Chapter Two: Sa’lok

“Stand clear!”

Folding my arms over my chest, I did as I was told and took a couple of steps back as the flight marshal, a spindly human guy in an orange vest, waved his two light sticks and directed Teisha’s hovercraft toward the landing pad.

Even though the bright hangar lights bounced off her windshield, I could still see her leaning over the ship’s controls, her petite figure and honey-blonde hair enough to make me smile.

“You’re late,” I told her the moment she climbed down from the hovercraft, her hair cascading down her shoulders in soft waves.

Quickly, she closed the distance between us and punched my arm playfully.

“The kids didn’t want me to come,” she shot back as an explanation. “But I’m not late. It took me twenty-five minutes to get here. You’re the one who arrived early. Seems like someone missed me, huh?”

“Why would I be missing you?” I laughed, cocking one eyebrow up as I grinned. “If I wanted to have someone around to bust my balls all the time, I would have already told the general I want to work with Vrehx.”

She pursed her lips and gave me an annoyed look, one that just made me laugh even more. “Come here, you,” I told her as I took one step forward and wrapped my arms around her. She happily did the same, resting her head against my chest. “How are the kids?”

“They’re growing up fast,” she whispered. Against my K’ver frame, she seemed even smaller in comparison, fragile, even. “You should come meet them.”

“I’ll see if I can ask for a day off once I’m done with Glymna. Your sister, how is she doing?”

“She’s fine,” she replied, but I could tell by her tone of voice that she wasn’t telling me the whole truth.

Not that I was surprised. Syra was still mourning her husband while raising the twins. Never an easy situation to be in.

“Now, what’s up with this Glymna business?”

“You heard about the new site one of our archeologists uncovered?”

“I heard a thing or two,” she admitted with a small shrug. “But I don’t know much about it.”

“And you’ve heard about the new possessions, haven’t you?”

“The Gorgoxians, right? Everyone’s talking about it.”

“Yes, the Gorgos,” I nodded, using the shorthand name the teams had been using for the possessed, or the noncorporeal entities who had possessed the poor human hosts. Once the infection had taken place, there really didn’t seem to be much difference.

“Apparently some of them were trying to dig a hole right in the middle of the Sika Jungle. It turns out, there was an underground structure there, some sort of holding structure built by an ancient race called the Aeryx. They used it to house those who had been infected by the Gorgoxians.”

“So, a prison?”

“Not exactly,” I continued. “More like a hospital. I know the general called for a big meeting a couple of days ago, and they figured out that the Aeryx had discovered a way to get rid of the Gorgos. A cure, if you will. Thing is, everything we’ve managed to get from the structure is in a language we don’t recognize. Our Urai friends say that it can be translated, but—”

“You need linguists.”

“That’s right.”

“So, did you call me here as a pilot or as a linguist?”

“Well, I do need to get to Glymna,” I smiled. “But you’re proficient with languages, and that might come in handy. We’ll see how things go. A lab has been set up in Glymna, the best site for the job and the Puppet Master, and we’ll be working out of there on a solution.”

“Alright, this is an interesting job, I’ll give you that much,” she said, returning my smile as she tucked a lock of her hair behind one ear.

“But why are you consulting with the guys in there? You’re not exactly an expert on ancient civilizations or dead languages. Why do they need a chemical engineer, and one that’s an expert in biological weapons, to boot?”

Rek. I’d been dreading that question, but I hadn’t been able to get through to the general’s office yet.

I should have started the process before contacting her. No one should ever fly that fast, especially not a fragile human.

“I can’t answer that right now.”

I knew that my answer would infuriate her—more than anyone I knew, Teisha hated unanswered questions—but this time I wasn’t teasing her or fooling around.

What I had to do in Glymna was classified, general’s orders.

I was pretty sure I’d be able to get Teisha the needed clearance, but I still needed the general’s authorization for it, and for that, I needed my request to get through. “You’re going to have to wait.”

Her eyes narrowed, then she shrugged.

“In that case, let’s get going.”

She might be annoyed, but she’d deal with it. Teisha knew how the military worked as well as any soldier.

Grabbing my bag from the ground, she pressed it against my chest and quickly spun around. I watched her climb into the hovercraft, her movements liquid and smooth, and found myself shaking my head.

Why was she always in such a hurry?

“C’mon, what are you waiting for? You keep standing around like that, and we’re gonna die of old age before reaching Glymna.”

Once inside Teisha’s ship, I waited until the doors were closed to fasten my seatbelt, then fired up my own panel and helped her check if we were ready for takeoff.

Five minutes later, we were leaving Nyheim behind, the brightly lit streets of the city like a sprawling cobweb underneath us. Ahead of us there was nothing but darkness and the clear sky, thousands of shining stars strewn across the nightly canvas.

Sitting behind Teisha, and fully knowing that she couldn’t see what I was doing on my screen, I quickly fired off a message to the general and asked for Teisha to be granted the necessary clearance for a prolonged stay in Glymna.

The approval came through ten minutes later.

I hadn’t doubted it would, not for a moment.

One of the toughest pilots in the auxiliary pilot program, she had been handpicked by the general as one of the pilots working directly under his orders.

To become one of the general’s fliers was an honor few humans had received, and she was the first human woman to get it.

Smart, brave, and talented, she had been an asset for the government ever since the Xathi decided to wreak havoc.

Even more than that, she was also the best company someone like me could have. No matter how dire the situation was, Teisha always kept her head up, and she always had a witty remark on the tip of her tongue.

Whenever she was around, my job became more…fun.

Our friendship was an unlikely one, what with all the anti-alien sentiment going around, but it also felt like the most natural thing to happen.

“You’re quiet back there,” she called over her shoulder. “You know how nervous that makes me.”

“Just considering if I can integrate with your craft from here,” I teased. “I’m not sure if my implants can handle something this antiquated.”

“Jerk. My baby is a thing of beauty.”

I couldn’t see her face, but I’d bet a week’s pay she’d stuck her tongue out.

Together, we just clicked. Of course, all that just meant I was being constantly harassed by the rest of the guys on my team.

Much like the humans, they had a hard time believing two persons from different genders could become such close friends without anything interesting happening.

I didn’t pay them much heed.

She was an attractive young woman, no doubt about that, but as much as I liked having her around, I was always so busy that I just didn’t have the time to wonder about those things.

Much.

“Up ahead,” Teisha finally spoke up after a couple of hours. Looking from behind over her shoulder, I saw bright lights coming straight up from the ground a couple of miles ahead.

“They’re signaling us.” Without waiting for me to say something, she lowered the power on the engines and dove straight toward the lights.

Only when we were closer did I manage to get a good look at the city.

Unlike most of the cities on the planet, Glymna seemed to grow down instead of up. The place was similar to a gigantic meteor’s crater, with the city occupying its inside.

The various districts were like water drops slowly dripping down the inside curvature of a glass.

It was hard not to marvel at the way the monstrous rocky slopes were covered with buildings and streets that had been carved straight into the rock.

Cramped stairs zigzagged through the residential districts, their inclination something that would give pause to those afraid of heights, and there were large openings here and there that seemed to lead into underground tunnels.

No wonder the Puppet Master had wanted us to set up shop here.

“Take us to Hangar C,” I told Teisha as I checked my notes. “It’s the closest one to the lab, and they’re already waiting for us there.”

She took us there fast, diving straight into the crater and making the way toward the large metallic structure that jutted out from the rock right near the end of the slope.

“What do I do now?” she asked me as we landed, turning in her seat so that she could look at me. “Wait for you here? Or should I go looking for a hotel to stay in?”

“You’re not going to be waiting here,” I laughed, already grabbing my bag and opening the hovercraft’s door.

Climbing down from the ship, I held one hand out to Teisha. “You’re coming with me to the lab.”

“I thought you said whatever you’re working on was classified.”

“It is,” I smiled. “But the general gave you clearance on the way over. I was waiting for it, but you swung by too early.”

“Does that mean—”

“Yes,” I said. “You’ll be working with me on this.”

“Now you’re talking.” Jumping out from the cockpit with renewed energy, she offered me a wide grin and then followed me off the landing platform.

A government aide was already on  hand to help us, and we followed him out of the hangar and into a maze of underground corridors that led to a sealed vault door.

“Your biometrics have already been inserted into the system,” the aide said in a bureaucratic tone, pointing at the panel mounted to the side of the door.

Nodding, I went toward the panel and let it scan my fingerprint and retina.

Immediately, the door hissed as the hydraulics system came alive and forced it to swing back on its reinforced hinges.

Stepping through the doorway, I glanced back to ensure Teisha was following me, then waited as the door closed again, leaving the aide behind. Ahead of us was an expansive corridor, the walls made of floor-to-ceiling glass panels that offered us a 360-degree view of the various lab rooms.

To our side was the room where a translation team was working on translating the Aeryx languages, and a couple of steps ahead was what seemed like a chemist’s lab, all of it packed with state-of-the-art tech.

“This is impressive,” Teisha whispered, looking around with a kid’s sense of wonder and fascination.

“This is the nerve center when it comes to the Gorgos,” I explained. “The general and other staff are the ones pulling the strings, but when it comes to the real action, it’s all happening here. Have you met Mariella?”

“Nope,” she answered as we stopped next to a human woman who was poring over some text on a computer. She turned to face us and smiled.

“It’s amazing what you were able to do with decrypting alien languages,” Teisha said. “I’ve read about some of your work on the ’net. I’m excited to be working with you!”

“Thank you,” Mariella said. “I left my notes open on this network to share with you. But I’m actually off to see the general about another problem.” She laughed, swept her hair back into a quick braid. “It’s never just one thing at a time anymore, is it?”

We bid her farewell as she hurried away.

“Alright,” Teisha nodded quietly, skimming over the files and transferring them to a tablet for reference.  “Where are we?”

“The Urai have managed to translate some of the runes we found at the dig site,” I explained, turning toward the translation laboratory to watch as the various translators—humans and Urai—worked around a massive table, with a large old-fashioned blackboard mounted against one of the walls.

On it, all manner of runes and possible translations had been drawn up in chalk. “We’re in the early stages of the process, but we believe that whatever the Aeryx used had to do with memory.”

“Memory? What does that mean?”

“To be honest, I’m not sure,” I shrugged. “All I know is that I’ve been asked to start working on an antidote for the Gorgos’ infestation. I plan to start with the chemical processes that relate to memory in humans, and then go from there.”

“That’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

“Why would you be looking for a needle there?” I asked her, right before I realized that it had to be one of those human sayings. “Anyway, you’re right, it’s not an easy task. But with the Puppet Master’s help, maybe we’ll get somewhere.”

“Well, at least we have a plan,” she muttered under her breath. Then, turning around, she looked straight at me. “Now, how bad is the  infestation? I’ve been hearing a lot of rumors, but no one really seems to know what’s happening.”

“Honestly?” Pursing my lips, I hesitated before replying.

In the end, though, I gave it to her straight. More than anyone in my life, she deserved to know the truth.

But still, my stomach knotted.

“It’s bad, Teisha. Really bad.”

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