Serpents, Cities, and Self-Consciousness
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We still ran out of fuel before getting back to the ship and had to walk back. But there were no fascist cyborgs trying to kill us, and we had made it far enough that the walk was only three and a half hours, so it was more of an annoyance than anything else. My cracked elytra hurt like a twisted ankle, but I wasn’t putting any weight on it so it was probably fine. 

I was still holding onto that metal-crystal thing when we passed back through the airlock. The outer layers of our suits were so cold that Stellina had to pump the airlock full of air at body temperature for us to sit in and spend another fifteen minutes warming up. The entire time I was turning that little object over and over in my hands. The more I looked at it, the more it became clear that I’d seen it before somewhere, but although it was on the tip of my tongue, I could never remember the all-important question of where. I also knew, with about the same level of certainty as if Dr. Erobosh had told me, that it was an important item, and that I needed to keep it on my person whenever possible. But who had told me?

Getting the membrane suit off felt like heaven; the freedom to finally fold my claws back into their slot, stretch out my legs without feeling the strange resistance of the suit, and all the other little things combined to make for a deeply satisfying experience. Well, everything except for the sudden incapacitating pain in my elytron. 

I had just enough time to put on a luhuel before staggering back out into the main room and asking for medical attention. I was still holding the metal thing. Stellina ran up into the control room in a panic, returning a second later with what looked like a hot glue gun, but she swore up and down was a medical device for species with an exoskeleton. While she was gluing my elytron back together, I showed her the thing I’d found. 

“Wow, taking war trophies already, kiddo? You’re getting used to this quick,” she said, reaching around to hold the edge of my elytra together while applying more glue.

“It’s not a trophy!” I snapped. “I just… really wanted it. What does it do?”

“Can I take a look at it?”

For a second I was worried that I was going to get angry at her, start snapping that it was “Mine! Mine!” or something like that. I handed it to her without a challenge. It was important, sure, but she wasn’t going to steal it for no reason, and even if she did, it wouldn’t be a huge deal.

Stellina closely examined the device from every angle. “Well, I would say it’s decorative… but it doesn’t have the right weight to be hollow, or a solid material. And it’s warm… I have no idea what this is.”

“Could you make it easier to carry?” I asked, taking it back from her.

“Looks like it had a loop welded onto it, so I guess the polyfac could make it into a necklace?”

“I’d appreciate if you could do that, Stellina,” I said. The thought of having that little thing, which I was going to need a name for, hanging safely around my neck was… comforting. “Um. Thank you.”

“Is Alex going to be alright?” said Arana, walking down the ramp from the control room.

Stellina looked up, smiling at her. “I’m not a doctor, dear,” she said. “I’m just following the instructions. But the crack has been sealed. How do you feel, kiddo?”

I gingerly opened and closed the injured elytron. The adhesive held, and at least as long as I only moved it slowly, there was no pain. “I think it works as long as I don’t push it.”

“Good. I’m glad that you weren’t hurt any worse,” she said. “Not sure I’d have been able to handle that, after everything.”

A warm feeling rose up in me, which I quickly quashed. Stellina caring if I lived or died did not offset everything else she had done. I sat in silence, turning the little object over and over in my hand, while Arana explained the situation. 

The Lance of Croatoan had decided to take pity on us, and would be escorting our ship to the nearest major Collective world, the colony of New Malagasy. Of course, they’d have to spend some time making more fuel for us first, because we had apparently run out of that. Once we made it to New Malagasy, we’d spend a few days there while my parents made arrangements and Dr. Erobosh hired on more crew, after which I’d say my goodbyes to Miri and Quinn so they could go back to Earth while my parents and I continued on to their relatives deeper in Collective space. It was a simple plan, but one that would get everyone to where they needed to be. I mostly couldn’t care less, though knowing that I’d only have a week before Quinn and Miri left for good… I can’t say it hurt. But it made me feel cold inside, and I think it did the same for everyone else. 

Early the next morning, a shuttle as large as the Helium Glider came down, and a few Liberates in heavy-duty military spacesuits spent most of the day refueling us. That evening, we finally said goodbye to that terrible frozen moon, and blasted off for our rendezvous with the Lance of Croatoan. Apparently they were quite intrigued to hear what the hell we were doing all the way out there, getting ourselves nearly killed by the Order. To be fair, if I hadn’t been there the whole time, I probably would have demanded to know what the hell we were doing, too. 

Dr. Erobosh showed me a holo-display image of the Lance of Croatoan as we approached it in orbit, with the Helium Glider next to it for scale. The cruiser was about four times longer than our ship, and shaped like a long, thin mushroom with a black metal cap covered in spikes and a cream-colored polymer stem made up of a bunch of smaller segments bolted together like buoys. The cap, apparently, was an armored shell, strong enough to resist most weapons and mounted with as many blasters as the cruiser could hold, itself mounted on struts so that there was a thirty-foot gap between the armor and the important stuff, like the crew. The stem, then, was all of the fuel tanks, with the engines at the bottom. It wasn’t at all what I’d expected from the layout of a badass warship, but the sheer size of it was impressive in and of itself.

It was right about dinner-time when we docked with the Lance of Croatoan, and the energy in our little skiff was high. Arana and Stellina were excitedly exchanging stories about the war against the Order and wondering what had changed in the last seventeen years, while Miri and Quinn were mostly just excited to be out of the confined spaces of the Glider, and Dr. Erobosh seemed vaguely bored. I was… not sure how to feel. No matter how much I tried to give in to my childish excitement at the promise of cool space navy, the memory of killing the spectrademon, of nearly falling to my death, kept echoing around inside my skull like an ad jingle that just won’t go away. When the doors of the ship opened up to reveal the umbilicus, I wasn’t so much excited as I was relieved to have something else to think about.

We all clustered around the doorway, where there was another person in a uniform to greet us. They were on the short end, a couple inches less than me, with a slight build and jet-black skin, their hair tied back in a single tight braid. “Welcome aboard the CSC Lance of Croatoan, friends,” they said with a slight bow. “Commander Carver has been asking to hear your story.”

“It is an interesting story, truth be told,” said Arana. “Is there anything we can call you?”

“Sergeant Hajjar. Xe/xem,” xe said sheepishly. 

Arana bowed slightly in return. “Lead on, Sergeant.”

We all stayed together as Hajjar led us down the umbilicus, which terminated in an unremarkable chamber with two women standing guard. We passed quickly from there into a maze of passageways, doors, intersections and so on. The hallways were undecorated metal and exposed piping, but surprisingly spacious for a military vessel, nine or ten feet tall and seven or eight wide, enough for us to move easily while still leaving room for people to pass us. Not that there was anyone passing us, oddly.

The trip wasn’t long, which made sense given that the inhabitable portion of the ship was still about the size of a twelve-story building. There was an elevator on the far side of the ship from the entrance, for some reason, which we all packed into and took down two floors. When the doors opened up, my senses were assaulted by a barrage of sights and sounds.

It looked like a combination cafeteria, convention hall, sitting room, and foyer. The far wall was lined with nutrifacs, and most of the room was taken up by circular and rectangular tables for eating or relaxing. There were also a few TV screens mounted along the walls, all turned off, and a few shelves full of actual paper books, all used and worn, plus dull grey terminals in the corners full of recharging Ariels.

More importantly, the room was absolutely packed. I didn’t do an exact count, but there must have been at least twenty people waiting for us, probably more. Many of them were Liberates; others were Unseen, the snake people. Several others were of two races I’d never met before: a huge, lumbering, ogre-like species with dull grey skin and flattened features, and disk-shaped metal skinned creatures that either crawled on tendrils or floated on jets of air. They were grouped into small clusters and talking amongst each other when we first arrived, only to hear the sound of the elevator doors opening and instantly turn in our direction. 

Sergeant Hajjar was the first to exit the elevator. “Crew of the Helium Glider,” xe said with a flourish, “may I introduce you to the crew of the Lance of Croatoan. Compatriots, this is the crew of the Helium Glider.”

Arana stepped confidently out of the elevator, a grin on her face, and her confidence inspired the rest of us to follow. At the same time, one Unseen slithered forward from out of the assemblage. 

She was black-scaled with thin rings of white down her body, her tail trailing behind her for at least eighteen feet. Her only real piece of clothing was a sort of sleeveless shirt layered with armor plating that exposed her arms, which were buff as fuck to put it lightly. She also had on a pair of Ariel glasses, and several decoratively-shaped pieces of metal buckled around her tail at regular intervals.

The Unseen scanned our group with slit-pupiled eyes, her tongue flicking out between her scaled lips every few seconds. I’m pretty sure she raised an eyebrow when her gaze passed over me, but it was hard to tell without actual eyebrows. “Commander Xiuying Naga Carver of the CSC Lance of Croatoan. She/her,” she said, nodding her head. “Might I know who you all are?”

“Dr. Xaranañilok Erobosh, former researcher for the Division of Nuclear Technologies on Bouwon-Phane. He/him.”

“Uh, Quinn Sebastian Brandeis. Seller of weed, defeater of cops. He/him.”

“Stellina Karus, former free trader, former baseball coach for the Broadleaf Chipmunks. She/her.”

“Miriam Jian Hewitt, black belt, top of my class last time I checked. Captain of the chess team, if that matters? She/her.”

“Um. Are we really doing this? Okay, sure. Alexander… um, Sierra, I guess? Emissary who didn’t die. Haven’t really accomplished much. Any pronouns are fine, really.”

“Admiral Arana Karus, retired. She/her.”

At Arana’s introduction, Commander Carver reared up, and half the people in the room stopped breathing. “Admiral Karus…” she said, in reverent tones. “We thought you had left Collective space!”

“I did,” she said. “I had retired to a planet in the Forbidden Zone with my wife and son.” She gestured to me. If I had the physical capability to curl into a ball, swallow my own butt, and vanish from reality, I would have. “But apparently the Order has been active enough to send out patrol cruisers to the very edge of our territory, so it’s about time that I returned.”

Commander Carver snapped into a stiff salute, lowering down to a more conventional height. “Glad to have you on board, ma’am. My crew will be sure to get you where you need to go.”

Arana waved her aside. “I’m retired, I’m retired. The rank is just a word, unless High Command decides to reinstate me.”

One of the big aliens in the crowd chuckled. “They’d have to be damn fools to not reinstate the Tigress of Telemachus Cloud,” he said. Several of the crew around him made vague noises of assent. 

Arana sighed and covered her face.

“Tigress?” said Quinn, raising an eyebrow.

“Of course, ma’am,” said Commander Carver, dropping the salute. “I’m assuming, then, that that is why you were out here in a personal skiff? Trying to return to your position?”

“Well… it was a secondary objective,” Arana said. “My main goal is to make sure that my child stays safe, and I believe that the Collective core worlds are the safest place for him. Most of my relatives are there.”

Carver glanced over at me, confused at first, until her eyes widened in a look of realization. “Ah. I was not aware that you had adopted. We will keep your son safe as well, I can guarantee you that.”

I could almost feel their eyes on me. Expressions of pity and empathy, sadness at the poor Emissary who’d lost their world before they even got to know it. They weren’t particularly good looks.

Stellina must have sensed my discomfort, because she was sure to step in front of me, giving me some time out of the spotlight. “So, what do we do now?” she asked. 

“Well, unless you disagree, we ran a vote and agreed to giving you full access to our ship’s amenities,” said Carver. “From our previous conversation, it sounded like you had been cooped up inside that shuttle for far too long. The Helium Glider can remain docked with us for protection until we reach New Malagasy.”

“Yes!” said Quinn. “Way too long. I’m pretty sure my house on Earth is bigger than the entire ship.”

Sergeant Hajjar, who had been dutifully silent during the entire exchange, leaned over to Arana and asked, “Are the other two also your children?”

“What?” Arana said. “No, of course not. They’re friends of Alex’s, who wanted to go along for the trip.”

Hajjar nodded, and didn’t say any more.

Though Hajjar offered to give us the introductory tour of the ship, Carver ended up doing it herself, after some exceedingly polite argument. Admittedly, there wasn’t all that much to show; though much larger than our tiny skiff, the Lance of Croatoan was still a warship, which meant that livable space was not a design priority compared to armor, engines, fuel, giant lasers, and so on. Most of the “inhabitable” portion of the ship was taken up by the main reactor at the bottom and the cargo bay at the top, which Carver only briefly showed us. The crew and marines on board lived in cabins similar in size to the ones on the Helium Glider, with several unoccupied in case we wanted to transfer over, on the deck above the common area. On the floor above that were the sickbay, the commander’s private office, a large briefing room, and to Miri’s delight, a small gym. Lastly there was the command deck, placed over two floors in the exact center of the ship, with the commander’s chair, comms, and the navigation console on the top level around the holo-display, and the sensors, engineering relay, and ship’s computer a level below. 

Overall, I was somewhat surprised the degree to which the Lance of Croatoan closely resembled the Helium Glider, at least in terms of design. Sure, it was more spartan and efficient, and the difference in sheer scale was obvious, but much of the baseline technology was apparently quite standardized. The cruiser’s three polyfacs were literally identical to the one on the Glider, the holo-display was a similar model but scaled up, and even the reactor room had a nearly-identical smell of metal and ozone to the engine room. I discreetly asked Dr. Erobosh about it, and he claimed that it was because the Helium Glider was of Architectine design, which was widely considered to be the best and most effective, thus being widely copied across known space. Of course. 

Once the tour was done, finally, Carver brought us back down to the common room for dinner. The food was about what I’d come to expect from space fare; rich and filling, but not exactly complex or interestingly presented, and with an unusually chemical smell to it. The crew was already there and waiting for us when we arrived, and the moment that Arana sat down she was assaulted by questions about her military history and requests for stories of her time in the navy. Miri, Quinn, and Stellina took that as an opportunity to dig in, as did the rest of the crew. Dr. Erobosh and I sat next to each other at the far end of the table, after reminding Carver about our unique dietary requirements. Thanks to the power of nutrifacs, we only had to wait a couple of minutes.

After dinner, we all split up, having enough space to not be in each other’s company for the first time in over a week. Miri went to transfer her things from her cabin on the Helium Glider to one on the Lance of Croatoan, Stellina and Dr. Erobosh went to go read updates from the cruiser’s computer, Quinn remained in the common room to play card games with the marines, leaving me to pull Arana aside into my cabin.

“What did you want to ask?” Arana said, sitting down on top of my desk.

“Why are these people talking about you like they just met Patton?” I said.

She sighed, her head sagging. “I was wondering when I was going to have to explain this… Yes, I was in the Collective navy before adopting you, during the war against the Order of the Pale Star. I have a talent for commanding ships, and because it was wartime, I rose through the ranks faster than I could have possibly expected. I made Vice Admiral at thirty-four, and was given the honorary rank of Admiral after I retired to raise you.”

“But you didn’t win the war,” I said. “Why did you retire?”

“Because I was tired, Alex,” she said mournfully. “I was tired of fighting, of having the lives of others in my hands! I just wanted to settle down, to watch you grow up, and forget about matters of life and death…”

I was divided, with so much to say, so much emotion to pour out. “Well, you did a shitty job of that. You know there’s a difference between letting yourself forget for a bit and being willfully in denial of everything going on.”

“I know, I know. I thought one of us was going to tell you before it was too late, but I was too afraid of how you’d react to the news to just do it.”

“Not to mention that what you were leaving behind was a war against a bunch of genocidal fascists who had just finished killing the better part of my entire species! I understand that this sort of thing has costs, but…”

“I thought that they were defeated,” Arana muttered. “We all did. Or at least that they’d had their noses bloodied enough to not try anything like that again. We were wrong.”

I ground my mandibles together, hissing at her, my arms folded against my chest. “No shit. They’re fascists, if they were smart enough to learn their lesson, they wouldn’t be fascists. I wish you and Stellina had never adopted me…”

Arana’s shoulders sagged, and she had to squeeze tears out of her eyes. “What was I supposed to do?” she said, voice wavering. “She was on the last shuttle leaving the planet, half-dead from radiation sickness, hardly had enough left in her to keep her eyes open. But she still handed me that little egg, even though she could hardly see who I was. And she told me to take good care of it. And…” she stopped to take a long, slow breath, “you were warm, still. And I could feel you moving around inside that pale shell, and see you curled up when I held your egg up to the light. You couldn’t say that about all of the eggs that were taken off of Rrukatrin. Stellina and I had been talking about raising a child for a while, and here you were in my arms.

“There was nothing we could do to save the Emissaries. The Order, there were just too many of them and too few of us. But I thought that… maybe I’d been given a chance to save some tiny part of the Emissaries, or even just one Emissary. I’m sorry to hear that I’ve failed at that task too.”

She stood up from the desk, and walked out of the cabin, then out of the ship. I couldn’t move or speak for a while after that, and even when I did it was only to curl up in my bunk. I remembered before, when I was still with Miri, how we used to cuddle for hours, and she’d joke about how unmanly I was being and I’d kiss her on the forehead after every dumb problematic joke. I remembered watching anime with Quinn, joking about which characters we found the hottest and all that bullshit. Emissaries can’t cry, not the way humans do. Not being able to cry is the worst. 



The next few days were a lot like having to stay in a hotel because there was a snowstorm and all of the planes were grounded. It was still staying in one place for an extended period of time, but the space was big enough and there were enough things to do that it didn’t feel like torture. Compared to all those long trips on the Helium Glider, it was downright pleasant, if only because it was physically possible to be away from the others for hours at a time. 

Stellina did what she had said she would, and made a chain for the tool. Once it became more convenient to do so, I started wearing that thing pretty much everywhere. None of the Lance of Croatoan’s records could identify what it was, where it had been made, or what purpose it served, but Commander Carver assured me that there would be better records on an actual planet. Whatever it was, wearing it made me feel safer, and didn’t seem to have any side effects, so I wore it. 

There was something that Miri had said to me right before the kerfuffle that stuck with me, the bit about my metamorphosis being a natural part of my life cycle and all that. I realized that I hadn’t had much time to myself since the change, aside from that one time in Miri’s house, and that if I was going to be spending the rest of my lifespan in this thing, that I should probably stop pretending it didn’t exist. With the greater space afforded by the cruiser, I could take some time to examine myself in the mirror, taking note of the way that the joints of my carapace rubbed together when I stimmed, or figuring out how to actually keep my antennae under control. Sometimes I would eat food without covering my mouth, and try not to give a damn about the odd looks. Once or twice I even tried using the ship’s gym, when there were fewer people around, which was where I discovered that I was somehow even weaker than before. 

All in all, I started to kind of appreciate the way I looked. There was this sort of smooth, elegant quality to my features with all of the curved lines and hard shell. Having extra arms and wings and antennae was pretty useful, too! I was reminded of something a school therapist had told me once, about appreciating my body merely for getting me from place to place and being useful. 

Still, there was something off about me that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was something with the overall shape of my body, not that it was inhuman, but that it was… off. As the days went on, I became increasingly okay with being a beetle, but I almost wished that I were a different beetle. It was a too-familiar feeling. Before I had blamed it on being fat and wishing that I wasn’t, but by any objective measure I was no longer fat. I could almost see the thing in the mirror as being me, but there was still something missing. Part of me wished that I hadn’t left that makeup kit back in my locker on Earth. Maybe if my porcelain mask of a face had a bit of depth to it, some highlighting, and a touch of eyeliner…

I was woken up early on the fifth day of the trip by a very excited Stellina, telling me that we were about to dock with the spaceport over New Malagasy. It took me a second to realize that she was real and not a manifestation of my strange, crystalline dreams, at which point I jumped out of bed hard enough to brush against the ceiling. I had just enough time to throw on some clothes, my Ariel, the Ariel glasses, and the tool necklace before the gravity shut off, letting me know that we were in the final docking stages. It was an awkward fifteen minutes of floating around and waiting before the umbilicus doors finally opened up and everybody started filing through.

So, interesting fact about this one: I actually cried a little while writing the scene between Arana and Alex in the middle. I hope it works for others as well as it did for me. The other thing: it's only been a week since the last chapter! And there's a reason for that. For the entire month of February, the next three chapters will be releasing on a weekly basis, instead of every other week. I had built up enough of a backlog to make that possible, and in fact even went on a two-week writing break, which was nice. Of course, that still means there are a few chapters that haven't been released yet, and if you want to see all of those right now, you can click the link below and join my Patreon, where you can see all of my chapters for only $3 a month. For higher tiers, you can gain access to a series of exclusive short stories, see and comment on my early drafts, and even gain access to exclusive patron polls. If not, I'll see you in only one week for Chapter 22: New Malagasy