Love, the Universe, and Everything
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“Bouwon-Phane, how far is it from here?”

Steph took a second to do the math in her head. “Not far. A few days, I think. We’ve been heading in that direction the whole time, though at an angle.”

“Okay. And we have the fuel to make it there?”

“We should,” she said. “But you’re sure that you want to—”

“Completely sure,” I said. “I’m healthy, and we know how to keep me that way. So now it’s time to rescue Xara.”

“If we are going to Bouwon-Phane, the more important question is whether the Lance of Croatoan is willing to take us there,” Miri said. “Or if they can take us there, considering there’s a war about to start.”

We were on one of the upper decks of the Torn Memory, where things tended to be a little quieter, resting on a public bench while waiting for Quinn to say goodbye to someone he’d hooked up with at the party. Miri was a short distance away, leaning against a tree.

“We’ve already discussed it,” Steph said. “They can drop us off there, but can’t go any further before they have to return to Collective space. So either we’ll have the Helium Glider back, or else we’ll have to charter a ship to wherever we want to go next. I’m pretty sure your mother has some Architectine currency stored up somewhere.”

Miri sighed, adjusting her position slightly. “We’re really doing this, huh? Going off on one final quest to, what, break Dr. Erobosh out of jail?”

“Yes, we are,” I said. “Are you having second thoughts?”

“No, of course not. ACAB. But… we’ve been doing this for so long, you know? It’s been over a month at this point going from planet to planet, and I’m worried for you, that you might be pushing yourself too soon after recovering.”

“I feel fine,” I insisted. “Besides, the Helium Glider is supposedly the only ship that can travel through the Forbidden Zone, so we’re going to have to get it back if you and Quinn are going to be able to go home.”

Miri suddenly went rigid in a way that suggested that she hadn’t considered that before this very moment. Something must have been distracting her from fully thinking out the implications, if she was surprised like that, but what?

“Crap. Okay, I guess we’re going to Bouwon-Phane, then. Do we have a plan?”

“No,” I said, looking down. “I don’t think we can get away with just breaking him out and running away, either. Maybe we can appeal to the fact that you and Quinn are stuck unless they give the ship back?”

Stephanie shook her head. “I won’t go so far as to say that the Architects are heartless, but… they’re very obsessed with their rule of law. Better to allow for suffering than to circumvent tradition and procedure. I think the best chance we’re going to have is to beat them at their own game, appeal the arrest on some kind of procedural grounds.”

Miri snorted. “We’re going to fight a legal battle? That seems a little weak.”

“Catherine’s mother is a lawyer,” Stephanie said. “She spent the entirety of the seventeen years we were on Earth being a lawyer, and she spent a substantial chunk of her life as a diplomat in between stints in the navy. If anyone can fight a courtroom battle, it’s her.”

“So the plan is that we’re going to fly over to Bouwon-Phane, and we’re going to try to win a legal battle against the Architect government?” I said.

“Essentially,” Stephanie said.

Miri sighed. “Quinn is going to have a field day when he finds out about this. He’ll be relentless.”

“Oh, absolutely. But I’m fully prepared for a year of being called a liberal over and over if it means we have a chance of getting Xara out of prison.”

“And,” Steph added, “if that doesn’t work, there’s always plan B.”

“Which is?” Miri asked.

“Arana calls up all of her old contacts in the Collective government and gets them to raise a fuss over the fact that the Architects basically threatened to attack a vessel of the Collective fleet. If there’s one thing their government hates more than violating the rule of their own laws, it's having to fight an enemy who can actually hurt them back.”

“Now that’s more like it!” I said, my antennae straightening. Not even Miri could hold back a smirk.

“Hey. Don’t get too excited. It’s only a plan B.”

I rolled my eyes at her. “Come onnnn, though. Threatening entire governments is so fun!”

“And it’s also incredibly dangerous and could make the Collective’s position in the upcoming war against the Order even worse than it already is. Plan. B.”

Miri stepped away from the tree in an attempt to distract us, pointedly clearing her throat with a gentle cough. “When can we leave for Bouwon-Phane, then?”

“As soon as possible,” I said. “I like the Torn Memory, but I don’t like it enough to stay longer than I have to.”

“And a good thing too,” Steph said, “because Commander Carver messaged me half an hour ago letting me know that the Lance of Croatoan is fueled up and ready to go.”

We undocked with the Torn Memory just after lunch time that day. Stephanie once again did the navigational calculations, so as to keep the true location of the Emissary ship a secret, and before long we were accelerating out toward the hyperstream. The next day we entered the hyperstream proper, and set course for the Bouwon-Phane system. 

There isn’t much to say about the trip from Virdessl’s Star to Bouwon-Phane. The crew of the Lance were growing increasingly anxious ferrying us around, and even Carver seemed thankful that she could finally get back to her actual job. Miri and Quinn and I hung out when we could, but the confined spaces meant there wasn’t much to do. The overriding sense was that everyone was tired, very tired, tired of the chase and tired of being stuck on this ship, but at the same time resolutely determined to fulfill their obligations and see it to the end.

The one thing that broke up the monotony of Emissarine practice, sketching practice, and meaningless media was training. Now that I was more or less healed, my parents had reminded me of the offer they’d made back on Fade Bjatri, to teach me a little bit about how to fight and defend myself against the dangers of known space. I took it immediately, desperate for something to do.

Fortunately, the one thing that the Lance of Croatoan did have the spare room for was a training room and gym. It wasn’t huge, but it had a decent enough selection of equipment and enough room for the three of us to work while still leaving enough space for seven or eight crewmembers to train, without either group getting in the other’s way. Over the first several days, my parents taught me the very basics of combat. Amanda taught me a few elements of footwork, how to take a punch without immediately going down or breaking my carapace, and a few tips about reading my opponent and learning to exploit openings. Steph took a different route; she’d never been formally taught to fight, and so instead taught me tips for fighting with a blade, adapting them where she could so as to be more useful with my claws. I can’t say that I got particularly good at combat. There’s no way to get good at it in only a week, after all. But I learned enough that at least my victory or defeat in any given brawl was no longer purely a matter of luck.

On the sixth day of the journey, I was bored enough to show up at the training room early. As I walked in, I debated whether I would try warming up or just take a nap on the benches. All debate, and all conscious thought for that matter, ended when I realized not only that there was only one other person in the gym, but who that person was.

I hadn’t seen Miri quite in her element like that for a very long time. Her mass of curly auburn hair was pulled harshly back and held in place with at least two hair ties, her eyes glazed over, her eyebrows knitted together in concentration. She’d changed out of her normal baggy outfit for a tank top and sweatpants, giving her the mobility she needed as she swept from form to form, practicing various strikes and kicks, her breaths carefully timed to compliment each motion. Miri must have been at it for quite a while, judging by the way her limbs trembled with exertion and her whole body was shiny with sweat.

The tank top she was wearing bared her shoulders and arms, inexorably drawing my attention to her lean muscles, the way they rolled and tensed with each movement, each punch and elbow strike. Even after reaching exhaustion, she was still putting her all into each move. She was so determined to do it right, so determined to stay powerful no matter how difficult it became.

The worst part was that I could… smell her. My antennae picked up her sweat and pheromones on the air almost as soon as I walked into the room, flooding my mind with the purest form of Miri. They say that smell is the sense most closely connected to memory, and the saying was proven in that moment. Her unique imprint sent waves of memories rising to the surface, memories of her holding me close to her in those strong arms and telling me how much she loved me.

And then she stopped. For a few seconds she just stood there, panting for breath, until eventually she turned around. Her eyes went wide.

“Oh! Cathy! I didn’t hear you come in,” she said.

"I wasn’t staring!” I said, the words flying out of my mouth before I could even think. “I was just watching. Because you’re really good at martial arts and stuff.”

“Thanks,” she said, avoiding eye contact. “I didn’t even realize you went to the gym.”

“It’s a recent thing,” I said. “My parents have been teaching me how to fight, so we’ve been using this room for that purpose. We aren’t supposed to start for like fifteen minutes, though, that’s why they’re not here yet.”

Miri nodded. “Yeah, cool. I guess it’s good for you to be learning this stuff if there’s an army of cyborgs trying to genocide your species.”

I laughed nervously.

Miri walked past me, to where I realized she’d set down a water bottle and a towel on one of the benches. “Sorry, shouldn’t have brought that up. You know, that was why I started doing this? Martial arts, that is.”

“Really? You never told me.”

“Because it’s kind of dark and I thought it would make you uncomfortable when we were dating,” she said. “But yeah, when things got really bad in the late ‘10s, my parents decided that if a bunch of Nazi fucks decided to start going after the Jewish kids, that I wouldn’t go down without a fight. Thankfully there was one studio in Broadleaf doing Chinese martial arts with a self-defense perspective rather than for racist weirdos who want to think they’re cool, so I ended up there. My dad wanted me to learn Krav Maga, if you believe it.”

“The original art of nazi punching, I like it.”

“Well, there was nobody in the whole city who could have taught me, so…” Miri trailed off, taking a drink from the plastic bottle.

As she lifted her arm up to drink, the bottom of her shirt lifted, exposing a bit of her lower stomach. Her very toned, kinda muscular but still very soft and smooth, stomach, which I could now see. Oh fuck. It would be only a small exaggeration to say that I very nearly died there and then. I knew, intellectually, that I shouldn’t have been feeling the way I was feeling, that it was weird and not a little predatory to want to grab her with all four arms and pull her in and kiss her right there and then, but since when has that ever stopped me from feeling something? Thank fuck that Emissaries don’t have the anatomy necessary to blush.

“You know, if this whole space adventure causes you to fail all of your classes, you could probably get into college on a sports scholarship,” I said. Anything, even a bad joke, if it meant not having to think about how much I was suddenly attracted to Miri.

Miri nearly dropped the bottle. When she regained control, setting the bottle back down on the bench, she looked at me through her eyelashes and tried not to smile. “You really think so?”

“You’re super fit,” I said, my voice rising to an anxious squeak. “I mean, it’s mostly just a joke.”

“Of course, of course.” Miri took the towel and threw it around her shoulders, puffing up her chest in a display of exaggerated confidence. “I’m not going to fail all of my classes. I brought all of my books with me, and I’ve been making sure to keep up.”

“That is such a you thing to do,” I said. “Honestly surprised I didn’t realize you were doing that before.”

“Because you’ve barely been talking to me the whole time,” she said. “Except when it’s friend times with Quinn.”

She did a good job of hiding her disappointment, her face and voice making it sound as if that was a normal, neutral observation. But I could smell the slightest hint of sadness on the air. I realized almost immediately that she was right, that this was the first time in a very long time that we’d been alone with each other. Since New Ivehar, in fact. Miri suddenly looked really lonely.

I shifted a little bit closer to her, barely more than a half-step. “I’m sorry. I guess I just…” hurt too much whenever you’re too close because I know that we can’t ever have what we used to, is what part of me wanted to say. But shoved that down and looked right into her eyes and said, “have had my mind on other things.”

Miri returned my gaze for just a moment before lowering her eyes and saying, “Oh, yeah, I guess you have. You’ve had basically everything on your mind for, like, a month. You’ve been handling that really well, honestly, I would probably have gone crazy being under that much stress for that long.”

I shrugged, trying to hide the fact that the compliment sent a shiver up the place where my spine would be if I had one. “It’s not that bad. I just sort of take it one thing at a time.”

“Cathy, you’ve changed species, and gender, and dealt with the fact that you’re the survivor of a very recent genocide, then narrowly escaped being killed at least half a dozen times, and then overcome a potentially disabling or even lethal illness. It has been a month and a half, probably less.”

The air left my lungs mechanically, almost automatically, and it took a few seconds for me to remember how to inhale again. It was like Miri’s putting words to it had suddenly made it all real. “Oh. Wow. When you put it that way…”

“Yeah.” Miri stole another glance in my direction, while keeping her eyes mostly fixed on a patch of floor somewhere to my left. “But still. I kind of miss you, you know. And I’m going to miss you a hell of a lot more when I go back to Earth and you’re just… gone. Forever.”

“I’m going to miss you too,” I admitted. Dammit, Miri, stop making this so difficult by being so sweet.

“Then maybe we should spend more time together? Just, you know, go out with a bang.” Miri froze for a second, eyes going wide as she realized the problem with her own wording. “I mean, just, you know. Get what time in that we can.”

“Oh, yeah, totally,” I said, not at all thinking about her use of the phrase “go out with a bang,” because I am a refined and mature individual. “Maybe we could, um, I dunno. Do something? I could show you some of my art.”

Miri looked up, raising an eyebrow. “You’ve been drawing again?”

“Yeah! Ever since I figured out my whole gender thing, I’ve been getting back into that. The sickness didn’t even slow me down, because I have more arms now.”

“Well then, you’ll have to show me sometime,” she said, grinning slightly, her voice taking on a slightly breathy tone of excitement. “I always loved your art, even if it could be, ah, a little out there.”

“Look, sometimes as an artist you get an idea stuck in your head, and you just can’t do anything else until you’ve put that idea down onto paper. I cannot control my muse.”

“Mhmm,” Miri said, the grin getting wider. “Well, your muses have the oddest tendency towards huge boobs…”

“Shut up.”

“…and rows of suspiciously well-drawn fangs…”

“Shut up!”

“…and being super ripped for whatever reason.”

“Oh my god, Miri!” I covered my face with all four hands, my whole body suddenly feeling warm, the sting of embarrassment running along the back of my head. 

Miri started moving toward the sonic shower, elbowing me in the stomach as she went. “I’m not going to judge you, Cathy. You have no idea what I do with my free time, and I like it that way.”

The mischievous, taunting look on Miri’s face stunned me just long enough for her to brush past me. I didn’t want her to go. Whatever happened, I wanted to be able to spend at least a few more minutes soaking in her presence. “Wait!” I said, lunging forward to wrap a hand around her shoulder. Her skin was so warm.

She turned around, concern drifting into her pheromone profile, the heady feeling of her unique human scent nearly overpowering. “Hmm? Something wrong?”

“No! I, uh. Did you have fun at the party? On the Torn Memory, that is. I haven’t really asked about that, and I was wondering, and I probably won’t get a chance to ask once my parents show up.”

That was the truth, by the by. I hadn’t talked about the party with Miri since it had happened, not wanting to have to confront all of the various feelings that had been brought up. 

“Oh, that, yeah,” Miri said, though she didn’t sound convinced. “It was fine. I’ve never been to a party quite that big before, but it wasn’t anything special aside from the novelty of an alien insect party.”

“Oh, that’s still nice to hear that you had fun. Probably won’t hold a candle to the college parties you’ll have on Earth, though.”

Miri chuckled. “Probably not. But I’ll still never forget it.”

“I didn’t know you danced,” I said, the words slipping out of my mouth before I could consider the consequences.

“Huh? Oh, you saw me dancing, didn’t you…” She looked almost ashamed at that.

“I mean, you weren’t bad, or anything. Did you see me dancing? I was a total disaster.”

“You were dancing with Remrion, right?” she said. “You weren’t that bad, really.”

“It didn’t mean anything,” I said hurriedly. “Remrion just kinda asked me to dance, and I said yes because I was bored. I promise I’m not into the guy at all, or into any guys in general.”

“You can be into him if you want to be,” Miri said softly. “Being bi is totally normal, and it would be nice to find someone from your own species to start something up with.”

“I know it would be fine,” I said. “I just. I thought you should know how he and I are.” Realizing that I sounded like a complete idiot, I looked down at my feet and tried changing the topic. “Um. Who was that guy you were dancing with?”

Miri blinked at me for a few moments, her mouth falling slightly open. “Oh, uh, him. I think his name was… Thlanrrital? Tramrrithil? Trronlitel? I don’t remember. But he was kind of charming, and I really did feel like dancing, but… it wasn’t anything.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“I mean that it didn’t mean anything. It was just a dance. He was… well he was very nice, just about every Emissary is, but he was also a bit, how do I put this…” Miri curled one lock of hair around her finger. “Incompatible. He talked my ear off and I felt like I just needed to get away from him.”

“Oh,” I said softly. “And here I was getting all jealous.”

“What?” Miri’s voice was barely above a whisper.

“I, uh. Fuck. Sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. You can dance with whoever you want to.”

Miri slipped a half-step closer, her voice still soft and quiet. “I would have danced with you if you’d asked.”

My heart hammered against the inside of my carapace. “You would have?”

She nodded. “I just… I didn’t see you for a while, and by the time I did you were already dancing with Remrion, so I figured… I figured you were trying to move past it.”

I struggled to get my mandibles to move correctly, eventually forming the words, “Move past what?”

“You know. The fact that we dated. It would have been pretty awkward to dance together after the breakup.”

“Oh. Yeah. That.”

Miri frowned, glancing away from me, then forced her eyes to make contact with mine. “I miss that,” she said softly, her voice quavering ever so slightly. “I miss being your girlfriend.”

We were standing close enough that, if I’d wanted to, I could have grabbed her right there and then and pulled her in close, pressing my mandibles to her lips. I could have kissed her deeply, drinking in her unique taste, whispering about how much I wanted to still be together for as long as we could. The image in my mind was so vivid that it could have been real. There was a throbbing ache deep in my thorax, the deepest parts of me wanting to throw all caution to the wind and kiss her and hold her and tell her how much I still loved her.

But I didn’t. Logic, venomous and agonizing, rose up and struck like an angry cobra. I was an insect, and a female insect at that. Miri was more likely to pull back with revulsion, telling me I was a creep, than she was to come even close to reciprocating that affection. The version of me that had dated her was a different creature to the one standing in front of her. Instead I stood there, frozen, stunned, the breath knocked out of my lungs, staring at her radiant beauty and thinking about a future that could never happen. 

“I’m sorry,” Miri eventually said. “I shouldn’t have said that. It was stupid.” She wheeled around in a flash and ran out of the training room, sequestering herself away in the showers. I sighed deeply, sat down on the bench, and waited for my parents. Part of me was thankful that I had been able to keep my composure and not do something so stupid as to actually try to kiss her. Another part has regretted that I didn’t go for it for every single moment of my life since.

I'm in the middle of NaNoWriMo, which is both the reason why this chapter is so late, and also the reason why my note-writing skills have gone directly into the garbage. Support my Patreon, I could really use it. Next chapter is called Little Helium, it's in two weeks.See you!