After what felt like forever, the narrow cave opened into a larger cavern, dismal illumination provided by hidden fixtures. Tidy rows of varying vehicles decorated the space, Oha plentiful among the mix.
Their two ships landed lightly alongside one another, cockpits swinging open, the air rushing in warm, damp, and sweet, like the fragrance of dessert baking.
As he jumped out, Xlack took a wary scan of his surroundings. This cave-hangar was tall; around its perimeter, five shelf-levels displayed more parked ships and doorways. People loitered nearby, in the halls those doors led to perhaps, but no one occupied the hangar except Xlack and the two girls. Once again, he found himself wishing to explore the maze above.
Xlack hit the ground harder than he had anticipated, hand briefly leaning against the Oha’s side in an effort to recover his grace. This planet was heavy.
“Are you coming?” the pilot called, already halfway to one of the many doors on the ground level. Her voice was muffled by the helmet she still wore, reminding Xlack he had so unsafely forgotten to redeploy his. He didn’t step away from the ship.
“When do I get to fix my Oha?”
“Maintenance teams will care for your oha. Follow us, please,” she quipped. She had a striking accent with sharp t’s and hollow l’s. Lanox had an accent, too, Xlack noted, but hers was different, more like Centra’s with a kind of lilt, and it didn’t catch his attention in quite the same way.
Xlack held out a hand to Rell, and the beastling hopped onto his palm, needle-like, retractable claws sticking in Xlack’s Tsoqisi sleeve as Rell scrambled up to perch on his master’s shoulder. Closing the cockpit, Xlack started after the pilot, gaze studying the two girls.
Lanox had also remembered to wear her helmet, but her visor was now raised, revealing her cheerful eyes. Like the helmets Xlack knew, theirs were hard on the outside but flexible like a balloon if pressed from the inside. While matching her eyes in color, Lanox’s helmet seemed misshapen, stretching to accommodate her piled hair. Without such a feature, the helmet would never have fit her, the pilot either—not that Xlack dwelt overly much on the girls’ hairstyles, though he did wonder what the pilot’s face looked like behind her dark visor. Was she as ordinary as Lanox?
Ms. Security in Anonymity was notably shorter than her friend, her curves accentuated by the long-sleeved, crimson jacket cropped at her ribs, a symmetrical pair of black laces sauntering down her onyx shirt. An ebony utility belt hugged her hips, pants the same red as the jacket, disappearing mid-shin into soft, obsidian boots. Her fingers were all that showed of her skin, fair as moonlight. Mystery slithered in her wake, and Xlack followed.
Lanox pulled off her own helmet, announcing, “Don’t mind her rudeness. Welcome to Tala, Anonymous!” With her helmet folded into a small card and tucked into one of her many vest pockets, she fell into step alongside him, heralding a ridiculous smile. “Ooh, what is that?” She pointed at Rell, who perked one floppy ear, both wary and intrigued by her interest.
“Where’d ya get it?”
“From his mother; where else?”
A puff of slight envy sprinkled with confusion. “We’re not really allowed to have pets, at least not here in Vlavaran. What hrausq are ya from?”
If he wouldn’t even tell her his name, what made her think she could just start asking random questions? And he didn’t even know what a hrausq was, not that he would admit such.
“What hrausq are you from?” he countered.
“Seven-One-Nine, but that doesn’t answer my question.” So she looked for a set of numbers.
“Doesn’t exist,” the pilot informed him.
“Sorry. I meant Eight-Nine-Nine.”
Halting, the pilot whirled on him, observing, “You’re a bit big for a two-year-old. How’d you get assigned to such a young hrausq?”
“It doesn’t really matter for now. Come meet our hrausq!” Lanox interrupted, opening a door and shoving Xlack through.
The square room boasted beautiful landscapes and intricate patterns painted haphazardly on the otherwise silver walls. Overrun by gutted electronics, the furniture arrangement was the design of chaos incarnate. Amidst this, six ladders ran to slide-away doors in the ceiling, each providing access to a short cubicle with just enough space for a bunk on either side of its floor entrance.
Gaze sliding over the abandoned mess, Xlack reported, “There’s no one in here.”
Lanox asserted, “Well, they’re not invisible or imaginary, I assure ya.”
“Lanox,” the pilot rebuked, starting up one of the ladders, “why do you always expect them all to just be sitting in here, waiting to welcome you back with open arms? They have lives of their own.”
“But I brought them a guest!”
“They don’t know that yet.”
Lanox bounded over to the ladder, whining, “Find them, Twi. Anonymous needs to meet them.” As she stomped her insistence, her loose locks danced, the golden bushels of curls atop her head growing slightly more uneven. Rell hissed.
Twi dropped to the floor with the grace of an autumn leaf, helmet and jacket no longer in sight, and for all Xlack’s wondering what type of face her visor had hidden, he wasn’t disappointed. Curiosity, suspicion, and compassion mingled intrinsic in her expression, highlighting features that were both sharp and soft.
She defined beauty more than any Zalerit, the only alien race with which Xlack had regular dealings. That wasn’t really a fair comparison, though, considering Zalerits had four eyes and Xlack thought they smelled like a bitter spice to be avoided.
Lanox was pretty in her own way, but Xlack’s eyes were glued to Twi.
A skein of thick canvas occupied her arms, and she looked from it to Lanox with a sigh, resignation prancing.
Her gaze, glistening silver and neerj, met Xlack’s, and he flinched.
“Do you want to meet them?”
Looking away, Xlack shrugged, a hand rising to curl over Rell and quiet him. “Sure.”
“Alright then. Teree is the closest,” she reported, her plethora of blue-black plaits swinging as she set down the canvas and turned to the door. Amongst the maelstrom of other objects, the canvas held special dignity, perfectly folded and placed with reverence.
She led them back into the hewn hallway. Xlack strove not to stare. Intriguing streaks of shining silver ran through her skin, patterned around the corners of her acute eyes.
“I think you wore that helmet too long,” he expressed through a half-worried grin.
Her gaze jumped to him. “Why?”
“Because it left stuff on your face.”
“My face?” she questioned, voice near silence as she rubbed a hand along her cheek. Louder, she mused, “That’s odd. It’s never done that before. Lanox, does-”
“There’s nothing on yer face,” Lanox interrupted, head swaying in confused disagreement.
“Yes there is,” Xlack countered, stepping within her space. Her scent was ambrosia. “You have these silver lines by your eyes and your hairline and across your nose.” He started to trace one with his finger, but she flinched away from his touch, offended.
“Don’t be a cruel idiot,” she reprimanded. “I’m Knalcal; I should be asking you why you don’t have birthmarks on your skin.”
“Because I don’t.” A blunt response.
Her suspicion flared. “You act as though you’ve never seen a Knalcal before, and when Lanox asked about your hrausq, you didn’t know what she was talking about. Even common people know what a hrausq is.”
Way to make me feel stupid, Xlack thought.
Her hands were on her hips now, her gaze on him steely as, walking backward, she continued to lead them. “Would you mind giving me the definition of amarac?”
“Of course not, if you first recite the definition of Sugataep.” He thought he knew the word, but it was old, and no one used it anymore…except Lanox apparently. Surely she didn’t mean to call him a shepherd.
As they entered a mid-sized auditorium—no chairs, floor sloping toward a flat space in the center, all carved straight into the cave’s dirt and rock—Twi stopped. “I asked you first.”
“And I asked you second.”
“Exactly, so you’ll answer first, and I’ll answer second,” she reasoned.
“No,” he rationalized, “you asked first, so your answer also comes first. You said something, I said something, so now it’s your turn again.” An illogical argument, sure, but he hoped he had lost her somewhere in there and she would just give up.
She stood with her arms crossed, glaring at him with one eyebrow raised, refusing to dignify that with a response. Rell slinked around Xlack’s neck, relocating to the other shoulder where he could better hide from her line of sight.
Small children suddenly poured into the space, yelling and laughing and shoving each other. They paid no mind to the trio of young adults arguing by one of the doorways, even rudely slamming into them.
Predator eyes sharpening, Rell scampered down Xlack’s back and joined the stampede.
“Rell, come back here! Hey!” Xlack snatched up a Knalcal child by the back of his shirt collar, a small boy he was sure had rammed him on purpose.
“Hey ya!” he heard, an echo with an accent and a wail.
Without releasing his first prisoner (who was now trying to kick him), Xlack turned to find another boy scowling at him. Also clad in Tsoqisi—an open sandy jacket with rows of tin zippers, pants the same—brown hair semi-shaggy and curling around his ears, this one was only half Xlack’s height and age, but he claimed more years than the toddlers swarming around them.
“Who are ya, and why are ya in my spot?” the boy demanded, glowering up at the Aylata. Xlack thought the sight funny; glowering was usually reserved for people one could physically look down at, not persons twice one’s size.
Not deigning to move, Xlack defended, “I’m in your spot because I didn’t know it was your spot. Do you have a problem with that?”
The boy’s eyes narrowed even farther, jaw rigid as he pointed at Xlack’s feet. “The marker has my name on it.”
Xlack looked down to see that under the toes of his boots there was indeed a small x with some scribbling around it, but he couldn’t make out what it said. His head hurt, and dimness crawled from the corners of his vision. The children were much too loud.
Most people learned to be reserved around Mind Aylata, but it was a skill that took time to acquire. Small children tended to be completely unguarded, throwing their emotions on any surrounding them. Sometimes it seemed their young minds shouted every feeling they had. With one or two kids, it was simply an irritating nuisance; in a rambunctious crowd like this, it was an outright assault.
Xlack pushed their minds away—their crashing waves of emotion—because if he didn’t, he knew his vision would only continue to retreat. If he focused, he could make this chaos go away and leave him alone, or so his uncle always assured him. It usually didn’t work, but Xlack tried hard to act like nothing was wrong anyway. He just had to collect Rell and get out of here as soon as possible.
A hand clapped down on Xlack’s shoulder, and he jumped.
“Easy, Teree. Are ya okay, Stranger?” This newcomer had a soothing quality to his voice, his accent similar to Lanox’s, and he helped push away the chaos as if encircled by a strong shield.
Xlack nodded. “I’m fine.”
Xlack guessed this one to be about his own age, but he stood a whole head and shoulders taller, his straight hair spiked like a desert plant. His slit nostrils were a bit more obvious than Lanox’s, but not as notable as Teree’s. The boy’s nose was almost flat, which contributed to the sharpness of his voice. All three had the same shimmery quality to their skin…Twi too if Xlack looked for it. Hers was much fainter.
“Be nice to him, Teree. He’s likely someone important.”
“Don’t put me down in front of my charge!” Teree whined, gesturing at the children scrambling around them.
“Then don’t give me anything to put ya down about and get yer class under control.”
“They are under control!” Teree argued just as the boy Xlack held finally succeeded in kicking free and took off. “Kahrin, no running!”
Kahrin stopped and contemplated this rule for a moment before taking one large, quick step, hesitating, then taking another.
“Kahrin!” Teree rebuked.
“I’m not running!” the boy challenged.
“Ya are going to fall flat on yer face like that!”
Kahrin paid no heed to this warning.
“Sit!” Xlack instructed, accompanying the suggestion with a whisper in each of the minds bombarding his. The same openness that made kids overwhelming also made them highly susceptible to suggestions.
Teree’s entire class of eight sat immediately, several others doing likewise. From within her circle of personal space that none of the children had dared enter, Twi observed this cautiously.
“See, Teree,” the tall one admonished, “he helped ya. Now be polite.”
“Fine,” Teree groaned, extending his hand toward the Aylata. Xlack could barely see him, his vision so fogged over with clouds of overdramatic emotion.
He squinted, appearing to glare. “What do you want?”
“I’m introducing myself,” Teree explained with a roll of his eyes. “I’m Teree, and ya are supposed to shake my hand now.”
Hesitant, Xlack grabbed Teree’s wrist and made the hand attached to it shake.
With furrowed eyebrows, Teree looked at the tall one, commenting, “He’s weird.”
“Speak for yourself,” Xlack combated. “I’m not the one who asked for someone to shake my hand.”
Twi laughed, calling his attention back to her. He liked her laugh; he sensed that for some reason she needed to laugh, but he didn’t like that she laughed at him.
Turning amid a mix of emotions he didn’t care to identify, Xlack wove through the restlessly sitting multitude, heading toward where tiny Rell terrorized a group of children.
The tall one kept step with him. “I’m Alek Revo.”
Xlack said nothing. He wanted away from the crowd, but Revo’s dampening presence was helpful…nice. Xlack wondered if the sigils like exploding rivets on his auburn boots and belt had any significance. Things like that always had significance among Aylata.
“Ya got a name?”
“I’m called Skyme.”
Clapping, Lanox popped up from an argument with some seated kids. “Oh good, ya met Revo, Anonymous!”
Revo didn’t seem nearly as happy to see her as she seemed…most of the time.
“Now he only has to meet Zeln and Aarex, Naday, and…” Xlack stopped paying attention as she ranted, and evidently so did Revo.
“So why are ya here, Skyme?”
Interrupting her own previous run-on, Lanox answered, “He lost his amarac, and we found him and rescued him, but I think he lost his memory, too, because he talks awfully strange, no offense of course. Oh, and that thing on his shoulder is an elitbeast-wait, where’d it go?”
“Thank-ya Dr. Know-It-All,” Revo commented.
“Ya asked,” she explained with a shrug.
“But maybe I wanted to hear it from him.”
Her shoulders rose again, brushing aside the counsel as a small girl tugged on the longer end of Lanox’s pale aqua shirt.
“Oh, ya are so cute!” Lanox exclaimed, scooping the child into her arms. The toddler cooed indiscernible sentences to her, and she cooed back.
“Ya hungry, Skyme?” Revo questioned.
Until Revo mentioned it, Xlack didn’t realize how famished he was. His stomach’s loud, mournful grumble answered for him.
With an exaggerated bow and chuckling smile, Revo responded, “Well then, right this way, and we’ll get ya some food.”
At hearing these well-loved phrases, Rell bounded over, toting a scrap of fabric as a prize. Slender tail waving, he leapt at Revo’s ankle, claws digging into the tough, brown Tsoqisi of Revo’s boot as the beastling climbed. His nose twitched, whiskers shaking as he sniffed at the lowest of the pockets lining Revo’s leg, baby fangs sinking in a moment later, stolen fabric allowed to fall away at the prospect of a better prize.
“Hey, Pipsqueak, I bite back,” Revo warned, catching Rell by the scruff of the neck and lifting him to eye level. “Ya might make good filling for a sandwich.”
Rell swatted at his captor’s face, little paw nowhere close to reaching its target.
“Rell would scratch and claw the whole way down,” Xlack cautioned, scooping the growling beastling away from Revo.
“I’d prefer an easier meal. Ya coming?”
Xlack’s stomach voiced complaint again, aggrieved that Revo hadn’t pulled food from one of his myriad of pockets. Revo laughed, leading the way to an exit.
Jumping to her feet, Lanox queried, “Where are ya going?”
“Yer guest is hungry.”
“Oh, okay,” she conceded like she had lost all interest in listening to anything else Revo might say, returning to her cooing. Lanox was…weird. Xlack was glad her mind seemed so closed because he guessed getting lost in it would be the stuff of nightmares.
-continued in section 2 scene 4- Seven Questions-