I woke up with an ache in my lower arms and a numb elytron. Rolling off the low-slung bed that Ralv had given me and standing up quickly resolved the numbness, but the soreness didn’t go away until I realized that I’d spent all night with the clawblades jammed into the slit in my arm. It had taken a little bit of finessing to get them to fit in there, and even still they were much more prominent than normal, but there hadn’t been any pain until after I slept. I flicked out my claws and removed the blades, secreting them away in another pocket while I put on my Ariel and AR goggles, and then set out to find Ralv.
It was light out when I awoke, which must have meant I’d slept in late. Ralv’s bedroom was a stark contrast from the rest of the workshop; painted in soothing yellows and purples, neat and spartan in its decorations, with two large beds and a single desk, with a sitting couch sized for a Pioneer body plan. The bed I’d been sleeping in was a total mess, of course, blankets in disarray and everything. I made it as best as I could. Apparently I’d been sleeping with a couple of weird concave plastic-esque things that reminded me of a broken bit of casing from a leaf blower or something.
Once that was done, I wandered back out into the main room in search of Ralv. He was there, standing by the entrance, but he wasn’t alone. There were two other Pioneers, smaller than him but with familiar features, similar antennae and such. I remembered who Ralv had said that pinup poster belonged to, and decided that maybe I should stay in the bedroom a little while longer.
“Hey, no need to be afraid!” shouted the younger Pioneer on the right. Fuck. Shit. Fuck.
He crossed the workshop with shocking speed for a pony-sized crab, scuttling up and over a few of the tables to get to me. I only had enough time to retreat into the bedroom before he was already in the doorway, his slightly less brash friend right behind him.
“Emperor’s vent, you have an Emissary in here? Ralv, why didn’t you tell us you’d met an Emissary?!”
The Pioneer’s eyes were doing things. Flittering back and forth, unblinkingly, all six of them working in concert to get a high-definition picture of every visible inch of my body. I wasn’t quite at the point of starting to salivate venom, but I extended my claws just in case.
“Let me get a look at her, Var!” said the one in the back.
Var stepped slightly to the side, letting his friend or whatever look over his shoulder. “Damn, Emissary girls are even cuter in three dimensions. You’d be even cuter if you smiled, but uh… How’d you get here, anyway? On the run or something? Kolv and I can keep you safe, I promise.” He took a couple of steps forward.
“Don’t touch me,” I hissed.
“Hey!” Var said, extending his claws. “There’s no need to be so hostile, lady. I’m just trying to keep you safe. Don’t want the Dominion patrol to find you and get rough, you know?”
“I saw the poster, asshole. I know what you want to do with me.”
“Oh, that thing?” said Var. “That’s Kolv’s, not mine. Trust me, you are like twice as hot as that. So, uhh, do you want to sit down and talk to me instead of being so hostile, or maybe we could go out to somewhere more private and—”
Var’s flirting was immediately cut short when his back leg was pulled out from under him. Ralv dragged the guy backwards across the floor with one claw, the other latched onto Kolv’s antenna while he whined in pain.
“Both of you shut your goddamned mandibles right now, or I swear neither one of you will set foot in my workshop ever again.”
“Come on, Pa, I was just trying to make introductions!” clicked Var.
“Yeah!” Kolv chimed in, trying to wriggle his antenna out of Ralv’s steel grip. “You can’t expect to invite a nymph like that in here and not have us want to talk to her! We were just, you know, showing our appreciation for what a sharp claw she is!”
Ralv rumbled. “Disgusting, both of you. A disgrace to this entire family. I didn’t take her in just so you two could spend the entire time spraying pheromones.”
Var glanced back at me with one of his stalks. “You do bring up a good point. Why did you bring her in here? Isn’t that Driller illegal?”
Ralv’s grip tightened ever so slightly. “Maybe it is. Do you plan on doing anything about that?”
“Wow, Ralv, I didn’t take you for the kind to go after nymphs like that, I mean damn…”
I’d had enough. “I am not a girl!” I shrieked. “Either send me to jail or leave me the fuck alone, but stop being perverts, please.”
All three of them stopped in their tracks to look at me. Ralv seemed vaguely ashamed, while the other two shuddered with disgust. “Emissary freak…” muttered Kolv.
Ralv quickly regained his composure and went back to glaring at Var and Kolv. “Now. You aren’t going to say anything about any of this. If you do, I’ll deny all of it, and neither one of you will set foot in my home ever again, am I clear?”
“Yeah,” said Var. “Really clear. The nymph-boy’s secret is safe—”
Ralv slapped him. Right across the face, open claw, sending the smaller Pioneer completely reeling.
“I won’t say anything, I promise!” clicked Kolv, panic in his voice. “And if Var tries to say anything I’ll say he’s lying!”
Var rubbed his sore mandible. “You won’t need to encourage me, I promise,” he hissed.
“Good. You can go grab that part you wanted, and then you can give your grandfather some privacy, you hear?”
Neither of them had the energy left to protest, and they scuttled off like cockroaches to complete whatever it was they wanted to do. I retracted my claws and stood next to Ralv, the two of us watching them complete their business and then clear out. Once they were gone, Ralv’s posture softened and he looked down at me.
“Sorry for assuming, boy… er, are you a boy or are you neither? I know Emissaries are more sophisticated about these things.”
“Just call me Alex,” I said, shrugging. “It’s my name. I’m sort of in the middle of the falthrranta, so it’s an easy mistake to make, probably.”
“Yes, that,” said Ralv, nervously adjusting his leg brace. “Always thought it was an odd little talent, though I suppose it must not be much to a species with venom saliva and wings.”
“I guess you’re kind of right. But it can be handy, too, depending on the situation.”
Ralv started walking towards the far end of the workshop, and I followed him. “You know, those clawblades and that book that I gave you were both gifts from an Emissary — he fought in my platoon, you see, as a sapping specialist — and he did the…” Ralv made a series of incomprehensible hissing and clicking noises.
“Falthrranta,” I suggested.
“He did the gender-changing thing at least five times before the war ended,” Ralv continued. “Not sure if I should even be calling him ‘he’, that’s just how he was the last time I met him. Anyway, during the war I once asked him how he’d gotten to be thirty years old and never figured out whether he wanted to be male or female.”
I cringed. “That’s kind of rude, isn’t it?”
“Incredibly so,” Ralv said with a click of his mandibles, “but I was young and not entirely sober. Anyway, she — because she was a woman at the time — told me that she much preferred the confusion on our faces whenever she switched to anything that she could have gotten by staying the same. I don’t think about that often… it was a long time ago, now… but it tells you a lot about Emissaries, doesn’t it?”
I looked down at my feet, thinking about it. There was a certain appeal to being able to control my own body, the opinions of other people be damned. Maybe down the line if I was feeling puckish I could change into a girl for a few months, just to see how all my friends reacted to how weird it was for me of all people to be a girl. And to wear some more dresses because, I mean, why not. I’d definitely have to save that for after I’d gotten settled in, finished turning back into a boy, that sort of thing. Maybe in a few years’ time I’ll be ready to try that.
“So, uh. What was the point of telling me that?”
Ralv took a second to come up with an answer. “There wasn’t one. Just an old man reminiscing about the past.”
“What was their name?” I asked. “The Emissary who gave you this stuff, that is. Do you know what happened to them?”
Ralv cleared his throat, doing what sounded like a few vocal exercises. “Oyadoa. And no clue; if he was still alive he’d be well over 110 years old by now. I don’t think Emissaries live that long, though they have some pretty good medicine. And besides… with everything else that went on, I doubt a soldier would have made it.”
“And they gave you this stuff when the war was over… as a gift?”
“Didn’t need them anymore,” Ralv said. “Probably expected I’d sell the clawblades for scrap. But you already know how sentimental I can be, so I couldn’t bear to part with them.”
“Mhmm…” I said. We were still walking, and I didn’t want to miss anything important. “So where are we going?”
“Radio,” said Ralv. “Now that everyone’s up and about, I can find your Helium Glider.”
We spent the next quarter of an hour doing that. And by “we” I mean Ralv did it and occasionally asked for obscure details about Helium Glider, which I knew the answer to about one time in three. Ralv had some kind of network of tech people who all communicated on the same radio waves, where the Dominion couldn’t easily listen in on them. The conversations were terse and dense with jargon, though not quite dense enough that I couldn’t vaguely follow along. He called at least a dozen people, probably more, each contact in turn telling him that they didn’t quite have his answers, but they knew another guy who might.
Eventually, after a long series of clicks and rumbles that the Ariel didn’t bother translating, but which I figured meant something along the lines of “Mhmm” or “Ah”, Ralv turned off the radio.
“Helium Glider is the newest arrival at the Ebaff III Memorial Starport. It’s undergoing major repairs, do you know anything about that?
“Oh, yeah,” I said, antennae drooping. “That’s why we landed here in the first place.”
“Excellent,” said Ralv, standing up and moving for the door. “Let’s head out, we can get you back to your crew before midday.”
For a second I motioned to follow him, until I remembered something very important. “Hold on! I need to put the disguise back on!”
“That ridiculous contraption? Alex, you realize not even the guards around here will be paying that much attention to what kind of arthropod you are? With all that grey stuff smudged on your face I doubt they’d be able to tell even if they did look at you.” Ralv paused, squinting as he looked me over. “Might want to put on the cloak, I suppose. The wings are fairly distinctive.”
I did as he suggested, throwing the cloak over my elytra and torn shirt. The tape was too torn to possibly re-tie my mandibles or anything like that. I could tuck my lower arms into the shirt fairly well, but if anyone looked closely they’d be visible. Ralv was waiting for me by the exit door.
“There’s no way this is going to work,” I said. “One look and they’re going to know what I am.”
“No, I think you aren’t giving yourself enough credit. Stay confident and look like you have business to do, and nobody will pay attention. Even if they do ask questions, there are enough species out there that I’ll be able to make up a cover story.”
I looked down at myself. Part of me wanted to wrap myself up in cloth until I looked like a cartoon character at the hospital, just to be sure. But the other part trusted Ralv more than just about anyone else on the planet at that point. “Alright. If you really think so.”
“If anything does go wrong… I have more experience evading the guard than you do, Alex.”
The trip back up through the streets of Asonazafal more closely resembled those first few hours with Quinn and Dr. Erobosh than it had the hours spent wandering around after getting lost. The combination of actual sunlight and the knowledge that I had an actual destination removed the sinister cast from the city, flipping the switch right back to a wonderful and mysterious place of adventure.
All the stress of being lost, of being forced to confront the past of the Emissaries, of wondering how my parents would react when I got back, had drained my mental batteries faster than trying to stream video without wifi. The sights didn’t interest me too much, except for the times when something particularly unique happened, like an overturned hovercraft or a sixteen-armed machine having an argument with one of the snake people, who Ralv called an “Unseen.” Now that I wasn’t completely constrained in padding and tape, I could actually do something about the stress. I had to resist the urge to stim with the monomolecular blades, eventually settling on mandible clicks and the occasional scent-stim with my antennae whenever something fragrant passed by.
It felt like we had arrived back at the spaceport in no time at all. Now that I’d had some time, maybe a bit too much time, in the chaotic hodgepodge of the actual city, the pure white cleanliness of the spaceport looked even more sterile and out of place than it had originally. From certain angles I could even see the upper portions of Helium Glider over the roof of the main building.
“Well, is this or is this not your destination?” asked Ralv.
“No, this is the place!” I said, giddiness rising up in my thorax. “Thank you so much, Ralv! There’s no way I would have ever found my way back here without your help.”
“Blessings of the threads be upon you,” he said. “You just have to go through the main gate and they should be somewhere in there, assuming they haven’t abandoned you. If you can’t find them, ask for the crew of the Helium Glider and someone will be able to bring them.”
I took a couple of steps towards the main gate, then stopped. “Ralv, aren’t you coming with me?”
Ralv clicked his jaws. “I’m sorry. There’s a lot of work to be done today, some favors to be paid off. Besides, I don’t know how much having me around will help you inside there.”
I turned back instantly, grabbing Ralv by the claw and trying to pull him towards the gate. “No no no no no, come on, I can introduce you to my parents, and my friends.”
Ralv looked away from me. “I’m sorry. I really should be going. Can’t afford to spend too much time helping one person when there is work to be done.”
“Oh. Okay. Um, goodbye, then.” I pressed my wings tight against my back, as if that would help.
“I don’t think I’ll be forgetting you. Good luck on your journeys…” he glanced left and right, “Emissary.”
He turned and walked off, vanishing into the crowd. I kind of wanted to hug him, as weird as that was. Probably because everything else in my life had been upended over the last week or so, so any kind of affection or compassion started bypassing the logical part of my brain and slamming right into the “feels” button. Yeah, that’s probably what it is.
I was allowed to walk through the gate without trouble or inspection, which was easier than I’d expected. Once I was in, I tried to forget about Ralv and focus on finding my family and friends. That proved difficult; they weren’t waiting in the same place they’d been waiting before, and amidst all of the other Liberates and Architects and everyone else they didn’t particularly stand out. I zig-zagged through the crowds looking for anyone that I’d met before, wondering if maybe they were all out in the city looking for me while I was in here looking for them.
Suddenly, somehow, my ears caught on a specific voice, rising from out of the cacophony. “Excuse me, government official. We are looking for a personal skiff going by the name Helium Glider. Perhaps you can assist us?”
Now, besides the mention of the Helium Glider, the other thing that immediately struck me was that whoever this was was speaking English. They had a faintly commonwealth accent, and spoke almost entirely without inflection or emotion, in a voice a little bit on the higher end of masculine.
I turned around, looking for the source of the voice. They stood out like a duranite docking port, which is to say that they stood out quite a lot. Four men, human, identical and slightly above-average in height and build, wearing full black bodysuits with heavy padding giving them an angular outline. All of them were talking to a single Pioneer wearing the uniform of spaceport staff. Moving slowly, I circled around, trying to get a closer look and be able to listen in. I ended up hiding behind a pillar, right next to a rather confused-looking older human woman, listening in.
“Oh, well, I do remember seeing a ship with that name in the records,” said the Pioneer. “Erm, what kind of… interest do you have in this ship?”
“We simply wish to speak to them,” said another one of the men. His voice sounded almost identical to the first, though not entirely. In fact, they all looked eerily similar; identical haircuts, identical shape of the face, the only way you could tell them apart was by eye color, hair color, and a few minor details like freckles.
“Helium Glider and its crew have a certain past,” said the man with black hair. “We would like to help them to answer for it.”
A shiver ran down my spine. People with good intentions aren’t usually that cagey about it, especially when they looked too similar to even be siblings. It was also about then that I noticed the four suspiciously handgun-shaped objects, one at the hip of each of the men, who I was then starting to cautiously place in the “goon” category.
“Ah, well, I see. Don’t cause any commotion, please. Last I saw, the crew of Helium Glider was over in that direction, between entry gates eight and nine,” the Pioneer said, gesturing in that direction.
The moment he pointed, I was off, breaking into a full sprint. I shoved people aside, I jumped over obstacles rather than going around, and generally moved in a direct line towards the area that he’d indicated with all haste. Drawing a bunch of attention didn’t matter when there were already men with guns after my friends and family.
I didn’t stop moving until I had almost run directly into the wall of the spaceport. No sight of any of my friends. At least, there wasn’t until there were suddenly a pair of arms wrapped around my thorax and a high-pitched squeal of happiness from a very excitable girl shoving her face into my shoulder.
“Alex!” said Miri. “You’re alright! Thank goodness you’re alright!”
My heart rate shot up to about a billion beats a minute. Miri was right there, pressed against me, warm and soft and holding me tight. I could smell her unique human signature, all the more powerful for having been away from her for so long. Memories of all our times together, all the hugs we’d shared, all the times we’d talked for hours, all the times we’d been pressed against one another, all of that came splashing back to me in a flood of emotions. My antennae quivered as I pulled myself out of her embrace. Too dangerous.
“I’m glad to see you too. Where’s everyone else?”
Miri glanced over her shoulder. “Quinn and your mom, Stephanie that is, are around here somewhere. Dr. Erobosh and your other mom are out looking for you. What happened?”
“Well, we were out getting lunch when Quinn decided to do something stupid —”
“I know about that part,” said Miri. “I mean after you got separated. Were you hurt?”
“I mean, a little? Someone tried to mug me and I got punched in the face, but I stabbed him with my claws so I think we’re even.”
Miri looked deeply shocked at that part, and I had to agree. She opened her mouth to maybe ask for clarification, but before she could I moved on.
“Anyway, yeah, this old Pioneer guy let me stay overnight at his place, so I’m fine now. The punch isn’t even sore anymore. It was crazy, though, he’d fought alongside the Emissaries in some sort of big war like sixty years ago or so, he gave me some stuff from back then, like these!”
I lifted up my shirt a little and waved at Miri with my lower arm, claw and clawblade extended. She immediately looked away, probably not used to seeing me armed. Sheepishly, I pulled my arm back in.
“Well, I’m glad you’re okay at least,” said Miri, face slightly flushed. “Come on, lemme get you back to the others so they can call off the search.”
I shook my head. “No time for that. There’s a bunch of guys looking for us, all look really similar, and they have guns.”
“Fuck!” said Miri, entirely too loud. “Corringer Corp. Bad guys. They’ve been making trouble for us all day,” she added, grabbing me by the wrist. “We have to go, right now.”
With her firm grip, Miri steered me through the crowds. Even having her hand firmly grasping onto my wrist was more physical contact than I’d had with her in almost a week, and my body craved more no matter how much I tried telling it that we were over and that was a stupid idea. Instead, I tried focusing on the crowd, and on trying to see the others. Miri knew where she was going, deftly dodging through the empty gaps between the small clusters of conversing passengers.
Given how hard I was trying to look at anything besides Miri’s perfect face, I did indeed notice my family before they noticed me. Stephanie was leaned up against the wall, trying to hide the large blaster pistol on her hip and scanning the area, eyes narrowed. Quinn was much more casual, leaning against the same wall with headphones in and his Ariel in his hands.
Stephanie noticed me first. “Alex?” Then a moment later, “Alex!”
Stephanie rushed forward to pull me into a hug, keeping her voice at a whisper and her silhouette small, for some reason. I hugged her back, of course.
“I’m glad you made it back,” she whispered. “We were so worried… What were you thinking, going out there like that?” Stephanie pulled out of the hug, looking right into my eyes and expecting a response.
“Dr. Erobosh said it would be safe,” I said, not realizing until too late how I’d just thrown him under the bus. “And you have to admit that you were being a little—”
“Oh hey, Alex is alive!” said Quinn, taking a few seconds to shut down his Ariel and fold it under his arm. “See, I told you he’d be fine! He’s smart, and nobody wants to mess with the cool beetle guy!”
“Uh, thanks I guess?” I said.
Quinn pulled me into a half-hug with one arm. “I’ll show you what I got later on,” he whispered. “We are going to have the craziest time then.”
“Okay, awesome, we’ve had our reunions, now we need to go,” said Miri. “Corringer goons are here, Alex saw them.”
“There were four of them,” I added, “with guns. Too identical to be siblings, but not identical enough to be… uh… quadruplets, that’s the word.”
Stephanie shuddered. “Corringer and their freaking biological synergy initiatives, ugh. Apparently looking similar to each other builds corporate cooperation, or something.”
I winced at the implication. “So why are they after us, and what are we going to do about it?”
“They want the Helium Glider,” said Quinn. “We’re pretty sure that the Order hired them, or sold them the debt that they think we owe them, or something.”
“They’ve been bothering us all day,” Stephanie said with a grimace, “from pretty much the moment they found out that we were on the planet. So far we’ve managed to avoid them, but now that they know what spaceport we’re at, I’m not so sure…”
I extended my lower arms, pushing up the bottom of my shirt in the process. After a couple of stretches, I flicked on the monomolecular blades. Miri and Stephanie both looked at my midsection with shock, Miri blushing, while Quinn looked faintly impressed.
“Where the hell did you get those?” Stephanie hissed.
“Doesn’t matter. If these corporate assholes try anything, I can use them,” I said in my deepest voice.
“No!” said Stephanie. “I’ve wrangled with Corringer before; they have the best lawyers in the galaxy and think that they have a monopoly on the concept of self-defense.” Her expression turned sour. “A couple of decades ago I got felt up by one of Corringer’s execs in a spaceport restroom, twenty-four hours later I was in court getting convicted of ‘emotional homicide’ and ‘inflicting undue social damages’.”
I blinked at her, antennae flat against my skull, and deactivated the monomolecular blades. That had turned dark very quickly. “So…how did you get out of it?”
Stephanie’s jaw fell open, as if she hadn’t expected the question. She suddenly became very interested in a patch of floor somewhere to my left. “A few of my buddies showed up, grabbed me, and shot the courthouse full of holes. Alex, please don’t tell your mother that I told you about that.”
“Direct action,” said Quinn, nodding.
“I promise that I won’t tell Amanda about the most awesome story ever if you promise to tell me the whole thing later… or at least the part about your friends storming a courthouse, I don’t need to hear that first bit,” I told Stephanie.
“That’s a cool story, Mrs. Sierra, but what are we going to do about the armed corporate soldiers who want to beat us up?” asked Miri.
Stephanie suddenly extended herself onto her tiptoes, glancing over my shoulder. “Well, I’d say a good place to start would be to run!!”
The look on her face told me everything I needed to know, and we booked it. Miri, Stephanie and I all dashed off in the same direction, parallel to the wall, while Quinn instantly sprang off in a completely different direction. I looked over my shoulder for only an instant, long enough to see the Corringer goons look confusedly at one another, before I had to go back to focusing on not running into anyone. I failed at that task almost immediately; better to look like a jerk than to move too slowly and get caught, though my enhanced Emissary reflexes kept it to the level of having to shove people out of the way.
The other two stayed close, but not too close, the constant movement of the spaceport crowds driving us apart. A few times I lost sight of Miri entirely, her small size making her easily lost compared to the huge Pioneers and widely-distributed limbs of some of the mechanical people. I never lost sight of Stephanie, the advantage to having a tall mom, and although part of me completely panicked every time Miri was out of sight, I could keep following her at least.
I couldn’t hear the Corringer goons behind me, probably because they didn’t make any unnecessary movements that could produce sound, and I didn’t dare slow down enough to look behind myself to see them. But I knew they were there, just because of that smell. It’s a hard smell to describe, but it was there. It’s the smell of water that’s been sitting in a plastic container for too long, the smell of cleaning supplies and hand wash, the smell of saltwater. The smell of things that don’t smell, that are designed to be as unobtrusive and universally pleasing as possible, the faint smell of some blend of flowers, of grass, all mixed together into the olfactory equivalent of a porcelain doll. And the smell was getting stronger.
The spaceport was large, but it wasn’t limitless, far from it. We ran as fast as we could, but eventually we’d hit the corner of the building and either turn or stop, and in either case almost certainly be caught. We weren’t more than twenty seconds from running headlong into the wall when suddenly my mother stopped to talk to the owner of a nearby stall, a Pioneer selling handmade knickknacks who was somehow even larger and more physically imposing than Ralv had been.
Part of me wanted to just keep running, but the other part pointed out that she probably knew what she was doing better than I did. I slid to a stop, insect feet not having evolved for tile floors.
“What are you doing?” I whispered as loudly as I could.
“Oh, thank you so much,” Stephanie said, “They’ve been bothering me all day, this is just what I needed.”
Miri pulled up alongside the two of us, glancing between the two of us and looking very confused.
The stall owner nodded once and stood up to their full eight feet of height, lumbering out of their shop and in the direction of the Corringer goons. The moment he started moving, Stephanie grabbed the two of us and pulled us immediately along with her. We moved off the side of the main thoroughfare, hiding in a corner between a Sanviospite restaurant and a public bathroom.
“What was that?” Miri whispered.
“A distraction,” said Stephanie. “She looked nice the last time I spoke to her, and probably gullible enough to fall for a sob story. I don’t think Corringer goons are aggro enough to hurt someone like that, so we should be fine.”
“What did you tell her?” I asked.
“That they were a set of brothers who were harassing me for…” Stephanie rolled her eyes. “You can probably guess what reason. Creep reasons.”
“So you lied to someone to get them to confront a group of armed men in your defense? What the heck, Mrs. Sierra!”
Stephanie shrugged. “Better than getting shot full of holes.”
I leaned back against the spaceport wall. “What do we do now?”
Stephanie blinked at me, then startled as if she’d remembered something. She went for her Ariel, and a few seconds later she had both Dr. Erobosh and Amanda on call. “Get back here, quickly. Alex showed up unharmed, the repairs are done, and Corringer found where we are,” she said, then shut it off before there could be any response.
Just then, Quinn showed up. “Hey, nice hiding place you have here. Don’t worry, the four stooges have absolutely no idea where you are.”
We all jumped, Miri having to clamp a hand over her mouth. I was mostly just happy to see Quinn safe. “Then how did you find us?” asked Stephanie.
Quinn shrugged. “Because I’m way better at finding hidden things than they are. So what are we up to over here?”
“I think we’re just waiting for Amanda and Dr. Erobosh to make their way back here so we can…” I looked to Stephanie.
“Run back to Helium Glider and take off before they even know we’re gone,” Stephanie said.
“I’ll keep watch,” Quinn said, turning right around and going back into the open.
So we waited. It was, to put it lightly, anxiety-inducing, knowing that at any second Quinn might round the corner to tell us we’d been found out, or worse that the Corringer goons might do that without Quinn getting in the way at all. I vanished into the restroom, gender-neutral for some reason, just so I would have a place to freak out for a couple of minutes without anyone noticing. Miri being around didn’t help.
When I stopped feeling like I was going to vomit my heart out of my mandibles, I slipped back out of the restroom and into that little nook where the others were still hiding. Stephanie had her finger up behind her ear, listening to someone talking over the Ariel. A few seconds passed before the call ended.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Dr. Erobosh and your mother,” she said. “They’re here, but we have a serious problem. The Corringer goons figured out where Helium Glider is, and they’ve set up shop around our gate.”
“Crap!” spat Miri, a remarkable show of profanity by her standards.
“Have they been seen?” I asked, nervously smoothing my antennae back.
Stephanie shook her head. “Last I heard they were staying back and observing from behind some of the pillars. But the Corringer people don’t look like they’re going to move any time soon.”
My brain started working in overdrive. Miri and Stephanie seemed to be doing the same, Miri coiling her hair around one finger while Stephanie bit her lip in concentration. Stimming helped me focus, but with the outfit still keeping me constrained, the best I could do was tapping the hard material of my mandibles together and trying to figure out how to maintain conscious control of my antennae. If I weren’t wearing this stupid cloak, I could move my wings and maybe start focusing for real…
An idea hit me. “Uh, Mom? How long would you need to get in the Helium Glider and be ready for takeoff?”
Stephanie pondered the question for a few seconds. “If I were really hurrying, and I had Dr. Erobosh and your mother helping? I might be ready to close the doors in two minutes, two and a half if we’re being generous. Once the doors are closed, it doesn’t really matter how much longer it takes, it’s not like anyone could stop us.”
“I think I can keep them all distracted, then, for long enough to let the rest of you get past.”
Miri and Stephanie both looked very concerned about that. “How?” Stephanie asked.
“You’ll see,” I said, trying and failing to keep the quivering terror from showing in my voice. “But you’re going to have to trust me on this one, okay?”
“You do realize that this entire thing is for you, right?” said Miri, folding her arms. “If you get yourself captured or killed doing something stupid, then everything is lost.”
“I’m not planning on getting myself captured or killed,” I said.
Stephanie pulled me in close, though not quite close enough to count as a hug. “Kiddo, I have way more experience at this than you do. If anyone’s going to make a distraction it should be me.”
“But you aren’t an Emissary,” I said. “I’m pretty sure that the one thing Emissaries have over every other species out there is that… we can get out of tight spots.”
Miri’s jaw fell open as she inhaled audibly. “I think we should let him do it. Besides, we need you around to get the ship started.”
“Mrs. Sierra, you haven’t seen what Alex can do the way I have. I think we can trust him with this.” Miri looked like she regretted saying that the instant after she was done saying it.
Stephanie pressed her lips together, giving both of us her sternest mom look in turn. “Alright. But if you get yourself hurt, I’m grabbing the auto-blaster and charging back out to rescue you.”
“Wouldn’t expect anything less,” I said.
Getting into position for the distraction without completely blowing it and getting seen proved to be almost as difficult as the distraction itself. We had to sneak around in a wide arc, ducking between obstructions so that the Corringer goons wouldn’t see us. Even then, coordinating with Amanda and Dr. Erobosh to get everyone in a position to take advantage of the distraction proved hard, a lot of whispering into Ariels and looking for landmarks in the spaceport. While they figured everything out, I had the time to plan out my distraction, panic, decide there was no way I could do it, realize there was no other option, and resolve to plan ahead only to then repeat the cycle about half a dozen times.
To make a long story short, we were all crouched just out of sight of the Corringer goons, behind a bench.
“Good luck, son,” said Amanda, pulling me in for the tightest hug she’d ever given me, only letting go when it felt like my carapace was going to crack. “Please come back in one piece.”
“You have this,” Dr. Erobosh said with a wink.
I nodded at all of them, including a very nervous Miri and Quinn, who looked more interested looking at the chest of a rather athletic person having a conversation about twenty feet away. Then, without a word, I stood up and walked right out into the middle of the crowd, right out in front of the Corringer goons, typing furiously on my Ariel the whole time.
“Excuse me, four stooges!” I said through the Ariel. No response. “Yes, you four, the identical-looking corporate freaks from Corringer’s shittiest warehouse!”
That last bit got their attention, as they all straightened up and focused their eyes on me. One of them, the one with the black hair, said, “Do you have a complaint, citizen? If so, you may contact our Public Relations department at—”
“You’re taking jobs from the Order, right?”
Two of them nodded in perfect synchronization, while another leaned over to the one who’d apparently taken charge and started whispering something. It was time to bite the bullet.
“So,” I said with my actual voice, “what’s the bounty for bringing in an Emissary?” I dropped the cloak and spread my wings for the first time in over a day. Sore as they might have been, they buzzed flawlessly, and I could feel the weight leaving my body.
The goons hesitated for just a second, reaching for their blasters, until the leader guy pointed at me. “Come with us, Emissary. We want to ask some questions.”
“Catch me first,” I said, flipping him off with all four hands. Turning around in a snap, I dropped into a crouch, and with all of my strength, jumped.
For a moment I almost forgot that I couldn’t really fly. Even then, when I felt the ground again, I had given myself a solid thirty-foot lead. Hearing the sound of fancy rubber shoes on tile spaceport floors, I jumped again, this time activating my monomolecular claws to do a maneuver I’d come up with during that anxious waiting phase.
My trajectory took me directly towards one of the huge supporting pillars, almost lazily. I thrust out one of my claws at the last moment; sure enough, the blade sank into the concrete or whatever it was with ease, and I started sliding down for a second until I deactivated the edge. The blade stuck and I braced the rest of my limbs against the pillar, giving me a view from about ten feet up.
The Corringer goons had decided against using blasters in a public place, and instead had drawn flexible batons that dripped with electricity. Behind them, I could just barely see Miri vanishing around the corner into the passage to the Helium Glider. They’d fallen for my distraction hook, line, and sinker; all I had to do now was lose them for long enough to catch up to my family. With my legs braced and my wings fluttering, I picked a direction and pushed off, doubling back right over the heads of the Corringer goons and landing on four limbs about forty feet past them.
The next couple of minutes were chaotic. Staying out of reach of the quadruplets wasn’t easy, but it was far from impossible. After all, I held the serious advantage of only having to find space for one person, not to mention a consistent advantage in height and maneuverability from being able to jump directly over their heads should I ever get cornered. A few times I even managed to trick them for a few seconds, unexpectedly leaping up onto the roof of a stall or a restaurant or the like and dashing away without them noticing, only to shout out and grab their attention once I’d gotten comfortably far away.
It would have been almost trivial to slip out of sight and make my way back to the Helium Glider if it weren’t for one critical fact: I never did cardio. Jumping thirty for forty feet into the air came naturally to me, of course, but it wasn’t effortless, and having to constantly double back and swerve to the side was more of a workout than even normal running. By keeping my wings beating even when I was on the ground, I took some of the strain off of my legs, keeping total exhaustion away for a little while longer. When my wing muscles, which I found out extended all the way into the lower back, started feeling like I’d just done fifty pushups, I knew I was in trouble.
I skidded to a halt, nearly running into a corner of the spaceport. I had given my family more than enough time to get the ship started. The Corringer goons ran in right behind me, forming into a rough arc to block any chance of running out. Whether they were too stupid to realize I could jump or just betting that this time I wouldn’t try it, I had no idea. My wings were exhausted, but I could still force myself to buzz, softer and more slowly than before. Running forward, I took off, trying for a simple long jump, without any tricks or flourishes, but that wasn’t enough. It wasn’t until I was a couple of feet away that I realized I hadn’t gained enough height, and a second later I had smashed into one of the quadruplets, bowling us both over. The other three, reflexes as sharp as ever and not winded in the slightest, jumped me.
The first one to arrive pulled out the whip-club thing and aimed for my head, but I lunged at him and seized his wrist with all four hands. Then the other two showed up, not even bothering to draw weapons before laying into me. It hurt like hell, even more than the sucker punch from the mugger; for all their incompetence, these guys knew how to fight. After about five seconds, I didn’t really feel like moving; I was fairly sure that one hit had cracked my carapace, right around where my collarbone would be. I went limp, not like I had a choice, but not before spitting right in the face of the black-haired guy.
“Emissary, we’re placing you under citizen’s arrest for four counts of assault and battery,” he said, wiping the grayish fluid from his face. “Now come peacefully. Our employers have some business they’d like to discuss with you.”
I didn’t say anything, which was apparently just fine by them. One of the other goons, a guy with blue hair of all things, proceeded to pick me up by the midsection and throw me over his shoulder before starting to walk off. The five of us made it about fifteen seconds before the black-haired guy collapsed to the ground and started convulsing. Apparently all the cosmetic surgery didn’t come with an immunity to concentrated cytotoxins.
Blue-haired guy dropped me to rush to black-haired guy’s aid. It hurt. I struggled onto my feet and started running, but while black and blue were distracted, the other two weren’t. A race between me, in pain and so exhausted my lungs hurt, and two corporate drones who hadn’t even broken a sweat yet, wasn’t much of a race at all. One of them slammed into my back with a flying football tackle. The floor crashed directly into my chest, widening the cracks in my chestplate. I screamed without even meaning to, while the other goon circled around to give me a swift kick to the mandibles.
He cocked his foot back, only to suddenly be yanked entirely off of his feet and thrown to the ground. A second later, the one on my back had the same thing happen to him. I got up as fast as I could, and my mandibles dropped a little when I realized I’d just been saved by a huge, teal-carapaced Pioneer.
“When Ralv said to keep an Emissary out of trouble—” He stopped mid-sentence to kick one of the goons who was making motions towards standing up. “I didn’t expect this.”
“Who are you?”
“A friend!” he said. “Now get out of here!”
The blue-haired guy showed up, either having saved black hair’s life or writing him off as a lost cause. He looked pissed, jumping onto Ralv’s friend’s back and delivering two lightning-fast punches to the back of his head.
I started doing as he suggested and running backwards away from them. “Are you going to be okay?” I said in between gulps of air.
“Just go!” he said, grabbing the blue-haired guy with one claw and tossing him onto the ground with the efficiency of a martial artist.
For a second, I hesitated, part of me wanting to stay and fight with him. I turned and ran as far and as fast as I could. With the exhaustion and the beatings, even that proved to be something of a challenge; I stumbled, bumped into people and objects, even got myself lost a couple of times. But even with all that, it seemed that Ralv’s friend was doing a good job of keeping the Corringer goons pinned down. If nothing else, the fact that just about every security person in the building was headed in the direction of that fight was promising.
Eventually, I did find the passageway to the Helium Glider. Despite what my anxiety had been telling me, the ship was still there and the door was still open. The relief of knowing that I was safe almost knocked me out there and then. I took a short rest against the entrance of the passage, then stumbled my exhausted body down towards Helium Glider. Nobody around to greet me; just my luck.
Well, that last bit didn’t stay true forever. Quinn must have taken a little while to realize that I was there, because when he did his immediate reaction was to take one look at me, frown, then dash out of the ship and pull my arm up and over his shoulders so that I could use him as a crutch. It didn’t quite work on account of him being nine inches taller than me, but it helped me get into the ship faster nonetheless.
Quinn didn’t let go of me until we were past the doors of the ship, both the inner and outer ones. “Hey, dude, Alex, just wanted you to know that I’m really sorry about leaving you there. Didn’t really have time to apologize earlier. I promise I’ll make it up to you later, mmkay?”
I punched him. But, you know, in a friendly way. “Apology accepted, asshole.”
Quinn was about to break out laughing when that sound of rubber shoes on tile became very noticeable behind us. We both wheeled around just in time to see blue-haired guy turn the corner into the umbilicus. “Stop right there, Emissary!” he said, raising his blaster into a combat stance. “We would like to have a word with you!”
“Close the doors!” Quinn screamed.
Time slowed down, and a few different things happened at once. The outermost set of doors clattered to life and started closing. The blue-haired guy got a look of panic on his face and took aim with the blaster. Quinn gritted his teeth and started moving. The Corringer goon was shooting to kill, that much was clear from how I could see directly down the huge black lens of the blaster. Quinn moved in front of me, shoving both of us to the floor. His finger squeezed at the trigger. It hit me what Quinn was trying to do and I tried to push him out of the way, but I had neither the reflexes nor the strength left in me to stop him.
The sound of a blaster shot going off is this bizarre electrical “snap” sound, much softer than a gun and much longer too. It sounds a lot like an electrical circuit closing. Most of the actual noise of a blaster comes from a narrow cylindrical region of the target near-instantaneously exploding into superheated vapor. Unless, of course, that target is the outer shell of a closing spaceship door, in which case very little of it vaporizes and the sound is more like someone dropping a wineglass.
Once he realized that he’d missed, blue hair decided to resort to sprinting. Dumbass. The door closed before he could make it halfway down, leaving him to knock politely on the door and request a brief word with us until Stephanie finally got the spaceport to retract the umbilicus. After that, there were still more pre-flight arrangements to be made, but not many. Chief among them was getting me into an acceleration chair, which ended up taking Quinn and Miri working in concert to physically carry me up into the control room. After all the shit I’d been through, I felt I deserved it.
The second time taking off wasn’t as viscerally upsetting as the first, though the sheer G-forces made me pass out and then wake up again at least twice between ground and orbit. Before I even knew it, I was off of Nahoroth and screaming through space towards the hyperstream, mostly alive and in more or less one piece. As soon as the sound of the engines attenuated into nothing along with the atmosphere, Dr. Erobosh had something to say.
“There’s something you should probably know about Helium Glider,” he said. “About why the Order chose this ship in particular to hijack and take them to Earth.”