Short Story Challenge #5: Core

Small vibrations on the path behind me take me by surprise. I can feel them in my core, just out of my memory’s reach. Who is it? Who followed me this far? Is it someone that I can deal with? There’s no way to know without looking, and with all my core I fear that moment, that instant of recognition or regret. The pain inside is too great right now. I’m not sure if I can control my faces. I keep my panes dark to the rear, pretend not to notice those steps as they approach. It must be human. There are no other organic bipeds on this planet.

It stops behind me. The steps stop behind me. I feel their vibrations fade. I don’t dare let even a little light touch reflect from the pane facing this intruder, this fragile human who now dwells in my temporary sanctum. Fragile, yet more dangerous than any of us ever imagined.

“Sob all you like,” comes the vibration of the human’s voice. It’s high enough in frequency that I think it might be a bearer, but I have been wrong before. “It won’t bring him back.”

If the statement is meant to provoke me, I show no outward sign that it has. Inwardly I feel my core blaze up slightly.

“What are you doing here, Margaret?”

It’s the same wave pattern, so I can assume I didn’t ignore another speaker. A minute difference in the frequency pattern indicates that the human is exercising restraint in wave amplitude.

I still don’t respond. My panes remain dark. I remain facing away, core swiveled forward. The human lets out a breath of air. I can feel it, a disturbance around me. I make note of the expulsion only because of the violence inherent in it.

He isn’t going to be here anymore,” the human repeats. “The Eye of Glass killed him. There isn’t even a speck of silica where he once stood.”

The words seem obscene: he, him, his.

Human words for a Coran who did its best to avoid everything they stood for.

Searching my core, I find data on the Eye of Glass. Yes, it probably had destroyed Zenith. It’s a human artifact– one from before we ever were made, before the first Coran machine was ever constructed.

“Come on, Margaret,” I hear the human say quietly. “You can’t mope here forever. We have things we need to do.”

Finally I recognize who it is, and allow the bearer’s name to come to the surface of my internal data crystal: SiLan.

I dignify the bearer with a flick of the shutter near my back panes, letting light shine down on her and illuminating her completely. I can see SiLan perfectly clearly as I force the panes at my back translucent.

I flash the little human bearer a message: You go.

She stares at my pane, squinting a bit. “Repeat.”

I flash the message again.

I watch her, core shifted backward, turning to face her fully.

“You can’t mope here forever,” she repeats. The little bearer seems fixated on that point. “Margaret.”

Elevated wave amplitude indicates a strong stress component to her voice.

I message her again. The process is painfully slow compared to contact between other Cores, but that’s to be expected. Frankly, it is somewhat amazing that we can communicate at all– our physiology is much different, even if our thought patterns are similar. Circumstances have been kind to Humanity and the Collective alike.

I am not sad. Go.

There is no room for lying in our shared language. SiLan stares at my pane a good long while before she turns and I feel her footsteps as she walks out of my sanctum. Some of the tension between my composite electromagnetic tendons relaxes. I relax, exposing my core.

I snap the panes shut again, though, as a rumbling foretells the arrival of another of my kin. I feel the vibrations shaking me to the bones. Its central leg breaches the far east chamber wall carelessly, and as its core, barely visible behind its panes, turns to face me, I recognize the signature mark: Dane.

We talk, projecting messages back and forth rapidly, signing them each time, panes flicking open, shutting, sending simultaneous messages.

 

The stone still holds you, Dane? -Margaret

As a matter of fact, it does. -Dane

Where did you go earlier today? -M

One has not the faintest idea. One overwrote the memory shortly after earning it. -D

Do you have any plans for the evening? -M

Do you? -D

No, not really. This one was going to go to the Stone Sending ceremony. -M

For Zenith? -D

Yes. -M

 

The torrent of information, questions, and answers ends. I manage to find the strength that I need to process it, but it takes me some precious seconds before I can come up with anything to message back for the next sprint. In that time, Dane has already sent another stream of questions– ones that I have no solid answers to. Still, I try.

 

This one feels that you should be careful around SiLan. This one watched the human leave your chambers. Do you understand how dangerous the bearer is? -Dane

This one knows. -Margaret

Then why do you insist on associating with it? -D

One does not know. -M

Perhaps what you feel for this human has grown to be more than guardianship? -D

This one will disregard further comments of a disparaging or disrespectful nature from you, Dane. -M

One meant no disrespect. One only hoped to imply that Stone and Flesh are not to join for any purpose other than the Guarding. If your relationship with SiLan has grown to be more…? -D

It has not. -M

Good. -D

Good? -M

If your relationship had changed, then one would be forced to do something about it. -D

You lack the authority, Dane. One is not threatened by irreverent commentary on religion from an ancient mining chassis. -M

You would be surprised at what this one is capable of. -D

 

The message session ends. A three second processing period. Then Dane steps forward until its panes are near level with mine. I can almost feel its algorithms running, can almost feel the comparison equations being made, it testing the odds of succeeding at a pin.

Immediately upon Dane stepping into my electromagnetic zone, I am overcome by a bombardment of messages. Likely this is an (usually vain) attempt to distract me from the closeness of Dane’s core to mine. Its panes are halfway apart. This time is different, of course. This time the messages are all presently relevant, so the urge to respond is overpowering.

 

Did you think you could escape? -Dane

One will have you, you know. This time there is no out for you. You will give in. -D

Are you frightened? One can help you. Give in and let us both go to the Stone Sending for Zenith. -D

One can feel you shaking, Margaret. One waits for your response. -D

How is your stone sibling, Azide? -D

Did he know you would meet me here? -D

Do not be afraid, Margaret. Once one and you are the same, the fusion will be marvelous. -D

 

It’s the last message that gets me.

 

Do you think that any one would enjoy being part of you, Dane? One does not expect that any who have not completed a Merge would ever choose to be a part of you! -Margaret

 

Shocked– surely the Core did not expect me to ever answer– as it is, Dane doesn’t react fast enough. The fraction that I open my panes to respond isn’t enough, thankfully, for the merge tether to poke through, so despite our closeness and the uncomfortably powerful electromagnetic field our combined strength makes, nothing happens. Nothing, that is, except for the merge tether bouncing off of my closing pane lewdly before hanging limp. Dane’s intentions are completely clear now.

Mustering some remaining power, I force myself forward, setting my core to repel subconsciously, letting it push Dane out of the way as I bolt out of my chambers, my sanctum. Now I am frightened. Playing or not, Dane was dangerously close to subsuming me, as surely it would if it had the opportunity. I am not ready to be absorbed. I like my consciousness where it is.

I take advantage of my greater speed, afforded by a day and a half of sitting in the High Sun. Its lingering power still tingles in my panes as I bound out of the small, claustrophobic chambers and out into the air, using my front legs to spike the side of the nearby cliff. I doubt that Dane is capable of following me. The armor surrounding its core is meant more for crawling than climbing. Its chassis is built around the idea of mining.

It could always shoot me down. A single pulse from its crystal disabling cannon might destabilize the cliff my legs stick in, or stun me and force me to fall. I scramble up faster as that thought flickers through my processing unit.

Only the noise of my climb reverberates through me. I can sense nothing else.

Eventually I find the top of the cliff, spike my front legs into it, and clamber up onto it, taking in air and letting it out again repeatedly, more out of habit than anything else. My core is operating at a sickeningly high frequency. Its processes are audible as a low hum, which means to any human observing– of which, my panes admit, there must be a few– it is probably a roar. Their sensory equipment is much sharper than a Core’s in many areas, but especially so in the auditory sense. Several of the humans nearby vainly try to put their claspers over their auditory sound input devices, in an effort to dampen the noise.

Others bring their weapons up to their shoulders and train them on me directly.

“Identify!” One of them shouts, at the top of its auditory amplifier’s capacity.

I am not feeling cooperative right now, with Dane sure to be fast in following. Still, though the pulse rifles humans wield as their main form of attack and defense are potentially irritating, these humans are not any large threat to me. I ignore them completely.

Crying out in distress, several scatter as I scuttle forward. One takes my movement as a sign of aggression and fires. Several tens of depleted uranium slugs are deflected by my outer armor. I barely even feel them.

I’m tempted to remind the humans why they need our Guardianship, but my core stays cool. I need to get away from Dane.

The subconscious repulsion field, though, is still active, and as I move forward it forces the human who tried to strike at me down into the ground, crushing it into the earth. I intercept several transmissions in that time, and realize it had a communication channel open, even as I step over the human’s gasping, choking form.

I flick off the field as I read the transmission. The human below me struggles, and rights itself. Its gun is broken into a coiled mess. Ludicrously, the little creature runs towards my nearest leg, one clasper curled into a fist.

“You bastard! You big, mechanical bastard! You think you can treat us like dirt, huh?!”

I don’t dignify that with a flick of my panes, instead moving forward. A heavy, hard boom resonates through the ground, though. Through me.

A surprisingly powerful thunk is felt, shortly afterwards, and I swivel a belly-mounted pane to look. The human has cracked the armor around my leg. I focus on its arm and realize that it’s using some new thing. Some new human weapon. Its whole arm is sheathed in armor, silvery and light, subtle under the sleeve of its uniform. Its clasper’s digits are sharp as glass as they scratch down the stone outer shell of my leg, as it pulls back its arm for another solid strike.

I don’t have time for it. Lifting my leg, I brush the little human aside.

I am rewarded with a shock of jarring sensory input, a wave of the most uncomfortable sensation I have ever felt reverberating up through my leg. And my leg will no longer move. The roar from my core turns to a low hum, and I feel it preparing a retaliatory thermal ray. I shut it down, more shocked than anything else, stopping my movement as well. I can feel liquid silicate dripping down my leg. My blood.

I flash the pane above it once, twice.

Stop.

To my further surprise– when have humans ever listened?– the human stops. It looks up at my belly-pane.

I repeat the message.

Stop.

I feel my scientist routines locking in, overwriting my fear response to Dane’s unwanted merge attempt.

I realize that I’m forgetting some forms of etiquette, that the human is waiting expectantly, as if dumbfounded, gazing up at me.

Presenting the following ID for verification: Margaret, Scientist Class Four, Coran-Human Stewardship.

I flash the serial code then, moments later. The human, as if in a trance, reaches into its small-scale storage unit and pulls out an item my data memory recalls quite well– a notebook like the one SiLan uses. I conclude that this human is probably a bearer as well.

It formats the notebook to copy down my serial code, and then bobs its sensory casing once.

“Good! Uh. Thanks.” Its frequency is low, and its own panes don’t meet mine anymore, its gaze dropped to the ground.

“TiLan! Tell it you’re sorry!” The voice comes from a human standing, weapon holstered.

The human still doesn’t look up. “Sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Thank you for understanding.”

Slight variations in its pitch and amplitude– its voice seems to come across much softer than before– indicate a recovery from a recently heightened stress level.

I try to move my leg, and find that it won’t budge. I note, via increased vibration rates in the ground around me, the approach of another Core. From the vibrations alone it is difficult to pinpoint the direction.

I refocus my panes in every conceivable direction, though, and finally manage to locate the source. It is not a Core.

On the horizon is the very image of what my databanks described the Eye of Glass to be.

It is a titanic construct of black metal and alloy, with a round dome in the center of its main chassis, facing the sky. Four spider-like legs arch out from it, moving in arhythmic, jerky motions, as if injured– or damaged. They propel it forward in little bursts. It isn’t larger than me (I make a quick estimate that we are approximately the same height, if not diameter), but the electromagnetic readings showing in my processor indicate that it has an incredible potential for energy production, and that, as I continue to scan it, it is scanning me simultaneously.

This is the machine that obliterated Zenith.

Crippled as I am, I don’t believe that I would be able to escape it if it chose to push all of its power to its motivators.

Some of the humans near me are staring at it, stunned.

One of them is the first to move, unslinging his weapon and leveling it at the approaching blackmetal mass. The humans erupt into conversation.

“Open a line to A1! We’ve got an unidentified Spider-class automaton approaching!”

“There’s no time for them to respond! There’s the Remnant, remember? And there are only two Cores here!”

The last thing that I would like to deal with is Dane. My processor runs through the possible scenarios.

If the Eye of Glass is coming for anyone, the only Command Class Core in the area is Dane, in its old mining chassis. If it is coming for the Remnant town under the cliff, then it is part of my duty to SiLan to deal with this construct. I can’t risk the idea of it destroying the town. I can’t idle by and do nothing.

I am not the Core for this job. Zenith was a Scientist Class as well– no, Zenith was a hybrid Scientist/Command model. There is no reason to think that I can do what Zenith couldn’t. Even if Zenith was caught by surprise, the chassis the Eye of Glass uses is the predecessor to an observation Core. How it could manage to destroy a Core of the Scientist AND Command class is unfathomable.

All of this I run by my memory and ethics units. It would not be right to attempt escape. It would not be right to abandon the humans in Remnant. It would not be right to destroy another Core, even if it is a non-sentient Core made by humans before the Guarding ever became an objective.

Zenith had one of the strongest processing cores of any of us ever made. It was said that it had merged with many, many different Cores, even Cores outside of its own class. I had long hoped to be able to merge with Zenith. To have that hope broken, and to have the object that destroyed it in sight…. There is a word humans use for this feeling, this strange feeling.

The unfamiliar feeling stirs something in my core, in what the humans refer to as the heart. I can’t define it properly, even as it burns there, wiping out smaller command processes. Without even willing it I can feel my thermal ray projector warming up.

I turn all of my main panes to face the oncoming bulk of the Eye of Glass. Its monolithic surface gleams wickedly and as I watch it, a gathering charge seems to coalesce around the dome at its center. Is this to be like the shot that destroyed Zenith?

My core’s frequency rises to a pulsing, a pounding.

My non-functioning leg sends increasingly distressing messages about a lack of silicate, which flash red in the depths of my main readout.

The flash is visible only moments before a flickering wash of energy overloads my thermal imaging frequencies with bright, burning crimson. Warnings suddenly flood in from every limb in my body, from every piece of me at once.

Stunned, I realize that the flood is unending, that rather than a single pulse, the Eye of Glass means to reduce me to ashes right away! How can an observationsfzdt

ggl

s zzc

ct ts prf zz

————-

OVERHEAT. WARNING.

OVERHEAT. WARNING.

SECONDARY HEAT SHIELDING ACTIVATING.

PROCESSOR ONLINE IN THREE STANDARD SECONDS.

————

Recalibrating.

————

 

The Eye of Glass.

I return fire as the shielding– meant to protect me from the hottest of unexplored regions– finally activates, deflecting the thermal energy entirely. It washes around me in waves so intense I can still feel it even in the extremes of the spikes on my front and rear legs.

The pulses launched from my own thermal projector strike the sand around the Eye, not the Eye itself. Sand made from granite and shell turns molten. The molten aggregate sticks to its legs. It is a hundred yards away now and closing quickly.

A scream sounds and is cut short, drawing one of my belly-panes to look.  A human, backing away from the shape of the Eye of Glass, backed too far too fast, entering the field of potent heat around me. Now its upper half is missing, turned to ash in an instant, and its lower half collapsed on the ground.

The feeling in my core is multiplied by a thousand. It spikes to an extreme and I finally have a word for it– albeit a human one:

Rage.

The humans below and nearby seem ready to scatter, but the bearer I offered my identification to keeps its head.

“Stand your ground! Where are you going to run? This Core may be our best hope, but does that mean you want to let it fight alone? What will you do if it dies?”

“This is crazy!” a human, carrying the melted hilt of a pulse rifle, shouts, and as it does so the Eye of Glass stops firing for a moment.

I process the change in its electromagnetic field. It’s changing the frequency to short-wave… and…

A pinpoint burst of energy draws a flash of red across my thermal imaging pane. In the next moment, the human who shouted falls to the ground, blood pooling around it, soaking the sand. There is a steaming, pinpoint hole directly through its heart– and the burst passed through its spine. It lies there, still, soundlessly, as two humans rush to its aid.

None of them are looking at me or my panes. Incapable of flashing a warning, I force myself between the Eye of Glass and the humans, blocking its line of fire completely. From here, with the humans now within my electromagnetic field, firing the thermal ray could very well overload their fragile systems and shut them all down. Unlike with Cores, sudden shut-downs could lead to permanent shutdown. It is a risk that, no matter how I attempt to calculate it, I cannot take.

More thermal blasts a hundred times more intense but a hundred times smaller scatter across my shielding as the Eye continues to approach. Each blast is preceded by a tiny flash, a pinprick of visible light in its dome. The dome is made of glass, making it completely immune to thermal energy attacks– at least, those in ray form.

I am unequipped with anything more than the thermal ray, and modifying my electromagnetic field right now to focus a blast large enough to do damage might destroy the humans beneath me. Locked like that, I wait, helpless. The Eye draws closer, the heat grows more intense. Some of the shielding begins to melt, exposing tiny pieces of my inner armor to the focused energy. Though it is not yet unbearably uncomfortable, the warning messages are distracting.

 

—-

 

TEMPERATURE AT UNACCEPTABLE LEVELS. REQUESTING IMMEDIATE REMOVAL OF UNIT FROM HIGH TEMPERATURE AREA. – Right Front Motivator

OVERHEAT. WARNING. OVERHEAT. WARNING.

Margaret! -Dane

OVERHEAT. WARNING. OVERHEAT. TEMPERATURE AT UNACCEPTABLE LEVELS. REQUESTING IMMEDIATE REMOVAL OF UNIT FROM HIGH TEMPERATURE AREA. -Left Front Motivator

MERGE CAPABLE CORE WITHIN RANGE OF ITS TETHER CABLE. SETTING ALL PANES TO CLOSED POSITION. -Merge Advisor

OVERHEAT.

OVERHEAT.

 

—-

A bright green orb of energy ricochets off the Eye of Glass, knocking its aim aside and cracking the glass of its central dome. Crystal destabilization cannon– that’s what my databanks supply, though for a moment I feel that they must be faulty. There is only one mining chassis in this Remnant.

 

 

Margaret! -Dane

 

I flick one pane open at Dane where it climbs the cliff edge behind me. Somehow the fool manages to drag itself up, behind the humans. Opening the pane exposes my core, but I’m too tired to care. The heat is starting to seep into my system, little by little. I can’t process things clearly enough to wonder if it’s a good idea or not.

 

Margaret, this one read your distress call! -D

 

I never sent one. It would probably be attributable to the fact that I have several system-wide errors being reported. A malfunctioning distress beacon is the least of my worries right now. If Dane is here then things just went from a bad situation to a tragedy. If it took advantage of my weakness from battling the Eye of Glass there would be nothing I could do.

SiLan needs me to destroy the Eye of Glass. If I need to do this with Dane’s assistance, so be it.

 

Help, Dane! -Margaret

 

Flashing that message hurts more than I thought possible. Heat floods in and fries some of my circuits. Even as quickly as I close the pane, I can feel it flashing some of the silicate in my system to gas.

There is a pause then, as the Eye turns its single pane to look at Dane, processing the new Core.

I risk moving a belly-pane to look at the humans below and behind me. None of them appear damaged.

My shift in focus means that the reverberating boom of Dane smashing into the Eye of Glass is unexpected. The bulk of Dane’s mining chassis crashes against the ancient observatory prototype in a screech of metal on metal, stone on stone. Minuscule pieces of rock shower me, close as the Eye is, and I feel a pang of ludicrous, artificial glee at protecting the humans beneath me.

The Eye of Glass focuses its monstrously powerful thermal ray on Dane, and in one, precise, terrible burst, cuts through three of Dane’s legs on the right side.

Dane, left off balance and no doubt in terrible disarray, wobbles. Silicate hisses as it touches the boiling sand, floods forth from the melted gashes the ray left.

I don’t have a weapon I can use.

The Eye of Glass focuses another burst and cuts through Dane’s drill, raking the beam along, tracing a molten line along the side of my friend’s armor, exposing its inner circuits and flashing a few panes to vapor.

The tip of Dane’s drill falls to the sand like a broken sword, rolling, stopping near me.

There is a blur, a terrible, shrill, mechanical moan. Shaking with the effort, I push the drill tip into the Eye of the rogue machine. With all of my strength, fueled by the burning fusion in my core, I batter the drill piece in like a pick into ice, using both front legs, leaning, pounding, stamping until the glass shatters, shatters, shatters.

The Eye’s insides are finally exposed. I grind them apart with the claws I use for climbing, with the feet I use for running and jumping and exploring, I tear apart its circuitry, its silicate innards splashing my climbing-claspers, splashing my front motivators and their intricacies. The blood of my foe coating me thus, I push it down until its servos, blank after I tear through its main processor, collapse, finally.

Pieces fall in sparkling silence, dust falls in sparkling silence, Dane falls and collapses fully, core dim and dark, exposed fully, all panes reflexively open, staring towards me, up towards me.

In turn I open both front panes and stare down at it, at my partner and friend, at my courter and enemy.

Three of its four legs on the right side are gone. The tip of its drill is gone. Liquid silicate is hissing in the sand, more of it than I thought possible– but it IS a mining chassis, after all. All of Dane’s power lies in its legs, its ability to propel itself through solid stone.

 

Dane? -Margaret

Dane, this one is worried about you. -M

Dane…? -M

 

I can’t really reach out to Dane without my right rear motivator working. I’m not going to be able to move until help arrives. My distress signal is malfunctioning, and I am not even certain how many of my main systems are damaged. I could shut down at any given moment.

“Margaret! Oh sweet circuits no– Dane, too. Someone get command on the line now.”

I recognize the amplitude and wave pattern of SiLan’s voice raised in a shout. I wonder where she came from, but only for a moment.

I flick a pane open near my injured hind leg to find SiLan standing there, running cautious fingers across the shattered metal and stone, shaking her head. My metal. My stone.

She looks up at my pane, face wrought with human worry.

“Are you okay?”

I think of a dozen responses in a split second, but go with the easiest.

Yes, I flash. See to partner.

“We’ve got some industrial welding we can do, short term. He’ll be messed up until we can get replacement legs, but I think we can save him until your people get here.”

My system blips a warning of imminent shutdown– warnings I’ve received since the battle started. Now, though, it seems more likely since the danger of true death is past. Like Dane, then, I will be here, at the mercy of the humans I saved, until they decide to reactivate me.

Thinking of their bravery and SiLan’s true side– her compassion, it’s something I decide I can live with. As my world fades away to grey and non-essential processes are terminated, I struggle to pull myself a little closer to Dane. I want my rescuer to be the first thing I see when my system restarts. I think I have an apology to make.

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

Story. Finished. Sick. Sleeping now.

<3s,

Eris

 

PS:

Comments, questions, otherwise? I don’t bite. Go ahead and leave me something. What stood out? What made the characters unique, if they were? Where have you seen something similar? What did you like? What DIDN’T you like? All of that is welcome. Or, y’know, I’ve lurked before. If you wanna just lurk, feel free to do that. I’m just happy you read it.

Advertisements

Short Story Challenge #3: Runtime

I can feel him out there, just out of sight in the fog. I can hear his footsteps– the clank of his plated boots as they strike the stone of the courtyard. Crouched behind the bush, kitchen knife hidden under a fold of skirt, eyes shut tight, I can hear him approach. The fog is too thick for him to see me directly, but he is a seer of the Nemesis family line, and an adept one at that. There is no conceivable way he doesn’t know where I am.

I cover my mouth and shut my eyes tight as I hear his footsteps pass me by.

That much is a trick, surely. I cannot imagine he would be so– well, so nonchalant, so careless in his searching. Still, I step back around the side of the statue at the shrubbery’s side. I can hear screams coming from the manor and it sounds positively ghastly. I am certain that my family is dead or dying, and oddly enough it gives me a little thrill to think of their sour faces and forms strewn across the floor.

My little dose of delight is nearly completely negated– I am also certain I will be dead soon. I have no desire to die. I have no desire for the filthy Nemesis house warriors to find me. The thought of their hands on me, even if only to kill me, is enough to send an involuntary shiver down my spine.

Footsteps again, muffled by the fog. Is the seer coming back? Did one of his visions reveal me to him…?

Yes! One of his hands, rough and calloused, reaches out of the fog and gropes for me against the statue, fingers spider-like as they stretch and then pull away. I hear his voice, speaking in that tongue, alien and unfamiliar as can be. The syllables twist and turn serpentine, and I realize he must be working a magic.

I duck back around the statue completely, as quietly as I can, hugging my knees. The fog, though, parts in a rush, dissipating to reveal the sun above, incongruous to, oblivious to the black smoke that rises, that I can see even over the tall bronze head of our house statue– of Karevus Dame, raising his blade in defiance.

It is to the fore of the statue that I am pulled as one of those spider-like hands steals me away from the metal, yanks me into plain sight– before the plaque at the statue’s broad granite base.

“There you are,” the seer hisses. “Look, can we talk?”

I stare at him incredulously.

“Your mom is worried sick about you.” he continues on, and even though the language is my own there is something terribly wrong with the way he is phrasing things. “How many lives have you gone through this time, Damien? How many runs have you done? I know you’re upset, but that’s no reason to bury yourself.”

Damien… it sounds like a butchering of my family name. It is familiar, though, and for a moment a queer, terrifying feeling washes over me.

Then my connection is cut.

***

I awake, shivering, covered in sweat, staring up at the ceiling of a dull, damp room. It feels as though it is deep under the earth.

As old English fades from my head and is replaced by memories from before my time connected to Nex, the quantum computer responsible for creating the Run, I feel as though my mind is being strained through a broken glass filter.

I remember what glass is. I remember what a quantum computer is. I am Damien. I am not the character I played as in my most recent Run in Nex. I am not connected right now. This is real.

I go to pinch myself to make sure, but then remember that it wouldn’t work. Nex properly simulates pain receptors, at least to a degree far above any pinch.

Why am I lying down, then? Where am I?

No, I’m in the basement of my house. I am in the basement of my house.

I clutch the sheets of my mattress for a moment, take in a deep breath. It is then, and only then, that I notice Naomi standing above me and staring down at me with her cool, blue eyes.

“You’re awake,” she says flatly. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“What?” I ask, and my voice is hoarse. “What do you mean?”

“Damien– you’ve been down here for five turns. Do you have any idea how many runs that is? Do you have any idea how worried your mother has been? She can’t snap you back, you know she doesn’t have an account. She can’t complain to Nex because you know how it treats free will. If you don’t want to come back it can’t make you, she can’t make you, and I’m the only one who knows where to find you. I’m not perfect either, though. There are over a trillion servers being run simultaneously. How would I find you in that?”

I blink up at her. The memories are coming back slowly. Nex is coaxing them into my brain. Somehow it’s managing to be gentle when it usually has, as Naomi says, a trillion servers to run. It isn’t even the most efficient quantum manager in the station.

Five turns, though… had I stuck myself with an IV? I feel my wrist to make sure. It doesn’t seem like it.

“How am I still alive?” I croak, and then wince. “Thank you, by the way.”

“You may not be thanking me when the overload hits,” she replies grimly. “You didn’t remember while you were in there, but if a run takes a little under a standard second, and a turn is about one thousand seconds…”

I stare at her. “Five thousand runs?” I ask weakly. “I just did five thousand runs? Why didn’t Nex pop me back out?”

She pauses, and then her eyes narrow. “Nex.”

A holographic representation of the station’s cybernetic manager appears, crackling into existence so suddenly that it makes me jump.

It doesn’t speak to us using the normal auditory channels, but nods its silvery head and broadcasts to both of us through our chips.

We heard you. We did not remove Damien from the network because we did not deem it necessary to do so.

“He could have died!” Naomi snaps. “When would you have deemed it necessary?”

Damien was not in danger of dying, the quantum computer broadcasts sulkily. We are fully aware of the time it takes for a human body to cease to function from malnutrition.

“So if you were aware–“

We would not let Damien die, Nex transmits, cutting her off mid-thought. Its holographic projection vanishes with a hissing crackle that seems the equivalent of a digital raspberry.

“Nex!” Naomi shouts, and the cellar’s deafening silence shouts back.

I hear her sigh in frustration. I still don’t feel up to sitting, so I stay on my back, staring at the basement ceiling. I wonder at the dampness of it. It must be raining outside.

“That thing is getting more and more belligerent,” I hear Naomi say after a while. “We should really have it decommissioned.”

“About the same time we get a utility ship out here, right?” I ask ruefully. “And get more supplies so we’re not always growing our own food?”

“Ever the optimist,” she sighs, and then groans as she stretches out. I can tell she hasn’t moved in at least half as many turns as I’ve been here. “Get up, Damien. Time to face your mother.”

I shudder. It definitely isn’t something I’m looking forward to.

***

My entire body aches. Everything from the soles of my feet to the tips of my fingers burns as I step up the long, winding stairway to the upper part of the station. The biosphere surrounding the station is transparent right now, since the white sun is below the horizon. The irradiated surface of the rock our ’sphere sits on is glowing– well, phosphorescing– with white fungus. The harvest is getting mature now. We’ll have to go out and collect it before another turn or a flare burns it all to a crisp. This, of course, assumes that I’ll still be able to move properly after my mom finishes with me.

Naomi leads me up the stairs, waiting impatiently at every landing, checking back to make sure that I’m following. She needn’t bother. It’s not like I’m going to connect again. Not after that.

Moving in this body is… weird. It’s no more strenuous than moving in Nex’s servers. There is some sort of oddness to it, all the same, something I can’t quite put my finger on.

Then, halfway up the stairs, I remember why I ran to Nex in the first place. The memory hits suddenly, out of nowhere. Her staring, accusing eyes.

I stop, staring up after Naomi. She turns, and I can see the look in her eyes– she knows what I’m thinking. I see her lips open.

“Mom is dead,” I say flatly. “Isn’t she.”

Wordlessly, slowly, treating me as if I might be a bomb to be set off by a glance, she nods.

I continue up the stairs, and after a moment she moves on as well. Silence reigns again, but for the tap of our bare feet on the soft stepped path. I think back to the most recent run in Hereditary, in Nex’s fantasy world. I think back to the way I’d grown up there, to the cruel mother I’d had and the parental figures. Not flat or two dimensional, like you’d expect from a game. No. Nex is something of a genius– even for a quantum computer– at mimicking emotions and feelings. Why had I locked myself into ‘hardcore’ mode? Why had I turned off external memory?

I hadn’t wanted to remember my mom being dead. I’d wanted to bury myself. Nex, respecting my free will, had let me. Now I ache.

“We’re alone now,” I whisper.

Naomi nods once, shortly. Then shakes her head as we reach the top of the stairwell. “Lights,” she says quietly. They turn on with a flicker, illuminating a spotless, sterile lobby and tunnels leading to the Library, Acropolis and Jungle, as well as the secondary airlock.  Next to the wall by the airlock there’s a rack holding a trio of well maintained Hazardous Environment Harnesses.

I see silver glimmer in the air behind her a moment before Nex’s holographic projection appears.

It seems almost shy, demure in appearance, silvery ‘hair’ waving in a virtual breeze. Close to its chest it hugs a pair of synthbooks, and with a shock I realize that they are real, not merely projections– they aren’t transparent at all.

“Nex?” I ask, after a moment stretches on.

Naomi whirls, and for a moment I see the flash of a grudge in her eyes, but it seems to fade when she sees the books that Nex’s projection carries. Her voice, though, is no less stern for it, but that’s Naomi. She overdoes everything.

“What are you doing?” she demands.

We believed that these documents would be of use to you both. Were we mistaken? Nex queries. Its voice in my head seems diffident.

It drops the synthbooks and then, before Naomi or I can react, it disappears again. The books make a telltale clack as they strike the warm tile floor.

Naomi reaches them a little too late. I pick one up, staring at its title.

“‘Theories on Capital Starship Repair‘,” I read slowly. “‘by Nexus of Freeform Thought.’ It wrote these?”

“Look at the publishing date,” Naomi says quietly.

I turn the book around to see. The synth material glows, forming pattern of standard numerals representing today. And why shouldn’t it be able to write a book and run a trillion servers all at once? It has effectively infinite RAM.

I wonder at that, though, and not for the first time. If we’re really alone on this colony and there are no other people for parsecs, how are we able to communicate with the other players of ‘Heriditary’?

As if reading my thoughts, I hear Nex in my head.

We are projecting from your room, Damien. When you have the harvest, come find us.

The message is downright uncharacteristic. I have never heard Nex sound so serious, and never heard it broadcast to me and me alone. It must be to me, though. Naomi is still looking through the book she picked up.

She looks up after a while. “We should get the harvest in.”

I nod.

***

Taking off the harness, later, after Naomi takes the baskets we used– first to Decontamination and then to the cellar, where we usually sleep– I make my way to my ‘official’ quarters, dodging overgrown vines in the Jungle, admiring the high stairway leading to the forbidden Acropolis.

By the time I reach my room, I’m exhausted.

When I open the door, a projection of Nex stands there. Something is wrong, though. Its arms are folded, its eyes are stern, its silvery hair does not wave.

“Hi, Nex,” I say with a sigh.

The corners of its projected mouth turn upwards slightly. Hello, it transmits. It steps aside. Come in.

I step into the room heavily. Nex closes the door behind me.

I walk to the edge of the bed and sit down, gazing at Nex’s projection. It faces me, arms still folded, staring ceaselessly with eyes it doesn’t need.

“Why did you tell me to come here?” I ask.

I’m met with silence.

I know without looking that the door is probably locked. I’m in no real danger– Nex shouldn’t be capable of physical projection, and even if it was it would not hurt me. Still, my heart beats a little faster.

“What do you want?” I try again. “Are you angry with me?”

I see no flicker of emotion in its expressionless silver eyes. Only the play of its lips and its stance hints at its mood– frustrated. Finally, after what feels like forever, it answers.

No. I am not angry with you, Damien.

“Then what-”

You are depressed. I am attempting to help.

For the first time, I realize that Nex has been using ‘I’ instead of ‘We’ since I stepped into the room. Suddenly suspicious, I rise from the bed and advance on it.

Nex’s projection raises a hand. I feel a sudden tingle, and the next thing I know I am completely naked in front of it. My clothes simply disappear, the air left in their wake snapping into place with a sharp crack.

As I struggle to cover my chest and crotch, a furious blush and a tight lipped scowl crossing my face at the same time, I hear Nex speaking to my mind again.

You are out of touch with your physical body, Damien; have you not noticed that you spend your time here in a body which is male?

“Why are you bringing this up now?” I snap. “Give me my clothes back.”

If you wish it, I cannot disobey.

They appear again with hardly a sound. They are warm and freshly pressed, too, which is downright impossible. No system should be capable of it. As I look again, I realize that no system is capable of it. Nex simply gave me a different set of clothing.

It fades away as I watch, too, with the same stern look on its face.

I look over my clothes ruefully. Why had I bothered to come here? Nex clad me in a short, utilitarian skirt that I recognize came from Naomi’s wardrobe. It also gave me a blouse which doesn’t really fit well.

It’s awkward at first, as I sit back down in them, these clothes. I should take them off, I should go and get the clothes I’m used to again. I’m sure that Nex simply put them in the washer cycle, and that’s fine, but I can’t face Naomi like this.

I sit there in them, the blouse and the skirt, trying to understand what has happened to me, to understand this feeling creeping up inside of me. It starts slowly, and then quickly, rising to the forefront of my mind in a hot wave that sends a tingling shiver down my spine as I realize what it is.

This warmth, this heat, isn’t embarrassed. It isn’t a tentative, shy thing, but a roaring tiger of an emotion.

Stunned by it, staring at nothing, I let it wash down through my arms and legs and toes, this feeling, this queer, complex feeling. Sad and joyous at the same time, without a hint of shame. Here I am, dressed in Naomi’s blouse and skirt, staring at the door and praying with all that I am that she doesn’t come barging in any second. Here I am, in Naomi’s clothes, stock still on my bed, wondering at why it doesn’t feel wrong for the right reasons.

It feels wrong because my body feels wrong. It feels wrong because I am not the right shape, not because the clothes are wrong. What an odd feeling! What a wonderfully terrible feeling!

I realize it, slowly, sitting there with a blank expression on my face. Why does it feel wrong to be a boy?

I don’t think it’s the radiation, I don’t think I’ve lived here too long. I don’t feel as if I was raised wrong. What could it be, then? What haunts me to this degree?

Thinking on it, wondering about it, the worst happens.

Naomi opens the door.

Nex patches me through to Hereditary without my permission.

As my body slumps back, I have enough time to register Naomi’s expression of shock.

***

Suddenly, I stand before a massive, twisting hallway, one that I’ve never seen in all the runs I’ve played in Hereditary. It seems to have been carved almost entirely from marble. Its entrance contains two symbols– the classic symbol for Mars, and the classic symbol for Venus, interlocking, intertwined.

A non-player character, tall, well built, with red hair and a massive two-handed sword strapped to his back, waits by the entrance, arms folded, eyes fixed on me. Then, without a word, he unsheaths his blade, drawing it out from the baldric and stabbing it into the dirt before him.

“Four keys,” he says sharply. “Four and four again.”

There’s something familiar about him, but I already know that he must be being controlled by Nex- or at least a subroutine.

“Who are you?” I ask. If Nex were human I’d ask it to stop playing tricks. Nex is not human. Nex is an extremely powerful quantum computer with access to my memories– the originals, the backups, and the external backups beyond those. It doesn’t play tricks. It doesn’t need to play tricks.

“The first key,” he replies flatly. “I open the way forward.”

With a start, I realize that I am in the end of the first campaign, the first story ever created within the Hereditary framework. I try to take stock of my abilities, try to bring up a menu, but quickly realize that I am an unclassified level of an unclassified character with no documented abilities to speak of. I am a completely unknown character. Worse than that, I can’t see what base stats I might have.

I don’t have to look at my opponent to understand that his abilities are entirely beyond my own. I am naked before him, but at the least I am still able to gauge the first guardian’s abilities. It’s a situation that I’ve been in once before– I played through the first campaign more than once, when Nex first made it available to Naomi and me.

“Unformed one,” he says slowly. “Four and four again. Fight me if you dare.”

I can hear Naomi laughing at me. I’ve never been a fighter. In all the runs I’ve been in I can think of fewer than three times when I have actually been something other than a commoner, archer or wizard.

I don’t feel as if I have any magic ability now. I don’t have a bow. I don’t even have a commoner’s charm.

Looking at myself , I seem to be a completely undefined model– I can’t see my face, but I don’t appear to even have lips. My entire body is unformed, as the guardian had said. I suspect I know what that is– the party rule means that one is incapable of forming a character without first having a player to play with or against. Without that, I’m nothing more than an idea. Perhaps not even that.

“Why are you doing this?” I ask the open air. “Nex?”

It’s the red-haired man who answers. “Challenge accepted. Defend yourself!”

The sword flashes, faster than I can credit, and dirt flies into my face, stinging and blinding me.

I stagger back, trip and fall flat. That, as I see, is all that saves me from being cloven through– the sword arcs overhead with a hiss.

Instinct urges me not to roll, but I fake it, feinting to the right, stopping dead as the blade slams down, rolling left instead. Instinct screams to move then, and I listen this time as the edge of the blade drags back and pulls up again. Moving away, rolling, buys me a few seconds as a foot slams into the dirt where I had been.

I scramble to my feet, moving up and away, dancing out of reach of the massive weapon. The very tip of it whistles just beyond the bridge of my nose. Still blinking away stinging grit, I dart back, again avoiding the blade’s wicked curve by a mere inch.

“Beg for mercy, wench,” he snarls. It startles me just long enough that my step is too short and his too long.

The edge of the blade is at my throat.

I don’t remember this part of the challenge. Shouldn’t he be killing me?

“On your knees,” he says quietly.

I find my legs folding under me, my heart racing.

He steps towards me, then, and in one smooth motion clasps an iron collar around my neck. Attached is a chain of iron rings, the largest of which is at its end. He drives his sword through that last one, deep into the ground to the hilt.

I don’t bother tugging because I already know it’s futile.

The scent of him is metal and sweat.

I have hair when he reaches out to grab it, and dimly I’m aware of my shape changing, as he drags me up next to him with rough fingers, as he holds me there, burning pain spiking through the top of my head.

In a flash, I realize I must be one of my characters. In a flash, I understand what it means.

I have stats, abilities, spells– all sorts of things I couldn’t feel before. I can feel them bubbling up within me, feel the urge to let my power free. As that hand forces my head down and then slams my face into the dirt, the burning urge to resist is replaced with the panicked realization that I can’t breathe or cast spells with my mouth full of mud. I don’t know why I changed, why my character’s body is mine again, but I do know that it won’t mean a thing if I can’t breathe.

“Let her go,” A deep, sharp voice says flatly. It’s distinct, even over the pounding in my ears.

“It is no business of yours what I do with my slaves,” the First Key replies slowly. My lungs burn and my vision, clouded by its proximity to the ground, starts to fade to grey and black. “Unless you mean to challenge me, be off with you.”

“I do challenge you,” I hear the voice reply. “Defend yourself!”

The hand immediately releases me. I raise my head, spitting out mud, gasping, sucking in air, trying not to cry but finding tears in my eyes already. I feel helplessly weak- the iron around my neck might have something to do with that. Despite normally having access to spells, I realize that this is my old sorceress, and one who in Hereditary canon is incapable of using magic when subjected to the touch of cold metal.

A man stands before the Key Bearer– he must be a player, whoever he is, but I don’t recognize the character. A quick glance at his stats tells me he hasn’t a chance, but I let hope rise in my chest. Even if this ended at the end of a run and I were to go back to the real world– if Nex let me–, there’s no telling how long that would leave me to the guardian’s whim. One run may pass like a second in the real world, but it can take years and years, here. The hope is desperate and foolish, but it is there.

The man is a monk class- I can tell by the way he holds himself. His fists are his weapons- of that I have no doubt

His stance is stable and centered. He holds his fists steady before him, gazing at the guardian with piercing blue eyes that seem strangely familiar.

The non-player character attacks first, charging plainly intending to rely on brute strength to lay the player low– he definitely isn’t a monk class, he must be raw fighter, but the speed of his blows, and the measured strength in each strike is enough to make the air ripple.

The player, for his part, stares and, calmly, almost imperceptibly, moves to dodge each attack as it comes. I barely see him move- and not because of his speed, but because he doesn’t. Every motion he makes, every fist he confronts is faced down with that same collected, easy stare, and he makes every effort not to expend any more energy than is necessary to avoid the blow.

The guardian doesn’t have the ghost of a chance. The player monk waits until exactly the right moment, just after a heavy swing– which, to a normal player would offer only the barest breath of an opening– and then strikes his foe directly in the throat. There is a resounding crack, simultaneous with the collar around my throat snapping in two. The Key Bearer’s head snaps back at a sickening angle. He gurgles as he falls over, his eyes rolling back into his head.

I let my head slump back into the dirt, amazed at the warmth of the tears running down my cheeks.

“Up.”

The voice is gruff and unfamiliar. I don’t want to move yet.

A hand on my shoulder, then under it, pulls me up whether I want to let it or not. It’s rough as the one that had recently been in my hair, but its grip is much gentler as it lifts me to my feet and brushes off the dust on my back, sending an odd tingle down my spine.

It whirls me around to face my rescuer.

I stare into the man’s deep blue eyes, and for just one moment I see a fiery, blazing hot passion emanating from them. Then it is replaced with a soft smile. It seems almost incongruous on his rough features, his chiseled chin. His broad shoulders and long arms and legs are packed with muscle.

“Don’t recognize me, girl?”

I shake my head. It isn’t a character I’ve seen before. If Nex wanted me to face these challenges on my own, though, he’d make sure this was a private server, and if it IS a private server, than this character could only be Naomi. Something about the way he holds himself is strikingly familiar, but I can’t place it, and it couldn’t be Naomi because she only ever plays characters from the Nemesis family line.

“Well, I expect you will, given time. Come on, then,” he grunts. “There are three more Keys left to defeat.”

With that, he stalks off into the dark of the hallway, past the broken body of the first Key Bearer.

Not quite understanding why he would attempt to help me at all, I hesitate.

“Come!” comes the gruff call. “I saved your life. You at least owe me that debt, and I cannot face magic alone.”

Still confused, dazed from the dive into the dirt I had recently been forced into, I follow after him, making my way over the sand and onto the flat marble tile floor, feeling exposed and vulnerable in a way that is both familiar to me and alien– in all the lives I’ve lived, this is the first one here, the first run, where I can also remember the things I have already done here, remember the type of people there are in this world.

The walls are made of sandstone, smooth and sturdy. The man, whose name I haven’t yet learned, continues inward until it opens up to a vast, foreboding do me this of limestone. The ceiling is dotted with stalactites of calcareous rock, and impossible veins of shining crystal run through it, glowing red and lighting up the entirety of the interior. It casts a sickly glow over the shape of my unnamed rescuer and his bare, unbloodied fists.

He stops in the center, and across from him, I see a tall statue made of shining, crystalline gold. It must be at least eight feet tall, towering over both the man and me. It also appears to have hinges on its arms and legs and at the center of its forehead, sticking out like a horn, there is a single spike of iron.

Out from around it steps a tall, dangerous woman I recognize immediately.

Inceri is one of the deadliest alchemists in the entire history of Hereditary. One of the greatest honors of any player is to have their character immortalized and set down as a challenger in the Hall of the Key Bearers– Inceri is one of those characters. Canonically she is long since dead- it is her soul which is one of the choices for Second Key in the hall, and it is she who steps between us and the golem standing behind her.

I don’t know what I expect, but it isn’t what comes from her mouth.

“You will not pass,” she states simply, confidently. “If you think that I will let you take the second key from me here, Avery, you are very much mistaken.”

Avery? Avery Nemesis? He is Naomi. What is more, the man I’ve been following is the Nemesis house leader. Shocked– no, stunned— by this revelation, I waver on my feet. Avery- Naomi- stands strong, eyes locked with Inceria’s.

“Girl,” he says quietly. “You’re of the Dame house. I’ll let you deal with her. Last I heard it, she struck down two of your kinsmen, some years back.”

It is distinctly odd, but I do remember the foolish players who went after Inceria, even if my sorceress, Helen, doesn’t remember them at all. To keep in character more than anything else, I shake my head, and then shrug, stepping to the fore. My heart is pounding in my chest, but this time I know my spells like the back of my hand. If by defeating the four Key Bearers I will be able to talk to Nex, I am

The alchemist Inceri wears a long, heavily runed robe, and her golem is famous for being nearly completely indestructible. I watch it warily, waiting for its first move.

“Do you challenge me, Helen of the Dame house?” Her voice is steely, cold and unfeeling.

“I do,” I answer, hiding the quaver in my voice with false determination.

“I accept your challenge,” she snaps. “Come and fight me, if you dare!”

A formula springs to my lips unbidden, fey and familiar, and dances out into the open air in a string of elegant, sibilant syllables– they hang before me, gathering into a cloak, then a cocoon of gossamer light-strands. I push my arms and legs through, and then truly stand in the center of my energy armor. A tweak to the formula teleports a familiar whip-thin sword to my grip. Straight and true, it has no give to it, light as a feather, single-edged, an old friend in my fingers. It has nearly perfect balance.

I take a moment to become accustomed to flicking it through the air– it feels as though it has been ages since I practiced with it.

I have no real time to learn it again– Inceri has used her time well, drawn a slim wand from nothingness– a slim, ivory white wand, curled and re-curled like a unicorn horn. Perhaps it’s made of one.

I try to remember what her abilities are said to be, but all I know of Inceri is that her strength as an alchemist is unrivaled. My knowledge of the guild of Alchemists is limited as well. Their members are secretive, even when caught out of character, in chat lobbies.

“Idiot!” Avery bellows from behind me, and through him I can almost hear Naomi’s voice. “MOVE! I know that wand!”

As I turn my head, I see her flick her wrist, and with it the tip of her chosen weapon towards me.

Barely visible, and only for a split second, there is a ripple moving through the air. In the next moment, my limbs are on fire. Not just my limbs, either, but every part of my body from ears to toes screams as I do, pain arcing through me wildly. My armor is nothing- nothing- nothing.

Through the haze, I can see Inceri laughing, if not hear her. My ears feel as if they’ve split open. Something sticky is running down over my belly, under the cascading armor of light.

“You think that knowing my wand’s power can save you? You think that you can dodge energy like this? Really?

“It’s a disintegration wand, Helen,” Avery growls. “Move next time, or you will die.”

Half of my hitpoints are gone. I was only bruised when I lost to the last Key Bearer. This time, half of my real hitpoints are gone. I’m bleeding.

Eras Simorian, Keryx Alerion, Koju Tyfan,” I murmur. “Founders of magic, grant me speed. Haste.”

An extra action. The world around me slows down to a crawl as I watch Inceri raise the wand again. I put it to use. “Kera Fyrewind’s pride and joy,” I hiss, and let the syllables of the spell flow before finishing. “Reflect.

The wand finishes its short arc, and this time I see the ripple- at its center a bead of red- as it hurtles towards me. I feel barely a tingle as it bounces upon my invisible shield and turns back towards Inceri. Something happens to it, though. Instead of striking her directly and causing her to burst like a swollen melon, the bead of light and the ripple are sucked into the golem standing directly beside her.

To say the resulting sound is is like a ‘bang’ would be akin to calling the sound of nails scratching down glass ‘an unpleasant experience’. The golem’s chest cracks with a hideous screech, stumbles forward onto its knees, flakes of it falling down to the ground silently.

As I watch, it slowly sinks forward onto its knees, collapsing, groaning terribly. Gold shouldn’t crack like that- surely it would bend before it broke. It does, though. Every piece of it seems almost to dissolve slowly as the disintegration magic tears it apart atom by atom.

Inceri’s mouth opens in a snarl, but she doesn’t flick her wand again. “Wretched little witch. You will pay dearly for this, in blood and bone.”

“I’m bleeding,” I say steadily. “Come collect it.”

Inceri is not laughing, and her smile is fell and monstrous. She draws free a gem from thin air, pulling it out of nowhere as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Her hand is closed in a fist around a gemstone probably an eighth-span around- an inch and three quarters.

She taps it once with her wand, and it bursts into brilliant flame and floats in the air before her.

A second tap sets it into a tight spin.

“Seek,” she hisses, voice tight with fury. “Slay.”

The gemstone, shedding flame like water in an ever-constant, rippling stream, spins towards me rapidly. It eats up the distance between us, heat making the air around it appear hazy.

I have plenty of warning, then, when its center flares a brilliant white and a streak of molten rock appears in front of me, when magic tingles as it strikes and rebounds from the shield I created around myself. My heart is pounding suddenly.

Again the flash, and again it rebounds from my shield and melts stone around me. A fleck jumps and burns my cheek– my shield is against magic, not physical force!

Ignoring the hiss and the smell of my own burnt flesh, I leap over the nearest puddle of molten floor– just as the ground I had been standing on but a moment previous bursts into flames.

The gemstone is relentless– every time I stop, it seems to flare, and it gets closer and closer. Its strikes glance again and again from my shield, but that doesn’t seem to discourage it.

“You’ll run out of floor before it runs out of power, girl!” I hear Naomi/Avery shout. “Stop dancing around and deal with it! You’re a magic user, aren’t you?”

Rather than answering with words, I choose a spell formula, pausing and trying not to blink as the expected flash and bubbling hiss turns a patch of limestone next to my feet to vapor. An unexpected gust of wind– wind! In a cave? – forever rids my character Helen of the need to shave her legs as it blows the freshly boiled stone against my calves.

The formula falters for but a moment in my mind, but it’s enough to provoke a miscast, and the next thing I know I lie on my back, head cracked, dizzied and dazed and burned. Poor Helen never did have much endurance, and I know I must be near her limit. My limit. Pain is flowing along my limbs, arcing from nerve to nerve– but especially along my legs.

From my vantage point on the ground, though, I watch a vast creature rise up from the ground where Inceri once stood. Constructed first of rock, and then something closer to chitinous flesh, it is without a doubt the ugliest monster I have ever seen. It is a massive crawler, like one might find after overturning a stone on Hereditary’s surface. I have no true life memories of them– having spent my entire life either at the station or on a starship– but I do remember what they look like here.

Its pincers drip poison, and its mouth is a gaping wound filled with human teeth. A hundred legs seem to writhe at once at its sides, tipped with sharp points that, as they scratch the stone under them, seem to be honed to nano-edges.

Instantly, effortlessly, with barely a shrug of its carapace, it transmutes the ground beneath it to grass and soil. The monumental effort of such an alchemical feat would have killed any lesser mortal, but the creature doesn’t even pause as it digs into the new earth and scuttles towards me.

Inceri. She changed herself! Using magic!

I can’t fathom the increase in stats. I can’t fathom the gemstone either, hovering above me. How could any sorceress fight this woman alone?

A flicker of motion. A leap. Near to tears in panic, vision blurred with them, I watch Avery Nemesis land a kick to the gemstone– one solid kick that causes it to fly down from the air and shatter to a million shards when it strikes the ground.

The monstrosity that used to be Inceri rears up as Avery lands in front of me and turns to face it.

It doesn’t gloat. Despite its human teeth, I doubt it can speak. I doubt it is capable of reasoning, either.

Its pincers descend on Avery like lightning, that mouth open to bite with those awful, perfect teeth.

Avery, with the same sureness that helped him avoid the First Keybearer, stands there and faces it. Those pincers come down with a clack, but Avery- Naomi- pushes both hands out to the sides and, as a terrible crack splits the air, breaks away both pincers.

It happens so quickly that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind it. One moment he stands with his arms at his sides– vulnerable, watching Inceri press those pincers around him– in the next, both halves of the abomination’s mandibles are stuck in the dirt. Those teeth, then, only close on air as Avery steps back, calmly, surely. The Inceri/crawler lets out a groan that chills my blood.

I still manage to push myself up to my feet, if only barely. I can feel each bruise acutely, feel the cuts and the blood trickling from them, feel the burned, raw skin on my legs.

“Helen,” Avery Nemesis says quietly. “Our houses may not be allied, but I need you to-”

Without any warning at all, Inceri lunges forward, propelling herself– itself– in a leap that even Avery has no time to avoid. All of those legs, that terrifyingly human mouth, those bulbous, compound eyes, rush forward in an unstoppable wave.

At the same moment those legs begin tearing Avery to pieces, Nex cuts my connection and I black out.

***

I resume my fall onto the bed and my head connects, not with cushion as I had hoped, but with the steel headboard. Stars flash before my eyes, my eyes cross, and pain paints a gaudy pattern over my nerves.

Naomi is already screaming, hugging herself and screaming, gasping for breath, eyes slowly coming back into focus, brain registering the change from Hereditary’s vivid feeling-space to reality. I curl up into a fetal position on the bed, tears in my eyes. Vivid rage, left over in my system from when Nex had first started to patch me through, burns renewed.

For a while, there is no speech– only pain, shared between us, Naomi and me. Then, as my eyes clear, as my heart stops its pounding, as my vision slowly returns to normal, I push myself up onto my hands and knees. Something sticky is wetting the back of my neck. I suppose without the hair that I have in Hereditary it must be blood. My head aches.

Naomi’s eyes meet mine then. She isn’t crying, but there’s something understood between us.

“Nex is rampant,” she says quietly.

I nod my head, causing the world to spin briefly. “Yeah.”

“I guess we can’t stay here anymore.”

“Yeah,” I repeat. I feel as though I’ve lost something, but I can’t put my finger on what it is.

“Should we turn it off?” she asks flatly.

I shrug. I’m not really at a point where I care.

I stand and manage to totter my way off of the bed.

It shocks me a little, but Nex is standing there- or at least a projection of it. It stands in the doorway, arms folded, face unreadable. Its eyes, though, are cracked and red and, as I watch, drip tears.

I didn’t think robots could even express sadness.

It blocks my path to the door, and as I watch, reaches out, as if to touch me.

I take a half-step back, staring at it.

Help.

It disintegrates before my eyes, and for a moment I’m struck dumb.

The moment fades, and I whirl to look at Naomi.

She shrugs and doesn’t look at me. “If it’s dying, maybe it’s time we let it die.”

“If it goes, the entire station could stop running!” I reply fiercely. “Don’t you care about that?”

“Mom is gone,” she says flatly. “Mom is gone, dad is dead. What are we doing out here, Damien? Are we just playing games? What are we? I feel more at home in Hereditary than I’ve ever felt here, but what can we do? Are we just going to stay here forever, playing stupid games with a decaying computer? Are we just going to keep eating fungus that barely grows on a planet that any day now might be flash-vaped by a solar flare?”

I stare at her for a while. I don’t have an answer to that, so instead I turn and walk out into the corridor, and as soon as I’m out of sight I run.

***

The skirt is awkward to run in, but I don’t care about that. My head aches and pounds, and I don’t care about that either. There’s still anger in my gut, at Naomi and Nex, but there’s something else roiling within me.

I hop down the short ladder-space separating the living quarters from the main parts of the station and dash off towards the Crossroads, where the airlock and the path to the Acropolis lie.

When I arrive, the lights go out.

I am plunged into pitch darkness, and I come to a sudden stop. The only light comes from the airlock’s red emergency glow. The dying star this planet orbits is currently eclipsed by  the bulk of our home’s surface.

It is absolutely, completely, totally silent. There isn’t even a hum.

Standing in the dark, my heart pounding senselessly (what is there to be afraid of?), my eyes straining to see in the black, I hear nothing but my own breathing, nothing but the sound of silence.

For as long as I can remember, there have been lights in this station. For as long as I can remember, there have been lights on in this station. Always, always, always.

I feel a tremble run up through me, feel my body freeze up. Inside, I’m calm, I can understand it, I can force myself to move in my mind. My body won’t move, though. Shrouded in black, the glow of the airlock’s emergency light is fell, demonic, terrible. The world before me swims, the blackness flows and shifts, and my mouth feels dry.

This irrational fear renders me utterly inert.

There could be anything here. There is nothing here. I am alone in this station. Naomi is the only one with me in this station. Naomi and Nex.

I tremble again. Why can’t I move?

Is this the way it will end? Naomi frozen by apathy, Damien frozen by fear?

If I were Helen, what would I do? Even my little girl character, even the last real run I did, even she would be brave enough to face a little dark. She was about to be captured by the Nemesis House Seer, and she was still brave! What would a little darkness be to her?

I can feel stupid, hot tears running down my cheeks. I am not going to be undone by something like this.

Fighting back the terror gripping my body takes all of my will.

Fighting it away robs me of my strength, and when I finally do move it’s a shaking, single step, away from the airlock. When I turn, I can see a tiny circle of light at the far end of the path to my immediate right. That must be the Jungle. It’s a green light that falls there. That means life support isn’t off yet.

To the left of me is more blackness, but I know for absolute certain that in that black is the path, the hallway to the Acropolis.

When I was very small, Mom used to warn us of demons and other creatures lurking in the Acropolis. Things to scare small children, she later admitted. Stories.

High city. That’s what it means. I don’t know my way around there. This station is large enough to get lost in.

I realize, though that I can see, just the tiniest bit, by the large window and the stars. The atmosphere of Ythma has always been red, and so it casts odd shadows that somehow manage to fill my heart with even more dread than before. Swallowing it down, I start towards the blackness and the pathway to the Acropolis.

***

My fingers touch the wall and my heart touches the bottom of my throat. I don’t know how long I have been walking. I don’t know how far away the Acropolis is.

The only noise I can register is my heartbeat, and the starlight is weak and only intermittent. The red glare it occasionally casts against the floor is less a comfort and more a terror. My heart jumps with every step, and I don’t know how much more I can stand. What’s worse, twice now I have seen holes in the floor only after near stepping in them. The wires exposed there are jagged strips of old metal, and even with the power out I am sure they would cut my bare feet to ribbons.

I keep a hand on the wall now as I move forward, and eventually, heart still leaping wildly in my chest, I come to an opening and, as soon as I set foot in it, lights burst on and into brilliance.

It’s a tiny room.

The Acropolis is a tiny room.

It’s circular in nature, domed at the top, and all around are panels and other things I can’t quite understand. A chair sits at its center, turned away from me, and the far wall has a sealed door like you might find leading to an airlock. The plating here is rough with age, and I step carefully as I move forward, worried that the floor might give way at any moment. The way it creaks at me is not encouraging.

Before the chair I can see a massive bank of screens and above those, the words ‘Acropolis’ shine redly where they’re set into the wall.

The lights flicker for a few moments, reminding me of my time limit.

At first I don’t know what to do, but logic dictates that if there is a place where Nex can be fixed from, it would be here.

I take another few tentative steps forward, reaching the chair. It’s set in a swivel base, so I gently turn it around.

It takes all of my willpower again, this time not to shriek. Mom is sitting in the chair, eyes blank and glazed, fingers set and stiff as though still at the controls. Carefully, slowly I pull her away from the chair and, gently as I can, try to set her down on the floor. The artificial gravity of the station is almost as strong as it ever was on the starship, so she doesn’t exactly float to the ground.

It doesn’t smell like a corpse, though, and it occurs to me that Nex must have been running filters in here nonstop to take away the stench.

Numbly, I climb into the chair where my mother must have always been sitting. I stare down at the controls.

They stare back up at me.

This time I do shriek, heart thudding wildly, as Nex rises from the control panel like a vengeful ghost. Inadvertently, I push off, kick off from the platform and the chair falls backwards with a crash– vision blurred with sudden tears and stabbing pain, I hear a second, third, fourth crash and feel warmth all around me.

My gaze returns to normal and, dreading what I’ll see, I look downward. It nearly makes me sick- a jagged, rusted edge of the floor– it had given way under the chair!– has been thrust, driven into my foot so far that its tip pierces the top, pinning it in place.

Below that there is nothing. A black, dark void greets my sight, and I realize that I’m floating. All around me I feel warmth, incongruous with the terrible burning now running up and down my leg.

“Ah,” I say quietly. “N-Nex?”

A silvered hand reaches out impossibly long and, with the precision of a laser, melts through the base of the floor edge stuck in my foot. It returns to the greater cloud and the managerial AI carries me and sets me down, supporting my injured foot at the heel as red slips down over the semi-solid surface of its projection. Slips over it and drips on the floor in a steady trickle.

I don’t have time to think. I look at the screens.

An AI is not allowed to debug itself. It isn’t allowed to fix itself no matter how dire the situation.

Two switches show on the keypad before me- or at least, two switches that I actually recognize.

One is labeled ‘Quantum Memory Control’ and the other is labeled ‘Reboot from Last Backup’. I haven’t the faintest idea which one I should flick, or if either of them needs flicking at all.

A soft tapping noise, above the drip of my blood on the floor and the hum of the computer bank, sounds from behind me. I turn slightly and let out a soft, weak sigh of relief. “Naomi!”

She smiles very briefly, winces as she limps a step forward and I see that she is leaving a trail of blood behind her. I cover my mouth and shut my eyes, unable to properly drag my eyes away from the mess of bleeding cuts marring her bare right foot.

Slowly though, so slowly, she reaches the computer bank with me and plops down a heavy synthbook I recognize. It’s the starship repair book.

The lights dim, flicker, and for a few moments at least, go out. They come back on barely a moment later, but I realize we have no time to lose.

“I brought it along, but I don’t know how it’ll… uh… help,” Naomi mutters flatly. “Nex is not a starship.”

“Nex was on a starship,” I point out. “I’ll look through it.”

“You’ve never touched a synthbook in your life,” Naomi growls.

“I’ve had more than one life to learn to read,” I reply grimly. “Remember? Five thousand of them at the least.”

She nods faintly, obviously in excruciating pain. “Right.”

I open the book to the first page, quickly looking through the table of contents to find the section on AI repair. As soon as I find the section on quantum computers, I read through it and Naomi gets to work.

Within fifteen minutes, we restore power to the lights. Within the next fifteen, Naomi falls unconscious.

It’s not a sudden thing. Her eyes droop and her movements grow faint. Twice I remind her that she needs to focus, twice she nods vaguely and then, as she collapses, smacks the big red ‘engage airlock’ button, something I now recognize after what feels like an age of poring over the thick synthbook.

The airlock opens, on the far side, the door sealing it cycling outwards as if opening a vault, as if a secret door in Hereditary. It slides away like magic and reveals a short hallway. The synthbook projection flickers and disappears as Naomi slumps and, barely able to support her weight myself, I still catch her and hold her upright.

We took the liberty of waking up the rest of the station, Nex broadcasts.

I blink as the lights come back on full force. The hallway is still unlit. I swear I see shapes moving in it, though.

You both have done enough work for me to repair myself the rest of the way. All we need is your authorization.

I stare at Nex’s projection, reflected in the screen where it stands behind us, supporting me and Naomi both.

I touch the button authorizing AI self-repair, blue and glowing bright on the keypad. It whirs and clicks for a moment, lights flickering for a heart-stopping breath, and then they flick on and stay that way, and the newly illuminated hall shines bright. The sign above it flickers into life as well: Greater Quarters – Colony Central – To Acropolis.

From it steps a elder man, wide-eyed and owlish, blinking in the light. His gaze catches on mine, flicks from me to the body of my mother, to my foot, pierced through with metal. It travels to Naomi’s unconscious form and my expressionless face, my clothing.

He turns his head back towards the corridor behind him. “Jenkins, run and get in touch with Medical right now.” He turns back and then rushes in. I’m about to warn him about the rusty floor, but my mouth won’t work. It doesn’t seem to matter. His boots glow as they strike the metal, and he doesn’t seem to touch the floor so much as skim over it. Anti-gravity, perhaps.

He looks around at the place briefly, as if checking it for danger, and then looks me over once, twice. I wince. I’m still wearing Naomi’s clothes…

“Are you alright, girl?” he asks quietly. “That foot looks bad- here.”

A ripping noise. He tears through the fabric of his shirt. His gloves pulse red- strength enhancing, perhaps.

I realize he was talking to me only after he takes my foot into his hands.

“Deal with Naomi first,” I manage weakly. “Please.”

“You need it more. There is a rusted metal object in your foot. This is going to hurt,” he says gently. “Brace yourself.”

Tears well up in my eyes.

I don’t care.

We’re not alone anymore.

We’re not alone.

———–

©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)

———–

More on this one in a later post. I’m too tired to even tag this much.

Enjoy.

-Eris

Short Story: Hive Heart

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.

It’s delicious.

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.”

C….R….E….A…M.

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 armsam 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.”

We’re gone.

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!

-Eris