The rush of the air out of the airlock blew Niht, Iarann, and Amhran onto the barren surface of the asteroid.
Niht’s lungs burned. He wanted to inhale, but there was no air in space, no heat. Only the lifeless emptiness of the void yawning out into eternity seeking all that it might devour.
At least Airoh and Karom would be spared this fate. They would have to live alone, but at least they would live.
Fate was a cruel mistress, but if this was her plan, there was little they could do to stop her.
Niht gasped. He couldn’t help it. He needed to breathe, needed air.
The capillaries on his exposed skin hadn’t burst from the boiling blood within them, and his eyes hadn’t frozen in the vacuum of space. Why?
Standing up, Niht stared defiantly into the blackness of space and inhaled a calm, deliberated breath.
Air rushed into his lungs.
“We can breathe!” He shouted to the others and rushed to their side. “Breathe, dammit. There is air.”
Confusion covered their faces as they pulled life back into their bodies.
“How is that possible?” Iarann panted.
“The asteroid is too small to have an atmosphere,” Amhran sat up and caught her breath.
“I don’t know either, but we have to get out of here before the soldiers realize we aren’t dead and come for us.”
The other two nodded.
They scurried away from the domes they lived in off toward a mountain range not far away.
Cold night air pirouetted around them as they traversed the bleak terrain. Nothing about this place acted like it should.
While the moon traversed the sky in a familiar arc, the stars remained stubbornly fixed in space and time. Even if their subtle movement was beyond notice, the asteroid was small enough, they should have moved relative to them.
Ahead, the mountains loomed like sleeping titans waiting the call to rise from their deathlike slumber.
The ground before the nearest mountain was littered with broken obelisks and stele inscribed with the script of the lost empire.
They followed the trail to the gates of an ancient temple buried into the side of the mountain.
“That shouldn’t be here?” Amhran said. “I’ve studied everything I could about this place since I was a child to prepare myself from for the trials. This was a lifeless rock when the Neevh Tiar brought the first refugees here.”
“Nothing about this place makes sense.” Iarann said. “I felt it from the moment we arrived.”
Niht chuckled darkly. “I always feel that way, so I ignored it.”
They stood at the dusty gate into the once intricately engraved temple. Over the centuries or millennia, large chunks of the wall and ceiling had fallen, tearing holes in the scenes depicted on them.
“It is refuge.” Niht said. “Their scanners might be thrown off long enough for us to either wait them out or to devise a plan.”
“Not to mention,” Iarann said, “The former inhabitants might have left something useful for us inside.”
The three walked in between the colossal effigies of masked guards. Each scowled down at them as if judging their intentions. Their eyes were empty sockets, blank stares, and hollow souls reaching out from the beyond to touch them.
The air itself crackled with power. It smelled of lost dreams and forgotten memories.
Niht thought of his mother and the cinnamon cookies she used to make for him and his brothers. The scent of them lingered in the air just like it used to in their house when he would come home from school. It wasn't the only familiar scent in the air. He swore he could smell the flowers that grew in the woods just beyond his home. Everything here was too familiar, too close to him. It was like the building wanted him to feel at home.
A shallow malaise came over him. Maybe it was the stress of the day, or whatever was causing those memories to surface in him, but all he wanted to do was lay down and sleep. They called to him like a lover in a warm bed beckoning him to unknown pleasures.
Something heavy fell behind him. Maybe it was a chunk of rock from the ceiling. He didn't care. For the first time, in a long time, he didn't care about anything. Worry ran so far away from his mind that he doubt it would ever catch up with him again.
Lead filled his legs. His arms hung low. Water flooded his eyes, not from tears but from the sheer heaviness, the burden that he had to bear. He needed to sleep, to rest, to let it all go and drift away. It didn't matter, not here, the soldiers would never find them here. They were safe.
Falling to his knees, he laughed. The echo reverberated through the statues and engravings that filled the large open space. He smiled at the light that permeated the room. It wasn't bright, but it allowed him to see everything clearly.
Niht touched his face. He had forgotten about the mask that covered it. He laughed again, this time out of sheer exhaustion and the joy of finding a place to rest.