I woke when the sun finally began to shine through the rover’s windows.
For a few minutes, I simply watched as it slowly rose over the horizon, like a great red wave coming my way. It never got old, no matter how many times I saw it; it helped remind me that I was trillions of miles away from home. It was a view unlike any other I’d seen, or even anyone else, and I was knew to cherish it while I still could.
Then, I realized there was a bright point of light right above it, and my breath hitched.
Rising up, I punched the comms button. “Rudak?”
“Yes, sedenbrok? What is the matter?”
“Diplomat is returning.”
A pause, then, “Do we know how long until it arrives?”
“There’s no way to be exact, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it arrives within the day, maybe less.” I sighed, then ran a hand through my hair. “We might be able to reach the beacon by noon, but I’m not sure if that’s quick enough.”
“Then let us go forward, and find out for ourselves,” Rudak said simply.
Well, it was good to see he was still onboard with it. Getting up from my cot, I hopped back into the driver’s seat, and continued our trek.
Within two hours, we reached the first foothills of the mountains, and our first obstacle.
There was a creek blocking our way, unusually straight, gently flowing into the heart of the mountains. Looking either way, I saw that it stretched out past the horizon, which ruled out the possibility of simply going around, and it was too broad to just drive across.
I gritted my teeth, thinking deeply. There was no way I was going to let a simple creek get in the way of a potential discovery, especially considering what could come from it. There had to be a way…
Suddenly, I had an idea.
Moving quickly, I bundled up and hopped out of the rover. The faint bubbling of the creek reached my ears, and for a moment, I could imagine I was back home. It soon passed, however, and I continued forward. Walking over to Rudak’s cabin, I knocked on the door. After a few moments, it opened, and he stepped out.
“What is delaying us?” Rudak asked.
“There’s a river nearby,” I replied. “We’ll have to leave the rover here for now while we move forward.”
Rudak seemed puzzled by that. “Then how will we reach the beacon in time?”
I scratched the back of my head. “Let me answer a question with another question: do you get seasick?”
“Seasick?” He clicked to himself, thinking. “Is that when you drink too much water?”
“No. It’s-” I paused, thinking. “It’s when the rocking of a boat makes you feel ill.”
“I’m suddenly growing concerned,” Rudak said.
“The rover has a raft in stock,” I continued. “We can use it to go downstream and get close to the beacon, maybe even reach it directly. How long can your suit’s life support last?”
“For a third of a day. It should last for the trip, though I wonder if my stomach will.”
I nodded. “I’ll bring some extra oxygen for you, in case something goes awry and it takes longer. Now, let’s get ready.”
I was a simple matter to get the deflated raft over to the creek. The water was a pale blue, and gently sloshed by, forming unusually tall and narrow waves. Briefly, I thought back to some old story I read when I was younger.
Pausing at the bank, I suddenly realized it was made of large stone blocks, with faint etchings made in them. Kneeling down, I ran a hand over the markings, studying them. There was no way they were natural, and I finally knew why the creek had looked so unusually straight.
“What are you studying?”
I looked up to see that Rudak had walked over, carrying a bag around his neck. He lowered his head to the bank, peering closely at where my hand was.
“It’s a canal,” I said. “An artificial river.”
“I can tell,” Rudak said, rather flatly. “Who do you think created it? The tianlong?”
I shrugged. “Maybe. Either way, we’re going to find out.”
Pulling the pin on the raft, I set it down on the water, making sure it wouldn’t drift away. It didn’t take long to inflate, even with the thinner air, and I put my bag in first. Satisfied with the buoyancy, I hopped in, then gestured to Rudak.
“It should be able to support you,” I said.
“It’s not that,” he admitted. “It’s simply that… I never liked boats. Especially small ones, like this. Whenever I’m on one, I always have the feeling that I’m going to fall off.”
“You can do it,” I said, gently. “Trust me.”
Rudak seemed to take courage from that. Reluctantly, he reached out with his hand, testing the bottom of the raft, then he stepped in all at once, immediately shuffling to the center.
I stifled a chuckle, then grabbed a paddle. Gently pushing off, we began to drift along with the current. It was a bit faster than it looked, and soon the mountains began to surround us on all sides. Like the waves splashing against the raft, the peaks were tall and narrow, giving them an almost forbidding appearance. Rudak swayed a little as I began to paddle faster, but otherwise he seemed alright.
Eventually, I got a good rhythm going with the paddle. I was never really much for canoeing, but I did a fair bit of training, on the off-chance we found ourselves needing it. Wilhelm and Valentina had complained about it, but I was now pretty grateful.
“These waters are too choppy,” Rudak said, letting out a low whistle. “How can you remain so calm?”
I chuckled. “I guess your species aren’t good sailors, huh?”
“Probably not compared to you. Your world was covered in ocean, so I imagine you have a lot of experience with it.”
“Not me personally, but there are a lot of sailors on my world. Even thousands of years ago, when the best vessels were little better than this, we could cross oceans.”
“I’m liking this conversation,” Rudak said. “It’s keeping my mind off the boat.”
I glanced back at him. “Well, I’ve been meaning to ask, anyway: what do you do in your cabin while I’m driving? It’s a long drive.”
“I read the documents you gave me, regarding some biology and technology, and I listen to the audio files. I’m currently halfway through Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”
“Ooooh, that’s a good one. Don’t assume that we consider everything done in that story to be moral, though; I wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression.”
Rudak thumped his tail, a decision he definitely regretted, if his flinch meant anything.
“I had already assumed so. Many of our ancient works could be described the same. Nonetheless, I enjoy the parts of the stories that are not objectionable. The Odyssey was a fascinating insight to many aspects of your world, though I’m still wondering which creatures are real or not.”
“No cyclops, or Scylla, or Charybdis,” I said. “In fact, it’s easier to say which animals are real than which ones are not.”
“Are dogs real?”
I had to repress a giggle. “Yes, they’re real. They’re very loyal to us, and can be full of love; we call them our best friends for good reason.”
“So, they… actually live in your homes? And you trust them completely?”
“Well… yeah. In fact, some trust them more than people. They’ve been our companions for thousands of years.”
“How curious,” Rudak murmured. “Animals for companions…”
“You don’t domesticate animals?”
“No. We eat them, on occasion.”
For around half an hour, we paddled in silence. The mountains seemed to close in around us from all sides, and the canal grew more shaded as we continued, going from a pale blue to something almost black. The air became cooler, and a faint breeze began to roll in, rippling across the water. To our sides, the ground had become rough and rocky.
It was around that time we found our first structure. It was little more than a thin pillar, made from the same kind of stone as the canal banks, and it had crumbled to little more than a stump. Still, I was entranced by it, and we soon saw more of them. Some were tiled floors, with faded patterns painted over them, and I occasionally saw steps carved into stone that lead to small villas, with designs unlike anything I’d seen. Part of me wanted to stop and study them further, but I knew we could do that on the way back. I made sure to take photos, however.
“They look old,” Rudak commented. “Did the tianlong have a presence on this world?”
“Maybe,” I murmured. “I’m not so sure.”
“The shape of the archways suggests that they were made for someone tall and narrow, like them.”
“Then why would they abandon it, then place a beacon?” I asked.
Another half hour passed. Then, I saw it.
On one of the lower peaks was a dish, fairly small for something that could send a signal across the stars. It looked fairly rusted in places, but in surprisingly good condition otherwise.
There it was. It had brought me across more than a hundred trillion miles and fourteen years, and now it was within my sight.
I brought the raft to a halt, and moored it with a stake. I couldn’t get it imbedded in the rocky soil at first, then Rudak simply hammered it in with his thumb. There was a sense of finality to it, like the journey was finally coming to an end.
If my experience taught me anything, however, it was that the journey was only beginning.
Rudak was out of the raft first. He stepped forward, a slight wobble to his step, then he calmly removed his helmet and emptied the contents of his stomach. After a few moments of heaving, he put his helmet back on and then helped me out.
“I think I’ll be content with walking back,” he said.
While I let him rest for a few minutes, I looked up at the mountain with the beacon atop it. For a signal to reach the stars and transmit continuously for decades, there had to be a large power source nearby, or perhaps within the mountain itself. My gaze trailed downward, until…
“There’s a door in the mountain,” I said.
Rudak looked up. “A door?”
“I think it’s where the beacon’s power source is. Maybe there’s more inside.”
Rudak nudged me with his shoulder, then pointed at the ground. For a few moments, I didn’t know what he was gesturing to, then I realized what it was.
A trail of clawed footprints in the dust.
“Diplomat went this way,” Rudak said. “I believe we should follow it, and find out where it leads.”
I couldn’t help but crack a grin. “Sedenbrok, I was going to say the same thing.”