If the habitation deck of the Helium Glider had been uncomfortable and tense before, then after that argument it was on the brink of becoming so tense that it finally overwhelmed the shared-meal degeneracy pressure and collapsing the mood into a black hole of discomfort and mutual annoyance, an event horizon from which no sort of friendship or other amicability could ever return. Instead of just leaving the room whenever I walked in, Miri would glare at me, muttering under her breath. My parents looked more sad than anything else, which I was perfectly fine with given all the bullshit they had pulled. Even Quinn was being standoffish. I kind of regretted calling him a slut, but I wasn’t sure how you would even apologize for something like that. Not to mention that apologizing would require thinking about everything I’d said to him, which was something else I wanted to avoid at all costs.
The only person left who I could really talk to was Dr. Erobosh, mostly because I had only known him for two weeks, so there was little for me to be mad at him about. And, given that I wanted to have at least one person to talk to for however long the rest of the trip took, I started making inroads. As soon as I had recovered from the argument enough to talk, a few hours later, I slipped down into the engine room. He was still there, working on some control panel, and I asked him what he was doing.
Once he was sure that I wasn’t pranking him or the like, he started explaining some of the inner workings of Helium Glider. And let me tell you, once an Architect starts talking about whatever their favorite field of science is, they don’t stop. Dr. Erobosh had an enthusiasm for nuclear technology and fusion that I’d only ever seen before in myself whenever someone got me talking about pencil drawing techniques or BNHA headcanons. He wasn’t half-bad at explaining it, either, having a shockingly inventive mind for metaphors and practical examples. If Broadleaf High had had someone like him teaching physics, I might have actually liked the subject. After about an hour and a half of that, I was pretty sure I knew more about magnetic bottles and pellet geometry than even my parents did.
Dr. Erobosh and I had a few more conversations like that, surface level exchanges of information and small talk to give me something to do that didn’t involve looking at anyone else. He told me about how he honed his technical skills on modifying and rewiring an old hovercraft, and I told him about how I’d spent half of freshman year trying and failing to learn how to sew. You know, guy stuff.
That probably would have been the new pattern for the four or five days it would have taken to reach a Collective-settled colony, at which point Arana would have been able to contact her relatives in the core worlds to pick me up, and Dr. Erobosh could hire a new crew to transport Miri and Quinn back to Earth. We weren’t destined to get that far. The first sign that anything was going wrong came about halfway through the second day after the big argument, and it came as such things often do: with a lot of loud swearing.
I was tracing the first sentence, or at least what I assumed was a sentence, of the book that Ralv had given me. I could recognize a couple of the basic words, the “and”s and “the”s and so on, and if I squinted I thought I could recognize the verb “to think”, though conjugated in a completely unfamiliar way.
“Moses fuck!” shouted Stellina, her voice echoing down from the control deck, through the crack in my cabin door. I shut my eyes, debating for a moment if it was even worth it to check in on her. My eyes went right back to the book. Quinn stirred slightly on the bunk below me, his bare feet hitting the floor.
“Everybody get up here, right now!”
Well, that was more direct than I was used to, even from her. I chittered under my breath. “Why should I?!”
“Because…” Stellina sounded almost resigned. “Because if we don’t work together and work quickly, we’re all going to die.”
Having to speak to Arana and Stellina was almost, but not quite, worse than death. Quinn was already at the door by the time I realized that fact, after which I fluttered to the ground and followed him. Miri and Arana were already at the control deck when I arrived, and Dr. Erobosh followed closely behind.
The volumetric display, which I finally knew the proper name for thanks to Dr. Erobosh’s tutelage, was showing something I couldn’t fully understand. It looked like a long, thin cylinder, with an almost organic texture like a bizarre deep-sea crustacean, surrounded by arcane graphs and waveform charts. The image was low-resolution and totally monochrome, so I couldn’t tell what exactly it was made of, but whatever it was didn’t resemble the outer hull of Helium Glider. It had a few other organic-looking components, long limbs folded against its sides, and disturbing orifices lining its ventral side. It had a set of long, narrow wires extending from the center of it, long enough to go past the edge of the display, and as I watched, one of them began to softly glow.
“Oh no. Am I to assume that this is a live sensor feed?” Dr. Erobosh said on arriving at the control deck.
“Alright. Do we have any plans for dealing with a Pale Star cruiser?”
I looked back at the display, and in hindsight it was obvious that we were looking at a starship, the wires being an opened hypersail, and the deactivated engines clearly visible at the bottom of the craft.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” snarled Arana. “The Order shouldn’t be out here this far, we’re nearly at the border of Collective space.”
“You really have been gone for a long time, haven’t you?” Dr. Erobosh muttered.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” said Arana.
Dr. Erobosh leaned against the wall, folding his spindly arms and glaring at the image of the Order cruiser. “You do sound like someone who fled from known space two decades ago, is all I’m saying. The Order has been testing the edges of Collective space for years now.”
“And you didn’t tell us?” Stellina said.
“I’ve mentioned it once or twice,” Dr. Erobosh said casually. “I think you two assumed I was speaking hypothetically. But running into the Order when crossing the border was always a… roll of the dice, as Liberates might say. And we’ve just rolled three ones.”
I looked to Dr. Erobosh. “Well, what do we do now? Are they going to let us go past them?”
Dr. Erobosh quirked his head to one side in thought. “Standard procedure is to search all passing vessels for ‘contraband weapons’. Most of the time it’s nothing more than a waste of time and a slight risk that the Cambion in charge of the search will try stealing something off of your desk, but with you around that will be… violent.”
I nodded. “Going to assume that fighting is not an option?” Dr. Erobosh shook his head. “Then what about hiding?”
“There’s nothing to hide behind,” said Stellina. “And their hyperwave sensors are probably at least as good as ours, meaning they almost certainly know we’re here.”
Anxiety started rising up again, a stabbing fluid sensation in my stomach. “Can we outrun them, then? We have those super modified engines, better than anything anyone else has; that should be enough to outrun them…”
“That’s the reaction drive,” said Dr. Erobosh. “Won’t help us while we’re in the hyperstream. And if we drop out of the hyperstream, well, then they can just wait for us to run out of fuel, which we will, because we don’t have onboard hydrogen refineries and they do.”
Panic is an interesting thing. Usually it manifests in the way you would expect: racing heart, tension in the muscles, a frantic energy inside asking you to run away or fight something or break something, the feeling that you’re about to die. But I had already used up all of my fight-or-flight energy by screaming at my parents and closest friends the day before, leaving me a tired and demoralized husk. So the panic took another route.
This awful creeping dread hit me all at once, the firm knowledge that death was inevitably bearing down on me, approaching inexorably in the form of a heavily-armed cruiser of the Order of the Pale Star. I found it difficult to move, or speak, or breathe, like I was drowning in terror, the terror soaking into my carapace and making it sluggish and sodden. I tried to think of another way out of this, some other way to avoid the impending death unscathed, and couldn’t come up with anything. I stumbled backwards, the information feeling like a hammer-strike against the center of my chest.
Stellina glanced at me with concern, but said nothing. “Do we have a plan, then?” she said.
“I think we do,” said Arana.
“What plan?” Miri shouted. “You just spent a whole minute explaining why there is no possible way to escape from them!”
“No, I explained several plans that would not work,” said Dr. Erobosh. “There’s a difference.”
“We’ve been talking about your time being press-ganged by the Order,” said Stellina, gesturing at Dr. Erobosh. “And the topic came up that they used an unusual setup in the hypersails to mark themselves as being on Order business. We both pointed out that we could use what they left behind to imitate an Order skiff, though I didn’t think we’d need to actually use that idea.”
Quinn chuckled. “We can’t run or hide or fight, so instead we’re making sure not to draw attention to begin with? It almost sounds like you’re taking a page out of my book.”
“As if you invented it,” Stellina said with a grin. “Quinn, I was impersonating undercover cops before you were even born.”
Miri gave her a questioning look, while Arana cringed. “So what do we have to do? Is it as simple as that?” Arana asked.
“Well, no. The Order makes it somewhat difficult to use, presumably for the exact reason of not wanting anyone else to be able to do this.” Dr. Erobosh stretched out his shoulders. “That is not to say, of course, that it is impossible.”
Arana straightened her back, pulling her elbows into a military posture. “Well, I’m waiting for your orders, Dr. Erobosh.”
“Your job is merely to continue piloting Helium Glider,” said Dr. Erobosh. “Your wife and I will be making modifications from the control room, working with Helium.”
“Ready whenever you are, Dr. Erobosh!” said the overly-chipper voice of the ship’s computer. “I’m sure you can fool those nasty Order guys, no problem!”
“Miri and Quinn, as you have little experience with these matters, should remain in your cabins and be as helpful as possible. And Alex…”
Hearing Dr. Erobosh mention my name sent enough of an unpleasant shock through my system to suddenly remember that I existed again. “Uh, yes?”
“Go to the engine room. It’s a lucky coincidence, but I think I’ve taught you enough to be able to help down there. I’ll explain more over the intercom once you make it down.”
I had to remember where the engine room was, or how I was supposed to get there: below us and using my legs, respectively. But I did as I was told, dashing down the ramp from the control deck to the hab deck, then opening up the hatch. The only way to get from the hab deck to the engine room was through a ladder, going down about twenty feet.
The temperature inside the ladder passage was about twenty degrees lower than the upper decks of the ship, heat leaking through the insulation and being sucked up by the dozens of tons of frozen hydrogen fuel pellets stored in the hull. The skiff had originally been built with a small lifting platform for species or individuals incapable of climbing ladders, but it had broken months back and Dr. Erobosh promised that he could repair it as soon as the need arose.
I stepped off the bottom of the ladder and into the engine room. The temperature was the same, if not colder, to keep the secondary computers running optimally and prevent heat leakage into the fuel. The air down there felt like Broadleaf during winter just after dawn, almost but not quite cold enough to see your breath.
The engine room of the Helium Glider was somehow even more cluttered than the hab deck, the only space you could actually move through being, essentially, a single ring of walkway just barely wide enough for two people to pass one another. On one side of that ring was the ladder, and on the other the ship’s primary airlock, for use only in emergencies.
Most of the engine room was like that, “for use only in emergencies.” The outside of the walkway was covered with dozens of displays and controls, most of them analogue, and only necessary if Helium was no longer able to relay the information herself. Above those were the racks of hand and power tools, also redundant, as the helpers that constantly scurried around underfoot could do the same job but better.
Most of the engine room, in fact nearly all of it, was taken up by the ship’s reactor, a huge cylindrical machine ten feet across and nine or ten feet tall, built out of black duranite and covered in dials and control panels. Dr. Erobosh had spoken with almost religious awe about what was inside, the constant surge of hydrogen at billions of degrees, the carefully constrained power of a star, capable of powering every electrical device on the ship for decades to come. Of course, it was so heavily armored and shielded that the only way anyone could even tell it was on was by it getting warmer than the surrounding air.
I was thinking about all of this, examining my surroundings and remembering Dr. Erobosh’s lessons, because it was much better to think about than the rapidly approaching death that was the Order cruiser. My hands were shaking, my wings fluttering unconsciously, my antennae folded completely flat against my scalp. Part of me, the logical part, was trying to remind me that the adults had a plan for keeping me alive, but the rest of me knew that the adults were all incompetent idiots, and that I was tired and stressed and angry at everyone and I just wanted to run away.
The first instructions from Dr. Erobosh came a short while later, his already-muffled voice coming distorted and tinny though the Helium Glider’s intercom. “Alright, the first thing you’re going to need to do is find the console marked ‘secondary harmonic plasmas’, can you do that?”
I circled the main walkway, eyes flitting over the labels on each panel. “Can you even hear me if I do find it?” I mumbled.
“Yes, I can.”
I very nearly missed the panel he’d told me about. Most of my mental capacity was grinding gears, anxiety and fear and anger forming into a self-feeding vortex of teen angst. I was distracted, the rational part of my brain sluggish and sleepy, my senses all working properly but my brain barely up to the task of responding.
It took me a few seconds to work up the energy to speak audibly. “I found it. What next?”
Dr. Erobosh paused, mumbling to himself just loudly enough that I could hear it through the intercom, but not loudly enough that I could understand what he was saying. “Alright, I need you to turn the third, fourth, eighth, tenth, thirteenth, and sixteenth switches on that panel, counting down the columns and left to right, then tell me what the panel says.”
My mandibles clicked, trying to form into words, even the terror and panic starting to fade into the distance, replaced by a vague sense of dumbfounded confusion. For a moment I forgot that a response was even expected of me. “What was that?”
“Alright, there should be two columns of switches, each with ten of them. Counting from the top, I need you to flick the third, fourth, eighth, and tenth switches on the first column, and the third and sixth on the second one.”
I tried moving my arm up to do… something, but it felt like dragging my hand through a pool of milk. The mental effort necessary to control my limbs was more than I could handle. “I don’t… understand,” I mumbled, my half-dozen bony mandibles suddenly feeling completely ill-designed for the English language.
“Alex, you need to move faster,” said Stellina. “There’s no time for hesitation right now.”
That was the breaking point. For a split second, my mind was full of white-hot rage, rage at the woman who’d pretended to be my mother for daring to rush me when I was already doing my best. Then that rage faded away, along with any coherent thought left in my stress-addled brain.
“I don’t… I don’t… I don’t…”
If you’ve never had a shutdown, probably because you weren’t born autistic, it’s a difficult experience to even understand. The idea, roughly, is that when the brain is overwhelmed by stimulus, sensory or emotional, it shuts off to protect itself before things get any worse. My brain, being a sneaky little fucker, will do this no matter how unhelpful that might be for the situation.
I was conscious, and aware of my surroundings. I could fully feel the sensation of my legs backpedaling away from the control panel, of my elytra slamming into the duranite wall of the main reactor, of my abdomen folding under my legs as I slid down into the fetal position. It was just that everything felt utterly confusing, completely alien and incomprehensible, leaving my mind desperately struggling to piece together the disparate bits of sensory information into a full picture of my surroundings, a task at which I couldn’t help but to fail.
“I don’t… I don’t… I don’t…”
I remembered that there was something I had to do, but not what that was, more of a nagging pressure in the back of my mind or a thought on the tip of my tongue than a coherent memory. If I could just remember what it was, then I could stand up and get right back to business. I want to be helpful, really. What were we doing, we were doing something…
There were other sounds, besides the comforting rumble of the reactor vibrating through my carapace and into my ears. Someone was talking. Screaming, maybe? The sound of the voice was weird and metallic and loud and kind of angry, but if I was supposed to understand the words being said, or even really understand what words were, she was going to have to call back later. My claws extended and retracted again, the sensation and rhythm of the action reminding me that there was some order in the universe.
“I don’t… I don’t… I don’t…”
Something moved in my peripheral vision, a person, a very beautiful person with long auburn hair and soft lips. “It’s alright,” she said, very slowly. I curled in on myself even tighter, as tightly as I could. “It’s going to be alright, Alex.”
I shook my head. She was lying. My blades extended and retracted, my mandibles clicked and rubbed against each other, each movement slowly dispersing my stress and body out into the air. She took another step closer toward me… I wanted to hold her close, to kiss her and tell her all of the things she wanted to hear.
Miri extended her hand. “It’s going to be alright,” she said. “Just remember to breathe, and stim however you need to. I’m here for you, Alex…”
She reached out and touched me on the shoulder, right where my elytra met the rest of my body. The simple touch was more than anything, cold sensation shooting down my back, a reminder of what it was like to feel and be felt. I hated it more than anything in the world. My body was wrong and twisted, deformed, everything was in the wrong place and the wrong shape and I wasn’t supposed to be like this. Who the hell do you think you are to touch me like this?
Anger overwhelmed my entire body, sudden heat flushing my carapace, more anger than I’d ever felt. I screamed wordlessly, shoving Miri back into the control panel with both hands. For just a fraction of a second, I knew that if I had the coordination in me I would have shattered Miri’s skull against the hull of the Helium Glider. I shot to my feet, wings opening in a thoughtless attempt to make myself look bigger. Just as soon as it had come, the rage vanished, replaced a moment later by all-consuming guilt. I didn’t have the mental capacity to really apologize, but even in that state I knew that what I’d just thought about was horrible, and that’s not even thinking about what I’d actually done to her.
The Helium Glider suddenly jinked to one side, the entire ship spinning to one side as gravity suddenly redoubled. Even from the inside we could hear the metallic straining of the ship’s gyros and hull, and almost instantly the feel of the air changed as we dropped out of the hyperstream.
I glanced up at Miri. Her eyes were watering, on the brink of tears. There was no way I could stand to face her, so I ran, pointless as that was on a ship that small, until Miri was out of sight behind the reactor. Out of sight, out of mind, I collapsed back onto the ground and curled up as tightly as I could, trying to squeeze the pain and fear out of my body. I don’t know when Miri left the engine room, but she did, and she didn’t try to help me again. There was no point to helping me.
It took at least half an hour for me to slowly revert to a normal, rational state of being, albeit riddled with guilt. That I had fucked up, hard enough to cost me my life and potentially everyone else theirs, was obvious. The only question was how long it would take, and how much of a chance I would have to understand the depth of my fuckup. I hung around in the engine room for a little while after I was done recovering, just pacing back and forth. It wasn’t even my desire to face up to my actions, or the part of me that was still holding a fragile grip on logic and sanity, that made me take the ladder up. The cold was finally too much to stand, and I climbed my way back up to the habitation deck to face my reckoning.