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“This was a terrible idea!” Zo shouted as we ran.
“Yeah,” I gasped out.
“I know!” I shouted back.
Why couldn’t she leave it be? We both clearly understood that we were in some serious trouble right now, but she couldn’t shut her mouth. I was too busy trying to save what air I could to fill my lungs so I could continue existing. Which meant I needed to be running. I hated running.
She hated it as much as I did, I couldn’t understand how she found enough air to keep shouting obvious crap at me. But I thought this a lot. Strange that I should be thinking it now, while we were running for our lives.
What I should be thinking about was how we were going to outrun whatever the hell was chasing us. Zo’s ship was still out of sight. I checked the navigation in my watch system to make sure we were still headed in the right direction.
This simple action caused me to lose my footing just slightly, which made me bump into Zo, which caused her to reach out to catch her balance. This chain of events is what caused us to do some sort of awful slide-tumble down a rocky hillside.
My brain froze on the way down. Profanities cycled through my brain. A brief flash of what I guess was a AM I ABOUT TO DIE? moment. And then we fell off a very steep, nearly vertical incline and into a river.
Thank the Stars for water. Except salt water. Burning. Burning everything. My eyes, my throat and lungs, and the rock-rash newly imprinted on my body. Everything was on fire. I reached the surface, my eyes red, lungs screaming, mouth spluttering.
I squinted through miserable eyes, trying to spot Zo. There, her hands flailing, her fingertips barely reaching above the surface of the water. I pushed aside the grating irritation coursing through my body and pushed towards my best friend. She was terrified of water. I had to get to her, and now.
She never learned to swim, insisting that people didn’t belong in water, so why would she ever need the ability? That was something I admired about her. Not the lack of desire to learn, but the embracing who she felt she was part. She had learned as a child that she didn’t always belong, but rather than fighting it, she embraced it and became her own person. This was something I had yet to learn. This fact made her appear fearless. And terrified most other people.
But I knew better. I knew that underneath all her tough exterior and snappy wit, was a girl who had some intense fears. And at the top of that list, water. I knew she was panicking under there, and she needed me. And I couldn’t get to her fast enough.
Why did I insist we stop on this stupid planet? Because I was starting to get cabin fever and this was the first planet we had come across in a while that had enough oxygen to walk around without feeling like I was breathing air that I had already breathed, and been recycled, and rebreathed again and again. I hadn’t shut up about it, so Zo finally caved and landed us here.
I reached out, and my fingertips just barely grazed hers. I tried grabbing, but she went under again. Inhaling deep, I dove down again. Steeling myself for the burn, I opened my eyes.
It hurt more this time, maybe because I was thinking about it. But I couldn’t stop. She was right there, I could see her but couldn’t reach her. Her eyes were red, wide in panic. Her mouth, wisely shut. That’s rare, the thought spiked through my brain. I kept reaching. But Zo just stared at me. It was like she wasn’t really seeing me, but looking through me.
I kicked out, hard and made contact with something. I hoped it was a rock and pushed off it to get me closer. Finally, I reached her and grabbed around her torso. As if the physical contact was what she needed to snap out of her panic, she grabbed around my neck. The riverbed was below us, just out of reach. I needed to use it to push off and get her above water. The air in my lungs was running out, which meant hers might already be. Stop thinking. Just go. Now, Velik.
I found the floor and then closed my eyes to help stop the burning. It abated, but only slightly. And I kicked again, launching us both upwards as fast as I could.
We broke the surface, gasping for air. The very air we had both been craving for weeks, it burned after getting so much saline water in them, but it was glorious at the same time. We pulled back from each other, smiling. Or I was smiling. The look on her face was still panicked.
“Zo, I’m so sorry. Let’s get out of the water.”
She simply shook her head, water streaming down her face. Or were those tears? And she pointed behind me.
I turned to look back at the shore and the wind left my lungs as quickly as if we had hit the cold water all over again. Standing along the shoreline, were enormous beasts. Apparently, the things that had been following us. They were giant, apelike creatures. Yet somehow, they also looked feline, something about their arched, glowing eyes.
They were greenish, moss-like, perfect to camouflage with the surrounding forest. No wonder we hadn’t seen them, only heard them. They were panting and pacing the shoreline, carefully avoiding touching the watery edges. Clearly the only thing that had kept them from catching us was the insanely salty water we were now floating in, slowly moving downstream.
“We’re royally screwed.” Zo had finally caught her breath.