No, Nan was not hallucinating. The spider had a whym signature like everyone else. It came up to Izusa’s waist and was at least twice its height in width. Its armor broke off into round segments that left spaces for its joints, the larger plates covering its ventral and dorsal sides followed suit, giving off a smooth though inorganic impression. Nan dared not call the design elegant, not while her heart tested the structural integrity of her ribs.
The only thing keeping Nan from vaulting over the ledge and curling up in the nearest corner was the lack of a similar reaction from the others. And her useless legs.
“Hello, Margrave Chitani.” Yara unearthed her face from her hands long enough to nod at the giant spider. She proceeded to admonish Izusa, citing the importance of first impressions, of not embarrassing another named mystic, of providence, and public face, and manners in general. It droned on in the backdrop of Nan’s attention, like every third sermon in recent memory.
“I assure you, Ms. Beauchamp, as long as you don’t threaten my people, you’ve no need to be afraid.” The spider said. Her voice was regal enough to fit her title. Far from the one million voices in one B-movie effect she expected.
“Afraid? I’m not afraid.” Nan let out a dry, humorless laugh.
Nan was afraid. No matter the angle she regarded it from, Chitani’s frame was imposing. Hours of Animal Planet documentaries made her eternally thankful that arachnids didn’t come in jumbo sizes, and now they were. The worst part wasn’t the way her mandibles vibrated to produce sound, or the odd hairs sticking out of armor joints. It was the eyes; six fist-sized balls that reflected her form.
“You fib worse than Ms. Vo Vannon.” What gave it away? The dead fish stare or the way her fingers clutched the sides of her chair tighter than a bunny hug.
Yara let out a huff. “I will rue the day speaking falsely becomes a skill.”
This wasn’t home. A piece of her rejected the fact, and likely would for the foreseeable future. Still, the animal people pressed on her perception of normal bounds. Chitani took a sledgehammer to its kneecaps with no mind paid to the screams. Even if this was some surreal coma from which she would never wake, there was no benefit to overreaction. Nan squeezed her palms.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any offense.” At this rate, Nan’s apologies would soon develop into an art form.
The spider said, “I am a natural born predator. My species used to track prey for days on end, lie in ambush within unseen recesses, and melt the innards of mammals more than twice your size. Your reaction to my form is warranted on an instinctual level, and I do not fault you for it.”
“That being said.” She shifted easily from left to right, limbs tacking softly against the floor. “It saddens me whenever one of you softshells give me a much wider berth than necessary. As if a few inches would save you from being pounced on. The circumstances of my birth are beyond my control, I did not choose to appear intimidating, just as Ms. Keme had no part in being a lian, or you, a human. I enjoy sports, fruit mixtures, and a good choir concert. I love my human husband more than life, and not simply because I don’t have to use a heating lamp to sleep when I go home, brrrrrph.” The last bit wasn’t a word, but Chitani’s fangs quivering into a blur.
“Let us introduce ourselves on better terms. As of three months ago, I am Chitani, margrave and captain of the mighty Vespa. Astroids quake at the sight of our three undersized peashooters. Well met, Ms. Beauchamp.”
With much more grace than any eight legged being ought to have, Chitani strode around Izusa and presented one of her limbs expectantly.
If Chitani was patient enough to meet her halfway, then Nan would do the same. Foreleg met hand with a soft chink of cold metal. Still not a proper shake, but close enough.
The proceeding affair was civil in an uncanny way. Izusa seated herself to Nan’s left and pushed the extra plate of food over to her before digging into her own. Yara glanced from Nan to Chitani, content to let the conversation fall where it may. It was slightly disappointing. The novelty of supping with aliens, something children dreamed of, was paper thin.
“You don’t sound very happy about you position.” Nan said.
“Ms. Beauchamp.” Chitani sighed. “You have no idea.” She swept a free foreleg at the air, as if dismissing her admission of discontent. “Let’s not worry about my pettiness. You have your own headaches to consider.”
“A catch to bringing me back from the dead?” Nan fished a fork from under a piece of bacon and speared her pancake. The fruit on top tasted like a strawberry with the toughness of an apple, everything else was a strike above palitible.
“Indeed. Reclamation is not a mercy, or a pet project we let our eggheads track for sport. We have been at war for more than three decades, and this particular vessel is starved for personnel. I am obligated to ask that you devote six years of your time to the Abyssal Auxiliary.”
That did not sound ideal. It was far from the worse she could expect, but lending herself to a cause she knew nothing about failed to rub her the right way. She cast her gaze at Izusa, only to get a guilty grimace in return. Yara looked away.
“You don’t have to answer immediately, but we do need you, Ms. Beauchamp. The reclamation process almost assures that you’ll earn a become a named mystic within a few cycle’s time. Even if we were to force every mystic into active service, the LCW would still be outnumbered four to one for magic users alone.”
Become a named mystic? Wasn’t she already? Maybe she felt like one to Yara but hadn’t reached that point yet. How could one tell? The translation spell wasn’t forthcoming; Nan shelved the thought for later.
“Am I free to decline?”
“You are. There’s no need to worry about getting your citizenship retracted if you leave. We’ll even toss about a month’s worth of money your way, drop you off at the nearest LCW planet, and tell you ‘good luck’. You won’t have trouble finding a job, but we won’t have the resources to spare on teaching you how to read or write, and you won’t be saved from the regular forces’ draft”
Repay us now, or repay us later. Were it not so close to home, Nan would have laughed. It was a setup from the beginning; she had no folks to worry about missing her anymore. There was no one to complain about injustice.
“We don’t really have time to ease you into this. I’m sorry, Nan.” Izusa took a sudden interest in the floor, her ears drooped.
“Izusa, stop. I’m not mad at you.” She may have been projecting her expectations, but a sad face just looked wrong on her.
Nan owed a debt. Fine. It couldn’t be worse than college loans. She was a big girl- no, a “grown ass woman” as her mother would say. Crying and bemoaning her fate would take her zero feet from nowhere. The LCW had magic, cool ships, and what seemed to be an adventure in the making. If they wanted to use her, she was going to milk every bit of enjoyment out of it as possible.
“For the Lian Consolidated Worlds, Margrave Chitani.”
Chitani made the brrrrrrph noise again. “It’s always a pleasure to meet vertebrae with with real backbones.”
Chitani’s whym reserves dispatched the tiniest breeze. A ribcage of silver trapped in the a blue web presented itself. Nan followed suit, careful to only let out the slightest bit of her own, like a faucet opened and closed within seconds. Rather than the more intricate sigil she managed earlier, a lonely flame gleamed against the faux-bones, flickering out of existence in mere seconds.
For better or worse, there was something that felt very final about the little display.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Izusa chirped. Well, half chirped. Her voice was twanged with something dour. She pointed at Nan’s half-finished glass. “That’s from a real chocolate cow.”
Her smile was a tad different from the one she gave when she teased Nan near the grav-shaft. “Are we still friends?” the question hung in the air, unspoken but clearly expressed. Izusa was the only buffer between waking up and the sudden weight on her shoulders. If anything, her sweetness only made the change of pace more jarring. Justified or not, Nan could get away with being cold, even accusing her of being intentionally misleading.
Instead, she smirked. “Not possible.”
Izusa puffed out her cheeks. “You said you’d believe anything!”
Chitani blinked multiple times while Yara pressed a finger to her forehead, letting out a low whine.