Chapter 1: End of an Empire
“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.”
Chapter 2: Good Luck
Translator tried to project an image of confidence, but, well, that wasn't happening. Pushing their shoulders back felt wrong. Their chest was too exposed. Keeping their back straight and chin up meant that they couldn't see Mikael too well, though they had to look up to Ruwen.
“Emily first,” Mikael said, gesturing inside the engine room.
Translator followed him inside. There was still oxygen in the room, but not nearly as much as the halls. This time they let themself lean on a console. They'd already fallen over in Mikael's presence once, and there had to be a limit to his good will. There was definitely less room in here than there had been on the Vortex or most of the Lanius vessels Translator had been on, and much of the space was taken up by a huge pair of engines that must have been connected to the ship's oversized thrusters somehow.
A shimmering cloud gathered on top of the far engine. It reformed into an Engi, complete with staticky screen. “Warning: Unsafe conditions. Lanius existence in space, Engi existence in space, non-complementary. Mutually exclusive.”
Mikael approached the Engi, palms up. “Emily, we talked about it. This one's nice. They're not going to eat you.”
“This one has worked alongside Engi before.” Maybe it was a bit of an exaggeration (Bovee had never worked with Translator save for passive use of their language skills), but it was better than nothing.
A glaring pair of eyes flashed on Emily's screen. She climbed down, staying well away from Translator. “The Lanius is properly socialized with Engi?”
Okay. That sounded rude. “Emily!” Mikael's hands curled into fists for a moment.
“Largest discrepancy: Lanius consume metal. Engi are primarily composed of metal.”
Translator wasn't nearly as spiky as Atryom, but they ruffled as much as they could anyways. “This one does not consume Engi-”
“They told me Engi taste bad,” Ruwen interruped. All of them stared at her as she nodded enthusiastically.
That did it. Emily sounded some sort of warning tone and disappeared behind the engine. Mikael smacked his hands onto his face and took a deep breath.
She was laughing. At least, Translator thought so. They heard a rhythmic rock grinding sound, and her shoulders were hunched. “You actually believed me?”
The door at the other end of the engine room slid open, revealing a deep red-brown Rock with eyebrows furrowed. “What did you do now?” Unlike Ruwen's, the Rock's voice was deep, resonant even.
Mikael indicated the Rock and, with a sigh, said, “Translator, this is Rauta. He's our weapons specialist. Rauta, this is-”
“You hired a damn Lanius?” Rauta shouted. He moved to key the doors shut and Emily flew under his arm to reform behind him.
“I told you at least five times!”
The door shut in Mikael's face and the human sagged. He turned back towards Translator and Ruwen, scratching his head. “I'm really, really sorry, Translator. I just...” He facepalmed again, his head falling back so he faced the ceiling. “I told them, I swear I told them, they just-”
“Don't listen?” Ruwen stepped into the engine room, picking at a large chunk of crystal that formed in her shoulder. “Wouldn't be the first time.”
Translator glanced between the two. They'd curled their arms around their body at some point and started rocking their weight back and forth. “Wouldn't be the first time...” They said to themself. To the others they said, “Perhaps this one's leaving would contribute to group unity?”
It would mean coming home in shame, losing a great opportunity for Flock Tsunya. And they would lose the scrap that had been Translator buying price. At this time, they needed the scrap far more than they needed Translator. But no captain would want a crewmate who made everyone else miserable. That was worse than being useless.
Mikael waved his hands, eyes so wide Translator could see the full black circles of his irises. “No, no, no! I really want you aboard, I promise, it's just that I need to talk to those guys some more.” He scratched at his head again, eyes drifting to the floor. “A lot more.”
Ruwen waved Translator over. “Besides, you haven't met everyone yet.”
“We've got a teleporter and managed to pick up a boarding crew. They're a little rough-and-tumble, usually in the med bay or poking around at the doors and sensors when we're not fighting. You could throw anything at them and they wouldn't twitch. Permission to space us a trail, Mikael?”
“One second.” Mikael wrote something in the air, then began tapping along a line. “Draining... There we go.” He tapped one more spot. “Give it a moment to warm up and you should be good.”
Ruwen glanced at Translator. “I don't get frostbite, do you?”
“No.” They weren't even sure what frostbite was, though it did sound exceedingly painful.
“No need to waste time, then. Come on.”
She led them through the ship, pointing out features along the way. Weird window placements, that one corner that snuck up on everyone, all the details Translator had missed the first time around.
Ruwen walked right past the teleporter without so much as a second thought. Translator slowed down for a moment. Now that they weren't oxygen-dizzy, they noticed that the rooms were labeled with large images that communicated their function. The Vortex didn't have any labels, and Lanius vessels tended to write their labels instead of using images.
They hurried to catch up when Ruwen stopped, waiting for them. Mikael passed them by, saying that he was going to get ready to leave and confirmed that the boarders were hanging out in the sensors.
Translator edged behind Ruwen. After how badly Emily and Rauta had reacted, they weren't sure what the boarders would think of them. So far, half of the crew seemed to like them and the other half didn't... Maybe they would get an even split and one boarder would like them, and the other wouldn't.
Ruwen slammed one fist into the sensors' door. Translator jumped, and they heard shuffling inside, accompanied by muffled voices.
She rested her hands on her hips and nodded. “Always good to put a brick in their pants every so often.” She turned her head to them. “Do you do slang terms? Human sayings are the best, I've gotta say.”
Before Translator could respond, one of the boarders fumbled the door open to hiss at Ruwen.
At first Translator wasn't sure if it was the burst of oxygen or the fact that both of the boarders were Mantis that got to them more. But they took one look at the Mantis's sharp appendages and they felt like they were going to fall down again. The walls were closing in on them, they backed up but they could only go so far. They were tiny again, being taken away from their flock. Mantis corroded and weakened metal, but they never fixed it. Lanius made a great test of those abilities.
Suddenly Ruwen was in front of them, holding their shoulders. Immobilizing them, making them all the easier to hit. The engines roared to life, the Paradox jolting as it separated from Translator's home. They were isolated now, trapped.
Ruwen's voice sounded far away. “Translator! What the hell?”
Chapter 3: You Can't Change Anything
They'd dragged Translator into the med bay at some point and sat them down by one of the intensive care tanks. The Mantis were gone, Translator vaguely remembered them backing out of the room, but Ruwen never left.
But there was oxygen in the med bay, and that didn't help how sick they felt. The lights were bright white when their vision went dark. When it cleared up again, red “no oxygen” lights had turned on. Ruwen was shaking them.
Their back and shoulders thumped against the tank over and over and they protested. “Stop! Stop. This one's awake.”
Thankfully, Ruwen listened, settling them against the tank. They curled up and some of their back plates popped into shape. There wasn't enough room to rock, not between Ruwen and the tank. They nodded their head as a poor substitute for the soothing, full-body movement of rocking.
Ruwen leaned down so she could try to make eye contact with Translator.
They gave her a brief glance before their eyes turned to the floor.
“You passed out, please tell me what happened. You're not allergic to Mantis or something, are you?”
Translator looked up again, considering. “Or something.”
“Do you have a problem with them?” Ruwen fell back with a heavy thump. “We've already got Emily and Rauta on edge, come on. If you don't like Zevaaar or Nikilik, then-” She waved her hands around indiscriminately. “Then this whole ship is going to become a shitshow.”
Translator couldn't say anything more than a scared, confused chirp. They knew it. They'd messed up everything by agreeing to be bought. They were overreacting, weren't they? All they were doing on this ship was hurting people.
They hid their head behind their arms, leaving a narrow gap to peer through at Ruwen. There were nanobots flitting around her, making tiny repairs here and there. Translator was causing that, weren't they? Air-breathers couldn't survive without oxygen. They died piece by piece without it.
They shuddered. That knowledge was tied to a Zoltan yelling at them to run before they exploded.
Committed suicide, more like, as Translator had guessed years later. They swore they'd seen that Zoltan multiple times, and even if it was rusty, they understood Zoltan as well as any other race speaking their native language.
“Come on, what do you have against Mantis?” Ruwen tried to push their arm aide, but they pulled in closer.
What were they supposed to say? They'd just met Ruwen not that long ago, certainly they were not supposed to dump their life history onto her. That would be unfair.
“I'll go first, okay? Sometimes – okay, all the time – I really want to punch Rauta in the face because he can be a real deep chip about things. Okay? Your turn.”
Translator dug their fingers into the back of their head, careful not to puncture the metal. Their voice changed, imitating a human's. “Someone get the damn Translator, eh? Little brat needs to brush up on its Kikillar. Little brat, brat, brat, brat, brat.”
The curved prongs on their head scraped against a cloudy blue patch on Ruwen's chest. They stopped, resting so that their feet were in contact with the floor. A streak of nanobots flew by to attend to the scratch. What had they done?
Ruwen stood, leaving Translator at eye level with her knees. “One second. I gotta go ask Nik and Zev something.”
The med bay didn't truly go quiet. Machinery hummed. The engines rumbled. Translator chattered to themself, their back tapping against the tank as they rocked. Nanobots buzzed around, confused by this so very different anatomy.
When Ruwen came back she added as little noise as possible. She'd been gone too long for one simple question, but Translator didn't dare ask what had happened.
She sat beside them, the tank behind her creaking. “So,” she rasped, “You know a Mantis war language.”
Chapter 4: They'll Let You Try
Mikael didn't know. That made it strange, following him around as he wandered about the ship and suggested where Translator ought to go. All that stress and drama, out of his sight.
“Not with Emily... Can't use a respirator... You can board automated ships, can't you?”
Translator nodded. The New Federation had greatly increased its production of automated ships, last they heard. Just enough space in them for human maintenance workers, and no oxygen, provided they were out of a planet's atmosphere.
“Great! Great. You can be our boarder when Nik and Zev can't be.” He glanced towards the room with the automatic doors' systems. “You want to hang out with them? They roughhouse a lot, but you look like you can take it.”
“No!” Translator answered too fast, making Mikael give them a suspicious look. Head ducked down, they explained, “Mantis spit eats through metal. This one's plating cannot withstand their strikes. Potential repairs would require much scrap.”
“You can't use the med bay?”
Technically, yes, but... “This one does not need to take up its resources.” They scratched at the floor with their foot.
Mikael's eyebrows knit together, and from the way his wide nose moved, Translator guessed he was frowning as well. “You're crew. You're not taking anything up.” He sighed, shaking his head at the door control room. “I want you to get to know those guys, but if you'd rather do so under a more controlled environment, okay. You three and Emily and maybe Rauta too... Hey, who was that little guy hanging around you? Really shy?” He was smiling up at Translator now, but something looked different from most human smiles. Less wrinkly. “Are they family of yours?”
“Osin? They are this one's flockmate. Closer than most,” Translator admitted. They had taken care of Osin almost to the day they came into being. Translator cared for them much more intensely than expected of any individual flockmate, especially one of Translator's age.
“So, like a sibling?”
“The comparison is not inaccurate.”
Then the wrinkles appeared around Mikael's face. “Cool.” He continued walking. “Nik and Zev are brothers. I think Rauta mentioned a family once- Oh, hey! You can stay with him some. When there's no auto ships or anything.”
“Translator knows weapons,” they offered. They wouldn't be completely useless to Rauta, at least.
“Great! Ah...” Mikael gestured to the door they'd stopped in front of. Sure enough, it had a pair of missiles painted beside it. “If you want to do that, I'll just pop in real quick…”
Mikael cracked open the door and leaned in, murmuring something to the Rock inside. After a moment he entered the room and closed the door.
It was a long wait. But Translator was patient, and found a corner to sit and rock and think. What were they going to say, the next time they got a chance to send a message back to the flock? What were they going to say to Rauta? How were they supposed to make him more comfortable with them?
Mikael stepped out of the weapons controls and poked at the air. What sort of display system did he have? Was it tied to his mask, or some sort of implant? “There you go, head on in... Wait, you okay?"
Translator got up, watching as Mikael's head tilted farther and farther back. “Yes.”
One of Mikael's eyebrows raised, his gaze tracking Translator as they entered the room he had just left.
The weapons control room in this ship was bigger than that of the Vortex, its consoles spread out instead of packed together. Harder to get to different parts quickly, but a single shot to the room couldn't do as much damage.
The other door, the one to the engine room, opened and Rauta came in, eyes narrowed. He gave Translator a long, long glare before returning to the consoles. He focused on the aerogel screens, facing them like nobody else was there.
“This one is here to help.”
Rauta's shoulder joints ground as he shifted. That had to be painful. “Why don't you go bother Ruwen? I don't need to babysit a damn ankle-biter who made me space my own damn room.”
Once again Translator found themself wishing they had a spinier body plan, so that their upset ruffling was more threatening, less juvenile. “This one is knowledgable about weapons systems.”
That gave Rauta pause. His eyes turned towards Translator for a moment. “You don't know this ship.”
It was true. Very true. But at least they wouldn't have to start from the complete beginning. They had watched Atryom before, and even though the gunner was not the sort of instructor Kusy was, they'd ensured Translator could at least aim and fire every weapon that passed through the ship's arsenal, and repair the consoles to boot. “This one is willing to learn.”
Rauta's joints ground again. “Sure, but will you?”
“Will you quit talking on the damn comms? There's enough atmosphere to talk out loud.”
Translator shifted their weight to one side. “...This one knows little Standard Sign Language.”
“Just talk then, damn it!”
“This one is just talking.”
Translator watched as Rauta pulled up a display, tuning the comms to a different wavelength. They could easily talk on the new wavelength, but they got the feeling Rauta didn't want them to.
“If you're going to 'help,' go check out those consoles over there. Take a moment to learn the system. I don't need you asking how to activate a laser mid-battle.”
Translator nodded. The trailing edges on their limbs itched, but they clamped down on the urge to fight and went to pick at the console, exploring its interface.
“And no snacking on my part of the ship!”
Rauta wouldn't hear Translator hiss, not on that wavelength. They weren't that hungry.
Chapter 5: Nails in Your Bread
The next jump became a scuffle. Rauta took one look at the display and shoved Translator out of the door. “Auto-hacker. Your problem,” he snapped.
They hurried to the teleporter as quickly as possible, considering not all the rooms were drained of oxygen, and the teleporter didn't even have a warning light on. The spots in their vision were growing, merging together. Leaning on the wall, they punched the single button in the room. So, Mikael controlled timing and location.
Their plating tingled. Light flashed and there they were, huddled in the narrow space between the ship's weapons' housing and the wall. There was next to no light, only the gleam of tiny status lights. The walls were covered in tubing, loops of wires, and Translator swore they felt a door of some sort by their hand.
They stayed put for a moment, letting their mind stop swimming and their movements steady.
Then they pierced the housing with the edges on their arms.
The housing buckled under the impact, venting its built up heat out of the new holes. With a firm tug Translator opened the holes wide enough for them to get a good purchase and start digesting the housing. It only took a few carefully placed bites before they were able to crawl in.
From the way the weapon hummed, intermittent as a pulsar, Translator guessed it was some sort of ion weapon. Rauta had kicked them out too soon for them to see what the ship had.
Hopefully the other wasn't an explosive-based weapon. Those were the hardest to disassemble. A laser, you'd most likely take out of focus or cut its power if you attacked a random part. Explosives may as well blow up on you. At least its power would be limited in vacuum, without the chance of combustion, but that wasn't always enough to save a life.
Their hand tangled in a mass of wires and they pulled. Once, twice, on the third time a few came loose and with the fourth they almost fell out of the weapon.
Something skittered up the back of their leg. With a shriek Translator flipped around and caught the multilegged repair drone. It squirmed in their grip, legs flailing.
They bit down and held it in place until the acid ate enough of its body that it went still.
A few more slashes and they were satisfied with their work on this weapon. They crawled out of it and edged their way to the further one.
This one was hot. Translator prodded it gingerly, looking for a cooler spot. This one must have just fired.
But there was no cooler spot. This was going to hurt.
This time they dug in with their knees, the thicker plating less sensitive to the scorching heat roiling out of the machine.
They were halfway inside when the ship jolted, slamming their back and side into the housing. It stung. It stung so, so bad, their arm felt heavy and useless, and they hadn't burned that.
“Good God, Translator,” Mikael said, his voice bouncing from the comms they had been given to make up for the poor range on their natural transmitter and receiver. “Is that you making all that noise?”
“Very possible,” they replied, crawling just far enough inside to see the glow of hot metal. Definitely a laser. A powerful one at that.
Something dropped down, cracking the back of their head. They sprawled over the laser's internals, dazed. They rolled onto their back to get a better look at the assailant. A focusing lens, moving into place.
A focusing lens, moving into place!
Ignoring the pain, Translator grabbed the arm of the lens and pulled themself upright. Unwilling to subject the entirety of their mouth to a burn without anyone around who'd be able to fix it if they sealed anything shut, they drooled a steady stream of acid onto the arm.
The arm broke in half with a twist. Translator reached as close to the lens as they dared and pulled it out of place. There. Its shots would be horribly miscalculated at best, damaging its own components at worst.
“Translator! We're getting you back. Stand clear of... Whatever you're in.”
They obeyed. That tingle returned as soon as they were free from the laser. Another flash of light and they were back in the Paradox, the no oxygen lights on instead of the white ones.
A boom rattled the ship, accompanied by Ruwen's victorious laughter. “Free at last! Free at last! Core almighty, free at last!”
“Stone, damn it!” Rauta shouted.
“The ship hacked our shields and shut Ruwen in.” Mikael's explanation was a tired murmur in Translator's receiver, understandable only because of the comm magnifying the signal. “Also, there's a hull breach right outside of the cockpit, if you could fix it, please.”
“Of course.” Translator had a feeling they were going to be relegated to fixing all hull breaches. It wasn't the worst thing they could be doing, though, and they were fine with taking a job that would be harmful to the air-breathers.
“You want first crack at the scrap we get from this thing? I know you guys like the stuff.”
Translator looked down at their scorched hands, paid attention to the ache enveloping their body. “...Thank you.”
Chapter 6: We are the Young
The crew gathered in the aft of the ship. Translator stayed in the shields room with Ruwen, tending to their burns. A small pile of scrap, the pieces deemed least useful, sat beside them. It was shrinking slowly, but faster than Translator had expected.
Ruwen watched as they nibbled at the underside of their fingers, leaning closer when she caught the shine of tuhar. “So, you spit on yourself to heal?”
“I spit on you!” one of the Mantis (Nik?) crowed, cackling as the other shrieked. Mikael had insisted that everyone keep their comms on so Ruwen and Translator could stay in the conversation.
“Not near the consoles!” Rauta's shout was accompanied by a thump Translator could feel.
“Not near the consoles,” the other Mantis mimicked. Even their voices held an edge. “No-o, not near the consoles. They are mine to destroy!”
Both Mantis howled with laughter.
Translator cringed, focusing on Ruwen's original question to distract them from the sound. “Yes?”
Ruwen held out a hand. “Want me to help with your back?”
“Current hypothesis: Lanius bring up partially digested metals as part of repair function.” Emily almost sounded smug when she spoke. “Know thy enemy.”
Mikael groaned. “'Know thy enemy' was about the automatic ships...”
Ruwen leaned over so she could look Translator in the eye. “...Healing vomit?”
“No! Yes? This one doesn't know.” Translator pulled their knees closer to their body. Anatomy was a confusing subject for most Lanius, thanks in part to the haze required to do intensive repair and construction and to the extreme varieties between certain Lanius. The differing body types seen in most races were nothing compared to the different ways Lanius could process oxygen, or have their limbs set up, or reproduce (Translator couldn't imagine what it was like to be constructed full-grown, or not constructed at all).
Ruwen moved her hand, bringing attention to it. “So, can I help?”
It took no consideration on Translator part. They kept working. “That may not be a good idea.”
“You're talking to the king of bad ideas,” Rauta said.
Ruwen said nothing to him, but Translator saw how her shoulders hunched and fingers curled inwards. “What makes it a bad idea?”
Unsure that she would accept a verbal explanation, Translator scraped some scorched metal off of their hand. Sitting up so that Ruwen might be able to see, they put their hand in their mouth, which they held open as the parts inside worked. It felt strange, doing it this way just so someone could watch, but they figured it was their best chance.
“Wow. So, you want me to scrape off the burned parts first?”
From the way Ruwen repositioned herself behind them, Translator realized she was not going to give in until she'd helped somehow. “...Thank you.”
They mostly sat still as she worked, trying to tune out the Mantis as they bantered over the comms. A few times she hit uninjured plating, but Translator's yelp of pain when she scratched them corrected her course. It also got concerned questions from Mikael, who apologized at least twice for not telling them there was a heavy laser.
As soon as she was done she held out her hand again. “Just let me try a small spot.”
Well, if all else failed, they could always see if the med bay's nanobots could remove any introduced irregularities. Tuhar flowed slower than acid, so Translator bent over and stuck one of Ruwen's fingers into their mouth.
Ruwen pulled back in surprise, crunching one of their mouthparts. “Did you just lick me?”
“...No?” They couldn't lick anyone. They rubbed under their chin with the backs of their fingers, trying to ease the pain as they repaired the broken part.
“Did I hurt you? Sorry – oh! This stuff is weird.” Ruwen had pressed her thumb against her finger, and was now playing around with their digits.
The substance began to solidify.
They'd warned her. She swiped her fingers across their back, smearing some of the tuhar across the pit in the metal. The rest shed couldn't get off, despite all the shaking and scraping she tried. Frustrated, she held her hand back out to Translator. “You know how to fix this?”
“It may hurt.”
“What are you doing?” Mikael asked.
Ruwen ignored him. “I'm tough. Go for it.”
Still smarting from the crushed mouthpart, Translator nibbled at the remaining tuhar, melting it away with acid.
“What are you doing?”
Ruwen imitated a long sigh. “Translator's being a total darling and giving me a manicure.” Her tone was as dry and light as a foil wrapper. “I think.”
They finished up and let go of her hand. It didn't taste all that interesting. Ruwen inspected her fingers, wiggling them close to her face. “That didn't hurt at all.” With another look, she added, “Looks a bit acid washed, though.”
“Ruwen!” Mikael sounded more exasperated that anything.
“I was helping Translator get patched up. What did you expect?”
“Your physical form experiences an anomaly?”
“Yes. I'm horribly disfigured, Emily. You probably don't want to see.” Ruwen stood, stretching her arms above her head. “I'll come show you how much you don't want to see.”
“Life's illogical.” Ruwen strolled towards the door, adding a little extra swish to her hips as she entered the engine room. “Look, Emily. See? Terrible. Absolutely terrible.”
Chapter 7: Conscious
One idea was never spoken aloud, but it was accepted nonetheless. Translator started switching between staying with Rauta and staying with Ruwen, helping both as much as possible. When they weren't fighting, Translator was exploring the different systems' components.
They also took to not announcing when they were switching rooms. They tried that on Rauta first, who yelled at them for not saying anything and ran for the doors, as much as a Rock could run. Translator managed to catch up despite their wooziness and hang off of his arm, begging him not to vent the room.
“You can't even stand up,” he'd said, “This is foolish.”
“This one... This one can build res- res- resistance!” Recalling the word was a lucky moment of clarity. When they'd been passed around slave ships, they were nowhere near this weak to oxygen, but years of living in vacuum had undone that.“Feel better soon.”
With a grumble Rauta shook Translator off their arm and let them sit down against their console. They managed to last until the warning lights had turned a pretty pink, then all of a sudden they were deep red and Rauta was staring at them.
“Can you not faint next time?”
They did faint the next time. Ruwen hadn't appreciated it, either. The Paradox stopped at a small outpost to refuel and resupply at their next jump. They spent the entire time wandering the ship, absorbing oxygen and being followed by Ruwen. They woke up in the med bay several times before Mikael declared they were ready to leave the outpost.
They didn't tell anyone how refreshing it was, being on the auto-scout they ran into next.
When they came back, they got a surprise.
Emily was waiting in the weapons controls alongside Rauta, form shimmering and blurred at the edges. For a moment Translator thought something had gone horribly wrong and they were hallucinating; Emily looked exactly like Bovee, and even though they had not hallucinated while oxygen-dizzy before, they couldn't shake the idea that it was the Vortex's dead captain standing there.
“Proposal: Translator visits engine room for observation of oxygen absorbing properties. There is scientific equipment.”
“You breathe air,” Translator protested, backing against a console. The one person on the ship who couldn't use a respirator wanted to study their ability to suffocate them?
“Adjacent to the engine room are two oxygen-filled rooms.” Emily took no more arguing. She didn't turn around, per se, rather she switched the orientation of her body parts and walked away.
Rauta jerked his head towards Emily, eyes on Translator. “Go do some science before she starts pestering me about setting up in here.”
They were not sure what sorts of nodes Emily was sticking on them, or where she got the supplies. When asked, she just said she found some equipment and modified it.
She stayed as long as she could, sitting up on the engine and watching Translator sit there, fighting to stay awake. But as soon as the first nanobot fell, she reformed in front of them and disconnected all the nodes, warning them not to move.
They returned to Rauta as Emily left for the med bay.
“We're at the border of some Zoltan territory,” Mikael announced over the comms, which soon hummed with chatter. “I've heard rumors of a peace envoy around here, so I'm thinking we talk to them, see if they can help us with their government.”
“I like the Zoltan,” Ruwen commented over the conversation the Mantis brothers were having about some hive that used only Zoltan slaves for energy.
Translator read the sector's name. It sounded familiar, but they couldn't place it.
Chapter 8: You're Screwed
Their Zoltish wasn't perfect, but they knew it a lot better than everyone else, so Translator found themself in the cockpit most of the time, helping Mikael convince the occasional border patrol that no, they were not going to shoot. Negotiation was much easier with someone who could get a bead on the meaning of the Zoltans' changing colors.
But still, how did the Zoltan manage to have so many ships on border patrol? This was supposed to be less than usual!
“We're searching for a peace envoy in the area,” Mikael explained for what felt like the hundredth time.
The Zoltan on the screen flashed a brilliant green. “You're looking for Envoy?”
“A peace envoy, yes.”
The screen flickered, static creeping into the picture when anything was visible. Another Zoltan came into view, this one ushering the first out before standing in front of the screen.
“What Peacekeeper Altair was attempting to communicate is that Envoy has not been in contact with us. As such, his mission is inactive until he is found.”
Mikael jumped up as the Peacekeeper moved to cut the signal. “Wait! Give us any data you've got on Envoy. We'll find him.”
Ten minutes later, they received a data packet, and the Peacekeeper's ship jumped away. Everyone was called to a meeting, their faces appearing on one side of the screen. A map was on the other.
“All data indicates high possibility of being at the other side of the sector.” Emily laid down a transparent layer highlighting a contested area where the Zoltan fought against neighboring Mantis and Rock forces. “Filed flight plan included patrol of this area, and criminal activity is higher here than in Zoltan-controlled areas, raising chances of abduction and death.”
“Thank you, Emily.” Mikael laced his fingers together, drumming them against his knuckles. “So... Get there, plan on the go, and keep an ear out for anyone talking about this Envoy fellow?”
“We shall be heroes! Save the Envoy!” Nik and Zev's voices faded as Mikael turned the volume down on their not-very-relevant conversation.
“I like it,” Ruwen said. Rauta nodded his agreement as well.
“Let's go, then.” Mikael pointed out what he and Translator saw as the window.
Easier said than done.
Chapter 9: You're Fucked
Three pirates in a row. Two of which had missiles. Translator had to run all over the ship fixing hull breaches, skirting through the aft of the ship as the Mantis brothers stumbled their way from the teleporter to the med bay. Once the Mantis were out of the way, Translator cleaned up the trail of ichor. They shook the entire time, unable to tell what aspect of this all was stressing them most.
That was the second pirate.
The third was, ostensibly, the worst.
Their hull integrity was down to seventy-five percent already, and Translator had just fixed a breach that threatened to let all the scrap they'd gathered fall into space.
They worked alongside Rauta, saying little as he barked orders.
“Get those damn lasers targeted!”
They set the half of the lasers they controlled on the pirate's weapons. Rauta always went for the shields, and this pirate only had one layer.
“What's the ETA to full charge?”
“Missile incoming!” At the sound of Mikael's voice both looked to the display. The missile was angled to hit the aft of the ship, but where-
“Fuck!” Ruwen answered the question. The Paradox's shields died, leaving them exposed to whatever the pirates had in store for them.
There was barely enough time for Rauta to tell Translator to go help Ruwen when a laser lit the room.
At first, Translator didn't feel anything besides their back against the floor. All they saw was white, slowly fading into the weapons controls' actual colors. But the room was spinning, and they got the feeling something was deeply wrong.
Rauta knelt over them. His eyes went wide, and from the hushed way he said, “Mighty Stone,” Translator was certain something was wrong.
They tried to sit up, and the mangled remnants of their ankle scraped against the floor, bursting into pain that almost whited out their vision again. Rauta caught them before they could fall, hoisting them into his arms.
Translator couldn't think very far beyond holding on tight as Rauta stood up.
“Med bay can fix you, right?”
Translator made a pained noise. How were they supposed to know? They fixed themself. They shut their eyes and curled up, shivering against Rauta. At least they didn't feel like they were falling apart at the seams. At least, they didn't think they felt that way. They focused extra hard on keeping intact anyways.
At last Rauta dumped them in the med bay and swung his arms back and forth. “Someone can get you some scrap afterwards. For now, don't die.”
They could feel each time a missile impacted the hull, one hitting before they'd absorbed all the oxygen. It went quiet for a long time, long enough for Translator to sit up and assess the damage the nanobots were slowly picking at. Much of the metal had melted together into an incomprehensible mass, but the nanobots seemed to know how to pull it apart into Translator's plating and the strands that gave them control of their foot.
Oh. They were looking at their other ankle for reference. That explained it.
They got the urge to scoop a bunch of nanobots into their mouth to melt them down and use them to repair their ankle. No, no, bad idea, those were helping already. But they were within easy reach, and there were plenty, weren't there?
A missile burst in the med bay, sending Translator tumbling towards the wall as nanobots fell around them.
They didn't think they'd been hurt any further, but their mind decided enough was enough and they felt tired. Lying against the wall, legs over their head, Translator fell asleep.
They woke up to the presence of scrap. Without opening their eyes Translator reached up, chirping when they felt some scrap pressed into their hands.
Ruwen was sitting in front of them, legs crossed, a pile of scrap in her lap. In the background, barely visible behind Ruwen's bulk, was Rauta, fixing the damage to the med bay. Ruwen helped Translator down, examining their injured ankle and cooing at them while they reformed some of the scrap into a new foot.
“Oh, what did you do here? Rauta, what did you do to them?” Translator noticed that Ruwen exaggerated the higher and more musical, flowing tones in her voice around Rauta.
“Laser.” And Rauta, in turn, was more brusque.
Translator was able to replace their foot quickly; they had plenty of practice repairing themself. Ruwen got a couple minutes of looking on in fascination before Rauta called for her to help him.
At least Mikael said he'd fixed a few of the hull breaches when he popped in to see how everyone was. And when Translator got up, testing the repairs and saying they were going to go deal with the remaining hull breaches, Ruwen offered to come help.
Mikael gave them all the rest of the day and night before saying they were going to jump.
He'd called Translator to the cockpit again, just in case they ran into someone and needed to explain that they weren't New Federation. He offered them a seat, too. “You need to rest that foot, right? Rauta said it was all the way off.”
“This one is fine.”
“Come on, please?” Mikael patted the copilot's chair. Translator wasn't sure it had ever been used. “It'll make it so that your head doesn't get cut off by the camera, too. Kinda weird knowing the other side's just seeing your stomach.”
Translator relented. It wasn't easy to get comfortable; the chair was clearly designed for a human. Mikael glanced at them from the corners of his eyes as they squirmed until they settled into an unorthodox, but acceptable position.
“Jumping in five, four, three, two, one. I really hope this one connects to a shop.”
Translator had to agree.
They arrived to a vast expanse of stars, nothing in sight. Mikael sighed, drinking it all in. It... was kind of pretty. Translator had seen a lot of space, plenty of stars. But with the human sitting there enjoying it, Translator had the incentive to think about it a little more.
The comm beeped, a light blinking on that indicated an incoming transmission.
Mikael fell over himself to answer it. “Fuck, I thought we were alone here!”
They'd left the comms in conference mode, turning on everyone's cameras, but this time another human's image appeared on the screen as well. A large scar cut through his cheek and the corner of his lip, continuing down to his chin. His hair was buzzed short, showing off angular features, but also forming wrinkles and sagging cheeks. He'd aged since Translator last saw him.
“Here's the deal,” the man said. “You're going to hand me one of your crew, and the rest of you will go free.”
Mikael said nothing, his fingers digging into his armrests, his body pressed back. He shook his head, one tiny little shake.
The man leaned into the camera. His gunmetal grey eyes came into focus. Neither Translator nor Mikael could look away from them.
“You don't look too sure about that. How about this?” He pointed at them. Right at Translator. “You give me that one. The Translator.”
Mikael gaped at Translator and managed to say, “Translator?”
They could only say one thing in response. “Yes, sir?”
“How does he know you?”
The man, Davion Weston, threw back his head and laughed. He snapped back to attention, pupils little more than pinpoints, when he spoke. “I'd know my little brat anywhere.”
Chapter 10: When Your Walls Fall
The Paradox fired first; Rauta must have charged the lasers while Weston spoke. But his ship was not far behind. The first bomb exploded safely outside the Paradox, letting the accompanying beam fizzle out against their shields.
A targeting reticule with the silhouettes of two Mantis appeared over the display of Weston's ship. Mikael led it to the shield generator and confirmed.
“We might need you to board, too,” he warned. His eyes never left the display, fingers dancing over the flight controls. “The more distracted they are, the better.”
The idea solidified into a dense ball in Translator's chest. Back on Weston's ship after so long. Not even being sold off and then joining a Lanius flock couldn't keep them away. They had no memories before being on Weston's ship. They must have belonged to a flock, though, at some point too long ago for them to remember. All their early life's backgrounds were a windowless cell, some halls, and a bloodstained room. The “Bad Baby” room.
Mikael nudged them. “Come on. You can fight this guy. Take something from him, not the other way around.”
When Translator didn't budge Mikael became more and more insistent until he had put half his weight against their side.
The entire walk to the transporter they felt numb. Their mind was sucked into a replay of too many memories. This was it. They would either die and have come full-circle, or they would at least be able to put Weston and his ship in the past.
They hesitated before pressing the teleporter's button. They didn't know where they were going to end up. For all they knew they would be back in their holding cell.
No, not theirs. Someone else's by now.
They shut their eyes when they felt the tingle that preceded teleportation.
“Right in the cockpit, eh?” Weston's consonants were just as strong as Translator remembered them. 'Cockpit' may as well have been a slap to the face. “Bastard gave you right back to me.”
A gun muzzle pressed against the plates weaving across their abdomen. It tilted, angled straight into their chest. Translator heard the hiss of a breath through a respirator, opened one eye to see Weston take his hand away from the device covering his face.
Kusy had eaten a gun once. But that one hadn't been pointed at their vitals. Maybe if they were quick...
The thought blurred in their head. And the next one, and the one after that. A shudder reverberated through their body.
“Little brat never did like air.”
“This one is not your brat.” They wrestled internally to keep from repeating 'brat.' Weston liked that sound. Word. It wasn't supposed to be for them. Or maybe it was.
Weston growled, clicking the safety off the gun. “I've owned you since you were a twinkle in your mumma's eyes.” He pressed closer, his eyes at Translator's chin. They stepped back, but he followed. “You can't even face me.”
The next shudder threatened to send Translator to the ground. Even with both eyes open they struggled to focus on Weston. But they knew where he was, and if they could strike first, get their fingers into his throat...
Maybe he would die first.
Everything happened so fast. Translator swiped. Weston shot.
Pain exploded in their chest, stabbing at their insides. They could feel acid leaking out, eating everything in its path. They hit the ground, curling up like they could physically hold themself together that way.
This was it. They were going to die.
Something wet hit Translator face. Weston cursed, his footsteps heavy and unsteady. But he landed one kick against Translator's chest before he got away, slamming the door shut behind him.
The exit wound the bullet left was growing, Translator could feel it. One (un)lucky shot and they were digesting themself. What a miserable way to die. The rest of their plating was loosening, they knew it. If they moved they were going to just fall apart.
The door opened again. Nik and Zev skittered over, one shouting into his comms while the other prodded Translator.
“You're bleeding?” A pause, one sharp limb pressing against Translator's shoulder as the Mantis tried to look under them. He hissed, pulling away. “Acid, stinks like acid. Zev, that's acid.”
Zev hissed back to his brother. “I heard the first time.”
They couldn't gather the energy to be afraid of the Mantis. Crying out when Nik tried to flip them onto their side took too much effort as it was.
“Yes! Teleport us all! Now!”
The sensation of teleportation only added to the feeling that they were going to fall apart. They tried to chirp at the Mantis, confirm they were still alive, but the sound died out.
Chapter 11: Aphelion
When had they fallen asleep? Or had they died, and entered some sort of afterlife? They'd heard a lot about afterlives. Lots of paradises, beacons of hope.
They shifted, or maybe they were shifted, and they rubbed their head against a sloped, cool surface to get comfortable again. They tried to stretch out their legs only to press against a barrier that kept them from flattening out completely.
Someone was holding them. The person's arms felt strange against their back; the pressure points were wrong, spread out instead of centralized. The middle of Translator's back was numb.
“Good morning, Sunshine.”
They opened one eye. All they saw was blue crystal, the med bay's lights glinting off the surface. “Ruwen?”
They did not say Ruwen's name. What did come out was a garbled mess.
She patted their upper back. “Don't stress yourself. Trust me, recovery is a process. I couldn't speak right for days when they brought me back. Want me to tell you what happened? It's quite the story.”
They nodded. They remembered most of the ordeal, but it could at least buy them some time to re-orient. For how long Ruwen would talk, though, they were not sure.
“So. Nik and Zev brought you in just screaming their heads off. The other ship had gone quiet – all the crew must have died, I guess – so the rest of us run over to see what's going on. I'm not going to lie, you looked pretty damn rough. Massive hole in your back, and... I don't know. You just didn't look right.”
“It was scary.” She hugged them tighter, bringing them upright so she could lean her head on theirs. “The med bay bots didn't know what to do with you, and for Emily to do anything we kept having to move you around.”
They chirred. At least that sounded like they wanted it to.
“Oh. Are you hungry? You've been out a couple days.” She turned around, and then paused. “...Are you supposed to be eating?”
As an answer they tried to reach for whatever she was going for, trying to get their “Yes,” to come out more clearly. They could see the small pieces of scrap behind her.
She gave one to them and they bit into it.
But that was it. Next to nothing came up, even less was digested. With a whimper they readjusted the piece, tried to get something, anything out of it.
“Whoa there, don't get sick on me.” She moved them off of her, making sure they were steady before she stood, pulling her hand away. “I'm gonna go talk to Mikael, tell him you're getting better.”
They waited until she left, then got up, gripping the edge of a nearby console to keep upright. The scrap they'd tried to eat was hardly affected by the attempt; they dropped it onto the others, deciding to try again later.
There were multiple reflective surfaces in the med bay. Whether that was for the best or not... They ought to take a look at their back before attempting to make such a judgement.
What they expected was a gruesome hole, maybe something there to keep their internals where they were supposed to be. Not bandages slapped across their back, but that did make sense. Just another obstacle in the way.
Partway through picking off the bandages they wondered if it would be better to leave it be. They kept going as if the thought never occurred to them.
The bandages came away, revealing a swath of metal welded onto their plating. The new metal didn't even try to resemble their plating, and the welds created a series of scars all over their back. No wonder they couldn't feel it. Just to confirm that they reached back, contorting so that they could touch the blank expanse.
Nothing, except for ghosts of sensation on their remaining plates. They sagged, turning so that they could see their back again. Maybe it would be reclaimed as they healed. Or they could work it into their plating bit by bit. Or if they got lucky, they would run into another Lanius who could reshape it with far more ease than they could achieve alone.
They wouldn't get lucky. They knew it.
The door opened, but instead of Ruwen as Translator had expected, Rauta stood in the doorway, his form blocking most of the light from the hall.
He nodded at Translator. “You're up. That's good.” His weight shifted to his other foot, gaze flicking away from Translator for a moment. “We thought you were dead for a while there. Don't scare us like that again.” Despite the firmness in his tone, Translator didn't see anything they usually associated with anger or punishment in the way Rauta looked.
They found themselves touching their back again, exploring the edge between feeling and numbness.
“Emily did that. She fixed up whatever was broken inside you, too.”
Was that why they couldn't eat? Or was it just because they hadn't been eating? They hoped, needed it to be the latter. Because if it wasn't, that meant either self-surgery or death.
“You made some nice marks in the hull. Do you bleed acid or something?”
Their hand left their back to ghost over their chest, lingering at its intersect with their abdomen. Where Weston shot them. “No.”
Rauta grunted. “Thought so. Anyways, there's work waiting for you when you're ready.”
Then he was gone, leaving Translator standing there in the med bay. They picked up the scrap and nibbled at it again.
Chapter 12: La Puerta Del Diablo
“Well,” Mikael said, rubbing his chin as they all examined the names on their screens, “I guess Envoy came through here and got sold off. Other slaves said they thought some humans had come to buy him, though by now, he could be with anyone.”
“We're playing One Step.” Ruwen's eyes were half-lidded, tired. Bored? She tapped her screen a few times, selecting and deselecting the line with Envoy's name. “We get this ship, we get the next ship, and the one after that, and the one after that…”
“What's your suggestion, then?”
Ruwen shrugged. “I don't know, break the chain? See if we can find anything from a little further ahead? Envoy can't have disappeared into thin air.”
That got a snort from Rauta. “He can if he died.”
“Rauta, we're hoping that he's still alive...” Mikael ran his hands up his forehead and through his hair.
“Hope only does so much.” Rauta's screen went dark, leaving the others in a stunned silence.
“Well, that was dramatic.” Ruwen stood, her portion of the screen filling with her form. They all watched as she strolled over to the door by the engine room.
It was pretty funny to see Emily and Ruwen from both sides, Emily agreeing to open the door and Ruwen waiting patiently.
Nik and Zev started snickering when Ruwen opened the door to the weapons controls, leaned in, and shouted, “Hey, Flawface! This isn't theater!”
Rauta's screen turned back on, showing a very miffed Rock and, in the background, a very smug Crystal.
Even Mikael got a chuckle from that. The Mantis brothers broke out laughing so hard they sank to the floor.
Rauta's screen turned off again in seconds.
One of the Mantis managed to pull himself up to the console. “It- it's funny because- because he's a xitucalaar!”
Both laughed so hard everyone else had to turn their volume down.
Mikael turned to Translator. “What does that mean?”
They shook their head. “There is no accurate translation to any other language. It is for the best.”
He groaned, placing his head on the console. “You know what? For now, we're going after what lead we have, and any we can find.”
With that one sentence Translator knew it was going to be a slog, but they had no idea how bad of one it would turn out to be.
They ended up writing two messages home in the time it took to get anywhere. They hadn't been getting any replies, but that was to be expected. Flock Tsunya wasn't the chattiest of flocks. Not that any flock who had retreated to the edge of the galaxy was going to be chatty. Most were either in resource conservation mode or had decided to hibernate already, waiting for the feast part of the cycle to return.
Mikael switched strategies; if a ship surrendered, they would ask about Envoy, or to download the ship's stored data. If they didn't surrender, he tried to take the ship intact. If all else failed, he sent Translator out to bring back anything they could.
They'd gone out multiple times already. The procedure was simple in concept; Ruwen had made a long tether using everything vaguely ropelike, adding on to it whenever someone brought more back. Translator tied it around their waist and jumped towards the destroyed ship. Once they were in position, they looked through the data if possible, and brought back any data chips they found.
The “getting in position” part proved to be the most trouble, though the others had their own difficulties as well. A slight miscalculation could leave – and had left – Translator nowhere near their target and out of tether, or drifting so slowly they almost gave up and asked for Ruwen to pull them back to the Paradox.
It appeared that Envoy had made quite a name for himself in Zoltan space. Many ships noted a meeting with him, and more than a few recalled his message of peace. Unfortunately, there were less that could provide any information to his current location than those who followed Envoy's ways.
But those who did were invaluable.
“Translator! Come check this out.” Mikael sounded almost breathless, excited.
The door to the cockpit slid open and Mikael hopped up to greet Translator. He wore a wide grin, eyes glittering. He took hold of Translator's fingers and escorted them over to the screen, pointing out a short video that, to anyone who didn't know Zoltish, just looked like a series of colors fading into each other. Pretty, but nothing more.
Translator hummed. There were some numbers in there, definitely. They brought up a new document to write down what they could understand. While they'd been able to practice their Zoltish, they were still far from fluent.
Mikael stayed back for ten minutes, letting Translator work, but they knew he was still there. And after those ten minutes, he hovered around Translator, reading through their transliteration. He tapped a series of numbers. “Those look like coordinates. I'll send 'em to Emily, if you've got them all.”
“As many as this one can get,” Translator responded, paying more attention to the colors on the screen. They'd dealt with the numbers easily; the coordinates had been colored as singular numbers, not the ridiculously complex system Zoltan had when numbers exceeded twelve.
They did not like math in Zoltish.
When Emily connected to their computer, she didn't show her face. There was a map and a highlighted point, nothing else.
“Coordinates are close to our current location. Calculating jump route…”
A short series of lines appeared on the map. “Route can be completed within two days, with no interruptions.”
Mikael shook his head slowly. “Let's go, then.”
It was a tense two days. They scared off the one pirate ship that they met, but that incident was hardly any part of the crew's stress level. If Envoy was alive, they didn't know what condition he was in. He may well be enslaved still. If he was dead, their mission was not only a failure but they had to fight off anything at the beacon.
They all really hoped Envoy wasn't dead.
When they jumped to the beacon, everyone save for Translator was holding their breath. They didn't breathe.
There was another ship at the beacon. A large Mantis ship, bristling with weapons, loomed overhead. None of the weapons, nor its engines, were online yet, but that could change in an instant.
Mikael took a deep breath, tugging at his hair. With the press of a button, he hailed the ship.
Chapter 13: Pursuit of the Hunted
Pain stabbed Translator's chest. They could feel their few spiny protrusions flaring out, but they couldn't... They couldn't think clearly. Either they were going to fight this ship or Translator would have to negotiate. Right now they felt useless.
Then Mikael's hands were on their back, fingernails in between two plates. He made shushing, cooing sounds as he eased them into a chair. Was this Mikael's chair? They weren't supposed to be in Mikael's chair. They weren't in charge.
Mikael spun the chair so that Translator faced him. “It's okay. It's okay. Calm down.” He inhaled, then his eyebrows drew together in thought. “Deep breaths aren't going to work with you, are they?”
They couldn't find anything to say. What could they say? Admitting their past with Mantis might make Mikael stop them from translating. That was what they did. If they couldn't do that they couldn't help. It would ruin them.
Mikael nodded, lips pressed tight. “It's okay. You don't have to talk about it right now. I'm here to help you, okay? You can do this.”
Their hand drifted towards their chest. It still hurt. Not surface hurt, this was deep inside. Radiating. Had they broken something somehow? There was no way they could have hurt themself, right?
“Hey, hey, hey, are you in pain?” Mikael's hand hovered over their own.
“No.” Wait, Mikael would be mad at them for that. It was an obvious lie. “Yes. This one will be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes.” That was a slightly better lie.
Mikael's expression revealed nothing. “Okay... But if you need to, I'd rather you go over to the med bay than hurt yourself by ignoring it.” He stood up to check on the screen.
The Mantis ship still hadn't responded to their hail. No weapons online, either. Was it dead? It didn't seem likely. Mikael turned on the shipwide comms. “Hey, can someone get on sensors and tell us if we've got any life forms in that ship?”
He sat down in the other chair while waiting for a response. He ducked his head so he could look into Translator's downcast eyes, interwove his fingers with Translator's. “Do you think you'll be okay?”
They had nothing to say.
“Are you scared of Mantis?”
They squeezed Mikael's hands. That seemed to be answer enough for the human.
“I won't let these guys hurt you, okay? And if you're worried about Nik and Zev, they won't hurt you, either.” Mikael smiled at them. “You should have heard them go on about how they saved you. I think they like you enough.”
“There's lots of people on that ship.” Speaking of the Mantis brothers, one of their voices came on over the comms.
Mikael turned away from Translator to answer. “Thanks, Zev. Hey, can you and Nik stay on the comms?”
Zev clicked in rapid succession. “I don't know how much we'll help. That's not our markings. Not our hive.”
Mikael glanced back at Translator. “Anything would help, Zev.”
It sounded like the Mantis sighed, though Translator wasn't sure if Mantis were capable of that, or what it would mean to them if they could. “Yes, Mikael.”
The ship still hadn't responded in any way. Maybe its sensors and its comms were down. They could leave the ship to its own devices and get out get out get out!
They shuddered, sending out a fresh flare of pain. They needed some sort of distraction, and they needed it now. “How does- how does one tell the difference between Nik and Zev?”
It was still talking about the Mantis, but at least these ones were nice. Perhaps learning to tell which was which would help dismiss their fears.
“Oh, yeah, I guess it's hard to tell at first.” Mikael shrugged, but reached to turn down the sensitivity on their end of the comms. “In person, Zev's a bit greyer. Nik's got a scar on his throat, too, so if in doubt, look for that.” He sat back, interlacing his fingers behind his head. “Over the comms, Zev is probably the one speaking at any given moment. If you listen hard, he's got more of a lisp. But they do sound a lot alike.”
A beep announced a connection. The Mantis vessel had responded to their hail.
Translator sunk into their seat as Mikael scrambled to get the conversation set up. In moments he had turned up the comm sensitivity and started a video feed between the two ships.
Acid crept into Translator's mouth. Pointless, absolutely pointless. They weren't eating, fixing, nor damaging anything. What was wrong with them?
The Mantis on the other end was scarred. One eye was a prosthetic. Not even a red prosthetic, a bright yellow-green one. A cape that looked decoratively burned, along with its golden embellishments, draped over her shoulder. The ship in the background was rather clean, free of evidence of raids or piracy.
What sort of ship was this? The Mantis cocked her head to the side, hummed, and said in deeply accented Common, “What is your business with Hive Xi'Xax'Xe?”
Translator felt like the room had been filled with oxygen. They had not seen a hive leader in years and was glad for it; they were ruthless, harder than other Mantis to negotiate with. Some had opened fire on the flock as they retreated to the edge of the galaxy at the mere mention of safe passage.
“Xi'Xax'Xe?” Nik and Zev cried. The sounds of frantic scrabbling filled the comms. Translator ducked down, covering their eyes with one hand. Mikael reacted with a facepalm, and the hivelady was unfazed.
“What,” she repeated, her tone like iron, “Is your business with Hive Xi'Xax'Xe?”
Mikael sat up, the bump on his throat bobbing as he swallowed. “We're looking for a Zoltan, esteemed hivelady. He goes by Envoy?”
“But what brings you here?” The hivelady glared at the camera, peering closer to it. “To this ship?”
Mikael closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then sat forwards. He set his hands on the desk and looked into the camera, calm but unblinking. “We found information that suggested Envoy would be here? At these coordinates? We don't mean to get in your way or cause trouble, we're just trying to recover Envoy.”
“You're always trouble, Mikael,” one of the Mantis brothers snarked, but the other brother didn't laugh with him.
The comment did not endear the crew of the Paradox to the hivelady. She turned to glance back at someone on her own crew, who was standing at attention. They chattered to each other, too low for Translator to understand. They were going to shoot them to pieces. They knew it. Or board the ship and rip everyone to pieces.
They were producing acid like they were eating, but without something to digest and neutralize it, it got everywhere, and now they were afraid that whatever repair job Emily had done failed. Then again, the pain felt like the only thing cementing them to their body. Fear reduced everything else to vaguely cold and tingling, distant.
They bit back a yelp when a sharp appendage scraped along their shoulder and one of the Mantis brothers' head wedged in next to theirs. At any moment the Mantis could spit on their face, their neck, their body – they could get in the gap between neck and chest – and hurt them right then and there. A show of loyalty to the Mantis cause? A display of power? Just for fun?
Instead a low voice murmured, “Xi'Xax'Xe uses Zoltan power.”
And then the Mantis was gone. Translator was shaking, shivering and terrified. Even the hivelady was staring at them. What were they doing? What were they supposed to do? What wouldn't get them all killed or enslaved?
“What did he tell you, Lanius?”
They couldn't bring themself to meet the hivelady's eyes. In this case not speaking brought more consequences than speaking but speaking wrongly would be even worse…
Mikael elbowed them. That's it, they had to act now.
“Xi'Xax'Xe uses Zoltan power.” They tried to imitate the Mantis's voice, a trait that had been useful when translating a conversation but was the hivelady going to find it mocking? She had the power to hurt them if she did. Not just hurt Translator, but the whole crew. Punished for one person's mistake.
But no weapons spun up, there was no furious declaration of battle. Instead, the hivelady's mandibles twitched, amused. “That we do. Do you find this relevant?”
“Yeah, we do!” Mikael blanched the moment those words left his mouth, though they were directed at Translator. Maybe the Mantis who'd informed them, too. He sat straight and tall, resuming his previous posture. “I mean, yes. It strengthens the idea that you may have him, or know of his location.”
The hivelady lowered her head. She never stopped moving, always a mandible or an antennae or a limb twitching. “We shall contact you again. For now, we must discuss. Internally.”
The video feed went dead, leaving Translator with nothing else to focus on besides the discomfort in their chest and the acid that had welled in their mouth. They wanted to get up and run to the med bay, cough up what they could. Normally they weren't one for self-surgery but they felt such a strong urge to tear their own chest open and just fix the problem!
But they were frozen in place. Stuck in their seat. Their limbs were distant, not attached properly. There was nobody around that could put them back together, either, they were stuck like this and-
It was on the third pass that they realized Mikael was waving a hand past their face. He looked concerned, the inner corners eyebrows pointed so high up his forehead wrinkled. Once he knew he had Translator's attention his shoulders slumped with relief. “Oh, thank goodness. I thought I'd lost you for a moment there.”
“This one is fine.” Translator knew Mikael was going to notice the lie. They'd be in for it then. They already hurt enough couldn't they go curl up in the corner and be miserable?
“Hey, hey, you with me?” Mikael tapped on the tip of their face, making them blink. “Are you maybe having a panic attack?”
They hadn't considered the thought. The term felt accurate, they definitely felt like they were being attacked. Nobody on the ships they had been on before was much of a psychological expert. Those they had known for a long time worked out ways to help them when they were stressed, but that was amateur. Piecemeal. A solution to the symptoms.
“Do you have any de-stressing strategies?” Mikael held his hands palm-up, waiting for Translator to accept the invitation to hold them.
They accepted, slipping their fingers between his.
He began to squeeze their fingers in a slow, predictable pattern. “I'll do what I can now, but I want to talk to you later, okay? I don't want you stressed all the time. It's not good for anyone.”
They tried to rock, but couldn't get a good motion going in the chair. They were, to a degree, literally and physically stuck. At least they felt like their limbs were theirs again.
The comms chimed and Mikael's fingers flew away to dance across the keyboard, pulling up the hivelady and her crew, who had gathered around the camera. The sudden switch was an uppercut under Translator's chest.
Slowly, a yellowish-green Zoltan made his way to stand next to the hivelady.
“We have discussed. Envoy wishes to go with you. His success is to benefit the hive.”
The Zoltan, Envoy, nodded. He didn't look bothered at all by the presence of his captors. “If you would have me aboard for the time being, Captain.”
Chapter 14: Elara
It was impossible to mind Envoy's presence. The Zoltan exuded calm like an aura. Rauta and Ruwen were more content to ignore each other rather than fight. Translator found it easier to sleep. Nik and Zev reported to the med bay with injuries from each other less often. Less ships tried to attack the Paradox.
As they traveled, he spoke. And they listened.
He had, indeed, been captured and sold into slavery. After being passed from ship to ship, one after another rejecting him for proselytizing, or some variation thereof, he was sold to hive Xi'Xax'Xe. Finally, he had found someone receptive to his messages. The hivelady, who had given up her name when she took up her position as according to hive tradition, treated the Zoltan on board with the same respect as any Mantis crew. They all served the hive, so why mistreat some of them? The ship would be dead in the void if it weren't for the Zoltan.
And as thankful as he was that someone was looking for him and he was going to be vital to furthering peace and equality throughout the galaxy, he intended to keep his promise to help the hive.
Envoy spent most of the trip back into Zoltan territory planning what he would say and do once he was home. Once they were in Zoltan territory, he practiced on the crew, telling each of them that their input was invaluable and teasing out every critique he could get.
Their arrival at the Zoltan homeworld was greeted with suspicion and charged weapons on the scattered guard ships. Translator hid in the aft with Ruwen, relaying the comms that they overheard. But soon the comms cut out; Envoy must have been speaking one-on-one with his brethren. Translator could not overhear colors.
“You may dock with us, ship, and return to us this lost soul.” The Zoltan who spoke at last sounded more like an intelligible hum than anything.
“Thank you, sir.” Mikael's answer was quiet, respectful. It had to be when dealing with Zoltan.
Envoy left with the promise to spread his message of peace deep into the New Federation.
They didn't dare to stick around in Zoltan territory much longer. One ship joined them to escort them away from the homeworld. As soon as Mikael told them the Paradox's next location, the escort wished them luck and left them.
They were headed into Rock territories.
It was amazing how far back the Rockmen had been pushed with the formation and rise of the New Federation. Their reach had never been sprawling by any definition, just enough to sustain the population, but they had lost a third of the sectors they once controlled.
On the way through, the Paradox passed a number of straggling New Federation ships. Mikael had to get all the rest of the crew in the cargo bay to hide them from sight. Translator tried to relay the tense (why did so many of the other captains act so snappish around Mikael?) conversations he held with the actual New Federation ships, but the sheer amount of oxygen in the cargo bay wore them out. That part of the trip became little more than half-awake, hazy memories of talking away. They didn't remember if anything they said had made any sense, but they remembered sounding odd.
Finally they woke up in the drained weapons room. Strange. Rauta was nowhere in sight. Maybe he'd put Translator out of a job this time around... Or they had switched jobs.
They curled up on the floor, tucking their head under their arm. If an alarm went off, or there was a tense conversation that went too far, they would hear it.
Hm. They hadn't written home in a while.
Ruwen stopped by to check in on them at some point, joining them on the floor and examining their exposed back. The edges of sensation felt less sudden; maybe the patched-on metal was being reclaimed. “Rauta wanted me to make sure you didn't eat anything.” She scoffed and continued petting their back. “Feel free to take a nibble on the consoles, if you want.”
“Where is Rauta?” On one hand they didn't like that suddenly they couldn't feel Ruwen's hand and she could well have pulled back and readied to strike, and on the other they did not want to get up. Really, really did not. They'd been sleeping too much recently.
“In the cockpit with Mikael. Figured he can talk to his people better than you.” Chuckling to herself, Ruwen moved her hand to gently scratch at Translator's chest. “Rock, crystal, metal... All the same, right, hon?”
Translator rocked themself with the sensation. It wasn't easy, but it still felt nice. Ruwen had taken to scratching their chest after she heard about how they had reacted to meeting the hivelady of Xi'Xax'Xe. Sometimes she would ask if they felt okay, and make a show of cooing over them no matter how they responded.
“It feels strange, being so close to home. I haven't been there in years. Decades, even. I've been on ice for so long.” Ruwen's hand slowed, her attention drifting away. “I mean, I was a bitty little cadet when our ship was wrecked. Hadn't even come up with a name for myself, let alone come out to anyone.”
Translator rolled onto their back to look up at her. But the story had paused as the ship jumped and both waited for the weird feeling of the jump to pass.
Once they adjusted she started again, both talking and scratching them. “When they revived me they said, 'Why were you in those ruins?' and dazed as fuck me thought, 'Yeah. Ruin. That's a good name.'” She shook her head at her past self. “I must not mind too badly, huh?”
By now her hand had migrated up to their face, her thumb running around the ridge where Translator's eyes were inset. “No,” they responded.
"Ah, I love the name," she said, and smiled at them. “You're so agreeable.”
They got up from the floor eventually. Ruwen left them alone for several jumps. She'd stop in sometimes, check in and sometimes sit down for a conversation. Emily messaged them once or twice to ask what certain passages looked or sounded like in various Lanius dialects. They obliged her requests, but felt that she wasn't asking out of innocent curiosity.
In the meantime, they listened to the comms. They hadn't learned many Rock dialects, but they were willing to sit there and try to understand as much as they could. That is, when Rauta could convince the ships that the Paradox was inoffensive. More than once they had to fire upon the Rock ships until the stoic beings either surrendered to the display of force or the Paradox fled.
Nik and Zev got hurt the most. Unsurprising; they'd stayed determined to teleport aboard attacking ships and fight the Rockmen aboard, and found themselves struggling against their stony carapaces. Ruwen told Translator that she'd seen Nik limping through the halls with a couple legs dangling by some gristle.
They didn't need the gory details.
At one jump they almost collided with a Rock ship. Mikael shouted, flipping the ship on its side to avoid running into what looked like an oversized patrol ship. He transmitted a friendly signal, displaying the Paradox's belly to the other ship. Most of the others had accepted the display of submission.
But this time, the captain of the other ship didn't appreciate it so much. “Don't show such weakness.” His voice rumbled over the comms like a landslide. “This isn't your place, Rebels.”
“We're not New Fed- Rebels. We're attempting to ally folks to fight them. Rock support would be invaluable and – do you want to see the data packet I've got set up about it?”
The Rock captain grumbled. “Fine.”
It was a long wait. The captain made no comments besides the occasional noise here and there. Translator stared at the display, waiting for their weapons to power on to attack. Every couple minutes, they found themself waiting around their own weapons controls.
“You've allied with the Zoltan.” The captain sounded light, approving. Maybe even impressed? But any pretense of those were gone with his next words. “If you wish to ally with us, we'll need a favor from you.”
“Of course, we can do most anything... Rauta?”
Rauta's breathless whisper stunned the rest of the crew into silence. “That's the crown's emblem.”
The Rock captain rumbled his approval. “So it is. If we may, we can start that favor as soon as we dock with you.”
“Of- of course!”
Translator didn't expect Rauta to burst into the weapons room soon after, eyes wide. “Tidy up. Now!”
They obeyed. There was no choice; Rauta had worked himself into a frenzy trying to make the room look more presentable. Translator found it to be sufficiently clean, but they corrected whatever minor flaws they could find.
When the Rock ship thumped against the Paradox's airlock, Rauta grabbed Translator's arm and dragged them into the hall. “The entire crew has to be present. They'll be furious if anybody's missing.” He shot a glare at the Lanius. “And try not to pass out.”
They wanted to protest and say that they've gotten better, but all they did was make a tired whine. Rauta gave their arm an extra tug and placed them in the hall. He stood closer to the airlock, by Mikael. Ruwen stood across from Translator, Emily next to them, Nik and Zev further down the hall.
When the airlock doors slid open Rauta saluted. Mikael, then Ruwen, then all the rest followed suit.
A tall male Rock strode in. The captain, by the decorations on his uniform. Translator tried not to eye the gold and other precious metals too long and ignore the thought that they kind of wanted a snack. The captain said something to Rauta and Mikael that made them relax. Once again, the others followed suit.
Mikael held out a hand. “Captain…”
“Rhylian.” The captain accepted the handshake, enveloping Mikael's soft hand in his stony one.
“Captain Mikael. I believe my crew can introduce themselves if you'd like?” Despite his apparent effort, Mikael couldn't keep all the strain out of his voice. Translator could only imagine what sort of vice-like grip Rhylian had.
Rhylian's gaze traveled to the rest of the crew, lingering on Ruwen. “That won't be necessary. I won't be staying here long.” He nodded towards the airlock, where more people were waiting, people Translator couldn't see clearly. “She will.”
Another Rock stepped forwards. At first Translator couldn't take their eyes off of the few shimmering details on her gown, barely noticed how Rauta dropped to one knee.
She looked little like Rhylian, or Rauta, or even Ruwen. Those three had at least somewhat broader shoulders than the rest of their bodies. This one, this Rock, was thickly built. Her gown accentuated the deep outward curves of her belly and hips, added to her shoulders but it was clear that underneath it was little in comparison to the others. She held her head high, the light catching the slightest of glimmers in her dark carapace.
“Princess Ariadne,” Rhylian said as means of introduction, stepping aside so she could pass by.
Ariadne nodded to Mikael, who bowed to her and swept one hand down the hall. She walked past Rauta like he wasn't there.
Ruwen shifted. Translator wasn't sure if it was the movement or if Ariadne planned to stop in front of them anywas, but she stood still long enough to give Ruwen a quick glance and a bemused comment. “A Crystal.”
Ruwen wiggled her brows. Whatever expression Ariadne gave her, it only encouraged her.
With a shake of her head, Ariadne turned to look over Translator, who was starting to shake from the oxygen exposure. They tried to copy Mikael's bow and leaned too far forwards. It was lucky they caught themself before they stumbled into her.
Rhylian caught up to Ariadne then, carefully taking her arm and leading her down the hall, towards the cargo bay. Two more Rockmen followed, giving the crew wary glares.
They disappeared long enough for Rhylian to ride down the elevator to the cargo bay and back up. He passed the gathered crew, thanked Mikael, and was gone.
As Rhylian's ship separated from the Paradox, Mikael herded his crew into a small group. Rubbing his head, he said, “This is... going to be interesting.”
Chapter 15: Symbols of Power
Rhylian had given Mikael orders to be “somewhat casual” about their travel through the rest of Rock space. They'd been given coordinates and a date to reach them by, but apparently they were supposed to mislead any potential attackers or other ne'er-do-wells. There were other ships wandering about with alleged princesses aboard as another safety measure, and just in case of attack, Rhylian had given the Paradox a code to transmit that would stop any Rock ship in its tracks.
Mikael still talked down as many ships as possible. As they got deeper into Rock territory more and more ships tried to fight them, and less responded to his hails. Some dared to fire warning shots. Some didn't bother with the “warning” part.
They'd just fled from one of those encounters when Ruwen nudged Translator's side. “Hey,” she whispered, “Want to go say hi to the princess?”
Translator hummed. They'd had to go down to the cargo bay before to eat, but they stayed well away from Ariadne and her guards. “Would the princess be amenable...?”
Too late for questions. Ruwen already had an arm across their shoulders and was leading them down the hall. “We're crew. We're just making sure all is well. Maybe offering some companionship, if she so desires.” All of a sudden she pushed them, careful not to send them careening into the wall. “Not that kind of companionship, you.”
“This one said nothing!”
She squeezed their shoulders and laughed. “I know, I know. Just teasing ya.”
Ruwen was bouncing on her feet the entire elevator ride. The resulting vibrations left a sort of static in Translator's mind, edging towards discomfort. The ride was short, for what little consolation that gave them.
The door opened and Ruwen strode out, hands clasped behind her back. Translator tagged along, peering out from behind her shoulder. The guards were instantly at attention, ready to fend them off.
Ruwen approached them in a... significantly more casual manner. She held her hands up, finger-waving at Ariadne, who was watching from a short distance behind her guards. “Whoa there. I'm crew. Name's Ruwen, I'm just here to make sure everything's all right, say hi to folks?”
One of the guards was in her face, looming over her. He was much burlier than she was, intimidating even if they'd taken away his weapons and armor. “No unauthorized men are allowed near her.”
She backed up, forcing Translator back in turn. “Hey now, I'm no man.”
“Do I look stupid to you?”
The glance she gave Translator implied that yes, she did think so. She pulled them up so they were standing beside her – no, in front of her now. “Translator here's not a man, either.” After a short pause she leaned in to ask, “Are you?”
They shook their head.
The guard jabbed Translator in the chest. “And we're definitely not letting any damn scavengers in. It's bad enough the other side of this-” He gestured towards the scrap pile, “Is infested.”
“You don't have to stay down here,” Ruwen suggested, only for the guard to turn his aggression back on her.
“We are the Royal Guard, I recommend you do not pretend to know what's better for the princess than we do.”
Translator glanced towards Ariadne. Her other guard was at her side, no less hostile towards them and Ruwen. Ariadne herself watched the confrontation with the detachment of someone reading over a particularly boring economic report. Her hands clasped in front of her, eyes not quite open, head quirked to the side like she was either starting to fall asleep or feigning interest. What were her thoughts on this whole thing?
Ruwen's hand was on their shoulder again, her fingertips pressing into the metal enough to be uncomfortable. “Come on, Translator, let's go. Obviously, the welcoming committee isn't appreciated.”
She sulked the rest of the day. Translator did get her to start on a rant about the guard, quietly tossing in insults to add to her barrage. Verbally ripping him to pieces seemed to help her mood, at least until Rauta found out about what they had done and berated the two for bothering Ariadne.
A message appeared on Ruwen's console soon after. It was from Emily, asking what had happened.
Together, Ruwen and Translator filled Emily in on the incident. The Engi's response was bare, with just enough so that they knew she had read the whole thing.
Emily must have sent it to Nik and Zev because they sent in their own comments, mostly suggestions on what the guards' weak points would be if Ruwen ever just so happened to fight him.
Eventually, Ruwen got up and stretched. “I'm gonna go get some food.”
From the floor, Translator responded, “Same.”
“Ooh. Good luck.”
They waited until she was gone and would be clear of their path before they got up. The guards had been fine with leaving them be before. Whether or not their uncertain truce would remain... They could hope. That was it.
Strangely enough, they only saw one guard as they hurried over to the opposite side of the scrap pile. The same one that had been next to Ariadne last time. Was the other waiting in ambush?
Translator reassured themself that if need be, they could scream loud enough to attract the rest of the crew's attention.
They peered around the scrap pile, rounded it with caution. No, they couldn't see the other guard. They were relatively alone, and could eat in peace.
It was hard not to purr (they couldn't afford drawing any attention to themself) when they found a piece of scrap that looked good to eat. They glanced over their shoulders, but nobody was coming. After so many years, they figured that they should have broken the idea that someone was going to take their food, but they'd never managed to fully quell their paranoia.
They knelt down to eat, huddling amongst the scrap. How easily would a guard dismiss them as more scrap if they curled up and stayed still?
Footsteps? They thought they felt footsteps. Translator curled up, hiding their face behind their legs, the scrap sticking out of their mouth.
They dared to open one eye when the footsteps stopped right in front of them. They saw steel armored boots, more decorated than that of the guards. Fabric shifted and Ariadne sat down in front of them, her dress sweeping the floor.
“I won't hurt you if you don't try to hurt me,” she promised. Her voice was quiet. Was she avoiding the guards' attention, too?
They hastily forced as much of the scrap as they could into their mouth before uncurling. As much as they would rather deal with the princess than her guards, they knew all too well that high-ranking officials followed a mess of social rules Translator did not want to try and navigate. The higher ranked, the worse it was, and there was little higher than a royal in Rock society.
“What is your name, Lanius?” She ignored the scrap they were digesting, the way they twitched when the sudden boost in acid production brought a twinge in their chest.
“Translator.” They dipped their head to her. “Princess Ariadne.”
“I won't mind if you drop the title.” She looked around for a moment, then returned her gaze to them. “And I apologize for interrupting your meal.”
They leaned out to assess their surroundings on their own. No guards in sight, still. They had to realize that Ariadne had gone missing eventually, and Translator got the feeling that the guards would give them no mercy for not being the one who initiated contact.
“Hemavar is taking his meal,” Ariadne explained. “Bris is much more lenient about where I go. I dare say he's far easier to fool in general. But you, a Lanius, are on a human ship with Mantis, an Engi, a Rock, a Crystal. What chain of events brought you here?”
The last bit of scrap was gone, dissolved into something they could swallow without any pain. The princess didn't need to hear everything, that would be a good way to put her off of them. Which, in turn, would color her opinion of the Paradox's crew in general. “This one speaks other languages best of their flock. The best option for a diplomatic mission. You?”
Ariadne shifted. “I married a week before I came aboard. As is tradition, I stayed home for that time, but now I have to go to live with my husband.” There was no inflection on the last word, though Translator had expected something, anything but a void of emotion. “Lanius don't deal in political marriages, right?”
“No.” There weren't really any marriages. Not in the flocks Translator knew, anyways. There were lovers, unofficial partners, but no legal recognition.
“A lucky lot in life.” Ariadne moved the tiniest bit closer, eyes locked on Translator's. “I don't much appreciate being married to someone over a century and a half older than I for the size and power of his fleet and a strengthened alliance.” She leaned back, fingers woven over her prominent belly. “Nor do I appreciate the thought of having to bed him for the sake of providing heirs.” With a pat she added, “The duty of a Rock woman is the proliferation of the species, the continuation of family lines.” Her dry tone was the only hint of any emotion besides potentially feigned interest and vague curiosity Translator had gotten from her so far.
They nodded. Rauta said little about his life in general, let alone expounding upon Rock culture. The little Translator got was from when he argued with Ruwen over some difference between their behavior. Or, if he had said anything, they couldn't recall it.
“Your friend, the Crystal, said something about not being a man?”
Translator nodded again, this time with more vigor. “Ruwen is a she.”
Ariadne hummed. “I see. She seems like an... interesting character. Persistent. Some disregard to social convention, but not so much as to present a threat. No matter what Hemavar thinks.”
That sounded rather accurate. It missed a lot of who Ruwen was, but from what little Ariadne had seen of her, it sounded like a logical conclusion to come to. At least she wasn't denouncing her as a troublemaker and a pest. “Ruwen would like to meet you sometime.”
“Many do.” Ariadne crossed her legs the other way. “Though I could arrange something. Perhaps tonight? But for now, I believe Hemavar will be back soon and we don't need unnecessary conflict.” She stood, offering one hand to Translator as they got up. Once both were on their feet she pulled a piece of scrap from the pile and offered it to them. “Just in case you run into him.”
They went opposite directions, Translator making a beeline for the elevator. It opened and they stumbled back, jamming the scrap in their mouth to try and look innocent for Hemavar.
He glared at them, bumped shoulders with too much force for it to have been an accident as he passed. That was it. They could live with that. At least they could finish their scrap in peace.
That night, Ruwen stayed up with them. She'd found some small bottles labeled “nail polish,” insisting she had borrowed them from Mikael and he knew where they were, no harm done. In addition she gathered a variety of books and a couple of games and, much like Rauta had done, got Translator to help her clean up the room.
Translator waited outside the room with her, the oxygen lulling them to sleep. At least they weren't passing out.
In the short snippet of a dream they had, Knapp teased them for sleeping like she used to whenever she was exposed to oxygen.
A hand touched them and they brushed it away. “Knapp, stop,” they grumbled. She could be so bothersome sometimes.
“It's Ruwen, hon.”
They woke up, looking into Ruwen's eyes. Oh. Right. Knapp was long dead. They sat still for a moment, letting the mental image of their sibling linger, but then Ruwen was ushering them into the shields room. Ariadne was close behind her, as impassive as ever.
“There's not much in the way of seating,” Ruwen admitted. “Floor's better anyways, right, Translator?”
Ruwen produced her entertainment of choice, talking over the options with Ariadne. Translator settled down with their friend, curled up against her side. They couldn't bring themself to focus on anything besides the image of Knapp. Did they remember her right? Her face, the details of her body, were unclear now. Little more than general impressions.
This wasn't the first time Translator regretted that they'd lost every image of her when the Vortex was destroyed.
“No, I think they're just tired.” Ruwen patted them, hugged them closer. “So sleepy,” she cooed.
In all honesty, yes. They were tired. Translator nuzzled Ruwen, played up their tiredness in the way they curled up against her, one leg sprawled across her lap.
Translator's eyes drifted open some time later. Ariadne was lying down, a book propped against her stomach. Ruwen held the nail polish bottles, examining them. She patted Translator's side and rocked them back to sleep.
Chapter 16: A Start
When they woke up Ariadne was gone and Ruwen was snickering. They were halfway in her lap, back facing the ceiling.
They pushed themself up, plates flaring while they stretched. When they moved their arms in front of them, they saw it. Pink polish dotting the tips of their fingers. The points weren't as conducive to painting as flatter fingers like a human's (or Rock or Crystal's, for that matter), but there was paint on them nonetheless. They blinked and brought their hands in close to examine the polish.
“Ariadne didn't think you'd look this good in that shade of pink.” Ruwen held her own hand out, showing that she had the same polish on her fingers. “Look! We match.”
“Oh, and you have to see this. Come on.” Ruwen took Translator's hand and led them down the hall. As they walked, she said, “I owe Mikael a new bottle of polish as soon as we can find some, maybe two, but it was totally worth it.”
What had she done? Where were they going? They passed several rooms by already. Translator didn't say anything – Ruwen was too busy filling them in on what had happened last night anyways – but they were getting concerned. The polish didn't seem harmful, but why did they have to go somewhere else now? And why had she used up the whole bottle?
“Okay, hold on a second.” One of Ruwen's hands came down over their eyes.
Their plates flared to little effect. They scrabbled at her hand and chirred, but she didn't remove it. She told them it would be okay, put her other hand on their shoulder and led them through a door to where she wanted them. They felt her moving around, brushing them every so often, but she was either being careful not to touch their back or only touching the completely numb area. After a little bit they made another distressed sound and pleaded, “Ruwen…”
“Hold on, I just gotta move this... There you go!” Her hand lifted away, and she stepped to the side, head held high.
Ruwen had brought them into the ship's bathroom, a room Translator had never needed to go to before. She'd positioned them in front of one mirror on the wall, but facing towards what appeared to be a projection of what was on the mirror behind them.
And she had painted the blank expanse on their back. What had been a plain sheet of metal welded onto the remnants of their plates now had a roughly colored sun and atmosphere, with something in a text they couldn't read written below. All in the various shades of nail polish Ruwen had borrowed from Mikael.
“We figured you needed something to make up for the lack of a pretty pattern. The quote says, 'When the good fight ends, you find the next.' Ariadne picked it. I wrote it.”
That explained why they couldn't understand it. Maybe they ought to ask Ruwen to teach them her language. They reached back, tracing a character. “Your writing is pretty.”
She beamed. “Thanks! I did some calligraphy when I was younger.”
“May this one learn?”
Her head tilted to the side. “Calligraphy? I don't know what I'd do with that chainmail you write in.”
“The language.” They traced over the characters as best they could, trying to decide what direction they went.
Her eyes went wide and she locked her hands together in front of her chest. “Oh! I'll... I'll see what I can do for you. I'm no language teacher, you know that, right? Also, you're going backwards.”
They switched directions.“This one never had a language teacher. Not a trained one.”
Ruwen sagged, then pulled Translator into her arms, lifting them up off the ground in a hug. “I'm sorry, hon, and I'm glad if you still want me to teach you.” She gave them a squeeze, then set them down. “Want to go show Mikael?”
Mikael waved at them from the pilot's chair, and took another sip of his drink. Coffee? Jason had been fond of that.
“Can I try some?” Ruwen asked, her voice warm.
He half-glared at her, holding his mug close. It had what looked like a university logo on it, but his fingers covered too much for Translator to identify it. “The last time I gave you hot chocolate, you downed the whole thing, said it tasted funny, then Rauta had to drag you to the med bay.”
Ruwen crossed her arms, eyes drifting away from him. She shifted her weight from foot to foot and mumbled, “I thought it was coffee…”
Mikael sighed and sipped his hot chocolate. “And I highly doubt you can have it, Translator.”
He let the mug rest in his lap, swaddled by his hands. “Are you here for the same reason you gave me back an empty nail polish bottle?”
“Yes!” Ruwen spun Translator around, where they pointed at the painting on their back.
Mikael stood up, making an impressed sound. He reached for Translator's back, hovering a little bit away before he asked, “May I?”
“Yes.” They tried to turn their head to watch Mikael touch Ruwen's artwork, but they couldn't turn far enough without turning their whole body.
“So that's where all my pink went.” His hand strayed to one of the weld scars and Translator shifted. “Sorry.” He moved his hand back to a numb spot. “I didn't know you painted, Ruwen.”
She shrugged, but Translator could see a hint of a smile on her face and the way she held herself. “My dad's an artist. I picked a few things up from him.”
“It's very pretty. Now, Rauta said something about you and Ariadne…?”
After Mikael made Ruwen promise not to start any trouble, things settled into a sort of arrangement. Since Translator was the only one who regularly went down to the cargo bay, the others would jokingly (in Nik or Zev's case) or not-so-jokingly (Emily and Ruwen) tell them to relay messages to Ariadne. The princess must have decided Translator was a good conversant, because she inevitably found a way to sit by them and talk. They passed the messages along, she responded. She was good at getting information, they noticed. She managed to speak less than them, and most of what she did say would queue them to talk more. They talked about life on the Paradox, a little bit about the Vortex, the flock. Lots about the flock.
Ariadne was amazing at keeping the relations straight when Translator talked about the flock.
The night before they were due to arrive at Numa V, Ariadne sat close to Translator, close enough that they could feel the fabric of her dress on their feet. Her face was filled with fierce determination. She bunched up her dress in her fists.
“I have decided. I am not going to Numa V. I will not. I can do better than being someone else's possession, forced to lead from the background, and I will not spend decades waiting for the Grand Basilisk to die to escape the misery that will be our marriage.” Her deep growl and the way her eyes burned unnerved Translator. This was not the stoic Ariadne they'd gotten used to.
She took Translator's hands, squeezing them hard enough they thought they would find dents later. They wanted to look away but she was staring at them with such an intensity they didn't dare to try. “I have many supporters. Loyal followers who will stay by my side. Tell Mikael that. I may not bring all of my people, not right away, but I swear upon the Stone that he will not be without Rock support.”
“This one will tell Mikael.”
The promise had felt strange in their mouth, Ariadne's speech even more so when they approached Mikael and told him. He gaped at them, spilled his mug of tea into his lap. He leapt up to get away from the hot liquid and told Translator between pained curses that he'd think about it.
They told Ruwen the same thing. She spat out the bluish liquid that had been in her mouth, coughed and asked Translator to repeat that, please?
Once she recovered she said she wasn't surprised, and that she would fight anyone who stood in Ariadne's way.
The next morning, the crew stood at attention like they had when Ariadne first came aboard. A shuttle had just docked and requested that the Paradox transfer the princess over. Out the windows, Translator saw numerous other ships with shuttles at their airlocks.
The elevator door opened and Ariadne stepped out to join Hemavar, Bris standing at her other side. The two stared straight ahead, didn't seem to notice the way their charge eyed them.
She was wearing a dress Translator hadn't seen on her before. It was far fancier than the others, its white fabric trimmed in red-orange and embroidered with shining thread, speckled with tiny gems. Around her shoulders was a cloak the same color as the trim on her dress and as she turned to speak to Bris Translator saw that it had the royal emblem on it. It all looked so heavy, so difficult to move in. How was she supposed to get away in that?
Yet she strode forwards alongside her guards as naturally as anything. Had she changed her mind? Maybe all the stress yesterday was for nought.
She stopped by Ruwen and Translator and turned to face Hemavar. “Can you adjust my cloak?”
Translator had a feeling he didn't appreciate the menial task, but he did it anyways.
The moment his hands were on her shoulders Ariadne grabbed him, spun around, and flipped him over her shoulder straight into Bris.
Both guards were stunned long enough for Ariadne to lock Hemavar's arms and drag him towards the shuttle.
He threw his head back, hitting her in the jaw. By now Bris was getting up, shocked and furious.
Ruwen was the first of the crew to react. She slammed into Bris, forcing him back down to the ground.
Nik and Zev cackled, descending upon Bris with slashes that could eviscerate softer beings.
“Alive! Keep them alive!” Ruwen shouted, much to the Mantises' vocal dismay.
Ariadne cried out. Hemavar had turned the tables on her, and now had her arms behind her and barred at the elbows. He produced his weapon and fired at Nik and Zev, the gunshots painfully loud.
Before they knew what they were planning Translator dove for the gun, hanging off of Hemavar's arm as he tried to shake them off.
Ariadne used the distraction to headbutt him back. She kicked him, too, for good measure.
Translator bit down on the gun, convulsed, and coughed out more acid than they had expected. But it did its job and they tore off most of the gun's barrel before Hemavar jerked his arm. Translator let go and stumbled back, jaw hanging at an awkward angle. They choked back a cry of pain.
Then Rauta was on them, forcing them against the wall. He was shouting but Translator couldn't focus on the words, only thrash about and wail. Rauta pressed an arm across their chest, using his other hand to grab Translator's jaw and push it back into place.
Their vision exploded into bright white and they screamed. It hurt so bad they didn't protest when Rauta refused to budge or when the pressure against their chest threatened to turn into a collapse inwards.
It felt like forever before Ruwen rammed into Rauta and he turned to fight her. Translator slumped to the floor, watching as Ariadne, her cloak around Hemavar's neck, struggled against her guard. Both were going for the shuttle, but it was a question of who would be inside when all was said and done.
He elbowed her in the stomach. With a huff she kneed his back, threw him into the shuttle. “Go, go, go!”
They didn't see Bris, just various blood smears going in the general direction of the shuttle.
Hemavar lunged at Ariadne once more. Using the wall for support she kicked him in the stomach. “I'm not his!”
If she had pulled her foot away any slower it would have gotten caught in the doorway. With a shudder the Paradox broke away, flying backwards away from Numa V as weapons fire exploded all around.
Chapter 17: Sit Down and Shut Up
They fled. Rock territory wasn't safe anymore; every ship turned on them, and even Rhylian's code only turned off their weapons now. The Paradox had to outmaneuver every single Rock ship they encountered because if they were rammed, that would be the end.
“They can't kill me,” Ariadne had protested when the first ship tried to chase them down. “I'm the King's only child, he has no living siblings, I am the end of the damn line!”
“Maybe your mom's expecting?” Ruwen suggested.
Ariadne scoffed. “Presuming that was possible, I think that by the time that the child had reached the three months of age necessary to be announced, let alone declared an heir, I would have found out.”
Apparently the potential to harm the princess hadn't been a serious concern, spare heir or no. The engines were always hot, the Paradox fleeing the pursuit of some ship or another.
When they reached the sector beacon, Mikael sent them straight into a nebula.
The sensors were dead, but that was okay. They could rest. After all, there were only three groups commonly found in the nebulas: automated ships, not a problem for the Paradox, Slugs, not a problem with Nik and Zev around, and the occasional Lanius, and everyone was trusting Translator to be able to keep their own species from attacking and consuming the ship.
They decided it was best to not mention how pushy some flocks could be.
It was their turn that evening to bring Rauta some food. Mikael was keeping him away from Ruwen and Ariadne for now until the situation was sorted out enough that there was a minimal risk of violence. It took planning and a complex arrangement of locked doors, but it had worked so far.
They darted into the sensor suite as soon as the doors were open. They set the food down but Rauta took their arm before they could escape.
“Your jaw. Is it okay?” He touched his own jaw, moved it from side to side.
“Yes.” It had taken some self-repair to fix the remaining damage, not to mention extensive apologies for all the pained noises they made in the process, but they were fine now.
Rauta let them go. “Good.”
With Rauta stuck in the sensor suite for the time being, Translator had taken up his place at the weapons. The space seemed big and empty without the Rock there.
They eyed the doors in the back of the room. They had opened them to drain the room faster, since Rauta wasn't there to protest. Maybe if they couldn't make the room actually cozier, they could make it so by comparison.
Ruwen and Ariadne were busy working on some document when Translator entered the shields room to get the tether. Ariadne gave them little more than a sideways glance, but Ruwen saw them take the coiled tether and told Ariadne she'd be back.
“What are you doing?” she hissed as they passed through the engines, Emily reforming on top of the console to let them by.
“This one needs to be outside.” How much of an actual need it was was debatable, but they had to trust that Ruwen wouldn't question them. They had already proved that Lanius were unlike the other races in so many ways.
“I'll tie you in.”
Translator waited as Ruwen tied one end, littered with metal bits and baubles, to the column between the doors as an anchor. Once she moved on to find the other end and loop it around their waist, they started melding the metal pieces to the column.
She gave her handiwork one last tug and stepped away. “There you go. Want me to stick around?”
“No. This one has a comm.” They tapped the small device to satisfy her. Then they backed up until they were perched on the raised edge of the doorway, and kicked off.
She left. Part of them was relieved she had listened and let them be, another part was terrified. They were alone, their slapdash tether the only thing keeping them from drifting away. They had a comm but that wasn't enough to keep their instincts from screaming that they were not supposed to be alone in space. They didn't have the transmitter and receiver for long-distance communication.
That internal scream manifested as missing Kusy and Atryom. Translator curled up into a ball, flexing their fingertips against their sides. It had been so long since they last saw their adoptive parents, and they hadn't received any response to any of their messages. Had they even gotten back to the flock? Was everyone okay? There hadn't been any sign that the flock was about to hibernate before Translator left; even Vyen, the eldest of the flock, was shuffling about with as much energy as when Translator first met them the day of their recovery from the wreckage of the Vortex.
They wanted to go home. That was it. Plain and simple. They had gotten in over their head when they agreed to join the Paradox's crew and they wanted to go back to Flock Tsunya where they were safe. The New Federation wouldn't bother with chasing the Lanius all the way to the edge of the edge of the galaxy, would they?
Or would they just wait until the Lanius had gone into hibernation and exterminate them while they slept?
The gruesome image of EVA-suited humans, breaking into Lanius ships and tearing apart the sleeping inhabitants appeared in their mind. Kusy. Atryom. Osin. It would be systematic, taking the corpses and melting them down to- they pulled their legs in closer and tried to push the intrusive thoughts away. The need to see their flock grew heavier, more dense, until it felt like something physical weighing them down.
They perched their head on top of their arms, watching the slow activity of the nebula. Stars were made here. Did the presence of ships, disrupting the material, disturb the formation of new stars? Did it change what stars were made?
They thought they saw something. They tracked the slight disturbances, the eddies forming in the dust. Was that a ship? Should they reel themself back in?
A shadow appeared, growing until the first part of a bulbous grey form became clear. A Slug ship. They grabbed at the tether, hand-over-hand pulling their way into the Paradox. “Ship approaching!” they called over the comms.
The response was immediate. Everyone save for Emily cursed. Ruwen reappeared by the doors, reeling in the tether far faster than Translator could on their own. Once they were inside the ship she undid the knot around their waist in a few deft movements. When Translator went to remove the metal baubles from the doorway, she tapped their back and said, “Leave it. Get on weapons.”
They stood by the consoles, but didn't turn any on. Instead they sat back and listened, waiting for a signal.
“We don't need any goods,” Mikael warned the Slugs, “And we can't provide all that many services.”
The person on the other end made a nasally humming sound. “You don't need goods... But you need ssssomething?”
“Allies against the New Federation.”
Translator had not heard a Slug's version of a laugh before, but they did not like the weird, wet sound. “Oh, oh that's rich, coming from the New Federation-painted sssship!”
“It's a facade,” Mikael mumbled.
“Oh, I know. I know very well, Captain. And you want to ssssee if we can help you, even though you're ssscared of us. That goes for you, too, Lanius.”
“Translator?” Mikael was more astonished than he should have been, considering he knew Lanius used the same frequencies as the comms.
They chirped in response. What could they say to him? It wasn't like they could stop listening in completely. Though the Slug's ability to detect their presence was confusing, to say the least.
“It's all about electricity, my puzzled friend.”
...All that from this far away?
“Yes, it is impressive, no? I thank you for the compliment. May we dock and discuss business?”
How was Mikael supposed to say no?
The ship was abuzz with activity, everyone trying to figure out what to do to deal with the Slug. Nik and Zev scuttled from airlock to airlock, waiting to pounce. Emily relayed what information she had on Slugs over the comms. Rauta pounded on the sensor suite doors, demanding to be let out before he broke the doors down.
Mikael found Translator and tapped on their arm, gesturing for the Lanius to follow him. “Sorry to use you as a meat shield, wait, no, metal shield... Normal shield? People shield. Sorry to use you as a people shield but I think Rauta feels bad about hurting you and I need all the help I can get.”
They were not intentionally touching their jaw when Mikael opened the door to the sensors, but Rauta took one look at them and blinked, the tension he held released.
“Can I go now? This is ridiculous.”
Mikael held up one finger. “So long as you promise not to fight with Ruwen or Ariadne. Physically, anyhow. And it was Ariadne's idea that she leave with us in the first place. No, I do not know what her plan is past that, you'll have to talk to her.”
“Fine. So long as I can leave this damn room!”
As soon as Mikael nodded his approval Rauta placed a hand on Translator's upper back. “Come on. Let's go give the slime balls a nice show of maintaining the weapons.”
Translator let Rauta lead them. Fighting against him would... be detrimental at best. “This one's services may be needed.”
“Have you ever heard the expression, 'Cross valleys as you reach them?'”
“This one can gather the meaning.” Translator ducked away from Rauta when the two entered the weapons room. Usually they felt nervous burying themself in the consoles, waiting for interrogation to ensure they didn't eat anything, but now they couldn't get there fast enough.
Rauta stood at his console, setting up a comm channel. Translator peered under their arm to watch as Ruwen accepted the comm, Ariadne standing by her like she'd been pushed out of the way.
“We're not fighting,” Rauta stated, holding one hand up. “Physically.”
Ariadne shrugged. “I wasn't terribly concerned about that. Just say what you're thinking now, we can argue about it later.”
Translator quit watching in favor of tightening some barely loose connections, but they kept listening.
“I think you're young and foolhardy. Both of you.”
“Hey! We're about the same age.” There was a pause. “Counting my time on ice.”
“You are a twenty year old who happens to have been born sixty years ago. Even then, I'm older.”
“We will argue about this later,” Ariadne said, right before she cut the comms off.
How fascinating this one particular circuit was. And that fan. Translator shifted so that they weren't leaning all their weight against the mechanisms.
They felt Rauta approaching, heard him kneel down. Their eyes met when he peered into the console.
“How,” he asked, bewildered, “Did you manage to fit that much of you into this size of a space?”
They took a moment to consider their position. Their legs were sticking out, but they had indeed wedged their body, head to hips, inside. Come to think of it, they weren't too comfortable. No, this was not comfortable at all, but it was better than standing there awkwardly while the Rocks and Crystal talked to each other. They wriggled their way out, careful not to damage anything in the process.
Rauta looked down at them. They only came up to the bottom of his jaw; Translator was pretty certain that Rocks and Crystals would be the only races they would be regularly looking up to. But they were also much slighter than those races, affording them more mobility.
“Translator! Could you come to the starboard airlock, please?”
Mikael could not have commed for them at a better time. Translator made their escape, insofar as it could be called an escape. When they arrived at the airlock, the Slug ship was in the process of docking.
Two Slugs entered, both similar in their coloration, a dingy yellow with patches that almost seemed to be brown. Both had what Translator guessed were their versions of respirators on.
“I am Bovee, Sssshe of the Sssstormwalker.” The Slug that had spoken over the comms imitated a human bow, leading the other to snicker.
Bovee? The image of the Engi captain came to mind, unable to be reconciled with this... this Slug. They were nothing alike, right? Just because they shared a name meant nothing?
“You can call me Ssstormie, if that would be less confusing, Lanius.”
The other Slug held up an appendage. “I'll be Walkman.”
Mikael, one hand covering his mouth in thought, pointed at Bovee- Stormie. “She...” He pointed at Walkman. “And?”
Walkman's appendages went up in the air. “He, she, what does it matter?”
“He, then? Less confusing?”
“Humans. Always preferring the R.” Walkman poked Stormie, both chuckling before he even said, “Why not both?”
Mikael blinked rapidly and took a long, deep breath. Translator wasn't sure if he was trying to not get angry or not laugh alongside the Slugs. “Shall we find somewhere to talk?”
“Yes, let's. Maybe towards the bow? I'm sensing a lot of hostility back here...” Walkman rubbed his head. “Where did you find someone from the Rock Elite Forces?”
Stormie looked around, the fleshy flaps hanging down over the corners of her mouth twitching. “Ohhh, yes, sssuch a headache.”
Mikael sighed and said, “There's a room across from life support that kinda serves as the den. We can go there.”
The “den” as Mikael called it, was rarely used and barely furnished. A few chairs, including a couple beanbags Mikael had found cheap at one of the stations a while back, a small table, the barest essentials for a kitchen against one wall. Translator took the couch; they were struggling to keep their eyes open with this much oxygen exposure.
“You okay?” Mikael asked.
One of the Slugs waved at them. “Oh, ssssleep it off. We can wait to talk business. It's always good to build up some camaraderie.”
They lay down and curled up, falling asleep to the sound of Mikael asking the Slugs if they were related.
Chapter 18: Riding in on a Blackstar
“Sssorry about your ssssibling,” Stormie said when Translator was awake enough to comprehend language.
Oh. They had been dreaming about Knapp again? They felt that was true. Hints of memory flitted through their mind, strange and fuzzy. Then, slowly, a memory from an actual event, not a dream, appeared, as clear as if it had just happened. Knapp, bent over backwards in Atryom's arms, trying to grab Translator and win the game of chase they'd been playing.
The Slug had brought that up they knew it.
“You remember more thank you think,” Stormie intoned.
Mikael recrossed his legs, raising his brows at Translator. “If we're ready to get started…?”
“You want our help uniting the galaxy to fight against the New Federation.” Stormie patted her appendages together. “I know the Sssslugs did not offer much help the first time around, and I dare ssssay that many don't care. Cheap displays of solidarity aside.”
“If there's some sort of task you need done that will help convince the populace, we'll do it. Within reason.”
“That didn't turn out too well last time, did it?” Walkman chuckled to himself, eyestalks starting to shrink down into his head.
Stormie smacked Walkman upside the head without even looking at him. He pouted at her, but that was it. No physical harm done. She nodded at Mikael. “Maybe we can work together? You do the helping, we do the talking - yes, yes of course we mean it. There is such thing as an honest Slug, hmm? Business has been terrible, anyways. Only automated ships and Lanius.” One eyestalk turned to Translator. “No offense, but our sssspecies don't make the best deals together. You all just want ssscrap.”
They nodded, still shaking off the vestiges of sleep. "This one knows."
“Ssso, we will, sssay, rally the troops. You, your crew, and your ssship will be an inspiration. Would we lie to you? 'Butter you up,' as you think? We ssssuffer because of the New Federation, too. Not as bad as sssome, but you humans don't want to go in the nebulas any more than the Zoltan or Mantis or Rocks.”
Mikael raised an eyebrow, blinked slowly. He wasn't bothering to try and hide his thoughts and emotions from the Slugs, was he? What was the point? The Slugs poked around in their minds as easily as one looked through the documents on a computer. “And you'll check in with us, show proof of your work?”
“If you sssshow proof of yours.” Stormie held out an appendage. “Is that a deal?”
“You still haven't mentioned what you want us to do.”
Stormie hummed. “Sssso we haven't. Let's discuss that.”
“Yes,” Mikael said, sitting up straighter with his fingers woven together around his knee. “Let's.”
“Ssso tense. You need to relax, Captain, I promise I'm not digging up anything untoward.”
Both Stormie and Mikael eyed Walkman, who quickly threw his appendages in the air and claimed, “What? I'm not doing anything.”
“Sssure you aren't. Quit messing with the Mantis.” Stormie turned away from Walkman, focused once more on Mikael. “One issue folks around these parts are having is with a ssslaver who's moved in. He's not following business protocols, ssso if you could deal with him…”
Mikael's hand was out in a flash. “We can do that. Just please, please have information on his whereabouts.”
Stormie accepted the handshake. Humming, she said, “Of course. We'll ssssend you the coordinates once we're back on our ssship. Shall we rendezvous here when you're done?”
“I thought you'd like it.”
Chapter 19: Life's About to Blow
It was three jumps away. Three quiet jumps.
Rather, they would have been quiet if it weren't for the crew.
Emily had taken to analyzing the rich troves of data available in the sector. The sensors were out, but that didn't mean they didn't have access to the local Internet and other broadcasts. Nik and Zev were their usual selves, maybe a bit jumpier because they wanted to be ready for any Slugs that tried to do anything funny.
Translator was beginning to regret being around such volatile personalities as Rauta, Ruwen, and Ariadne. Well, the latter wasn't volatile on her own, but after the shock of being chased down passed, she'd returned to stoicism, which set off the other two even more.
On the second jump, they found her alone in the cargo bay, sitting against the wall and writing on a small projected screen. Hardly the image of the princess that had first come aboard; she wore Ruwen's clothes, and while the pants fit well enough the shirt, grungy with stains from repairing the shields and other parts of the ship, had ridden up to her chest. She also wore a respirator. Had she been expecting them?
She had to be. She looked up at them, patted the spot next to her. There were a few pieces of scrap there, waiting.
Translator wasn't going to say no to the promise of a meal. They sat beside her, nibbling on one of the pieces. Hopefully they'd run into some Lanius in the nebula. The pain and discomfort whenever they produced acid was bothersome. “There is a den,” they pointed out.
She wrote down something quick on the screen. “I know. I'd rather be here right now. You're far less dramatic than anyone else on this ship, except perhaps Emily.”
They leaned over to see what she was writing. Working with Rauta had brushed up their skills understanding the Rock language, though there were words here and there that they couldn't understand, or grammar that didn't make sense.
She tilted the screen so they got a better view. It didn't help their comprehension all that much, and she started to explain anyways before they read too far. “It's a... manifesto, of sorts. A call to action. I'm writing this to put online as text, and I'm trying to compose a speech. Maybe a few. What I've done is complicated at best.” After a short pause, she asked, “Would you mind if I read this to you? I need to ensure it flows properly.”
“This one would like to hear.”
The first time around she spoke in her native language, with its staccato rhythm and tendency towards harder sounds. It sounded like a poem, either from the way the words were set up or the way Ariadne spoke. The second time she spoke in formal Common. It was a deeply artificial language, created specifically so that all the races of the galaxy could speak it. And it ruined the flow of the words. Partway through Ariadne gave up and switched to the more casual version of Common, though it still wasn't the same.
It was easier for Translator to understand Common, though. In the beginning of the text Ariadne summarized the incident at Numa V, using it to describe their personalities and the personal interactions they'd had before, asking if it was really the best marriage, whether they would be able to put on a unified front for the monarchy. The Grand Basilisk was stubborn and headstrong, and as the incident at Numa V showed, willing to use deadly force against the person who was supposed to be his wife. With the rise of the New Federation, the Rock people could not take further divisiveness. Infighting would weaken them, expose them, let the New Federation steal away even more territory.
Then came the “call to arms” part, saying they ought to not be so fixated on whom Ariadne married when their borders were threatened. She had walked away from the Grand Basilisk and would find someone else in due time. Until then, there were bigger, more glorious battles to be fought.
“It's full of treason,” she noted after the second read-through. “My father will be disappointed. We might even have to sit down and have a talk about this.”
“Just your father?”
“Oh, no, I suspect my mother's been expecting this since the day I was born.” Ariadne made a few edits here and there, playing with the wording, paying no mind to Translator's rocking.
They left soon after they'd finished off the scrap, leaving her to her work.
Ruwen met them in the hall, putting an arm around their shoulders and pulling them close. “Hey, how are you? Come, walk with me.”
“What's going on?”
She patted their arm. “A certain pair of boarders are patching up in the med bay. I figured I'd stick around, make sure they don't bother you too much.”
The fact they'd just eaten was probably the only thing that kept Translator from further discomfort. Even though Nik and Zev gave them nary more than a glance and a quick greeting before settling down to let the nanobots continue repairing their scrapes and gashes, they found themself pressing into Ruwen for comfort. They knew the boarders were nice to them, but their fear ran deep.
“This one could have gone through weapons...” they said when the door between the med bay and the shields shut.
“Translator, hon, when we were fighting Ariadne's guards I distinctly remember you screaming like you were being murdered and Rauta pinning you to the wall. I... I get nervous, okay? When you go work with him. I know he's usually just a grump, but I don't want him to hurt you.” She sat down with them in the nest they had made. Ruwen had her own bed; she was too heavy for a suspended cot like many other species used, but Translator's nest was tucked away in a corner behind a console. Hidden, protected, filled with anything vaguely fabric-like they'd been able to procure.
“Rauta has not hurt this one intentionally. And not at all while working.” Translator let Ruwen cuddle them. She needed them to be there for her. Something had upset her, and they had an idea of who.
“See? Intentionally. He has hurt you, then.” She stroked the back of their head.
“Jaw realignment was painful.”
Ruwen would already know that, she'd not only heard them screaming but been there as they repaired the remaining damage, marveling over what she'd called an amazing variety of things in their mouth to distract them from the pain. She huffed at them.
A minute passed, and she was still cuddling them. They'd started rocking and she went along with it, adding in a near imperceptible head bob.
“This one does not want to deal with more slavers.”
She held them tighter, pressed her cheek against the top of their head, right above their eyes. “Oh, hon,” she sighed. “Is this because of that human?”
They nodded, trying to keep back a distressed keen. They didn't want to think about Davion Weston but they couldn't help it.
“Oh, hon. What did he do to you? I'll smack him for ya.”
In response they curled up. It was impossible to speak, even to say the conversations running through their head. She would figure it out, right? It was pretty obvious. He'd said they were his when they were on the comms, right? Called them his little brat?
The engines rumbled to life and suddenly existence was fuzzy at the edges. The last jump. Ruwen sat there with them as long as she could, even after they'd wriggled out of her embrace.
By the time the ship arrived at the beacon Translator was beside Ruwen, watching the display. There was another ship, an otherwise-innocuous Slug ship. The slaver. Another Slug who'd come in from a different sector, maybe?
The ship didn't bother to signal the Paradox and offer up its wares. Instead it turned, brought its guns to bear.
Chapter 20: Unshakeable
There was no hesitation before the Paradox's lasers came online. Ruwen slammed her fist into the console, shouting, “Ka edti tsatur!”
Whatever it was, it sounded like a war cry. It got Rauta's surprised huff of approval and weak echoes from Nik and Zev. Ruwen promised Translator she'd teach it to them soon, they could be patient, right?
Mikael sighed heavily into the mic. “Okay. Gotta do some rearranging. Ariadne, I know it's not your thing, but could you please come take over the shields?”
“Wait a second,” Ruwen said, hands on the screen. She'd beaten Translator to the words, but they chirred in the background. “Why?”
“Ruwen, I want you and Translator to board. Nik and Zev will be there soon, they just…”
She growled. “I know what they did.”
Translator walked alongside her through the med bay to the teleporter. She and the Mantis brothers traded curses, shouting at each other in their respective languages. It was a strange, scary cacophony of hisses and chitters and hard, guttural barks. Translator mumbled to themself, adding in the more electronic notes of Lanius language to the noise.
The slight vibrations from the four charging lasers reached a peak, releasing as they fired in unison. “Damn it!” Rauta snapped, “They're better shielded than I thought.”
“Can we break through?” Mikael asked.
Ruwen squeezed into the teleporter first, standing almost in the middle of the room and taking up more of the space than she needed. Translator had to stand right next to her, shoulder-to-shoulder. They reached for the button, hesitated. By all rights it should be nothing, just a particularly aggressive slaver. A Slug with strong abilities, maybe, who read Mikael's intent to “deal with” them and decided to be proactive. But they couldn't get the encounter with Davion out of their head, or with the hivelady of Xi'Xax'Xe.
Ruwen squeezed their shoulder. “Don't worry. I've got a plan.”
They spent the seconds of fuzzy pre-teleportation feeling wondering what sort of plan she could have come up with.
Technically they materialized but it was more like they burst into the slavers' med bay. It was empty, thankfully, save for consoles and nanobots and a few utilitarian slabs for medical berths. Ruwen whooped, raising up her foot to bring it down on the nearest console with a heavy crash. Translator darted past her, ignoring a bout of vertigo just long enough to throw themself on another console. They took a moment to regain their wits before tearing into it. They had to cut off the power. If someone came in to fight them off, they could take advantage of the nanobots.
“It's been too long!” Ruwen chortled, batting at the nanobots and stomping the machinery. “Guess!” Stomp. “Who's!” Stomp.”Playing!” Stomp.”Too!” Stomp. “Rough!” Stomp. “Now!”
The console crunched, crumbled. Translator found a bundle of wires, worried them until they came free from the wall. All to the sound of Ruwen's victorious laughter.
Until a gunshot turned it a sharp cry. Translator popped up from behind the console, plates ruffled, ready to defend their friend. She'd already turned to face her attacker. In her shoulder, on the crystalline structure that rose up like massive pauldrons, they saw the dark shape of a bullet. It had barely penetrated, but left a spiderweb of cracks.
The Slug holding the offending weapon was shaking, edging towards the door. Still she held up the gun, appendage on the trigger. She whipped it from Ruwen to Translator, back and forth while the two got closer and closer. “G-get off our sssship! We run a re-resssspectable busssinessss!”
“Then why,” growled Ruwen, “Did you shoot?”
“Or-orders!” Her grip on the trigger tightened.
Translator leapt onto her, one foot slamming hard into the hull while the other hit her abdomen. They fell to one knee, taking her down with them. Greenish ichor flowed from puncture wounds on her wrists – or their equivalent - where their fingers dug into the cool flesh.
Ruwen stood over them, one palm on her fingers like she was trying a human-style knuckle crack. “Now. My friend's not fond of slavers. And I'm not, either. So you're gonna tell us who's in charge, or we exact some revenge.”
The Slug's – Veedi, was that her name? Veedi's eyestalks swiveled to stare Translator in the eyes. “He'sss here,” she rasped. “He'sss going to come back.”
“Two goddamned Mantis opened the cells! Someone vent the damn hold!” an all too familiar voice crowed over the local comms.
Translators plates pulled in as close as they could go. No, no, no no, they thought he'd died last time. They'd hoped he had died, they needed him to die!
“Yesss yesss yesss!” Veedi cried, twisting under them. They dug in tighter, eliciting a hiss of pain and a concerningly smooth, constant slow of ichor from her wrists. “He'sss here, and he'sss taken over my family sssship!”
“Uh huh. And you want us to help you mutiny or something?”
“Yesss! Pleassse!” She pushed her thoughts into their minds. A human who'd shown up and snuck himself in charge. He'd turned the rest of the crew – a myriad of distant siblings and cousins – against her, against each other. Their family was better at giving than taking with their telepathy, making it all the easier to create tensions. Soon the semi-democratic “government” of the ship had fallen to pieces and this man, this Davion Weston, got whatever he wanted. “Pleassse,” she begged, “He'sss coming.”
Translator stiffened and Ruwen shifted, leaning just a little closer to them. To Veedi she said, “How do we know you're not tricking us?”
“You can't! You can't! I'll do what I can but you can't be sssure! But quick! He'sss coming in from there!” She gestured towards the doors beside herself, then threw her gun. It skittered along the ground and while Translator watched she rolled over to rub her face and throat in the ichor seeping from her wounds. Louder, she cried, “Human! Sssave me!”
The doors opened. Another gun fired, magnitudes louder than Veedi's, so loud Translator could feel the pressure of the soundwaves. Ruwen howled in pain. Translator felt wet spatters and tiny shards hit their back, the side of their face. They blinked away Ruwen's blood as it dripped into their eye.
Ruwen was still standing, covered in her own blood and deep blue shards of carapace, one hand over the edge of her chest. She sucked in half a breath, stopped.
Davion Weston held his smoking rifle in his hands. It ejected the spent casing, which clinked off of Translator's face. It stung, more from the heat but it was no small casing either. “You brought another friend, brat.”
Veedi passed a thought to them. He needs to reload, and he knows it. She winked, though she made it look more like a pained eye twitch. Maybe it was a pained eye twitch. They'd had her pinned for a while now.
But before Translator could spring on him, Davion cracked the butt of the rifle against their head, forcing them down onto Veedi. “What? Not gonna say hi to daddy?” His respirator fogged with his low chuckle.
“Fuck you,” Ruwen wheezed. Her voice was weak, a tiny breath of a sound compared to her usual near shout.
“Go die in the corner, you damn fag of a Rock- the fuck are you doing?”
Translator wasn't sure, either. Ruwen, on her hands and knees, grabbed at her shirt, undid the buttons accommodating for her shoulders and the ones down her side. Once she was down to the last few she ripped it off.
How bad was the exit wound? Or was her carapace spikier than they'd thought? Her entire back was covered in raised shards and outgrowths. No, it couldn't be an exit wound. They could see the same thing happening on her chest and the outside of her arms.
She struggled to her feet, blood running freely down her chest. She wavered, one knee almost buckled.
Davion barked out a laugh. “You can't hit the hull of the ship like that!”
Ruwen's eyes narrowed. “Hon, stay down.”
They rolled off of Veedi as the shards flew off overhead. Steady thumps sounded as they punctured the hulls. The thumps changed to creaks when they grew. Grew until the inside of the room was coated in the same blue crystal as Ruwen's carapace.
It was enough of a shock that Davion was taken aback. Just for a moment, but in that moment Veedi shoved into Translator as much of the courage either could muster.
It took a phyisical push from Veedi for Translator to throw themself at Davion, hooking an arm around his legs and bringing him crashing to the ground.
Ruwen kicked his rifle away, knelt down to haul him up. She pinned his arms behind his back, huffing and wheezing and wavering.
“You... You fucker, you've done an awful lot of shit.” She shook him, spat into his hair. “And I'm gonna let Translator end you if it's the last thing I do.”
They took that as their cue to get up, stand in front of Davion. The man's steel gaze bore into them. Dared them. Threatened back. His respirator had been knocked askew in the scuffle, and now he took one last breath and pushed it off.
“Translator,” he spat. “See? You're still mine. You've got no name besides what I gave you. I bet you still babble, too. Didn't learn to shut up till I taught ya.”
They curled their fingers into claws. “This one is more than you. This one has a crew, a career, family-”
“Hah! Family! You killed your mumma when you were born in that miserable little box! You only got what you've got because of who I gave you to.”
They struck, swiping their sharp fingers across Davion's face, just barely missing his eyes. Part of them reveled in his grimace. The overwhelming majority feared retribution.
The grimace morphed into a grin, showing all his bloodied teeth. “You're here, you're doing this because of me. I gave you all that. The hurt, the pain, the- hhhk!”
Ruwen had wrenched his arms, forcing his head back to expose his neck. “Just kill him already!”
“You're weak,” Davion gasped, coughing out bloody spit. “Can't do the job alone. You need your friend and even my own crew.” He raised his head just enough to glare at them as they pulled back to strike. “Do it. You know I want you to.”
They did. Their fingers dug into his throat, blood pumping out onto their hands and arm and whole front, into every joint. They found something that felt important, grabbed it, ripped it out.
Davion, the man who had haunted their past and their nightmares, slumped in Ruwen's arms.
She dropped him and stumbled back, falling to the floor. She pressed a hand to her wound once more, pulled it away to stare at the blood and glittering shards. She touched her comm. “Hey... Hey... Mikael? We gotta get back.”
Chapter 21: Break Me
Translator and Ariadne sat by Ruwen's side, watching for any sign of trouble as she downed yet another mug of tea.
“I can't believe you switched me off of coffee,” she grumbled, holding the mug upside down over her open mouth for the last of the sugar sludge. She whined as Ariadne took it from her, but the princess didn't get it far away enough to keep Ruwen from swiping one finger along the inside of the mug and smearing it on her mouth.
Ariadne blinked in surprise. A second later she moved to wipe away the sugar.
Ruwen caught her wrist, leaned in until she collapsed against her, head resting on her belly. “Don't waste it. It's too good.”
Translator had to move, sitting on Ruwen's legs instead of the berth. She didn't seem to mind; in fact, she rolled onto her back and gave Translator a better position. “Painkillers?” they asked.
“Only the best drugs for the best girl.” Ruwen reached up to pat Ariadne's cheek. “'Cept you.”
Ariadne's glared at her for a moment and pointed to the nanobots swarming over Ruwen's chest. What little glimpses Translator could get from the mass of grey wasn't pretty. The nanobots had cleared away the shattered carapace so they could work, and in the process they had revealed the soft flesh underneath and its spectacular bruising. For what it was worth, the entrance wound and all the gore within was seamed up save for a tiny hole. There were still nanobots inside her that needed to get in and out, but it was sealed enough that other people were safe to visit. Not to mention all the food Ruwen wanted.
The door opened. All three looked up at Rauta, standing in the doorway with a large bowl in one hand.
Ruwen hiccuped more than gasped, reaching out for the bowl and humming with pleasure when Rauta gave it to her. He stepped back, giving a long, long look to the way Ruwen was resting against Ariadne.
But Ruwen chose that moment to grab her respirator, placing it over her mouth long enough to take a series of shallow breaths. There were only two respirators on the Paradox that fit Rocks and Crystals, and Ariadne was wearing the other one. Rauta, reminded of that, stumped out of the med bay.
“Rauta cooks,” Ariadne said, peering down into the bowl.
“Yeah, he's pretty good.” Ruwen paused to shovel some food into her mouth. “Mmf! Mea'!” It looked like the spaghetti Jason had made so often, way back when Translator lived on the Vortex. There were bits and pieces of colorful things mixed in.
“It smells nice. But you're eating with your hands.”
Translator peered closer. Rauta had included a pair of tapered sticks that rolled around in the bowl, ignored. Not metal, unfortunately; they'd been given the occasional “mysterious extra” fork or spoon before and they had to admit they were hopeful.
Ruwen met their gaze and pulled free a single noodle, offering it to them. “Hnngh?”
“This one shouldn't.”
She shrugged and continued eating. “Hnn hnn.”
As they leaned back, Translator saw the barest hint of a smile on Ariadne's face.
“I thought painkillers made you nauseous? Especially in high doses?”
Ruwen shifted, lolling her head back to look at Ariadne. “Lockdown hungries beat painkiller nasties.”
“Lockdown, it's called? Can all Crystals do that?”
“Most.” She stretched. When she did so the small gaps left by the shards she'd thrown around Davion's med bay became more apparent. Already Translator could see the glint of reforming carapace inside. “Rauta almost looks like he could do it.” She ran a finger along the gaps in her upper arm. “S' got these spots.”
“Is that so?”
“Yeah. C'mere, show me your arm or back or something. I can tell.” She rested her hand on Ariadne's lower arm and whispered, “I can tell.”
Translator chirred. They'd been terrified when they first brought Ruwen in to the med bay. She'd been faint and bloodied and in pain, sheer determination keeping her off of the verge of death. Shock kept her moving long enough to get into the med bay before collapsing to the floor.
It had taken the efforts of Rauta, Ariadne, and Translator all together to get her onto a berth without jostling the still-bleeding wound in her chest. They had needed to leave when Rauta took a bag of blood labeled “Ruwen” and connected it to a needle-tipped tube he proceeded to jab into the soft crook of her elbow. They just couldn't watch anymore, and they'd become suddenly aware of Davion's blood coating them.
The painkiller stage wasn't quite what they'd expected, but after that ordeal, it was good to see her getting any sort of better. Rauta had even removed the needle from her elbow when she woke up.
“You! You...” Ruwen gestured, cycling her hands outwards. “Fluff. A little bit.”
They ruffled their plates, not as much as if they were actually upset, but enough that it would hopefully be noticeable. “It's not much…”
They tried to give a more visual demonstration, drawing their fingers up and away from their arms to imitate the numerous spikes a Lanius like Atryom had. Even Knapp had shown signs of developing some, tiny little nubs that fanned out from her joints when she play fought. “One of this one's parents - flockmates – has many.” Davion's comment resurfaced. No family. “Evidence of no relation to this one.”
“But they're your parent, right?” Ruwen's eyes narrowed, then went wide. “Oh! Right! Hon, you're related, adopted or not.” She tried to pat them. “You called them your parent and stuff. You did. C'mere.”
She set the empty bowl aside and sat up, wrapping her arms around Translator and pulling them down so they were resting against her much like she was resting against Ariadne. “I wanna meet them someday. Your family. 'Cause they raised you and you're... you're so good.” She nuzzled their head, cooing.
“This one killed Davion.” They were torn. They didn't want to kill. Not in person. Ship fights were inevitable, and most non-Lanius were doomed when a ship went down. They knew that, and they'd tried to believe that it was always Rauta who had fired the killing shots. Then again, they knew Atryom killed. When Jason and Robert thought they were sleeping, they'd overheard them talking about Atryom impaling people, ripping them to pieces.
What was one person, one slaver, compared to three of Jason's friends?
Three friends. Did that make Atryom a bad person?
What did that make Translator?
They chirruped when Ruwen pulled them up so that their head was on her shoulder. They almost placed their hand on her wound, hesitated, kept that hand close to their own chest instead.
“Am I a good pillow?” Ariadne asked while Ruwen fumbled with her respirator. Oh. Ruwen pulling them up had shifted more of both her and Translator's weight onto Ariadne. Not, they gathered, typical princess treatment.
Her respirator in place, Ruwen beamed at Ariadne. “The best.”
“You are very accepting,” Translator added.
Ariadne hummed, lightly running her fingertips along their arm. “I was – still am, technically – married to an old man. I was prepared to accept much worse things.”
Ruwen snickered and mumbled something to herself. When Ariadne asked what she was laughing about, Ruwen said, “Nothing…”
“I'm sure I don't want to know.”
“Whoo, you would have known.”
Ariadne swung her legs over the side of the berth, letting Ruwen and Translator's heads fall. “I have things to work on. You enjoy your drugs.” She removed her respirator, holding it out to Translator. “Perhaps you could return this to Rauta when you next see him? And tell him I'm thankful for his lending it to me?”
They nodded and accepted the respirator, tucking it between them and Ruwen for the time being.
Once Ariadne left, Ruwen propped herself up and tried to brush away the nanobots. They avoided being crushed by her hand, but flowed in to cover any open space. She grunted at them, gave up, turned on her side so she faced Translator.
“I like Ariadne.”
Well, Translator did not consider themself any expert in the topic, but even Osin would have noticed that. They nodded slowly.
“I mean, I really like her.” She rolled onto her back, groaning when she jolted her wound. “But she's... she's Princess Ariadne, and I'm... I'm Ruwen. I'm not a storvel. Story. Nuh, that wasn't right.”
Translator got off the berth. They'd been right on the edge, it honestly felt better standing up than lying down. With a low chirr they patted Ruwen's head, tapped one of the crystals jutting out from the top. “Go to sleep.”
“Sure, Mom,” she mumbled. But before they could get far she grabbed the bowl, held it out to them. “If you're leaving, can you put this in the... in the... the dish place? An' tell Rauta it sure was edible.”
They decided to bring the respirator to Rauta first. A warning that they'd be coming to stay shortly. Ariadne was probably working on her speeches and such, no need to bother her, and Mikael was still talking with Veedi. The Slug had asked to speak to him in person about the Paradox's situation, and he'd reluctantly agreed. Apparently, he was no more fond of slavers than Translator.
Rauta did a double-take when they walked in. His gaze settled on the bowl and he sighed. “Damn it, is Ruwen still hungry?” Despite the curse, there was no anger behind his tone, just tiredness. He went up to Translator, affixing the respirator before taking the bowl. “This is why we took in Mantis. One use of that lockdown thing and his stomach becomes a black hole.”
“She's sleeping.” Or at least, she should be.
“Oh.” Rauta stared down at the bowl. “Then why did you bring this?”
“This one was only going to give you the respirator...” They took the bowl back, Rauta pressing it into their hands.
“Fine. Go deal with this, then.” Rauta returned to the console, expression unreadable.
Just before they ducked out of the room, Translator said, “Ariadne and Ruwen say thank you.”
Mikael and Veedi were in the den. Mikael had a mug filled with the last of the coffee; Veedi, a bowl of water. Mikael nodded and waved at them. “How's Ruwen doing?”
“Better. She ate, now she sleeps.” They set the bowl in the sink, considered trying to clean it. It wasn't like the water would rust them; they didn't have much iron in their composition except for what was supposed to rust, trapping and storing oxygen to be reacted into acid. Might as well try. They found the bottle labeled “Dish Soap” and popped it open, pouring a sizeable green glob into the bowl. Fascinating, how the viscous liquid balled up.
“Heh, yeah. I remember the first time she did that lockdown thing, I thought she was going to eat us out of house and home.” He sipped his coffee and grimaced.
“I thought humansss were ssssupposed to be fond of that sssstuff?” Veedi asked, swirling her water around before downing almost half the bowl. “The coffee?”
“Not all of us.” Mikael shut his eyes, lips pressed thin, and drank the rest all at once. He coughed and got up to join Translator at the sink. He rinsed the mug out until the water contained no trace of brown and let it refill. “I prefer hot chocolate, personally, but Ruwen likes coffee and got cut off before the pot was finished. It'd be okay if she didn't like it so strong. No amount of sugar and creamer helps.”
“Ah.” As Mikael sat back down, Veedi asked him, “Sssso, have we come to an agreement?”
Mikael sighed. Instead of answering immediately, he started to drink his water. Translator had finished cleaning the bowl before he said, “You want to stay here and stay on the sensors? Even though you're a slaver, Translator was a slave, and I am part of a people who have a poor history with slavery?”
“...I'll take that as a 'No, we have not.'”
“I just don't know how well you'll fit with the crew. Not to mention we're pretty packed as it is. The Paradox isn't meant for a very big crew.”
Translator could have sworn that Veedi's throat flushed green. “Maybe I can sssstay here temporarily? Sssserve as a sort of guide to the nebula, to the Sssslug way? I would... Rather not be with my family right now. They are... in chaos.”
That got him. Mikael chewed on his lips, glancing towards Translator as if looking for advice.
They shrugged. What could they say? Yes, Veedi was a slaver. It was her family business. But they had in turn been enslaved by Davion, in a way, and Veedi at least didn't like the man at all. She'd supported his death, at least.
With another sigh, Mikael held out a hand. “Fine. You can stay aboard for now. But no guarantees.”
She touched an appendage to his hand. “I expected nothing elssse.”
Chapter 22: It's All Right
They'd never seen an automated ship that big before.
Okay, there had been the Flagship, but that wasn't fully automated until all the crew were dead. And Translator was the only one who had seen it, as far as they were aware.
But here was this massive thing, antennae trailing off of it, huge blisters containing cameras and other sensors deforming the usual delta-wing shape. It saw them and turned on its side, falling back into the nebula dust.
Mikael shouted in surprise, maybe fear. He sputtered before regaining enough composure to call out, “Track that ship!”
“You're the pilot,” Veedi said, garnering snickers from Nik and Zev. “I think it turned down right. It'll come up behind ussss.”
The Paradox flipped over, the view changing at a dizzying pace. Despite the gravity not changing, and thus no risk of falling over, both Ruwen and Ariadne held on to the nearest solid object. Ruwen had to rest her head on the back of her hand and shut her eyes. “Translator,” she said, voice weak, “Aren't you supposed to teleport?”
They started to protest that they didn't even have a lock on the ship, there was no way they could teleport yet. But Ariadne shot a look at them at the first hint of negativity and they stopped, backed out of the room. They could sit in the teleporter and wait. That would be fine.
“You can sense an automated ship,” Emily observed.
Veedi made a sound that Translator likened to the verbal equivalent of a shrug. “It'ssss electricity, I guesss. Maybe it'sss ssshielding wassss damaged. It isss left exposed.”
“There is no precedence.”
“No precedence. Pfah! I can sssenssse you and the Laniusss. Isss that not precedence?”
“Engi are partly organic-”
“Rauta, you got a lock on the ship?” Mikael interrupted. “Anti-collision's warning me about something – shit!”
The lasers fired to a chorus of curses in different languages.
“Translator! You better be ready!”
They hit the button to show that yes, they were. Whatever had scared Mikael so bad, they only hoped they could deal with it. And without burns this time, if that was at all possible.
“Please please please take out the flak gun!” Mikael's voice changed ever so subtly when the teleportation process started.
They arrived in the automated ship's weapons maintenance tunnels right as the gun rumbled and roared, flak chunking into position. Translator threw themself at the nearest panel, but they knew it was hopeless. The gun fired before they could find a purchase on the panel.
They screeched. The flak gun would rip through the Paradox if they didn't stop it. They didn't bother using their hands and elbows on it; they kicked upwards with one leg as hard as they could.
It stuck. They grunted and tried to wriggle it lose to no avail. Already they could feel the heat of a charge rebuilding. Had they managed to get an advanced flak gun? No, no, they couldn't have. The Lanius flocks had agreed not to let the other races get any more than basic flak guns! The guns were made with easily digestible materials for a reason!
They tried to push away from the panel. Maybe they could tear a bigger hole-
Their leg creaked, stress threatening to rip open the back of their leg or tear off the spur they'd buried in the gun. That wasn't going to work.
They knelt down, careful to bring their leg out the same way they'd gotten it in. Something scraped it, sending sickening vibrations through their body. But it was freed.
Just in time, too. The gun roared and fired again. Translator could see in their mind's eye the flak scoring holes and gashes in the Paradox, opening it up and venting the air everyone else needed into space. The respirators only lasted so long, and if the med bay was damaged…
Instead of risking another jam they accepted the pain of acid production. They stayed kneeling, went to bite on the panel and weaken it.
Their mouth caught on something. One mouthpart probed the gap between their jaws. It hit on something that didn't feel like what was on either side of their mouth, so they scraped off a sample and tasted it.
They hissed. Plastic. Two layers of metal with a layer of heavy-duty plastic in between. No doubt its purpose was to discourage any Lanius looking to eat the gun. And it worked; they wanted to recoil. Their mind told them no no, this was not food. This was disgusting.
Out of curiosity, they tested the outside of the plate their upper jaw had caught on. Two sets of panels would make it more attractive, except that it too was coated in plastic or ceramic or some sort of foul-tasting coating.
Heat blasted in their face. They pulled away as the gun fired yet again. Three times. It had to have caused some serious damage by now.
“Yeah?” The human sounded out of breath. Scared.
“This one can't get through the flak gun. It is designed to repel Lanius.” Maybe if they had time and some help they could do it, but they had neither.
He cursed under his breath. “Okay. Navigational systems should be next door on your right. Go deal with that. This thing's more maneuverable than it looks. We'll try to shoot out the weapons.”
“Affirmative.” They ducked away from the gun and deeper into the tunnel. It was filled with hairpin turns, tubes and pipes packed in so densely Translator struggled to keep from getting tangled. One arm got caught by a thin tube, despite their care. More plastic. Disappointing. With one sharp tug they broke it, the liquid inside spilling out in a constant stream. Maybe a small, less spiny human could navigate this better than a Lanius. They were lucky they were so thin and lanky as it was; for someone like Atryom, this would be a slog.
Finally they felt the slight circulation of air in a larger room. They tumbled out of the tunnel into a surprisingly wide open space. They hadn't been in an automated ship's navigational center before – they usually took out weapons or engines, sometimes shields – but they didn't think it would be this open compared to the rest of the ship. Was this supposed to be able to carry personnel in addition to functioning without? That went entirely against the reasons the New Federation put automated ships in the nebulas in the first place.
They stood up, shaking themself off. There was still liquid on their arm. It was more viscous than water, but not by much. It held a dark tint, too, but Translator couldn't see the color; the only lighting came from the blue glow of a computer screen.
Why was there a screen on?
Flicking their arm, they dared to approach it. Maybe the last people to maintain it had forgotten to turn the screen off? What was that pod in front of it?
“Shit! Another ship jumped in!”
They paused with their fingertips just touching the pod. Backup for the automated ship? Some random Slug ship that happened to be passing through? Mikael didn't say anything else, leaving them to guess and worry.
Something on the screen flashed; maybe the automated ship just felt the energy burst. Well, if there wasn't anything yet…
They found a seam in the pod and slid their fingertips inside. Whatever it was, it was warm. Very warm. The top was easy to pop off, though, hissing as it unsealed and more liquid poured out, slimy and thick.
There was something organic in there. They could barely see it by the light of the screen save for its twitching and pulsing. It was deeply folded and how was it holding itself together? And what were those round containers for?
“Mikael? Something is... something is wrong.” How would they describe this organic thing to him? They'd have to get more light in here at the very least.
“What? Sorry- Augh! Unknown – uhh – bogey coming into view. Definitely not New Federation. Wrong colors.”
“We're wrong colors,” Ruwen reminded Mikael.
“No, that looks like a-”
He was cut off by a furious scream.
“Translator!” Mikael cried. “We gotta get you out of there, that ship is on a ramming course!”
They slammed the top onto the pod, secured it with a thin string of tuhar. They had to tell the other ship to stop, they needed to preserve this as much as possible. Whatever this was.
The ship jolted. They somersaulted over the pod, crashed onto their back. The screen flickered and died, leaving them in complete darkness. The hull groaned, crunched, supports snapping so hard they could feel it. The ship was about to go, and one more hit from anything would do it in.
They heard the click and hum of a comm channel turning on and then they were teleported back to the Paradox.
The lights were dim, the pink warning lights on. Had something happened to the life support system? Or was the hull so damaged that they couldn't hold anything?
“Translator, get to the cockpit ASAP!”
They scrambled to their feet. Was there a hull breach? There had to be so many, the flak ship had fired at least three times, and that was if they'd managed to disable it immediately!
As they ran through the ship they saw dents and deformations and – indeed – hull breaches. Emily attended to one, nanobots clouded around the breach. She flowed out of their way as they passed. Whatever was wrong with Mikael, they needed to deal with it fast to they could help.
They slid inside as soon as the doors were open enough to admit them at all. “Mikael, the ship, it had-”
A soft coo caught their attention. They froze; they knew that voice. A radio set to the wrong wavelength. How?
Mikael yelped when Translator pushed him away to get to the screen, leaning down until they were in the camera's view and they could see the screen.
Kusy stared back at them, chirping and cooing and asking if they were okay. A form in the background shifted and Atryom came into view, head pressed against Kusy's.
“Requesting permission to dock?”
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” They reached for the screen, everything else forgotten. Their family – their flock – was here! How had this happened? What miracle brought them together?
They didn't realize they'd switched languages until Mikael tapped their shoulder, drawing the attention of all three Lanius. “So, uh...” He scratched his head. “What're you talking about?”
Chapter 23: Seven Long Years
The entire crew gathered by the airlock. Mikael had accompanied Translator to greet their flock. Emily saw them pass and followed as soon as she finished closing up the hull breach. Veedi sensed them all together and went to see what everyone was there for. There was no keeping Ruwen from something new and interesting; she and Ariadne had pushed through the others to stand next to and behind Translator respectively. Rauta kept an eye on those two. Nik and Zev were, thankfully, content to be further in back, though they kept shouting to ask what was happening.
Translator felt the thump and clicks of their flock's ship docking with the Paradox. Maneuvering the two ships together was no small feat; the thick, simple build of the human ship and the many-winged Lanius ship weren't exactly built to dock with each other. The wait had given them more than enough time for excitement to build until they were bouncing on their feet, humming a high-pitched tone.
Mikael's hand twitched and the door slid open, removing the last barrier between Translator and their family.
They embraced Kusy and Atryom, the former immediately preening their child's plates while the latter craned their neck to get a peek at the rest of the crew. Translator nuzzled them both, reveling in the feeling of comfort and safety.
Atryom let go and took a half step back, eyeing Translator. They straightened up, unable to decide whether they ought to try to maintain eye contact or watch Kusy.
The side of Atryom's fingers tapped the top of their throat. Satisfied, Atryom nodded once. “Good.”
Kusy asked them if that was really necessary, then turned to Translator. Were they going to meet the rest of the Paradox's crew?
Yes, yes they were. Translator stepped aside and moved to stand between Mikael and Ariadne. The crew had gone quiet. Whether they were giving the Lanius some space or outright stunned or a combination thereof, Translator didn't know. They looked down at Mikael, said, “This one will translate introductions.”
He nodded, swallowed before putting on a smile and nodding – almost bowing – to the Lanius. “I'm Mikael, captain of the Paradox. It's a pleasure to have you aboard, and thank you for helping out with that ship.”
Kusy stepped forwards. After they introduced themself and Atryom they said they were just happy that they'd recognized the Paradox in time. They and the crew of the Shrike were ready and willing to help with repairs as well.
“What's going on?” one Mantis asked, hopping up so he could see.
“Ssshut up,” Veedi hissed, and for good reason. Atryom's eyes were on the Mantis, spines beginning to flare.
Ruwen leaned over to whisper (awfully loudly, since Translator could hear) to Ariadne, “I think that's what 'much' looks like.”
Atryom's head snapped over to stare at her, both of them frozen.
Kusy followed their partner's gaze, elbowed them and nodded towards Ruwen. Once they had Atryom's attention, they struck a pose.
Atryom grumbled, spines flattening, while Kusy chirred at them. Translator didn't know what was going on between them; when Ruwen gave them a confused look, they shrugged. That's all they could do. Ariadne seemed to find the humor in it, though. She huffed, the movement of her chest barely visible.
Kusy tapped Translator's arm, asked to be introduced. Were those their friends? They'd love to meet their friends.
Ruwen placed her hand flat on her chest, gingerly probing the part of her shirt covering her wound. She did a very shallow bow, keeping her eyes on Atryom and Kusy all the while. “Name's Ruwen. I, uh,” she glanced at Translator, then back to their family. “It's good to meet you.”
Ariadne nodded to them. “I am Ariadne.”
Ruwen nudged her. “No title?”
“It's best to be just Ariadne sometimes. The title changes things.”
They were fine with it. 'Princess' would be a mess to translate and explain anyways. As they watched, though, Kusy and Atryom started to match Ariadne's self-assured posture. That is, until Translator went to introduce them to the others.
Emily had left at some point; the presence of three grown Lanius had drained the room of oxygen fast, and they doubted she wanted to be around them anyways. Rauta exchanged a curt nod with Atryom while Veedi and Kusy chatted. Apparently Veedi was having fun trying to impress what she wanted to say upon Kusy, and they in turn enjoyed seeing what she made of their sign language and what little she could garner from their mind.
Then it was the Mantis' turn. They scuttled back when Atryom approached, the Lanius almost as flared out as when they'd first seen the one – Nik, Translator now realized.
Translator darted in between Atryom and the Mantis, hands out. “Nik and Zev are okay. No need for intimidation.”
“They gonna fight?” Ruwen called. She sounded raspier than usual, like she was struggling to breathe right at that volume.
For a response she got consternation from the rest of the crew.
Atryom touched one of Translator's hands. Just the barest contact. The sound of metal tapping metal as Translator's hand shook spoke for itself. “Translator is scared.”
Always. They were always scared, to some degree or another, but they couldn't get their transmitter to work except to make a quiet chirp. Knapp had made that exact sound when she was upset, too, and Translator saw as Atryom wilted, spines pulling in close to their body.
“...Atryom?” another voice, a not-quite-so-familiar one, spoke up. Atryom turned and pushed their way back to the airlock, Translator and Kusy close behind.
Nvarek and Satye huddled by the door, peering at the crew, everyone locked in a staring contest. Translator knew the two; they were slightly younger, barely old enough to travel on ships as crew. Unless there were more aboard the Shrike, then this would be there first trip without a direct supervisor. Nvarek had been training as a shield technician, Satye with Kusy as an engineer, though the elder Lanius would no doubt be the pilot. They also knew the two had been dancing around each other awkwardly, and rumor had it that they were mutually in love.
A tiny peep drew their attention. Atryom strode forwards, directing Nvarek and Satye to go help with the hull breaches and edging closer to the door. When the two youth left, weaving through the gathered crew, Atryom bent to pick up their other child.
Translator couldn't believe it. Osin? They moved towards them, disrupting Kusy's examination of their back. Dulled claws slid down and away from their back, but they didn't care about the weird change in feeling.
The peeping quickened in pace, changed as Translator approached until Osin was reaching out for them and saying “Translator!” over and over again. Translator hadn't been sure at first but now they saw the red on Osin's plates had spread apart; their baby sibling had grown significantly since they'd last seen each other. Uncertain they'd be able to support Osin's weight and unwilling to falter in front of the crew, they kept the reunion to a hug. A long hug, long enough for Osin to headbutt Translator under the jaw, huddling against their sibling. “Osin missed Translator.”
“This one,” Atryom corrected.
Translator chirred. “This one missed Osin.”
Kusy interrupted the moment, tapping on Translator's shoulder and saying they ought to help with the hull breaches. After all, the more bodies on the job, the faster it went, and the faster they could catch up.
Chapter 24: You, You
As soon as the last hull breach was sealed Kusy and Atryom stole Translator away to the Shrike. Kusy had pointed out Translator's poorly-healed back and now they were fetching small bits of scrap while Atryom reworked the plating and grumbled about how bad an idea it was to let an Engi try to fix a Lanius. They'd scratched off the last remnants of Ruwen's nail polish artwork, too.
Kusy set down the last few pieces of scrap they'd gathered and settled down in front of Translator. They pressed one hand to their child's face, stroking their eye ridge with their thumb. That only lasted a couple seconds before they were nuzzling Translator, preening them.
Atryom leaned out to one side to sign. Translator couldn't get any more than a sideways glance, but they were pretty certain it was about not making them move any more than necessary.
Kusy shooed Atryom back, but stopped their preening in favor of conversation. Telling them about their scouting mission – which was supposed to be routine, albeit rather long ranged – and had gone fine save for some automated ships. They'd taken Osin along to see if they bonded better in smaller, more intimate settings than a fully populated flock ship. So far it seemed to be going well, Osin was getting along with the two youths as well as their creators. It had been a journey getting them to open up. Kusy was amazed how little they knew about Osin. They regretted being distant for so long, both physically and emotionally.
Translator wanted to press Kusy further, say that no, it had not been fair to Osin for their early life being that way. But talking back to Davion Weston had been one thing. Kusy and Atryom... They were Translator's parents and they didn't dare to say they'd done wrong. No, Kusy and Atryom fixed their mistakes. They'd shown Translator that from day one. So instead Translator suggested they bring Osin to meet some of the Paradox's crew later.
Atryom moved over. Once they were done fixing whatever damage had been done. Then visits would happen.
When Kusy offered Translator some scrap, they found out about the internal damage. Translator winced when they started to eat, and that had drawn no less than a flurry of attention and concern and timidly answered questions. Before they knew it Atryom had pressed them onto their chest and was testing the edges, the old weld scars, on their back.
“This will hurt,” they said, and removed the metal they had not yet worked into Translator's plates.
It did hurt. It burned at the welds, at the unclear boundaries of barely-integrated metal that had been cut through with a much more precise line of acid. Atryom poking through their internals in search of the damage made them feel queasy, like when they'd encountered Hive Xi'Xax'Xe.
Kusy lie on the floor in front of them, signing best they could to to distract them. They told Translator how everyone else at home was doing. Ryth was puzzling out how to use those Slug economic reports, Treyu was settling into a relationship with a few others, including a pilot of another ship. Kvoti was, for whatever reason, spending a lot of time with the juveniles and had been the one to suggest bringing Osin with on the Shrike. Nack and Varqin -
Atryom shouted with triumph, breaking Translator's determined effort to focus on Kusy. They detached something; Translator felt a popping sensation deep within them. They froze as Atryom turned them onto their back, propped them in Kusy's arms at an angle that let remnant drops of acid drip out the hole the welded-on metal had been.
Translator thought they were going to faint. One organ removed wasn't enough to kill them, but it was enough to shock them. Distantly they saw Atryom working fast, ignoring the acid spilling down their arm to fix corroded weld scars. Internally, they were a mess. Part of their mind tried to shut down until everything was better. They couldn't see, couldn't hear right. Even Kusy's touch felt distant. Another part of their mind screamed at the sight of their internal in Atryom's hand. So easily crushed. They'd die without it eventually. And yet another part raced to assemble something resembling normal conversation.
That part of their mind was incomprehensible by the time Atryom flipped them onto their chest again to reattach everything.
Then, Translator fainted.
They woke up some time later curled up between their parents, Osin cuddled against their abdomen. They felt residual aches and pains, and a little bit of them was upset at Atryom, but that part was overwhelmed by the feeling that it would be okay. They were safe. They had their family here. Their flock.
Flock... Flock Tsunya... Translator felt like something was missing. They thought back to their conversation with Kusy. What, no, who had they missed?
Vryn! Flock Tsunya's eldest, a colorful figure who spent most of their time supervising and telling stories to the flock's youngest. The one person besides their immediate family that Translator had come to trust unconditionally.
Translator turned to face Kusy. Their eyes were closed, but when Translator brushed them they proffered a hand to sign into.
How was Vryn?
Kusy's eyes snapped open. They sat up slowly, waited for Translator to do the same before signing back.
Vryn wasn't doing well. Their sight had never been good, not since the lens in one eye had been damaged in a long-ago fight. Translator knew that. But now Vryn was blind, or at least very close to it, which meant their eye components had started developing out of order. Eyes were one of the last things to go on a Lanius. Did Translator remember the slight tremble Vryn had when they left? It had worsened. By a lot. Vryn planned... Vryn planned to create their last. When was unknown, though.
Translator hugged Kusy, chirped when Atryom got up to see what was going on. Vryn was dying. It was inevitable; the asymmetrical growth of an old Lanius's plates would kill any of them eventually. By choosing to create their last meant Vryn was choosing when and how to die; the process involved using one's own plates and those of one's home ship to construct a new Lanius. Translator had always thought of the concept as similar to reincarnation, but forced. Physical. The spiritual and mental... was a topic of hot debate.
They rested there for a long time, processing the news and letting themself recover. Kusy and Atryom were more than happy to accommodate.
Atryom tapped their shoulder at one point and gestured to Osin. “Translator wanted to bring Osin to meet the Paradox crew?”
They needed and stood up, holding out one hand to Osin. The child hesitated before getting up and accepting the hand, walking alongside Translator to the other ship.
Chapter 25: To Dust We Will Return
“Who's a cute little baby?” Ruwen cooed. She tapped the tip of Osin's face with one finger. “You are!”
“Ruwen...” Osin was hardly a baby, but Translator couldn't get Ruwen to acknowledge that. Osin wasn't making it any easier by staying in Translator's lap, curled up against them as they stared out at Ruwen. Sometimes they spared a glance at Ariadne, who was sitting at the console, writing. Close to the nest, but decidedly removed.
Ruwen rolled onto her back, the arm closest to her injury folded over her chest. She used the other to scratch the underside of Osin's jaw and the spot between their eyes. “I can't believe you were this little once,” she said to Translator before returning her attention to Osin. “So little. So little!”
Osin chirruped at her and turned inwards towards Translator, who ran their fingers down Osin's back. They peered out at Ruwen, chirped again and hid their face when she waved.
“Are you like that with all small children?” Ariadne asked, finally facing them. She had her arms crossed over her belly, almost defensive.
Ruwen hummed, a rough, rumbling sound that made Osin stare at her. “Only when they're cute. And they're all cute! They are!” She waved again, chuckled at their quiet chirp and the way they tucked their face to Translator's chest. “So shy.”
Since Osin was being so shy towards her, Ruwen decided to bother Translator instead. She poked at their toes and ankles, snickering. Their reflexive curling and twitching amused her for whatever reason. “So, what's your other sibling up to?” she asked lightly.
It wasn't really possible to hug Osin tighter but Translator shifted their arms to cover up their baby sibling some more. Having to face the question, tell Ruwen the full truth and with Osin right there, weighed down on them. “Knapp?”
“Yeah. I don't know, it sounded like they were another sibling? If I was wrong-”
“No,” they said. Osin peeped, distressed, and Translator's nestling could only do so much. They rocked their sibling to try and make up the difference. “Knapp was this one's sibling, but she's dead.”
Silence. A long, awkward silence where Ruwen's chest sank and even the sound of Ariadne typing stopped.
When Ruwen spoke Translator struggled to hear her. “Oh. Oh, I'm sorry, I-” She cut off with a ragged inhale and a pained grunt.
“Are you okay?”
“M'fine.” She sat up, one eye half closed. “I just, I didn't mean to-”
They wanted to reach out, to touch her wrist and ensure she was fine, but Translator couldn't bear to let go of Osin, not now. Not when they still saw Atryom's desperate dive and the laser flash that followed. At least Osin didn't have Knapp's tendency to squirm. “It was years ago.” They bounced them a couple times. “Osin is older than she was now.”
Osin pushed at Translator's arms, tugged their fingers away. “Go. Translator and Osin go.”
After one last pat on the head Translator let go of Osin. Their sibling fell off of their lap, got up and found they were just about eye level with Ruwen. When she moved they squawked, scrambling out of the way when she embraced Translator. Up against her they could feel how stilted her breathing still was, how often it hitched and slowed. They'd expected it while she was confined to the med bay, but now... How long did it take for these wounds to heal?
Or would it be like Jason's hand that had never healed all the way? Granted, Knapp was an indiscriminate eater and would often nip whoever fed her, leaving plenty of tiny bite marks on top of the scar from Kusy. Those hadn't helped.
“I'm sorry,” she rasped. She let Translator go, nudging them towards Osin. “Go show the little around.”
They nuzzled her and shared a knowing look with Ariadne before leaving. Osin stayed close to their side, glancing up every few seconds. They were glad Mikael had drained most of the ship; better not to expose Osin to oxygen and, consequently, oxygen dizziness.
“Was Knapp good?”
Translator paused, meeting their sibling's eyes. Osin knew about Knapp, but only in very general terms and what little had spread through the flock's gossip mill. They shrugged; Knapp had been so young it felt pointless to ascribe “good” or “bad” to her. But... “Yes,” they said. “Knapp was good.”
They took all of two more steps before Osin spoke again and they froze.
“Is Osin – this one good?”
Translator swore Atryom hadn't fixed the internal damage from how much the question hurt. It wasn't just the wording, it was the desperation, or maybe it was closer to quiet fear, in Osin's voice. And as the silence stretched on Translator became all the more aware of how much need was in there, too.
Finally they turned to face their sibling and knelt to look them in the eye and hug them. As they stood, Osin in their arms, they cooed to hide the effort of lifting them up. They shifted to put most of Osin's weight on one hip, petting the top of their head. “Osin is good.”
Osin turned away and covered their head with one arm. “No…”
“Isss sssomething wrong?”
Translator felt Osin turn to look at Veedi, who was peering at the two from around the corner.
Spotted, she left the corner to face them unhidden. She held her appendages out. “There'sss ssso much dissstresss even I am getting overwhelmed.”
Osin calmed down, no longer digging into the gaps between Translator's plates. They glanced at Veedi, not wary or shy but mildly curious.
Translator turned away like they could shield Osin. “Do not manipulate this one's sibling.”
“Fine. I have to talk to Emily anywaysss. Mikael wants us to examine the auto-sssship.” Veedi passed them by without a second look, and from the lack of strange feelings in their head, Translator guessed she hadn't impressed anything on them, either.
She paused. “Oh, and the Mantisssesss are coming. Jussst sssso you know.”
Veedi was barely out of sight before Translator heard the sound of skittering footsteps that announced the Mantis brothers. Osin ducked behind them, holding on to the backs of their legs. They shouldn't let them hide, they should inform Osin that these Mantis are okay. No need to pass on their particular paranoia.
Even if it was a well justified one.
Zev stopped hard and fast, his brother crashing into him. The two hissed and chittered at each other. The noises intrigued Osin, who dared to peer out at them.
Instantly Nik and Zev darted behind Translator, ignoring the way their back arched.
“It's a little Lanius.”
“Doesn't look like Translator.”
“Maybe they're the spiky Lanius's.”
Both paused. Translator heard them moving around, looking out for any sign of Atryom's presence. It was strangely comforting, knowing they were afraid of Atryom.
“Who are you, little Lanius?”
“Osin?” they offered quietly.
“Osssssssssin,” Nik said, drawing out his voice until he sounded like Veedi. Or any Slug, but something about it implied Veedi in particular. “Osssssin- awk!”
The brothers swung at each other a few times, Zev berating Nik for the imitation and Nik saying that he was just having fun and Zev was being a killjoy. As Translator stepped away, they wondered which brother was the elder.
They were well down the hall, Osin tagging along behind them, before Nik and Zev realized they were gone. The brothers shouted in surprise, said they wanted to talk more later. Translator shuddered at the prospect. At least Osin looked okay, curious and a little dazed but not scared.
Mikael opened the doors to the cockpit well before they entered and waved them in. There was still plenty of oxygen in the room; hopefully they'd take in more than Osin. On the screens were blueprints of every model of auto-ship known to the Federation. In the center was an image of the one now floating, dead, in the nebula.
“Hey, how's it going?” Mikael bent over so his elbows were on his thighs, head in his hands. He gave Osin a little finger-wave. “Hi! You must be Osin. I saw you when I came to pick up Translator. Remember?”
They glanced upwards at Translator, who repeated it in their dialect. Then their older sibling nudged them forwards, away from the apparent safe zone behind their legs. “Hi,” they repeated.
“Mikael...” Osin wavered, leaning against Translator far too heavily for it to just be some ploy to hide. Their eyes were almost shut. They'd had next to no oxygen exposure before, definitely nothing like being aboard the Paradox.
Translator picked Osin up, letting them rest their head on their chest. Within moments Osin was fast asleep and settled in as comfortably as if no time had passed at all, as if they were still a couple months old and had lived with Translator all their life.
“Sorry about that,” Mikael said with a wince.
Translator hummed, paying more attention to their sleeping sibling and shifting so they could support their weight. “This one should bring Osin to the Shrike.”
“Hey, before you go, we're going to check out that ship tomorrow. I'd like you to come with.”
They paused. That thing. They had to show the others that thing they'd found. Veedi needed to see, at the very least. Slugs did well with organic things, with soft, fleshy stuff, right?
Nik and Zev were gone from the hallway, or at least not in the part Translator passed through on the way to the airlock. They were starting to get tired themself, between carrying Osin and the oxygen exposure.
They opened the door and entered the Shrike's side of the airlock. The emptiness was refreshing. There were only traces of atmosphere from the Paradox and a little bit of nitrogen to keep it from being a complete vacuum. But once Translator entered the Shrike proper, it was wonderfully, blissfully devoid of atmosphere.
For once, Kusy was easy to find, and by the time Translator reached the Shrike's cockpit Osin was starting to wake up. The younger Lanius looked around the room, uncertain how they'd gotten there. But they recognized Kusy's touch and peeped happily when their parent bundled them into their arms.
Once they'd settled Osin into the pilot's seat Kusy invited Translator to stay the night again. Translator accepted, adding that they would be back later. They had duties aboard the Paradox to attend to.
So checking in on Ruwen wasn't an official duty, but Translator did it nonetheless. When they entered the room she was still sitting on the floor by their nest, covering her face with one hand.
Ariadne had left the chair to stand beside Ruwen, the documents with her speeches still up on the console's screen. As Translator watched the documents auto-saved, even though she hadn't done anything to them. “That was fast,” Ariadne said.
“Osin got tired.” Translator maneuvered around Ariadne to sit next to Ruwen, waiting for her to notice their presence.
She looked at them through her fingers for little more than a second. When she moved Translator expected her to hug them again, only for her to push them away instead. “No, don't.”
“Why not?” They glanced at Ariadne, but she offered nothing more than a shrug.
“'Cause I don't want to ruin your day or anything.”
They took initiative, moving closer and working their way under her arm. They preened her much like how Kusy preened them. Maybe it would comfort her, too, even if it didn't get her to open up.
She huffed, but didn't push them away. In fact, they could have sworn she was starting to laugh. “Stop, that tickles.”
They did stop, but not quite because of her request. Ariadne sat down, the exposed plates on her back scraping the console's casing. “You've been sitting there, miserable, since Translator and Osin left. What's wrong?”
Ruwen pulled Translator into her lap, cuddling them close. “I... I don't know. I'm sorry.” She stroked the side of their face and hiccuped. “I miss my brother.”
She held them tight until they could hardly move, save for nuzzling her as she cried. Rather, Translator guessed she was crying. All circumstances pointed to it. They rested their head against hers, stayed still as she petted their newly repaired back. Ariadne put an arm around her shoulder and they moved so they weren't digging their face into the edge of her carapace.
“It's just... It's just...” Ruwen cut off with a small gasp and leaned into Ariadne, taking a moment to catch her breath. She pressed her cheek into the side of Translator's head. “He was twelve when I left. Half my age. A little less.” She squeezed them until they thought their plates would bend and Ariadne was tapping her arm. “Now I'm half his age! I've missed his whole life.”
They let her recover, staying quiet even as Ariadne told Ruwen to ease up on them and she mumbled an apology. They waited, watched until she was ready to talk again.
“He grew up with me dead. He loved me. Accepted me for who I am. Imitated me because I was his cool older sister and I got so pissed off about it.” She shook her head, took short, cautious breaths. “And I died on him.”
Her breathing got so erratic Translator was afraid she was going to pass out or go into shock. They gently put their hand on her wound, fingers probing the soft tissue where her carapace had shattered until they found her heartbeat. Just in case.
Ariadne sighed. “Certainly your family knew about the cryosleep pods? Perhaps they held out hope.”
Ruwen's voice cracked. “Not for forty years!”
She turned to face Ariadne, unceremoniously dumping Translator off of her in the process. She took the princess's hands, looked her in the eye. “The only reason I'm alive is the captain put me in his pod. He said I was like his son and his son was dead and he wasn't gonna fail another. And the pod-” She cut off, gasping. Ariadne started to say something and all of a sudden Ruwen was in her arms, choking out between breaths, “The pod had priority.”
Ariadne helped Ruwen up, supporting her as she struggled to breathe. Translator stayed by Ruwen's other side, leading them all into the med bay.
Both of them stayed by her side while she was lead through lung capacity tests, heart rate and blood pressure checks and finally the machinery suggested she get something to eat because she was still low on key nutrients. Oh, and she ought to calm down because it was exacerbating the issues caused by her damaged lung and ribs. They were still healing and she needed to be gentle with the fragile tissue.
Translator offered to get her a snack. Ariadne was a steady enough person to take Ruwen's breakdown, and it all made Translator feel a horrible combination of wanting to get back to Osin and wishing Knapp had lived. Their little sibling knew they'd been okay, knew they were alive and they'd been separated for nowhere near as long as Ruwen and her brother. Then again, Translator had actually lost a sibling. Seen her die. Returned her tiny, broken body to the void.
When they went to ask Rauta what Ruwen liked they were trembling. When they returned to the med bay they were shaking so badly Ariadne got up from her spot beside Ruwen to take the food from them and whisper that they ought to go back to their own family. She would take it from here.
Kusy and Atryom weren't sure why Translator came back to them in such a dismal mood, and Translator didn't feel that it was their place to tell Ruwen's story to them. But Osin enjoyed the attention from their older sibling.
Chapter 26: Cancer for Within
“Teleporting to auto-ship in three... two... one…”
Translator and Veedi stood next to each other inside the teleporter. Emily was on the comms for technical advice, and Mikael was, of course, directing the whole operation. He'd been casual about it at first; then he'd realized it was a bad idea to teleport into the pilot's room. Didn't want to risk damaging anything in case they teleported somewhere they shouldn't.
As if to prove that point, Translator found themself wedged against the flak gun when they teleported, Veedi squeezed in behind him.
“Excuse me.” She wriggled out and around them, then to the hatch leading to maintenance tunnel. It was easy for her to slide into the tunnels, her soft body squishing and compressing to fit around the pipes and tubes and whatever else was in there.
She even managed to flip over so she could stare at Translator with one eye, wave to them with one appendage. “Come on,” she said, “I ssslicked it up for you.” With a snicker she disappeared into the depths of the tunnel.
They did not like the idea of being coated in Slug slime, but they had to deal with it. They kept their eyes barely open as they crawled in. Their fingers struggled to find a purchase; the slime coated them and everything else. It would be easy to wash off the slime later, they supposed, but for now they felt they might as well lie flat and kick off.
...That was worth a shot. Their entire front, save for the concave curve of their abdomen, would be covered in slime, but there was no point avoiding it. Shuddering at the sensation of rapidly cooling slime against their plating, they lie flat and, after finding a pipe for a foothold, kicked their way deeper into the ship.
It went pretty well. They had to maneuver past large obstacles still, and it was difficult to hold onto small pipes, but it was better than the first time around. No fear of the flak gun ripping up the Paradox, either.
“Which way to the navigation system?”
“Right.” It felt strange, leading from the back and following in Veedi's slime trail.
They continued on in silence for a few seconds before Veedi said, “I am glad you ssspeak fluently. It issss a pleasssent change from the usual.”
They tried to turn over to get into a better position, grumbling at the situation and at Veedi. “This one was taught languages to trade unwilling slaves. It's this one's only-” They got the foothold they needed and pushed off. “Purpose.”
“I'd ssssay that makesss you invaluable. Davion was a fool to ever sssell you.”
They started to speak and cut off after the first half-syllable of a distressed noise. If Davion had kept them, how many more years of his abuse would they have taken? Would they be dead by now?
They wished this what-if Translator was long dead by now.
“I think I found-” A solid, wet flumpf sounded over the comms. Veedi had fallen out of the maintenance tunnel. Served her right.
“I heard that,” she grumbled, moving away in time for Translator to emerge. She made the mistake of shining her flashlight on them during the process, and made a gagging cough. “That looksss disssgusssting.”
They tried to wipe off some of the slime coating their chest. “It's your fault.”
“Ssso it isss. Ssshow me the thing.”
They led her to the pod and its deactivated computer screen. The cap was in place; that was something. It attested to the strength of the tuhar they now had to remove.
It took a few tries laying down a line of acid until the cap was loosened enough Translator could pry it off. Even then they had to brace themself against the main body of the pod, and they couldn't shake the feeling they were going to his their jaw and dislocate it again. That had been miserable enough the first time.
Veedi's eyestalks twitched, leaning in closer to the pod. “How hard are you thinking?”
“Normal hard,” they said curtly. One last twist and the cap popped off. They stumbled and fell onto their backside, the liquid that had been on the inside of the cap flicking onto their limbs. Disgusting.
When they got up Veedi was close enough to the organic thing the flaps of skin around her mouth could almost touch it. One appendage hovered over it, ready to poke and prod.
“I think that'sss…”
She shined her flashlight on it and scuttled back in horror.
“It's a brain!”
Chapter 27: You Have No Idea What's Coming Down
Veedi shouted into the comms, saying they had to leave this as it was and tell whoever was paying Mikael now. Translator set the cap down again and sealed it in place. In the back of their mind they were disappointed by the waste of both tuhar and acid, but they also hadn't felt any pain removing the cap. They'd have to tell Atryom all was well.
“I'll teleport you out ASAP. Translator, I want you to talk to your flock.”
Mikael made good on his promise; the two were back in the Paradox in seconds. Veedi let Translator out first but was close behind as they rushed to the cockpit. Why did they need to talk to their flockmates? What was Mikael planning?
His eyes were on the screen in front of him when they entered. “So we've got one more jump to the rendezvous with Stormie and Walkman. We'll tell them what's going on, hopefully they know what to do. Until then, I want this ship preserved. Translator, can you please tell your folks that I'd appreciate if they guarded the ship until they came back? I'll pay. I don't want anyone else to get it.”
They nodded. “This one will do so.”
They'd gone to the airlock door when Nik and Zev appeared. The brothers came up beside them, one daring to poke at the slime on their legs.
“What was it?” Zev asked.
They shivered at the feeling of sharp Mantis limbs on their plating. “Organic thing. Brain.”
Both brothers hissed, recoiled. After a murmured discussion they let Translator be.
They found Satye first, poking around at the sensors. Not used to being in a nebula and not being able to see anything? Seemed likely. “Where are Kusy and Atryom?”
Satye jumped up, only to shy away from standing right next to Translator. Much like Translator, Satye was rather thin, but unlike the older Lanius they were short. They'd always been self-conscious about it, too. Or maybe they thought the slime was disgusting. “This way,” they mumbled.
Honestly, Translator didn't need the directions, but they'd happened upon Satye and it felt right to involve them and Nvarek, if they could find them. Kusy and Atryom were in the cockpit, as Translator expected. As soon as Osin saw Translator they hopped off of the pilot's seat and ran into their older sibling's embrace. They recoiled, flicking the slime off of their front for a moment, then, instead of speaking, they signed to ask if they were going to stay and come home.
“No,” Translator said, signing as well for Osin's educational and Kusy's general benefit. “This one needs to ask Kusy and Atryom something, okay?”
That got a concerned chirr from Kusy. They stepped up to their children, tapping Translator's shoulder and asking what exactly they needed.
Translator explained the situation; they had found something concerning on the auto-ship, and didn't want anyone else to mess with it. The Paradox needed to report it to the friendly Slugs they knew, because this was probably something they would want to know. Oh, and would Kusy believe it? One of the Slugs was named Bovee.
The Bovee thing gave Kusy pause, warranting a cock of the head. But yes, yes, of course they would stay. How long would the Paradox be gone?
Translator shrugged, averting their eyes. They weren't sure... but maybe a few days? A week, maximum? Mikael was willing to pay, and they might be able to convince the Slugs to provide some sort of scrap reward for recovering the ship…
Even if they just got a few pieces they'd be fine. Kusy nuzzled Translator and urged them to return to the Paradox to relay that to Mikael.
As they left, Translator passed Satye and wondered what they thought about the deal – or would think, when they were told.
Much to their surprise, Emily was standing on the Paradox's side of the airlock when they opened the doors. She held her hands behind her back, screen flickering with equations and images of surgery, experiments, whatever they were on organics. The loops of intestines and other innards being pulled out of bodies and placed in trays must have been disturbing to beings that actually had soft organs like that. Translator hardly found the images comfortable, but they felt... detached. Maybe it was the oxygen buzzing at their plates. Or that they had nothing like that anatomy.
“We must talk,” she said, already turning towards the cockpit.
They caught up to her. They'd have to be careful now, not to let her stay by them too long. “What about?”
“Previously, idea of New Federation researching biotechnology unfounded. Conspiracy at best. New data changes ideas.”
They nodded slowly. “Yes…?”
She looked up at them, screen glinting in the light. “'Know thy enemy.' Necessity: Acquire data. Veedi provided hers. Not you.”
“This one will do what they can. This one could write what they know, so there is less physical closeness?”
She bleeped. “Insufficient. Hacking could reveal knowledge. This requires an interview. During the jump?”
That got her to leave, at least. Either that or she did not want to stick around them for too long. They didn't know if she was still concerned about them potentially eating her.
By the time Translator arrived at the cockpit, Mikael had drained the room – and part of the hall – of oxygen. Vented the atmosphere entirely, from the sheer emptiness they felt, and the fact that Mikael was in a light EVA suit. “This one spoke to Atryom and Kusy,” they said as they stepped inside, the door shutting behind them. “They agreed to stay and guard the ship.”
“Thanks. I'll, uh, detach the Paradox, then.” He turned away from them, poking at some commands on the screen. “Visiting the folks go well?”
They hummed. “This one missed them.” Should they tell him about Ruwen? She was crew, too, and Mikael was rather concerned about everyone's mental wellbeing... Quietly, they added, “Ruwen misses her family, too.”
He nodded, shoulders sinking, and sighed. “I know. I need to talk to her about it.” His tone almost lightened when he said, “Now, if you can get Rauta to open up…”
That sounded like a challenge they were not willing to take on. Still, as the two ships detached and drifted away from each other, they ducked into the bathroom to clean off as much of the slime as they could, then the weapons room. Just on the way to talk to Emily, or at least ask her what the plan was. They didn't have much information, but they also did not doubt her ability to get every last possibly relevant thing from them.
Rauta was facing the his console, recalibrating the lasers. Translator paused, considering what Mikael had said. How were they, a relative newcomer, supposed to get him to say anything when Mikael had not been able to for however long they'd been crew together?
“I'm not one of those slimeballs. If you need something, you have to say it.”
They spoke before they could think about what to say. “This one forgot to bring Osin to meet you.”
It was an innocuous topic, right? But still Rauta tensed up, ground out, “I don't care. I don't need to meet your...sibling.”
They got the feeling they weren't wanted. Not by Rauta. Good thing the engines connected to the shields as well, so they could visit with Ruwen and Ariadne instead of sitting in the tense silence of one of Rauta's bad moods. Granted, most of the time he was in a bad mood, but they had caused this one.
Emily was waiting for them, standing at the console. The roar of the engines threatened to drown her out when she spoke, even though she made sure to be loud. “Please explain pertinent information.”
Okay. They'd have to go fast. They stepped back and leaned against a wall to take falling off their mind. “This one boarded the ship, found a pod, capsule, thing in the navigation systems. A screen was on, an interface? There were... there were round capsules. Connected to the thing – the brain – connected to the brain somehow. This one thinks. Wires?”
“The screen displayed a navigational interface?” Emily pulled up some samples, though Translator recognized one as engine outputs and another as shield data.
“This one has not piloted, but it did resemble the screen Mikael has. There were... orbits. Calculations. Other such things. Why?”
“No direct mind–to-machine interface. Illogical.”
“Maybe they want it separated?” They rested their hand on their face, tapping the space between their eyes.
“Second inconsistency: no previous interest in biotechnology. Focus on artificial intelligence in majority of cases.”
“You said so...” The warning lights came on then, catching Translator's attention.
Emily blurred slightly and started to pace. “Introduction of organic elements illogical.”
They bit back a half-formed comment on how she was part organic, too. “Slug brain for navigating nebulas?”
“Possible. Necessary to examine onboard sensory equipment. Excluding organic elements.” She waved at the doors to the shields. “Continue later. Theorizing now.”
They didn't need to be told twice. With one hand dragging along the wall, they edged past Emily and through the doors. Oh. There was oxygen in here, too. And Ruwen and Ariadne, sitting together by the console. Had they interrupted something? “Sorry,” they mumbled.
Ruwen said something in response, but she was mumbling, too, and right now Translator just wanted to sleep. They settled into their nest, drifting off the moment they were comfortable.
When they woke up Ruwen was beside them, eyes closed, breathing shallow yet steady. She also had one arm looped around their waist. They eased themself free, careful not to wake her up. Not a hard task; she barely stirred.
“You two slept through the jump,” Ariadne said. Had she been at the console the whole time? She looked tired, too, or maybe distantly disinterested. Disappointed? She gestured to the screen and the Slug cruiser on it. “Mikael has found our Slug friends.”
They blinked slowly. Sure enough, if they focused, they could hear Mikael talking to Stormie. It was all things they had heard before, the same information they had brought back. Stormie was quiet, making the occasional sound to prompt Mikael to continue. Was she as shocked and horrified as Veedi had been when she saw the contents of that pod? Stormie was going to pull it from their mind and Veedi's; maybe she had already done it while they slept.
“May we dock, and discuss this further?” Stormie said at last.
“Permission granted. Matching velocity…”
Ruwen shifted and stretched, rustling the materials of the nest. She mumbled to herself, patting the area around her like she was looking for Translator. That suspicion was confirmed when she saw them standing beside Ariadne and grunted at them.
Soon she was standing beside them, too. “Wha's going on?”
“Meeting with Stormie and Walkman. Ship's coming in to dock.” Translator nodded at the screen, watching as the sleep cleared from Ruwen's expression.
“As far as we can tell, this is a crime against their people,” Ariadne pointed out. “And we did agree to tell them how it went with Veedi's ship.”
They waited together while the ship docked, fitting with the Paradox much more easily than the Shrike had. By the time the airlocks connected Translator was waiting with Veedi for Mikael to join them and for the other Slugs to enter.
Veedi examined the scars Translator left on her appendages from the fight on her ship. “Ssso, they hired you to take me out?”
“This one thinks killing Davion was sufficient.”
“Well, you had an issssue with him.”
“So did you.” They thought they heard Mikael's footsteps.
“Hmm, yesss, I sssuppossse I did.”
Indeed Mikael entered after Veedi said that, tapping at the interface only he saw. The airlock opened, letting Stormie and Walkman join them.
“You didn't have a Ssslug crew earlier,” Stormie said by way of introduction.
“I am from that sssslaver ssship you sssent the Paradox after, Bovee.”
“I know, Veedi.”
“And now to forget Walkman,” grumbled said Slug. He blew a raspberry at Stormie and Veedi and narrowly dodged a smack for it.
Mikael sighed, giving Translator a sideways glance in search of some non-verbal commiserating. They returned the gesture and added a slight nod.
He clapped his hands together, pointing over his shoulder with his thumb. “Shall we?”
Stormie and Veedi practically raced to join him, staying as close as they could without touching him. “We can think on your sssituation later,” Stormie told Veedi, eyestalks tilted back to stare at hers. “Though I doubt you mind your family being freed from that human.”
“Ladies, gentleslugs, whatever you may go by – thanks, I don't think I can pronounce that and don't make me try – maybe we should talk about what appears to be a very troubling new development and may well be some highly unethical and illegal experimentation?”
Now it was Translator and Walkman's turn to share a look. He shrugged. Typical Stormie behavior. With Mikael and the other Slugs pulling ahead and busy talking to each other, he leaned in to whisper to Translator, “Want to know why I play the fool? Look in front of you.”
They chirped, giving Stormie a cursory glance. She had to know Walkman's behavior was an act. Did she accept it? Encourage it? Great, if she didn't before she had probably taken it out of their mind, though she seemed awfully occupied talking with Veedi and Mikael.
“I appreciate her ability to make life fun, though.” Walkman chuckled, garnering enough attention from Stormie for her to turn one eyestalk towards the two of them for a moment. He waved her off, returning the conversation to Translator. “What did you find?”
“A brain? That's what Veedi said. This one does not do much organic anatomy.”
Walkman puttered. “Concerning... Very concerning.”
By the time they settled into the den, Translator was starting to feel the effects of the oxygen in the rooms. They took a corner of the couch, leaning heavily against the back and arm. Veedi could go first. Or Mikael, explaining why Veedi was there in the first place.
They tried to pay attention while they absorbed the oxygen, but it was nothing new to them. They perked up when their name was mentioned, and Veedi let them know when she peered into their mind for information on Davion Weston, careful to keep it to the most recent memories and the driest facts. When they got nervous anyways, when the recent memories brought up worse, older ones, she offered to try and find some memories related to Knapp.
No. They did not want to relate those memories to Davion. But they did accept her help clarifying the first time they met Atryom and Kusy.
When the room was drained and they returned to a slightly less impaired consciousness, the attention turned to them.
“Translator, can you tell them what you saw the first time your boarded the ship?”
They sat up, head lolling to the side as they thought. “Very narrow space, lots of tubes and pipes. This one damaged a tube, a plastic one, and some fluid spilled out. Organic fluid, maybe? It felt strange for a ship.”
“Yes, probably sssomething for life sssupport.” Stormie lowered her eyestalks. “I am no biologist or doctor, but I know-”
Mikael jumped up, brows furrowed and mouth slightly open. He closed his mouth, opened it again before he spoke. “Another ship just jumped into the system.”
Translator and Veedi were close behind him, the three hurrying to the cockpit and its array of screens with footage from the external cameras. It would take a moment for the ship to reach them from where they were in the nebula, but the Paradox was definitely close enough to the beacon to detect the energy of a jump.
They crowded around the screens, watching a black and red form approach. Not an auto-ship; too much red for that, and the ship's plating swirled the nebula dust around it. Mikael switched on the internal comms, telling Ruwen to be ready at the shields and Rauta to charge the lasers. He didn't want to take chances.
The other ship did not return the aggression. Instead it slowed to a stop just outside the clearest visibility zone and hailed the Paradox.
Swallowing hard, Mikael answered.
On screen was a Rockman. He was not in his decorated dress uniform, but Translator remembered that face. Captain Rhylian, who had introduced them all to Ariadne.
“I'm glad we found the right ship,” he said with a curt nod. “Now, I believe you know who I'm here for.”
Chapter 28: Hello Again
“Ariadne,” Mikael singsonged, more because his voice was wavering than any attempt at humor, “It's for you.”
She turned on the video feed to the shields. Ruwen was, thankfully, out of sight; Translator doubted seeing the two together would go over well, considering what happened with the guards. Ariadne's expression matched Rhylian's – cold anger, barely warmed over. “I'm not going to Numa V.”
“Perhaps we ought to discuss this in person.”
“On the Paradox. I will not negotiate that.”
“Of course not, Princess.” He glared at Mikael now. (Though at this point Translator wasn't sure if Rockmen had a default expression other than glaring or deathly neutral.) “I expect to be able to dock within the hour.”
Mikael sighed, dragging his hand down his face. “I'll do what I can. Talk to you then.” With that, he killed the connection to Rhylian's ship, leaving the internal comms on. “Ariadne!”
“I suspect that was not the way you would have liked this to go.”
He put one hand up, palm out. “No. Just... Okay. I'm going to join Stormie and Walkman on their ship. Veedi, Translator-”
“I would like if Translator stayed with me.”
Mikael and Veedi both turned their gaze on them. Translator shifted their weight from foot to foot, uncomfortable. Why did they have to be the one caught in the middle? Couldn't she keep someone else with her? But they got the feeling they had to give the final answer. “This one will let Stormie take any relevant information, then stay with Ariadne.”
Mikael took a deep breath and nodded. “That works. We'll take Emily, then, so she can provide some input. Then Nik and Zev, just in case things get hairy.”
“Hey! Don't I get a say in this? I can fight!” Ruwen came onscreen behind Ariadne.
“I don't think you and Rhylian should be on the same ship,” Ariadne said, placing one of her hands on Ruwen's.
Mikael tapped the mic, or close to it, cutting Ruwen off before she started her next round of protests. “A few days ago, you were on the verge of death with a hole in your chest. Even if it doesn't come to fighting, I do not want to risk my ship being the ground for a diplomatic incident. Please come with us? I would love to hear your ideas on the auto-ship.”
Her shoulders sank. “But I wasn't there…”
“With the way you think, I'm pretty sure you'll make up for it. Come meet us at the airlock.” Mikael shut off the internal comms. He stood up, pulling some of his hair back and exhaling hard. “Well, guys, let's get going.”
Veedi and Translator followed Mikael out of the cockpit. Only Translator made any sound, quietly talking to themself, a few phrases that were fun to say. Something comforting. Something to take their mind off of the fact that Ariadne was dragging them into this whole arranged marriage thing when she knew they didn't know anything about that.
Stormie, Walkman, and Emily were already in the airlock when the other three arrived. Translator and Stormie nodded at each other and they continued on while she picked through their memories for everything from the auto-ship.
They passed Ruwen in the med bay, the nanobots trailing behind her. She stopped them, placing a hand on their shoulder.
“Hey. Don't let anyone get in trouble, okay?”
“Of course.” They leaned into her touch, let her hug them. In return they pressed their forehead into her jaw, slowly rocking side to side. With one hand on the currently plateless part of her chest, they felt the way her breathing steadied and her heartbeat slowed. “Don't you get in trouble.”
She laughed and let them go. “No guarantees, but I'll try.”
When they entered the shields, they felt warm inside, infinitely calmer than they had been a couple minutes ago.
Ariadne wasn't there. The console was on, and when they went to examine it they saw that she had those speeches she'd been working on nonstop up. They didn't look terribly long; was she still writing them, or had she been editing this entire time? Translator settled down in the chair, reading aloud while they waited for either Ariadne to call them over to wherever she may have gone or the oxygen to drain. Or both. Both worked.
As they read, they realized they did not remember how they learned the Rock language. It wasn't a scary thought; they did not remember much from when they were very little. They didn't even know how they survived their first few months. If Davion was telling the truth and they'd never been (semi-)consciously created, then... then they'd have relied on an adult Lanius. They vaguely remembered that from biology lessons.
Maybe they'd been separated from that Lanius early on and given to a Rock to pick up their language.
A Rock taking care of a baby Lanius. Wouldn't that be a funny sight?
They startled, almost falling out of the chair. There went their thoughtful reverie.
Ariadne stared at them, for once showing clear concern on her face. She'd changed out of her usual combo of pants and an ill-fitting shirt in favor of one of her dresses. They weren't sure if it looked out of place on her or not; it had been so long since she wore a dress, but with the way she acted it felt like the most natural thing. “Are you all right?”
“This one- this one didn't mean to pry.”
She blinked slowly, eyes drifting to the documents on the screen. “That's hardly prying. So, considering there were just Slugs in the den and they left a fair share of slime, I think we are going to meet with Rhylian in here. He may even see those.”
“You're in a dress…”
That brought her back to that cold, neutral expression. “I'm not going to sign Ruwen's death warrant by wearing her clothes.”
“Are you nervous?”
She moved to stand next to them, leaning over so she could prop her arms on the console. “There is no point to being nervous. I knew this would happen eventually. I don't know what exactly they were expecting but my parents certainly won't allow me to traipse around the galaxy, and Rhylian's just doing his job.”
“...Are you nervous?”
They didn't get an answer. Instead, Ariadne tapped at the screen, making tiny changes here and there. She did that all through the wait, while the Slug ship detached from the Paradox and flew a short ways away, well within comms range. Rauta left his post at the weapons to take Mikael's place in the cockpit, generally keeping the ship in place and letting the AI do most of the heavy lifting. Ariadne took the opportunity to go take his chair from the weapons room, with his permission.
But she was eerily still when Rhylian's ship docked. As soon as it settled into place and the rumbling stopped, she pushed away from the console, taking a deep breath. “I should go tell them to put on respirators.”
“Don't get stolen,” Translator said, leaning back to look up at her.
She huffed. “Rhylian is an honorable man. I trust him.”
Indeed she returned, unharmed, a few minutes later, accompanied by Rhylian and a Rock woman, closer to Rhylian's age than Ariadne's. Both of them eyed Translator warily, the woman watching them for far longer. But where Rhylian accepted their presence to ask Ariadne why they weren't in the den, the woman seemed to go from apprehension to uncertainty, or curiosity. Or was she at that point all along?
They got up and stood by Ariadne, slightly behind her and more than a little demure.
Ariadne, in turn, gestured towards the now-empty pair of seats. “Please, sit down. I doubt this will be a short conversation.”
The woman accepted the invitation, settling into the chair Translator abandoned and peering over at their nest. Rhylian stayed standing, though he leaned on the console. “Ariadne, your parents are deeply disappointed in your actions, and moreover they are worried for your wellbeing.”
“I understand, sir.”
While Rhylian gave Ariadne a calm yet thorough reprimanding, Translator sat beside the Rock woman, trying out the bow with the hand on their chest they'd seen Ruwen do. “This one is Translator. Ariadne's friend,” they said, careful to keep their voice low.
She repeated the gesture, eyes wide. “Therilane. I am Rhylian's wife and second in command.” Her Common was a little shaky, but Translator understood it just fine, seeing as she was falling back on the Rock language.
His second? But... “This one did not see you when you transferred Ariadne over.”
She hesitated, glancing away for a split second. “I had to remain on the ship.”
“...And furthermore, while they may have initially had a purpose, you've been cavorting with aliens for far too long.” Rhylian pointed at Translator for emphasis, the Lanius shrinking away in response. “You are the princess, you are going to be our people's guiding light. You are supposed to preserve our ways! Do you understand how furious your parents will be if they find you've thrown in alien beliefs?”
“I know my own parents, sir. Now, if you'll so indulge me, what are your thoughts on the matter?” Ariadne asked, her arms crossed.
Both Rhylian and Therilane were caught by surprise, the latter more obviously than the former. Translator and Ariadne sat through the couple moments of silence, waiting.
Rhylian was quick to regain what little composure he'd lost. “My opinion is not the one that matters here, Princess.”
Ariadne sighed, eyes narrowing just a hint. “It matters to me.”
“We can deal with that after we-”
“Rhylian,” Therilane interrupted, “Talk to her. She is fully capable of an adult conversation, I feel she genuinely wants to listen, treat her like it.”
“Thank you,” Ariadne said with a nod. She gave Rhylian a pointed look, waiting to see what he did now that Therilane had joined her side.
“Fine. So long as this stays between the people in this room.”
“I'll agree to that.”
Therilane took a deep breath, shutting her eyes. “Darkest depths, I almost thought that wouldn't work.”
Translator hummed. They were glad Therilane had come with; they doubted they would have been able to get a word in edgewise with Rhylian. Ariadne, maybe, if they were lucky and she was feeling receptive.
Rhylian shifted his weight, trying to stare Ariadne down. Not like either were about to give in. “I've spent too long at this job. I've gotten used to aliens, and we do not have the strength to take down the New Federation alone.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now that we have that out of the way, are you going to tell me what you were thinking when you – and the entire crew of this ship – ran away from Numa V?”
“I'm surprised you don't say I was kidnapped.”
“This one thinks your guards were left alive.” Translator tapped on the side of their face, pulling their arms in close when the Rocks stared at them. Their memories of the fight were dulled by the pain of their dislocated jaw, but they were relatively certain both guards had lived.
Rhylian nodded an affirmative. “They did. Their testimony and that of the shuttle you left them on's pilot is the only proof that you were willing.” And then, Translator swore he cracked a smile. “They also revealed a few flaws in your fighting technique, Princess, that I offer to help you correct sometime.”
She did not reciprocate. “Perhaps after we've sorted this out.”
Therilane leaned closer to Translator so she could get a more direct look at Ariadne. “We do need to know why this happened.”
Ariadne hesitated before speaking, tightly clasping her hands behind her back. She turned her gaze from Therilane to Rhylian and said, “If it is acceptable with you, sir, I would rather you not be here for this.”
It took a moment for Rhylian to consider. “If that is what you need, then I will leave.”
As he walked away, Translator called, “Rauta is in the cockpit. Could... could be good conversation?”
Once Rhylian was gone, Ariadne crossed her arms again and huffed. “Aren't you funny?”
She moved towards them and Translator left their seat, ducking behind Therilane to get to their nest. They were well practiced in the art of pretending to sleep, though they did not expect to fool either Rock woman. They'd just be out of the way was all.
They curled up in the nest, pulling a blanket over themself. It was worn and had holes in it from where their plating had poked through, but it was soft and they liked the texture of it.
“If there's anything you do not want me to tell Rhylian, just say so. Now, what's wrong?”
Ariande sighed heavily, the air hissing in her respirator. “I can't do it. I can't stand the Grand Basilisk, he just wants to... wants to use me. We'd kill each other, I swear.”
“Literally?” Therilane sounded warm, almost joking.
Ariadne's silence was far more serious.
“So, what was wrong with him?”
“If you're going to bring me back to him, there's no use dwelling on the negatives, is there?”
Translator peered out to see Ariadne uncharacteristically slumped in her chair, cradling her head like she had a headache. Was this affecting her that badly? Why hadn't she said anything to any of the Paradox's crew? Ruwen in particular would have loved to listen to her rip into this Grand Basilisk's character.
They ducked back when Therilane spoke up. “It could help make your case against the marriage. And personally? I'd love to hear it.”
Ariadne huffed. “Where do I start, then? He's power-hungry, he knows he'd become a prince. He became a widower, what, four years ago? Three when we got engaged? His grandchildren are my age. Not to mention we have only met in person three times – once to negotiate an engagement, the second to officially announce the engagement, third when we were wed.” She cut off, and when Translator looked she'd covered more of her face, head down while she steadied herself. “We were... communicating between those times, of course. Most of that was along the lines of, 'You will not talk to anyone behind my back, if I ask, you deliver, you will be a proper wife because I will not stand for anything less.' If I tried to negotiate visiting with friends, he'd say that I'd have to wait for his permission first.”
“And your parents were okay with this?”
There was a short pause. “My mother said I would put up with it because it wouldn't be too long. Only a few decades,” Ariadne said bitterly. “My father refused to let the topic come up.”
“Maybe- It sounds like you'd do better with someone less...traditional.”
“By and far.” Ariadne tapped on the side of her face. “You and Rhylian seem to have it figured out.”
“Oh, he understood from the start that our family was never going to be that sort of traditional. Military traditional, maybe, and both of us like it that way.” Therilane stood and stretched. She glanced down at Translator, meeting their eye for a brief moment. Well, now she knew for sure they weren't sleeping, but her posture softened and they could have sworn she almost smiled at them. “The crew – they get along with you?”
Now Ariadne turned around to face Translator, resting one arm over the back of the chair. “Mostly. I don't try to start fights with them.” She nodded towards them. “You're free to join in the conversation, you know. I did ask for you to be here.”
They got up, letting the blanket fall to their feet and kicking it away. They were not sure if they would be much use to her, but it was a better prospect from either leaving and running into the Mantis brothers or sitting in on Rhylian and Rauta.
“Rhylian told me one of them tried to flirt with you while he was aboard.”
“That would be Ruwen,” Ariadne mumbled, hiding her face again. “She... yes. I suppose she did.”
Therilane hummed; now she was definitely smiling, though she maintained a degree of reservedness. “She?”
“I...” Ariadne went quiet, barely audible. “I don't like men. Please don't tell Rhylian?”
Therilane moved to put a hand on her shoulder but hesitated, kept it to a light brush. “That's all right, and trust me, Rhylian wouldn't mind, either. So, it sounds like you maybe like Ruwen?”
Ariadne stared at Translator. They placed their fingers over the junction between their throat and chest, where their transmitter and receiver were. Any secrets were safe with them.
“I have to think about it.”
They made a sound, the start of a sentence telling her that Ruwen did like her, that the two ought to at least admit it to each other, but that would defeat the purpose of promising to keep a secret.
“You refused homecoming. If you're away for much longer, the legality of your marriage is up for debate,” Therilane suggested, though even Translator figured Ariadne would know that.
“One week and two days.”
“We'd get you back sooner than that.”
“I know.” Ariadne shifted, stepped over to the console to play around with her documents. “What if I agreed to come back to our sector, on the condition I go directly to my parents? I have a lot to talk to them about.”
“We have our orders.”
“The Paradox's mission involves everyone's lives and safety,” Translator interjected, plates flaring for a brief moment. It got Therilane and Ariadne's attention, the two waiting for them to continue. “Additionally, it may be more time-sensitive than expected.” It was a stretch, but they had to help defend Ariadne. It was why she'd wanted them, right?
“How so?” Therilane asked. She and Ariadne wore similar expressions, confused and concerned.
“This one...” They glanced away, unwilling to look her in the eye that long. “This one found possible evidence of experiments on non-humans. Their minds used to control ships.”
Her breath hitched. When Ariadne nodded in agreement Therilane finally exhaled, placing one hand on the underside of her belly. “That... If true, then you need to show Rhylian. I will support you, but he is the captain and has final say on our mission.”
“We can call him in,” Ariande said.
“This one will do it.” Translator went around the women to get to the console, setting up a call to the cockpit for courtesy. They could shout that far, but other races did not seem to like suddenly hearing Lanius voices come in over their comms.
Rauta answered, but Translator heard Rhylian's voice trailing off in the background. “What now? Do you need him back?”
“Yes.” Had the two actually been having a conversation?
“I'll be there soon,” Rhylian said. With that, the connection terminated, and the three in the shields were left to wait.
They did so in silence before Therilane asked, hesitantly, “How old are you, Translator?”
“Somewhere between eight and ten years.” None of Flock Tsunya had been able to come up with a more accurate estimate than Kusy and Atryom's original guess of 'at least a year old, maybe two or three if their conditions kept them small and depending on what sort of Lanius they are.'
She nodded. “It's hard to tell with Lanius.”
Then the silence settled in again. Discreet glances at her suggested Therilane was lost in thought, not looking in anything particular save for the floor. Ariadne had returned to her usual self, any trace of fear or upset eradicated.
So they would have to share their story about the auto-ship, anyhow.
Chapter 29: So Long Sentiment
They told the tale, halting often to recall details or try to calm down after getting worked up. They were all staring at them, and they couldn't bear to meet their eyes. It was nervous work, and every time they stuttered or slowed down to remember something, they felt the others' stares all the more.
Ariadne was not that bad. Her expression never changed. Rhylian and Therilane's hardened as Translator spoke, the two occasionally sharing a look. None of them said a word.
When they finished talking, Translator tapped their fingers together, huddling up defensively. They doubted something that had, so far, been a one-off incident that affected the Slugs of all people would get enough attention and concern to force the Rocks into action. Especially since Rhylian and Therilane only controlled one ship, elite guard though it may be, and Ariadne was in trouble with her parents at the moment.
“I thought they preferred working with their machines...?” Therilane asked. Her hand moved to cover Rhylian's, which were resting on the table, digging into the surface.
“Their flagship hasn't been seen for years. Maybe they've moved on?” Ariadne glanced at the two, taking a slightly deeper inhale. “They've been known to support, or at least tolerate, slave trading. Maybe they're taking advantage of it?”
Translator shifted, uncomfortable, well aware of Ariadne's eyes on them. And Therilane's. Rhylian was focused on his wife, removing a hand from the table to place against her lower back. Were the Rocks looking for their opinion on the topic? It had been years since they were a slave, and while they certainly had some vivid memories of it, they had been a young child. They'd paid little attention to the politics and implications behind the deals they listened to. They hadn't known what the orange insignias and uniforms meant until a few months before Kusy and Atryom rescued them. They just knew they were humans, spoke human languages, and often made weird faces when they saw a little Lanius sitting in the corner of the room, listening and trying not to doze off.
Then there was the idea of the Flagship just... disappearing. They remembered its deep, plate-rattling voice. The ease with which it destroyed the Vortex, even after losing both of its wings. How it killed their baby sibling.
How could such a giant, such an important, such a devastating ship disappear into dead space?
“Maybe they're hunting it down, then? The Flagship, that is,” Therilane suggested. She leaned into Rhylian.
Ariadne didn't react to the couple's displays of affection. “They could be.”
Translator shifted, plates ruffling. They had to admit this, too. That they had seen the Flagship and faced it. They didn't know much about what it wanted, or anything beyond the capabilities it had years ago, but they'd been there.
So they flattened their plates and said, in a small voice, “This one has seen the Flagship.”
Dead silence. All three stared at them with varying degrees of confusion, shock, and horror.
Why had they done this? They shrank away from the stares and clarified, “This one was on the Vortex when-”
Ariadne shot upright, slamming her hands down on the table. “You were on the Vortex?”
They squawked, covering their face. No no, they were not dealing with this right now. They didn't mean to do it, they didn't want to upset her. They were sorry! They were sorry…
They heard the sound of a chair being pushed away and plodding footsteps. They winced when they felt a hand on their shoulder, fully expecting to be shaken or their shoulder crunched. But instead they felt a slight increase in pressure as the person knelt down.
They dared a peek when they felt the person's thumb brushing them. Their eyes met Therilane's, studying her while she studied them in turn.
“You'll be okay. You're safe,” she whispered to them. She got up with a muffled grunt and returned to her chair. Translator caught Rhylian saying something about Therilane's 'maternal instincts kicking in.' She retorted by asking if he'd been practicing his parenting skills on Ariadne.
They took a moment to calm down before letting their hand down and uncovering their face. Ariadne was turned away from Rhylian and Therilane, definitely disgruntled but whether it was over Translator's reaction or the couple's sappiness, they couldn't tell.
She met their eyes and the hard edge to her posture softened. “I apologize for scaring you,” she said. Even though she was quiet and not all that authoritative, Rhylian and Therilane both stopped talking, waiting for Ariadne to continue.
She straightened her back, chin high. She spoke carefully, holding back the emotions from the outburst just a minute or so earlier. “We need to call Mikael back. Evidently, there is more information than we expected.”
“Not much more,” Translator said. “This one was young, and was more concerned with staying safe than examining its abilities. May not have much new information.”
“It's still worth trying,” Ariadne insisted. She stood up and left; Rhylian went after her, but Translator doubted he would do anything to stop her. They could have gone, too and probably caught up to her, but they just... couldn't. They'd spent their emotional energy already, and knew talking to Mikael was going to spend more, but so would trying to stop Ariadne.
Maybe if they were lucky, they could curl up and sleep while one of the Slugs scoured their memories for anything from the Flagship battle. Even if their conscious attempts to recall those memories were not too clear, they knew they couldn't have forgotten everything, and they would fight to bring back anything that could take down the ship that had killed Knapp.
Therilane sighed. “Someone needs to tell Brynwen that those Slugs are going to need to dock.” She stood and was stretching when she asked Translator, “Do you want me to stay here with you? If you would rather be alone, though, I understand.”
They shrugged, gaze wandering to the empty coffee pot. If Rhylian wasn't there, they'd be tempted to make some coffee for Ruwen, just to try their hand at it. “It's fine.”
In the end, they ended up poking around at the coffee machine, trying to figure out how it worked, while Therilane spoke to her crew in the background. Brynwen wasn't curt, per se, but had a more staccato rhythm to her voice, in contrast to Therilane.
They'd figured the machine out by the time the Slugs docked again, the water burbling as it boiled and dripped, so dark it was almost black, into the pot. They didn't want to say they were mesmerized by it, but the only thing that drew their attention away from the steady dripping was when Mikael entered, accompanied by Ruwen, Stormie, and Walkman.
They sat up, nodding at them all. Where were Emily and Veedi? Had they decided not to come listen? They'd rather have the least people around possible, but-
Oh. Walkman was leaving, too.
Ruwen slowed when she caught up to Therilane. Once she stopped the two shared uncertain introductions, Therilane pointing Ruwen towards the pot of coffee.
From the way Mikael pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed, Translator didn't need the Slugs' mind-reading to know that he did not like the idea of giving Ruwen coffee. When she chortled with glee as she prepared herself a mug, he pressed at his temples hard enough the skin paled underneath.
They all gathered around, finding whatever chairs or other resting spots were available. Mikael and Stormie stayed close to Translator, the former keeping a spot on his other side open.
Translator was about to ask if they ought to get this over with when the door opened and Rhylian stepped inside. Ruwen, her back to the door, froze mid-sip, eyes wide. She glanced around and, at the sound of Rhylian crossing his arms, said, “He's right behind me, isn't he?”
She quietly resumed drinking when Rhylian sat beside Mikael.
“So, Translator,” Mikael asked, “What's all this about you having been part of the fight against the Flagship?”
Stormie quietly announced her presence in their mind and they welcomed her in. She could dig around all she wanted. The faster this all went, the better.
They tried to ignore the images and sounds and sensations flashing through their mind, guiding Stormie through the process as they recalled the Flagship battle. “This one was on the Vortex, only a couple years old at the most. The captain – Bovee – did not give any time for Kusy and Atryom to bring this one and Knapp somewhere safer.”
The uncertain looks they got reminded them that not everyone knew who Knapp was.
“At first it had a human crew.” They remembered that. Robert had been teleporting back and forth, taking out the ones in the weapons pods. Bovee killing the rest with that beam that made all the lights on the Vortex dim and frustrated the adults when it took power away from the engines and other weapons. “But when they were all killed, it... It woke up.”
Stormie found the memory of the Flagship's message. I AM FREED. YOU CANNOT HOLD ME AND MY ARMY BACK. GLORY TO THE NEW FEDERATION. She and them drank in every detail. The terror they had felt, which still made them shiver. The way Atryom had gathered them and Knapp close for a brief moment, then it had been back to the fight. None of them knew it would be one of their last interactions with her.
That thought brought Stormie along a trail of memories, searching with intent that made last time she looked for Knapp seem like nothing more than a quick skim. Fully awake and already deep into their own mind, Translator was torn between their old emotions and their current self's knowledge of what would happen.
When they watched her die again, heard Kusy's soul-rending scream, they grieved. They felt just as lost and scared as they had been all those years ago, except now they didn't have their parents there. They didn't even have her body, no proof besides their memories that she had ever been real.
Stormie retreated with a series of apologies. Dimly they heard her telling Mikael that maybe they ought to go to the auto-ship and let everyone take a look for themselves, and Mikael's subsequent agreement.
Once all the captains were gone, they felt the cushion next to them sink. Ruwen pulled them into an embrace and listened to them mourn their baby sibling all over again.
Chapter 30: Why and If She'll Make It
“There's going to be a Lanius ship at the beacon. I doubt they'll be expecting this many people. Nobody turn your weapons on, okay? They're Translator's flock. They've been guarding the auto-ship.” Mikael said over the comms, voice firm.
Both Rhylian and Stormie acknowledged him, Rhylian's ship powering their weapons off.
The three ships hopped from beacon to beacon as fast as they safely could, giving the engines minimal time to cool. The sooner they got there, the better the evidence would be preserved, and who knew what would happen to that brain with the power so low in the ship.
And, though nobody said it, Translator got the feeling that Stormie and Rhylian did not trust a Lanius ship to be left alone with anything made of metal. Even if it had organic components.
They were ready in the cockpit beside Mikael when they arrived at their destination. As soon as they were in range, Mikael turned on the comms and let them at it.
“This one has returned,” they called out.
“The Paradox is accompanied by two ships. One Slug ship, one Rock ship.”
“What are they saying?” Rhylian hissed to his crew.
They barely heard Therilane's response. “They're a Lanius, dear.”
“Most don't ssspeak Common,” Stormie added.
Translator shifted, uncomfortable. Where were their flockmates? Had they gone deeper into the nebula? Had another ship happened across them and attacked? That would be horrible, all of them scattered. What if Osin was separated from their parents?
Their plates flared and relaxed in relief. Thank goodness, that was Osin. “Where are Kusy and Atryom?”
“Sleeping. But not now.”
Oh. That made sense. Kusy wouldn't have heard the comm or seen the alert Translator knew they had set up on all of their stations. Atryom must be attempting to wake them up.
“That one sounds so little,” Therilane said. She sounded surprised, amazed, even.
“They are this one's sibling, Osin.” Translator caught a glimpse of Mikael's smile and shifted again, placing their hands on the console. “Osin, where are Kusy and Atryom?”
“Here.” As soon as Osin said that, the video feed came on, showing Atryom leaning over their baby protectively. The lights were off on the ship save for the emergency lights and those on the console, giving Atryom a sharply contrasting visage that looked straight out of anti-Lanius propaganda. Their spines glinted in the low light, hinting at the ruthless, all-consuming nature other races feared. The only things that didn't work were the half-shut state of their deep red eyes and the fact that they were nuzzling Osin, glancing between them and the screen.
Kusy joined them a couple seconds afterwards, nudging their way beside Atryom.
First Stormie, and then Rhylian turned their video feeds online. Mikael snorted at their dumbfounded expressions. The incongruity of the scene was clearly getting to them.
“They were sleeping,” Translator explained.
“We are ssssorry for interrupting, then. Ssssleep is a true joy.” Stormie puttered in a manner that reminded Translator of the yawns they'd gotten used to from humans, placing her head on her console for emphasis.
“Why the... friends, Translator?” Atryom asked, eyeing Stormie and Rhylian. “If the Slugs and the Rocks are here to cause harm, say so.”
“No, the Slugs and Rocks are fine, and just need to see the auto-ship. It is a matter of great importance, and may win the Paradox more allies.”
Atryom blinked slowly and lifted Osin up so they could take the pilot's seat and the controls. And place Osin in their lap, of course, the younger Lanius trying to get a better look at the screen.
“Translator, come home,” they asked, reaching for the screen.
They placed two fingertips on their screen in return. “This one has to help. Okay? This one wants Osin to live in a better galaxy. But this one will come home.”
“Translator's never here!”
The sad, scared pitch of Osin's voice jolted Atryom awake and they took one hand from the controls to preen their child.
“Everything okay?” Mikael asked. He put one hand on Translator's arm, looking up at them with concern. “Are the others cleared to dock?”
Translator repeated the question to Atryom.
“Yes.” The answer was accompanied by a suspicious glare towards the other ships, but Translator told them the answer before anything could happen. What had Mikael called it? Diplomatic incidents.
It took a few minutes, but the Slugs and Rocks worked out an agreement to prevent either party from potentially tampering with the evidence. The Rocks would board first, with the Slugs tracking them to ensure they didn't go and touch anything. Once the Slugs boarded, the two species would begin a joint investigation.
As they put the plan into action, Translator stayed at the comms, talking with their flock. Kusy woke up around the time the Slugs boarded, but almost all the conversation revolved around reassuring Osin that everything would be okay.
It was only towards the end that Atryom asked what they had been doing that Translator decided to tell them about Davion. Despite what they'd told Osin, who knew if this would be their last chance?
“This one... This one...” They covered their face with their hand, thinking.
“Translator. What did you do?”
“This one killed Davion.”
“Weston?” Atryom sounded surprised, and both they and Kusy were downright shocked, staring at their nervous child. Atryom repeated the name to Kusy just to make sure they knew who Translator was talking about, as if their ruffled plates and wide open eyes weren't enough.
Both knew about Davion. Translator had told them, in hushed tones (they'd been afraid Davion would somehow find out and track them down), long ago. Only Osin was confused, glancing between their parents and sibling.
Finally, Atryom and Kusy came to an agreement and Atryom leaned in, placing their hands on the console. “Good. May a star devour Davion's corpse.”
Osin winced at the curse leveled at a man they were lucky to have never known.
The Rocks and Slugs returned to their ships soon afterwards, joining the video comm to share what evidence they had found and recorded. And, naturally, decide their next course of action.
“We're bringing this data back to the king and queen. If this is a sign of something big on the horizon, we need to be prepared,” Therilane said, her husband pacing behind her and occasionally muttering something the microphones barely caught.
Stormie hummed. “Of course. We ssssimply request that we retain the sssship. It is in our territory, and it is one of us inside it.”
“We can accept that, on the condition that if more are disabled, we are notified and given the opportunity to examine at least one.”
“The more minds, the better the thoughts.”
The negotiations kept that trend, much to Translator's surprise, and that of the rest of the Paradox's crew. Neither race was known to be easy to work with, and Veedi said she'd expected tension due to the situation, but Therilane and Stormie were willing to accommodate. Even when Therilane's responses to Rhylian indicated that the job would have been done much differently if he was talking, and Stormie didn't turn off the comms before complaining to Walkman about the headache she got from dealing with Rock elite guard.
Once the Slugs did sign off, Rhylian came up beside Therilane to inform the Paradox that they were returning together and sending the flight plan their pilot had developed.
The trip back to the Rock homeworlds was... solemn. At least it was for Ariadne, who spent most of her time coordinating with Mikael and Rhylian or Therilane and listening to Rauta grumble about how this whole mess with the autoship may have annulled her marriage to the Grand Basilisk and how much of a mistake she was making.
And since Ariadne had tapped Translator to listen in on the conversations, they got it all, too. And with both of them feeling down (no matter how well Ariadne hid it), Ruwen got upset, which affected Nik and Zev as their third partner in rough-and-tumble. All the negativity got Veedi and Mikael, leaving Emily to espouse on the ridiculousness of marriage as a political act and a social construct in general in an attempt to ease their minds.
One advantage was that, with their elite escort, the Paradox didn't get into a single confrontation. At least, not a physical one. Plenty of Rock ships they passed by were happy to give Mikael a piece of their mind about the presence of a New Federation ship.
When they reached Vrachos VI, tensions were too high for them to give much thought to the planet's bustling, advanced civilization. Its atmosphere and orbit swarmed with military and civilian ships alike, the scene primarily orange and black with the rare, standout green Zoltan ship.
Another black ship approached, startling Translator when they commed the Paradox. Ariadne answered it before Mikael, almost glaring into the screen.
“This is the Shivan,” ground out a deep, weathered, but distinctly feminine voice. “Vessel Paradox, your presence is requested.”
Ariadne nodded. “General Prase.”
“Princess Ariadne. I hope you haven't gotten attached to that ship's crew.”
She did not glance back at Translator, who was peering over the edge of the console from their nest. But they saw her jaw twitch. “If my parents wish to judge them, then they may come here and meet the crew – and talk to me – themselves.”
There was a pause, then Ariadne's breath hitched.
A new voice, a male voice that resonated even though the microphone picked up no echo and Translator swore sounded familiar, spoke. “If that is what it takes to see my daughter again, then so be it.”
Chapter 31: When and How She'll Take It
As soon as King Broca killed the connection, the Paradox descended into chaos.
Ruwen, who'd been waiting in the engine room with Emily, burst in to shout, “What the fuck does that mean?”
Nik and Zev ran around, their steps (and voices) carrying through the ship and into the shields even though the closest it sounded like they got was the med bay.
Rauta commed the shields just to say, “Pardon, Princess, but damn it, did you have to do that?”
“Would you rather stand trial?” she snapped before turning off the comms and hunching over the console, head in her hands. From the staccato rhythm of her breath, Translator gathered she was beginning to cry.
Ruwen approached, carefully wrapping her arms around Ariadne's shoulders, swaying back and forth and whispering little comforts.
She was not in the least expecting Ariadne to turn around and press her forehead into hers, though the way she moved one hand to the back of Ariadne's head showed she sure didn't mind. Though she did open one eye to consider Translator, who was staring at the scene with nary a peep.
Ariadne, for one, didn't seem to care that there was an onlooker. She returned the gesture, her hand and the crest of crystals on Ruwen's head reflecting off each other to throw glittery lights around the boxy, gray room.
The two stayed that way for a long moment before Ariadne took a deep breath and spoke at last.
“Ruwen? I need to ask you something, and I want you to know that it's perfectly okay to say no.”
Translator couldn't bring themself to duck down, too intrigued to do so. Ruwen's open eye darted around the room, resting on Translator for a second before returning to Ariadne. “I can't answer if you don't tell me.”
Despite the clear attempt at humor, the warble in her voice was unmistakeable.
“If everything goes well, I want you to marry me.”
Ruwen wheezed, continuing to cough as Ariadne got up and let her sit down in her place. Even after she regained her breath, she hesitated before repeating, “Marry me.”
Ariadne shifted. She was uncomfortable, and now Translator was, too; they were so used to an Ariadne as subtle as a breeze in the void, and the social cues they'd learned to recognize in others felt like an electric storm on her.
She squeezed Ruwen's hands when the Crystal took hers. “Ariadne,” Ruwen said, reluctant to meet her eyes, “I like you, I really do, and I want to love you so much we're still giggling at each other like teenagers when we're on our deathbed, but…”
“You want to know me.”
Ruwen nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
“Do you think we can be friends?” Ariadne's smile was cautious, testing.
Ruwen's was bright. “Aren't we already? I mean, I kinda helped kick your guards' asses and you kinda helped make sure I didn't die a bloody heap on the floor…”
Ariadne stopped Ruwen's story short with another headbump. “Then it'll be fine. Besides, it all depends on what my parents say, which probably means some sort of political advantage.”
Ruwen sighed. “Yeah, that's the other thing. Politics.”
“My parents started bringing me to cabinet and strategy meetings the day my birth was announced. I can handle politics. Besides, my parents aren't that old. There shouldn't be a transfer of power for decades.”
“If this all works out.”
“If it all works out,” Ariadne confirmed. The two broke their embrace, awkward and shy now. “I like you, too, you know,” she added in a small voice.
Translator chirred at Ruwen's silly grin.
“Damn it!” Ariadne nudged Ruwen out of the way, bringing up a window on the console and writing rapidly. “I need to tell them to bring respirators.”
After that, it became a blur of preparing for the royals' imminent arrival. Ruwen, Translator, and Ariadne all refrained from telling the others about the proposal just made, though Ruwen and Ariadne spent most of their time working together to tidy up the Paradox.
The only time Translator saw them separate was when Ariadne found them in a stockroom, searching for the proper supplies to clean the floor and letting themself recover from oxygen exposure.
They jerked their head up, thunking it against a plastic container. Plastic. Disgusting. “This one is not a good candidate for marriage,” they said, straightening up.
She didn't fully roll her eyes at the joke, but it was clear she got it. “I know. I just wanted to know if you could just be there? I'm going to need to talk to my parents, and I... would rather not be alone. Like when I spoke to Therilane.”
They nodded. “This one will be better at pretending to sleep.”
She leaned in, and when they followed suit, she touched her forehead to theirs. “Thank you.”
They chirped. Once she was gone, they continued their search.
By the time Mikael readjusted the Paradox's position to accept the shuttle (flanked by many, many elite ships) that pinged a docking request, most of the floor was clean. Hopefully they weren't going to see the inside of the engine room or teleporter. But by then Rauta was herding everyone into the hallway by the airlock and Translator was starting to get dizzy again from the atmosphere.
This time, they leaned against the wall. They'd had a close enough call with almost falling on Ariadne when she first came aboard, and they were not going to chance it again.
And this time, when the airlock doors open, everyone save for Ariadne and Translator dropped to one knee. They doubted Ariadne had to, and they knew they'd sprawl flat on their face if they tried.
They did duck their head as the king and queen passed them by on their way to their daughter. Ariadne was clearly the king's biggest concern; he didn't bother looking at the rest of the crew, while the queen moved slower and got a good look, eyeing Ruwen and then Translator.
She looked exactly like her daughter, the only difference being their eye color and maybe some slight facial differences. The king, on the other hand, hardly looked like he was related to Ariadne, grey instead of purple with no hint of the sparkle the two women had. His military uniform fit in more with the soldiers hanging back in the airlock than the ragtag crew of the Paradox, and Translator was plenty aware of the metal thread adorning Ariadne's dress, let alone the queen's.
And, of course, everyone save for Ruwen wore respirators that went with nothing else.
“Thank the Stone, you're safe,” the king said, his hands on Ariadne's shoulders. “They didn't hurt you, did they?”
“I'm fine, Father.”
“Broca, this isn't the time.” The queen was still staring down Translator as she spoke. Did she want them to kneel, too? They'd fall on her, and in their opinion, that would be much worse than standing here, wavering. Being on someone meant you were much easier for them to shove around.
He sighed, but that didn't stop him from brushing his thumb against the side of Ariadne's face. She stood stock still, no hint as to what she was feeling. Not the way she'd been just a little bit earlier.
Did they know that side of her existed?
“But you said you wanted us to meet the crew on their ship, and we're here.” Broca turned back to the rest of the crew, one arm still around Ariadne's shoulders. “At ease, all of you.”
Everyone got up, holding back while Mikael stepped forwards. He glanced at Translator, then met Broca's eyes and bowed, one fist under his ribs and the other against his lower back. “Sir, we do have a space we can meet in, if that would be acceptable. It's on the other end of the hall, and I believe everyone will fit…?”
Broca and the queen shared a look. Whatever went across must have been positive, because Broca nodded and stepped aside to let Mikael past.
Just as wordlessly, Mikael led the entire crew, plus the king and queen, into the den. It was immediately obvious that space would be limited, even when Emily dropped her bipedal form to stuff herself on an upper shelf. The crew held back, letting the king and queen examine the space first and sit down next to each other, Broca inviting Ariadne over to sit by them. She did, her back ramrod straight and her eyes looking straight ahead. Much like the queen, though the older woman looked more natural doing it. Even more unreadable than her daughter, but practiced.
Translator was leaning on the back of the couch when Mikael tapped their back and gestured towards the cushions. “Go ahead, lie down if you have to.”
They did. Captain's orders, right? And the king and queen needed to buy that they slept a lot. As they tucked their head under one arm, they heard Mikael say something about their reaction to oxygen.
They woke up with their head in Ruwen's lap and Mikael's back pressed against their legs.
“-When Rhylian left us with Ariadne and her guards, we fully expected to bring her to Numa V and the, ah-”
“The Grand Basilisk? Tvardi?” Broca supplied, interrupting the trailing end of Mikael's speech.
“Him, yes. However, not long before we were due to arrive, Ariadne presented some compelling arguments as to why we shouldn't surrender her to him.”
Oh. Emily was gone. They weren't surprised.
Ruwen moved one hand to smack at something behind her, connecting with one of the Mantis brothers' heads with a solid thump and a surprised hiss from whomever she'd hit. She stroked Translator's arm when they shivered at the noise.
“And you fled with her?” Broca and the queen both were looking at Ruwen now, and Translator felt her pressing into the couch, away from them.
“We did, sir. The ships we encountered attempted to fire upon us.”
“I wanted to leave.” Ariadne's statement drew her parents' attention back to her. “I was a fully willing participant. Whatever you do to them, I deserve and demand the same.”
“Hemavar and Bris's reports implied you were willing,” the queen said. Translator got no hint of emotion from her, just facts. “You do not need to establish that.”
“I only wish we could have heard as such from you, not them,” Broca added.
Ariadne muttered something under her breath that got her a glare from Broca and the queen's attention.
“I am just saying that withholding information is about as fun for you as it is for the populace. Be glad it wasn't something that could get you killed.” Ariadne's posture barely changed, like she was channeling all her anger into the low growl of her voice.
The king was more outright in his displeasure, turning to face Ariadne as best he could and putting a hand on her far shoulder to get her attention when she refused to look at him. “We can talk policy later. Right now, this is us being concerned about you.”
“We delayed an important strategy meeting for this, Ariadne,” the queen added. “Prove that it was worth it.”
With the royals distracted for the moment, Mikael glanced back towards Translator and Ruwen, lips pinched and brows furrowed. He ran his fingernails along the back of Translator's ankle, careful not to scrape the metal too hard and make noise.
“You doing okay, Ruwen?” he whispered.
Looking up, Translator noticed she had part of her necklace in her mouth. She wasn't breathing as deeply as was probably healthy for her, but they'd gotten used to that after her injury.
On top of that, when she spoke, the words came out as a weak rasp. “I can't breathe.”
Mikael started to get up, then Ruwen tried to stand. Both stopped when a respirator fell in her lap, barely missing Translator's head.
Translator hadn't seen Rauta standing by the wall on Ruwen's other side before. But now they saw him bow to the royals and ask, “If I may take my leave?”
Broca looked at him, then the respirator Ruwen was hurriedly putting on, then back at him. “You may.”
When the door closed behind Rauta, Broca spoke again. “Ariadne, did you intentionally stay in Slug territory long enough to annul your marriage?”
“I would have stayed with the Paradox for much longer, had Rhylian not found me. I feel their mission is invaluable.”
The queen nodded towards Mikael. “Rhylian passed along the data packet you sent him. I doubt you will succeed with your current firepower and connections.”
He shrugged, raising his eyebrows but not meeting her gaze. “That was kind of the point of helping Ariadne. We were looking to set up something with you.”
Translator sat up, plates flaring as they stretched the last bit of sleep out of them. “Did Rhylian send the data on the autoship?”
That got them a clear look of concern from Broca, and they bet the queen felt the same way.
“The Paradox found an autoship in Slug territory. It appeared to use a Slug brain as part of its piloting system. We were meeting with allies we made when Rhylian arrived, and we showed him to the ship...” Translator trailed off, sinking low under the pressure of everyone staring at them now.
Everyone except Veedi. “I'd offer to ssshare what I sssaw of the ssship, but none of you three sssseem terribly receptive.”
“We'll review Rhylian's data first,” Broca said.
The slightest nod from the queen got Ariadne's attention, a captive audience for what the queen said next. “Why is this relevant?”
“Opasiel,” Broca grumbled, only to be cut off by his daughter.
“Because if the New Federation is starting to experiment on Slugs in such ways, they may try and move on to other species, including Rocks. We are right next to them.”
“Slugs have abilities that prove most useful to navigating nebulas. We do not. If the Rebels were looking for something to use in their auto-ships, they have better options. Even if they did try and use us, they would have to face our defenses.”
“There are exiles.”
“Not nearly enough for widespread use. Though I have no doubt they would attempt to draw upon that population, if they were looking to use Rocks at all.”
“We do not have Rhylian's data. I appreciate the information, but I would also like to stay on topic.” Broca had one hand over his eyes and he was shaking his head. “Ariadne, you said you wanted us to meet the crew of this ship. We can debate later, because you are coming home and we will have plenty of time for this. For now...” He uncovered his face to look at Mikael and the rest of the crew on and by the couch. “Why did you take this mission on, Captain? You're human.”
Mikael swallowed hard and glanced towards the others. “Because I know history, Sir, and I believe the New Federation will embrace the intraspecies supremacist attitudes we humans never quite abandoned. Racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, religious persecution. Not just speciesism. They are Nazis, Sir, not human supremacists. Everyone on this ship stands to suffer under them. I won't go down without a fight. Not for us, and not for our future.”
Broca nodded. Both he and Ariadne were listening intently, but the latter was soon distracted by her mother's hushed continuation of their debate. Broca ignored them, instead nodding towards Translator. “And you? I don't believe I got your name, either.”
They nodded back. “This one is Translator. Mikael hired this one as a... representative of the Lanius? Or for this one's language skills?”
“And why did you agree?”
They picked at the plates that formed their fingers. “This one was on the Vortex. Fighting the New Federation is... personal.”
“You were?” Broca said, his mild surprise garnering a glance from Opasiel. He took a moment with his head down to consider this new information. “Yes, I do remember. There were Lanius amongst the crew.”
“Kusy and Atryom. This one was a child back then. They adopted this one, and this one's language skills proved useful.” They shrugged.
“Only a child, and yet you were on the ship that battled the Flagship...” Broca hummed, giving it a moment before he looked to Ruwen. “Ruwen, yes?”
She squirmed in her seat, refusing to make eye contact with him. “Yeah. I don't know.” She gestured towards Mikael. “He kind of saved me, so I went along with him.”
“And how did you end up here, outside of the Crystal home worlds?”
“I, uh, I was part of a, heh, 'Let's check up on the galaxy!' expedition. Something like that. We kind of ended up with our ship in pieces and the captain put me in his cryopod so I wouldn't die.”
“You were pretty... shattered... when we found you,” Mikael said.
If that wasn't something Ruwen wanted to tell, she showed no sign of it. She just nodded. “Yeah. But for the pod, that was great! Just had to keep me from dying all the way. No way it could've... lasted... forty years... by my count?” As she spoke she wilted, glancing up at Broca to gauge his reaction only at the very end.
As far as Translator could tell, Broca was concentrating hard on something. He wasn't looking at Ruwen, but instead gazing into the distance. “That's a long time.”
“Don't I know it,” Ruwen mumbled, cuddling Translator close. They tilted their head up, gently tapping her under the jaw.
Translator huddled in Ruwen's arms when the Mantis brothers spoke.
“Mikael hired us-” Nik said.
“He wanted boarders-” Zev interrupted, only to be interrupted in turn.
“But mostly we are being out and about.”
“He does art.”
“He doesn't think I'm good.”
Whap! “Then keep doing it!”
“That makes no sense!”
Ruwen huffed at them as they tried to get back on whatever track they'd been on. She gave Translator a squeeze, and they felt Veedi project some additional calm on them.
Eventually they decided to bring their story to a close, ending with, “But Translator can tell that part.”
They shook their head. They didn't know what the brothers were talking about, and they wanted no part in it.
There was a pause, then Veedi spoke. “They attacked the ssship I wassss on. I agreed to come with and they haven't gotten rid of me yet.”
When she put it that way, it almost reminded Translator of the situation Jason had been in, but reversed. Then again, her ship had attacked first... Though was it really hers at the time?
“And no, I am not reading your mind. It'ssss a sssimple pattern. I wasss the only one left to assssk.”
“I understand,” Broca said as he stood up, interrupting Ariadne and Opasiel's debate for all of two seconds, then stopping it for good when he reached out a hand to the queen for her to join them. “Captain Mikael, I would like to further discuss your mission. Perhaps we could start negotiating what my people can do to assist it?”
Mikael started to jump upright, but slowed down. His eyes were wide open and he nodded the entire time. “Definitely. If you'd like, I have some plans and starmaps and the like in the cockpit.”
“I would appreciate seeing them.” Before leaving with Mikael, Broca turned back to his daughter and said, “We can talk afterwards.”
“I'll be in the shields,” she said, enunciating too clearly to truly be mumbling.
Veedi and the Mantis brothers drifted out soon after Broca, Opasiel, and Mikael left. Once the three were alone, Ariadne joined Ruwen and Translator on the couch.
“Translator, do you think you'd be able to hide in there? I'm not sure they'll accept the excuse that you're just sleeping since they already saw you asleep.”
They nodded and disentangled themself from Ruwen, who gave their hand a quick squeeze before they went.
As they left, they heard Ariadne and Ruwen quietly discussing their plan.
Chapter 32: A Tattered Canvas Unfurls
Hello! So, about that "Referenced/Implied Emotional Abuse" tag… It gets a little less referenced/implied, more explicit in this chapter, between Ariadne and her mother. Just warning you.
When they entered the shields, they passed over their nest in favor of the console itself. They opened it up easy enough, consuming some of the screws that held the side panel in place, hooking their fingertips into the holes left behind to fit it in place as they wriggled inside. A little bit of tuhar and it was like they'd never touched it, save for the holes where the screws used to be.
Except that they were inside the console now, tangled amongst the wires and backup systems and electronic components too sensitive to be left outside the ship. It was warm inside, pleasantly so in comparison to, say, the searing hot heavy laser they'd disabled so long ago. The ventilation holes were big and bunched up enough that Translator could peer out at the room. They wouldn't be able to see any faces unless they practically broke their neck, but they'd know who was there.
Soon enough the door opened and they heard Ariadne approach. She stopped in the middle of the room, turning around a couple times, then going to explore. They heard the rustle of her disturbing the fabric that made up their nest, then she wandered the room for a little bit before sitting down in front of the console.
She startled, kicking the console. “Damn it, Translator!” She got down on the ground, looking at them through the ventilation holes. “How did you get in there?”
For a moment they considered admitting that they'd done a lot of this, hiding in places nobody expected them to be. They'd done it all throughout their childhood, even after they were adopted and, later, safe amongst Flock Tsunya. They liked it. They liked knowing they were hidden, that they could choose when people noticed them. And while it wasn't always comfortable, they had to say that right here and now, in the console, they'd found a nice position. “This one is flexible. Did it during weapons maintenance, too.”
“Well, I would love to stay down here with you, but I don't know when one of my parents is going to walk in.” She got up and took the chair again. “Did you miss your family?”
“I envy you for that.”
They tapped against the console, unable to reach out and touch her.
She reached down and tapped back, sighing. “I hope Ruwen's family is more normal, because if... things do work out, I'll only bring a disaster with me. I don't want her to suffer through that.” There was a pause, and they thought they heard her sigh again. “But there are only sentimental fools, not the sentimental wise.”
They were about to protest when they heard the door open. Ariadne snapped to attention, sitting up straighter and turning towards whomever entered. After a moment she got up and offered her chair to the other person.
“No, you sit,” Broca said. He sounded downtrodden, the barest hint of authority remaining in his voice. Ariadne listened, sitting back down as he came into Translator's view.
The two sat in silence, Ariadne turning towards the console after a few moments.
Translator resisted the urge to shift out of sheer discomfort with the emotional situation. Physically, they were fine. But the room felt charged.
Or maybe they were finally feeling tired.
They'd drained the oxygen before Ariadne came in, but been to busy getting into the console to care at the time. Broca had to notice that.
“...Is there a reason for the pile of blankets?” he asked, tone ever so slightly lighter.
“Translator stays in here. And Ruwen is the shield technician, so they keep the oxygen disabled to save on resources.”
“I've heard of Lanius taking anything metal, but not fabrics.” Soon after he added, “Your... hm - I don't remember but it was several generations back – so however many times great-grandfather supposedly had quite the encounter with a Lanius.”
Maybe the story Vryn told about fighting a Rock king wasn't the fantasy the others in the flock dismissed it as, after all.
When Ariadne didn't respond, Broca continued. “Do you like it in here, then?”
“My friends are usually here. And it's quiet, out of the way. But if you mean the Paradox in general, yes. I do. I've seen more of the galaxy in a few weeks than I have in twenty five years. It's all been nebula, but I have loved it,” she snapped. If Broca hadn't known her more emotional side, he did now. Translator heard the sound of her arms hitting the console, and it oh so slightly groaned under her weight when she leaned on it. “I don't want to be stuck here as your political bargaining chip.”
She was crying again. They wanted to be there for her, hug and cuddle her like Ruwen always did with both of them, preen her until she relaxed. But instead they were inside the console, watching as Broca stepped forwards and tried to comfort her. They thought they heard the muffled sound of someone touching fabric – Broca rubbing Ariadne's back, they guessed.
They were twisting their head to try and get a better look when Broca knelt, his knee not quite reaching the ground. Ariadne's weight came off the console as Broca gathered her into an embrace, her arms crossed between the two of them and the back of her head against his cheek. Translator was surprised she didn't try to pull away.
“I don't want that for you.” Was he crying, too? It sure seemed like it from the warble in his voice. “You're my baby girl, and I just want you to be happy. No matter what. Okay?”
Translator tried to shrink away. They may have been invited, but they didn't want to listen in to this. This was for Ariadne and her father alone.
But they were trapped here, watching as Broca shifted his daughter closer. Both were quiet, though Ariadne rested one arm on Broca's shoulder and buried her face in it.
They heard her speak, but didn't process that she was talking about the Grand Basilisk until Broca responded.
“We didn't want to. Your mother and I were appalled by the idea. And I am so, so sorry.” He let her cry – or maybe he was trying to compose himself. “I have made some damn stupid mistakes in my life, but I have only made one worse than letting you marry Tvardi. In a century and a half, only one.”
“What was it?” Ariadne asked, looking up at Broca.
He took the opportunity to press his cheek against hers. “Something that happened long before you were born.”
Translator felt a twinge in their neck and untwisted. They felt one prong catch on a bundle of wires and they froze. If they pulled their head free, they were liable to scrape it against a nearby machine. But they felt just as uncomfortable as when they'd had their neck twisted as they were like this.
Even worse, both Rocks had gone quiet, save for Broca hushing Ariadne as she gasped and hiccuped.
They started to work their head free, trying to only touch the machine as gently as possible.
The moment Ariadne spoke, Translator jerked themself free, the dull scraping sound covered by her voice.
They froze until Ariadne spoke again. “I want to stay on the Paradox. See the mission through.”
Broca sighed. Translator heard him pat her back and saw him stand up. “And what, pray tell, are you going to be doing?”
“...I think Ruwen wants to go home. While we're here.”
“And after that?”
“I'm not sure.”
“Will you tell me when you return? And I know you won't able to send messages to or from the Crystal homeworlds, but next time, please let me know what's going on. I thought I'd lost you.”
Translator repositioned themself so they'd be comfortable again. So, Ariadne was getting the same talk they'd gotten from Kusy when they agreed to join the Paradox's crew. Except this was like if they hadn't talked to their parents until the autoship thing happened.
“Good.” Broca must have noticed whatever Ariadne had up on the console, because he moved beside her. “Have you been keeping busy?”
“Father!” Ariadne said, exasperated. She stood up and tried to wedge herself between him and the console.
In the process of stepping back he kicked the console, right where Translator's head was.
Both Rocks froze and in that moment Translator knew they had been caught. When Broca knelt down, keeping one hand on the top of the console, they couldn't help but stare back at him.
“Did you know the Lanius was in here?” His eyes narrowed, fingers scraping along the top of the console.
Ariadne scuffed the ground with her foot. “I asked them to be here. Just in case, but mostly for when Mother comes to talk.”
Broca hummed. It seemed like an acceptable reason, because he all of a sudden looked much less hostile. “You found yourself a spy, then...” To Translator, he asked, “How did you fit in there? You're rather tall for one of your kind.”
They nodded rapidly.
“Honestly, I was wondering the same thing,” Ariadne said.
“The oxygen isn't disabled in here, is it?”
This time Translator answered. “No.”
Well,” Broca said, standing up before he spoke again. “Best of luck for Opasiel not to notice you. Ariadne, how did you fall in with a Lanius and a Crystal?”
“They came to visit me. Hemavar, Bris, and I were staying in the cargo bay to keep our distance from the crew. Ruwen decided to welcome me aboard, but the guards bullied her away. Translator had to come down so they could eat.”
“Her,” Ariadne confirmed, her tone leaving no room for compromise. “Ruwen invited me to come up here to visit, and the three of us... just had fun. I mostly read. Translator mostly slept through Ruwen painting on their back with some polish Mikael had.”
They chirred at the memory.
“And the rest of the crew?”
Ariadne leaned against the console, one leg covering most of Translator's view. “Translator is afraid of Mantis, but Ruwen is friends with the two aboard. I more of happen to see them. Emily spends most of her time in the engine room. Mikael is friendly enough, and Veedi seems to be, though I know her even less than the rest of them. Rauta... Well, he got along with Rhylian.”
“And nobody else?”
“And nobody else.”
The door opened and Translator sunk as far down as they could.
“Mother,” Ariadne said by way of a greeting. Translator saw her leg dip ever so slightly. So she did have to bow to her parents?
Broca left what little of Translator's view wasn't covered. Going to his wife, they presumed. So far, their impression was not that Broca and Opasiel were as inseparable as Atryom and Kusy. Maybe it was a factor of having known each other for a long time? Atryom and Kusy were technically still younger adults. Though for Lanius in general, adulthood lasted a long time.
“I suppose you two wish to talk in private?” Did Broca think he was being funny?
“Yes... There's no air in here.”
“The oxygen is disabled,” Broca said at the same time Ariadne said, “Translator and Ruwen stay here. There's no air to save resources.”
Translator heard the door open again and Opasiel's footsteps getting closer. Ariadne's weight visibly shifted, and Translator caught a glimpse of Opasiel moving in front of the seat. Not sitting in it, though.
The door closed. “Do you know how much trouble we've had,” Opasiel said, “With the Grand Basilisk?”
“I realized I had a chance at a better plan, and felt it was worth the risk.”
“Did you calculate the costs of the campaign he is running against us? He and his children disparage us as parents and rulers, and you as our daughter, at every chance they get.”
“Ariadne, you need to be able to see all the possibilities. Do you know how much work it has taken us to contain the damage to the nobility? I understand that you did not want to be married, but I spoke to you about it. You are not the first nor last person to be in an arranged marriage, and not the first nor last to be married to an older man. It is a matter of decades.”
Translator heard the console creak as Ariadne leaned more of her weight on it. “And a lifetime of being his widow and the mother of his children.”
The queen strode towards her daughter, making the slow plodding steps of the Rocks look graceful. “Ariadne,” she said, so low Translator strained to pick up the words, “I would never leave you on your own. Men will define you, make you their wife and their widow. Even to your father you're his daughter, but they don't own you. Women will make you a harlot and a bitch. You are more than any of that. You are a brilliant young woman.”
“And yet I ruined everything with the Grand Basilisk.”
Opasiel eased Ariadne off the console so that the two were both standing straight. “'Brilliant' does not mean 'mature.' You have so much potential. I am making sure you reach it as best I can. It takes time, so you must be patient and trust me. Do you think anyone has succeeded on their own? It's impossible. I took what I needed, but I will give it to you.”
Translator's foot twitched, ready to rip off the side panel so they could escape. They had gotten enough of the word 'potential' when they were being sold from slaver to slaver. That and 'investment.' They were too young to be bought and sold, and they certainly never were willing otherwise.
“Mother, I-” Ariadne paused, but Translator couldn't tell for what.
“Damn. Orein wants us back at the shuttle. Tell us what you're doing next time, Ariadne. I will write to you.”
Translator watched Ariadne shift forwards, then sink on her feet as the door opened and closed.
“I love you, too, Mother.”
They squirmed, plates clunking against the machinery and chassis of the console. They heard Ariadne mutter something (likely a curse) under her breath and kneel down.
“Do you need help?”
They managed to get their claws on the panel they'd removed and started scraping away at the tuhar, mostly for the noise. After a moment to think they pressed their head into the panel and applied acid. “This one is fine. You?”
“...I should tell Ruwen about this. Give her the opportunity to back out.” Ariadne sat down hard and sighed. They'd almost gotten the panel off when she huffed and said, “Maybe I'm the one who is not a good candidate for marriage.”
One good shove and the panel came off, Translator hauling themself out of the console to tumble into their nest. The world felt like it was doing strange things with gravity for a moment, but in that moment Ariadne stopped whatever she was thinking to stare at them, bewildered.
They grabbed onto the chair to pull themself upright, their body providing a marginal obstacle to any attempt Ariadne may have made to get up. She started to say something and they cut her off by preening her, gently scratching at the junctions between her carapace's plates.
“This one thinks she will love you no matter what.”
Chapter 33: Finally Feels Like She's Coming Home
Translator found Ruwen after the king and queen departed. They confirmed that she did, in fact, want to try going home and noted the coordinates she gave them. How much effort had she put into memorizing them? She recited them perfectly, without a pause or change in her expression.
Then they had told her Ariadne wanted to talk to her, going to Mikael while she hurried to the shields.
He was sitting in the cockpit, rubbing his temples. He didn't look like he'd slept much, and the meeting with the king and queen must have drained him; he was slumped in his seat, eyes not quite open. He barely turned his head towards Translator before fishing for his respirator and slipping it on. He sighed and waved them over. “What's up?”
They settled in beside him, examining the star map on the console. “Were there plans on what to do next?”
He prodded the star map, bringing up color-coded routes. “Not really. Though I have a feeling we're going to be losing Ariadne. She's not bad crew. Untrained, sure, but not bad. I'm going to miss her, but I guess it's for the best.” He spread his fingers apart, zooming in on the Paradox's location. “It'd be tough to ask anyone to sacrifice their only kid, let alone the royal family's only kid.”
“We could bring Ruwen home. Maybe the Crystals can help us?”
Mikael tapped the screen, tossing the starmap every which way. “Maybe, although she's told me her people are rather insular. I don't know if they'd appreciate us showing up out of the blue, even with one of theirs that's been missing for decades.”
“Her family should know she's okay.”
They swore they heard Mikael mumble, “For now,” but immediately afterwards he asked, “You know where exactly she's supposed to go?”
They repeated the coordinates Ruwen had given them, and listened as Mikael turned on the internal comms, announcing that they were going for the Crystal homeworlds. They stood in the background as the engines rumbled to life and Rhylian commed them, stating that so long as they were within a Rock sector, he had to follow them. Mikael shared the coordinates with Rhylian as he passed them into the navigational AI, reassuring him he had no plans to put Ariadne in danger. She could even be a diplomatic boon.
For the entire trip, Translator and Ariadne rarely left Ruwen's side, save for when she left them (often to visit Emily or the Mantis brothers instead). She'd go from excited to so nervous she complained that she felt like vomiting in the span of a few minutes. She'd smile and reminisce on a memory, then hug the nearest person and cry.
Translator spent the nights curled up at her back, listening to her speculate about friends, family, sector affairs. Ariadne asked questions and hummed along to Ruwen's laugher when she got onto a tangent about some relative or another. (Her Great-Great Grandmother Brelyn sounded like quite the character.) Those first few nights, Ariadne would leave after Ruwen got tired, but then she just... stayed, and Translator would awaken to the sound of their respirator-assisted breaths. Once or twice they awoke all entangled and unsure how they got that way.
But too soon – or not soon enough – they had gotten to the final beacon. Ruwen did not stop pacing when they made that last jump, wandering around the ship and repeating things under her breath Translator could not begin to comprehend. They caught some numbers and some basic words at the most. That for them was one of the worst parts of the ordeal; not knowing what Ruwen was talking about in her own language, both for her sake and to appease the fear that they just weren't good enough.
And when Mikael turned on the comms and asked if the unknown thing outside the window was what she was looking for, Ruwen broke down in tears.
Rhylian commed next to ask the same question, and he, too, got nothing more than Mikael's confusion and Ruwen's crying.
She brought Translator with her to the cockpit when Mikael asked – more insistently this time – her to come see what this thing was. She kept one arm looped around their waist as she pointed out where to approach, what to look for, how to interface with the dead-looking device floating in equally dead space.
“I hope these still work,” she muttered, drawing looping, crisp-lined characters into an input field on the console. One by one they flashed blue, and she added, “Thanks for the calligraphy lessons, Zirci.”
When both Mikael and Translator gave her puzzled looks, she asked, “What? What do you call your father?”
“This one technically doesn't have one.”
She sighed heavily, wincing as she returned to writing. “It's deactivated, but I think I can get it going again... Provided it hasn't run out of energy.”
“Are you okay, Ruwen?” Mikael asked. He hovered his hand over hers, his stillness making the way her hand trembled all the clearer.
“No.” She leaned on the console, covering her eyes with her other hand.
Translator wrapped their arms around her and rested their head on her shoulder, wedged between the crystalline pauldron and her cheek. “You'll be okay.” They managed to work their face under her jawline, where her carapace was separated into so many tiny pieces. “You'll be okay.”
She took a deep breath, the edges of her carapace rasping against Translator's smooth face. And she continued writing.
The console pinged the moment she finished the last character and pulled her stylus away. She stopped breathing until the characters on the screen changed and she slumped in Translator's arms.
She traced a set of characters, whispering, “That's my rank... My family's name...”
Then she jumped up, jolting Translator from their spot. “It knows me! And it's gonna turn on. It's gonna turn on.”
Mikael shouted, drawing both Translator and Ruwen's attention.
Out the window was a dark spot, so black Translator thought their eyes were broken. It warped the space around it, blurring the stars and changing their color.
“Ruwen... That's a black hole.”
“Wormhole,” she corrected, putting one hand on his shoulder. She leaned towards the window, with one finger pointed at the spot. “You're gonna have to trust me, but drive straight into it. I did it when we left home for the expedition. It's totally safe.”
The console beeped again, this time announcing an incoming comm from Rhylian. With barely a glance at the screen, Mikael accepted.
“Paradox, what's going on? A damned black hole just opened up-”
“Ruwen says that's how she got here.”
“It is! Mikael, please.” Ruwen's voice cracked. Translator reached up, placing their hand under her chin.
It got her attention. She embraced them, squeezing them close, and they just stuck their head out to tap the tip of their face to her forehead.
The ship jolted as the engines powered up and the dark spot grew closer and closer. Ruwen didn't watch, instead holding Translator so that their feet were off the ground and burying her face in their shoulder.
Translator, too, shut their eyes when they got close. They could feel the pull of gravity, testing at their plates.
They barely caught Rhylian's shout of “Paradox!” before the ship was engulfed and they were so heavy they couldn't help becoming dead weight in Ruwen's arms.
It was over faster than it started. One glance out the window and Translator knew this was not the same space they had started in. No, they saw thin clouds of dust where there had been a gas giant, a distant sun.
Ruwen took one look and fell to her knees, sobbing.
Chapter 34: To Be Around You
Mikael and Translator were able to haul her up into the copilot's seat, Translator hugging her and making sure to keep their own weight off the chair. They stroked the back of her head, carefully cleaning the gaps between the thick plates.
“I'm home,” she breathed. She squeezed Translator tight enough to make them squawk, pressing her head into their chest. “I can see my parents, and my little brother – agh, he'll be so old I can't believe it. 'Least I can still say I was born first.” She pulled them down a little to peer over their shoulder and ask Mikael, “I can go home, right?”
Translator just saw him pat her upper arm. “Of course,” he said. “It's the first thing on the list.”
She nodded and let Translator go, turning towards the console. With a couple taps she'd started the download of a sector map. Glancing out the window showed no sign of the satellite the data was coming from, but there was plenty of space for it to be in.
“I don't know if they've moved, though. I can check, which means-” she sighed, finger trailing down the console screen. “I gotta find them.”
Translator saw Mikael pull a pained face. “Please tell me there's internet somewhere.”
Instantly Ruwen tapped three beacons, creating a jump route. “There's a station here. We- we gotta be quick. Time's slower here than out there.”
“I'm no physicist. Come on, let's go.” Ruwen reached for the controls, stopping when Mikael beat her to them. He told the AI to accept the jump plan as given, that they'd adjust as needed. And then he dismissed Ruwen and Translator.
They couldn't tell if she was about to cry or laugh with joy when they made their way back to shields. They just saw a complete lack of focus in her gaze, felt her hand gripping their shoulder.
Ariadne was waiting by the door when they returned to wrap one arm around Ruwen's back and tentatively press their foreheads together. “It's beautiful out there.”
“Y'know, this is kinda sorta your homecoming, too. Your ancestry and all.” Ruwen giggled, looping both her arms around Ariadne's lower back.
“Have you ever looked at yourself in a mirror? Don't tell me you don't have a little more Crystal in you than the average Rock.” Ruwen turned her head towards Translator, returning the stroking they'd been doing earlier. “And how long has it been since a Lanius was here last?”
They leaned into the touch, chirring. “In your years, the rest of the galaxy's years, or feast cycles?”
“A while. In all of 'em. I'll say that right now.”
“'While' might be an understatement,” Ariadne said. She was about to let go when she ship approached a beacon, the world wavering for a moment as it entered the jump. She kept herself steady and upright, using Ruwen for balance. She gave Translator, who'd hardly shifted at all, a mock glare. “Don't look so smug. Acting like nothing's happened.”
They jerked their head back, ruffling their plates. “Never.”
Ruwen tapped her forehead to Ariadne's again. “Come on. Lanius spend all their time on ships.”
“This one is used to jumps.”
Ariadne sighed, resting her head in the crook of Ruwen's neck. “Damn you both,” she mumbled, voice soft. She shut her eyes, letting Ruwen ever-so-barely rock her.
Translator tried to get past the two, only for Ruwen to place a hand on their back and guide them into the embrace. Ariadne opened one eye and hummed before putting one arm around them as well.
“How will you find your family?” Translator asked. They preened under Ruwen's jaw for a couple seconds.
She tilted her head up, cueing them to stop. “Social media, I guess? My zirca has a long-term messaging account. Just for this sort of thing...” She sagged, and Ariadne shifted to support some of her weight. “I think she was thinking a few years, maximum, not forty, though.”
She broke the embrace to sit down at the console. “Core, I need to figure out what I'm gonna say to her.” She pulled up a document, switched it to handwriting, fingers hesitating over the screen.
After a long moment, she turned to Translator. “Hey, hon, I'm really sorry, and I'll get it if you don't want to answer, but... What would you want your sibling to say to you?”
Oh. As they joined her besides the console, staring at the screen, they felt the hard punch of the question start to fade. It didn't fade much; they had to think about their answer. Imagine if Knapp – would she still be a months-old baby? Seven years old, like she should be? Seven-year-old Knapp would be more helpful for Ruwen – if she sent them a message.
Or if, by some astronomically low odds, she walked in through the door. Her chest scarred, maybe her foot and fingers wouldn't look quite the same. Wouldn't have that silvery finish. Maybe she'd look more like Atryom; solidly built, spiny when her plates flared. Or maybe she'd take after Kusy, like Osin did.
She'd compare her chest scars to Translator's back. She'd ruffle and make sure Ruwen and Ariadne checked out, then go play with the Mantis brothers. Would she like Osin? Or would she think they were a replacement for her, the not-dead-anymore sibling?
They kind of were.
Translator hated to think that.
“This one loves Translator,” they said at long last. “This one still thinks Translator is the best sibling ever-”
Translator snapped their head up, momentarily meeting Ruwen's eyes.
“I can't understand a word you're saying.”
...Oh. They tried to smooth their plates down and tried again, this time in Common. “I love you, and I still think you are the best sibling ever-” they shuddered, forcing back a plaintive chirp. “And I miss you and Atryom and Kusy every day, so I want to come home. I want to meet Osin, and Vryn, and Ryth, and all of Flock Tsunya. I missed out last time. Don't worry, I wasn't too scared alone in space. It was new, and you know how I like the new.”
They felt Ruwen's hand on their back, edging towards their shoulder. They collapsed into her lap, keening. Seven years. Seven years meant nothing! Nothing when someone was gone forever.
Ruwen's family got her back.
Why couldn't they get Knapp back?
“What'sss going on?”
Over the rise of Ruwen's arm Translator saw Veedi, peering inside one appendage hooked on the doorway. Nik and Zev were behind her, antennae twitching as they whispered to each other. There was Ariadne, too, striding towards the three of them.
The comms turned on, and Emily spoke. “Distress cry detected. Has physical harm occurred?”
And then Rauta. “What the fuck are you doing to the Lanius?”
Veedi shrank away from Ariadne as she approached, but not enough to muffle it when she said, “Ohh, it's their sssibling. Sssorry. You're projecting!” She disappeared from the doorway, Ariadne standing in it a moment later.
She didn't dissuade the Mantis brothers, who instead poked their heads in the room like Ariadne wasn't there at all.
“We've lost some, too.”
“But we have lots-”
“Will you two get out?” Ariadne snapped.
Translator shivered, their fear and grief clashing with a sudden burst of feeling supported and cared for. They tried to reach out and thank Veedi, give themself a task to focus on through the turmoil. Ruwen patted their back, almost brushing their neck.
“I couldn't stand losing Nik-”
“Same for me. With Zev.”
“We'll be going now!” they said in unison, scattering as Ariadne tried to kick one of them.
They didn't catch what Emily said next; whatever Veedi had done wore off and all the stress crashed into them like a bomber. They keened again, digging their fingers into the fabric of Ruwen's pants.
When they quieted down they realized she was crying, too, clutching the side of her chest. But she was breathing okay, or as okay as she could be.
Ariadne still sent her to the medbay, just in case. That night she brought up more blankets and pillows and the three of them slept in the nest. Wrapped in a blanket and cuddled between both Ariadne and Ruwen, in a sector lost to time, Translator felt the safest they'd been since the trip began.
Chapter 35: Have We Forgotten
It was a tense, tense wait.
Ruwen had managed to sign into her messaging account and write something to her mother, attaching a picture of herself as proof of her identity. It sent successfully, but nobody had any idea when she would get it and read it.
It didn't help that the Paradox was staying away from the metal and crystal space station and the ships docked at it, avoiding detection.
Translator and Ariadne stood by Ruwen's side, watching as she toyed with the internet address bar. She'd been doing this since she sent the message, debating whether or not to see if she could find any of them on social media. “What if something happened?” she'd asked. “If... If someone died, or something like that, my zirca should get to tell me first.”
“Or it could be the only way you find any of them,” Ariadne had countered.
And now, at long last, she sighed and started writing in the address bar. Translator thought they recognized some of the characters; they were part of Ruwen's name. And they'd been on the screen when she reactivated the wormhole device. Her family's name, that was it.
“Who are you looking for?” they asked.
“My zirci. If I find one, I find both.”
All three leaned in a little bit as the search ran and loaded, the distance from the station slowing down the internet speed.
Ariadne narrowed her eyes, thinking. “How many people will you have to look through?”
Ruwen shrugged. “Not as much as some. My family name's pretty rare. And, y'know, I added in his business.” She tapped at the last few characters in the search bar. “It helps.”
She'd covered her eyes when the results came in, images of Crystals of all sorts of shades of blue and links Translator could barely understand. Ruwen took a deep breath, bouncing her leg.
“Are you all right?” Ariadne asked, trying to meet her eyes.
“Counting or not counting the stress-nausea?”
“Just look. Neither of us know who your father is.” Ariadne placed her hand over Ruwen's wrist, ever so slightly straining to get Ruwen to pull her hand away from her face.
Translator couldn't tell if Ariadne had succeeded or Ruwen removed her hand of her own will. They were more concerned with the fact that Ruwen had started to cry again the moment she saw the search results. Was she getting bad news from the links they couldn't read? Were those tears of joy? Or was she overwhelmed in general?
“Is everything okay?”
She nodded, tapping one of the links. She'd covered half her face again, but Ariadne didn't try to pull her hand away this time. “I miss him.”
Translator nuzzled the back of her head. They'd missed Atryom and Kusy, too, when they left on the Paradox. But this they could tell was a more serious missing.
The page she'd selected loaded, showing a scrolling feed of artwork with a picture of a Crystal they assumed was Ruwen's father on the side, or sometimes in the shot of “in-progress” images. Most looked like business logos, minimalist pieces good for resizing, sometimes with accompanying characters in the same pretty handwriting Ruwen had. Others were full-on paintings with rough strokes, thick and thin and everything in between.
“His style changed – it was all real clean when I was last here.” Ruwen stopped short at the sight of one image that appeared to be two paintings side by side.
She brought it up to full screen. Indeed, the left side of the painting was almost photo-realistic, with only the slightest softness afforded by the brushstrokes. The subject was a Crystal woman, a few shades lighter than Ruwen, seated with a sleeping toddler in her arms and an older child at her side: Ruwen. Translator recognized her easily, between the color of her carapace and an unmistakeable silly grin.
On the right was the same woman, this time standing, one arm behind an adult Crystal man. He was older than Ruwen, but didn't look like he was as old as Rauta. The woman, too, looked much older, more weathered. Translator could have sworn she had the expression Atryom and Kusy got when they were reminded of Knapp, too. Trying to hold it together, but not quite succeeding.
“That's them,” Ruwen breathed, brushing the adult man's face. Her brother? Translator could see the resemblance.
Ariadne leaned in closer, looping her arms around Ruwen's neck. “Your father's going to have to update it. Imagine how happy he'll be to put you in again.”
Ruwen nodded, turned to bury her face in Ariadne's chest, and cried all over again.
They knew it would take a long time to get a reply back. So they spent the day trawling social media and news sites. Ruwen translated most of it, sometimes interjecting a comment on how she'd never expected that cousin to get married, or sheer amazement that her great-great grandmother Brelyn was still alive, let alone running a popular blog-type thing filled to the brim with odd statements. Whenever they needed a break (more than a few of Ruwen's grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents had passed, along with a freak accident that took an aunt) they'd return to Brelyn's stream-of-consciousness humor.
“She always said I was the her for the new generation,” Ruwen said as the three recovered from a comment that, for once, hadn't been too steeped in cultural references for Ariadne and Translator to understand.
“A personality that ages well,” Ariadne commented.
The console chimed, a green light blinking on the screen. Ruwen yelped and pushed the other two out of the way, though they quickly took up post peering over her shoulders.
Both Ariadne and Translator soon put an arm around her back. She was shaking, hiccuping, rubbing her eyes. She read half the message before turning around to embrace Ariadne and Translator, crying, “I wanna go home.”
“Did she put an address in?” Ariadne asked, craning her neck to look at the screen.
Ruwen nodded. “Same place I left.”
Translator tapped Ruwen under the chin. Once they had her attention they tapped the tip of their face to the space between her eyes. “What did she say?”
“She can't believe it's me. That I'm alive.” She bent down, nuzzling Translator. “She said if it was a prank it wasn't funny, but if it's me- If it's me, she wants me to come home.”
Ariadne brushed Ruwen's upper arm. “Do you want me to comm Mikael, so you can tell him the coordinates?”
Ruwen hummed and let go of Translator to sit down at the console, writing commands. “Yeah, I just... One second.”
The comm turned on. Mikael, clearly confused, asked, “Ruwen, what's up?”
“I got coordinates.”
It sounded like Mikael had fallen out of his seat from the crash that sounded. After a moment, he recovered. “H- okay then. Punch 'em in, let's go.”
And that is when the comm chimed again, a hail from an unknown ship.
Translator could feel Ruwen run through the ship on the way to the cockpit. Mikael had already accepted the hail to try and placate the Crystals – Translator heard a handful of voices, all speaking that same strange language Ruwen spoke. They thought they caught a word here and there, mostly short ones, inconsequential ones.
They were well aware of Ariadne hovering behind them, too. She hung on to every word they translated, no matter how small.
Eventually the transmission cut out. Translator paused, reeling from the silence. Ruwen and the other Crystals had been talking up to the last moment. Had something happened? They didn't sound angry or anything, except at first. Towards the end they'd even sounded a little excited.
Mikael was quick to replace the intership communication with an intraship one. A video feed appeared on the screen, divided up between each room. Mikael culled empty rooms one by one until the crew all stared at each other. Emily, completely unreadable, as Engis were. Translator recognized Rauta's look of concern masked as steely impatience. Oddly enough Veedi was in the same room as Nik and Zev, hanging towards the back where dozens of canvases, slashed with color, sat. The Mantis brothers were right up against the screen until they saw Translator's flared plates and backed off.
Then there were Ruwen and Mikael. She was resting her head and arms just below the screen, almost slipping off the console entirely. Her uneven breathing pattern was clear to see. Mikael kept glancing at her, eyebrows raised.
“Ruwen, I'm sorry, but can you at least give the basics?” He gave the camera a sideways look and said, “I think it went well, but it's kind of a big deal for her.”
She turned her head, light glinting off her crest directly into the camera for a moment. “They're the Carnelian. They're okay.” She took a deep breath, the air rattling in her lungs. “I told 'em we got Rock royalty aboard so you can do your diplomacy 'n stuff, Ariadne.”
Ariadne blinked, slouching away from the screen. “I... Thank you.”
Mikael patted Ruwen on the back, the contact making no sound against her carapace. “You go settle down. Best not to have an asthma attack right here and now.”
She nodded and got up to leave, never looking at the screen. Was she crying, and didn't want to show anyone? That was it, wasn't it?
Translator ducked away from the screen as well as Mikael began to elaborate on what Ruwen had translated for him during her conversation with the crew of the Carnelian. Whatever. They could ask Ruwen herself about it.
They caught her in the hallway. Indeed she was crying, using her shirt to dab at forming tears. She held out her free arm for an embrace, one they gladly provided. They felt her exposed chest against theirs, the coolness of it, the way it moved with each breath. Their hand drifted to the broken, disconnected pieces of carapace over her injury. Her hand came to a rest against their lower back.
“Are you okay?” they asked, tilting their head up to tap her under the chin. The tip of their face clicked against and slid between the small pieces of carapace there.
“Yeah. Hey, stop it.”
The two continued on, stopping in the med bay long enough for the machinery to report that Ruwen was fine save for elevated stress levels. She grumbled at it that she knew, she was the one that was stressed.
The Paradox's engines rumbled to a start not long after Ruwen was back in the shield room's sole chair and Translator settled into their nest. They shut their eyes, absorbing what little oxygen had returned in their absence while Ruwen and Ariadne talked about how to best win over the Crystals. They heard Ruwen's tone change, the slight rattle when she inhaled melting away, her words more clear even when they were uncertain. After all, she was forty years out of date with her kind's customs. In turn, Ariadne's cold business tone softened. She quit pacing to stand beside Ruwen's chair, one hand on its back.
“Sorry,” Ruwen said after a long pause. She shook her head, tilting her chin up to look at Ariadne. “It's... been a while.”
Ariadne's gaze was directed nowhere in particular. She'd been drumming on her stomach for the past couple minutes, fingers tapping out a pattern Translator couldn't identify. “That's to be expected.”
“This one thinks sitting down would be better than standing there.” They rolled onto their side and against the wall, gesturing towards the newly freed space in their fabric pile. “There's room.”
Ariadne blinked, then put on an expression of being absolutely aghast and Translator could not tell if it was genuine or not. “Translator,” she said, scandal in her voice. “Are you propositioning me to bed you?”
They looked at the blankets, at Ariadne, and at Ruwen who was trying to hold back a fit of laughter and slowly falling out of her chair in the process. “...This one has not once called the nest a bed.”
Ruwen couldn't hold back any longer. She fell all the way out of the chair, gripping it for support as she laughed. Her breath ran out in seconds, and soon Ariadne had to help her into the nest while she recovered and pressed her respirator tighter to her face. Of course, now that she was in easy reach, Translator took the opportunity to preen her. They hummed the same sounds Kusy did whenever they preened any of the juveniles or attended to the engines, nothing in particular but soothing nonetheless. When Ruwen squirmed they clucked at her, and soon she had resigned to her fate.
Ariadne, victorious, took the chair. “Are you getting a bath?”
“I think so,” Ruwen grumbled.
“This one thought you could use some help with your carapace.”
“Excuse you I can wash myself perfectly fi-i-ine I did not realize that had been itchy.” She arched her back for Translator to better access the thin gaps between the plates.
Ariadne snorted. “Perfectly fine?”
Traveling through Crystal space was... surprisingly uneventful. The Carnelian dealt with almost everyone who asked questions, and Ruwen handled those few who did get through to the Paradox. Every once in a while someone from the Carnelian commed to speak to Ruwen; her after-reports indicated that they kept asking about her story, her family, in all sorts of convoluted ways. She was pretty sure they were seeing if she was telling the truth about the whole thing.
In the meantime, they bonded. Ariadne and Ruwen navigated the possibilities of being betrothed, often by explaining what it all meant to Translator. They rather enjoyed listening to the two, and was glad they were getting along so well. What could they say? They liked them both, and a rift between them would be a disaster to navigate. So they stuck around, as naturally part of their little group as could be.
But finally they were on the last jump, the last approach to a nearby planet. Ruwen and Ariadne were cuddling – experimentally, so they said – by the window, watching the bluish planet grow closer and closer.
“So, that's your actual homeworld. Good ol' capital.” Ruwen sighed, tracing a finger along the pinpoint lights signifying spaceports. Her great-great grandmother lived on the planet, and apparently Benitoi, Ruwen's brother, lived with her. She'd sworn nothing would keep her from seeing at least some of her family. That these two happened to be her favorites, or so she claimed, added fuel to her fire. “Lot shinier than you Rocks' stuff.”
“It's all underground.” Which was true; the same tunneling that had signified the expanse of the Rock civilization on their planets was present here. Whatever shininess Ruwen spoke of was not apparent from orbit.
Something moved. Translator squeezed their head past Ruwen's shoulder and watched a handful of crystal-plated drones flit about. They weren't armed, at least not with anything Translator recognized. Instead they, too, bristled with sensors, dancing around the Paradox like a bunch of curious children.
Ruwen sighed, giving Translator's face a few absentminded strokes. “And the media's here. Let the drama begin.”
I know it's been forever, and the end of this gets sloppy. I need to get through the Crystal Homeworlds, not much time for sightseeing. It's been holding the story back for too long.
Chapter 37: The Whole World Can See
Translator was lucky, in a way. They got to avoid the media's attention. Ruwen, Ariadne, and Mikael all disembarked together, and Translator watched through the windows as Ruwen shoved through the gathered drones and journalists to embrace her brother and great-great-grandmother. The two were difficult to identify from the angle Translator was at, but between knowing what they looked like from pictures and the process of elimination – Ruwen was touchy but would not hug a random stranger – they figured it out. Close behind were another pair of Crystals. Their carapaces matched Ruwen and her brother's, but not cloudy, pale Brelyn,. The two siblings' parents, that much was obvious.
The news crews let the family be, save for the cameras trained on them as they reunited. Instead Ariadne and Mikael took the brunt of the crowd. Ariadne kept her chin up and didn't look fazed at all, while
Mikael was near impossible to spot save for the times he gestured towards the disembarked crew or the ship.
It was hours before things started to settle down. Ruwen didn't come back to the ship, but she did send a message saying that she would be staying with her family while both they and the Paradox were in the same place. Mikael and Ariadne did return to the ship, a few news crews in tow. Ariadne, as it turned out, was sufficiently fluent in the Crystal language to get by. A benefit of being royalty, as it seemed. They not only got to know of the Crystals' existence but also met with the rare envoys they sent out. Translator saw the crews as they toured the ship, waving to them and tossing in greetings both in their native dialect and the Crystal language. One of the journalists looked delighted when they heard Translator speak her own language, but they shied away when she started towards them for an interview or whatever she had in mind.
Let Ruwen and Ariadne and anyone else who wanted it get the spotlight. They were fine being some random Lanius crew.
For the next week the ship felt empty and overwhelmingly busy at once. Ruwen was almost always gone, Ariadne spent most of her time either out of the ship or having video conferences at one of the consoles, and not everyone wanted to interact with visitors. Sometimes someone would bring a journalist onto the ship for a chat, leading to individual crew either scattering or hanging close by.
There was one exception. At the end of the week Ruwen returned, accompanied by her family. Translator was working with Rauta at the time, helping him increase the available power to the machinery.
Tedious work, and they were no engineer, so Ruwen's entrance was a welcome surprise.
Translator leapt up to embrace her. When she laughed and started to speak they stuck one of the oxygen-filled beads around her neck in her mouth, getting a surprised grunt. Her brother took the cue as well. None of the family wore respirators, but they all had those necklaces.
They did step back to greet her family. They recognized their name when Ruwen spoke it in her language, and each of her family members' as well. She didn't give Rauta an alternative, but nobody seemed to care. Brelyn was saying something to Ruwen, too fast and too naturally spoken for Translator to make it out. Her parents studied them for a moment before her father placed a hand over his chest and performed a shallow bow, a gesture they repeated to the both of them.
Her brother, however...
Benitoi gave Translator a cursory examination, then leaned to the side to get a clearer look at Rauta. As soon as the two made eye contact Benitoi asked something that caught the family's attention, but
Ruwen's the most. All Translator caught was the word “sister,” or so they thought.
Rauta stared at Ruwen for a long second as she shifted her weight back and forth.
“Uh, he asked what working with his sister's like.” She didn't meet Rauta's gaze, but instead glanced towards her mother as she placed a hand on her daughter's shoulder.
He didn't answer immediately. He spent a couple moments shuffling some items around, organizing the tools he'd brought out during the upgrade process. “Tell him his sister can be a pain in the ass, but she's a good shield technician.”
She squeaked, repeating the sentence to her family at too rapid a clip for Translator to hope to understand. Everyone but Benitoi muttered something that sounded like approval. He gave Rauta an approving, almost smug nod. Translator guessed Ruwen had told him her complaints about the older Rock and he'd been raring to challenge him.
Rauta half-glared at them through the corners of his eyes. “Now are you all going to let us work or not?”
Ruwen scoffed, crossing her arms. “Pff. Work. Such drudgery.” She herded her family out of the room, saying something about Emily. Just before the door closed she turned to wave goodbye. “See you later, Translator.”
They waved back, then dug into the console once more.
The crew adjusted to the new pattern. Nik and Zev sulked for a while about Ruwen never being around anymore, but apparently Nik had hit it off with Ruwen's father and the brothers got to go check out his studio a couple times. Ariadne was gone all day, sometimes reporting in to say she'd be gone overnight, or for a few days, as she met some dignitary or another. When she did return to the Paradox she did two things: collapsed into a chair or her bed or Translator's nest, or went down to the cargo hold to do some workout routine. Whichever one she didn't do immediately she did afterwards. Translator just worked. Mostly with Rauta, sometimes with Emily.
Days turned into weeks. Ruwen spent less time with her family and more with Ariadne, trying to help convince people to listen. From what Translator heard, they had a handful of quiet supporters, some far more passionate than others. The problem was that the idea of ending the Crystals' era of isolation was nearly unspoken of except in the most extreme ends of politics. The Paradox's appearance was intriguing, but not everyone found it as fun and unusual as the media attention they'd gotten implied. The crew didn't see much of it but Ariadne had found a significant number of people upset with alien intrusion into their home, even to bring one of their own back. Some of the cruder messages called her “tainted” by being around aliens, so integrated into their cultures, for so long.
“Hey, Translator,” Ruwen said one day after coming back to the Paradox the night before. “My zirca's got something she's been working on, and she wants your input.”
How could they say no?
And so they met Ruwen's mother yet again. She came to the Paradox hauling a large pack, with a satchel hanging from it. With a level of focus they usually saw in Ariadne or Emily she set all her things out. Adhesive of some sort, fabric, another fabric, yet another. A soft measuring tape she instantly took to Translator's limbs, chest, waist, even their face. Up close like this they saw the glow of a working virtual interface contact in her eye. Or implant, they couldn't tell.
Finally she reached into the larger pack to produce some sort of clothing. It was too thin to fit a Rock or Crystal, but too big for Mikael. She held it out to them. When they hesitated she shook it, insistent.
They took it at last, holding it gingerly between their fingertips, examining the fabric. Was it just them or did the protrusions match their spines...?
With a loud sigh from her and an embarrassed grumble from Ruwen she undid something on the front and held it out again, the new opening facing her.
Ruwen tapped on the side of her face. “Put it on, hon.”
Ruwen's mother huffed and said something that made Ruwen laugh.
“She says she hasn't dressed someone since Benitoi was little, but she will if she has to,” Ruwen said, smiling as she watched Translator fumble with whatever outfit this was.
In the end, they did need help from both of the Crystals. The two laughed together, Ruwen's mother making jokes and telling stories that made her daughter duck her head in embarrassment. They both laughed when Translator got the soft hood over their head, blinking at them through the clear panel in front of their eyes.
The outfit fit well, they had to say. There were some places that pulled strangely, or were too loose, but they had no serious complaints. Well, none other than wanting to know why this was all happening in the first place.
“Thank you...?” They trailed off, their knowledge of the Crystal language weak and having forgotten Ruwen's mother's name.
“Tanzum,” they repeated with a nod.
That was all she gave them before she closed up the suit again and pushed them towards the door to the medbay. Ruwen spoke up with a sharp “Ah!” and turned Translator around, herding them towards the engines while chattering away at Tanzum.
The door opened and Ruwen got herself and them into what little space was in the engine room. Emily, as usual, fled to the top of the engine, but opened something up to continue her work instead of staring at Translator the entire time.
As for them, they waited.
The lights never changed, not even when they hit the point they'd be in the red. Ruwen bounced on her toes, giggling while she dragged Translator back to Tanzum to announce something with great pride.
While Tanzum hummed and turned to the most obvious ill-fitting places, Translator asked Ruwen, “What is the purpose of this?”
She shrugged. “My zirca figured you could use a space suit. Er, anti-space suit. For getting around and stuff. Now you can leave the ship with us!”
Tanzum batted her daughter away when she tried to embrace Translator. Instead she settled for a quick kiss while her mother worked, marking lines along the fabric. They spoke of plans to give the suit more rigorous field tests. Maybe visiting Ruwen's family, or just wandering about the capital's tunnels?
Tanzum finished up her modifications, telling Ruwen to keep the suit on the Paradox. She left her satchel and its supplies, too, for any repairs that needed to be made.
But the plans they dreamed up fell apart when Ariadne said she had a few people to serve as a diplomatic envoy and she wanted them all back home now.
Too much time had passed already.
Chapter 38: Fadeaway
They left the next day. Ruwen's goodbyes were as tearful as her reunion, her family gathered around her and pleading for her to stay safe and come home again as soon as she could. Translator had come along to test out the new suit, but found themself too swept up in the emotions of the moment to judge how well the suit was working. Enjoying the sights was certainly out of the question.
Much like Ariadne herself had all those weeks ago the diplomats stayed in the cargo hold when they weren't up amongst the crew, trying to keep from being underfoot while observing everyone. Translator saw them a few times when they went to eat, and once or twice some diplomat would try to strike up a conversation. It was awkward, though they attributed most of it to the language barrier and the Crystals' unending curiosity towards the alien amongst them. Ariadne had always been polite, even subtle about any inquiries, and Ruwen had spent a year on the Paradox when they'd met her. Emily, well, she was an Engi.
The ship was quiet. There was tension, but it was of a different flavor than when they first arrived. Everyone had been excited to be in this different place. But now, there was a distinct feeling that they were racing time. Nobody was quite sure what the time difference was between the Crystal homeworlds and the Rock homeworlds was. The diplomats turned to Ruwen, but she had never given it much thought. To her, the two were completely separate concepts.
The Carnelian led them back to the wormhole, maintaining near complete radio silence. Whether it was out of displeasure at being called back into escort duty at such a short notice, displeasure at escort duty in general, or respect for how much stress the Paradox's crew were under, they weren't sure. They only commed the ship to confirm that they were coming with, to give the diplomats a ride back to their home when the time came. While the diplomats were happy to be around some aliens, they could not keep the Paradox at beck and call. Both they and the Carnelian understood the gravity of the Paradox's mission.
While the Carnelian led them to the wormhole, the Paradox was the first through it.
The stars were all the same. The planets had moved, but Translator was not about to try and guess how much time the Paradox had been gone based off of the difference from when they'd left.
What surprised them was that Rhylian's ship was still there. Not quite in the same spot, though, and it was quiet. The engines, weapons, everything but vital systems were offline. It was undamaged, like it was sleeping.
Ariadne took up the duty of comming them. The connection tried once, twice, three times, and failed. They weren't picking up. “Call in the morning,” said the gruff voice of the ship's managerial AI.
From Ariadne's puzzled expression, that was not the answer she was looking for. She glared at the screen, hunching her shoulders. “This is Princess Ariadne, daughter of King Broca and Queen Opasiel. Get me Rhylian's private comm.”
Ruwen yawned, resting her head on the console. It was the time that Mikael always called “afternoon” on the Paradox. “Not letting it wait until morning?”
“Either I bother him now or he tells me that my parents would have rather I'd contacted him upon arrival later. I won't take him long.”
But when Rhylian answered, he did not have the mumble of someone who'd just awoken. “Princess?”
No, he wasn't half-asleep at all. He sounded downright tense. And Translator swore they heard the faint sound of someone breathing hard, like someone was forcing exhales right next to his ear.
Ariadne glanced at Translator, Ruwen, and Mikael. The latter shrugged, gesturing for her to continue. After clearing her throat, the did. “As you can tell, I've returned. All are well, and we have a diplomatic envoy-”
The breathing turned into a much more audible moan with a sharp cutoff. Then Therilane spoke, her voice barely distinguishable as hers; Translator couldn't understand a word she said.
“Oh-okay,” Rhylian whispered to her. There was a pause before he spoke in a tone meant for Ariadne, all the more tense this time. Excited, afraid, Translator couldn't tell. “We'll talk later, Princess. I need to- ohh, there you go. In the morning, you hear?”
The comms cut off. Ariadne turned around and sunk down until she was resting against the console, clearly shaken.
Mikael nudged Ruwen aside, both to keep her and Ariadne from damaging the console under their weight and to get closer to the princess. “Ariadne, what's wrong?”
“Fuck,” she breathed. “How long have we been gone?”
Chapter 39: The Way She Wants to Die
Rhylian may not have sounded tired when they commed him the night before, but he looked exhausted when he commed them that morning. His eyes were half-shut, shoulders sagging. His uniform was as neat as ever but he was leaning back in his chair, any pretense of military posture and stoicism gone. In the background a couple crew eyed their captain and the people he spoke to; none looked as tired as Rhylian, but no doubt they'd stayed up much of their ship's night as well.
“Apologies,” he said in a way that implied he was not sorry at all. He lifted his arms to show off a blanketed bundle that squirmed at the sudden movement. “Therilane started pushing right as you called.”
Ariadne stammered while Rhylian adjusted to hold his newborn against his chest. The baby reached out, grasping one of the latches on Rhylian's uniform, showing an arm with almost no sign of the adults' stony carapace, but the same flecked gray coloration as the new father.
“I- no, it's-” Ariadne took a deep breath. She interlaced her fingers with Ruwen's, careful to keep her hand out of sight from anyone but Translator. “Congratulations, Captain Rhylian. How... how is Therilane?”
“She's fine, sleeping.” He shifted, bringing attention to the baby. “And she's fine.” His eyes almost completely shut when he glanced down. “Not sleeping. It's been a long night, what are you doing up?”
Ruwen gave Ariadne's hand a light squeeze. Translator ducked behind the two, peering over Ariadne's shoulder and waving to Rhylian. Pressed up against Ariadne they felt how tense she was. Running a hand along her back they couldn't feel any seams in her carapace. Granted, they were trying to feel through her dress, but usually they felt something.
“As I mentioned before, we have a diplomatic envoy aboard from the Crystal homeworlds. The other ship accompanying us is the Carnelian. They will take over transportation duties for the envoy once the Paradox departs.” Ariadne stood straighter with the two at her side and back, eyes focused on Rhylian instead of darting around the room to avoid him. “Mikael stated he plans to leave our territory as soon as possible.”
“Are you going with?”
Her eyes slid away again, this time looking away from everyone. “That is for my parents to decide.”
The baby squeaked, pawing at Rhylian's uniform. Without taking his eyes off of Ariadne he started unclasping it, supporting his daughter with one hand. “Would you go with?”
Translator shuddered, mostly hidden by Ariadne and Ruwen. The last time they'd seen a Rock or Crystal's bared chest was when Ruwen took her shirt off to lock down the room and trap Davion inside with them. They half-expected to see the same mess of blood and shattered crystal on Rhylian.
Ariadne tilted her chin up, almost but just barely not glaring. “I would.”
Translator craned their neck. “The Paradox's mission is primarily diplomacy. She would be a great addition to the crew. Very advantageous.”
“Tell that to my father,” Ariadne grumbled.
Rhylian showed no sign of hearing what she said. He was busy opening up the blankets his daughter was wrapped in and tucking her in under his uniform. “I'm not the person you have to convince.”
“That you are not. Shall we return to the capital? I am certain my parents want me back sooner rather than later.”
Rhylian sat up, turning around to shout orders to the crew milling about behind him. They responded instantly, rushing to their stations. He turned back, nodding to the princess. “Tell your Carnelian to follow. Neither of you stray.”
As soon as he cut the connection Ruwen moved to the front to comm the Carnelian. Ariadne relaxed, detectable in the slightest of changes in her posture and the position of her plates. She and Translator stayed put while Ruwen spoke with the Carnelian's captain, their conversation even shorter and more brusque than the one Ariadne had with Rhylian.
Ariadne muttered something about telling the diplomats the plan and left, giving Translator's waist a light squeeze. They brushed her shoulder as she passed by, wishing her luck.
The trio of ships made the trip as quickly as they could. Ariadne sent a message to her parents as soon as she could to tell them she was back in Rock space, though at the speed they were going Mikael joked that the Paradox might get there first.
Translator found Ruwen working on some sort of calculations at one point. They peered over her head; they couldn't set their head down on top of hers like they could with Ariadne, not with her crest in the way. “What are you working on?”
She shrugged, tapping her stylus against the console. “Time between my home and here.” She sighed, resting her head in her hands. “If it took us, what, nine or something months here, but only a couple at home...” She shook her head, adding a couple more numbers to her equations. “We never checked the local date. The pod knew what year it was back home, though. And if I spent forty of my years on ice... Damn. I gotta check but I think I'd have shown up around when Broca was Ariadne's age.”
Some time after the last feast cycle, too. Hibernation time didn't mean much to the Lanius, but the rest of the galaxy went on without them.
If Ruwen told Ariadne about that at any point in the trip, Translator didn't know. Mikael set the ship on autopilot, following Rhylian's ship, so he could spend more of his time drawing up a plan. And as the one who had seen the Flagship before, he wanted Translator's involvement. They hated it every time they had to tell him that no, they were no expert in the mindset of the Flagship, they had only the vaguest idea of what it may be up to. It was more than anyone else had, though, so they couldn't get away that easily.
They were in the middle of one of those chats with Mikael when the ship chimed, indicating that they had arrived back at Vrachos IV. With a sigh Mikael stood, offering a hand to Translator. “Let's go prove to the royals that we're good for more than stealing their daughter away for inordinate periods of time.”
The diplomats and Ariadne somehow managed to squeeze into the cockpit. Rather, one diplomat and Ariadne, with the others peering in from the doorway. They were still packed in with almost no room to move, and the diplomat looked distinctly uncomfortable pressed against Ariadne, though she showed no sign of reciprocating the awkwardness. No, that stoicism had settled in over her again.
The moment the person who initially answered the comm saw her face they transferred over to Broca and Opasiel. He looked far less stressed than last time; Opasiel, no different from when she came to the Paradox. The other two ships joined the discussion, though this time Therilane sat where Rhylian had, holding her baby against her bare chest, and the Carnelian's captain looked thoroughly overwhelmed at the prospect of a conversation in a language he didn't understand.
“I trust you return with good news?” Broca asked. Opasiel glanced up at her daughter, paying more attention to whatever information was on her tablet.
Ariadne nodded, her eyes on her mother. “I gathered a small envoy. The politics were a bit... difficult... with the Crystals, but some are willing to discuss the possibility of adding their resources to combat the New Federation.”
The diplomat nodded in agreement, introducing himself with a bow. Broca and Opasiel reciprocated, but with a more shallow bow. Showing their authority, Translator guessed.
Mikael coughed into his fist. “Our plan is to transfer the diplomats over, but-”
Broca held up a hand, cutting him off. “Whom Ariadne stays with is in dispute.”
All the Paradox crew nodded. The diplomat glanced between them, puzzled.
“Father, I-” Ariadne turned to the others. “May we speak in private?”
They left. The diplomats gathered at the opposite end of the hall, speaking with each other in low voices. Mikael leaned against the wall, chewing on his lip. Translator paced, focusing on what they could of the transmissions they could hear.
”It would be good experience-”
“-needed back home-”
“I'll be fine-”
“-Replacable, Father? I know Mother has-”
“I can take care of myself! You-”
“That was different!”
Translator couldn't listen. They wandered away, letting the argument fade away with distance. They couldn't imagine having a fight of that scale with anyone from Flock Tsunya. Sure, there were issues that arose at times, but the worst it had ever gotten was a firm discussion. Things easily cleared up, not whatever Ariadne was dragging up with her parents.
Finally she opened the cockpit door, gesturing for the others to return. Translator settled in against her, embracing her from the back. They could see the tiny little signs that showed she was upset, and from how similar her expression was to Opasiel's they assumed she felt the same. Broca was much more obvious about it, glowering until Mikael stepped up. Then he was just as stoic as any other Rock.
“Ariadne may accompany you.” He held out his hand and Opasiel gave him the tablet. He flicked through it, reading. If he was trying to defuse the situation by making everyone take some time out, Translator didn't think it was working well. Even the diplomats looked about ready to back away. “If Rhylian has not told you already, I do have some data that may interest you. We have maintained contact with those Slugs, Bovee and her sibling. In the past months they have reported more of those cyber-organic ships. Until recently we have only found those using Slugs, but two weeks ago we received a report saying that one was using a Mantis. It was, of course, assaulting a colony. We are in the process of dissecting it and searching for any clue of its origin. I believe that would be a good starting point, if you're looking to find what the New Federation is doing.”
A notification came up to say that there was a file being downloaded. Its label indicated that it was whatever data Broca was looking at, and from the way the others on call looked down at their screens, they must have gotten it, too.
Mikael nodded, tapping the notification and then his temple. “Thank you, sir. We plan to seek out the Flagship as well. It was such a cornerstone to their forces last time, I'd be hard-pressed to believe it would be anything short of an information goldmine.”
Broca's eyes went to Ariadne, though he faced Mikael. “The Flagship is immensely dangerous, and it was made to serve the New Federation! Seeking it out is seeking your deaths.”
Translator pressed their head into the back of Ariadne's neck, plates tight. They didn't need a reminder. And this time, if the Paradox was destroyed, they would be the only survivor.
Mikael nodded again. “I know, sir. We plan to approach with caution. It's a huge machine, it cannot have disappeared without a trace. We plan to gather information about it before making a final decision. But we need to know what it is doing.”
This time Opasiel spoke, her husband and daughter locked in a staredown. “If you can find it, so be it. However, there is no way it can be the cornerstone of their forces any longer. Do not cost us our time, resources, and daughter to chase a phantom.”
“We will not.”
“Then I believe we are done here. Send us your diplomats, and we will send you what information we have. May you be blessed as the Stone's own.”
The comm ended. The diplomats retreated, the crew following them in a daze to the airlock as the Carnelian docked.
Broca and Opasiel's data downloaded minutes later. Mikael announced their course before jumping away from Vrachos IV, but Translator didn't hear.
This was real.
They were hunting the Flagship again.
Chapter 40: To Enter
“I like information assss much asss anyone elssse, but I don't like knowing other Sssslugsss are the ssssubject of it.” Veedi patted the bowl of water she held and took another sip. They had all gathered for a video conference, the data on display beside everyone's images. Rock territory remained a few jumps away, but for now they sat in the middle of the nebula, debating whether to chase the Flagship or the facilities creating the experimental ships. They couldn't really be called autoships anymore, could they?
“Or Mantis!” Zev said, forcing his way in beside Veedi and making some of her water slosh over the side of her bowl. “They're making attack ships now! Better attack ships!”
Emily's screen flickered through a series of reports and images, all destroyed colonies, stations, and autoships. “No data available indicating increased danger.”
Zev hissed, antennae flattening against the base of his skull. “They're made with us. Of course it'll be better.”
Translator... Had to agree. They nodded, tracing their fingers along the outside of their arm. AI-only autoships were determined to the point of narrow-mindedness, but they lacked the sheer aggression and creativity in their attacks that a Mantis had. Emily's screen sputtered different colors at the suggestion she may not be correct, but nobody else was speaking to her defense. The brothers started saying things along the lines of what Translator had been thinking. They hated to think about it, or to agree with the two of them, but they felt Nik and Zev were right.
“Who's going to be next?” Ruwen asked. She'd cuddled close with Ariadne, arguably so the two of them and Translator could all fit into view, but they saw the way she caressed the outside of Ariadne's thigh. “Slugs, Mantis...”
Zev waved a sharp arm at her and Ariadne. “Rocks? Zoltan? Humans are humans, Engi are machines already, Lanius live so far away.”
Translator hid their face behind Ruwen while Ariadne spoke.
“I have said before that unless they get into our main population, there are too few of us outside our territory to make that worthwhile, even if they thought of some purpose for us.”
“You never know.”
Mikael gave them both a tired glare. “No use arguing over who's next right now. Are we chasing the Flagship or the new ships?”
“This one wants to chase the Flagship.”
Everyone stared at Translator. They knew their personal history to varying degrees, but it was like none of them expected Translator of all people to want to pursue it, or to stand firm in their resolve. Rauta shook his head at them. Emily ran calculations, their speed slowing down as she thought about it. Nik pushed his brother aside to stare, antennae twitching curiously. He somehow managed to ignore Zev and Veedi's flailing and complaints about her getting him covered in slime, and him nicking her with his blades.
Emily's calculations came to an abrupt end, results too tiny to read displayed on her screen. “Illogical for all except Translator. Low reward, high risk, resource-intensive. Possibilities: Flaghip may no longer be in operation. Flagship may not contain valuable information. Paradox could be destroyed. Flagship could be destroyed, losing any potential gain. Note: Low chance.”
“This one does not need a reminder of its strength.”
One hand up from Mikael stopped the argument before it got started. “We all know the Flagship may kill us. We also know that the new ships require manufacturing plants, which means a lot of people and a lot of security. Neither route is really safe. There's an off chance that one could provide information about the other, too.”
Veedi held up one appendage, waiting for Mikael to acknowledge her before speaking. “I think we sssshould ssstart on the new sssships. There are more of them, and who knowsss? We might find sssomething related to the Flagssship. Maybe ssssomeone sssaw sssomething.”
The Mantis brothers puffed out their chests, cocking their heads towards Veedi. Few people noticed Translator shying away from their display of support. It was too similar to a Lanius's show of anger for comfort. Ruwen did reach one hand back, taking theirs and patting their fingers.
“I know there'ssss sssome ssstationsss and coloniesss in the clear area away from the nebula. The New Federation caresss not for them, they are sssso clossse to the Ssslugs.”
Everyone glanced at each other, evaluating. Mikael spoke first. “Let's see what they have to say. You mind sticking with us a little longer, then, Veedi?”
She sputtered, taken aback by the question. “And here I thought you wanted to get rid of me! You're ssso kind.”
Chapter 41: Walls Fall
The first station on their map awaited. It was small, for a full-service station, but there were still so many connected, prefab parts, so many dead-ends and offshoots. It wasn't the maze of some rural stations, but tangled nonetheless. Translator stared out at it, a piece of scrap melting down in their mouth. Instinct urged them to dismantle and devour the station, or at least bring it to their flock to share in it. The residents wouldn't appreciate it, but they were hungry.
They were eating right then and there, and they were still hungry. They weren't sure why. It could be their general defensiveness with food, but that usually didn't apply to large, still intact structures. Maybe it was knowing that the feast cycle would turn to famine and subsequent hibernation soon? They doubted it was some sort of creation urge. They were still a bit young and without a partner to encourage the feeling.
Ruwen came in, humming while she returned a pile of freshly-laundered blankets and clothes to their nest. Not a Lanius partner, anyways.
She joined them by the window, cupping the back of their head to bring them into a kiss. “How's it going?”
“Good,” they responded, resting their fingers in between the crystals that formed her crest. “You?”
They felt her sigh. The movement was much more fluid than it was only a few weeks ago; her parents had found out about the injury and balked, insisting on getting her treatment. “I think going home just made me more homesick.”
They butted their head against her shoulder, steeling themself against the discomforting scrape of metal-on-crystal. “Your family knows you're okay now.”
She looped an arm around their shoulders, the weight settling in comfortably across the connected plates. While she considered their response, thought about her family, whatever it was she was doing, she drummed on their plates. Click, click, click. It felt odd, but not in a bad way.
The station now took up all of the view. They heard snippets of conversations, lots of chatter between ships and the station, including the Paradox as Mikael asked to dock. More than one ship balked as they passed by, saying they'd refuse to stay if a New Federation ship docked. Alien ships retreated outright, save for a couple of lingering Mantis vessels and a single Rock vessel.
Ruwen snorted as she watched the scene. “I'm gonna tell Mikael to change the paint. Looking military is causing more harm than good.” She patted their shoulder, pulling away so she could look down at them. “You going on the station? Gonna test out my zirca's work?”
They shrugged. What would people think of a Lanius amongst them, even one in a protective suit? They had no doubt that someone would identify them for what they were; the silhouette was distinct. Attacks on flock ships died down with the war, but to most the Lanius were still all-consuming scavengers.
Why did they act as if the Lanius's most desperate and starving were representatives of them all?
A solid thump announced their arrival and docking at the station. The ship's comms turned on and Mikael cleared his throat, grabbing Ruwen's attention. “Okay,” he said, “Anyone who's considering going on the station, meet me near the airlock.”
Translator removed themself from Ruwen and stretched. They could do this. They could go out, they could explore the station. It wasn't even a planet, if all else failed there were places they could escape to. The suit was... The suit was stored in Ruwen's room, yes. If they hurried, and maybe warned Mikael, they'd make it in time to be part of the visiting party. As the one with actual experience with the Flagship, maybe they'd prove useful as well!
Ruwen didn't have time to say anything as Translator rushed out of the room.
They identified Ruwen's room by the sign on the door, which oh-so-helpfully read “RUWEN'S ROOM” in handwriting that was ornate even for her. They ducked inside, humming to themself. Going off a ship. What a strange chain of events that brought them to this one.
In their rush to get the suit they didn't notice Ariadne curled up in the bed until she sat up. She stared at them, they stared at her, the suit in their hands, and they took the moment to examine each other. The blanket pooled under her waist, hiding her lower body, but not the shirt she wore. It was obviously Ruwen's, from how loose it was at the shoulders and that it rode up to her chest while she slept.
They ducked their head and moved for the door. “Sorry. This one knows the respirators are-”
“I know. Translator?”
They peered back at her, waiting for her to continue.
“Don't tell anyone you saw me here. They'll get ideas and...” She sighed, rubbing her eye. “I don't want to risk Ruwen for nothing.”
They glanced at the blankets. “What happened?”
“I had a bad night, so I stayed with Ruwen. Don't tell anyone. Okay?”
They nodded and left to put the suit on in the hallway. Between the little bit of practice they had and the time crunch, they accomplished the task in what felt like far less time than usual. The tingle of absorbed oxygen dissipated fast, even as they ran to the airlock.
Mikael and Veedi were there; only the two of them, as far as Translator knew. Veedi gave them one look, shrugged, and continued picking at some scar tissue on her arm, but Mikael did a double take. His face morphed through a series of expressions, a couple of which Translator could identify. Confusion, disbelief. It made sense. They'd mentioned the suit to him but never wore it in his presence before.
Finally he settled on a smile. “Looks good. I think we're all of the boarding party – nobody else said anything – so let's go.” He jerked his head towards the airlock right as the door opened. From the flicker of his eyes Translator guessed he keyed it with whatever system he had.
It was a momentary wait between the Paradox side's doors closing and the stationside ones opening, and Translator spent it bouncing on their feet. Same with their first steps into the station. It was a big, interconnected space, all broken up into hallways and airlock connections. The decoration was as much a mishmash of styles as they'd seen on the outside of the station. Proportions varied seemingly at random, architecture morphed from one style to another, colors shifted and melded into each other. They saw the vents for life support, for fresh supplies of oxygen, but they felt nothing. No tingling, no dizziness, no fatigue.
Was this what it felt like to be an air-breather? Surrounded by this thin layer of fabric, walking around in the relative density of oxygen-rich air without a second thought? Did they fear the void they were separated from by the thickness of the station bulkhead? Or had they conquered that long ago, with their first forays into space travel? What was it like, to have planets to return to instead of flocks? Both were mobile, but flocks moreso, and other races didn't tend to count their planets as mobile in the grand scheme of things. Few cared for galactic rotation, only that of the stars. Was it because they'd been limited to one for so much of their species' lives?
Mikael nudged them. “How are you liking it?”
They had no response besides a bewildered, wondrous nod.
Veedi made a wet, almost sputtering noise. “I'm glad you're having fun. Come, I think I know ssssomeone who can help usss.” She gestured for them to follow, never breaking her own stride.
Mikael didn't, either, but he quirked his brow. “Who would that be?”
“An old friend of mine. I sssaw his ssship while we were on our way in, and I know hisss favorite placesss on thisss ssstation.”
Translator ignored the questions about details of this meeting. There were so many things to look at, so many people walking about without respirators or that choked look they had learned to identify on every species. And they felt okay!
As soon as they could they wanted to return to the Crystal homeworlds. They needed to thank Tanzum. If this worked on planets as well...
“So,” Mikael asked, the cutting edge to his voice bringing Translator back. “Why are you still helping us? You could have left as soon as we docked.”
Veedi waggled her head from side to side, considering. Translator knew that expression, that was one of thought. Genuine thought, not the fake thought that Slugs used to pressure others into getting a better deal. They moved slower when they did that, often trying to impress thoughts into others' minds. A few had tried that on Translator, impressing a different number into their head to speak, not the one said. “Heroisssm bringsss profit. Everyone lovesss the perssson who helped to sssave the galaxy. The losss of bussssinesss from the change of hands – oh how lenient the New Federation isss on their sssslavers – would be nothing compared to the benefitsss of being a hero. Tell me, how hard isss it to loossse the ssstatusss of your family'sss achievement?”
Mikael's face pinched, but Veedi kept speaking.
“Maybe a better quessstion isss whether or not my motivation mattersss, if I am helping you?”
“You know, in all honesty, I'd thought you'd be angry about Davion and want everyone else to suffer for his actions.”
“That, too. He hurt me and my family. Inssside I am ssseething.”
Translator nodded. “This one finds the New Federation a good target for catharsis.”
She made that wet sound again. Maybe it was laugher? Slugs were not prone to laughing during their deals, only scoffing at the offers presented.
And they passed out of the shipyard, into the station proper. It was quiet here, with many unlit signs and dark windows. A couple humans wandered about, staring at the trio like they were uncertain who to focus on. Mikael, wearing a captain's insignia, chin held high, Veedi, her being a slug, or Translator whose form was somewhat hidden under the suit.
“Why the fuck's there a metal monster in a bag?” one shouted. Translator tensed, but they couldn't flare their plates without risking a tear in the suit.
Mikael ignored him, giving nothing more than a shrug. He followed Veedi as if nothing had happened at all. Veedi, however, looked back at him. Before long his face contorted and he backed off, shaking his head.
“What? I didn't hurt him.”
Translator hummed, crossing their arms tight over their chest. They felt a wash of self-confidence transplanted from Veedi, aimed for any discomfort they felt over their appearance. When they gave her a quizzical look, though, she only smiled back.
The pathway did not get any less abandoned as they walked. Translator got the feeling they were avoiding the main population center, by the many turns and almost maintenance-corridor small halls they took. Most of the people they saw were humans, with some Slugs, a couple Zoltan, even a Mantis wearing the uniform of the local Colony Defense Force. All of them eyed the trio with some degree of wariness; Translator shied away from the way the Mantis started washing her face as she watched. They'd seen enough of that to know the next step. Veedi's attempt to comfort them did nothing to overcome ingrained patterns.
“How are you feeling?” Mikael asked them as they walked through a particularly poorly-lit section of the station. It reminded them of the Vortex.
They shrugged. “This one feels no effects from oxygen exposure.”
The brief flash of disappointment told Translator that it was not the response Mikael expected, but he spoke before they could try to correct. “That's good. So, we'll have to bring you planetside next, huh? You seem like you'd like flowers.”
Veedi patted her appendages together and cooed. “Flowerssss! Ah, there wasss a tulip farm near my childhood home. It made for sssuch good sssnacking.”
Mikael snorted. “My mother would kill you.”
“Their family and our family are friendsss.” The words were accompanied by a brief memory of round, extra blobbish Slug children eating tulips and playing in a field. With each new person in view there was a flash of a new emotion, whatever Veedi thought of them bleeding into the memory. Only a couple were tinged with anything more negative than mischief and mirth.
She was still smiling when she led them to an unmarked door. The walls were thin; Translator heard faint voices inside. They were muffled, but one boomed above the rest, clear and bright. A telepathic impression confirmed their suspicion that that voice belonged to Veedi's friend. She opened the door, gesturing for them to enter.
They didn't need telepathy to see and feel Mikael's suspicion.
Inside a Zoltan spoke, crackling with energy. He wore no ornamentation, there was nothing about him that seemed special. Nothing but that voice, that ever-so-soothing voice that now drew Translator's attention and held it.
The Zoltan stopped, beaming at the newcomers. He swept his arms wide, the small crowd gathered around him staring in wonder. They parted for him, torn between staring at him and the trio.
“Ah, Veedi, have you finally listened to my word? Such brilliance I feel, radiating from you like a star. It is a pleasure to see you again.”
“It'sss good to sssee you, too, Envoy.”
Chapter 42: Lost and Lonely Part of Town
The trio waited for Envoy to finish up his sermon before getting all of his attention. Only a few of the attendees left without a look of thoughtfulness and consideration, and most lingered as if to bask in Envoy's peaceful aura. He said goodbye to each one with the politeness Zoltan usually reserved for their priests and high-ranking bureaucrats. Every last-minute question posed got an answer that left the questioner with no sign of further confusion or discontent.
“Kinda reminds me of those documentaries about cults. One leader with a strong personality, and followers in need of their guidance,” Mikael muttered. He had his hands on his hips, but more like he was trying to put them in his pockets instead of adopting an authoritative stance.
Veedi huffed, new folds appearing in her skin as she pressed her head back. “Cult. Pfff. You know him. You're reaching out to him with your mind.”
Mikael raised an eyebrow, but he didn't say anything in response. The last of the crowd had left, and Envoy approached the trio. He and Veedi traded shallow bows, then him and Mikael, then he leaned in to examine Translator's suit and hum in approval.
“Quite the idea. I don't know why we have not tried that before, it would be such a boon for relations with the Lanius.”
Translator looked away, rolling their shoulders. It wouldn't be much use now, not with so many flocks settling in to hibernate. That, and so many Lanius were uninterested in the rest of the galaxy's affairs until there was sufficient conflict to generate sufficient scrap to trigger a feast. They'd come to the Federation's aid to protect their own, seeing a situation where they could suffer, and it had not worked. Now they were ready to sleep until the New Federation blew over, hoping that the new power did not decide to send fleets to destroy their ships while they slept. Maybe, maybe the next feast would lead to more amenable attitudes. “Tanzum made it. Ruwen's parent.”
Envoy tapped his fingers together in front of his face. “I see. Ruwen was the Crystal, yes? I remember her. So you were able to bring her to her homeworld?”
“We did, but that's not why we're here,” Mikael said, eyes flickering towards each crewmate in turn.
“I did not think so, but I would love to hear of it when business is over.” Envoy bade them to sit at the chairs around a nearby table, the dust wiped off by recent occupants. Once the three were seated he sat down himself, sweeping himself into the chair and primly folding his hands together on the table. “I trust you do not come to me with violent intentions?”
Translator almost admitted that they, at least, could not say that.
“Oh, no, never.” Veedi waved an appendage, burbling a content sound. “We come with curiosssity, the need to know.”
“Two thingsss. One, the Flagssship that hasss ssso mysssteriousssly gone missssing. Two, the ssstrange autossshipsss which we have found with organic brainsss in them.”
Envoy hummed a low note of electric displeasure. He drummed his fingers on the table, head listing to one side. Was he thinking about their intentions, or the information they sought from him? What did he think they would do?
“As much as I care for you, Veedi, I cannot be sure how truthful you are in saying you do not seek violence. I apologize for that. However, I cannot condone experimentation on the peoples of the galaxy, either. I am afraid what I hear of the Flagship is rumors with little evidence to them, but there are more than those slight whisperings for the autoships. Indeed, the people fear being stolen away and dissected to put into one. Your ship's paint cannot put them at ease, Captain Mikael.”
He pressed his mouth into a thin line and nodded before answering. “I understand.”
Veedi gave Translator a hint of her thoughts, saying that she hoped Mikael would finally see reason and change the paint. Maybe something more classic, like the old Federation's white and orange, or something more purple? She liked purple. Her mind drifted to thoughts of her home world and her species's ships, giving Translator a glance into her view of them (so peaceful, so homey) before the connection faded away.
Envoy traced patterns on the table, thin lines of energy crackling and burning the patterns into the chipped wood veneer. It was like the art flowed out of him while he thought, swooping and graceful. “I know a Slug who makes his living breaking down ships, who told me of an unusual design he found. A new one for the autoships. He said he had been seeing the old designs less and less as well. But the central chamber on this particular ship was destroyed, save for a few remnants of what he said reminded him of the equipment found in medical bays. If that is your autoship, then I can point you to him. I also know there are rumors that there is a shipyard in the southern sector, where there is a stronger New Federation presence. I am afraid that there is not much more substance that I know than that, and the rest is hearsay about why they would build a shipyard there. It is not a high-resource area.”
Veedi bowed her head so deeply Translator saw marks where she'd left slime on the table on contact. “We cannot thank you enough.”
Envoy returned the gesture. “Anything to bring peace to the galaxy in troubling times like these.” He reached out, clasping each of the crew's hands in his one by one. “And I beg of you to seek understanding, not war. It may feel unnatural for you, but we cannot afford to destroy ourselves fighting.”
He shared the coordinates of the Slug's shop, along with the name of the business and its owner, before the three departed.
It was a quiet walk. Veedi didn't share any thoughts, nobody did more than stare at them as they passed by, and Mikael didn't try to start up a conversation. Translator watched building after building go by, storefronts and home addresses. They'd seen this sort of thing in movies and pictures and all that, but in person... It was so different from flock ships. No stores, few set homes, only the most important rooms labeled (and directions given, on the larger ships) for newcomers and emergencies. Then again, everyone knew everyone else in a flock, too. At least in smaller ones like Tsunya. It might get hard to keep track of everyone in a flock like Cretra.
At the docks there was even less activity than the halls. Like everyone was afraid of something.
Something like a ship bearing New Federation paint.
“All right,” Mikael said as they waited for the airlock to cycle. His eyes were unfocused. Maybe he was doing something on his implants, or contacts, or what-have-you? “We'll go to this Centi guy Envoy told us about, then we'll start looking around the southern sector if he can't get us anything more concrete. Sound like a plan?”
Translator and Veedi shrugged.
“We're only ssssome of the crew.”
“This one still wants to know about the Flagship.”
Mikael sighed, rubbing his eyes. “I know, I know. We'll get to that. Centi first.”
“Okay,” the two said in unison.
After they were aboard Translator went straight for the shields, only to find a conspicuous lack of Ruwen. Nothing looked too out of place, not moreso than usual, but she was usually at her station, even when the ship was docked.
Confused and a little concerned, they went to check the kitchen, then her room when that proved fruitless.
One pass of their hand and the door opened. A surprised yelp confirmed that they had indeed found Ruwen, even before Translator stepped inside to see her scrambling to put a shirt on. The bed was a mess, blankets strewn about. Usually she was neater than that. Maybe Ariadne had left it that way, and Ruwen never bothered to tidy it up?
“Give a gal some warning next time!”
They peered around the room, looking for any sign of other activity. Well, Ariadne wasn't there, they could confirm that. “What were you doing?”
“Nothing. Taking a nap.” The two answers came suspiciously fast, but Translator couldn't imagine what else she could have been doing. “The lights turned on when the door opened,” Ruwen muttered, tugging at the fabric around her waist until she gave up on whatever she was trying to get out of it with a sigh.
“This one was going to... Put the... Suit...”
She looked up at them, eyes wide. “Oh! Yeah, sure, go ahead. How'd it go on the station. You all get back in one piece?”
They ducked their head and started the process of getting out of the suit. “Veedi found Envoy-”
They nodded, unzipping the suit. The rush of oxygen hit them immediately and they wavered. “The Zoltan. Yes. He told us about a Slug who may know more about the autoships, and that there may be a shipyard in the sector south of here. Mikael says we're going to the Slug first. Centi.”
As if on queue Mikael's voice came over the PA system. “Hey all. We're spending the rest of the day here to restock on some supplies, then we're out. We got coordinates for a fellow named Centi we're going to pay a visit about those autoships.”
Ruwen took a deep breath, as deep as she could in the rapidly thinning air. “'Least we'll have more food.”
Chapter 43: Darkened Glass
Translator and Veedi, again, were tagged to come with Mikael to talk with Centi. Translator to give people a second thought about attacking someone with a Lanius, and to ensure everyone understood each other. Veedi to ensure no dirty business went down in anyone's heads. Mikael had asked Ariadne to come along, but...
“No,” she'd said, with the finality that reminded Translator that she was going to rule the vast majority of a species someday.
It made Mikael step back, blinking. “May I ask why not?”
She looked him over, as if deciding whether or not he deserved to know. There was a chill to her gold eyes; had something happened between her and the captain? The ship was small, certainly Translator would hear about something major. When she spoke, she broke them out of their reverie. “I'm recognizable. I would rather not make the Paradox a target.” She held up a hand, even though Mikael hadn't moved. “I know it is too late, I've put myself upon you already, but I can do my part to minimize the risk I create.”
Mikael inhaled, tilting his head back so the crystals in his respirator clinked. But his shoulders sagged and he shook his head. “I'll... leave you be.”
It was too late to convince her now. Translator walked beside their crewmate and captain, unsuited. The shipyard's moon base wasn't oxygenated save for a few rooms; they were free to walk about unaided. And for good reason. Not long after the three left the ship, they came face-to-face with another Lanius. The individual, who Translator learned was named Suvye, told them that it was primarily Flock Qutide working there. Earning scrap, whatever Centi gave them and whatever they got from the ships they fixed, to stave off hibernation that much longer, and to build up their next generation.
As they walked, Translator saw the reason for the latter. Most of the Lanius were older, their plates uneven, movements less fine than a younger Lanius's. Some walked with a distinct hobble, or repositioned themselves rather than raise a limb above some point or another. Not as old as Vryn, or Flock Tsunya's other elders, but old. Old enough that searching for scrap, or taking it from others, was not viable. There were a handful of younger ones running about. They'd been constructed at adult size, but their steps were awkward and unskilled, their behavior more like a juvenile than a Lanius around Translator's age, which they looked like. Their chatter added to the hums of unfamiliar work tunes and questions shouted back and forth.
They tagged close to Suvye, Mikael and Veedi close behind them. The older Lanius was talking about the work they did at the shipyard, how important it was for the flock, but Translator was paying more attention to the actual shipyard than the explanation.
Until they heard Centi's name.
“Where- where is Centi?” they asked, shrinking back when Suvye stared up at them, considering. They gestured towards Mikael and Veedi. “Captain Mikael wishes to speak to him.”
Suvye rumbled, craning their neck to look around at the buildings, all grey and lumpy. Even for Slug architecture, they were... Dull. Almost intimidatingly industrial. Then they picked out one of the lumps, extending a long, spindly finger towards it. “That is where Centi stays. And Centi is a she now, the news must not have traveled far yet.”
As soon as Translator relayed the information to the others, Mikael responded, “Sorry about that.”
From that point, Mikael led the way as Suvye broke apart from the group, returning to an absolutely gigantic ship. It was long, its bridge bulbous, with an equally gigantic thruster on the side they could see. The paint had the stripes of a pirate ship, but they were red and black, instead of the usual purple over the ship's previous color. Then there were the things on the very front of the ship. It looked like the barrel of a flak weapon, sized up to dominate the prow. Translator shuddered, imagining the potential of such a weapon.
“That'ssss... Yessss, Mikael, I think 'compensssation' would be an appropriate term. Do not be embarrasssed, genitalssss look sssstupid acrosss all ssspecies.” Veedi nodded sagely, eyes shut, head held high.
The building's doors opened up into an airlock. Mikael peered inside, then led the others to the center of the small room.
A voice crackled on from the PA system, the static accompanied by a wet cough. “You are bringing one of the Lanius inside? I do not recognize that one.” The voice was definitely that of a Slug, though the 's' sounds were cut off, almost more like 'z's instead.
“Oh, no, Translator's on our crew.”
“I see. Will they be all right? There's oxygen.”
With that, the room flooded with air, hot and humid. Veedi sighed in relief; Translator knew that this was the conditions of the Slug homeworld. The same sort of climate she was from.
Translator didn't focus too hard on the feeling. They were starting to feel the oxygen, the tingling on their plates, the fog settling into their mind. If only they'd thought to bring their suit along.
“Enter, down the hall, first room on the left,” Centi said, then the PA system clicked off. The door to the inside of the building opened not long afterwards.
Mikael placed a hand on Translator's back. Their initial instinct was to pull away, but that made them feel unsteady. They stumbled and Mikael caught them, the breath catching in his throat. At that they gave in, letting him give them some support and lead them towards the room Centi directed them to.
The door opened as they approached, revealing a corpulent Slug, head and arms draped on a sticky, slimy desk, with three seats in front of her. The room was filled with things; certificates, pictures of ships and other Slugs, documents, trinkets. But it was orderly in its clutter, leading the eye around the room until it fell on Centi herself, watching the three approach and sit.
As Translator slumped in their chair, they saw the dark stain on the inside of Mikael's sleeve. It was small, but he had nicked himself on their plates nonetheless.
“It is good you have respirators,” Centi said, watching Translator's blinks grow longer.
They didn't pay attention to Mikael's response. They nodded off instead.
They woke up somewhat disappointed in themself, having fallen asleep due to oxygen absorption so fast. Had they lost their immunity already? But they had gone out once, besides using it to be with Ruwen and Ariadne...
“Yes, we have the files.” Centi's voice was the first thing that Translator paid attention to. She tapped something on her desk a few times and Mikael twitched in the way that meant he was using his implant. Leaning in, Translator saw his eyes were glazed over, too, and Veedi sat back, poking at the scars on her arms.
Centi kept talking. “It is strange. We did scrap the ships, so they are gone now, including the brains and the life-support systems. The scrap fed my workers, is being used to repair that big ship.” She nodded in the general direction of the shipyard. “There are lots of sensors, and many devices that enhance the mind.”
She leaned down and produced an antenna, collapsed and snapped in pieces. “This was one. It hurt to use, but maybe the ship brains are given treatment. Or they are beyond caring. I hope that I would be, in their position. Poor pond-scrapings. Their benefiting the New Federation drains Profit from us all.” With a heavy sigh, she put the antenna away. “Thinking of the New Federation, do you want to repaint that ship? You make aliens nervous, human. I can tell.”
Mikael shrugged, not meeting her stalk eyes. “We'll be going into New Fed territory soon. Maybe I'll come back afterwards.”
That got a delighted burble out of Centi. She patted her appendages together, at the same time putting the idea into Translator's head that they were welcome to work for her, too. And the rest of their flock, if they brought them. She'd love to expand her business.
They expressed their disinterest. They were here for the autoships and the Flagship, thank you very much. She tried to chase the memories of the Flagship, only to get distracted.
When they came to, they saw that Veedi had that distant expression Mikael had earlier, or the Slug equivalent of it. Centi wasn't quite paying attention, either.
“So far, we're paying out the ass for what she knows,” Mikael muttered, trying not to get either Slug's attention. “So we're keeping this quick, okay?”
Finally the two Slugs snapped back, shaking their heads slowly. Then they nodded at each other, like competitors shaking hands after a match. “I see your point,” Centi said.
“I sssee yoursss asss well.”
Centi turned back to Mikael. “And I see you want to end this. I do not have anything else for you, not at your price point.” She waved them away. “You may go. Take care of your Lanius. They are good workers, with proper treatment.”
He nodded, offering a hand to Translator as everyone got up. “Yeah, they're great.”
They preened a little, warming at the compliment.
The walk back was mostly Translator listening to Veedi's narration of bits and pieces of Mikael's thoughts as he looked through the files. They looked around as they listened, pulled towards all the scrap available. In piles, in the ships, the buildings, everywhere! They wanted it. They wanted... They wanted... Food?
Must have been food. They'd need to eat. After Mikael determined what was payment, anyways.
They found themself drawn to the big ship with the pirate stripes as the trio passed it by. Something- did something just move in one of the windows? No, they must have been seeing things. Or one of the worker Lanius moved and caused the illusion. Somehow.
Though surely there had to be people in there?
“Our next stop's another station. Lagrange Five, a couple jumps from here.” Mikael stared up at the startled Translator, one eyebrow raised. “That okay?”
They hesitated, but nodded. They remembered that name. “Lots of slave-trade there. This one has not been there in a long time, though. There are many aliens, so this one should accompany again for language services.”
Mikael pursed his lips. “If you don't want to...”
“This one will be fine.”
They had to be. The Flagship was more important than any lingering fear.
Chapter 44: Cannot Change the Fate of Civilization
They did not expect to spend the approach to Lagrange Five huddled in their nest and crying for Kusy and Atryom. They'd scored gaping holes in the bolster of balled-up fabric Ruwen had pushed against their front. Whether or not her hand on their back, covered with fleece, was a comfort or sensory hell they couldn't tell. Same with Ariadne sitting beside them like a guard – like Atryom, or like one of the cell guards that banged on the door when they chattered?
At some point they heard the skittering of Mantis feet on the floor and bawled, tensing in anticipation of stinging hot acid splashes. They could not tell if the murmured voices – distinctly Mantis with their staccato pattern – held actual concern when they asked if they were okay or if it was a test.
When they felt one Mantis's limb touch their back they fell into memories of slashes and stab wounds. It hurt in a visceral manner they didn't expect. They barely heard Ruwen snap at whoever touched them and shoo them away over the chaos they felt.
They stressed themself into passing out at some point, and woke up in Ruwen's arms, head tucked under her chin, hand on her chest. She was asleep. Ariadne dozed beside them, sitting upright against the desk, one of the blankets halfway in her lap.
The door leading to the engines opened long enough for Translator to see Emily standing in the doorway, for her to announce, “Rauta commissioned me to ensure your wellbeing,” and for them to see her turn towards the weapons as the door closed.
She must have woken Ruwen up; Translator felt her shift and stretch. Her breath hitched for a moment before she opened her eyes to look Translator over.
“Hey,” she mumbled, voice thick with sleep. “You feeling better?”
They nodded. In all honesty they were exhausted from it all, and the idea of being at Lagrange Five loomed over them. They had to do it. They had to go. To face the Flagship someday soon, and get vengeance for Knapp, Jason, Robert, Bovee, all the others dead at its and the New Federation's hands. To make the galaxy safer for Osin and the rest of Flock Tsunya. To make Ariadne and Ruwen happy.
She kissed them, tapping her forehead against theirs. “If you want me to tell Mikael you can't go, I'd be happy to take your place.”
“No.” They stood up, wobbling for a second but managing to stay upright. There hadn't been oxygen in the room for a while, why did they feel so dizzy? “This one can do it-”
Some of their plates started to flare, but they weren't upset enough to be full-blown “fluffed up” as Ruwen liked to call it. “This one knows slavers' terminology and what to watch for, and this one can handle any negotiations with languages Mikael doesn't know.”
“But Veedi will be there-”
“Ruwen.” Ariadne didn't move at all, not even to open her eyes, but she didn't sound like she'd just woken up. “Let Translator go. You'd be at higher risk if any slavers went after the away team, anyhow. A Lanius on a space station is a curiosity or a concern, but you're different and unique. You'd be a desirable prize.”
Ruwen's shoulders sagged. She stood, too, cupping the side of Translator's face. She didn't immediately meet their gaze, and when she did her big blue eyes were full of concern. “I just- you were so scared.”
They didn't lean into the touch, but didn't push her away, either. “This one has to do it.”
And they did. They, Mikael, and Veedi exited the airlock alongside Rauta, though he stayed behind to guard the ship and watch them go. They couldn't stop the way they shook, the sound of metal hitting metal muffled by their suit, but they followed right behind Mikael, head held high.
Soon they became aware of Veedi's presence. With their permission she offered up some of what she felt: calm, cool professionalism, bolstered by the knowledge that her family was here. They maintained a post at Lagrange Five, and she trusted that the individuals who usually staffed it would be happy to see her, not angry about what had happened with Davion on the ship.
It wasn't quite the feeling of being around Kusy and Atryom, but it soothed the acid churning within them better than nothing.
For all its notoriety Lagrange Five looked like a normal station. Cool, utilitarian walls (this time of human design) all around, broken up by windows gazing out at ships, other parts of the station, and the black expanse of space, decorated by the pipes running across everything. Everything was broken up into sections; there was nothing that looked like it had been added later, none of the clashing styles that dominated the station they'd met Envoy in. It felt like it was deliberately trying to look as nothing, as unimpressive, as possible. People milled about, but they eyed each other, and especially the newcomers wandering in. Translator saw the outlines of weapons in concealed holsters.
It was all familiar, in a distant way.
Mikael led them like he'd walked through the station every day of his life. They couldn't see his face but they bet he had that distant look about him. He had to be following some sort of instructions from his implant, he didn't seem at all lost. Not once did he check for landmarks, just followed whatever invisible route he saw.
It was not long before they entered a quiet hall, nobody to be seen. Translator chose to speak up then. “Where are we going?”
When it became obvious Mikael wasn't listening, Veedi explained. “The persssson who hasss been buying all of the autossship partssss that Centi acquired. One Marssshall Quincy. Centi callssss him a good buyer in her filesss.”
Marshal Quincy. Had to be a human, then, or an Engi with an interesting choice in names. What reason would he have to work on the autoships? What could he be doing with them? They figured they'd find out soon enough.
They repeated that thought when Mikael stopped in front of a door, nondescript save for a warning to be careful inside. He rapped on it and stepped back, one hand unusually close to his own concealed holster.
Indeed it was a human who answered the door, one with a long, curly, red beard and tired eyes. He and Mikael exchanged a glance, then he nodded and ducked inside, holding the door open for his guests to enter.
“You're the folks Centi told me about?” he asked. His voice was rough, like he didn't usually talk to people. He scrutinized them under the harsh lighting of his shop, warehouse, whatever it was.
The room was filled to the brim with matte black ship parts.
The sight of it made Translator ache. With hunger? They weren't sure. It didn't feel entirely like when they were hungry and saw food. They wanted to eat, yes, but they also wanted... They also wanted...
They didn't know what. But they got the feeling Ruwen and Ariadne could help them figure it out.
“We are,” Mikael answered, tapping Translator's arm to get them to pay attention.
They jumped a little, taking a moment to reevaluate where they were, what was going on, and nod in confirmation. They didn't know of anyone else Centi could have been talking about, so the conclusion was logical. Right?
“Wha's that in there?”
Mikael followed Marshal's gaze to Translator, standing there in their suit. “A Lanius. The suit's to avoid depriving the rest of us of oxygen.”
Marshal nodded slowly, eyes narrow. “Yeah, well, if only there were more of those. Come on, I'm guessin' you want to see what's up here that I've been working on.”
The tour around the ship parts was quiet at first, as Marshal let them inspect everything on their own. Hull plating, wires, parts of systems (save for weapons and shields), all placed into piles that were actually well-organized upon closer inspection. It had all looked like a big mess to them from further back.
“I been trying to find some weakness, see if there's any clue as to what they may be doing next. Where they're coming from.” Marshal spoke in a low rumble, like he was waiting to pounce on them the moment they let their guard down. His eyes never left the ship parts, though, all the predatory intent focused on them. “Adding life support's not their only big change. There's no AI left, nothing but the mind controlling the machine. Like they gutted it from the old ships and stuck in this new thing. The most intelligence left is the most basic of navigational aids. Course corrections and the like. Complete change of direction from seven years ago.”
Mikael's brows furrowed. “AI was their biggest strength.”
“They used it enough to include one in their Flagship, and let it take control in emergency situations,” Translator added. No other ship they had ever heard of gave an AI that chance. They didn't even have the capability; they just ran the systems when nobody was there. They had none of the (still limited) decision-making ability of an autoship, which in turn was nothing in comparison to what they had seen of the Flagship. It had actual personality to it. Fervent patriotism for the New Federation and little else Translator knew of, but it was leagues ahead of everything else. “It was a being.”
“I find it hard to believe anything could be a being that could not be ssssensssed. All sssentient thingsss can be sssensssed,” Veedi didn't sound dismissive so much as puzzled by the possibility. One stalk eye wavered between the machine parts and Translator.
“It's been a staple of science fiction for a long time,” Mikael said. “Artificial, completely sentient beings.”
Marshal huffed. “So has brain uploading and wetware control like this. I think the New Feds, they're making it reality. Everything, so nobody's got any secrets left to unleash upon 'em. They'll have it all first.”
Translator thought back to the one autoship's flak gun, with its layers of plastic and difficult-to-puncture exterior, perfect for keeping Lanius out. Handy for anything being sent into the nebulas and edges of space, if one didn't want any Lanius getting near it should something happen. Was there something else in there they were trying to hide? Would the Slugs or the Rocks have found it in their efforts to take it apart?
“They are part of one ssspeciesss in the galaxy-”
“And yet they took down the old Federation and all its species, didn't they?” Marshal picked up a circuit board, turned it over a couple times, and waved it in Veedi's direction. “And everyone got involved in the war effort at the end. Mantis and Engi working together, Slugs, Rocks, and Zoltan making futile attempts to save themselves. And it failed. But something's put a fire under their ass. Technology doesn't advance without need. And this?” He held out the circuit board for all to see. “This is war tech. All the leaps and bounds in their progress? That takes fear to make.”
Mikael raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure...?”
Marshal replaced the circuit board, treating it with a delicate touch. “Fear's what got us humans into space in the first place, all that time ago! Fear gave us a galaxy. Now it's chasing the New Federation into what it wants next.”
Veedi looked up at the others. At least with her eyes; her head was tucked into her chest. “Could they be afraid of everyone organizing again? Like we are trying to do?”
Mikael sighed, scratching the back of his head. “Maybe? Or someone could have taken out the Flagship, and they're not talking about it? It'd be a hell of a show of weakness if they did. So now they're trying to come up with something without its weaknesses? Whatever those may be.”
The knock on the door echoed through the room. Marshal's cursing did not.
“Nobody's supposed to be here besides you an' me!” he hissed, shoving the three towards a door labeled “EMERGENCY EXIT” in the back. “Go, go, go!”
They didn't need any more prompting. Translator reached the door first, holding it open for the other two.
They slammed it shut just after the front entrance flew open.
The sound didn't cover up the gunshot, and nothing could have stopped them from noticing Veedi's blood and brain matter spattering their chest or the ping of a bullet ricocheting off of their plates. Her body slumped to the floor, head blown open. Mikael had pulled his gun, pointing it at the Engi standing there with a smoking pistol, a Slug at their side.
The Slug scowled, spitting a wad of slime onto Veedi's corpse. “Can't ssstand that clan. Good riddance.”
“Who the fuck are you?” Mikael shouted, as if volume could conceal the fear in his voice. The fear in his face grew as he ever so slowly turned his gun upwards until the barrel rested under his chin.
“Nobody of importance to you. All you need to know is we're the folks who Marshal gets his money from.” The Slug grinned the smuggest grin Translator had seen on one in a long time. “I recommend you follow- ah ah ah, no using implants. That's cheating.”
Mikael's finger tightened on the trigger. His breathing grew ragged.
The Slug gestured for them to follow, taking point while the Engi fell behind, pistol pointed at the back of Translator's neck. They stepped around Veedi's corpse, sickened by the sight of her lying there, dead. They wanted to turn around and attack the Engi but that would get Mikael killed. And them, too, probably. They weren't that good a fighter.
The Slug led them through a maze of back alleys, away from the sight of the rest of the station's populace. Translator wanted to break down and cry, but the need felt distant. A task to do when this was done. Cry over their return to slavery.
Seven years of freedom. They should have known it wouldn't last.
A slave was all they'd ever be.
They rounded a corner and the massive figure of someone clad in power armor stepped out from the shadows, equally massive rifle pointed at the party.
It all happened in seconds. The Slug yelped. Mikael pulled the trigger as his arm flung outwards, coating everything nearby with blood, bone, and teeth. The Engi fired as well as Translator flung themself to the ground, hitting their shoulder. And the figure in armor pumped the Slug and Engi full of bullets, methodical as a machine.
When the slavers were nothing more than ruined viscera and a pile of burned and damaged nanobots, the figure knelt by Mikael, one hand on his chest.
“Still alive,” she pronounced. She sounded feminine, but held a sharp edge which Translator couldn't distinguish as Mantis or a quirk of the armor. She got to work, producing a small medical kit out of a storage compartment in the armor and staunching the flow of blood from the ruins of Mikael's face.
She stood up when she finished, picking up Mikael and putting him over her shoulder. She looked down at Translator and jerked her head to the side. “Come. We'll heal him. Move fast, the New Federation approaches. The Paradox cannot stay here. We'll find them.”
They weren't in a position to question the person holding Mikael and a gun of that caliber. They scrambled to their feet, probing the wound in their shoulder as they followed along. “Who are you...?”
Out of instinct they winced when she answered. “Someone sympathetic to the cause. And if you're who Brazen thinks you are, it's been dying to meet you.”
Chapter 45: I Saw Them Riding In
The Fregatidae and its crew are @draugrmemelord's. Shared universe fun!
She led them to the big ship. The one with the black and red stripes, attached to the underbelly of the station. They had to run to keep up with her big, loping steps that sent shudders through the ground around her. But time was of the essence, if not to avoid the New Federation (they couldn't confirm the identities of the tiny lights of ships in the distance, but there were a lot of them), then to save Mikael's life. As they ran his breathing grew weaker. He coughed and gurgled, fingers tightening against the person's armor. But he kept breathing, and that was the important part.
They felt tiny in the ship's airlock, made for transporting not just troops but vehicles and cargo, from the size of it. No wonder they had to dock in such an out-of-the-way location. There wasn't any time to pause and drink in the scale of it all, or of the next room, or the length of the passageway the person led them into. They had to make sure Mikael was safe.
The person led them to the medical bay, with its bright red cross emblazoned on the door. Inside stood... Stood... It looked like an Engi. Or, rather, multiple Engi smashed together, with three screens all in that neutral green color, three bodies' worth of nanobots forming something that would tower above a normal Engi.
Translator held back, staring at this thing as it turned oh-so-ponderously to study Mikael. It held up a syringe and inserted it into his arm, drawing out deep red blood.
Hadn't Mikael lost enough already?
The person stepped aside, and the Engi's three screens lit up with text. “AT LAST WE MEET / WE HAVE BEEN WAITING / DON'T WORRY, HE'LL BE FINE.”
“Brazen?” they asked, remembering what the armored person said. Brazen would be dying to meet them. The problem was that they had never seen this thing before in their entire life.
Brazen... It couldn't nod, as it didn't have a head, more of limbs sprouting from a torso. But it did bow before emptying the syringe's contents into a machine they didn't recognize. “WE LOOK FORWARDS TO OUR CONVERSATION / BUT FIRST YOU NEED METAL / TEND TO YOURSELF, WE SHALL TEND TO YOUR FRIEND.” It bowed again, this time to the armored person.
They'd been preoccupied with Mikael's health, they'd been doing their best to ignore their shoulder. But now they couldn't, not as the armored person placed a hand on their other shoulder and led them out of the med bay.
They shivered, all alone on a new ship, with Mikael in critical condition. No idea if they'd been led here just to be enslaved by someone else, or killed for whatever reason these people had. Why did they have to go to Lagrange Five? All it brought was questions, pain, and death. And now, without the rush of having to help Mikael, they felt the oxygen flowing in from the room and across their plates. It was a slow trickle, only able to enter through the hole in their suit, but they were beginning to feel unwell.
“This one... This one's suit is damaged.”
The person paused, head tilted to the side. Considering how to help or how to deal with the inconvenience? It took a couple seconds before she spoke. “There's some crew rooms this way.”
She changed direction, bringing Translator with. The hallway she led them down was lined with doors, all numbered, with slots for name plates available. None had a name plate.
She pointed at each room like she was counting them off, then stopped in front of 07. The door opened when she approached, revealing a tiny, but fully-functional, room designed with a human in mind. Cot and accompanying accouterments, footlocker, even a thin door cracked open to show a toilet and shower.
“Take the suit off and hand it over.”
Translator didn't waste time. They stepped inside and stripped out of the suit, shuddering at how open they were to all the oxygen. They gave the person the suit and sat down right there, on the floor.
She left without another word. That was fine by them; they pulled all the blankets off of the bed and wrapped themself up in them, waiting for the oxygen dizziness to resolve itself.
Oddly enough they didn't sleep it off. Or, at least, they didn't think they did. It was hard to tell, they couldn't remember much after the fact. They'd been too woozy to focus on anything until the warning lights were on and their mind had cleared again.
That's when a new voice spoke. “Hello! I know it's late, but welcome to the Fregatidae.”
They lifted their head, staring blearily at the speaker to the PA system. That must have been their captain... She sounded friendly, they had to give her that. A lot nicer than the slavers they'd met before, or even Jason. More like Mikael. They wanted to trust her.
“Hello? This one is Translator.” They weren't sure if she could hear them, but it was worth a try.
And they were right. “I'm Felicity. I saw you've met Brazen and my wife, Krin. There's a few more people aboard but we're a tiny crew on a big ship.” The end of her sentence had a giggly sound to it.
“How is Mikael?”
That gave Felicity pause. “He's doing all right. Not... He's not in a state to be getting visitors, though.”
They nodded and rested their head again. They understood. When Ruwen was injured nobody was allowed in for hours while the med bay fixed her up. Something as complicated as a human's face? Mikael was going to be unavailable for a long time.
“We've detached from Lagrange Five. Did so not long after you came aboard, actually. I think something must have scared off your ship earlier, though. I watched it leave. Little Kestrel-class, painted in New Federation colors?”
That was the Paradox. They nodded again. “You saw it at the shipyard? This one saw you there.”
“Centi's? Oh, yeah. Brazen told us to land there, and hey, we needed some fixing up. I think it was riding on a small chance you'd be there.”
She chuckled. “Oh. Brazen's sort of a... Hm. I guess you could say prophet of sorts. It's able to do extremely accurate predictions, sort of like it could see the future. It's been telling us all about this one person with 'very high odds of having a great impact in the galaxy,' and when it saw you at the shipyard it kind of... You know how Engis can dissolve into clouds?”
“Yes.” Of course. Emily did it all the time, and it wasn't unknown for Bovee to do it, too.
“It did that. It was really excited.”
They untangled themself from the blanket, staring down at the yellowish and red smudges. Oh. Oh, that was right. Mikael and Veedi...
They never thought they would feel bad for a Slug, let alone a slaver. Maybe it was easier to feel bad when her blood was all over their front.
“This one needs to clean off,” they said by way of getting out of the conversation, and ducked into the bathroom.
The shower was too small for them to fit in comfortably, so they left the sliding panel that sectioned it off open. Inside was a handle and a shower head. More importantly, there was a highly textured cloth.
Figuring out the controls was easy; they turned the handle and water came out, at first frigid, but it slowly warmed. Most importantly it washed the blood and gore away, the chunkier parts sitting by the drain while the remaining fluid became runoff. Yellow and red swirled away. Water got in between their plates, into their chest to travel down their internals until it dripped onto their abdomen or the floor. They scrubbed away any stubborn spots with the cloth, anything that had dried while they ran around, too dazed and afraid to think about the state they were in.
They ruffled their plates, letting the water get between every crevice and seam.
However, they didn't spend long in the shower. Ships liked to conserve their water, they knew, and going through a lot of it without giving it ample time to recycle was unfair. They shut off the water, scrubbed off some (possibly imagined) remaining flecks, and wrung the cloth out before putting it back where it was.
Once they were back in the room they shoved the stained blankets under the cot to deal with later. Certainly Felicity had some sort of plan for them. Laundry or something, they'd be happy to clean them off. They'd helped Ruwen with her laundry before, out of sheer curiosity. That, and she wanted them to wash the blankets that comprised their nest every once in a while, as if Translator did not preen often enough to keep them clean by proxy.
They felt a jolt as the ship jumped, the hull rumbling disconcertingly all the while.
Felicity must have noticed them looking around. “Don't worry, it's safe. Just a few odd spots that make it make noise. We've jumped hundreds of times without issue.”
They paced the confines of the small room. Were they stuck here until they got their suit back? Or until some later point? “Are we going to find the Paradox?”
“Mmhm. As soon as we can. Just hold on tight.”
They did. They alternated between sitting and pacing, mind racing with thoughts and worry for their friends. Ariadne and Ruwen didn't know they were okay. If Mikael had gotten out a message it would have been a warning, or a cry for help.
What could have happened that they fled the station without them? What if someone there was hurt? What if they were in as bad condition as Mikael, or Ruwen when Davion shot her?
They didn't know how long it was before Krin interrupted their thoughts, the door opening to admit her. In her hands she held their suit and some pieces of scrap. The two stared at each other for a couple seconds before Translator approached and took their things. Well, their suit and the scrap she gave them. “Thank you,” they mumbled, eyes turning to the floor.
She said nothing. Instead, Felicity spoke. “Krinny, you should let them stay with you for a bit when they're done. I think a little company would do them well.”
Krin sputtered. “You're not company enough?”
“Oh, I think it helps sometimes if the person's more... obviously physically present.”
Translator stepped back, letting Krin and Felicity talk while they ate and waited to feel ready to repair their shoulder wound. In the meantime they puzzled over what Felicity said; sure, she talked over the PA, but she had to be around somewhere, right?
Soon enough they were finished up putting the tuhar in place and busy pulling on their suit. Krin and Felicity were still talking, but they'd moved on to ship business sort of things. Felicity's voice dripped with affection, but Krin was a little more subdued. She was a little like Atryom, they realized, with the warrior stance she stood in and the way she spoke. The two would either love each other or duel until one was seriously injured at best. As best they could figure there was an equal chance of both outcomes, though if both survived the duel no doubt they'd at least come to a strong respect.
When they'd checked the suit (it was hard to find the tear, they'd repaired it so well) and it was closed up, they stood at the ready. Krin looked them over and nodded, satisfied. “All right. Come on, then. Maybe Grakite will like you.”
Felicity laughed, the sound following them down the hall. “Oh, like there's any doubt about that.”
The ship felt only a little smaller inside than it looked from the outside, mostly owing to how much stuff there was inside. It had the same sort of human-centric-but-permissive-of-other-species design that the Paradox had. The Federation must have built it. The old one, anyways; the New Federation would never build something that considered for other species' comfort. How many people would crew this monster of a ship, when it was at full capacity?
The room Krin led them to was not small, either, but it had so many things it felt cozy. There was armor and weapons of any make and model they could think of, designed for as many species as they could think of. If they hadn't just eaten they'd have been hungry. There were computer systems, too, displaying a diagnostic scan for what indeed was a flak cannon at the prow.
A snort drew their attention to the Rock who'd been sleeping while he sat on a crate. He blinked, turning his head this way and that until his bright red, healthy eye fell upon Krin and Translator. The other was cloudy and dull, obviously sightless for obvious reasons. It was like the left half of his face had been blown away, the carapace gone, revealing the sagging flesh underneath. He wore a hearing aid as well, the boxy device fitted on the side of his head looking like it was trying to replace some of the missing natural armor. He was thin, too, to the point where the remaining pieces of his carapace looked like they didn't quite fit. Even Brelyn had the muscle mass to look like she was the right size for her own carapace.
And Translator didn't miss the silvery metal of his prosthetic leg, though they tried to keep their gaze from lingering on it too long. No need to give the wrong impression.
“Krin,” he said to greet her. He sounded as warm as Felicity, but the roughness to his voice, moreso than usual for a Rock, lended to the evidence that he was as old as he looked. That was, around Broca's age, or more likely older. “Who's this?”
It took a moment for their transmitter to catch up with their mind. In the meantime, they placed their hand on their chest and did a shallow bow, like Ruwen had done to Kusy and Atryom, but they couldn't get their eyes off his face. The extensive injury drew their attention for sure, but there was something else they couldn't place. Either way, the gesture gave them enough time to find some words, and he seemed to appreciate it. “This one is Translator.” They looked down at their suit, trying to decide whether it needed explanation or not. “A Lanius. Though this one shouldn't absorb all the oxygen in this...”
“They're the one Brazen's worked up about,” Krin said as she moved to stand beside her crewmate.
He nodded, mumbling something to her about them being a little scrawny for the job, weren't they? But then he returned the shallow bow and said, “I am Grakite. Just an old man Krin and Felicity picked up along the way.”
Grakite ignored her, or maybe didn't hear her, and gestured towards the other chair, the one that they could tell belonged to the desk at the computer terminal. “Sit down, Felicity told me you've been through a lot recently.”
Who were they to say no? They sat, keeping their limbs in close the way they'd noticed other species do when they were cold. Their mind spun, torn between grieving for Veedi and maybe Mikael, worrying about their captain, worrying for the rest of the crew, anger at Marshal, confusion at everything they'd talked about in his shop, and the strange comfort of the Fregatidae. But overall they wanted to be home, and they didn't know if “home” meant the Paradox or Flock Tsunya. It could have been the Vortex; they were not above wishing they were two (or however old) again.
The only thing keeping them from breaking down and crying, or falling into another panic attack, right then and there was knowing that Grakite and Krin were watching them, and they could not afford to disappoint the two. Much like they had not been able to afford disappointing Mikael, or Ruwen, or Rauta when they first met them.
Poor Mikael. How was he doing?
“What brings you here?” Grakite asked, leaning forwards and resettling.
They tried to shake the overwhelming stress away before starting. “This one is... trying to help end the New Federation. Right now, this one and the crew of the Paradox are finding the source of the mind-controlled autoships and trying to find the Flagship. This one joined... This one joined for their flock.”
From there the story spilled out of them like water out of a cup someone knocked over. First the payment of scrap to Flock Tsunya for their services, helping that way. Then, with a little prompting, the story of how they came to be multilingual, and how they met Kusy and Atryom, up through Knapp's death at the hands of the Flagship as it destroyed the Vortex and their subsequent adoption into Flock Tsunya. It was like they emptied their mind out as they spoke, focused wholly on the story and, sometimes, the questions posed or the expressions they made. Well, Grakite made. Translator couldn't see Krin's face. Or Felicity's; she chimed in sometimes with an acknowledging sound or comment.
When the story was over there was a long silence. They were judging them, Translator knew it. In all their mental exhaustion they'd overshared and the Fregatidae's crew didn't want to hear it.
They worried their way through quiet condolences over Knapp's fate and reminders that they were happy to help hunt down the Flagship. They tuned out the conversation that Krin and Grakite started, too tired to focus on what they said besides to hear the points where one was supposed to at least pretend to listen. They hoped their pretending was convincing enough. Neither of the crew seemed to take offense, as far as they could tell. That was something.
It felt like they sat there forever, listening to Krin and Grakite talk. Following along was impossible; instead, they sat there and forcibly processed the events of the day. And, every time, they came to the same conclusion. They wanted Ruwen and Ariadne, or maybe Kusy and Atryom. They wanted the people who felt like home.
The door opened with a slight hiss, catching the three's attention. In the doorway stood Mikael, arms crossed over his bare chest, equally bare legs held close together. Actually, the only thing he was wearing were a pair of soft blue... They were shorter than any pair of shorts Translator had seen, not covering the legs at all.
His hair, usually a cloud a few inches high, was close to his scalp now, like it had never grown out that long in the first place.
And, to top it all off, he was mortified.
Translator started to stand and Mikael darted behind their chair, hunching so as to hide as much of his body behind it as possible, staying out of view of Krin and Grakite, who watched the spectacle with... It was hard to tell what they were thinking.
“You're okay?” they asked him. This close they saw that all the little scars that littered his face were gone, along with the pinprick hairs growing above his lip and along his jaw. There were no signs of any surgical scars, not even from what would have to be a just-completed surgery. He was shivering, too.
“The Engi snapped my neck!” he hissed, staring at Krin.
She cocked her head, though otherwise remained impassive. “We have a clone bay.” She said it like it was nothing more than a fact, something he should have expected.
So, they'd killed him and brought him back in a cloned body instead of fixing his face? Translator examined Mikael again, who side-eyed them for staring. Besides the odd newness to him, he was definitely Mikael.
He rubbed his eyes and frowned. “My implants are gone...”
“They would have been gone. You shot yourself in the face. Technology isn't indestructible.” Now Krin sounded like she was getting tired of explaining things to him.
He sighed and rubbed his eyes again, taking his time. His breathing steadied until, with one last exhale, he spoke again. “Okay. Okay, I get it. Translator, are you okay?”
They nodded. Right now they were the one person who'd left the Paradox who had not died, so they figured they must have been doing better than Mikael. Certainly better than Veedi. Would anyone find her corpse and give her whatever last rites Slugs had? They hoped so. “This one has met Brazen – the Engi-, Krin, Grakite, and Felicity.” They indicated each person in turn, only to be forced to give a vague gesture towards the PA speaker for Felicity. “They said they would find the Paradox.”
“Speak of the devil!” Felicity said, making Mikael jump. “I think I found them. I tried to open up a comm channel and said we had you guys, and they're kind of arming their weapons. If you two know and want to talk to a certain Princess Ariadne-”
Translator was up and running before Felicity said to come to the bridge.
Chapter 46: Silence the Internal Violence
She did provide directions, guiding Translator and Mikael to the front of the ship. The bridge looked more complicated than the cockpits Translator was used to; here there was room for multiple crew to be stationed, and the number of consoles to match such a setup, all facing the huge windows dominating one side of the room. Outside they saw the Paradox, marked by indicators saying their weapons were hot.
But they were the only two in the room. They'd thought Felicity would be here, but there was no sign of anyone, let alone a human woman.
Then they saw a camera lower from the ceiling and the comm feed from the Paradox appeared on the window. Ariadne sat in the pilot's seat, Nik and Zev by her side. Her cold fury sublimated at the sight of Translator and Mikael, though her eyes lingered on Mikael's state of near-complete undress. He looked down at himself, too, and sidestepped so he was behind a chair.
“You are safe,” she breathed, shoulders relaxing. It didn't last long; her eyes narrowed again and she looked around. “Where is Veedi?”
Both Translator and Mikael hung their heads, but the latter didn't take long to do so. “She died. Her murderers died, too, but, well...” He scratched the back of his nearly-bald head. “I kind of died, too. It's been... It's been a day.”
Translator heard Ariadne mutter the words 'clone bay' under her breath. In the background Nik and Zev shared a look, asking each other if the other remembered anything about having used clone bays before. Both denied any previous encounters and resumed their proud, guardly stances at Ariadne's side.
Translator tapped their fingers together. “Is everything okay on the Paradox?”
Both Mantises crowed, lifting themselves up to show fresh scars on their undersides. The sudden movement scared Translator and they backed off, arms raised to protect their front.
“There was a fight!” Nik said.
“Rauta is still in the med bay,” Zev continued.
“He'll be fine.”
“He's old. It takes time for old people.”
Ariadne waved the two off and they stepped down from the console, still glowing with pride. She sighed, nodding. “Perhaps it was the same people as attacked you two and Veedi. Or, they were affiliated. We tried to get in contact with you, but you did not respond to hails on your implant, Mikael.”
He winced. In Translator's opinion, that told enough of the story.
“Anyways,” he said, “These guys are friendly. Just... Don't get too hurt. Their Engi is a real piece of work.”
Felicity chimed in to say, “You should dock. We can get your folks back to you and talk about a potential alliance going forwards. I think we'll get along swimmingly for a... Few reasons.”
Mikael nodded his assent when Ariadne looked his way. Carefully, she spoke. “All right. We will be docking with your ship immediately.” Her eyes narrowed and any pretense of anything but cold anger dissipated. “Then we'll talk.”
The doors open just as the comm feed ended, the image disappearing from view. Mikael whistled a low note through his teeth, grimacing. When Translator turned around Grakite stood there, panting like he ran all the way from the armory to the bridge. Soft beeping emanated from something hidden under his shirt. He stared past the two at the area the image had been, as if he could will it to return.
As the two walked towards the door, he sagged and turned to meet them.
Mikael paused when the two were close to him, clasped his hands behind his back like he was totally a respectable captain and not one standing around in his shorter-than-shorts. “I think Translator and I would appreciate it if you helped us find the hangars.”
They nodded in agreement.
Grakite perked up for a moment, then looked away. “I would slow you down.”
Mikael waved the concern away. He smiled the friendly smile that had helped Translator feel so at home on the Paradox. “We'll be giving them time to dock, then.” When Grakite nodded and started walking, Mikael dipped his head to his side and said quietly, “And then I can get some clothes on.”
“You have been adjusting to wearing less?” Translator couldn't quite make the sentence sound like a statement instead of a suggestion.
Mikael hitched his shoulders up higher, rubbing his arms. “It's cold.”
“Look, man, you're a being of the void. Me? I like pants.” He sighed, rubbing his face. “Sorry if I've been short-tempered. It's been a day.”
They nodded. He had died, he had a good excuse. They figured that if they had died not that long ago, they would be the same way. Or they'd spend the rest of the day huddled in their nest, like they had been earlier.
So strange to think it had all happened on the same day. The panic attack felt like forever ago.
Mikael changed pace so he was beside Grakite, occasionally glancing down at his feet to make sure he didn't outrun the old Rock. “So, uh, sorry to pry, but were you looking to meet Ariadne?”
Grakite gave Mikael a long, long look, mulling his question over. Finally he shrugged, staring straight ahead again. “It's been a century since I paid attention to the news from the Rock homeworld sector. Quite frankly, I'm surprised there is another royal. And for her to be here? So far from home?” He chuckled. “I'd love to meet the king and queen's rebel child.”
Mikael tried to run his hand through nonexistent hair. “Yeah, sometimes I'm surprised she's here, too. She's been invaluable in getting help from her parents. The Crystals, too. We were there not too long ago, and she managed to get permission to come with us, so now we've got to be really careful because she's an only child.”
“This one has noticed King Broca does not like telling her no.” It wasn't meant to be a smudge on the king's character, but from what they saw it was true. Sure, he argued with her, but he hadn't kept her from doing anything with the Paradox.
“She's worn him smooth,” Grakite said, starting to smile. There wasn't more than a hint of negativity to his words. In fact if Translator wasn't mistaken he sounded almost proud of Ariadne, or at least amused by her behavior. “How old is she, if she's still answering to her parents so much?”
Mikael rolled his eyes and made an exaggerated wet cough. “Translator, you're not supposed to reveal a woman's age. But yeah, she's young.” The conversation died out for a moment before he asked, “You have any kids, Grakite?”
He shook his head. “Oh, no. I...” He waved at nothing in particular. “There's a few reasons.”
Mikael hummed and nodded, reading the sign on a doorway they passed by. “Don't need a reason, in my mind. Especially in times like these. Doesn't seem to stop people, though.”
Soon enough they came across larger doors, with lighted signs in front. Most were labeled “UNOCCUPIED” but they came across one, its sign blaring red instead of blue, that said, “DOCKING IN PROGRESS.”
“This is the one?” Translator asked, cocking their head to get a different angle on the sign. How long would it take for them to dock? Ariadne had the sense to let the AI do its job, right?
“There shouldn't be any other ships docking.” Grakite waited patiently for the light to turn green, rocking on his feet while Mikael shivered and hopped around to warm up and Translator repeatedly checked the sign.
They felt a rumble underfoot seconds before the light turned. Translator ran for the door, stopping just short of smacking into it. They placed a hand on it, confused; most doors opened when someone approached. Maybe it was different on big ships like these-
The door opened and they had to take a second to process it. Then they had to process the sight of the Paradox inside the hangar. Was it really so big, taking up this massive space? It always felt cramped. How much of its bulk was unusable, stuffed with machines? And how used had they gotten to being in a ship with too many people on it?
That wouldn't be a concern now, they remembered. Veedi wouldn't be there any more. That felt... strange to imagine. At best. Strange at best.
The Paradox's airlock opened and four figures exited the ship. Three – Ruwen and the Mantis brothers – held back to marvel at the scale of the Fregatidae. Ariadne, however, strode right for the group.
“If you don't mind me,” Mikael muttered, “I'm going to go put some clothes on and have the breakdown I've been in the denial stage too long for.” He brushed past the other two, rubbing his arms. “Ariadne! You're in charge. Do your negotiating thing.”
She didn't look at him, but nodded. Her eyes were dead set on Grakite, though Translator thought they saw her glance at them. Her hands were balled up into fists, making horrid grinding noises as she worked her fingers. Remembering what she'd done to her guards in one of her dresses, Translator didn't know to be more or less worried now that she was in a shirt and pants. Okay, so she'd had a bad day, too.
They held up their hands, looking past her at Ruwen, Nik, and Zev. Ruwen at least seemed to have noticed Ariadne's death march and was jogging over. Thankfully the Mantis brothers were still marveling at the hangar. “This one is okay-”
She placed a hand on their shoulder for the short time she was in arm's reach before standing toe-to-toe with Grakite. She had to look up at him, but height and some armor he wore were the only advantages he had on her.
“Did you know who we were when you took our crew?” Thank goodness she wasn't in a fighting stance, maybe this would stay verbal.
“This one's fine,” Translator repeated, trying to get her attention. Verbal only or not, they'd rather not start the Paradox's introduction to the Fregatidae with a fight.
Both the Rocks ignored them. “We did,” Grakite responded, not fazed in the least by the angry princess in front of him.
She didn't get more upset that he wasn't cowed, at least not that Translator could tell. She just stayed the same level of upset. “And you waited until after we left Lagrange Five to contact us?”
They looked between the two again. “This one's fine...”
“You were leaving-”
Ariadne threw one hand out, gesturing broadly to the interior of the ship. “And nothing on this entire cruiser could have helped us against our pursuers?”
Grakite crossed his arms. “We were busy saving your crewmates!”
Translator almost jumped when Ruwen came up behind them, giving them a quick hug. She took one look at the arguing duo and sighed. “Ariadne, come on. Would you rather have Mikael and Translator left to die?”
“They just want to help with the Paradox's mission,” Translator added. They tried to touch her arm but she was barely out of reach. Please, could she listen? They were getting worried. Scared of a fight. “Brazen knew, that's why they were at the shipyard.”
Was that a wet gleam in her eyes? She had to be more upset than she let on; how much worse was everything in her head? Whatever it was, it was bad enough that she took a second to stare at them, mouth half-open as she tried to find the words she wanted before turning back to Grakite to say them. “You knew? You knew all the way back at the shipyard and you did nothing about it?”
“Trust me, we wanted to, but between repairing our ship and how quickly yours was in and out it was impossible-”
“Were your comms broken?” She was actively crying now and Translator could tell how much she hated it. Every breath she took was stilted, barely controlled, and she'd grabbed onto the hem of her shirt and still been unable to stop her hand from shaking. When the two paused, Translator didn't know if it was because she was waiting for him to respond or if she needed to calm down. ”Were your comms broken?”
Why couldn't they make peace? Why did Ariadne have to do this? Ruwen had hugged them again and they felt themself shivering in their grasp. They wanted to run away but they couldn't leave. No, what if something went horribly wrong? Running would be wrong. They couldn't.
Grakite was about to speak when the door to the hangar opened and a burnt orange Mantis ran inside.
They couldn't help it. They screeched, clawing at Ruwen's arms until she let them go. All instinct told them to run, get to safety. Where was safety? This whole ship was the Mantis's territory. The Paradox? She'd chase them down long before then. Even if they managed to get away every hiding spot was low to the ground, easy to-
Someone was holding them back!
“Please no!” they begged. “No no no!” They tried to pull away but no amount of force they could apply broke those blue arms' grip. Worse, Ruwen grabbed their head, holding them against her collar. What was she doing? She was going to get them killed!
Why hadn't being around Nik and Zev been enough?
“It's okay!” someone shouted. It wasn't okay, didn't they know? They'd never felt it. The terror of being prey. Of being dragged out from a hiding place that should have kept them safe. Burning acid eating through them. Shame at being taunted for being too easy, what a weakling.
The clicking, chattering phonemes of a Mantis dialect, patterned like a lullaby, became the complaints of a bored slaver. She'd been looking forwards to bigger, better prey. A fight, not a joke. But this would do. She delighted in the chase.
Two more Mantis ran past. Smaller, familiar – Nik and Zev. Knowing that didn't help. They were Mantis all the same.
All their energy sapped out of them and they collapsed, bringing Ruwen to one knee. Why bother fighting? They were going to be maimed or die anyways. Give up, give in, play dead, don't be fun. Fun means you're dead.
They thought they heard a buzz and a new flurry of conversation. The Mantis voices faded away, leaving Ruwen's shushing and reassurances as they cried. In what felt like the far distance they heard Ariadne run up to them and ask some questions.
She touched them. They gave one last shudder and passed out.
Chapter 47: Uncrowned
“Mikael trusted me.”
“And I failed! It was the one thing I was supposed to be good at. Diplomacy. I don't know what came over me, it was so childish-”
“No, come here. You were scared. We were all scared.”
Translator opened their eyes. Everything was blurry, and the black material around their eyes tinted their vision, but they could tell they were in the shields. Someone had put them in their nest and wrapped the blankets around them until the pressure was comforting. Ruwen, then. Maybe Ariadne. They knew what they liked. Both of them were sitting on the floor, Ariadne between Ruwen and the desk.
Ruwen drew Ariadne into a hug. Ariadne's face was still wet with tears; had she stopped crying since they passed out, or not? Ruwen's pauldron hid her head before Translator could tell based on sight, but before long they heard quiet sobs. Which of the women it was from, they didn't know. Maybe it was both.
“You don't have to do this.” Oh, Ariadne was definitely crying.
Ruwen clicked her forehead against Ariadne's. “I love you. Bad days don't change that.” She was crying, too.
The sobs grew louder, wracked. Ariadne curled one hand against Ruwen's chest. Translator wanted to be there for her, too, but they were so tired, they couldn't even let her know they were awake. They needed to rest.
So they and Ruwen waited it out as Ariadne cried. They waited until she caught her breath and said in a small, small voice, “I love you, too. And...” She took a deep breath. “I love Translator too. I'm sorry. I just- I was afraid I'd lost them-”
She loved them?
Ruwen cut her off with another kiss. “You know what? I love them, too.”
There was a long pause. Translator's head spun. Both of them? Both of them loved them? They'd thought- they'd hoped so, and everything the two did made it seem that way, but to hear it was something else. Something amazing.
Ariadne tried to laugh, still too soon from crying for it to sound good. “Does that make us a triad?”
“We can ask them when they wake up.” Ruwen looked over at them. “I think they're still asleep.”
The two sat together, in each others arms, while Translator bathed in the knowledge of their affection. Soon, they'd tell them yes, they wanted to be part of this. They loved them, too. They'd be there for them as long as possible, until the feast cycle ended and they hibernated.
Ruwen stood first, providing support for Ariadne to get up. “I can fix us dinner. It's been a while since I last cooked for more than just me but if Rauta's down for the count...”
She kissed her. “If Translator wakes up before you're done, I'll help you.”
“Do they teach you to cook in princess school?”
She laughed again. It sounded better this time. “No, but I can learn.”
Ruwen took a deep breath and said, “Sure.” She left after wiping one last tear from Ariadne's eye. Before the doors to the med bay closed Translator heard her say something to Rauta they didn't catch.
Ariadne leaned against the desk, staring down at them. She rested one hand across the top of her belly, the other behind her back.
They should tell her they were awake. Let her go to Ruwen. Or both of them go to Ruwen and agree to be a triad. Make the day a little better before it came to an end.
But then the door opened. The person admitted wasn't Ruwen, or Rauta, or anyone else on the Paradox's crew.
It was Grakite. He had his head down – with humility, so he could look Ariadne in they eye, or considering what he was going to say to her? - and his hands behind his back. He stopped a few feet away from her and said, “I'm here to talk.”
She exhaled, shoulders sagging. “I'm sorry about earlier. My behavior was unbecoming and I understand how important your assistance would be to the Paradox's mission. I sincerely hope my outburst has not damaged relations between us, and I promise it shall never happen again.”
Translator was pretty sure he was trying to smile at her. It was hard to tell; all the expressions he made looked painful. “Apology accepted, Princess, but it's not what I'm here for.” He put his hand on the back of the chair. “May I sit?”
She stepped back, but gestured towards the chair. “Yes, certainly. Sir...”
“Grakite.” He sat down. Compared to Ruwen or Ariadne he didn't take up much room, though more than Translator did on the rare occasions they sat down. “The name wouldn't happen to be familiar to you, would it?”
Ariadne shook her head. “No. Should it be?”
He leaned forwards, bracing his hands on his knees and exhaling like someone punched him in the gut. He tapped one foot, healthy eye gazing at nothing in particular. “Apparently your father decided otherwise.” With a sigh, he continued. “That just means this will be a bit harder is all.”
Her grip tightened on the desk. “What will be harder?”
There was no response. Not for a long time; Grakite covered his eyes with one hand. Translator didn't see a weapon on him, at least. Besides, Ariadne was quite capable of defending herself if it came down to it. Not that it seemed it would.
Ariadne had just started to speak when Grakite stood, shaking his head. He didn't meet her eyes, and he almost stumbled when he stepped oddly with his prosthetic. “I'm sorry, I thought I could- I thought this would be easier.”
She lunged and caught his arm. When he tried to wrest her off she batted his other hand away. Now she'd forced him to make eye contact, and the two had a momentary staredown. Translator couldn't see her eyes, but they could picture the fire in them, and how closely it matched what they saw in Grakite. “I don't care how easy this is supposed to be for you. How do you think I'd feel, knowing that you know something and left me in the fucking dark? Do you know how tired I am of people not telling me things? My entire life has been political. I've been a public figure since before I could see ten feet ahead of me, every little thing I say and do has to be strategic, my mother conceived me because the timing was politically convenient.” Her voice cracked; she'd begun crying again. “And I thought out here, I could get away from it. The lies, the subterfuge, the pretending. So if you have something you want to say to me, spit it out. I don't give a damn if you tell me you came to personally introduce yourself before you assassinate me in my sleep, and by the Stone I'd let you do it, I just want to know.”
Translator's plates flared, barely able to move within the confines of their suit and the blankets. Grakite, too, looked taken aback. What had gotten him? Her rant in general, the idea he was an assassin, or that Ariadne would let him kill her?
He turned to face her, cradling her cheek with one hand. When she didn't fight him, he gathered her into a careful hug. She didn't reciprocate, keeping her arms close to her body, but that didn't stop him, save for a quick glance at her face, presumably to see if she was upset or uncomfortable. “I'd never hurt my niece.”
Translator strained to hear Ariadne's quiet, “What?” as she looked up at him.
Grakite took a deep, rattling breath. “You're my niece. Your father exiled me as a threat to his power a century ago. He's... he's my older half-brother.” The words were choked; he wasn't kidding when he said it wasn't going to be easy for him.
Ariadne stiffened. “What do you mean?”
“Your father is a bastard, Ariadne. His mother was some servant girl your grandfather – my father – took a shining to. He didn't- hhf!”
She'd pushed him away, turning her back to him. Tears ran freely down her face. She hunched in on herself and shook her head vigorously. It was the most un-Ariadne thing Translator had seen, and it scared them. They shrunk back in their nest, trying to think of something they could do. Some way to help her.
But for now all they could do was watch her cry and say, “You're lying.”
Now it was his turn to get angry, though Translator watched the battle on his face as he tried to tamp it down for her. Finally he settled on a glare and clenched fists. “You wanted the truth. It won't always be pleasant. It hurts me, too, knowing Broca didn't tell you about someone he said he loved. There's some things nobody wants to be true.”
She said nothing. She lifted her head for a moment like she was going to say something, but all she could get out was a sob. With the engines and shields off, life support barely running, and the sounds of the Fregatidae muffled by the Paradox's hull, that was the only sound Translator heard.
That was it. They forced their way out of the blankets, ignoring Grakite's shock at their presence. Clicking at the two of them, they picked up one of the blankets (soft, fluffy, with minimal holes from their plates) and wrapped it around Ariadne's shoulders. Hands covered in the fabric they wiped away the tears, standing on tiptoes to better see her face.
It took her two tries to rasp out, “I'm sorry.”
They kissed her. “Ruwen mentioned dinner. Would food help?”
She shook her head, and they waited patiently for her to find the will to respond. “I'm not hungry.”
Grakite lowered his head again. If he felt he didn't belong, so be it. Translator and Ariadne had been through enough today. He did step back, towards the door. “I should-”
“No!” Ariadne sounded not angry, but... Desperate. She'd already snapped up and turned her head to look at him, but now she reached a hand out for him. “Please stay. If you're really my uncle, please stay.”
“I... Okay.” He returned to her side, giving Translator a nod. He rubbed her back just like they'd seen Broca do all that time ago, when she returned after running away with the Paradox. “How about... How about this? We can do a DNA test, your med bay should be able to do that, and while that runs you get dinner- have you eaten today?”
She stayed silent.
“You need food in you. Trust me. Then we can sit down again and talk when everyone's settled. Okay?” He tried to smile at her, but no, it still looked painful. “I know it won't all be easy, and there's still plenty to talk about, but I want to get to know you, too.”
“We can do that over dinner,” she offered. Well, more of commanded in the form of an offer; there was a firm edge to her voice that said she was not allowing for dispute.
“This one should get their dinner.”
Translator followed the two out, pausing in the med bay while Grakite and Ariadne started the process for the DNA test to talk to Rauta. The conversation wasn't long, mostly him explaining what injuries landed him in the med bay and that he would be getting back to work soon. Translator offered to see if Ruwen had anything for him to eat and he scowled; apparently the nature of his injuries prevented him from eating 'real food' for a little longer. They understood that, the memories of their malfunctioning internal making them wince. And, from Grakite's solemn nod, he understood as well.
They parted ways at the hall, Translator going left to the elevator, and from there to the cargo bay, while Ariadne and Grakite went right to the living area.
Perhaps some other time, they would have grabbed some scrap and joined the others. But it had been a long, long day, and as much as they loved Ruwen and Ariadne, they wanted some time to themself, a resource at a premium on such a small ship with so many people. Some peace and quiet, then they could tell the women that they loved them, too.
Maybe then things would start looking up.
Chapter 48: What I See
At some point in the local night, Ruwen found Translator sleeping among the scrap in the cargo bay. She prodded them awake and the two returned upstairs, her providing them support. It was quiet, moreso than they were used to or comfortable with, and they chatted to themself to make up for it. How strange, to be in an offline ship. The silence of space, that was okay. They understood that. But not a ship. It felt dead.
Ruwen nodded along to their chatter. They could tell she wasn't listening, but they were filling the silence, not asking her anything, or trying to tell her about their day. They doubted she was in the mood to try and pay attention to anything; she barely kept her eyes open, and they were unfocused. Her hand on their shoulder was heavier than usual, leaden with her tiredness.
But when they paused, she did manage to mumble, “Ariadne's staying with me tonight but I was wondering if you wanted to... to... figure out if we can fit a third on the bed?” She covered her face with one hand. “Ngh, that didn't come out right.”
It was a tougher decision than Translator wanted it to be. They'd been enjoying their alone time and wanted more, but they'd got a few good hours, there was plenty of space on the Fregatidae to avoid people (besides maybe Felicity), and they still wanted to admit their love for Ariadne and Ruwen. Not long after everyone woke up, but before anyone had to get up and get all upset for it would be a good time.
They nodded and she cracked a sleepy smile.
Being awake at this time of local night wasn't something they were usually okay with. Most of the time it meant they'd startled awake for whatever reason and struggled to get back to sleep. Or there was something going on, like an autoship or pirate had stumbled upon the Paradox. But this time, as they ascended in the elevator with Ruwen, and walked with her to her room... It was peaceful. Refreshing, after the day they'd had.
Ariadne stirred when they entered. The lights rose to a faint glow, enough for Translator to see her outline under a blanket and the wet shine of her eyes, cracked open.
Ruwen climbed in beside her, pressing close to try and give Translator some room. It didn't work, to say the least. Though they were thin, they knew they couldn't stay in the half-foot Ruwen managed to get them.
So they figured out an alternative. Pushing her shoulder down they got her to lie flat on her back so they could be on top of her, tucking their head into the notch between her throat and chest. Ariadne grumbled at the two and shifted so she was leaning on Ruwen, one arm over her and Translator.
“You're on my arm,” Ruwen said.
She huffed. “How many times do you lie on me?”
Ruwen was silent after that; Translator figured she'd rather fall asleep than face the truth.
It wasn't long before they were asleep, too.
They were the first awake in the morning, listening to Ruwen and Ariadne breathe, watching them shift and get comfortable against each other.
Ariadne was next awake, staring at Translator and Ruwen as if she didn't believe they were really there.
Ruwen woke up last, yawning and stretching, placing an arm around both of them and wishing them good morning.
“This one...” Translator started, drumming on Ruwen's chest. What were they going to say? The blankets everyone was wrapped in, preventing them from scraping each other up, the soft lighting, the easy, early-morning atmosphere, made it feel like a good time for gently introducing news. And, hopefully, making something of it. “This one heard you two say you loved them.”
The two women perked up, Ariadne's eyes more open than Ruwen's. She reached out, placing a hand on Translator's shoulders, overlapping the one Ruwen already had there.
Translator squirmed, not out of any particular discomfort with her touching them but with the effort to try and not botch what they were about to say. “This one loves you, too.”
Ruwen giggled, reaching to kiss them. Ariadne squeezed their shoulder, watching the two kiss. She'd been waiting for her turn, as it happened; the moment Translator pulled away from Ruwen they found Ariadne right there, tilting their jaw up.
“So, we are a triad?” Ruwen asked.
“Have we not been acting that way?” Translator responded.
They stayed there, cuddled with each other, for another few minutes. Both of Translator's... girlfriends, Ruwen and Ariadne were their girlfriends now. Wow. Amazing. Were they really this lucky? How long would it last?
They and Ruwen got up when Ariadne did, untangling and trying to decide as a group what to do next. Apparently for their girlfriends the first order of business was food, and Ruwen wanted to know what had happened last night when Ariadne spoke with Grakite.
As it turned out they were related, enough to be cousins (though the age gap was too large) or, as he'd suggested, her father's half-brother. His mother (not Broca's, he'd been adamant about that) trusted him with the secret he'd revealed to Ariadne. Not even Broca knew at the time. When the previous king and queen passed away and Ariadne's parents were coronated, he revealed it in court to try and take the crown, only to get exiled in retaliation. (She said he regretted his actions later.) While he grew to love the colony he was exiled to, Midas IV, it became a target for the then-Rebels' ire. As a captain of its defense force he had to keep it safe, but that led to him getting trapped in a ruined ship for decades, before being discovered first by a ship called the Kestrel and later the Fregatidae after the rest of the former's crew succumbed to an illness.
It was hard to eat and get ready in anything but silence after that.
They were interrupted in their reflection when Mikael turned on the PA system. He sighed before saying anything; he sounded like he hadn't slept at all the night before. “Hey all. Anyone who can is supposed to meet up with the Fregatidae crew so we can talk about what we're going to do moving forwards. They're looking to bolster our forces. By, like, a lot. As you can tell. They've got a meeting room, Felicity said she'd tell us once we're out of the Paradox.”
The three hurried to finish up their tasks (Ruwen and Ariadne cleaning dishes, Translator cleaning themself) and filed out of the Paradox. Nik, Zev, and Emily were already there, the Mantises running up for a moment, then backing away while they asked how Translator was doing. Emily turned her screen towards them all, but said nothing.
Mikael met them soon after, slouched like someone had put a weight on his shoulders. His eyes weren't as open and bright as usual, his usual slight smile was gone. And he barely beat Rauta out of the airlock.
They sat there for a second, looking around. Then the realization that Veedi wasn't going to come with, would never meet up with them again, rushed over them all like a wave, and they assumed a more-depressed-than-usual stance. Except for Emily, who turned towards the door instead of facing inwards towards the group.
Felicity seemed to notice the gathering then, chiming in with a bright “Hello!” before she gave them the first instructions on how to get to the meeting room. She guided them along the way, pointing things out in a manner reminiscent of when Translator first boarded the Paradox and Ruwen showed them around. Whether she was trying to cheer them up by being so upbeat or hadn't realized how somber the group was, they couldn't tell.
The Fregatidae's crew were already present, seated around a large table displaying a starmap. There were gaps between them, giving the Paradox's crew a chance to integrate. Physically, at least.
Nik and Zev's antennae shot straight up when they entered the room, then started to flick about. Searching for a scent. With discreet glances Translator watched Krin's antennae flatten in response. Right. She was Felicity's wife, and not all partners were willing to open up their relationship. Speaking of, they didn't see a female human. The only two newcomers were two Zoltan, sitting at one corner of the table, close enough together to practically be touching. Sparks flickered across the small gap between them. Mikael muttered something about it smelling like ozone in the room.
Where was Felicity?
Movement! Translator realized they'd pressed into Ariadne, and she'd moved towards Grakite. From the hand on the back of the chair next to him, they assumed he had saved a spot for her.
There was another seat open next to her, and Translator took it as soon as Ariadne sat down, exchanging mutual greetings with her newfound uncle. Translator ignored that, burying their face in her arm. They knew Krin was an ally, but they didn't want to look at her. They were going to get scared again, like they had. Already they felt ill. They couldn't do this again, they were tired of being scared.
They looked up once when Grakite leaned over to look at them, asking Ariadne a couple hushed questions.
The next time they were made aware of the room was when Ariadne nudged them and whispered that everyone was doing introductions, it was their turn now. Even then, they barely registered their own voice. At some point someone told them the Zoltans' names were Cyre and Luxil, but they didn't know which was which.
By the time everyone was talking about the actual mission, Ariadne was softly but insistently patting their shoulder, keeping them some degree of focused. They tried not to look at Krin, or at the very least give Nik and Zev more attention, and the way they were staring at Krin with steadfast intent.
Mikael pored over the star chart, Felicity commenting every once in a while over the best approach into the shipyards they were constructing the autoships at – oh, there were two charts up, one for the current sector and one for the next one, the more heavily New Federation-controlled one.
His finger trailed over towards a point indicating a beacon. “Over here-”
“Should be a clear path,” Felicity interrupted, Krin nodding along. “It's just a connector, has been for all the earliest records I've seen. And I've read a few hundred.”
Mikael's brows twitched. “You got a spreadsheet up there or something? Some sort of overlay we could use?”
“Give me a moment.” And indeed, in a few seconds an overlay appeared, listing historical purposes for each beacon and records connected to each one. It was overwhelming, how much information there was, scrunched up into text too small to read, pictures that went by faster than Translator could track. “There we go!”
Then multiple paths, marked in bright yellow, branched out from their current point. Some traced around the popular ship stops, others plowed through them. All ended at one shipyard or another. “That better?”
“Yeah! That's great.” It felt good, hearing a hint of Mikael's usual chirp in his voice.
Krin swept one arm across the charts, bringing it in close to the shipyards. “We should be able to get the Fregatidae within a few jumps.”
“And get us all killed.” The Zoltan who spoke tossed his head, arms crossed.
The other nodded in agreement. “And someone's sensibilities are too delicate for our clone bay.”
Grakite huffed. “They'd destroy the clone bay as soon as they could.”
“I assume this is where the Paradox would come into play?” Ariadne shifted, and continued when Mikael nodded at her. “Presuming Mikael keeps the paint for this reason.”
“Well, it helps get patrols off our backs as well.”
Felicity made a sound like sucking on one's teeth. Really, what was up with her only speaking over the intercom? Translator knew they did it, but they were a Lanius. They at least were present. And couldn't make that sound. “Yeah... We don't quite have that advantage.”
Without warning Brazen stood, moved so it loomed behind Mikael, and traced one of the paths. Translator didn't see what it said on its screens (they paid more attention to the way Mikael stiffened, so reminiscent of how they acted around Mantises), but they heard Felicity make sounds of acknowledgment and saw the rest of the paths disappear.
“We'll go that way, then, on our closest approximation to a stealth approach possible. Paradox, you all can leave a couple jumps early, so we don't have the awkward situation of a New Fed ship exiting, y'know, this. Anyways, anything else that needs immediate discussion?”
Everyone else looked around the table, side-eyeing neighbors and coming up with nothing.
After a few seconds of silence, Felicity said, “All right, then. Everyone's free to stay here and talk, or go do whatever.”
Some people left immediately, or near immediately. Cyre and Luxil got up and left as soon as Felicity ended her sentence. Rauta gave the other Rocks one look, went over to Mikael to tell him something, and made a wide arc avoiding the others on the way out. Emily asked if she could examine the Fregatidae's engine and followed the instructions she received to reach them. Mikael left soon after, saying he wanted to be alone for a little while.
“So...” Ruwen sat up straight, one arm on the back of her chair. She looked all around the room, eventually settling on the speaker set into the ceiling, and then those in the desk. “Where are you, Felicity?”
“Oh, I'm here. All around. Not in, like, a strange way, in an 'I'm the ship' way.”
She was an AI? Like the Flagship? Translator wasn't sure what to stare at; they shut their eyes instead. They needed to focus on not getting upset at her. AIs were usually fine, right? They just... They just handled systems, corrected flight paths, sometimes answered comms. She'd acted nothing like the Flagship so far.
But what would happen when they had to face it? Would she turn out all the same, would it hack her, or something like that? No, the Flagship hadn't done anything to the Vortex's AI, but it was as simple as could be. Bovee did most of the work, from what they remembered.
“And you said you and Krin are married...”
“We are,” Krin and Felicity said.
“From your look I bet you're asking how,” Krin added.
Ruwen indeed looked confused. Honestly, Translator felt the same way. If Felicity was sentient, then so be it, what was there to be confused about? The two loved each other and they'd agreed to be partners. Wasn't that what marriage was? At least, the agreeing to be partners part; Ariadne hadn't said much about loving the person she'd been arranged to marry. Was there some other component to it Translator didn't understand?
There must have been. Nik and Zev were trying to stifle their laughter, with Krin's glare almost burning through their exoskeletons. Ariadne shook her head at Ruwen, while Grakite covered his face with his palm, refusing to face any of them. And Brazen displayed on its screens: “=| / XD / :P (Oh we know.)”
“VR, power armor, and some wild toys,” was Felicity's answer. She and the Mantis brothers scared Translator with their laughter, while two of Brazen's screens turned an interesting shade of pink.
Grakite got up to leave, muttering something under his breath. As soon as his back was turned Ruwen got Ariadne's attention and did that same sort of brow-wiggle that she did when the two first met.
It was Ariadne's not-too-serious scoff that got Grakite's attention again. All the rest of the laughter was dying down, and he easily drowned it out when he spoke. “Ruwen...”
“She's my girlfriend. It's all right,” Ariadne interrupted, standing to try and meet Grakite's eye. Was she saying that for herself or for him? From her confession of not liking men and that Therilane had to reassure her Rhylian wouldn't mind, Translator guessed there was something about her and Ruwen being girlfriends that many Rocks would not agree to. She also had the stance of someone ready to fight, or at least defend herself.
“Maker! She's queer, too!” In a complete contrast to what Translator thought Ariadne may have been expecting, Felicity sounded outright delighted. “I told you she'd be just like you.”
The others in the room stared at the Rocks, save for Translator, who looked around at all of them. Seriously, was there something wrong? What was going on? What did queer mean? Grakite and Ariadne alternated between staring at each other and the people staring at them.
Ariadne spoke first. ”You?”
“What about me?”
“You're not-” What sort of hand gestures Ariadne used was beyond Translator, and everyone else in the room from their expressions.
Grakite had a moment of realization, though, that let him respond. “No! No.”
“Oh, like he cared. Your grandfather did, trust me, but not Broca.”
Translator ruffled their plates and spoke. “What is going on?”
Then everyone turned to stare at them. For a moment there was silence, not much of a shocked one but more of one of consideration.
Everyone broke the silence at once.
“Well, hon, it's this thing- You know how some people think I'm not a girl?”
“It's about sex-”
“Some people disapprove of certain forms of love and-”
“Last I was in Rock territory, and it doesn't seem to have changed much-”
“Guys, guys, guys guys guys. And girls. And others.” With enough repetitions, Felicity got everyone else to quit speaking and let her talk. “What I'm hearing is that it's time for the talk. C'mon, Translator, sit down. It's time for a little Queer Politics One-oh-one.”