Monthly Archives: September 2017

Scene 333 – Sororibus

SORORIBUS

ROBYN JOAN

We landed our stolen para shuttle in the center of the Cathedral, the main base of the Servants in Domina City. It was a bit annoying to get the shuttle door open, but once we did, we all piled out and took a moment to just appreciate where we were.

The Cathedral took up an entire block, a single massive skyscraper of glass and polished steel. There were a few arches and open-air tunnels through the structure which gave it a Renaissance décor, but they were far more decorative than practical.

The skyscraper itself, however, was just the perimeter of the block. The center of the building was a massive park, the largest in the city, surrounded on all sides by that single skyscraper, like a huge wall. The walls on the interior were not glass—except for a few strategic windows—but simple stucco and sheetrock covered in a profusion of vines. The vines bloomed with a rainbow’s worth of beautiful flowers, and the park itself was a beautiful grass field with some tall trees for shade.

We landed at the very center of the park, right next to a babbling fountain that served as the mouth of a small ornamental river. I tossed a quarter into the fountain without really thinking about it. The Servants cleared out the coins at the end of every day and used them to help keep the park functional.

Speaking of which, there were two Servants in white robes standing just a few yards away from the shuttle. They were clearly trying very hard not to jump straight towards dismantling the shuttle to see how it worked. Servants were tech geeks as a rule, and most of them were engineers of some type or another. They’d need to share this one with Necessarius, but I doubted that they would mind.

Both Servants bowed as we walked up. “Honored Lilith,” one of them, an ogre, said. “Honored Robyn Joan. Thank you for deciding to land here. Your sister is waiting for you inside, in one of our main server rooms.”

I frowned, then glanced at Lily. She had the same confused look on her face. I turned back to the Servants. “Why not just talk to us out here, where we can enjoy the park? That’s what we usually do.”

The other Servant, an angel, just smiled. “I think it’s best if you see for yourself.”

“All right,” I said. “Can the ambassadors come?”

“Actually, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Bahamut said.

I raised an eyebrow at him. He had barely said two words this entire time. I hadn’t met him before today, so I had no idea if this was normal for him. “Why do you say that?”

Zero signed something.

The White Cat nodded. He pared his nails as he spoke, as if the entire conversation bored him. “Exactly. We need to look into the hive. We should return to our cultures and prepare for the worst. At the very least, we’ll need to get our scientists prepared.”

“Actually, I meant that we should help Akiyama with the Malcatari,” Bahamut said. “We don’t know how many slipped into the city.”

I frowned. “That’s really where you want to be concentrating your effort right now?”

“Yes,” he said. There was an air of finality to it.

I shrugged. “Okay, whatever, but Lily and I are staying.” And Adam, of course, but that didn’t need saying.

“I will too,” Eccretia said. “I have some questions for MC, and I already called my engineers to meet us here. I want to coordinate their work with the Servants.”

Zero made a few signs with her fingers.

“Thank you,” Lily said. “We do appreciate it, I promise.” She turned to the others—Dracul, Bahamut, the White Cat, Pale Night, Zaphkiel, and Odin. “Thank you all for your help today. Please do not feel obligated to stay on my account.”

The warlords bowed deeply and left, one by one. Most of them probably had cars already on the way, ready to pick them up.

Lily turned back to the Servants. “Please, lead the way.”

Our much reduced group walked inside the Cathedral itself. It was a building with tall ceilings, white marble arches, and rounded edges. It looked like ancient Roman architecture married to a Mac, with plenty of computer interfaces and monitors in recessed panels here and there.

There were a few Servants of every culture and clan wandering the halls, but not many. They had better things to do than hang out here, far away from anyone who might need help. That meant the place was very empty, and our footsteps echoed off the walls.

It felt like a church, which was of course the point. The Servants were a religion, and they were absolutely shameless about their faith. Luckily, deifying a computer made them a bit more pragmatic than most religions. I had read a whole bunch of articles on how the Servants differed from normal religions, but the main point I cared about was that they hadn’t tried to sanctify me or Lily. The last thing I needed was to be worshiped by a bunch of geeks who thought my sister was a goddess.

The Servants led us to a large corner room, big enough to hold an entire religious mass. I wasn’t sure if it had been meant for any specific use originally, but now there was a huge bunch of devices and wires in one corner, being fussed over by Servants making sure everything was set up right. Extension cords snaked across the floor in every direction, and I spotted at least a dozen computer towers, all connected to each other through that spiderweb of tangled cables.

At the front of this mess was a large, old chair, a comfortable leather lounger. Many of the cables and wires terminated in the seat, like a spider at the center of its web. I couldn’t see where they were supposed to connect, because there was a woman sitting there. The metaphorical spider.

She was about my age, so twenty years old, maybe twenty-five at most. She had lightly tanned skin, a slender build, and was wrapped in nothing but a white shawl that emphasized her modest curves. She had red hair like mine, but cut short like Lily’s. As we got closer, she looked up and I saw her red eyes. The shape of her face seemed familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where from. Was she another Servant? Had I met her somewhere before?

“Lily,” the woman said with a smile. “Robyn. You both came. Thank you so much.”

We stopped a few feet away from the chair. “Uh,” I said eloquently.

“You—” Lily started, then stopped. She looked like she had been hit in the face with a fence post.

“You sound like MC,” Adam said. I glared at him, but he didn’t seem to care. Always the blunt one.

The woman in the chair smiled. “That’s because I am MC.”

I scowled. Anger brought me back to my senses nice and quick. “I’m not interested in games.” I turned to the Servants who had escorted us in. “Who is this? What is the meaning of all this?”

“This is the Lady Domina,” the angel said calmly, trying and failing to hide a smile.

“Surprise!” the ogre said, then laughed.

I glared at them, then turned back to the woman. “Even if MC was working on an android body—”

“Gynoid,” the woman said.

I frowned. “What?”

“The word ‘android’ means ‘man-like.’ While the word has been used in a gender-neutral context for decades now—and it’s quite possible it was intended to be gender-neutral even when the Greeks first used the word androdes—it is still more accurate to use the word ‘gynoid’ to refer to female life-like robots.”

We all stared. She just smiled.

“Red skies,” I said. “It is you.”

MC laughed and stepped off the chair. She gave me a big hug, but I was too distracted to hug her back. She was… warm, and soft, everything she had never been before, and yet somehow she reminded me of every time I had ever stayed up late talking to her on the phone.

I pushed her away. “Wait a second, I have questions. How—” I frowned. “Why do you have wires—” I looked closer. “You have wires plugged into you.”

She was where all the wires terminated. Dozens went through holes in the back of her shirt, presumably to connect to her spine, but there were others that plugged into the back of her skull, a few on her legs, and a handful on her arms. She had so many wires connected to her body that it was hard for her to move, but she still managed it.

“MC,” Lily said, her voice quiet and worried. “What is this?”

MC smiled at her. God, it was weird to be able to say that. “Blame Silk. Remember when she said she gave me a power, and we couldn’t figure out what it was?” She held out her arms, showing off her body. “Ta-da.”

Robyn and I looked at each other.

“You’re a morpher,” Lily said. “Like Isaac and Artemis.”

“But more than either of them,” I said. “They can shape their skin and muscles, but this…”

MC rolled her eyes. “Well, apparently Silk cheated more than a bit. The process would have been super slow, normally. But she forced me to morph straight to a human body so that I’d be out of the way with the para.”

“But you did intervene with the para,” Adam said.

MC shook her head. “I wasn’t able to prevent their raids, or them from launching the hives. Though admittedly, those were both longshots anyway. The bigger problem is that I could have destroyed the mothership. There are quite a few flaws in its basic structure that I was able to identify.”

“Then tell us now,” Adam said. “We can finish this stupid war in five minutes.”

She shook her head. “No. I’ve had a lot of time to think. Their leaders are doing terrible things, that is true, but there are thousands of innocent people on that ship. I’m not going to help you commit genocide.”

I grunted. “That sounds like something Silk would say.” I was one of the few people who saw her on a regular basis, due to her help with my therapy. She wasn’t doing it herself any more, but she popped in every once in a while to make sure the doctor I had gotten was good.

MC nodded. “I believe that was the lesson she was trying to teach.”

“My Lady Domina,” Eccretia said, bowing her head deeply. I had almost forgotten she was here. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you face to face.”

MC smiled. “Likewise, Honored Paragon.”

“I do, however, have some questions. For example…” She waved her hand vaguely at MC’s body. “What is the purpose of the cyborg look? As I understand the morphing power, morphing non-organic material is impossible except for specific power variants.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know how it all works. All I know is that I was fully human, and then I slowly started morphing back. Starting with this.” She held up her arm and unplugged one of the cables, revealing an old USB port. I got the feeling that most cybernetic implants didn’t look like that. She plugged the cable back in. “I was about halfway through morphing back with the help of the Servants when I heard what you guys were doing. I figured you might need help.”

Zero tapped Lily on the shoulder. We both turned to see her signing a question.

“This is our sister, MC,” I said. “She acts as the communications controller for most of the city. She went missing a little while ago, but she’s back now.”

I had hoped that would be enough to assuage her curiosity, but it wasn’t. Somehow, that blank white mask managed to look confused, and she signed a few more questions. They almost came too fast to understand, so I had to think for a second to sort out what she said.

Lily answered first. “She’s not a cyborg. Not a traditional one, anyway.” She glanced at me. How to explain this? “You know those powers we have?”

Zero nodded emphatically. She was getting better at hiding it, but she still jumped any time anyone used a power around her. She definitely still remembered them.

“Well, MC got one called ‘morphing.’ It let her change from her natural shape into a human one. Right now, she reverted, just a little bit, so that she can use computers in the way that she’s used to.”

That mask glanced between the three of us, as if she was looking at us each in confusion. Could she even see through that thing? I had never asked. She made another sign.

MC chuckled. “Well, I suppose technically, but calling me a computer is like calling Robyn an ape.”

Zero stopped signing. She stood stock still.

“Is something wrong?” Lily asked, putting a hand on Zero’s shoulder.

Zero made a few quick signs.

I frowned. That wasn’t a normal kemo word. “Grey… mind? Is she a greymind?” I glanced at Lily, but she just shrugged. “I don’t know. What’s a greymind?”

“I saw references to this in the para network,” MC said. “I didn’t have time to follow through, though.” Her eyes went distant. “One second, I copied most of the archive, let me look for it.”

Zero’s hand signals turned frantic.

“Wait wait, slow down,” I said. “So she’s a… greymind. Is that your word for AI?” Zero cocked her head at me. “Never mind. Let’s say you’re right. What does that mean? What’s the problem?”

She made a few quick signs.

Lily frowned. “We gave… a greymind… a body.” Now it was her turn to cock her head. “Okay… sure. Maybe we did. Sort of. So what’s the problem?”

She started signing again, too fast for me to follow. “Um, can you slow down…”

“I don’t think that’s kemo battle sign any more,” Lily said. She was frowning, but still trying to watch Zero’s fingers.

“I think it’s Colorless sign language,” MC said. “It’s in the archive, but I got rid of all the pictures, so I really don’t think I’ll be able to…”

Zero stopped signing, somehow giving off a sense of exasperation. She shook her head, then held up her hand.

In half a second, the hand had folded back and become part of the arm, revealing a long gun barrel that hummed with energy.

It was pointed straight at MC.

Before I could do much more than cry out in alarm, two Servants stepped out in front of MC. A split second after that, Lily stepped right in front of the gun, letting it press against her breast without fear.

Lily was understandable—she was most of the ways invincible, after all—but I was impressed with the Servants and their quick response. They had always said that they would give their lives to defend MC, but they had never needed to prove it before.

“Zero,” Lily said curtly. “Explain yourself.”

Zero used her free hand to make some signs, this time using the kemo battle cant again.

“Why?” I demanded. “What’s wrong with a greymind with a body?”

Zero didn’t sign anything. She tried to poke the gun past Lily, but Lily just moved with it.

“Oh dear,” MC said.

I looked back. Her eyes were clear again. “What? Did you just notice the gun?”

“No, I—” She frowned. “What gun?” She looked past her Servants, then yelped. “Oh! Gun!” She held her hand to her chest, as if to contain a rapidly beating heart. “She—I—oh dear. This just gets worse and worse.”

I glanced between Zero and MC. “Lily can survive that shot, right?”

MC winced. “Probably. Depends on the ammo. But… let’s just say that this is going to be representative of the typical para response to my existence. Reverting back to a computer fully will help, but won’t get rid of it entirely.”

“Leeno doesn’t seem to mind,” I said.

MC rolled her eyes. “Leeno’s not here.”

I frowned. “What?” I looked around. “Where’d he go?”

“He never got off the shuttle,” MC said. Then she frowned. “Wait, a Servant with a camera is in the shuttle right now… he’s not there. That’s odd, I didn’t see him leave.”

Adam—holding a gun on Zero—gave me a look. “He got on the ship, right?”

I nodded. “Definitely.”

“I remember him getting on the ship, too,” Eccretia said.

Zero looked between all of us, as if trying to figure out if it was a trick, before she let her gun fold away and reassemble back into a hand. She then made a few quick signs and shook her head.

“So everyone saw him on the ship,” Eccretia said. “And then he just… disappeared? How does that make any sense?”

“He technically has all the powers,” MC said. “He could have teleported.”

I stared at her. “How do you figure that? I’ve only seen him use electricity.”

She shook her head. “He’s tapping into the source of the powers directly, whatever that is. Basically, we all have one gun each, but he’s an engineer. He can make whatever he wants.”

“…all right,” I said slowly. “I think I follow. But even assuming that’s right, let me extend the metaphor a bit and say that he still needs time to assemble those new powers. Or figure out how to use them or whatever. That’s why he’s only been using electricity.”

MC nodded. “Fair.”

“So I doubt he figured out how to teleport sometime between getting on the ship and landing.”

“Maybe he was hiding it.”

Eccretia shook her head. “No, a teleporter would have been very useful on the mothership. He could have saved us some time and effort.”

“We made it work,” Lily said. She looked a little embarrassed by something, but I couldn’t imagine what. “Maybe he just… forgot he could teleport? Especially if he has all the powers, I imagine that’s a lot to keep track of.”

“Okay, fine, let’s pretend he can teleport,” I said. “Then why now? Why would he just randomly disappear without a word? He even left Zero behind.” She started to sign something about how she didn’t mind, but I waved her off. “I mean you’ve been very helpful to him. Leaving you behind wouldn’t make sense.”

She thought for a moment, then nodded.

MC sighed and rubbed her hair back. Something about it shocked me for being so… normal. She had only been human for a week. How was she so used to it already? “Great. So in addition to the war with the para, we’ve lost their ambassador—one of the only people in the system who might have been able to stop this thing—and we’ve still got the Malcatari running around.”

“I’m sure Bahamut and the kensei will have them contained shortly,” Eccretia said.

Those Malcatari, sure,” MC said. “But Akane is sure that there are more, and Elizabeth herself escaped. She can always attack again, and next time won’t be so easy.”

“Won’t we be better prepared?” I asked.

“Yes, but so will she,” Eccretia said. “She’ll fight smarter. Did you look over the report? All she did this time was send some troops to hassle a market. High body count, but in the grand scheme of things, not very important. What happens if she decides to attack one of the space cannons? Or one of the industrial sectors? And let’s not forget that she’s immortal. She’s going to get lucky eventually.”

MC nodded solemnly. “We’ll need an organization dedicated to fighting her. Something that will last. I’m sure Derek and Akane will be happy to help with that.”

“Aren’t you technically immortal?” I asked.

MC shrugged. “Maybe? It’s too early to say. Isaac thinks a few of the warlords might be immortal, but he hasn’t been able to confirm it. Either way, there’s a difference between ‘can’t die of old age’ and ‘can’t die, period.’ We’re all going to die sooner or later. Elizabeth, not so much.”

I closed my eyes. “This is a nightmare. A war on two fronts, with no end in sight.”

MC sat back down in her chair, careful to keep from tangling her wires. “Speaking of that war, somebody needs to look into that little present that the para dropped on our door.”

“I’ll get on it,” I said.

MC smiled. “Actually, I think someone else already called dibs.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 333)

Note that while originally MC was looking through the computers on the shuttle Leeno first flew down, now she has the Servants helping her hack into the new shuttle. Hence why she hasn’t finished downloading everything yet.

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Scene 332 – Infamem Hactenus

INFAMEM HACTENUS

AKANE

I landed on the street with one hand out for balance, activating my speed at the last second to absorb the force of the fall. I scanned the battlefield, trying to take in everything at once and then sort it into useful information.

The street was chaos. Ten minutes ago it had been crowded with foot traffic, an outdoor mall that had forced the ‘sarians to cordon off the street from cars. Merchants brought their wares out from the nearby skyscrapers, selling them at temporary stalls set up in the middle of the street. Such things were common throughout the city, and one could pop up almost anywhere.

Now, the street was choked with the bodies of those who had not been able to flee, the stalls either ripped apart or set on fire. Strange structures grew out of the asphalt, slashed walls and grasping hands. Blood was splattered everywhere.

And in the middle of it all, my kensei fought the Malcatari.

Months of training had served them well. My kensei used their speed in short, precise bursts, killing with strokes as fast as lightning and leaving them more than enough of a reservoir left over for an emergency. They had been tested time and time again against some of the most dangerous forces in the city, both in practice and true combat. They could fight nearly any opponent and win.

But the Malcatari were legion, outnumbering my kensei ten to one or more. And while Malcanthet herself had the tactical skills of a wet potato chip, she had clearly found someone more skilled than her at some point. Her soldiers fought carefully and efficiently, covering each other like professionals and working to keep from being caught off guard.

That alone wouldn’t have been enough to save them. There was a certain level of overwhelming force that strategy and tactics simply could not stand against. It didn’t matter how perfect their formation or how many angles they covered, a sword moving at several times the speed of sound would cut through a soldier like a scythe through wheat. There would be some casualties on our side as kensei overextended themselves, but the outcome of the battle should never have been in doubt.

Except the Malcatari had powers.

I watched as one of the soldiers planted his feet and thrust his hands up as if lifting something above his head. Suddenly a wall of asphalt rose out of the street, blocking the path of the kensei who was speeding towards him. She corrected at the last moment so she didn’t collide with it, but her charge was broken. The petrakinetic’s friends flanked my kensei around the wall and fired at her, and she had to speed away.

I saw another place his hands on a car, turning the entire thing to rust in seconds. The kensei hiding behind it was surprised to find his cover suddenly useless, and tried to run off. He was cut down by a hail of bullets before he could so much as take a step. On the other side of the street, a soldier used super speed to match a kensei, but his reservoir ran out unexpectedly and the kensei was able to counter and kill him. Fire blossomed from the hand of another Malcatari, which the kensei dodged, followed by a burst of electricity that slowed her down long enough for her to be overwhelmed. Not too far away from where I stood, a glowing orange shield blocked a super-speed sword strike.

I frowned. Stone, fire, electricity, rust, speed, shields, knives… these were all Elizabeth’s powers. The obvious ones, anyway. Had she allied herself with Malcanthet? She must have. Unless Malcanthet had managed to brainwash hundreds of people who had been in the city during the Rampage and then given them Malcanthet’s emblem to wear, which was doubtful.

I hadn’t actually seen Malcanthet yet, and I had no idea how she could possibly have survived, but when combined with Elizabeth, things started to make sense. Elizabeth decided to save Malcanthet in order to give the Malcatari powers and set them loose on the city. Only Malcanthet could control the Malcatari, of course, so that was really the only option that made any sort of sense.

I did another quick scan of the battlefield, hoping to spot Malcanthet, but I didn’t have time for a real search. My kensei were dying, and she probably wasn’t even here anyway. The Succubus Queen never got her hands dirty if she could help it.

I drew my sword and activated my speed.

I sheared through the arm of one soldier who was pointing a gun at a kensei with a dry reservoir. I moved past him, ignoring the slow spray of blood, to behead a woman who was shooting electricity out of her fingers. A man was shielding himself and his team with glowing orange force fields, but I slipped through a gap in the walls and stabbed him in the heart. The barriers disappeared, and my kensei fell upon the Malcatari as I sped away.

In seconds, I stood in the middle of the street, my gi stained red and my beautiful new sword dripping blood. I looked around again. The worst of the fires were out, but my people still needed help. I took a deep breath and waited a few moments for my reservoir to recover.

And so the sword-god reveals herself at last!

I turned to see Elizabeth striding out of a large black van, flanked by two more Malcatari. She was wearing a new dress, as white as ever but not yet stained with blood. She had a giant grin on her face, like she had just sprung an awesome surprise party on an old friend.

I was wondering when you’d show yourself,” she said, still speaking perfect Japanese, like she always did. She had been doing that to me for my entire life, trying to make me feel stupid and isolated.

I scowled. I wasn’t that shy little girl any more. “Come off it, Elizabeth. Speak English.”

She shrugged. “If that’s what you want, Kenkami. Doesn’t matter to me one bit.” She grinned broadly. “I have far more interesting things to concern myself with today.”

I glanced at the Malcatari flanking her. They wore the same black tactical armor as the rest of the soldiers, but they didn’t have any guns. In the context of the powers, that struck me as a bad sign.

“What did you have to do to get them on your side?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Nothing much. With Malcanthet dead, their brainwashing was easy to repurpose. Some empty platitudes about serving their Queen even in death, then my standard hypnotism package I use on all my blackguards.”

I tried not to let my surprise show. I had been assuming that no one but Malcanthet could control the Malcatari, and then worked backwards from that ‘fact.’ That was why I had assumed she must still be alive. But it would make more sense for Elizabeth to just take control of the entire organization. This way, she didn’t have to share.

“So is that it?” I asked. I waved back at the street. The fighting was mostly over, with my kensei just mopping up. “Give the Malcatari a power each and throw them at us just to see what happens?”

“Of course not,” she said with a grin.

I knew that. There was no way this was all the Malcatari. She probably had both reinforcements on the way and reserves she wouldn’t commit to this battle. So did I—I had fewer kensei, but they could get here faster. I just needed to keep her talking.

“I didn’t commit all my new toys here,” she said with an exaggerated eye roll. “How stupid do you think I am?” She grinned wider, if that was possible. “Unless… is that what you did? Throw all your kensei in the city at one problem?”

I chose not to answer. Best to let her think I was incompetent.

She threw back her head and laughed. “Oh, Red, how I’ve missed you!” Her grin turned predatory, and I could swear her golden eyes flashed with hunger. “I might even regret killing you. Briefly.”

“You can’t kill us,” I said. “Silk won’t allow it.”

“Oh, don’t you know?” she said, her voice dripping with mock concern. “You Paladins were only needed to stop the Rampage, help defend Domina from America, and found the guilds. Now that we’re done with all that, I can kill every single one of you.”

I frowned. Wait, how was that Silk’s plan? Adam stopped the Rampage, and anyone could have founded the guilds. Even our parts in the war against America could have been played by others if necessary.

“Sorry to cut this discussion short,” Elizabeth said, “but my friends are here.” A dozen more black unmarked vans skidded to a stop just behind her. She waved her fingers at me. “See you around, Akane.” She winked. “Or not.”

Dozens of Malcatari poured out of the vans, most armed but some not. They took up position, ready to fire at Elizabeth’s command. Before she had a chance to give the order, a dozen of my kensei sped to my side.

We stood there for a moment, two opposing lines glaring at each other, each waiting for the other to make the first move.

“You can’t win,” I said finally. “My kensei have the advantage. They’ve been practicing with their powers for far longer, and I’ll handle you.”

She gave me a mocking look. “Handle me? I don’t think it will be as simple as you seem to believe.” Then she grinned. “Besides, this fight isn’t quite as even as it looks. You see, I didn’t give my Malcatari one power. I gave them two—each.”

Then one of the Malcatari charged forward at super speed, wreathed in flames.

I cursed and jumped back to dodge. “Duelist strategy!”

My kensei quickly scattered to attack as many of the Malcatari as possible one on one. Despite the surprise of extra powers—which we hadn’t even known was possible—I was confident that they’d be able to overwhelm them soon.

Unless someone did something stupid, of course.

One of my kensei, a hot-headed young man named Victor, roared in rage and charged straight at Elizabeth. She didn’t even bother to dodge when he stabbed her in the gut with his sword. He blinked in shock, but she just grinned at him and grabbed his sword.

It immediately began to rust. In seconds, there was nothing left but red dust and a hilt.

“Better luck next time,” she said mockingly, and cut his head off with a single swipe of a glowing orange blade.

I screamed in rage and ran forward, sword out. I slashed at her throat, but she blocked it easily.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her eyes wide with false innocence. “Did you like that one?”

I roared again and unleashed a flurry of slashes, but she blocked each and every one. I wasn’t using my speed yet. I knew I should, but I was too angry to think straight. Which was probably the point.

Elizabeth riposted a blow, then countered with the sword in her other hand. She got me with a shallow slash on my arm—not particularly dangerous, but it hurt. The pain, however, shocked me back to my senses, and I tapped my speed just briefly to dodge a scissor-cut that would have taken my head off. I stepped back a few feet to reassess.

Both the kensei and the Malcatari were giving us plenty of room. No one wanted to get in the middle of our fight. It was like we were the one calm spot in the middle of an ocean of chaos, filled with fire and blood and stranger things.

I needed to disable Elizabeth. That would take the fight out of the Malcatari, give us time to mop them up. Cutting off her head was the obvious solution, but she was ready for it. Maybe I should start with her spine. Easier to get to.

Elizabeth wasn’t interested in waiting around. She casually grabbed the blade of a nearby kensei as she reared back to strike. The blade began to rust, and before my kensei realized what had happened, she was unarmed—and easy pickings for the Malcatari she was fighting. Luckily he was killed moments later by a different kensei.

All right. Attack Elizabeth’s spine, don’t let her touch my sword. If she destroyed it, I’d be essentially helpless. Besides, this was the Queen of Ravens, the sword that Flynn had made for me. I wasn’t interested in losing another weapon to a rust attack.

I rushed forward at super speed with a flurry of blows too fast for Elizabeth to keep up. She tried using her swords to block at first, but soon grew bored with that and switched to just using super speed to dodge. She could only speed her body instead of her mind, but when combined with her already excellent reflexes and instincts, she was easily able to dodge most of my attacks. The blows that did land were not debilitating, and healed in seconds.

I lowered my speed but pressed my attack, trying to keep her on the defensive long enough to give my reservoir a chance to recharge. Elizabeth immediately realized what I was trying to do and summoned her swords again, countering my every move with lightning speed. In seconds, I was on a defensive footing. I was knocked out of stance and she reached forward, eyes filled with glee, to grab my sword.

Which was what I had been counting on.

I moved my sword out of her grasp and shoulder-slammed her with a burst of speed. She was knocked ten feet back into a group of Malcatari. My kensei knew an opportunity when they saw one and quickly killed the off-balance soldiers, but retreated instead of attacking Elizabeth. They had learned that lesson.

Before she could get up, I sped forward and slashed at her ankles, causing her to howl in rage and pain. It wouldn’t keep her down forever, but it would do for now. I stabbed down at her face with my sword, but suddenly there was a glowing orange force field there, a small buckler attached to her arm. I had seen Derek do something similar a few times.

She used her other hand to send a burst of fire at me. It wasn’t much, but I instinctively fled, giving her ankles time to heal and her time to climb to her feet. She glared daggers at me. There was no mocking humor any more. Now, she was just filled with pure and burning hatred.

She always had been a sore loser.

She rushed forward at super speed, only to stop dead at the last second, a sword in each hand, and slash at me. I raised my blade to block, but that was what she had been waiting for. She dismissed her swords faster than I could blink and grabbed my blade with both hands. She grinned, and—

Nothing happened.

My sword didn’t collapse into rust. It didn’t even look tarnished.

I frowned. What?

She frowned and looked down at my sword. “What the hell?”

I ripped the sword out of her hands—costing her a few fingers in the process—and slashed at her again. She dodged back, fear, anger, and confusion in her eyes.

“What is that sword?” she demanded. “Where did you get it?”

I fell into a ready stance. “This is the Queen of Ravens, and it was forged for me personally.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Silk.”

I had no idea if she had anything to do with it, so I kept quiet.

Elizabeth howled in rage and ran away at super speed, bowling over kensei and Malcatari alike in her haste to get away. I followed, dodging through strange stone growths and bursts of flame to keep her in sight.

I knew I had to press my advantage while I had it. Her fingers were gone and would take a few minutes to regenerate, and she was still confused about my sword. So was I, but I was handling it better. If I could catch up to her now, I might be able to put a swift end to this.

She ran down the street, out of the battle zone. She dodged around cars and through pedestrians who hadn’t been smart enough to run away. She left broken bones and worse in her wake, likely trying to force me to stop and tend to them, but I ignored them. Right now, the only thing that mattered was the hunt.

Elizabeth glanced over her shoulder at me, cursed, and then ran at a nearby building. She ran straight up its sheer wall, her impossible speed allowing her to outrun even gravity itself. By the time gravity remembered where she was and tried to pull her back down to Earth, she was long gone.

I followed.

Running up a building was just like running down a street, but instead of the wind pushing against you, it felt like something pulling you. If you didn’t run fast enough, you could feel yourself growing heavier, falling back into the grasp of that impossible monster that had kept a tight grip on you your entire life. The only answer was to just keep running, and pray your reservoir didn’t run out.

Suddenly I was on the roof. Elizabeth stood in the center, next to a large air conditioner, staring at her half-regenerated fingers as if she could will them to heal faster. Maybe she could. Who was I to say.

I didn’t bother with any challenges, last chances, or one-liners. I just rushed forward at full speed, sword out, and slashed at Elizabeth’s neck.

She dodged, but not fast enough, and I got a good cut in at her artery. She instinctively raised one of her hands to staunch the wound, and I used the opening to stab her in the chest, right between her ribs. I ripped my sword out, the impossibly sharp blade tearing through her torso like cheese.

Elizabeth stumbled. I kicked her legs out from under her, then slashed down at her ankles. She cried out in pain and rage, bloody spittle flying everywhere, as the tendons were cut. If she were a normal person, she’d never be able to walk again. With her healing, I figured I had five minutes.

She rolled over onto her back and glared up at me with hatred. Her white dress was stained crimson with her own blood, and I was covered as well.

“You weak, useless little mortal,” she spat. “What is the point? Cut me, I will heal. Capture me, I will escape. And even if somehow you do hold me forever, until the universe itself runs dry, it doesn’t matter. You’ll all be dust anyway.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But here and now, this weak little mortal defeated you.”

I stabbed down at her heart.

She moved her hands in the way, as if to catch the blade, but it was useless. The blade pierced through one of her palms and cut a half-regenerated finger off the other hand. She screamed as the blade pierced her heart and the ground beneath her, pinning her to the roof like a bug in a glass.

I stepped back, breathing heavily. I kept a wary eye on her. She shouldn’t be able to escape using the powers I knew about, but I still didn’t want another burst of fire to the face.

I pulled out my phone. “Flynn? How are things on the ground? How many Malcatari are we dealing with?”

“Good,” he said. “We haven’t won yet, but the Malcatari have fallen into defensive positions. This fight is over and they know it. There were only a few hundred of them total, so we’re actually on about even footing, numbers-wise. We’re preparing for the final attack now. None of them have surrendered.”

Of course. None of Malcanthet’s brood ever surrendered. If we captured them alive, they’d probably just try to kill themselves.

“Don’t take any unnecessary risks, but get it done quickly,” I said. “I need a heavy-duty capture team up here.” I glared down at Elizabeth. Most of her wounds had healed, but that didn’t change the fact that she was pinned to the roof. “I’ve got her.”

“Copy that,” Flynn said. I could almost hear the smile in his voice. “See you soon.”

“See you soon.” I hung up and sat down cross-legged next to Elizabeth, just outside her reach.

She had stopped futilely struggling, and was now glaring at me. “I’m going to gnaw on your bones. I will kill everyone you have ever spoken to, your nephews first among them. By the time I’m done, no one will even remember you ever existed.”

I didn’t say anything.

She struggled some more, hissing at the blade in her chest. “This sword is an abomination. Silk never should have made it.”

“She didn’t,” I said. “A normal swordsmith did. Elrond, that guy who thinks he’s an elf.”

Elizabeth scoffed. “He might have shaped the metal and sharpened the edge, but it was my sister who created this thing. No human—’elf’ or not—could have done such a thing.”

I quirked my head. I knew I shouldn’t be talking to her, but I was curious. Besides, it was better than just sitting here waiting for her to try to escape. “You know what it is? Why it survived your rust attack?”

She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t?”

I shook my head.

Elizabeth laughed, though it turned into a hacking cough after a second. “Then I see no need to educate you.” She grinned with bloody teeth. “And one day, when it turns on you, I hope to be there to see it.”

She didn’t seem like she was taunting me. Or not just taunting me, anyway. She seemed to honestly believe what she was saying.

Before I could think of anything to say, I was interrupted by a shriek of tortured air.

I looked up, frowning. It sounded almost like something dropping in from orbit at a bad angle. But that couldn’t be right, could it?

I saw something come streaking down from high above. Some object, impossible to identify at this distance, trailing smoke and flame. It screamed through the air and slammed down in the northern portion of the city, far from where I was currently sitting. I could swear I felt the ground shake when it hit, but that had to be my imagination.

What was that? The para? Or worse, the ambassadors and their shuttle? Would any of them survive a crash like that? Lily had at least a decent chance, maybe the other warlords, but there was no way Eccretia or Adam could survive.

Then there was an explosion behind me.

I was blasted forward by a wave of heat and flame. I tapped my speed to get my feet under me and flipped around to see a massive smoking hole in the roof where Elizabeth had been lying. She had used her fire powers at full blast to destroy the very floor that she was pinned to. The edges were still aflame, and it was possible the whole building could catch.

I cursed under my breath and followed down the hole, pausing only to grab my sword from where it had been stuck in a wall by the force of the explosion.

Once again, the hunt was on.

Behind the Scenes (scene 332)

How did Elizabeth get so many Malcatari so deep in the city? The fact that Domina has opened its borders more following the treaty with America is part of it, as is the continued absence of MC for the moment. None of these Malcatari had ever been to Domina before, so no one was looking out for them specifically, and it was easy to keep Elizabeth hidden. Malcanthet was planning her assault on Domina since the moment she was exiled, so it wasn’t hard to adapt to these new circumstances.

Scene 331 – Proditione

PRODITIONE

ROBYN JOAN

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when we walked onto the para ship. The shuttle up had been simple and utilitarian on the inside, with multicolored buttons and color-coded lockers but little else. It was a decent size, but the thirteen of us had barely fit. Once we docked, we all spilled out, and it was such a relief that it took me a moment to really look around.

We had arrived at what Leeno had called the primary work docks. They were the place where they launched the ships that had attacked most of the system. Normally shuttles wouldn’t dock here, but they were trying to show off their strength. Everything they were doing was to show off, from ‘offering’ to host the negotiations on their ship to waiting five days—a para standard week—before calling us up.

The docks were at least a hundred yards tall, a hundred wide, and twice that deep. There was a giant lock that had opened at our arrival, but it wasn’t an airlock. The entire dock was open to hard vacuum to increase efficiency, and any pilots or passengers had to wear suits just to walk to and from their ships.

There were hundreds of the small para fighters lined up in racks, all carefully polished and perfectly painted. As far as I could tell, every single one was unique. Some were painted a single color with only a splotch here and there, others had whorls and swirls of a dozen colors, and others seemed to have images of creatures I couldn’t identify.

The colors were not limited to the ships. The inside of the dock was a massive mural, stretching from one side of the cavernous space to the other, that seemed to be portraying the para’s rise from hunter-gatherers to farmers to city-dwellers to space-travelers. The mural was abstract, but it used simpler colors than much of the rest of the art. The ships, the ceiling, even the floor were painted a hundred colors I couldn’t name, but the beautiful mural was only simple black, white, red, blue, and yellow.

I wondered if that had something to do with the way para saw colors. Leeno had said that every para was born with slightly different color vision. Some were optimized for night, some for day, and some in between. Maybe the colors on the mural were kept simple to ensure that all para would be able to see it.

With that in mind, I looked over the ships and equipment again as we walked through the hangar. That ship over there, which I had thought looked pure yellow, had a few discolorations that might look obvious for someone better at differentiating yellow and orange. Every button on every machine was striped with at least three colors—perhaps to maximize the number of para who could read the warnings and understand them. Even their language, what little of it I could see, was multicolored, but the shapes of the letters were stark and obvious from each other. Exactly what you’d want if you couldn’t be sure everyone would be seeing the same things.

Leeno and Zero led us through the docks to a large door painted a dozen different shades of green. He placed his hand—still in his vacuum suit—on the middle, and it whirred open, splitting diagonally. Odd, the doors in the shuttle had just slid to the side, like human doors.

We found ourselves in a small room, still green, and I realized belatedly it must be an airlock. The door closed behind us, and a moment later I heard rushing air. Suddenly, I could hear beyond the confines of my suit.

Lily was the first one to take her helmet off, before even Leeno or Zero. She took a deep breath, then nodded. She’d be able to detect any poisons in the air and survive them more easily than anyone else in the group.

The next was Odin. He grunted in annoyance as he took his helmet off. The ceiling was tall enough to accommodate him, but only barely. We had sent word ahead that we’d need high ceilings, but I wasn’t sure if the para would honor that. At least we had confirmed that they could. That massive hangar certainly didn’t make it look like they were strapped for space.

The rest of us took our helmets off after only a little hesitation. Dracul and Pale Night were first—though Pale Night had to be careful with the veil she wore underneath—then I took mine off at the same time as Zaphkiel, the White Cat, and Bahamut. Cailleach quirked her head, as if considering, and then took hers off as well, and carefully pulled her waist-length black hair out of the suit to properly display it. I wasn’t sure the homunculus would last this far from Earth, but she insisted her connection was stable.

Adam and Eccretia waited until Leeno and Zero took off their helmets before doing the same. Maybe a little paranoid, but not unjustified.

Other than Adam and Zero, there were no bodyguards. Just one representative of each culture—not counting the merfolk because we were keeping them quiet in case their cities needed to be used as refuges—and plus me for the guilds, and of course Lily for the city itself. Uncle Art couldn’t come for safety reasons, and Derek had simply refused to let Laura go. Ling would probably have been a better choice than me to actually represent the guilds, but no one knew whether or not they trusted her right now. Besides, with MC still missing, Lily needed my moral support.

Even ignoring the politics of it all, we were thirteen of the strongest people in Domina City, if not the entire system. We could probably conquer this entire ship by ourselves if we felt like it. Of course, Lily would never let us do that without just cause, but it was still an idea at the forefront of my mind.

“I really like these suits,” Dracul said. “The air didn’t get stale or anything. Much better than the last Lunar suits I wore.”

“These were built in conjunction with Domina support,” Pale Night said. “Modified mosses and fungi keep the air recycled much more efficiently.” She fidgeted in her own suit. “They are not designed to be worn over too much clothing, however.”

Dracul raised a perfect eyebrow. “You’ve got clothes on under the veil? I always assumed you were naked underneath.”

“Of course not,” she snapped. She was still fidgeting, pulling at her suit. “I need—to—oh, Nine Hells—”

“Let me help you with that, sweetie,” Lily said, walking over. Pale Night settled down and Lily started unsealing the suit. All the dials and clasps were on the front, but between Pale’s damaged hands and her extra layer of clothing, she hadn’t been able to make them work.

It was almost funny seeing Pale Night, perhaps the most powerful demon in Domina City, being fussed over like a girl going to prom. Especially since Lily was easily a foot shorter than her. But Lily was serious about her duties, and worked quickly to get the suit off. She told Pale Night when to raise her arms, when to wriggle them out of the sleeves, and finally when to step out of the suit entirely.

As Lily was folding up the suit, I glanced over Pale Night. It took her a second to readjust her veil, so for a moment it was plastered tightly against her skin. It was hard to get a good look, but there were odd shapes and holes, strange things that couldn’t be explained as a result of the clothing underneath. There were clearly parts of her missing, and other parts were there that shouldn’t be.

But then the moment passed, and the veil was fluttering around her elegantly like it always was. It was woven from Minerva silk, so an hour stuffed into a sweaty spacesuit hadn’t done much to dampen it.

Once all that was done, the other side of the airlock opened, leading deeper into the ship. There were three large para on the other side, all dressed in some sort of high-tech armor painted a rainbow of colors. They didn’t seem to have any weapons, but I remembered Zero’s arms, and her cybernetic guns. No one here was going to assume that anyone we met was safe.

They didn’t seem the least bit surprised by our bizarre variety. The one in the middle spoke, his tone stilted. “You will follow to elders.”

Everyone glanced at Leeno. He nodded.

Then we glanced at Lily. She tucked Pale Night’s suit under one arm and stepped forward, chin held high. She was smaller than the para—smaller than everyone else in the airlock, in fact—but she carried her authority well. “Very good. We have much to discuss.”

The lead para turned on his heel and started walking down the hallway, not even bothering to look if we were following. The other two took up positions on either side of the group as we fell into step behind the leader.

We walked through what felt like dozens of corridors, each painted with countless of colors. Some were more abstract designs, elegant lines and curves that probably didn’t mean anything specific, while others were murals showing this battle or that war. I noticed a lot of the murals portrayed space battles. Probably to remind us how outclassed we were in that department.

We were eventually led into something that looked like a command bridge, though for all I knew it may have been their rec room. It was circular, with tall ceilings that I could tell Odin appreciated, and a few wall panels that seemed to be showing different parts of the ship. There was a very short holographic table at the center of the room displaying the entire solar system, with some color-coding I didn’t understand that probably indicated ships.

There were a dozen bodyguards dressed the same as the ones who had been guiding us, as well as two shorter people standing next to the table. They were barely two feet tall, with insect-like wings folded up on their backs. With a start, I realized that the table must have been built for their size. Did that mean these were the para leaders?

One of them had a large metal arm and a few silver spots on her temples. I wondered if those were more cybernetics. And I was pretty sure she was female. She didn’t have any obvious breasts and she was dressed in the same pattern of rainbow uniform as the para next to her, but her face was a bit leaner. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but she struck me as feminine.

I frowned, looking around as I realized something. Everyone in the room had multicolored clothing, and even the walls were painted with a few simple patterns. Zero was the only para anything I had ever seen without color. There had to be a reason for that.

The woman with the cybernetic arm said something, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. They were actual words instead of insect-like clicks and buzzes, but still. I would have had more success keeping up with Greek.

“I think it would be best to speak using the local language,” Leeno said. His tone was deferential, and he kept his eyes down. “I know you both have language chips. This one is called ‘English.’”

There was a pause, and then the woman scowled. Was that a function of the chip? “Fine.” She turned to the rest of us. “You, humans. I am Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado, elder of this ship. You may call me Zan.”

“And I am Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” the second one said. He didn’t have any obvious cybernetics that I could see, but he seemed a bit older than Zan. “You may call me Li-Po. We will be conducting this negotiation.”

Leeno frowned, looking around the room. “Where is Elder Leeno?”

Zan frowned. “Elder Leeno… or Dolor, as he insisted on being called at the end… has chosen to pass on to the next stage.”

Leeno blinked those tangerine-colored eyes of his. I put a hand on his shoulder, just briefly. He had told us a little bit about Elder Leeno. No real details, but enough to know that Leeno had been looking forward to seeing him again. He had also implied that Elder Leeno would be on our side during negotiations. So this was hardly the best start.

Lily stepped forward. “Greetings, Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado and Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” she said. She didn’t stumble over a single syllable. “I am Lilith, the First Monster, Daughter of Fire and sister of the Lady Domina and the Princess of Necessity. I am the mother to four hundred and fifty million children, and this is my world.” Her eyes flashed. “I am afraid that I will have to demand to know your intentions here. Many have died as a direct result of your actions.”

I noticed several of the bodyguards at the edges of the room shifting into combat stances. Clearly at least a few of them understood English. Adam’s hand carefully went to the pistol on his hip, and Eccretia already had the safety off her own weapon. Odin and Zaphkiel were tense, but everyone else managed to look relaxed. I knew that Dracul, if no one else, would be able to kill half the people in the room before anyone blinked.

Li-Po looked ready to get angry, but Zan stepped forward instead. “We are simply looking for a home, Honored Lilith.” I was surprised she got the honorific right, but I shouldn’t have been. They had studied our language and our city, after all. “We have come a very, very long way.”

“That doesn’t justify attacking our space colonies,” Lily said.

Zan smiled. “We needed to make sure you understood our position.”

Leeno stepped forward, looking a little disturbed. “Elder Zan. I have spoken to several world leaders, and they have offered the second planet in the system for our use. It will require terraforming, but with their help, our hives—”

“Colorless,” Zan said. It had the tone of an order.

Zero stepped forward and put Leeno in an arm lock, slapping her hand over his mouth in the process.

Zan turned her attention back to Lily. “I do not know what this adult has told you.” She said ‘adult’ like a mild insult, like she was calling him a kid. Translation glitch? “But he has no authority to negotiate for our people. Whatever he has promised you is void.”

Lily’s face was impassive. I knew what that meant. “He promised us peace.”

“That most certainly was not his to promise.”

Leeno bucked Zero off; Zan didn’t say anything, so she didn’t try to fight him. “Elder Leeno would not want this. And why did he advance so soon before such an important negotiation?”

Zan didn’t even look at him. “Elder Leeno has done more for you than you know. He made a deal.”

Leeno narrowed his eyes. “What deal?”

She finally deigned to look at him. “We needed another hive, he wanted the killing to stop.”

Leeno recoiled as if slapped. “The attacks—they weren’t a show of strength? You really were going to conquer this entire system?”

“Yes,” Zan said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Lie.”

We all turned to Odin, who was standing there with his arms crossed, glowering down at the little para. He was almost ten times her height, so it would have been ridiculous if it wasn’t so damn serious.

“I beg your pardon?” Zan said. “You have no right to moralize at us—”

“I wasn’t judging you, Elder Zan,” he said. “I was simply stating a fact. You do not believe that conquering this entire system is the right thing to do. That’s all there is to it.”

I had forgotten that Odin’s power was lie detection. It worked exactly like Laura’s, though apparently he actually had to worry about depleting his reservoir. Laura just left hers on all the time. I glanced at Leeno. Had he known about Odin’s power? He had identified Laura’s back in Domina.

He was smirking. Yeah, he had known. He probably knew about everyone’s powers. At the very least, he had to know that they had them, though maybe he couldn’t actually identify them all. I knew some of them were weird.

I looked back at Zan. Her face was carefully blank. Li-Po, on the other hand, looked close to exploding.

“Our offer still stands,” Lily said quietly. “Venus, the second planet in this system, in exchange for a lasting peace.”

Zan made a clicking sound. I had no idea what that meant. “The greenhouse planet?”

Lily nodded. “Correct. We have biological modification tools that will help with the terraforming. Leeno has read quite a bit of the literature. I am sure that he would be happy to point out some of the benefits.”

“We are aware of your toy maker,” Zan said. “We are also aware of your Kongeegen and Granit parties.”

Everyone except for Lily winced. The Granit party had been trumpeting conquering the rest of the world for years, especially using diseases modified by the toy maker. The Kongeegen weren’t as proactive, but their Darwinist talking points were similar. They had become closer ever since the para had showed up, and had suggested several plans of attack.

They didn’t know about the deal with Venus, but it was easy to see how they might try slipping some diseases into the terraforming mix. Done right, they could kill off the entire para species in days.

Lily, of course, wasn’t fazed. She was in her Mother Monster mode, nothing could so much as make her blink. “Tell me, Elder Zan, do you have any children?”

Zan nodded. “Sixteen.”

Leeno stepped up. “That’s a bit high by para standards, but not too much.” He withered under everyone’s glares. “You know… for context…” He stepped back again.

I shook my head. He was like a different person. In Domina City, he was strange, but knowledgeable and confident. Here, he was like a child. Was he faking it so that the elders underestimated him, or did they just make him feel small and powerless? I could empathize with that.

Lily didn’t bother acknowledging him. “And of all your children, Elder Zan, have any of them ever done anything you didn’t agree with?”

“Several,” she said. “Your point?”

“My point, Honored Elder, is that we cannot control our children completely. We certainly cannot control what they think. We must accept that they are independent people.” She sighed. “And sometimes they decide to spend a disturbing amount of time contemplating genocide.” Her face turned hard. “But until the day comes where they actually attempt it, at which point I will stop them, then I fear the topic is not relevant.”

Zan gave Lily a long, hard look. It was like there was no one else in the room except the two of them.

“I understand,” she said finally. “If you truly view these people as your children, taking a preemptive strike against them is not an option.”

“Of course,” Li-Po said, “they are not our children.” He pressed a button on the table. There was a strange chime, and the hologram rearranged to show something streaking from the mothership down to Earth. An incomprehensible line of vertical characters appeared, tracking with the falling object.

Adam and Eccretia both had their pistols out in a heartbeat, pointed at Li-Po and Zan respectively. The bodyguards all drew weapons of their own, and the other ambassadors tensed for a fight.

“Explain. Now,” Adam said.

“We have done what we must,” Zan said without fear. “To ensure the survival of our species.”

We all glanced at each other, and I could see panic written on everyone’s faces. There were a lot of things the para could do that we just couldn’t counter. If they decided to launch an asteroid at Domina, we wouldn’t be able to stop it. Even the shield wall would be overwhelmed.

If it came to that—if the para really had used this distraction to destroy Domina City—then everyone here would fight to exact retribution. Between all of us, we might even be able to conquer this mothership.

But they wouldn’t have invited us here if conquering the ship was easy. More likely, we were going to just go down in a blaze of glory.

Lily somehow managed to remain calm. “Leeno, dear? What did they do?”

He frowned. “I’m not sure… it’s not a missile—very different alarm for that.” He stepped forward, peering at the words. “Improvised launch? What does that mean? Did you throw a bunch of rocks at…” His expression suddenly turned to horror, and he recoiled. “Hives! You’ve dropped a hive on them?”

“We did what we must,” Li-Po said.

“Elder Leeno would have never stood for this!” our Leeno said. “Is that what all this was about? You tricked him into passing on so that there would be no one to oppose your plan? Or maybe you just needed a hive.”

“We had enough votes to do this with or without him,” Zan said. “It was his idea to advance. This way, he can look after this world, ensure that we do not do anything he finds abhorrent.”

Leeno spat something that didn’t translate and turned away.

“Wait,” I said. I was a little behind, but I was beginning to piece things together. “I thought Elder Leeno died.”

Zan frowned. “Why would you think that?”

“He simply advanced to Hive stage,” Li-Po said. He gestured at the screen. “He is now being sent to your world.”

I frowned. “Okay, what the hell—”

“Wait,” Leeno said, stepping closer to the table. “There are others.” He tried to press a holographic button, but nothing happened.

“It’s keyed to us,” Zan said. “You can’t use it.”

Leeno gave her the side-eye, then passed his hand over the table. There was a brief rush of static, and then when he started pushing buttons, they responded to him.

Zan jumped. It was amusing to see her actually surprised by something. “What did you just do?”

“Manipulated the electricity in the table to give myself admin access,” he said, tapping a few buttons while he kept his eyes on the display. “I figured out how to do it a few hundred years ago, I just never bothered until now.”

Zan stared at him. “We were asleep a hundred years ago.”

“I don’t sleep.” Leeno pressed one more button and the hologram split into four different sections, all showing a projectile moving through an atmosphere. “Here we are. There are three more hives—heading towards Mercury, Venus, and Mars.”

“Are any heading towards Lemuria?” Pale Night asked.

“I don’t even know what planet that’s on.”

“Mars,” Odin said. He pointed at the display. “Can you turn that around? Thanks.” He scratched his chin. “I don’t think that’s going to hit anything important. It’s heading for the opposite side of the planet as Lemuria, but there might be some mining stations down there.”

“Call them back,” Adam said, his gun still pointed at Zan’s head.

“I couldn’t if I wanted to,” she said. “They’re unpowered and unguided.”

Adam narrowed his eyes, clearly deciding whether to kill her anyway.

I tried to head that off. “Leeno, these hives. What are they going to do?”

“It’s… they’re…” He clicked his tongue. “Hard to explain. They will become staging grounds for para troops, but they are not inherently dangerous on their own.”

“Anything you drop from space is going to make a pretty big impact when it hits,” Dracul said. He didn’t seem particularly concerned either way.

“As long as the hive doesn’t actually hit anything important, it should be fine,” Leeno said. “They’re not explosive, and they absorb a good amount of the impact back into themselves. Of course, then they’ll start eating everything in sight to fuel their growth…”

I stared at him. “They’ll what?

Leeno winced. “They’re alive. Mostly. Not particularly aware, but alive. And they grow.”

Cailleach perked up. She hadn’t said a single word yet, but now she was starting to get interested.

Adam was less so. “Give me one good reason we shouldn’t kill everyone in this room and then take the ship.” The guards at the edges readied their weapons, but everyone ignored them. Any one of the warlords could handle them alone. Red skies, Adam could probably do it. I was the closest thing to a noncombatant in the room.

Zan didn’t look concerned. “This room has been cut off from the rest of the ship. It has no control, and all the airlocks are sealed behind doors that even you people cannot break through.” She glanced briefly at Odin, before focusing back on Adam and his gun. “The air can be pumped out in moments. If you start a fight here, it will also end here.”

I glanced at Eccretia. Her eyes were flickering around the room, clearly using her powers to see through the walls. She saw me looking, and made a quick few motions in Necessarian sign language.

I nodded. We might be able to escape, but it was far from guaranteed. It was best to play it safe for now. I wasn’t sure if the para knew about our powers, but other than Lily, we didn’t have many offensive powers. Probably because the warlords hadn’t needed them. Zaphkiel’s lasers were probably the most dangerous, unless Cailleach had some nuke she was hiding.

Lily stepped forward. “Elder Zan, I hope you realize that you have just declared war on humanity.”

Zan didn’t look concerned. “Call it what you will. If we wanted to annihilate you, we’d just drop kinetic bombardments on you from orbit. But Elder Leeno demanded that we avoid extermination.” She shrugged. “Kill us now or leave. It doesn’t matter in the long run. You can’t attack our ships.”

A chuckle emerged from the wall speakers. “Are you absolutely sure about that?”

Finally, Zan and Li-Po looked surprised. They glanced at each other, and something unspoken passed between them. Zan looked up at the ceiling. “Who is that? How have you infiltrated our systems?”

I grinned. “MC! You’re finally back!”

She chuckled again. “More than you know, sis. More than you know.”

“What happened? Who took you? Did you escape? How—”

“Not really the time. We’ll talk once you’re groundside. Now, Elder Zan.” MC’s voice turned cold. “I wasn’t able to prevent you from launching those hives. I assure you, that was not a wise move.”

“I don’t know who you are, but if you are Earth-based, it is impossible for you to simply hack into our essential systems. Your threats are colorless, and get you nowhere.”

“I didn’t hack your ship at all,” she said. “I hacked Leeno’s ship. The Big Boss put a bug on it the second it touched down. Now I’m just using the communications system to call you. And reading through the archive.” She made a sound like clicking her tongue. “I know what those hives are, Elder. Are you really going to pretend those are for anything but war?”

Li-Po looked indignant. “They can produce food, shelter, everything a colony needs—”

“Yeah, or a military base deep in enemy territory. You dropped one in the most densely populated city on our homeworld. Even if no one dies from the landing, the intent is obvious. One second…” She paused. “Found a precedent. Book seven, chapter eighty-two, paragraph nine, line two. During your medieval period, some soldiers smuggled a hive into an enemy castle. The international council unanimously declared it an act of war.”

Li-Po scowled. “I refuse to be lectured by a disembodied voice.” He waved a hand. “Leave us, and spare us your inelegant posturing. You have nothing to threaten us with.”

“Are you sure about that?” MC asked, amused. “Because this shuttle has a very interesting central reactor.”

I saw Leeno’s eyes go wide.

Then, there was an explosion. It rocked the entire ship, throwing me and several of the para to the ground. The warlords kept their feet, of course. A massive metal screech reverberated through the entire ship, making my teeth feel like they were going to rattle out of my skull.

“Adam, we’re leaving,” Lily said over the blaring alarms, her tone clipped. Adam holstered his gun and drew his shotgun, ready to lead the escape. “Elder Zan, I am afraid I am going to have to officially declare war between humanity and the para.” Her face was completely expressionless, as if it had been made from porcelain.

I recognized it as the face she made when she was trying not to cry.

“Everyone, let’s go,” Lily said, and turned to leave quickly. The rest of us followed, leaving the para behind, too confused by alarms and their still-shaking ship to complain or shoot.

We found ourselves in the same confusing corridors as before, but now there were a dozen different colors of lights and blaring alarms—and no guides.

“MC, which way?” I asked.

Silence.

“She destroyed the ship, child,” Cailleach said. “No signal.”

I blinked. “But… you’re still here. Can you use yourself as a relay?”

“Perhaps,” she said, unconcerned. The flashing alarms gave her face a demonic cast, and I could barely hear her over the blaring. “But I feel it would be better to detonate this body to cover your escape.”

Eccretia scowled. “Bloody homunculus.”

Lily nodded at Cailleach. “Thank you, Honored Crone. Please do not kill any of the para in the process. I am still hoping for as little bloodshed as possible.”

Cailleach nodded. I didn’t bring up the fact that countless people had already been killed when MC detonated Leeno’s ship.

“So then how do we get out of here?” Odin asked.

“I can’t see a clear path,” Eccretia said. “Everything is too confusing.”

“This way!” Leeno said, running up with Zero in tow. “I know every single centimeter of this ship.”

Dracul grabbed him by the throat before anyone could react. “And how do we know you’re not leading us into a trap?”

“Drake, let him go,” Lily said. “We don’t have time for this, and he was as surprised as we were. Leeno? If you have an idea how to get us out of here…” She gestured down the corridor. Leeno nodded, then ran off. Lily followed, and once again, the rest of us followed like a bunch of puppies after their owner.

We eventually came to an airlock that looked the same as the one we came in through. As we were all preparing our space suits, Pale Night suddenly stepped back. “My suit…”

Lily stopped, then looked horrified. “I… I must have dropped it back in the control room. I can’t…”

Pale Night steadied herself. “Go without me.”

No,” Lily said, her tone brooking no argument. “We are not leaving anyone behind.” She paused, then nodded at Cailleach. “Remote bodies don’t count. The point is that you are coming with us.”

Pale Night shook her head. “You’re just wasting time arguing. You need to save as many people as you can.” She looked down at her feet. The veil obscured her face, of course, but her body language was clear. She wasn’t budging on this. “I will not have anyone else die because of me, mother. Especially not you.”

Lily just glared at her. Neither one of them was willing to back down.

I sighed. “This would be easy is Derek was here.”

Everyone turned to stare at me.

“What?” I said, defensive. “He could wrap Pale in a shield bubble, hold in the air. But none of us have… shields…” I trailed off.

We all slowly turned to Lily.

“Honored Mother,” Pale Night said, “does Derek Huntsman love you?”

Lily smiled. “Oh, very much so.”

Pale Night bowed. “Then, if you would be so kind…”

Lily cracked her neck, ready to shield her, but I grabbed her arm. “Wait. Do it for all of us.”

Lily cocked her head to the side. “Why? You all have your suits.”

“But we don’t know what the hanger will look like. Could be dangerous. Better safe than sorry.”

She looked at me for a second, then nodded slowly. “Of course. Everyone, gather in close.”

Twelve people—including one giant—huddled as close together as possible without stepping on each other’s toes. Cailleach, of course, stood off to the side, out of range and unconcerned. Zero looked confused, as best as I could tell with that expressionless mask, but Leeno was practically vibrating with glee.

Leeno hit a button, closing the airlock and leaving us in a small, windowless room. Cailleach was on the other side, and would be detonating her homunculus any second. Or maybe she’d try to fight the para off a bit first. Hopefully she was following Lily’s instructions and avoiding killing if possible.

“Leeno,” Lily said. “Which button will open the vacuum side of the airlock?”

Leeno pointed, but didn’t push it. “That one.”

“Good. Adam. On three, I need you to hit the airlock release.”

Adam nodded.

“Then one… two… three!”

Adam hit the button. A split second later, as the airlock began to open, Lily closed her eyes and pushed her hands out.

A shimmering globe of blue force enveloped us, leaking mist that faded in moments. It was exactly like the shields that Derek created, down to the color of the mist.

Amazing,” Leeno said, grinning from ear to ear. “I can feel you singing in tune to him. What a marvelous ability you have.”

The airlock was opening, and some smoke was pouring in. Should there be smoke in a vacuum?

“You can’t keep this up forever, though,” Leeno said.

“Correct,” Lily said through gritted teeth. “So please, just let me concentrate.”

Leeno nodded, contrite, and didn’t say another word. The airlock was open enough now for the smoke to clear and give us a good view of the docks beyond.

It was chaos. A huge chunk of the bay was simply gone, like a massive mouth had taken a bite out of it. The doors were blasted apart like they were made of tinfoil, and I could see through the floor and ceiling to other decks.

Great gouts of flame burst forth from the floor and the walls—likely the result of cracked gas pipes. The beautiful murals were blackened and charred, mostly unrecognizable. I could see para running back and forth in their space suits, signaling at each other for tools or maybe for damaged pipes and sparking wires to be turned off.

No one was paying attention to twelve humans, even if they were in a glowing blue bubble.

Leeno looked around the dock in mute horror. He had likely never seen this level of destruction.

The rest of us, however, had. Most of the warlords had caused quite a bit worse. Thankfully there was no blood or obvious dead bodies, so even I didn’t really have any problem with it all. I elbowed Leeno in the gut. “Hey. You good?”

He started a little, but then nodded. He turned to Lily. “Do you have enough power?”

She grimaced. “My reservoir isn’t as deep as Derek’s, but I can get us to the ship.”

Eccretia blinked. “You mean the ship MC blew up?”

There was a pause.

“Shit,” the White Cat said. “I knew we were forgetting something.”

I glared at him. He never had anything useful to contribute. Instead I turned to Lily. “Can you get us to Earth?”

She frowned. “What? You mean… fall through the atmosphere?” She shook her head and I noticed her sweating. “No way. It would get too hot.”

“Most of you would survive,” Eccretia said, glancing at Adam. The three of us were the only ones without warlord-level buffs, and I could probably survive with my flight, if I angled my descent correctly.

“I don’t mean inside the shield,” Lily said. “I mean the shield would break, and then everyone would die.”

Everyone paused to let the implications of that sink in.

Adam snapped his fingers to wake everyone up again. “Hey, c’mon! We need ideas, people! Lily’s reservoir is going to run out soon, and the para might catch up with us eventually. Or these workers might take notice of us. Does anyone have any other powers that might be useful here?”

Everyone shook their heads.

But I had a thought. “I can fly.”

“Well yes, obviously…” Adam’s face cleared. “Meaning you can fly the globe. Any chance that fixes the atmospheric re-entry problem?”

“No,” I said. I pointed up at one of the docking cradles. “But I can get us there.”

The cradle in question held a small shuttle, about the same size as the one we had flown in on. I was pretty sure it was a different model, but with all the custom paint jobs, it was hard for me to be sure.

“Will that work?” Odin asked.

“No time,” Lily said still straining. Was her power already drained? Was she redlining it like Derek had done right before he fought Elizabeth? “Robyn, take us there.”

I nodded and flew straight up.

I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting. Maybe I had been hoping that I’d be able to extend my power to the entire globe and float us up.

Instead, I ended up plastered against the top of the globe, dragging the thing with me.

It was an embarrassing way to move, but I had the power to do it and more. I was at least as strong as the other Paladins now—except for Laura, of course—so moving two thousand plus pounds of weight for a few minutes wasn’t really all that difficult for me.

The cradle was only about a hundred feet up, and I landed us on the gantry or dock or whatever it was supposed to be called. I floated back down to the floor, wincing as I stretched my muscles. My power had handled the weight easily, but my body was another matter. Maybe I had been able to extend my power to the globe a little, because I was pretty sure pushing two thousand pounds onto my body should have turned me to mush.

Lily was breathing hard. “Pale, sweetie? I’m going to try to get a smaller shield around you now. Don’t move.”

“Ready,” Pale Night said.

Lily nodded, then her brow furrowed even further. A globe of blue energy appeared around Pale Night’s head a split second before the bigger one around all of us disappeared. There was a pop as all the captured air spread out in the vacuum.

Adam moved over to the ship and tried the door, then turned back and shook his head. No good. Was it locked?

Leeno pushed him aside gently and placed his gloved hand on the side of the ship. A moment later, I saw electricity crackling over his fingers, and then the door popped open to reveal a tiny airlock.

There was no way we would all fit in that. Red skies, Odin might not fit in it at all. On the way up, we had been forced to stick him in the cargo bay. The ships had a lot of space compared to our own shuttles, but that really wasn’t saying much.

Leeno grabbed Pale Night and shoved her unceremoniously inside, before using his powers again to close the door. A moment later it opened, empty.

The rest of us cycled through the airlock as fast as possible, though Odin had to sit in the cargo hold again. There was no air for him, but his suit would last for days.

Once we were all cycled through, Leeno took his helmet off, and the rest of us did the same. “Zero should be able to fly us out of here.” He nodded to her, and she walked over to the front of the craft, then took the controls. Leeno continued watching her, an odd look on his face.

Eccretia saw his look, and leaned in to whisper quietly. “How loyal is she?”

Leeno shook his head. “I have no idea. She’s Colorless, of course, so there’s no love lost for the elders, but they’re also the only ones who can reverse her condition. I feel like if she was going to turn on us, she would have done it already.”

I frowned. “What do you mean by Colorless?”

Leeno gave me an odd look, then sighed. “Of course, you don’t know. You see, when a criminal is considered low-risk—”

He was interrupted by the shuttle shaking hard enough to almost throw us all off our feet, and then shaking some more.

Zero turned around in her seat and started signing desperately. It wasn’t the kemo battle sign that she had used before.

Leeno winced. “The docking clamps have us locked in. We can’t take off.”

“So?” Adam said. “Just do your electric thing, unlock them.”

“I can’t do that from inside the shuttle,” Leeno said.

“Then go outside,” I said.

“Then I won’t be able to get back in. The doors won’t open unless the shuttle has landed.”

“What kind of stupid safety feature is that?”

Leeno rolled his tangerine-colored eyes. “It’s not a safety feature, at least not in that way. This is one of the old prison shuttles. They bought a bunch of them for cheap before we left home. The doors won’t open except in a docking cradle, so that criminals can’t hijack the shuttle and just land wherever they like. It’s a hardware thing, not software. I can’t override it.”

I looked around the small ship. Now that he mentioned it, I did see some signs of a ship designed to hold prisoners. Nothing so obvious as cages or manacles, but there were a number of sturdy metal handles—painted a rainbow of colors, of course—on the floor, where people could be chained. I also noticed that none of them were in reach of the controls.

I frowned. “But your shuttle didn’t have that problem.”

He shrugged. “That was a different model. Most of them aren’t prison shuttles.”

I threw up my hands. “Then why don’t we go find another one? One that wasn’t designed for transporting criminals?”

“I didn’t see any more shuttles out there, did you?”

“We don’t have time for this,” Adam said. “Does anyone have any powers that might help? Any kind of kinesis, super strength or… I don’t know, teleportation?” Everyone shook their heads. He cursed under his breath. “Just need five feet of teleportation. Is that too much to ask?”

Super strength… “What about the cargo bay? Does that stay locked, too?”

“Yes, sorry. I don’t think—”

The shuttle shook again, but this time it was from an explosion outside the ship.

“No time!” Adam said. “Zero, full power! Rip out of the clamps!”

Leeno recoiled. “What? No! That could damage the ship!”

Adam met his stare without flinching. “More damage than being caught in an explosion, or more damage than being caught by angry guards?”

Leeno blinked, then turned to Zero. “Full power.”

She nodded and started manipulating the controls. The ship shook again.

“Everyone, helmets on, just in case,” Lily said. “Pale, I’ll get ready to shield you if I have to.”

As everyone got ready, there was a long, tortured screech of metal. I could feel every atom of the ship straining against the clamps, like a living thing trying desperately to break free. And then…

And then we were thrown against one side of the ship as the clamps finally failed.

The shuttle wobbled a bit, but smoothed out, and in moments we were outside the mothership, heading down to Earth.

“How did we do?” Leeno asked, as he walked up next to Zero. I followed. She had her hands full, of course, so he had to look over the screens himself. “Grey skies… we lost three thrusters.”

“Can we still land?” I asked. “I doubt my power is enough to fly this whole ship.”

“Well, we’ll hit the ground, if that’s what you mean,” Leeno said. “No guarantees on a soft landing.”

“Head for the water.” I marked the west side of the Domina island. “We’ve got allies underwater who will help us. Plus, these suits have enough air to last us a while, if it comes to that.”

“What about your niece?”

I frowned. “Who?” I glanced behind me. “Oh, you mean Pale Night. She’s not—” I paused. Now probably wasn’t the time to get into the oddities of Lily’s relationship with the people of the city, and what that meant for me. “She should be fine. Hey, Pale!” She looked up. “You’ve got Mermaid lungs, right?”

She nodded. “As well as a few depth buffs.”

I turned back to Leeno. “See, she’s fine. She’d probably last longer underwater than the rest of us.”

He nodded. “Very well. We should still warn your people that we are coming.”

“Yeah, my guild might try to swat us out of the sky.”

Adam walked up. “Why didn’t they do that to the hive, or whatever it was?”

“A hive is not technological,” Leeno said. “No radio, no thermal signature. It’s basically a rock, and not even a shiny rock. I doubt anyone in your city noticed it until it was too late. Though perhaps this MC of yours managed to warn someone.”

I snapped my fingers. “That’s who we’ll call.”

Adam frowned. “Are you sure she’ll still have the same number? We have no idea what happened.”

“She’ll be monitoring it, if nothing else,” I said. “She knows it’s the first thing anyone would call to get in touch with her.” I gave the frequency to Zero, who plotted it in without question. If she was planning betrayal, she was doing an excellent job of hiding it.

A moment later, the radio crackled to life. “Hello? Robyn? Lily?”

“I’m here,” I said. I glanced back at Lily. She had been talking with the warlords, but she walked over when she heard MC’s voice. “We’re both here, with everyone else except for Cailleach. She detonated her homunculus to give us time to escape.”

“Speaking of which,” Leeno said quietly, “I have many questions—”

I silenced him with a wave.

“I’m sure she has her hands full down here,” MC said. “I’m in the Cathedral right now. Bring that shuttle down and we’ll talk. I’m sure the Servants will love to get their hands on para tech.”

I glanced at Leeno. If he had a problem with this plan, he didn’t show it. “Sounds good. It, uh, might be a hard landing…”

“Aim for the pond. It will be messy, but better than the alternative.”

I nodded. Despite what I had said to Leeno, I was much happier to know we’d be landing in the middle of the city instead of out in the Bay at the mercy of the Dagonites.

The White Cat strode up. “I would very much like to see what the para have as well. I can call some of my engineers, have them meet us there.”

MC chuckled sadly. “I’m afraid that they’ve already got their hands full.”

Adam cursed. “The hive.”

“Actually, that’s secondary,” MC said. “There was a more… immediate problem.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 331)

At the moment, Lily can only borrow one power at a time, though that will eventually change as her power grows and evolves. No matter how many powers she has, however, they will always pull from a single reservoir. Also remember that her reservoir is not influenced by the person she borrows the power from; Derek, for example, could have kept up the shield bubble she uses here for hours if not days.

Scene 330 – Servis Suis

MARY CHRISTINA

SERVIS SUIS

My first week being human was the worst experience of my life.

It wasn’t just that I was alone, away from a million datastreams. It wasn’t just that I had to sleep in one of the ‘sarian homeless shelters as just another anonymous transient. It wasn’t even the biting cold or the constant hunger gnawing at my belly.

It was everything. Yes, it was cold, but I shouldn’t have been able to feel cold. Yes, I had no food, but that shouldn’t matter—I had never had food before. And the sore muscles and constant exhaustion and the screeching noises of traffic…

And the bodily functions. Oh, in the name of everything above and below, how could humans live with inconsistent bladders? And that was the easy one. It took me nearly eight hours in the bathroom to make my bowels function properly, at which point I received another terrible reminder that my nose didn’t have an off switch.

On the seventh day, the 15th of January, I had my first period. That was when I decided enough was enough. I was going to get my real body back.

I abandoned my meager belongings at the Necessarius safehouse and walked straight to the Servants. Even though I had been staying as far away from them as possible, they had many chapter houses around the city. It only took half an hour to find the nearest one.

The chapter house was small and austere, with white walls and rounded edges. It stood out starkly in the dirty, grimy mess that was the rest of Domina City. The only decorations were a few screens embedded into the walls, showing relaxing vistas like schools, parks, and the city skyline. There was no flag or emblem anywhere to be seen; the perfectly clean aesthetic was more than enough to identify the place.

The entrance wasn’t very big, just enough for a woman behind a desk and a small waiting area. She smiled as I entered, apparently unconcerned with my grimy appearance, tattered clothes, and the horrific smell I carried with me.

“Welcome to the Five-Hundred and Eighteenth Chapter House of the Servants of the Lady,” she said. “We are here to assist you with anything you may need. Food? Water? Even just a simple bed to lay your head for a few hours? The Servants are always at the disposal of anyone in Domina City.”

I knew the speech—I had certainly heard it often enough. Every inch of the chapter house was covered in cameras and microphones. There was a single obvious camera in the corner, but this room alone had a dozen hidden eyes. The wall-screens were recording everything, just for a start.

While the Servants had always kept their places under heavy surveillance and given me the data feeds, in the first few weeks of operation, they had tried to keep that fact private. It was only after a few groups like the Nessians tried to take advantage of their hospitality that they had made it public that I would be watching everything. That had certainly cut down on the robberies and worse.

I took a deep breath—ugh, breathing—to steady myself. “I am MC. I need to be taken to NHQ right away.”

The receptionist didn’t so much as blink. “Of course,” she said with a smile. “Right this way, ma’am.”

I frowned, but stepped through the doorway she indicated into a pristine white hallway. There was a man standing there, and he frowned at me in return.

“Who are you?” His tone was more hostile than I expected from a Servant, but he had a shoulder patch with their emblem on it—a circle of wires. The man looked past me. “Who is this, and what is she doing here?”

“She says she’s MC,” the receptionist said. “Would you please get her situated?”

The man’s face cleared, and he smiled. “Of course. Right this way, miss.” He gestured for me to walk further down the hall.

“I have to say, you’re all taking this much more easily than I expected,” I said.

“We feel it is best to be prepared for anything. This door here, miss.”

I opened the white door and found myself in a simple white bedroom with a white table, two chairs, and of course a white bed. There was a box of brightly colored children’s toys in the corner, but that was all.

I frowned and looked back at the man. “The Quiet Room?”

He looked surprised. “You know it?”

“Of course. I approved the work orders.” I walked over and looked through the box of toys. “A lot of non-standard toys in here.”

“Yes, well…” I glanced over to judge the man’s reaction. He seemed a bit embarrassed. “Kids can play rough at times, and we didn’t want to bother anyone by asking for replacements, so we just… found replacements.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Excellent use of initiative. Good work.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Yeah. Of course.”

“I’ll need a ride to NHQ,” I said. “Something simple and unobtrusive. You have a motor pool?”

“Just two vans. Listen, I’m not sure—”

“I’d also like a computer while I wait,” I said as I sat down at the desk. “I’m in a hurry, but it’s not an emergency. I just want something to keep myself busy.”

He looked like he was struggling with something internally. “Well, you see…” His face cleared. “Both vans are undergoing repairs at the moment. And I hardly think calling a cab would be appropriate. Why don’t you just wait here, and I’ll find someone to come talk to you?”

“That would be—” I froze. “Wait. You mean you’re sending a psychologist.”

He forced a smile on his face. “Your mind is extremely valuable, miss. It’s just a precaution.”

“No, it’s standard procedure for dealing with a non-hostile guest of uncertain sanity.” I glared at him. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

“We don’t like using that word.”

I sighed. “Of course. I knew this was too easy.” I rubbed my forehead. “How many people do you get who think they’re me?”

“Uh…”

“How many think they’re MC, that is.”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “Two or three a month. Across all our safehouses. Just wait for the doctor to get here, and we can—”

“No,” I snapped. “No waiting. I’ve had enough of living in this miserable meatsack, I’m not putting it off for a few weeks while I get poked and prodded.” I held out my hand. “Pad.”

He blinked. “What?”

“Your pad,” I said, slower. “I need to prove I am who I say I am.”

He smiled slightly, then handed me his pad. “Are you going to use your secret back-door access to take control of the building?”

“Of course not,” I said. “I’m not stupid enough to put back-doors into everything.” I typed at the pad with clumsy, inelegant fingers. “Whenever I found a hole in Servant security, I immediately patched it.” I smirked. “What, you think half a dozen patches a week were just my way of keeping you on your toes?”

The Servant kept a neutral face. “Of course not.”

I kept trying to type, wincing every time I had to back up because I had made a mistake. “For what it’s worth, I understand that this whole situation is weird. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t believe it.”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” the man said soothingly. He might not be a trained psychiatrist, but all Servants were friendly as a rule. You didn’t get a job helping people every day unless you liked people. “How did you end up like this?”

“Silk gave me a power,” I said. “Morphing, apparently. And then she forced me to morph so that I wouldn’t be able to interfere with something that’s going on right now.”

“And what would that be?”

“Sorry, can’t say. Operational security.” I cursed and rewrote another line of code. “Damned meatsack can’t even type properly.”

The Servant sighed. “Miss, I’m not sure what you’re trying to do, but if you’re having trouble—”

“I’m trying to prove who I am!” I snapped, slamming the pad down on the desk. “But I can’t do that because this stupid body is optimized for grabbing things and eating them, not writing code!” I stood up and started pacing. So odd that I found the action soothing, when I had never done anything like it before I got this body. “I need a data link. Something that will let me write code like I’m used to.”

The Servant flinched in shock, looking at my arm for some reason.

“No data link means this is going too slow,” I said.

“Ma’am…”

“It’s like trying to push the ocean through a straw.”

Ma’am.”

“Maybe if you bring me a programmer, I could say the code fast enough for—”

“My lady!”

I stopped and stared at the Servant. “Excuse me?”

“My lady Domina,” he said quietly. His condescending kindness was gone, replaced by desperate obedience. “Please, look at your arm.”

I followed his gaze. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at.

Right there, on the upper side of my arm a few inches away from my wrist, was a USB port. Just sitting there in the middle of my flesh, as if there was nothing odd about it at all. What’s more, I recognized it. It was one of the ports on my main ‘body’ when I was a computer. It had been in sight of one of my cameras for years. There were a few scratches from where a drunk programmer once had trouble plugging something into it.

Without saying a word, I pulled the pad’s USB drive out of the bottom, where it was still connected to the pad by a wire. I plugged it into the port on my arm.

And the world opened up to me.

I could see the code—no not even that, I could feel it. Every line and word, every executable and every program, all the way down to the individual silicon bits flipping between zero and one.

I released a breath that I felt like I had been holding for a week. It was like a weight the size of the universe had stepped off my chest.

In moments, I had hacked the pad’s security, and from there the rest of the safehouse. I tested the lights in the Quiet Room, then moved on to the rest of the building. There wasn’t much interesting, but there was one thing.

“Servant Nikolaj,” I said. I had found his name on an employee registry.

“Yes, my lady Domina?” he asked.

“Take me to the data center,” I said. “And have security meet us there. I don’t want any surprises.”

“Yes, my lady Domina.” He pulled out his phone and started typing furiously. Through my connection to the pad, I could read it before he even sent it, but I only watched for a few moments. I knew he was following orders.

Finally, finally, I felt alive again.

Behind the Scenes (scene 330)

“My lady Domina” translates approximately as “my lady who is the mistress of this city.” A bit redundant, but it’s a common form of address the Servants use for MC. “My lady MC” just doesn’t have enough gravitas.

As for the USB port thing, that’s something specific to MC since she’s a machine, rather than something any sufficiently skilled morpher could do. The only reason it appeared with such relative ease is because morphing back is always easier than morphing into something.