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The sound of my plasma thruster running out of fuel broke my steely focus in an instant, as a girlish yelp escaped my mandibles, and both of us started plummeting to the ground. Reflexes saved me once again, as my wings and elytra shot open to drag against the air, and Erobosh twisted around to slow us with his jet pack. 

The difference between a rough landing and a soft crash is often a matter of opinion, and given that I ended up rolling head over heels across the dirt until a house-sized chunk of ice caught me, I’d file that away under “crash.” To my credit, Dr. Erobosh didn’t fare much better, skidding through the ice and rubble and landing face-down on the ground fifteen or so feet from me.

Dr. Erobosh sat up as if he had suddenly been afflicted with about twenty years of arthritis, gave me one good look to make sure I hadn’t broken anything, then said, “This is why I told you not to try anything fancy. I still have a third of a fuel tank left.”

“Would you rather I have gotten shot?” I said. “Because I’m pretty sure those fancy maneuvers were the only thing saving my life. Well, that and having to save you.”

“And if you had gotten shot, I could have saved you, and without using up all of my fuel in the process. Now we’re stuck here.”

I looked around the boulder field. Not that that accomplished much; the lines of sight were all blocked by enormous chunks of ice and rock, some nearly the size of Helium Glider. “How long of a walk would it take to get back to the ship?”

“Days,” Erobosh said casually. “With the water recycling systems in the suits, it might be possible to make it before dying of thirst. Or, if you want to do this the easy way, these fluxed plasma thrusters are equipped to transfer fuel between them. I think I have enough for the both of us, if we don’t waste any.”

I stood up, reaching around to make an attempt at unbuckling the thruster from my back. There was a lot of fumbling involved, but to my own surprise, I was able to do it, and set the machine gently on the ground. 

“Do you think we’ve led them far enough off-course? Would it be safe to turn around now?”

Dr. Erobosh shrugged. “There’s no such thing as certainty here, but I also don’t think we have much of a choice. If they find us, they find us, because we’ve done everything that we can. We need to get back to the ship on what fuel we have.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. “Are you hurt, by the way?”

“I’ve been hit by agony weapons a couple of times before,” he said, stretching his shoulder. “The effect is already wearing off.”

“Good, good,” I said, checking my arms for anything broken. It was weird having my claws out for so long, and just as an experiment I flicked them back just far enough to feel the resistance from the suit. I remembered that I wasn’t alone and re-focused on the matter at hand. “So all we need to do is fuel me up, and then we can get out of here and head back to the ship. That’s good, at least.”

“I think the more relevant issue is the fact that the Order almost certainly saw where we went down.”

Being completely honest, I had forgotten about that part. “Ah. How quickly can you do the fuel thing?”

“Remind me how long a minute is?”

“Uhh… Sixty seconds?” I said.

“Right, that. Fifteen minutes, maybe twenty?” said Dr. Erobosh, taking off his own jetpack. “And I need to have peace and quiet during that time, if you can manage it.”

Fifteen to twenty minutes. Without his support. Without a jetpack. Alone. Armed only with my claws. Up against a bunch of spectrademons. My mouth suddenly felt unusually dry, and my heart rate sped up, my wings fluttering unconsciously and my antennae pressed flat against my scalp. I tried to summon up the same feeling of fearless focus that I’d had in the air, and it was nowhere to be found. But it had to happen anyway. “I can do that.”

Dr. Erobosh found a secluded place, high up but surrounded by large boulders, to do the work, while I leapt and jogged across the boulders towards the direction we’d come from. The fascinating thing was that in the lower gravity, even a normal jump felt almost exactly like how it felt when I was using my wings, and took me soaring the same distance through the air. This was good, because pulling off the wing-aileron thing while landing had put my untrained wing muscles through the wringer. 

Once I was alone, no longer having to divert energy to looking vaguely presentable, my thoughts turned once again to formulating some kind of plan. Obviously I couldn’t just rush in and fight them all, and the loss of the speed advantage that the jetpack brought meant that the same “run away to lure them” plan wasn’t very good either. Worse, I hadn’t been able to convince Dr. Erobosh to give me his blaster, meaning that I was still armed with nothing but my clawblades against their agony rifles and blasters. 

I did have to pat myself on the back for bringing us down in the boulder field, because that was the one and only advantage I could bring to bear. Spectrademons are a lot of things, but agile is not one of them, and the rough terrain would only exacerbate that problem. The boulders constantly blocking the view made the range advantage slightly less insurmountable. But only slightly. Yeah, I was terrified. 

I was still thinking about plans when I first heard the engine rumbling, not too far away. My body’s first reaction was to freeze and press up against the nearest boulder while whimpering incoherently like a baby. It took a few dreadfully long seconds to still my quivering limbs and remind the part of me that wanted to run away that there was nowhere to run. If Dr. Erobosh got captured before he was done, I’d be trapped out in the middle of the tundra with no supplies and no clue where the ship was. Doing something with these Order goons was the only way to get out of there safe.

From a perch halfway up a large boulder, obscured by haze and other boulders, I could get a good look at the enemy. The buggy had pulled up to a large gap in the boulder field, as close to the center as the vehicle could get. Its crew was a standard squad, five spectrademons and a cambion, the cambion this time being another one of those Unseen, a male humanoid torso with the head and lower body of a giant snake, all wrapped up in what looked like power armor. Note to self: stay away from the cambion. The other good news was that they seemed to be traveling light; no camera drones or mortars or any of the other marvels of science that my darkest imagination might have imagined them packing. It was just the six of them, their individual weapons, and a buggy. 

I stayed there for a minute or so, watching them talk and thanking whatever protocol had led to this group wasting their time for me. Then, in an instant, they started moving, fanning out into the boulder field. Time for chaos.

I took a large-ish chunk of ice in my hand and, praying that I knew how to aim, hurled it up on a high trajectory. The pebble soared hundreds of feet into the air on the low gravity, then came back down more or less where I’d wanted it to; on the far side of the buggy from me. The crack of its impact was loud enough that I could hear it through the helmet, and all at once the spectrademons turned and pursued the source. If they were that easy to distract, I might actually stand a chance at this.

That was how I spent the next few minutes, hiding on top of or behind rocks and boulders, throwing stones around to distract them, occasionally even being so brave as to start up a small rockfall in the path of a spectrademon or two, only to leap into a hidden position a moment before I would be seen. My two-bit impression of a guerrilla war even managed to be a little bit effective. Every second spent navigating a new route after a collapse, or investigating the site of a thrown stone, was one more second Erobosh would have to finish the fuel transfer and get us out of here.

Still, I couldn’t stop them entirely, and soon they began to get wise to my dumbass tricks, only sending one spectrademon out to investigate any disturbance. I left huge gashes in the ice with my claws, just on the off-chance that they’d slow down to figure out what happened, but that didn’t work. The group was spread out over a wide area, enough that I couldn’t keep watch on all six of them at once, but I knew that they were closing in on Dr. Erobosh’s hiding spot.

Without any warning, they stopped, beginning with the cambion and radiating out through the other spectrademons. That was interesting, so against my better judgement I crawled on all sixes across the crest of a huge pile of icy gravel, looking down on the cambion and two of his spectrademons.

The cambion looked pissed, his hood flared out wide and his serpentine body reared up as much as possible, making him at least eight feet tall. I had to shut my eyes and focus to be able to hear him, but his words were fairly clear. “We’ve found them, that much is clear. The gashes, the rockfalls, it’s all meant as a distraction, but the vermin has to be here!”

“Command. Ordered. A. Retreat. To. The. Ship. The. Collective. Is. Almost. Within. Range.” Hearing the sound of a spectrademon’s speech again made me shiver, retreating a step up the side of the gravel mound. Somehow it sounded even worse through a vacuum suit’s speakers.

“I know what command ordered us to do, and I need you to tell them that we are so close to having them. Is the commander really so cowardly that the presence of limp-waisted collective nanny officers will convince him to retreat?”

“Do. Not. Insult. Superior. Officers.”

The cambion gave a partial lunge, as if trying to bite the spectrademon, but pulled back from a few inches away with an angry hiss. “I’ll insult whoever I find needs a good insult. Now return a message to the commander, and tell him that we will return as soon as the vermin have been terminated.”

“Orders. Understood. Sir,” said the spectrademon.

I swore under my breath. I had wasted enough time, but the cambion was too stubborn to give up. Dr. Erobosh needed to be warned, or I needed to come up with a new plan, or something. Then my footing betrayed me, sending a shower of small rocks and icy lumps clattering down the side of the pile. The cambion’s glare shot right up at me, and even from long distance I could see the glimmer of his reptilian eyes. Without an ounce of hesitation, he drew a blaster carbine from his belt and opened fire, the spectrademon at his side doing the same with its agony rifle. 

With all the strength my tiny insectoid body could manage, I jumped backwards, feeling the hot spray of vaporized ice slamming into my back. With a flick of my wings, I twisted mid-air to still land on my feet near the top of the gravel pile. The next leap took me right over the peak of the mound, and right into the crosshairs of another spectrademon on the other side. In a blind panic, I flapped my wings as hard as I could just to shift my trajectory so I wouldn’t land right on top of him. It worked. In fact, I stopped falling altogether, my wings carrying me up and away from the spectrademon in an awkward and unsteady flight.

For several seconds my mind went completely blank with confusion and surprise. Then it hit me: normally my wings weren’t powerful enough to counter my weight, forcing me to rely on leaping, but on this moon my weight was cut by a factor of four. I could fly!

Pretending for the moment that my wings worked anything like the plasma thruster, I twisted around in the air once again and properly took flight, zipping over the boulder field in a wide arc. I couldn’t go to Dr. Erobosh like that, not without alerting the Order to his position and ruining everything. Instead, I flew as fast as I could until I was well away from all of the blasters and agony weapons, then landed in the shadow of a huge and angular chunk of stone. My wings were, of course, incredibly sore and exhausted. 

The good news was that what I had just done was almost certainly showy enough to send the entire squad chasing after me, especially given that Emissary-killing was sort of their entire faction’s raison d’être. The bad news was that I wasn’t even slightly sure if I could actually survive their attention for long enough to get out alive. But I had to try. I had to try.

Too sore and tired to keep climbing or flying, I just walked, continuing in the direction I’m fairly sure was pointing me away from the bad guys. How long had it been since Dr. Erobosh had said that it would take him twenty minutes? Did he even have a way of letting me know, or should I have just headed over there as soon as I thought enough time had passed? I had to make absolutely certain that he wasn’t in any danger. 

The adrenaline… did I even have adrenaline? Emissaries probably had a completely different chemical from adrenaline that was responsible for the fight-or-flight response. Anyway, as the rush of fear slowly faded, I half-forgot the pursuing danger and went back to being able to pay attention to my surroundings. The boulder field, though unnervingly colorless with beiges and grays, also had a sort of alpine beauty to it that I could appreciate. It was cold, but with the suit keeping me warm it wasn’t all that much colder than going on a hike in autumn back home on Earth. I missed Earth; all of the desert planets and lifeless rocks and the metal interior of the Helium Glider just weren’t a substitute. The one thing that would have made it better was if I had had my new body.

Before I could do much to interrogate that thought further, I heard something. The helmet of the suit muffled most sound, but the heavy thudding and clanking of something moving directly ahead of me wasn’t exactly subtle. In a sudden panic, I leapt to one side, to the far side of a pile of microwave-sized stones. If I crouched down and was very, very lucky, nobody on the main path would be able to see me. 

A moment later, the spectrademon came into view. All spectrademons were completely identical, physically. The same hunchback, the same fucked-up half-human face, the same long and wiry arms, the same squat robotic legs. This one carried its agony rifle close to its chest like a proper soldier, its head and limbs covered by thickly padded garments that looked like a high-tech version of wool, presumably for the cold. But it also had something else, one unique thing that I was completely certain I had never seen on another spectrademon.

It was a small object maybe six inches long and an inch across, cylindrical but with tapered ends, made out of shiny silver metal but shaped like a natural crystal, with weird irregular facets and edges and slight curves all over. The spectrademon had it, whatever it was, secured to the butt of its agony rifle by a thin chain, like you would with a dog tag or a key ring. From the instant I saw that object, it felt eminently familiar, like an everyday appliance. I wanted it. I wanted to take it right there and then. A plan flashed into my head impulsively, a plan to leap out and go for the throat with my blades while I still had the element of surprise. 

Then I stopped holding my breath and remembered that I was trying to hide, and that even if I did really want that thing, jumping out and trying to fight a spectrademon was not a smart way to get it. I could ask what it was when I got back to the ship. I rested my hands on the stones and pressed my helmet against the rock so I could get a good look at that spectrademon, and prepared for anything.

The spectrademon stopped moving. Oh fuck. It’s seen me. The ambush plan surfaced in my thoughts again. It slowly turned its head from side to side, the agony rifle still held close. It suspected something, it had to. I tensed my legs for a leap, rolled my wings around, twitched my claw fingers to activate the monomolecular blade. The spectrademon was looking in my direction. Right at me. I could see in its blank eyes that it knew I was there, just deciding if it wanted to kill me now or prolong my torment. One hand moved towards the blaster carbine at its belt. 

Screeching as loud as I could, I leapt out of my hiding place, wings pushing me forward and blades extended in a primal death-charge. My ancestors ten thousand generations back, living in jungles and hunting herbivores in small packs, would have been downright proud. The spectrademon swung its agony rifle around and fired. Instantly, my left wing went completely numb, just as my entire body crashed into the spectrademon. There was no strategy, no technique beyond terrified rage and brutal force. My upper arms grabbed onto the nearest convenient appendage, that being the thing’s neck, and squeezed, while my lower arms frantically punched it in the chest and shoulder, the monomolecular blades sending out showers of sparks as they punched through its carapace like it was thick cardboard. Something was screaming loud enough to block out all other sounds, and given that it wasn’t muffled by my helmet I’m fairly sure that something was me. 

The spectrademon only spent a couple of seconds reeling before it dropped the agony rifle and wrapped both enormous hands around my midsection. I kept stabbing and choking and screaming, barely even noticing. At least, I did until it pushed, hurling me back at least fifteen feet into the side of a hill. Ow. My elytra had cracked. 

The spectrademon turned. It was bleeding in at least twenty places, rivulets of ugly coconut-milk blood trickling down its chest before freezing solid. With uneasy steps, it moved toward me, clumsily grabbing for the blaster carbine. Then it stopped, and just took a moment to breathe heavily. It keeled over into the dust and ice, and its eyes closed. It was dead. I had killed it.

I wanted to throw up, but I knew if I did I would drown in my suit, so I swallowed it. It tasted like venom. My whole mouth tasted like venom, and it had been for at least an hour, until I almost forgot what it was like for my mouth to not taste like venom. How many was this now? Two at least; three if the Corringer goon hadn’t made it. Four depending on how well Ian’s dipshit friend made it in the hospital back on Earth. I had to swallow a bit more vomit. At some point in the last few weeks I had turned into the type of person who had killed at least two people. Cyborgs, sure, and fascist cyborgs at that, but they still could think, still had histories.

I crawled across the ground on all sixes until I was sitting next to the body of the spectrademon. Poking it a few times confirmed that it was very dead. “I’m sorry. You were probably going to kill me if I didn’t do it first, but I’m so sorry. I didn’t… I don’t know what I wanted to do, but I didn’t mean to kill anybody, not you or that cambion or anyone else.”

A staticky sound, like a radio, suddenly started up from somewhere on the body. “I’m aware of General Dark’s thoughts on the matter, but we are—“

It was the cambion again, talking with someone.

“…yes, sir. Of course, sir,” he said. “Alright everyone. We’re doing a full retreat to the ship. Get back to the rendezvous.”

The radio clicked off. Thank goodness for that, at least. I stood up, getting ready to go back to Dr. Erobosh mission accomplished. Then I saw the agony rifle, discarded on the ground a few feet away, with that little object still chained to the butt. I still wanted it. The blades cut through the chain like it was nothing, leaving me with… whatever this thing was. It felt warm, just the tiniest bit warmer than the frozen surroundings. I turned off the blades and considered just leaving the thing, but I really didn’t want to. This was just so interesting.

“I really hope I didn’t just pick up the One Ring or something,” I muttered to myself.

Not feeling like flying anymore, I spent a few seconds remembering which direction it was to go to Dr. Erobosh, and started walking. A couple of minutes later, I heard a voice inside my helmet. 

“The fuel transfer is done, you can come back now,” said Dr. Erobosh.

I froze. “We’ve been in radio contact this whole time?”

“Yes,” he said.

“How much did you hear?”

Dr. Erobosh sighed. “Everything,” he said. “I’m sorry. It sounded rough out there. I promise that I will be available if you need to talk about anything that happened.”

I looked down at the little metal cylinder clutched in my upper right hand. “Thanks for the offer, Dr. Erobosh.”

“You may call me Xara, if you wish,” he said. “I understand that humans often have trouble pronouncing my entire first name.”

“Sure thing, Xara,” I said. “Let’s get back to the ship.”

Pay no attention to the mysterious metal object that seemingly compelled our hero to grab it... nothing to see there... Though maybe if you click the link below and subscribe to my Patreon for only $3 a month, there might be some more information in the four extra chapters of this book that have been uploaded there... Who knows... And while you're there, you might even gain access to my own Discord server, or gain access to other rewards like exclusive short stories and voting rights on patron polls... It's a mystery... Otherwise, I'll see everyone in just one week for Chapter 21: Serpents, Cities, and Self-consciousness... Or will I?