Moving Out
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I came to, once again, in a hospital bed. This time, though, the doctor waiting for me was an Architect, not an Emissary, and I was almost immediately struck by a headache like nothing else. It felt like I’d just birthed the goddess Athena from my skull. I couldn’t do much but lie there and groan until the good doctor had the sense to turn up my dosage of painkillers.

“Hello,” the doctor said. “How are you feeling?”

“Bad,” I said. “Where am I?”

“You’re in a hospital,” he said. “Do you remember your name, what planet you are on? You’ve suffered some neurological damage, so I’d like to establish if there’s any signs of memory loss.”

I spent the next couple of minutes rattling off biographical information, telling the man how many fingers he was holding up, the sums of one-digit numbers, and other things that proved that I wasn’t a vegetable. My head continued to hurt like hell throughout. 

“I must say, you’re recovering remarkably well for someone who’s been unconscious for three days,” the doctor finally said. “You’ll likely need some physical therapy to recover from the muscle atrophy, and you may experience lingering neurological effects, but it’s hardly as severe as it very well could have been.”

I groaned. “Would it kill you to turn up the meds again?”

“No, but it might kill you.” He paused, looking down at the chart in his hands. “Do you have any idea what caused this brain injury? The people who brought you in seemed unsure.”

“The Spire… I… activated it.” I didn’t want to tell him what that had done. From my perspective, the period of my omniscience had been only a few minutes ago, and already it was starting to sound more and more crazy.

“Ah,” he said. “That was you. Well, I’d recommend not doing that again. This kind of brain damage is cumulative, and a second dose may cause vastly more severe side effects than the first.”

“I’ll try to avoid activating any ancient technology, doc.”

He nodded. “Now, there were quite a few people wanting to see you when you woke up. May I have your permission to bring them in?”

I said yes, and a minute later I found out that he wasn’t kidding when he said there were “quite a few people.” Six, to be precise. My parents were there, obviously. Miri was there as well, and she pushed right past the others to kneel down at my bedside and hold my hand tight. Quinn was there too, wearing a hoodie and dark glasses, quietly slinking into the corner. Dr. Erobosh was there. The one person who I truly hadn’t expected to make an appearance was the tall, flower-clad person of Mx. Gamatas Factor.

The first thing that happened was that I was barraged with questions about how I felt and whether I was going to improve, as well as reassurances that they loved me and were so worried while I was unconscious and so on and so forth. It was profoundly overwhelming, especially with the ongoing headache. Mostly I responded with nods and monosyllables, when the highly put-upon Architect doctor wasn’t answering questions for me. Eventually the wave abated, and after the doctor excused himself, it came time to ask questions of my own.

The first was, of course, to ask how the battle had gone. The answer was “very well.” In fact, it was already over. The Miracle had caused massive damage to the Order, which not only tipped the scales of numbers against them, but also had a massive impact on morale. Within two days, the Order’s fleets had been decimated, and the badly-damaged survivors were already limping toward the hyperstream under constant attack by pursuing Collective ships.

The second question was a lot more petty. “Factor. How did you get here? What are you doing here? Why?”

They spread their hands in appeal and said, “We followed along with the Collective fleet. The Torn Memory is more capable as a warship than you might expect, and we felt that the chance to strike back was worth the risk. When I heard that you were here, I could not help but check in to make sure you were alright.”

I made a soft click with my mandibles, not sure how I felt about them tracking me like that. “Well, I guess it’s nice to see you here.” I said.

There was a long period of silence. An exhale, if you will. Finally, Amanda spoke up. “The Miracle… did you have anything to do with that?”

At the time I hadn’t heard it be called The Miracle before, but I didn’t need any additional context to know what they were talking about. Though my memories of those ninety-three seconds were fuzzy and hurt my head to think too much about, I remembered enough. I nodded. “I don’t want to talk about it too much, but… It’s the Spire. That’s what it’s capable of. An entire solar system, linked together, with one person as the lynchpin.” Sudden panic rose up in me. “You can’t let anyone else use it! It’s too powerful to—”

“Others have tried,” Xara said, cutting through my panic with his calm words. “The Architect government has taken control of it. As of now, every experiment has ended with the Spire failing to activate and the poor experimenter dealing with neurological damage.”

“So I’m the only one…” I wasn’t sure what was more worrying: the thought that someone else might use the power of the Spire, or the fact that there was something special about me, specifically, which allowed me to use it.

Xara nodded. “Your parents and I have been fending off requests for you to repeat your previous feat. Hopefully the doctor’s report on the brain damage which you yourself suffered will get them to stop inquiring.”

“So… are you still out of jail?” I asked Xara. “What’s going to happen to you? To Helium?”

Xara was about to answer, but Amanda cut him off. “The Collective, as represented through me, had some very sharp thoughts on the treatment of Dr. Erobosh and his work. The drive improvements which he perfected are being planned to be added to the next wave of warship construction, and the Helium Glider will be returned to him.”

That made me smile, hearing that Xara was going to be alright. At least until the other thing she’d said sank in. “Warship construction?”

The room got just a little darker, a little more solemn. “We are at war,” Factor said, lowering their head. “Though the Fleet Secondary was heavily damaged this day, the Order’s fleets are still powerful and widespread. The death of New Malagasy cannot go unanswered.”

“The Architect government has agreed to an alliance with the Collective,” Amanda said. “And we expect several other minor Pioneer polities, maybe the Travellers, to join in as well. It’s not going to be easy.”

“But it’s going to happen regardless,” Factor said.

Another long gulf of silence. I tilted my head back onto my pillow and rested for a moment, hoping that that would make the headache fade. It didn’t. Even if it had, I couldn’t rest anyway, not with the thought of war—a war that Amanda would be fighting in, even—on my mind. Eventually I realized that I would have to have something to think about, or else I’d lose it entirely.

“Hey, Quinn?” I said. “You’ve been really quiet for some reason. What’s going on?”

He chuckled darkly. “I’ve been trying out being the edgy loner in the corner who people whisper rumors about, hear it’s great for attracting guys.” Another pause. “Sorry, force of habit.”

Amanda, who had been taking up the right side of my bed, graciously stepped aside to allow Quinn to get closer. I hadn’t thought about how concerning his change in attire had been up until that moment, a fact I’m going to blame on the brain damage. As he walked up to me, it became increasingly concerning.

“Uh. What’s with the new look?”

“New… oh, right, first time seeing it. Well, the shades are partially to look like I belong in the Matrix, and partially because my eyes are still really sensitive to light after the operation.” Quinn threw back the hood. Half of his hair had been shaved off, and the exposed scalp was covered in a network of thin scars. “Even with all that technology there’s still some recovery.”

I gasped, stumbling for words. “What the fuck? I’m so sorry, Quinn, I…”

He held up a hand. “Hey, if it weren’t for you, they would have actually finished stuffing me full of cyborg parts, and then I’d be in real trouble. As it is they only got a few preliminary implants in, and those are easy to remove. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t using that part of my brain anyway.”

“You lost a part of your…” I paused. “Don’t joke about that.”

“It’s how I cope,” he said with a shrug. “And hey, now we’re brain-damage buddies.”

I glared at him for several seconds, until I was interrupted by a quick chirp that was definitely not a laugh. “Brain-damage buddies it is.” I looked around the room at all of the gathered people, all looking down at me like they were expecting me to give some big heroic speech. I stroked the back of Miri’s hand with my thumb.

“So what happens now?”

“You’ll stay here and continue to recover,” said Xara. “Seeing as you are currently only being kept stable by a large quantity of drugs.”

I rolled my eyes at him, antennae flattening against my head. “I mean after that. What’s going to happen to you? What’s going to happen to Miri and Quinn and, and…” I gestured around the room.

“The first thing I’ll be doing is hiring a new crew for the Helium Glider,” Xara said. “We’ll then escort Ms. Hewitt and Mr. Brandeis home, to Earth.”

“Even with his…” I gestured at my head.

“They’re just scars,” he said with a shrug. “I’ll come up with a story.”

“Once the two of them are safe, I’ll likely resume what I was doing before we met. Traveling known space, picking up jobs were possible, and so on.”

“Your mother has to go fight in a war,” Stephanie said. “And me, I’m going back home. To the in-laws on Cordisseum, that is.”

The Torn Memory will return to hiding,” Factor said. “Though the ongoing war may make things slightly safer for us.”

“And…” I paused. “What happens to me? As much as I’d love to go back to Earth, that’s not exactly an option, is it? So what happens to me once I’m out of here?”

Amanda and Stephanie gave each other a quick look. Their pheromones blended fear with a sort of pride, a trust that the choice they’d made was the right one. “You’re an adult, Cathy,” Amanda said. “Where you go is up to you.”

“You can come with me,” Steph said. “Live with family, enroll in a Collective college. I know there are other Emissaries on Cordisseum.”

“But Factor has also made it clear that there’s a place on the Torn Memory for you,” Amanda said.

“There is so much more for you to learn about our people,” they said. “You will be safe with us, and welcomed, and we will show you that there is joy to be found even in the ashes of genocide and ruin. I would love to have you come aboard.”

“I… yeah,” I said. “I can see that.”

Factor frowned, their antennae sagging slightly. “It is all up to you, of course. Take as much time as you need.”

So that was it. Those were my choices. I could live with my freaking parents and my freaking parents’ family on some human world that I’d never been to. Or I could go to a place I’d only ever been once and live with a bunch of people of my own species that I’d literally never met before and hide out in the depths of space because there were too many people who wanted us all dead. I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew almost at once that those options sucked. I didn’t want to stay glued to Stephanie’s side any longer, and while Factor’s offer was more appealing, I didn’t want to go with them either. 

But then I realized something. Steph had said that where I went was up to me… and then immediately presented two different options. And if my relationship with gender told me anything, it’s that binary choices are bullshit. If she had been telling the truth, really telling the truth, then where I went was entirely up to me, entirely my decision. Offers be damned. I looked around the crowded hospital room one last time. To Miri, looking at me with wide, teary eyes. To Quinn, smiling his cocky bastard smile. To Factor, their arms folded, looking at me expectantly. To Stephanie and Amanda, still smelling of pride and fear, fear that I wouldn’t be able to handle it and pride that I’d make the right choice anyway. And then I looked to Xara, his masked face betraying no emotion.

“Hey, Xara,” said weakly. “When you said you were going to put together a crew for the Helium Glider…”

The words died in my mouth as my heart began to race faster and faster. Xara’s eyes went wide, but his body continued to betray no emotion. Only I could sense the slightest hint of Architect pheromones in the air, pheromones that smelled like a warm hug and tears of joy.

I cleared my throat. “Do you think there would be room in that crew for a plucky beetle learning to become an engineer?”

“Of course there would,” Xara said. His voice was steady and even, but his pheromones said otherwise. “I would be glad to take you on board and teach you what I know.”

I glanced back at the others. Their expressions ranged from shocked to impressed; but their feelings on the matter weren’t important anyway. “Then I’m coming with you,” I said. “Don’t leave without me, you hear?”