“Now, I’ve set it up such that the thrusters are controlled by your lowermost arms, leaving the main ones free. Does that work for you?”
It had taken a couple of hours to get the membrane suit to conform to my Emissary body, including molding it to all the contours and negative spaces around my wings and elytra. Apparently it wouldn’t work otherwise, as the counterpressure would shatter my exoskeleton. After that, it had been another half an hour of work securing the plasma thruster in such a way that I could still have some freedom in my wings. Dr. Erobosh had pointed out that I could use my elytron as flight surfaces for extra maneuverability. Personally I had to hold myself back from saying “to infinity and beyond” at any point in the process.
The membrane suit was pretty weird, all things considered. It was the same olive-green as Erobosh’s mask, and completely skintight, with nothing under it. It was also, according to Dr. Erobosh, a sort of living organism, albeit a radically engineered one. Indeed, once I had it on, I found that any resistance from the suit quickly vanished as its own muscles began to move in tune with mine. The only inorganic part was the helmet, a big plastic bubble that joined with the rest of the suit using a tiny, complex airlock.
Dr. Erobosh put his suit on after mine, slipping into the chlorine bubble in his cabin and returning with, for the first time I’d ever seen him, no mask. It was only then that I learned that Architects, of which Dr. Erobosh was one, had some frankly unnerving fangs sticking out from between the teflon-white lips on their extended muzzles. His eyes were interesting too, slit pupils in a vibrant purple iris.
“Yeah, that works,” I said, looking down at my lower hands. “How do I turn it on?”
Dr. Erobosh clicked his teeth. “I’ll tell you that once we’re outside. There, it’s done.”
He stepped back, leaving the plasma thruster attached to my back. I stood up, no longer leaning one shoulder against the wall of the engineering room, having to lean forward to account for what felt like a stuffed backpack on me. The suit couldn’t account for that weight.
“Do you need my help to put on yours?” I asked.
“No. Amanda, do you mind?” My mom was there too, pacing nervously back and forth while she waited for the person she thought of as her child to go out and put himself in danger. I felt a little bit of sympathy.
The moment Dr. Erobosh said her assumed name, she perked up. “What was that?”
“Help me with attaching this thing, if you would,” said Dr. Erobosh, picking up the plasma thruster from the floor with both hands.
“Oh, right,” said Arana, taking the thruster and beginning the elaborate process.
The airlock was right there, complete with a window. I rested my left arms against the freezing metal, looking through into the mundane chamber on the other side. Beyond that far door was an un-breathable nightmare of clouds and storms, not to mention the nearly twenty killer cyborgs looking for us. “Doc, are you absolutely sure that I don’t have to do those exercises, too? ‘Debilitating pain’ doesn’t sound like a fun idea.”
“Alex, your species has a respiratory system so utterly alien compared to my own that to this day it is considered one of the great unsolved mysteries of biology,” said Dr. Erobosh, annoyed. “I am very sure that you do not have to do all of the exercises. That’s part of what makes it such a mystery, in fact.”
“Well, that’s good to know,” I said.
It only took Dr. Erobosh a couple of minutes to secure his jetpack thing, presumably because he had done it before. With that done, he talked with Arana for a moment, after which she went up the ladder to the main deck. When she returned, she was holding a small pistol. She handed it to Dr. Erobosh.
“Now, I want to make it clear that combat is not the primary, or even the secondary purpose of our little sojourn. We’re distracting the enemy, buying more time for the Lance of Croatoan to close distance and force the Order into retreat.” Dr. Erobosh held up the handgun, turning it this way and carefully inspecting the surface. “However, this weapon may prove necessary, either to aid in that distraction, or for self-defense.”
“Then how come I don’t get one?”
Dr. Erobosh glared at me. “Alexander Sierra, have you ever used, held, or even touched a blaster in your entire life?”
I shivered, both from that look and because I’m really not a fan of people using my full name. “No?”
“Then I’m not giving you one because I would like to return from this mission alive and still possessing the ability to see.”
I folded my arms. “Okay, you maybe have a point. But if you think it’s dangerous enough that bringing that thing is necessary… Arana, could you get some things for me?”
“Awesome, they’re in the drawer of my desk. They look sort of like a pair of knives, but with a bunch of buckles and straps instead of a hilt. Monomolecular clawblades, you can’t miss ‘em.”
Arana’s eyes went wide. “Where did you…?”
“They were a gift, got them on Nahoroth,” I said. Arana remained frozen. “Please? I don’t want to have to try fitting this plasma thruster through the ladder.”
Arana swallowed visibly. “Okay. If they’ll help.” She turned and left.
Dr. Erobosh raised an eyebrow at me. “Be thankful that these suits are self-sealing. I would not trust you to have a monomolecular weapon otherwise.”
I shrugged. “It’ll probably be fine.”
Dr. Erobosh stared stoically out over the endless frozen plain. It was cold as hell, even with the warmth radiating into my back from the plasma thruster. Erobosh had assured me repeatedly that the suit’s internal heating systems were working as intended; with an ambient temperature of 150 degrees below zero, Celsius, if the suit weren’t working, I wouldn’t feel it.
When you hear about a planet with temperatures like that, the first image that comes to mind is a white void of driving snow, like an establishing shot in a movie about Russia, but times a billion. It wasn’t like that. Instead it was… empty. Oh, sure, there was wind, driving and howling wind that had to be taken into account when flying around. And the weather was, strictly speaking, very inclement, as the entire planet was covered in a thin haze of toxic, supercooled carbon compounds. Not that it was thick enough to actually obscure the incredible vistas of flat, pebble-strewn plains and craggy mountains, but just enough to cut off the horizon a mile or two early and paint the sky a sickly gray.
Erobosh suddenly stopped his observation and glanced over at me. “Why do you keep doing that?” he said flatly.
I nearly jumped, having gotten caught up in my own head again. “Doing what?”
“Twitching,” said Erobosh. “You extend and fold back your claws when unnecessary, open and close your elytra at random, and you keep rubbing your mandibles together.”
I stopped myself midway through opening my elytra at random. “Oh, that.” I hesitated, forcing my mandibles to not click together while I thought about how much I wanted to tell him. To tell the truth, I had never been very good at talking about my own neurodivergency with people, and even in the few seconds I spent glancing between Dr. Erobosh and the cold ground I started to feel a familiar anxiety creeping back in.
If it had been any other alien, I would have just brushed him aside. But all of the time spent infodumping back and forth about spaceship parts and Earth customs must have had some impact, because the next time I opened my mouth, I did so with care. “It’s called stimming. Self-stimulation. Apparently it helps to regulate my emotions and sensory input, because my brain is weird and doesn’t work right. On Earth it’s called ‘autism’, but you probably don’t have anything like that on your planet.”
“You do know that I’m not a psychologist, yes?” Dr. Erobosh said, going back to looking out over the horizon. “You aren’t exactly the first person I’ve met who’s acted like that. It’s just that none of them were Emissaries, so I wasn’t sure whether to chalk it up to the species or not.”
I shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine, Doc… Are we ready to keep moving, yet?”
“Sensor readings indicate that one of the spectrademon squads was near here. I don’t want to move until—there.” Erobosh fell silent.
“Uhh, what’s going on?”
Erobosh raised one elongated arm, and pointed out with one long, gecko-like finger towards the distance. “There,” he whispered.
I slipped over next to him and followed the line of his arm. Even then, it took me a second to see what he was talking about. Once I did, the black metal of the four-wheeled buggy stood out against the blue-grey of the ground like a fireworks show on the moon.
“They’re using vehicles, that makes sense.” I looked to Dr. Erobosh, my antennae hanging low. “Will we still be able to outrun them?”
“I don’t doubt it,” he said. “We don’t even have to deal with the terrain. Now come, we have a distraction to make.”
With a flick of his wrist, Erobosh reactivated his fluxed plasma thruster, the twin cylindrical engines on either side of the blocky main body whirring to life with a subtle blue glow. I did the same, clicking a finger on either of my lower hands against a sensitive surface on the inside of the membrane suit. The weight of the pack suddenly all but vanished as it started to push against the air, but after the several hours I’d had to practice, the thing wasn’t going to take off without me wanting it to.
“Ready?” I said.
I jumped off the edge of the cliff. Low gravity meant that I fell slowly, walking pace at first and only picking up to sprinting velocity after several seconds. Once I could properly feel the wind whipping across my carapace, I sharply twisted my lower left wrist, and with a dull roar the jetpack on my back exploded to life, shooting me upwards to meet Dr. Erobosh, who had activated his thruster at the top of the cliff like a boring person.
He had been right about using my elytra, by the by; a small movement of a few inches in one or both of them altered the airflow around the jetpack, letting me do graceful spirals and corkscrews through the air. With my hands, I had to be careful; the amount of thrust being generated was enough that slight changes would lead to a near-miss with the ground, or an acceleration sharp enough to make me sick. Just to remind him how much more of a radical teen I was, I did a loop.
“You’re going to run out of fuel, doing fancy maneuvers like that,” said Erobosh. “Though I suppose they aren’t terrible for dodging blaster fire.”
I did another loop at him.
“Save that energy for the Order, it’ll be useful there,” he said, unperturbed by my amazing aerobatics.
I took the time to actually pay attention to the ground. We were moving in the right direction, and the buggy couldn’t have been more than a mile and a half or two miles away, which was a distance we could cover in a minute.
“Speaking of the Order, do we have an actual plan? What do we do when they notice us?”
“I do,” he said. “Do you know how to turn on your external speaker?”
I shook my head.
“I’m going to assume you meant to indicate ‘no’,” said Dr. Erobosh, eyes focused down on the Order buggy. “There’s a button on the edge of your helmet, inner and outer surface, near the bottom center right. It toggles a speaker that lets people hear you who aren’t tuned in to this frequency, assuming they speak English.”
I felt around the inside of my helmet with one mandible, which is a fun thing that you can do when you have mandibles, eventually finding a button in the same position he’d described. “Testing?” I said, nearly flying off course when I heard the sound of my voice echoing from outside of the suit.
“Good,” said Erobosh. “Now stay quiet. We need surprise.”
A few seconds later, Erobosh slowed down and tilted his trajectory downwards. Landing was, as always, the hardest part of flying, but we’d had a decent bit of practice whenever the plasma thrusters would have to spend half a minute or so cooling off. We landed amongst a large pile of boulders, what would have been rough stone on Earth but here was solid ice. The Order was close by on an objective level, but the haze made them seem distant and unimportant.
“So what do we do now?” I asked, huddled behind one of the rocks to shield myself from the wind.
“You just need to follow my lead, and don’t get killed,” said Erobosh, regret and trepidation in his tone. “This is where things get dangerous.”
I shivered, and not from the cold. “Got it. I’ve seen dangerous before.”
Erobosh didn’t respond to my badass one-liner, instead slipping the blaster he’d been given out of a hip pouch. He flicked a small control on the side of the pistol, extending a long shoulder stock, similar to the one I’d seen on the Spectrademon pistol back on Earth. He leaned against the boulder, resting the pistol on the ice, and the stock against his shoulder.
“Are you a soldier, or something?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But I’ve been in more gunfights than you have, and had quite a few hours in a simulator.”
There were a few seconds where the only sound in the entire world was the whistling of the cold lunar wind. Then he pulled the trigger, seven or eight times, each one met with the electrical zap and thundercrack pop of a blaster shot going off. Reflexively, I turned to look at where he’d been shooting, just in time to see several puffs of dust settling back to the ground, and one window on the Order’s buggy shattering inwards.
The moment he was done firing, Dr. Erobosh turned, making a slight twitch with his off-hand that made his jetpack roar to life. He tapped a button on the jaw of his helmet, turned to me with a look of determination, and with a scream that I could plainly hear echoing through the surrounding badlands, said, “Run!”
It was about three seconds before I could get my plasma thruster to activate, by which time Erobosh was in the air and tearing away from me at highway speeds, screaming obscenities in half a dozen languages. Behind me, I could already hear the buggy rumbling to life, and the low thrum of Order agony rifles firing. If I fell too far behind, I’d be caught and executed. Fortunately, I had one advantage over Erobosh. Architect bodies are, as far as I can tell, built for climbing trees and doing calculus; Emissaries are built to be aerodynamic.
I had caught up with Erobosh in another two seconds. The moment I hit the air, I started dodging, zipping and twirling through the air in an erratic and unpredictable pattern that nobody had ever taught me. It was like I knew what to do, like how a baby horse knows how to run. I think the Order must have realized what I was, because not long after I hit the air I was surrounded by the blurry after-images of agony rifle blasts, bullet streaks in water screaming up into the haze.
Erobosh must have noticed where their attention was, Architect brains being the way they are, and took it as an opportunity. While I was flying as fast as I could in several directions at once, he moved in quick and jagged arcs, turning in place in the air to fire backwards, blaster beams thudding into the soft ice around the enemy. And so, with me spiraling and twisting acrobatically, yelling insults in both English and the scraps of Democratic Emissarine that I’d learned, and Erobosh moving with purpose and firing his blaster, the chase was on.
Thankfully, Erobosh had been right about our fluxed plasma thrusters being faster than their vehicle. It was difficult to get a good look at them while frantically running away, but there were moments where my curiosity outweighed my common sense, or where we had to stop and land for a moment to make sure that we didn’t actually lose them until the right time. It looked like the alien version of a jeep, stubby and blocky with disproportionately large wheels. The sharp external skin was heavily armored with the same white ceramic as the Helium Glider’s skin, painted with angular red lines and sigils marking it as an extension of the Order.
It was also apparently not designed for either combat or for being used on a frozen moon, because the only way the spectrademons could fire on us was to stick their deformed little turtle heads and their freakishly long arms with their stretched-out agony rifles out of the window like a cop in an old movie and take aim from there. In hindsight, that probably did a lot to prevent us from getting hit.
I don’t really remember how long we went on that chase for, mostly because at some point my sense of time got replaced with the moment-to-moment of pulsing adrenaline and screeching agony rifles and blaster fire. It was a weird emotional state, the kind of thing that I’d heard from thrill-seeking base jumpers and free climbers, a composite emotion of extreme fear and breathless exhilaration as I walked the line between life and death. Sometimes a particularly good dodge would make me have to hold myself back from laughing, and other times I would shut my eyes because I thought that the end was coming. Having the jetpack meant that I wasn’t getting as exhausted as I would have from running for that long, but I was exerting myself enough that I finally felt free after so long pent up in the ship, and I couldn’t help but enjoy it a little, Order or not.
After a while the emotional highs and lows evened out into something resembling that mythical “flow” that self-help gurus like to talk about. At times Erobosh would ask me to use my agility to help him, usually by falling behind and being extra distracting while he reloaded. The Order, for their part, were apparently either too angry or too stupid to realize that this was a trick, which I suppose is a downside to having only one self-aware and thinking being in a group of six. The upside to that arrangement is that the other five have really good aim.
I was so intently focused on my own survival, so sure that Dr. Erobosh would be able to handle himself, that I barely even heard the scream. It was coming from above me, and for a moment I thought that it might just be another of his taunts. But just in case, I flipped over mid-dive so that I was flying on my back. Dr. Erobosh was spinning erratically in the air, thruster still firing at irregular intervals as he zig-zagged all over the place, completely out of control. Something was wrong.
I pushed my lower hands down, like yanking an invisible pair of joysticks, and accelerated toward Erobosh with enough force that I felt lightheaded. Flaring my elytra like jet wings, I matched his speed.
“Erobosh, what’s wrong?” I said, tapping the button on my suit so only he could hear.
Instead of a response, he screamed, his entire body rocking with muscle spasms. Loyally, the plasma thruster followed his instructions and veered off toward the ground at an oblique angle. I’d only ever heard a person make a sound like that once before, and that was when Miri had been hit by the agony rifle. That explained a lot, especially a couple seconds later when I was forced into a vertical corkscrew by four simultaneous and well-aimed agony bolts.
Time slowed down and my heart sped up, the latter more so than the former. Part of me started screaming incoherently about how we were both going to die, this was what we got for being so reckless, and so on. The other part, somehow spurred by adrenaline and terror and the distinct knowledge that Dr. Erobosh’s life was in my hands, went into overdrive. Five or six half-formed plans shot through my head in just as many seconds, until I noticed a huge and cluttered boulder field on the ground below and ahead of us. Then it all became clear.
I dived, again matching speed with Dr. Erobosh and hoping that the spectrademons didn’t take this perfect opportunity to shoot us both down. The first few times I got close were ruined when he twitched in pain and shot away from me, but fourth time was the charm as I grabbed on with both my upper arms and started angling my thruster to pull him to the ground. Then there was another spasm, another rapid change in his acceleration, and I just couldn’t hold on. I swore a bunch of times, then flew in close again. My lower arms were still controlling my flight, but if I locked them out forward, elbows slightly bent, the thruster defaulted to a manageable speed and direction, and I could still exercise a bit of crude control with small movements.
Using all four arms this time, I slowly moved next to Dr. Erobosh and grabbed onto him. The next spasm wasn’t enough to tear him out of my grip, though it did send us both rocketing up into the air. Now was the hard part, where I made use of another trick I’d learned.
“Set thrust power to one-hundred percent,” I said.
All at once, I was surging forward, the air resistance a piercing pressure against my entire body. With as much strength as I could muster, I forced my elytra to raise up off of my back, using them like the flaps on a plane’s wing to, at a pace way too slow and way too painful for my liking, force my trajectory into the ground.
My pack was pushing so hard that the random flailing from Erobosh barely had any effect, leaving it a matter of not straining my elytra muscles until we were hidden in the boulder field. The thruster pack on my back started to warm up, then grow hot from the sheer amount of fuel being burnt, as half a dozen beeping and buzzing alarms popped up inside my helmet. I ignored them, because there was no way in hell that I would be able to think about any of that without losing my composure altogether and crashing.
My elytra felt like they were about to fall off, and my chest felt like it was about to explode; the boulder field was close enough that I could piece together the safest place to land, but it still felt far enough away that I was doomed. At least Dr. Erobosh had stopped twitching, and was instead limply sucking in breath.
“Thank you, Alex,” he muttered.
“Yeah, no problem,” I said, part of me wanting to berate him for breaking my focus. The boulder field was getting closer, and in a few seconds we’d be over it. “Set thrust power to, uhhh, fuck, thirty percent.”
The plasma thruster understood my order, thankfully, and turned down to the right level for a gentle glide to the ground. About two seconds later, with a lot of clacking and rattling, I ran out of fuel.