“The truth is a lie.”
A soft, dark hand tapped a shiny, sharp metal one. Over, under, side, side. Two voices spoke in unison, shaped air and radio transmission.
“We are the Paradox.”
Palm struck fingers, Mikael grunting as the edge of a joint scraped his hand. Both of his arms flung open to accept his newest crew.
“And so are you! Welcome aboard.”
Translator rocked onto their toes and chirped. Flock Tsunya had already negotiated their buying price with the captain and pilot of the Paradox, but Mikael had insisted on the little initiation ceremony anyways. Said that every one of the crew (save for himself, establisher of the grand tradition) had gone through it, no reason Translator couldn't.
The light tap of small feet got their attention, but the person who possessed the feet darted back behind the doorway when Translator turned to look.
“May this one say goodbye? Haste is promised.”
Mikael smiled, the oxygen-releasing crystals in his respirator clinking as he tilted his head. “Take as long as you need. You know where we are.”
The interloper wasn't far, hiding in the corner so they could jump out at Translator and hug their leg. Osin looked an awful lot like Knapp, down to the pattern on their chest and the way they headbutted people. They were the same age she was, now, and already Translator knew the two were nothing alike.
They knelt so that Osin could at least look them in the eyes without having to take a couple steps back. A year or so back Translator had shot up to be taller than Atryom, and now every time the latter left for a scouting mission they warned Translator not to grow any more in their absence.
Osin tucked themself under Translator's arm, peering up at their face. “Don't go…”
Translator patted their shoulder and stood. They needed to go find Atryom, and Kusy, and Ryth, and... Just... So many people. “The Paradox needs a Lanius. This one is needed as the best fit. Best translator.”
“Osin needs Translator.” When Translator didn't look at them, they whispered, “Translator? Translator? Osin need.”
The child winced when Translator stopped short. They wove their fingers together, no longer interested in trying to maintain eye contact. When Translator tried to get closer they ducked away.
“The flock will take care of Osin, and Translator will stay in contact, tell Osin everything about life on the Paradox.” The promise got a moment's glance, but nothing more. Not until Translator kept moving and Osin tagged along at their side.
Atryom was easy to find. One of the ship's weapons was to be taken apart for scrap, and Atryom had taken charge to ensure the job was done safely. Neither Translator nor Osin were allowed close to the partially dismantled weapon, but Atryom spotted them soon after they got close.
They stood there without a word between them for a long time. Atryom broke the silence by placing a hand on Translator's shoulder. “No growing. This one's neck hurts enough already.”
Translator had to lean down to headbutt Atryom, making the elder grumble at them. “No guarantee.”
They were about to pull away when Atryom wrapped both of their arms around the back of Translator's neck, keeping them in place. “Stay safe. The galaxy is dangerous. Getting in trouble there will get Translator in trouble here.”
“This one knows.” Those words felt heavy, threatened to drag down the next ones. “And loves Atryom.”
With a pat on the back, Atryom let them go. “This one loves Translator. Go find Kusy.”
That was a harder task. Kusy spent a lot of time instructing younger Lanius who were interested in working the engines, but they also maintained the ship. There was as good a chance that they would be standing in front of the engine room as there was that they were outside the vessel, fixing an incomplete breach or something like that.
At least the search afforded Translator plenty of opportunities to say goodbye to the rest of the flock. Those were quick, a confirmation that they were, in fact, leaving, and then goodbyes that varied in solemnity by person.
They found Kusy poking around in the cockpit. Treyu noticed Translator coming and edged out of the room.
Despite their attempt to step harder, Kusy didn't notice Translator approaching and startled when the young adult touched their arm.
That didn't last long. As soon as Kusy saw who was there they threw their arms around Translator, cooing and preening them. They only let go to sign.
They made sure Translator knew that they were always welcome back to the flock, no matter what, and reminded them to take care of themself and at every possible opportunity they were to send news back because Kusy worried and they couldn't bear the thought of being left to wonder.
On top of that, Kusy requested that Translator set up a message just in case the worst happened, for the sake of closure.
Kusy held Translator for a long moment, head resting on their chest. It was funny, thinking about how the roles were reversed. They still remembered with great clarity being the smaller one.
“This one loves.”
Hearing Kusy talk was strange, and it set Translator on edge. Not because of their voice, which sounded like a radio set to the wrong wavelength, but the fact that they felt the need to talk. Translator had offered to try and teach Kusy how to say more, but they were content with signing. They had enough bad memories of the few times they felt compelled to speak.
This one loves Kusy, Translator responded.
After one last nuzzle Kusy let them go.
Mikael was waiting at the airlock that linked the two ships. He smiled and waved at Osin, who hid behind Translator and muttered a rapid goodbye before running off.
The Paradox was an old Kestrel-class ship, painted with the same orange and blue markings as the New Federation, down to the MFK symbol emblazoned across it. Flock Tsunya had almost shot it to pieces before Mikael could establish communications and explain that they were friendly, the paint job was just a facade. After that, they'd helped repair the damage they did to the hull while Mikael sat down with the flock leaders to discuss the Paradox's mission and, eventually, request that Translator join the crew.
“Let's introduce you to the rest of the lovely crew, eh?” Mikael nudged Translator with his elbow. “So, uh... Do you have another name? Besides Translator?”
“No.” Some of their flockmates had tried to suggest a more standard name, but none of them stuck. 'Translator' did the job of a name: providing a unique identifier.
“Oh. Okay.” Mikael chewed on the inside of his lip and opened the airlock.
Instantly oxygen surrounded them and Translator shuddered. In no time they would feel dizzy, a little longer and they'd have vision problems. They ought to ask where they were supposed to be now, before they passed out on the floor.
Mikael caught them as they wavered. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you okay?”
“Yes...” They were careful as they pulled away from Mikael's hands, but they were already starting to shake. It would be horrible if they cut their new captain, what a bad first impression. At least Mikael was already wearing a breather, he wouldn't mind when the oxygen drained from the room. Maybe. Hopefully.
It was so tempting to lean on the walls, close their eyes, and wait it out. But that would ruin everything for them, for Flock Tsunya, for the galaxy. What good was someone who couldn't be in most of the rooms on the ship, even the unoccupied ones?
“Are you sure- oh, shit! The oxygen!” Mikael slipped under their arm to support them on one side. “Here, let's get you into the shield room. We can drain that in a pinch.”
Translator missed a step as they walked into a new room with more oxygen. They could hardly see the ship now, they were forced to rely on Mikael. Being bought was a horrible decision, they'd gone and made everything worse in the span of a couple minutes. The crew would have no use for someone like them.
They heard Mikael say something, echoed by the comms he'd spoken into. Something not directed to them, they swore they heard another name but they just couldn't understand it. He turned to them and said something else, it sounded like a question, but they couldn't understand and they didn't know what the right answer was and the wrong answer (“Yes,” “No,” “It is possible,” “This one agrees,”) was definitely going to make him mad but they just. Couldn't. Think!
Another door opened and the air hissed out of the room they were in. It was like a smack to the face; not everything was clear, but they were getting better now, not worse. The spots and blurriness started to fade from their vision, they could kind of understand Mikael and the other voice on the comms. This one was grating, not in an irritating way but low and rough, like rubbing rocks together.
The heavy-duty vacuum doors in the corner of the room sealed shut. Translator focused on them, grounding themself so that they could quit wavering so much, they were an embarrassment…
A sturdy hand rested on their shoulder and that was it. The surprise and the oxygen-dizziness sent Translator crashing to the floor.
“I didn't mean it,” the grating voice said.
Mikael sighed. “I believe you. If you keep an eye on them, I'll go get the others. Hey, Translator? Can you hear me?”
“Yes.” They pushed themself upright, crossed their legs and put some weight on their arms so that they didn't fall over again.
“Whenever you feel better, you tell Ruwen here. Sorry about that mess, I didn't know you guys reacted so badly to oxygen.”
Translator hardly noticed when Mikael left. By then Ruwen had laid down in front of them, head in hands, and they could not look away.
Ruwen was like a Rock but... so, so much shinier, covered in deep blue crystals set into grey rock. Ruwen, wait…
“Common language uses,” Translator made a vague gesture that didn't really get the intent across. Didn't they know the right word? The oxygen must have taken it from them. They pointed in the direction that Mikael had left, then to themself. “He, they?” they said in turn. “Ruwen?”
Ruwen's head tilted, the light catching off of a cluster of crystals that leaned to the side, like a deep part in a human's hair. “What? Oh! You're so well-cut. I'm a she.” Her head sunk down, the lightness of her voice disappeared. “Despite what some people may have thought.”
Ruwen removed one hand from under her head to flick her wrist at them. “Oh, sure, but I can take vacuum much better than the rest of them.” She tugged on a string of purple crystals, the same ones in Mikael's respirator, that was looped around her neck. “These help a lot, too. Don't worry about me.” Her legs kicked in the air - or lack thereof. “So, your name is Translator? Are all Lanius named like that?”
“No.” Maybe they ought to tell her they were feeling better now, so that they could meet the rest of the crew. The sooner they did that, the sooner they would leave, the less time there would be to second-guess and imagine all the scenarios where they decide against leaving at the last moment because that was getting all the more tempting.
“What does the Lanius language sound like?”
Translator couldn't work up the courage to outright say that there were a bunch of different dialects, so they demonstrated it. For each dialect they knew they said the same couple sentences: “This one is Translator. This one is part of Flock Tsunya, but is now on Flockless ship Paradox.” They started in the dialect they used most, the one they spoke at home, and switched through ones that used higher wavelengths, lower ones, more chirping, more static, one that used only two sounds.
Someone knocked on the other door, not the one that led to the hallway but one that, as it opened, turned out to lead to the engine room. Standing there was Mikael, eyebrows raised. “Is everything okay in there?”
“Yes,” both Translator and Ruwen responded.
“You feeling better?”
“Yes.” Translator got to their feet to confirm that, not just for Mikael and Ruwen but for their own benefit, too.
Mikael smiled, his cheeks moving so high his eyes were little more than slivers. “Great! Let's get this show on the road.”