The Party
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You could see where the party was from every level of the Torn Memory. The ambient ship-lights had turned down, leaving the yellow beams emanating from the windows as the brightest things around, like a disco ball in a darkened room, writ large. You could also smell it. There was a cocktail of compounds injected into the air, subtle but noticeable, chemicals that smelled like living, like warm confetti and exorbitant laughter and loud music and meeting an old friend.

I, of course, was terrified out of my mind. I’d been to parties before, back on Earth, but never an Emissary party, and never one that would be attended by thousands of people. Not to mention that I’d actually put effort into my outfit this time. There was something calming, in hindsight, about not caring about my appearance, about putting no effort into how I looked and expecting nothing back because I hated what I saw in the mirror anyway. Now I was an insect, and my gender had turned into a whirlpool in a sea of glitter, and I actually cared about things. 

I’d borrowed the polyfac to make one of the other designs Luthfodemi’s friend had given me, the one that looked the closest to formal. I had no idea what Emissaries considered formal. Or, for that matter, if this party qualified as formal. But I stuck with it anyway. The outfit consisted of tight leggings that went up past the abdomen (the insect part, not the human part), a soft undershirt matched with a loose and poofy vest-thing, with something that vaguely resembled a scarf for my wings, all in dark blue with highlights of black and pink on my chest and hips. It also had the advantage over Earth formalwear that I could actually move.

That didn’t stop me from freezing in my tracks when I got to the front door of the ballroom. I keep calling it a ballroom; it was closer to a town hall, or a convention center, or something like that, a spare room where anyone could do whatever they wanted as long as they could get the bureaucracy to give them a time slot for it. It sat on top of the largest habitation column, meaning there was nothing between it and the roof of the ship but structural cables and elevator mountings, almost giving it the appearance of a penthouse, just without any of the ritz. No amount of hurried decoration could hide the fact that it was a big tuna can with a few partitioning walls inside. How had they even built a structure this size, and fit it inside a larger structure, in space, while running from an army of genocidal cyborgs and…

I was stalling. The others had already entered, leaving me standing by the front door, thinking about anything else besides the prospect of going in and exposing myself to the ordeal of being known. I calmed myself with a stimmy little flutter of my wings and pushed through.

My immediate impression was that Emissary parties didn’t know the meaning of the word “subtle” and indeed would probably consider subtlety to be mildly off-putting. The energy was high, the outfits bright, the air saturated with music of multiple styles and that same cloying scent. Most people around, thankfully, were too engrossed in their own private dramas or with just enjoying the moment to pay attention to me, but there was still a steady stream of Emissaries approaching me to give well-wishes and raise cheers to my survival. I ignored them, or gave a polite wave as I passed. My main goal was to find where Quinn and Miri had vanished to, or failing that, to find Luthfodemi, or Carver, or Amanda, or literally anyone else I knew. Alright, maybe not my parents, that would be kind of lame.

A few minutes navigating around made me feel like I was swimming in the ocean during rough seas, buffeted back and forth by waves of chatting partygoers and swells of dancers. Emissary dancing, by the way, is absolutely spectacular. As you would expect from a species with wings, it tends towards the acrobatic, with even the slow-dances involving the occasional gliding or the sorts of aerial twirling usually reserved for ballet. It made me nervous just seeing it, knowing that I’d be expected to dance.

It took several minutes of meandering to find Miri and Quinn. Quinn was pretty easy to spot: on top of being human in a sea of Emissaries, he had also seemingly developed something of a following. Or at least that’s what I assumed the half a dozen Emissaries surrounding him were, given the way they were hanging off of his every word. A couple even had hands on his shoulder in a way that made me want to give them their privacy. 

Miri was talking with another Emissary, male, not one I’d ever met before. I called out as I approached, waving at her. She didn’t react, my words having been swallowed up by the crowd between the two of us. Likewise, I couldn’t hear what she was talking with the Emissary about, but she seemed fairly interested. I tried to push through the crowd to get close enough for her to hear me. But while I was doing that, they put their hand on Miri’s shoulder, saying something quietly. Miri’s expression shifted from interest to embarrassment. She nodded, and they took her by the hands, pulling her with them quickly enough to make her stumble, heading for the dance floor. 

I stopped trying to reach them. They were off dancing together, and as I drifted off in another direction I occasionally caught glimpses of Miri improvising her way through the dance, held close to the Emissary. For a little while I considered finding Quinn, but that didn’t much appeal to me either. I wasn’t mad at Miri. My logical, conscious mind repeatedly reminded me that she could dance with whoever she wanted, she wasn’t dating me any more, it was good for her to have fun. I didn’t walk away because I was upset; seeing her dancing with someone else didn’t hurt. But it felt like she was having fun with someone else, the same with Quinn, and I didn’t want to barge in on them and interrupt whatever they had going on just because I was their friend. 

I drifted over to the greatest refuge of people feeling awkward at a party: the buffet table. The food was good. I didn’t particularly care either way; it was just something to do while I tried not to think about Miri, or how little at home I felt among my own people, or about any of the other million things worrying me.

The feeling of a hand on my shoulder startled me out of my spiral. “How’s it going?” Remrion said. “For the person who this whole thing is about, you look kinda down.”

I don’t know how he found me, though it probably wasn’t that hard. Luthfodemi was there as well. Unsure how to react to the question, I made a noncommittal click of my mandibles. “It’s a little weird here. I’m not used to it.”

“Yeah, that’s fair,” he said. “Not much for parties?”

I shook my head. “Never have been, probably never will be. The fact that it’s unfamiliar circumstances just makes it worse.”

“Would it make it better if you had something to do?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. It’d take my mind off of the fact that this is all supposed to be for me. And if I’m doing something, that means I’m—”

“Doyouwanttodance?”

It took a few seconds for my brain to catch up with what he’d said. When it did, I felt like I was about to have a heart attack. Luthfodemi gritted her mandibles together, glaring at him in severe irritation. 

Remrion shrank back. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have. Maybe we can just find a corner and listen to some music… or I’ll leave you alone. Yeah, I’ll just leave you alone.”

I looked over at one of the dance floors, catching a glimpse of what looked like Miri and her date. “Sure. Show me how.”

There were a few seconds where it looked like Remrion didn’t believe what I’d just said. I know I didn’t believe it. But he took me by the hand and slowly pulled me over to the nearest open space, leaving Luthfodemi behind. I took his other hand in imitation of the Emissaries around us.

“I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing,” I admitted. “But you’ll be able to show me, if you’re half as smooth as you seem to think you are.”

“It’s not like there’s steps or anything. I don’t dance either.” Remrion sounded nervous. “You just sort of… do what you feel like doing. The important bit is that you’re letting the music flow through you.”

“Is there any particular reason why you have your hand on my hip, then?” I said. 

Remrion took his hand off of my hip.

It was a rough start, obviously, learning an entirely new kind of dance, but at least Remrion didn’t look that much better. Few people were paying attention to the two of us anyway. But, over the course of a few minutes, I did start getting better, learning to use my wings and dance more with my abdomen than with my legs. We settled into a sort of swaying… gliding… thing, not as acrobatic as a lot of the dancers around us, but at least better than that time in middle school that they thought teaching everyone to dance was a good idea, which counts as a victory to me. Remrion was more stiff about it than I was. He seemed constantly afraid of something, even when he was trying for awkward small talk, which I technically responded to more times than I didn’t. We ended up dancing for only a few minutes before I got bored and decided to drag Luthfodemi onto the dance floor.

Luthfodemi was good; like, really good. So good, and so utterly unconcerned about shame, that it almost felt like I was getting dragged around the dance floor when we were together. Weirdly, I found that I kind of enjoyed that. Not having to be the lead or the center of attention, just holding on for dear life to this absolute dynamo of vibrance and energy as she ran circles around the whole dance floor. She reminded me of Miri at her best, and I found myself actively holding onto Luthfodemi. Eventually, it wasn’t boredom or even exhaustion that led me to quit dancing, but my injury; the activity was making my legs sore, and at some point I’d over-extended my upper right arm and aggravated the old break. 

I drifted over to Remrion, ready to spend the next while talking about Emissary things, when I caught another glimpse of Miri. She wasn’t dancing any more, but she was still talking to a bunch of other Emissaries and clearly having the time of her life. It was too much. Suddenly feeling short-tempered, I gave Remrion and Luthfodemi an excuse and stormed off to the quietest and darkest part of the party.

As it turned out, there was actually a balcony on the Tuna Can of Fun, overlooking the huge interior of the Torn Memory, and deliberately blocked off with a few layers of baffles so that it would be quiet and dark for people experiencing sensory overload. I wasn’t experiencing sensory overload, but emotional overload is close enough, so I appreciated it. There were a couple dozen people out there, spread across the balcony, a few talking quietly but most simply enjoying the ambience. I paced around for a bit, then eventually settled against the railing. Just like on New Malagasy and Nahoroth before it, there was nothing quite as satisfying as putting my arms on a railing and staring over the edge of an abyss.

Of course, I could only do that for so long before it put pressure on my injured arm. I pulled back and took a moment to process that I had surroundings. 

Standing next to me was a shorter Emissary with a pale carapace, leaning on a set of crutches in their lower pair of arms and humming gently to themself. I thought at first that they were wearing some strange bangles. But then a moment later, I realized that what I was actually looking at were flowers, bundles of tiny white and grey flowers growing inside the joints of their carapace.

“What are you looking at?” they said in Emissarine, with a voice surprisingly deep for their size.

“Nothing,” I said, quickly looking away.

“It’s the flowers, isn’t it? The flowers always make people curious.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. Then, for good measure, “I’m really sorry.”

“It’s fine,” they said. “You have permission to ask.”

I didn’t want to ask, not when this Emissary had clearly become tired of people asking. It would be rude, and show a remarkable amount of nosiness and general disregard for the privacy of others, not to mention showing off a lack of impulse control. “What’s with the flowers?”

They said a series of trilling Emissarine syllables that I didn’t understand, then, “But I have it under control. Getting rid of them entirely would be… painful, so I’ve decided to live with it.”

“Do you speak English?” I said after a very long pause. “I’m better with that one.”

“Of course,” they said. “You would be Catherine Sierra, then?”

“Yes, but how did you know?” For a moment, I fantasized that they might have known my biological parents, or been the one to give me up to Amanda and Stephanie.

“Lucky guess,” they said. “That, and your Emissarine is about what I would expect from someone who has never lived in an Emissary colony before.”

I frowned. “And you are?”

“Gamatas Factor, Captain of the Torn Memory,” they said, nodding their head in my direction. “You’ve probably heard about me by this point.”

“Yes, I have… erm, Captain Factor?”

“Oh, please, there’s no need to talk to me like that,” Factor said with a raspy trill. “All I really do around here is decide which direction to aim the ship in, that’s all.”

“Are you sure? Everyone else thinks you’re some kind of important. I mean, Remrion said you gave my parents the tour and arranged this party, and Larheamra said that you told him where the ship was going.”

Factor’s antennae perked up at the mention of Larheamra. “You’ve met Syad?” They said, with a hint of casual curiosity.

“He’s the one who told me how to find the Torn Memory.”

Factor made a soft click with their mandibles. “So that was a good decision after all. I’ll admit, even I lost a little sleep over that choice. But if it means you were able to find your way home, any amount of risk is worth it.”

Something didn’t feel right about them using the word “home” so casually like that, but I didn’t feel ready to bring it up yet either. My shoulders fell, and Factor probably smelled my mood turn toward the introspective. “Well, thanks for that, I guess,” I said.

“You’re welcome.”

“So if you aren’t really that important, how come everybody talks about you like you are?”

“I never said I wasn’t important,” Factor said. “I said you shouldn’t talk to me like a superior. I am... trusted. People consider my advice to be of worth. There’s no law granting me the power I have, I earn it every day. It’s a constant fight, you know, making sure it doesn’t go to my head. Or worse, to the heads of the people around me.”

“Huh, okay. Interesting,” I said. “So you’re just like… the town’s local old man that everyone goes to for advice?”

They shook their head. “Partially correct. Often I’m the town’s local old woman.”

“Sorry, right. I’m still getting used to that whole thing with Emissaries.”

Factor nodded sagely. “I heard what had been causing your sickness. I knew that indecision could be a killer, but I had never expected that it would be so literal.”

“Do you hear everything?” I said, not a little embarrassed that the source of my condition was apparently widely known.

“I cannot help but have people confide in me,” they said. “I’m sorry. If it makes you feel any better, your look suits you well. You’re quite the adorable young androgyne.”

“Thanks,” I said, this time meaning it. “I mean, I’m still figuring out what everything means, if I’m supposed to be a woman or not, that sort of thing.”

“Good luck,” Factor said. “I’m a hundred and fifty years old, and I still don’t know half the time.”

It was reassuring coming from them, though probably not as reassuring as they had intended it to be. The mention of their age, though, set off a memory. “Did you fight in the Slave war? Or the Final Rebellion or whatever?”

“I did. Most Emissaries of my age did.”

“Did you ever know someone named Ralv? A Pioneer, he fought alongside Emissaries.”

Factor paused, staring off into space and slowly stroking the bed of flowers growing along their collarbone. “No, I don’t think I did. Why?”

I shrugged. “Old acquaintance. I was just curious.”

Factor nodded, and for a little while we sank back into silence. Home. That thought felt like a splinter inside of me, nagging at my brainstem, forcing me to consider it. Was this place home? Did I even have a home any more, after losing everything I’d had on Earth? My hands sought out the Waterspindle, hanging around my neck after I’d asked Miri to give it back to me earlier that day, for the gentle warmth and reassurance it provided. 

“That can’t be… is that yours?” Factor said, quietly awed.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“That thing around your neck. I’ve seen that before… you don’t know what it is, do you?”

“I don’t,” I admitted. “I found it on a spectrademon that I’d… killed. In self-defense. I just had this impulse to take it, so I did. What is it?”

“Smarter Emissaries than I have spent their whole lives trying to figure out,” Factor said, staring at the crystal. “This is only the second time I’ve seen one in person.”

“Okay.”

“How much do you know about Emissary history?” Factor asked casually.

I shook my head. “Not much besides the very end of it.”

“A shame,” they said, flicking their antennae back. “The important part is that we’ve been in space for a very, very long time, several thousand years at the least. So long that the earliest parts of our history are… obscured by the passage of time.”

“So this is an Emissary object?” I said, my antennae perking up. “Is that why I felt this, this connection to it?”

“It isn’t quite what I’d call an Emissary object, nobody knows, but there are identical objects that have been found on dozens of seemingly disconnected planets, often buried deep enough that they must have beenburied for millenia. It’s a very academic debate. But one hypothesis that’s been put forward, that my old friend Karrleandal was obsessed with, was that there was an original interstellar society, a period of interconnectedness and exchange across known space, that existed millennia before anything that resembled the interstellar society that we know today.”

“So this thing,” I compulsively stroked my hand along the length of the Waterspindle, “is a ten thousand year old relic of, like, a forgotten golden age of space or something?”

“Or it was created by some empire that’s been long since forgotten, or is the most durable part of some model of probe created by people wondering if they lived in an uncaring and empty universe. As I said; there are theories.”

“Are there any theories about the weird emotional, psychic, energy thing?” I was already getting an idea about what the answer to that was. And I wasn’t excited to hear it out loud.

“Excuse me?”

My mandibles worked soundlessly like a caterpillar for a few seconds as I tried to think of a way to describe the purely abstract, emotional workings of the Waterspindle to Factor. “When I feel things, really intensely feel things, it sort of activates. And it can send out signals, or something like that, that can affect people. It can cause pain, or make you focus and forget exhaustion, or make you exhausted and unfocused.”

Factor’s eyes narrowed as they quirked their head to one side. “Does it now? Fascinating.”

My antennae dipped. “I can’t make it work whenever I want, but if you go back in there and ask Miri about it, she’ll tell you that it’s real.”

“You do realize that I could smell it if you were lying, don’t you?” Factor said in a  faintly bemused tone. “No, I’m just realizing that there really is more out there to learn about. I’ve been getting worried these last couple of decades.”

“Glad to help, I guess.”

There was another period of silence. The good kind, where it isn’t awkward for there to be quiet because you needed a chance to think anyway and this is just a good excuse for it, that kind of silence. The Waterspindle was several thousand years old, and possibly a relic of a long-forgotten golden age or primeval empire. Okay. Sure. Why not? 

It almost made sense, in a weird kind of way; why wouldn’t the object that could alter people’s mental states, possibly including mine, also be incredibly ancient and mysterious. It isn’t like weird psychic crystal things are something you can buy at the store, after all. I took it in my hands again, as though I could convince it to tell me about itself if I just gave the metal a bit of a massage. Maybe I can get this thing working again, just to show them…

“What do you think of the Torn Memory?” Factor asked.

For a few seconds, my mind was utterly blank, caught between the question and what I’d been thinking of just before. “Uh. Well, um. I. It’s very. Um.”

“Overwhelming?” Factor suggested, making a little flourish with one hand.

“Yes! Extremely overwhelming. It’s been two days and I still feel like I’m reeling from it all. And trying to figure out what all of the different pheromone combinations mean, it’s like trying to learn a new language on top of the other new language I’ve already been trying to learn.”

“You’ll figure it out eventually,” they said. “But aside from that, pushing past the novelty of it… what do you think of the Emissaries? I’m always curious to hear the outsider’s perspective.”

“I mean, I can’t help but be a little awestruck,” I said, “You’ve made something incredible here. For a bunch of people stuck in a spaceship, never able to stay in one place for too long… I mean, there was, like, a nail salon down there.”

“There’s a salon? I…” they looked down, gently brushing at the flowers growing from their wrist and elbow joints “couldn’t make use of that anyway. But, yes, that really is a sign of progress, I think. Go on; I can’t imagine that you’ve been doing nothing but staring in awe at our accomplishments.”

I leaned back, resting my elbows on the railing, wincing in pain as I forgot that my upper right couldn’t bend properly. It took me a moment to think. “It’s not like anywhere I’ve been before. It’s small, like my home back on Earth, but small in, like, a cozy way? And for once in my life I don’t feel out of place.”

“That’s very good to hear,” they said. 

“And the people are definitely, erm, friendly. A bit too friendly at times. I know the events of these last few weeks don’t make me look the part, but I’m usually something of a shut-in, and just about everybody I’ve met seems like the opposite.”

Factor made a few more clicks of their mandibles. “I can imagine how our… openness could be unnerving to someone raised among Liberates. But there is room for everyone here, and even shut-ins need company, don’t they?”

“Sure, sure. I guess what I’m getting at is… I love what you’ve built here. I think I could become part of it, someday. But it’s a little disappointing, I guess, realizing that I don’t actually feel like I belong here any more than I do anything else. Which isn’t exactly unusual, it’s how I felt moving when my moved towns when I was thirteen, but… I guess I had higher expectations for being with my own species for the first time.”

“Well, with as much time and effort as you’ve put into finding us, and how long you’ve spent only knowing the Emissaries as a story, it’s only natural that you would start developing expectations that no real people could hope to live up to,” Factor said, their secondary eyes squeezed shut in concentration. “But the initial disappointment will fade, I hope. And even if it proves difficult, I fully believe that we could help to make this place your new home.”

There was that word again; “home”. It hit me the same way that it had the first time they’d used it, a strange sense of disquiet that demanded my attention. I frowned, turning that word over and over in my head like it was a sculpture. “Home”. I’d lost my home when I woke up inside a cocoon, and then again when the Order fleet showed up at the edge of New Malagasy, and now Gamatas Factor had kept using the word over and over again.

“I don’t think I want to, necessarily. Make this place my home, that is. I have things I need to do, and I can’t do them if I’m living the easy life in this place, sad to say,” I paused, part of me wanting to keep it vague. “I feel like I need to make something of myself.”

“You can do that here,” said Factor. “Your mothers were telling me how much of an interest you’d taken in spacecraft engineering; you could be apprenticed, learn a trade, maybe even go off and—”

“Don’t try to convince me, Factor. As much as not having to constantly be afraid of the Order appeals, I… I have a promise I made to someone. But I’ll think about coming back, after that’s done.”

“I’m sorry,” Factor said. “I was getting ahead of myself.”

“I appreciate the offer, though,” I said, pulling myself off of the railing. “It’s a beautiful place you have here. I think I’m going to head back to the party. Maybe pick up some snacks.”

“Have fun,” Factor said, absentmindedly running their fingers through the flowers around their shoulder. “You’ll always know where to find me.”

I'm sure the fact that Cathy feels confused and hurt when she sees Miri dancing with someone else means nothing and has no relevance to the state of their relationship! This is fine. Everything is fine. And, hey, I'm sure there's not going to be any emotionally intense conversations between Cathy and Miri in the next chapter or anything... But if there were, and you wanted to not have to wait two weeks to find out, you can click the link below and join my Patreon, and read all of my upcoming chapters early for only $3 a month, as well as being able to join my exclusive Discord. Patreon is at the moment my only source of income, so I cannot even begin to express how much I appreciate every single person who becomes a supporter of mine, it's so incredibly valuable for me. If you can't, it's fine, and I'll see you in two weeks for Chapter 42: Love, the Universe, and Everything.

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