arellian standing over me, wide blue eyes staring down.
My fate was in their hands now.
‘Fuck,’ I uttered one last time, before I vomited and passed out.
A Note From The Author
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