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.
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…”
“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?”
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?”
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.