At The Foot Of The Spire
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We spent most of the rest of that day gathering supplies: food and drink and spare batteries and other things. Xara spent several hours away, making sure that he’d held up his end of the agreement with the government. Then we sat down and made a plan. We’d make the trip by hovercar, which would mean not having to rely on the patchwork train system of Bouwon-Phane, thus making for a journey of about fourteen hours. It would also, admittedly, greatly increase the risk of getting stuck in some kind of panic-induced traffic jam or riot, but that was a risk we were going to have to take. 

We left the next morning. That first day of the journey, eight hours overland confined to a single car, could best be described as “grim.” Most of the roads were abandoned. There were a couple stretches where, for over an hour at a time, it was just us, the road, and endless expanses of violet scrubland under a sickly-green sky. Not even the towns we passed through were immune to it; they felt oddly quiet and still, with everyone seemingly staying inside for the most part. Whether that was out of a desire to seek family in desperate times, or out of fear of the police patrolling every street corner, I had no idea. 

At least we had Stellina with her Ariel wired into the car’s long-range radio, reading out updates from the planetary news network to us, thus making the entire situation vastly, vastly more depressing. The space battle had started during the night before we left the city, and it wasn’t going well. There was a nearly twelve-hour delay between when the Order hit the Architect lines and when the Collective hit the Order, a time window which the Order took full advantage of. The casualty reports weren’t pretty. In fact, they were un-pretty enough that the only hints about them that we got were seeing Steph’s facial expressions before she changed the subject. 

Worse, the defensive net over the planet wasn’t impermeable. Not only were there plenty of reports of artillery shells and debris impacts, but a couple of industrial areas had become consumed by ground fighting after transport ships were able to slip to the surface to drop off entire divisions of spectrademons. Every time we saw a streak in the sky, there was a brief moment when we wondered if it was an arriving spacecraft zeroing in on us. In the end, though, no spectrademons made an appearance that first day, and we arrived at our destination for the night undaunted. It was a mid-sized city of a couple hundred thousand, built against the shore of a large lake, a place that Xara had judged to be more likely to have a place where oxygen-breathers could stay. It took until after sunset for us to find a place with room for all of us.

We stayed in three rooms; one with a chlorine bubble for Xara, one for Steph and Miri to share, and one for me and Quinn. Even though it technically wasn’t her room, Miri spent most of the time in the room with me and Quinn. 

“I wish you had more drugs,” she said, sprawled out on the bed, staring at the ceiling. “I missed out last time and now I could really use an evening of not having to think about anything, at all.”

“Yeah, sorry, it turns out that it’s really hard to buy drugs in space, on a planet where everyone has a totally different biochemistry from you,” Quinn said, leaning against the wall. “I’m starting to feel like that first time was a fluke.”

“You could have bought drugs on the Torn Memory,” I said, sitting backwards on the one chair in the room. “I’m at least 90% sure that some recreational drugs are legal there.”

“Dammit…” Quinn said. Then, a moment later, “Don’t Emissary drugs kill humans? I’m pretty sure that was a thing from before.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Then, maybe, don’t do that? Anyway, Miri, are you alright? You aren’t usually very… habitual.”

“I’ve been feeling anxious all freaking night,” she said. “Just… thinking about things.”

The room went silent. I’m pretty sure Quinn knew what she was thinking about, and I definitely had a guess or two, but nobody wanted to say it out loud. Part of me was silently terrified to get too close to Miri. That part of me was also a coward bitch, so I stood up from the chair and walked over to the bed, sitting down next to where Miri was laying.

“What are you thinking about?” I asked.

“Just… all of this. Everything. We’ve been gone from Earth for nearly two months at this point, missing who even knows how much back home, and gotten into so much danger that it’s a miracle nobody’s died yet, and now we’re here, stuck on a planet being besieged by fucking Nazi cyborgs! I can barely keep up with everything, even when it’s all happening right before my eyes.”

I slowly nodded, piecing together the best way to respond. I decided not to sugarcoat it. “I know, right?” I wriggled the fingers on my lower right arm. “I still forget that I have four arms a lot of the time. And antennae. Every time I wake up it takes me a minute or so to realize that the reason why I can’t feel my tongue inside my mouth anymore is that I don’t have a tongue!”

“I’m sorry,” said Miri. “I shouldn’t be complaining.”

“Complain all you want, I never said you couldn’t,” I said casually. “You’re stuck in the same shit that I am.”

“Hell, when this is done, we have to go back to our boring normal lives and try to explain where we’ve been,” Quinn said. “Cathy at least has the benefit of getting to go somewhere new.”

“Hey!” Miri snapped. “Don’t downplay their feelings like that, it must be really upsetting!”

“Let’s try to not run the trauma Olympics?” I said. “I think we’re all going to need some therapy after this is done.”

“Assuming we’re even alive after this is done!” Miri said, her voice quavering slightly. “We could get hit by a stray missile falling out of the sky at any moment, and then we’d all be dead! This entire planet is a freaking war zone, and people have a tendency not to make it out of war zones alive!”

“I mean, you could die any time,” Quinn said glumly. “That’s always true.”

“But if I die here, now, then nobody back home would ever know what happened,” Miri said. “And I’d never get to talk to… to anyone! To my parents, to my other friends, to any of my teachers or my rabbi or my martial arts instructor or anyone! And I don’t, I don’t want to, I can’t, it’s too…”

Miri was freaking out, losing her composure in a way I’d only very rarely seen from her. Then again, nobody can keep it composed 24/7. I couldn’t stand to see her in distress. I reached out to her with my right hand and gently brushed my fingers against her forehead, stroking the curled locks of hair out of her eyes. Her breakdown rapidly petered out, reduced down to heavy breathing and a few mumbling whimpers.

“It’s alright,” I said. “Feel your feelings, cry it out, whatever you need to do. Just know that we’re all feeling the same thing, we’re here, you’re going to be able to keep going. I—I—I know you. I know how strong you are. You’ll be fine, I know you will, and I’ll be right here to help you and make you feel better and Quinn is here too and I’m sure… this will pass. But I’m rambling, I’m sorry.”

Miri chuckled. “You’re fine, Cathy. Thank you.”

Quinn blinked rapidly, stammering a few times before he said, “Do you two need some time to… you’re kind of… never mind.”

I had no idea what Quinn was talking about. I was much more concerned with thinking about better ways to help Miri feel better, besides just sitting there and lightly touching her forehead. 

“I wish there was some way to, I don’t know, to talk to people one last time,” I said. “Just in case we don’t make it, you know?”

“We could leave a message?” suggested Quinn. “Record something that the rest of us can hand out to people in case we die? Of course, we’d have to promise not to release it when we’re still alive. And I guess the three of us would be in a Mexican standoff with all of each other’s deepest feelings recorded on a file sitting around for use… but honestly that’s more of an upside than a downside.” He paused. “Probably still a bad idea.”

“That sounds like a pretty good idea, actually,” I said.

“Yeah,” Miri said distantly. “I think I’d actually like that a lot. Though I’m not sure what we’d record it on?”

“I think our Ariels can record video, can’t they?”

“Really?” said Quinn. “These things are harder to use than an Apple product, so I guess it wouldn’t be all that surprising if there was a function I’d missed.”

“They aren’t all that hard to use,” I said, my antennae twitching his direction in confusion.

“That’s because you have four arms, Cathy,” Quinn said.

“And eight eyes,” Miri added.

I took my hand off of her forehead. “You can’t team up on me like this, it’s unfair. I’m not funny enough to joke against two opponents at a time.”

“No, you aren’t,” Miri said. She sat up, wiping some of the half-dried tears off of her cheeks. “Now please show us how to record things with our Ariels.”

As it turned out, I didn’t actually know how to record things with an Ariel. I thought that I knew, but what I’d thought was a video recording app quickly turned out to actually be a flashlight. Of course, by the time we figured that out, we were entirely too invested, and spent the next ten minutes figuring out where the actual recording app was. 

We quickly decided that it would somewhat defeat the purpose if we just got to watch each other recording the clips. So we filmed in the bathroom. Quinn went first; you could hear him alternating between quiet solemnity and loud extroversion, occasionally interrupted whenever he started laughing at his own jokes. At least he was having fun. Miri went next, and was much more subdued about the whole thing, though she spent quite a bit longer. Then, finally, it was my turn. 

I set up the Ariel on the sink counter, angled the camera so that it would capture my face while I leaned up the wall, and set it to start recording on a voice command. Then I got into position and… realized just how few people I had to leave messages for. I mean, sure, I had friends and teachers back home but they didn’t know me. They knew Alex the human cis boy. None of them had ever met Catherine the agender bug person. There would be no point in leaving a message for any of them, which meant there was a very short list of friends and acquaintances that I could actually leave something behind for. 

And that, then, led to the second question: what the hell to even say? Part of me wanted to quit there and then, say that I wasn’t afraid of dying, that I didn’t need to leave anything behind. But that wouldn’t be true. And besides, that would have been the Alex thing to say; I knew enough about my actual feelings around death to be able to say with some degree of comfort that I definitely wanted to leave something behind. So I stood there silently, and I agonized, and I debated, until finally I’d decided on something.

“Begin recording,” I said.

“So… if you’re seeing this, that means that I’ve died, and either you know how that happened, or someone just explained it to you before showing you the video. Either way I’m dead, so it doesn’t matter. I guess I’ll just go person by person, and make you skip to the relevant part.

“Quinn… you’re my best friend. I hope you can afford the expensive shit to smoke at my funeral. In fact, I’ll be offended if it’s anything less. If I was into guys, like, at all, you would have absolutely been my first, second, and third pick. But, you know, don’t… don’t try to move on too quickly, don’t try to drown things out in drugs and boys, because I know you probably will. Talk to your friends when you feel bad.

“Miri… I’m still in love with you. I think. I know that’s going to sound gross and you’ll probably hate me for it, but I’m dead so I don’t have to care anymore what your opinion of me is. I guess it makes sense, now that I’m saying it out loud, that I couldn’t forget you that easily, even if I’m not a man and not human and so totally outside of your prospects. You’re also a good friend, though. Go get that goddamn degree, I’m sure you’ll absolutely smash it. And I’m glad, I guess, that you decided to go with me on this one, last, stupid, insane adventure.

“Moms… fuck, what do I even say? Part of me is still mad about the whole thing where you didn’t tell me what I was until it was too late, and then you dragged me away from everything I’d ever known without any warning? That was a shitty thing and I hope you feel bad about it forever. But I guess I don’t… hate you. And who knows what shithole I’d be in if Amanda hadn’t taken my egg way back when. So I guess, also, thank you. Thank you so much.

“Gamatas Factor… that’s the one in charge of the Torn Memory, in case the person watching this doesn’t know who to send it to. Um. I don’t really know why I’m addressing you specifically, but it feels important. I guess what I’m wanting to say is that I don’t know what to think. I guess if I’m dead, that means I probably never got to see your ship again, which is a shame. But also, don’t assume that you know what every Emissary thinks? It’s a bit of a turnoff.

“Remrion, also… Uhh. I’m not into you? I’ll probably never be into you? Like, if you turned it down about three ticks we probably could have been better friends.

“And… Xara… I’ve only known you for like two months, and if I’m dead then it probably means I didn’t get to know you for much longer than that, which absolutely blows because you’re kind of a cool guy. You’re like the uncle that I never got to have. I wish that there was something I could do about what happened to your daughter, but I can’t, so I don’t think I should say anything about that. Except, maybe, keep on going. Keep on exploring. You’ll find something eventually, somewhere out there. A partner, a kid, or just a cause. Something.

“End recording.”

 

. . .

 

The next day of the journey was much the same as the first. More empty roads, more towns that looked like they were already under occupation before the Order even arrived, and more news from orbit. The news wasn’t good, of course. The fighting on the ground was growing worse; several of the pockets had been quashed overnight, but several more had shown up, and the Architectine ground forces were struggling to mobilize quickly enough. 

The Collective and Architect fleets had finally linked up in orbit, but coordination was weak at best. The Order, meanwhile, was taking full advantage of its greater size to concentrate fire on specific parts of our lines, overwhelming them bit by bit. Steph and the news reporters were both clearly trying to make the situation sound less bad than it was. But there was no way around it; we were losing, and losing badly.

As we got nearer and nearer to the Spire itself, things did start to change. The scrublands changed into forest, huge forests whose trees were like redwoods, except with trunks the color of milk and foliage the color of amethyst. The Spire itself, towering several kilometers over everything, was visible from just over an hour away; it looked like someone had marked a notch in one edge of the dome of the sky with chalk. Xara’s earlier description of the Spire, that it was a tourist destination and religious site, was also soon proven to be correct, as roads joined into other roads, and before long we were driving alongside many others headed in the direction of the Spire. I couldn’t tell you which ones were tourists and which were pilgrims. Maybe, in a state of imminent destruction, there was less of a distinction between those seeking grace and religious sanctuary and those just trying to get away from things.

I also started feeling something, a hum in my sixth sense, something I can’t describe. It was in the air, in my head, in the Waterspindle, all around and totally unavoidable. The closer we came to the Spire, the more sure I was that going here had been the correct choice. There was something in that structure that was calling to my very being. 

Which was why we didn’t stop driving, even when the silence of the forest was torn open by the thunderous roar of a spacecraft coming in to land. For a couple of minutes we pretended like nothing was happening and kept up the pretense that it might have been any old ship coming in to land on a planet under siege, miles away from any spaceport. Then the alert came in, telling us to find a safe place and bunker down because there’d been a confirmed breach in the defense grid near our location. 

“Well,” Steph said. “Fuck.”

“They’re after the Spire,” I said immediately. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. I mean… is there anything else of value around here, Xara?”

He shook his head. “These forests are mostly undisturbed out of a combination of respect for their historical significance and a general lack of valuable materials here. Most economic activity is either local and small-scale, or else dependent on tourism around the Spire. Nothing much worth capturing.”

Miri furrowed her brow. “Those big breaches we’ve been hearing about… how many ships got through in those?”

“Dozens,” Steph said. “Sometimes in the low hundreds.”

“But that was only one sonic boom,” I said. “Which suggests to me that this isn’t an invasion. I think that…” I slowly stroked the Waterspindle, “I think that whatever is special about the Spire, the Order knows about it too, and they want it.”

“But what’s so special about the Spire?” Steph turned around in the front seat and looked directly at me. “Kiddo, you’ve been saying that you ‘feel something’ this whole time, but all you have to back it up is this feeling. And now you’re saying the Order knows about it?”

“I don’t… I don’t know. But it has something to do with the Waterspindle.” After a moment’s hesitation, I took it off and held it out to Steph. “Maybe you can feel it too, if you take it?”

Steph looked doubtful. For a moment I almost thought she was going to say something about how she was concerned for my mental health. But instead she held out her hand and took the Waterspindle. The moment her fingers wrapped around the metal, she grunted, squeezing her eyes shut and dropping the Waterspindle so she could grab her head with both hands.

“Steph!” I said.

“Oh my god, Mrs. Sierra, are you alright?” said Miri. 

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she said. “Just have a hell of a headache. And… I think Cathy is onto something, because no matter how I turn my head, that headache is pointing in the direction of the Spire. What the fuck is that place?”

“Nobody knows,” said Xara. “It’s at least six thousand years old, and its internals are full of machinery and mechanisms, the purpose or purposes of which have been totally unknown for all of Architect history. It is entirely conceivable that, whether they are correct or not, the Order believes that seizing it would be of value.”

I bent down, picking up the Waterspindle from where it had been dropped to the floor of the car. “Which is why we need to get there first.”

Steph cradled her forehead in her hand and started ranting. “Are you seriously suggesting that we keep driving, going right into what might be a nest of cambions and spectrademons, just to prevent them from taking control of an artifact whose purpose you have only the vaguest suggestion of an idea about?”

“Y-yes,” I said.

“I mean, are we going to run away from the cyber-nazis?” Quinn asked. “I don’t think so.”

Steph sighed deeply. “Good thing I remembered to pack up all of the weapons, then.”

So that was how, about twenty minutes later, the car was parked on the side of the road a little ways away from the foot of the Spire. We had our atmosphere suits on, and everybody was armed. I had my claw sheaths, Steph had somehow packed a full-sized blaster rifle, Miri had a long staff equipped with something having to do with hyperdense matter, Xara had a pistol, and Quinn had been equipped with a long monomolecular knife and several stern warnings about not cutting off any of his limbs. Where we got out was still within the forest, though the Spire loomed over us like the wall at the edge of the world. According to Dr. Erobosh, where we’d parked was the closest place to the Spire where we weren’t going to be seen immediately by anyone at the open clearing near the base.

That was a very good choice. The Order was already there, and they were there in force. There must have been at least a hundred spectrademons that had landed, and a dozen cambions on top of that, and in the span of time since they’d arrived, they’d done an unnervingly efficient job of locking down the entire location. The foot of the Spire reminded me of the La Brea Tar Pits. It was an extensive outdoor complex of buildings ranging from small outstructures to huge galleries, and it clearly was forced to serve multiple functions at once. Some of the areas were devoted to scientific labs and research sites, while others served the needs of curious tourists, Architect and otherwise. And next to both of those sites was a cluster of high-pointed structures that, although totally foreign, I somehow knew were churches. Maybe it was because those were the most densely-packed buildings around. 

Regardless of their purpose, the Order was in control now. The scientists, tourists, pilgrims and priests had all been corralled into four huge crowds, each of which was being held at blaster-point by a squad of spectrademons and a couple of cambions. We immediately knew that we didn’t stand a chance of freeing those people. Xara pointed out that the Architects would arrive eventually; and I remained adamant that it was utterly essential that we got into the Spire. By that point I could feel the exact source of the ineffable pull on my mind and body. It was in the center of the spire, about two-thirds of the way to the top.

Xara, thus, took the lead, showing us where his hazy memories of a previous visit told him that the main door of the Spire was. As we crept through the winding, convoluted maze that was the visitor’s complex, Xara explained a bit more of what he knew about the Spire itself and what to expect. I paid as much attention as I could, when I wasn’t terrified that a spectrademon might show up around any corner. According to Xara, the interior of the Spire itself was off-limits to visitors, meaning the doors would be locked. Partially this was out of concern for the integrity of the not-yet-fully-studied internal mechanisms, but it was also a safety issue relating to one of the oddest facts about the Spire: the entire interior of the structure was pressurized with oxygen breathing mix, not chlorine, and some still-active mechanism ensured that it would stay that way forever. Though some claimed that chlorine was simply too harsh for the Spire’s machinery, this was still the greatest piece of evidence that the Spire was built by beings alien to Bouwon-Phane.

“Well,” said Quinn. “At least when we’re getting killed for nothing by cyber-nazis, we don’t have to do it in these fucking awful suits.”

I couldn’t help but agree with the sentiment, if silently. Part of that relief, I realized, was that the atmosphere suits totally cut me off from my sense of smell. I had grown so used to the information my antennae gave me that losing it felt truly unpleasant. That thought wasn’t one I allowed myself to linger on for long, though, because not long after that was when we arrived at the foot of the Spire. 

The front doors of the Spire almost seemed a disappointment compared to the epic scale of the whole thing. Each one was just over twice the height of a human, wide enough for maybe half a dozen people to walk in shoulder-to-shoulder, and were made from the same white shell-like material as the rest of the Spire, hinging open and closed like a normal door. Oh, sure, there were hundreds of them, but it still felt odd how small they were compared to the overall. 

Then again, I didn’t spend much time looking at the doors. Instead, my attention was immediately drawn to the colossal man standing in front of the doors, a man standing at least eight feet tall with spiked shoulders as wide as the span of a smaller person’s arms, a man encased in a carapace of brownish metal armor and so riddled with cybernetic enhancements that it was hard to even tell if he had any flesh remaining. It was a man I recognized well; I will never forget the expression on his face when he announced the destruction of New Malagasy. Standing between us and the doors into the Spire was General Haxon-Vash Dark of the Order Fleet Secondary.

Steph swore, her eyes immediately narrowing into a grimace of hate. “Hax, you son of a bitch,” she muttered.

Xara shrank back, retreating further behind the low wall we were using as cover. “Catherine might be correct about the importance of the Spire. General Dark would not leave his fleet so if he was not utterly certain of the value of this objective.”

“Hax always did love taking the glory for himself,” Steph said.

“Hold on, Mom, do you know this guy?” I said.

“Yeah. We come from the same planet,” she said. “But right now there’s no time to tell the full story. How are we going to get past this guy?”

Just then, our attention was drawn by the sound of scuffling, shouting, and struggling. I peeked over the wall just in time to see a pair of spectrademons dragging an Architect across the field, while Dark went to meet them.

“Now, I ordered my servants here to find someone who spoke English,” Dark said. “Were they successful?” His voice… it was mostly human. Mostly. There was just enough of a synthetic, mechanical edge to it to dispel any notions that it wasn’t somehow modified.

The Architect at his feet took several seconds to respond, given that he was busy blubbering and sobbing uncontrollably. “I speak English,” he finally said. “What do you want?”

Dark gestured over his shoulder. “Those doors. I know their material is too strong to destroy with a blaster… so I want them open. Can you do that?”

“What?” said the Architect. “I don’t… I don’t have the key! There’s keys, they get handed out to different shifts when you need them. I don’t… they’d still be in a safe or a locker or something!”

“And do you know where the keys are?” Dark stepped forward until he was only inches away from being able to grab the Architect by the throat.

“No! No, I’m new here, I just—”

“Then you’re useless to me.”

Dark moved almost too quick to see. I had barely an instant to realize that he’d drawn a blaster pistol. I shut my eyes and ducked behind the low wall just as the blaster fired with a snap and a wet noise. Then I heard Dark say, “Go back to the civilians and ask if any of them know where the keys are. If nobody steps forward, start executing them at random until somebody does. Understood?”

“Orders. Received.” The spectrademons stomped off. Dark remained there, pacing back and forth in front of the wall, alone with his thoughts. 

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck,” I said, trying and failing to slow my breathing. “We need to get that door open before he kills anyone else.”

“These locks are Architect designs,” Xara said. “If you get me close, I can open them.”

“But how are we going to get you close?” Miri said. “There’s a big dangerous guy there, and I seriously doubt we can take him.”

“We don’t need to take him,” Steph said. “I have a plan. The rest of you just need to stay low, stay silent, get to the door, and I’ll take care of the rest. Got it?”

We all nodded. “So what are you going to do to distract him, exactly?” I asked.

Steph responded by vaulting over the wall we were hidden behind, throwing her arms wide open, and shouting, “Hey there, Hax! It’s been a while, you son of a bitch! How’re the kids?”

General Haxon-Vash Dark, commander of a fleet of thousands of ships, turned to my mother, raised an eyebrow, and said in return, “Stellina Yadronne… or rather, Stellina Karus, isn’t it? It has been a long time.” He drew a blaster pistol and leveled it at Steph. “What are you doing here?”

Stellina Karus's colorful past is something that's been hinted at repeatedly, and it's about to become way more relevant. So that aught to be interesting. Just a reminder, Earthborn Emissary is going to be finishing out around the end of January and the beginning of February, after which I will be taking a long hiatus while I recover from major surgery and catch up on various things that I've been meaning to do for ages. If you want to support me to keep writing and thank me for my work, you can join my Patreon or donate to my Kofi by clicking either of the links below. See you in two weeks for the final chapter before the ending stretch: Chapter 48: Nowhere To Go But Up.

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