[60]

“The reason I ran the cycle five times, Nihlus, is because that is the minimum number mandated by the revised Biodiversity Conservation Act to eliminate all contaminants. Zurael-2 is a garden world under the observation of the United Institute of Exoscience Studies, and they are very sensitive when it comes to…”

Nihlus subtly dialled down the volume, stretched, and yawned. The inside of his helmet fogged up briefly, to be replaced by an overlay showing the optimal path to their destination. Damn, quite the steep climb. 

He shouldered his pack, pulling the straps tight around his cowl, and checked behind him one last time. His ship was hidden beneath a giant sheet of camo-cloth. Careful observers would never be fooled; even without the ragged holes, the cloth was only a pale imitation of the surrounding alien landscape, so bright and beautiful it made him want to burst into song. He was panting from creatively tying the cloth around every fin and strut of the excessively angular vessel, but one look at the rosy skyline reinvigorated him, filled his chest with awe, and massively improved the quality of his recycled oxygen.

The grass in the valley below was orange; in the setting suns, it transformed into a sea of fire that extended to the horizon. When the wind rustled through the broad valley, streaks of cyan materialised in that sea like gentle waves; evidently, the hidden stalks were that brilliant blue. The mountains ahead started off gently, but soon rose into vertical ochre cliffs, almost three hundred metres in height, topped by ring-shaped formations that stuck out over the edge. The sculpted remnants of some undersea eruption, maybe? Or erosion around meteorite cores? He scratched the gravel with his hiking staff, wondering if he’d stumble upon any clues.

“It’s been two centuries since its discovery, with remarkably few incidents of this nature,” Saren said as he passed by. Nihlus felt the scrutinising glare, and shrugged it off like dust.

There were grasses growing here, as well, though their leaves were broader, smaller. Little clusters of stout red plants, strongly reminiscent of Northern Palavenian night-flowers, sprouted in perfect rings. A stubby, brownish-grey plant with white blooms spilled out from the cracks of boulders. Every five metres or so, there was a tuft of pearly stalks, each bearing an iridescent ball, rising from the earth. They bumped against one another in the breeze, producing a sound like that of windchimes. 

Nihlus knelt by one such clump. Each ball was the size of an old-school gambling chip. They were covered in a mesmerising array of tiny scales, hard to the touch, and topped by a reflective, gelatin-like bead. The stalks were surprisingly tough; he had to saw through them with his combat talons. He raised his little bouquet against the light. They’d make a wonderful dried arrangement. Now, if he could find a ribbon…

“By the way,” Saren called from a distance, “a salarian research team published a paper about those just last week. They called them lakas. They’re sentient.”

Nihlus stabbed his staff into the dirt as he came to a stumbling halt, the bleeding stalks still clutched in his fist. “What?”

“They are the reproductive organs of ground-dwelling fauna.”

He scanned Saren’s impassive mask. Saren tilted his head towards the peak.

After a minute, Nihlus chuckled, bounced the balls around his palm, and then chucked the lot into that smiling, smug face.

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