Chapter 14: The Old Alliance
I lunged forward, grabbing Ralv by one of his claws and trying to weigh him down. Ripping off the tape around my mandibles, I abandoned talking with the Ariel and begged with my own voice. “Please, I’m just stopping by, I don’t want to cause any trouble, don’t… Don’t report me, please, please, the Order doesn’t know where I am, they can’t follow me here, just keep it a secret until I can leave!”
Ralv threw me off of him with a single twitch of his burly claw, and started walking towards the center of the workshop. His gaze was fixed on the ground. “How old are you, girl?”
I followed after him, terrified that he might start swinging at me at any moment, or do something worse. “Eighteen,” I said. After a pause, “Eighteen years, that is.”
Ralv snorted disdainfully. “Barely out of your second chrysalis.”
“I could leave right now. It’ll be like you never even saw me, you won’t have to say anything, I can just find —”
“What reason could I possibly have to do that?” Ralv roared. “Do you really think I would be so cruel, to abandon everything I fought for, just so the law sees eye to eye with me?”
It felt like someone had finally taken a vise off of my thorax. Part of me wanted to hug him, and part of me wanted to stress vomit there and then, and so I settled on standing there and letting myself breathe. “You aren’t going to report me?”
“Of course not. You’re hardly done being a child, your people are dead or scattered, you just got beaten from the look of you, and now you’re stuck on a foreign world just trying to survive.”
I struggled to process the information, given that I was still getting over the fact that I wasn’t about to get thrown into prison. “I nearly got mugged half an hour ago. How did you know that I got punched?”
“Micro-fractures in your carapace,” he said, gesturing around his face. “You really don’t know much about yourself, do you?”
“No, I really don’t. I was raised by… Liberates, they’re called? And there weren’t any other Emissaries on that planet, not that I know of. There was the handbook, of course, but it wasn’t super helpful.”
Ralv continued lumbering off to the edge of the workshop, and I could hear the gears turning in his head. “That damned handbook. Like it could possibly stand in for being raised among your own people. But then again… what choice did we have?”
“Um, are you still talking to me?” I asked.
Ralv clicked his mandibles, more to himself than to me. “Yes. Sorry, when you’re a hundred and forty-five years old, the thoughts tend to wander.”
“Wow, I’m very happy for you,” I said, unsure if I should have been following after him. “Where are you going? How did you know about the handbook?”
“I didn’t always used to live on this planet,” said Ralv. “Back when they came up with that handbook, ‘they’ being a bunch of high-minded Emissary and Liberate biologists who’d probably never seen a scared refugee child in their whole lives. As for where I’m going, now that I have a proper idea of what species you are, I can feed you.”
“Oh, thank you. I know it’s difficult to coordinate food across species, so…thank you. Just, thank you.”
“It’s nothing,” said Ralv, and walked off. I waited for him again, this time being sure not to lean anything. The soreness in my mandibles started to set in, as the muscles realized that they were finally free from all the tape and started complaining about it. The same happened in my lower arms, and my antennae started stinging the moment they were allowed to go free. Once the disguise was off, I felt like I could actually breathe again, and I realized how much pain and discomfort I’d been in the entire time. I doubted that I’d be able to put it back on again.
Ralv returned from one of the side rooms of the workshop, this time bearing a plate of little, round, white biscuits. He handed the plate to me, then grabbed a handful for himself and sat down a few feet away, working on his leg exoskeleton thing.
Tentatively taking one of the little biscuits, I stopped to use my antennae on it. The smell was unique, hints of salt and earth, a little bit of yeast, fragrant herbs and even more flavors I couldn’t identify. I popped it into my mouth with all the restraint of a squirrel, not bothering to hold my mandibles shut. After all, his mandibles were basically the same. Benefits of eating around other arthropods, I guess. The biscuit tasted as good as it smelled, a little oil and something umami that I hadn’t detected with my antennae. I ate plenty, and wished that I had actual cheeks to eat more than one at a time, they were that good.
“Ralv, where did you learn how to make these?” I asked, mouth full of biscuit but still somehow understandable.
“Same place I got this,” he said, tapping on his metal leg. “The war.”
I swallowed. “Which war would that be?”
Ralv chittered at a pitch a bit too high for his size, a Pioneer laugh. “True enough. There’s been a lot of wars since that one. The war goes by a lot of names, now. The Slave War, the Dominator War, the Breaking, the Emissary War, the Final Rebellion. It was before your time, and if I had to guess I’d say it was before your parents’ time as well, given how young the fleshy types have kids.”
I took another one, chewed it, and swallowed.“So you learned to make these during the… Final Rebellion? Why? How?”
“‘Cause I was fighting alongside an Emissary company,” said Ralv, grabbing a strange-looking screwdriver from the pile next to him, “and they needed something to eat. Those things taste good, but they aren’t exactly puff pastry either. Good for the sick, the wounded.”
I tried to imagine something as fragile as my species fighting in a war. The image didn’t come clearly. “So you fought alongside Emissaries? That disguise wasn’t going to last long around you, was it?”
“I doubt it,” he said. “And yes. Just about everyone in the Dominator War fought alongside or against the Emissaries. They were the biggest army in the thing… aside from the Liberates and the Unseen and the Sunder and so on. I suppose you could say they were the biggest force fighting for someone else’s freedom instead of their own. If it weren’t for the Emissaries, I’d imagine that your parents and all their people’d still be slaves.”
“Were the Emissaries… fighters? I’ve never heard anyone talking about their — our skill at war or anything like that.”
“I suppose they were better than most,” Ralv said, setting aside the screwdriver and replacing it in his grasp with something shaped like an octopus. “They sure as hell had better mechanical support than anything the Dominion could field… You should have seen their walker battalions, girl, it’s a terrible sight… And what they lacked in physical strength and toughness, they made up for in discipline.”
So the Emissaries were cool warriors who fought for freedom and had mecha. Cool. I sat there and thought for a moment about how proud of that I should really be. It wasn’t like America having the coolest guns and bestest army had made me feel good about living there. Then I remembered that it didn’t matter in the least, because all of that was in the past.
“But it wasn’t enough to protect them against the Order.”
Ralv slammed his claw down on the table, letting the sound echo through the room. “Girl, I want to make something very clear. What happened to your people wasn’t a war. It was an execution. There isn’t a species out there that could have carried on with that fleet at their throats.”
I suddenly didn’t feel like talking, or eating, or breathing. Curiosity and the sorrow of knowing about the fate of my species went at each other like two starving wolverines, with an innocent beetle caught in the middle. Ralv’s tone wasn’t angry, or even sad, just cold and empty, giving me the feeling that whatever was coming next wasn’t going to be pleasant. But ignorance wasn’t going to help me, either; better to rip off the bandage and get on with it.
“What happened to us?”
Ralv’s antennae sank. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect he was ashamed to even be asked the question. His chest rose and fell in a deep, exhausted breath.
“Used to be, there was a big alliance of all the folk who plied the stars. Emissaries, the Collective, the Coeval, most of the Pioneer states, the Embers and the Architects, everyone who mattered except for a few rogue states like the Dominators and the Sky Hunters were a part of it. They had their meeting grounds on the abandoned shellworld around Avejor Acaloj, and if there was any threat against one, it was a threat against all. The old alliance did so much… drove the Dominators back to their last and most hidden bases, made peace with the Ringbuilders, even deactivated the Corpse-Machine legions a few decades back.
“But, you see, the Emissaries were… they were the glue that held it all together. An’ I don’t think a lot of people realized that at the time. They were the best diplomats, the ones who negotiated the most dangerous treaties, understood the most unusual of alien folks. And how else could they be, being able to spend their entire childhoods being literally a different species. But, I guess, one person noticed. Or, not really a person. A monster. A computer.
“News reports were that the Dominators created him, out in their hidden bases, though damn me to hell if I could understand why they’d do such a thing. An AI, or several, cast out into the depths of space, alone and unwanted. It was designed to fight wars, but instead became convinced of the superiority of… biomechanical life. The perfect union of machine and flesh, and to hell with all other thinking, speaking creatures in the galaxy.”
“So this AI created the Order of the Pale Star?” I said. “Does it have a name?”
Ralv nodded. “He named himself after the villain of some… old Liberate fairy tale. Lucifer, he calls himself. And if this universe had any sense to it, any justice at all, he would have flown out into the depths of space to rant and rave at himself for the rest of eternity. But he didn’t. Lucifer came back.
“It was the largest fleet anyone had ever seen, tens of thousand of ships, big hulking hybrids of duranite plating and vat-grown muscle, designed to kill and kill and kill. An’ Lucifer, the clever bastard, came with an ultimatum. The Emissaries would die. Anyone who defended the Emissaries would die. The rest would go unharmed.
“The alliance fell apart. I think… a lot of people wanted the Emissaries gone. They were too odd for some people’s tastes. The men and the women looked too similar, and they could change into one another at the drop of a hat. And they valued lives over money, kindness over strength. So a lot of species just… refused to defend them. My people included. And a lot of the others were terrified, terrified of that damned fleet, too worried about the fate of their own people to risk the wrath of Lucifer and the Order of the Pale Star.
“So, by and large, the Emissaries were abandoned to their fate. Only the Collective came to their defense, and one or two independent Pioneer worlds, and that was just… not enough. The thing they don’t tell you about interstellar war is that it’s a hell of a lot easier to destroy than it is to conquer. Most warring folks, they want to take resources, strategic points, planets and stations and so on. And that limits how you can fight. You have to move slowly, encircle and invade, sacrificing ground troops and material all the way. But the Order didn’t care for resources or strategic points. They just killed everything in their path.” Ralv’s voice started to break from the monotone, building an edge of rage that turned into unabated fury. “Genetech plagues, nanoswarms, multi-ton antimatter bombs, nuclear bombardments that lasted until the skies burned blue with irradiated ash, hundred-tonne chunks of duranite slammed into the planet at a tenth the speed of light, swords and guns and a thousand other things,” Ralv was almost roaring now, a scream of rage, “and they wiped the Emissaries off the face of the galaxy! And there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it! There wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it!”
Ralv sank to the ground like his wind-up key had just run out of juice. “I’m sorry,” I said, leaning in to give him an awkward half-hug. He shrugged me off.
“I should be the one apologizing to you,” said Ralv. “I didn’t… the reason why I didn’t see through that idiot disguise earlier is because I wasn’t sure if there were any Emissaries left. I thought that handbook was a fool’s hope, especially after the Emissaries got thrown out of Avejor Acaloj, but I guess… there’s someone out there to read it after all.”
“It’s not very well written, to be fair,” I said, not that Ralv cared or was listening.
Ralv really looked like he could use a hug. Like, a lot. But I guess when you’re a war veteran who’s a century and a half old, you stop being much of a hug person. Eventually, weighed down by about a thousand tons of invisible lead, he stood back up, rubbing at his jaw like he’d forgotten to shave.
“It’s not really your fault,” I said. “It’s all because of the Order. Without them, none of this would have happened.”
“And without the cowardice and hatred of a hundred different worlds, a hundred different governments, the Order would have been no more dangerous than the Corpse-Machines or anyone else. If I wasn’t such an old, rusted piece of junk,” he clanged his claw against the mechanical leg for emphasis, “I would have taken the first shuttle out and fought for the Collective again. I just wish there was a way to repay…”
He trailed off midsentence, his eyes wandering the workshop, searching for something. I could see his mandibles working soundlessly, listing off the contents of each drawer to himself.
“Um, are you okay?” I asked, tentatively reaching forward to tap him on the shoulder. “Maybe we should change the subject. I could tell you about what it was like on Earth or something, if you want me to.”
He didn’t respond, instead rushing off, weaving between various tables and cabinets to the one he had been staring at, throwing it open with one hand and rummaging through the contents. One object caught his attention, and he spent a few seconds tinkering with it, though I couldn’t see what it was with his back turned to me. Realizing that he would probably show it to me if given time, I sat back and chowed down on a few more of those delicious war biscuits.
“You said you were nearly mugged earlier today, yes?”
“Yeah, I was,” I said with an unnecessary nod. “Why?”
“I wanted to give you these, then,” Ralv said. “They might help to keep you safe, provide some comfort, even if only a little. I haven’t gotten any use out of them, but I think they were just about destined for you.”
He returned to the spot where he had been repairing his leg, casually tossing the items in question over to me. There were three of them, two matching. The matching ones looked like double-edged survival knives, but with a complicated set of straps and buckles trailing off the back instead of a proper handle. They were made of the same black material as all the swords and daggers I’d seen my parents using, and had a strange but faintly familiar shape. The third object was a paperback book, small but thick.
I went for the book first, giving it a cursory flip through. The pages were made from thin paper, so the whole thing must have been at least a thousand pages in all, maybe more. The text was in a small script, too, making it even more dense. Not that I could read the text. It looked faintly like Hebrew, or maybe a little like something from India, and also completely unlike any human language. As I flipped through the pages, they let off the faint smell of old paper, a much more pleasing smell than I’d realized before.
“I can’t read this,” I said, turning the little book over in my hands.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” said Ralv. “It’s written in one of the Emissary languages, not sure which one.”
“Yeah, I don’t really speak any of those yet,” I said, staring absentmindedly at the cover of the book. “Not for lack of trying, I just haven’t had much time to practice.”
“Then you can take this as a test of your skill,” said Ralv, grunting as he tightened a particularly frustrating bolt on his leg brace.
I slid the book into one of the pockets of my shirt, into which it only barely fit, and picked up one of the weird knives, careful not to cut myself on the very sharp edge. “So what’s with these knives?”
“Oh, those aren’t knives,” said Ralv. “Well, they sort of are, but they’re more specialized than that. Look at the base.”
I did as he suggested, which was when I found out that they were actually hollow. It immediately clicked where I’d seen the shape before. Slipping my lower right arm out through the cut in my shirt, I flicked out the long cutting claw. They were the exact same shape. I slid the knife I’d picked up over the claw, and it fit like a very sharp glove. The buckles and straps suddenly made perfect sense, and in less than a minute I had it secured comfortably but snugly, the straps wrapping around my hand and fingers.
Part of me was very insistent about the dangers of playing with knives, but the other part very much wanted to test out the new toy, and gave it a few test swings. The material was rather dense, giving my claw heft like I’d never felt in it before, but it was easy enough to adjust to.
“So it’s like… a claw enhancer, or something?” I said, practicing my “shank someone in the stomach” motion.
“Monomolecular clawblade,” said Ralv. “It’s the reason why Emissary soldiers never had to carry swords or backup blades. You’d see them hewing through Dominators and their machines without any weapons at all, or at least not looking like it.”
I held out my lower hands, looking down at them like Quinn on a good weekend. “Woah. These things can cut through metal?”
Ralv glanced down at my claws. “Not like that, they can’t. There’s a button on the base of the hilt to turn on the micro-dynamos, and turn ‘em back off again. Be careful; once it’s on, they’re monomolecular, an’ a monomolecular blade will cut through a duranite plate or your carapace just as easily as gelatin.”
My hands awkwardly contorted in an attempt to reach the button he’d mentioned. After a minute, it turned out that the best way to do that was to half-retract the claws for just an instant, knocking the shortened first knuckle of my claw-fingers against the base of the clawblade. The instant I did that, the blades changed. I started feeling a weird air resistance, and sparks started to steadily drip from the edge.
“Is there anything I’m allowed to test these on?”
Ralv responded by digging through the pile of junk by his side. He pulled out a short length of pipe and casually tossed it through the air. Wanting to look cool, I intercepted it with my claw. At first I thought I must have missed; I couldn’t feel the pipe hit me, and it clattered to the floor behind where I was sitting. In two pieces, of course. I deactivated the monomolecular edge in the same way I’d activated them, picking up the two-halves-of-a-whole-pipe. The edge was at a bit of an angle, but so flawless that I would have been certain it was factory-made if I hadn’t literally just made it myself.
“Be careful,” said Ralv. “More than one master of the blade has met their end by their own edge.”
“Could you teach me?” I said, looking down at the very dangerous weapons attached to my fingers. “How to not do that, maybe?”
“Girl…” Ralv raised his arms, with their thick crablike claws. “I only have two arms. You’re going to have to ask one of the smaller folks to help you. Maybe even another Emissary, if you can find one.”
“Right, yeah… So what do we do now?” I looked at Ralv expectantly.
“We wait until morning. There’s more food where that came from, and a cot you can stay in. Once my people are up an’ about, I’m sure I’ll be able to find your ship,” said Ralv, wiggling a few parts in his exoskeleton just to test them. Apparently finished, he stood up and skittered off to the corner.
The old man stopped, spinning around to look at me, not really having a neck to turn. “Yes?”
“Thank you. For all of this. It’s really a lot; I don’t know how I would have made it without your help.”
Ralv turned back away. “Consider it an apology.”
I glanced down, then back up at him. “Wait, Ralv!”
He stopped. “Yes?”
“Can I still fold them in with the clawblades on, or do I have to take them off?”
“You just gotta finesse it,” he said, exasperated. “See you in the morning.”
I watched him leave, if only so that I would know which side chamber had all the beds in it. Then I went back to figuring out how to fit the clawblades inside that slot in my arm. It would be really cool if I was able to make that work.