Nowhere to Go But Up
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Steph stopped in her tracks, her eyes flicking back and forth between Dark’s face and the pistol a foot in front of her facel. “What am I doing here? Hax, what are you doing here? Isn’t there a battle or something that you need to be keeping watch on?”

“I suppose there is,” Dark said. “But I trust my subordinates to be able to war against a cowardly and decadent foe more than I do with more… precise matters.” He gestured to the Spire with his free hand. “Now, Stellina; answer my question.”

I have to give my mom credit. She didn’t so much as glance our direction. “I wanted to see it for myself; the legendary Spire of Bouwon-Phane. You know me, I can’t resist a mystery. And what else do I find upon arrival but you?”

Dark did something that I didn’t think he was capable of. He laughed. It was a quick chortle, but a laugh nonetheless. “That is true,” he said. “I cannot remember how many times you got yourself a solid beating from the security forces for trying to stick your nose in some construction project. Somehow, I feel as though I should have seen this coming.”

Steph shrugged. “Yep, that’s me. Sticking my nose in places it shouldn’t be. I still get headaches, you know, with how many times I got hit over the head.”

Dark nodded, losing himself momentarily in reminiscence. Only for a moment, though, before he and his gun snapped back to attention. “That was all a long time ago, of course. Twenty-five years? Longer? And since then… you went soft. You lost the Rude Mechanical, you stopped smuggling, and you married, of all people, an officer of the Collective Navy. Which suggests to me that there is more going on here than just childlike curiosity.”

After a brief burst of confusion when Steph had first stood up to go talk to General Dark, the rest of us had quickly realized the intent of her distraction and started moving. And it was a good distraction. Dark wasn’t even trying to look for anyone else around, meaning we could make good time to the door. The lack of vegetation or cover made getting up close to the door the hardest part; we dashed across the open field and tried hiding behind a protrusion in the outer wall, but anything beyond a quick glance would reveal exactly where we were. Xara, therefore, went to work quickly. He did the work on his Ariel, opening up some kind of programming function that I’d never seen before, probably because it was wildly illegal, his fingers moving across the screen faster than I’d ever seen before.

“How long will this take?” Quinn asked. “We’re totally exposed here.”

“The lock is simple,” Xara said. “One minute and a half; maybe two.”

Steph rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t call it ‘childlike’, per se. But I am curious. I’m curious about what you’re doing here and why. What is it about the Spire that requires your personal attention, exactly?”

“You could not possibly understand,” Dark said. “You gave up a life of freedom, beholden to no one, for a cushioned existence sucking at the teat of a bloated, effeminate bureaucracy.”

“Hey, don’t say that kind of thing about my wife!” Steph said with a smirk. “And I think you’ll find, considering that I’m standing here with a gun pointed at my face, that I’m plenty tough enough to understand whatever it is you have going on.”

Dark grunted. “Perhaps, then, I can convince you that our way is the correct way. You see, Stellina, there was once a time, many thousands of years ago, when all the galaxy was united in strength, in purpose, in will, by a single empire of the mightiest warriors ever known. Though they were brought low by subversion from lesser peoples, they left relics of their presence behind.”

Dark’s hand vanished momentarily into a compartment hidden in his armor, then returned holding a Waterspindle. My own Waterspindle reacted immediately to the presence of its sibling, humming softly and emitting a buzz that I could feel at the back of my neck. Without even thinking, I jerked forward. I was fully ready to charge in and demand that he drop the thing when Miri’s hand pulled me back.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” she whispered at me.

I quickly sat back down. “I wasn’t thinking at all. How much longer, Xara?” I stared at Dark, remembering how I’d found my Waterspindle hanging from the rifle of a seemingly random spectrademon. How many of these things did the Order have? How much did they know?

“The more distractions there are, the longer it will take,” Xara muttered.

Steph must have had similar thoughts about Dark’s Waterspindle as I did, because seeing it in his hand was the first thing that broke the facade of utter nonchalance. “What does that have anything to do with any of this?” she said, playing off confusion as annoyance. “If I wanted philosophical bullshit I could have asked an Architect.”

Xara snorted.

“I’m sorry,” said Dark. “But what I mean is that this?” He gestured to the Spire. “This is our legacy. Not the Architects, not the Collective, and certainly not the Emissaries.”

“So because it’s your legacy, you get to take it?”

“Because it is our legacy, and because there is nobody whose will is strong enough to keep it from us! You understand, don’t you?” Dark said, his voice imploring and full of fervor. “You remember home! The biggest gang with the strongest members would always crush the weak, no matter what empty platitudes might say.”

Steph frowned. “Is that really what you took away from growing up on Vexeas? It’s dog eat dog, so you have to become the biggest dog around?” She sounded almost disappointed. 

“What else was I supposed to take from it? That love conquers all? The Order understands strength. We understand that the greatest strength comes from throwing aside such petty, degenerate notions of charity and acceptance and embracing the fusion of flesh and machine. And we will unite everyone in strength.”

“So that’s what this is all about, huh?” Steph said with a shrug. “Taking back this relic so that, what, you’ll feel better about yourselves?”

“The Spire is a weapon,” Dark said. “A weapon built by our forefathers, large enough and strong enough to dominate the hearts and minds of an entire solar system. If you trust me, Stells, we can experience that power together.”

“You know, Hax, if I was a shithead teenager like I was the last time we were friends, that would be a pretty tempting offer. But you clearly don’t know me.” Stellina paused, biting her lip. “I’ve grown up since then, gotten married, adopted an Emissary as my kid…”

“Oh,” Dark said. It was surprising; he sounded almost sad. “So it’s like that. Well, in that case, rot in hell.” The blaster pistol, which had slowly been lowering over the course of the conversation, went right back up into Stephanie’s face.

I turned to Xara immediately. “Open the door, now!”

“It’s almost done,” he snarled. “Just a few seconds longer.”

“Well I’m not letting my mother die.” I rose up and started moving toward Steph and Dark, this time forcing my way out of Miri’s grip.

“Don’t,” she said.

“Somebody’s going to get killed,” Quinn hissed between gritted teeth.

Steph still looked entirely calm. With a sigh, she said, “Somehow when I got really mad at you for making out with that girl I’d totally called when we were both fifteen, I knew that it would end this way.”

“Shut up and stop trying to appeal to my emotions,” Dark said. “It won’t work.”

“And yet you haven’t shot me yet. I know that somewhere in all of that duranite plate and synthetic muscle there’s still some spark of that boy who used to be my friend,” Steph said. “You can’t replace your entire soul with computer components.”

“Yes I can!” Dark roared. “I am the superior being, Stellina Karus. You will admit that and join me, or you will die.”

“Then do it, bitch.”

Just then, the door of the Spire opened. What none of us had expected was that it would slam open in a second, creating a crashing metallic sound not entirely unlike a sledgehammer being swung at full strength against a steel bulkhead. I froze, while Miri, Quinn, and Xara rushed inside.

Dark’s head instantly snapped in our direction. “What the fu— Oh, Stells, you tricky little bastard,” he said, turning his head back to where he was aiming his pistol, only to realize that she had already vanished while he wasn’t looking. So instead he turned his gun toward the door and, in a bellow of fury loud enough to echo off of the treetops, said, “The door is open! To me, soldiers of the Order!”

For a few seconds I was too worried about where my mother had vanished to to move my legs, despite the blaster impacts all around me. After a few panic-stricken seconds I saw her bent over, moving toward the door as quickly as possible, bouncing between cover with incredible speed. I gave her a little nod of appreciation, not knowing if she would see me or not, then retreated behind the door with the others.

Xara was already halfway across the room, Quinn was still right up against the wall (looking like he was going to shank whoever went past him first), and Miri was caught between them. “Where the hell are you going?” I said.

“Away from General Dark,” Xara said. “We can’t fight him.”

“No! We aren’t going anywhere until my mother is safe! Now, considering you’re the only one with a blaster, and thus the ability to do anything, get back here and shoot the nazi cyborg!”

Xara’s initial expression was irritation, even anger, but his eyes softened quickly. “You’re right,” he said softly, and ran back to the cover around the edge of the door. 

Xara’s blaster didn’t do much. Most of his shots hit; a slowly-advancing colossus like Dark wasn’t exactly easy to miss. The problem was the brown-black armor plating that turned what should have been disabling hits into nothing more than puffs of smoke. Dark strolled toward us, snapping off shots with his blaster. My mother, though moving quickly, wasn’t going to get here on time. 

Which meant that it was time to break out the secret weapon. Dark may have had a Waterspindle, but I was willing to bet money that he didn’t know how to use it half as well as I did. I waited until the end of a volley of blaster shots, then leapt out of cover with the Waterspindle clutched in my upper arms and my claws extended. I focused my attention squarely on General Dark. He furrowed his brow at me, confused. Then I opened up the spigot in the back of my head and let him have it; all the hate for his people, all the love for my family, all directed by the vague desire to keep him the hell away from me. 

Dark screamed, every muscle locking up as he fell onto one knee. For several seconds he was totally motionless, as immobile as if he’d suddenly been buried under ten tons of concrete. So long as I wasn’t forced to divide the Waterspindle’s power, I figured I could hold him there for a few minutes. But I’d underestimated him. After a few seconds, he began to move again, slowly and with difficulty, his half-human face screwed up in concentration and agonizing pain. His arm went back, to a compartment of his suit, and withdrew his Waterspindle. As soon as his fingers wrapped around the smooth metal, his paralysis visibly weakened. He could move, albeit slowly and haltingly. 

What I should have done was retreat, satisfied that I’d bought even a few more seconds for Steph to reach safety, but I couldn’t. It was like we were two magnets, locked together. Dark’s other hand touched the ground, slowly wrapping around the grip of his blaster pistol, then began raising it up to aim at me. I was stationary, out of cover, and utterly focused on the Waterspindle. The lens of the blaster was aimed at me, and I could almost see my own reflection in the smooth glass.

It was then, from behind me, that Steph let out a savage scream. “Don’t you even think about it, you bastard!” 

She had the blaster rifle on her shoulder, and she let him have it. Shot after shot after shot impacted his arm, his shoulder, and most critically his unprotected face. The explosions of dust and shrapnel knocked his aim aside, and the threat of a lucky hit on his vulnerable spots forced him to throw up his arm. The sudden noise shook me out of my trance, and I made a run for it, Steph hot on my heels. 

Once Steph and I were inside, we all made a mad dash for the airlock, Xara not even slowing down to put on his chlorine mask until we were already in the airlock. The airlock cycled faster than any I’d ever seen, disgorging us in a matter of seconds into the main body of the Spire itself. But there was no time to rest, even then. The sounds of spectrademons were audible through the airlock walls, alongside the angry shouting of cambions and Dark himself. We had to keep going. 

The inside of the Spire was a labyrinth. The architecture, oddly, reminded me of the Waterspindle, all chrome and copper and cobalt but shaped into liquid forms like the undulations of a windswept lake. Most of it was just passages, countless passages that split and merged and sometimes widened into huge galleries only to narrow again without any apparent rhyme or reason. There were also segments of rooms, proper rooms connected by doors like in a normal building, but they were the exception rather than the rule within the sea of winding passages.

We wouldn’t have stood a chance of making progress if I didn’t know exactly where to go. Well, not exactly exactly. That feeling in my head continued to get stronger the closer we were to its source, and by the time we were directly below it it was manifesting as more than just a vague direction; it was telling me which way to go. We would reach intersections where as many as eight passageways would connect, and I would know, instantly, without any memory of knowing, which route to take. And we’d take it, because nobody else had any clue of where to go. Left to our own devices, we would have made it to the top with nothing more than a very long and very arduous walk.

But, of course, we hadn’t been left to our own devices, because the Order was never far behind us. Starting the chase with only a minute’s head start meant that we could never fully shake off the spectrademons. Indeed, if it wasn’t for my sense of direction, the entire company would have caught up eventually and probably torn us to pieces. But as it was, knowing where we were going proved to be somewhat of an advantage. The Order was quickly forced to split up into smaller groups of five or six just in order to cover space, and a group of five or six spectrademons is small enough that if one did happen to cross paths with us, we could fend them off for long enough to escape. 

Even when they weren’t on top of us, the Order was never far behind. You could hear their chattering amongst themselves, the sound of their footsteps, the noise of doors opening and closing, all echoing through the passages and chambers of the Spire, always just below us. The inherent problem was that we both had the same objective; to reach the source of the mysterious signal that I’d started thinking of as the “heart” of the Spire. That meant that we were always going to be going in the same direction, which in turn meant that crossing paths was inevitable. We could never slow down. Slowing down for more than a minute would mean being caught, and being caught without running would mean death.

And that’s the part about a chase that they so rarely show you in the movies: running away is exhausting. The whole group just had to keep walking, and walking, and instead of getting chances to slow down, there would be moments where we were forced to speed up, accelerating into a run in order to build distance between ourselves and the spectrademons. With every passing hour we became weaker, while our enemies stayed just as pernicious. They caught up to us more and more often as we slowed down, the echoing noises of pursuit becoming louder and louder, which only made us feel even more tired as the feeling started to sink in that it was totally fruitless to keep running. But we ran anyway. We knew what would happen if they caught up to us, and even more frightening the fact that we didn’t know what would happen if they reached the heart of the Spire first. 

That chase must have gone on for at least four hours, maybe five. Then we reached a room that wasn’t like anything else we’d seen before, and for a few seconds we forgot about all of it. The room was maybe three times as long as it was wide, and built like a spillway, with the end we entered on the lowest and the floor slowly rising up to the far end, though there was no visible exit. There was a single path up the center, surrounded on either side by elevated platforms covered with all kinds of strange equipment. The central pathway was clear, but covered by a series of freestanding metal archways.

“Catherine,” Xara said. “You have led us to a dead end.”

“No, no, that’s not right,” I said, my head on a swivel as I tried to take in the whole room. “There has to be a way out of here, we just… have to look for it.”

“Let’s spread out, then,” Steph suggested. “If there’s something to find, we need to find it as quickly as possible. And if there’s nothing, we need to turn back before we get cornered.”

We did what she suggested, fanning out across the room, most of our interest being on the huge amounts of equipment around the sides of the room. Xara, meanwhile, stayed below with the archways. A minute passed by with little to no progress; I felt as though the answer was on the very tip of my tongue as I paced back and forth near the far end, but I couldn’t remember what to look for.

“What is this place, anyway?” Miri asked. “What was it for?”

“Security checkpoint,” I said, my mouth moving to answer the question almost automatically. “Those are scanners down there,” I pointed at the archways, “And up here are firing positions.”

Miri looked at me strangely. “How do you know that?”

“Um.” I said. With a shrug, I guessed, “The same way I know which direction to go?”

“But if this is a security checkpoint, there would have to be a way out,” Steph said. “You know, for people to go through once they’d been cleared.”

“Yeah,” I said. There was a long series of panels mounted right up against the edge of one platform about halfway across the room. Something about it felt central; the area around it had been cleared out for lots of traffic. I ran my hands down the panels, searching for anything important. “Someone would probably have to have control of the door in order to prevent intruders from just making a break for it…”

I found one gap in the countless knobs and switches decorating the panel. There were just two controls in that section, a pair of palm-sized hemispheres located one above the other. I experimentally pressed down on the top hemisphere. Nothing. But when I pressed on the bottom hemisphere, it depressed about half an inch into the panel, and the entire room was shaken by a deep rumbling sound as long-abandoned machinery roared to life. About a second later, nearly the entire back wall of the room began to slide down into the floor. It took about five seconds in all, after which I released the hemisphere, and the door stayed open.

“Well, that answers that!” Steph said. “Good work, kiddo.”

Just then, a distant sound began to echo down the hallway. It was a sound with which we were all intimately familiar: the rhythmic thumping of spectrademon legs. 

“And not a moment too soon,” said Miri. “Let’s go!”

We ran to the door as fast as we could manage. It wasn’t very fast. Even with the short break to search the security checkpoint, we were still exhausted. My legs hurt, the human members of the group were still shiny with half-dried sweat, Xara’s chest was heaving as he struggled to breathe through the chlorine mask. If anything, the break had forced us to think about just how tired we were. 

We were ready to keep running, but Quinn stopped right after passing through the doorway. “Don’t slow down,” I said. “We need to reach the top, no matter what.”

“We need to close the door behind us,” Quinn said in between panting breaths. “I mean, I may be in the absolute peak of physical condition, but it’s clear that the rest of you are running on fumes. If we could close this door and destroy the controls, we could slow them down enough to have a chance.”

“Won’t they just go around it?” Miri asked.

“It’s a security checkpoint,” Quinn said. “The designers would have made it as hard as possible to avoid.”

I nodded. “There are other ways, emergency exits and maintenance corridors, but they’re out of the way,” I said. “Preventing them from getting through that way could cost them as much as nine or ten hours.”

“Okay,” said Steph. “Then we’ll close the door. Do you know where the button is on this side, kiddo?”

I started searching at once, looking for a pair of hemispheres amongst the various controls and stations on this side of the door. Xara quickly objected.

“But what’s stopping them from re-opening the door? Catherine’s knowledge of this place may have made it easier for us, but I cannot imagine that the Order will be stymied for too long.”

Quinn nodded. “That’s why I said we have to destroy the controls. A monomolecular should be able to do enough damage, no?”

“Quinn,” I said. “If someone destroys the controls, they’ll be stuck on the other side. You know, with the Order.”

He nodded. 

“Someone will have to stay behind,” Miri said, in a tone suggesting she didn’t want to believe it. “So that the rest of us can make it to the end.”

“Quinn is correct,” said Xara. “If we are going to escape, someone is going to have to stay behind.”

The hallway fell utterly silent aside from the noise of the approaching spectrademons. Xara looked down at me, his eyes narrowed, and strains of sadness, pain, and regret began to filter into his pheromones.

“No,” I said. “No, you’re not going to do this.”

Xara turned toward the door, judging the distance to the control panel as he hefted the pistol in his hand. “The Order is unlikely to kill me… immediately. You can go back and get me when this is done.”

“Please don’t do this…” I said. I should have stopped him, but my body refused to move.

“Someone has to do it,” Xara said. He took a step toward the door. Then another. Miri and Steph and I moved closer to each other without even realizing it, still and quiet in our shared recognition of the solemnity of the moment. I didn’t want him to go, I so desperately didn’t want him to go, but… I knew it had to be this way.

Quinn didn’t agree. One moment, he was pulling away from Xara, his arms folded, his face locked into a stoic expression as he watched the old Architect go. The next moment he was a blur, punching Xara in the face hard enough to send him reeling back before he turned around and made a dash for the panel.

“Quinn!” I started to run after him, but there were arms wrapped around my torso, holding me in place. 

“He’s made his choice, let him go,” Stephanie grunted from behind me. I couldn’t hear her, and even if I could hear her I couldn’t understand it, not when every nerve was screaming at me to stop Quinn. There was no world in which I didn’t stop him.

The spectrademons were in sight, and when they saw us from down the hallway their fast march accelerated into a full-blown charge. But Quinn sprinted across the room faster than I’d ever seen him run, leaping up over the railing and onto the elevated platform so that he could slam his arm down onto the control panel. At once, the door in front of us began to rise. The spectrademons’ attention was divided. Some of them fired at us, their shots bouncing off of the invulnerable material of the door, while others turned their weapons on Quinn. 

I struggled with my mother, trying to break her grip. Finally I spread my elytra, slamming the hard carapace edge into her face, and started running. The door was already mostly closed. I took a running leap, trying to hurl myself through the rapidly narrow crack. I reached the peak of my arc just in time to see a spectrademon point a blaster at Quinn’s head, just as he raised the monomolecular knife over his head to break the panel. Then the door closed. I crashed into it, hit the floor, rolled.

A moment later I was on my feet again, my claws active, slashing at the door. If I could just cut through… but there was no cutting through. Whatever this material was, not even a monomolecular could do much more than scratch it. I felt an arm on my shoulder.

“Someone had to do it,” Steph said. “He made his choice.”

I backhanded her arm off of me. “Don’t fucking touch me. Why did you stop me? Why did you stop me?!”

She didn’t have an answer. 

Miri wiped a few stray tears off of her cheek. “Dammit, Quinn.”

I glared at Steph, the taste of venom rising up in my mouth. Part of me wanted to scream at her, to rage at her, to tell her exactly what I thought. But what would be the point? Quinn had made his choice, and so had she, and I’d made mine as well. What was done was done, and no amount of anger could stop that.

“Fuck you, mom.”

Okay, maybe a bit of pettiness was in order.

Xara was still clutching his head where Quinn had punched him. “We should keep going. If we stay here too long, then Quinn’s sacrifice will be made pointless.”

I turned, pushing past my mother, slowing down for a moment to check on Miri. She looked miserable, but so did everyone. “Alright, fine. Let’s keep going.”

When this chapter gets posted, it'll be only a day before my surgery. As such, the final chapters of The Earthborn Emissary are all being scheduled ahead of time, spread out over roughly a week and a half. Because of that, I won't be able to include quite as much author's commentary at the bottom of each chapter. Still, I hope you've all enjoyed the journey of reading this novel, and I hope you're all still on board for what I'm able to create next. Remember that you can click the link below to see my Patreon, or donate to me on Kofi.