Timeron is waiting for me when I step out of the simulator. He catches me, too, as I stumble, expression stern. I don’t know how long I was in there this time, but from his look I can tell it was much longer than I said I would be. I can’t help it. It reminds me of home.
I’d had it commissioned– well, Tim’s dad did– on my first visit here, years ago. Five years now I think. Just two years ago I met Timeron. He’s not used to it yet. And to be frank, neither am I. I don’t know that I ever will be used to it.
She is standing there with him too, and I give her a polite smile as she stares pure venom at me.
“Good evening?” I try, a little uncertainly.
“Good guess,” Timeron replies dryly. “You’ve been in there for two days.”
“Timeron has been worried sick,” Sarah says through gritted teeth. “Haven’t you Timmy?”
“I wouldn’t say sick, mom,” Tim mutters under his breath. “I mean, she does this every time. It’s okay.”
“It most certainly isn’t!” Sarah, also known as Tim’s mother, also known as Mrs. Trifecto, snaps out. The words sting enough to make me wince.
“I’m sorry,” I say, a little lamely. “I didn’t really mean to be in there so long, it’s just-”
Mrs. Trifecto probably can’t even hear me. “If we’re going to keep that thing in the house, the very least you can do is take care of it properly.”
“Mom, she’s not a thing. She’s a person. Her name is Mak’ar.” Timeron’s voice is suddenly dangerously low. I cling to him without realizing it. It’s almost comical– would be if it weren’t so serious. I’m almost a half-meter taller than Tim.
“Aliens are not people, Timmy,” she says, her voice dangerously close to cracking. “And I don’t care how much you care about this creature- if you want to keep it then you’d best take care to train it, I won’t have it in my house–”
“Then I guess I’ll catch my own ride home,” Tim snaps, and that’s the end of it.
Mrs. Trifecto is left standing there with her mouth open, cut off mid-sentence. For a long moment, we’re locked like that.
I’ll remember this for a long time– it’s a tableau stamped in my mind now, I’m sure– me clinging to Timeron, Timeron’s eyes meeting Sarah Trifecto’s with a defiant, fiery glare, that despicable woman’s fish-like mouth hanging open.
We walk out. I’m still leaning against him, still stunned from my swift exit from the simulator. We walk down the rows of metal and polished wooden pods, some closed, some open invitingly. Walk down the flashing, lighted hallway out to the small metal door at the end. Timeron opens it, pushes it away.
The evening glow of the sun gives his arm an eerie cast, and then it consumes both of us as we step out into the world.
‘Home’ turns out to be a hotel. It’s the first time Tim has ever decided to stay in one. No, let me take that back. The first time Tim and I have ever stayed in a hotel together. We have our own room– Timeron has his dad’s inheritance to spend on anything he wants, so I guess this is what he wants.
I’m the only thoracian in the lobby. All eyes are drawn to me, so I just squeeze Tim’s hand and try to ignore them.
He squeezes back gently, flesh against chitin. “It’s fine,” he murmurs softly. “It’s going to be just fine.”
There in the lobby, smelling smoke and sex and coffee, there in the lobby scented with pheromones and eagerness, Tim buys a room with two beds.
I do mean buys. He books it for the entire year.
As he begins to lead me towards the stairs, the clerk calls after him. I brace myself.
“Sir, if you’re going to take her to your room, you might want to have this.”
The man– he can’t be older than twenty seven years, with sharp brown eyes, smooth peach skin, hair worn relatively short and curiously well manicured fingernails- reaches under the desk, rummages around, and slaps down a book. It’s a thick book.
I can’t read the title (or at all), but Timeron’s eyes light up as he walks back to accept it, as he slips it up under his arm and gives the clerk a short bow. “Thank you for your kindness.”
The clerk offers a half-smile and a bow in return. “It’s nothing, Mr. Trifecto.”
I find myself wondering why he seems sad. His eyes are hooded and his face is one that seems too old for his time.
The picture on the bright new front cover of the book is, as far as I can tell, a rabbikin embracing a human. I resolve to ask Tim about it when I’m feeling brave enough.
It’s a nice room, I decide. There are two beds, a wardrobe, a huge virtual projection screen, and two replicators– one for food, one for drink. They stand together ominously, columns reaching to the ceiling.
I’ve never been fond of sleeping in the same rooms as any fusion powered devices, despite assurances that a meltdown would be simultaneously infeasible and harmless if it ever occurred. All I can really do is trust Tim.
I trust him all evening, then, trust him as he orders the Originals for five different meals and has them sent up to the room. They’re preserved, naturally, in five separate stasis fields, trapped in time at a point when they were fresh and hot.
He scans them through the replicator, then scans the drinks too and, setting the originals aside, he makes dinner.
I open up the book, while I’m waiting, turning to the first page. There is a picture of a human man holding a handful of earth-grown flowers in one hand, standing on the far left side of the page. He looks dejected. On the other side of the page is a thoracian. She’s holding an egg. Her bulbous abdomen and lack of sting marks her as fertile. Standing next to her is a drone. Both of them smell happy. I find myself surprised the book has smells that don’t run together.
There are a lot of words under the pictures that I can’t read.
I turn to the next page, but Timeron says something I don’t catch and it pulls my attention away. I look up to see that he’s set up dinner on one of the beds. He beckons.
“C’mere Mak. You haven’t eaten properly in two days, you’ve got to be starving,” he says softly. “Come sit by me.”
I stand up and walk over to the edge of his bed, then sit down next to him, mindful of the way my abdomen presses against the bed, sting sheathed so I don’t accidentally puncture the mattress.
I reach over with one of my lower hands, grip his. His skin is very soft compared to my chitin. I catch sight of myself in the reflective screen of the projector. My glossy black exo hides a skin of a sort under it, like his but more fragile, sensitive. It’s a second dermal layer to prevent infection and to keep my internals held together. My broodmother told me about it before I was hatched. She was so happy. Her clutch had been made up almost entirely of drones.
I had been one of the only soldiers born. The exo was– is– my birthright, like the implanted sting and spines.
I wonder how my colony is doing, wonder what they would think about me now. Consorting with– no, actively dating a human. What’s more, dating a human in the family responsible for first contact with us? They would be outraged. Appalled. I’m sure of it.
I’m too far to catch scent of the queen’s pheromones, too far to feel fear or pain or pleasure at her whim. But they are not. If they heard about what I had done– if she did– then they would tear me to pieces.
After all humans have done to my people, I’m not sure why I don’t hate myself for liking this one.
I tentatively pull a piece of the pizza Timeron made free from its circle, neatly cutting it out with my upper hand-spine’s tip.
I can taste it without even putting it in my mouth. It’s only after I notice Timeron smiling that I realize something might be wrong.
“What is it?” I ask, staring at him.
“You’re using your antennae,” he says lightly. “You haven’t used them around me since mom first saw them two years ago.”
“I remember that,” I mutter bitterly. “She said they needed to be cut off. I was so scared she’d cut them off. Every time we went to see her before your dad–…” I catch myself, but not fast enough. I see a flicker of pain cross Tim’s sharp blue eyes, and then his expression eases a little.
“It’s okay, Mak. I’m over it.”
I know he isn’t, not really. He smells like it hurts. Like I’ve hurt him.
“I am sorry,” I click quietly, speaking Thoracian Standard. It’s like our private little language. We invented it, after all, Tim and me. “I wish I could have helped him.”
It’s Tim’s turn to look bitter, his smile not reaching his eyes. “You know you did help him, Mak. You know there was nothing either of us could do for him.”
The pizza is forgotten, then, the projector remains dormant, and we just sit there with one another. Next to one another. My lower hand in his.
Tim is asleep on my shoulder. I don’t mean to let it happen. My shoulder is kind of hard and unforgiving. He seems comfortable, though, so I don’t make any move to dislodge him. Instead I flip through the channels on the projector, setting it to transmit to my antennae directly. I’m not really watching/smelling/hearing it though. There’s too much on my mind.
Tim stood up for me. He took a stand for me, was brave for me, bought a hotel room for me. His father took me in, his mother was the only one who didn’t approve. His father made first contact with my race. His father was the one who wanted to organize a sort of unified alliance between the ‘primitive’ thoracians (my people) and the humans (Tim’s people). It didn’t… exactly work out.
It was the United Conglomerate States– what Tim tells me was formerly China and the United States of America before a war no one remembers anymore– that exploited my people, my family, and caused them to cut themselves off entirely from humanity. There’s one matriarch, one queen left in human space, and she has been captured and tamed.
And I have no idea where she is.
No one does.
“Good morning, Tim,” I click near his ear as he stirs against my side. “How are you feeling?”
He glances up at me, and smiles, but it smells like it might be forced, bitter. “Pretty good. I should’ve picked a softer surface.”
My second dermal layer blushes pointlessly. I look away. “Any time you want to switch to a human–”
“I meant on a pillow, Mak. Something on your mind?”
“Only the same thing on yours,” I say quietly, turning to look at him again as he sits up. “We’ll need to face her eventually.”
He doesn’t answer for a while, then nods grimly. “Give it another three weeks.”
It isn’t until after breakfast (waffles cooked Tim’s way, three scrambled eggs and a few strips of bacon) that we decide on where we want to go for the day. Timeron thinks that the Park would be a good place to start. As a first official ‘date’ after two years of messing around, I figure that might be nice.
Tim picks up the book the clerk gave us on the way out.
It isn’t as romantic as I thought it would be. We sit at a table made out of ancient wood, in a part of the Park that hasn’t been cared for in close to a hundred years. Since ‘caring’ often involves sickening culling of overpopulations of animals, I feel like we definitely get the better deal of anyone visiting the Park to watch wildlife.
Tim rented out a portable replicator in case we get thirsty. He also brought a pencil and several sheets of synthpaper. A whole notebook, in fact. I’m not sure where he got it. I know I’ve never seen it.
I do recognize the symbol on it, though. It’s the family flag– his family flag.
Three stripes through a circle, white, red and black bordered by blue. It’s always struck me as a bit strange for a flag– but I’m pretty used to strange now.
“I’m going to teach you how to read,” Tim says quietly. “Okay?”
I blink at him.
“You don’t seem very enthusiastic,” Timeron presses gently. “C’mon, I thought it was something you always wanted.”
“I’m sure all ants would love to fly, too, but only the queens and drones earn their wings,” I reply flatly. “A soldier is not capable of learning to read, Tim. It doesn’t matter how much I want to learn, I just can’t.”
“Mak,” my faux drone says quietly. “You are perfectly capable of learning how to read. You are brilliant. My dad always said you were truly exceptional for the species, especially for one of the warrior caste.”
I bite back a bitter reply and look away for a moment. But he’s right, too. His dad did always say that. His dad showed me nothing but kindness. Here, without the influence of any queen and without any real purpose, what better things do I have to do with my time than attempt the impossible and fake-mate with Tim?
I let something similar to a smile cross my inner lips. “Fine,” I click, with a sigh through all six spiracles. “I’ll learn to read Standard– on one condition.”
Tim raises his eyebrows. “Name it.”
“If I learn to read, let me help you with your father’s work. I’m tired of having to wait while you go out,” I state firmly. “I know I can be of some help. I have four arms and you only have two.”
“You just want to spend more time with me,” Tim posits, somewhat hypocritically. I just stare at him until it’s his turn to sigh. He shakes his head ruefully. “Deal. But we’re doing the alphabet first.”
I grin behind my mandibles. That suits me just fine.
By the end of four hours, both of us are tired of trying. The characters stand there defiantly, their curves and lines as senseless as ever. I don’t know their names still, and after four hours, though tired, Tim is not the least bit discouraged.
“It’ll be different tomorrow,” he says quietly. “I need to go to work.”
“And…?” I prompt.
“And you’re coming with me,” he says lightly. “But first, we’re getting you a labcoat.”
We leave the Park as we found it– dilapidated and run down, but filled with life.
We take a teleportation pad to a nearby supplier and pick up a white labcoat. The only thing that actually costs any credit in the UCS is room and board. Everything else can just be created through the fusion-enabled process of replication.
It’s an interesting jump from the relatively substandard method of bartering used by my people, but I’ve been here five years so obviously I’m accustomed to it. I remember when I first saw one of their broad black shapes– the shops here that seem more like factories, belching condensed water into the air. It rains all the time around them. So much so that the drainage system is particularly effective, simply pumping water back into the reactors to be separated out into hydrogen and oxygen again.
The room we enter to receive the labcoat is big, covered in black tiling, and fully automated. No clerk sits at the desk. The desk itself sits under a chute- which deposits a compact package containing the white labcoat Tim ordered for me.
“Why not teleport it in?” I wonder aloud, picking up the package. It’s something I’ve thought about since I first saw this area. “Wouldn’t it be simple? We have access– you have access– to some of the strongest and most amazing technologies there are. Why have it drop in the first place?”
“Teleportation is not something we need to do a job that gravity is better at, Mak.” Tim’s explanation makes sense, so we just leave the facility, heading to the nearest teleportation pad so we can reach Contact Tech. and Assoc.– where Tim’s father worked.
The lab is completely empty when we arrive, the lights in every force-window dark. I’ve been here before several times, but the lights have always been on and there were always many vehicles set around it as well– the Vertical Landing and Launch pad completely packed with airships of all different kinds. I’ve never been allowed to the top, where the most important research is conducted.
The laboratory, Contact Technology and Associates is immense. Twenty floors tall at least, reaching into the sky like an immense oblong pillar. Exactly like an oblong pillar, in fact.
Tim approaches the retinal scanner, scans himself in and flicks a switch on the side of the door, momentarily throwing me off. I’d only ever seen switches in the basement of his mother’s house– never in a building above the ground. I suppose I’d always assumed that was part of their function.
It opens a small panel with many different keys and a screen of constantly shifting hues. He taps in a code, causing the terminal to shine colors that, without my eye augmentation, I would be unable to see at all. Transfixed, I barely notice the door open as he works.
The next moment, there’s a dull ‘pop’ sort of noise, and a hole appears in Tim’s labcoat– on his left arm, smoke rising from it. It’s a tiny hole, no more than a half-centimeter in diameter.
It bleeds red. It pours red. Tim shouts.
He staggers back.
A man steps out, lifting his accelerator pistol, barrel still hot, keeping it pointed at Tim. I see his finger on the trigger. If he notices me he doesn’t indicate it. I was standing to Tim’s right, out of the way. His eyes flick towards me then.
In the next moment, a long, jagged spine enters his neck at the base of his throat, punctures his trachea and drives through the nerve bundle at the column running up his back. He collapses instantaneously.
Dimly, I am aware of my chitin-covered hand, lifted and shaking, bleeding ichor sluggishly from the wound where the spine tore free, where I fired it. Aware of the hole in my mainly hollow arm where a spine is missing, where another one begins to grow. Aware of the hole in my palm where a spine tip pokes out from it, is already prepared to fire again.
Time, sound and chaos come back in a rush. I hug Tim close with my lower set of arms, keeping an upper, needle’d one trained on the open doorway, eyeing the man as he collapses, a gush of blood spilling from the awful wound my spine left in his neck.
“Tim!” I click, frantic. “Tim, are you okay?”
He smiles weakly, at the ludicrousness of the statement I’m sure, at the blood running down his arm, normally olive skin white as snow, stained dark along his arm. His eyes are unfocused, then focused again, on me.
“Sting me,” he says sharply. “Now.”
I unsheathe my sting without complaint. “Where?” I ask grimly. “Tell me where.”
“Shoulder. Above the wound,” he murmurs faintly, then his voice sharpens again, urgent. “Now, Mak!”
I bring him down to the ground, pull his upper body close to my abdomen, and jab him with the sting, in the shoulder just above the rent flesh.
I feel it sink in, feel venom instantly forced into the wound, feel muscles I hate contract and tighten. I watch Tim stiffen, tense up all over, a spasm of pain rushing through him all at once, rocking his body against me. His shoulder puffs up. Swells. All the way down his arm, it swells, swollen- but the blood flow stops almost immediately. I pull my sting back, gritting my inner teeth.
“Why did you do that?” I snarl, as soon as he seems coherent enough to listen to me. “What if there are more like him?”
“Why are you wasting time jabbering on, Mak?” he asks weakly. “Get me to the lab. There’s an antivenom in the medical cabinet and I’ve got at least twenty minutes before stage four.”
“We can just go to the hospital, right? I can work a teleportation pad,” I click out rapidly. “We don’t need to go in–”
Tim makes a noise between a chuckle and a groan. “Mak’ar, the CTA is the only facility within three light-years with any access to Thoracian anti-venom and you know that. If you had not stung me I would be dead right now.”
I lift him up. My muscles are weak from the time I’ve spent in the simulator and my body– head, thorax and abdomen– hurts. Biting my inner lip, shaking with fear and exertion, I tuck him close to my thorax, push past the gurgling man where he lies on the ground. I try not to think about what my spine did to him as I step over him and into the lab.
The door shuts behind me, sliding closed with a soft hum.
The foyer of the laboratory is small. There’s enough room for the desk, but there’s no clerk sitting at it– the whole place feels abandoned. I smell the trail of the man from outside, where he’d waited here for a long time before we’d happened along. Two hallways spread out
One hallway leads to the med-lab. The other leads to the stairs.
“Up,” Tim gasps. “We need to go up.”
“Anti-venom first,” I hiss. “I’m not going anywhere until I treat you.”
“There’s anti-venom in the top lab,” he lies. I can smell it, feel it from him when I touch him with my antennae. “C’mon.”
I hate him for making me think this way, for making me suspect him like this. I hate him for making me sting him. Panic makes my chest ache where the exo presses against my skin. Where Tim’s head rests, his eyes staring at nothing.
Clicking out a Thoracian curse, I head towards the stairs.
Ten flights up with no movement, no voices, nothing. Just the click, click, click of my clawed feet tapping the tile in a lab that should be filled with life. The stairs spiral– efficient for building, terrible for climbing, just like I remember. The door at the tenth flight is familiar. I’d reached it once, maybe twice when I’d come here last. Each time to be turned away by guards or even by Tim’s father himself. I’m too worried to be curious as I should be. Too shaken. Ten flights up and Tim is who needs to catch his breath.
I can hear his labored breathing, feel him tense against me at irregular intervals. He’s light too. Terrifyingly light, as if made of synthpaper instead of flesh, blood and bone. His arm is starting to turn purple from the lack of circulation. The gruesome tourniquet the swelling caused is a mixed blessing. If I’d been able to tie, if I were a worker then it would have been a simple matter. I could have woven a silk wrap.
My digits aren’t dextrous enough to tie anything. All I am meant for is killing.
“Ice cream,” Tim whispers, so that I barely hear it.
The panel on the door has a keypad and a terminal. The characters are completely incomprehensible. “Tim-” I click, suddenly panicked. “Tim, I can’t read these-”
“Ice cream, Mak’ar. Remember? I taught you how to s-spell it. It’s an old favorite. How do you spell it, Mak?”
His voice is tight with pain.
“I– I don’t know,” I whimper. “I don’t know, Tim-”
“You remember how to write them though, don’t you? It was muscle movement. Your body- should-…” he trails off, takes a deep, shuddering breath, convulsing once in my grip. “Your body should remember.”
He’d made me write the alphabet, those symbols, countless times. Ice cream. Over and over. It almost makes sense now.
I trace the shapes out in my mind, trace them out in the air above the terminal with one claw, inner teeth digging into my lip, mandibles clacking together nervously. What had I written?
Shouting echoes up the stairwell. Voices I can’t make out. Perhaps they’ve found the body now. Perhaps they’re on their way up.
I… C… E…
“Between words there’s a-always a space. It’s the only blank key, Mak.”
The door slides open, I slip through it with Timeron in my arms, and the door slides shut behind us noiselessly.
A shout, to my right, a cry of alarm. A man stands there, fist around a Smith/Tec brand Linear Accelerator Pistol. The sleek design and the coils around the barrel mark it as a very nice one. The man raises it, his short blonde hair waving as he rises fully, as he lifts the barrel towards me as if to reach out and smite me. His mouth opens to say something, his warm brown eyes speaking volumes.
I see a split second’s hesitation in them, and it’s all I need. A thousand muscles extend and contract, launching a subdermal spine. It’s a large, dull one from my right hand, too, meant for cracking armor more than piercing people.
It strikes a little off target, smashing into the barrel of the gun rather than the man’s hand, wrenching it from his grip and sending it spinning across the floor. He shouts again, raises his hands in the air, eyes fixed on my hand– on me, from head to toe. I grin, baring teeth, mandibles open.
“Is there a teleportation pad to the top floor?” I click, before remembering no one speaks Thoracian Standard except me and Tim. I switch to English.
“Teleportation pad?” I ask. “Top floor!”
He gibbers something completely useless. I hear the voices, can hear the footsteps behind the door I’ve just left. This room is filled with lab equipment, now that I look around. Burners and test tubes, a miniature collider- anything one might think stereotypical of lab equipment. Tim often said nothing much has changed over the past hundred years. This must be the chemistry lab then.
There is a pad, but the arrow above it points down. I can only assume that means it only goes down. The shellshocked man just keeps his hands up in the air, over his head. He makes no move to pick up his fallen gun.
“Mak,” Tim grits out. “Get moving, dammit! The only way up is stairs!”
His voice spurs me to action. The weight of him in my arms is barely noticeable. I stride to the far door– click, click, click– and wrench it open with a fumbling spine’d set of digits.
It closes behind me as I race down the hall beyond to the stairway. Click, click, click. It’s only when I start up this next staircase that I realize I should have locked it.
The noise of my passage, the lack of scent on the way up (except for my own scent, the scent of human blood and the acid of my venom in Tim’s shoulder) is eerily isolating, echoing in my mind. One landing. Another. Another. My only true burden is time.
It weighs too heavily. I could already be too late. How much time has passed?
“Tim? Stay with me, please.” What was it they always said on the projector? “I don’t know what I’d do without you- stay with me, come on.”
He doesn’t answer, and I can’t look to make sure he’s still conscious, can’t force myself to look down at the crumpled form of him in my arms, his legs slung over my right lower arm, his back against my left as I cradle him close, taking the stairs as quickly- and safely as I can. My claws dig into the tile for unfound purchase, scrabbling sometimes, slipping, but always catching myself before I fall, on the rail along the stairs.
My armor’d exo scrapes against the wall as I stumble onto the nineteenth landing. A set of extravagant main steps leads up to the top lab. I can see the portal, the arch at the top and the scanner to its left. I can hear voices and the crash of a door ten landings down.
My spiracles flare as I draw in another breath, and I’m grateful for the support to my lungs. I start up the last set of stairs.
I reach the top step– by this time Tim’s arm has turned black, swollen to the point of nearly bursting, pus and blood both caked on it, dried on it.
There though, on the platform before the portal to the main lab, I come face to face with a queen. With the queen. It stuns me, but only for a moment before instinct kicks in. I have no time to be stunned.
She’s chained there, at the end of the room, immense abdomen wired to a hundred different blinking machines. As I reach the top step, however, she lurches over to the portal itself, extending herself to stand right in front of me.
One of her immense antennae reaches out and touches my forehead before I can react.
WHY ARE YOU HERE?
I recoil from it, nearly fall backwards, drive a clawed foot through the tile to dig in and keep my balance, leaning forward again. I press against something invisible though, something between me and the queen. Her mandibles are surprisingly small, only as big as mine, but her antennae are each as long as one of my upper arms, and I’m almost a head taller than Tim when standing up straight.
Despite the force-barrier, she can go through it- it must be keyed to her somehow.
I respond after a moment, reaching up and touching her antennae again, gathering myself.
I seek treatment for this human. I stung him and he needs an immediate anti-venom.
She regards me for a few moments, a few precious moments. The voices from below approach.
The queen answers. Her voice in my mind is a roar that overwhelms, that makes my armored legs quake.
PAY ME FIRST.
What do you need? I ask, trying to keep my fear from my mind.
Mandibles spread apart, baring razor teeth. A queen requires immense amounts of protein. FREEDOM!
Tim is limp in my arms now. I can’t tell if he’s breathing. Deal! I snap back. Taking a gamble, I push my precious fake-mate through the invisible field. He passes through without resistance. Heal him while I figure out how to free you. Please!
The queen regards me, but I’m a soldier, so I must do as I’m told. She has no reason not to trust me. A shout from below, from the landing below me.
“There it is! Get it!”
I fire off a spine to the scanner on the left of the force field, jamming the lever in what I hope is the on position. I turn to face the noise, turn to face two armed men, brown and black hair, tall and strong, carrying batons. They have small badges on their shoulders, are dressed entirely in the red of security. On the chests I see the mark of Tim’s family flag. Ichor dripping from my palms onto the floor, I stare at the guards, and don’t move from my position at the top of the stairs.
One of them speaks quickly– probably for the record of the vid-feed augment most of them are fitted with. No doubt his entire headquarters is watching this. “This is alpha two, we’ve found the wild thoracian and request immediate back-up. Looks like its a soldier.”
On impulse, I pull out the package for the labcoat out of a slip-pocket patch in the right thigh of my exo.
As they stare at me, I say as calmly as I can manage:
“I work here. I am not wild, but the current CEO of this corporation is behind me with a wild queen of my species. If you want to see him alive again, you will listen to me.”
I speak slowly and carefully, making sure to click as little as possible. Very gently, I put down the lab coat. “I’m going to shut down the field now.”
The man with short black hair nods slowly, never taking his eyes off of me, his mouth slightly agape and his baton held loose. The other doesn’t even breathe, just standing there. Finally he says, so quietly I can barely hear him, “Yes.”
I take a deep breath, raising a hand, turning, aiming past the force wall into the room, where the main tether ties the queen. As expected, it’s powered by a socket– a fusion generator next to it. Also as expected, the queen did not know how to deactivate it.
I’m practically an expert.
I aim at the generator, and fire off my last spine.
The security force hands me over to the city watch. The city watch takes me away from the CTA building in a bright blue airship. I don’t know what is happening to Tim.
I don’t know if he is alive or dead or whether the queen administered her pheromone as anti-venom. Whether her pheromones would even work or not. They work for soldiers. Tim is not a soldier.
I am a soldier, as the city watch have said many times. Killing is just what I do. I’m good for nothing else. They hadn’t been surprised to learn that I’d killed someone, that the man had been after Tim and had failed, that instead of searching for people inside of the lab or trying to find help at a hospital, I had just acted.
To them, my actions vindicate everything they find wrong with my species, the violence and barbarism and the terrifying capability of us as threats, even without particle weapons and linear accelerator pistols. Without spines, though, they’d laughed, like it was some kind of amazing joke. Who would be afraid of me? Sure I could tear their arms off or rip out their throats with these claws of mine, but the true thing that terrifies a human is not the prowess of a creature in close combat, no, but the deadliness of their projectiles, the strong point of any of these chitin-less creatures is their technology. A match in biology is what frightens them. A thoracian soldier is capable of firing spines that puncture any known human alloy. From their arms. I am capable of that. That is what terrifies them. What they need their tools to do, I do by instinct.
It terrifies me, too, and that’s the truth of it.
I sit in silence. I’m paralyzed from head to toe by a collar they’d installed- reinstalled– around my neck. I’d had one before, for a day. I remember it still, when Tim’s mother clicked it into place around my neck and smiled that terrible smile of hers.
I listen, because that’s all I can do, to the humans chattering away up front.
“Why do we have to deal with these things, anyway, captain?” a voice asks in a drawl.
“Watch your language, son. I have a tame one at home who does the housework. Soft spoken, good at replicating tea, even sews stuff for us. It’s only the soldiers that are really any trouble. Ants are just like any other domestic animal; they’ll go feral if you give ’em the chance. Soldiers just never get tamed,” The reply is sharp and matter-of-fact. “You can’t judge a whole species by the actions of a one.”
“Yeah, but this ‘one’ just killed a guy in cold blood and kidnapped the CEO of CTA,” the drawling voice points out slowly. “If the soldiers go like that, why don’t we just exterminate the lot? Aren’t they just like ants? I thought they couldn’t think without a hive, or a colony or whatever.”
“Word is this one speaks English,” the captain says quietly. “I think it’s acting a bit too smart to be just a puppet for some queen.”
There’s the noise of someone shifting around in their seat, easily audible over the dull hum of the electric engine. “They can’t speak English, cap. I’ve never heard of a thoracian ant soldier speakin’ English. Or learnin’ to read, neither.”
I wonder about that to myself, with nothing better to do. Wonder, and worry about Tim. Eventually the watchmen’s conversation turns less engaging, towards lunch and their respective families, and I ignore them. I can’t even close my eyes, so I just wait.
Eventually they need me to walk, so they relinquish some of the paralysis. Down the hall of the city station, towards a small chamber with chains and thick steel walls. The push me in, but don’t manacle me,– and why should they, when they have a collar around my neck?–instead choosing to leave me there in my half paralyzed state.
I sit down in the corner and wait to die.
At the end of the first day, a skinny blonde-haired human with a watch officer’s uniform walks up to my cell (which is transparent) and attempts to communicate through a broken version of pure Thoracian, gesturing with just two hands instead of all four. It’s hard to make sense of, and, paralyzed as I am, I can’t reply back. He repeats the message five times. Then he leaves.
At the end of the second day, I am given one bloody lump of meat. I chew on it a little bit, but after delights like Tim’s pizza or waffles, it really isn’t all that appealing. I eat it anyway. I want to live long enough to hear about Tim.
By the end of the third day, my spines have regrown and my arms are paralyzed all the time. They believe that my lower arms have spines too and are mistaken. Anyone who knew even the slightest thing of Thoracian biology would know that much.
On the fourth day I smell the captain’s scent through the crack under the metal door. As he walks by, I lift myself from my usual corner, move to it and tap the force-glass next to it with my antennae to get his attention. He turns and looks at me, and I take a chance.
“Do you know of Tim?” I ask.
For a moment he just stares, then he stands up straight and nods once. “Yes.”
“Where is he?” I press. “Is he well?”
“Timeron, the CEO of CTA is in critical condition in a nearby hospital. There’s talk of putting him into stasis until a proper anti-venom can be drawn,” the captain says quietly. “Do you understand that?”
I look away. For a moment, I can’t bare to look at him. He is giving me a strange look when I finally force myself to turn back. His eyes are hooded, like the clerk from the hotel, and the smile on his face is as bitter as anything Tim has ever had. “I found out two days ago that he’s my nephew. For the longest time I didn’t know what my brother had gotten up to. Turns out he went and had a kid and never told anyone. Before you ask, I don’t know why I’m telling you this. Maybe because tomorrow it won’t matter.”
I stare at him blankly. I don’t ask, because I know. Instead, I nod.
“I only have one question for you, ant,” he murmurs quietly, fiercely. “Why did you sting him in the shoulder? You could have stung him anywhere else. You could have killed him faster. Did you just want to see him suffer?”
I say nothing, because there is nothing I can say. I simply stare.
Tim is going to die. The queen didn’t administer an anti-venom because the deal wasn’t completed. I will be put down tomorrow.
The fate of all rogue soldiers.
Tomorrow can’t come fast enough. I have nothing left to hope for.
No one will believe me, talking or not.
On the fifth morning, there are voices outside of my cell.
“A… Mrs. Trifecto is here to see a prisoner, sir,” one says quietly.
“It can wait until after we put down the ant, can’t it?” the captain’s voice asks, yawning mid-sentence.
“I’ll go ask.”
“Bring the ant out first, will you? I can’t imagine it’s so important that we can’t put it down first.”
I curl up further in my corner at that. No doubt Tim’s mother is here to see justice done. If she stopped any scheduled slaughter then it would only be so she could get a good seat to watch.
A guard walks in and reaches down. His hand is gentle as it grips my upper arm, and I see and smell the guard from the airship.
“Let’s go, big guy,” he says carefully. “No funny business, now.”
“I can understand you perfectly,” I reply in English. “I am not an idiot, and I am not male.” My mandibles click on the last word, but I feel the fire draining away as he leads me out. He’s visibly shaken, and for what? I don’t feel any better for it. Tim is going to die, I am going to die, and there is nothing I can do about it.
I can’t even bring up the urge to break free, even if that were a possibility, even if I had the chance to run I can’t imagine a situation where it would make things better-
-Tim’s mother is waiting by the door to the lobby. In order to make it to the complex across the way, we’d need to go by her- and from the way she steps in front of the guard, her eyes locked on me, from the way she draws a pistol from her pocket and levels it at the guard leading me, from the grim smile on her lips, I know something is desperately, horribly wrong.
Who is this woman?
“I said I wanted to speak to this prisoner, didn’t I?” she asks, as if compelled to explain the matter of the pistol in her grip.
It’s an accelerator class of an especially low caliber- and an especially high velocity. I recognize the make– from what Tim read to me, it would be capable of squeezing off a round moving at thirty thousand meters a second with almost no recoil.
As to where Mrs. Sarah Trifecto got such a powerful hand-held linear accelerator, I can only wonder. “I lied. I’m here to take it- her- to my son.”
“You’re crazy,” the guard says flatly. “What are you going to do with a pea-shooter like that?”
“Young man, one round from this device is capable of reaching speeds of over thirty three thousand meters a second. I could fire through this entire facility if I wanted to,” Mrs. Trifecto says. “Can you move faster than I can pull the trigger? Trust me dearie, if you even flinch the wrong way then where this bullet ends up won’t be a problem. Where your organs go? That will be up for debate. From what I understand, this weapon is an excellent opening argument.”
The guard hesitates. I can feel him tense up, feel him breathe out. He shrugs and sighs. “Fine, miss. If you want your vengeance that badly, have it. Legally the ant is your property anyway.”
Sarah takes my hand and pulls me out of the room, out the metal door to the lobby, past the frantic officer– whose weapon lies on the tiled floor– and out the front door. Before we leave I note the molten hole above the desk– clean through a picture of the captain.
I see many, many watch officers racing out of various buildings towards us, the captain at their head, waving his baton futilely, but Mrs. Trifecto grabs me around my wasp-like hip segment (between abdomen and thorax, where my legs start) and says, loudly, “Computer- Command line: Recall.”
In a blink, we’re gone.
Travel by teleportation is taxing. I nearly fall over. Mrs. Trifecto, however, pulls me along with her, ducks us both close against a wall of the building I recognize as the hospital, and glares at me directly.
“Inside of this building is my son. I don’t know what happened out there and I don’t know how smart you really are and I don’t care. You saved my son’s life. I looked at his wound. I know he was shot before he was stung and I know that your sting is the only thing that kept him alive. It canceled out a very particular base in the projectile from the accelerator pistol shot– there were trace amounts of it on his labcoat. All I ask of you is that you tell me truthfully: Is there an antidote for that venom?”
“Yes,” I respond immediately, first in Thoracian Standard, then in English. “Yes.”
“Where is it?” she asks sharply. “I can teleport us anywhere we need to go, thanks mostly to my late husband’s work. Where do we need to go?”
“We need to find the thoracian queen,” I click softly.
“Where would she be? Hurry.”
I think on it, think back. If I were the queen and I were loose to do as I wished, I would first go someplace where my underlings had been. I am one of the very few thoracians in this city…. she would head towards the largest concentration of my pheromones….
“Take us to the run down section of the Park,” I say suddenly. “That is where she is.”
She nods. “Computer- Command line: Teleport to the city Park.”
Sarah Trifecto hugs me close again, tight, as though clinging to a lifeline.
We vanish once more.
The Park is closed. A huge gate bars our path, made of old steel and shut tight with an oversized padlock. It’s the most primitive security I’ve seen since the guard caste back home, whose oversized heads would often be used to block holes.
Sarah Trifecto calmly loads a small pellet into the back of her decidedly single-shot accelerator pistol, lifting it up, taking careful aim, and firing in one smooth motion. The padlock explodes into a hundred shards, the bar behind it is cut in half, and the gate shudders as the shockwave bends the bars out from the point of impact.
She opens it, then, and we enter the Park. I have the scent of the queen. I can pick up her pheromone trail.
It leads and ends right at the table I sat with Tim at, four days ago.
It seems so much longer than that, though. As uneventful as my time in the holding cell had been, it had still felt like so long. An eternity, at least.
The queen lies on that table- or the remains of it. She is quite busy laying her eggs, and she turns a hungry eye on Sarah as we step into view, clacks those mandibles together. I step in front of her, then step towards the thoracian noble, upper and lower arms folded, emboldened by the queen’s bloated body and her lazy demeanor.
Her antennae draw close, and she clicks at me in warning. No closer.
I beckon, click back. Talk to me.
What do you want? the queen hisses, tapping me with her antennae.
You owe me a cure, I reply fiercely. Timeron has done so much for us. You owe him this too.
The queen clicks, then snaps her mandibles shut inches from mine. The force of her mind threatens to stagger me. I OWE HIM NOTHING. He caged me. This is what he deserves.
Then pay ME, I snap back. Pay your debt to me, if not to Timeron and his line. I demanded this in return for freeing you. I have freed you.
Her spiracles vent a rush of powerful pheromones in a roar. The scent of them is every bit as overpowering as her presence, as her mental prowess. I dig my claws in to keep my balance as she roars her reply, both physically and mentally.
I WILL DO NO SUCH THING. IF YOUR GOAL IS TO HELP, SOLDIER, YOU WILL AID ME IN REFORMING A COLONY HERE. YOU TURN YOUR BACK ON YOUR PEOPLE BY SIDING WITH THIS CREATURE.
My mind fogs over, then. I fight back instinct, to obey, to cower and beg forgiveness, to give in and obey this queen, my queen. I struggle against something like an invisible wall in my head. It aches terribly, pain throbbing in my head as piercing as ever. The force of her, the weight of her thoughts push me down to my chitin-covered knees.
Finally I shout back, with a click-clack of my mandibles. Tim is lying in his hospital bed, unconscious and dying, and it’s my fault.
Give me the antidote to my venom, or I will kill you, my queen, I say. My mind-voice feels weak even to me. Weak, but I say it. Weak, but I think it with all my strength.
An empty threat.
I raise one of my hands and direct the spine in its center towards her head.
“Try me,” I click in Thoracian Standard, batting her antennae aside with my own. “I dare you. I will take that antidote from your corpse if I must, you heartless thing.” Even though she can’t really understand it, I know she gets the gist of it.
For a long moment, the queen stays very still. She has no foothold in this area, no colony to back her up. I am a lone soldier, and she is in her fertile position, basically immobile until tended to by a drone or a worker. Still, with her bulk, uprooting herself and tearing me in half would not be impossible. In a fight she holds every advantage there is but one.
Finally, after what seems like an aching eternity, she weaves a net with two of her hind legs and passes it up to her massive front. She secretes something thick, sticky and golden from her mouth and lets it drop into the net before she closes it over the substance and rolls it towards me with her head. She speaks not another mental word, turning from me altogether. Her wings flutter in something like dismissal, and, shaking inside and out, I pick up the package and grab Sarah’s own quaking hand.
“Teleport us to your son,” I say softly. “Now.”
“You are the bravest woman I have ever met, Mak’ar,” Sarah Trifecto says, matter-of-fact, her voice shaking the most I’ve ever heard it. “No exceptions. Computer- Command line: Recall.”
The sight of Mrs. Trifecto’s inordinately powerful linear particle accelerator is enough to make the hospital staff fall all over themselves to bring us to Tim’s room.
I open the door, rush over to him. He is still. His breathing is labored and so weak as to be unnoticeable, his eyes are closed, his whole body is covered in sweat. His arm looks terrible, but I’m glad I got here before they decided to amputate.
My heart thumps, my legs shake with the effort of remaining upright. Three teleportations– with unsanctioned technology– leave me queasy. Four is about my limit. I slice the package of silk open, though, and wrap the whole thing around his arm.
Then I wait.
Sarah looks like she wants to say something, but she doesn’t. She remains in the hall, keeping an eye left and right to make sure no one else comes in, that stupidly powerful pistol still casually gripped in one hand.
I wait, sitting on the edge of his white bed, staring at him, leaned in close. If I could cry, then I would be crying. If I were like a human girl, if I were any species other than what I am, if I were anything other than a soldier, I would be crying for him right now.
Instead, I just wait.
When his eyes flutter open they’re unfocused for a bare, heart-wrenching second, and then they’re looking directly into mine.
“You’re amazing,” Tim says softly, his voice cracked and hoarse. “Just amazing.”
“I love you,” I reply, weakly. “I’m sorry.”
“I love you too,” he murmurs. “Don’t be.”
And that’s the end of it.
Time goes by as time is wont to do. All charges are dropped with newfound evidence– were there any charges at all?– I am commemorated by the corporation for single-handedly saving their CEO, and I work with Tim- both towards equal rights for the few thoracians still living on Earth, and the development of an easy method of allowing thoracians to reproduce without need of a queen.
The simulator is not something I even visit anymore. I think, honestly, I’ve had enough of the hive to last me the rest of my life. Now I spend my time learning to read with Timeron and pass nights nestled up close to him. Every moment I’m awake is one I can find meaning in– the protection I owe Tim, the discovery of new things, the knowledge that I can learn to read. It all moves so fast.
Life isn’t perfect yet- Sarah and I still don’t quite see eye to eye, Tim is still recovering from his arm injury, and I’m still not technically a citizen of the United Conglomerate States– but it’s getting closer to it every day.
©2012 Sam Oliver (Eris)
Hey! So I finally got this story done. It took literally all day. It was going so slow the other way I tried it– anyone who subscribed may have gotten a FAKE post where I accidentally totally clicked the publish button before it was ready. I instantly deleted it. Well, I just decided to write this whole darn thing.
So this is a monstrosity. If you got down this far, congratulations! That was like forty two pages or something! Thank you also for reading it. It’ll be up in the short story section immediately.
Many many <3s to all my readers!