Apprentice Lyana floated free of her ship and was sure the vastness of space would swallow her miniscule body.
“It’ll only be a moment until we’re at the asteroid.” Scholar Roark’s voice spoke calmly over the radio com in their spacesuits. “Focus forward.”
She could almost hear the small smile on her mentor’s face.
“I knew when I joined Equinox,” she replied, “That I would be venturing to the furthest corners of the universe, but this is truly remote.” Only one of the hundreds of star maps they used contained this asteroid belt.
“Meaning?” Scholar Roark was always instructing.
“That no one else has explored here.”
“Exactly.” His orange and white space suit flashed for a moment in the light of the nearby binary system, then he disappeared into a cave on the giant craggy asteroid.
Trying to remain calm, Apprentice Lyana maintained her trajectory and was soon brushing her gloved hand against the raspy stone that was larger than the habitation complexes of her home world.
“Up here,” Scholar Roark radioed.
She angled her view up and saw him clambering through a deeper cave. The headlamp on his helmet reflected off gold and azure flakes in the rock. He continued higher and she pulled herself along the walls to follow.
When she finally caught up to him, he was stabilizing his legs on a rock ledge and twisting the sealing latch on his helmet’s collar.
“Wait!” she called.
But it was too late. With a hiss, Scholar Roark’s helmet twisted off. He smiled, as usual, and took a deep breath.
“Smells like Stagoian moss blossoms,” he said.
She joined him on the ledge and took her helmet off. He was right, there was a damp mineral aroma all around them.
“How did you know there would be breathable atmosphere in here?” She kept her helmet tight in her hands in case she had to reattach it in a hurry.
“You see by the bluish-purple cast of the nearby nebula that it has all the necessary elements for us to breathe. This cave system is oriented to catch the outdraft of the nebula but remains in the shadows of the binary system, so the atmosphere won’t burn away.” He shrugged as if he’d merely solved a simple arithmetic equation.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to remember as much as you.”
“Training,” he said. “And excitement. That’s the key. Don’t lose track of the joy of acquiring knowledge.”
“Even when the stakes are life and death?” She’d seen the habitation complexes of her home world bombed into rubble. The ones that had remained standing had been digitized by the Rift. She hadn’t been able to stop any of it.
“I know that it’s difficult,” Scholar Roark spoke gently to bring her out of her memories and back to the cave. “But that’s what the Equinox is about. Balance.”
As if proving his point, he sidestepped along the ledge until only his heels held him up. Falling in this gravity wouldn’t kill him, but it would send him out of the protective atmosphere. He moved his helmet light until it shined on a buried cluster of blue crystals in the stone wall. His other hand scraped away the rock to reveal a thick slab of glowing azure.
“A data shard…” she whispered.
Scholar Roark pulled it free from the wall and slid back along the ledge to her. Blue light bathed his studious face as he looked over the shard. Luminous threads within the material revealed shifting patterns of information.
“It’s a map from before the Rift.” She was proud to be able to read that much. “But it’s changing.”
“It’s mapping migration patterns of ancient interstellar animals known as the Mvalent. And we can use these paths to determine the safest routes through the universe.”
“Or WE can use those maps,” a rough voice announced from below.
Apprentice Lyana’s heart leapt to her throat. Four mercenaries in armored suits stalked up the cave toward them, charged pistols in their hands.
“Just because we the Equinox don’t want to fight doesn’t mean we don’t know how to,” he said as he handed her the data shard. His body turned so the mercenaries couldn’t see him drawing a shining curved blade from behind his back. Somehow Scholar Roark’s calm smile remained on his face. “Remember, Apprentice Lyana, knowledge is power.”