Of all the progressively more extreme societal changes Kira faced on her long road, pharmacies remained conspicuously familiar nearly everywhere she went. Sure, the lines she’d previously expected were now unthinkable, and sometimes she needed a wetsuit or an air rig to access them comfortably, and yes, they sometimes had a generous xenobotanical nursery attached that comically dwarfed the actual pharmacy itself and made the whole process more of a literal walk in the park. But in the end, she almost always found herself standing at a counter with a maze of drug-infested shelves behind it trying very hard to convince some pharma tech, usually affini but not always, why she deserved her meds. The experience gave her the worst kind of deja vu every time.
At the very least Bastht’s pharmacies took place in atmosphere at a livable temperature on solid ground. Or, well, solid underground in her current case. She spent her wait staring out the pharmacy’s window into the winding subterranean canyon that stretched below, rapidly dimming in the dwindling evening light filtering in from the sunshale roof above. She'd only spent a few days in the small town but she'd made an evening ritual of watching the cavern's lighting shift as the biofluorescent demi-lichen traced along the walls and signs of Bastht's bustling depths regurgitated their ultraviolet meal for the day in a dazzling chromatic array.
At its height the web of glowing flora reminded her of the neon-choked alleys of the frontier trade hubs she’d once frequented, the types that never got enough starlight to show off all the chemical runoff stains and glittering bits of glass. Although the town made for far superior people watching. The evening flood of the local kith from their immaculately carved habs to the surface, graspers full of instruments, incense, body paints, and intoxicants of both xeno and non-xeno variety, was a refreshing show of cultural practices continuing to flourish even after domestication. At least, the more harmless practices.
This particular evening a fair number of telescopes and silversilk dune blankets joined the mix of party favors, reminders that she needed to get out of this starsdamned pharmacy before–
“You’re up, little leaf!” came the deep, weathered voice of the unusually stocky affini pharma tech. She stepped past the previous patrons to the counter and shifted her tongue and throat for the incredibly unscientific practice of terran spoken affini.
She didn't even try to keep the impatience from her tone, “Good evening, I need to get my vines on some Dimeroia Sectis serum C, Tomir Root serum A2, and SBS binding medium, as much as you can give me and preferably in weekly mix injections.”
The affini barely spoke a syllable before Kira cut him off.
“-And. Before you say anything, no I don’t have an owner, yes I’ve used these before, no I don’t have a regular vet, no I don’t have a physician’s note or prescription on hand, but yes I know what I need and what I’m doing. Bases covered?
The affini smoothed some of his bristling leaves back down, collected himself and spoke, “Actually, I was only going to say that I do not believe you have <vines>, you may be thinking of the term <paws> or <hands>.” The affini’s chortling sent its rotund, bushy form bouncing and rustling.
Kira made a mental note to search the terms individually later. Dialectical drift had hampered her enough already and she didn't need anymore affini giggling condescendingly down at her. She responded humbly, “That…explains a few odd looks I’ve received. Em, thanks for not letting it slip by.”
The four fingers of the tech’s hands split into smaller vines that typed and flitted through his display. He hummed, “Additionally, we have the Tomir root and the medium but not the Dimeroia. Apologies, little one.” The affini’s mask plates shifted in what would’ve been a sympathetic smile if he were in a more human shape.
That was going to be a new hurdle. She could hardly be surprised, considering how little of anything approaching human physiology she’d seen in the last half month. The kith seemed to have hopped the fence between arthropod and mammal on the evolutionary tree and broken every branch on the way, it’s not like they’d need full stocks of human Gs for their planet’s miniscule, mostly native population.
The affini rumbled quizzically, “Your questions were well rehearsed, not your first time making this errand along the path?”
Kira scoffed, “Well if you people would just give me larger stocks I wouldn’t have to give this rooting spiel so often. So. Can I get that Tomir at least?”
“I don’t know, can you?” The affini’s rhythm froze jarringly and its expectant eyes locked on her. What the fuck did that mean? What did he want from– oh. Right. Ugh.
The affini’s six eyes smiled the way only a kind grandfather’s could. “Hmm, you seem knowledgeable enough so I suppose I’ll trust you little leaf! And of course, since you asked so politely…” Without moving his center mass an inch, the tech sent three vines rocketing from his back into the maze of shelves and stasis units. They returned with three packages containing vials of viscous fluid, placed them near some kind of sleek machine riddled with ports and hovered on standby. One vine held an orange tinted vial from one of the packs for Kira to see and the tech continued, “A half dose of Red ringlet serum could fill in for the demeroia until you can acquire more. Not a perfect fit, but it’s something. Shall I include it?”
"Em, yes please." The vines inserted vials into the machine in sets and a quiet mechanical whirring began. In only moments a personalized injector emerged from its bottom and the tech repeated the process with the remaining vials.
"And I've compiled a list of every major pharmacy in twenty lightyears carrying all of the ingredients you're looking for, would you like me to send it to your tablet?”
Hot shame at her prior demeanor flushed Kira’s cheeks. Why did the affini have to be so aggressively good at his job, so…so fucking helpful? So eager to solve her problems? Nine months interacting with the plants and she still couldn't decide if they'd made superweapons out of kindness and manners or if that was simply her cagey terran brain refusing the idea that anyone wouldn't be bringing rhetorical weapons to every conversation. And physical ones for that matter. She spoke softly this time, “Em, c-could I actually get a printed list please?”
“You certainly may!” Every time she uttered a ‘please’ she could swear his bumbling voice became a little jollier. Barely thirty seconds later a package of custom injectors was deposited on the counter along with a strip of paper printed with celestial coordinates for dozens of other pharmacies. She nodded and reached for the package but was interrupted by a vine holding a piece of crisp stationary bordered in effusive floral filigree, typical affini style. The tech spoke in a satisfied tone, “Ah, one more thing. For being such a polite patron, have a little something to help you next time~." She picked up the note and read what she could. It wasn’t her preferred dialect but she inferred the gaps.
I, Phinis Bora 141st bloom, Rokkoum LOI: PH600973 affirm that ______ is an intelligent, well mannered (this means little or tasty? I hope it’s not tasty) (human/sophont?) who is capable of (determining/requesting her own) xenodrug regimen and should be (allowed or aided?) so until such time as her (this glyph means ‘actions’ but the endcap indicates…silliness? Helplessness? Either way, ugh.) throw this affirmation into reasonable doubt. I also affirm that she is a (feisty/spicy little…cutie).
As her eyes squinted across the last few words, a pen entered her vision. “You may sign it now if you wish.”
Her traitorous cheeks flushed again but she laughed it off, “Heh, can’t even get a physician’s note in the middle of the rooting desert without being called a cutie, can I?”
“Would you want to?”
She snatched the pen and hummed thoughtfully while signing, “Hm. Guess it’s not so bad. Once you get used to it.” She signed the same pseudonym as on Rhia's registration, and the note slipped into her jacket pocket. She took her bundle of meds and the list in arm and almost turned when something tucked into the bundle caught her eye; a pack of blue mammal-compatible E puffers, the non-inhibitive kind she liked. Her face twisted in confusion. “Wh-How did y–”
“I noticed you staring at them behind the counter while you were waiting. I assume you’re familiar enough to make proper use of them?” Delight shimmered wildly behind the affini’s eyes.
This guy is TOO MUCH.
The cool damp of a single confused tear tugged at the corner of her eye and she was suddenly very glad to be the only patron left in the place. What was wrong with her today? E puffers weren’t even hard to get her hands on, they were everywhere, so…so why? Was the long-overdue relief of enthusiastically accessible healthcare finally hitting her after nine months enough to choke her up? Or was she really just so starved for any drop of attention that she crumpled at the first…no. No, couldn’t be that. She smiled uncontrollably down at the E puffers and dabbed at her eye.
“Something the matter, little leaf?” The affin’s head cocked in concern.
“Ah, nothing, just…just allergies or something. Um. Thank you for being so good to me after I was so rude at first. You were far more helpful than you needed to be.”
The tech’s concern turned to confusion, “Needed to be? And why would I ever provide less than the pinnacle of aid?”
Kira chuckled at the cultural divide Phinis clearly hadn’t bridged, “You wouldn’t, I guess. I’m just…still getting used to that fact.”
The affini aimed another jolly smile at her but there was something sad in it that she pretended she couldn’t detect. “Well, I wish you green horizons on your travels, little leaf. And I trust you won't allow yourself to grow too lonely."
"Wh- how'd you guess I was traveling alone?"
"Hmmm. Call it an old shrub's intuition." He gave Kira a final warm look and she shared a genuine fond smile with a pharma tech for the first time in her life. She turned and mentally prepared herself to join the surface bound throng outside when a final call came from the counter, "Oh, and little leaf! Tell Korr I said hello!"
Whichever good natured kith had agreed to rent Kira a dune skimmer for the evening was a fool. A blessedly naïve, chittering little fool. She had barely the self restraint to keep herself from spraying the festival goers with sand and once she was beyond their lines no one stood in the way of her lead foot and the little vehicle's draconian safety measures.
Her rational mind understood that the compact's obsession with safety kept trillions of sophont lives, hers included, healthier and longer, and was objectively an unalloyed good. But the lizard brain likes what the lizard brain likes. And Kira's had a taste for that queasy shot of adrenal euphoria that accompanied her mammalian danger impulse. The kind that came from a nice fall or a close call at high speed. So when the skimmer chirped an objection to her full throttle dash through the field of stone pillars on her path and the course correct turned on, of course she had to fight back. She couldn't let the AIs have all the fun, now could she?
She drifted over the azure dunes in wild arcs, letting her elated screams fill the air not already occupied by the festival's music. She leaned far over the skimmer's edge, feeling for the precise moment the vehicle attempted to seize control, and kept leaning. Fingertips grazed the dune below and sent streams of cerulean sand through her whipping hair and over her skin, bestowing the last dregs of the day's heat still trapped within.
While her heart's soft spot for jetting through the void was cavernous, there was a primal bliss in the pull of wind on her skin and the blinding rush of earth beneath her that she'd been unable to sample for years.
Her reverie briefly lifted when the last step of her trip through the dunes crept into view, the entrance to a small winding canyon that led to her destination. She smirked down at the grumpy emoticon next to the warning on her little vehicle’s display and gripped the thrust. “Alright then, let’s see how much of my fun you can really spoil.”
The shift in air pressure as the world before the canyon vanished buffeted her ears. Had she looked up she would have noticed the strings of intricate tapestries and dilapidated prayer flags swaying across the canyon’s divide above her, but that would’ve required surrendering to the skimmer’s guidance so of course that couldn’t happen. Around every bend she strained against the safety assistant’s whims, tugging against the auto harness to make every turn sharper and overpowering the thrust dampener every time it turned on. Its chimes of protest were powerless beneath the mad cackling of Kira having an unrepentant ball at its expense. Every even moderately sloped wall was a new chance for her to sail through the air and howl like a one woman wild hunt.
It was when she took her third skim over the meandering river at the canyon’s base that the spray finally blinded her and she left the water's edge headed perpendicular to the canyon's wall at lethal speed.
The skimmer finally called her bluff. The little screen's warning flashed red and Kira felt the controls shift with undeniable force. The machine beneath beeped and whirred and an unseen flurry of radar scans and trajectory calculations were made in a fraction of a fraction of a second. Her seat rotated, tilting her toward the canyon’s open path to her right before some percussive force sent her flying from the rest of the skimmer.
Time slowed to a crawl as she watched the vehicle turn, attempting to course correct before skidding through a drift of blue sand to scrape against the canyon’s wall. Soaring past a string of tapestries, she was dimly aware that the harness still attached to her would certainly never allow harm to come to her, but she allowed herself the illusion that it might. And then, it was there.
Queasy euphoria, bubbling within. A thousand insect wings churning through her gut and spiking her blood.
She had barely a moment to bask in it before the hiss of the emergency chem jet array along her harness slowed and guided her descent. The landing wasn’t elegant but it certainly was safe. She lay in the sand for a long moment, watching the shooting stars above trace ephemeral lines over the heavens and listening to the pounding of her blood and breath. She wasn’t sure when the laughter started but she embraced it wholly.
When was the last time she'd laughed like this? The last time she'd come within stick poking range of anything approaching mirth? It certainly hadn't sounded like this last time, it was…she liked the sound of it now. A sagging corner of her lamented that no one was around to hear it. A corner hastily quieted and shunned.
When her cackling finally abated, the skimmer pulled quietly up alongside her, flinging a string of beeps and chirps that she swore sounded like a reprimand. She stood and brushed herself off, giggling at the vehicle, “Yeah yeah, whatever! You can’t tell me that wasn’t at least a little fun.”
The skimmer emitted a low warble and flashed a frowning emoticon on its display. She gave it a quick once over and found that of course, like all affini-guided inventions the thing seemed nigh indestructible. The only evidence that their crash had ever even occurred was a smear of sand ground into the vehicle’s flank where it’d struck the drift and then the wall.
A blue stripe.
Some chord inside her plucked a note she couldn’t interpret, something heavy and sobering. After a moment's scrambled focus she chuckled the note away and addressed her little companion, “Hm, kinda like a little Jo now aren’t you?...Well, little Jo, how bout we finish our journey with a slightly smoother ride, no?”
The emoticon on its display phased into an approving smile and nodded with a few happier beeps.
“That’s what I thought.”
A few more minutes' ride found them out of the canyon and into a long, low valley spotted with rocky outcroppings adorned by the crumbling ruins and statues of what had once been a monumental temple complex according to Kira’s quick pre-ride research. She'd checked the local xenoarchaeological preservation guidelines and made sure to avoid the more strictly protected stretches, but large swathes of the area remained shockingly open to public use. She reasoned that a few centuries of compact rule had likely erased any notion of desecration of cultural landmarks from the local consciousness, along with any other form of strife.
She passed the remains of a large rotunda and found a herd of other skimmers in all shapes and sizes parked at its edge. She’d clearly not been the only one with this idea. A moderate group of kith as well as a few dozen affini and other xeno sophonts had spread throughout the central ruins, filling the cool air with rhythmic melodies, incense fumes, and chittering laughter. Their view of the brilliant comet above was breathtakingly clear, and she nearly stopped to join until something peaked into view over one of the crumbling walls.
Ooooh fuck yes.
The valley had no shortage of tastefully weathered statues, but the one she turned and headed toward was in a class of its own. The kithic colossus's shattered form still managed to stand easily a hundred meters tall from the canyon’s edge, the crescent tipped staff in its hand plunging into the sky's belly uncannily at the spot where the final red streaks of the day stained it. The remnants of its lithic regalia still bore stubborn hints of metallic inlays, the mottled patina dancing with the glitter of falling stars.
It was perfect.
She dismounted, produced her tablet, and pulled the comet and statue both into frame, walking and shifting perspective until everything aligned just right, only…it didn't. Sure, it would've been pretty or neat from plenty of spots but she didn't need pretty or neat, she needed tran-fucking-scendant. If there really was a wall these were ending up on they needed to be worthy, to be fucking brilliant, she needed…ah. There.
As she crested a dune the full extent of the ruin came into view. A stone pediment maybe thirty or forty meters high stood opposite the larger cliff the statue emerged from, tipped at the edge with the scraps of what was likely once a bridge over the long dry riverbed beneath. The shot was there, she could practically see it already. She just needed to get on that plateau. No biggie. Probably.
A brisk slide down the dune brought her to a dilapidated set of stairs hewn into the offending cliff face, a set of stairs which wore away entirely at the cliff's halfway point. She could see them resuming closer to the top but a stretch of pitted stone slab stood in her way. It wasn't…completely unassailable. Right? She was fit. Well, not as fit as she'd been before the compact eroded most of her need for strenuous physical activity, but still. Fitish.
The first leg of the climb wasn't terribly eventful, a few convenient ledges made for a quick ascent. It was surprisingly refreshing to do something so gritty, so…primitive. Not that it didn't require careful thought or dexterity to find the right spot to hook a toe or crimp her fingers, but performing any activity that could exist without the oblique reality of magic atom-enslaving boxes and interstellar hyper-infrastructure had become oddly novel. There was a primal glee in the solving of a problem through tactile stress, the collection of new scrapes and bruises over knees and elbows. At least, until she wound up in a compromising hold in the slab’s middle and made the mistake of looking down.
Fuuuck. That's far.
A chill calcified in her stomach and her knees began to tremor lightly. Why, though? She’d spent her life flirting with cosmically unsettling distances at irresponsible speeds strapped to beasts of screaming metal and radioactive decay, so why was a little fall into some sand suddenly enough to rattle her? Had she grown so soft she couldn't handle a fleeting moment's danger? Oh. Right, silly her. The compact didn't do danger. Which consequently meant she hadn't either since…since before. A few months of guard obliterating security and now she'd so thoroughly adjusted to perma-safety that she'd scrambled into a stone gambit against gravity without the barest consideration that there wasn’t a safety harness or a strong vine at the ready to fix this.
Wait, had she really been…depending on that? Omnipresent vines? Some other mechanical extensions of their will?
…No. No, she was better than that. She was an ace pilot, a fucking survivor. Capable. Scrappy. A stupid slab of starsdamned rock wasn’t going to prove her wrong. She reached again, committed to a new hold, and welded her vision to the cliff face ahead, banishing the drop from her thoughts. Another few minutes of careful hand placement punctuated by rests when possible brought her within the last few meters of the stairs’ reprisal. Despite her mood’s souring at the hands of her own internal monologue, she still milked some kinaesthetic pleasure from the straining of tendons and neglected muscles. She was looking forward to being sore the next morning far more than usual. She entered the last two meter stretch when the rock slipped.
Stone growled gutturally, scraping from its resting place under her fingers to bare down on her skull. Adrenaline flushed her hesitation, pulled her out of the way of the falling rock, and sent her free hand clawing into chips and facets. Her other hand’s grip failed and her feet gave out, all joining their sibling in that desperate search. Before her fall became terminal, a hand found a ledge and a foot found a crevice. Both twisted uncomfortably but caught just long enough. Her other limbs found purchase and she settled precariously into a pocket in the wall.
There was no euphoria in the queasiness this time.
The adrenaline still coursed impotently through her, leaving her a heaving mess against the slab. She didn’t want this anymore, she wanted to be done with danger for the day, she wanted out, she needed out, but there was NO OUT.
You're a survivor, it's ok. You'll be fine. You're fine. Just breathe. Breathe. Breathe…
She wasn’t sure how long she spent leaning into the pocket before the chill of the breeze roused her from her falling panic. Not a good sign. She shifted her weight until she could pull her tablet out and checked the time and temperature index. She’d left town with a 1.86 terran hour allotment during which her current clothing would be comfortable to wear. Only .62 remained before the dunes would be genuinely freezing. She berated herself for her bout of weakness and pulled her body back into position. Her rest was enough to prepare her for the finish but with the adrenaline gone she winced at a few bleeding fingertips and an aching ankle for the rest of the ascent.
Once she finally hauled herself onto the plateau, the remaining journey to her destined spot took her through the shell of a long building too dilapidated for her to guess the purpose. Passing between the skeletal remains of a mural, a memory of a conversation tickled her mind. Huh, stomping around alien ruins. Imagine that.
She was nearly to the pediment’s edge when the stars aligned, or, well, the comet did. Stood beneath the kithic colossus, she finally allowed herself to take in the cosmic light show above. Ephemeral streaks of ionizing atmosphere and celestial ice played a silent opera over the liminal canvas of dusk. And among them the near static lead of their play stood stark against the stage, robed in a brilliant shawl of quiet crystalline decay. Korr, the eternal traveler. Once the psychopomp of a thousand monarchs, now a mass of ice and dust ensnared by a bespoke selection of gravity wells, and no less grand for the transition.
With her mood lightened again by the spectacle, Kira pulled out her most recent tablet, brought it all into frame and continued wandering untiiiil…THERE. The old kith’s age-worn form stood proud among the surrounding cliffs, ringed in an evolving halo of stardust, and perched just above the vacant crescent at the great staff’s tip sat Korr, rendered as the divine source that unspoken generations doubtless saw for themselves in that very spot. She waited for a particularly spectacular array of stars to flash before capturing the picture. It was…perfect. If this wasn’t worthy of going on the wall, she couldn’t imagine what would be. Not that they would deny anything she sent, the big saps. She pulled up the messenger, found the familiar channel, and attached the image.
I ended up picking Cirrik over Tül for this one. Tül is lovely n all, killer resorts. But Cirrik makes for a more mystical photo op, wouldnt u agree?
A long moment of stargazing passed. Longer than she was used to. Ba-dwing!
<(Startographer)> I couldn’t agree more, flower! I have been waiting eagerly for this one. Your talent for this shines brighter with each passing day.
User <(Potent~Flirtation)> has joined the chat<(Potent~Flirtation)> Fantastic composition, Kiki!
<(Startographer)> Tetra what are you doing?
<temp.user_KI00078113T> Tetra? How the fuck did u get in here?!
<(Potent~Flirtation)> Mangle taught me. I'm a hacker now, keep up
<(Startographer)> You are literally a room away, just come here
<(Potent~Flirtation)> No >;)<(Potent~Flirtation)> This is more fun
<(Startographer)> I can actually hear you typing
User <(*Sundrop*)> has joined the chat<(*Sundrop*)> HI KIKI!! Your pictures are SO COOOL!
<(Potent~Flirtation)> You would know, my little muse and maestro~~
<(*Sundrop*)> asd;nsavd MISS <3<3<3<3
Kira couldn’t help but giggle at the interaction and thanked the stars that no one was around to hear her display. The delay would be too severe to have a meaningful conversation with them but watching their own internal banter was pleasant enough. But rules were rules and the desert’s frigid doppelganger wouldn’t wait on her. Eventually the fun had to end. Something curdled inside her at the thought, something that soaked up some of the world's color. Something best ignored.
<temp.user_KI00078113T> Alright, I gotta run. TTYL
<(Potent~Flirtation)> We’re counting on it, little one~~
<(*Sundrop*)> u better! <3
<(Startographer)> No desire for a recommendation this time?
<temp.user_KI00078113T> Ya know i think ill try finding some cool stuff on my own for a bit. Dont worry ill send u pics as long as u continue to not ambush me
<(Startographer)> Well I’m sure you’ll do splendidly, I never tire of watching your travels. We eagerly wait as always, little explorer. Be well and be good.
She placed the tablet on the fossil of a pillar's base nearby and pretended not to feel the slight choke in her throat. The messenger continued pinging with the trio’s banter. Her ragged fingers didn’t want to let go. But they had to. No dawdling, that was the rule.
She stepped back and let a shaky exhale carry her nerves away. The chill was finally becoming uncomfortable, she’d need to make a hasty descent. That couldn’t be as bad as the ascent, right? I mean, gravity would be her ally this time, provided she– a telltale electric hum approached from behind. Little Jo? She turned and was puzzled to see the little skimmer racing across the plateau toward her, trailing urgent beeps and whirrs in the wind. It skidded to a stop in perfect placement for her to climb on, displayed a frustrated emoticon on its display and chirped expectantly.
Kira laughed incredulously, "What the fuck? You could've just taken me up here the whole time?! Why didn't you say so?"
The little vehicle emitted some more warbling beeps and a holoprojection of some local affini she couldn't read fast enough along with more varieties of frustrated and worried emoticons. Something about 'designated return windows','safety protocols' and 'search functions'. She got the gist.
"Whiny little thing aren’t you? Alright then, back to Bastht, little Jo?"
The skimmer chirped its assent and the emoticon became chipper once more. Kira nodded, climbed into the seat, and reached for the thrust when she remembered something.
"Ah shit, almost forgot." She turned skyward to address the great Korr directly, "Phinis says hello!"
And in a spray of humming sand, Kira was gone.