Monthly Archives: July 2017

Scene 326 – Eversio

LEENO

EVERSIO

I watched with interest as the humans reacted to the chaos of an unprovoked, system-wide assault.

“Reports of attacks on the asteroid belt. Sylvia and Cybele folded instantly, but Ceres and Vesta are fighting back.”

“First reports from Lemuria, confirm the attack. There are also ships in orbit, closing in on Arean Watch.”

“Hearing something similar from Cytherean and Hermean. Looks like they’re going after the space stations.”

Laura Medina, the human with the lie-detecting ability, looked thoughtful. “What about the Watches farther out? Any word back?”

The woman from the moon nodded. “Haven’t gotten turnaround yet, but first responses are positive. Jovian Watch and Cronian Watch haven’t seen any alien ships, and Uranian Watch saw some, but they went dark and were missed. No word back from Neptunian Watch yet. They should have responded by now.”

Medina rolled her eyes. I could hear the singing of her soul, sense that she had reactivated her lie-detecting ability, but I didn’t say anything. “It’s a science station. They’re probably just too busy to obey basic communications protocol.”

The moon-woman smiled. “Perhaps.”

“Enough,” Butler, the big human who seemed to be in charge, said. “They seem to be attacking everywhere at once. We do not have the ships to reach anyone in time, so we will have to leave everyone to their own devices for the moment.” He glared at me. “Unless you can call off your people. Do you have FTL communications?”

It took a second for my translator to give me a likely explanation for that. It didn’t like acronyms. “No. Most likely, all the ships were simply ordered before they were sent off to start their attacks at the same time.”

“Small favors,” Medina said. “That’s one advantage we have.”

The president of America gave her a look. I had read about him and his country a bit in the notes Medina had given me, but I still didn’t understand exactly who he was or what he was doing here. “You have those tele-whatsits across the system?”

Medina scowled. “No. That’s why it’s just a small favor.”

The man who always stood close to President Martinez—I hadn’t learned his name—looked thoughtful. “You know, if we’re going to do the full alliance against an alien menace thing, we should start shipping telepaths to every base we have.”

“While an excellent idea for the future, it will hardly help us now,” Medina said. “Even with modern advancements, it still takes at least a month to get to Mars, and that’s assuming that nothing intercepts them. We need to deal with the para first.”

I thought for a moment. “Mars is the fourth planet, correct?”

Moon-woman nodded. “Right before the asteroid belt.”

I did some calculations in my head. “Your ships are about six times faster than we anticipated. I’m impressed.”

“How fast are yours?” Martinez asked.

“Just slightly slower,” I said.

“But probably far more fuel-efficient,” Medina said.

I nodded, conceding the point. “My people have been space-faring for centuries, even though this was our first time truly leaving our star system. Fuel efficiency is usually more important than raw speed.”

Butler frowned. “If we’re all done with the posturing and discussing theoretical plans for the future, we have some more immediate matters to discuss. Ambassador Leenoreynrey, please. Tell us all you can about these attacks.”

I glanced over at the map that was projected onto the wall. It was primitive, but it was color-coded, which made it easy for me to understand instinctively. “The cerulean blue are your ships, and the Ferrari red are my people’s, correct?”

Everyone stared at me. I frowned. Had I said something wrong?

“…yes,” Butler said after a moment.

“And the Gainsborough are…”

“You mean the gray ones?”

I scrunched up my face. Such an imprecise word, gray. “Yes. What do those dots represent?”

“Neutral ships,” Medina said.

I cocked my head, a gesture my translator told me meant light confusion. “I thought humans were the only species in the system?” I had known the information she had given me was censored, of course, but I had assumed it wasn’t that bad.

Most of the humans looked confused, but Medina had clearly already figured it out. “We’re the only species, but we’re not united. There are still many, many individual countries on Earth, and the space colonies barely pay lip service to the nations that supposedly own them.”

Many of the humans looked annoyed, but no one looked surprised.

“Oh,” I said. Quite a few confusing things made more sense now. “Well, then…” I shook my head. “It is not my place to tell you how to handle your own politics. Clearly I don’t know enough. But what I do know is this:” I pointed at the map. “That is not all of our ships. It’s barely even a large fraction. I suspect that they are the standard armed reconnaissance ships that were dropped as we were traveling through your system at FTL speed. That’s why they’re all over your system, when it would take years to go from here to some of the outer planets.” I had memorized standard scouting protocols centuries ago.

“And what does that mean?” one of the other men asked. He… Petrov, I was pretty sure. The names had blurred past me.

“It means this isn’t a real attack,” I said. “It’s a show of force, or maybe a test. A way of reminding you that they have assets throughout the system.”

“Seems like a poor idea to use that if they’re not planning to follow up on it,” Petrov said.

“Most of our stations are unarmed, and half the rest may as well be,” Medina said. “Even with just a few scout ships, they might be able to conquer a significant portion of the system. I doubt they’ll be able to hold anything, but they’ll make a pretty strong point.”

“This is a standard way of opening negotiations for my people,” I said. “I suspect they will be calling once the attacks have finished.”

Martinez pointed to the map. “Can you tell us which of these colonies your people will be able to capture? Just going by the ships.”

I glanced over them. “All of the farther ones, easily. These ones.”

“Anything past Jupiter,” Medina said to the others. “Not unexpected. I’d be surprised if all the stations on Neptune, Saturn, and Uranus had a hundred bullets between them. I’m sure they’ll surrender as soon as they can.”

“How do your people treat captured prisoners?” a woman asked. I wasn’t sure who she represented. I was pretty sure her name was Korea.

“Reasonably well, by your standards,” I said. It had been in the information Medina gave me, and it had been the first thing I looked for. “Confined to a room, with food and modular light levels. Interrogation is illegal until negotiations have started.”

They all looked surprised at that. “Really?” Martinez asked.

I nodded. “The Right of Silence is sacred in our culture.”

Everyone glanced at Zero. I didn’t look at her. The Right of Silence was sacred, but there weren’t many laws protecting speech. Thankfully, if the prisoners talked too much, the worst that would happen was that they would be gagged. Making someone Colorless was far more complicated, both legally and practically.

“All right,” Petrov said. “You say your people will open negotiations. Who will they contact, and where will these negotiations take place?”

I blinked in surprise. “I… don’t know, actually. The negotiations will take place on the mothership, of course, that’s part of why they attacked, to gain the leverage to demand that. But since you don’t have a unified government, I have no idea who they would contact.” I glanced around the table. “Who has the most powerful military?”

Everyone looked at Martinez.

He smirked. “Well, I don’t like to brag…”

“Most likely, they will send a diplomatic shuttle to your capital,” I said. I had no idea where that was, but the elders would surely have figured it out by now.

“Maybe not,” the moon-woman said. “They don’t have anything in space. How would that affect the power equation?”

It took me a moment to puzzle out what she meant. It wasn’t a euphemism that my translator had in its database. “It shouldn’t affect it much. I suppose if one of the colonies has a sufficiently powerful military, they might be declared the leaders of the system, but that seems unlikely.”

“None of the colonies have more than a few ships,” Butler said. “I doubt very much any of them will be mistaken as the leaders of our species.”

“I should probably be getting back, then,” Martinez said, adjusting his clothing. “Need to receive the ambassador in person and all that.” He turned to me. “Anything else I’ll need to know about?”

“Nothing immediate,” I said.

He nodded. “Excellent.” He turned back to Butler. “I would like to speak to you about Silk at some point, though.”

Butler gestured at a small human woman with tattoos of an indecipherable design. “Lily has given me most of the details.”

Martinez chuckled. “I need more details. Maybe we can talk on the way to that mayor you mentioned earlier.”

“Aren’t you the mayor?” Martinez’s friend said to Butler.

Butler smiled. “President. A different mayor wanted to meet him.”

The human with the jet black skin and tail smiled. “Oh, you’re sending him down to Timmy? I have a friend who has family down there.”

“Yes, I’m sure that Mayor Konstantopoulos will be happy to—” There was a knock on the door, and Butler frowned. “Hm. Odd.” He glanced at Medina. “Guards are still in place, correct?”

Medina checked a device, a small brick of plastic with a glass screen. “Yes. This isn’t an attack.”

“Attackers wouldn’t knock anyway,” Martinez said with a smile.

Butler sighed. “Some do, in this city.” He raised his voice. “Enter.”

The door opened and a human woman with a royal blue ribbon in her hair stepped in. She wore simple clothes and had something long at her side that was holstered like a weapon. A sword? Seemed an odd choice for a technologically advanced society.

But when she scanned the room, I could feel her singing with the universe, taking just a bit of power to speed her body and mind. That would be a very useful ability for a swordswoman to have.

She stepped aside and two more people stepped in. One was another human with a sword, though this one had a red ribbon in his hair instead of blue. The third was a subspecies of humanity I hadn’t encountered yet, a hairy creature with large ears, curling horns, and backward-bending legs that ended in hooves.

I noticed that many of the humans flinched when the creature walked through the door, though they tried to hide it.

The strange man looked around the room before settling on Butler and the woman standing next to him, Lily.

He bowed deeply at the waist. “Mister Butler. Honored Mother. It is a pleasure to see you both.”

I cocked my head. So the small woman was an elder? Did this mean that older humans were smaller, like the para? They didn’t have stages like we did, but perhaps they shrank over time.

“Speak, man,” Butler said.

The man straightened. “Of course. I am Ziege, of the bulezau. I come bearing a message.”

Oh.

The timing was too perfect. It was obvious now that I thought about it. Who cared about the armies and fleets when the real power was in politics? In the end, the most important place in the world was simply the place where all the important people flocked to.

“The para are sending an ambassador, Mister Butler. They wish to speak to you.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 326)

The para have names for every single possible color, which are number-based and also used for their names. Since different para see different colors, it is important for them to be precise when describing colors. Leeno’s translator changes these names into the far less logical human color names, which of course are not used with anywhere near the same frequency.

Oh, and Leeno’s eyes give him color vision that’s mostly the same as human. He just has a bit more red.

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Scene 325 – Manes

MANES

ALEX

“Jarasax,” I called. “Kat, George! C’mon, we gotta go!”

George stepped out of the shuttle and immediately hit his head on the airlock. “Ow,” he said, rubbing his forehead. He kept his hand out to watch for more dangers. “Why does Lemuria have such low ceilings?”

“Because it was founded by dwarves fleeing persecution by the elves of Rivendell.”

George paused. “Really?”

“Of course not.” I signed the last of the customs forms and nodded in thanks to the clerk. “They just didn’t have giants in mind when they built this place.”

Lemuria was one of the middle-aged colonies, a little over twenty years old. Since Mars still hadn’t been terraformed, there were a lot of domes and tunnels and airlocks, all made of white plastic and metal. The whole thing felt like living in a space station, and the low gravity didn’t help. But at least it was better than being on that cramped shuttle for a month.

I still couldn’t believe we had agreed to this mission in the first place. With everything that had happened, I had mentioned to Medina that we should get away from the city for a while. I meant maybe take a quick tour to one of the space stations, or a working vacation on Luna. I hadn’t expected her to send us to Mars—especially not as a team of ghosts.

I shouldered my bag and glanced around. There was a sign pointing new arrivals down one direction of the T-bone junction, but there was another saying that there was a park in the other direction.

I glanced back at my friends. George was hunched over and had most of our stuff on his back, but there wasn’t really that much. Jarasax had a laptop under one arm and was looking around curiously, while Kat just had a toolbelt and was sniffing the air. I also noticed that the customs clerk was staring at Kat while trying not to be obvious about it. She was probably the first anthro he had ever seen.

They all looked like they needed a chance to unwind just a bit from their long trip.

“Let’s go to the park,” I said. “See how the Martian terraforming is coming along.”

The others grinned, and I smiled as well. Fi hadn’t officially named me her successor or anything like that, but the retinue followed me as long as I gave good orders.

The park was only a few turns from the dock, but it still took about ten minutes to get there, since we had to press through a crowd of people in the corridor who couldn’t stop goggling at George and Kat. I resolved to talk to them about that later. Body shame wasn’t a big deal in Domina, but it might be a serious problem here.

All thoughts fled my mind as we stepped out into the park.

Domina didn’t have many parks. A few small fields of grass where people hadn’t built anything yet, some rooftop or wall gardens and one or two flower displays in some of the weirder domains. I had never been outside Domina before this, so I was expecting something like that. A field of grass, definitely, maybe with some rows of planters and a couple trees.

The Lemurian park was encased in a giant glass dome so that you could see the stars above, but that almost seemed like a waste. Massive, towering trees blocked the view, everything from vine-wrapped jungle trees to sky-scraping redwoods.

Down at ground level, there was thick, soft green grass that came up to my knees in some places, but someone had mowed a winding path through it. There were bushes with berries and bright leaves, sprawling vines and beautiful flowers. It looked like a wild forest from every part of the world combined.

The entire place smelled of plants and loam and life. I could hear distant birds singing, and rustling that might have been larger animals

“I’m not a botanist,” Jarasax said. “But I don’t think this is what a normal park looks like.”

“First time in the arboreum?” someone said.

We all wheeled around to see a man standing next to the door we had just entered through. My hand went to my side, but my dayknives were in my bag. I prepared myself to blast a burst of light into his eyes, but forced myself to remain calm. He was just saying hello.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s… amazing.”

He grinned. “Isn’t it, though? I’m just a gardener, but I still can’t believe how lucky I am to work here. To see it every single day.”

“How is everything so big?” George asked. “It hasn’t been long enough for them to grow, and you can’t have carted everything from Earth.”

The gardener chuckled. “No, of course not. These plants were genetically engineered to grow quickly, with special artificial sunlight and exceptionally rich soil. These all grew from seeds. The oldest is… ten years old, I believe. We tried starting without genetic engineering, but nothing would take to the soil.”

“Interesting,” I said. “It seems dangerous, though. What happens if they get out of control?”

“Well, I’m not a geneticist or a botanist,” he said. “I can’t go into the full details. But as I understand, they were engineered so that they wouldn’t pass on their altered genes to their progeny. That way, we get a head start without having to worry about unanticipated side effects.”

That seemed odd. I knew a bit about genetic engineering, and while what he was saying was possible, it was a little tricky.

“Did you design the seeds?” Jarasax asked.

“No,” the gardener said. “I told you, I’m—”

“I mean you as in Lemuria.”

“Oh.” The gardener smiled. “No, they were bought on Earth.”

“Do you remember from who?” Sax pressed.

I frowned. Where was he going with this?

“From a company called the Viridian Children, I believe,” the gardener said.

We all nodded in understanding. The Children were a changeling clan, known for using the toy maker on plants. They would have been able to do what the gardener was describing very easily.

“Thank you for your time,” I said. “I think we’ll just start walking around.”

Before he could respond, there was a distant dull whumph of an explosion.

The gardener looked in that direction.

“If you want to point us to somewhere we can sit, that would be nice,” I said.

The gardener turned back to me with a frown. “What?”

“We’ve been on a shuttle for a month,” I said. “We just want to stretch our legs a bit.”

“But… didn’t you hear that?”

“Yes. Sounded like an explosion.”

“Might have been a car overloading,” George said.

“Or something getting firebombed,” Sax said.

Kat made a few quick motions with her fingers, and we all nodded in agreement.

The gardener shook his head. “But… there was an explosion?

“Well, I guess,” I said. “I’m sure the lawmen will handle it. You have pyromachites around here, right?”

He stared. “What?

“The people who put out fires,” I said, slower. “You live in a station where oxygen is at a premium, please tell me you have someone in charge of getting rid of fires.”

“Y-yes, of course, but—”

“Then it’s fine.” I clapped him on the shoulder. “You can’t worry about every little thing.”

There was another whumph. It was smaller, or perhaps more distant.

The gardener nearly jumped out of his skin. “What that another one?”

“That’s common when fighting a fire,” George said. “Either the fire is uncontrolled or the pyromachites are directing it to something nonessential. Either way, it’s not our problem, so don’t worry about it.”

“But… but…”

“Look,” I said, guiding him down the mowed path. “If there was actually something wrong, an alarm would have gone off. Right?” The gardener nodded hurriedly. “Of course. So that means it’s under control. There are a million airlocks around here, so in the worst case they can just seal off the affected sections.”

“I guess…” he muttered.

“And if a bunch of oxygen is lost to the fire, do you know what’s suddenly going to be very important?”

The worried look on his face cleared. “The arboreum?”

“Exactly!” I patted him on the back. “The city might be in a bad situation right now, but don’t feel bad for taking a bit of advantage. You can do the right thing and make a profit at the same time.” There was another explosion, and I frowned. “Or maybe the city’s in a really bad situation. There are alarms that would go off if things went really crazy, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” We were walking further into the forest, and things were getting too dark for me. I doubted the gardener even noticed the difference, but with dayeyes, even normal shadows could be as black as deepest night to me. “I’m not in charge of those, of course. Maybe they’re broken or something?”

I rubbed my forehead. This shouldn’t be our problem. We were supposed to be spies. Emergencies should be left to lawmen and pyromachites and paramedics and whoever else was paid to run towards danger. We had just got off a month-long shuttle ride, we deserved at least a little bit of rest.

“Is there a bench or something?” I asked. “Somewhere we can sit down?”

“Also, do you have the wifi password?” Jarasax asked. I glanced back to see his face illuminated by the light of his tablet. “I’m having trouble hacking in.”

The gardener frowned. “Hacking?”

Kat elbowed Sax in the ribs.

Getting in,” he said. “That’s what I meant. Just a slip of the tongue.”

“Um… right. Anyway, the password is Kumari Kandam. Two words, spelled like it sounds.”

Sax’s fingers flew over the keyboard in a way that only a changeling’s could. “Hm. That didn’t work. Capitalized?”

“Both, yes.”

“Alright, thank you, that worked.”

“That password will give you access to most public wifi in Lemuria,” the gardener said.

We came out into a small clearing with a few benches. “Well—” I began. I was interrupted by someone crashing out of the bushes behind us.

It was a baseline boy, maybe fifteen or so. He was panting heavily and had a device in his hand. It looked like a pad, though with a bit of extra armor on it, and a glance told me that he was using it to track something.

“Alex Gabriel!” he shouted.

“Yes?” I said. “That’s me.”

The boy took a deep breath. “I need… you need…” He bent over, his hands on his knees. “Whoo…”

“Take your time, boy,” George said. “There’s no rush.”

There was another distant explosion.

The boy stood up straighter, fire in his eyes. “This is important! The para are attacking!”

I glanced at my friends, but they shook their heads. They didn’t know either.

“The who?” I asked.

The boy blinked. “…the para. The aliens?”

I scowled. “I’m not in the mood for practical jokes.”

“How do you not know about the aliens!?” the boy asked, aghast. “It’s been… everywhere the past few weeks! All over the news!”

I raised an eyebrow. “Convenient that this only happened while we were on a shuttle for a month.”

“You didn’t have tv on the shuttle?”

“Couldn’t agree on what to watch,” Jarasax said.

“Yeah, well, there are aliens, and they are attacking Lemuria!

“Sure.” I patted him on the shoulder and walked past him. “Whatever you say, buddy. Try your prank on someone else.”

“I have orders from Dame Medina to send you into battle!”

I raised an eyebrow. “I highly doubt that.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Telepathy is—look. Just give me one second.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“What’s he doing?” Sax asked after a moment.

“Beats me,” I said.

Kat signed something.

“Only if he’s actually a telepath,” I said. “What’d he do, leave Domina five minutes after the Rampage?”

She shrugged and signed something else.

Before I could respond, the boy opened his eyes. “Okay, got it. Dame Medina says code AG-7248-G-KL. ‘Ilarion Marinov, get off your ass and save that city or I am personally coming over there to smack some sense into you.’”

I blinked. “Wait. Seriously?”

The boy heaved a great sigh. “YES!

“Um, for what it’s worth,” the gardener said. “The para are real. They were orbiting Earth last I checked, but—”

“Retinue, weapons free,” I said.

We all dropped our bags on the ground and started rifling through them. I took off my shirt to better expose my dayskin, found my dayknives, and even clipped my Shachar-class pistol onto my belt. Fi had insisted I start carrying an actual gun once she left, and I had insisted on something angel-made.

I glanced behind me. George and Kat were finishing reassembling their gatling gun and sniper rifle, respectively, and Sax was checking over his rifle.

“Ready?” They nodded. I turned to the boy. “Show us the way.” He ran off, and we followed. As an afterthought, I shouted over my shoulder at the poor confused gardener. “Keep an eye on our bags!”

The boy led us out of the arboreum and through a maze of twisting passages. There were more explosions now, or perhaps we were just close enough to hear them. It took far longer than I would have liked, but eventually we came upon the battle scene.

The boy had led us to the industrial docks, used for shuttling raw materials and finished products between colonies, unlike the residential docks we had come in on. It was the size of a football field, and made completely out of gray steel and concrete. The entire place had the dirty grime of a place that no one bothered to clean more than was necessary. Giant shutters acted as airlocks big enough to allow entire tons of cargo to be shifted at a time. One of the shutters was open, with a ship attached.

Spilling out of the ship were dozens of people, roughly human-shaped, dressed in some sort of brightly-colored armor. It almost seemed like they had been painted at random, just a brush of color here and there. If there was any pattern or ranking system, I couldn’t see it.

They had guns, or something like them. The number of human corpses in maintenance uniforms were a testament to that. There were only a few defenders left, returning fire with small arms that were probably just personal defense weapons. I didn’t see any of the heavy ordnance that would be required to repel an attack like this. Lemuria was a quiet port, they hadn’t seen the need to keep miniguns stashed nearby.

Thankfully, we had brought our own.

I already had an earpiece on, so I broadcast on all Lemurian channels. “Cavalry incoming!”

George took the hint, planted his feet, and fired.

His minigun roared like a dragon, sending hundreds of bullets towards the invaders. The defenders knew to keep their heads down, but the enemy were not so lucky. Almost a dozen were shredded to pieces before the rest dove behind cover, but that was fine. The point of suppressing fire was not to kill the enemy—that was just a bonus. It was to force them to hide and stop shooting at you.

Kat took advantage, lining up her shots and taking out one, two, three before anyone noticed she was there. I just saw heads exploding around me as I ran.

Because I was taking advantage or George’s distraction too.

I rushed forward, knives at my sides, ducking under the hail of fire. I dodged around a crate, found the enemy soldier hiding behind it, and slashed him across the throat. Warm red blood splattered in the air, but I was already gone, heading for the next one.

This time, my knife hit something metal when I went for the throat.

The alien grinned and threw me aside with the strength of a giant. I hit a stack of boxes and was dazed, but still retained enough awareness to see the alien touch his neck to check the wound there. There was blood, but nowhere near enough for a wound that size, and I thought I saw the glint of metal under the flesh.

He—and I was pretty sure the alien was a he—had lost his gun when I attacked him, but he didn’t seem to mind. He raised his arm, and a long knife snapped out from his wrist, just above the hand.

Lovely.

There was a crackle of ozone as he advanced on me. So it was an electrified knife. Even better.

I flipped out my dayknives and slashed forward. I was still on the ground, so the attack came in low, and the alien was forced to jump backwards to dodge. That gave me time to clamber to my feet and fall into a real fighting stance.

The alien scowled and closed the distance, slashing with his knife from up high. I blocked with one of my blades—they had good thick rubber handles, so I didn’t have to worry about the electricity—and slashed at his chest with the other one. He dodged, but I managed to scratch the garish paint on his armor.

He pulled back for another strike, but I pressed the attack, forcing him on his guard. He parried a few more blows, but then I feinted for his chest and went for his neck again instead. That didn’t do much more than draw some blood, but it did distract him long enough for me to stab him in the eyes with both dayknives.

He instantly fell limp, and something electric popped and sizzled in his skull. I grunted and kicked him off my blades, then glanced around the battlefield.

Kat was still trying to provide supporting fire, but the aliens had closed with George. He had been forced to drop his minigun and engage them in melee, using what appeared to be the ripped-off arm of one of his assailants as a club. I didn’t see Sax anywhere, which I took as a good sign, especially since I could still hear him shooting. He must have hidden, and was now taking shots of opportunity. There were also a few more Lemurian dockworkers than before, trying to retake their home.

“Watch out!” I called. “They’re cyborgs! Don’t know what tricks they’ve got!”

One of the aliens climbed up onto the crate that I was using as cover and leveled his gun at me. I grabbed my knives, but I knew I wasn’t moving fast enough—I’d be dead before I managed to close. Before he was able to fire, bloody holes appeared in his skull, and he collapsed in a heap.

Jarasax slid into place next to me. “Maybe don’t announce your position to the entire battlefield,” he said.

“Sorry,” I said. “Lost my earpiece in the scuffle.” I looked around and found it at the spot where I had first been thrown into the boxes. I put it back on as we spoke. “Have they called in reinforcements yet?”

“There are no more ships coming in, if that’s what you mean,” he said. He checked a small wrist screen. “But there should be more still on that ship. I expect that they’ll be coming out any minute now.”

A stack of crates a few yards away exploded into a million pieces. Sax and I had to duck to avoid getting hit by red-hot shrapnel, but from the screams of pain, some of the dockworkers weren’t so lucky.

“Grenades,” I muttered. “Figures.”

Jarasax shook his head. “That wasn’t a grenade, that was a missile.”

“You mean like from a—” I was interrupted by the sound of something big and heavy coming down the ramp from the enemy ship. I spared a glance, assuming it was a couple big guys carrying a missile launcher, but had to look again when I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

It was a massive metal automaton, easily ten feet tall, with shoulders nearly as wide and two huge arms holding a missile launcher that was bigger than I was. It had four surprisingly small spiked legs that pounded the deck with a rhythmic ringing noise, and no head at all. It had a dozen glowing red lights on its chest, which I had to assume were its optical sensors. The torso swiveled every once in a while, trying to get a better view.

Unlike everything else the aliens used, this thing was not painted in a rainbow of colors. Instead it was simple steel, the dull gray color of metal that had not been polished in months or even years.

Two more of the automatons were coming down the ramp.

“They have robots? I shrieked.

“You’re surprised?” Jarasax said. “It seems to fit with their cybernetics and everything. So I guess I should say no, I don’t think they have robots—that’s probably more similar to an echo.” He smiled. “I’ll bet the pilots have their brains plugged directly into the controls…”

“Admire the enemy when they’re dead!” I snapped. “Kat!”

The rocket launchers were of a design that was unfamiliar to us, but they had what looked like coolant vents all along the sides. I saw a spark from Kat’s bullet when it hit those vents, and then the whole weapon exploded, taking out the robot’s arm with it. The machine screeched in pain and rage, almost like a living thing. That certainly lent credence to Sax’s theory.

“Aim for the guns,” I said on the general channel. “We can handle the bots when they’re disarmed.”

At least a dozen groans were my answer.

I smirked. “Just do it, unless you want more puns.”

I saw a burst of black mist behind me. That would be Kat, shifting to bat form. Good, she’d be in position for another shot in a moment. In the meantime, the others were firing at the missile launchers, but the injured robot was helping shield them. Not to mention that there were still a dozen normal aliens to contend with.

Normal aliens. Was that an oxymoron?

More gunfire hit the box I was hiding behind, and I forced myself to pay attention. There were three aliens spread out in front of me, firing in my direction. I checked for any other enemies in range—none—jumped out from behind the box, and started glowing. It wasn’t a full daybreak, but definitely enough to make the aliens flinch. When they did, I dashed forward and sliced them all to ribbons. The second had the same metal throat as the one I had fought earlier, but I just slashed across his face instead, sending him to the ground screaming.

Another of the robots lost an arm—George’s enhanced bullets had found their mark. I grabbed a grenade from one of the fallen aliens, pulled what looked like a pin, and threw it at the robots.

At first I thought nothing had happened, but then there was the sound of electricity, and all three machines were pulled together by a massive magnetic force. They struggled to break free, but everyone immediately focused fire on them. Thick armor or not, that was the kind of thing that made a dent. After a full minute of the sound of bullets impacting steel like rain on a tin roof, the grenade’s effect ended, and the robots slumped over, dead. Someone had finally hit something important.

I rushed forward, through the burning hulks, in order to prepare to attack whoever came out of the alien ship first. There were a few crates stacked up at the airlock, which would give me more than enough cover for an ambush.

Before I could get into position, the entire city shook. The airlock remained closed.

One of the aliens, wrestling with one of the dockworkers, looked up. He babbled something in his language, then tossed his opponent aside and held up his hands in surrender. The other aliens looked at him in shock before throwing down their own weapons and surrendering as well.

“What happened?” an unfamiliar voice asked over my earpiece. Probably one of the dockworkers.

“The ship left,” I said. “They abandoned their soldiers.” I did a quick count. “I guess they decided saving four men wasn’t worth it.”

“I think one’s a woman,” someone said helpfully.

One of the dockworkers put a gun in the face of one of the aliens. “So what now? We finish them off?”

I rolled my eyes and walked down the ramp. “No. These are prisoners of war, and must be treated with respect.”

He licked his lips. “But they never signed the Geneva Convention, right? So you can’t commit war crimes against them.”

I couldn’t remember what the Geneva Convention was, though it did sound familiar. Geneva was a city in… Italy? “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. We’re still bound to uphold the law even if they are not.”

“But—”

“And even if you are right, we still have a moral obligation not to slaughter prisoners.”

He still looked hesitant. “But—”

I rolled my eyes. “For crying out loud man, we need them alive for interrogation. What is with you?”

He lowered the gun and pouted. “I didn’t get to shoot anyone.”

I sighed. “I’m sure they’ll invade again at some point.” I glanced around. I still didn’t see any authority figures. There had to be police or something somewhere on this colony, but if so they hadn’t shown up yet. Or maybe they were just out of uniform. Either way, I was the only one taking charge.

One of the dockworkers walked up to me and showed me some handcuffs. “Broke up one of the boxes, sir.”

I nodded. “Good. Secure the prisoners.”

“And mark the box as opened,” someone else said. I was surprised to realize it was George. “We don’t want you to get in trouble with your boss when all this is done.”

The dockworker nodded and went to work. I glanced around at all the destroyed crates, then raised an eyebrow at George. He just shrugged.

“Okay,” I said, clapping my hands once to get everyone’s attention. “Where’s the prison?”

The dockworkers all stared at me.

“C’mon, there has to be one,” I said. “This colony has been here for twenty years. Someone has committed crimes in that time.”

“Criminals get shipped to Phobos,” one of the dockworkers said. “There’s a penal colony there.”

I shook my head. “Okay, sure, whatever. Where’s the nearest bathroom?”

He pointed at a far wall, and I saw the signs.

“Excellent,” I said. “Put them in there, lock the doors, and post guards outside. If you’re not sure how many guards you need, post more.”

Most of the dockworkers still looked confused, but a few started leading the prisoners away—including the blond who had gotten the handcuffs in the first place. I made a mental note to keep an eye on him. Initiative was rare in situations like this.

“Why a bathroom?” one of the other dockworkers asked.

I smiled. “Because it’s a room with only one exit and a toilet. Unless you would rather lock them in a room without a toilet?”

Someone muttered something about the Geneva Convention again. I ignored him. If it was important, he could speak up.

“Sax, Kat, secure those weapons,” I said, pointing to the alien guns. “George, find somewhere to put those robots. A machine shop should do—I’m sure that there’s one around here somewhere.”

“I’ll show you,” one of the dockworkers said. She was a woman, and seemed too eager for my tastes. George liked them bubbly, though, and he was smiling when she led him off.

I nodded as Kat and Sax went to work. “Excellent. Anything else?”

“Yeah,” one of the dockworkers said, frowning. “Who are you?”

My smile fled. “I’m sorry?”

“You don’t look Lemurian,” he said. “And I definitely don’t recognize you.” He looked me up and down. “Are those tattoos Hebrew?”

“It’s more like high-tech ritual scarification,” I said. “And while it’s based on Hebrew, it’s actually a cipher—”

“Alex,” Jarasax said, a warning tone in his voice. “Check them.”

I took a deep breath and, for the first time in well over a month, activated my power.

I still didn’t know exactly what it did. It was some form of mind-reading, that much was clear, but nothing so simple or useful as directly hearing thoughts. At first I thought I could feel emotions, but that wasn’t it either.

I could feel intent, or something like it. Not what someone would do, but what they wanted to do. I had found it less useful than I might have expected. Turned out that most people spent a lot of time wanting to do things and then never acting on that intent.

When I turned on my power and pushed my senses towards the Lemurians, I got a lot of different readings. Some of them wanted to lie down and sleep. Some wanted to eat, or take a shower, or just shoot things. One worker had a surprisingly strong desire to get into his ship, chase after the aliens, and ram them. The desire was so strong I could almost see it, but he just stood there calmly.

Oddly, none of the crowd wanted to kill me, or even attack me. That was what Jarasax had been warning me about, but it turned out he was just being paranoid. That wasn’t uncommon for changelings.

I relaxed. If I hadn’t used my power, I probably would have freaked out and ran. With it, I could tell that we weren’t in any danger, so we could try to talk them down.

“We just got in today,” I said. “Came all the way from Earth, actually.” I shrugged, as if it was no big deal, but I knew that Lemurians rarely saw Earthers. The older colonies didn’t really like outsiders. Not much different from Domina, actually. “We heard what was happening, so we decided to lend a helping hand.”

Most of the dockworkers relaxed, but the leader didn’t relax. “That doesn’t explain your tattoos. Or why people with your kind of training are here in the first place.”

I pursed my lips. ‘We were sent here as spies because we weren’t doing any good in a city of monsters’ probably wasn’t the best tact to take. I was reasonably certain he hadn’t realized we were from Domina, but the second he looked up my tattoos, he’d figure it out. Basic culture information had been shared after the war with America, and Lemuria probably had that information on hand even before that.

Before I was forced to think of something to say, the telepath from before ran up, skidding to a stop in front of me. “Honored Daybreaker! New orders!”

“New orders from who?” the lead dockworker demanded. “No one on Lemuria called for you.”

I decided to go all-out. “Orders from Domina City. He’s a telepath.”

He stared. “A tele-what?

“We have superpowers, you have aliens. It’s a weird universe.” I turned to the boy. “Spit it out.”

He took a deep breath. “Code AG-7248-G-KL-VC2. ‘Liaise with local authorities to fortify Lemuria. If the para return, stop them.’ That’s all, sir.”

I nodded. “Good. Sax, pay the kid.”

The boy happily accepted a small wad of cash from Jarasax, bowed to us both, and ran off again.

“Liaise with local authorities?” the lead dockworker asked. “What does that mean?”

I smirked. I had been waiting to say this my whole life.

“Take us to your leader.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 325)

Took me a while to figure out who I wanted on Lemuria. I didn’t want to introduce any new characters, especially with the added baggage of being a ghost. Then I remembered that I had been planning on sending them offworld after the whole thing with Fierna, and it all clicked into place.

Just remember that the retinue make absolutely terrible ghosts. Most ghosts have things like “training” and “subtlety.”

Scene 324 – Occurrens

OCCURRENS

LAURA

It took two days to arrange everything. Longer than I would have liked, but at ten AM on Thursday, January 10th, the first inter-species diplomatic meeting started right on schedule. It was still held in NHQ, but in one of the outer buildings, so that the representatives didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed.

As Zero had promised, Leeno had snapped out of his meditative fugue state after a few hours. He had promised not to do it again, and while I wasn’t sure he could keep that promise, it would at least increase the likelihood of him making it through the entire meeting awake.

I was a little worried he couldn’t promise anything, in fact. There had been no communications from the mothership, either to us or its little fleet. No threats, no recall orders, nothing besides basic patrol data going back and forth. They were acting like nothing of significance had happened, which didn’t bode well. I had been hoping that Leeno was a prince or equivalent who had decided to do the right thing over objections. It seemed instead that he was just a random nobody.

Except for the fact that Robyn sensed he had a power. Now, down in the city, it was impossible to say for sure—surrounded by so many others with powers, there was just too much interference for anyone to get a good read on him. Maybe he didn’t have a power. Maybe Zero had a power. We had no way of knowing, and I hadn’t wanted to broach the subject in case he thought he was successfully hiding it from us.

The two of them hadn’t done much in the two days of waiting. I had provided him with a pad that had a bunch of informational articles pre-loaded on it, but disabled the internet by physically pulling out the router. The articles would give him a basic understanding of Earth and our recent history, but there was nothing dangerous in there. It was possible he had access to more information—his translator was programmed with English, so obviously they had sorted through quite a bit of our information—but there was nothing I could do about that. I had made sure not to give him any false information though, so we wouldn’t be caught in any lies.

Regardless, now that the time had arrived, the delegates started filing into the meeting room, with its long rectangular table. Butler was already sitting at one end, with President Martinez from America on the other. President Aleks Petrov from the Soviet Union sat with Martinez, while Mayor Milanka Ó Súileabháin sat with Butler—she was from Mons Agnes, and we had been lucky she had been able to come down from Luna on such short notice. Prime Minister Jeong Park from Korea sat with Martinez, then Senator Grain from America took the seat next to him.

So on and so on, everyone filed in, the vast majority choosing to sit on Martinez’s side of the table. Most of the Earthbound countries didn’t like our city very much, and the space colonies simply hadn’t been able to get here in time.

Of course, we had our own representatives.

Once all of the foreigners took their seats, the Dominites started to file in. Lily, of course—she had come with Martinez, but she sat next to Butler—Pale Night from the demons, Nyashk from the vampires, Zaphkiel from the angels, Evangel from the kemos, Odin from the giants, Maeve from the fey, Meldiniktine from the changelings, Ariel from the Dagonites, and Chronepsis from the dragons. The Servants of the Lady had sent two representatives, but they were fussing over the food, and started passing it out once everyone was seated. We had actual paid servers, but it was pretty hard to get the Servants to sit still when there was work to be done.

Once all the humans were seated, the para walked in.

Zero looked the same as ever, but Leeno looked much better. He stood straighter, with a smile on a face as he scanned the room. His clothing was different as well, a multi-layered robe of a dozen different colors. I still hadn’t managed to tease out any information on the meaning of the colors he used—not to mention the distinct lack of colors on Zero.

The Servants quickly moved forward and pulled out two seats for the pair at the middle of the table. Leeno smiled at them and nodded in thanks, then took his seat. Zero hesitated for a moment before taking her seat as well.

“Hello,” Leeno said, smiling at everyone in turn. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”

No one spoke.

“Let’s start simple,” he said. “Yes, I am an alien. My people come from a planet three thousand light-years away. It took us a little less than three thousand light-years to get here. The engine we used for most of the journey is what I believe you would call a warp drive. It largely negated the effects of relatively on the transit.”

Butler glanced at me, and I nodded. It was all the truth.

“Now, there is much I can share with you,” Leeno said. “But first, I’m sure you would all like some sort of peace treaty. Let me assure you all that my people do not want war. We came here expecting a habitable world, bare of life.” He shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately, our information is six thousand years out of date at this point. You are here, and I am sure you will be happy to hear that you are too powerful to simply be destroyed.”

Most of the representatives perked up at that.

“However,” Leeno continued. “We are too strong for you to simply destroy us, either. Both sides have no choice but to find another solution. I believe we should start with a simple show of trust on both sides.” He nodded at Zero.

She glared at him as best as she could with that expressionless mask of hers, but he didn’t back down. She put her arm on the table and started dismantling it, placing nuts and bolts and strange glowing crystals in neat rows. It looked like the arm was almost entirely machine.

When she removed the first gun barrel, that got everyone’s attention.

After a few minutes of that, she started on the other arm—even with so many parts missing that her arm was see-through, the hand still worked fine. She dismantled the second gun faster than the first, then pushed the parts into the center of the table.

“As you can see, we are now unarmed.” Leeno paused, then frowned. “My translator just informed me that was a pun. Apologies, that was unintentional. Regardless, I would like a similar gesture of good faith from you.”

“We are all unarmed,” President Martinez said. I noticed he conspicuously did not look at the Dominite half of the table. Sure, they were all unarmed, but any one of the warlords could easily kill Leeno and Zero with their bare hands. Even Meldiniktine—maybe even especially Meldiniktine.

Leeno smiled. “Thank you, but that’s not what I meant.” He turned to me. “Stop.”

I blinked. “What?”

“That thing you’re doing—stop it.”

I chuckled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh?” He quirked his head. “So you’re not using a low-level form of mind-reading to monitor me for patterns consistent with lies?”

I stopped smiling.

He could sense my power. He knew that I could detect lies. More than that, he seemed to know how it worked. I barely understood it myself, but I had discussed some theories with MC. My power did seem to have quite a bit in common with the mind-reading powers.

“She’s what?” Senator Grain said. Martinez shushed him.

I went through the possibilities in my head. Was Leeno bluffing? Possibly. He could have learned from my power from another source. But I had carefully kept powers out of the data I had given him, so that was unlikely—possible, but I’d file it away for now.

More likely, he really did know what I was doing because he could sense it somehow. Like what Robyn had done to him.

And there was the answer.

“Fair’s fair,” I said carefully. “You’ve seen mine, show me yours.”

“Is that language appropriate?” Grain said. “Mister Butler, who is this girl? Why is she—”

“Grain,” Martinez said tiredly. “Shut up.”

Grain shut his mouth, and I nodded in thanks.

“Fair’s fair,” Leeno said. He held up a three-fingered hand. Sparks danced like ball lightning.

Most of the representatives were a bit surprised, but Zero jumped out of her seat as if Leeno had zapped her. She tensed like an animal waiting to figure out whether to run or attack, but Leeno just patted her seat.

“We don’t have time for frivolities,” he said. He turned back to me. “Stop it. Please.”

I grit my teeth and then, for the first time in eight months, I turned off my power.

I expected the world to feel different. Less clear, perhaps. Less certain, as I couldn’t detect the lies any more. But no, nothing changed. There was a brief feeling of emptiness in my chest, but even that faded in a moment. Everything was still the same as ever.

Somehow that felt more disturbing than the alternative.

Nyashk stood. “If he has a power, that means they could all have powers. This suddenly became much more dangerous than expected.”

“I agree,” Martinez said, standing. “With… um…” He waved his hand at Nyashk. “Scary dark lady. These people, these para, already had higher tech than us. If they have powers too, then maybe this just became a fight we can’t win.”

Odin snorted. “We have powers as well, little American.”

Martinez let the insult pass without comment, which I was thankful for. Odin was looking for an excuse to get violent. “I’ve spoken with your mother, Lilith. I know you’ve only had powers for a few weeks. How long have the para had theirs? How experienced are they with them? Not to mention we still don’t know how many there are. They could outnumber the entire human race a hundred to one for all we know.”

“We don’t,” Leeno said helpfully.

Martinez sighed. “Okay, I’m prone to fits of exaggeration, but still. This is not good.”

“Not all of them have powers,” Butler said.

Everyone turned to him. I just smirked.

“How could you possibly know that?” Martinez’s senator, Grain, asked.

“Zero was surprised,” Butler said. She managed to look a little contrite even through that expressionless mask. “I am quite certain that she, at least, does not have a power.” He cocked his head to the side, considering. “And judging from the strength of her reaction… I would lay even odds that no one else has any powers.”

Everyone slowly turned back to Leeno.

“Correct,” he said calmly. “I am the only para with a power.”

I really wished I had my power on. “How?” I asked.

“I already told you that the trip here took three thousand years,” he said. “Of course, as you might expect, we were put in cryopods to sleep.” He smiled sadly. “Except… I didn’t sleep. Not really. My body slept, but my mind was awake and aware.”

Meldiniktine leaned forward. “You were trapped in a pod for that entire time?”

Maeve shivered, though I doubt anyone else noticed.

“Yes and no,” Leeno said with a smile. “My body, as I said, was sleep, and trapped. But it didn’t take me too long to discover how to send my mind wandering away from my body. I memorized every single inch of the ship.”

“That doesn’t explain your power,” I said. “Did you meet someone? Someone who sang at you?”

He frowned. “Sang? What are you—” He chuckled. “Ah, yes. It can be like a song at times. But no, I gained this power, this ability, simply by observing and practicing.” He smiled. “You can learn a lot about the universe in three thousand years.”

There was silence as everyone tried to digest the implications of that.

“Well,” Martinez said with a smile. “Why don’t we move onto more grounded topics, hm? Mister Leeno. Please, tell us what your people want.” It was a blunt attempt to change the subject, but at the moment it was what we needed.

Leeno’s smile faded. “They want a place to live. Our sun was dying when we left. By now, there is nothing left but cinders. Other ships were sent out in other directions, but we have no guarantee that any of them survived. We may well be the last para in the universe, and our leaders will do anything to survive.”

“Including wiping out humanity?” Park said bluntly.

Leeno nodded. “Not full genocide, but they will crush your civilizations under their heels if they feel they have to.”

Nice use of metaphor. I made a mental note to try to get a hold of that translator tech.

“What do we need to do to prevent that?” Butler asked. “What do they need in trade?”

“To start with, a world of our own,” Leeno said. “Your homeworld is the only suitable one at the moment, but we do have terraforming tools, and your resources should help with that. It could only take a few decades.”

“You have one in mind?” Petrov asked, his accent thick. He did that whenever he wanted people to underestimate him; I knew that he spoke perfect English.

“The second world in your system should do,” Leeno said. “The hot one with the clouds.”

“Venus?” Martinez asked, eyebrows raised. “You want Venus?”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s just…” He glanced at the other representatives, but no one jumped to his defense. “My advisers tell me that Venus would be the hardest planet to terraform. No one can live there right now, that’s for certain.”

“Many para are cybernetically augmented,” Leeno said. “Our workers will be able to survive and make the world livable, in time.”

Now this was getting interesting. We had pieces of Zero’s cybernetics laid out on the table in front of us, but if it was cheap enough for even the normal workers to use, that meant we might be able to trade for it. “We’ll need to look into a way to share our technology, as well,” I said. “We have some bio-engineering tools that you might find helpful.”

“Wait a second,” Grain said. “You promised those to us.” Most of the other foreign representatives murmured as well.

“We can do both,” Butler said.

I touched my necklace, thinking. “The only people on Venus right now are the crew from Cytherean Watch.” I glanced at Súileabháin. “That’s what, a hundred people?”

“Fifty, though they cycle out,” she said. “Most of the crew belongs to various Lunar cities.”

Martinez frowned. “I thought they were all American citizens.”

Súileabháin rolled her eyes. “They work on an American space station, but they live on Luna, get supplies from Luna, and take orders from Luna. Next you’re going to tell me that you think you still own Ceres.”

Grain looked furious on Martinez’s behalf, but Martinez didn’t say anything, so neither did he.

I waited until they settled down a little. “Regardless of which human government owns the Watch right now, we do need to decide what to do with them. We can move them out if necessary, but it would probably be best to negotiate a way for them to stay. They can serve as ambassadors to the para.”

“You are sure your people will agree to this?” Martinez said.

Leeno shook his head. “I can’t be sure of anything.

Súileabháin threw up her hands. “Then what is the point about this?”

“The point,” Butler said, “is to pave the way for future negotiations. To make sure that we can find a way through this that does not involve war.”

“But none of that matters if their actual leaders of these para refuse to listen,” Grain said.

“There is at least one,” Leeno said. “He was going to talk the others around after I left.”

“Well, if there’s one guy, then our problems are solved,” Grain said sarcastically.

“They haven’t attacked yet,” I said. “That’s a good sign.”

“Why should your opinion matter?” Grain demanded. “Who are you? Why are you even here?”

“I am Laura Medina,” I said. “One of the Paladins who fought off the Composer, and the general behind the defense of this city when your people attacked.” I could see that one shocked him, though he tried to hide it. “I organized this meeting, chose who to invite, and prepared all the contingencies in case you became violent.” Everyone squirmed a little at that, though I pretended not to notice. “I have more right to be here than you, Senator Grain.”

Deafening silence greeted my proclamation.

Then Nyashk chuckled. “You always could play a room.” She smirked. “I vote to give the para Venus, if they want it. Furthermore, we’ll take out a first-tier protection contract on the colony, effective system-wide.”

The Dominites started murmuring among themselves, but the foreigners and the para just looked confused.

Martinez gave me a meaningful look. “Miss Medina, would you mind explaining?”

I smiled. “Simply put, it means that Nyashk and her people will kill anyone who takes major actions against the colony. First-tier covers… let me see…” I started counting on my fingers. “War, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. Second-tier includes sabotage and espionage, and third-tier goes all the way to protecting against economic sanctions.”

“It normally costs a small fortune,” Butler said. “Mister Leeno, you should know that Nyashk’s offer is very generous.”

“I can imagine,” Leeno said. He sounded a bit overwhelmed.

“While I am sure that will work out well for Domina, the rest of the world will want a bit more,” Martinez said. “We can hardly give you everything just in exchange for you not fighting us. That’s not a trade, that’s extortion.”

Leeno nodded. “Of course. And I think—”

The doors burst open.

The foreign dignitaries all jumped up in outrage, while all the Dominite warlords moved into fighting positions. I remained seated—I had my own preparations, and they would go more smoothly if I didn’t jump in the middle of everything.

But when I saw who was at the door, I burst out of my seat.

She was flanked by two gravers who were wearing stone armor that was completely unnecessary but served as an intimidating badge of office. She herself looked small, dwarfed by her guards by almost two feet, but she carried herself like a queen. Her eyes had gone hard since I had seen her last, and her hair was filled with stone dust and past her shoulders instead of cut short, with a few braids held in place by clips of stone. She still wore a long black glove to disguise her stone arm.

It was Ling.

Of course. Ling was the Lady of the Grave. It hadn’t been confirmed—she rarely left the Grave itself—but it had been at the top of my list of possibilities. It explained her power, and the devotion the others showed to her.

I pushed past the startled representatives and one of the gravers who tried to stop me, and pulled Ling into a big hug before she even knew what was happening. I could feel her stone arm, but I didn’t care. I just held her to my chest and tried not to cry.

After a moment, Ling patted me on the arm. I realized she couldn’t breathe, and let her go with a smile. “Sorry about that.”

She smiled back. “It’s okay. Didn’t expect that from you, though. Akane, maybe.” She looked around. “Where is Akane, anyway?”

She should have burst in with the kensei by now. The fact that she hadn’t either meant she knew Ling wasn’t a threat, or something had gone very wrong.

“Can someone explain what’s going on?” Odin asked.

“Yeah, Ling, why do you look like you just crawled out of a collapsed building?” Nyashk said.

I turned to them all and smiled. “Honored warlords, esteemed representatives, this is Ling Yu, one of the Paladins who helped take down Elizabeth. She is—”

“The Lady of the Grave,” Martinez said. For once, his face was dead serious. “I remember from when she attacked the Pentagon.”

Ling quirked her head. “Didn’t Silk erase your memories?”

He rolled his eyes. “Who knows.”

“Well, anyway, yes, I am the Lady of the Grave. Or Lady Grave, or Grave, or Ling. Whatever you prefer. It is wonderful to meet you all.” She grinned at Leeno. “Especially our friends from out of town.”

Zero had her hand on her belt, clearly ready to use a weapon, but Leeno just looked contemplative. “Some sort of stone manipulation ability, I’m guessing? It’s hard to tell, but it seems like you’re using it on yourself. That doesn’t make sense.”

Ling raised an eyebrow. “You have powers? Interesting. We’ll talk more later.” She turned to me. “I’m afraid this isn’t a social call.”

“But you did get the invitation, right?”

“Of course.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, we got a bit sidetracked. Lemuria has been attacked.”

I blinked. “What?”

“How did you find out before we did?” Butler demanded. “We—” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Right. Without Mary Christina, our chain of command is a little bit… messy.”

Ling frowned. “Wait, what? I talked with MC earlier.”

“The real one?” I asked.

“Uh, no, she said she was busy, and…” Ling winced. “Oh, damn. Should have seen that one coming.”

“This Lemuria,” Leeno said. “Where is it and who attacked?”

“It’s on Mars,” Súileabháin said.

“Fourth planet in the system,” I added.

“It’s been attacked by the para,” Ling said. “Or rather, it is being attacked by the para. I came here hoping someone had some plan to stop it. Lemuria is a factory colony, mostly building terraforming and colonization equipment. They have no defenses.”

Everyone glared at Leeno.

“I know nothing about this,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“Wait,” I said. “How can you possibly know this? We don’t have any direct lines to Mars, not even getting into the light-speed delay.”

Ling waved her hand without even glancing back. One of her gravers stepped back into the hallway and returned a moment later with a small squirrel kemo. She just had the tail and big black eyes, but she certainly twitched with nervous energy like a squirrel. She looked like she was going to run at any second.

“Just tell them what you told me,” Ling said soothingly.

The girl glanced around, shivering. “Well… um…”

I cursed. “Everyone, back up! You’re crowding her too much! Back to your seats!”

There was some grumbling, but everyone sat back down, leaving the girl alone with the gravers at the door.

The girl seemed more confident now that she wasn’t surrounded by people towering over her. “Well, I’m not a graver. I’m a telepath, actually. I can… link my mind to another.”

“Instantaneous communication, even over several light-minutes,” Ling said. “It’s very impressive.”

The girl nodded. “I linked with my cousin before he left for Lemuria. He called me when the attack started, and I called my brother…” She trailed off, and one of the graver bodyguards—her brother, I had to assume, put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“When was this?” I asked.

“Ten minutes ago,” Ling said.

“The colony can still be saved,” Martinez said.

Súileabháin nodded. “Agreed, but Mars doesn’t have the military to help, and nothing else can get there in time.” She paused. “Unless… Butler, do you have any ghosts on Lemuria? They might be able to do something.”

“Does he what?” Park asked. Her confusion was echoed on the faces of the other foreigners.

Butler’s face, on the other hand, was impassive. “I can neither confirm nor—”

Súileabháin slammed the table. “Now is not the time! Do you have any ghosts or not!”

“What are ghosts?” Martinez asked. “Another of your cultures?”

“They are…” Butler paused to try to find words that weren’t too damning. “…spies. And unfortunately, Madame Mayor, I have none on Lemuria. There was one, but he was in an industrial accident a few weeks ago and transferred out.”

“Wait,” I said. “I remember that. MC talked to me about it. She knew we needed another ghost on the colony, and asked for suggestions. We ended up sending four. They’re not real ghosts, but I figured they were better than nothing.”

“Really?” Butler said, surprised. “Who did you send?”

I smiled.

Behind the scenes (scene 324)

Sorry, cliffhanger, I know, but it’s resolved next scene. It just flows better this way.

Scene 323 – Balæna

BALÆNA

RICHARD

I really hated boats. I had hated them ever since my uncle took me on a fishing trip when I was ten. I had been sick for days after that. Hadn’t stepped onto one ever since, not even for naval ceremonies.

But now, I didn’t have a choice. For the first time, Artemis Butler was willing to meet face-to-face, hopefully as a lead-up to discussing the para, and he wanted to do it on neutral ground. Since no such thing actually existed, a boat was the next best thing. He had even been magnanimous enough to allow it to be a US ship. Everyone told me it was diplomatically super important and all that, but all I knew was that it was on a god-damn boat. Before this day was over, I was going to find a way to have a meeting with him on solid land.

“Thank you for meeting with me, Mister President,” Butler said as he shook my hand. “This is Laura Medina.”

The young woman shook my hand as well. “Pleasure,” she said. She had sharp eyes and a good grip. She was one to watch out for.

“The pleasure is all mine,” I said. Her smile faded a little bit when I said that, for some reason, but I pressed on. “My, ah, assistant wasn’t quite clear exactly why you called this meeting.” I tired to look apologetic. “He’s new, you see, I… lost my previous one.”

“It wasn’t my idea, actually,” Butler said. “Miss Medina suggested it, and Mayor Konstantopoulos thought it was a wonderful idea.”

I frowned. “I’m sorry, but… who? I thought you were the mayor of Domina City.”

“President, actually,” he said. “But Konstantopoulos is actually the mayor of Timaeus.”

“I’m still lost.”

Butler frowned, and glanced at Medina. She smirked. “They’ve been very careful about keeping themselves secret. I think it would be best not to spoil the surprise.”

Butler sighed. “Fine.” He smiled at me. “You are in for a treat, Mister President. Of course, you were anyway, but… well. Perhaps the surprise is worth a bit of extra skulduggery on our part.”

I smiled. “Just as long as you promise that this isn’t an ambush.”

Medina frowned, but Butler chuckled. “No, of course not. We didn’t even bring any bodyguards. The only power here right now is you and your ships.”

“Ship,” I said.

He frowned. “What?”

“It’s just the one ship.” I waved a broad hand at the empty horizon. “Where would we be hiding them?”

“…you didn’t bring any extra ships?” he said. “Into White-Cap Bay?

“Well, no.” I glanced at the captain of the ship. She was starting to look concerned. “It was a show of trust. You’re not going to attack us, so bringing extra firepower just seemed…” I trailed off. “…unfriendly.”

Butler turned to Medina. “Call Mary Christina.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Well, not Mary Christina, but her—”

“Yes, yes,” she said, pulling out her phone and putting it to her ear. “Send a broadband announcement to all Dagonites in the area. We need however many pods they can get here, as soon as possible. Tell them Necessarius will pay triple standard bodyguard rates.” She paused again. “Good.” She flipped the phone closed. “Ariel is on her way with her honor guard. She’s the only one confirmed, but she’ll bring anyone else she can.”

“I doubt she’ll find anyone fast enough,” Butler said. He gave me a calculating look. “I am considering suggesting we turn back.”

“What exactly are you so terrified of?” I asked. I was starting to sweat, now. Butler and Medina seemed collected, but not calm. They were panicking, but they were still in control of themselves. “There’s nothing for miles!”

“Very few threats in the ocean travel on the surface,” Medina said.

“The—the Daggon—”

“Dagonites,” she corrected before I could finish. “And no, they are not a threat. They are the ones who have been protecting you from the threats.”

“What—”

“Captain!” someone called. We all turned to see a sailor running up. “We’ve got a sonar ping, underwater!”

“A sub?” Medina asked. The captain had barely opened her mouth. “Or a pod? A group of human-sized blips, that is.”

“Uh…” The sailor glanced at his captain for confirmation, but she was no help. “I’m not sure that sonar is sensitive enough to detect something that small…”

Medina cursed. “Silver and gold. We could be surrounded, and your idiotic equipment wouldn’t even notice! What’s the radar profile look like?”

“It’s a submarine,” the captain snapped. Probably annoyed at Medina talking over her. “It doesn’t matter what its exact class is, it has too many weapons for us.”

Medina rolled her eyes. “It’s not a sub, it’s a wreck. If I can identify it, I can identify the captain, which means I can predict their tactics.” She took a deep breath and turned to the sailor. “Now. Radar profile.”

The sailor looked between Medina and his captain.

“Answer her,” I said quietly.

“…the sonar operator said it looked like a Gleaves-class destroyer,” he said. “Which makes no sense, because even if they weren’t all fifty years obsolete, they’re surface ships, not subs. They couldn’t—”

“That means either McKenzie or Thatch,” Medina said, half to herself. “How fast was it moving?”

“Fifteen knots.”

“It’s McKenzie,” Butler said. “Tiberius can’t go that fast until Thatch redlines the drives.”

“Which she might do, if she’s fought Saltbreaker recently,” Medina muttered. “He always gives her ideas.” She was typing something frantically on her phone. “Captain. Call battle stations.”

The captain was turning red now. “I’m not going to do anything until you explain—”

“Captain,” I said, tired. “Please.”

She frowned, but took a deep breath. “All hands! Battle stations! Prepare for—” She glanced at Medina, who barely seemed to be paying attention. “Submarine attack.”

“Close enough,” Medina said. She addressed Butler without looking up. “We can’t confirm which one it is until they start shooting, and by then it will be too late. Thatch could sink us in one volley.”

“McKenzie will take at least two,” Butler said. “Augustus has shorter range, as well.”

There were a lot of names and concepts being thrown around, but I forced myself to remain calm. “Whatever happens, I trust you.”

Medina rolled her eyes. “Please stop lying.”

I blinked. “I’m sorry?”

Before she could say anything, something burst out of the water and splashed onto the deck.

I didn’t even wait to see what it was—I remembered well the stories of the sailors who met the Dagonites at the battle of Domina City. I stumbled and fell on my butt, but couldn’t spare any attention to be embarrassed.

Medina and Butler stumbled back as well, which surprised me. For some reason I expected them to step forward and start swinging.

The creature on the deck, dripping seawater, had green scales, webbed fingers and toes, razor-sharp shark teeth, and flat eyes. It hissed like a snake and brandished a wickedly hooked spear.

“Aléxandros stélnei tous chairetismoús tou!” the creature spat. It charged towards us—though it was hard to tell which of us specifically—stabbing forward with that shiny spear.

Medina whipped out a gun and fired twice. Her shots went wide, but it was enough to break the creature’s charge. It dodged to the side, hissing, and for a second I could swear that its eyes glowed.

Oh wait, these people had superpowers. They might have actually glowed.

I tackled Medina to the ground on instinct, and felt the heat from the creature’s eye beams scorch the air above us.

I really hated this city.

Someone threw open the hatch from belowdecks. I was surprised to see a young Japanese woman with a sword, of all things, in addition to a long blue ribbon in her hair. She took in the scene at a glance, grabbed her sword, and then suddenly she was standing in front of us, sword out. I hadn’t even seen her move.

“Surrender,” she said to the creature. “Or retreat.”

It grinned with those shark teeth it had. “Do you want to see if you can run faster than light, little girl?”

The swordswoman narrowed her eyes, but before she could do anything stupid, Medina slowly stood up.

“Captain McKenzie,” she said. “Please, call off your men.”

The man—and it had to be a man, I realized that now—laughed. It sounded like sandpaper on skin. “So it’s captain now, is it? Apologies, Dame Medina, but the contents of this boat are far too valuable to let slip by. I think—” He unexpectedly turned and shot lasers out of his eyes again, aiming at the swordswoman. I was caught completely off guard.

She wasn’t.

Somehow, she managed to dodge, even though the beams had to be moving at the speed of light. She leaned to the side, then ran forward so fast that she was a blur, far faster than any human should be able to. Her sword struck out in a glittering arc, and McKenzie screamed as his arm went flying in a spray of blood.

She drew back for a killing stroke, but somehow she was too slow. McKenzie moved like lightning to dodge a blow aimed at his neck, then dove over the side and into the water.

The swordswoman frowned, but wiped her blade clean and then slid it into its sheathe.

I slowly clambered to my feet. “That was…”

“Sloppy. Apologies.” She bowed to me. “Wasted too much reservoir dodging the lasers, then didn’t go for the killing blow fast enough.”

“It’s fine, Akane,” Medina said soothingly. “I think in this case, it might be better to have let him get away. This way he can order the Augustus to retreat. They probably would have kept attacking if he was killed.”

I frowned. “I don’t know much about tactics, but retreating after only one person is injured—even the captain—seems like a silly idea.”

“McKenzie is deeply pragmatic,” Butler said, walking up and wiping off his shirt. “Boasts aside, he has let bigger catches than this slip through his claws, and for smaller injuries than losing an entire arm. He doesn’t like risk.”

“Uh, sir?” one of the crew said. “The ship—the Augustus, you said? It’s moving away.”

The captain managed a small smile. “Excellent. Maybe I’ll forgive you people for getting blood all over my decks.”

The man swallowed. “There are two more pings incoming.”

“Silver and gold,” Medina muttered. “They must have followed McKenzie here, knowing he’d cover their approach and that if he retreated they’d be in a position to attack. Can you identify the ship classes?”

The man glanced at his captain, then looked down at his pad. “Um, one is another Gleaves-class destroyer.”

“That’s the Tiberius,” Butler said. “She’ll be in range soon, and Thatch isn’t going to offer surrender.”

“What’s the other?” Medina asked.

“It looks like a Wickes-class, which makes no sense, those things are even older than the Gleaves. I think the last one was decommissioned in the forties—”

“The Constantine,” Butler said, sounding resigned.

“Oh, good,” Medina said, her tone deadpan. “We get to die in a new and interesting way. Is Saltbreaker still doing that thing where he launches sharks at people?”

“Did you say sharks?” I asked, more confused than afraid. What was he going to do, toss it up on the deck and have it flop at us?

“I haven’t heard of that one in a while,” Butler said, ignoring me. “He might shoot a few mosscrabs at us, though. They can kill everyone on the ship without damaging anything valuable. Then his men can get anyone who tries to escape into the water.”

“Assuming Thatch lets him,” Medina said, thoughtful. “Do you think we can play them against each other somehow? I don’t know much about their relationship.”

“I don’t either, but it’s better than nothing. Get us a radio link.”

My head was spinning. “Okay, wait. What exactly is going on?”

“We’re trying to distract two Rahab wrecks by making them fight over who has the right to kill us,” Medina said as she fiddled with her radio. “If we can distract them for long enough, reinforcements will arrive.” She shook her head. “Of course, it will have to be a lot of reinforcements. Thatch and Saltbreaker will run if they have to, but they’re not going to do it at the first sign of trouble like McKenzie.” She handed the radio to Butler.

“Every extra minute alive is an extra minute to find a way out of the predicament,” he said. He turned the knob on the radio and spoke into it. “Captain Thatch, we surrender unconditionally. We are powering down engines, please do not shoot.” Our own captain moved to give the order, but he stopped her with a raised hand, then turned the knob again. “Captain Saltbreaker, we surrender unconditionally. We are powering down engines, please do not shoot.” Then he nodded, and our captain ran off to order the engines powered down.

“How long do we have?” Butler asked.

“That should buy us a few minutes,” Medina said.

“How long do we need?

She shook her head sadly.

Butler sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Does anyone on this boat have any useful powers? Shields, hydrokinesis, anything like that?”

“Nope. The only Dominites are you, me, Akane, and two ‘sarians down below.”

“What are their powers?”

“Healing and the ability to take damage meant for someone else.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That sounds like a powerful combo. So someone shoots Butler, the guy down below grows a bullet hole in his shoulder, and his buddy heals him?”

Medina looked at me oddly. “That’s exactly right. I usually have trouble explaining it to people, though. It’s a pretty rare power.”

“I play games sometimes,” I said. “Well, I used to, I guess. Haven’t had time. Anyway, that sort of thing is pretty common on tanks.”

Butler didn’t seem to be paying attention to our conversation. “What if we send Akane to get help?”

Medina shook her head. “They’d see her and open fire early. Same if we call for help. Now we just have to hope that our people get here fast enough.”

There was an explosion off one side of the ship, drenching everyone on the deck.

“BRACE!” the captain called.

“That wasn’t Thatch!” Medina yelled over the sounds of sailors shouting orders at each other. “Explosion was too small! That was Saltbreaker—keep an eye out, something weird is coming!”

The captain scowled. “Can’t you be a bit more specific?”

“It’s probably not a shark!”

Before anyone else could yell anything, there was another explosion, this time from the other side. And it was accompanied by high-pitched, inhuman screeches.

For the first time, Butler looked scared.

“Are those—”

“Scream-stealer eels! Yes, Derek showed me some Mohamed caught once! Everyone, the eels have paralysis poison! Don’t touch them, and don’t touch anything they’ve touched!” She turned to the captain. “Is there any chance this stupid boat has a high-speed escape pod? We need to get Butler and the president out of here.”

The captain stared. “An escape what?

“Never mind.”

I drew myself up to my inconsiderable height to make a proclamation. “I don’t want to abandon you in your—”

“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped as she typed through her phone. She didn’t even look at me. “If you die out here, the war will be back in a blink, aliens or no. And whoever wins will be easy pickings for the para.”

“Oh,” I said. “Right.”

Someone grabbed my arm, and I nearly screamed.

I turned to see Senator Grain, half-dressed and wild-eyed, clutching my arm like a lifeline.

“Mister President, with all due respect, what the hell is going on?”

I frowned. “Were you sleeping? In the middle of the day? You know the only way to cure jet lag is just to power through it.”

“RICHARD!”

“We’re under attack,” I said with a calm I didn’t feel. It was far too much fun to needle Grain like this. “We fought off one, but there are others, and apparently he likes weird things. We’re probably going to die.”

“Because you idiots have fewer safety features on your boat than a vampire in a blood drive,” Medina said as she continued typing furiously at her phone.

Grain stared at her. “Who the hell is this?

“This is the woman who might get us out of here alive,” I said, trusting my gut.

Might?

“Remember what I said about us probably dying? That’s still true.” There was another explosion near the front of the ship, and it took all my willpower not to dive for cover. But I could act presidential when the situation called for it—such as making a friend look like a skittish little girl. “Maybe you should go back down below. Get some more sleep.”

He took a breath to yell at me again, but was interrupted by a massive explosion. It nearly capsized the boat, and my professional demeanor dissolved as I had to desperately grab the nearest railing to keep from flying around like a ragdoll. I glanced to the side and saw many of the monsters go flying off. That was a small piece of luck.

The scariest thing was that the explosion wasn’t close to us. I could see a huge plume of water maybe a mile away. I was only seeing the tail end of it, water falling back into the ocean, but it was still hundreds of feet high.

“What was that?” I asked.

Butler raised an eyebrow at Medina. “Indeed. Did Thatch blow Saltbreaker out of the water?”

She was still typing furiously. “Maybe. Not sure. Radar?”

The sailor from before took a second to realize she was talking to him. “Uh, it’s all messy right now, can’t really see anything. Also, it’s sonar, not radar, not sure if you know the difference…”

Medina clearly wasn’t paying attention to him any more. “Much as I’d like to think that was our miracle, it’s much more likely it was Thatch blowing up the Constantine. In other words, the worst case scenario.”

“How is that the worst case?” I asked. “We have one less enemy to fight, and maybe the Constantine managed to damage, uh, Thatch’s ship—”

“The Tiberius. And it’s a wreck, not a ship.”

“Right.” I paused. “Why is that?”

She finally sighed and looked away from her phone. “Because the Rahabs raise shipwrecks from the ocean floor, repair them enough to run, and use them to launch raids. The mobile ones, like the ones we’re facing now, are the ghost ships. And the problem is that the Tiberius has a much greater range than the Constantine. I’m sure she sank him long before he could fire back. Once Saltbreaker makes repairs, he might go after her, but we’ll be long dead by then.” She shook her head. “If he had been the survivor, we might have had a chance. Weird weapons mean sometimes you get lucky. Thatch just uses guns and shoots until everything stops moving.”

There were more explosions, more plumes of water. They were closer than before, but still too far to do any real damage to us—half a mile, maybe, and they were much smaller than the one that had apparently sunk the Constantine.

“What’s she doing now?” I asked. “Ranging her shots?”

Medina frowned. “No, definitely not. The Tiberius has some of the most advanced weapons systems on the planet. She could hit a fly from—” Realization dawned. “She’s not shooting at us. The Constantine is still afloat.”

Even I understood the implications of that. I grinned. “Which means that the captain will be pissed, and forget about little old us.”

“Yes! Exactly!” Medina settled down. “Of course, the second they see us running, they’ll put aside their differences for long enough to sink us. We could outrun them on the open water, but we’d have to turn around first. Right now, we’re facing them, and running through them would be suicide.”

“We’re not quite facing them,” the aide said. I noticed the captain glowering at him. She hadn’t said anything; she knew she was out of her depth and wasn’t going to be pissy about it, but she wasn’t happy either. “Why don’t we just run straight? We’ll be out of their range in a few minutes.”

“That’s a few minutes we’ll be in their range,” Butler said. “At this stage of the battle, there will be no playing around. A few minutes will be more than enough for both of them to sink us. Or at the very least cripple our engines.”

More plumes of water exploded out of the ocean—and they seemed to be closer than before. “I think whatever you decide to do, it will need to be fast.”

Medina raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have a suggestion?”

I raised my hands in defeat. “I am not a sailor. I don’t know anything about naval combat, let alone whatever the hell this is. I’d just get in your way.”

Medina quirked her head to the side. “Honesty. Interesting.”

“Hey, I’m always honest!”

She rolled her eyes. Okay, that was fair.

Before anyone could say anything else, there was one more massive explosion, right next to the ship. Everyone on deck was drenched, again. No one really seemed to mind except Grain, who sputtered and shook himself like a cat who fell in the bath.

Then a phone rang.

It was Medina’s. I was surprised it still worked after all the water, but she wasn’t. She answered instantly. “Yes, hello?” She blinked. “…oh. Uh, yes. Of course. Well, thank you then. I’m glad you got my message—oh. Yes, he’s right here.” She hung up, a curious expression on her face.

“…so we’re not all going to die?” I asked.

“Sonar is back!” the aide said. “They say the two ships—sorry, wrecks—are moving away, but there’s something big right next to us. Like, really big. They have no idea what it is.”

“He wanted to meet the president,” Medina said. “That’s why he was in the area, and was able to get here so fast.”

“Me?” I said. “Who wants to meet me?”

Another wave crashed over the ship, but this time it wasn’t from an explosion—more like a really big splash. As the ship stopped rocking unduly and the water cleared from my eyes, I was clearly able to see what had surfaced right next to us.

It took me a minute to identify it. It seemed to be a whale, maybe a blue whale. It was about eighty feet long from nose to tail if I compared it to the length of the ship, and I had no doubt that it could capsize us with one flipper, but it was just sitting there peacefully.

It was also covered in guns.

Great cannons that looked like they had been ripped off a battleship had been strapped to the beast’s back and sides with leather and metal. There were six big ones that I could see—two on top and two on each side—but also at least a dozen smaller ones, which meant they were ‘only’ big enough to fit my hand in the barrel instead of my entire head. There were even smaller machine guns, little things that were strapped anywhere they could fit, even on the bigger guns in some cases. They moved and twitched constantly, pointing in every direction.

“You tamed whales to carry guns for you?” I asked. Or maybe I whispered it. I was staring at an animal carrying as much firepower as a mid-sized battleship, I was a little bit in awe.

Medina grinned. “No,” she said. “We didn’t.”

The beast gave a massive groan that reverberated through the ship and through my bones.

It took me a moment to identify it as laughter.

“So this is the president?” a calm, male voice asked. There was a mechanical quality through it, like it was being piped through a speaker. “He seems competent enough. Smaller than I expected, perhaps.”

I took a step back. The voice was coming from the whale.

A small metal globe detached itself from the bulk of steel and floated over. It had a glass window of some—ah, it was a camera. The lens whirred and focused on me. “My name is Johnathan Tar, Mister President,” the voice said. It had a subtle Southern drawl to it. “It is very nice to meet you.”

I swallowed. “Ah, likewise? But, I mean… who are you, exactly?” It had taken an effort of will to say ‘who’ instead of ‘what.’

“I’m one of the warlords of the Dagonites,” he said, the camera bobbing up and down slowly. “A Trident, I guess. Got a few other titles, but that’s the big one. I’m one of the people in charge of keeping the Bay safe.” He chuckled. “Safe from you, lots of times, in fact.”

“Me?” I blinked. “I mean, us? America? What did we ever do to you?”

“Oh, nothing major,” he said. “Just couldn’t let you get too close to the city. You would have caused problems if you discovered it.”

“But… we’ve always known about Domina City.”

He chuckled, the sound coming from the whale itself instead of from the camera. “That’s not the city I’m talking about.”

I opened my mouth, then shut it. I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t betray my ignorance.

The camera turned to Medina. “Laura, is it? One of the Paladins?”

She bowed. “Correct, Honored Trident.”

“No need for that, miss, just wanted to thank you for all you’ve done.”

“And you as well, Whale-Lord,” she said.

He chuckled again, sending a bone-rumbling vibration through the decks. “Fair enough.” The camera turned back to me. “Do tell me next time you are in the Bay, Mister President. I would welcome the chance to speak with you further.”

I nodded dumbly.

The camera turned briefly to Butler. “Artemis,” the whale said cordially.

Butler nodded in turn. “Johnathan. Good hunting out there.”

“It always is.”

The camera floated back to Tar and nestled in a cradle under one of the medium-sized guns. He turned and dove underwater, his massive tail slapping down and sending yet another wave crashing over us. I heard chattering laughter and saw creatures leaping out of the water nearby. At first I thought they were dolphins, but then I realized they were people, men and women with fish tails following their lord. In moments they were gone as well.

For a few minutes, the only sound was water dripping to the deck from our clothes.

“Well,” Butler said with a chuckle. “I doubt anything Konstantopoulos has in store can top that. Besides, we’re running late. I’ll tell her that you’ll come see her on the way back, after the meeting.”

I still had no idea what he was talking about. “Yeah. That sounds good.”

“Excellent! Captain, please resume our course towards Domina. We have a busy day ahead of us.”

Behind the scenes (scene 323)

Johnathan Tar is a telekinetic. That’s how he was able to make the camera hover like that, and these days it’s how he controls most of his guns. He used to use a custom-made keyboard in his mouth that goes all the way around the inside rim of his teeth, but he mostly doesn’t have to worry about that any more. He does still have it though, just in case. You don’t get to be a Dagonite warlord without being at least a bit paranoid.

Scene 322 – Exitium

EXITIUM

LING

I pulled my hand out of the woman’s chest and let her corpse fall to the floor. I shook her blood off, then morphed my hand from a stone blade to a stone hand. Some distant part of my mind kept watch on my reservoir, but there was little need. I had such reserves and it regenerated so fast that practically nothing could deplete it.

I stepped around the corpse, stalking in front of the rest of the prisoners. They were all kneeling in front of me, heads down, my gravers keeping them contained with concrete shackles. No one spoke.

“That one was easy,” I said in a pleasant voice. I had watched enough shows to know that the really disturbing enemies were the ones who spoke calmly and quietly. “I know for a fact that she was a spy. Evidence, pictures…” I waved my bloodied hand flippantly. A few drops landed on some of the prisoners, and they flinched away. “For the rest of you, the evidence is not so… concrete.”

I waited to see if anyone—prisoners or gravers—reacted to my pun. No one did, so I moved on.

“I would prefer not to resort to violence without certainty,” I said. “I would prefer more facts, more information. Which is why I am offering you all a choice. Give up an American spy, and I will simply exile both of you. Remain silent, and I start killing people.”

No one spoke. Someone sniffled, another shuffled in place.

“I understand,” I said, nodding. “You don’t know if you can trust me to keep my word. In fact, it’s possible that some of you are true, native Dominites, who don’t know anything useful to me at all.” I stroked my chin with my flesh hand. “If only there were some way to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone was from Domina City.”

Still no one spoke. Like scared animals, they sensed a trap.

“The obvious answer would be to look for toys,” I said. “But that would be incorrect. An outsider can get toys, and a Dominite can choose not to.” Most of the people kneeling in front of me were baseline, though a few had minor toys. “And simple tests of knowledge can easily be faked. Anyone can learn about Eden, or Bloody Thirteen, or Elizabeth’s Crusade. What then, can be tested? What does every Dominite have in common?”

I waved to my gravers. They grabbed the prisoners roughly by the arms and started dragging them away to individual interrogation cells. Some of them started sobbing—good. I needed them scared. The questioning would go easier that way.

“Lady Grave,” one of my men said once the prisoners were gone. “I just have one question, if you don’t mind.”

I looked him in the eyes and smiled. He was an angel, so he had dayeyes. Violet, in his case. “You’re wondering what this thing is that only a Dominite would know. What test I could use to ensure that we found the spies.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Yes, my lady.”

“There isn’t one,” I said.

He blinked. “What?”

“Nothing reliable, anyway. It’s all about getting them panicked, tricking them into making mistakes. That’s all interrogation is, Mister Ishim. Tricks and subterfuge. Speaking of which…” I kicked the woman on the ground. “Please get up.”

My gravers all gasped as the ‘corpse’ groaned and clambered to her feet. She still had the hole in her chest where I had speared her.

“How are you feeling?” I asked. I was serious—she couldn’t die, but that hardly meant getting hurt was fun.

“Not good,” she groaned. “You missed my heart, but only barely. Can I talk to a doctor? I just need to get patched up, I can take care of the rest on my own.”

I nodded. “Of course. You,” I said, pointing out a graver at random—a baseline. “Take her to Doctor Terra, then go find my accountant.” I smiled. “Miss Howlett needs to be paid for her services.”

The graver nodded and took the woman through one of the side entrances, opposite the direction the prisoners had gone. Speaking of… I waved my hand and covered all the doorways with concrete.

“What was that for, my lady?”

“I’m feeling paranoid of late.” I shook my head. “Superpowers and aliens. This whole city is going mad.” I sighed. “How many more groups of spies do we have on the list?”

One of the other gravers stepped up, a pad under her arm. “That was the last of them, ma’am. Of course, it’s quite likely we missed a few. There’s a rumor about the fey sheltering some spies in Summerhome, but that’s the only lead we have left.”

I frowned. “Why would the fey do that?”

“Perhaps they want to interrogate them themselves? Or maybe they’re just insane.”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. Whether the fey are exploiting them or protecting them, they are out of our reach.” I concentrated and molded a large chair out of the concrete beneath me. I let myself fall into it. There were no cushions, of course, but pain was a distant memory for me at this point. “If the city is clean of spies, that means we can focus on the aliens.”

My graver with the pad nodded. I specifically chose not to think of her name. She didn’t like it, and was trying to choose a new one. That was her right and I needed to respect it, even if she was taking an annoyingly long time. “Necessarius has been quiet regarding the alien ship that landed a few hours ago, but they have assured everyone that it did not come to start a war.”

“A bit of good news, then,” I said. I had watched more than enough science fiction—and read enough real science articles—to know that even that small shuttle could probably level the city if it decided to self-destruct. “What of our spies?”

“They say the alien is still in quarantine,” she said. “Beyond that, no detail. They can’t even be sure whether or not Butler has spoken to the alien.”

“He has,” I said. “Or Laura has, at least. She wouldn’t let an opportunity like this pass. What about the mothership?”

“Nothing. It hasn’t changed course or sent any messages that we could detect, let alone intercept or decrypt. I’m not sure that they are even aware of the shuttle.”

I drummed my real fingers on the concrete armrest. “That’s an interesting thing to say. You think the shuttle was a rogue launch?”

“It makes sense, ma’am,” she said. “If this were a large-scale, coordinated action, they would have sent multiple shuttles. One to every capital city would have been the wisest course of action, but at the very least they would have sent one to Mars. Probably Luna and Ceres as well. Domina City is important, but it is not the most important or most populated city on Earth. Like I said, this feels like a rogue faction that chose someplace at random.”

“…I was with you up until the end,” I said. “Why do you think it’s random?”

She shrugged. “What reason would an alien have for coming here specifically?”

I ticked the reasons off on my fingers. Again, the ones that were still flesh. “The toy maker. The powers. Elizabeth. Silk. Or maybe they just thought the giant circle looked like a landing pad.” I sighed. “I shouldn’t get snippy. You are going an excellent job.”

She smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“However, I still believe that there is more going on here than random chance. Look into that.”

She bowed. “Of course, ma’am.” She turned to go. She had to place her hand on one of the concrete-covered doorways to open it, but she managed it. She even sealed it again behind her. Such a thoughtful girl.

“Is there anything else on the agenda today?” I asked.

The remaining gravers bowed their heads. “No, Lady Grave.”

I waved my stone hand. “Then leave. Prepare the prisoners for interrogation, but wait for my signal to start. Just start with the simple stuff like distant screams and the sound of flesh being burned. Anything to keep them on edge.”

They bowed again and left. They didn’t seal up the passage behind them, which I found annoying, but I fixed it with little more than a thought.

I sighed and leaned back in my chair. With all the entrances sealed, this chamber was dead silent. There were some windows far above, letting light in through a few shattered floors. I had replaced the broken original windows with soundproof ones in my first week. This chamber, this tomb, would eventually run out of air, but with only one person that would take days, if not weeks. For now, it was just my own personal sanctum, free from all distractions of the universe.

…I needed to get a tv in here.

After an hour or so of silence, I heard the sound of something smacking against one of the stone walls I had used to cover the doorways. I expanded my stonesense and realized that someone was trying to get through the northernmost doorway. That was the one that led directly to the front of the Grave.

“Enter,” I said.

The wall started to melt, and one of my newer gravers forced his way through awkwardly. He was a fel anthro, and he was left with a bunch of hardened clumps of stone in his fur like he had lost a fight with a wax factory.

“My—” He cursed under his breath as his foot got stuck in the wall. “Fur and fang, just give me a second—”

I concentrated, channeling my power through the stone of my chair, into the floor, and finally into the wall. I molded it away from him, but then closed it up again behind him. Whatever this was, I had to assume it was best kept private. As an afterthought, I molded my chair around so that I could face him.

“What is it?” I demanded. “Have you found more American spies?”

“No, my lady.” He attempted an awkward bow. “It’s about the aliens, my lady. The ones Necessarius captured and put into quarantine?”

Aliens, plural? That was the first bit of actual intelligence we had yet. “So our spies have found something? Excellent.”

He hesitated. “My lady, I am so sorry—”

“Out with it,” I snapped.

“Our spies have been outed,” he said. “In fact, it appears that Butler has known the entire time. His people hand-delivered these to all our informants on the inside.” He proffered me a stack of papers. No, not papers, cards.

“What are they?” I asked.

“Invitations, my lady,” he said. “All addressed to you, all identical.”

I took one and looked it over. It wasn’t anything special. Just a simple formal invite for the Lady of the Grave and two bodyguards to a meeting. It didn’t say my name, I noticed, just my title. I wondered if that was a sign they didn’t know who I was, or if they were just being polite. Either way, it was simple and to the point, as with everything Necessarius did.

Except this one was to an interplanetary summit with a representative of an alien species.

That begged the question of why Butler was inviting the gravers. My people weren’t exactly known as diplomats. Maybe he thought they might need muscle? Even in the middle of NHQ, he could still be surprised. Perhaps he wanted a few surprises on his side as well.

The fact that our spies were compromised was one of those surprises, but I couldn’t bring myself to be mad about it. It wasn’t like he had killed them all. I knew some warlords had demanded retribution for spies being outed, but it always just made them look petty, like little kids throwing a tantrum.

“The meeting is on Thursday,” I said, reading over the invitation again. “That’s two days. I want our best to be assembled and ready in the morning. Whether we’re defending against Necessarius or aliens, we have to be ready for anything.”

“Of course,” my graver said, bowing low. He left, the wall sliding back into place behind him.

I lay back and stared at the ceiling. Aliens. Even by the standards of this city, that was pretty damn weird.

Well, if I wanted to live somewhere normal, I should have moved to Kentucky.

I stood up, stretched, and left the room.

I had work to do.

Behind the Scenes (scene 322)

I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while, to show that while Ling is much more violent and pragmatic than she used to be, she’s still Ling. She has decided she’s the villain of the story, and is trying to guide the story in a direction that ends with the villain still alive. Top of the list is not actually torturing and murdering random people.