Silence fell over the command deck, though it wasn’t too hard to tell what everyone was feeling. The whole room smelled like a mixture of fear and plastic. Eventually the silence was filled by Miri.
“What do we do?”
“We’re doing everything we can,” said Xara. “The further we go from the planet, the more the Order would have to go out of their way to hunt us down, and the more risky such a maneuver would be. In thirty hours we will reach the hyperstream, and once that happens we will have lost them. Until then, we have to stay the course.”
“Doctor Erobosh,” said Helium, “my databanks do not contain any information about what the Order will do if we are caught. Would you fill me in?”
“Hmm? Did I not inform you when we were nearly caught by that patrol? Just before we met the Lance of Croatoan?”
“You did not.”
“Well, the most likely course of events is that the entire crew except for myself will be executed; Miri and Quinn might be given the choice to join the Order instead. Then I will be imprisoned and tortured for information about your unique engines, while the Order’s engineers disassemble you to find out how you work.”
While Dr. Erobosh was having that rather alarming conversation, I was freaking out as well. “Thirty hours? There’s no way they won’t have caught all twelve of us in that amount of time.”
“Not necessarily,” said Stellina. “The more time passes, the further we are and the faster we’re going, which means that it becomes a hell of a lot harder to catch us. We’re at our most vulnerable right now, but in a few hours it might not even be feasible for them to try.”
“Not to mention that the Order can only dedicate so many ships to the pursuit, at least not without becoming vulnerable.”
“It’s a big balancing act,” said Quinn. “We sit here and wait and see if our number comes up for the murder-and-torture lottery before the Order is forced to let us go.”
“You really need to stop coming up with accurate metaphors that are that depressing,” said Stellina.
Quinn shrugged. “I’ll stop when our situation stops being accurately described by very depressing metaphors.”
“And you’re sure that the only thing we can do is stay the course, Dr. Erobosh?” said Helium.
“Yes, I’m sure.”
“You’re wrong,” said Helium, in the way that only a middle schooler could. “You should probably get back into the acceleration couches.”
“Helium? Helium, what are you doing?” Xara sounded legitimately panicked, more than I’d ever seen him.
“Wait, can the computer do stuff you don’t want it to?” I said.
“Dr. Erobosh, has Helium ever done anything to indicate being unreliable?” said Arana, holding back a nervous edge to her voice.
“No, never, I—”
My body suddenly became very, very heavy. Judging from the way they all suddenly hunched, or fell to the floor in the case of Miri and Arana, and gasped in unexpected pain, I guessed that everyone else was feeling the same thing. My wings started beating reflexively, yanking my body upwards by the shoulders, though not quite hard enough to counteract the weight.
“The Order will not catch me, or any of you, if there’s anything I can do about it!” Helium shrieked over the sudden sound of the entire ship rattling and bending under the strain. “Now please, please enter the acceleration couches before you are injured.”
“Helium,” said Xara, breathing heavily as he crouched on the floor, “did you reactivate the modifications I made?”
“Of course I did! It means we can maintain our acceleration for longer, and stay ahead of the Order!”
“The decoys are pointless if they can see which one has the modified engine,” said Stellina, leaning against the holodisplay, “and if the entire fleet has us in their sights, we won’t be able to outrun them!”
“Shut up! I know what I’m doing! I don’t want to get disassembled!”
Dr. Erobosh grimaced, sliding across the floor to lean up against the base of the acceleration chair. “Catherine Sierra, are you still able to move? Can you still understand me?”
“The wings help,” I said, though my wings were already getting sore after a week without being used.
“Good. I’ll try to argue with Helium, because I’m the only one she’s going to listen to, if anyone. I need you to go down to the engineering bay and find Coil Control #3. Open up the panel under it, using your blades if you have to, and then cut every wire you see.”
“What? I’m not going to just break the ship—”
“It’s the only way to disconnect that panel that Helium can’t undo. Now go!”
After a second or so of vaguely aiming my thoughts in the direction of standing up, I crawled toward the ramp. I had a natural advantage in that field, with six limbs to support my weight on instead of the traditional four. Eat my dust, tetrapods.
Everything was going peachy until I arrived at the hatch. The ramp down from the command deck to habitation was difficult, for sure, but through steely determination and lightning-fast reflexes I overcame difficulty. Climbing down a ladder while my entire body was being steadily crushed was a whole new level of challenge.
Even opening the hatch was a challenge, seeing as it weighed about a hundred pounds. The only way I could do it was to lever it open an inch with my claws, then shove it the rest of the way open with the entire weight of my body, sending it clanging to the floor with an almost deafening sound. For a few seconds after that, I was so exhausted I could hardly move. The ladder down to engineering looked like a bottomless pit, and part of me was screaming that going down there would just get me killed.
“The Order’s sensor activity is up by 18%,” said Helium, and she sounded like she was about to either scream or collapse into tears. “We can’t stop now!”
If I wasn’t too focused on keeping my lungs going, I might have told her that that was the worst possible reaction. We were running out of time, and it was looking like Dr. Erobosh wasn’t going to be able to talk her out of this stupid plan. The entire crew was relying on me to get down the damn ladder and cut the cords, right away. That all too familiar feeling of panic started rising up in my gut, pushing me toward meltdown; but I reminded myself that there would be time for a meltdown later, and I turned around to plant one foot on the textured rubber of the uppermost rung.
Crawling was hard enough under high gravity; climbing a ladder was hell. It took all eight limbs to hold me up, four arms wrapped all the way around the bars like I was climbing a tree while my wings beat furiously to take off even a fraction of the intense weight. I soon found that I couldn’t climb a ladder like I normally would, not without nearly spraining something with each rung. Instead I moved like it was a rock climb, moving systematically, never letting more than one limb at a time be in the air.
It felt glacially slow, because it was, and because every second that passed added to the growing probability that someone would notice how quickly we were moving and kill us all. Foot, foot, hand, hand, hand, hand, repeat. Over and over, and all the time every muscle in my body was screaming with complaint, and my brain was screaming to go faster. I closed my eyes and tried to shut out the noise, to let myself pretend that there was no mortal danger going on. All that was happening was that I was climbing down a ladder with a really, really heavy backpack, right? Foot, foot, hand, hand, hand, hand, repeat.
I was maybe halfway there when my concentration got broken. “Dr. Erobosh, shut up! You’re wrong, I’m not going to slow down until we’re all safe! Look, I can dodge their sensors, like this!”
There was about half a second of reaction time for me to wonder what thing she was going to try this time, until suddenly the ladder seemed to start bucking in my grip. It was yanked upward, then suddenly fell, before a fifty-pound weight started pushing me away from the ladder. Helium’s idea of evasive maneuvers hadn’t gotten any less violent.
When the acceleration suddenly dropped, I lost grip with two of my hands. A moment of frantic, panicked reaching followed, until the ship shunted sideways and the last of my grip gave out. For a second, I was weightless. Too terrified to think straight, I spun in the air, trying to grab onto anything to break the fall. Then came the pain, and the awful crack of breaking carapace.
I didn’t even know what had happened at first, because my entire right side was just one solid mass of white-hot living agony. There was a sound ringing in my ears, an unearthly shriek, a nails-on-chalkboard screech like some kind of hunting predator. The sound was coming from me. I rolled onto my back and thrashed ineffectually with my eyes closed, wanting to let out my anger at the pain, the abstract idea of pain.
But I still had a mission to complete, and as the pain faded from all-consuming to merely agonizing, concentrating on my upper right arm and a part of my ribs, I opened my eyes and really looked around. I’d fallen down the ladder shaft, and arrived in the engineering deck. The coil control panels were to my left, that much I remembered, and about a third of the way around the ring. My first attempt at a crawl failed miserably, as some of my limbs were no longer responding, or flared up with more pain if I tried. I was, by this point, well and truly pissed, more furious than I’d ever been before, and somehow my anger redirected itself to that panel. Leaning over on my uninjured left side, I ended up finding an awkward dragging motion that wouldn’t make anything hurt more than it already was, and pulled myself right over to Coil Control #3, though my lungs were starting to hurt from having to constantly push against that crushing weight.
I didn’t bother trying to open the panel front. With a click, my clawblades flared to life, trailing sparks from their monomolecular edge. With the last of my strength and a massive surge of adrenaline, I pushed myself up onto my knees, which instantly became sore, and went to town. The panel’s stainless steel cover turned into fragments that flew across the room from the force of my claws raking across them. Having carved some holes in the front, I went to town on the innards, not even caring what I hit or didn’t hit. I cut pipes and wires and tore out what I couldn’t cut, and stabbed through chips and shattered secondary casings and smashed delicate switches with the broad side of my fist.
The weight suddenly vanished, leaving me with only the normal mass of my body. It was like a switch had been flipped: now that my mission was done, there was no reason to be angry. Even with the acceleration pulled back to a reasonable amount, I felt completely and totally drained and bloodless. Not to mention that my arm hurt like nothing I’d ever felt before. So I did what I’d been wanting to do ever since I fell off the ladder: I completely lost my shit. I cried, I screamed, I pounded my fists against whatever was in reach, the whole shebang. As meltdowns go, it was quick but intense. As low on energy as I was, it didn’t take more than a minute before I had exhausted myself so completely that all I wanted to do was curl up into a ball and take a nap.
I couldn’t take a nap, either; the pain in my upper right arm was incessant, pounding at my consciousness like it was stuck in a fire. The pain was bad enough to radiate up into my shoulder, my neck, my back, and it just kept getting worse. Still, by curling up, closing my eyes, slowing my breathing, and being very still, I was able to collect myself.
It must have been at least half an hour later when I lifted my head.. Miri was there, leaning up against one of the other control panels, casually messing with her Ariel. She glanced up, and her eyes brightened just a little when she saw that I was awake.
“We’re out of the worst of it,” she said. “If you had taken any longer, the Order might have caught on, but… you didn’t, and they didn’t.”
“Awesome,” I said. “Did Xara explain what the fuck was up with his computer?”
“He removed a bunch of its access permissions and has been… talking to it for a while. Hasn’t told anyone why that happened, though. He sounds almost… protective of it. No idea what the deal with that is.”
I grunted in that way that could mean just about anything, and committed to actually, fully rolling over and getting off the floor. Partway through that procedure, which was feeling a lot more complicated than normal for some reason, Miri screamed.
“Cathy! What the fuck happened?”
“Your arm,” she said, voice shrill with panic.
I realized that I hadn’t actually checked what kind of injury had happened to my arm, going entirely on the knowledge that it was, in fact, injured. When I actually got a good look at it, I had to slam one of my functioning arms over my mouth to prevent me from throwing up. To say that my arm was broken would be a bit of an understatement; it must have twisted when I hit the ground, because the break in my carapace went lengthwise down my forearm and curved around the contour of my arm, going from my elbow and ending about halfway to my wrist. You could also see some of the flesh through the crack, all shiny and wet, and there was blood (still red, apparently) welling up out of the wound and spilling across my arm. I realized, then, that I could hardly move my wrist, and even my fingers felt weirdly stiff.
“I fell down the ladder, in the high gravity,” I said, feeling very suddenly lightheaded.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, that has to be the equivalent of a compound fracture at least, there’s so much blood! I think I’m going to be sick…”
“Please be sick after the bleeding stops!”
“Right, yeah.” Miri dashed over to the ladder. “Cathy’s hurt! We need help!”
The next several minutes were a bit of a blur. I had never lost that much blood before, and the break in my carapace looked really fucked up, so every time I thought about it too hard I’d get a little faint. What I remember is Quinn and both of the Karuses packing into the engineering room, and Stellina hefting a briefcase-sized medical kit under her arm. There was a little crab robot thing that crawled up on me and listed off all the things medically wrong with me, and I’m pretty sure a bunch of glue was involved, but for the most part I tried to ignore what was going on. The pain and exhaustion and blood loss drained me like nothing else, and I’m pretty sure that part of the drug cocktail was a sleeping aid, so slipping into unconsciousness was the easiest thing in the world.
Quinn told me, after the fact, that I’d missed the worst part of it. There was a gap of about ten minutes, after Helium had been prevented from broadcasting who we were to the entire solar system, when it wasn’t clear if anyone had noticed. The entire crew held their breaths while Stellina treated my wound, until Arana eventually determined that none of the Order ships had made any move to indicate that they knew who we were.
Not that that meant we were out of the firing line. Quinn made that very, very clear. For hours while I was unconscious, everybody gathered around the holo-display and watched while, one by one, the Order fell upon the other decoys, surrounding and capturing them, or else blasting them into vapor once they got within close enough range. Each time one fell, there was another moment of suspension while the Order chose blindly which one they would hunt down next. Only as the hours dragged on, and the Helium Glider grew further and further away from New Malagasy, and the Order took more and more time to hunt down each target, did the tension begin to lift. At least, that was what Quinn told me.
When I woke back up, it was in my bed, in my cabin, and with a fresh splint and a crapload of bandages wrapped around my upper right arm. It was totally restrained and completely useless. I realized, with a bit of bemusement, that I still had three arms left, which meant that this wasn’t going to suck anywhere near as much as it had the last time I’d sprained my wrist. Sure, I had difficulty getting out of bed without falling over, but that had much more to do with the wave of painkillers I was still riding than the decreased number of arms.
Normally I would probably have stayed in my cabin or else hung around on the main deck, but some deep-seated impulse instead brought me up to the command deck. Stellina was the only other person up there, sitting in the acceleration chair, having finally taken over navigation duties from Arana. Arana must have been truly exhausted if she was going to give up being in control. Then again, the escape had been the culmination of sleepless effort and stressful planning that had left her strung-out and nearly without sleep for, what, a week? It was a minor miracle she hadn’t collapsed any sooner.
“We’re mostly home free,” said Stellina, seeing me walk up the ramp out of the corner of her eye. “Still another day or so before we hit the hyperstream, but we’re out of range of the worst of it. How’s the arm?”
I shrugged. “I can’t really feel anything from the elbow to the wrist, good or bad.”
“Analgesics will do that,” she said. “That and the gel underlay on that cast.”
I leaned up against the outer wall, my abdomen working as a sort of kickstand. Conveniences of being a beetle. Angling the terminal so I could use my unbroken upper arm in conjunction with my lower left, I flipped over to the language instruction program on my Ariel. “I guess so.”
I then proceeded to waste a lot of time. As I had learned during my ill-fated sophomore year run in with online French lessons, learning a language is hard; but for whatever reason my attempts to learn Democratic Emissarine felt more urgent. I mean, I had an entire book in the language sitting right in front of me. Remrion’s Ring was both an end-goal and a reminder of what it meant to learn the language that, according to Arana, my biological parents probably would have spoken. Now that it was actually looking like I was going to live, albeit not unharmed, it seemed all the more important.
The huge volumetric map of the slowly-dying battle was almost as good as an open balcony view, in the sense that it was something interesting that I could look at when my eyes got bored of the Ariel. Not that I looked at it very often, as my brain chose that moment to focus with almost worrying intensity on my lessons and on re-reading old books on the Ariel’s storage. For three hours, I stood there, and distracted myself with the Ariel, and watched as the white-hot battle in New Malagasy’s low orbit cast off hundreds of tiny spacecraft sparks.
Then I remembered that I hadn’t eaten in a full day, turned off my Ariel, zipped down the ramp, and stuffed myself until I felt like my carapace was going to burst open. Within about five minutes, I’d basically forgotten what New Malagasy even was! Fun times.
By the time we reached the hyperstream, late the next morning, I had settled in for another long journey on the Helium Glider. Being trapped inside the small space with five other people sucked, but it was a very familiar suck, like having to return to school after summer break. The oh-so-subtle warmth of the hyperstream on the hull was like meeting back up with an old traveling partner, if the traveling partner in question had bowel issues and obsessively talked about disaster preparedness.
Well, there was one difference from all the last times. And that difference was all the pain. Whatever crazy powerful space drugs Dr. Robo-Spider had put me on when I’d first been injured was not something you could take twice in a row, and the new pain meds I was on helped about as much as yoga and an ibuprofen. My arm didn’t hurt anywhere nearly as much as it had in the moment, thank fuck, but it hurt steadily, insistently, not flaring up but also not calming down. That was the worst of it, but the pain of my broken arm had apparently decided to send up spores, because suddenly I found that my everything was in pain.
All of my joints ached; the carapace where my ribs would be hurt; bolts of stabbing, nipping agony shot up the membranes of my wings; it hurt to use the restroom (which was very distressing); even my antennae felt like someone had rubbed cayenne powder onto them while I was sleeping. To say that it was awful would be to give the concept of “awful” too much credit. It wasn’t bad enough to cry or scream over, but it almost would have been better if it was; at least then everyone else would pity me. But as it was, not even Dr. Robo-Spider could identify what was wrong, and all Stellina could say was that I’d probably strained myself in the high-gravity. So I stayed still and quiet and tried to ignore it.
And that’s how it was for the next four or five days. I tried to sleep and was successful maybe three-fourths of the time, I woke up, I ate, I studied the language or tried to draw something with only one arm not being used as a prop, I ate again, I stared into the mirror and thought to myself “at least I’m getting cute again”, I watched a movie or read a book that I’d already read twice, I tried talking to Quinn or Miri or Dr. Erobosh and realized that my heart wasn’t in it, and then I tried to sleep again. The only good thing was that learning to draw with my left hand was actually really easy: another perk of my Emissary neurology. The pain didn’t get any worse, but it didn’t get any better, and it started to get very, very frustrating. Just when I thought that my body was ready to stop betraying me…