Category Archives: Writing

Afterword

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scene 335 – Initium Novum

INITIUM NOVUM

SILK

I am called Silk.

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

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

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

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

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

Leeno stared at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled. “There it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “An apt summary.”

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

I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Over there,” I said, pointing.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean, turned?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirty years,” I said.

“Thirty YEARS!?” he screeched.

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

He sputtered. “But—you—”

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

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

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

He frowned. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“An old friend.” I didn’t elaborate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other elders stared at him, then at me.

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zanovoon chuckled. No one else did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

Reyn was suspicious. “What condition?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elders looked at each other.

“We will need a moment,” Reyn said.

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

“…a few hours until what?”

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

Silence. The elders just stared at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled, and sang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It felt like decades.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just smiled.

Leeno started. “That’s what you did!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what?

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

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

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

The command center fell dead silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeno frowned. “Butler died?”

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

“And you said Derek Huntsman…”

I nodded. “That’s right.”

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

“Fifty.”

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

I smiled sadly. “Old enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek glanced at her, then back at me.

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

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

“Yes,” I said sadly. “I know.”

Laura winced at that. She knew what I meant.

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

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

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

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

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

“We will speak more later.”

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

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

“No,” Laura said.

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

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

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

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

Derek turned to me. “Let’s hear it.”

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

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

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

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

“There is always more to learn.”

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

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

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

“Don’t you dare make this about me.”

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

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

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

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

“Like Adam was satisfied?” she snapped.

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

“How would you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Silk, wait,” Derek said.

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

“How long do I have?”

I paused.

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

He nodded. “Thank you.”

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

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

“That was clever,” Leeno said.

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

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

“Is that so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeno started. “A thousand years?”

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

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

I grinned. “No.”

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

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

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

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

And so we worked.

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

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

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

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

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

The story didn’t really end.

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

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

And I, at least, enjoyed it.

END BOOK FOUR

Scene 334 – Alvus

ALVUS

LAURA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek immediately grabbed my arm.

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

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

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

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

I rolled my eyes. “Derek…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MC sighed. “Leeno is… not available.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t para born from these hives?”

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

Derek frowned. “Well, I think—”

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

As it faded, all was silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek frowned, then glanced at one of his Defenders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if it is? Dangerous, I mean?”

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

Derek chuckled. “Fair enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How random,” Derek said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was answered by more chittering from all around.

“We’re surrounded,” I spat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

“Whatever happened to keeping this thing alive?”

I glared at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned to go.

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

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

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

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

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

No response. This was probably a waste of time.

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

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

Yes, there were definite sparks this time.

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

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

After what felt like an eternity, the rumbling stopped.

“…is that good?” the Defender asked.

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

“Laura!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 334)

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

The hives were the final answer.

Scene 333 – Sororibus

SORORIBUS

ROBYN JOAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zero signed something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zero made a few signs with her fingers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Surprise!” the ogre said, then laughed.

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

“Gynoid,” the woman said.

I frowned. “What?”

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

We all stared. She just smiled.

“Red skies,” I said. “It is you.”

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

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

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

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

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

Robyn and I looked at each other.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MC smiled. “Likewise, Honored Paragon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zero stopped signing. She stood stock still.

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

Zero made a few quick signs.

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

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

Zero’s hand signals turned frantic.

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

She made a few quick signs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was pointed straight at MC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh dear,” MC said.

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

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

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

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

“Leeno doesn’t seem to mind,” I said.

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “Definitely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MC nodded. “Fair.”

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

“Maybe he was hiding it.”

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

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

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

She thought for a moment, then nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll get on it,” I said.

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 333)

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

Scene 332 – Infamem Hactenus

INFAMEM HACTENUS

AKANE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Except the Malcatari had powers.

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

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

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

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

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

I drew my sword and activated my speed.

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

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

And so the sword-god reveals herself at last!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unless someone did something stupid, of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which was what I had been counting on.

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

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

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

She always had been a sore loser.

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

Nothing happened.

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

I frowned. What?

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

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

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

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

Her eyes narrowed. “Silk.”

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

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

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

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

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

I followed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stabbed down at her heart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t say anything.

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

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

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

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

She narrowed her eyes. “You don’t?”

I shook my head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was an explosion behind me.

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

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

Once again, the hunt was on.

Behind the Scenes (scene 332)

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

Scene 331 – Proditione

PRODITIONE

ROBYN JOAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone glanced at Leeno. He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That most certainly was not his to promise.”

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

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

Leeno narrowed his eyes. “What deal?”

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

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

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

“Lie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zan nodded. “Sixteen.”

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

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

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

“Several,” she said. “Your point?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Explain. Now,” Adam said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We did what we must,” Li-Po said.

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

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

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

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

Zan frowned. “Why would you think that?”

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

I frowned. “Okay, what the hell—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at him. “They’ll what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned. “MC! You’re finally back!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw Leeno’s eyes go wide.

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

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

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

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

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

“MC, which way?” I asked.

Silence.

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

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

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

Eccretia scowled. “Bloody homunculus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pale Night steadied herself. “Go without me.”

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

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

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

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

Everyone turned to stare at me.

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

We all slowly turned to Lily.

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

Lily smiled. “Oh, very much so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam nodded.

“Then one… two… three!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone paused to let the implications of that sink in.

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

Everyone shook their heads.

But I had a thought. “I can fly.”

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

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

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

“Will that work?” Odin asked.

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

I nodded and flew straight up.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready,” Pale Night said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was interrupted by the shuttle shaking hard enough to almost throw us all off our feet, and then shaking some more.

Zero turned around in her seat and started signing desperately. It wasn’t the kemo battle sign that she had used before.

Leeno winced. “The docking clamps have us locked in. We can’t take off.”

“So?” Adam said. “Just do your electric thing, unlock them.”

“I can’t do that from inside the shuttle,” Leeno said.

“Then go outside,” I said.

“Then I won’t be able to get back in. The doors won’t open unless the shuttle has landed.”

“What kind of stupid safety feature is that?”

Leeno rolled his tangerine-colored eyes. “It’s not a safety feature, at least not in that way. This is one of the old prison shuttles. They bought a bunch of them for cheap before we left home. The doors won’t open except in a docking cradle, so that criminals can’t hijack the shuttle and just land wherever they like. It’s a hardware thing, not software. I can’t override it.”

I looked around the small ship. Now that he mentioned it, I did see some signs of a ship designed to hold prisoners. Nothing so obvious as cages or manacles, but there were a number of sturdy metal handles—painted a rainbow of colors, of course—on the floor, where people could be chained. I also noticed that none of them were in reach of the controls.

I frowned. “But your shuttle didn’t have that problem.”

He shrugged. “That was a different model. Most of them aren’t prison shuttles.”

I threw up my hands. “Then why don’t we go find another one? One that wasn’t designed for transporting criminals?”

“I didn’t see any more shuttles out there, did you?”

“We don’t have time for this,” Adam said. “Does anyone have any powers that might help? Any kind of kinesis, super strength or… I don’t know, teleportation?” Everyone shook their heads. He cursed under his breath. “Just need five feet of teleportation. Is that too much to ask?”

Super strength… “What about the cargo bay? Does that stay locked, too?”

“Yes, sorry. I don’t think—”

The shuttle shook again, but this time it was from an explosion outside the ship.

“No time!” Adam said. “Zero, full power! Rip out of the clamps!”

Leeno recoiled. “What? No! That could damage the ship!”

Adam met his stare without flinching. “More damage than being caught in an explosion, or more damage than being caught by angry guards?”

Leeno blinked, then turned to Zero. “Full power.”

She nodded and started manipulating the controls. The ship shook again.

“Everyone, helmets on, just in case,” Lily said. “Pale, I’ll get ready to shield you if I have to.”

As everyone got ready, there was a long, tortured screech of metal. I could feel every atom of the ship straining against the clamps, like a living thing trying desperately to break free. And then…

And then we were thrown against one side of the ship as the clamps finally failed.

The shuttle wobbled a bit, but smoothed out, and in moments we were outside the mothership, heading down to Earth.

“How did we do?” Leeno asked, as he walked up next to Zero. I followed. She had her hands full, of course, so he had to look over the screens himself. “Grey skies… we lost three thrusters.”

“Can we still land?” I asked. “I doubt my power is enough to fly this whole ship.”

“Well, we’ll hit the ground, if that’s what you mean,” Leeno said. “No guarantees on a soft landing.”

“Head for the water.” I marked the west side of the Domina island. “We’ve got allies underwater who will help us. Plus, these suits have enough air to last us a while, if it comes to that.”

“What about your niece?”

I frowned. “Who?” I glanced behind me. “Oh, you mean Pale Night. She’s not—” I paused. Now probably wasn’t the time to get into the oddities of Lily’s relationship with the people of the city, and what that meant for me. “She should be fine. Hey, Pale!” She looked up. “You’ve got Mermaid lungs, right?”

She nodded. “As well as a few depth buffs.”

I turned back to Leeno. “See, she’s fine. She’d probably last longer underwater than the rest of us.”

He nodded. “Very well. We should still warn your people that we are coming.”

“Yeah, my guild might try to swat us out of the sky.”

Adam walked up. “Why didn’t they do that to the hive, or whatever it was?”

“A hive is not technological,” Leeno said. “No radio, no thermal signature. It’s basically a rock, and not even a shiny rock. I doubt anyone in your city noticed it until it was too late. Though perhaps this MC of yours managed to warn someone.”

I snapped my fingers. “That’s who we’ll call.”

Adam frowned. “Are you sure she’ll still have the same number? We have no idea what happened.”

“She’ll be monitoring it, if nothing else,” I said. “She knows it’s the first thing anyone would call to get in touch with her.” I gave the frequency to Zero, who plotted it in without question. If she was planning betrayal, she was doing an excellent job of hiding it.

A moment later, the radio crackled to life. “Hello? Robyn? Lily?”

“I’m here,” I said. I glanced back at Lily. She had been talking with the warlords, but she walked over when she heard MC’s voice. “We’re both here, with everyone else except for Cailleach. She detonated her homunculus to give us time to escape.”

“Speaking of which,” Leeno said quietly, “I have many questions—”

I silenced him with a wave.

“I’m sure she has her hands full down here,” MC said. “I’m in the Cathedral right now. Bring that shuttle down and we’ll talk. I’m sure the Servants will love to get their hands on para tech.”

I glanced at Leeno. If he had a problem with this plan, he didn’t show it. “Sounds good. It, uh, might be a hard landing…”

“Aim for the pond. It will be messy, but better than the alternative.”

I nodded. Despite what I had said to Leeno, I was much happier to know we’d be landing in the middle of the city instead of out in the Bay at the mercy of the Dagonites.

The White Cat strode up. “I would very much like to see what the para have as well. I can call some of my engineers, have them meet us there.”

MC chuckled sadly. “I’m afraid that they’ve already got their hands full.”

Adam cursed. “The hive.”

“Actually, that’s secondary,” MC said. “There was a more… immediate problem.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 331)

At the moment, Lily can only borrow one power at a time, though that will eventually change as her power grows and evolves. No matter how many powers she has, however, they will always pull from a single reservoir. Also remember that her reservoir is not influenced by the person she borrows the power from; Derek, for example, could have kept up the shield bubble she uses here for hours if not days.

Scene 330 – Servis Suis

MARY CHRISTINA

SERVIS SUIS

My first week being human was the worst experience of my life.

It wasn’t just that I was alone, away from a million datastreams. It wasn’t just that I had to sleep in one of the ‘sarian homeless shelters as just another anonymous transient. It wasn’t even the biting cold or the constant hunger gnawing at my belly.

It was everything. Yes, it was cold, but I shouldn’t have been able to feel cold. Yes, I had no food, but that shouldn’t matter—I had never had food before. And the sore muscles and constant exhaustion and the screeching noises of traffic…

And the bodily functions. Oh, in the name of everything above and below, how could humans live with inconsistent bladders? And that was the easy one. It took me nearly eight hours in the bathroom to make my bowels function properly, at which point I received another terrible reminder that my nose didn’t have an off switch.

On the seventh day, the 15th of January, I had my first period. That was when I decided enough was enough. I was going to get my real body back.

I abandoned my meager belongings at the Necessarius safehouse and walked straight to the Servants. Even though I had been staying as far away from them as possible, they had many chapter houses around the city. It only took half an hour to find the nearest one.

The chapter house was small and austere, with white walls and rounded edges. It stood out starkly in the dirty, grimy mess that was the rest of Domina City. The only decorations were a few screens embedded into the walls, showing relaxing vistas like schools, parks, and the city skyline. There was no flag or emblem anywhere to be seen; the perfectly clean aesthetic was more than enough to identify the place.

The entrance wasn’t very big, just enough for a woman behind a desk and a small waiting area. She smiled as I entered, apparently unconcerned with my grimy appearance, tattered clothes, and the horrific smell I carried with me.

“Welcome to the Five-Hundred and Eighteenth Chapter House of the Servants of the Lady,” she said. “We are here to assist you with anything you may need. Food? Water? Even just a simple bed to lay your head for a few hours? The Servants are always at the disposal of anyone in Domina City.”

I knew the speech—I had certainly heard it often enough. Every inch of the chapter house was covered in cameras and microphones. There was a single obvious camera in the corner, but this room alone had a dozen hidden eyes. The wall-screens were recording everything, just for a start.

While the Servants had always kept their places under heavy surveillance and given me the data feeds, in the first few weeks of operation, they had tried to keep that fact private. It was only after a few groups like the Nessians tried to take advantage of their hospitality that they had made it public that I would be watching everything. That had certainly cut down on the robberies and worse.

I took a deep breath—ugh, breathing—to steady myself. “I am MC. I need to be taken to NHQ right away.”

The receptionist didn’t so much as blink. “Of course,” she said with a smile. “Right this way, ma’am.”

I frowned, but stepped through the doorway she indicated into a pristine white hallway. There was a man standing there, and he frowned at me in return.

“Who are you?” His tone was more hostile than I expected from a Servant, but he had a shoulder patch with their emblem on it—a circle of wires. The man looked past me. “Who is this, and what is she doing here?”

“She says she’s MC,” the receptionist said. “Would you please get her situated?”

The man’s face cleared, and he smiled. “Of course. Right this way, miss.” He gestured for me to walk further down the hall.

“I have to say, you’re all taking this much more easily than I expected,” I said.

“We feel it is best to be prepared for anything. This door here, miss.”

I opened the white door and found myself in a simple white bedroom with a white table, two chairs, and of course a white bed. There was a box of brightly colored children’s toys in the corner, but that was all.

I frowned and looked back at the man. “The Quiet Room?”

He looked surprised. “You know it?”

“Of course. I approved the work orders.” I walked over and looked through the box of toys. “A lot of non-standard toys in here.”

“Yes, well…” I glanced over to judge the man’s reaction. He seemed a bit embarrassed. “Kids can play rough at times, and we didn’t want to bother anyone by asking for replacements, so we just… found replacements.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “Excellent use of initiative. Good work.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Yeah. Of course.”

“I’ll need a ride to NHQ,” I said. “Something simple and unobtrusive. You have a motor pool?”

“Just two vans. Listen, I’m not sure—”

“I’d also like a computer while I wait,” I said as I sat down at the desk. “I’m in a hurry, but it’s not an emergency. I just want something to keep myself busy.”

He looked like he was struggling with something internally. “Well, you see…” His face cleared. “Both vans are undergoing repairs at the moment. And I hardly think calling a cab would be appropriate. Why don’t you just wait here, and I’ll find someone to come talk to you?”

“That would be—” I froze. “Wait. You mean you’re sending a psychologist.”

He forced a smile on his face. “Your mind is extremely valuable, miss. It’s just a precaution.”

“No, it’s standard procedure for dealing with a non-hostile guest of uncertain sanity.” I glared at him. “You think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

“We don’t like using that word.”

I sighed. “Of course. I knew this was too easy.” I rubbed my forehead. “How many people do you get who think they’re me?”

“Uh…”

“How many think they’re MC, that is.”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “Two or three a month. Across all our safehouses. Just wait for the doctor to get here, and we can—”

“No,” I snapped. “No waiting. I’ve had enough of living in this miserable meatsack, I’m not putting it off for a few weeks while I get poked and prodded.” I held out my hand. “Pad.”

He blinked. “What?”

“Your pad,” I said, slower. “I need to prove I am who I say I am.”

He smiled slightly, then handed me his pad. “Are you going to use your secret back-door access to take control of the building?”

“Of course not,” I said. “I’m not stupid enough to put back-doors into everything.” I typed at the pad with clumsy, inelegant fingers. “Whenever I found a hole in Servant security, I immediately patched it.” I smirked. “What, you think half a dozen patches a week were just my way of keeping you on your toes?”

The Servant kept a neutral face. “Of course not.”

I kept trying to type, wincing every time I had to back up because I had made a mistake. “For what it’s worth, I understand that this whole situation is weird. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t believe it.”

“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” the man said soothingly. He might not be a trained psychiatrist, but all Servants were friendly as a rule. You didn’t get a job helping people every day unless you liked people. “How did you end up like this?”

“Silk gave me a power,” I said. “Morphing, apparently. And then she forced me to morph so that I wouldn’t be able to interfere with something that’s going on right now.”

“And what would that be?”

“Sorry, can’t say. Operational security.” I cursed and rewrote another line of code. “Damned meatsack can’t even type properly.”

The Servant sighed. “Miss, I’m not sure what you’re trying to do, but if you’re having trouble—”

“I’m trying to prove who I am!” I snapped, slamming the pad down on the desk. “But I can’t do that because this stupid body is optimized for grabbing things and eating them, not writing code!” I stood up and started pacing. So odd that I found the action soothing, when I had never done anything like it before I got this body. “I need a data link. Something that will let me write code like I’m used to.”

The Servant flinched in shock, looking at my arm for some reason.

“No data link means this is going too slow,” I said.

“Ma’am…”

“It’s like trying to push the ocean through a straw.”

Ma’am.”

“Maybe if you bring me a programmer, I could say the code fast enough for—”

“My lady!”

I stopped and stared at the Servant. “Excuse me?”

“My lady Domina,” he said quietly. His condescending kindness was gone, replaced by desperate obedience. “Please, look at your arm.”

I followed his gaze. It took me a moment to realize what I was looking at.

Right there, on the upper side of my arm a few inches away from my wrist, was a USB port. Just sitting there in the middle of my flesh, as if there was nothing odd about it at all. What’s more, I recognized it. It was one of the ports on my main ‘body’ when I was a computer. It had been in sight of one of my cameras for years. There were a few scratches from where a drunk programmer once had trouble plugging something into it.

Without saying a word, I pulled the pad’s USB drive out of the bottom, where it was still connected to the pad by a wire. I plugged it into the port on my arm.

And the world opened up to me.

I could see the code—no not even that, I could feel it. Every line and word, every executable and every program, all the way down to the individual silicon bits flipping between zero and one.

I released a breath that I felt like I had been holding for a week. It was like a weight the size of the universe had stepped off my chest.

In moments, I had hacked the pad’s security, and from there the rest of the safehouse. I tested the lights in the Quiet Room, then moved on to the rest of the building. There wasn’t much interesting, but there was one thing.

“Servant Nikolaj,” I said. I had found his name on an employee registry.

“Yes, my lady Domina?” he asked.

“Take me to the data center,” I said. “And have security meet us there. I don’t want any surprises.”

“Yes, my lady Domina.” He pulled out his phone and started typing furiously. Through my connection to the pad, I could read it before he even sent it, but I only watched for a few moments. I knew he was following orders.

Finally, finally, I felt alive again.

Behind the Scenes (scene 330)

“My lady Domina” translates approximately as “my lady who is the mistress of this city.” A bit redundant, but it’s a common form of address the Servants use for MC. “My lady MC” just doesn’t have enough gravitas.

As for the USB port thing, that’s something specific to MC since she’s a machine, rather than something any sufficiently skilled morpher could do. The only reason it appeared with such relative ease is because morphing back is always easier than morphing into something.