Chapter 13: Lost in Space
I don’t panic particularly easily, but I’d be lying if I said that the searing fear of panic didn’t start to rise up in my thorax. The part of me that wanted to start screaming and crying was harder than usual to suppress, taking a few rounds of slow breathing and a lot of anxious stims to get them to calm down. All I have to do is retrace my steps, right?
That was much easier said than done, of course. I hadn’t been focusing on what steps I was taking, and the mass of non-humanity that I had been paying attention to had changed by the time I got there. There was also part of me, a very persuasive part, that questioned whether Quinn and Dr. Erobosh would even have a reason to go back to that market, instead of meeting at the spaceport, or looking for me directly. I insisted on trying to retrace my steps for about half an hour before I gave up and started looking for the spaceport.
You would think that a city that was just a big ring built into the side of a rocky pit would be easy to navigate, but that is where you would be wrong. The streets of the city had been dug deep enough into the rock to have three or four of them in parallel, and worse, dozens of layers vertically. Hypothetically, I could have used the spaceport as a reference point, but I couldn’t see which one Helium Glider had landed on, and there were too many to make a decent guess.
I would go down one path for a few minutes, only to see it end in a bridge still under construction, or a section of rock that had collapsed. When was the last time I saw an elevator or a stairway? Couldn’t have been more than a few hundred feet back, could it have been? I tried finding some kind of city map on my Ariel, only to discover that they were substantially less free than the food had been, and requested payment in a currency I’d never even seen before.
The other thing you wouldn’t expect about a city like this is how quickly day turns into night. Asonazafal being set so deep into the ground meant that night fell there well before the sun set for good, coming almost as soon as the shadow of the rim slipped out of the city. Without any moisture in the air, the warmth of the desert quickly vanished, replaced by a comfortable chill, like Broadleaf in winter. The cold wasn’t as bad as the dark, though. I had actually noticed that my night vision had improved slightly when I gained six extra eyes, but when night fell over Asonazafal I found myself wishing that it had improved even more. The city was too busy to ever really quiet down, and given how few sunlit hours there were on a given day, there was no way people could afford to not go out after dark, but the positive energy died as sure as if it had been shot with a blaster.
It was also much harder to navigate in the dark, vaguely guessing where my destination was based on patterns in the city lights from a mile away. Didn’t make me stop, given that I had nothing else to do. The other reason why I didn’t stop was that I have the annoying tendency to not give up hope on things. Instead, the hope slowly drained through my fingers, slowly enough that I didn’t even realize I’d given up until I was most of the way there.
I started moving more slowly, and with less purpose, less brainpower devoted to tracing out paths through the city and more devoted to finding the softest and most comfortable corner in which to curl up and die. Of course, you have to be selective with your curling-up-and-dying corner, you have to look out for ones with a good moisture level, they have to be small enough that you don’t splay out afterwards, etc etc. There were a few times when I’d lose focus on even trying to get back, and just wander through the city and think about how my feet were sore and my lower arms were half-numb from being tied up under my cleric outfit.
“Hey, is something wrong? You don’t look so good.” The voice coming without warning from somewhere to my left was… odd. There was a hint of femininity to it, of the deep and breathy sort, but it sounded somewhat similar to my voice, in that it didn’t sound fully designed to handle the English language. And yes, she was speaking in English.
I wheeled around, nearly leaping back and letting out an insectoid shriek of surprise. The woman in front of me was not human, as I could tell from her tapering snout and elongated neck that flowed smoothly into her head. The rest of her seemed mostly human, though the poor lighting and her choice to wear nothing but black and dark blue could have obscured just about anything. I definitely managed to notice her breasts, though.
“Hm,” she said, moving just a foot forward with such grace that I had to glance down and make sure she wasn’t hovering. “I’ve seen a lot of arthropods around here, but never one quite like you.”
I typed quickly, shoving various panicky thoughts aside. “I’m an Ember,” said my Ariel, “a mute cleric of…”
I suddenly realized that nobody had ever told me anything about the mute clerics besides the fact that they were mute and that they were clerics. This entire plan had been remarkably ill-conceived. Fortunately, I had the power of making shit up on my side.
“I’ve made an oath never to speak, that I might focus all my efforts on worshipping the storm god Voltron.” It took all of my effort to not give the game away by immediately cringing at that one.
“Interesting,” she said, slipping just a bit closer to me. The shadows retreated off of her face a little bit, like a hood being pulled back. Her eyes were yellow, slitted, and her snout was covered in terra-cotta scales. A moment of recognition hit me, and I took the moment to get a better look at her legs, or rather the tail, a tail as thick as my waist, that trailed across the ground and carried her forward with waves of sinuous motion.
“I may never have met one of you before,” she said, eyes scanning my entire body, “but you’re kinda cute.”
The temperature of the evening air suddenly jumped up about twenty degrees, while at the same time my legs struggled to support the massively-increased weight of my upper body. I had to expend effort to keep my eyes focused firmly on the screen of my Ariel, as part of me was under the impression that the most fascinating thing in all of existence was right in front of me at about chest level.
It took several abortive attempts at making a response before my fingers were able to come up with a coherent sentence. “That’s very very forward of you.”
The snake-woman slinked around me, drawing her body a bit higher. “I’m not trying anything,” she said. “Just making an observation.” The way she said it was a bit like being asked an unexpected question on an oral exam. I followed her face around, craning my neck to keep looking. “So, got any strong reason to be out here, all on your own?” she asked, eyes flicking to one side. “You look a little worried.”
I was pretty distracted at that point, by the pretty lights and the sudden surge of nervous energy that had showed up with no source whatsoever. I also couldn’t help but take in everything that the snake-woman was wearing now that the light was better, a short sleeved shirt and skirt that on a human might have made it halfway to the knees. Making a closer inspection would have been unspeakably rude, but upon closer inspection, the material I had mistaken for leather was actually more similar to the material of my Emissary clothes, a plasticky stuff that shimmered like black opal in the slightest light. If only I had my sketchbook with me, I thought, although I wasn’t sure what I’d be able to do with it even if I did.
“I’m lost,” I said in a flurry of typing. “Trying to find my way back to the spaceport where the rest are.”
Her face fell into an almost exaggerated expression of pity. “Oh, that’s terrible, I’m so sorry that that has to be your first impression of this city. It can be confusing to get around sometimes.”
I nodded, then started typing when I remembered that might not be a universal gesture. “Very confusing, yes. Do you think you could help me find a way back?”
She laughed, a low chuckle that would have melted my organs if I had less self-control than I do. “I’m sorry, I can’t spare the time. Way too busy.”
“Busy?” I said, cocking my head. “You don’t look busy.”
“Oh I’m very busy. I’m busy distracting you so that my husband can come at you from behind.”
I realized what she had said, spent a quarter of a second in a state of absolute panic, and turned around just in time to get punched right in my stupid horny bug face. The hit was hard enough to make a white flash in front of my eyes. When I regained consciousness, my mouth was sopping with the bitter taste of venom, my arms had reflexively pulled in, and I was on my back looking up at my attacker.
He was human, with a shaved head, a skin tone that made me think Mediterranean despite that being a dozen parsecs away, and built like a side of beef. He didn’t even look angry, which is the least I can expect from people who just punched me. After a moment for the both of us to get a look at each other, the huge guy grabbed me by the back of the neck and yanked me to my feet.
“You did good, babe,” he said in English, with an accent that somewhat resembled a cross between British and Nigerian.
The snake woman gave him a hiss and a wink. “So, yeah, this is a mugging. Congratulations.”
“I couldn’t tell,” I muttered.
The huge guy’s eyes went wide. “Well, it can talk. Didn’t expect that.”
“Fuck you,” I hissed back. My mind was working on overdrive to figure a way out of this. Part of me just wanted to spit in his face and see how he liked a dose of neurotoxin. The other part of me pointed out that I almost certainly couldn’t spit with my jaws all taped together. And a fraction of a second after that, both sides were overwhelmed by my sense of empathy. These two people clearly cared about each other, and killing him would just create more heartbreak.
“So, if you’ve got anything shine on you, best to hand it over now,” said the huge guy. “Otherwise I crack your bubble, clear?”
“I doubt she’s got any shine on her, dear,” said the snake. “She leaked that she’s a new traveller, doesn’t even know how to get back to the spaceport.”
There was only one way out of this that didn’t involve potentially fatally poisoning someone. I wasn’t going to be able to fight either of them alone, never mind both, and relying on help from someone else was looking increasingly unlikely with each passing second. But neither of them seemed armed, with the possible exception of the snake woman’s fangs. I started slowly moving beneath my cleric outfit, subtle enough that hopefully they wouldn’t notice the fabric shift.
“Wait a tick… What’s that on its belt?” The big guy reached down, brushing my hand aside when it tried to resist him. “Well now. That’s an Ariel!”
“The fuck is an Ariel?” asked the snake.
He shrugged. “Two thousand imperials in our pockets, and probably twice that for the software.”
The huge guy reached down and tried unclipping my Ariel. That wasn’t going to happen; for all that I was screwed already, it would be double if I lost the thing that let me understand people. He was stronger than me, but every time he tried to undo the clip, I could scratch at his wrists or yank his hand away with two of mine. It escalated quickly, the big guy muttering profanities under his breath while trying to rip the Ariel out of my hands. I scooted backwards, avoiding a few kicks to my shins, when he grabbed me by the wrist and wrenched my arm to the side, cocking his fist back for another face punch.
It was then that I finally finished sawing a hole in the fabric of my cleric’s shirt with the claw on my lower right arm. Never having used a knife or knife-like finger claw in anger before, I ad-libbed, reaching out with my lower hand like I was intending to scratch him or grab his nonexistent hair. My claw met resistance, and a second later grew warm as a light splatter of blood burst from the long, shallow wound I’d left in his gut.
All at once, he let go of me, letting out a shout of pain as he clutched at the bleeding wound I’d given him. I staggered back without his pull to keep me balanced, and for a moment it was all I could do to not rush in and ask him if he was okay. His wife did what I wanted to, slithering around him and putting pressure on the wound.
“I’m sorry,” I said, an instant before dashing off.
Really, I shouldn’t have felt sorry for the man. After all, he was the one who had tried to mug me, not the other way around, and I could have been much more vicious had I, say, tried stabbing him rather than slashing. That didn’t make me feel less awful. And the regret of having just hurt someone was compounded by fear and terror, the terrible realization of just how vulnerable I was. Maybe my parents had been right, and even if they weren’t, Dr. Erobosh definitely had been. As I ran, without direction or purpose, I started to really hate Quinn for putting me in this situation. He was going to get a dressing-down after this was done, assuming I could manage the mental fortitude necessary.
I’ve never been much for endurance, and I had the feeling that my new species wasn’t known for their skill at long-distance running either. My legs sternly requested that we stop, and I obliged, collapsing against the most comfortable-looking wall within visual range. Tucking my lower right arm back through the hole in the cloth was awkward, but not difficult. The hard part was figuring out what to do after that.
So I just sat there. I breathed and I didn’t go into a complete, screaming, unreasoning panic. This was a simple order that I could manage. Well past the point of planning, I resolved to take a nap now, and worry about my own survival later. There was no way I was going to be able to think about anything when my reaction to thinking about anything would be to scream. Once I had decided to fall asleep and hope that nobody would shank me, I started to drift off.
I was woken up by a sound not entirely unlike the sound of opening a kitchen cabinet and having all of the pots and pans fall out onto you at once. My eyes snapped open and my mouth went bitter with venom as I rolled forward into a crouch, ready to fight at any moment. There was no danger. A Pioneer had fallen over, a huge one, seven feet tall at least. He was sprawled out on the stone ground, four legs scrabbling for purchase, and a load of scrap and machine parts spilled out onto the ground.
My first instinct was to dash over and help him. Obviously, that was the right thing to do. But I’d been taught better by this city. He could be a lure for an ambush, sucker in the most sensitive, empathetic arthropod to get the shit kicked out of them. I stood up, shoving out my chest and holding my head up. The plan was simple: project an aura of toughness and make sure the first person who did anything suspicious would get venom’d.
I moved towards the old man with caution, more of a saunter than a walk, eyes on a swivel. If anyone had so much as walked up behind me I would have turned around and punched them, that’s how nervous I was. He didn’t notice me, focused as he was on picking up all the dropped scrap and placing it carefully back into the sack it had come from.
“Need help?” my Ariel said.
“Yeah, I could. The damn leg chose now to give out on me.” The Pioneer’s voice sounded ragged and deep, full of little clicks and mandibles grinding together.
There were a few pedestrians around, people going about their business and trying to avoid the horse-sized blockage in the road. Nobody who looked suspicious. But, of course, if they looked suspicious, then they wouldn’t be doing their jobs, would they be?
“Did you come to offer help,” said the Pioneer, focusing on his detritus, “or are you going to stand there and watch an old man struggle?”
“I’m just making sure that the area is safe.” My Ariel used the same neutral, androgynous voice as always. I folded my arms to make me look as intimidating as possible, but I really wished that the stupid thing came with a “Mercer” setting.
The old man looked up at me, clicking with annoyance. “The tough act isn’t going to work, girl. You stick out like a steel-shelled nomad.”
I was caught between two entirely separate but equally tumultuous emotions. The first was that he’d called out my tough “act” as being an act. If an old man with mobility issues could see through it, that meant that everyone else could as well. That meant I was in danger, and that the best course of option would be to run away as fast as I could and find somewhere safe to hide.
The second emotion was over the fact that he’d called me “girl.” There was no reason for him not to call me that; the falthrranta hadn’t really started to take effect. Being misgendered felt odd, an experience I can only describe as “disconnecting,” but I didn’t particularly feel the need to correct him. There’d be no point, it’d distract from helping him, and it might draw more attention to me as a target. I was very secure in my gender identity.
“Are you alright, girl? You sort of went… space-eyed, there.”
I blinked the confusion out of my brain, realizing that I had spent several seconds staring into the middle distance and processing what he had said. “I’ll help,” I quickly tapped out, before dropping onto my knees to help pick up the fallen items.
Once that was done, the old man hefted his bag onto his back, pulled his legs under his torso, and tottered to his feet. Then, about three seconds later, he slipped back to the ground again. He rested his hand on one of his legs, which I hadn’t noticed before was contained in a white metal contraption, like those load-bearing exoskeletons that Miri would always nerd out over. “Damn thing never works… You think you could help me a bit further, girl? My workshop is close by, and I might need a bit of help getting there.”
I pressed my mandibles together, anxious heat rising up in my thorax. If this was really a con, then this would be the perfect way to lure me into some dark corner so his associates could kick me to death. What I really should have said was that I was busy, wished him luck, found a place to hide and forgotten about him. But I have too much heart to have done that.
“Of course,” I said. “What do you need?”
There was a bit of difficulty, figuring out how much of his weight I could support without collapsing like a paper tube, because horse-sized crab people are heavy. But, with both of my arms holding up one of his, giving him an extra bit of help whenever he’d start to slip, we were able to make slow but steady progress. He was telling the truth about his workshop being close by, no more than a block and a half, going by human measurements. We arrived at the entrance, a small steel door recessed into the sheet metal wall.
“Thank you for the help,” he said. “I can make it from here.”
“It’s the least I can do,” my Ariel said.
He dropped the bag, slinging it over his shoulder and dropping it on his doorstep. There was no key for his door; instead, it worked like a rotary phone without the numbers, a single hole in a circular metal plate that he spun in a specific pattern. “Do you want to come in?” he asked, opening the door. “Doesn’t sound like you’re in a rush to be anywhere.”
I typed my response a couple of times before settling on what I wanted to say. “Oh, thank you. Of course. Actually, I might need a little bit of help myself.”
“Then come in, come in,” he said.
I caught the door just after he passed through it, and followed behind him into the workshop. It was a huge, cavernous space, where every word echoed against the sheet metal walls. There were rows of tables and cabinets, some stacked with labeled boxes and bins, while others were piled high with stray mechanical components. It all smelled like oil and rust and the stale-bread smell of Pioneer body odor, with subtle hints of burned metal and plasma, old smoke that hadn’t ever quite settled down, and if I focused on olfactory matters, I could tell that someone had shed blood in this workshop in the last few months.
The Pioneer limped towards the far corner of the workshop. “My name is Ralv. What’s yours?”
Thinking quickly, I came up with a cunning pseudonym. “Alux.”
Ralv sat down by one of the tables and extended his injured leg. With practiced grace I wouldn’t have expected from his burly claws, he clicked a few components out of their slots in the exoskeleton and replaced them. All at once, the exoskeleton came to life, moving perfectly in tune with his motions as he tapped his pointed claw against the ground.
“So you said you needed help?”
I had gotten so caught up in the visual and olfactory overload of the workshop that I almost forgot I’d told him anything. I wandered away from Ralv, exploring the other corners of the workshop and speculating in my head what all these components could be for.
“I’m new on this planet,” I typed.
“I noticed,” Ralv muttered. I could still hear him, thanks to the excellent acoustics.
“My ship landed this morning, and I tried to do a little sightseeing, and now I don’t know how to get back to it.” I lifted up an elongated, many-jointed mechanical thing hanging off the edge of a table, made out of the same black material as my mothers’ swords. “What do you do in here?”
Ralv’s antennae tipped forward. “I take people’s broken things and repair them, or make things for sale. I’m good with my chelae, so there’s money to be made even for an old shell like me.”
“That’s really interesting,” I said.
“So you’re looking for your ship?” said Ralv. “D’you know which port you landed at?”
“That makes it more difficult,” said Ralv, letting out a crocodilian rumble. “Know what district, at least? Know your ship’s ID code?”
“Not a clue. Unless the ID code is just the name? It’s called Helium Glider.”
“You’re making this rather difficult, girl. But I’ll see what I can do.” Ralv turned around and lumbered into a side room. I continued exploring, trying not to make a mess out of anything in my curiosity.
After I got bored of the main room, I also decided to try one of the side chambers. The first one I found was a microcosm of the main building, albeit more organized. It looked like a nook for more precise work, and one that had been recently used, judging by the lack of the thick dust that had covered several parts of the main room. There was a large workbench, complete with several mechanical arms and a collection of tools that I would never have a hope in the hyperstream of being able to name, a few neat and organized cabinets, and a poster on the wall. Now, obviously I’m just as interested in neatly-organized spare parts and tools as the next bug, but it was the poster that really drew my attention.
I should be more specific; it was a pinup. At the first glance, I took it as some standard issue bug porn and was about to move on, until it hit me exactly what it was. That pinup was the first time I’d ever seen an Emissary outside of a mirror.
The woman in the art was older than me, thankfully, though she couldn’t have been more than a decade older. Ew. She had almost the same pattern of colors as me, but in a palette of gray-green-navy blue instead of white-lavender-black. I, obviously, don’t have much experience with pinups, but I would generally describe the pose she was in as pinup-y. Reclining, sultry, brazen, counting as “clothed” only on the barest of technicalities. Even with the silky material they had her in, that pinup told me things about my anatomy that I hadn’t even had a chance to figure out for myself.
I took that all in in about two seconds before I realized what I was really looking at and nearly panicked, averting my eyes. This was my first exposure to other Emissaries. An exploitation piece. Something intended for others, not for me. I glanced back up at her. She was attractive, incredibly so, by Emissary standards if not by human ones. I’d be lying if I didn’t say the first thing that came to my mind on seeing was “Wow, she’s hot.” But she looked nervous, vulnerability showing in ways that a non-Emissary might not be able to tell, her antennae pulled back and her mandibles shut. Whether the person taking the photo had wanted that, I had no way of knowing.
As I looked away again, my thoughts started to drift to that question. When had this been taken? Who was she, and who was the photographer? Was this from before the death of our species, or after? And after it had been sorted, retouched, approved, how had it ended up here, in a side corner of a machinist’s workshop on a backwater mining planet?
“I’m sorry, girl,” said Ralv. “I forgot about the damn photo. This is my grandson’s workshop, and you know how young men can be.”
He must have followed me into the side room while I was distracted, and with surprisingly little noise for a seven-foot tall crab. Immediately, he walked past me, grabbed the poster, and ripped it off the wall, crumpling it in his claws before tossing it aside. “I’ll give them a talk about what’s right for decorating a workspace later.”
“It’s not a big deal,” I said. “Do you know where my ship is?”
“No, not now,” said Ralv. “But I have more people I can get in touch with in the morning. You’re free to stay here until then, though.”
“Oh. Are you sure?”
Ralv’s antennae stuck straight up with shock. “Of course, girl! I can’t just throw you out onto the street now, can I? D’you want anything to eat, by the by? You are a guest in my house.”
“I’m not really hungry. Something small, maybe.” I was too busy thinking about that poster, mostly in terms of the mind-numbing shock of actually getting to see another Emissary.
“I know just the thing,” said Ralv, already halfway out of the side room.
I followed, never being one to turn down the promise of food, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was still lost and alone, and starting to realize just how few Emissaries there must be out there, if a pinup had to be my first experience with one. I guess a few of the books on my Ariel did have Emissaries in them, mostly as love interests in need of rescuing, but that wasn’t real enough to count.
I shuffled halfheartedly out into the main room and decided that I should try sitting down. Pioneers never invented the chair, or had no need for it, so that proved a challenge. Picking a spot that looked hospitable, I tucked my abdomen in between my legs and leaned against one of the benches. That proved to be a mistake.
The moment my weight hit the edge of the table, something, a mechanical limb or a long beam, flipped up and over, sending a whole pile of junk cascading onto me. I didn’t have time to do much more than let out a shriek of surprise before I was on the floor, feeling a little bruised.
I laid there feeling bruised for a few seconds until Ralv arrived, taking my arm in his claw and helping to pull me to my feet. I brushed the dust and oil off of my cloak as best as I could, trying to come up with a proper witty remark for that.
“This place can be a bit dangerous,” said Ralv, “I’m real sorry about —” He stopped, looking directly at my midsection.
My eyes shot down to where he was looking, and a dawning sense of terror filled my stomach. One of the falling objects had caught on the small hole in my shirt, tearing it wide open and leaving my lower arm completely exposed.
“Well. Blow me out an airlock,” Ralv said, in a deadpan. “You’re an Emissary.”