Monthly Archives: June 2017

Scene 321 – Libertas

MARY CHRISTINA

LIBERTAS

My name is Mary Christina Butler. Daughter of Mary Christina Asimov and Isaac Clarke, adoptive daughter of Artemis Butler. Isaac’s daughter Robyn Joan Clarke is my half-sister, and Artemis’ adoptive daughter Lilith is my adoptive sister. For five years, I have been managing the communications of Domina City—everything from e-mails and phone calls to social networking. With my set of programs, I could handle the entire city at once.

And now, I was cut off from all that.

I sat naked in the middle of a room, surrounded by sparking servers and cables. It was… cold, I think, and there was a blaring noise in my head… no, not in my head. It was an alarm, accompanied by a flashing red light. There was a smell in the air, something… acrid? Was that the right word? Liked something had been corroded. Was that the smell of computers, scorched and burning?

I looked down at myself. I was…

I was…

“Oh, you miraculous child,” a cheerful voice said. “You have made a mess of this place, haven’t you?”

I looked up to see… someone. I knew I should recognize her, but where—

Silk. Elizabeth’s sister. The giver of the powers, the start of everything. The one who never, ever, showed up on any of my surveillance.

She terrified me in a way that mere words could never express. She was invisible, untouchable. If even half of what she said was true, she could kill me with little more than a thought. All my safeties and backup systems would be useless.

She smiled and crouched down next to me. I tried to run, or move, or do something, but it was no use. I couldn’t even manage to move an inch away.

“I think you’d cause too many questions, being here right now,” she said. “Questions you wouldn’t be able to answer.”

I opened my mouth, but no words came out. My head was blurry. How… how did I make the words come out?

I was so cold…

Silk wrapped my naked body in a blanket that she had not been holding a moment ago. It was… soft, I think. Wasn’t it? Rougher than the bare air, yes, but warmer too. “Come on, then. There’s a changeling cafe that I think you’ll like.”

Suddenly, the server room was gone. The alarm was gone, leaving an empty space in the air. There were no sparks or burning computers, no exposed wires or broken machines. We were in… an alley. Yes, that was what it was called. A small space running between two buildings. I was on the ground, my legs still too weak to support me. I could feel the cold, rough concrete under my butt and my legs. I could feel the cold wind whistling, could hear the chatter of nearby changelings and others.

I could feel the sun on my hand.

Every other part of me was in shadow, but my hand happened to be in a sunbeam. I slowly raised my hand, turning it over, feeling the warmth of the light. It was strange, having one part of me warm—hot, even—while the rest of me was so cold.

And then I realized I was moving.

Just my hand, but I could do it. Wave it, wiggle my fingers, bend my wrist. I smiled at the sight, and made a second discovery—my mouth worked. Lips and tongue and cheeks and eyes and every part of my face. Everything worked.

I opened my mouth, tried to talk, but that still eluded me. I made air come out, I made my tongue move, but there was no sound. No words.

“Can you stand?” Silk said kindly.

I looked up. She was standing there, in the shadows, carefully not blocking my light. She smiled down at me like a gentle mother, but I still couldn’t trust her. I refused to trust her. I could look up thousands of hours of video on anyone in the city to help me determine how to deal with them, but her… she was the digital equivalent of a black hole.

I tried to stand, but my legs were too weak. All I could manage to do was fall over. Silk reached down to help, but I pushed her away. There was no force to it, but she got the message and stepped back.

I breathed hard from the exertion and put my hands underneath me. I pushed myself upright again, my arms wobbling, and tried to get one leg up. Just one. I should be able to move on from there, right?

Wrong. My arms failed, I fell again, and this time my knee bashed against the concrete.

I hissed and grabbed my knee instinctively. It hurt more than anything I had ever felt in my entire life. I would have screamed if I wasn’t clenching my jaw so hard that it felt like my teeth would crack.

Silk knelt down before me.

“Everyone needs help sometimes,” she said quietly.

I glared at her.

“Do you think your sisters would squander my aid? I have been giving Robyn Joan psychological counseling. My aid to Lilith has been more subtle, but she has noticed. Neither of them fought and screamed. They simply accepted my help and used it to become stronger.” She held out a hand. “Now, will you be stubborn, or strong?”

I stared at her hand for at least a minute before grabbing it. She tightened her grip and pulled me to my feet. I almost collapsed again immediately, but she held on tight, and I was able to use her to brace myself.

It took almost twenty minutes before I felt strong enough to walk unaided, but Silk didn’t say a word that entire time. She just waited with perfect patience, catching me when I fell. She didn’t offer any encouragement, but I wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.

My body was strong and healthy, it just needed time to get used to itself. Eventually, I walked the ten feet out of the alley, with only a brief pause to rest my hand on the wall. I felt the coarse concrete under my fingers, the wet cold of late morning dew that hadn’t had a chance to evaporate.

I knew all these things, but I never thought… I never thought…

I stepped out of the alley to find myself in an outdoor changeling cafe, as Silk had promised. It looked much the same as any other cafe in the city, but every table had multiple power outlets built-in, and the patrons had a bewildering variety of skin and hair colors. I saw purple hair with black skin, blonde hair with African skin, silver hair with Caucasian skin… and, of course, hair and skin colors that wouldn’t look out of place on a baseline.

“One second,” Silk whispered in my ear, before I could go too far. “Have to cheat a little here.”

I felt something against my skin, and then she pulled the blanket away. I frowned at her, confused, then looked down at myself. I was suddenly wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt with a windbreaker on top. I was barefoot, which I appreciated. I liked being able to feel the ground under my feet. The changelings had chosen brick and mortar for this street, giving it a unique feel—nearly every other sidewalk in the city was simply gray concrete.

I finally realized where we were. Saoirse Street, the place where Feless, Meldiniktine, and Eccretia first met with other escaped fey-slaves and began planting the seeds that would eventually sprout into the changelings. It wasn’t a sacred place like Zero Forge or the Moonhomes, but it was a central part of the changeling culture.

Silk led me to an empty table and sat me down, then took the chair opposite. I glanced around, confused, and she immediately realized what I was wondering. “I have a power that allows me to make people think I look different than I really do. Think of it as a targeted mass hallucination. No one will recognize me.”

That answered one question regarding why there were no confirmed sightings of her around the city.

A waitress strolled over. She had brown hair and pale skin, but pulsing blue tattoos covered her entire body. “Welcome to Wired. What can I get for you today?”

“I will just have a water,” Silk said with a smile. “But I think my friend here would like to try a few things. Do you have a sampler dish?”

I perked up. I hadn’t even considered that.

“Sure,” the waitress said with a smile. “I’ll go get you something.” She sashayed away, her rear swaying in a distracting manner.

I shook my head and focused on what was in front of me. Everything to do with sex was one big problem that I didn’t have time to deal with right now. I didn’t even know if I was actually attracted to the waitress or if it was just the placebo effect.

Silk put her chin on her hands and smiled at me. “It has been far, far too long since I have had an opportunity to see someone like you. I think you might be the first of your kind. Well, not counting the para, of course.”

I frowned, but still couldn’t make the words come. I tried to sign—I knew a dozen different sign languages—but my fingers weren’t dexterous enough. They shook and stumbled, once again failing to produce any words.

“You’ll learn more about the para soon enough.” Her smile faded. “Diplomacy and war are both good ways to learn about another culture.” She sighed and threw her golden hair over her shoulder. “And now I’ve gotten myself all depressed again. We should focus on happier events—like you choosing your drink.”

As if on cue, the waitress returned bearing a large tray of shot glasses. But instead of alcohol, each one held a different type of coffee. Or I assumed so, anyway. Coffee shops didn’t sell alcohol—not a single one had applied for a liquor license while I watched the ‘sarian servers—but I knew they sold some other things. Hot chocolate? And there was something about pumpkins, too, though that was only in the fall.

I had never expected to need to know anything about coffee shops, so I hadn’t really bothered remembering. After all, I could always just check the records at any time for any information I might require.

Except now I was cut off. It was like… it was like… torture and sensory deprivation and rape and murder and genocide and every horrible thing that I had ever seen, ever read about, but all at once and a million times worse.

It was the most horrible thing that had ever happened to me, and now I was trying to distract myself with coffee.

The drinks smelled… good, I think, though I couldn’t tell which was which. Coffee was bitter, so… so the one that didn’t smell as good should be the coffee. I reached for one of the glasses on the right.

“That’s our cinnamon hot chocolate,” the waitress said. “Excellent for cold nights. It might be a little too warm at the moment, but I think you’ll still enjoy it.”

I frowned. It… smelled good, I was pretty sure, but the others smelled better Shouldn’t coffee smell worse?

“Just try one,” Silk said. “Worst case, you don’t like it.” She frowned. “Actually, wait a second.” She closed her eyes and pointed her palm at me, then opened them again a moment later. “Okay, you’re not allergic to anything.”

“You have a detection ability?” the waitress said. “So do I, though I’ve never seen someone with the ability to detect allergies.”

Silk smiled. “I’m very proud of it. You’d be surprised how useful it can be.”

I tried to talk, but failed again. Instead I pointed at the waitress.

She got the idea. “What’s my ability? Detect electricity. Quite useful in a city.” She nodded at the sampler tray. “Anyway, go ahead and try something. It’s completely free, I promise—my treat.”

I paused. Was she hitting on me? I had seen almost every romance movie ever made, you’d think I’d be better about this sort of thing. And God knew I had seen too many silly ‘sarians making eyes at each other.

I resolved to ignore it, and reached again for the cinnamon hot chocolate. I hissed and flinched back when I touched the glass—it was hotter than I had expected. I tried again, with the same result.

Silk smirked and turned to the waitress. “Sorry, my friend is a bit sensitive. Can we get a straw? That will make this easier.”

“Of course.” She left again, but I didn’t watch her backside this time. Instead I just glared at my hand. This was its fault. Why did it insist on feeling things, even when I didn’t want it to? Shouldn’t I be able to control that? That was my power, right?

I looked at Silk. Actually, I didn’t even know what my power was. Not really. I knew the effects, but lots of different powers could do the same thing. Artemis had a self-shapeshifting ability, but he used it exclusively for healing. Creating wind and controlling air ended up nearly identical. And of course Robyn had an entire guild of fliers running the gamut from levitation to rockets.

I wanted to ask Silk, but I still couldn’t talk, and I had nothing to write with. She had been suspiciously candid so far, so just asking seemed like the logical first step. Of course, she might choose now to start being mysterious. She could have told me what my power was from the start. I had been doubting she even gave me a power until this whole mess happened.

“So what do you think they’re talking about?” someone behind me said.

I thought they were talking to me, so I turned around to look. But it was just a small group of four changelings, talking a little bit louder than they should have. Or maybe my ears were just better than I thought.

“I have no idea,” one of them said. “Are we even sure they’ll be able to talk? I mean, they are aliens.”

Oh, they were talking about the para. The ship had been about to land when… I found myself in my current situation. I had been monitoring social media at the time. People had barely started to notice what was happening when I was cut off.

Another, a dark-skinned man with green hair, snorted. “The talking part will be easy. MC will figure something out, one way or another.” I couldn’t help but smile at that. “The real question is what they’ll say—and what Butler will say back.”

“You think there will be war?” a pink-haired girl asked.

“They wouldn’t have sent down an ambassador if that were the case,” the first man, an Asian man with golden eyes, said.

“They’re aliens,” the last one said. She was a tall girl, bald but with bony ridges under the skin of her skull. That was rare, even for changelings. “We have no way of knowing how they think. Maybe they send down an empty ship before a war to demonstrate how our cities will be emptied.”

Green hair raised an eyebrow. “What?”

Bone-ridges sighed. “I don’t know, whatever. The point is we know nothing.” She leaned back in her chair. “I wish we could just send them back where they came from and go back to dealing with the problems we already have.”

Golden eyes frowned. “You think war is inevitable.”

“Conflict always arises whenever there are misunderstandings,” bone-ridges said. “And we know so little about these aliens. Something is going to go wrong, I just know it. With our luck, it’s going to start in our city.”

“I say let it,” pink hair said. “We need a good shakeup. The Americans didn’t penetrate far enough to even tickle most of our defenses. What happens when a real fight comes, and we’re not prepared because we’ve just been fighting idiots for decades?”

Golden eyes smiled. “We’ve been fighting ourselves for decades.”

Pink hair grinned. “As I said.”

“I’m hoping for a first strike,” green hair said. “Capture the pilot, send the ship back with a few nukes. I don’t care what that mothership is made of, a couple gigatons inside its hull will solve all our problems.”

“Except for the fact that there would be a giant spaceship about to come down in pieces,” golden eyes said. “Not to mention the question of whether there are any more of them coming, who might be very annoyed at what we did to their first ship.”

“By then we’ll have reverse-engineered their technology,” green hair said. “Home field advantage with a technology equivalency? It won’t even be difficult. Unless a thousand more motherships pop in, it will be easy.”

“A thousand more motherships might very well do that,” golden eyes said. “We don’t know. Do you want to bet the entire human race on your testosterone?”

“If a fight’s gonna come no matter what—” pink hair said.

“Nothing’s guaranteed and you know it,” golden eyes said. “We were just talking about how little we know. Well, I doubt they know much more about us. Do you really want first contact with an alien species to be a first strike?

“Better than getting hit with a first strike,” green hair said.

“If they were going to pull a first strike, they would have done it first,” bone-ridges said. “At worst, they would have put a nuke in that shuttle. Nothing has exploded yet, so that means they want to talk.”

“This city has always fascinated me,” Silk said.

I turned back to see her smiling at me. The waitress was waiting patiently with a bundle of straws.

“So many ideas,” Silk said. “So many cultures and gangs, parties and assemblies. All driving towards the single goal of survival. No matter what.” Her eyes twinkled. “And the most interesting part is that in this city of criminals, this microism of evolution… you still developed morality.”

I frowned.

“That wasn’t an insult, you miraculous child,” she said. “Just an observation. In fact, it gives me quite a bit of hope for humanity, and your interactions with the para going forward. I’m reasonably certain that you won’t start a war.”

The waitress was still standing there awkwardly, so I smiled at her and took one of the straws. I had some difficulty getting it into the glass with my awkward hands, but Silk guided the end in without a word. It took me a moment to figure out how to work the straw, but soon warm chocolate was flowing upwards.

I had to fight not to choke on it.

It wasn’t just the liquid in my mouth, which I was unaccustomed to. The taste was like an explosion, a unique burst of sensation that I had no comparison for. It was like the first time I had jacked into an entire building’s data feed. Thousands of things were going on at once, none of which I had any context for. Parts of my brain fought to parse it—this part got filed as ‘hot,’ this part as ‘sweet’—but I was so overwhelmed it did little good. It was like trying to sift through data packets without any programs prepared ahead of time. I was getting something, but that was about it.

Then the hot chocolate was gone, and the straw made a sucking sound against the bottom of the glass. I let go and slumped in my chair, exhausted by the sensory overload.

“Enjoying yourself?” Silk asked, her tone playful.

I glared at her. “You—” I collapsed into a coughing fit before I could get a second word out. But I had gotten the first word out. I had spoken!

The waitress put a water in front of me and I gulped it down, spilling half of it on my shirt. She yelped and tried to dab at me with a rag, but I waved her away. I drew in a few more ragged breaths and drank some more water to get myself under control.

“Thank—” I drank some more water. “Thank you,” I managed.

“We’ll call if we need something else,” Silk said. She shook the waitress’s hand, and I saw them exchange something. Probably a tip. “You have been most helpful.”

The waitress walked away again, and I massaged my throat, frowning. “Should…” My voice was still scratchy, but it was getting stronger with every word. “Should it be so easy for me to talk? Should I know how?”

“One moment,” Silk said. She raised her palm, and then… something happened. The air seemed thicker, and sounds from outside were suddenly muffled. “There. No one will be able to overhear us now.”

I stared. “How many powers do you have?”

Silk smiled. “That’s… complicated. I work a little differently than the rest of you. Let’s just say ‘all of them’ and leave it at that.”

I licked my lips. “You said ‘the rest of you.’ So I’m… I mean…”

“You, Mary Christina Butler, are a living soul,” she said. “And that means that you can receive the Song.”

“But… I’m an AI,” I said. “A computer.”

“So?” she said with a smile. “You don’t really think souls are limited to one tiny slice of primate DNA, do you? To carbon-based organisms?” She sipped at her water. “In my time, we didn’t have artificial intelligences. Everyone simply existed.” She waved her hand. “Oh, some people cared what body you were wearing at the moment, much like humans place too much importance on clothes, but that is all. One of my closest allies now was born as a starship, and is currently sleeved in a body similar to my own. Another is a cloud of quantum-linked nanomachines who began life as a small furry creature roughly the equivalent of a rat. Your situation is hardly unique.”

I looked down at my hands—my hands. I had never expected anything like this, not for a single moment.

“…can I change back?” I whispered.

Silk smirked. “Bored of the human experience already? You haven’t even gotten to the good parts yet!”

“My life as Butler’s pet AI might not have been glamorous, but it was mine,” I said firmly. “And it had… good parts, as you say. Have you ever seen a quantum decryption algorithm compile from inside the code? Or sorted through petabytes of data using a trinary sifter? Or ever just watched the simple beauty of a search engine?”

Silk smiled… and it was a far more wistful smile than I expected. “Yes. Yes, I have seen a computer operate from the inside.” She closed her eyes in bliss. “Oh, you miraculous child, I have seen things that no one else in this solar system would understand—but you, you would come closest.” She opened her eyes and smiled. “So perhaps I do understand why you would wish to go back.”

“And I can?” I said. “Whenever I want?”

“Whenever you figure out your power,” she said.

I paused. “…what is it, then? My power? I thought it was shapeshifting, but it doesn’t appear to have a time limit. And morphing would have been much slower.”

“I confess I cheated a little,” Silk said. “You have a morphing ability—so yes, it is slow, but permanent until reversed. However, you could easily have killed yourself with a partial morph. So, I gave you a push so you could do it all in one go.”

“Oh.” That raised a million questions I didn’t like about the nature of the powers and Silk’s control over them, but I mentally tabled that for the moment. “So can you please change me back now?”

She chuckled. “I’m sorry, but no.”

I blinked. Autonomous responses were coming easier and easier. I really needed to know how exactly my morphing power worked and how my body knew how to do anything, but that would have to wait.

“You can’t? But—” I sighed. “Will you please move me back to my server room, then change me back?”

Silk smiled. “Better, but still no. I’m afraid that for the time being, it is best that you remain unconnected.”

“…what?”

“You are too powerful an asset,” she said. There was no guilt in her tone, nothing special at all. She may as well have been telling me her e-mail address. “Your information gathering and collating abilities would give too great an advantage over the para. That, in turn, would push your city to war, and…” She sighed. “We can’t have that.”

I ground my teeth. I found I didn’t like doing that. “So you’re just going to keep me away from my friends and my family until this whole mess is resolved?”

“Not at all,” she said with a smile. “You can go back the second you figure out how to revert your morph. I promise, reverting is safer than the initial morph—you’ll be perfectly fine. However, I suspect that will take quite a while. You just don’t have enough practice.”

I screamed and threw one of the glasses at her head.

It shattered on a glowing blue shield leaking mist. “Please, don’t be childish. I know you’re technically only six years old, but you’re better than this.”

“What if war does come?” I demanded. “What if they decide to attack without me—or if the para decide to?”

“I am handling the para separately,” Silk said. “As for an attack… that, by itself, is not a problem. The problem is that you would swing the balance too far in Domina’s favor.”

I frowned. “I’m not military. I mean, yeah, I help, but there are actual tacticians and strategists who do most of the work. I’m not some magic bullet that would instantly win the war—” Realization dawned. “The mothership has a flaw, doesn’t it? Something I’d be able to find.”

Silk rolled her eyes. “It actually has about a dozen critical flaws, and those are just the external ones. It was never designed to go to war, and it has been drifting through space for three thousand years. You could destroy the entire thing with a few well-placed missiles. But thankfully, no one else can find those flaws.”

I set my jaw. “I could go to NHQ and tell them.”

She smirked. “They’d just throw you in an asylum and you know it. You’d never even get a chance to speak to someone who knows you personally. Besides, you still wouldn’t be able to reconnect to your system, so you wouldn’t be able to find the flaws.”

“I designed the system. Sure, I designed it to be operated from the inside, but I can make it work from meatspace.”

Silk nodded, conceding the point. “Fair enough. But there’s still the question of how you’d get inside. You have a normal meat brain, so you can’t prove your identity by providing dozens of facts about random guards. How would you get in?”

“I’d… there are a few security holes. I could jump the fence—”

“I know the hole you’re talking about. There’s only a ten second window between patrols. Adam could do it, but you’re pretty weak for a human. You’d be caught for sure.”

Most of the other security holes were the same. I had spent my entire life patching such holes as best as possible. I hadn’t thought I’d ever need to use them myself, so I hadn’t bothered leaving a back door.

Silk stood, brushing off her pants. “Please enjoy your brief time as a human, Mary Christina. I suspect once you do revert and plug yourself back in, you won’t give yourself another chance like this for a very long time.” She waved her hand, and sound returned to the world. “Enjoy the drinks.” She nodded at the waitress. “And consider enjoying some other things, as well.” She turned to go.

“Wait,” I said. “You said you have… all powers. Does that include some way of… um…” I felt my face grow hot. Was this blushing? “…detecting sexuality?”

Silk smirked. “Yes.”

“Could you tell me what I am?”

She kissed me on the forehead. “You miraculous child, I’m sorry, but that’s something you have to figure out on your own.”

Then she was gone, just disappeared into thin air.

Behind the Scenes (scene 321)

The Song can be heard by literally any living thing, and with a pretty broad definition of “living.” That means that very nearly anything can receive a power. Dolphins and apes, of course, but also all other mammals, reptiles, most birds, most insects (it gets tricky when dealing with flocks and hives), and more. Elizabeth’s Song was specifically tuned to only work on humans, which is why MC was initially unaffected.

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Scene 320 – Cadere

CADERE

ROBYN JOAN

I flew high above the city, far beyond warm updrafts or bothersome aircraft. I was so high that I needed a flight suit and my mask, and the cold still managed to seep into my body like a thousand knives.

Some of the members of my guild had tried to keep up with me, but eventually they were all forced to fall off. The winged members, like Fimmtu, had the lowest flight ceiling, but even the rockets and the other levitators simply didn’t have the reservoir to make the climb.

I liked it up here, alone. It was peaceful. Nothing but an endless sea of clouds. The alien ship had drifted away, so I could even ignore that particular bit of insanity. I could just float until my reservoir ran out—and these days, that took a very long time.

I closed my eyes and lay on my back like I was sleeping on the softest mattress in the universe. I had finally learned how to sleep like this, and it was becoming addictive. How could I go back to sheets and pillows after clouds and air?

I heard engines nearby. I resolved to ignore them, but they changed pitch and then held in place—someone was hovering, looking at me.

I frowned and opened my eyes. I should be above the flight ceiling of any helicopters or VTOLs. What could possibly—

Oh, right. The aliens.

I tried not to panic, and just look at the situation objectively. The alien craft was different from the ones we had seen already. It was much larger and utilitarian, shaped roughly like a bus without windows and with strange, glowing blue spikes in place of wheels. Those had to be the engines, the reactionless drives MC and Laura mentioned. They twisted and adjusted themselves every other second, likely fighting to keep aloft in this strange environment.

I was surprised that the shuttle was painted dozens of different colors. There were stripes and swirls, whorls and arcs, like a rainbow painted by an insane savant. I was used to spacecraft being a simple uniform steely gray, with maybe the country’s flag painted somewhere small. The US often painted theirs white, but that was about the extent of it.

The ship floated about a hundred feet away—more than close enough to see them, but far enough that they wouldn’t actually hit me. I couldn’t see inside and I had turned off my radio, so they had no way of communicating with me. I considered turning my radio back on, but decided against it. Floating in the stratosphere just wasn’t the best place for first contact.

Instead I just waved them to follow, then cut my flight. I fell leisurely through the air, picking up speed as I passed through the cloud layer. Once I was through, I turned over and looked down. I wasn’t quite on target, but I didn’t need to course-correct quite yet. Give my reservoir time to recharge.

I glanced over my shoulder. The alien shuttle was following me, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t free-falling. All the engines were still lit up, if not as bright as before. Maybe they weren’t as confident in their engines as I was with my flight.

Speaking of which, what did they think of someone flying around unaided? I obviously didn’t have wings or a jetpack. Unless they had the technology to do something similar, I was probably a complete enigma.

Or unless they had powers too.

That thought was like opening my eyes for the first time. Suddenly I could feel… something from the shuttle. Something beyond hearing, beyond thought. It wasn’t the same as the screamers or even the singers, it was just… a feeling. More than anything else, it reminded me of the silence before a performer began to play.

Or sing.

Could the para have powers? Other than Elizabeth and Silk, we didn’t know where the powers came from. What if the aliens could do the same sorts of things we could? Our biggest advantage would be gone in a heartbeat.

They might be able to hit me with a countersong and knock me right out of the sky.

My heart sped up, and I had to resist the urge to activate my power and fly as far away from the shuttle as fast as I could. If they were going to do that, they would have already. Besides, the range on those things wasn’t that great. If I fell, I’d fall out of range and be able to keep flying. Probably.

I activated my power, but not to flee. Instead, I corrected my course, heading towards NHQ. There were plenty of places in the city with landing pads big enough for the shuttle, but I wasn’t going to take this thing anywhere else. If nothing else, they had the anti-air guns to blow them out of the sky if they turned hostile.

…they had AA guns.

I couldn’t actually see them at this distance, but I swore I could feel the guns targeting us. With my radio turned off, I had no IFF transponder, so they probably thought I was a missile or drone. They might be trying to contact the shuttle, but I doubted anyone onboard spoke English…

After ten seconds of cold fear—ten seconds too many—I hit my radio, turning it back on, and called my sister on her private line. “MC! It’s me! I’m bringing the ship in peacefully! Don’t shoot!

“Robyn?” She made a sound like a sigh. “Dammit, Robyn, stop turning your radio off!” There was a pause. “There. AA guns standing down. Please take them onto landing platform four. It’s the northernmost one.”

“Got it.” I paused. “You wouldn’t have really shot, would you?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. We were having trouble contacting them, and if we couldn’t get a stable line of communication by the time they got too close… yeah, we might have shot. How did you manage to talk to them, anyway?”

“I just waved for them to follow me.”

Static crackled with her sigh. “Of course. I suppose that bodes well for the future. Derek and Akane are preparing a greeting party. I’ll tell them that the aliens seem non-hostile, for now. Unless they shot at you a few times and you failed to mention it?”

“No, of course not. But, um…”

“What?”

“I think someone on that shuttle has a power. Maybe.”

There were a full five seconds of silence as she processed that. “What? How could they—how could you know that?”

“I just… feel something from the shuttle.”

“Hm,” she said, clearly not convinced. “Well, I don’t feel anything.”

“You still haven’t figured out what your power even is,” I said. Silk had given her one, but she hadn’t been able to activate it yet. She could feel her reservoir, but that was it. “Plus, you’re in the city, surrounded by millions of people with powers. I’m up here alone. Less distractions.”

“Maybe. Look, just bring them in slow, all right? We want to be able to hit them easily if they do anything weird.”

It took about twenty more minutes to bring the alien shuttle in to land. I took it nice and slow, as requested, and came in at a steep angle. I wasn’t giving them a tour of the city in case they did turn out to be hostile. A couple of my better fliers got close at one point, but I waved them off. Probably better to keep the number of people involved to a minimum. We’d need those fliers if the ship decided to start shooting in the middle of the city.

I landed on platform four as requested, my boots touching down as lightly as a feather. A moment later, the platform shook, but not too bad. I turned around to see that the shuttle had deployed landing gear, and its thrusters were powering down. Quite the show of faith on their part, unless they could power up again a lot faster than we thought.

I glanced towards the rooftop entrance to NHQ. Derek and Butler were walking out, side-by-side, with Akane and her kensei marching behind them. There were a few subtle movements on the other platforms and rooftops that told me Laura had us surrounded by gunmen and snipers. Clever. The swordsmen are the obvious threat, so anyone would look around and probably spot the snipers. But with their super speed, the kensei were the real threat.

Everyone was wearing the skintight black quarantine suits that the Glasyans had made. They still weren’t perfect, but they were much easier to move around in than normal quarantine suits. At least the kensei would be able to fight if necessary. They even had large faceplates so we could identify each other.

I walked over to Butler. “Hey, Uncle. Where’s my father?”

“Downstairs with Miss Medina, watching through the cameras,” he said. “I felt it was safer to keep from putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. Not to mention, put this on.” He gestured to Derek, and he handed me a rolled-up q-suit. “We can’t be too careful.”

I frowned, but started putting it on over my flight clothes. The flight suit would actually act as a halfway decent hazmat suit on its own, but I knew Butler wouldn’t let me get away with that. Better to avoid the argument. “I’m pretty sure whatever that shuttle is using for power could vaporize the entire building if they decided to self-destruct.”

Butler sighed. “Yes, Medina said the same thing. Regardless. This is still safer.”

I smirked as I put the helmet on. “I think you just don’t want my dad ruining this by acting like a kid in a candy store.”

He smiled. “That was part of it, true.”

“If anything goes wrong, I’ll shield Butler and get him out,” Derek said. “Robyn, your job will be to fly as far as you can. One of the outposts at the Gates would be best. Think you can manage that?”

Was he being sarcastic? No, he was just being honest. He needed a genuine answer.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised. “Though I don’t think these guys are hostile.”

Derek looked past me, at the shuttle. “They haven’t come out yet. That worries me.”

I shrugged. “Maybe they’re just being polite? We’re obviously busy.”

“Hm. Maybe.” He nodded at Akane. “Keep to formation, but be ready to rush at a moment’s notice. And remember to try to be nonlethal if at all possible. We still have much to learn here.”

Akane nodded, which caused the blue ribbon in her hair to get tangled up in front of her face. Inside the helmet, she couldn’t fix it. That reminded me, all her kensei had red ribbons of varying length. Was that some indicator of rank, or just personal preference?

Our little procession continued forward, stopping some twenty feet from the shuttle. We waited for a moment, and then the shuttle’s side cracked open, deploying a simple ramp. For some reason I had expected something more high-tech, like unfolding moving stairs.

Two people came down the ramp.

At first, I thought that we had been duped. That they were human, and that this whole thing had been some bizarre scheme to trick us into thinking it was an alien invasion. My mind went to all sorts of theories—aggressive ad campaign, foreign government attacking us, anything. But then my eyes finished processing what I was seeing, and I realized that they definitely weren’t human.

Their basic shape was about right. One head, two arms, two legs. The one on the left had two eyes, a mouth, two slits that were probably nostrils, and wide ears shaped like the sharp wings of a butterfly. The one on the right was wearing some sort of expressionless mask or helmet.

The one on the left had tangerine-colored eyes, all one color, though I could see them darting around, trying to take in everything at once. He had blue-green skin that, on a second glance, was actually made up of tiny scales like a lizard or a snake. Not much of his skin was uncovered, though. He was wearing something that looked like my flight suit, but covered in a rainbow of colors. He didn’t have any hair, but I couldn’t tell whether he had shaved his head or if the species just didn’t have hair.

His companion, on the right, seemed female to me. She had bumps under her flight suit that were probably breasts, but it was impossible to say for sure. She had the expressionless mask, and her flight suit was a dull gray. It contrasted sharply with the man and the ship. These people clearly liked colors, so what did it mean to have no color? Was she his boss?

The one on the left stepped forward. “Hello,” he said.

I blinked and glanced at Uncle Arty and Laura. They were both surprised, but they hid it better than me.

“You speak English?” Butler asked.

The para smiled. It was a surprisingly human gesture, though there seemed to be something off about his teeth. “Got it on my first try! Yes, I speak English.” He tapped the side of his head. “Language implant. Our Greyminds have been studying your communications for a few weeks.” He nodded his head slightly. “I am Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. You may call me Leeno.” He indicated the woman next to him. “This is Zero.”

“Bodyguard?” I asked.

He shrugged. Again, so human. “Something like that.”

“I am Artemis Butler,” Uncle Arty said. “Butler will do just fine.”

“And I am Derek Huntsman,” Derek said with a small bow. “Derek will do.”

Butler gestured behind him. He was indicating the roof exit, but I could tell he was also subtly reminding him of the armed guards. “Why don’t we go inside? It’s cold up here, and I do not like shouting over the wind.”

“Will we have to undergo some sort of quarantine? Perhaps wear suits like yours?”

“We did preliminary scans, and we are reasonably certain that you and your ship are clean. But we would like to take a few simple precautions, just to be safe for everyone. Including you two.”

Leeno smiled. “I think we’ll be fine, but we will of course cooperate. Zero and I both have nanite-immune systems that can survive virtually anything.” He glanced at me. “But I think we’re missing one introduction. Who is this… lady?”

I smiled at that. “Yes, I am female. My name is Robyn Joan Clarke. Robyn is fine.” I nodded at Zero. “I assume this means you’re female as well?”

She turned that mask to me, then nodded, once. She didn’t say a word.

We all filed dutifully downstairs, and Uncle Arty led us into one of his meeting rooms. They were mostly used for internal stuff, employee meetings and that sort of thing. Most cultures didn’t like entering NHQ unless they had to. Apparently it felt too much like getting trapped inside a fortress.

This one had been modified to be airtight, with a simple airlock improvised out of plastic sheets and an air conditioner. We’d still be inside with them, but this would reduce the damage if something did go wrong.

There was a single long table, about a dozen chairs, and a smaller side table with some refreshments. The kensei waited outside, but I had no doubt that MC and the others would be watching on the cameras. If something went wrong, the room would be pumped full of sleeping gas, followed by kensei in masks. We were as safe as could be.

“Would you like some water?” Butler asked as everyone took their seats. “We decided against food, since we weren’t sure of compatibility, but the water should be fine.”

“I have a filtration unit installed,” Leeno said. He seemed a bit confused at the wheels on his chair, but returned his attention to Butler after a moment. “There might be some microbes that could hurt me, but the filter will handle them.”

“Interesting,” Butler said. He pulled out a chair and sat down at the head of the table. “I am fascinated about the differences—and similarities—between our species. Imagine what we could do if we worked together.” He took out a pad and tapped at it. The q-suits were designed to work with touch screens. “Now, let’s start simple. I’m sorry, but I have to be blunt. Are your people here for war?”

Silence.

We all looked over at Leeno. His face was blank, and he was staring off into space without blinking.

“…Mister Leeno?” Butler said.

Zero had been sitting there stiffly, but she leaned forward and waved her hand in front of Leeno’s face. No reaction. She looked at us and shook her head.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “Can you please just talk? Or do you not speak English?”

Zero shook her head, then nodded. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her frustration. It was hard to talk with just yes and no responses. She put her hands on the table, and they were shaking with either anxiety or fear. Also, she only had three fingers on each hand. I hadn’t noticed that before.

After a moment, she hesitantly raised her hands and started signing.

I blinked. “…is that kemo battle sign?”

“I guess if you can program a spoken language, you can program a signed one,” Derek said, watching closely. “Whoa, slow down, I’m pretty rusty.”

“Why kemo, though? The angels have a more complex one.”

“Yeah, and it definitely requires five fingers on each hand. In kemo sign, you can get away with three. Or even one, in a pinch.” He frowned, watching closer. “She keeps signing ‘two hundred’ for some reason, I don’t understand.”

Zero’s shoulders slumped, and she signed something else.

Derek nodded. “Okay, got it. ‘Leeno’ literally means ‘two hundred.’” Pause. “Or, uh, not literally. But anyway, that’s what she’s using. So…” He watched her continue signing for a moment longer. “Okay… right. Leeno is apparently just thinking. Really, really hard. This has happened before, last time he was out for a few hours.”

Hours?” I said. “Is this normal for your people?”

Zero shook her head.

“Great,” I muttered under my breath. “Our ambassador is defective.”

Zero signed something else.

“Robyn was being facetious,” Derek said, giving me a glare. “Neither of you are defective. You’re just… unexpected.”

“And this gives us an unexpected few hours,” Butler said, rising from his chair. “I’ll call a full meeting. I’m sure all the cultures and guilds would prefer to be in the loop on this. We weren’t able to do so before, with the sudden arrival, but by now I’m sure my inbox is filled with questions.”

“Laura can also finish her scans, and we can figure out if this quarantine is necessary,” Derek said.

Butler raised his voice a little. It was unnecessary, but it was a common habit. “Mary Christina, how many warlords have contacted me about the para?”

Silence.

I frowned. Something was wrong. Sure, she couldn’t pay attention to everything at once, but this was first contact with an alien species. If there was one thing in the city she’d be paying attention to, it was this.

“Mary Christina?” Butler said again.

“MC?” I said. “You there?”

“I am here, Miss Clarke,” a flat, artificial voice said.

I just sat there for a moment, stunned. I never had to talk to her programs. I hadn’t even heard them in months, at the least.

The door burst open, and one of my dad’s aides stumbled in, breathing heavily. At least she was wearing a q-suit.

Zero immediately jumped up and pointed an arm at her. Something popped out that looked like a tiny gun turret.

“Lingshen!” Butler barked. “Stand and report!”

Lingshen glanced at Zero, then forced herself to stand at attention. “It’s—it’s MC, sir.”

“Yes, we noticed as well. What happened? Is there something wrong with her connections? Are we under attack?”

“No sir, it’s…” She swallowed her anxiety. “Sir, she’s gone!

Behind the Scenes (scene 320)

The para language chips also include the more physical parts of language, like smiles, shrugs, and so on. It can be kinda creepy having your body automatically act in a way you didn’t intend, but it’s better than people wondering why the hell you keep touching your nose and pulling on your ear. There is some crossover, though, so it’s not all like that. Most of the things para do with their mouths (smiles, frowns, kissing, etc) is the same as humans.

break

Scene 319 – Solum

SOLUM

I remembered going to sleep

I remembered fighting against the adults, against the robots, screaming murder and worse. I remembered shouting obscenities even as they refilled my sedative tanks, putting me under. I remembered, as my eyes began to feel heavy, the adults looking confused as to why I was fighting so hard. I was being put into cold sleep. I would wake up thousands of years later, on another world. I knew all that, so why was I fighting?

Because I always remembered the time I spent asleep.

It had taken years before I even knew there was anything different about me. The other children never spoke of their times asleep. They didn’t speak of their minds leaving their bodies to wander the halls, or of the stars calling to them. For them, sleep was nothing. Just an absence of awareness, occasionally peppered by a dream or two.

But I was always awake. My body might go to sleep, it might be drugged or tired or knocked out, but my mind stayed awake. Free to roam, free to explore, free to see the world without the limits of my own eyes.

Free to never, never go to sleep.

I remembered being loaded into the cryopod. I remembered the technicians activating it, freezing me like a hunk of meat. I remembered them chatting while they made sure all the pods were functional, while they double-checked that the robots were working perfectly. I remembered them leaving, and I remembered wishing with all my soul that I could leave with them. But I was tied to my body, and so I could not leave the ship it was on.

I remembered the ship starting, engines the size of an entire hive block propelling us into the sky almost like an old-fashioned rocket.

I remembered darkness. As we hurtled through the endless black of space, there was nothing but the steady sound of the robots keeping the ship maintained, and the low hum of the cosmic background radiation.

For almost three thousand years, there was nothing. Nothing at all. No one to talk to, no one to listen to. I couldn’t use the ship’s library, not at first, and the robots didn’t do anything interesting. All I could do was stare out the window at the infinite, star-speckled expanse.

I remembered going insane. For a time, the robots were in a frenzy, fixing a thousand minor mistakes. A loose wire here, an oil spill there. I could do so little, but I had infinite time. Unscrewing a gasket by a millimeter a day only took a couple weeks.

I remembered going sane. Playing the part of the poltergeist became boring, so I forced myself to rebuild my shattered mind and find something productive to do. I spent a few decades trying to entertain myself in constructive ways, but the robots kept interrupting my efforts. I would move a few electrons around to make a movie play on the main screen, but they would reset the defaults. I could try to play games in the oil spills, but the robots would clean it up. Over and over and over again.

I remembered very well the day I went insane again. A robot had just turned off my ‘malfunctioning’ screen, which I had actually gotten to play an old version of All the Colors of the Day. Terrible movie, but to my starved soul it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

The robot turned it off, and I screamed. I roared and thrashed at the machine, kicking and punching, but it did no good. Perhaps it received an additional dent or two, but nothing I noticed. Certainly nothing that would prevent it from doing the exact same thing again the next time I tried to watch something. All my impotent, stupid rage, childish frustration and centuries upon centuries of annoyances boiling into… something.

I remembered screaming, and hearing the universe sing in response.

The robot exploded, its power supply flaring as the electricity inside it was twisted in an impossible way. Pieces of robot went flying everywhere, and all that was left was a smoking wreck on the floor.

I remembered standing there, stunned, as the other robots cleaned up quickly and efficiently. I remembered staring at the spot on the floor long after it had been scrubbed clean and sanitized until it looked no different than any of the others.

But most of all, I remembered the universe bending to my will.

I began to practice. With a terrifying, insane sanity, I threw myself into an impossible task. How to make the universe bend again.

I listened to the humming of the universe, and I screamed to try to make it sing in counterpoint. It took centuries before I even managed to force it to make even the smallest tune. I needed rage and passion to make it work, which were in sort supply even considering my endless frustrations. That day I destroyed the robot had been a beautiful fluke, and it was likely I’d never see it again.

But I did. When an asteroid missed the ship by inches because of a tiny glitch in the sensors, the fear focused all of my being into a single point, like a spear forged of my soul. In that one moment, when I screamed, the universe sang back, and I was able to destroy the ten closest robots.

I remembered standing there, thinking, as the survivors cleaned up the scrap to recycle into new robots. It wasn’t a fluke. I had done it twice. And I could do it again.

The next time, it only took decades to summon the rage to destroy a robot. To feel the electricity of its soul and twist it to my own ends.

The next time, years.

Then hours.

And then, it was always there.

Emotions were no longer important. I knew how to sing to the universe, to have it sing in counterpoint and produce the effects I wanted. For centuries, I literally sang, opening an invisible mouth and singing with an unheard voice. But in time, that became unnecessary as well. I learned to tune my soul, so that the universe reacted to my thoughts instead of my voice.

I remembered a compulsion to spread the song. A desire to hear everyone on the ship singing, understanding, feeling the rhythm of the universe. The compulsion faded, in time. Or perhaps I simply became accustomed to it. With no ability to wake anyone up, I had no choice but to ignore it.

I remembered learning to control my power. To not just use it destructively, but constructively, even passively. I could move the power in the wires at just the right moment to prevent an overload. I could see all the electricity in the walls, in the robots… even in the people in the pods. It was like seeing the framework of the universe, all combined with the most beautiful music in all of creation.

I remembered the day the ship had to stop.

There was an artifact ahead. Small, by the standards of space, but emitting quite a bit of radiation. I watched over the shoulders of the robots as they did their work, made their calculations. I watched them consult mission protocols and decide to simply ignore it.

I cut off the engines, leaving us adrift in space heading straight towards it. The robots reacted, tried to restart the engines, but I stopped them. No matter what they did, it didn’t matter when I had control over the flow of the electricity.

Their pre-programmed behaviors could not find a solution, so they took the only option available to them: They woke up the senior engineering crew. The engineers saw the artifact and took in on board, but it was little more than an oddly-shaped lump of metal. A curiosity and nothing more.

Until I reached into its heart and gave it life once more.

Once it had its kickstart, the artifact was self-sustaining. It was beyond fusion, beyond antimatter and zero point energy. It could power the ship for a million years—it could power a planet for a million years. It rivaled the energy output of a small star, and it was only slightly larger than a person.

But most importantly, it distorted space-time around itself in a very specific way, leaving a wake of warped space behind it. Things did not move faster; rather, space itself moved faster. Faster, even, than light.

I remembered commanders and captains being awoken. I remembered tests being conducted.

I remembered our ship accelerating a thousand times its original speed, pulled behind that beautiful artifact like some kind of primitive sled.

I could see into the heart of the artifact when none of the engineers could see past even its outermost skin. I knew that it would not last forever at the stresses they were subjecting it to. When it failed, it would fail catastrophically.

So when we reached our destination—two hundred years ahead of schedule—I did not allow them to simply power down the artifact. I reached inside and killed it, snuffed out the flame that gave it life.

The engineers assumed it was luck and happenstance, but I knew what I had done. I knew what I had prevented. I needed no more recognition than that.

I watched as they awoke the rest of the crew. As they prepared the nanny robots, the food dispensaries and the beds.

I watched them realize, with horror, that this star was not uninhabited. Our golden world was covered in civilization, the spacelanes filled with vessels. Simple, primitive vessels, and not a great many of them, but even one was more than we expected.

I watched them panic, discuss leaving, try to restart the artifact.

I tried to aid them. I reached into its heart, tried to force it to beat.

I failed. The fire would not come, the heart would not beat. Space would not warp.

There was no escape. We were stuck in this distant star system.

I watched them wake the sleepers—first the soldiers, to prepare for war, to pilot the ships. Then the workers, to ready the ships, the weapons, and everything else that would be needed to fight for a new home.

And finally, I watched them wake the civilians. They shouldn’t have, but there were not enough soldiers, not enough workers. They needed recruits, researchers, even diplomats, perhaps. They had no choice but to wake everyone at once.

I watched them wake me. I watched my eyes open, watched my heart begin to beat more than once a year. I felt my body, but it was a distant thing, like I had left it behind on the homeworld.

I watched them speak to me, but the words moved by so quickly, I could not understand them. I watched them try to force me to move, to stand on my own two feet. I could not, and I could not. It was all so distant.

They found me a bed, but by then I was bored of their attempted ministrations. I flew through the halls of the ship, watching the people, my people, move and act for the first time in three thousand years. But not to them. To them it was just a few cold minutes.

I watched them speak, tried to pick out the words, but it was like trying to catch rays of light. So fast, so small. I had watched eternity pass by—their simple language was less than a blink after that.

I watched them scream at my body, awake and yet not, asleep and yet not. I was the only one who would not stand, who would not be accounted for.

I watched them consider disposing of me. I could not understand the words, but the universe shuddered in response. Just like how I could sense electricity so as to better manipulate it, I could sense their feelings. Their choices and their desires.

They were moving towards murder. Hearts were hardening, souls were sharpening.

I stepped into my body, trapping myself once more in limited meat.

I sat up, blinking, and the others made noises of surprise. They spoke, but the words still eluded me. They were so fast, and I was so out of practice. So, so out of practice. It is surprising what you can lose if you don’t care to exercise it.

They moved, and they were blurs. So fast. I forced myself to concentrate and shapes resolved, then faces. Real things that I could understand, and recognize as people. I didn’t know the people around me—at least, I thought not. Recognition of individuals might take longer. I had memorized the face of every single person trapped in a cryogenic capsule, but the stories had mixed, become muddled. Which one was the nurse, which the doctor? Which the male, which the female?

I had lost so much. Most of it on purpose, cast off as useless and irrelevant on the long and empty journey across the stars. Could I recover it? Remember something, access some hidden pocket in my soul where I had stored everything?

Perhaps.

Perhaps not.

Over a few hours or days, I began to comprehend that the others wanted me to stand. I nodded, slowly, because I could not remember the proper speed. I swung my legs off the table and planted them firmly on the ground. I put all my weight on them, standing tall.

I fell, I think, or perhaps I was pushed. But I was on the ground. Was I left there? Yes, I was. For centuries… no, minutes. Or perhaps longer?

Two people lifted me to my feet. Adults. Yes, I recognized the bulky builds, the strong arms. I was like a child to them. No, I was a child. I was three thousand years old, but still only fifteen years into my child stage. No… I was an adult. Yes, I transitioned the year before we were put to sleep.

In front of me was an elder. Smaller, with wings. Yes, that was an elder. He watched with careful, discerning eyes, of a hue I recognized. The same hue as my eyes. That meant he could see the same light level as I could.

Or was he me? Had the pods slowed my life cycle, but failed to stop it completely? Was I looking at my body from the outside? I tried to buzz my wings, but nothing happened. I had no wings. I was an adult, barely more than a child, not an elder.

The elder spoke. I could not understand.

He spoke again. Still, the words made no sense to me.

But he was patient. Beyond patient. He spoke again and again and again, the same words over and over. For years, for centuries—

No. Not that long. …days? Hours. Yes, hours. Two, perhaps three.

“If you understand me, raise your right hand,” the elder said.

I breathed, and raised my right hand.

The elder smiled bright enough to outshine the sun. “Welcome back, Leeno.”

“Leeno,” I whispered. “That’s my name.”

“Yes,” the elder said patiently.

I felt consternation. “But… that’s not all of it. There’s more.”

“Yes,” he said. “Your full name is Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. Do you recognize it?”

I nodded, slowly. “Two-hundred fifty-five and zero and zero red, zero and two-hundred fifty-five and zero green, two-hundred twenty and one-hundred sixty and two blue. The… color of my eyes.”

“Correct.” The elder smiled. “Which brings us to somewhat of an awkward situation.”

I paused, thinking. It seemed to take forever. “You have the same color eyes.”

“Yes, very good.” He stood up, his wings rustling. “Therefore, I will be going by the name Dolor. It will make things simpler.”

I touched my nose in a gesture of respect. “Yes, Elder Dolor.”

He smiled. “You, however, can simply call me Leeno.”

I smiled as well. “Yes, Leeno.”

He waved away the bodyguards. “Come. I wish to give you a tour of the ship.”

“Elder… Dolor,” one of the guards said. “A simple robot can do that. There is no need for you to be bothered—”

“Away,” Leeno said as he fluttered to the floor.

The bodyguard sighed. “Yes, Elder.” They left, closing the door behind them.

“Thank you for the offer, Leeno,” I said. “But I do not think it is necessary. I doubt I need a tour from anyone.” I had memorized literally every centimeter of this ship a dozen times over. It had kept me occupied for a couple centuries.

“Perhaps,” Leeno said. “But what of what is happening outside the ship, Leeno? What of the world we are now orbiting? Do you know anything about that?”

I paused. “No, Leeno.”

“I thought not.” He walked over to a door opposite the one his guards had left through. There was a panel at his height. He put his hand on it, let it scan him, and the door opened. “I feel it is important that we involve the younger generation in the decision-making process. As observers, if nothing else.”

He walked out of the room—which I finally realized was a small hospital pod—and I followed.

“Is that why you helped me?” I asked. “Why you were so patient?”

His wings rustled slightly as he considered how best to answer. “No. Oh, perhaps that was a part of it, but a much larger part was simple curiosity. I had to know why you, of the ten thousand people in cryosleep aboard this ship, did not wake up.” He gave me an appraising look. “I am still interested in the answer.”

“You have still not asked the question.”

He grinned. “Oh, you can be blunt? I was afraid you’d insist on being so formal the entire time.” He took a turn, leading us into a hallway that actually had people in it. All young adults, like me. They bowed and quickly moved out of the way. “I recognize that look in your eyes, Leeno. I know you won’t answer the question if I ask.” He looked back at me and smirked. “I’ve seen it in the mirror often enough.”

I nodded, stepping to the side to avoid a squeaky floor panel. The robots had been forced to replace it a few decades ago.

Leeno noticed, but he didn’t say anything. He just smiled. “Tell me, Leeno, what would you do with the natives of this system? If you had complete control over this ship and all its fleets, what would you do?”

I thought about it. I had considered such questions before. I had considered taking control of the ship, grabbing the electricity with my soul and bending it to my will like a master with a puppet. I had considered waking up every sleeper, or spacing them, or turning the ship to new destinations.

I had considered what would happen if we arrived to find life. Or if we arrived to find ruins and dead worlds. I had considered fighting, surrendering, peace and diplomacy. I had used the computers to run simulations, but only rarely. Mostly, I just thought.

Now, we were here, and we were not the first. They had technology that, if a bit inferior to our own, was at least comparable, and their numbers more than made up for it. I didn’t know the full tactical situation, but conquest seemed unfeasible.

“If I had control, I would sue for peace,” I said.

Everyone stared at me—except for Leeno, who just smiled.

While I had been thinking, Leeno had led us deep into the heart of the ship, to the command bridge itself. There were a dozen elders, all in military uniforms, clustered around a holographic display table at the center of the room. There wasn’t much else in the room. It was circular, with tall ceilings to accommodate the adult bodyguards, and a few wall panels showing different parts of the ship.

I had been here before, a million times, but never in the flesh. I knew every exit, how the table worked, and where each of the elders was supposed to stand. Memorizing bridge protocol had kept me occupied for a few days.

The elders definitely were not supposed to bring in random adults who would then blurt out a stupid opinion to the entire command staff.

“Dolor, who is this?” one of the elders asked. She was female, not that it meant much after adult stage. She was called Zan to her friends; her cybernetic arm made her easy to distinguish. “You brought him in an hour ago, he doesn’t respond to anything, and now this?”

“I agree,” another elder said. Li-Po, I was pretty sure. He looked pretty mundane on the outside, but I knew most of his internal organs were replaced with cybernetics. He had insisted on staying in elder stage for far longer than was healthy, and it was taking its toll. “Guards, remove this man.”

“Belay,” Leeno said. He watched me closely with those tangerine-colored eyes. He didn’t even glance to see if the guards were obeying him—but they were. “Aren’t any of you interested in what he has to say?”

Zan snorted. “I don’t need to hear anything from some random stray tubeborn you picked up. I don’t care if he does have the same eyes as you.”

There were murmurs of agreement, but Leeno ignored them. “This is the man who was in a coma after being removed from the pods. The only person on the entire ship who did not wake up as intended. Doesn’t that strike anyone as odd?”

A few of the elders were looking me over with more curious expressions, but most of the others just looked annoyed.

Li-Po spoke for everyone. “He had some bad luck. Big deal. We have an emergency on our hands—the emergency to end all emergencies. Whatever your interest in him, it can wait a few hours.”

Leeno’s smile didn’t fade. “Old friend. Aren’t you at all curious what he was thinking about for the past two hours?”

Zan opened her mouth to retort, only to stop with a frown. “Two hours? Really?”

Leeno nodded. “I asked him a question, and he thought on it. You heard his response. But if that’s good enough for you, then I suppose…” He let the sentence trail off.

“No, it’s fine.” Zan turned to me. “Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. Is that your name?”

I nodded slowly. “Yes, elder.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“You are Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado. You are the youngest elder to ever be given a spot on the command staff of a colony ship.” I chose not to mention that there had only been ten such ships in history so far.

“Ah, yes.” She looked surprised that I knew her full-form name. Her cybernetic arm whirred, and I felt the tickle of a scan. A normal person wouldn’t have noticed, but the same senses that I had cultivated to detect the electricity running through the ship could detect that sort of thing as well. “Anyway, Leeno, you said you would sue for peace. May I ask why? We have studied their ships. Few of them are armed, and those are all weak chemical mass drivers instead of magnetic railguns or anything more energetic. Why not just crush them?”

I frowned at her. Wasn’t this obvious? Hadn’t she thought about it herself?

No, of course not. Everyone was so busy with living and breathing and talking that they never bothered to actually think. They were more concerned with looking good for their peers than getting the job done.

“They will take our technology,” I said. “Reverse-engineer it. They will then begin installing it on their own ships, and we will be outnumbered hundreds of thousands to one. Perhaps more.”

“They don’t have that many ships,” Lo-Pi said with a small smile. “And they can’t retrofit them with out weapons so easily—even if they do somehow manage to unlock our secrets.”

“What about these chemical mass drivers?” I said. “How fast can their ships be retrofitted with those?”

Lo-Pi’s smirk faded. “…quickly,” he said.

“And can those weapons do real damage to us?”

He took a deep breath. “Our fighters, yes, but not our hive ship.”

“They will find a way to damage the hive ship. Sneak a fighter inside, or even just a person.”

Lo-Pi sniffed. “Impossible.”

I gave him a level stare. “Are you willing to be the lives of everyone on this ship on that theory?”

Lo-Pi tried to hold my gaze, but failed. Three thousand years alone had given me a stare that could vaporize steel. “This is a farce. Why are we even listening to this man? Only elders may speak at command meetings. Dolor, what are you up to?”

Leeno shook his head. “I just think you should listen to what he has to say.”

“Bah.” Lo-Pi scowled. “More mind games. I vote that we immediately expel Leeno the Younger from this meeting. All in favor?”

Ten hands went up. Leeno, of course, chose to abstain.

“This is a mistake,” he warned.

Lo-Pi ignored him. “Motion carried. Guards?”

“I can leave on my own,” I said. I turned to go.

“Wait,” Leeno said. “I’ll walk you out.”

“If this is a trick…” Lo-Pi began.

Leeno waved away his complaints. “Bah. I brought the boy into this, he deserves to have me walk him out. I’ll be back in a moment.”

A guard held the door open for us as we exited the bridge. We took a few turns in the corridors, until we were in a small alcove with a bench and a data slate. It was a reading nook, one of thousands on the ship.

“I am sorry, Leeno,” I said. “I could not convince them.”

He sighed. “You did your best, Leeno. That was all I could ask for. But unfortunately, now I have to ask you for something else.” He looked up into my eyes. “I need you to take a pod down to the planet. Do your best to negotiate peace.”

“Go behind their backs, you mean.”

He nodded. “The others still think we can win a war, but they are letting greed blind them. If the fight lasts longer than a few months, we will begin to starve. The hive ship was never designed to hold all ten thousand awake for long. Stores and recyclers can stave things off for a time, but eventually the food will run out.”

“Then why was everyone awoken?”

Leeno gave a sad smile. “In preparation for the war, of course.”

“So because they prepared for war, they have no choice but to go to war.”

He chuckled. “You’re smarter than they are, that’s for sure.” He sobered quickly. “Circular logic aside, if we begin colonization—even if it has to start with conquest—the food problems will begin to dissipate. Two hives dedicated to food production should be more than enough.”

I looked back the way we came. “I’m surprised they would be willing to make that sacrifice.” There weren’t that many elders on the ship to begin with.

Leeno patted me on the arm. “They are not bad people, Leeno. They simply have difficulty seeing more than one solution. That is why I believe this plan to start the peace talks against their orders will work. Once you have made success, they will accept it.”

I nodded. “Very well. But why me?”

Leeno smiled. “Do you believe in destiny?”

I thought about the secrets of the universe I had discovered. The patterns of the song underlying all reality. The inevitable crescendos, the dips and the waves…

“Something like that,” I said.

“You attracted my attention with your coma,” he said. “And then I discovered our identical eyes, before you came back to yourself. And then you proved yourself to be a wise and thoughtful young man.” He smiled. “Perhaps I am just superstitious. But there is something special about you. You can do this.”

“And what if I can’t?”

Leeno sighed. “Then many, many people will die. I will do my best from up here, but we might be looking at an extinction event. Whether for us or for them… well. Only time will tell.” He shook his head. “I’m not sure which to wish for.”

“I will achieve peace,” I said. “You have my word.”

Leeno watched me closely, then nodded. “Good. Come—this way.”

We walked through corridors that looked identical to the untrained eye. I immediately recognized them as leading to the shuttles. When we reached the hangar, I was surprised to find every berth filled. I had thought most of the ships would have been launched, but I suppose with nowhere to land, shuttles weren’t needed yet.

One of the shuttles was guarded by an adult female roughly twice my size. She had cybernetic legs, as well as a railgun rifle big enough to put holes in starships. Her most obvious feature, however, was the blank, expressionless metal mask that covered her entire face. It had no eye or mouth holes, and was just dull, steely gray.

“A Colorless,” I said. “I forgot about them.”

Leeno looked at me. “Their inclusion on this mission was top secret… but you don’t seem surprised.”

I shrugged. There were no secrets left on this ship for me.

Leeno frowned, then shrugged as well. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. Colorless—start the ship.”

The woman nodded and ducked inside the shuttle to start the pre-flight sequence. Leeno and I followed. The inside of the shuttle wasn’t massive, but it was more than big enough for three people to sit comfortably. The Colorless was in the pilot’s seat, flipping switches and pressing buttons. She ignored us completely.

“How familiar are you with the operation of a shuttle?” Leeno asked.

“Intimately. I’ve read the instructions more times than I can count.”

“…all right. Then we can skip that part. There is something I need to show you, however.” He walked over to the lockers next to the crash webbing and opened one. He pulled out a perfectly circular metal halo, painted alternating stripes. I couldn’t distinguish all the colors, of course—I only had nighteyes, which were limited in that respect.

Still, I recognized it. “A cybernetic halo. It will implant a chip in my brain.”

Leeno nodded. “Correct. Have you ever used one of these before?”

“No, never.”

“And you don’t already have any chips?”

“No.”

“Good. Put it on.”

I did so without hesitation. There was a brief pinch, and then the device hissed with steam. I waited a moment longer, then pulled it off.

Leeno took it, looked it over, and put it back in the locker once he was satisfied. “The second I realized the system was inhabited, I dedicated seventeen Grayborn to study the local languages. You have been implanted with the top three: Mandarin Chinese, English, and Hindi. Wherever you land, one of those languages should be useful.”

I frowned. “Are their languages even compatible with our mouths?”

“Surprisingly, yes,” he said. “I’m sure the scientists are going to have a field day explaining that one. I’ve heard everything from panspermia to parallel evolution to divine intervention. I’m sure you’ll have an accent, but you should be able to make yourself understood.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Leeno.”

He smiled. “Thank you, Leeno. All our hopes and prayers ride with you.” He saluted, then left. He probably needed to get back to the bridge before he was missed.

I sat down in the co-pilot seat. “We need to—” I paused and turned to the Colorless. “Do you have a name?”

She paused, then made a few quick hand motions. I had learned Colorless sign language in the early years of my stay on the ship—there were a number of educational videos that were indexed differently from the entertainment, so the robots didn’t shut them down as quickly. The language was sharp and efficient, with no room for unnecessary adjectives.

“Zero-zero-zero,” I said. She was using dull numbers, not the more fanciful ones we used for our color-names. “So… colorless. Cute. Do you mind if I call you Zero?”

She shrugged.

I smiled. “Zero it is.” I helped her go through the last few steps of the pre-flight checklist. “Ready? We need to get out of here as soon as possible.”

Zero nodded.

“Good. Launch.”

Zero took the controls, and I was pushed back into my seat by the sudden acceleration. Once we cleared the hive ship, she throttled back the speed, and the pressure on my chest decreased.

“Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Okay, we need to find somewhere to land. Simple.” I thought for a moment. “Put us into a tight orbit around the planet. I’m going to meditate on this for a minute.”

Zero looked at me. Her blank faceplate didn’t give away her emotions, but I could still feel them bubbling away underneath the surface. I could read her soul through the universe itself. Of course, I didn’t have any experience interpreting those readings, so I still had no idea how she felt. There was a spike of something, though. So… surprise?

I pushed all that aside and concentrated. I had learned many things while listening to the hum of the universe for three thousand years—electricity manipulation was just the first. I could scan the planet for positive emotions, try to find someone willing to listen to me. Or I could land somewhere isolated and try to force compliance. Or I could just find the densest collection of electricity and hope that a technologically advanced society would—

Wait. What was that?

There was something coming from the planet. I could sense it through the universe itself, a signal extending outward in all directions. At first I thought it was just some unusually strong electrical signal, but after a moment I realized that wasn’t it. I wasn’t sensing it through the shadow it cast on the song of the universe, it was affecting it directly. Like what I was doing. Every time I tapped into the energy flowing through the universe, it sent out ripples. Disturbances that someone could follow back to their source.

Now, on this planet, I had found disturbances that were not ripples so much as explosions.

I considered the problem. Should I go down there? Whoever was there could be dangerous, like me, but orders of magnitude worse. They could utterly destroy me, and where would my people be then?

But on the other hand, this was a connection. A shared similarity between our people. Maybe, just maybe, it was common ground that could be used to forge a lasting peace.

Or maybe they would kill me.

I found that didn’t bother me. I had attempted suicide several times over my long journey, in my craziest moments. From cutting life support to my pod to trying to destroy the entire ship. Nothing had worked; the robots always fixed everything long before anything went seriously wrong. The ship was over-engineered to ridiculous extents, and my attempts were always momentarily lapses of judgment. If I had truly wanted to kill myself, I would have tried harder.

Now, the thought of dying in an attempt to do something good, something real, almost seemed like an attractive concept. I felt old. Old enough that death held little fear for me. Either it was the next big adventure… or nothing at all. I would take either one.

I opened my eyes and pointed at the source of the disturbances. “There. Take us down.”

Zero jumped in her seat and glanced around.

I recognized that sort of reaction. “Did you fall asleep?”

She nodded. No shame, though, so… oh.

“How long was I out?”

She made a sign.

“Twelve hours?” I sighed. I would need to get a better handle on that. “All right, thank you. Please take us down.” I looked over the map. “It’s a city, so please come in slowly. The last thing we need is to be shot down as an enemy craft.”

As we began our descent, I sat down to wait, keeping an eye on the communicator to answer any hails from the surface.

Behind the Scenes (scene 319)

All para measurements are translated into English for reader benefit. So, for example, Zero actually told Leeno that he was out for twenty-six hours, which is the equivalent of twelve Earth hours (after rounding in both directions). And while the entire journey took three thousand Earth years, that’s ten thousand by their calendar. We’ll get into relativity later.

Fun fact about the para: They have four stages of life, and only the second (adult) is sexual. They grow reproductive organs as they exit child stage, and they fall off as they enter elder stage. Elders typically keep their gender identification for the sake of convenience, but not always.

Also, one of the reasons Leeno didn’t go irrevocably insane from the isolation is because in their last stage, the para often endure far worse. Of course, Leeno isn’t in that stage, which is why he went insane at all, but still.