Disclaimer - Paramount own the name of the ship. That is all. So ner.
It was warm.
Rileta absently hummed to herself, the small gills at the side of her throat moving as she breathed, enjoying the feel of the sun on her skin as she tended the small growths that had emanated from the ground.
It really was a most beautiful experience.
A few companions walked by and greeted her; she greeted them in return but her attention wasn't really focused on them or the growths she treated so tenderly - she was waiting for him. She had been expecting him for the last few turns; his explorations didn't usually last longer than six turns, although on occasion it had been as many as twenty. It had been only nine, so she did not feel the need to panic or worry. Besides, she was certain of two things in her existence; Sharet was absolutely capable of taking care of himself, and he always returned with wondrous stories and discoveries. It mattered not if any of it were real and he was making the stories up; she had never left Opae and her mind ached to know what was beyond The Inside.
She was - and ridiculously so, in her own mind - not allowed to travel Outside because she was considered too young. At six thousand, seven hundred and twenty one turns, they considered her too young.
Trying to empty her mind of her frustrations, she forced herself to stop frowning, to relax. She was beginning to spoil her own mood. At the very least, she knew that Sharet would share with her everything that he had seen. That would have to suffice - it had always done so before.
Her skin was beginning to dry in the rays of the sun. Grasping the beverage that was resting on the ground next to her, she inhaled the contents in one go. Almost immediately her skin began to soften, as the liquid rapidly circulated around her body.
Feeling better, she smiled again and renewed her efforts with the growths.
"Still fascinated with azure things, I see."
The smile on her face transformed into a grin the instant she heard the voice. Dropping her tool she leapt up almost landing in his arms. Instead, she landed just in front of him and grabbed either side of his head. Rather than the obvious "You're back" she opted for a restrained and straight faced "You're late."
Chuckling, he carefully lowered the worn bag he was carrying and grabbed the sides of her head, mirroring her movements. "I didn't realise you'd missed me."
She smiled for him. "Only because there was no one here to do the cleaning."
His flared gills indicated that he didn't believe a single word.
Releasing him, she quickly bent and picked up his bag and hooked it over her shoulder. "Come inside. I want to hear absolutely everything." Giving him no time to respond, she grabbed his hand and lead the way into the home.
He gave no protest.
Once inside, they sat on opposite sides of the table which she delicately placed the bag on top of. She was almost bursting with the need to ask just what was inside, but when she took a moment to really study him, she frowned. "Are you well, Sharet?"
He smiled his appreciation for her concern. "Just a little tired."
Reassured she nodded - mostly to herself. His journeys were often across dangerous and tiring territory - the colour around his eyes was to be expected. He had certainly returned before looking worse than he did now.
Now that it had been confirmed that he would be just fine, she leant forward, excitement almost leaping from her. "Where did you go this time?"
It was always her first query, always the first thing she asked. He had almost always responded in kind; leaning forward, thrilled to tell someone of all he had seen.
This time he hesitated.
Had Rileta taken a moment to really notice that hesitation, she could have stated his answer before he did. As it was, her enthusiasm had dulled her observation skills and she was totally unprepared for his answer:
"Where the Dark Land is."
She would not believe it, at first. Could not believe that he - even he; explorer, discoverer, hero - would be reckless enough to go there. Only a few had been there. Less than a few - none - had returned.
As she continued studying him in disbelief and his expression didn't alter, she realised with a sickening certainty that this wasn't some joke, some trick. He was telling the truth. He had been to the Dark Land.
Shaking her head, gills moving rapidly, she stood up from her chair and pushed away.
He stood, reaching out for her, "Rileta..."
"NO." She insisted, drawing away. "Do not touch me. You have been to the Dark Land! Everyone who goes there dies - you know that!"
Sharet snorted, leaning a hand on the table. "A myth, I assure you. Perpetrated by They - you know they never want anyone to leave Opea."
That was - at least - true enough. It was only thanks to certain friendships that he was allowed his leeway. Others were allowed to come and go, but never so far as he went.
They did not seem to envy him his freedom. And now, neither did she.
"Then why has no one else returned?"
He smiled. "Because I'm better at hiding than they were."
Feeling only mildly relieved, she still kept away from him.
Sharet, however, knew her too well. Reaching for his bag he opened it, and Rileta jumped slightly, expecting something hideously demented and evil to come leaping out.
Nothing came leaping out. Nothing even moved. She tried to peer inside the bag without actually moving closer.
He opened the bag further, enticing her interest.
"Let me show you what I found..." He began, and when she still seemed interested he reached in and pulled out the box.
Rileta barely moved, one hand clutched closed near her chest as she looked on.
Smirking inwardly, Sharet turned the box towards her and opened it. As he knew it would, it immediately began chirping and flashing with bright colours he had not previously been familiar with.
Utterly unable to hide her reaction, she gasped. She had never seen anything like it! So bright and so...how was it making that noise? How was it possible that it was flashing with those lights? Extending one arm carefully, she almost touched it. "Does it...hurt?"
Understanding her reticence, he shook his head slowly. "Not at all. It's not a weapon."
Knowing that he would have made a good investigation of it earlier, she reached out and touched it. It was...hard. Smooth. Well crafted. No doubt artificial. And it was still chirping, not sounding entirely dissimilar from the avian life forms that occasionally filled their sky.
She took it from him, looked down at the moving lights and panel that lit up the middle of the box. As she moved it around, she noticed that the images on the panel changed. Concentrating, she aimed the box at Sharet and again, she gasped when she saw what was being displayed. "This...is you! It's showing me you! But...it must be...what you look like on the inside!" Almost appalled, she still couldn't stop looking at it. It was amazing. Never had she seen such a thing.
Why would They wish to keep this from them? Perhaps Sharet's paranoia was justified. Perhaps...They wanted to keep these wonders for themselves. Smiling widely, gills flapping in satisfaction, she looked up at him. "You have done well, Sharet. Your best find ever, I have no doubt."
Pleased and encouraged by her words, he took a step towards her and she didn't back away. "And only the first." Turning back, he pulled something else from the bag. "It was not the only thing I found..."
The next day, he began coughing. His gills drooped and his colour worsened. He assured her constantly that he was fine, that he would recover, that it was just a small illness.
Rileta had more than a few doubts.
She had imagined that if one went to the Dark Land there would be some ancient evil, something unfathomable that would kill you instantly, or take you to the very limits of your terror until you died. She had not expected a disease. Had not expected something so apparently benign.
She did not know, of course. This was just speculation. Unfortunately, it was something she was good at.
Determined to not let him know of her concerns, she tended to him, allowing her attention to be diverted from the growths which were beginning to wither.
It was on the fifth day when she feared he would lose consciousness and would not wake up. His face was far redder than it had ever been. The healer knew nothing, did not recognise the signs.
"Tell me a story, Sharet. Tell me of your journey." She had not heard of it in as much detail as she usually did, and she wanted more than ever to keep him awake.
He did not think that his journey was of any importance; there was something else pressing on his mind. Leaning against the wall next to the bed, he looked at her blearily, his eyes a disturbingly dark colour. "I...had planned to go back, but I do not think I will, Rileta."
She wanted to shout at him, scream that it wasn't going to happen.
He continued before she could. "I have not told you about it. About exactly where I found my treasures."
Her mind went to them briefly - the box, the oblong, the flat object - and had to admit she was more than a little curious.
Taking a deep breath he coughed. Terrified by the terrible sound, she grabbed the closest beverage and passed it to him. His hand shaking he took it, and by the time he finished his skin looked a little better, but only just.
Closing his eyes, he breathed deeply for a few moments before continuing. "There is...something there. Something in the Dark Land." He opened his eyes and met her gaze. "You remember when part of the sky fell?"
"Of course; everyone saw it." It would be difficult to forget such an event; something unidentified plummeting towards the ground, apparently on fire. She had been told that it had landed in the Dark Land.
"They said that an evil had been cast there, to rid it from us forever. They were lying." He coughed again, but this time he recovered quickly. "It was a construct of some kind. One that, I'm sure, used to fly among the stars."
Rileta scoffed at the idea, but he insisted.
"It was damaged, but I saw the most amazing things. You've seen some of the ones I brought back, here, but there were other things far too large for me to carry back. I wish you could see them. Wish that you could know all that I do."
But a different thought had formed in Rileta's mind. "If...if this construct really came from the stars, then how do we know *they* didn't bring your illness? That they-"
Defiant, he shook his head, gills raising slightly. "No. I do not believe that. It did not seem that they came here with the intent of harming anyone."
Noticing his use of words, she frowned. "'They'?"
Realising her meaning, he corrected her. "No, not They. A different they. There were...aliens on the ship, Rileta. Dead, but they were there. There was not a single survivor." His voice was pained, as if he had suffered with them. He had always identified with anything or anyone he discovered.
But he was feverish now, and Rileta convinced herself that he was wrong. "You're ill, Sharet. I'm sure your memory is not what it was-"
He grabbed her arm. "My memory is fine," He told her weakly, but with passion. "Better than your conviction is."
Knowing nothing else to do, she placated him with meaningless words and wishes, assuring him that of course he was right, of course there wasn't an evil in the Dark Land and - eventually - despite her best efforts, he lost consciousness.
He died the next turn.
It was the first time she had stepped outside of the home since his illness. She had barely eaten, barely slept, her grief still feeling like an open wound. Her gaze absently fell to the growths.
They were dead.
It was a little colder than when he had returned, but still pleasant enough. Wrapping her arms around herself, she stepped further still out of the home, needing to make some kind of connection with life, the image of his still body too fresh in her mind.
It was not what she expected to see. Of those who passed, a large amount seemed ill. Some were coughing. Some had darker eyes. Some had more colour in their faces. Others had all of these. In pure horror she clasped her hand over her mouth and turned away, eyes squeezing tightly together. In two steps she was back inside the home, sobbing openly.
He had done this. He had not meant to harm anyone, but he had brought the illness here. She was certain.
Two turns later, she began to cough.
When the first deaths occurred, everyone was assured that it was a limited illness, that it would not spread into the general population.
Three turns later, not a single person in Opea believed them.
Rileta had never seen a They before; she did not know anyone else who had done so. But as she sat in the Sacred Place the door opened and one stepped in, covered in a robe. It was female, that seemed obvious.
The people of Opea were almost crammed into the Holy Place, coughs echoing loudly, but no one flinched away. It was evident that all were infected, and They seemed no different. Reaching the front of the Holy Place, the They lowered to her knees and pulled back her hood.
There were gasps of surprise. She looked exactly like them. No different. Yet she had a privilege of being one of They.
The magnificent They bent forward, touched the feet of the statue, and prayed to The Spirit to guard over her life.
It was as dark as it got in Opea. Sneaking towards the exit, Rileta tried desperately not to cough, tried desperately not to give herself away to anyone who might report her. Her bag rested against her back, its weight distributed over her shoulders. It was as comfortable as she could get it, and she was sure it was too heavy. But she wanted the liquid. She knew she was dying, but if the liquid could ease her suffering in any way, she was going to use it.
She had not anticipated the queues of people at the exit. Naive of her perhaps, but she had been too focused on getting here. She was not desperate to escape the illness, as these people seemed to be doing. She wanted to see what Sharet had seen, wanted to see it with her own eyes.
But how would she get by all those people and all those guards without anyone noticing? There had to be some way, surely...
Someone whispered her name.
Spinning around and almost falling over in the process, her eyes widened when she saw the They who had been in the Holy Place. The illness had not been kind to her; she almost looked dead.
At her beckoning, Rileta approached.
"What is it you wish to escape?" They asked.
"Nothing," Rileta answered honestly. "I seek only the cause of the illness."
They seemed amused. "Where do you expect to find this?"
"The Dark Land."
They were surprised. "You are well informed."
"Not well enough. They will not let me through."
"Yes they will," She retorted, apparently coming to a decision. Tugging at her robe, she pulled it off completely. She was naked underneath, but seemed unconcerned. "Put this on. They will not question you."
Rileta hesitated. "I can't-"
"Put it on," They stated harshly. "You cannot disobey an order from me, and that was an order."
Rileta had never been so thankful for being under the rule of They.
The journey was not easy. She thought of Sharet frequently, thought of the They less frequently. Thought of the sky that had fallen, that had landed in the Dark Land...
It was more that aptly named. No sun ever shone there, that much she knew, so she had loaded herself well with burners.
As each turn passed her steps faltered further, but she would not give up despite the wind howling around her face, flapping the robe around her.
After three turns, she could almost feel the life leaving her body.
That was when she found the Dark Land.
Nothing moved, except her. Lighting a burner she carried it despite the shaking of her arms. Her skin remained dry no matter how much liquid she consumed. She felt both hot and cold and couldn't stop shivering.
It occurred to her that had she been well, she would have been terrified.
She had to find it, had to find it. Had to see what he had been talking about. Had to...
She only found it by walking into it. It was very large. It was artificial. It was a construct. This was it. This had to be.
Finding a way in didn't prove too difficult; there was a large hole in the side of the construct big enough for her to step into.
Rileta noticed the difference immediately. The floor was not the unforgiving rock that had been wearing at her feet, it was smooth covered in...some kind of material. There were passageways that led to other sections of the construct. She followed one passageway until it reached an end with a doorway. Despite her best efforts at pulling and tugging, she couldn't open it.
A horrible coughing fit started then, and didn't abate for a long time.
When it finished she was wheezing. Her mind was spinning, reeling. Had to...had to keep looking...
Her eyes fell on something then, something she hadn't noticed before. Had her burner not been pointed towards the floor, she would have missed it entirely. It was a rock. Frowning, she moved her burner and saw another one. Then another one.
Sharet had told her once, how he had marked his way with rocks should he ever want to return. She thanked him silently for his brilliance.
Following the trail of rocks took some time but eventually they led her to a tightly confined area. Crawling along she almost passed out, but managed to make it to the intersection where there was a ladder. Her breath echoed in the tight space. A quick look with the burner down some of the other crawling areas revealed no more rocks, so she began to climb upwards.
After following his trail for another few moments, she eventually emerged into a room.
There were people here. Lots of them.
Some lying at the back of the room, some at the front; everywhere.
It was nothing like a room she had seen before.
Everything about it seemed...unreal. Something purely out of someone's imagination.
But this was real. She was here and she was seeing this with her own eyes.
Moving forward, each step a chore, she headed towards what she assumed was the centrepiece of the room. There were two chairs in the middle of the room, just in front of a large barrier. She almost gasped when she moved the burner to look at the first chair.
There was someone sitting in it, although it was much more a slouch than a sit. She knew nothing about alien physiology but...for some reason she thought this one was a female.
There was another alien in front of the other chair, and with nothing else to do, she collapsed into that chair, utterly exhausted, knowing she wouldn't be able to get back out of the chair herself.
Her burner extinguished itself, and in her utter weariness she couldn't even be bothered to light a new one.
Leaning back in the chair, the burner fell out of her hand and thumped onto the material-covered floor.
How different this place was. How deadly.
But she shared Sharet's view that they had not come here intending harm. This had the marks of an accident or a battle - debris at occasional places, bodies everywhere. It was just as well that she had long ago lost her sense of smell; she was sure it wasn't a pleasant atmosphere.
She would probably never know what had killed her, killed Sharet, killed her people. Something in this construct that didn't agree with their biology? Perhaps something from the alien biology itself that was deadly to them. She could speculate, of course. But she wouldn't know.
Had she been more alert, it probably would have frustrated her. Had she been more alert, she probably would have thought the whole thing wondrous. But she was tired, so very tired.
The lingering warmth in her hand from where it had been holding the burner slowly left and as the utter coldness set in and she stared into the darkness of nothingness, she was more aware of her isolation than ever.
"I miss you, Sharet."
Her gills moved slowly.
She closed her eyes.
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