The three-armed bouncer looked from the ID card to me, then back again.
He grunted and nodded, moving aside to let T’Skala and me through. I breathed out a sigh of relief - it had worked.
Pulling the rocket into the parking structure had offered a decent view of the canyon, but up close it was another thing entirely. The light of the sun glinted off crags of agate stone that looked like living crystals, as if it were a bluish moss of some type clinging to the sheer gray walls of the canyon. It was like nothing on earth.
The bar was directly in the middle of the canyon, an open air structure shielded from the elements by a force field, which I could barely see glimmering over a circle in the center, where there were tables and chairs and a bar. It was connected to the side of the canyon, where the bouncer had just let us in, by a spindly glass bridge that looked far too unstable to be supporting the bar, which was built atop a large chunk of the same blue agate as the canyon.
“How does it stay up?” I asked T’Skala.
“Magnets,” she said vaguely, taking me hand in tentacle and leading me onto the transparent bridge. Somehow, it was clean, even though dozens of feet and wheels and tentacles had clearly passed it on the way to the bar, judging by the large and diverse crowd occupying the area. As I walked, I turned around and noticed a laser behind me, sanitizing the floor. As a result it was perfectly transparent, making my heart skip a few beats as I placed my feet carefully on the pathway, T’Skala slithering blithely ahead.
The canyon was even deeper when viewed from directly above. I couldn’t see to the bottom, only miles and miles of blue crystal formation on a gray stone wall, looming beneath me as if I could fall down at any minute.
We entered the crowded bar and made our way through a sea of arms, tentacles, antennae, and tails until we found a lone empty seat at the bar. I claimed it, then hoisted T’Skala on my lap.
“Get out of here!” came a shout from behind the bar. “Is that T’Skala Zeutruggen I see?” A large Taurian turned to face me, each of his many tentacles occupied with holding a different bottle or pouring a glass of some exotic cocktail.
“D’Xuuzu!” T’Skala cried. She leaped up on the bar (she was short, so it wasn’t attention-catching) and performed what I assume is the tentacle version of a secret handshake.
“Are you skipping school?” said D’Xuuzu. “Right on.”
T’Skala nodded. “I had to take Vivian out! She’s never skipped school before.” She had to shout to be heard over the din of voices and music; it wasn’t the greatest place for conversation. To D’Xuuzu she shouted, “I’m doing an exchange program on Earth,” and to me she yelled “D’Xuuzu used to be my babysitter way back when!”
“Let me get you your fries,” he said, reaching behind the bar and instantly producing a suspiciously normal looking basket of french fries. I tried one. It was good, but not drag-your-friend-halfway-across-the-galaxy good. And I felt a stab of jealousy as she leaned in to say something I couldn’t hear to D’Xuuzu and he laughed.
“That was fun,” he said. “You should go do it with your friend.” He winked at me. T’Skala started to say something to him, but he had already turned away and started a conversation with the next patron.
“Finish your food and let’s go,” T’Skala said to me.
“Where are we going?” She was pulling me through the bar toward the edge of the giant crystal.
She stopped me at a glass railing. I leaned over the edge. “Wow,” I said. The dizzying depths of the canyon awed me again.
T’Skala jumped up on the railing, perching on the thin edges of the wall.
“Careful!” I cringed at her precarious position.
She grinned her Cheshire cat smile at me. “I’m not going to fall. I’m going to jump.”
I’m sure my eyes were as wide as hers.
“And you’re going to jump too,” she continued.
I gulped. “Aren’t we going to, you know, die?”
“The force field will catch us,” said T’Skala.
“But won’t we get in trouble?”
T’Skala laughed. “Lighten up! Drunk people do it all the time.”
It was her turn to pull me onto her lap, tentacles forming a harness around me. Then, she tipped backward and we were falling.
Adrenaline filled my body. I felt the gravity of the planet, pulling down on my heavy half-metal body, making me accelerate faster and faster until I reached terminal velocity and I felt weightless, as if I were in space, and the air rushing around me like a strong wind. I screamed and clung onto T’Skala, who whooped and threw the rest of her tentacles in the air. She looked like a purple comet streaking toward the infinite depths of the chasm. The crystals glinted in the sunlight, getting darker the further we fell.
Suddenly I felt a jerk on my body, and the force of deceleration as I slowed to a halt inches from the shimmery silver barrier of a force field. We had fallen down so far I could see the bottom of the canyon through the translucent field, a dark river rushing turbulently over sharp crystal rocks.
I breathed in shakily - I hadn’t realized I’d been holding my breath - and started laughing maniacally. T’Skala joined me, and that was how we slid down the force field to the edge of the ravine: cackling like a bunch of witches.
“Oh my god! Let’s do it again!” As soon as my feet touched solid ground, I was ready to feel the wind whipping my hair again. My heart still hadn’t slowed down.
T’Skala gave me a squeeze but let go of me and said, “Not now. There’s still one more thing I want to do.”
I looked at my arm to check my chronometer. “More than half the day is gone. We’d better move.”
We took the high speed elevator ride up, the snaking rock formations with vivid rings of color and sharp crystal edges climbing with us.
“It’s just a short trip from here,” T’Skala said as we climbed back into the rocket. “On one of the moons.”
The moon she directed me to was small but dense, judging by the gravity readings. The surface was peppered with volcanos spitting out yellow clouds of gas.
“Are you sure this is habitable?” I asked her.
“Only the most dangerous, extremophile creatures live here.”
“Don’t worry, you can stay in the ship,” she said. And without warning me, pressed her tentacle down on the horn, making the rocket emit a blaring noise.
“That’ll attract their attention,” she said.
It was hard to see through the yellow fog, but I noticed one, then two shadows appear in the distant sky. They were too big to be birds, unless my depth perception was way off, but they soared like eagles. As one drew nearer I noticed they were mammals, as big as horses, with large, batlike wings and twisted, terrifying faces. It perched about fifty feet away from the rocket and sat, folding its wings in, and starting to groom itself.
“What are they?” I breathed.
“Orionese dragons,” she said. “They’re the largest flying species in the galaxy.”
“It’s just a name, like bearded dragon. But you’ll see why in a bit. They’re very territorial.”
The second dragon had caught up to where the first one was, who had stopped grooming to turn and hiss at the intruder. The two animals stood their ground, one beneath crouched protectively over the rocket, the other hovering, swooping in and being scared off, trying to find an angle to attack.
Then, it appeared to have found it, because it swooped in and all of a sudden there was fire everywhere, both dragons spitting out some kind of flammable gas whose fiery tendrils licked at their opponents.
As quickly as it had happened, it was over. The first dragon bowed its head to the second one, low on its elbows and knees, and then backed away.
“How? How do they do that?” I demanded to know.
T’Skala shrugged, a sort of jiggly gesture since she didn’t really have shoulders. “They eat flint, I know that. Something also about the sulfur in the atmosphere. Come on!” She had already jumped out of her harness and was heading for the stairs.
“Come on where?” I said, fearing the answer.
“The best way to see them is up close!” she said. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, she realized I wasn’t following her.
“What are you waiting for? Are you scared?” she said.
“Take a guess,” I replied coolly. “I don’t know about Taurians, but humans don’t do well when they’re on fire.”
T’Skala frowned for maybe the first time today. “We won’t get blasted. I know how to tame them.”
“No,” I said. “You’ve been dragging me around and forcing me to do things all day.”
“And you’ve enjoyed it, haven’t you?” said T’Skala.
“This is where I draw the line,” I said. “No flame-breathing dragons.”
“Fine,” she said, “If you’re gonna be no fun, then I’m just gonna do it without you.”
The door hissed open and she headed out, waving her tentacles in excitement.
I watched as T’Skala pulled a hunk of dried green meat out from deep in her pockets. She slowly approached a nearby dragon, dropping the meat in front of it. The dragon took a few sniffs out of its narrow nostrils, shot out a quick jet of flame, and then crept forward and snatched the hunk.
While the dragon was noisily chewing the meat, T’Skala stepped forward and waved her tentacles in an elaborate pattern in front of the beast. It waved its head back and forth, following the weaving, sinuous motions. After half a minute or so, the dragon lowered its head down to the ground and T’Skala hurried over and jumped onto its back.
Then with a whoop and a flapping of wings she was off, yelling, “See what you’re missing out on, Vivian?” In no time at all, she had disappeared up into the hazy atmosphere.
There was barely any signal here (of course) so I distracted myself by watching something on the rocket’s builtin entertainment system. But I could only watch a few episodes of “Actual Housepons of G’vel” before I started to feel like my brain was going to rot.
After about an hour, I started to get a impatient. If she was going to ditch me, she could at least make it a little quicker. Did she expect me to just sit here all day?
I spent a while just staring out at the rocky landscape and absentlymindedly clicking some buttons on the console. A little part of me thought that I should ditch her and just go home. We’d see how she’d like a taste of her own medicine. But of course I couldn’t just leave her on some random moon.
My frustration began to turn to worry as night began to fall. She wouldn’t stay out at night, would she? It was already hard to see in the yellow haze that blanketed everything, and everything would be twice as hard in the dark.
I was sure there was some life-sign detection technology built into the ship, but there were hundreds of buttons it could have been - it was an old style control set, no voice commands. It was time to use my most useless talent: reading instruction manuals.
After a few minutes, I figured out that a yellow button over to the right controlled the life-sign detector. The problem was, Taurian life signs weren’t all that similar to human life signs (humans don’t usually have three hearts) so it took me a little longer to update the search parameters.
I glanced over the settings: looking for warm-blooded creatures with three hearts and more than four limbs. I hit the scan button and the rocket screen flashed to life, gently beeping as the sensors combed over the landscape.
After a few minutes, it became clear that T’Skala wasn’t in range of the sensors. I was gonna have to fly around to look for her. At least this was a small moon and not a giant planet.
I entered the startup sequence and the rocket rumbled to life beneath me. I left the life scanner running and started flying slowly in a straight line, opposite the rotation of the moon below. I figured this wasn’t the time to zig-zag around randomly, not if I wanted to be sure I had checked everywhere.
I had to steer around a few dragons as I went, but mostly it was smooth sailing. Even with the rocket’s lights on, I still couldn’t see very far, but the gently booping of the scanners reassured me that I wouldn’t miss anything important.
After a few more minutes, the beeping grew louder and more frantic (so did my heart rate). Life signs detected, a few kilometers to the west.
I swung the rocket around and headed over, hoping desperately that this was really her. The journey felt like it took days, even though it was probably less than a minute.
I landed the rocket slowly (after all, I didn’t want to accidentally land it on top of her). Off in the haze, I heard T’Skala yell, “Vivian! You won’t believe what happened!”
She hurried over, and as the hatch hissed open she start exclaiming, “My dragon got in a fight with another dragon, and I had to jump off it! It was fine, Taurians are great at falling, but I didn’t really know where I was. So I was just kind of walking around, so thanks for picking me up. Anyway, you really missed out.”
I just stared at her for a moment. Then all my feelings welled up at once and I started sort of crying and yelling, “T’Skala! I’m glad you’re okay but don’t ever fucking do that to me again! I was so worried, I thought you might be dead or hurt or something and I didn’t even know if I could find you and I had to figure out how to use the scanner on this thing and everything.”
She said, “Sorry, okay? I’m glad you found me. You’re a good friend, even if you do worry too much.”
She came over and gave me a hug with all her tentacles, and I just couldn’t stay mad at her after that.
“Let’s go,” I said. “We have to hurry.”
About halfway home, T’Skala was in the middle of telling me a story when she was interrupted by the insistent dinging of an alarm. I scoured the impressive dashboard to find the sound of the noise, then groaned.
“What’s wrong?” said T’Skala, fixing her enormous purple alien eyes on me.
I pointed to a glowing orange symbol. “The fuel light just went on.”
“How long do we have before we run out?” T’Skala asked, voice remaining annoyingly calm. “I thought it got good mileage.”
“I don’t know, it’s not my ship!” I said. “I didn’t plan on chasing you all around that moon. We need to stop ASAP.” I pressed the navigation button and pulled the 3D star chart up. “We’re close to Canis Major. Do you want to stop at Sirius?”
T’Skala’s three eyes lit up. “That must mean we’re close to Canis Minor! We have to go to the beach on -”
“No,” I said. “No more of your time wasting schemes, or we’re definitely going to get caught!”
“But Vivian -”
“We’re stopping at a normal fuel station on Sirius Five and then we’re going home,” I said.
I thought T’Skala was going to argue, but she just looked out the window at the stars.