“Would you like me to display my schematics on the main holoscreen, Dr. Erobosh?” said the weirdly child-like voice of the ship’s computer.
Erobosh grit his teeth, considering options. “Just the engines, that’s all that will be necessary. But thank you, Helium.”
“You’re welcome, Dr. Erobosh!”
A moment later, a bunch of totally incomprehensible technical diagrams, all drawn in three dimensions, popped up on the hologram display. I could sort of identify a few of the symbols if I looked closely; things like magnetic field lines and notation for flowing gas or liquid. My parents took a much stronger interest, eyes rapidly tracing out the various arcs and numbers of the illustration with ease. Miri started curling a lock of hair around one finger as she squinted at it.
“So these are the engines for the Helium Glider?” said Amanda.
Dr. Erobosh nodded.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Amanda responded.
“I have,” said Stephanie. “Looks like a hot-mod you’d see applied by some of those Ûvakhag belt scrapers. Except… I mean, those things can hardly enter the hyperstream without exploding, this looks like the modifications have been built into the very substructure of the engine.” She paused, taking a couple of steps around the side of the diagram and leaning in close. “It’s refined, elegant, beautiful and yet incredibly resilient on a technical level… Dr. Erobosh, is this your work?”
“It is,” he said with grave solemnity. “I believe it to be the most advanced fusion pulsar ever designed. The magnetohydrodynamic principles underlying its design were the product of nearly fifteen years of hard work; the application of them, and the creation of the physical engine, another ten.”
“Holy nova,” Stephanie said, breathless.
“And then I strapped it onto the back of a stock personal skiff hull and started testing it.”
“I’m thankful that my wife is a dedicated hydrogen-head, because I have absolutely no idea how any of this works. Haven’t had to learn rocket propulsion since university,” Amanda said with a chuckle.
I finally got off of the acceleration couch and moved towards the ramp back down to the habitation deck. “So the Helium Glider is, like, a super cool modified spaceship that’s better than all the other spaceships?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Erobosh. “Well, specifically, I was able to reduce axial plasma leak by as much as sixty-five percent through some modifications to the Raiso lock, and increased formation rate of what the Architect community has agreed to name ‘Erobosh vortexing’ in the plasma flow itself, creating an ideal environment for—”
Amanda cleared her throat loudly, stopping Dr. Erobosh in his tracks. “I don’t think my son or his friends know enough about nuclear technologies to understand a single word out of your mouth, Dr. Erobosh.”
“Right, of course.”
“So, the modifications allowed you to enter the Forbidden Zone?” Amanda asked.
“Yes,” said Dr. Erobosh. “Though there is… some extra strain on the system.”
Miri folded her arms. “I’d say that anything that makes part of the FTL engine break off is a bit more than just some excess strain, Doc.”
“Every new invention has some kinks to work through!” Erobosh snapped. “And besides, I’d say it did admirably, for a task that no other spacecraft has successfully completed in the last three hundred years.”
Stephanie’s eyes went wide. “Hold on, hold on, hold on. So this means that the capability to traverse the Forbidden Zone isn’t common or anything? Are you the only one with this new tech?”
Dr. Erobosh’s expression was impossible to tell from under the biomechanical mask, but his eyes looked nervous. “No, I’m the only one.”
An intense silence fell on the room, though for me personally I had absolutely no idea why. Quinn was about on the same page as I was, casually walking down the ramp to the hab deck. My parents in particular seemed about on the edge of breaking out into a cold sweat, eyes locked on each other in a form of advanced marital telepathy.
Profanity slipped through Amanda’s lips.
“Um… is something wrong?” I asked.
And in an instant, everything was right back to normal. “No, everything is fine,” said Amanda.
Stephanie nodded. “You’re gonna be safe, kiddo, that’s what it means.”
They both sounded… I don’t know what they sounded like. I had never been good at telling what people were feeling from their voices. There was a tension there, like a taut string just under the surface. But they also sounded relieved, and didn’t have a good reason to lie to me… So I let the matter go, and retreated to the cabin Quinn and I shared.
We soon settled back into the same regular patterns of activity that we had had during our first week in space. Quinn was listless and bored, I was busy and bored, Miri was standoffish and bored, Dr. Erobosh talked to the computer, and so on and so forth. My progress with learning the Democratic Emissarine was glacial, mostly on account of it being a very different language from English. More rolling els and arrs and weird click consonants and other sounds that were difficult to produce if you didn’t have a mouth with as many moving parts as an Emissary’s. Though, apparently, not quite as many unusual sounds as it would have if it weren’t a simplified language designed to be pronounceable by non-Emissaries. Either way, no matter how slow my progress, I didn’t give up. Having that Emissary book was a substantial motivator, not to mention a yardstick against which I could measure my progress as I began to actually recognize words and phrases in the opening paragraph.
And then there was the falthrranta. I hadn’t even realized it, but I’d already started changing during the short stay on Nahoroth. Emissaries, like most arthropods, have some difficulties when it comes to changes in size or shape on account of having all of our bones on the outside. So, instead, we molt.
Molting is about as disgusting of a process as it sounds, wherein chunks of your carapace fall off at random, leaving patches of rubbery new material that hardens into a different shape over the next few hours. And, slowly, over the course of days, this process was repeated dozens of times over my entire body, slowly reshaping me into something different. The changes were more objectively more subtle than what you might see on a human (Emissaries are known for being a somewhat willowy and androgynous species even aside from the gender-bending), but they were blindingly obvious to me. The lower part of my thorax thickened and widened, my hips and thighs receding. My abdomen got shorter and stubbier, right as the rest of me started compacting. I lost an inch or two of height, and there was promise I’d lose more. Girl Emissaries are taller.
More subtle, subtle enough that when I asked Amanda about it she didn’t see what I was talking about, were the changes going on around my face. My antennae got thicker, as did some parts of my mandibles, thicker and more squared. Even the way my eyes sat in my face started to slowly shift around, an uncanny rotation almost. I spent upwards of half an hour staring in the mirror, examining my face from every angle, trying to figure out what exactly was wrong with it.
There were other changes, of course, to the areas that you would expect would change when literally switching sex. Those changes were gross, slimy, embarrassing, and profoundly uncomfortable. That’s all I’m going to say on the topic.
The other thing they don’t tell you about changing your sex entirely without assistance over the course of a month is that it’s seriously exhausting. I was tired all the time, and got more tired as the changes went on. Sleeping for twelve hours a day, not feeling like eating, slipping down into the engine room to stare at the reactor for hours instead of doing anything productive, the works. The tiredness combined with the constant stress of not knowing what part of my skin was going to fall off next completely tanked my mood. Anyone would be pissed if they were in my situation. I was changing into something weird, something completely unfamiliar, a process that was slow, uncomfortable, and completely impossible to prevent. Every time I saw myself, I’d have to stop and look, stop to see if there was anything recognizable from the old Alex peeking through this weird beetle-shape. There never was.
And then there was Miri. Before I’d started the falthrranta, there had been this ridiculous fantasy in my head that turning back into a man would be enough to rekindle our relationship. The further along I got, the more I realized how ridiculous that was. Miri hated my guts. Whenever she couldn’t avoid being around me, she would give me this weird look, like she was looking down at me. I mean, I was down to five-foot-three so she was literally looking down, but it was more than that. It was like she pitied me, that she was sorry for me, the poor bug-boy trapped in a body he hated. I was almost thankful that she kept leaving the room soon after I showed up, at least when I wasn’t furious at her for abandoning her former partner like that. After six more days of all this, I’d had enough.
Everything boiled over late in the morning. I’d stayed up late and slept in that day, what with my entire body aching and my anxiety constantly trying to explode out of my thorax. I limped out of mine and Quinn’s shared quarters and over to the nutrifac, clutching my head in my upper arms and trying to make the pounding go away. Miri was there in the main room, with one of the helpers in her lap, slowly petting it as she thought about something. I had no idea what she was thinking about, but the look on her face told me that she was thinking.
I pressed a few buttons on the nutrifac, telling it to pump out something called cogosic, a sort of a savory gel that’s easy to slurp up with mandibles. While I waited for the machine to finish, Miri suddenly broke off whatever thought she was having, set the helper down, and started walking toward her cabin.
“Where are you going?” I said.
“Uh, my cabin?” Miri said, looking confusedly at me and pointing toward said cabin. “What’s the problem?”
“The problem? I’m clearly not the one with a problem here, Miri. What problem do you have with me?”
Miri turned to me and folded her arms. “There’s nothing wrong with you. What are you even talking about?”
“Every time I walk into a room, you walk out.” I clicked my mandibles together to keep the anger down. “You can’t even stand to be around me. You can’t even admit to not being able to stand being around me.”
“What? Where is this coming from?”
“Everything!” I yelled, slamming my fist into the bulkhead behind me. “You think I haven’t noticed, don’t you?!”
Miri returned to the table, sitting down across from me. “There’s nothing to notice, Alex.”
“Then why do you keep walking out?” I said “You’ve been doing it ever since we left Earth.”
“Maybe because I need my space? It’s a small ship, you know.”
“Every time? Every time I so much as come near you, you suddenly need your space?” I leaned over the table, resting on all four elbows. “You’ve never avoided me like this, ever, even before we were dating.”
“I’m sorry things have changed since we were seventeen, Alex. It’s not just that you aren’t my boyfriend.”
“It’s that I’m a bug, isn’t it.” Miri opened her mouth to say something, but I didn’t let her. “No, no, look, there’s no need to try to preserve my feelings. I’m gross and weird to be around, I get it.”
Miri let out a breath, looking around the room for an answer. I don’t think she found one. Her eyes landed back on me. “You know, maybe the reason I’ve been avoiding you is because you’re so fucking annoying to be around,” she said, rolling her eyes. “If I didn’t know any better I’d say you’re acting downright…hormonal.”
“Hormonal?! Hormonal!! You’re calling me hormonal?”
Apparently me screaming had finally been enough, as Quinn slammed open the door to his cabin. “What’s going on?”
“Miri is being an asshole,” I said with a hiss, looking over to Quinn. “More of the usual.”
Miri tossed her hair, craning her neck to look at Quinn. “Alex just went off at me for no good reason. He thinks I’m avoiding him or something.”
Quinn stopped in his tracks, looked at the two of us, then let out the deepest sigh while slowly covering his face with both hands. “I knew this was going to happen eventually…”
My antennae perked up. “You knew what was going to happen eventually?”
“Look, I know you two might think this is some kind of secret shadow war, but it’s really obvious that you’ve been having issues with each other ever since you broke up. I don’t care how it happens, but you really need to figure out something before it gets worse. I don’t know, make a Powerpoint about your traumas or screw until the entire ship can’t sleep or do literally anything. Please?”
You could see Miri’s body tensing up in real time, starting at her stomach and spreading out in every direction until her fingers were about ready to tear holes in the table and her teeth ground against each other. All the years of martial arts meant that Miri was much stronger than she looked, and even though she was probably about to attack Quinn, I couldn’t help but feel impressed. Only a little bit.
“Could. You. Repeat. That?”
Quinn went pale. “It was just a suggestion of something that might work, Miri, and regardless of that, you’re going to have to figure out something.”
Miri stood up, glaring directly at Quinn. “Oh yes, because you’re the best person to be taking relationship advice from. You do realize that you nearly got Alex killed with your idiotic daredevil nonsense last week, right?”
“I did not! Alex handled himself perfectly well, and the only reason he was on his own anyway was because Dr. Erobosh lost his mind the moment I was out of his sight! You remind me of my mother…”
“I’m nothing like your mother,” said Miri.
“Well, if that’s really true, then maybe you should stop acting exactly like her! I can almost smell the fucking natural herb supplements from here,” said Quinn.
“Hey, Quinn, that’s kind of uncalled for…”
“Piss off,” said Quinn, turning towards me fast enough that I was worried he’d get whiplash. “You do not get to take the moral high ground here after you just called her ‘hormonal’!”
“I didn’t call her hormonal! And you lost the moral high ground when you said Miri and I should screw our problems away!”
“It was just a suggestion!” Quinn shouted.
“A terrible suggestion!” Miri interrupted. “The absolute worst suggestion you have ever given, and I’ve been around you when you’re high!”
“Yeah, newsflash, Quinn,” I said, the words spilling out faster than I could think, “that sort of thing only works for you, you… you idiot slut!”
“How very feminist of you,” Quinn mumbled. “Don’t you have some garbage to eat, or a lamp to get distracted by, or something?”
Miri laughed out loud. “Oh yeah, and maybe you could go and… find a cute girl bug and let her cut off your head or something.”
“I knew it,” I said, fluttering my wings. “You do think I’m disgusting. Well, thank you for cutting the bullshit.”
Miri looked like the floor had just fallen out from under her. “What, no, no! That’s not what the problem is, Alex, it was just—”
“You told me to go get my head cut off! What else am I supposed to take from that?”
It was then that my parents, who had been dealing with the ship’s computer upstairs, finally took notice. Both of them stormed down the ramp and into the increasingly-crowded habitation deck. “What the hell is going on down here?” Amanda said, barely holding herself back from yelling.
“Well, first of all, Miri has been a serious asshole to me for the entire trip for no good reason at all…”
“Alex called me a ‘slut’, which honestly shouldn’t even be an insult…”
“…it was completely out of nowhere, he just attacked me, and then Quinn made it worse by saying that we should ‘screw’ like an immature little…”
Stephanie and Amanda staggered back like they’d been hit by a physical force. “Hold on!” Stephanie could beat out all three of us at once in the loudness department, probably a skill from her coaching days, and the deck fell silent. “Could we just talk this out for a bit? You’re all jumping to conclusions, and I think it would be very helpful if we just took a breath and relaxed.”
That was the breaking point. I felt like I was going to burst into flames right there and then. “Oh? Oh? Is that how it’s going to be?” I hissed. “I’m being told to be calm and reasonable by the person who spent eighteen years forgetting to tell me that I’m a beetle.”
I could see my parents’ hearts breaking right in front of me, as Stephanie’s mouth fell open and Amanda’s stoic eyes started clouding over. Good. Let it break.
“It was a mistake,” Stephanie said. “A terrible mistake. We’re so, so sorry.”
“You aren’t even my real parents. You took me, you took my egg from wherever you found it, and you took me in on purpose. You chose to do this, and you still fucked it up. You lied to me! You’ve been lying to me the entire time!”
“Alex, please understand the situation we were in,” said Arana. “We couldn’t risk being found out.”
“You didn’t even tell me your real name, Arana! You couldn’t even tell me that!”
“Alex, please, this isn’t like you…” said Miri, trying to extend a hand in my direction.
“Fuck you.” All eight eyes were locked on my parents. “Don’t you see that you destroyed everything! Everything I had, everyone I knew, everything that I’d been working towards in my life has been torn to pieces because you couldn’t even give me the time to prepare to leave it all behind!”
“Hey, Alex…” said Quinn, “I didn’t realize how bad this was. Well, I kind of did, but I kind of didn’t, and I acted like a bit of an idiot, but I still think we can fix this.”
“Not now. Not until you make up for nearly getting me killed because you wanted to buy drugs.”
My parents both gasped. A second later, Miri screamed, launching across the room and punching Quinn hard enough to send him to the floor. “You were buying drugs?!” she screeched.
“Holy shit you’re fast,” gasped Quinn. “I wasn’t just buying drugs, I was doing other stuff, please don’t beat the shit out of me.”
“My boyfriend could have died because of you!”
That there was still anything left inside of me to snap was nothing short of a minor miracle, but snap it did. I screamed. Well, calling the sound I made a “scream” would probably be a bit of a loose definition. It was something else, something more animalistic, a sound that scraped through my mandibles and resonated through my skull, an ear-piercing trill with undertones of gurgling fluids and guttural roaring. My blades flicked out, and I had to take a moment to recover while the rest of the cabin looked on in horror.
“I am not your boyfriend! I am a bug, a monster, and an asshole.” I turned to my parents. “And more importantly, I am trapped on a spaceship with two lying, authoritarian, thoughtless, picket-fence windbags,” I turned to Miri, “one selfish, hot-and-cold psycho,” then to Quinn, “and a fucking idiot druggie bitch!”
Then I collapsed, pulling in my knees and folding in my abdomen until I was roughly in a fetal position. It was at that moment that Dr. Erobosh, who had been taking care of things down in the engine room, popped up through the hatch. He took one look around the room, nodded, and then started climbing the ladder back down.
Arana stormed across the deck, yanked Quinn to his feet, and held out her hand. “Where are the drugs. Give them over.”
Quinn rolled his eyes. “I didn’t get any drugs, asshole. It was a foreign planet and I’m not a miracle worker.”
I fluttered my wings slowly, letting the feeling of air on the thin membranes calm me down. The white hot rage slowly faded from my system, leaving behind the emotional equivalent of a wrecked room. Part of me wanted to apologize. The other part reminded me that I had nothing to apologize for.
“So what do we do now?” asked Stellina, folding her arms.
“Get me to wherever we’re going,” I said, exhausted. “And drop me off with your aunt or whatever, and get Miri and Quinn back to Earth so I can figure out the quickest way to move out and never have to see any of you ever again.”
“I’m sorry for punching you,” muttered Miri.
“Piss off,” said Quinn, returning to our cabin.
“We just wanted to keep you safe, kiddo,” said Stellina. “But… it’s all our fault. We should have been better, we should have thought about how this would all feel for you. I’m sorry.”
I didn’t respond. I’d said everything I needed to. Stellina rested her hand on my wing joint, rubbing back and forth like she was trying to mess up my hair. The only way I knew she’d even walked away was her footsteps on the floor. Miri retreated into the engine room not long after, leaving me alone with Arana, not that that mattered with how small the ship was.
It took me a minute to regain enough strength to stand, and she was there when I did, she was there, trying to help me up. I shook her off and grabbed my almost-forgotten breakfast. I curled up in the corner, under the table, and glared at the woman who’d been pretending to be my mother until she, too, shuffled into her cabin and shut the door.