"SO HOW OLD IS MARS, ANYWAY?" Zephyr piped up, following tightly behind Captain Eo and Commander Bog by hoisting her lower half over a bed of flat, crimson boulders. Behind her, Xavie leapt over a small ravine to reach her and Org drifted upwards, with more effort than the start of the hike up the corridor of a mountain path.
In the same nasally tone due to an airtight, oxygenated helmet, Captain Eo panted, "close to five billion years. Watch your feet!" Just in time, Eo and Bog hopped together across a wide crater, and then Bog, bending deeply and jumping, deftly forced his heels to plant onto another flatbed of rock. He followed his momentum to balance upright and continued on the marked climbing path.
Ahead, Bog continued to evade the more jagged formations that signaled the ancient ruins were near and focused on sure ways up the mountain. Eo instead looked for the riskiest foot holds to propel himself closer to Bog's impressive distance above him.
"Showoff," Eo grumbled to himself when Bog disappeared briefly out of sight on a wide ledge and peered below him to wait for everyone.
Zephyr glanced down in time to avoid a crater her heel nearly slipped into. Just before she took Eo's hand to settle on the ledge with Bog, she heard a piercing, low howl coo in the air.
"What was that?!" Xavie exclaimed. "Not that I'm scared, or anything."
Eo chuckled, and walked on to lead the students after Bog. "Are you sure about that?"
"It is only wind, Cadet Xadie. You may hear it differently on this mountain." Explained Bog.
"Just call me Xadie," Xadie corrected. He claimed a water break with Zephyr and shared a weary chuckle with her in happiness that the most physically demanding part of the hike was through. He turned his attention to stretching his calves when Zephyr's gaze lingered and she wouldn't look away from him first. Away from view, Zephyr hid her blush.
To Eo, Org looked nearly white in the mountain's shade. "Are you okay?"
"You look dehydrated. Take my canteen," Eo offered. He unbuckled his full flask of dihydrogen monoxide and fed it to Org, who pinched his proboscis around the straw and slurped shakily.
"I'll carry you the rest of the way," Eo declared. When Org was done, Eo nestled Org under one elbow and toted him along.
The entrance to the ruins took only a short walk longer along a dark, paven cliff's edge. Once the crew was huddled safely near the mouth of a wide, sunlit cave, Bog surveyed his gizmo. He looked pleased that the group made it to the ruins many minutes before schedule.
"There's no one here." Zephyr mentioned to Bog.
"This isn't the most exciting destination on mars, nor the most creative level of the ruins. Most like to see one specific formation from the summit of this mountain, although, there are many interesting exhibits along the way."
"'Kay," Zephyr replied. "So what's this one?"
Zephyr pointed to a simple, humungous gravestone at the cave's entrance. It was planted directly in the path of explores and hosted a long string of geometric hieroglyphics. The crew gathered near the stone, tilting their heads upward to follow the shapes from top to bottom. Eo and Bog mentally translated the code to read a somber and reverent notice that no being was to disturb the intentions of ones who came before them. Meanwhile, the cadets stood by in confusion.
"Captain Eo, can you seriously read that?" Xadie said. The echoes from the cave amplified his challenge.
"Of course I can." Eo whispered, finishing his translations. He and Bog timidly met glances. Bog watched as Eo's eyes glinted full of memories from their rookie trip to Mars as former students. They then acknowledged to themselves that they were standing in the very spot they had first met.
"What does it mean?" Xadie reached out to touch a stone inscription, and had his wrist swiftly grasped by Eo's white glove.
"It says: if you touch anything, I will send you home without a pulse, and without a badge!"
"Eo," Bog scolded. "Xadie, and everyone: as you go through the entire ruins, I want to remind you that you must not touch a single thing. This is very, very important."
"And if we do?" Zephyr asked in true curiousity.
Bog genuinely raised his brow, and his lips squirmed into a gentle-like, dumbounded placement. "I am not positive."
"Better not to find out the hard way. Let's go," Eo commanded, still lugging Org close to his hip. To Eo's relief, Org had turned nearly two shades of pink that would bring him closer to his healthy salmon-colored shade.
Eo urged Org to take and finish his canteen of water and return with the other cadets, which Org obeyed good-naturedly.
Eo knew there was plenty of more water stores and oxygen tanks on his starship, and they all would more than likely return to it in no time after the short tour, so he didn't rush to refill his canteen at any of the cavern springs the group dawdled past. Eo reconnected at Bog's side once he had started the other cadets at a steady walking pace.
Eo leaned in toward's Bog's shoulder and suggested, "do you remember that one place here we visited, way back when...."
"Yes, I do," Bog chortled lowly, starting Eo into his own snuffed laughter. Bog stammered, "we certainly do not have time to visit; the cadets are our first priority and we cannot leave them long distances from us...."
Eo interjected foxily, "when is the last time you've been here, Bog? I mean seriously. It's been years. We have to see if it's still there!"
"Perhaps, perhaps, if there's time, Captain. Lower your voice, or the children will become suspicious." Bog said. Upon hearing voices from other visitors who appeared to be older cadets than the students he led, Bog resumed his serious countenance and tightened his steps along the smooth rockbed of the first grounds.
"You don't actually have to call me Captain," Eo said, apologizing for their spat at their arrival to Mars. "I'm sorry, Bog. I just want you, or someone at least, to have a little faith in me."
Bog looked to Eo and nodded once. "I can give you more than a little." His dark-brown eyes pocketed warmly from below when Eo held a mellow, grateful expression to him that Bog hadn't seen before.
The cadets followed the grinning starship leaders in front of them along the rocky exhibits as they took their own times to observe the basic cave formations of the initial ruins display.
All the while, Xadie discreetly kept his eyes shuffling the royal-orange stalagmites, stalacties, and columns of Mars' cavernous, ancient ruins for The Thing.