The hug had to end eventually, though we managed to keep it going for at least three minutes. Eventually, sadly, Arana and Stellina peeled off, mumbling something about business with the mayor, and Miri gently asked Quinn and I to leave her room. We ended up in Quinn’s room, with him on his Ariel and me staring blankly out the window. The view of the surrounding forest and the endless coming and going of the cable cars was still just as breathtaking, but somehow felt even more real, more three-dimensional, than it had before.
“You really think you’re going to stick with ‘Catherine’, huh?”
I shrugged. “Hell if I know. I can barely decide what to eat half the time; thinking far enough ahead to know what my name will be is totally beyond me.”
“That’s fair,” said Quinn. “I just didn’t realize that the character stuck with you that much, you know?”
I giggled, tried to suppress it, then realized that actually, I was allowed to giggle now. “I did a lot of online roleplaying, Quinn. Like, a lot. I almost got used to being called the name, sometimes, just because I used it four or five times a month. It fits, you know? Even if it is a bit awkward hearing my parents use it.”
“I mean, sure, I can see that. I guess this would make more sense in my head if you got turned into a… what was it? A fox-dragon hybrid with jet-black fur, iridescent purple scales, and giant—”
“Shut the fuck up,” I muttered, suppressing another laugh. “I put a lot of time and effort into that character!”
“Yeah, and I’m sure that if I were straight I would have loved all the art,” he said. “Speaking of… I haven’t seen you take out your sketchbook since… I mean, since we left Earth. Are you going to drop it, just like that?”
My mandibles fell open. My metamorphosis, and being forced to leave Earth, had been such a shock to my system, such a break from everything that had happened before, that a lot of what had used to define me had fallen by the wayside. I’d remembered to bring my sketchbook, but once I was on the Helium Glider, with my Ariel and an entire universe’s worth of information to look at, it had fallen entirely out of mind. I hadn’t even picked up a pencil since emerging from the cocoon.
“I… forgot about it. With everything else going on, I’d just forgotten about it.”
“Really? I mean, I guess there’s really been a lot going on, hasn’t there.”
“Quinn?” I said, turning away from the window.
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much for everything.”
He shrugged. “I am pretty great. You’re welcome.”
“I think I’m going to go back to my room, and see how well these things make their way around a pencil and paper,” I said, holding up all four hands.
Quinn stepped out of the way, allowing me to sprint right out through his door, down the hallway, and into my room before slamming the door behind me. My sketchbook was still in my bag, totally untouched, as were most of my pencils. In my excitement, I opened up the book and spread out all the pencils on the kitchen table… then froze.
I hadn’t picked up a pencil since my transformation. My hands, while perfectly functional and agile, were still very different from the ones I’d had when I was disguised as a human. The hard carapace instead of skin meant that gripping a pencil, or any object, was a very different experience, and the hardness of the segments in between each joint meant that my fingers didn’t work quite the same whenever they were fully flexed in one direction or the other. Something requiring fine motor control just wouldn’t be the same as before.
I stared down at the sketchbook and pencils, and was suddenly gripped by fear. What if the metamorphosis had stolen my talent? That would be the one thing that could have ruined it all for me, which of course meant that part of me seized upon it as the most likely outcome. At least a minute passed by as I stared down at the pencil and paper, antennae back, reaching to pick one up, only to lose my courage. I must look completely stupid doing this, I realized, and that was all the motivation it took to pick up the damn sketchbook.
The first thing I realized was that having four arms was really damn convenient. My lower arms, with only four fingers apiece, were the perfect sketchbook stand, letting me draw standing and freeing up my left hand for holding an eraser. Once I was in a comfortable position, the only thing left to do was actually draw.
I went through my old practice drills with all the confidence of a scared kitten trying to cross a river, cones and spheres and cubes and stuff being drawn onto the page by a shaky hand and with at least twice as much eraser use as I was used to. The entire time I was sure, completely certain, that I’d been sent back to square one. It was only when I had filled an entire page, and took a moment to look back at what I’d done, that I realized they were… I mean, they were a bunch of geometric shapes with added lighting. But for a bunch of geometric shapes with added lighting, they looked pretty good.
I knew, instantly, what I had to draw next. Yanking the chain up and over my head, I set the object on the table and started drawing from life. The texture of it, all shiny and reflective, was way too much of a challenge for me, but I took it on anyway and did a decent job, keeping the odd curves and liquid body of the little device while simplifying the shadows and light to the point that I wouldn’t over-extend myself. In a fit of creativity, I decided to label that drawing. In a dark, soft pencil, with heavy block letters, I wrote the words “The Waterspindle'' below the illustration. Then I underlined it.
From there, I flipped back and started working on my old staple. A few portraits of Cathy (the character, not me) in neutral poses, a more detailed version of a weird-but-not-really-that-weird-anymore caterpillar-like alien creature that I’d done a concept for months back, a poor attempt at drawing a kiss between two other girls I’d never bothered giving names, all poured directly from my mind and into the paper. The entire process was one giant stim, from the first sketch to the final finishing touches, and my wings started fluttering of their own accord as I went.
The sun set, and I probably should have been eating, but I had so much energy, so much still to put out onto the paper. There was one image in particular that crept into my head and set up shop, refusing to leave until I drew it, no matter how much I told myself that there was no way it would look good. Eventually, I gave in. One last drawing, then dinner.
It was a pure landscape shot, which was something I had only tried out a few times during my desperate quest to get good at backgrounds. The point of view was from a low angle looking up, and the image was simple but striking. There was a vague suggestion of forest near the bottom of the image, jungle really, but the main subject was a single tremendous building. I’d probably been inspired by the sight of the autoplexes, but the concept was entirely original. It had a wide base but quickly narrowed like a horn and split into a pair of spikes pointed angrily up at the sky, and was made out of something metallic or ceramic, heavily ridged like muscle fiber or veins on a leaf. For how challenging and intricate the picture was, it came surprisingly easy, the concept in my head so distinct that I might as well have been drawing from life.
This one also had a title. With the same dark lines and confident corners, I labeled the piece, simply: “The Spire.”
The moment the pencil left the page on that title, it felt like my strings had been cut. I closed the sketchbook and hugged it to my chest. All that drawing felt good, actually, deeply good, unlike everything else that had happened over the last couple of weeks. My hand was also a mess of tightness and cramping.
I laid back on my bed and tried to take a nap, but instead ended up thinking about everything that had happened earlier that day. For all that I’d been afraid in the moment, the decision to reverse the falthrranta and try out a new gender had left my entire body glowing. It was so affirming, so freeing that I’d already started fantasizing about what I could do with this. I could buy cute clothes, not have to hold myself back or pretend, I could have a body I liked and friends who treated me like I wanted to be!
The rush was too much to sleep, so I did the next best thing. The process of reversing the falthrranta was a similar meditation to how I’d started it, except without the creeping sense of dread this time. I don’t know how long I was able to sit still on the edge of my bed, rocking gently back and forth, but by the time I was done my mind felt just a little bit clearer, and I could tell, unconsciously, that I was on the way. Then I passed out.
I was awoken by a sound like a battering ram at my door. Someone was knocking very politely but hard enough that I was worried they’d dent the metal. As it was, the sound was enough to make me throw myself out of bed and into some decent clothes. I checked out the window; it was the middle of the night, and the twin moons were out in force.
With my Ariel on and the sleepy expression banished from my eyes, I opened the door. The person greeting me was about nine feet tall, and would have almost certainly been taller if their spine were designed to stand fully upright. Her skin was a light grey, thick and wrinkled like an elephant, covering a body halfway between that of a human and that of a gorilla. Long arms, short legs, both as thick as a support pillar and twice as strong, a flattened face with slit nostrils and a wide, frowning mouth, all very familiar. It took me a second to recognize her in the shadows, and even then only because of the regal, smooth-lined dress that extended from collarbone to upper calf.
“Uhh, Madam Governor, what brings you to my room at two in the morning?” I asked.
“Bad news,” she said. “We have until morning before the people find out and all hell breaks loose. But, considering it’s relevant to you, I thought it necessary that you see this.”
I suddenly noticed, behind Governor Morales, were Miri and Quinn, both also having been woken up in the middle of the night, looking confused and exhausted.
“What is it?”
“It’s a message, beamed on an open frequency to the entire planet. Better to let the message speak for itself than for me to try relaying it. Follow me, please?”
Just from the tone of her words I could tell that something was bad. This was the Governor of the entire planet, but she was sounding clipped, like she couldn’t think about what she was saying too hard. There was an odd, almost impossible to notice smell in the air, and it smelled like fear. I nodded, and followed her.
We picked up my adoptive parents and Xara along the way, then went right up the elevator to the Governor’s office at the pinnacle of the autoplex. It was late enough at night that the hallways and chambers were mostly quiet and empty, but even still you could tell that something was off. The few people around were, to a one, in a state of quiet and existential panic. In ones or twos, I saw at least a dozen people falling into total despair, faces locked to their Ariels or looking glassy-eyed out into the distance.
At the governor’s office, things were more active, but no less intense. Staffers and lesser bureaucrats hustled from room to room with armfuls of papers, coded messages whirred through the air from countless receivers, and many quiet conversations were had in corners over a cup or vial or diffuser of weak stimulants. Bulletin boards all around the government center bore a single pair of words: “Alert Zero.”
Finally, we reached a mostly-private room next to the Governor’s personal office, a large meeting room built around a huge central holo-display. There was someone waiting for us, a liberate in an olive-camouflage outfit with a shaved head and stern, chiseled features.
“Crew of the Helium Glider, this is Brigadier-General Joseph Lorenz,” the Governor said with a gesture of her shovel-sized hand. “Ey/em, isn’t it?”
“Ze/zir, actually,” ze said, then turned zir attention to us. “This is them?”
The Governor nodded.
Lorenz’s jaw fell open slightly, giving each of the six of us a brief look of horror in turn. “Good luck to all of you.”
“Play the message, in full,” Governor Morales said through gritted teeth.
“Of course, of course,” said the Brigadier-General, pressing a few keys on the holo-display.
Immediately, the image of a man popped up on the display. He seemed human, though it was hard to tell under the layers of black metal plating and criss-crossing wires. His skin, pale as milk, seemed to have been mostly replaced with circuitry and artificial muscle the color of muddy rust, his eyes by a pair of completely black spheres that raced with flickers of code and electrical discharge. He was a giant of a man, at least assuming that the hologram was to scale, with broad shoulders accentuated by the kind of spike-edged pauldrons normally seen only in a video game, musclebound arms that seemed to have been sculpted entirely from obsidian, and a heart that had been covered in metal and replaced with a glowing heat exchanger.
I had never seen this guy before, but apparently some other people in the room had. The moment his face showed up on the screen, Stellina’s face twisted into a snarl, and Arana’s jaw fell open, her eyes wide and already beginning to tear up. Even Dr. Erobosh flinched at his appearance.
His thin, cracked lips opened into a smirk, and he ran one hand through his flawlessly clean hair before he began. “My name is Haxon-Vash Dark, General of the Order of the Pale Star, Commander of the Ultra-Battlecruiser Pandemonium. Recently having arrived on your planet is a small personal skiff named the Helium Glider. This ship is stolen property of the Order, and all of its crew are fugitives. I, and the Fleet Secondary, have arrived to reclaim them, and subject them to our judgement. We will arrive at your planet in four days; if you do not turn them over at that time, you will be subjected to a…”
He let the dramatic pause sit, examining his ceramic fingernails for a second.
“…culling. There will be no negotiations. We will not be receiving any further communications, except for a location of the Helium Glider and all crew for us to pick them up. Your miserable, degenerate, weak-willed planet has two choices: agree to our terms, or die.”
The holo-display shut off. “Scans show that he isn’t making shit up,” said Lorenz. “216 primary battlecruisers; 3,349 cruisers of various designations; 26,651 patrol vessels and similar. All of that just dropped out of the hyperstream, and have begun taking up assault positions.”
It was like the entire room was sinking, slowly, into cold water. Stellina still sneered at the space where the hologram had been, while Arana was absolutely terrified, her entire body shaking. Quinn stumbled backwards, clutching his head and spasming with sharp, irregular breaths. Xara averted his eyes. Miri was silent, and didn’t let emotion show on her face, though she took a half-step closer to me, and held out her hand for just an instant before retracting it.
“What did you choose?” Arana said.
“We chose ‘die.’ We aren’t turning over a single person to the Order,” said Lorenz. “Ever.”
Miri folded her arms against her chest. “What do we have? Is this a fight we can win?”
The governor shook her head. “Less than a fifth of their forces. We’re a nature preserve, not a major fleet hold. Even with the home-field advantage and all of our orbital defenses, the best we can do is stall for time.”
“So… this is it, then?” Said Quinn. “I suppose there are worse ways to go out than being blown up by the fash. Maybe I can sing a song while they’re at it, flip the missile off, too.”
“I’ll do it with you,” Miri muttered.
“We’re… working on other solutions,” said Governor Morales. “An evacuation is going to be difficult with the enemy fleet guarding the hyperstream, but not impossible. We’ve already sent out Q-comm signals to just about every other planet in the Collective asking for aid, but it’ll be a while before they can build up a fleet concentration large enough to do anything other than get swatted aside.”
Arana straightened herself up. “So what you mean to say is that we’re going to wait here for the enemy to burn the planet to the ground, and hope that reinforcements arrive before then?”
Lorenz and Morales shot each other a glance. “It could be phrased less pessimistically,” ze said, “but that’s essentially an accurate statement.”
“It’s a good plan,” Arana said with a nod. “I’ve had to handle a few evacuations in my time. I may be a civilian for the time being, but I would like to volunteer whatever help I can.”
The governor looked skeptical.
“She is the Tigress of Telemachus Cloud,” Lorenz said, side-eying zir superior. “There aren’t very many people who know fleet combat better than her.”
Morales snorted, pulling up her Ariel and starting to type. “I can put you up for an official advisory position before the planetary council. You won’t be able to give orders, but I’ll be able to show you all of our classified fleet information without getting myself in trouble.”
“Thank you, Governor,” said Arana.
“The rest of you may go,” said the huge Unseen, suddenly looking very small. “Get some sleep if you can. It’s good for you.”
Lorenz cast zir eyes skyward and muttered something under zir breath. I didn’t hear the whole thing, but the word “Yahweh” and the phrase “total fucking travesty” stood out. Miri snickered with gallows humor as we all left the room.
The overall tone of the autoplex as we returned to our rooms was essentially the same as when we’d left them; not enough time had passed for the situation to change. The difference was that now we understood it better than anyone, now we could feel the desperate fear and numb, empty despair on every face we passed. We didn’t talk much as we walked through the huge and quiet passageways, all of us too wrapped up in processing what was about to happen. Even after I split off from the others and returned to my room, it took nearly half an hour of thoughtless, wordless tossing and turning before I fell unconscious.
The next day was chaos the likes of which I’d never seen. The Collective wasn’t one for secrecy, and it wasn’t as if you could have kept it a secret when the broadcast was aimed at the entire planet. The best that they could do was keep it entirely under wraps what the Helium Glider was and who its crew were; though from the conversations I picked up, I’d say that the people who wanted to hand me over to the Order were outnumbered at least four to one by the people who thought that was a stupid, spineless plan. Most people didn’t really give a damn either way. The government had made it very clear that they weren’t giving in.
The Q-comms were almost instantly overloaded, huge crowds around each station as people tried to get one last message to their families offworld. With the Order fleet already forming a blockade, the normal message drones were no longer an option. Other crowds formed around the governmental offices, waiting for updates on the situation or forming little knots to chant about whatever method they thought the government needed to implement to save the planet. It was honestly a little bit refreshing that there were no cops around in evidence. The one time I saw any interference at all was when a tired-looking staffer came out to give an update on the situation.
There were no rushes on food or medicine, because all of those things were available in quantity, though caps on available supply kicked in almost instantly. There were no runs on chartered transportation because chartered transportation wouldn’t get you anywhere except the afterlife. And yet, the entire pulse of the planet was going into an arrhythmia. People didn’t bother doing their jobs, and even most of the folks responsible for keeping the city clean didn’t feel like polishing the floors in a mausoleum. Aside from the steady hum of the fusion reactors and water pumps, life ground to a halt as the terrible waiting set in. Those families and friend groups that weren’t separated by trillions of miles of empty space stayed close together, talking in hushed tones in the big open spaces of the autoplex, or else vanishing from the public eye. I spent quite a bit of time with Xara, hearing funny, pointless little stories about his time in the Department of Nuclear Sciences, or telling him a bit about what things were like on Earth. I got to talk to Miri and Quinn too, and Stellina, but not as much as I might have liked too. The conversation always became too awkward too quickly.
I didn’t see Arana at all in those days, except for passing glances in the hallways late at night, while she slipped into her room. She looked exhausted, mentally and physically. Starting on the first day after the message went out, the government of New Malagasy started distributing these little terminals, like walkie-talkies, that supposedly used an encrypted signal that the Order couldn’t crack, for distributing essential information to the public. The terminals remained dead silent.
The second-to-last day before all hell broke loose started just like any other. I didn’t eat, but I did do a few more sketches. This one was of Miri, working from memory. Maybe some future historian would be able to find the charred remnants of this book in the ruins of the planet and wonder what the hell drugs I was on. Someone knocked at my door.
“Oh hey, Quinn,” I said, using the door as a support. I hadn’t gotten much sleep in the last few days.
“Hey, Cathy,” he said. I smiled just a bit, then suppressed it. He hadn’t gotten my name wrong even one time.
“What’s, uh… What’s going on?”
“Nothing, that’s the whole problem!” he said with a chuckle. “I was coming over to see if you wanted to…” He trailed off and we spent at least five seconds awkwardly staring at each other.
“If I wanted to what?”
“So remember when I vanished and accidentally left you alone on an alien planet?”
“Still a bit traumatized about it, but I forgave you, yes.”
“And remember how I was doing it to get drugs?”
I hesitated to answer, scared of where this was going. “Yes.”
“And how, when your parents asked about it afterwards, I said I hadn’t found any drugs?”
“I also remember that, yes.”
“Well, I was lying,” he said.