As I was leaving Domina City, Medina insisted on going with me. ‘One last tour,’ Butler said. While they were both being enigmatic and secretive, they didn’t seem to be malicious, so I decided to go along with it. Besides, we had just worked together to begin negotiating a peace treaty with an alien race. That entitled them to more than a little trust.
Even if this ‘last tour’ required a boat.
It was a Dominite boat this time, a thirty-foot yacht named the NS Eden. I had a vague memory of there being something called Eden at the very beginning of the city, so I assumed the yacht was named after that instead of the garden. It was hard to tell with these people, though.
“So,” I said once we were out of sight of Domina City itself. “Where are we headed?” West Fusion Island was looming before us, but I doubted that was our final destination.
Medina smirked at me. “Can’t handle surprises, Mister President?”
I grinned. “Normally, yes. But considering the last time you tried to take me to this place we got attacked by fish people and ghosts, I’m a little worried.”
“Ghost ships,” she said. “Mobile refurbished Rahab wrecks. Ghosts are something else.”
“Ah, yes,” I said. “Obviously. I’m just saying, are you sure that’s not going to happen again?” Especially with the para declaring their intent to negotiate with Domina City instead of America. One of the reasons my advisers had recommended I leave was because they were afraid that Domina might kill me to keep me from upsetting their negotiating position.
I was pretty sure they wouldn’t do that. But I was still leaving the city.
“A few Dagonite pods are following us,” Medina said. She pointed, and I saw something leaping out of the water a few hundred yards away. I had assumed they were dolphins. “They can handle most threats, even a minor leviathan if necessary. Anything bigger, and they’ll give us enough time to actually escape.”
She gave me a side-eye when she said that. I had a feeling she was still blaming me for not bringing any picket ships on the way from New York. It had been almost a week! Okay, more like half a week… but still. Was she going to hold a grudge about that forever?
“Regardless, we’re almost there,” Medina said.
The yacht rumbled, and a large metal beam curved over the ship, emerging from the stern and stretching all the way to the bow, where it locked in place with a mechanical clunk. A moment later, curved glass panes emerged from both sides of the ship, meeting at the metal beam above us and sealing us in with a hiss.
If this was an assassination, it was the weirdest one I had ever heard of. I almost wished I still had Jefferies around, but I had left him behind to deal with the whole mess with Silk and the cloning project. “What—”
Then we began to sink.
Slowly at first, the waves rose up to meet us, and then water covered the glass sphere we were encased in. In seconds it was almost too dark to see as the light from the surface grew distant, but headlights flicked on at the front of the yacht, providing a clear view of the empty water and the occasional startled school of fish.
I stared at Medina, open-mouthed. She smirked.
“The NS Eden was made by the Dagonites at Hemingway,” she said, as if that meant anything to me. “They call it an amphibious submarine pleasure yacht. A subby for short.”
I blinked, then chuckled. “Okay, that’s kinda funny.”
Medina rolled her eyes. “I almost punched the idiot who explained it to me. I thought he was screwing with me.”
“So is that where you’re taking me?” I asked. “One of these Dagonite outposts? I did a bit of reading on them over the past few days.” Most of my reading had been on the land-based cultures, but I figured maybe I should learn one or two things about the people who had saved my life. And then I got distracted by reading about sex-vampires, but that was beside the point.
“No, Hemingway is about fifty miles east of Domina.”
That surprised me. Had they really extended so far? And why bother? It seemed like it would be easier to just cluster around the island. “Well, I didn’t read up on any of the other outposts, but I’m sure I’ll be im… pressed…” I trailed off, my jaw hanging open.
We had finally come within sight of our destination.
Great spires rose out of the ocean floor, lit like beacons in the near-perfect darkness. I could see dozens, maybe hundreds of them, some so thin I couldn’t believe that they could support their own weight, some like massive skyscrapers. Some were steel, some seemed to be coral, and some even seemed to be made completely out of glass, lit from the inside by a rainbow of colors.
There was a flurry of activity around the spires. I saw small lights that looked like individual swimmers, circling close to the towers and entering or leaving them at different levels. I saw larger lights, small pods about the size of cars, circling farther out or even leaving altogether, heading east back to Domina or some other destination.
Medina didn’t say anything as the yacht smoothly entered one of the spires, a mid-sized coral tower some fifty feet across. We entered a space just barely large enough to contain us, then the yacht rose in place. I was surprised when we broke out into open air and bobbed like a cork in the small pool that made up the dock. The glass shell cracked open, letting down a brief shower of sea water, and I got a good look around.
The dock took up an entire level of the spire, or maybe more than one level, making it a cylindrical room fifty feet across and fifty feet tall. Everything was smooth, almost organic, like coral carved gently into shape. The lights were small globes inset into the walls and ceiling, and all the furniture—benches and what looked like an information desk—were built to look like they were grown directly out of the floor. There were only three people in the room, but I could tell that this wasn’t some private dock. It was normally a busy place, but everyone else had been kept out for the moment.
One of Butler’s sailors extended a gangplank, and Medina led the way as we walked across it. The edge of the pool had a rough yellow ring to keep people from slipping, as well as several short ladders to help people climb out easier, just like a recreational pool. I saw something out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a gentle slope out of the pool, painted blue with the handicap symbol—except in their symbol, the stick figure in the wheelchair had a fish tail.
The three people waiting for us were not what I expected. None of them had fish tails, for one thing, and I didn’t see any gills. All three wore tight-fitting wetsuits, the two in the back a uniform black, and the one in the front a simple pattern of blue flowers on a white background that reminded me of a summer dress.
The one in front was a woman who was perfectly human, as far as I could tell. She was some kind of white European with wet black hair that went down to her waist. She was covered in black tattoos, but they weren’t in the same style as Lilith’s. Those had been a tribal style borrowed from Pacific Islanders and the like, with a unique use of gaps and abstract shapes. This woman had the area around one eye tattooed solid black, and the other eye was encircled by words I couldn’t read. I had a feeling she had more tattoos under her wetsuit, but I couldn’t see them. Her suit was sleeveless—unlike the other two—but she had her arms clasped behind her back.
The two men with her were obviously bodyguards. In addition to the looks of bored competence on their faces and the odd guns on their hips, both had huge fangs, large claws, and blood-red skin.
The woman in front stepped forward the second I was off the gangplank and took my hand in both of hers. Not only did she have more tattoos of the same style on her hands, as I expected, but there was webbing between her fingers.
“Hello, Mister President,” she said. “It is an honor to meet you. I am Mayor Liana Konstantopoulos, and this—” She used one hand to indicate the entire city. “Is Timaeus, the City of Water.”
I chuckled. “I can see why.”
Liana—I couldn’t pronounce her last name even in my head—smiled. “Actually, you can’t. We earned that title through our dedication to working together with our sister Atlantean cities. Water is the element of connection and unity, after all.”
I blinked. “Ah… sister cities.”
Her smile broadened. “Of course. Our capital, Plato, the City of Salt, as well as Critias, the City of Fire. We even occasionally trade with the Dagonite towns, but Plato does that far more than we do.”
So now instead of one independent city on America’s to worry about, there were four? Why had no one mentioned this?
Medina seemed to find my terror amusing. She was stifling a grin, trying not to look in my direction.
Liana smiled and slipped her arm through mine. “Come. Walk with me.” She led us towards what looked like an elevator. One of her bodyguards hustled forward and pressed the button before we got there, so the doors were open and we could step right inside.
“I’ll wait with the ship,” Medina called after me. I looked back to see her still smirking.
The elevator seemed perfectly normal, except maybe a bit bigger than I was used to and with a glass wall on one side to see the ocean outside.
“What do you think of our city, Mister President?” Liana asked as we began to descend.
“I think it’s amazing,” I said. “How many people live here?”
“About eight million,” Liana said. “The other Atlantean cities are about the same, and we have smaller towns and outposts scattered throughout the Bay. The Dagonites have more, spreading slowly throughout the Atlantic, and the Rahabs…” She shook her head. “Who knows with them.”
Eight million people. That was… impressive, to say the least. New York had over twelve million, and probably in a smaller space, but still. Nobody expected them to have a competing city barely a stone’s throw away.
Liana continued as if she could read my mind. “I know that’s surprising. That’s why I wanted to speak to you in person. Open up some diplomatic channels before our respective fleets have a chance to butt heads.”
“I’m surprised that hasn’t happened already.”
She clicked her tongue in disapproval. “You can thank the Dagonites for that. They’ve been sinking every boat that gets near White-Cap Bay well over a decade. As I understand it, New York has learned to give this area a wide berth.”
I winced. “That can’t continue now. We’re supposed to be allies.” Well, maybe allies was too strong a word. Was there a word for ‘neither of us wants to kill each other at the moment’?
“My thoughts exactly,” Liana said. The elevator stopped, and the doors opened with a ding. Liana led me out by the arm into a long coral hallway, the walls lined with murals painted directly onto the stone. Most appeared to be farms and fields, until I realized that they were all supposed to represent things under water.
“So who makes the Dagonites stop?” I asked. “Butler, or you?”
Liana laughed, a high-pitched sound that reminded me of a dolphin. “Oh, certainly not me. Butler has more control over them than I do, but that’s not saying much.” She shook her head. “I’m afraid the only people who truly control the Dagonites are the Dagonites. I have spoken to some of the more powerful Tridents, and they have agreed to step back their attacks.”
“That sounds promising,” I said.
“Perhaps. But there are no guarantees. For the time being, I highly recommend keeping warships out of the Bay. Just until they get used to the idea of any foreign ships at all.”
“Seems simple enough,” I said.
She sighed. “The problem is that the Rahabs—or some of the angrier Dagonite pods—will try to sink your trading ships. You will want to send warships and subs to defend them, the Dagonites will see this as an attack, round and round it goes until we’re all at war again.” She shook her head.
“I will advise the trade ships to be cautious,” I said. “May I ask what you have to offer, and what you will want in return?”
She smiled sadly. “Mister President, I am afraid you misunderstand. My people—the Atlanteans of Timaeus—have little desire to trade with you, or indeed interact with the world above the waves in any way. Many of us haven’t been topside in years. We have children who have never seen the surface.” She chuckled. “Though, now that some of them are becoming teenagers, that is beginning to change. You know how teenagers like to rebel, and they often do so simply by visiting Domina City itself.”
My head swam. I had realized, vaguely, how old these cities must be, but I hadn’t really processed what it meant. But of course there were children down here. Children who spent their entire lives underwater, who had either been born with gills and fish tails or been modified with them soon after they were born.
I was suddenly really glad I had no control over these people, because my first reaction was visceral horror. In my mind, there was something wrong with the idea of children never seeing true sunlight, of never breathing fresh air. If we had successfully conquered Domina City, I would have done something crazy and racist in a misguided attempt to ‘save’ these people. To show them the ‘real’ world, above water.
I understood, just for a moment, why the religious types were so up in arms about the toy maker and Domina City. Children should not be twisted into inhuman forms just to live in the hellish environment their parents put them in.
“Mister President?” Liana said. She smiled at me, unaware of my inner turmoil. “Is something wrong?”
I forced a smile onto my face. Wasn’t the first time I had an existential crisis in the middle of an important meeting. At least this time everyone still had all their clothes on. “It’s fine. I was, ah, just wondering… if your people have no interest in trading with the mainland, then why bring me down here? Like you said, Butler talks with the Dagonites more, so you don’t need to be involved in that.”
She cocked her head at me. “Where do New York ships first enter White-Cap Bay, Mister President?”
“The west, I would have to guess.”
“And if the Dagonites sink ships in the western reaches, where do they fall?”
“…ah,” I said. “Right onto Timaeus.”
We reached the end of the hall, and she nodded as we stopped before the wide double-doors. “I don’t want to leave anything to chance. We have salvage teams and the like, people who can move falling ships away from the city, but there are no guarantees. Far better for them never to fall in the first place. And to that end…” She nodded to her bodyguards. One stepped forward and opened the door for us.
The room looked like the study of a rich and adventurous British hunter, with shelves full of books, tables full of maps, and all sorts of trinkets and trophies. There were a few gold busts and ornate old ship wheels, the kind of things that you recovered from sunken wrecks, but most were things I had no experience with. At least a dozen different types of skulls that didn’t look like any sea creatures I had ever heard of, from a tiny flat-faced skull smaller than my fist to a massive one with a jaw bigger than I was, suspended over the table by wires from the ceiling.
This was the first room I had seen with carpet, made of a mix of red and white cloth mixed with black spots, like Liana’s tattoos. It took me a moment to realize that half the spots weren’t solid black, but words, written so tightly together in spirals that they were hard to tell apart. They seemed to be poems, but I had trouble reading the strange spirals.
There were three other people in the room. One was a bald black man with prominent gills but no other obvious modifications. He didn’t even have tattoos like Liana. The second was a European man, like Liana, and like Liana he seemed perfectly human except for his tattoos. He didn’t even appear to have webbed fingers.
The last was a large Middle-Eastern man who didn’t have a wetsuit, and stood bare-chested looking at one of the skulls. When the door opened, he turned to us and grinned. He extended his hand to shake, and I was surprised to see that he had a large flap of black skin running all the way from his wrists to his ankles—like the wings of a manta ray. It seemed loose enough and stretched enough that he didn’t have to worry about it restricting his movement.
It took a moment for me to recover and shake his hand. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Richard Martinez, president of America.”
“John Wavebreaker,” he said, still grinning jovially. “I’m a senator from Plato, on loan because the mayor doesn’t like dealing with surfacers.” He winced. “No offense.”
I smiled. “None taken.”
“I’m Panagiotis Kanelli,” the black man said. He had an accent I couldn’t quite place. Greek, maybe? “I am the mayor of Critias, here representing the interests of the City of Fire and the Nereid party.”
I shook his hand as well. “Please to meet you.” I turned to the last man. “And you would be…”
“Abraxas,” he said, with a slight German accent. “From Timaeus, actually. Mayor Konstantopoulos wanted me here as a scientist to help answer any questions that you might have about how our cities operate.”
That seemed a little odd to me at first, but considering how much these people relied on the toy maker—even more than mainland Domina—maybe it made sense.
I shook his hand. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m sure I’ll have a million questions soon.”
He smiled and nodded politely.
“So,” I said, clapping my hands. “Mayor Kanelli. I believe you are the first one I need to speak to about trade.”
“If you are willing,” he said. “I understand that this is all happening a little fast.”
“A full treaty would require some extra eyes,” I said. I actually couldn’t remember who was supposed to be involved in all that. Did Congress write the bill and then I signed it, or the other way around? “But for now, we can get some basic negotiations out of the way. What does your city have to offer, and what would you like in return?”
“Plato is the center of the merfolk, Mister President,” Kanelli said. “We trade with the other Atlantean cities, the Dagonite towns, and even the Rahabs.”
I blinked. “You mean the people who sink every boat they see?”
Kanelli gave a mirthless smile. “The same. We’ll trade with anyone, as long as they behave themselves. And we’ve actually managed to recruit quite a few kids away from the Rahabs that way.”
“The Rahabs are mostly just angry children,” Liana said. “Give them some positive attention, and they lose the opportunity to rebel.”
Senator Wavebreaker chuckled. “Except when they decide to use the opportunity to try and bomb you instead.”
Kanelli’s smile disappeared. “That has only happened twice. Please do not paint all the Rahabs with the same brush.”
“What do they even have to trade?” I asked. “I mean, if they’re just a bunch of nomadic scavengers…”
Wavebreaker shook his head in amusement. “They have virtually everything to trade. They have mastered the art of sinking trade ships while leaving all the goods intact for pillaging. And since their population is so small, they have little use for most of it. They keep the food, anything related to the toy maker, weapons that will work underwater, and materials to repair their wrecks. Everything else is sold somewhere.”
“And that somewhere is normally Plato,” Kanelli said. “Though I’m sure some of the less scrupulous Dagonite towns have been forced to trade with them for their survival.”
“They used to get their guns from Hemingway,” Abraxas said. “Oplo finally shut that down, though. And Herbert will still cater to absolutely anyone who can pay.”
I frowned. “Who’s Herbert?”
“Not who, where,” Abraxas said. “It’s a town north of Domina. Started out as a toy research lab, now it’s the source of most of toys under the waves. Half the people in this city probably went out there at least once to get modded. It has the best toy techs in the Bay.”
“Is Herbert technically in White-Cap Bay?” Wavebreaker asked. “It’s farther than North Fusion Island, after all.”
“Some people still say Hemingway is in White-Cap Bay,” Kanelli said. “Herbert is closer than that.”
Liana coughed politely. “I’m sure the president finds this all very interesting, but there is one other rather important detail that everyone seems to be overlooking.”
The three men glanced at each other, then at me. I just shrugged. I had no idea what was going on.
Liana sighed. “If the conflict with the para erupts into full war, where do you think the safest place in the world will be?”
I blinked. “You want to use your cities for refugees?”
“Salt and spear, woman,” Wavebreaker said. He sounded stunned. “The Rahabs will go crazy!”
“I’m not even sure it’s possible,” Abraxas said. “We have some space for air-breathing tourists.” He waved his hand, indicating the room and possibly the entire tower. “But that’s a few thousand for each city—assuming everyone is willing to be very cramped. You’re talking about millions. Maybe even billions.”
“That’s assuming everyone keeps their lungs,” Liana said.
Silence greeted her words.
Then Kanelli laughed. “You’re planning to recruit from the refugees. Give them merfolk buffs, expand the Atlantean population.”
I glanced at her, trying to ignore the sick feeling in my stomach. “Is this true?”
She smiled innocently. “It will of course be completely voluntary. Like our cousins in Domina City proper, we hold the right to decide on your own modification to be sacred, a gift from the Daughter of Fire.”
That title sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “I am a politician, Madame Mayor. I understand that ‘volunteers’ can be coerced without even realizing it. Anyone you bring down here will be in an impossible position, no matter how much you accommodate their needs. They won’t be able to go outside—”
Abraxas spoke up. “We do have cars, small submarines that—”
“They won’t be able to go outside on their own, they won’t be able to enter half the towers or more, they won’t be able to truly be a part of your cities in any meaningful way.” I shook my head. “So you’ll offer them modifications. Toys, or whatever you call them. Maybe with a nice tax break?”
Liana smirked. It looked far more smug and dangerous than I would like. “Something like that.”
“And then you’ll expand. Cover the whole damn Bay with cities—maybe even the whole Atlantic.” I glanced at Abraxas. “Are there laws about expanding too much?”
He shook his head. “The only problem is logistics. New towns and outposts need trade to survive, and it’s difficult if they’re too far away from anything established. Besides, much of the ocean is essentially a desert, quite empty of life, so there is little reason to—”
“Right,” I said. “But people find a way. Some of the biggest cities in America are in the stupidest places. But with enough people in one place, people start trading them supplies just because there’s a market. And then you’ve got a city in the middle of the desert stealing water from everyone nearby to make movies.” I frowned. “Do you guys need fresh water? Can you just drink ocean water?”
“Well, our farms and fisheries can get by just fine with salt water,” Abraxas said. “And most of our dishes use salt water instead of fresh. But we still drink fresh water. We have some excellent desalinization facilities, though, so it’s not a large burden.”
“Oh, that’s interesting,” I said. “Maybe we can trade some of that technology—” I shook my head. “No, not the point.” I jabbed a finger at Liana. Her bodyguards glared, but I ignored them. “You’re planning to profit off a war and refugees.”
She didn’t look the slightest bit contrite. “Better than leaving them all out to die, Mister President.”
I ground my teeth. My predecessor screwed over a bunch of refugees from the space colonies, and yet somehow everyone brought it up as if it were my fault. I voted against it at the time.
“Regardless,” I said, “I think we can agree that it would be best to not have any war at all. For all we know, the para can just boil the seas.”
“I think if they were that powerful, we would know,” Abraxas said. I sighed. He really shouldn’t be undercutting my argument right now. “Why bother with any negotiations? Why not just kill us all and be done with it?”
I rubbed my forehead. “Mister Abraxas. There was a small skirmish recently. Perhaps you heard of it? When a very large country fought a very small country?”
Abraxas looked confused. “…no?” Wavebreaker and Kanelli winced.
“Well, in this skirmish, the very large country had every advantage. They had more men, more guns, more ships, more artillery, and perhaps most importantly, nukes. They could have wiped the small country off the map completely. Do you know why they didn’t?”
“Because they didn’t want to murder four hundred and fifty million people,” I said flatly. “Not to mention ruin a perfectly good island.” I shook my head. “I don’t know how these para are, morally speaking. They seem to dislike killing in the same way we do. But even ignoring morals, they are looking for a home. Completely destroying us would probably cost them too much—at the moment.”
That was one of our best guesses, anyway. Medina theorized, based on conversations with Leeno, that the para simply didn’t have the firepower to glass the entire planet. They also didn’t have the biological talent to drop some sort of human-killing virus on us.
I glanced over at Liana. She looked scared, but she was trying to hide it. Good. Maybe she would remember that wars rarely went the exact way we wanted them to.
I clapped my hands together. “So we’ve all agreed not to start a war with a possibly-genocidal alien race of unknown power? Excellent. Now, I do have to get back to America before my wife sends out the Army to look for me—again. But I think we at least have time to set up a real meeting for later to get that trade agreement hashed out. My economic advisers would never forgive me if I did anything else.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 328)
The merfolk have a strange version of the elemental system many societies are familiar with, and it shows up in much of their culture and art. Water is the element of connection, unity, and life; air, when it is mentioned, is folded in with water. Salt is the element of profit, openness, and trade. Fire is the element of industry, progress, and circumspection. Also note the use of colors; water is black, salt is white, and fire is red. That’s why Konstantopoulos has black hair (representing not just her city as a whole but also her desire for unity) a mostly-white dress (representing her desire to keep the city profitable, but not at the expense of all else) and why her bodyguards have red skin (representing their professional dedication to the job).
The merfolk don’t believe in these elements religiously like most societies did, but the themes and the symbolism have inundated their entire culture in a way that few outsiders ever realize.