The spaceport, a wheel-shaped station connected to New Malagasy by a series of space elevators, looked a lot like a larger and more lively version of the spaceport on Nahoroth. It was bustling and busy with aliens of all kinds, though the most common by far were Liberates, Unseen, the giants I’d met on the Lance of Croatoan, and Pioneers. It was awe-inspiring, on some level, seeing the enclosed walkways and small shops of a typical airport extending out for over a hundred square miles. Stellina told me that the people who worked in the spaceport also lived here, giving it a population of at least a couple of million on its own. Apparently she’d once dated a woman who went to school on New Malagasy, and she assured me that the planet itself was even more breathtaking.
Commander Carver had quite a bit of explanations to give about why she was at the civilian spaceport, who she had been escorting, and so on. For whatever reason, she couldn’t just use her Ariel to talk to high command, and instead had to pull rank as a military officer to use the spaceport’s Q-comm, whatever that was, something that was normally only allowed in emergencies. Even still, she took nearly two and a half hours to get into a conversation with the right person for this, giving me plenty of time to stretch my legs, sample the local cuisine (with proper labeling for Emissary-friendly foods this time) and take in the scenery.
The most surprising thing for me was that almost everything was in English. Some of the wording was a bit weird, and some of the words seemed made-up, but I could understand 98% of what was being said without even using the translator on my Ariel. And English wasn’t even the only Earth language used. Miri was almost ecstatic when she overheard a Liberate traveler talking in Mandarin, ending up in a half-hour conversation with this very friendly stranger. I could also hear snippets of conversation around me in Spanish and what my Ariel informed me to be “Modernized Eastern Kiswahili”, which was a name that I vaguely recognized as being from Earth.
“Hey, Stellina?” I asked, sitting on a public bench with my Ariel in my lap.
“Why’s everybody speaking Earth languages?”
Stellina raised an eyebrow at me. “Because it was either that or speaking Dominator languages, and fuck that,” she said, answering approximately nothing.
“Did we never explain that?” she said, with a look like the ground had just started collapsing out from under her. “I’m sorry, uh, how do I put this…”
“I know that the Liberates were slaves to the Dominators,” I said confidently. “And there was a big war, the Slave War or the Final Rebellion or whatever. It’s why you’re called Liberates, right?”
“But why Earth languages, instead of…” I shrugged, “Emissarine, or some Pioneer language or something?”
“Because we wanted to embrace our homeworld, I guess,” Stellina said. “Harken back to the place we’d been taken from, even if the formation of the Forbidden Zone had taken it from us.”
“Liberates are from Earth?”
“Of course we are!” Stellina said, sounding almost offended. “Do you really think evolution is really stupid enough to create the exact same species twice?”
I paused for a few seconds, working through the implications. “The Dominators… were they abducting people?”
Stellina nodded. “For almost a century and a half, starting… four centuries ago, I think? They’d take them from all over the world, dozens or hundreds at a time, from ships and isolated colonies and stuff. Back then people were more willing to assume that a village had starved to death, or been cursed by the gods, or that a ship had sunk. They probably would have kept doing it if the Forbidden Zone hadn’t formed, seemingly out of nowhere.”
“Hence the Lance of Croatoan,” I said. “Or this entire planet being named after… something from Earth. The name sounds familiar. Were the Unseen, and those giant guys, and the disk robots, also slaves of the Dominators? Or are they just the ones who immigrated here?”
“There’s a reason why they call themselves ‘the Collective’,” said Stellina. “Four races bound together and all that.”
“Then where did the other two come from?”
“The Dominator’s gene labs,” Commander Carver hissed, settling around Stellina’s end of the bench. “Or their nanotech facilities, in the case of the Helpful. My grandmother said that they created dozens of species like that, and us and the Sunder were the only ones tough enough to form a stable population.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t tense up when she started talking. Blame it on not being used to aliens, or on some kind of residual insectoid instinct when it came to predator species, or whatever. “Holy crap you’re quiet,” I muttered to myself.
“We didn’t call ourselves the Unseen for no reason,” Carver said. Without having to shift her lower body, she coiled around until she could rest her arms on the bench right behind my shoulder. “I could put a bell on my collar so you always know when I’m coming, if you want…” My eyes squeezed shut and my antennae pointed directly at her. Hopefully she would go away.
A moment of silence passed. “Wait. Sorry. Is there something wrong with her?” she said, turning to Stellina.
“Personal space, please!” I hissed.
She recoiled, forming into a big conical snake pile near to Stellina. “Apologies. I don’t often get to let loose on shore leave. Sometimes I… let too loose.”
“We raised him on a backwater world, so I imagine he’s still getting used to interacting with other species,” Stellina explained, apologetically.
“Yeah, that. That is the only problem,” I said, annoyed. “I’m guessing that you finished your conversation with the higher-ups or whatever?”
“I did,” she said, folding her arms behind her back in military fashion. “An official escort will be here for Arana and her family in about a week, where she will be brought to Triumph of Emancipation. If the other two, Miri and Quinn, would like to immigrate, there will be space for them as well. In the meantime, the Governor of New Malagasy would very much like to speak to you, on the planet below.”
“Miri and Quinn aren’t going to be coming with us,” Stellina said. “They still have lives that they can’t leave behind. We’ve arranged for Dr. Erobosh to return them as soon as he’s hired a crew.”
Carver nodded. “As soon as the others have returned, we’ll be going to the elevator, then.”
“I think I saw Amanda heading anti-spin,” Stellina said. “Something about eighteen years of system updates, or something like that.”
Carver nodded, and slithered off, apparently knowing which way “anti-spin” was. I waited until she was well out of earshot before speaking up. “What the heck was that about?”
Stellina looked at me with concern. “What was what—oh, right. Something else you should have been warned about. Unseen, as a cultural thing, tend to be a bit more… close, than Liberates usually are? I know that can be off-putting to people. Me, I got used to it, but I’ve never seen an Unseen who’s pushy about it, so if you just tell them they’re crossing a line they’ll cut the throttle in a second.”
“Oh. Okay…” For some reason, I didn’t feel like telling my mother how weirdly satisfied I’d been that the commander had called me “she.”
It took a few minutes to collect everyone together, and several more minutes to find the elevator. Thankfully we had good timing, and the next elevator ride was less than an hour away. Taking an elevator from space to the surface was about as undramatic as physically possible; sort of like a long bus ride, but arranged vertically instead of horizontally.
The ground-base of the elevator was much more spartan and practical than the spaceport at the other end. There were diners and motels and other such things, but none of the huge open spaces or larger businesses that stood out on the station. It was designed for people to spend a few hours, a night at most, before going up the elevator, whereas the spaceport was the edge of an entire city.
The other potential explanation was that, well, there’s only so much stuff you can fit onto a floating platform in the middle of the ocean. Most of the amenities were all inside, a single huge pyramid of orange-and-yellow-painted metal with the elevator cables extending up from the peak, stretching into the clear blue skies until they faded from view. So when we stepped outside and suddenly there was no more than a beach’s width of metal platform between myself and the ocean, it was a bit of a shock. Miri, appropriately, was pumping her fist about how she totally had seen it coming.
The weirdest thing about the platform was that it was moving. It was hard to tell at first, but as I looked out at the waves I realized that they were all slowly drifting to my left. As soon as I noticed that, I started feeling a little bit sick. The platform hadn’t felt like it was moving, and it wasn’t even rocking like boats are supposed to, so whatever part of the nervous system decides to hit the nausea button, hit it. There were all sorts of incredible vehicles, helicopters the size of passenger jets and high-speed hovercraft and more, taking off and landing on the edge of the platform by the dozens. I would probably have stared at them taking off and landing, my mandibles hanging open in awe, if I hadn’t instead been sitting down, my head in my hands, staring at the safe and unmoving floor until my thorax stopped complaining.
We took a helicopter, one of those cool ones with two rotors, and which was apparently sent just to pick us up, and nobody else. Having a famous war hero for an adoptive mother had its perks. For once, it wasn’t a very long trip, no more than half an hour from the platform before the coast came into view. And what a view it was.
The coastline was obviously inhabited, but didn’t look like any pictures of coastal cities I’d ever seen. There were people on the beach, surfing and sunbathing and doing other things that one does on a beach, but the land behind them wasn’t a morass of bungalows and hotels. Indeed, with the exception of a few small structures that looked like changing rooms or lifeguard stations, the land appeared to be completely untamed woodland. The only structures, the only signs that this was a city planet, were the towers.
Each one must have been almost two miles tall, tree-trunks of steel and glass and bright green plant matter that might as well have been holding up the sky. Like a tree, they had branches, platforms gracefully extending from their sides which bore helipads and enormous gardens and domed sports stadiums, and huge steel-cable vines that carried monorail cars from trunk to trunk. Their huge pillar roots sank into the sea, sucking water in and blowing it back out, and their tops were crowned with hundreds of antennae and radio towers that would have dwarfed any but the largest high-rises on Earth.
The towers were spaced evenly down the coastline in each direction, each one about a mile from its two neighbors, and as far as I could tell from the helicopter there weren’t any further inland. There was no time to really drink in what I was seeing, because almost as soon as we were within sight of the shoreline, the pilot locked in on one tower in particular and started bringing us down on one of the steel lily pads. I kept my face pressed up against the window until well after we had set down, looking across the gap with all eight eyes as wide as they could go.
Miri had to tap me on the shoulder to get me to start moving again. We had an escort waiting for us right outside the helicopter, this time in the form of a pair of extremely chatty secretaries who absolutely could not hear enough of Arana’s story about fleeing to Earth. They brought us into the building, and started to lead us up to the governor’s office. The inside of the tower was almost as spectacular as the outside, of course. It was absolutely lousy with space, every walkway the size of a two-lane road and every room big enough to fit a smallish elephant. In the center of the structure there was an enormous atrium, extending hundreds of feet up and down, ringed with elevators so large that they contained multiple levels inside of them, almost like a bus.
So we met the governor. Arana gave the speech about where she had been for seventeen years and who I was and what Miri, Quinn, and Xara were doing there, and it felt like she’d told the entire story at least five other times in the last week. The governor smiled, and shook Arana’s hands, and ensured all of us that we’d have the best stay possible on New Malagasy, and it was a beautiful planet, and they’d be happy to have us, blah blah blah.
All six of us were able to have separate rooms, though my parents stayed together for obvious reasons. I decided to get a room all to myself. Dr. Erobosh’s room had an airlock, and the entire thing was pressurized with chlorine gas instead of oxygen.
Living in the autoplex felt so different from life on board a spaceship that it’s almost impossible to compare. There was room, room to go anywhere and do anything I could possibly want. I could vanish into a far corner of the autoplex and not have to see anyone I knew for an entire day. The entire thing was designed to be incredibly friendly to visitors, with free maps on every corner and free transit to any part of the autoplex, and even most of the restaurants were completely free. Each autoplex had a population of around a hundred thousand, plus or minus twenty percent, and as such was fully equipped to basically be a small city in and of itself, except arranged vertically and contained within a single structure. If I had felt the need to be even more isolated and to be in an even more open area, I could have chartered a stay in the wilds.
Apparently, all nine billion of the planet’s inhabitants lived in autoplexes, all of which were strung out along the coastline so that they could suck up water and have a place to deposit waste heat. The rest of the planet was one giant nature preserve that one could go visit if one wanted to. I wasn’t feeling it.
Oddly, though, despite the mind-boggling increase in space, Miri and Quinn started actually trying to spend time with me. When we crossed paths, Miri didn’t leave the room, but instead walked right up to me and asked what I’d been up to. Quinn was the same, telling me about interesting little nooks and crannies of the autoplex and inviting me over. One day we spent four hours together, all three of us, watching stuff at a hologram movie theater of sorts just because we could.
The adults were much busier and more distant. Dr. Erobosh was traveling a lot of the time, negotiating with new crew members for the Helium Glider once Stellina and Arana were gone. Arana and Stellina, meanwhile, spent most of their time sending messages back and forth by courier drone to Triumph of Emancipation and waiting for updates, or else meeting all the important bigwigs of the colony.
The all-important day when the transport would arrive crept closer and closer, and my desire to absolutely not have to think about what would happen afterwards grew ever stronger. Whenever I did start thinking about it, I felt sick. Quinn was still my friend, I felt like I might still have a chance to mend bridges with Miri if I could figure out what was going on in her head, and Dr. Erobosh was… himself. But those weren’t the ones I was going to get to spend my time with. Instead, I was going with Arana and Stellina, the two who had adopted me instead of letting me go with my own species, only to then spend the majority of my life lying to me, and stay with their shitty relatives.
Of course, I was eighteen years old, which meant I had options. Stellina and Arana couldn’t actually force me to go with them. Going back to Earth with my current body was a nonstarter, of course. But New Malagasy was a fine planet, and I wouldn’t be missing out on much if I just… stayed. I could go to school on that planet, have my own home, find my way in the world. If I looked long enough, I could possibly even get in touch with other Emissaries and live with my own species. Or find a hot snake girlfriend just to show Miri that I didn’t need her. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. Staying behind and fending for myself was almost certain to be better for me than going with my parents, logically speaking, but even as I formed plans upon plans, I knew with resigned certainty that I didn’t have the courage.
I was thinking about that, part of me coming up with plans for where to go and what to do while the other part berated myself for not having the courage to do any of it, when I walked up to the row of rooms where we’d been staying. Quinn’s room was right next to mine, and Miri’s room next to his, and seeing them suddenly inspired me to take them to a place, maybe lunch or just exploring the lower floors. The door to Miri’s room was open, though I still knocked to give her a second to prepare.
She and Quinn were in the middle of talking when I walked in, Miri sitting on the bed and Quinn on his back on a table. “Hey, Alex,” Miri said, a little wistfully.
“S’up, dude,” Quinn said.
I was about to ask if they wanted to do something with me, but their tones combined with… something else told me that something was wrong. It was like there was something about the air. “Are you two alright?”
Miri shot Quinn a sidelong glance. He sighed. “We’re going to miss you,” he said.
“Yeah, of course we’re going to miss you,” said Quinn. “You’ve been my best friend for, what, five years now? I’m not just going to forget about you the moment you’re gone.”
“It already seems like you’ve forgotten about me half the time, though,” I said, folding my lower arms. “You ran off without me,” Quinn winced when I mentioned it, “leaving me stranded on an alien crime planet!”
He pushed off the table, sitting upright, and stared right into my eyes. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t think… I didn’t think ahead. And I knew that we were going to be separating for good, so I thought I should just slip away for a bit and get something to celebrate with, you know?” He got off the table, balling up his fists. “And I didn’t think that Dr. Erobosh might go after me, and I didn’t think of how dangerous it was, and I’m sorry, and I still feel so fucking guilty over it, every single day, even if my stupid pride won’t let me show it.”
I sighed. “Apology accepted. To be fair, it wasn’t entirely your fault. Dr. Erobosh could have not left me alone, and you aren’t responsible for how dangerous the planet was, even if you are an impulsive piece of shit… Also, sorry for calling you a slut.”
Quinn nearly doubled over laughing, peals of laughter echoing through the room and out of the hallway. Even Miri snorted a little. “I had almost forgotten that you’d called me a slut! That’s great, you’re great,” he said, calming down. “I forgive you, and to be honest it didn’t really hurt that much to begin with.”
I nodded, and Quinn nodded back at me, and he glanced between me and Miri like he was expecting one of us to say something. Neither of us did. Quinn looked into my eyes, jerking his head slightly to the side to indicate Miri, though I had no idea what he meant.
“Aren’t you two going to…?”
My antennae sagged forward. “Going to do what?”
“Not this again…” Miri muttered.
Quinn instantly threw up his hands, palms open. “Hey, hey, hey! I learned my lesson after the first time. I just meant that, like, I already apologized, so I was waiting for you to apologize. We’ve already cultivated a serious climate of reconciliation and forgiveness, and I’m definitely sensing some vibes of regret off of you two, so why not seize the chance, right?”
“Can it, Quinn,” said Miri.
“And once again that course in conflict resolution proves completely useless…” he said.
Miri sat up straight, with her hands in her lap and her knees together, eyes locked somewhere on my face. “Alex, you can be a real dickbag sometimes. This isn’t a new thing. Even when we were dating, there were times when you’d annoy me.”
“I really hope this builds up to something,” I said.
“But you’ve also been a huge… thing, in my life, for a while. I’m still your friend. I still… enjoy your company, and enjoy doing things with you, and all that crap. You’re wonderful, and I don’t want to throw all that away just because of some petty bullshit, okay?”
“Thanks, I guess? You’re wonderful too, you always have been,” I said. Miri shifted in her seat, and I could swear I saw her get just a tiny bit red.
“What I was talking with Quinn about, I guess, is how much it sucks that this is the end. At least for now, I don’t know if you’re… allowed to visit. We can’t even call each other, and that is absolutely tragic. I wish I had the time to help you figure everything out.”
I reached over my back, rubbing the joint of my elytron, and tried to sort all of my thoughts into neat, coherent words. “Not going to apologize for avoiding me, huh? You’re still going to talk around the issue, with all of that…! Ugh, I guess I kind of have to thank you, though.”
“Thank me for what?”
“What you said about how I need to get used to myself, and how this change is natural and stuff,” I said, stuttering as my mandibles seemed to suddenly run into each other. “I’m getting better. I mean, I’ll never be a looker or anything, but I can manage this, right? Even if you’re an asshole, you helped me with that. I guess I can still call you a friend.”
“Yeah. I’m happy to have helped. And I’m happy to be your friend, as long as I can.”
I couldn’t help but chitter at that. “God, that’s so sappy, I can’t…” On the word “can’t,” my voice cracked. I cleared my throat as best as I could. “I can’t even…” My voice was still deep. The same raspiness and insectoid accent that had sounded cute, even quirky before, suddenly sounded distorted and hideous to my ears.
In an instant, memories flooded back of the first time this had happened, while I thought I was human. How every time my voice cracked, I’d stop talking while the other kids laughed, how I once refused to speak for two weeks because I hated how I’d sounded, how every week I was less and less able to match the songs I’d always loved to sing until I stopped singing altogether. I had always hated my voice, even if eventually that hate had faded into a background buzz of dislike over the years of being forced to live with it.
In the shock of everything else that had been going on, I hadn’t even noticed how my new, buzzy, shrill voice had been a massive improvement over the old one. The suddenness of the change back threw it into harsh relief, like the floodlights had been thrown to full power instead of gradually fading in. I was starting to hyperventilate, my hand over my mouth, when Miri chimed in.
“Are you okay?”
“No,” I said, feeling like I was going to faint. Every word was ugly, a nightmare. “I’m not. Something is wrong. I’ve made a mistake.”