Monthly Archives: October 2017

Afterword

If you haven’t read scene 335 – Initium Novum, go do it right now. I’ll wait.

You’re done? Good. Because I have some things to say.

Yes, Domina City is ending. It has just ended. I know it feels sudden, like it came out of nowhere, and to be honest, that’s accurate. I know there are a million dangling plot threads, I know that many character arcs didn’t come to a satisfying conclusion. But I was spiraling, losing control of the writing. I knew if I pushed too hard, I’d end up breaking, and the ending would go from “not as satisfying as it could be” to “horrible, horrible dreck.”

That being said, this final scene was always what I wanted the finale to be. The para turning to Silk, desperate for powers to turn the tide in a losing war, and Silk using that as an excuse to give {everyone powers and force them to sue for peace. Likewise, putting Derek on ice was planned from the beginning, though I waffled back and forth on whether Laura would know that he was dead or not.

I started publishing Domina just over six years ago (and writing it a few months before that) mostly on a whim. I just sort of started writing something random one day and decided it was good enough for other people to see. I am proud of what it has become, but there are still so many mistakes and errors. I wince every time I go over the first ten chapters… or twenty or fifty.

Therefore, I am working to correct all those old mistakes, from the simple grammar and punctuation errors to more serious plot and characterization issues. Once that is done, I plan to publish Domina again, this time through Kindle. I am also working on a number of other series, some inside the Domina universe, most outside it.

If anyone would like to help with editing or just beta reading for those projects, please contact me at death_silver_cruel_and_red@yahoo.com. I still can’t get the WordPress site to display comments with any sort of regularity, so that is by far the best place to get in touch with me. I welcome help from anyone who offers.

For everyone who has been following me these past six years—or even if you’ve only found Domina recently—thank you so much for reading my series. Words can’t really express how I feel to know that there are people who actually enjoy things I’ve written. Somehow, it is always a surprise when I turn on my computer Monday morning to see the likes and stats for my newest post.

I hope you enjoy everything else I have to offer as well.

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Scene 335 – Initium Novum

INITIUM NOVUM

SILK

I am called Silk.

That is not my name, but it will do for now. I have always been fond of simple names. A single syllable, a single meaning. It is nothing more than the number six, in a language that was invented a million years from now. It is the last digit in the serial number of the clone body I came to this timeline with. Of course, now I have more bodies, but I like the name, so I have stuck with it for the time being. Later, I will consider doing more.

Oh, but forgive me, I have grown distracted again. I’m supposed to give a reasonably satisfactory ending, and I’m rambling about a name that isn’t even a name. Well, no use putting it off any longer.

I blinked, and in doing so retrieved a man from another place. Hm, no, ‘retrieved’ is not the right word. Let us say ‘summoned.’ It is adequate, for now.

The man fell onto his butt and looked around with wide, tangerine-colored eyes. “What happened? Where are we?” He looked up at me. “Who are you?” Then he slowly looked around again. “Are we in space? Without a ship?

I smiled. “Hello, Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado,” I said. “It is very nice to finally meet you. As for your questions: Yes, we are in space, without a ship.” He shivered. “Oh, don’t worry about little things like temperature. I’m taking care of all that.” I gestured to the limitless black starscape surrounding us in every direction. “I think this view is worth a little bit of trouble, don’t you?”

Leeno stared at me.

“As for me, I am known as Silk.” I smiled. “I am an ally, of sorts. I brought you here, at one of Earth’s Lagrange points, in order to ensure that you would not do anything unwise regarding the war between the humans and para.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Smart, this one.

“I am from far, far in the future,” I said. “The universe was dying of old age, so I came back to save it. I believe you’ve already seen some signs of that.” He looked confused, and I smiled. “The FTL drive that you found? That was a museum relic that accidentally came back with me. There are a few others such relics scattered around the universe, and I’ve been spending the last thirty years hunting them down.”

“Okay…” he said slowly. Then he gave me a long, slow look. “Wait.”

“I take it you’ve noticed, then?” I was curious what he’d mention first.

“You’re… speaking the Language of Colors,” he said. He sounded in awe. He himself was speaking one of the lesser para tongues, the Language of Twilight. The para liked segregating everything by eye color. Thankfully, practicality had beat out racism long ago, and now nearly everyone spoke Twilight. Colors was still a rare language supposed to be used only for important state and religious functions, though.

I fit the definition of God in quite a few religions, so I think it only appropriate that I use their holy language. It lends me the proper air of mystery and power. I understand you readers can’t tell the difference, so just pretend I have a rainbow aura and a choir of angels behind me every time I speak. I don’t (though I could), but that’s roughly the equivalent level of symbolism.

“Yes,” I said. “I speak all languages. As will you, in time.” That segues perfectly into…

He stepped back in surprise as he finally noticed. “You—you’re singing.”

I smiled. “There it is.”

“I can hear the universal song from you,” he whispered. “So many tunes and notes… it’s like hearing that entire city sing, all at once.” He spent the next few minutes extorting at length about how impressive my soul sounded.

I realize skipping a large portion of the conversation might seem frustrating to you, but please understand that Leeno’s understanding of the powers, and of the universal song behind them, is very difficult to put into words. Trying to explain it is like trying to explain the greatest song you have ever heard to someone who is deaf and mute. Like trying to explain a sunrise to a blind person, or trying to explain a fractal quantum differential equation to someone who has never lived inside a computer.

The point is, trying to translate what he was saying would be an exercise in futility. It would either fail entirely and just be gibberish, or it would get enough right to make the whole conversation seem unintelligent and stupid.

Have you ever listened to scientists speak? No, wait, some of you might actually be scientists. Have you ever listened to anyone speak in a language you don’t understand? A language you recognize, that you’ve heard before, but that you’ve never had even the slightest amount of experience actually understanding?

That is what listening to Leeno talk about the Song would be like. Just a continuous flow of words that you know have meaning, but you can’t pin down exactly what.

If it makes you feel any better, I’m the only other person in the entire universe who has the ability to understand what he was saying. Even the other members of the Nine wouldn’t really understand, though Lakerine would get closest, and might actually be able to puzzle it out eventually if I let him take notes. More on what makes Leeno and myself unique in a moment.

“I mean… how?” Leeno asked finally. He was breathless, and practically glowing with excitement. If we were on a planet, he’d be literally glowing, but there wasn’t much energy to manipulate out here. “How do you have such a connection to the universe? Are you like me?”

I smiled. “As far as I know, there has never been anyone exactly like you.” Of course, technically there was never anyone exactly like anyone, but this wasn’t the time for the special snowflake talk. “You learned how to manipulate the Song in the purest form: You observed the universe for centuries.”

He nodded, a little hesitant. “But… that’s not how you did it?”

I shook my head. “By the time I was born, powers had existed across the universe for a million years. I was born with one power, one instrument, just like all those people down in Domina City.”

I wanted to continue, but I knew he would interrupt, so I simply stopped speaking for a moment. One of the side benefits of being nigh-omniscient.

Leeno didn’t disappoint. “What power were you born with?”

I smiled. “Shields.” Yes, dear readers, that means I am rather close in personality to Derek. Give him a few million years, and he’ll be just like me. But that is a story for another time. And before you go too wild with speculation, remember that I am technically not human, so there is no chance me being his descendant. Unless you want to believe that your car is a descendant of a horse—which, to be fair, is an interesting thought experiment. “Anyway, eventually I decided I needed more powers, so I sought out a composer and asked them to sing for me. I did that for a few centuries until I had nearly a hundred instruments to my name.”

Leeno frowned. Well, no he didn’t, since he wasn’t using his translator chip at the moment, but he performed the para equivalent. I doubt anyone wants me to spell it out every time he tugs on his earlobe or slaps his hand across his eyes. “Is that… was that normal for you? For your time, I mean?”

“It was normal for people to gain extra powers, yes, but rarely so many, or so quickly. I had more powers than people thousands of years my elder.”

Leeno looked like he wanted to say something else, but remained silent.

“Anyway, as I accumulated powers, I began to find commonalities between them. A universal Song that reverberated throughout all of Creation. It took me a very long time, but eventually I managed to invent a new power without receiving it from a composer.” Of course, this was after I had jumped into a few black holes. If you can survive the experience, doing so grants you a greater understanding of the universe that manifests as an extra power. Unfortunately, it’s also too much for the mind to take all at once, so it takes a couple tries to start actually remembering what had happened. There was a reason people in my time normally just got powers from composers instead of black holes.

“So… you’re sort of the opposite of me, then,” Leeno said.

I nodded. “An apt summary.”

“Where did the powers come from in the first place?” he asked. “In your timeline, I mean.”

I smiled.

Realization dawned on his face. “Wait, they came from me?

“They called you the first composer,” I said. “Which really isn’t a fair title—people like you and I are far beyond normal composers. Unfortunately, there are so few of us that they never bothered to come up with a better name. Anyway, when the para arrived—a few hundred years later than this time around—they found the humans to be weak and divided. Extermination would have been simple. You gave your people powers as an act of mercy, to bring about conquest instead of genocide.”

I should note that much of this is simply the result of reasoning and deduction on my part. I wasn’t born until millions of years later, after all. Both humans and the para were long extinct, and while records survived, details were lost. Leeno’s name, for example, was completely unknown to me until he landed a shuttle in Domina City. For all I know, in the original timeline it was an entirely different para who provided the powers. Leeno still existed, of course; the para left their homeworld, with Leeno in his not-quite-cold-sleep, hundreds of years ago, long before the divergence point. But maybe he gave one of the other para a few powers on accident, and that para spread them around the fleet. Maybe the extra few centuries drove him insane, and he gave the para the powers in an attempt to exterminate humans entirely. Not even I can say.

But that would all be a distraction for Leeno right now. The simple story was better.

Leeno looked around, then flinched when he noticed that he technically wasn’t standing on anything. He forced himself to look at me instead. “I’m… not sure I can handle that. I’m not anyone important.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And I suppose you went down to Domina City to illegally negotiate on behalf of your people because you’re not important?

He did the para equivalent of crossing his arms over his chest. “I was just in the right place at the right time. Elder Leeno needed someone to do the job, and I was available.”

It’s amazing how people downplay their own accomplishments. He genuinely didn’t understand how the fact that he was the only para with powers gave him a unique connection to the people of Domina, which was one of the primary reasons they hadn’t killed him the second things started getting hairy.

I just smiled at him. “As much as I’d like to discuss this a bit more with you, we don’t have time right now. We’re late for a meeting with the para elders.”

It took him a second to parse what I was saying. “Wait, what? Where?”

“Over there,” I said, pointing.

“What—” He stopped as he realized what I was pointing at. “Oh. There.”

We weren’t that far from the para mothership. It had retreated from its looming orbit of Earth and was now sitting a million miles away, like a second, tiny moon. From our current position, it was about the size of a fist, but even from here the battle damage was obvious and extensive. The scar from where Lilith and the others had escaped the docking bay had been repaired and repainted, but there were other, more recent injuries. There was a single long scar down the entire side of the vessel that had been repaired but not repainted, a massive hole like some bizarre earring that was still being fixed as we watched, and countless smaller craters and pockmarks that weren’t worth the time to smooth over.

The para weren’t the only ones who had taken a beating, though. Earth had a glittering ring of debris around it that was visible even at this distance, the result of countless destroyed spacecraft and quite a few space stations. Shaohao was gone, as was Tsiolkovsky and the ISS. New stations had sprung up to replace them, and most of them had been destroyed in turn. Clean-up crews tried to sift through and salvage the biggest pieces, but in the end, they usually couldn’t do much more than keep it contained in the ring. At least this way, the debris was mostly predictable, and they could actually put up satellites safely—though the para often shot those down as well.

It took Leeno a few minutes to find his tongue. “I didn’t… how did this happen?”

“The same way as every war,” I said. “A direct assault here, a siege there. Some sabotage, especially from Dominites with illusion powers. Your people had the advantage first, of course, especially as their self-destruction policies have enabled them to retain most of their technological superiority, but the tides have turned.”

“What do you mean, turned?”

I smiled sadly. “You are not so sheltered as that. You have a basic understanding of warfare. Humans outnumber the para millions to one, and they have multiple worlds in various states of advanced industrialization. They were able to quickly retool their ships and shuttles with basic weaponry, which bought them more than enough time to construct true warships using the engine technology on the shuttle you left behind.”

“You mean the one I left behind when you kidnapped me?”

I shrugged. “If you had stayed, you wouldn’t have been able to keep the technology out of their hands anyway. The only thing you could have done to help your people would have been to give them powers—which, as I’ve said, would have been too much. It would have been a slaughter.”

To be specific, Li-Po would have pretty much immediately ordered some asteroids thrown at Domina City in order to eliminate their biggest rival. The other elders, while not willing to accept full genocide, would have grudgingly allowed it to get rid of the only other people with powers in the system.

But genocide is like murder: The first is always the hardest. Once they eliminated Domina, they’d have destroyed every major ship building port. Some, like Lemuria and Ceres, they would have been able to take with conventional means, so a relative low number of human casualties. But Pyongyang was a fortress; they would have decided to drop rocks on it, killing everyone within a hundred miles of the impact point. Same with Chicago, Nairobi, and São Paulo.

They tried a few of those things anyway, of course. But they didn’t have as much political will, and between Domina’s powers and the help of the largest podbrain the world had ever seen (not counting me), they were able to knock the Pyongyang impactor off course. From there, the para decided to settle for more conventional methods.

And those conventional methods had their successes. The Mars hive repelled every attack and conquered much of the planet, though Lemuria and several other major cities remained in human hands. The Mercury and Venus hives went largely untouched, as they had little military value. The war over the asteroid belt and its resources was a stalemate for a very long time, though now it was finally turning against the para. The story was much the same in the rest of the system. The para were hanging on, but they were losing. They would need a miracle to turn it around at this point.

Leeno forced himself to look me in the eyes. “How long has it been?”

I smiled. He was a clever one. Had he deduced that I was mentioning too many things, or had he learned how to read the background radiation of the universe to determine the time? Either way, it was impressive.

“Thirty years,” I said.

“Thirty YEARS!?” he screeched.

“By the human calendar, of course,” I said.

He sputtered. “But—you—”

“It was the perfect length of time,” I said, ignoring his panic and anger. “The humans are now a fully industrialized space power, and their rage at the para has cooled. The para themselves, while losing, still retain enough industry to rebuild, and all their more violent leaders are dead.”

“You couldn’t—I couldn’t—” Leeno forced himself to calm down. “Okay, whatever. I don’t have time to argue about anything right now. Just answer me this: If everything is going so perfectly, why bring me back now? Why not wait until after the war is over? I could give my people powers, turn the tide.”

I smiled sadly. “The tide is already turning, Leeno. Just like before a tsunami.”

He frowned. “What?”

Ah yes, I forgot that the original para homeworld didn’t have tsunamis. The planet certainly had its problems, but it was geologically stable, so quite a few interesting natural disasters simply never occurred there. Or so I had gathered from the para archives. The planet had been turned to monatomic dust by its exploding sun.

“That’s not important,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “But this is.”

In less than a blink, we were inside the command center of the para mothership.

It hadn’t changed much in thirty years. A few of the computers had been replaced, and there were more augmented guards. But in the end, a command center was a command center. It was clean, secured, and had a few para elders gathered around the small table in the middle of the room.

“If we detonate the engines at the last second—” one of the elders was saying, but he stopped talking when he noticed me. His pure blue eyes widened in shock and fear. “GUARDS! She’s here! She’s…” He trailed off even as a dozen guns pointed at me. “You’re not her, are you? You’re the other one.”

I smiled. I shouldn’t enjoy being mistaken for Elizabeth, but it always was amusing to see the dawning comprehension on their faces. “Correct. I apologize for startling you, but I am not my sister. You may call me Silk.”

He was speechless for a moment, but he eventually bowed low, in the human style. “I am Bay dolor Bay malda Bay Bay Leenoreynrey harado, my lady,” he said. “I would be honored if you would call me Reyn.” He straightened and glanced at Leeno. “Who might this be?”

“An old friend.” I didn’t elaborate.

Leeno glanced at me, and everyone else looked at him, trying to size him up. No one remembered him; most of the guards hadn’t even been alive when he disappeared, and those that were had just been children. The current elders had all be adults at the time, and hadn’t been involved in the brief meetings wondering what had become of him.

“To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?” one of the other elders asked. She didn’t introduce herself, but I knew her. Her pure black eyes, not a hint of hue in them, made it obvious. This was Bay, a woman infamous for her hardline stance to the war. She’d be the most difficult to win over. She wanted what I had to offer, but she wouldn’t like the terms.

“Honored Elders,” I said. “I will not waste time. You are losing this war. Your industrial capabilities are in decline while the humans are on the rise, morale is shot across the system, and this very ship is dangerously exposed to human attack.”

“We have plans and contingencies in place,” Reyn said stiffly.

I rolled my eyes. Well, actually, I did the para version of a particularly exaggerated eye-roll, which involved yanking on my tongue, but that wasn’t important. “Crashing your mothership into the Earth isn’t a plan, it’s spiteful suicide.”

I felt Leeno stiffen beside me in surprise, but he didn’t say anything. Good man.

Bay stood with her back straight and strong. “Destroying the Earth may seem cruel, but it will ensure the survival of our people. All remaining assets between para and human will be balanced, and both sides will have no choice but to sue for peace.”

“Unless you make someone so mad that they are willing to risk extinction to punish the survivors,” I said dryly. “Killing their world might make people a bit irrational.”

“We will be on the ship when it explodes,” Reyn said.

“Which just makes you cowards as well as idiots,” I said. “You’re not even going to stick around to clean up your own mess.”

Leeno winced at my harsh tone, but no one else reacted. Over the years, people had tried to kill Elizabeth on many occasions, and myself more rarely. Everyone here knew that shooting me for being rude would be an exercise in futility.

“Our people are dying,” Bay said quietly. “Step by step. What would you have us do? Surrender?”

“No,” I said. Humanity didn’t have the best track record in dealing with conquered peoples—either they were cruel, or incompetent, or both. Though in fairness, the para weren’t much better. “I want you to sue for peace.”

“They won’t allow it,” Reyn said. “They know they can win, so they would never accept any terms we offer them. And any terms they offer would just be for our unconditional surrender. We’d be lucky if we ended up in internment camps.”

“What you need,” I said, “is an advantage.” I smiled. “Now, what major advantage have the humans had over you for this entire war?”

There was a pause as they tried to deduce what I meant. The humans had a lot of advantages over the para. The question was which one could I give them easily.

“…the powers,” one of the other elders said. He typically went by Zanovoon. “That’s the advantage.”

The other elders stared at him, then at me.

I nodded.

They started chattering excitedly among themselves. Reyn managed to make himself heard. “Quiet, quiet!” He frowned at me. “We’ve heard of such things. The Enemy has given many humans powers. She uses them to control her armies, to inflict torture and death wherever she pleases.”

“I am not my sister,” I said. “The powers I give will not affect your minds at all. You will come out the other side healthy and whole, and I will have no hold on you. No one will be able to use your own powers to control you.”

The elders glanced at each other, considering. They knew I had a reputation for honesty; part of the reason I had cultivated that reputation was for moments exactly like these. On the rare occasions I did need to hide the truth, I could just carefully word it to leave loopholes. That was how I had handled politics back before I revealed myself to Domina City and gave up on playing the power behind the throne.

“How many of our people will gain these powers?” Bay asked. “And what powers will they receive?”

“The powers will be apparently random,” I said. “Simplifying the process, suffice it to say that everyone will receive the power that they desire most. This can result in some unfortunate powers, however. I’m sure you have all heard of Dame Laura Medina on Earth?” Everyone nodded. “She wanted to know when people were lying, so she received the power to detect lies. But she was so obsessed with always knowing when people were lying that her power was far too efficient and easy to use. That means that she never had to stretch herself, and the power never improved.” It was like expecting to get stronger by blinking.

“I have heard that there are ways around that,” Zanovoon said.

I nodded. “There are. Deep meditation can help you untangle your power and rewire it in a way you find more advantageous.” I smiled wryly. “But in over thirty years, Laura still hasn’t bothered to do that. I think that says more than a bit about how annoying the meditation process can be.”

Zanovoon chuckled. No one else did.

“You still didn’t answer the other part of the question,” Bay said sharply. “How many para will be affected?”

I cocked my head to the side, as if surprised. “Why, all of them, of course. All the para in the system.”

Everyone in the room, including Leeno and the guards, just stared at me.

“But—you can’t,” Reyn said. He shook his head and composed herself. “It’s impossible. We have heard what the Enemy did in Domina City. The system is constructed in such a way as to—”

“—as to be impossible to send sound to everyone at once,” I said. “I know. Several hives have cut off radio contact entirely after a few close calls and will only accept texts, not to mention the people who are completely off the grid.”

“So you know,” Reyn said gruffly. “Then don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

I smiled. “I am not my sister, Elder Reyn. Either in temperament or power. I can most certainly give powers to every single para in the system at once. It won’t even be particularly difficult.”

How?

I really didn’t want to say. It increased my air of mystery, but the truth might terrify them too much. Simply put, I would channel the Song through any and all conductive materials in the system. That meant radios of course, whether they were turned on or not, but also all forms of metal and stone, some of the more audio-reflective plants, water, and even the air itself. Anyone in the system who was currently breathing would hear the Song. And of those who weren’t currently breathing, they were in range of one of the other conductive materials.

There were only two people in the system at the moment who wouldn’t hear the Song, and that was because they were naked in the vacuum of space, minutes away from death. I’d rescue them once the para agreed to my terms.

“You know what I am capable of, Elder Reyn,” I said. “Every para in the system will receive a power. The ‘how’ is irrelevant.”

Bay smiled, just slightly. For her, that was practically the same as vibrating with glee. “This won’t just save us from extinction. This will give us the advantage. We will be able to go on the offensive again. Make real gains.”

“Ah,” I said, holding up a finger. “There is one small snag. A simple condition for my aid.”

Reyn was suspicious. “What condition?”

“You are not allowed to commit genocide,” I said simply. “No destroying planets, no nuking cities or dropping rocks on continents. The humans, as a species and as a people, must survive this war.”

The elders all looked at each other. I knew what they were thinking. They were wondering what would happen if they decided to do it anyway.

“I should mention,” I said casually, “that this agreement is quite binding. There will be no consequences if you attempt to break this law. You will simply fail.”

Bay glared at me. “What does that mean?”

“Kinetic impactors will break up before they hit,” I said. “Nuclear reactions will not start. Engineered diseases will barely give people the sniffles before their immune systems fight them off. You may of course defend yourselves, but true genocide is not allowed.”

That might all sound impressive, but it’s not really all that difficult. I placed nuclear inhibitor fields on all fissionable materials; the fields were currently inactive to allow for non-violent nuclear technology, but I could turn any one on at a moment’s notice. Kinetic impactors were easy to handle with teleportation; just teleport a few bombs inside the rock at the weak points, and repeat until the impactor is too small to do any real damage. So on and so on. It had taken some time to set up some of the failsafes, especially for the nukes, but now that everything was in place I was confident that no one would wipe out all life in the system on a whim.

And if things got really bad, I could telekinetically take control of the offenders and force them to stop. That was a last resort—I’d rather move a planet than violate free will in such a way—but it was an option.

The elders looked at each other.

“We will need a moment,” Reyn said.

“Take all the time you need,” I said. “You have a few hours.”

“…a few hours until what?”

“Until the human ships reach your main Mars hive,” I said. I idly cleaned my fingernails as I spoke. “It’s not even a fleet, just a few shuttles that will be dropping some commandos on their front door. Most of the hive’s defenders are miles away, so the commandos will easily be able to fight past the meager defenses and plant a bomb that will kill the hive, and with it, the entire colony. That, in turn, will cripple your industry on the planet, which will soon start a domino effect that will result in your complete and utter defeat across the system.”

Silence. The elders just stared at me.

Leeno finally spoke up. “How will powers help prevent that? The guards will be unpracticed.”

I smiled. He had finally learned his role in all this. He sounded innocently curious—too innocent, like he was trying too hard, but that was fine. His job was to ask the questions that the elders were unable or unwilling to ask.

“Once the commandos realize that the guards have powers, they will retreat,” I said. “It is the best option in an unexpected situation. They don’t realize how close this operation is to being successful, nor how important it is. Once they are gone, you will have more than enough time to sue for peace.”

“Well,” Leeno said jovially, “that all sounds like a good deal to me. I mean, who would want to commit genocide anyway?”

None of the elders would look at us. Leeno might be laying on the shame a little thick, but these idiots had been about to kill an entire planet.

“Once you are no longer at war, you will find many of your problems disappear,” I said. “In addition to the advantages the powers will grant you, trade with the humans will give you access to their toy maker, which will lead to interesting advancements, especially for your hives. You can finally explore past the bounds of this system, claim the entire galaxy. There are a few fun surprises waiting for you.”

Yes, yes, I know I’m leaning a bit too hard on the omniscience. But these people need to believe that I can predict the future. Which I can—mostly. The point is, if they believe I am an all-knowing god, they are more likely to believe me when I tell them my plan will work and they can’t commit genocide. I have backup plans no matter what they choose, of course, but my life will be easier if they don’t throw nukes around like footballs.

The elders looked at each other, before finally Bay stepped forward. “We accept your proposal.”

I smiled. “Excellent.” I waited for the catch.

“On one condition,” she said. “You will provide us with a working FTL engine, similar to the one that brought us to this system ahead of schedule.”

Leeno glanced at me. He was the only one who knew the truth, since he had been the one who reached into the engine’s heart and turned it on. That particular type of engine was so far beyond current human and para technology that it might as well be magic. A caveman would have more success trying to repair a broken fusion reactor. Even so, it was millions of years behind my technology level. I had a more powerful engine than that one embedded in my spine. It was smaller than a grape.

“Fine,” I said. “It will be ready in a week.”

Zanovoon looked surprised. “It will take that long to bring it around?”

“It will take that long to build it,” I said. “I don’t exactly keep a stockpile of those on hand.”

Once again, the elders looked like they weren’t quite sure whether to be awed or horrified by my power. And once again, that was the point. Gods need to give constant little reminders of their power in order to keep people in line, and this was certainly better than killing every firstborn on the ship or splitting an ocean.

Hm, well, maybe I could split an ocean later. That actually sounded like fun. But maybe that would seem like it was trying too hard… Oh, I could split a tidal wave right before it hit a major city. Yes, that would be perfect. According to current weather and geological trends, Japan should be due for another big one in a few years. I could do it then.

But there I go, getting distracted again. Thankfully the para hadn’t notice anything. Between my powers and my post-human physiology, my brain literally worked faster than light, so I had been lost in my thoughts for less than a second.

“All right,” Reyn said, standing straight. He took a moment to preen his wings, then met my eyes. “We’re ready.”

I smiled, and sang.

When I allowed Elizabeth to start making her screamers, I knew what she was doing. She used a weak, corrupted version of the Song, something that would give those who heard it a power, but also an imperfect understanding of the Song. This imperfect understanding would drive them mad, compel them to spread the song however they could. The weakest of these, the ones we called chorus, were the screamers. They screamed and screamed in a laughable mockery of music, but their bites and blood could pass on their weak connection. The singers, the ones we called conductors, had a better understanding, and more sanity. They could sing something nearly like the true Song, though all who heard it became screamers.

Worse, Elizabeth found a way to corrupt the Song, to fill it with the hypnotism she was so proud of. She made the screamers more violent than they should have been, gave them a compulsion to fight instead of just their mad desire to spread the Song. And if they fought this compulsion, if they tried to stop fighting or stop screaming or talk, then the hypnotism would worsen. The screamer’s mind would be locked away, and what was left would be a dumb animal—less than a dumb animal, a poorly-programmed robot made of flesh and superpowers.

It was a terrible, terrible thing she did. My main contribution was to insist that a small group of specific individuals be given the true Song, and then have their connection cut off. That was how the Song was supposed to be used. These people became the speakers, or directors. They had a distant connection to the Song, enough to hear screamers and singers from a hundred miles away, but no compulsion or ability to spread the Song.

So when I sang the Song to the entire system, I did not use Elizabeth’s weak, corrupted version. I did not try to slip in any hypnotic triggers, or to try to forge a semi-permanent link in order to leave the afflicted with a compulsion to spread the Song.

I simply Sang, the purest of songs, the most perfect of notes.

I wish I could explain what it sounded like, but it didn’t really sound like anything. In this, its purest form, sound waves were little more than a medium for the Song to travel upon. It needed sound to reach people, but they did not need ears to hear it, to feel the underlying music of the entire universe.

It took less than a minute to give the entire system powers.

It felt like decades.

I let out a breath and smiled. “It is done.”

“…is it?” Reyn asked. “I don’t feel any different.”

Leeno was looking at me suspiciously. I ignored him. It would become obvious soon enough.

I rolled my eyes and raised my finger. A pure beam of light and heat sprang out, headed straight for Bay’s chest. She yelped and stepped back, covering herself with her arms, but she was saved by a black forcefield, leaking black mist like smoke, that sprung up in front of her. It was the exact same color as her eyes, and disappeared a moment later.

“As you can see, you all have powers,” I said. Bay was looking over herself like she couldn’t believe she was still in one piece. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m afraid that I have another appointment.”

“Th-thank you,” Zanovoon said. He actually looked overcome by emotion. “You don’t know what this means to me.” He quickly realized what he had said. “I mean, to all of us. You have given us hope.”

Reyn nodded, looking at his hands as if seeing them for the first time, trying to guess what his power would be. “With this, we can go on the offensive for the first time in years. We might actually be able to win.”

“Maybe,” I said with a smile. “But I doubt the humans will just roll over.”

Reyn chuckled. “Yes, but now we have the advantage.”

I just smiled.

Leeno started. “That’s what you did!”

“Ah, I was wondering how long it would take you to figure it out.” Despite the miracle of his existence, he didn’t have much actual experience with the Song.

Leeno looked like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry. “I should have known… the way you were talking, the things you didn’t say…” He shook his head. “Simple. Yet exactly what you promised. Amazing.”

Bay’s eyes drilled into him. “What is it? What did she do?” She narrowed her eyes. “Did she not give all our people powers?”

“All the para have powers, I promise you that,” I said. “Every single one of them.”

“Then… did you make it so that they are not inherited? I know human children inherit powers from their parents. Did you change that for us?”

I chuckled. “No.” I couldn’t have even if I wanted to.

“Then what?

“She gave everyone in the system powers,” Leeno said.

“Yes,” Bay snapped impatiently. “That’s what she said. So what—”

“No, you don’t understand. She gave everyone in the system powers. Not just the para.”

The command center fell dead silent.

“I was having a similar discussion with the United Nations while we were talking,” I said. Actually, I was still having the conversation. One of the benefits of multiple bodies. Multitasking did take some getting used to, but after a couple centuries you figured out how to make it work. “They agreed to the same terms as you: No genocide.” I smiled. “I suppose now that you are evenly matched, you have no choice but to sue for peace.”

“You… little…” Reyn howled and threw a fireball at me. He was acting on pure instinct, using his power for the very first time, and it wasn’t a very strong fireball. Still, it was more than enough to kill any baseline human or para.

I let the fireball melt my face down to the bone, then I waited patiently for it to heal. I used to go surfing on stars when I was a kid. I barely even noticed fire any more.

“As I said, I have another appointment.” I placed my hand on Leeno’s shoulder and teleported away even as the elders shouted at us.

We re-materialized in a bland taupe hallway—a hospital, to be precise. Domina has done some amazing things since its founding, but there’s not much you can do to make a hospital look any different from a hospital. At least if you’re keeping the place clean and efficient.

Leeno immediately burst out laughing. “Colors, did you see their faces?

I smiled. “I recorded it with six different sensor suites.”

He settled down after a moment. “Oh, that’s a good one. That’s going to keep me warm at night, even if they excommunicate me.”

“They don’t even know who you are. You’re free, or will be, once the wartime travel restrictions are lifted.”

He smirked—a human gesture—and looked at me sideways. “I think I might have figured out how to teleport, from watching you.”

I smiled. “Please practice somewhere safe before you start teleporting into space. I have plans for you yet.”

“Well that’s not disturbing.” He sighed. “Speaking of plans, what exactly are you going to do with that FTL engine?”

“What I promised them. I’ll give it to them.” I smirked. “Specifically, I’ll give it to a small unarmed para ship in neutral space while it is near a similar unarmed human ship. They’ll have to share.”

He barked out a laugh. “Yeah, that sounds about right. I hope I can be there when it happens.” He looked around. “Speaking of which, where are we, anyway?”

“Artemis Butler Memorial Hospital,” I said. “Outside Derek’s room.”

Leeno frowned. “Butler died?”

“He was eighty years old, had a dozen different developmental disorders since the day he was born, and had a great amount of difficulty using the toy maker,” I said. “Yes, he died.” I had been tempted to slip him some immortality when no one was looking, but had decided against it. I had made a decision to not give anyone immortality, and I needed to stick with it. Besides, I had uses for him, even dead.

“And you said Derek Huntsman…”

I nodded. “That’s right.”

“He shouldn’t be dying, though. How old is he?”

“Fifty.”

“That’s not that old for a human, is it?”

I smiled sadly. “Old enough.”

Leeno looked at the door. “Should… I come in? I didn’t know him long, and I liked him, but I’d probably just confuse him.”

“You don’t have to,” I said. “You can stay out here, or name any place in the system and I’ll teleport you there. But I would prefer if you came in with me. Your disappearance caused quite a stir, and I don’t want him to go to his final rest with more questions than necessary.”

Leeno thought for a moment, then nodded. I smiled and opened the door, and he followed me inside.

There were only two people in the room at the moment, which was why I had chosen now to make my appearance. Sitting next to the bed was a middle-aged woman with a face like stone and far too many worry lines. Her hair was a paradox; on the one hand it was the hair of a much younger woman, but at the same time it had a few noticeable streaks of gray from stress. She hadn’t had time to color it recently.

In the bed was a man, the same age, but most of the lines on his face were from smiles instead of frowns—though he certainly had his fair share of worry lines as well. His eyes were still startling blue, and his once-blond hair was almost entirely gray. He had never bothered with using the toy maker for even such simple vanity.

They both looked up when I entered, and nearly jumped in shock.

“Elizabeth,” Derek snarled, and clenched his fist. I could feel him readying a shield.

Laura, as usual, thought things through a bit more. “No,” she said. “It’s Silk.”

Derek glanced at her, then back at me.

“Oh, my little hero,” I said fondly. “Always ready to protect someone—even on your death bed.”

Derek relaxed, but only barely. He sighed deeply. “What do you want, Silk? I was about to go to sleep.”

“Yes,” I said sadly. “I know.”

Laura winced at that. She knew what I meant.

Derek, on the other hand, didn’t care. “Who’s the para?”

I smiled. “This is Leeno. You remember Leeno?”

“You mean our Leeno?” Laura said, looking over him with an appraising eye.

I nodded. “The same. I needed him out of the way for a short time, and I will need his presence now.”

Leeno glanced at me. “Wait, what? You didn’t say anything about that!”

“We will speak more later.”

He looked like he wanted to argue more, but then glanced at Laura, stretched protectively over her dying husband. He seemed to deflate. “I… yes. Of course. Now is not the time.”

I nodded and turned back to Derek. “I have a proposition for you.”

“No,” Laura said.

I smiled sadly. “This is hardly your decision to make. Besides, you haven’t even heard it yet.”

“I don’t care,” she snapped. “I have had enough of your manipulations. I will not allow you to make another deal, now of all times! Derek needs rest if he is going to recover, and he needs—”

“Laura,” Derek said, patting her hand. “I’m not going to recover.”

She glared at him as if it were his fault. Which it was, technically. But after a moment, her face softened, and she slowly sat back down. She always had been the pragmatic one. I wanted to praise her for that, but it would just make her mad.

Derek turned to me. “Let’s hear it.”

“When your heart stops, I want custody of your body,” I said. “To be precise, once it has stopped for a full two minutes. In these conditions, that is well past the point where the doctors will attempt to revive you.”

Derek frowned. “Why do you want my body?”

“You are a hero,” I said simply. “I want to understand you. See what makes you tick.”

“Aren’t you like a trillion years old or something? Don’t you know literally everything?”

“There is always more to learn.”

Derek frowned, then turned to Laura. “You were going to just cremate me…”

She scowled. “If you’re asking me for advice, I want nothing to do with her.”

Derek nodded, then turned back to me. “If I do this, what does Laura get out of this?”

“Don’t you dare make this about me.”

Derek chuckled. “Well, it’s not like I’ll care about a reward.”

I nodded, smiling. Laura was the brains of the pair, but Derek was hardly an idiot. “If you do this for me, then Laura will receive one wish. Anything at all that is within my power to give, short of genocide.”

Laura narrowed her eyes. “That’s a trick. A trap.”

“It is nothing of the sort,” I said. “I will make sure you are satisfied with your wish.”

“Like Adam was satisfied?” she snapped.

“Yes,” I said. I didn’t blink in the face of her glare. “He is satisfied, I promise you.”

“How would you know?”

Before we could get into the same argument we had had a dozen times before, Derek interrupted. “I’ll do it.”

I raised an eyebrow. That was fast, even for him.

Laura was surprised too. “What? No! Derek, stop and think for a moment.”

“Think about what? Honestly, I probably would have agreed even without the wish.” He took a deep breath. “I trust Silk. I trust that whatever she does with my body after I’m dead, it will be for the best. And if not…” He chuckled. “I’ll be in the afterlife and feel a bit silly. She’s not going to destroy the universe with my corpse.”

Laura looked like she was about to kill someone… which I knew meant she was actually about to cry. “The deal is done, then,” I said. I turned to go. “I will be back once your heart has stopped beating for two minutes. I would appreciate it if you made arrangements for the doctors to be gone as quickly as possible.” I could handle it anyway, of course, but it would make my life a little easier.

“Silk, wait,” Derek said.

I stopped, my hand on the doorknob, and turned back.

“How long do I have?”

I paused.

“Two hours,” I said.  He deserved some warning, at least. “Give or take half an hour.”

He nodded. “Thank you.”

I nodded in return, and stepped outside. Once the door was closed, I put my hand on Leeno’s shoulder and teleported us again. I could have done that from inside the room, of course, but it was impolite to teleport in front of others.

This time, we re-materialized in a massive cave. Metal and disassembled machinery were scattered everywhere, just waiting to be put to use.

“That was clever,” Leeno said.

I tried and failed to hide a smirk. “Oh?”

“Once again, you said so much while saying so little.” He smiled. “Doctors don’t revive someone if their heart has been stopped for a full two minutes, fine.  I don’t know enough about human medical procedures, but it sounds good. However, I read up on some human physiology, and I know the brain doesn’t die for at least another few minutes.”

“Is that so?”

“And you never mentioned Derek dying, or you taking his corpse. Just his heart stopping, and you taking his body.”

I walked to the center of the cave, the only part of it that made any attempt to be organized. Vearon had cleared some space for me around a massive metal cylinder that was attached to both the ceiling and the floor. It was easily ten feet wide and a hundred tall, with hundreds of cables attaching to it at seemingly random locations.

“I assume it has something to do with this,” Leeno said dryly. “What is it?”

“There’s no name for it,” I said. “I invented it, and I’ve always been terrible with names. You read about the toy box?” He nodded. “Well, it’s like that, sort of like how a horse is an FTL engine.”

“…okay,” he said. “I think I follow your metaphor. So you’re going to put Derek in here. Why? Why not just cure him?”

I sighed. “Because he is dying of a disease I cannot cure. A disease that shouldn’t even exist for millions of years.” I shook my head. “That FTL engine isn’t the only thing that fell through with me.”

“So that’s it,” Leeno said quietly. “You feel guilty.”

“Yes. Besides, I can make use of Derek.” I smiled. “In a thousand years, he’s going to be more than cured.”

Leeno started. “A thousand years?”

I nodded. “Maybe plus another decade or so. I won’t be sure until I put him inside.”

He looked over the tube again. “Are you going to take me there? To the future?”

I grinned. “No.”

He scowled. “Then you’re just going to let me die curious. Great.”

I laughed. “Of course not. But if you’re really so stupid that you can’t figure out how to use all the power in the universe to make yourself immortal, then you deserve far worse than death.”

Leeno stared at me for a moment, then laughed. “I didn’t even consider that.”

I clapped him on the back. “Come on. Let’s get this thing ready. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

And so we worked.

Throughout the Para-Human Peace Treaty. Throughout the Demon War and the Angel Resurgence, throughout the Identity Rebellions and the Fall of New Eden and the Solar Scourge and a million other disasters.

We worked. We fought behind the scenes to keep life from extinguishing itself here in this tiny backwoods star system, just as it had in hundreds of billions of star systems across the galaxy. Sometimes we were close to failure. Sometimes we were so flush with success that I almost left, content that the job was done and I could retire.

But throughout it all we worked, and the worlds spun on.

And the end of our thousand-year vigil drew ever closer.

This is an end of the story of Domina City, city of monsters, city of miracles. It is not the end, but then, nothing ever really ends. Even when Laura died, her children carried on her legacy. Even when the city itself was nothing but dust and ruins, demons and vampires still stalked the stars. Even when no one so much as remembered the names Huntsman, Medina, Yu, Anders, Akiyama, or Clarke, even when the human race itself was forgotten…

The story didn’t really end.

But it did stop. Here. Because this is where this ends.

There will be other stories, other tales, some of Domina City, others not. But this tale is done.

And I, at least, enjoyed it.

END BOOK FOUR

Scene 334 – Alvus

ALVUS

LAURA

The hive had landed in North-Middle, right at the center of a small park. The park was jointly owned by several kemo clans, included two cane packs with help from the lupes and a new hystric prickle. Once MC came back online in the Cathedral—which was odd, but made as much sense as anywhere—and I made sure that there weren’t any other fires to put out, I convinced Derek to take me with him to investigate the impact site. There were a number of good reasons for my presence, from my broad scientific knowledge and the help my power would provide in interrogating any survivors.

But, to be honest, I just wanted to be the first person to investigate an alien structure.

Reports said that the hive had been about half the size of a person when it first came down, and looked like some sort of giant seed. Now, giant spikes had burst out of the ground, there were twisted growths like tumors, and there was a large central dome made out of something that looked like either shell or carapace.

The park itself was pretty much completely gone. The spikes had disrupted the grass, the small stream had disappeared since the font was now under one of those strange growths, and reports said that the trees had been consumed, likely for calories.

And, of course, everything was a variety of different colors, though tangerine—the same color as Leeno’s eyes—was the most prominent. I wondered if these hives were where the para had gotten their predilection for painting all their buildings and gear every color of the rainbow.

The dome had a single entrance, a large hole that jutted out, with stalactites and stalagmites giving it a sharp and dangerous look. I wasn’t sure if there was some important defensive reason it had grown that way, or if it was just random.

It was the only entrance I could see, though, so we had no choice but to enter. The cultures, especially the ones that owned the park, would be here soon. I needed to get inside to lay an exploratory claim by ‘sarian law. I stepped forward with more confidence than I felt, my hand on my pistol holstered on my hip.

Derek immediately grabbed my arm.

I glared at him. “You are not going to tell me this is too dangerous.”

“I would if I thought it would work.” He sighed. “First, you should let the people with shields go first. We can take a hit.” He gestured at the three men behind him. They were all baseline, and were some of his most experienced Defenders, people with force-field powers who he had been training. They had been on the Shield Wall with him.

I thought for a second, then nodded. “Fine. You can go first, but I’m not staying outside while you do all the exploring.”

He nodded. “Of course. But there is the little matter of safety.”

I rolled my eyes. “Derek…”

“Laura,” he said, deadpan. “You are literally trying to walk into a giant mouth. At least let me call Leeno and ask if this thing can eat us.”

I glanced back at the entrance. It did look like a mouth. I wasn’t sure how I had missed that.

“Fine,” I said. I pulled out my phone and hit the button for MC. I still wanted to know what was going on with her, but this hive was far more important at the moment.

While I waited for her to pick up, I noticed Derek and his Defenders subtly taking position around me to protect me if anything came running out of the hive. I smiled a little to myself. Polite and pragmatic. I liked it.

Finally, MC picked up. “Laura? What is it? News on the hive?”

“Of a sort,” I said. “We’re at the entrance, and there are some… worries. This hive is alive. Is there any danger of it eating us?”

There was a pause as she considered. “That’s actually a really good question.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, that’s why I asked it. Can you please pass it along to Leeno?”

MC sighed. “Leeno is… not available.”

I frowned. Had she just sighed? Like, really sighed? She had never done that before. I guess she could have just used some sort of audio clip she got off the internet, but why bother now, of all times?

“Anyway,” MC said, “I’ll ask Zero. Give me a second.” There was a pause of less than a minute before she came back. “Zero says the hive is completely immobile now that it’s passed through its initial growth spurt, but that you should avoid opening any doors.”

“This thing has doors?” The entrance just opened up into a long, dark gullet.

“No,” MC said, presumably relaying from Zero. “She used the wrong word, she means…” Another pause. “Valves. That sort of thing. Basically, biological doors. Most of them will lead to vital organs, and a few will lead to the stomachs. If you fall into one of those, you could trigger another growth spurt.”

“Wonderful,” I muttered under my breath. “I’ll keep you posted.”

“Thanks.”

I hung up, then turned to Derek. “It won’t try to eat us, but stick together. We really don’t want to step down the wrong side room.”

Derek nodded, then signaled for his men to form up. We advanced down into the hive’s maw, and soon the only light was from the flashlights on the Defenders’ guns. It was a long hallway—or throat—made primarily of bone and carapace. There were some parts here and there that I thought might be flesh, but when I pushed on them they weren’t as soft as I expected. Softer than the rest of it, but still stiff and strong.

Soon, we found ourselves in a round, wide room so large that our feeble flashlights almost weren’t enough to illuminate it. There were depressions in the floor that looked like they might be meant for pools, but there was no liquid in them. There were also strange growths in regular intervals on the walls that might have been eyes, but they seemed dull and dead, and didn’t track us.

“There should be someone here,” Derek said. “It makes no sense to leave this whole thing undefended.”

“That implies that there was no way for them to send troops with the hive,” I said.

“Aren’t para born from these hives?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “Some of the things Leeno has said imply they have normal parents. It would explain why they sent the hive in undefended, though.” Some of the other hives had landed in places where they could get troops to quickly, but this was Domina. We had enough anti-air guns around the city, not to mention our fliers and other powers, that there was no way that they would be able to get a troop transport down here.

Derek frowned. “Well, I think—”

He was interrupted by a growling noise that reverberated from deeper inside the hive. It was a low, loud sound, that vibrated up through my bones and made me shiver.

As it faded, all was silent.

“So,” Derek said, in almost a whisper. “Stick together?”

I nodded vehemently. “Everyone, set your phones to camera mode,” I said quietly. “Just in case.”

Everyone clipped their phones to their chests where they would have a good view in front of them. For most of the Defenders, this only took a few seconds—it was a standard ‘sarian tactic, so Derek had taught it to his men—but it took me a little while longer. After a moment, I frowned.

Derek noticed the look on my face. “What is it?” he asked quietly.

“No signal,” I said, equally quietly. I glanced up at the ceiling. “Maybe the carapace is blocking it.” There had to be at least some metal in the structure of the hive to allow it to grow so large. Whether intentional or not, that was likely fouling up the transmission.

“Wonderful,” he muttered. “Just what we need.”

I finally managed to clip the phone to my chest. “As long as we don’t actually die here, it will be fine.”

One of the Defenders gave me the side-eye. I shouldn’t have mentioned dying; I had forgotten how superstitious soldiers could be.

“Two exits,” Derek said. “Any preferences?”

I glanced between the two exits. They both looked exactly the same—tall, rounded doorways ridged with bone. “Which one do you think the noise came from?”

Derek frowned, then glanced at one of his Defenders.

The man scratched his head, looking a little embarrassed. “Left.”

The man looked baseline, but he mast have enhanced hearing. I did too, but not much. I had the hearing of a baseline teenager, which was nice and all, but not much better than what I would have had naturally.

I shook my head. This place was getting to me. I was letting my thoughts wander to keep from having to make a decision. “We’ll take the left passage, then,” I said. “Maybe we’ll find whatever made the noise and kill it.”

Derek nodded, then signaled to his men. They moved in formation, guns up and ready for anything.

The passage—ribbed with bones at regular intervals like the first one—twisted and turned as we walked. There were what looked like a few side passages, but they were all blocked off by strange films. I had to assume they were those biological doors Zero had warned MC about, so I ordered Derek and the others to ignore them. We could deal with them later, when we had more advanced equipment.

“So what exactly are we looking for here?” Derek asked after a few minutes.

I was looking at a pattern of veins in the flesh of the wall, but I glanced up as he spoke. “Hm? Oh, anything. Everything. Mostly, we want to make sure that this place isn’t too dangerous.”

“And if it is? Dangerous, I mean?”

“Then we call in the Canians and tell them to have fun.”

Derek chuckled. “Fair enough.”

We didn’t go much farther before one of the Defenders spoke up. “Uh, sir? Honored Dame?”

I glanced back; the Defender was one of our rear guard. “Yes, soldier?”

“Why don’t we just burn this place down now?

I resisted the urge to snap at him. He seemed to be asking a genuine question. “There is much we can learn here. About the para, about their biology and plans, and perhaps most importantly, about what the other hives might be used for. If we destroy it, we’ll also destroy a lot of potential information.”

Derek nodded. “Even if this hive is undefended—” He made a face. “Which might be a pretty big if at this point—most of the other hives didn’t drop in the middle of cities. A hive landed on Mars, and there’s no way anyone can get to it before the para. Whatever they’re planning to do with it, they’ll have more than enough time.”

The Defenders seemed satisfied with that, but it made me think. What were the para planning with these hives? When I had initially seen them growing, I had assumed they were weapons. That they’d eat a significant portion of the city, if not the entire planet, softening us up for a more traditional assault.

But this hive hadn’t killed a single person or destroyed a single building. Other than a small disruption to the local water services due to the destruction of some of the pipes that ran under the park, the city didn’t seem affected at all.

There were too many questions regarding these hives. They didn’t seem to be related to the para technology, in either direction. None of the para ships or weapons we had looked over so far had any biological components, and they didn’t even share any aesthetic similarities. Sure, the hive was certainly colorful, but the patterns and color choices were completely different from that of their ships or armor.

But then, those questions were why we were here. I resolved to put them aside for now. Wondering about things like that might just lead me to miss the answers even if they showed up right in front of me.

Just as I started paying attention again, we passed into another large room. This one was smaller than the first, with a lower ceiling, but ran longer. It reminded me of a Native American longhouse, though I wasn’t sure it would be recognizable from the outside.

Two steps into the room, we all stopped, realizing almost simultaneously that we were walking on mud instead of the flesh and carapace we had been dealing with before. I almost freaked out, thinking it might be something else due to the strong smell of fertilizer, but the Defenders played their flashlights over the ground and I breathed a sigh of relief. It really was just mud. I could even see it drying in a few places.

“How random,” Derek said.

“Maybe we’re over the fountain?” one of the Defenders said.

I frowned. “Maybe… but maybe not.” I glanced up. I thought I could see something, but couldn’t be sure. “Soldier. Shine your light on the ceiling, please.”

The Defender did as ordered. The light from his gun revealed large circular clear spots, like crystals. No light was coming down at the moment, but I thought I could see something behind the crystals. A retractable membrane, perhaps, like an eyelid?

The crystal circles covered most of the ceiling. If those membranes retracted, the entire room would be filled with sunlight.

I looked down at the ground again. “I think this might be a farm.”

Derek frowned, looked at the ground, then up at the ceiling.

“That’s the smell in the air,” I said. “It’s some sort of fertilizer chemical. The hive mixed it with the dirt, which made mud. My guess is that anything grown here will grow bigger and faster than anything we could make.”

One of the Defenders—the one with the strong ears—gave me a look. “Faster than the toy maker?”

“Probably not,” I admitted. “I misspoke. But definitely better than anything in normal soil.”

Derek nodded. “So you’re saying that these hives are farms.”

“Yes.” I paused. “No. Maybe. Not just farms, I think. There’s way too much space for that.”

One of the other Defenders spoke up. “Plus, why make a farm indoors when you can just make the same thing outdoors?”

I shook my head. “You’re forgetting that this wasn’t created by the toy maker. It evolved, it wasn’t designed. So while it might have been more efficient in the long run to just find whatever fertilizer they use and mix it into normal soil outside, to an evolving species, that wouldn’t be an option. Farming is a relatively advanced concept. My guess is that this room would have originally been simply a room to let wild plants grow, which the para would then gather. From there, they likely developed farming techniques.”

Derek gave me a look. “That seems like a lot of assumptions. Are we sure they don’t just have some sort of toy maker equivalent?”

“They don’t,” I said. I smirked. “Unless Leeno was lying to me.”

Derek smirked too, but before he could say anything, there was a growl behind me.

It was much quieter than the first one—but much, much closer.

Derek didn’t waste time trying to be polite. He threw me aside and threw up a glowing blue shield, just in time to black some thing that was jumping right at me.

It was hard to see anything in the wild lights of the flashlights, but I saw a white carapace and far too many legs. The beast screeched in pain and rage before withdrawing into the darkness, chittering.

It was answered by more chittering from all around.

“We’re surrounded,” I spat.

Derek tried to watch everywhere at once. “Laura, what’s your take?”

I forced myself to breathe and consider the situation. “Some sort of defense mechanism. If they evolved naturally, then they can’t be that dangerous, but I’m not liking the numbers. We could have a real fight on our hands.”

“But if it’s some sort of coordinated defense, then that means that there’s a central controller, right?”

“I… maybe? Maybe not? It depends on how smart these things are.”

“Seem pretty smart to me,” one of the Defenders said. “They saw something they didn’t understand and are taking a moment to assess the situation.”

“And they’re definitely coordinated,” Derek said. “Natural radios? Pheromones?”

“They might just kill anything that doesn’t smell like para,” I said.

“We have no way of knowing,” Derek said. “But we have to assume that there is somewhere deeper in the hive where they can be turned off or stood down or whatever.”

“I don’t see how—” Realization dawned. “MC mentioned that ancient para used hives against each other. That means that the hives will attack para, and that there is a way to make them stop.”

“Sure,” Derek said. I wasn’t sure he was listening. “Goiania, take Laura deeper into the hive. You’re looking for some sort of controller.”

“Yes, sir,” one of the Defenders said. It was the one with the sharp ears. Before I had a chance to say anything, he had picked me up under one arm and was charging towards the exit. The others started firing in order to provide a clear path.

It was only when we were halfway through the room that I realized what Derek was doing.

“DEREK!” I roared. I tried to shift around to glare at Derek despite the awkward position I was being carried in, but I couldn’t. It was too dark to see, anyway. “I know what you’re doing! Don’t you dare sacrifice yourself! DEREK!

Then we were through the horde, running through an empty hallway. The soldier’s flashlight bounced everywhere, sending strange shadows dancing over the fleshy walls.

I pounded on his back, demanding he put me down, but he ignored me. It wasn’t until we reached the next empty room that he finally stopped running and set me down on the ground.

He watched me warily, but I just glared at him. I had calmed down some; I knew that fighting him would be an exercise in futility several times over. I took a deep breath and deliberately looked away from him. Even yelling at him wouldn’t solve anything.

“This way,” I said instead. “I think I figured out the pattern.” I walked quickly through the room, stepping around the dozens of short ridges of bone that looked like curved walls. Beds, maybe? Or nursing areas? Or maybe some sort of place for storing biological secretions of the hive itself?

“What pattern, sir? Ma’am?” the soldier asked as he rushed to keep up.

“The blood vessels in the walls and ceilings,” I said, pointing. “They go everywhere, of course, but the network seems to be becoming more complex in this direction. I suspect that we’ll find a vital organ at the end of them.”

“And… what? We kill it to kill the hive?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Whatever happened to keeping this thing alive?”

I glared at him.

He held up his hands. “Hey, sorry, just asking.”

I looked forward again. “If Derek’s theory is right, then at the very least those… whatever they are will consider our proximity to something vital to be a threat. They will likely converge on us, giving the others time to escape.”

“Knight Huntsman won’t be happy about that.”

“Yeah, well, we can argue about it after I’ve saved his life.”

The Defender chuckled, but didn’t say anything else.

We marched for a few minutes before we finally found something more interesting than endless room designed for purposes we couldn’t understand. On the wall of one of those strange rooms—this one had strings of flesh hanging down from the ceiling almost like hair—was a doorway, but one with a door. It was paler than the surrounding flesh-wall, and softer as well. It looked like one of the extra eyelids amphibians had, protective yet flexible.

Hundreds of blood vessels converged on it like rivers. There was something important here, of that there was no doubt. Now I just had to hope it wasn’t a stomach filled with industrial-grade acid.

“So… now what?” the Defender asked. “Ring the doorbell?”

Jokes aside, he was right. There were no buttons, knobs, keys, or anything at all that might imply there was some way to open it. If not for Zero’s warning, I might have even guessed that this wasn’t a door at all.

I searched for a seam with my hands and thought I found it, but it didn’t do any good. Trying to pull it open was like trying to rip steel bars out of the wall. I had my gun, but I didn’t want to shoot in case there was something delicate on the other side.

I held out my hand to the Defender. “Knife.”

“What? Oh.” He placed a large combat knife in my hand. It had a few spots of rust on it, and I made a mental note to have Derek talk to him about it. But right now, it was good enough for my purposes.

I stabbed the knife into the spot where I thought the seam was. The membrane shuddered, but stayed closed for the moment. I frowned, then dragged the knife down, either cutting open the membrane or forcing it open—I didn’t really care which.

The wall’s shuddering increased, until finally, when the knife had nearly reached the ground, it split open like the last gasp of a dying man. There was a warm, wet liquid on my hands that I assumed was blood. I wiped my hands on my pants, thankful that I couldn’t see much in the poor lighting.

We stepped into the revealed chamber, and the Defender started slowly sweeping his flashlight around the room like a professional. It was smaller than the others, more like a large closet than a real room. It was round and peaked, like an onion, and the walls were covered almost completely in bone. The only exception was the sole entrance that we had just stepped through.

In the center of the room was some sort of strange structure. It was a pillar of bone and gray flesh connecting to the floor and ceiling, but it pulsed every few seconds almost like a heart. On a second glance, the gray matter was hidden almost entirely behind a honeycomb of bone, leaving it better protected than I had expected.

The Defender looked it over, awed. “Is that the brain?

“It’s brain matter,” I said. “But I don’t know if it’s any sort of central brain. I don’t know enough about normal para anatomy, much less hives.” I was going to have a lot of questions for Leeno once I got out of here, though.

And if Derek was dead, I was going to kill Leeno for not warning us about anything.

I took a deep breath and forced those thoughts from my mind. Either Derek was dead or he wasn’t; worrying wouldn’t help him either way. What would help him was figuring out what I was supposed to do with this brain pillar.

Like the door, there were no obvious interfaces. No buttons, switches, or toggles. I took a few steps back, frowning. This did not look like something that was designed to be interacted with. It just looked like a big weird decorative pillar. Maybe this was the wrong place. This was the server room, and the keyboard was elsewhere. The server room needed more power—or more blood, in this case—but the keyboard was where things got done.

I turned to go.

“Wait, you’re leaving?” the Defender asked. “Just like that?”

“This is the brain,” I said. “We’re looking for the ears.”

He looked conflicted. “Well… I mean…” He glanced at the pillar again. “We should at least try something. What if this is the right place, but we run around the hive for an hour before we figure that out?”

I stopped. He had a point. Spending an extra minute or two here was an efficient use of our time.

I turned back to the pillar and raised my voice. “I am Laura Medina, Paragon of Domina City. I wish to speak to you.”

No response. This was probably a waste of time.

Wait… maybe… had I seen a flicker of electricity on the gray matter?

“I bring word from Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado,” I said.

Yes, there were definite sparks this time.

“I am his ally, and wish to pass through this hive unhindered.”

There was a long, low groan that reverberated throughout the entire hive. I could feel my teeth vibrating in my skull. The Defender had a tight grip on his gun, but blessedly didn’t shoot anything.

After what felt like an eternity, the rumbling stopped.

“…is that good?” the Defender asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “Give it a few minutes.”

Nothing happened.

I glanced at the door behind us, the one I had cut open. It had already stopped bleeding. “I think one way or another, we’re done here. Let’s go see if anything attacks us.”

The Defender sighed. “This is the part of the job I hate.” But he hefted his gun and moved in a position where he could cover me easily.

We stepped into the outer chamber to find it filled with small, strange monsters, but they weren’t moving. They remained perfectly still, breathing calmly as if nothing was wrong. Judging from their positions, they had been preparing to rush the brain room when they had frozen. I suppressed a chill. This had been far closer than I would have liked.

With the beasts still, I could get a better look at them. They were about the size of a dog, with rounded bodies covered in white carapace, eight legs, and a small head with beady tangerine-colored eyes. They looked a lot like fleas, actually. For all I knew, that was exactly what they were. Silver and gold, for all I knew they were Earth fleas, and something about the hive’s growth had found them and grown them to gargantuan proportions.

“Laura!”

I looked up, surprised, to find Derek and the rest of his Defenders walking over to me, trying to avoid stepping on the fleas. They kept their guns trained on the monsters warily, but thankfully didn’t actually shoot. I didn’t want to test how far our alliance would do.

They were all covered in gore and a clear liquid that might have been blood, but they were alive, and that was the important part.

I smiled. “I got the security down in time.”

He chuckled. “No. We killed all the bugs, then came looking for you. Then the security came down.” He shrugged. “I knew we’d be fine.”

I glared at him. “Then why make me think you were pulling a heroic sacrifice?”

“Hey, you’re the one who said it, not me. I just thought you’d be more useful looking for the controller.”

I sighed. I couldn’t fault his logic anywhere. “Fine. With the security down, I think we can bring in more people to map this place.”

Derek nodded. “We should bring Leeno in to be safe. The hive will want to talk to him.”

“Talk to him?” My eyes widened. “The hive talked to you?”

Derek raised an eyebrow. “Uh, no. The hive talked to you.”

I frowned. “What?”

“That loud groaning noise? That was the hive speaking.” He pulled out his phone. “I thought it sounded too regular to just be random noise, so I sped it up.” He chuckled. “I sped it up a lot.” He clicked play.

A voice—still deep, but much more recognizable—came from his phone. “Laura Medina, Paragon of Domina City. Bring Leeno. Important. Bring Leeno.”

“Well,” I said after a moment. “I guess you can’t get more direct than that.” I was glad my hunch had been right, and this hive spoke English. I was guessing that it was a result of one of those language chips that Leeno had mentioned.

Derek clipped his phone back onto his chest. “How did it know your name, though?”

“I introduced myself.” I looked around the room, at its carpet of placid fleas, and shivered. “Let’s get out of here. We’ll bring Leeno and Zero down to help explore the rest of it safely.”

He smirked. “Whatever happened to wanting to explore everything on your own?”

“That was before I found out there were monsters,” I said. “We need to keep everyone out. Necessarius already has a cordon up, but we’ll expand it a bit to keep the place completely secured until Leeno arrives.”

“Sure.” Derek frowned. “Where do you think Leeno is, anyway?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 334)

I spent a lot of time thinking about how I wanted the para to use bio-tech. I knew I wanted them to use cybernetics to parallel the Dominite toys, but I also knew that I wanted them to have some strange biological processes besides just their eyes, and not just have the ability to make living guns and whatnot.

The hives were the final answer.