Dueling Priorities
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The moment I finished reading Miri’s message, I broke into a run, going to the nearest elevator. Getting to deck eight was easy; figuring out where on deck eight Miri was, not so much. Deck eight was sort of the Emissary equivalent of a downtown area, about half of it taken up by an enormous museum (collecting artifacts leftover from the old Emissary civilization) while the other half was a mixed collection of homes and luxuries. Not as winding as the massive apartment columns had been, but fairly close. Even the fact that she was one of the very few humans on the entire ship wasn’t that much of a help, considering how many human-passing Emissary kids there were around. 

I was standing in an alcove off the side of a medium-sized thoroughfare, in the middle of composing another text to ask Miri where she was, when I saw her from across the gap. Her curly chestnut hair couldn’t have been anyone else. I didn’t even stop to close out of the app, leaving Luthfodemi in my dust as I instantly leapt across the gap. Narrowly avoiding a collision with a group of Emissaries on the other side, I turned and jogged after her, weaving through the crowds and pushing myself with my wings. 

“Miri!” I said, just as I caught up to her. 

She wheeled around at the sound of her name, then frowned in confusion. “How do you… wait…” She suddenly averted her eyes. “Cathy?”

“Yeah, it’s me,” I said. “Is it really that hard to tell?”

“You look a little different,” Miri said, glancing at me through her eyelashes.

My face suddenly got warm. What looked stylish to an Emissary would probably look pretty weird to a human, so I understood why Miri might be a little weirded out. “Oh, yeah. I’ve been spending the last few hours getting, uh, fashion and makeup advice from one of the Emissaries, uh, one of Remrion’s friends.”

Miri tried looking at my face, only to lose courage after a few seconds and look away. “You, uh, you look good. I really like the, uh, the new look.”

“Thanks,” I said. She was doing her best, and that’s what counted. 

Miri looked over her shoulder, saying, “Quinn! Remrion! Cathy’s here!”

Remrion jogged up to the two of us, his mere presence parting the crowds around him. “I was wondering how long it would…” He suddenly lost his train of thought upon seeing me. “Uh, I mean, I was worried you wouldn’t be able to find us.”

I couldn’t help but wince at that. Now that I knew how he felt about me, that slight hesitation was as obvious as if his eyes had popped out and started making an “awooga” noise. Would it kill you to at least try to hide it?

“Ask them about what happened on Nahoroth sometime,” Quinn said, coming in for the rescue with a slap on Remrion’s shoulder. “That should tell you exactly how much you need to be worried about them getting lost.”

“Yeah, Remrion, I’m going to be fine. The concern is… appreciated. But unnecessary.” I had no idea if he got the message or not, but he at least regained his focus.

“Yeah, maybe you can tell that story later,” said Quinn. “Barrel of laughs, that one.”

“Didn’t you get mugged?” asked Miri.

I fluttered my elytra by way of a shrug. “Maybe a little.”

“Hey, plenty of my funny stories involve getting mugged. Unless you’re saying I’m not funny,” Quinn said, giving me an irritated look. There was a moment of stillness. “But seriously though, it’s great to see you up and about again! Are you…?”

I held out my upper right arm. “The doctor said that this arm might never be the same again, but otherwise I should be fine.”

Miri grinned earnestly. “So what actually happened to you, we haven’t—Cathy, what is on your elytra?”

“Hm?” I turned, trying to get a good look at my own elytra, which is impossible. “Oh, you mean the inlay?”

“Yeah. Looks like a bunch of tight gold spirals.”

“Yeah, I got my elytra inlaid! It’s like a cross between a tattoo and a tooth filling, kind of. Doesn’t it look cool?”

Miri averted her gaze again, nervously fiddling with the bottom of her shirt. “Yes. It does look good on you. But, um, why spirals?”

I had to suppress a laugh at my own cleverness. “It’s supposed to be spots. Ladybug spots.” I gestured at my face. “You know, ladybug.”

Miri snorted.

“As my friends back on Earth would say,” Quinn deadpanned, “that’s very gender of you, Cathy.”

Remrion quirked his antennae. “I’m assuming this is a Liberate thing?”

“Sort of?” I said.

“Well, that aside,” said Miri. “Where have you been? We haven’t seen you since we entered the system!”

We started drifting toward the nearest open area while I explained the story, omitting anything about Remrion’s feelings about me out of courtesy. I also made sure to introduce Luthfodemi, who waved goodbye to the group not long after. It was only as I was telling the story that I realized how much longer it felt, compared to how long it had actually been; the events of no more than four or five hours had been so dense with emotion that they’d become stretched out in my mind.

“…And then, once I left there, that was when I sent you the text.”

“Wow,” Quinn said. “I didn’t realize that shopping sprees were still possible in this post-corporate ecosystem. But I guess if anyone could pull it off, it would be you.”

“Quinn!” Miri said, rolling her eyes. She turned back to me. “I’m just glad you seem to be having fun. It’s been too long since you looked happy like this, and I kind of missed it.”

Considering how much of a bitch unhappy-me was, I wasn’t too surprised by that. “So what have you been up to? I’m getting the feeling I probably missed, like, a day.”

“Two days,” Quinn said helpfully.

“Well that’s not deeply scary or anything,” I said.

“Well, you said that that nutritional deficiency affected your carapace, right?” Miri asked. “That’s basically your bones. I’m pretty sure that it’s normal to be knocked out for a little while if your bones are about to stop working.”

“Look, regardless of how long you were or were not unconscious for while dealing with your boneitis, you really didn’t miss much,” said Quinn. “After we got boarded and you got carried off, we basically stayed on the ship for a bit while the crews sat around and exchanged jargon. Eventually they did let us get off of the Lance, though not before putting us through an examination that would put the TSA to shame—”

“Quinn, they’re survivors of a genocide,” said Miri. “And we already know that the Order has survivors all over the place. I don’t think that it’s fair to compare them to—”

“Hey, come on. I’m not complaining,” Quinn said. “Besides, my interviewer was cute.” A moment later, presumably inspired by Miri’s nonplussed expression, he said, “Look, I’m not going to restrict myself to being attracted to only one species. I’ve been friends with Cathy for this long for a reason.”

“Yeah, of course,” Miri said, looking down. “I’m not saying you can’t… I mean. Ugh, forget it.” She returned to her usual confidence. “By the time we were done being screened, it was already the end of the day, so the next morning was when they finally let us all onto the Torn Memory. The entire crew of the Lance was actually given a full tour by the leader of the entire group, showing us where everything was, talking a bit about the history of the ship, and so on. It’s a bit of a fascinating story; I’m assuming Remrion filled you in?”

I gave Remrion a look. He returned it. “Damn, you really got the VIP treatment.”

“Factor likes to wow our guests, sometimes. He considers it an indulgence.”

I nodded. “That name, Factor, I keep hearing it. Is he the one in charge?”

“More or less,” Remrion said, sounding unsure. “Certainly he’s very well-known, and has an important role in mediating disputes and things like that. He’s not… we don’t really have a single leader, or at least we try not to. It’s complicated.”

“Sure,” I said. “So what happened next?”

“Well, since the end of the tour, we’ve mostly been exploring, I guess. Relaxing. Sampling the food that’s good for vertebrates, taking in the fresh air…”

“Flirting with cute Emissary boys,” Quinn added.

I couldn’t help but chitter at that. “Seriously, Quinn?”

He shrugged. “Everyone’s gay here, it’s kind of incredible.”

“Anyway,” Miri said with a pointed glare, “we’ve been having a great time. No danger of the Order, a good net reception, I’ve even been able to get some studying. I don’t know what it is about this place, but even though it’s still a space-ship… it doesn’t feel like one, it doesn’t feel constrained.”

“Yeah, they circulate the air more quickly because Emissaries have such a strong sense of smell or something,” I said.

Miri blinked at me, smelling like a faint combination of confusion and curiosity. The edges of her mouth turned up ever so slightly.

“Then this cute twink told me about the art museum down here on deck eight,” Quinn briskly continued. “And we decided that was a pretty good idea. We were just about to go in when your friend here ambushed us and started talking about how he was trying to find you but didn’t know where you were. I think you get the rest.”

I indeed got the rest. “Right, yeah. Something about very important news?”

Remrion shifted away from the rest of the group. “Yep. There’s going to be a party.”

“A what?” I said. I thought I hadn’t heard him right.

“A party. Tomorrow evening. To celebrate your survival against impossible odds, your discovering your own people, and so on. There’s going to be about a thousand people there, it’ll be completely insane.”

“They’re throwing a party for me?” I said. “That seems a little bit excessive.”

“Look, if you survive a genocide against your entire species, I think you should be allowed to celebrate whatever the fuck you want,” Quinn said with a shrug. “Them’s the rules.”

Remrion frowned. “He isn’t wrong.”

“Do they do this for everyone who finds their way here?”

“No,” said Remrion, sounding a little sheepish. “But most people who arrive don’t do it with the kind of story you have, and an entire Collective warship in tow. I don’t think the tour had fully satisfied Factor’s desire to show off.”

“So it’s really a party for Commander Carver, not me.”

Remrion clicked his mandibles. “A party can be for more than one person, I think.”

“You have to admit, Cathy,” said Miri. “The fact that all of us are alive after all of this is something of a minor miracle.”

My thoughts immediately turned to Dr. Erobosh, languishing in an Architect prison, assuming he hadn’t already shot himself three times in the back of the head in his cell. Not all of us had made it safely. And despite how much fanfare there was, this ship was only a temporary stop. 

“Yeah…” My body suddenly felt heavy again. 

“So, Remrion, was it?” Miri asked, folding her arms behind her back.

“Like the book,” he said.

Miri took that in stride, despite the fact that I definitely hadn’t told her about Remrion’s Ring. “Why were you the one who gave Cathy the tour?”

“I guess because I’m with the defense force?” he said, an antenna twitching noncommittally. “I know the ship well, and I interact with outsiders. It was natural that the job fell to me.”

Miri raised an eyebrow. “The defense force? What, like you’re in the army?”

“More or less,” Remrion said. “But we prefer the term ‘defense force’, really. It’s more of a… militia, of sorts?”

“You don’t want to start thinking of yourselves as separate from civilian society, I get it,” said Miri. “My dad was army corps of engineers for a while.”

“Ahh, yes, militias, well-known for being productive members of society,” said Quinn. “What do you do, sit around with your bros drinking protein shakes and taking pot-shots?”

Miri elbowed him in the side. “Come on, Quinn. There have been plenty of good militias. Like that alpaca farm or whatever.”

“I don’t even know what a protein shake is,” said Remrion. “But I was telling Cathy, during the tour, about how we have a few combat experts from the old Emissary fleets with us. They sounded pretty impressed, actually.”

I vaguely remembered him saying something about it during the tour, but I definitely had not been paying enough attention to be properly impressed by any normal definition of the word. Miri, on the other hand, seemed somewhat perturbed. Her demeanor changed completely, her back straightening as she folded her arms over her stomach. 

“I mean, it’s not that impressive,” she said. “They did date me for almost a year.”

Remrion’s eyes went wide as he looked from her, to me, back to her. Hopefully he could smell that she was telling the truth. “Oh?” was all he could say.

“I have a third-degree black belt in traditional Chinese martial arts. I’ve been doing it since I was about nine years old.” She said it like it was a totally casual, normal thing, and not something absolutely ridiculous sexy awesome. But you know, that’s Miri. 

“But have you ever actually been in a real fight?” Remrion said.

She shrugged. “Once or twice. And I won all of them, before you ask.”

“Sure, sure.”

“What are you implying? Do you really think I’d lie about that?”

“What? No.” Remrion said. “Exaggerate, maybe. Bend the truth, sure. But I don’t think you’d lie.”

It was at that moment that I realized what was happening: Remrion hated Miri because she was my ex. Worse yet, Miri was going along with it for some reason. I gave Quinn a look, and he looked right back at me with about the same level of confusion that I was feeling at that particular moment.

“Whatever you say, Remrion. Rem. Remmy.”

“Please don’t call me any of those,” said Remrion. “If you want to prove that you’re as much of a fighter as you say you are, we do have a school a few floors down. We could have a spar and see who comes out on top.”

Miri rolled her eyes. “That’s such ridiculous macho bullshit. If you hadn’t just implied that I’m a poser, it would be totally beneath me. But since you did, I am basically obligated to royally kick your ass now.”

This was a side of Miri that I’d literally never seen before. “Um. Are you sure about this?” I said.

“It’ll be fine,” said Remrion. “We have protective gear and stuff… though I’m not sure how well it’ll fit a human, sorry.”

“It’s only one spar, I’ll manage.”

“Could you two slow down for a second?” I said, pushing myself between Miri and Remrion. “Are you seriously going to have an actual fight over…” I wanted to say “over me,” but soon realized that that would just make things worse. “…Over stupid petty bullshit?”

“Look, it’s going to be fine,” said Miri. “Just a normal spar between acquaintances. We’ll be totally safe.”

Remrion made an affirmative click. “I promise I won’t hurt anyone. It’s not an actual fight, there’s rules, and you stop kicking the other person once they’re on the floor.”

“I guess we’re doing this, then. Whatever. There’s not really anything I can do to stop you, if this is really what you want to do, you know. I just think that maybe, this is not a great idea, and I still don’t really get why either of you want to do this, but it’s fine.”

Remrion started walking, with Miri following not long behind. Quinn clapped a hand over my shoulder. “It’s going to be great, Cathy. Look at it this way: you get to watch your ex beat the shit out of a guy.”

“Um. I guess.” I shrugged with all four arms. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Remrion hadn’t been joking when he said that he had an actual training studio. It must have taken quite a bit of effort to set up, but given how important self-defense was for the continued survival of the ship, I can only imagine that it must have been a high priority. The complex was decked out. They had computerized training suites with semi-autonomous training drones, multiple fully padded rooms for grappling and sparring, and an entire wing of showers and lockers. Remrion made the initial introductions, explaining in rapid-fire Emissarine what Miri was here for. The instructor looked vaguely curious and not a little bit excited.

I wasn’t there for most of the preparations as the other Emissaries spread the word around that there was going to be a spar and tried to figure out how to adapt Emissary protective gear to a human form. Instead, I was led to where the spar would take place. Taking a seat on the padded floor at the edge of the marked-off square on the ground, I watched and waited as more and more Emissaries trickled in, until there was a decent crowd watching the show. The anticipatory energy in the air was tangible. The anticipatory smell, a complex mix of dozens of different varieties of mixed pheromone, even more so.

Finally, Remrion and Miri walked on. It was pretty clear that someone had taken a claw to a set of pads in order to make them fit Miri, but they fit well enough. Remrion’s gear was probably custom. As he walked on, the crowd sent up a menagerie of trills and chirps; Miri was met with hissing and screeches. Typical home team vs visitors stuff, really.

One of the instructors set out the rules: the fight would be scored, and take place in a single extended round, or until one fighter was able to force the other to submit. As he explained all of the banned strikes and holds, my eyes wandered to Remrion and Miri. At first, they looked entirely focused on each other. But Miri, I think, noticed that I was looking at her, and turned her attention to me. Her hair was tied back for once, and she had this very slight grin on her face, the type of grin you get when you’re a little scared but mostly just riding a high of pure adrenaline. Like right before a roller coaster activates. Miri saw that I was looking at her and gazed right back into my eyes, giving me a coy little wink right before the start of the match.

The spar started with Remrion and Miri circling one another, staring, trying to figure out each other’s weaknesses. I’d been to a few of Miri’s sparring competitions before, enough to know that this was normal, and enough to notice when it went on just a few seconds longer than either side was comfortable with. They weren’t used to fighting members of a different species. Remrion ended up making the first move, his wings flaring out as he lunged nearly eight full feet across the arena, a move impossible for a human. But Miri, somehow, reacted in time, ducking to the side and deflecting his double-punch with her forearms; no points for either. As she spun out of the way, panic in her eyes, I suddenly realized that I wanted Miri to win more than anything else in the world.

The Waterspindle warmed up against my chest. I found myself stroking it, almost instinctively, and began to feel the buildup of the feedback loop between my emotions and the ones in the crystal. Once the initial stalemate had been broken, Miri and Remrion settled into the familiar patterns of combat. They circled each other, for long, slow moments, then one or the other would charge in. The exchange of blows was short and frenetic. Remrion would make a leaping kick, Miri a precise palm strike, the other would dodge or deflect, back and forth until they pulled away again. Sometimes the score would tick up, one or two points at a time. The Waterspindle continued to warm gradually, until I could feel the psychic pressure emanating from the little object pressing against the inside of my skull.

It quickly became obvious that Miri was rather seriously outmatched. Remrion just had too many limbs; often Miri would reflexively block an attack from the upper arms only to be hit by the lower, or try to lever herself past an unbreakable four-limbed block. She adapted as best as she could, but that meant her actions slowed by a crucial fraction of a second. 

The Waterspindle suddenly flared. I thought it would have been obvious, but nobody else around seemed to notice… except for Remrion. He suddenly stumbled, his movements loose and unstable. I caught him mumbling profanity under his breath as he tried to regain focus… but he couldn’t. Miri lunged in, moving faster than I’d ever seen her, all exhaustion and uncertainty suddenly scoured from her mind and body. She laid into Remrion, landing a series of lightning blows that gained her three points, before ducking back out of range. I cheered her on, a lone voice out of the disappointing groans of the other onlookers, and the Waterspindle flared even brighter at my excitement. 

It wasn’t until Miri looked down at her hands in a mixture of confusion and awe that I realized what was happening. The Waterspindle had activated, and in the same way that it had paralyzed Qalin, it was affecting Remrion and Miri somehow. I was suddenly afraid. I’d just tampered with… what? Their minds? Their nervous systems? I’d clearly done something to them, unintentionally, purely because of my own feelings reflecting through the Waterspindle. I pressed the crystal close to my chest. The moment the rush had died off, it had gone cold again, and the psychic pressure vanished with it.

Remrion quickly shook off the effect, and the fight went back to how it had been going before. They ran out the clock. Remrion won by score, 14 to 13. A bunch of Remrion’s friends crowded around him, congratulating him on his victory. I rushed to Miri.

“Are you okay?” I said. 

“I’m fine. I guess I should have expected that it would be tough to beat a guy with four arms…”

I shook my head. “I know you aren’t a sore loser. I mean, do you feel… fine? Is anything wrong?”

She raised an eyebrow at me. “Yes?”

I lowered my voice to a whisper. “The Waterspindle activated in the middle of the fight. You probably—”

“So that’s what that was,” she said.

“Yep. What did it do?”

“It was like… it was like I was back at the start of the spar again,” she said. “I didn’t feel sore, or tired, or afraid anymore. My body was working in perfect concert with my brain and my reflexes were totally perfect and I could do exactly what I wanted to do with no lag time between thought and motion. The Waterspindle did that?”

I nodded. “And it did… I don’t know what to Remrion.”

Miri pressed her lips together, looking down at my chest. Before I could start to feel deeply self-conscious, I realized she was looking at the Waterspindle. “Are you sure it’s a good idea for you to be carrying that thing around? It seems to me like you can’t actually control when it activates, and we have no idea what the limits are on what this thing can do.”

I immediately understood that what she was saying made sense. But part of me didn’t want to agree. Part of me that liked the comfort of having it on my person at all times, of knowing that I had one last thing to fall back on, that I…

I took off the Waterspindle, handing it to Miri. If this thing was capable of altering the minds of other people, how did I know it wasn’t altering my mind, making me want to keep it no matter what? For a few seconds, there was nothing but silence between us as I gazed deep into her eyes.

“I, um, want to see if it reacts to other people,” I said. “Just for a little bit. Could you hold onto it… just until the end of the day?”

Miri nodded. “Sure thing.”

I took a step back. “You were amazing out there. I’m pretty sure that Remrion would have totally destroyed me if I was in that ring. Seriously, it was so cool watching you.”

Miri grinned, earnestly, the kind of grin that you can’t suppress. “Thanks.”

“Do you want me to kick his ass for you?” said Quinn, walking up behind my shoulder. “Because I could totally kick his ass. Honestly, if he spends any longer celebrating I might do it anyway.”

“That really won’t be necessary…” I said, my attention drawn by the two other humans just then entering the studio. Before I could decide how to approach this, they made contact first.

“So this is what you’ve been up to,” Stephanie half-shouted from across the room. “We’ve been looking for you for hours!”

“Have you been dueling?” said Amanda, in a mix of awe and upset. 

“It’s not dueling, Amanda,” said Miri. “It’s called sparring. A friendly competition between users of different martial arts styles.”

“Oh, right,” said Amanda. “Protective gear, of course.”

“Wait, why would there not be…” I decided to save the questions for later. “What do you need?”

“Have you heard about the party?” Amanda asked.

“Mhmm. Remrion told us about it,” I said, pointing vaguely at the cluster of defense squad students. “But that’s not until tomorrow, right?”

“It isn’t, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to all sit down and discuss exactly what’s going to happen,” said Stephanie. “Preferably on the Lance, so everyone else can hear.”

There was much complaining from Miri and Quinn, and a little from me, but in the end we relented to my parents. Miri took off the padding, and the three of us returned to the ship. There was just enough time for Remrion to give me a cocky look as I was effectively dragged out of the studio by the metaphorical ears.

I remembered to release it on time! If you enjoy me being able to continue writing chapters and releasing them on reasonable schedules, consider joining my Patreon by clicking the link below. It's my only source of income at the moment, so I deeply appreciate any money that anyone can contribute to me. Otherwise, I'll see you all in two weeks for Chapter 41: The Party.

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