Skalosak was crossing the endless ice on foot, carrying a male human tourist from New Dumont’s mildly warm equatorial region. Lonski was fast asleep in her pouch – well insulated from the flesh-freezing climate he was unaccustomed to. They were halfway to the first guesthouse of the tour when Skalosak received the emergency message.
“Dearest Skalosak,” said the intercerebral AI messenger, “I am deeply sorry, but I have terrible news to convey.”
“What?” Skalosak barked, standing rooted to the ice. “Show me!”
Instantly the whiteness of the ice vanished from her vision and was replaced by the blackness of space. Against the starry void was a sleek, tower-like spaceship that Skalosak recognized instantly – the Persephone. Her son’s freighter. To the right side of her vision were twin columns of faces – most of them human, some of them vecs, and two of them Siberoo. Cheleera. And Rantreleka.
Headlining the news footage was the caption: FREIGHTER TRAGEDY IN VOSSOLA SYSTEM.
The star freighter continued to fire its thrusters against the dark star field for a few seconds.
Then it erupted in an all-engulfing flash of light.
“NO!” Skalosak roared.
The light dimmed, leaving nothing but a faintly luminous cloud.
“RANTY!” Skalosak roared, barely noticing the commotion in her pouch.
“Skally?” came Lonski’s muffled, drowsy voice from down below. “Are you all right?”
Skalosak could not answer. She could barely breathe.
“As of now, there are no known survivors,” said the news narrator, “although it is believed that most of the crew had kept up-to-date personality backups in cyberspace.”
This reminder was the one glimmer of hope in the static haze of Skalosak’s despair.
“I know … what to do,” she said, panting heavily.
“Skalosak?” said her human passenger. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s all right, Lonsky,” said Skalosak, returning her vision to the here-and-now. “I know what to do.” She looked down at her pouch, seeing Lonsky’s face peering out of the half-closed orifice. She reached down and absent-mindedly stroked her pouch fur. “You’re safe, baby. I know what to do.” She closed up her pouch. “I know what to do,” she said, again and again, between deep gasps for air.
Then she turned back to the direction of the snow guide station, and the ice thundered beneath her as she ran like a beast of prey.
Tillika, Vanashta and Marolox were waiting for her at the front of the station when she arrived. Skalosak collapsed on her knees and forepaws, screaming at the ice. The other three Siberoos ran up to her. Tillika grabbed her and held her head to her chest. “It’s all right, honey,” she said. “We know. We’re so sorry. Oh mercy Goddess, we’re so sorry.”
Marolox gently stroked her shoulder as he removed her backpack. It was one of those rare moments when he was at a loss for words.
“Skally, please let me have your passenger,” Vanashta said softly. “I will take care of him.”
Skalosak relaxed her pouch muscles, allowing Vanashta to play the midwife and extract the human from inside. Lonski looked around in a daze, squinting. “What’s going on?” he said.
“Are you all right?” Vanashta said as she held the human before her.
“I’m a bit shaken up, but I’ll survive. What happened?”
“We’ll show you the news channel. Just relax for now.” She cradled the human in her arms as she headed for the station entrance.
“I need to be alone,” Skalosak gasped.
“We’re here for you, Skally,” Marolox said softly, massaging her heaving shoulders.
“I said I need to be ALOOOOONE!”
Marolox and Tillika took one step back, still keeping an eye on their friend.
Skalosak rose to her feet.
“I know,” she gasped. “I know what to do.”
She staggered into the station entrance.
Marolox and Tillika, as deeply concerned as ever, followed close behind.
To Skalosak’s gratitude, her friends let her have her privacy. She knelt in the centre of her leisure room, still panting, still exhausted, and closed her eyes.
Her personal folder in cyberspace was still there, utterly untouched by the violence and chaos of the physical universe. The contents were still intact. Ranty’s memory. Ranty’s DNA code. All there.
Within seconds, she sent a message to the assembler factory deep under the city of Salandara.
Seconds later, she sent another message to a hotel in Salandara, and booked the best room she could afford, which was almost the very best available.
“It’s all right, Ranty,” she said. “Mother will never forget you. Mother will never leave you.”
More about the author, Darren Ryding, here.