ZEPHYR GIGGLED SECRETLY as she followed Xavie, who was meters ahead of Org as they all continued to trot along the rocks with Captain Eo.
Bog felt comfortable on the flat terrain that led away from the main center of the Matrian exhibit, but the ground became less trodden the further he took the group away from the clustered gift shops, and the sun became a furnace.
Bog scouted their trail to a hazy memory of a ravine that probably housed the creature they were looking for, kicking hot cheddar dust with the others along the way.
They were hopelessly late for the excursion—a full half Earth-hour—and it was all his fault.
Eo was naturally in his element with the children, chatting non-stop with them and completely distracted from the danger in which he and his cadets wanted to put themselves.
Bog cursed those damn big brown eyes of Eo’s, remembering how they had begged him to forget orders and continue this ridiculous side quest for The Thing.
Bog hated that he would do anything to make Eo happy, even if it meant losing his job. Being around Eo made him feel like a big kid, and somehow Bog always found himself giving in to playing by his rules.
Bog’s stomach churned. The colonel had read him like the stars. Eo indeed had a secret influence on himself that Bog couldn’t explain. Whatever it was, Bog was afraid to even consider exploring why.
Bog, squiting through a susurrus of red dust, turned to Eo, who was still enraptured by Zephyr’s tale, which was being told slowly between her wandering over the bumpy path behind Eo.
Bog took a needed pause as he placed his boots on the leveled ledge, the cape behind him as a black flag for the crew.
“The sooner we reach the cave,” Bog panted, his voice muffled by the wind and helmet, “the faster we can complete the coordinates of our assigned mission. Hurry.”
“Yes sir!” Eo tweeted. He beckoned the cadets forward until he retreated behind Org, his own white and black cloak flapping dust in his own eyes.
Satisfied with Eo’s rare and polite response to an order, Bog continued on his way and let his thoughts reappear.
As futile as the detour to find The Thing was, the enthusiasm of the crew had some merit. Bog hadn’t seen The Thing in years: it was a mythical, rare creature.
Unsurprisingly, rumors of what The Thing really looked like persisted even after he and Eo had completed their missions.
But he and Eo had been the only ones to glimpse it, and had told no soul where. Until now. Why Eo had chosen to show their secret to a group of juveniles, Bog had no idea.
It didn’t seem like a good time to ask Eo why in front of them, so Bog kept his reservations private.
Xavie suddenly walked past Bog with a defiant look on his face.
“Stay behind me, cadet,” Bog ordered, shoving him back for a second time. “Perhaps you can direct me without an e-compass when you pass your navigation capstone.”
Xavie snickered. “I already did, mister. With honors.”
Xavie lingered close to Bog’s boots, looking so sure of himself that Bog resolved to keep a sharp eye on him if he tried disobeying again.
The year Bog and Eo met during their academic pilgrimage to Mars, instead of a bone stolen from the Martian rocks that had usually been sufficient enough to pass for a talisman from a real Thing, some try-hard had mutated a claw of a common butterfly rat, a species that even Eo had made a pet.
The claw had been shaved to match the imagined monstrosity of The Thing, convincing even the traveling astronaut then that it had really come from the enigma.
Unlike cadets from his own generation, Bog had a feeling that Cadet Xavie was not an unnecessary liar and would not leave Mars empty-handed without something authentically forbidden.
For the rewards of legendary popularity if Xavie trapped the real animal, Bog already knew, Cadet Xavie would do anything.
After passing more rusty outskirts the Martian exhibition, Bog, Captain Eo and the cadets slowly made their way to the mouth of the gorge.
When they all reached the wall of the gorge, the stone gates of the giant cave were barred by a ladder of laser beeams.
“That’s strange,” commented Eo.
“I guess they’ve beefed up their security since we were here,” Bog reasoned. They did it smartly. His relief flooded him; they were now out of danger.
“Easy stuff,” Zephyr whispered. Everyone turned to look at her. She shrugged and gestured to the senders. “I can hack them in two seconds.”
Xavie said, “prove it.”
“You’re pretty handy, aren’t you?” said Eo. He fished out his logger to record the moment.
“Your log is useless,” said Zephyr. “The starbase still thinks it’s in starship mode. I changed your’s and Commander’s settings when we took a water break just now.”
Eo’s eyes widened. He saw that his device was in complete disarray and set to an emergency radar. “You little sneak,” He smiled.
Xavie looked at Zephyr. “Seriously?”
Zephyr shrugged at him, but couldn’t help but respond to seeing his dimples by beaming a smile of her own.
Org warily waved his tentacles in the air when Bog’s brows carved over his eyes at all of them.
“Cadet Zephyr,” Bog said. “You should have checked with me first. Right after lunch I already shut down some tracking systems just in case, but it would be highly suspicious for the base to find Captain Eo and I in emergency stealth-mode. Now we are completely cloaked. The base has no idea if we’re still on Mars or lost in a wormhole!!”
Zephyr’s face paled. “I can put them back!”
“Well, I think it’s very funny,” interrupted Eo. “You’re very bright in your profile. But you overstepped your bounds. But I think you should also apologize to us. You took our equipment without permission; we need them to protect you in case we need backup.
“If you want to go in the cave, we need everything we can to protect you. You are not as experienced as we are and you are not at the peak of your physical fitness. If the Thing ran at you, you would run and hurt yourself.”
“So, The Thing is in there...right now?” Xavie asked, taking a step away from the cave.
Zephyr said, “if you were already going to break the rules, Captain Eo, why are you mad at me? I just helped you do it faster!”
Eo shared a look with Bog for solidarity, but Bog instead looked back at him contest. “The main thing is,” Eo continued. “It would be nice if you showed some remorse.”
“Ok. I’m really sorry for taking your loggers without permission.”
“Thank you, Zephyr.”
“And I’m sorry for stealing all of your jerky, Commander.”
“Pardon me?!” Bog exclaimed.
“And I’m really, really sorry Captain Eo for using your lip gel; I think you’re out of it.”
“You little sneak!!” Eo shouted.
“Perhaps...we should be concerned with actually getting inside this formation, since we have walked all this way.” Bog said.
He surveyed the gorge’s cave gaping before them. “And doing so without being seen,” he added, perturbed by a lens-like flare in the corner of his eye at a place embedded in the rocks.
Eo looked over the grounds too. He caught what Bog might have saw. It was only an ionized sliver of rock. Eo knew Bog had just realized the same, because he suddenly lost interest in the spot.
The ravine’s location was too remote for cameras, Eo reasoned. And, the Martians loved booby-traps. The crew had not been attacked yet, so there was likely no fancy traps involved with the cave.
“Go on, give it a hack,” Eo said to Zephyr. He pressed a conspicious button on one of the emitters, and then a holographic display unfolded before them all.
Org, Xavie, Eo, and Bog watched Zephyr bend to the emitters and toggle some controls to release a floating board of scripted key-blocks.
The screen listed a passcode request for access to the emitter’s control panel.
“Have you finished your Martian classes yet?” Bog addressed Zephyr after a while of watching Zephyr’s eyes race over the keys and poke a timid sequence.
“I’ve got a few lessons left, but I think I got this.” Zephyr tried typing a code, and after the fields had filled, the glowing, sans-serif calligraphy dissolved, resetting a blank query.
Zephyr grumphed and tried again. And again.
Eventually, Xavie pushed her aside and typed in a string of passcodes.
“Try: we come in peace,” Zephyr suggested. “That’s literally on Mars’ flag.”
“I already did. That’s a little way too obvious,” Xavie mumbled, spelling another code with more fervor.
Zephyr rolled her eyes that Org thought anything he said would mean anything, but waited to see if his suggestion would work.
“Try what Org said,” she pushed.
Xavie huffed, “I don’t speak jellyfish-nerd, sorry.”
“Be nice, cadets!” Eo interjected. He wondered if he should intervene more harshly on their bullying of Org, and wondered how long Org had to put up with them in the Academy.
“Let me--” Zephyr interrupted.
Xavie held out an arm before Zephyr took over the hologram’s query. “No. I almost got it!”
Zephyr said, “I’m just trying to help.”
“Well, don’t,” Xavie muttered.
“Why are you so mean to me all the time? In class too. All I’ve ever been is nice!”
“Because you’re annoying.”
“Enough,” Bog said. He waved the cadets out of the way to let Org try. Org rushed to the screen. He carefully read the keys and began to strike them with his tentacles.
Eo placed a hand on Bog’s arm when Bog returned. “Give it time; this is actually a great learning experience for them; you know they’ll never get in right?” Eo whispered. “They haven’t spelt one word right in Martian. I was kind of let down with Xavie.”
“At their age, I was a polyglot,” Bog whispered back. "What the hell are they teaching kids these days?!”
“He didn’t have our teacher,” Eo chortled. “Remember astronaut Levensky?”
Bog broke into a grieved smile. “Let us allow them a few more tries, and then return to the original iternary. Hopefully we can adhere to it from this point forward? Much time has already been wasted.”
“Yes, sir, I understand,” Eo admitted sheepishly. It was getting a bit too toasty in the remote area they had trailblazed. The insides of his gloves were becoming squishy with sweat.
All at once, the cadets gasped. The lasers shielding the dark cavern vanished before everyone’s eyes.