Category Archives: Domina

The main storyline.

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.

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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.

Scene 329 – Reconciliatio

RECONCILIATIO

DEREK

“Hello, Ling,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

She just looked up at me without expression. “Hello, Derek.”

We were in the AU dorms, and we were finally moving out. The school year didn’t officially end for a few more months, but considering how crazy everything was, we really should have moved out months ago.

Laura had decided that this was as good a time as any to call up Ling for a reunion. I just wished she had told the rest of us first.

I gestured at Ling’s room, across the hall. “Akane got all of your stuff together as best as she could. All your anime and games and whatnot.” I shuffled on my feet. “I’m not sure you still care about any of that any more.”

Ling was silent for a moment. “Thank you,” she said finally. “No, I should thank Akane.” She glanced around. “Where is everyone, anyway?”

“Akane is back at NHQ,” Adam said, carrying a box out of our room. He had even less stuff than I did, but there were a few odds and ends that he had left behind over the months. “She has the kensei and the CS training pretty hard, just in case the whole thing with the para goes south.”

“And Laura should be back soon,” I said. “She’s escorting the American president to Timaeus to talk to some of the merfolk, and then to New York.” I was worried about her, but I tried not to show it.

Ling gave me a thousand-yard stare that told me she could see right through me. “She took one of my gravers. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

I smiled. “She also has three of my Defenders. Between those four and Laura herself, she could probably conquer New York if she felt like it.”

Ling cocked her head. “Defenders? Haven’t heard of them yet. Are they new?”

I nodded. “Trying to keep them quiet for now. They’re people with force field powers, like mine, though some of them have blades instead of shields. Some of them have been training with the kensei, but mostly they’ve been working on their own.”

“I didn’t think you wanted to start a gang,” Ling said.

I shrugged. “Guilds are different,” I said lamely, not really believing it myself. “Or colleges or whatever we’re calling them.” I walked into my room and finally started packing things up. Ling followed. “Having people working together to figure out their powers just seems like a good idea to me.”

“I wasn’t disagreeing,” Ling said. I thought I saw the slightest of smiles on her lips, but it was gone before I could be sure of anything. “I’d be a hypocrite if I tried to chew you out for having a guild. I was just curious why you changed your mind.”

I winced. “Uh, well, it’s complicated.”

“His brain got stapled to like fifty other people during the siege,” Adam said. “Apparently it left an impression.”

I groaned. “You make it sound so horrible.”

“It kinda was. Laura looked like she had thrown her puppy into traffic.”

Ling glanced between us, frowning, before her face cleared. “Oh, the shield. I heard about that from my spies.” She rolled her eyes, some of the first real emotion I had seen from her today. “Before Butler got rid of them all. Anyway. You became a podbrain or something, right? Telepaths and shielders working together?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” I paused. “Most of my first recruits were from that group. I chose them because they were the strongest shielders around, but I wonder if the concert led us to trust us more.”

Adam gave me a look. “Concert?”

“Impermanent mutable telepathic metaconcert,” Laura said as she walked into the room. “That’s what Clarke has been calling it, anyway.” She smiled at me and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “Hey.”

I smiled back. “Hey yourself. Things go fine with Martinez?”

She nodded. “Yeah, he seemed to hit it off with the Atlanteans.”

“So his bodyguards didn’t shoot anyone?”

“He didn’t have any bodyguards,” she said. She shook her head. “I understand why he fired his previous one, but come on. I’m pretty sure it’s against the law for him to run around without some basic protection.”

“I’ve definitely seen him with Secret Service,” Adam said. “After the whole… thing with Silk, I mean.”

I frowned. “Really?”

“Sure. Those guys in black who follow him everywhere? Who did you think they were?”

I shrugged. I hadn’t really noticed them. That probably meant they were doing their jobs well, blending into the background.

“I know about them,” Laura said. “He had a few with him on the boat. But he went to meet the Atlantean delegates without them, which just seems odd. Even Mayor Konstantopoulos had bodyguards.”

I shrugged and gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “He seems like a casual man. Maybe he just ditches his guards whenever he gets the chance.”

Laura sighed. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“What thing with Silk?” Ling asked.

All three of us turned to her.

“What?” I asked.

“You said he fired a bodyguard after something with Silk. What, did he turn out to be Silk? Maybe using some sort of disguise power?”

Laura and I glanced at each other, then at Adam.

He kneaded his forehead. “It says something about the world that we live in that ‘some sort of disguise power’ makes more sense than the truth.”

Ling folded her arms across her chest. She still wasn’t smiling, or making jokes, or… doing anything like she normally would. There was a silence in the air, waiting for her playful banter, but she said nothing. The silence just hung there, empty as the grave.

“Right,” Adam said after a moment of awkwardness. “Now, I wasn’t actually there, but Lily told me everything—”

“Get to the point,” Ling said. Her tone was sharp and curt. It reminded me of when Akane gave orders to her kensei.

“Silk cloned herself,” Adam said. “Martinez’s bodyguard had been involved in some sort of cloning project to make the perfect soldier by copying him. I don’t know why anyone thought that was a good idea.”

Ling frowned. “So these clones… they’d be like American homunculi?”

“Uh, yeah. I guess. Why?”

Ling waved him on with her hand that was still flesh. “Later. Please, continue.”

“Okay. So Silk cloned herself like ten thousand times or however many cloning tanks they had.”

“How did they do it?” Ling said, some of her old geekiness poking through. “Did they use the toy maker? Did America finally make enough progress to do something useful with it? Did they use a toy box? Did the fey help them at all?”

Adam held up his hands. “I have no idea. I mean, I’d assume that the toy maker was involved, but it’s just a guess.”

“Logical deduction,” Laura said.

“Sure, or that. I’m pretty sure the fey haven’t made any deals with the US yet, but who knows with them.”

Ling nodded. “Of course. Please continue. So Silk cloned herself. What’s the benefit of that? Did the clones even have powers?”

Adam gave a sad chuckle. “Oh, yes. Immortality, the works. But the important thing is that she’s a podbrain. She linked all ten thousand minds together, and then they all just disappeared. Lily says one second they were there, the next they weren’t.”

Ling blinked. “A… ten-thousand body hive mind,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“…with powers.”

“Uh, yeah. I just said that like two seconds—”

Ling threw back her head and laughed.

Not a shy or small laugh, but a deep, belly-busting roar or humor. I had never heard her laugh like that even on her happiest day, and hearing it from the Lady of the Grave was downright stunning.

I took an involuntary step back. Had her brain finally snapped from all the stress it was under? With her power level, that could be… worrying. Was it my imagination, or was the building itself shaking with the force of her laughter?

“Ten thousand?” she screeched between laughs. “Ten thousand immortals, all working in unison… and nothing’s changed? Do you realize what that means?

I glanced at Adam. He was edging towards one of his guns, in a holster hanging from his bed. I wasn’t sure if I should stop him or not. I wanted to stop him—this was Ling, after all. We could trust Ling.

But could we trust the Lady of the Grave?

I decided to stall. “What does it mean?”

Ling had a wicked, cruelly delighted smile on her face. “It means that she’s God, and everything is going according to plan.”

I blinked. I wasn’t sure how to process that. “Uh…” I glanced at Laura for support.

She seemed unconcerned by Ling’s outburst, but the fact that she wasn’t stopping Adam from doing anything spoke volumes. “Silk didn’t plan for the para. That’s hardly a sign of an omniscient deity.”

Ling chuckled. “Maybe she didn’t plan for them before, no, but they’re definitely in her plan now. Unless you think that a woman with the power of ten thousand people—including teleportation—can’t kill one ship if she feels like it?”

Laura frowned.

“This explains so much!” Ling said, shaking her head. “Intervening when I was going to kill the president—”

I blinked. “Wait, when did that—”

“Teleporting me out of the Pentagon but not straight to Domina.”

Laura frowned. “I’m not sure how that has anything to do with—”

“And of course kidnapping MC.”

My jaw dropped open. “Wait, what? She did what?

Ling raised an eyebrow. “Surely you know she’s missing.”

“Well, of course!” It wasn’t common knowledge, but the upper levels of Necessarius had been going crazy the past week trying to figure out what had happened and how to get her back. It wasn’t like her software had been deleted, her entire core processing unit was simply gone. A few trusted changelings had been brought in to look over everything, and they had declared that absolutely any hardware that contained any trace of her mind had disappeared into thin air. There were quite a few computers and paraphernalia left behind, but apparently that was just all her equipment. It was like a person disappearing from inside their car when they were driving. “But, I mean—”

“Why do you think she was kidnapped by Silk?” Laura asked.

“And how do you even know she’s missing?” I added. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Adam had gotten to his gun. Now that Ling seemed to have calmed down, he didn’t draw it or anything, but he stayed within reach.

“I can always talk to the real MC whenever I want,” Ling said. “I haven’t been able to since Leeno and Zero arrived, meaning she disappeared.”

“…okay,” I said. “I’ll buy that. But it’s still a bit of a jump to assume that Silk was behind it.”

“Well who else would it be?”

Laura sighed. “Let’s ignore the logic of that particular deduction at the moment. What’s your point? Why does it matter if she has a plan or not?”

Ling gave her a patronizing smile. “Oh, Laura. Surely you’ve thought about it. Laid up at night worrying about it. An uber-powerful immortal of unknown goals—who knows what she’ll do? She could teleport into Butler’s bedroom and kill him. Or teleport into your bedroom and kill you.”

I growled. “I’d like to see her try.”

Ling raised an eyebrow, then smirked. “…well. Maybe that would be harder than I’d have first thought. But still, the point stands that she can do an awful lot of damage if she felt like it. I already failed to kill her once, and I doubt I’d do any better on a second attempt.”

That sounded like a story I wanted to hear, but I didn’t interrupt.

Laura crossed her arms over her chest. “What is your point?”

Ling smiled. “If Silk is a god… if everything is going according to plan… then she doesn’t need to make such gross adjustments. We’re never going to wake up to find Silk or Nephorthees or whoever else they have standing over us, about to deal the final blow.” She spread her hands wide. “We are free.”

We were all silent as we digested the implications of this.

“That’s a weird definition of freedom,” Adam said finally.

“And who is Nephorthees?” I asked.

Ling smirked. “Silk’s assassin. She’s a spaceship.”

“What?”

Laura waved away my questions. “I think I can see some logic in what you’re saying, but there are some parts that don’t track. If she doesn’t care what we do, then why kidnap MC? Assuming, of course, you’re right about that.”

Ling shrugged. “MC is too powerful, too big an advantage. Depending on how the para handle software security, she might have been able to hack into their mothership through Leeno’s shuttle and blow up the whole fleet.”

“The changelings say that’s impossible,” Laura said.

I glanced at her. I was more than a little disturbed that she had asked something like that, but I squashed the feeling down. War was hard, and of course we had to consider every weapon available.

“That still doesn’t track,” I said instead. “How is her intervening to take out a dangerous player proof that she won’t intervene to take out a dangerous player?”

Ling sighed with a frown. Her good humor was fading, and she was slowly turning back into her new, dangerous persona. “Because she didn’t kill her. Now, I’ve never tried to kill an AI in real life, so who knows how hard it is. But I’m guessing it’s harder than kidnapping one.”

I glanced at Laura. How much should we tell her?

Laura just glared at Ling. “True. So you think that if she wants us out of the way, she’ll just kidnap us?”

“No, she—” Ling sighed. “MC is a special case. She is easily the most dangerous person in the entire city.”

“I thought she didn’t have any control over any military hardware,” Adam said. “She doesn’t have any drones or remote tanks or whatever.”

“She has information,” Laura said. “Far more dangerous.”

Adam looked like he wanted to argue, but kept silent.

“The point is, MC is far more dangerous to Silk than the rest of us.” Ling shrugged. “Oh, I have my gravers, Akane her kensei and now Derek his Defenders… but really, what happens if we’re killed or kidnapped? Our guilds will survive without us.”

Laura brightened at the opportunity to correct someone. “Historically, cultures need more time to become stable—”

Ling waved her off. “Guilds are different. There will still be petrakinetics without me, and they’ll want to train. There will be tachyists without Akane, there will be fragmatists without Derek. The guilds might change goals, but maybe not. It’s hard to say, this early on. My point is that if Silk saw the most dangerous person in Domina City—the AI threaded throughout the entire city, always watching and possibly immortal—and only kidnapped her, then there is no way the rest of us have anything to worry about.”

“You said she stopped you from killing Martinez,” Laura said.

I frowned. I still wanted more detail on that, but now was not the time.

Ling nodded. “Yes, she did. But she didn’t kill me or make me disappear or even leave me for the American authorities to arrest.” She paused to consider. “Although that was likely more for their benefit than mine. But she doesn’t consider us a real threat, just children who need to be pushed out of dangerous situations every once in a while.”

Adam snorted. “So your definition of freedom is that we’re too weak for anyone to care enough to stop us from doing anything.”

Ling smiled again, just briefly. “Exactly. And if she does show up to stop you, consider it a compliment.”

“I can do without that sort of compliment.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She smirked. “I’m feeling much better knowing that I don’t have to worry about her randomly deciding to obliterate my gravers.” She clapped her hands and looked around. “Now, we’ve got some work to do. And after that, who’s up for sandwiches down at Nervi’s?”

Behind the scenes (scene 329)

I mentioned before that guilds usually don’t care how you do things, but more what you do, which is why Robyn will accept anyone who can fly, no matter whether it’s with rockets or levitation. Derek went in something of the opposite direction here, not caring what people can do as long as they all have the same core power—creating force fields. This creates an atmosphere of shared circumstances while still giving them some flexibility with the different talents branching off that power. Shield-makers are the core of the Defenders, but he also has access to sword-makers (who train with the kensei occasionally), knife-makers, wall-makers, and more.

Ling also called herself a petrakinetic, Akane a tachyist, and Derek a fragmatist. Derek is more precisely an aspifragmatist, but fragmatist is the general term. Laura is a latheanakalist (general term anakalist), and Robyn Joan a barykinetic. Technically “kinetic” refers to the power and the term for its user would be kineticist (or petrakineticist or barykineticist), but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so it’s shortened. Artemis Butler, Isaac Clarke, and MC are all various types of morphers, or allagists.

Scene 328 – Syreni Civitatem

SYRENI CIVITATEM

RICHARD

As I was leaving Domina City, Medina insisted on going with me. ‘One last tour,’ Butler said. While they were both being enigmatic and secretive, they didn’t seem to be malicious, so I decided to go along with it. Besides, we had just worked together to begin negotiating a peace treaty with an alien race. That entitled them to more than a little trust.

Even if this ‘last tour’ required a boat.

It was a Dominite boat this time, a thirty-foot yacht named the NS Eden. I had a vague memory of there being something called Eden at the very beginning of the city, so I assumed the yacht was named after that instead of the garden. It was hard to tell with these people, though.

“So,” I said once we were out of sight of Domina City itself. “Where are we headed?” West Fusion Island was looming before us, but I doubted that was our final destination.

Medina smirked at me. “Can’t handle surprises, Mister President?”

I grinned. “Normally, yes. But considering the last time you tried to take me to this place we got attacked by fish people and ghosts, I’m a little worried.”

“Ghost ships,” she said. “Mobile refurbished Rahab wrecks. Ghosts are something else.”

“Ah, yes,” I said. “Obviously. I’m just saying, are you sure that’s not going to happen again?” Especially with the para declaring their intent to negotiate with Domina City instead of America. One of the reasons my advisers had recommended I leave was because they were afraid that Domina might kill me to keep me from upsetting their negotiating position.

I was pretty sure they wouldn’t do that. But I was still leaving the city.

“A few Dagonite pods are following us,” Medina said. She pointed, and I saw something leaping out of the water a few hundred yards away. I had assumed they were dolphins. “They can handle most threats, even a minor leviathan if necessary. Anything bigger, and they’ll give us enough time to actually escape.”

She gave me a side-eye when she said that. I had a feeling she was still blaming me for not bringing any picket ships on the way from New York. It had been almost a week! Okay, more like half a week… but still. Was she going to hold a grudge about that forever?

“Regardless, we’re almost there,” Medina said.

The yacht rumbled, and a large metal beam curved over the ship, emerging from the stern and stretching all the way to the bow, where it locked in place with a mechanical clunk. A moment later, curved glass panes emerged from both sides of the ship, meeting at the metal beam above us and sealing us in with a hiss.

If this was an assassination, it was the weirdest one I had ever heard of. I almost wished I still had Jefferies around, but I had left him behind to deal with the whole mess with Silk and the cloning project. “What—”

Then we began to sink.

Slowly at first, the waves rose up to meet us, and then water covered the glass sphere we were encased in. In seconds it was almost too dark to see as the light from the surface grew distant, but headlights flicked on at the front of the yacht, providing a clear view of the empty water and the occasional startled school of fish.

I stared at Medina, open-mouthed. She smirked.

“The NS Eden was made by the Dagonites at Hemingway,” she said, as if that meant anything to me. “They call it an amphibious submarine pleasure yacht. A subby for short.”

I blinked, then chuckled. “Okay, that’s kinda funny.”

Medina rolled her eyes. “I almost punched the idiot who explained it to me. I thought he was screwing with me.”

“So is that where you’re taking me?” I asked. “One of these Dagonite outposts? I did a bit of reading on them over the past few days.” Most of my reading had been on the land-based cultures, but I figured maybe I should learn one or two things about the people who had saved my life. And then I got distracted by reading about sex-vampires, but that was beside the point.

“No, Hemingway is about fifty miles east of Domina.”

That surprised me. Had they really extended so far? And why bother? It seemed like it would be easier to just cluster around the island. “Well, I didn’t read up on any of the other outposts, but I’m sure I’ll be im… pressed…” I trailed off, my jaw hanging open.

We had finally come within sight of our destination.

Great spires rose out of the ocean floor, lit like beacons in the near-perfect darkness. I could see dozens, maybe hundreds of them, some so thin I couldn’t believe that they could support their own weight, some like massive skyscrapers. Some were steel, some seemed to be coral, and some even seemed to be made completely out of glass, lit from the inside by a rainbow of colors.

There was a flurry of activity around the spires. I saw small lights that looked like individual swimmers, circling close to the towers and entering or leaving them at different levels. I saw larger lights, small pods about the size of cars, circling farther out or even leaving altogether, heading east back to Domina or some other destination.

Medina didn’t say anything as the yacht smoothly entered one of the spires, a mid-sized coral tower some fifty feet across. We entered a space just barely large enough to contain us, then the yacht rose in place. I was surprised when we broke out into open air and bobbed like a cork in the small pool that made up the dock. The glass shell cracked open, letting down a brief shower of sea water, and I got a good look around.

The dock took up an entire level of the spire, or maybe more than one level, making it a cylindrical room fifty feet across and fifty feet tall. Everything was smooth, almost organic, like coral carved gently into shape. The lights were small globes inset into the walls and ceiling, and all the furniture—benches and what looked like an information desk—were built to look like they were grown directly out of the floor. There were only three people in the room, but I could tell that this wasn’t some private dock. It was normally a busy place, but everyone else had been kept out for the moment.

One of Butler’s sailors extended a gangplank, and Medina led the way as we walked across it. The edge of the pool had a rough yellow ring to keep people from slipping, as well as several short ladders to help people climb out easier, just like a recreational pool. I saw something out of the corner of my eye and turned to see a gentle slope out of the pool, painted blue with the handicap symbol—except in their symbol, the stick figure in the wheelchair had a fish tail.

The three people waiting for us were not what I expected. None of them had fish tails, for one thing, and I didn’t see any gills. All three wore tight-fitting wetsuits, the two in the back a uniform black, and the one in the front a simple pattern of blue flowers on a white background that reminded me of a summer dress.

The one in front was a woman who was perfectly human, as far as I could tell. She was some kind of white European with wet black hair that went down to her waist. She was covered in black tattoos, but they weren’t in the same style as Lilith’s. Those had been a tribal style borrowed from Pacific Islanders and the like, with a unique use of gaps and abstract shapes. This woman had the area around one eye tattooed solid black, and the other eye was encircled by words I couldn’t read. I had a feeling she had more tattoos under her wetsuit, but I couldn’t see them. Her suit was sleeveless—unlike the other two—but she had her arms clasped behind her back.

The two men with her were obviously bodyguards. In addition to the looks of bored competence on their faces and the odd guns on their hips, both had huge fangs, large claws, and blood-red skin.

The woman in front stepped forward the second I was off the gangplank and took my hand in both of hers. Not only did she have more tattoos of the same style on her hands, as I expected, but there was webbing between her fingers.

“Hello, Mister President,” she said. “It is an honor to meet you. I am Mayor Liana Konstantopoulos, and this—” She used one hand to indicate the entire city. “Is Timaeus, the City of Water.”

I chuckled. “I can see why.”

Liana—I couldn’t pronounce her last name even in my head—smiled. “Actually, you can’t. We earned that title through our dedication to working together with our sister Atlantean cities. Water is the element of connection and unity, after all.”

I blinked. “Ah… sister cities.”

Her smile broadened. “Of course. Our capital, Plato, the City of Salt, as well as Critias, the City of Fire. We even occasionally trade with the Dagonite towns, but Plato does that far more than we do.”

So now instead of one independent city on America’s to worry about, there were four? Why had no one mentioned this?

Medina seemed to find my terror amusing. She was stifling a grin, trying not to look in my direction.

Liana smiled and slipped her arm through mine. “Come. Walk with me.” She led us towards what looked like an elevator. One of her bodyguards hustled forward and pressed the button before we got there, so the doors were open and we could step right inside.

“I’ll wait with the ship,” Medina called after me. I looked back to see her still smirking.

The elevator seemed perfectly normal, except maybe a bit bigger than I was used to and with a glass wall on one side to see the ocean outside.

“What do you think of our city, Mister President?” Liana asked as we began to descend.

“I think it’s amazing,” I said. “How many people live here?”

“About eight million,” Liana said. “The other Atlantean cities are about the same, and we have smaller towns and outposts scattered throughout the Bay. The Dagonites have more, spreading slowly throughout the Atlantic, and the Rahabs…” She shook her head. “Who knows with them.”

Eight million people. That was… impressive, to say the least. New York had over twelve million, and probably in a smaller space, but still. Nobody expected them to have a competing city barely a stone’s throw away.

Liana continued as if she could read my mind. “I know that’s surprising. That’s why I wanted to speak to you in person. Open up some diplomatic channels before our respective fleets have a chance to butt heads.”

“I’m surprised that hasn’t happened already.”

She clicked her tongue in disapproval. “You can thank the Dagonites for that. They’ve been sinking every boat that gets near White-Cap Bay well over a decade. As I understand it, New York has learned to give this area a wide berth.”

I winced. “That can’t continue now. We’re supposed to be allies.” Well, maybe allies was too strong a word. Was there a word for ‘neither of us wants to kill each other at the moment’?

“My thoughts exactly,” Liana said. The elevator stopped, and the doors opened with a ding. Liana led me out by the arm into a long coral hallway, the walls lined with murals painted directly onto the stone. Most appeared to be farms and fields, until I realized that they were all supposed to represent things under water.

“So who makes the Dagonites stop?” I asked. “Butler, or you?”

Liana laughed, a high-pitched sound that reminded me of a dolphin. “Oh, certainly not me. Butler has more control over them than I do, but that’s not saying much.” She shook her head. “I’m afraid the only people who truly control the Dagonites are the Dagonites. I have spoken to some of the more powerful Tridents, and they have agreed to step back their attacks.”

“That sounds promising,” I said.

“Perhaps. But there are no guarantees. For the time being, I highly recommend keeping warships out of the Bay. Just until they get used to the idea of any foreign ships at all.”

“Seems simple enough,” I said.

She sighed. “The problem is that the Rahabs—or some of the angrier Dagonite pods—will try to sink your trading ships. You will want to send warships and subs to defend them, the Dagonites will see this as an attack, round and round it goes until we’re all at war again.” She shook her head.

“I will advise the trade ships to be cautious,” I said. “May I ask what you have to offer, and what you will want in return?”

She smiled sadly. “Mister President, I am afraid you misunderstand. My people—the Atlanteans of Timaeus—have little desire to trade with you, or indeed interact with the world above the waves in any way. Many of us haven’t been topside in years. We have children who have never seen the surface.” She chuckled. “Though, now that some of them are becoming teenagers, that is beginning to change. You know how teenagers like to rebel, and they often do so simply by visiting Domina City itself.”

My head swam. I had realized, vaguely, how old these cities must be, but I hadn’t really processed what it meant. But of course there were children down here. Children who spent their entire lives underwater, who had either been born with gills and fish tails or been modified with them soon after they were born.

I was suddenly really glad I had no control over these people, because my first reaction was visceral horror. In my mind, there was something wrong with the idea of children never seeing true sunlight, of never breathing fresh air. If we had successfully conquered Domina City, I would have done something crazy and racist in a misguided attempt to ‘save’ these people. To show them the ‘real’ world, above water.

I understood, just for a moment, why the religious types were so up in arms about the toy maker and Domina City. Children should not be twisted into inhuman forms just to live in the hellish environment their parents put them in.

“Mister President?” Liana said. She smiled at me, unaware of my inner turmoil. “Is something wrong?”

I forced a smile onto my face. Wasn’t the first time I had an existential crisis in the middle of an important meeting. At least this time everyone still had all their clothes on. “It’s fine. I was, ah, just wondering… if your people have no interest in trading with the mainland, then why bring me down here? Like you said, Butler talks with the Dagonites more, so you don’t need to be involved in that.”

She cocked her head at me. “Where do New York ships first enter White-Cap Bay, Mister President?”

“The west, I would have to guess.”

“And if the Dagonites sink ships in the western reaches, where do they fall?”

“…ah,” I said. “Right onto Timaeus.”

We reached the end of the hall, and she nodded as we stopped before the wide double-doors. “I don’t want to leave anything to chance. We have salvage teams and the like, people who can move falling ships away from the city, but there are no guarantees. Far better for them never to fall in the first place. And to that end…” She nodded to her bodyguards. One stepped forward and opened the door for us.

The room looked like the study of a rich and adventurous British hunter, with shelves full of books, tables full of maps, and all sorts of trinkets and trophies. There were a few gold busts and ornate old ship wheels, the kind of things that you recovered from sunken wrecks, but most were things I had no experience with. At least a dozen different types of skulls that didn’t look like any sea creatures I had ever heard of, from a tiny flat-faced skull smaller than my fist to a massive one with a jaw bigger than I was, suspended over the table by wires from the ceiling.

This was the first room I had seen with carpet, made of a mix of red and white cloth mixed with black spots, like Liana’s tattoos. It took me a moment to realize that half the spots weren’t solid black, but words, written so tightly together in spirals that they were hard to tell apart. They seemed to be poems, but I had trouble reading the strange spirals.

There were three other people in the room. One was a bald black man with prominent gills but no other obvious modifications. He didn’t even have tattoos like Liana. The second was a European man, like Liana, and like Liana he seemed perfectly human except for his tattoos. He didn’t even appear to have webbed fingers.

The last was a large Middle-Eastern man who didn’t have a wetsuit, and stood bare-chested looking at one of the skulls. When the door opened, he turned to us and grinned. He extended his hand to shake, and I was surprised to see that he had a large flap of black skin running all the way from his wrists to his ankles—like the wings of a manta ray. It seemed loose enough and stretched enough that he didn’t have to worry about it restricting his movement.

It took a moment for me to recover and shake his hand. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Richard Martinez, president of America.”

“John Wavebreaker,” he said, still grinning jovially. “I’m a senator from Plato, on loan because the mayor doesn’t like dealing with surfacers.” He winced. “No offense.”

I smiled. “None taken.”

“I’m Panagiotis Kanelli,” the black man said. He had an accent I couldn’t quite place. Greek, maybe? “I am the mayor of Critias, here representing the interests of the City of Fire and the Nereid party.”

I shook his hand as well. “Please to meet you.” I turned to the last man. “And you would be…”

“Abraxas,” he said, with a slight German accent. “From Timaeus, actually. Mayor Konstantopoulos wanted me here as a scientist to help answer any questions that you might have about how our cities operate.”

That seemed a little odd to me at first, but considering how much these people relied on the toy maker—even more than mainland Domina—maybe it made sense.

I shook his hand. “Pleasure to meet you. I’m sure I’ll have a million questions soon.”

He smiled and nodded politely.

“So,” I said, clapping my hands. “Mayor Kanelli. I believe you are the first one I need to speak to about trade.”

“If you are willing,” he said. “I understand that this is all happening a little fast.”

“A full treaty would require some extra eyes,” I said. I actually couldn’t remember who was supposed to be involved in all that. Did Congress write the bill and then I signed it, or the other way around? “But for now, we can get some basic negotiations out of the way. What does your city have to offer, and what would you like in return?”

“Plato is the center of the merfolk, Mister President,” Kanelli said. “We trade with the other Atlantean cities, the Dagonite towns, and even the Rahabs.”

I blinked. “You mean the people who sink every boat they see?”

Kanelli gave a mirthless smile. “The same. We’ll trade with anyone, as long as they behave themselves. And we’ve actually managed to recruit quite a few kids away from the Rahabs that way.”

“The Rahabs are mostly just angry children,” Liana said. “Give them some positive attention, and they lose the opportunity to rebel.”

Senator Wavebreaker chuckled. “Except when they decide to use the opportunity to try and bomb you instead.”

Kanelli’s smile disappeared. “That has only happened twice. Please do not paint all the Rahabs with the same brush.”

“What do they even have to trade?” I asked. “I mean, if they’re just a bunch of nomadic scavengers…”

Wavebreaker shook his head in amusement. “They have virtually everything to trade. They have mastered the art of sinking trade ships while leaving all the goods intact for pillaging. And since their population is so small, they have little use for most of it. They keep the food, anything related to the toy maker, weapons that will work underwater, and materials to repair their wrecks. Everything else is sold somewhere.”

“And that somewhere is normally Plato,” Kanelli said. “Though I’m sure some of the less scrupulous Dagonite towns have been forced to trade with them for their survival.”

“They used to get their guns from Hemingway,” Abraxas said. “Oplo finally shut that down, though. And Herbert will still cater to absolutely anyone who can pay.”

I frowned. “Who’s Herbert?”

“Not who, where,” Abraxas said. “It’s a town north of Domina. Started out as a toy research lab, now it’s the source of most of toys under the waves. Half the people in this city probably went out there at least once to get modded. It has the best toy techs in the Bay.”

“Is Herbert technically in White-Cap Bay?” Wavebreaker asked. “It’s farther than North Fusion Island, after all.”

“Some people still say Hemingway is in White-Cap Bay,” Kanelli said. “Herbert is closer than that.”

Liana coughed politely. “I’m sure the president finds this all very interesting, but there is one other rather important detail that everyone seems to be overlooking.”

The three men glanced at each other, then at me. I just shrugged. I had no idea what was going on.

Liana sighed. “If the conflict with the para erupts into full war, where do you think the safest place in the world will be?”

I blinked. “You want to use your cities for refugees?

“Salt and spear, woman,” Wavebreaker said. He sounded stunned. “The Rahabs will go crazy!”

“I’m not even sure it’s possible,” Abraxas said. “We have some space for air-breathing tourists.” He waved his hand, indicating the room and possibly the entire tower. “But that’s a few thousand for each city—assuming everyone is willing to be very cramped. You’re talking about millions. Maybe even billions.”

“That’s assuming everyone keeps their lungs,” Liana said.

Silence greeted her words.

Then Kanelli laughed. “You’re planning to recruit from the refugees. Give them merfolk buffs, expand the Atlantean population.”

I glanced at her, trying to ignore the sick feeling in my stomach. “Is this true?”

She smiled innocently. “It will of course be completely voluntary. Like our cousins in Domina City proper, we hold the right to decide on your own modification to be sacred, a gift from the Daughter of Fire.”

That title sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place it. “I am a politician, Madame Mayor. I understand that ‘volunteers’ can be coerced without even realizing it. Anyone you bring down here will be in an impossible position, no matter how much you accommodate their needs. They won’t be able to go outside—”

Abraxas spoke up. “We do have cars, small submarines that—”

“They won’t be able to go outside on their own, they won’t be able to enter half the towers or more, they won’t be able to truly be a part of your cities in any meaningful way.” I shook my head. “So you’ll offer them modifications. Toys, or whatever you call them. Maybe with a nice tax break?”

Liana smirked. It looked far more smug and dangerous than I would like. “Something like that.”

“And then you’ll expand. Cover the whole damn Bay with cities—maybe even the whole Atlantic.” I glanced at Abraxas. “Are there laws about expanding too much?”

He shook his head. “The only problem is logistics. New towns and outposts need trade to survive, and it’s difficult if they’re too far away from anything established. Besides, much of the ocean is essentially a desert, quite empty of life, so there is little reason to—”

“Right,” I said. “But people find a way. Some of the biggest cities in America are in the stupidest places. But with enough people in one place, people start trading them supplies just because there’s a market. And then you’ve got a city in the middle of the desert stealing water from everyone nearby to make movies.” I frowned. “Do you guys need fresh water? Can you just drink ocean water?”

“Well, our farms and fisheries can get by just fine with salt water,” Abraxas said. “And most of our dishes use salt water instead of fresh. But we still drink fresh water. We have some excellent desalinization facilities, though, so it’s not a large burden.”

“Oh, that’s interesting,” I said. “Maybe we can trade some of that technology—” I shook my head. “No, not the point.” I jabbed a finger at Liana. Her bodyguards glared, but I ignored them. “You’re planning to profit off a war and refugees.”

She didn’t look the slightest bit contrite. “Better than leaving them all out to die, Mister President.”

I ground my teeth. My predecessor screwed over a bunch of refugees from the space colonies, and yet somehow everyone brought it up as if it were my fault. I voted against it at the time.

“Regardless,” I said, “I think we can agree that it would be best to not have any war at all. For all we know, the para can just boil the seas.”

“I think if they were that powerful, we would know,” Abraxas said. I sighed. He really shouldn’t be undercutting my argument right now. “Why bother with any negotiations? Why not just kill us all and be done with it?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Mister Abraxas. There was a small skirmish recently. Perhaps you heard of it? When a very large country fought a very small country?”

Abraxas looked confused. “…no?” Wavebreaker and Kanelli winced.

“Well, in this skirmish, the very large country had every advantage. They had more men, more guns, more ships, more artillery, and perhaps most importantly, nukes. They could have wiped the small country off the map completely. Do you know why they didn’t?”

“Uh…”

“Because they didn’t want to murder four hundred and fifty million people,” I said flatly. “Not to mention ruin a perfectly good island.” I shook my head. “I don’t know how these para are, morally speaking. They seem to dislike killing in the same way we do. But even ignoring morals, they are looking for a home. Completely destroying us would probably cost them too much—at the moment.”

That was one of our best guesses, anyway. Medina theorized, based on conversations with Leeno, that the para simply didn’t have the firepower to glass the entire planet. They also didn’t have the biological talent to drop some sort of human-killing virus on us.

I glanced over at Liana. She looked scared, but she was trying to hide it. Good. Maybe she would remember that wars rarely went the exact way we wanted them to.

I clapped my hands together. “So we’ve all agreed not to start a war with a possibly-genocidal alien race of unknown power? Excellent. Now, I do have to get back to America before my wife sends out the Army to look for me—again. But I think we at least have time to set up a real meeting for later to get that trade agreement hashed out. My economic advisers would never forgive me if I did anything else.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 328)

The merfolk have a strange version of the elemental system many societies are familiar with, and it shows up in much of their culture and art. Water is the element of connection, unity, and life; air, when it is mentioned, is folded in with water. Salt is the element of profit, openness, and trade. Fire is the element of industry, progress, and circumspection. Also note the use of colors; water is black, salt is white, and fire is red. That’s why Konstantopoulos has black hair (representing not just her city as a whole but also her desire for unity) a mostly-white dress (representing her desire to keep the city profitable, but not at the expense of all else) and why her bodyguards have red skin (representing their professional dedication to the job).

The merfolk don’t believe in these elements religiously like most societies did, but the themes and the symbolism have inundated their entire culture in a way that few outsiders ever realize.

Scene 327 – Militum

MILITUM

ELIZABETH

I kicked the door open, surprising the dozen people in the room. Eleven guns were pointed at me before I had taken two steps.

I ignored them all. “Are you the Malcatari?”

Eleven guns roared, bullets from pistols and rifles shredding my flesh and breaking my bones. In moments, I had enough lead in me to fill a bucket.

Then they ran out of ammo, and stopped firing.

I waited patiently as my healing pushed the bullets out of my body and re-knit my bones.

The leader—the one who hadn’t pulled a gun on me—slowly stood up. “You are one of those creatures from Domina City.”

I snorted. “No, I’m the one who made those creatures in Domina City. I’m Elizabeth Greene.”

This didn’t get the reaction I felt it deserved. Instead of shock, awe, and horror, they just kind of looked at me funny.

“The Composer?” I said. “Ringing any bells?”

The gunmen just shook their heads. A few of them tried to reload without me noticing.

The leader just stalled for time. “We don’t know you, lady. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a pleasant conversation. What do you want?”

I looked around the room. Other than a few couches and a single table, there wasn’t much to see. It seemed like everyone had been eating when I came in. There was a big pile of cash on the counter, which I assumed was from some bank heist or mugging or however it was that criminals made money.

“Is this all of you?” I asked.

“There are others,” the leader said. “Did Malcanthet send you?”

I chuckled. “She’s dead, boy.”

One of the others shot me in the head. I ignored him.

To the leader’s credit, so did he. Everyone else looked nauseated watching me heal again, but he didn’t seem concerned. “We know our lady is still alive. Are you here to insult the Succubus Queen, or do you have something important to say?”

“You know where all the other Malcatari are?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“And does anyone else know?”

“My lieutenants.” I guessed that those were the other two men sitting at the table with him. “Why?”

I shrugged. “Wanted to make sure I wouldn’t lose anything important with your death.”

“Threats will get you—” He cut off as my glowing orange energy blade appeared in his throat. Throwing energy knives was difficult, since they took more energy to maintain the farther they were from me, but I had mastered the technique over the centuries.

The leader went down, and eleven guns snapped up again as everyone finished reloading.

I held up my hands before anyone could shoot. “Before you waste some more ammo, I have a proposal for all of you. You can’t kill me, and if you keep trying I’m just going to get fed up and kill you all.”

Everyone glanced at everyone else, but no one shot me. Good.

“Now, as I said, Malcanthet is dead.” There were angry mutterings, but I calmed them down with some gentle hand waves. “Your queen is dead. I’m sorry.” I was suddenly glad there weren’t any truthtellers in the room. “Artemis Butler has cremated her corpse, and Lilith herself is dismantling Miomanta. All the traitors who once lived there—the lesser guards and worker drones—have turned their backs on their queen.” I didn’t point out that this was mostly because Lilith had flushed the drugs out of their systems. This lot seemed to be continuing to use the prescribed drug cocktail. “Malcanthet’s legacy only lives on in you—her Malcatari.”

“Is there a point somewhere in all this?” one of them snapped.

With effort, I refrained from killing him. “You can stay here, waiting for orders that will never come, and let your queen’s legacy rot and die.” I smiled, displaying my sharp canines. “Or, you can come with me. Join me in revenge against that accursed city, and the monsters who murdered your queen.”

“What do you get out of this?” someone asked.

I gave him a look that was kind and pitying, instead of half a heartbeat away from brutal murder. “I get soldiers. I get revenge. But these are both things you want to give. You were never designed to go without a leader.” That was one of the reasons I had killed the only smart one in the group.

“All right,” said another. “Maybe we do need a leader.” He pointed an accusing finger at me. “But why do we need you? Why can’t we just find someone else? Someone who hasn’t killed one of us?”

“Because,” I said patiently. “No one else can give you powers.”

Shocked silence greeted my words.

“The same powers that the Dominites have?” one of the previous ones asked. I’d have to start learning their names soon.

“Close, but not quite,” I said. “You will have a more limited pool to choose from. But you will be able to choose, unlike the Dominites.”

They still looked hesitant. “What kind of powers can we have?”

“Does it matter?” someone else asked, annoyed. “Whatever we get, the Dominites will already have. It’s like trying to fight the army with guns. Yeah, we’ll have guns, but they’ll have so many more.”

Murmurs of agreement greeted this announcement. I noticed several of them giving me calculating looks, like they were trying to figure out if they could disable me and escape.

“I am not some one-note conductor,” I said. “I am a composer. I am not offering you a power. I am offering you your pick of two powers—each.” I smiled wickedly. “Perhaps more. Whatever it takes to wipe that city off the face of the planet.”

There was a pause.

The Malcatari glanced at each other. Several began to lower their guns.

“Can you give us a minute?” one of the lieutenants asked.

I managed to smile. “Of course. Take all the time you need.” But if they needed more than five minutes, I’d kill every single one of them and find another group to conquer. How hard was it to agree to serve the invincible immortal?

All eleven survivors clustered around the table, whispering furiously. I rolled my eyes and leaned against the wall. Such children. How had Malcanthet ever put up with this? Once I started hypnotizing them, the first thing I was going to do was make them more assertive. After the standard loyalty brainwashing, of course.

After four minutes and thirty-six seconds by my internal clock, they finally broke their little huddle and turned to face me.

“We have made our decision,” the lieutenant said.

“And?” I said, trying not to let my impatience show.

The lieutenant hesitated just for a moment, then knelt before me, eyes downcast.

All the others followed suit.

“We pledge allegiance to you, Elizabeth Greene,” he said.

I slowly smiled. “Excellent. Now, where are the other Malcatari? We will need their help before this is done.”

They glanced at each other.

I rolled my eyes. “Tell me you’re not all there is.”

“No, of course not,” he said quickly. “It’s just… it may take some time.”

“What, did you lose their phone numbers?”

“No, it’s just… there are so many.”

I frowned. “How many can there be? Malcanthet was only operating outside Domina for six years, and Miomanta wasn’t that big.”

“There were only a hundred in Miomanta, this is true,” he said, still keeping his gaze lowered. Humility was a trait I was fond of in minions. “But she trained us in recruitment, in the use of her purifying drugs. New recruits were only brought to Miomanta for the queen’s final blessing, and then sent to live in hiding. We have many brothers and sisters scattered around the entire country.”

“How many?”

“Thousands,” he said, still looking down. “Maybe tens of thousands.”

I felt a slow smile spread across my face.

It had been far too long since I had an army of thralls.

Behind the Scenes (scene 327)

This takes place on Monday, January 14th, four days after the para decided to contact Domina City.

Scene 326 – Eversio

LEENO

EVERSIO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moon-woman smiled. “Perhaps.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How fast are yours?” Martinez asked.

“Just slightly slower,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“…yes,” Butler said after a moment.

“And the Gainsborough are…”

“You mean the gray ones?”

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

“Neutral ships,” Medina said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone looked at Martinez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing immediate,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak, man,” Butler said.

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

Oh.

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 326)

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

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