Stranded Star
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Most Port Lintanggula inhabitants have never met a Lajung, the de facto rulers of the city, although everyone have heard the rumors about them. Many regarded the Lajung as the most beautiful species currently in existence, or at the very least in the realms where Port Lintanggula is located. Their iridescent carapace mesmerized everyone who had the honor of meeting them, the proportion of their bodies somehow fits within the idealized beauty every race pursued. Some suspected them of using hypnotic or similar abilities, but most dismissed that claim as ramblings of the star-struck or the envious.

Now that one of them was standing in front of me, I cannot decide whether to support or deny that claim of mind-altering ability.

The splendor of the Lajung was comparable to one of the ancient gods, inspiring awe and terror alike in its beauty. Swirling cosmic colors overlaid themselves on the carapace of the being, the three-pronged pincers hanging in their side reminiscent of mythical divine weapons. Their flat tail, evidently suited for swimming in their ancestral oceans, now somehow evoked the memory of flight, cementing their silhouette as a denizen of the heavens above.

…well, whatever above means in this place.

"Greetings, esteemed explorer, Jur Anggunung. I am Muchar, of Lintanggula, the current Ruler of this port-city. The Withstanders upheld the peace of the many realms, and the Holders carries the weigh of existence in their shoulders, yet society cannot thrive merely by existing in silent peace. As such, we of the Lajung had taken the initiative to ensure that we all could live in a functional society, instead of festering in the rot of our past homes. At least, on this realm."

I winced. The wound from the loss of our home world was still fresh in our minds, as not even a century had passed from the great cataclysm. I suppose the Lajung had been numbed after so many millennia.

"Please, excellency, you can call me Anggunung. For what reason have the exalted Ruler of Lintanggula summoned this lowly explorer?"

"I would not permit myself such insolence, esteemed Jur Anggunung! Even as we called ourselves rulers, we are but servants of the people, our power existing only because the people recognizes it."

Jur was already an honorific, reserved to warriors, but I held my tongue from correcting them. All who reached this place are warriors, so Jur might as well be part of our names now.

"Without explorers, the Port will become useless, and the city will collapse. Your compatriots provide valuable services beyond what we Lajung could ever acomplish, or indeed, ever hope to repay. Recognizing your skill and bravery, I intend to commission your party, Jur Anggunung, to salvage a buried cache of ancient technology, and share your discovery with me. Of course, I will also provide material wealth, supplies that your people would need and more, on top of the invaluable arcane technology of races long past."

Well, what else would you call an explorer for? Again, I swallowed my remarks. Jur Angkelam, however, decided that the speech and pleasantry had gone long enough.

"Where and how dangerous?" My companion asked Muchar directly.

"At the core of this realm, within the smoothstone mountain that the abandoned Ciu Citadel was carved into. I have received a trustworthy information that the mountain, a structure of material even the most brilliant Lajung scholars yet to comprehend, is in actuality an ancient ship. I wish that you would investigate the mountain, and recover what technology you could. Of most interest for us is retrieval of any computers and storage devices within."

"The mountain rooted many thousand times our height into the ground, and more than half that in width. Unless we have a clear ingress point to this supposed ship, it is simply impossible to breach that many smoothstones."

"Unless, that is, you are in possession of a Ciu technology." Muchar waved one of their limb, and a servant brought in a large axe, shimmering in auroral colors. "Do you know what this is, esteemed Jur Angkelam?"

"You mentioned that it is a Ciu artefact. Is it…is it the tool they used to carve the Citadel?"

Against all our expectation, the Lajung laughed in clicks and snorts, somehow maintaining majestic mannerism with their mandibles.

"I am sorry, I had the servant brought a normal axe, with simple trickeries. I had thought it would be amusing for you too." Suddenly losing the luster, Muchar signaled the servant to take the axe away. "We do have a Ciu artefact in possession, a device that disrupts ionic bonds. Even smoothstones becomes unstably soft when exposed to such device, allowing you to dig into them normally. I will give the artefact to you, should you decide to accept the request."

"You can make a devastating weapon from this technology."

"You meant a very cruel and terrifying weapon. Against living beings, a weapon made of such technology would destroy the very structure of cells and genome sequences. The victim would be left to waste away, unable to heal themself." I shoveled a pile of pulverized smoothstone away from the mountain, the Ciu artifact rendered the enigmatic substance into pure white sand as easily as one might shatter tempered glass. "The Withstanders won't just ignore it."

"How deep are we digging?" Jur Angdalam complained. "This mountain is two kilometers across, are we going to dig a tunnel straight through?"

"Nah, worst case scenario we'd just have to dig halfway and then down."

"Ha ha, very funny. Can't we just borrow an excavator?"

"We can't, because—uh, I actually have no good reason not to borrow an excavator. Jur Anggunung?" Jur Angkelam turned at me, only to find my face retracted in my shell, shovel still moving ineffectually against the smoothstone. "Well, neither does our leader, apparently."

"I have no excuse. I'll call the contractor." I mentally reached towards my neural implant, biomechanically connected into my antennae. A couple of rings later I reached Muchar, and I used my shell as a loudspeaker so everyone could hear the Lajung through the call.

"Hello, exalted Muchar, of Lintanggula."

"Greetings to you as well, esteemed Jur Anggunung. Have you found any interesting information, or have your team encountered new difficulties?"

"It is unfortunately the latter, although it is not exactly a difficulty, merely an inconvenience. We are wondering if your excellency Muchar could lend us an excavator, to assist in the digging process? Surely it would benefits us both."

"Unfortunately that would be impossible, honored Jur Anggunung. Our information suggests that the power generators aboard the alleged ship consumes a rather, volatile, fuel resource."

"Volatile? Was it hypergolic? Supercritical fluid loop? Quasi-critical nucleovoltaics? We can handle them just fine, though we might bill you for the Hazmat disposal."

"It's…well, in a way safer than any of those, but also worse—"

"Just tell us already." Jur Angkelam cut them impatiently.

"The ship is fueled by antimatter."

My implant severed the connection, falsely interpreting the shock, as we all spontaneously jumped away from the mountain.

"Jur Anggunung! You must understand—" I didn't let the Lajung finish their sentence as I slammed them to the wall, my arms extended in weird angle: the Lajung is taller than me. The guards and servant approached, but Muchar waved their limb and signaled their underlings to hold back.

"You gave us an ionic disruptor and knowingly told us to fire it at the walls of antimatter-fueled ship. What else is there to understand, your excellency?"

"The disruptor remains the only device capable of affecting the otherwise invulnerable smoothstone. It is without doubt the same device the Ciu civilization had used to carve—"

"That isn't the point! What if we had damaged any component of the antimatter containment? Nevermind us, even the Holder won't be unscathed! You have endangered all of existence!"

"I would not have risked the excavation if the rewards is not worth the possible sacrifice! Imagine, mighty Jur Anggunung! The amount of antimatter needed to move a ship of such magnitude would be enough to power our realm for millennia! Never again would I—"

"And if we failed, there would be no realm to be powered." Jur Angkelam approached me, the Ciu ionic disruptor in hand. "Some of us might die, but it is a risk you're willing to take, isn't it, Muchar of Lintanggula?" Jur Angkelam pointed the disruptor at the Lajung in my hand.

"Angkelam wait—"

I wasn't able to finish my words as the disruptor flared with actinic radiance, its light scorched my retina even as my head fully retracted into my shell and my eyes shut as tightly as physically possible.

When I opened my eyes again, the Lajung's complex head had turned into sand, sparks of free electrons jumping between the mineral structure composing their carapace. I dropped the lifeless body on the floor, the Lajung's servants panicking around me. Oddly, the guards seemed rather uncaring.

Was it because the Withstanders would've handled it anyway? It is a murder.

"You almost disintegrated my hands, Angkelam. I brushed shell with death, because of you. How would you defend this crime?"

"Jur Anggunung, we have a much bigger problem! We must leave this realm before the Withstanders come!"

"I mean, you don't have to, really. I'm the one who disintegrated that fool's head, the Withstanders would have all of our testimonies."

"Larger crime still, by using the ionic disruptor as a weapon, you have robbed our species of a formidable asset. The Withstanders would no doubt confiscate the disruptor. Angkelam, answer me."

"Do not be so harsh towards your companion, Jur Anggunung." A voice appeared behind me, from the still-sparking head stump, the scratch and harsh tone reminiscent of thunder. Modulated arcs, I realized. "Esteemed Jur Angkelam merely deduced something about our race, related to the fact that all known species regarded the Lajung as the most beautiful of them all."

The Lajung's body cracked open, and from within it, a smaller creature emerged, remarkably similar to the larger body but without the uncanny and almost-divine perfections. The pale blue carapace looked fragile, against the heavenly permanence implied by their previous form.

"Now you see me, Jur Anggunung's party. A Lajung, in the flesh. We seldom get out of our shell, even in a meeting between only our own." With a wave of their claws, two opposable prongs in this form, the servants carried the empty shell away. "Vulnerability breeds fear, and fear poisons rulers. Hence, the shell."

Without the shell, the Lajung was half my height, but authority still radiates from their stance.

"You're giving me too much credit, Muchar-ae. I had only banked on your people not having central nervous system, and having a way to restore blasted heads. As any paranoid rulers would." Angkelam—no more honorifics for the traitor—gently lowered the disruptor. "If we accidentally breached the antimatter storage, that would happen to all our bodies. Cracking the realm. Wounding the Holder. We will not continue with the excavation," Angkelam turned to me. "now would we, Jur Anggunung?"

"Not unless we have safer ways, no." I cursed in my heart. What a great leader you are, Anggunung. Obedient hands of the Lajung, and now speechless against the subordinate I denounced as traitor mere moments ago. "We will, however, keep the ionic disruptor."

"So long that this affair remains your secret, I will allow this bargain."

"Our secret. But not yours? You cannot be seriously considering to—"

"And what, pray tell, gave you right to forbid me from doing so? From doing anything? Your incompetence means I have to begin my effort anew, to seek a better excavation team in your place. One more valorous than yours, courageous in pursuit of the realm's betterment, not blinded by the mindless pursuit of safety you unhatched eggs covet so much. I have graciously let you have payment for a job unfinished, to let you keep the artifact instead of rightfully confiscating it from you. Now begone."

"Just to confirm, do we have a safer method? To continue the excavation?" Jur Angdalam asked as we walked back to the smoothstone mountain, a mere standard day since Angkelam disintegrated the Lajung's shell head.

"Sure we do. It would be simple enough to dig in spiral path, around the hull. We'll be digging for longer, but with far less risk. It was a gamble." Behind me, Angkelam walked while playing with a bronze coin, an antique we recovered near the Gateways that our people arrived from. "Wasn't it? That the Lajung or the explorer they hire wouldn't realize it until we're finished with this ship?"

"It's better that the Lajung think that we don't know, and convinced that there's no way to safely enter the ship. It would discourage further effort, while we harvest the bounty of the ship." And most importantly, dispose of the antimatter. The realm-cracking substance has no place in this afterworld. I rapped the surface of the disruptor nervously, careful not to touch anywhere near the trigger. Let's hope the rumor about the antimatter could spread sufficently in the Port.

"All in a day's work." Angkelam flicked the bronze coin.

Head, I muttered in my heart. "All in a day's work."

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