There had been plenty of time to think, to process what had happened. The first few days were a haze, spent asleep for the most part, only interrupted for bare necessities like checking on the Sciara’s course, taking the medications given by Benaxia's hospital, or eating. It was only after the fever subsided and the worst injuries had healed when Zekra devoted any of ger time to anything else.
Most of that was research. The nexus wasn’t a network known for its speed or yield, but it would do for the moment to find out more about the strange state Zekra was owing ger life to.
There wasn’t as much information on t-trance available as ge wished, and a lot of it was tied to folklore and legends rather than actual research on the matter. Out of the bits of scientific literature available, the most interesting one was about the spindle architecture of individuals able to achieve it. The examinations showed their spindles to be wired in a way that allowed an override of the rest of their nervous system, with an offhand mention that the Shaoon tau-spindle structure was specifically formed to prevent such. Information about t-trance in Serkanians in particular rarely dealt with anything besides tribal tales, those few exceptions being the hypothesis of there being a colour-changing ancestor to explain the strange dancing pattern, but the same phenomenon could be observed among Judicators, Kaalayey and other telekinetics. From there, the information veered towards the theological and absurd – that it was a possession by ancestral spirits or gods, or a connection to one of the more distant layers of reality. The lack of knowledge was no surprise, as up to date, it was impossible to artificially recreate functional tau-spindles and even grown ones seemed to barely work without being connected to a consciousness.
Zekra leant back in the pilot seat to give ger eyes a rest. All this time spent on research, yet ge couldn’t answer the most important question. On one hand, ge now knew that achieving t-trance could be trained and it would give ger an edge in future life-threatening confrontations. If anything like Benaxia would happen again, ge would be able to end it faster, with fewer deaths and injuries. Maybe even trigger it intentionally while engaging in more dangerous contracts for extra income. On the other hand, it would also need ger to hand over all control to ger subconsciousness, and it wasn’t an ability ge wanted to reveal to half the known galaxy and paint a target on ger back.
A soft beeping directed ger eyes back to the console. The lazy time was coming to an end; without having restocked on Benaxia, the Sciara would either run out of food rations or fuel, depending on how either would be managed. Besides, the break from researching would allow for the knowledge to settle down and ger thoughts to become more structured, so the most important question might be answered after all. The research paper on t-trance cases among Judicators was replaced with a star map and a suitable place to re-supply was quickly found along the Sciara’s course.
“Why do I have to put this on again?” Arqeez looked at the white fabric with orange seams in distaste. “It itches. And it reminds me of that biochemical incompatibility.”
“Because it will be cold. It’s preferable to wear that itchy fabric over freezing to death, you know.”
Zekra gerself had donned a long-sleeved version of ger one-parter, covered by a tunic from the thickest material ge had. Ge only heard the rustle of fabric from Arqeez trying to put on the costume from Canray, since ge was busy with adjusting the straps of ger replacement wrist computer. It was an ancient, boxy piece of junk found in one of the boxes in the storage room, but still functional and able to connect to the Sciara’s board computer. The design was obviously for an exoskeletal, with thick straps and a hard, sticky sleeve that made it pretty uncomfortable to move the forearm in. After trying to adjust the straps and the sleeve with limited success, Zekra gave up. Ge would have to see if there was an affordable replacement for it on Djeheev, the moon they were heading for. Maybe ger current one could fetch a decent sum at an antique shop there, too.
Arqeez had managed to put on the white and orange costume by himself, save for the part covering his postabdomen. That one he simply couldn’t reach. His attempts at grabbing a hold of it resulted in him spinning in a circle while trying to get his arm behind his back. Zekra looked at his attempts to catch the flap of fabric with amusement for a few moments, then grabbed his attention to button it up gerself.
“Put this over it.” Ge handed a large, dark coat to Arqeez.
“As I said, it will be cold.” Zekra looked down, ger gaze lingering on ger companion’s uncovered feet. “Too bad you didn’t get shoes fitted on Canray...”
Arqeez just made a face of pure disgust. Shoes were the last thing he would want to wear. He knew how Zekra’s felt like – they ranged from thick, tough fabric to even thicker hard parts on the soles. The relatively soft fabric of his costume was irritating enough, he didn’t even want to try imagining how stuffing his feet into those things would feel. How cold could it get on their next planet, anyway…
The cold introduced itself in the form of a chilly gust barely after the Sciara’s door had cracked open. It turned into an unsteady breeze once they were outside, ruffling Arqeez' antennae. He flattened them against his head while looking at the scenery unfolding beyond the ship's door.
Most of it was taken up by a cliff as high as his eyes could reach, mottled with external buildings clinging to the wall, holes driven into the rock and numerous structures connecting them. More buildings were standing on the flatter terrain in the foreground. Those differed significantly from the ones on the cliff, as if they were created by a different culture.
Wind pulled on Arqeez' cloak as he descended the ramp, blowing away the rest of warmth still clinging to him from the inside of the ship. It was quite jarring, especially after Zekra had turned up the temperature to help ger with healing ger injuries, as ge had said.
There were only three more spaceships sharing the place with the Sciara on its modestly-sized space harbour. One was another gnat-class seemingly standing there for a longer period of time judging by the snow drifts completely hiding its legs, the other two were even smaller midge-class ships. Two even smaller machines were intraatmospheric vessels, both marked as belonging to public services.
Taj wasn’t a big settlement. None of Djeheev’s settlements were, and only few of those had any designated places for aerial vessels to land on, its native inhabitants preferring not to mingle with foreign species. It was a rather suboptimal place to stop, but still preferable to pushing their luck by attempting to reach the next planet, moon or space station with a more amenable populace.
The landing formalities were quickly dealt with – Arqeez had barely time to dig through the snow drift at its corner before Zekra emerged from the door and tucked ger antennae back under the scarf that doubled as a makeshift hood.
“At least there are no parking fees for non-commercial vessels here,” ge started. “But nevertheless, I would prefer to see if there is something to do for us here before we dig deeper into our funds for the restocking.”
Zekra looked at the wrist computer to see where the next pub or similar facility was located. After moving the on/off switch, the screen showed a mess of green hexagonal pixels, turning into readable text only after being hit twice. Zekra exhaled slowly while navigating the computer’s unfamiliar menus, still angry over the situation that escaped military experiment on Benaxia had brought ger into. The trusted device ge had used before had been lost in the rubble somewhere, probably damaged far beyond usability, too. At least Arqeez was able to save ger personal documents and currency storage modules when he had found the remains of ger clothing in the streets.
Raising ger head, Zekra noticed Arqeez looking at the device with curiosity. “Is the thing giving you problems?”
I just need to get used to it. But a pub is not far from here. It better won't be a booze garden...”
Beyond the reinforced ground of the space harbour and the buildings associated with it, Taj’s infrastructure could best be described as lacklustre. Buildings appeared like cobbled together from parts not meant to be attached to each other, focussed entirely on function with no regards to form or consistency. The streets in between were similar, sometimes consisting of naked rock, sometimes of roughly-sawed cobblestones made from the same rock, sometimes partially-frozen sludge with stones or discarded remains of machines thrown in as stepping stones to walk over without dirtying one's feet.
The pub was reached around a few corners, located next to a large blocky building that served both as an alga factory and refinery, responsible both for Taj's food and fuel supply. Behind the sealable automatic door it was much warmer, as few of the present species were truly adapted to the cold of the mountains outside. Two Molurians were quietly talking with their humming voices close by the door and at least three different species of fliers were using the exposed roof beams to eat, rest and chat.
As expected, the pub did have a hoarding and soon enough, Arqeez and Zekra were at a previously unoccupied table, both with a bowl of warm alga soup and the latter scrolling through the tab. Due to the nature of the pub’s patrons, most of the offers had to do with the alga factory, usually short-term work replacements. Some were transport jobs Zekra decided to look at later, when they were to depart. Several others were written in what appeared to be the native language, obviously meant for the locals. With those three categories taken out of the equation, there was not much left – an offer to distribute bait containing immunocontraceptives for rikks, a local scientist's request for collecting samples of the sessile organisms inhabiting the sheer cliffs, a task that paid surprisingly well, but was impossible due to ger current state of health. And one offer from a lonely Gthuor who would be willing to share a morning with anyone interested, in exchange for 120 Gams.
Just before Zekra could ask Arqeez if he were up for the last offer, the door opened, letting one of the natives in. Or rather two – Djeheev’s intelligent species had evolved in a mutualistic partnership. It consisted of the Keiilik, which were large and covered in grey, shaggy fur, their sprawled six legs tipped with curved claws allowing them to climb the mountains with ease, and the Fjeb, which were small, spindly and bore little integument, hiding in their partner's fur for warmth when they were not putting their delicate front limbs to perform the tasks the Keiilik were too clumsy to do.
Both the Keiilik and his Fjeb were shouting something in their native language, having stopped in the middle of the room and looking around among the patrons. Despite Zekra being unfamiliar with the body language of either species, even ge could tell they looked stressed and distraught. The commotion quickly brought one of the Molurians to their side, fiddling with her universal translator as she approached the pair.
Zekra observed the commotion. It was obvious the pair of natives didn't speak Unicomlang, as the Molurian had ended up taking the translator off and handing it to the Fjeb for them to be able to communicate. Unable to make out what they talked about, Zekra tried to get any cues from their body language or the other patrons' reactions.
Ger attempts turned out to be unnecessary, as the Molurian revealed the conversation's contents shortly after when addressing the room herself.
“Emergency up in mountains!” she hummed in a Molurian’s characteristic, monotone speech where every word that wasn’t absolutely necessary remained unspoken. “Pair of natives lost after avalanche and members for rescue team needed. Preferably with experience and skills in tracking and climbing, but really, any help appreciated!”
The reactions were oddly frosty. At least two patrons looked at their chronometers or wrist computers and suddenly had to hurry somewhere, the flap of wings from above told about at least one flier to excuse themselves as well. One of the Tolemos stood up to explain how he would love to join, but unfortunately lacked the experience or skills, until his Pomunian associate pulled him back onto his seat.
“-to deal with their shit themselves,” Zekra could hear the Kosouji at the nearby table grumble, once the Tolemo wasn't overshouting them. “Treat us like filth underneath their feet first, then expect us to help when something happens.” Their small, slender head turned on its long neck to give the Keiliik a defiant look.
The Molurian looked around in the pub in search for someone even slightly interested in the offer for help and her tiny eyes met the pair of strangers listening with mild amusement, one of them with a hoarding in ger hands, clearly looking for a job.
“You two!” she approached them. “You two look like someone who could help.”
“But how exactly?” Zekra asked. “We're not from here, not familiar with the terrain. And we have no experience in hiking through snowy mountains, let alone in tracking buried victims. Aren't there any professional mountaineers for that task?”
“Mountaineers here all-native. Those lost in avalanche were on their, how they call it, coming-of-age rite, meaning helping them not allowed. These two-” she gestured at the still-tense Keiilik and the Fjeb on their back still holding the Molurian's universal translator, “already break rules of tribe to get lost found, but try breach as few as possible by asking non-natives for aid.”
Zekra put the hoarding on the table next to the alga soup bowl. A quick glance to the sides showed that hardly any patron was paying attention to them, either looking at the Keiliik or tending to their own matters. “But as said, we have no experience in this matter. Besides, we are looking for a way to earn funds for our ship and would prefer to be on our way sooner than later. Not much time for charity, I’m afraid.”
It was unclear what the Molurian thought about Zekra's reply, as her expression remained the same throughout the seconds of silence before she spoke again. “If you looking for funds, my offer right one. I deal with intercultural affairs and have access to its insurance, which would have your costs covered. Everyone in Taj pays into insurance, native and visitor alike. As for experience, I know about Serkanians. Know about them being able feeling their way through solid matter like snow and rock. Needed skills.”
“Right,” Zekra muttered in thought. “And Arq has a good sense of smell, which might become useful, too.” Ge looked at the Molurian again. “Maybe we do indeed have the right skills for the offer, even if not the experience.”
After a detour to a warehouse where the Molurian picked up a number of utensils to aid them on their search, they were back on the space port, heading for one of the intraatmospheric vessels. It was barely big enough for them all to fit inside, with the Keiliik being very sceptical of entering it at first. In the end, his desire to aid the lost was bigger than his fear.
The vessel took off with a low hum, the antigravity fields disturbing the harbour’s streaky snow cover. It passed the roofs of the settlement on the flat terrain, then neared the sheer wall and its buildings, giving the passengers a good look of the houses clinging to the walls. They were built from a solid, sheet-like material painted in patterns of a bright blue colour, the corners of their pointed roofs festooned with various charms. The vessel left the buildings below as it rose over the top of the cliff, revealing the snow-covered mountains beyond – and the brownish-red gas giant hanging in the sky like a stern eye.
Djeheev’s characteristic rough terrain was the result of the large planet’s tidal forces kneading it through and its own low gravity allowing the tectonic plates and plenty volcanoes to pile up into large mountains. The tidal forces and volcanic activity were the most likely reason for the avalanche the pair of natives had talked about.
“Can you direct me towards location where lost people had gone?” the Molurian asked the natives.
The Keiliik remained in the vessel’s back, all his six feet clamped around a rope or strap, meant for fastening cargo. He hummed and shook his head, seemingly unwilling to leave his place. In his stead, the Fjeb poked their head out of the thick fur on their partner’s neck, whistled and hopped over to the cockpit. At first, they jumped onto Arqeez’ shoulder, but quickly decided that the backrest of the Molurian’s seat was a better place after getting a warning rumble from the Idrath.
They took a bit of time to look out of the windows, then chittered an answer translated by the Molurian’s device still held in their smaller pair of hands.
“Follow Shik’Veheera. At this peak,” they pointed in a direction slightly to the right, “turn behind it.”
Directed by the Fjeb, the vessel quickly reached the avalanche site. The snow there was more perturbed, the gales not having had enough time to smooth it over. The Molurian flew over the area several times to search for any visible traces of the lost natives. After the first overview of the area yielded no results, she directed the vessel at an outcrop of bare rock nearby, slowly setting it down. A harsh gust of wind let it veer to the side, resulting in protesting hums from the vessel’s rear. To their luck, they weren’t low enough to collide with the rock and the Molurian quickly got it back under control.
“You will have to search area on foot. Unfortunately, that closest I can land.”
“You are not going to accompany us?” Zekra asked when seeing the Molurian remaining in the pilot seat.
“Can’t. Someone needs to stay by ship. Will come once lost are found. Let Ankivayiel be your guide. And do not forget supplies.”
Seeing the area up close when ge stepped out of the vessel on the craggy outcrop, Zekra quickly regretted having agreed to the search mission. It was a slope covered in uneven snow, sometimes dotted with rocks that were either sticking up from the mountain underneath or torn loose by the avalanche. It would have been a challenge to traverse in perfect health, but with recently-closed surgery wounds and half-healed bone fractures it was a risky endeavour. Arqeez stepped close to ger side, making a disapproving rumble when a gust of wind tugged at his antennae.
A moment later, the Keiliik stumbled outside, appearing unsteady despite his six legs. With his Fjeb partner who had assisted him in putting on the harness that contained the Molurian’s supplies now being nothing more than a bump on their neck, he watched the intraatmospheric vessel's hatch close, before giving the snowy expanse a look-over. Then, as if the unsteadiness had all but vanished, he bounded forwards and onto the snow, appearing oddly elated despite the seriousness of the situation. Zekra wasn't sure whether it was because he enjoyed the snow or because the flight in the vessel had been so terrible that the conspecifics' fates were temporarily unimportant.
The Fjeb chittered something with the translating device's reply being carried away with the wind. Nevertheless, the Keiliik’s propped-up posture was enough to tell they urged the two interstellar vagabonds to follow.
The moment Zekra stepped off the rock outcrop, ger legs sank into the snow up to ger knees. Muttering a few swears under ger breath, ge pulled one leg free and set it onto the white surface with more care. This time, it vanished almost up to the ankle before the ground became compacted enough to bear ger weight. Scrunching sounds to the left told ger of Arqeez having entered the snow himself. Curiously, he didn't sink in as far as Zekra did, his legs never vanishing further than to his ankles.
It took ger a few more steps until ge could walk somewhat decently on the uneven surface of varying hardness, keeping ger toes spread wide apart to prevent their instinctive curling and additionally placing ger tail on the ground to distribute ger weight better. The impatient Keiliik bolted forwards, his six large, widely-spaced feet preventing him from sinking into the snow almost entirely.
“Where do you lead us... Ankivayiel?”
Both the Keiliik and the Fjeb reacted, the latter emerging from their partner's neck fur.
“Forwards! Must find the lost!” the Fjeb replied.
“Look out for traces, anything,” the Keiliik added.
After a brief pause, Zekra addressed them again. “Which one of you is Ankivayiel?”
“Both of us are,” the Keiliik responded. “Vayiel is this one's name. And Ankiv is my partner. But now that you know our name, we would like to know yours.”
“I'm Zekra, and that is Arqeez.”
“It is nice to know you, Arqeezekra,” the Keiliik whistled.
“Well, that is...” Zekra started, but then decided to just roll with it. After all, the symbiotic partnership of the two native species must be so ingrained into their minds that any pair would be viewed in a similar fashion by them, with any insistence on not conflating their names leading to nothing but confusion.
“I like that name,” Arqeez commented, moving closer. “Maybe we could unite more parts than just names later?”
Zekra gave a low, annoyed hiss in reply. “Why don't you just shove your dick into the snow until it freezes off? There are plenty of cracks and holes all over the place just asking for your attention! We are looking for people lost in an avalanche for fuck’s sake, or has that slipped out of your gonad-controlled mind already?”
Vayiel gave them a look.
“Do you smell anything out of the ordinary?” Zekra asked ger companion, to change the topic.
“Arqeez' antennae briefly flicked in the wind. “I smell rocks. And something stinging. But nothing that resembles the smell of those two.” He pointed at the Keiliik ahead.
“Maybe I can sense something…” Zekra crouched down and focussed ger telekinetic sensing onto the snow below, searching for anything unusual. There were some rocks and a few hollows, but nothing that could be a buried native, living or dead.
“Nothing here,” ge called over to Ankivayiel. The Keiliik briefly looked back, then continued forward.
It continued like that for quite some time, walking, stopping to check the snow below for anything unusual, then walking again, all the while Arqeez reporting no smells of interest. Zekra had lost the track of time pretty quickly, with the clouds floating past the gas giant being the only progress being made. Ge was exhausted and feeling dizzy, but continued on with walking and checking the ground with telekinetic sensing.
“Is everything alright?” A look up showed ger Arqeez' face, bearing an expression of concern.
Zekra slowly exhaled, ger breath turning into a streak of steam carried away by the wind. “I'm... fine. Just tired.”
“I could carry you.”
“Arq, don't even think about it. I'm fine.”
“But I can see you aren't,” the Idrath started. “Is it too cold, or are your wounds hurting?”
“Arqeez, just stop. There is no reason to- what is it?”
Having lost interest in his companion all of a sudden, Arqeez had raised his head, the antennae flickering in the wind. “I smell something like them,” he said, pointing at Ankivayiel walking ahead at some distance, vigilantly looking around in search for traces of the lost. “But it's incomplete.”
“In what way?” Zekra asked, trying to get Ankivayiel’s attention the next moment.
“Weaker, parts of it are missing.” Arqeez stopped probing the air and laid his antennae against the top of his head again, just to preserve warmth. “I guess it’s only one of the two.”
“What is it, Arqeezekra? Have you found anything?” the translator device’s voice called over Vayiel’s excited hums and chatter as they sprinted back to the two vagabonds.
“Arqeez says he smelled something that might be one of the lost.”
The Idrath pointed into a direction to the right, up the slope and closer to a rocky peak jutting out of the snow cover. “It comes from there.”
The Keiliik didn’t bother with saying anything, he just turned into the showed direction and ran off, letting the members of the search party not adapted to this kind of environment catch up on their own.
Restricted to his companion’s speed, Arqeez followed the trail left by the Keiliik, focussing more on the smell than the visible traces. In the end, Ankivayiel had successfully found the source by themselves, pacing around a dark figure and both individuals composing the pair whining.
Zekra stopped right before the half-buried figure to catch ger breath, but even without examining it, ge could tell that the Fjeb was dead – the limbs sticking out at odd angles and the dark green frozen blood staining the snow were indicators enough.
Vayiel stopped pacing and grew silent, his glazed eyes directed at the Serkanian. “Shiakati is no more.”
“Is Shiakati the Fjeb or the pair?”
Vayiel's head faced the corpse again. Ankiv, their eyes wandering from the corpse to the gas giant and back, started to whine again. “The pair, Arqeezekra. With Shia dead, there is only Akati.”
“Speaking of Akati, where could they be?”
Not waiting for an answer, Zekra crouched down and tried to shut out Ankiv's whining and the whistling of the wind between the rock peaks to focus on ger telekinetic sensing, antennae extended from the hood into the chilly air. If Arqeez couldn't smell the missing Keiliik, they were either buried deep, had ended up a distance away, or they even might have survived. But no matter how deep ge probed, how thin ge stretched the field of perception, there was nothing but snow, a few loose rocks, some hollows, and... Zekra's eyes opened, seeking out the dead Fjeb's form. Removing some of the snow covering the torso, ge could see singed wounds, which certainly weren’t injuries caused by being dragged by masses of snow over sharp rocks.
“Did Shiakati have any feuds with the foreigners?”
Ankiv stopped whining, tilting their head in confusion. “What do you mean?” Vayiel asked.
“Look. These are singe marks, coming from some kind of ray weapon, that is obvious with their shape. Someone was shooting at them.”
“But who? Who who who who who?” Ankiv started, then fell back into their untranslatable whining. Vayiel had a much different reaction – all of a sudden, he lurched forwards and threw Zekra into the snow, his face so close to ger nose they were almost touching.
“Who of the foreigners was it? Who killed Shia? Tell me!” Gusts of vapour blew from the spiracles on the sides of his head.
Arqeez stepped closer, his low growl and extended arms being a final warning for the Keiliik, who backed off upon realizing his own overreaction.
Zekra stood up and shook the snow off before replying. “Just because we are foreigners, it doesn’t mean that we come from there,” ge pointed down the slope, roughly in the direction of the cliff settlement, “because we come from there,” ge pointed up at the sky, past the gas giant. Both Vayiel’s and Ankiv’s heads followed the direction of ger hand.
“I would tell if I knew, but it was not more than a fucking quarter of a tert we had spent in Taj before you showed up in the pub. I know nothing about what is going on between the people living here, you would get more useful answers by asking the mountains themselves.”
“But why attempting to kill youths on their raheikij?” Vayiel asked, looking at the Fjeb on their back. “It doesn’t make any sense.”
“Maybe someone took the opportunity of one of your tribe being alone and away from prying eyes,” Zekra suggested. “Who knew of the… raheikij?”
“No one of the foreigners should know!” Vayiel called out. “Exactly because they are alone and away. Even most of us don’t get told, as it’s a thing between the elders, the closest family and the participants themselves. Pireihati, the other participant and survivor, has approached me once they returned because Ankiv and Shia are siblings and we were among the knowing.”
Zekra looked up. “Did Pireihati see anything?”
“Pireihati told they didn’t see anything but the avalanche. They were walking ahead and could save themselves on a rock peak.”
Looking at the singe marks again, Zekra thought about the turn of events. The most sensible scenario ge could imagine was that someone had been listening on the locals and taken the opportunity when the youths were far enough from the settlement. Probably one of the flying species, as neither the cliff nor the distance beyond it would be much of an issue for them to cover, nor would the avalanche have posed much of a danger to them.
But a lot of it didn’t make sense. Carrying both the clothing needed to withstand the cold and a weapon would be quite the challenge for any of the aerial species ge had seen in the pub, and bigger species that were strong enough for the additional weight would be pretty conspicuous in the Keiliik-Fjeb settlement. Zekra decided this was a mystery to be solved by someone more familiar with Taj and its fickle dynamics between the natives and the foreigners.
“Do you intend to take the dead with you?” ge asked.
Both Vayiel and Ankiv were staring into a different direction altogether, the former’s attention all on the latter who was standing up straight, their head directed at the jutting peak to their left. They said something, too quietly for the translator to catch.
“Are you sure?” Vayiel cried out, then ran off in the direction the Fjeb was looking. “Arqeezekra, follow! Akati is alive!”
After another trudge over the snowy slope, Arqeez and Zekra had finally caught up with the two natives, following the tracks and the frequent, drawn-out bellows of the Keiliik. He was close to where the snow ended and a steep outcrop began, pacing between the smaller rocks poking out of the perturbed snow layer.
Arqeez had caught another smell during their ascent, telling that it was another one similar to Ankivayiel but incomplete as well, this time being of a Fjeb-less Keiliik.
“Did you… did you find anything?” Zekra asked, leaning with both hands against a rock.
Vayiel raised his head. “We have heard calls. But they were too faint to locate. I have tried to call Akati myself, but haven’t heard an answer.” Ankiv, who had taken the heat tracker from the supply packs strapped to their partner just chirped and rose their smaller arm pair, obviously recognizable as a negation.
“I can smell them,” Arqeez told.
Eight pairs of eyes faced him and two sets of jaws briefly opened, before Vayiel asked him to search the place. After some time, Arqeez pointed at a spot of snow next to a jutting rock.
“It’s here. There it is the strongest.”
Not bothering with more questions, Vayiel ran over to the spot and started digging, forcing his companions to move away from the flying chunks of snow.
“Wait, stop, stop!” Zekra shouted at him. “You don’t know what it looks like below, digging like that could make a cavity collapse and either injure us, the buried or both!”
Vayiel stopped digging and looked up. “But we need to hurry! What if it is too late when the flying metal beast arrives?”
“Let me examine it first.”
In the few seconds the Keiliik had managed to dig pretty deep; there was a depression of over one metre deep where Arqeez had pointed, marred with claw marks and a split having been uncovered between the rock and a larger clump of snow. The telekinetic examination showed the split going deeper, with a larger cavity below.
There, at the bottom of the cavity between rock and snow, a Keiliik was lying, unmoving but clearly alive.
Zekra stood up to face the pair of natives. “The good news is, your lost tribe-member is in there and alive. The bad news is that they are in a larger cavity and I sincerely doubt it would withstand digging through its roof. The even worse news is… they are not moving, and likely are injured.”
Ankiv reacted with panic again. Vayiel remained level-headed, giving a look Zekra assumed to be calm but stern determination.
“What you say there, is that we have to wait and do nothing while Akati might be dying?” A twitch of the shoulder muscles got Ankiv’s attention. “Find the communicator!”
“Well, there is one thing we could do, but I will hate it,” Zekra said, looking at the split. “I get the first aid supplies and climb down myself. I’m a physician and while I am unfamiliar with your species’ anatomy, it’s still the best we can do.”
“Zekra, don’t!” Arqeez butted in. “You still haven’t recovered, what if climbing into this hole makes it worse?”
“Arq, calm down. I know what I’m doing. And not doing anything will definitely make everything worse. Just wait here.”
Arqeez exhaled a cloud of vapour, blinked with his front, then his side eye pair. “You said that in Benaxia, too.”
“Well, luckily this isn’t Benaxia. No shit dropping out of the military’s arse here. Whatever happens, help is already on the way, just see-”
Zekra wanted to show Arqeez the two natives preparing inform the Molurian of the lost having been found, but saw Vayiel make an odd head shaking gesture in ger direction.
“You are a physician? I am terribly sorry, esteemed ukaira, for having pushed you to the ground, please forgive me. Will you help aiding Akati, esteemed ukaira?”
Zekra saw the brim of ger hood shift when ger antennae moved with surprise at the odd display. Ge knew nothing of the local culture, but it was obvious medics were held in high regards.
“It must have been a very stressful situation for you two. Can I have the first aid kit now?”
Climbing into the tunnel was easier than expected. G-types might be built for climbing on trees, but the softness of the material allowed Zekra to simply shove ger hands and feet into the snow and anchor gerself to the wall. The tunnel was too tight for anyone but Ankiv and gerself to fit through, but the Fjeb wouldn’t be an aid to ger, especially after they expressed fear at the notion of going down the split without Vayiel accompanying them. Hence Zekra went in alone, with nothing but a bag containing the first aid supplies and a small lamp accompanying ger.
A tight spot required ger to push some of the snow away. It was more solid the deeper ge got, probably compacted under its own weight. With two hands and one foot in the snow and ger back pushed against the cold, rough rock, ge used ger free foot to dislodge material from the wall, seeing dust and smaller chunks fall down into the darkness below.
All of a sudden, there was a low scrunching sound and the snow wall disintegrated, falling after the smaller pieces in large white boulders, the intruder amidst them.
Too surprised and disoriented, Zekra barely had any time to slow down ger fall before ge crashed into the snow on the ground, a sharp pain jolting through ger, originating from ger right ankle.
“Fuck!” echoed in the cavern again.
A series of hums, rumbles and the clacks of teeth responded.
Pulling gerself from the pile, Zekra looked around, the lamp pinned to ger shoulder illuminating the hollow ge had fallen into. The source of the sounds was quickly found, an elongated, shaggy figure pressed into the space between two snow boulders.
“You are Akati, I assume?”
The Keiliik looked at ger and hummed as Zekra limped over to them. At a distance of about five metres, they began to struggle, trying to wind themselves out of what appeared to be ropes tangled around their body.
That won’t work like that. Stopping and kneeling down to take the strain off ger hopefully only sprained ankle, Zekra dug through the first aid kit to check if there was a spare translator device inside. Having to aid a member of a foreign species and culture, and possibly a xenophobe without even thinking of the communication issue… Zekra cursed gerself for not having asked Ankivayiel to borrow the translator.
To ger luck there were two spare translators included, robust models that were able to handle more abuse than the types most people used. Zekra switched one of them on and soon found the locals’ language in the ‘frequently used’ menu. With everything set up, ge slid the output part over the hardened snow to the entangled Keiliik.
“Do not be afraid and please stop struggling. I am here to help you, Ankivayiel sent me.”
Akati looked between the device and the Serkanian, seemingly unsure what to make out of it. Then they hummed and whistled again, with the translator device repeating them in Unicomlang.
“Ankivayiel? Where are they? Where is Pireihati?” The started struggling again.
“Please calm down! I am here to tend to your injuries and free you from the tangles!”
Akati stilled, breathing heavily.
“I will remove the tangles first. May I approach?”
The Keiliik passed ger a glance, then briefly opened and closed their jaws. “Yes.”
Still careful with nearing the probably injured and certainly stressed individual, Zekra gave them a look-over. Compared to Vayiel, this Keiliik was smaller and their fur had darker spots – a young female. The ropes sat tight, often only being visible by the valleys they drew into Akati’s integument. At least, it didn’t appear there was any dark green among the grey, meaning the tangles hadn’t cut into her skin deep enough to cause significant damage.
The tangles in question were thin, black ropes. Zekra touched one of them and let it run over ger fingers. It was a tough material, some kind of artificial fibre most likely traded from the outpost. Looking through the contents of the first aid kit, ge exhaled in annoyance – there were several small, sharp knives meant for field surgeries, but nothing resembling a clipper or more robust knife that wouldn’t dull beyond use once a few of the ropes were cut. There was only one suitable tool in the cavern – developed and refined over millions of revs to work through the hardest shells and cut through the toughest fibres, regrowing and self-sharpening.
“Tell me if it hurts when I pull,” Zekra told the Keiliik, then lifted the rope off her body and bit into it. The filaments were tough, taking ger over a minute until the last strings were severed by ger tooth plates. Then the procedure started anew with another rope.
Akati watched the process, first tense with unease, then gradually relaxing when she realized the strange foreigner was doing nothing but trying to free her.
Another rope came apart, one loose end landing on the Keiliik's fur, the other on the ground. Zekra wiped ger mouth with the back of ger forearm. “How did you become entangled in these ropes?”
The furred body underneath ger tensed up again. “Pireihati!”
Next rope still in hand, Zekra looked up at Akati, seeing wide eyes with contracted irises and open jaws. “Pireihati? But weren’t they accompanying you up here?”
“Pireihati did this!” Then Akati's eyes narrowed and her lips were drawn over their exposed jaws. “I thought they were my friends. So much, that we agreed to do raheikij together... venture up the mountain and face Shik’Veheera where it is the closest. I thought they were my friend, but I didn't see how much the hate had eaten itself through their minds. I knew they hated the foreigners below the cliff and wanted them to go back to where they came from, but I had never dreamed of them to ever do this.”
“But you are not a foreigner, why did they attack you?”
“I had voiced interest in learning more about the foreigners. Many of us don’t trust them, but since they came, our situation has improved. They trade sturdy materials that allow us to build bigger and longer-lasting buildings, for example. I wanted to know more and in Pireihati’s eyes this was too much. I think they only wanted to do raheikij with us to have us alone and outside of the sights of others, then to use the foreigners’ tools they so despise to kill us and blame our deaths on the foreigners. They killed Shia, I fought them and then the avalanche came down. They ran away, but not before throwing these ropes at me and leaving me to die in the roiling snow. I got lucky by being trapped in this cavity, but because of the ropes, I couldn’t get out. I called for help until I lost my voice.”
Akati lowered her head to rest it against the ground. “My friend and my lifebound are gone.”
Unsure what to say, Zekra just continued on ger work. Several more ropes were gnawed through, at which point it was looking like the Keiliik could move enough to free herself from the rest. At this notion Akati struggled onto her six legs and by their joint efforts the remaining ropes were pulled off her body. With the obstruction gone and rolled up in a corner, she lay down again.
“Help should arrive soon,” Zekra said, looking at the shaggy body. “I should better dress your wounds, can you tell me which places hurt? I can't really see through all the hair.”
“No,” Akati said after a deep exhale. “They are just cuts and scratches. The part that hurts most right now is my soul. If you want to ease my pain, could you climb on my back, please?”
Zekra looked at Akati with bewilderment. Out of all the things she could have replied, this one was a most unexpected answer. On the other hand, it made sense. The psychological aspect of medicine wasn't one of Zekra's strong points, but this unfamiliar species presented its case in a way even an intoxicated beginner student with sleep deprivation could easily understand. With how close Keiliik and Fjeb were, one dying must be devastating to the other. All Akati wanted right now was to just relive that familiar, consoling pressure of her Fjeb on her shoulders.
Besides, just sitting around and waiting for the Molurian to arrive wouldn't make the cavern any warmer.
“Tell me if it hurts when I move,” Zekra told Akati before pulling gerself onto her back, quickly finding a comfortable spot between the shoulders of the front and middle leg pair.
It was nothing but a soft beeping that announced its presence. Switching the lamp on and directing it in the sound's direction into the darkness, Zekra could make out a small drone hovering in the light cone.
“You alright? You injured?” the Molurian’s monotonous voice came from the drone's speakers.
“More or less!” ge called back. The shaggy body underneath ger shifted and Akati rose her head.
“What is that?” the translator, now tied to her neck fur, repeated her hum and click of teeth.
“The rescue team.”
“ Can you hold on for about fifteen secondaries?” the Molurian asked. “Should I send any supplies down?”
“We can wait!”
The drone landed.
“I apologize for wait. With information sent to me, I needed to get digger robot to get you out. Is cavern stable?”
“Well, aside from the end of the tunnel I’ve gotten in, it doesn’t seem to move.”
“That re- wait!” There was some rustling and muffled voices coming from the speaker, until a different voice spoke, deep, growling and full of concern.
“Zekra, are you alright? Did anything happen in the hole? Why didn’t you get out again?”
“Arqeez, calm down and stop threatening the Molurian. I just sprained my ankle while falling and have taken care of it in the meantime. Now let them do their job and wait.”
A bit later, a whirring sound could be heard from the other end of the cavern, steadily growing louder. Under the light of Zekra’s lamp, a round section of snow collapsed to reveal the spinning head of the digger robot, which pushed its cylindric, articulated form into the cavern and moved aside to clear up the tunnel it had dug.
“Should I send down ropes to pull you out?” the Molurian asked through the drone’s speaker.
Akati stood up, transfixed on the hole in the cavern. “No,” she replied, then her head turned to face Zekra. “Hold on.”
“No, I can get ou-fuck!”
It hadn’t been a suggestion; barely after Akati had finished talking, she had risen onto her legs and rushed forward, out of the cavern and into the tunnel. Zekra held on with all limbs available, pressed against Akati’s back to avoid the tunnel’s ceiling. Possibly due to her being experienced with carrying someone on her back most of the time, she made it out of the tunnel without ger even brushing the compacted snow above.
The brightness of the world outside was so jarring Zekra had to cover ger eyes for a few moments. Akati came to a halt and looked around.
“Zekra, are you alright?”
Ge slid off the Keiliik’s back to stumble into the snow, ger sprained ankle piping up despite having been stabilised during the wait. Two large arms grabbed ger by the shoulders and lifted ger back into an upright position.
“But is everything alright?”
“Arq, I did tell you, it’s nothing to worry about. Don’t be so clingy, I can take care of myself.”
“I’m worried. I have left you alone in the previous city and you nearly died back then.”
Ge placed ger hands on top of the two arms still holding onto ger shoulders. “I have left you there. And it was for the better. I might have nearly died, but you didn’t. If you had been with me, you might have died for real. Either because of that monstrosity running amok there or because of… the monstrosity I became.”
Zekra directed ger eyes away from Arqeez and stared into the white expanse in thought. The decision had been made. T-trance was a thing to be avoided. No matter the power it held, no matter how much of an edge it was giving ger in a confrontation, the risk it posed to ger friend if he were to be close by when it happened again was simply not worth it. It was better if it stayed a freak occurrence.
“That is worrying,” the Molurian spoke.
The two vagabonds faced her, but all her attention was directed at Ankivayiel and Akati, who were caught up in an intense argument, not caring in the slightest that their translators allowed everyone present to listen in.
“Pireihati was responsible for this? I cannot believe this! They had come to me to send rescue!” Ankivayiel walked once in a tight circle. “Why would they do it?”
“Pireihati is alive?” Akati made a deep hissing sound the translator didn’t catch on. “They shot Shia! Both of them need to pay for what they did!”
Vayiel startled, then lowered their neck with opened jaws. “They did what? You just said they attacked you because were devoured by hate for the foreigners, now you want to tell me they used foreigner tools? I sincerely hope you are not trying to hide something, Akati!”
“What am I supposed to hide? I have told everything as it happened!”
“You are the one constantly visiting the foreigners! The one with access to their tools!”
Akati stepped back. “I didn’t kill Shia! Why would I do that?!”
“I don’t want to interrupt,” Zekra chimed in, seeing the direction the discussion between the natives was steering into. “But Akati had told me the same. That Pireihati had used foreigner tools to be able to blame their attack on those living below your settlement.”
“Lied to us, lied to you!” Ankiv shouted. They wanted to say more, but a shake by Vayiel let them almost lose their footing on their Keiliik's back. “Esteemed ukaira, I am not sure if we can trust what Akati tells.”
“Can ask Pireihati,” the Molurian joined the conversation. “But sure they will insist on their version as well. Not helpful. Need solid evidence, not just words.”
“But that’s what happened!” Akati said, the increasing pitch of her original speech not carrying over to the translator. “The ropes Pireihati entangled me in are still at the bottom of that cavern!”
“Or you entangled yourself in them by accidentwhen the snow came down!”
The discussion between the natives was steering into the unwanted direction at full speed. But then again, Zekra didn’t know what had really happened. Both parties would insist on their version being correct, unless something unable to lie could provide its insights.
Of course, ge thought, remembering what had brought ger to examine Shia’s corpse for the singe marks in the first place.
“If you want the truth, you will have to dig out the weapon that killed Shia. I have sensed it close to their corpse, buried in snow. Let a laboratory examine the DNA and other traces of its handler on it and you will know who had really killed them.”
“Will have to tend to it as soon as possible,” the Molurian said. “This grave news, whatever the outcome. But will your community trust results of foreigners?”
Akati and Ankivayiel looked at her in silence for several seconds. In the end, Vayiel spoke. “I will make them trust it, whatever it takes. The opinions of our people shouldn’t cloud the truth.”
After a diversion to Shia’s corpse, where Akati could mourn their loss and the Molurian could retrieve the heat gun Zekra had detected, they flew back to Taj. The natives immediately headed for the cliff, where they would return to their community and deal with the events that happened between the youths on their rite of passage, while the Molurian contacted the local police to have the weapon examined.
“Natives and foreigners will have to work together to solve this,” she said after having sent the message. “Otherwise wrong person could be blamed.”
“We can’t really help with that,” Zekra said.
The Molurian looked up from her wrist computer. “But you did more than enough. Agreed to help. Searched out missing. Found weapon. I very grateful. But I know gratitude won’t pay your ship.”
They followed the Molurian to a small, inconspicuous building at the side of the warehouse, where a transfer filled up two of their currency storage modules. As expected from a modest settlement, it wasn’t an exorbitant sum, but more than enough for restocking and continuing to the next place the Sciara would carry them to.
Arqeez rubbed one foot against the other, trying to get a bit of feeling back. They were numb from the cold, with the brief time inside the overstuffed intraatmospheric vessel of the Molurian doing almost nothing to change it. With as devoid of feeling as they were, he could easily step on something sharp and not notice the injury until being light-headed from the blood loss.
Zekra looked up from the hoarding. After receiving their reward, they had gone back to the pub, to warm themselves up, eat and rest. Taj had entered its rest shift and wasn’t giving clearance to spaceships during that time, except for emergencies.
“I’ll see. There’s several transport jobs offered, but I’ll have to check the places they go to before deciding on one.” Ge hit the wrist computer again. “If this fossil would let me, at least. Otherwise, I would have offered you to earn 120 Gams in a job you would have surely loved, but someone else had taken it in the meantime. So we will just spend the rest shift in the ship, get the delivery as soon as the ascending shift begins and start right away.”
Arqeez leant back in the chair and rumbled.
“Why, is there something else you want to do here?”
“I’m not sure still, but will we ever have to land on a planet as cold as this one again? Then a pair of shoes would be nice.”
A to Z Episode 10
Scientist's Log: Disaster
This episode took way too long because work killed my creativity and it's kind of a trainwreck because I decided it to be more than a simple rescue mission in the middle and added an additional layer of the intrigue while writing the last two pages. Hopefully the next will be more interesting and better planned.