The number one question ringing through my head as I went up that ladder was what I was even supposed to say, really. I had just doomed all of those people to a near-certain death at the hands of the Order because of my own mental hangups. Dear diary, my teenage angst bullshit now has a body count…
There was no time for movie references as I opened up the hatch and stepped back out into glorious warmth. You don’t really miss the concept of subcutaneous fat until it’s gone. The hab deck was about as much of a mess as I would have expected, small objects scattered around on the floor, one of the helpers mopping up a water spill. Quinn was there, looking frazzled, as was Arana.
Arana glanced up at me from her Ariel. “Good to see you’re doing better.”
Her saying that took me more off-guard than it would if she had started screaming, or even just remained silent. How do you even respond to kindness from someone who you just sort of doomed? “Thanks, same for you,” I muttered. “Though it probably won’t be that way for long.”
Arana smiled, if only a little bit. “It’s going to be alright, sweetie—“
I turned away. “Don’t try that bullshit on me. I knew the stakes when I was going down there. I know I fucked up. You don’t have to sugar-coat it.”
“That’s not true, Alex. I’ve been your mother for long enough to know that you can’t control it. There’s another way out of this.”
“First of all, you aren’t my mother,” I said, almost on reflex. I pressed my mandibles together, wondering if I should take that back. Nah. “Second, yeah there is. We can turn around, dock with the cruiser, and hand me over to the Order. Then Miri and Quinn can go home and the rest of you can move on with your lives. Hell, you’ll have a tragic backstory to keep you motivated in the fight, wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Fuck you,” said Quinn. “There’s no way in hell I’m going to hand you over to the fash after going this far. We’ve agreed that we’ll tie you up and throw you in the cargo bay if it comes down to it.”
“We did not agree to any of that,” said Arana. “But the point still stands that we aren’t going to give up on you this easily.”
“Even if this is my own fault for not just doing what Dr. Erobosh told me to do?”
“Yes,” Arana said instantly. “Even if it were your own fault, which it is not. The Order are evil, evil people, not your own personal cosmic punishment.”
I was tired. Very, very tired. If the universe were running on my schedule, I would have been able to fall asleep there and then. And if I weren’t tired, I could have argued about it all day long. “Alright. What’s the plan, then? I noticed that we’ve dropped out of hyperstream.”
“We’re going to hide,” said Arana.
“Dr. Erobosh just explained that hiding isn’t an option; is this seriously the best we have?”
Arana nodded, pressing a few buttons on her Ariel. “Because there was nothing to hide behind and our engines burn brighter than a star. But that was only true in the hyperstream. In realspace there are speed of light concerns to deal with, not to mention cover.”
I clicked my mandibles, thinking about how useful it would have been to know that before my freakout. “So what’s the plan, then? We hiding in an ion storm, slipping between two asteroids, what?”
“A gas giant, bigger than Jupiter and with a moon with an atmosphere thick enough to land on. If we time it correctly, we can do our landing burn while we’re occluded by the planet. They’ll know which moon we’ve landed on, but the atmosphere will block their sensors, so they’d have to comb through an area twice the size of Asia to find us.”
“And what next?” I said, folding my arms.
Arana shrugged. “We wait. They’ll know they have no way to find us, and even the Order does not possess unlimited patience.”
“Look, if there’s anything I know about the fash, it’s that they’re lazy cowards,” Quinn said with a smile. “I’d put money on them giving up as soon as they know how much work it’d take.”
“This is the worst plan I’ve ever heard,” I said.
“Well, it’s the plan we’re putting into action,” Arana said, firmly. “Giving up and handing you over to the Order is not an option, Alex.”
“It would be a lot quicker, and a lot more likely to work,” I said.
Quinn stood up. “Alex, you asshole! We’re not doing this because it’s easy! We’re not doing any of this because it’s easy!” He glared right into my eyes. The guy looked scared. “I’m your best friend, and even if you turned into a weird bug creature, I want you to live and be happy. For fuck’s sake, get off your pity train and stop being a bitch to everyone! Fuck, dude.”
“Alright, fine! I guess I’m not going to die,” I said as if that wasn’t an entirely good thing. “We’ll stay on the moon or whatever.” I moved towards my personal cabin.
“Once we’re out of imminent danger, we’re going to have to talk about these self-destructive urges. This is… worrying.”
“That’s not going to happen, Arana,” I said, leaning against the doorframe.
Arana started slightly. It was the first time she had heard me using her real name.
“It’ll be fine, Mrs. Sierra,” said Quinn. “I wanted to throw myself off of a bridge for a few years too, and look how well I turned out!”
Arana looked back at Quinn, giving him a once-over. “That is the least reassuring thing anyone has ever said to me. Sleep well, Alex.”
I did as she suggested, woke up three hours later, tried to work on practicing my Emissarine, realized I felt like shit, then fell asleep for another nine hours. By the time I woke up, it was morning again, whatever that meant in deep space. The next day was fairly low-key, all things considered. I spent most of it curled up in as many blankets as I could find, watching and reading whatever low-stakes popcorn bullshit I could find. Fortunately, the Ariel’s supply seemed endless.
We landed on the gas giant moon that afternoon. It was intense, uncomfortable, and it sucked, but no more than any other time we had set down on a planet. Just to be safe, Stellina had us land the ship on the shore of a huge hydrocarbon lake, where the clouds were the most turbulent and we’d be least likely to be seen from far away.
Even though the atmosphere outside was vastly too toxic to leave the ship, the entire tone changed once we’d set down. For one thing, gravity was a lot weaker, about a sixth as much as Earth or a fifth of Nahoroth, which took some getting used to. It was also cold, and it soon became a hit-or-miss question whether you could touch the outer hull without it feeling like squeezing an ice cube. Thank goodness for reactor waste heat.
After the landing, we basically settled in for the long haul. There was really no way to know how long it would take for the Order to change their mind and get out of here. Worse, the cloud cover worked both ways, leaving us critically short on information about where the Order even was. And so, we settled back into the pattern. Lots of waiting. Lots and lots and lots of waiting.
Dr. Erobosh continued to be the only person in the ship that I could really feel friendly with. Our talks were… fun, almost. I had never known anyone else who actually enjoyed special interest talk the way he did, and for once in my life I found myself able to talk for an extended period of time without part of me begging to be released from the constricting chains of social obligation. It helped that whatever rules of social etiquette he had learned on his home planet were so wildly different from what I had learned on Earth that neither of us really bothered.
The humans were much less easy to deal with. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to apologize for getting us all into this situation in the first place, and every time I tried talking, that guilt hung over the conversation like a shroud. Arana and Stellina were the most affected. They wouldn’t avoid me, and I couldn’t be bothered to avoid them, but we didn’t talk in more than short sentences. Quinn almost seemed to want to pretend that nothing was wrong, which was worse in some ways. He’d try to strike up conversation about whatever books or movies I was watching (even when I was very clearly trying to learn Emissarine), or reminisce about some crazy antic we got up to back in Broadleaf, or whatever it was, leaving me to sit there awkwardly and figure out what the hell I was even supposed to say to him. Usually he’d get the point eventually and break off the conversation, though sometimes I would have to make up some excuse for why we couldn’t talk. Miri, meanwhile, seemed to be just as scared of me as I was of her, which was an exceptional show of bravery on her part. I could tell that she still hadn’t entirely gotten used to living around a giant freaking bug person, which I couldn’t really blame her for, but still hurt anyway.
It was the third day of sitting around and waiting for the Order to either find us and kill us, or give up on finding and killing us. I was in the main cabin, eating something called “luthanab” that had been mentioned in the Emissarine lessons, when Miri decided that it would be a good idea to sit down next to me.
“I still think you’re a bit of an asshole,” was the first thing she said. She immediately looked away from me, face turning red.
“Well, so are you, apparently. And I can still see the way you look at me…”
“That’s not what I meant,” Miri said.
“You literally just called me a bit of an asshole,” I said. “I’m not sure what other possible interpretation there is.”
Miri sighed. “My thoughts got all jumbled up, okay? I’m normally better than this, but I’m trying to think of what I want to say and I got caught up inside my own head…”
I folded my upper pair of arms, the lower pair still fiddling with a spoon. I was getting better at multitasking like that. “Okay, let’s start this over. Say what you want to say.”
Miri nodded, pressing her lips together. She sat there for a little while, brow furrowed, lock of hair being coiled and uncoiled around her finger. Finally, she took in a deep breath and started talking. “I’m not going to just forgive you for the big argument.”
“You have got to be kidding me…” I muttered. “Is that the best you can do?”
“Fuck!” said Miri, slamming her fist into the table. “I haven’t forgiven you for the big argument, but I can sort of see what your problem was!”
I leaned back in the chair, antennae leaning nonchalantly towards Miri, eyes closed. “I guess you can’t really learn how to talk to people in a book.”
Miri chuckled. “Yeah, because you’re the one who’s allowed to complain about somebody else not knowing how to talk to people.”
“Touché,” I said. “But what do you mean?”
“You said that I’d been avoiding you, and at the time I thought you were being paranoid or hormonal or whatever, but… you were kind of right,” said Miri. “I have been avoiding you, and that was really rude of me.”
I nodded. “Yeah. Thank you for admitting that. I guess I can’t really blame you, though. If I were a human forced to live together with a weird-looking, talking, bug monster that I’d never believed could exist before, I’d probably not want to be around the bug either.”
Miri’s jaw fell open, her brow furrowing with confusing and loathing. “That’s not what this is about! You really need to start dealing with this self-hate complex that you’re developing, Alex.”
“I don’t hate myself,” I said.
“You literally just called yourself a giant talking bug monster, Alex,” said Miri, looking down at the table. “I don’t know how else to take that.”
“An assessment of the truth,” I said with a shrug. “To another Emissary I probably look perfectly normal, but to a human I look like a terrifying bug monster. It’s not your fault.”
“This is the problem, though,” said Miri. “You keep putting words in my mouth, telling me what I’m thinking, and all of that is coming from you! You’re the one who thinks you’re disgusting, you’re the one who thinks that I think you’re disgusting, and you’re so stuck up your own ass with this complex that you won’t even let me talk.”
I sighed. “I don’t know what other assumption I’m supposed to make when my ex-girlfriend can’t stand to be around me any more, when the only thing that’s changed is my body.”
“That’s not what this is about,” Miri said. I ignored her.
“And… it doesn’t make any sense. I don’t… hate being like this. It feels natural. Too natural, like sometimes I’ll start to even forget that I haven’t always had four arms and antennae and this huge pile of organs sticking out of my back, it feels completely alright! And the only thing I can think, sometimes, is that the transformation must have affected my brain, and made me like it even though logically I should be in a state of total panic right now.”
“I don’t think that’s the case,” Miri said. “You’re an Emissary, right? You always were one; I saw the same baby picture that you did. This metamorphosis… it’s basically bug puberty. And not to sound like an eighth-grade science teacher who isn’t getting paid enough for this, but it’s a natural thing and you’ll get used to it, I think.” Miri looked right into my eyes, glancing around while she tried to figure out which pair to look into, a slight smile parting her gorgeously soft lips. “Admittedly, this happened all at once, which is pretty fucked up, but it’s like ripping off a band-aid, right?”
I chuckled, a shriek-y and rattling sound that made Miri startle. That got me to stop laughing. “That is pretty fucked up,” I said quietly. “But I shouldn’t be getting used to this so quickly, regardless.” I hesitated, knowing that it was a bit of a taboo topic, but I wanted to make my point. That was the moment I discovered Emissaries can somehow still feel flushed. “Puberty is fucking awful; I was depressed for like two years, and that wasn’t anything nearly as bad as this.”
Miri raised an eyebrow. “You never told me about that.”
“Yeah, because it was before we were dating and I was too busy being horribly depressed,” I said.
“Oh. That sucks,” said Miri. “But anyway, that seems like more of a you thing than a universal, so maybe it doesn’t apply to this… Look, we’re getting distracted. What matters is that nobody finds you disgusting, okay? Because you aren’t disgusting.”
“You looked scared when I laughed, not thirty seconds ago,” I said.
“Because I was startled!” Miri said, shrugging. “You haven’t laughed very much, and it took me a second to realize you were laughing as opposed to screaming at me.”
“Which is pretty fucked up and gross, isn’t it?”
“No!” Miri said, her voice cracking a bit. “No, it isn’t! It’s weird, or offbeat, or quirky, or whatever the hell you want to call it, which is something you’ve always been! You are not gross, okay?”
Miri slouched over in her chair, looking exasperated. “I’m really not?” I said.
“No,” Miri said, “and I know that because I’m a biology major and I’ve seen gross. I study dung beetles and sea cucumbers and whatever the fuck snails are doing at any given time. Compared to that, you’re basically adorable. Like a praying mantis, or one of those super photogenic spiders.”
I wasn’t even sure that it registered to Miri that she’d called me adorable. It wasn’t the first time, but it was something she used to say all the time when we were dating, when I was human. My antennae pointed towards her a bit more strongly. I kept my eyes down, looking at my feet as I wrapped my arms around myself in a comforting hug. “I don’t think I believe you. Because you say that, but then everything you actually do tells me that you’re lying. Not to mention how I look in the mirror and I can hardly recognize it as being myself.”
Miri did a facepalm. “Alex, that’s not what this is about! I wouldn’t lie to you, and you seriously need to stop accusing me of lying to you.”
“Alright then,” I said, throwing up my hands. “Then why do you keep avoiding me, then?”
Miri froze, looking at somewhere over my shoulder. She licked her lips, took a deep breath in and out, then finally spoke. “It’s because I’m—”
“Everybody get onto the control deck right now!”
I hadn’t heard Stellina so angry in years, and hearing her scream that loudly sent a shock of concern and worry through my spine.
“Goddamnit…” Miri muttered.
I jumped out of my chair, leaping across the deck in a single bound, then bouncing off the wall to make my way up the ramp. Low gravity is great for getting places quickly. Stellina was already up there, as was Dr. Erobosh. Quinn, Miri, and Arana trailed in over the next minute, as was usual for our emergency control-deck meetings.
The holo-display was showing a topographical map of what I assumed was the lunar surface around us, marked with a few glaring red triangles. Stellina was bent over the display, not so much looking at it as she was looking through it, totally exhausted. Dr. Erobosh was in one of the chairs, looking at a few computer screens.
“It’s a standard pattern, if what your wife has told me is true,” Erobosh said. “I’m surprised that they haven’t changed it in seventeen years.”
“It’s unencrypted,” Stellina sighed. “There’s no need to change it.”
Dr. Erobosh stopped what he was doing to turn and look at Stellina. “Why would they be broadcasting unencrypted this far out from base?”
“I think it’s because they already know where the Order ships are,” said Stellina, “and they want to make damn well sure that the Order knows where they stand in return.”
“What’s going on, dear?” said Arana.
“A lot of things,” said Stellina, sounding like she seriously needed some coffee.
“To put it lightly, we are completely doomed, but also our salvation has arrived,” said Dr. Erobosh.
I hopped closer to the map on the holo-display. “Uh, what are those red triangles? And did one of them just move closer to us?”
Stellina sighed. “Order patrols, five spectrademons and a cambion each. They’re looking for us, and they’ve gotten to within thirty miles.”
I glanced over at the map again. “There’s three of them.”
“How?” I yelled. “I thought the whole point of landing here was that they’d never find us!”
Stellina shrugged. “Maybe they made a lucky guess.”
“Or maybe there are factors we didn’t take into account,” said Dr. Erobosh. “Perturbances in the atmosphere or neutron leakages from our reactor. Whatever it is, their method isn’t precise enough for them to know exactly where we are, otherwise they’d be on top of us already.”
Anxiety started rising up in my thorax again, as my muscles tightened and my claws itched to be opened. Miri, probably able to see how I was feeling, placed her hand on my shoulder. “What about the other part? You mentioned our salvation?”
“The CSC Lance of Croatoan, a Collective cruiser,” Stellina explained. “They’re currently a day out from the system, but they sent a broadcast drone in for the apparent sole purpose of letting the Order know about it. Unless the Order feels like starting a war tomorrow, and I sincerely doubt that, they’ll have to leave once the Lance of Croatoan enters the system.”
“So it’s a race against the clock, then?” said Quinn. “A cosmic game of hide-and-seek, I like it. The Order wants to find us before the Collective arrives and puts a can on that, and we want to make sure they can’t find us in that time.”
“Which just raises the question of how easy we are to find,” said Miri, biting her lip.
Stellina shook her head. “It isn’t looking good for us. They can clear ground quickly, and they have three groups searching, of which only one needs to actually find us.”
“We can’t just sit here and wait for them to stumble on us, can we?” said Quinn. “We have to, like, go out there and hunt them down. Go all Predator on their asses!”
“That would be an excellent plan if they weren’t vastly better at this than us,” said Arana. “I’m the only one here who’s an actual soldier; they were trained for it.”
“But that doesn’t mean you aren’t on the right track,” said Stellina, pensively. “Dr. Erobosh, what do we have in terms of expedition gear? Are we stuck inside the ship?”
Dr. Erobosh’s brow furrowed under the mask. He looked up at the ceiling and said, “Helium, what happened to those adjustable membrane suits? The ones I purchased back on Ibhfeb IV?”
“Well, internal records show that most of them got holes ripped in them,” Helium said, incredibly chipper. “But there are still two that should work if you want to go on a walk or something.”
Dr. Erobosh paused for a moment longer. “And the fluxed plasma thrusters?”
“Three still intact, but you’d probably need to recharge them from the reactor first.”
“Well, there we have it,” said Dr. Erobosh. “Thank you, Helium.”
“So only two of us can leave the ship at once,” said Arana. “That’s incredibly irresponsible of a ship-owner.”
“Money is always tight on a personal transport,” he said with a hiss. “And in the vast majority of situations where the entire crew would need to exit the ship at once, we’d be dead anyway.”
Miri bit her lower lip. “So two of us can leave the ship to… do what, exactly?”
Nobody had an answer for her, at least not at first. Eventually, Stellina spoke, quietly and hesitantly. “To act as a distraction. Draw them on a wild goose chase until time runs out and they have to flee from the Collective.”
“Didn’t you just say they were moving unusually quickly?” asked Arana. “Pulling off a distraction like that usually requires a substantial advantage in maneuver capabilities. One that we don’t have.”
“We do, actually,” said Erobosh. “Were you paying attention? Whoever goes out there is going to be equipped with fluxed plasma thrusters.”
“Which is? Explain for the non-science person in the room, please,” said Quinn.
“It’s like a personal-scale version of the lungs on this ship,” said Stellina. “Intakes cold air, heats it using… a fuel cell, I’m guessing?” Dr. Erobosh nodded and she continued, “Then expels it at high speed. In an atmosphere this thick and under gravity this light, you can basically fly, at least until the thing overheats.”
“Oh my god, they have jump jets…” Miri muttered. “You wouldn’t happen to also have a chainsword sitting around here, would you? Maybe a spare bolter?”
I facepalmed with all four hands, while Quinn desperately tried not to laugh. Despite external appearances, Miri is just as capable of going off on indecipherable nerd tangents as either of the rest of us. “A what?” said Arana.
Miri shook her head. “Never mind. At this point I’m prepared for anything. I want to be able to use the jump jets before I have to go back to Earth, though.”
“Well, if you’d like to volunteer to go out with me and expose yourself to potential neural weapon strikes, you can use them today,” said Dr. Erobosh.
The mention of neural weapons sent a shiver down Miri’s spine. “I’ll pass. Unless nobody else wants to do it.”
“Hold on,” I said. “The way you said that made it sound like you’d already made up your mind about going. Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“One of the membrane suits is designed for a chlorogenic breathing mix,” said Dr. Erobosh. “Converting it would take extra time. Not to mention that I’m the only one who knows how to use the thrusters properly.”
I nodded. “Okay, fair. But in that case, I’m going with you.”
Every eye in the room was on me in a split second. “Excuse me?” Arana hissed.
I glared right back into her eyes, as uncomfortable as it was. “I got us into this mess, my fault or not, which means that it’s only right if I’m the one who gets us out of it.”
“That’s ridiculous,” said Arana.
“The world doesn’t work that way,” said Stellina, exasperated.
“Goddamnit, Alex,” Miri sighed.
Arana kept trying to glare me down. “You’re going out there on an incredibly dangerous mission that all of our lives might depend upon. You don’t have any experience with this kind of thing. I do.”
“Actually,” said Quinn. “He does have experience with this. Or have you already forgotten how he saved all of us from Corringer, back at the spaceport?”
“That was different!” Arana snapped.
“How?” I asked. “And how is this different from all of the other times I’ve been in danger since this whole insane thing started? I’ve fought cambions, and nearly got mugged by a giant snake, and nearly got shot by a bunch of corporate stooges! I can take care of myself, Arana!”
Dr. Erobosh folded his arms. “Not to mention… Emissaries are known above all else for extreme agility and reflexes. For a mission of evasion and skirmish tactics, there are few better candidates you could ask for.”
“Says the man who thought it would be a perfectly sane idea to bring these two dumbasses out into the middle of an alien city,” Miri muttered.
“Amanda…” said Stellina, wearily. “I think he has a point. And if Alex wants to do this… we should let him.”
Arana shot a look of absolute disbelief at her wife. “And put himself in danger?”
“Anyone who goes out there is putting themselves in danger,” said Dr. Erobosh, harshly. “As does anyone who remains inside. And if you die, then we no longer have the necessary personnel to maneuver the ship.”
Arana took a deep breath in, as if preparing to scream at the top of her lungs. “Fine,” she whispered. “But if Alex dies, I will destroy you.”
“If Alex dies, it will only be because I already died attempting to rescue him, thus saving you the trouble.” Dr. Erobosh hopped forward in the low gravity, giving Arana a slap on the shoulder as he did so. “Now come on, Alex. Time is short, and we have to make a membrane suit fit onto an Emissary.”