Tag Archives: Artemis Butler

Scene 326 – Eversio

LEENO

EVERSIO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moon-woman smiled. “Perhaps.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How fast are yours?” Martinez asked.

“Just slightly slower,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“…yes,” Butler said after a moment.

“And the Gainsborough are…”

“You mean the gray ones?”

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

“Neutral ships,” Medina said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone looked at Martinez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing immediate,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak, man,” Butler said.

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

Oh.

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 326)

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

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

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Scene 324 – Occurrens

OCCURRENS

LAURA

It took two days to arrange everything. Longer than I would have liked, but at ten AM on Thursday, January 10th, the first inter-species diplomatic meeting started right on schedule. It was still held in NHQ, but in one of the outer buildings, so that the representatives didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed.

As Zero had promised, Leeno had snapped out of his meditative fugue state after a few hours. He had promised not to do it again, and while I wasn’t sure he could keep that promise, it would at least increase the likelihood of him making it through the entire meeting awake.

I was a little worried he couldn’t promise anything, in fact. There had been no communications from the mothership, either to us or its little fleet. No threats, no recall orders, nothing besides basic patrol data going back and forth. They were acting like nothing of significance had happened, which didn’t bode well. I had been hoping that Leeno was a prince or equivalent who had decided to do the right thing over objections. It seemed instead that he was just a random nobody.

Except for the fact that Robyn sensed he had a power. Now, down in the city, it was impossible to say for sure—surrounded by so many others with powers, there was just too much interference for anyone to get a good read on him. Maybe he didn’t have a power. Maybe Zero had a power. We had no way of knowing, and I hadn’t wanted to broach the subject in case he thought he was successfully hiding it from us.

The two of them hadn’t done much in the two days of waiting. I had provided him with a pad that had a bunch of informational articles pre-loaded on it, but disabled the internet by physically pulling out the router. The articles would give him a basic understanding of Earth and our recent history, but there was nothing dangerous in there. It was possible he had access to more information—his translator was programmed with English, so obviously they had sorted through quite a bit of our information—but there was nothing I could do about that. I had made sure not to give him any false information though, so we wouldn’t be caught in any lies.

Regardless, now that the time had arrived, the delegates started filing into the meeting room, with its long rectangular table. Butler was already sitting at one end, with President Martinez from America on the other. President Aleks Petrov from the Soviet Union sat with Martinez, while Mayor Milanka Ó Súileabháin sat with Butler—she was from Mons Agnes, and we had been lucky she had been able to come down from Luna on such short notice. Prime Minister Jeong Park from Korea sat with Martinez, then Senator Grain from America took the seat next to him.

So on and so on, everyone filed in, the vast majority choosing to sit on Martinez’s side of the table. Most of the Earthbound countries didn’t like our city very much, and the space colonies simply hadn’t been able to get here in time.

Of course, we had our own representatives.

Once all of the foreigners took their seats, the Dominites started to file in. Lily, of course—she had come with Martinez, but she sat next to Butler—Pale Night from the demons, Nyashk from the vampires, Zaphkiel from the angels, Evangel from the kemos, Odin from the giants, Maeve from the fey, Meldiniktine from the changelings, Ariel from the Dagonites, and Chronepsis from the dragons. The Servants of the Lady had sent two representatives, but they were fussing over the food, and started passing it out once everyone was seated. We had actual paid servers, but it was pretty hard to get the Servants to sit still when there was work to be done.

Once all the humans were seated, the para walked in.

Zero looked the same as ever, but Leeno looked much better. He stood straighter, with a smile on a face as he scanned the room. His clothing was different as well, a multi-layered robe of a dozen different colors. I still hadn’t managed to tease out any information on the meaning of the colors he used—not to mention the distinct lack of colors on Zero.

The Servants quickly moved forward and pulled out two seats for the pair at the middle of the table. Leeno smiled at them and nodded in thanks, then took his seat. Zero hesitated for a moment before taking her seat as well.

“Hello,” Leeno said, smiling at everyone in turn. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”

No one spoke.

“Let’s start simple,” he said. “Yes, I am an alien. My people come from a planet three thousand light-years away. It took us a little less than three thousand light-years to get here. The engine we used for most of the journey is what I believe you would call a warp drive. It largely negated the effects of relatively on the transit.”

Butler glanced at me, and I nodded. It was all the truth.

“Now, there is much I can share with you,” Leeno said. “But first, I’m sure you would all like some sort of peace treaty. Let me assure you all that my people do not want war. We came here expecting a habitable world, bare of life.” He shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately, our information is six thousand years out of date at this point. You are here, and I am sure you will be happy to hear that you are too powerful to simply be destroyed.”

Most of the representatives perked up at that.

“However,” Leeno continued. “We are too strong for you to simply destroy us, either. Both sides have no choice but to find another solution. I believe we should start with a simple show of trust on both sides.” He nodded at Zero.

She glared at him as best as she could with that expressionless mask of hers, but he didn’t back down. She put her arm on the table and started dismantling it, placing nuts and bolts and strange glowing crystals in neat rows. It looked like the arm was almost entirely machine.

When she removed the first gun barrel, that got everyone’s attention.

After a few minutes of that, she started on the other arm—even with so many parts missing that her arm was see-through, the hand still worked fine. She dismantled the second gun faster than the first, then pushed the parts into the center of the table.

“As you can see, we are now unarmed.” Leeno paused, then frowned. “My translator just informed me that was a pun. Apologies, that was unintentional. Regardless, I would like a similar gesture of good faith from you.”

“We are all unarmed,” President Martinez said. I noticed he conspicuously did not look at the Dominite half of the table. Sure, they were all unarmed, but any one of the warlords could easily kill Leeno and Zero with their bare hands. Even Meldiniktine—maybe even especially Meldiniktine.

Leeno smiled. “Thank you, but that’s not what I meant.” He turned to me. “Stop.”

I blinked. “What?”

“That thing you’re doing—stop it.”

I chuckled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh?” He quirked his head. “So you’re not using a low-level form of mind-reading to monitor me for patterns consistent with lies?”

I stopped smiling.

He could sense my power. He knew that I could detect lies. More than that, he seemed to know how it worked. I barely understood it myself, but I had discussed some theories with MC. My power did seem to have quite a bit in common with the mind-reading powers.

“She’s what?” Senator Grain said. Martinez shushed him.

I went through the possibilities in my head. Was Leeno bluffing? Possibly. He could have learned from my power from another source. But I had carefully kept powers out of the data I had given him, so that was unlikely—possible, but I’d file it away for now.

More likely, he really did know what I was doing because he could sense it somehow. Like what Robyn had done to him.

And there was the answer.

“Fair’s fair,” I said carefully. “You’ve seen mine, show me yours.”

“Is that language appropriate?” Grain said. “Mister Butler, who is this girl? Why is she—”

“Grain,” Martinez said tiredly. “Shut up.”

Grain shut his mouth, and I nodded in thanks.

“Fair’s fair,” Leeno said. He held up a three-fingered hand. Sparks danced like ball lightning.

Most of the representatives were a bit surprised, but Zero jumped out of her seat as if Leeno had zapped her. She tensed like an animal waiting to figure out whether to run or attack, but Leeno just patted her seat.

“We don’t have time for frivolities,” he said. He turned back to me. “Stop it. Please.”

I grit my teeth and then, for the first time in eight months, I turned off my power.

I expected the world to feel different. Less clear, perhaps. Less certain, as I couldn’t detect the lies any more. But no, nothing changed. There was a brief feeling of emptiness in my chest, but even that faded in a moment. Everything was still the same as ever.

Somehow that felt more disturbing than the alternative.

Nyashk stood. “If he has a power, that means they could all have powers. This suddenly became much more dangerous than expected.”

“I agree,” Martinez said, standing. “With… um…” He waved his hand at Nyashk. “Scary dark lady. These people, these para, already had higher tech than us. If they have powers too, then maybe this just became a fight we can’t win.”

Odin snorted. “We have powers as well, little American.”

Martinez let the insult pass without comment, which I was thankful for. Odin was looking for an excuse to get violent. “I’ve spoken with your mother, Lilith. I know you’ve only had powers for a few weeks. How long have the para had theirs? How experienced are they with them? Not to mention we still don’t know how many there are. They could outnumber the entire human race a hundred to one for all we know.”

“We don’t,” Leeno said helpfully.

Martinez sighed. “Okay, I’m prone to fits of exaggeration, but still. This is not good.”

“Not all of them have powers,” Butler said.

Everyone turned to him. I just smirked.

“How could you possibly know that?” Martinez’s senator, Grain, asked.

“Zero was surprised,” Butler said. She managed to look a little contrite even through that expressionless mask. “I am quite certain that she, at least, does not have a power.” He cocked his head to the side, considering. “And judging from the strength of her reaction… I would lay even odds that no one else has any powers.”

Everyone slowly turned back to Leeno.

“Correct,” he said calmly. “I am the only para with a power.”

I really wished I had my power on. “How?” I asked.

“I already told you that the trip here took three thousand years,” he said. “Of course, as you might expect, we were put in cryopods to sleep.” He smiled sadly. “Except… I didn’t sleep. Not really. My body slept, but my mind was awake and aware.”

Meldiniktine leaned forward. “You were trapped in a pod for that entire time?”

Maeve shivered, though I doubt anyone else noticed.

“Yes and no,” Leeno said with a smile. “My body, as I said, was sleep, and trapped. But it didn’t take me too long to discover how to send my mind wandering away from my body. I memorized every single inch of the ship.”

“That doesn’t explain your power,” I said. “Did you meet someone? Someone who sang at you?”

He frowned. “Sang? What are you—” He chuckled. “Ah, yes. It can be like a song at times. But no, I gained this power, this ability, simply by observing and practicing.” He smiled. “You can learn a lot about the universe in three thousand years.”

There was silence as everyone tried to digest the implications of that.

“Well,” Martinez said with a smile. “Why don’t we move onto more grounded topics, hm? Mister Leeno. Please, tell us what your people want.” It was a blunt attempt to change the subject, but at the moment it was what we needed.

Leeno’s smile faded. “They want a place to live. Our sun was dying when we left. By now, there is nothing left but cinders. Other ships were sent out in other directions, but we have no guarantee that any of them survived. We may well be the last para in the universe, and our leaders will do anything to survive.”

“Including wiping out humanity?” Park said bluntly.

Leeno nodded. “Not full genocide, but they will crush your civilizations under their heels if they feel they have to.”

Nice use of metaphor. I made a mental note to try to get a hold of that translator tech.

“What do we need to do to prevent that?” Butler asked. “What do they need in trade?”

“To start with, a world of our own,” Leeno said. “Your homeworld is the only suitable one at the moment, but we do have terraforming tools, and your resources should help with that. It could only take a few decades.”

“You have one in mind?” Petrov asked, his accent thick. He did that whenever he wanted people to underestimate him; I knew that he spoke perfect English.

“The second world in your system should do,” Leeno said. “The hot one with the clouds.”

“Venus?” Martinez asked, eyebrows raised. “You want Venus?”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s just…” He glanced at the other representatives, but no one jumped to his defense. “My advisers tell me that Venus would be the hardest planet to terraform. No one can live there right now, that’s for certain.”

“Many para are cybernetically augmented,” Leeno said. “Our workers will be able to survive and make the world livable, in time.”

Now this was getting interesting. We had pieces of Zero’s cybernetics laid out on the table in front of us, but if it was cheap enough for even the normal workers to use, that meant we might be able to trade for it. “We’ll need to look into a way to share our technology, as well,” I said. “We have some bio-engineering tools that you might find helpful.”

“Wait a second,” Grain said. “You promised those to us.” Most of the other foreign representatives murmured as well.

“We can do both,” Butler said.

I touched my necklace, thinking. “The only people on Venus right now are the crew from Cytherean Watch.” I glanced at Súileabháin. “That’s what, a hundred people?”

“Fifty, though they cycle out,” she said. “Most of the crew belongs to various Lunar cities.”

Martinez frowned. “I thought they were all American citizens.”

Súileabháin rolled her eyes. “They work on an American space station, but they live on Luna, get supplies from Luna, and take orders from Luna. Next you’re going to tell me that you think you still own Ceres.”

Grain looked furious on Martinez’s behalf, but Martinez didn’t say anything, so neither did he.

I waited until they settled down a little. “Regardless of which human government owns the Watch right now, we do need to decide what to do with them. We can move them out if necessary, but it would probably be best to negotiate a way for them to stay. They can serve as ambassadors to the para.”

“You are sure your people will agree to this?” Martinez said.

Leeno shook his head. “I can’t be sure of anything.

Súileabháin threw up her hands. “Then what is the point about this?”

“The point,” Butler said, “is to pave the way for future negotiations. To make sure that we can find a way through this that does not involve war.”

“But none of that matters if their actual leaders of these para refuse to listen,” Grain said.

“There is at least one,” Leeno said. “He was going to talk the others around after I left.”

“Well, if there’s one guy, then our problems are solved,” Grain said sarcastically.

“They haven’t attacked yet,” I said. “That’s a good sign.”

“Why should your opinion matter?” Grain demanded. “Who are you? Why are you even here?”

“I am Laura Medina,” I said. “One of the Paladins who fought off the Composer, and the general behind the defense of this city when your people attacked.” I could see that one shocked him, though he tried to hide it. “I organized this meeting, chose who to invite, and prepared all the contingencies in case you became violent.” Everyone squirmed a little at that, though I pretended not to notice. “I have more right to be here than you, Senator Grain.”

Deafening silence greeted my proclamation.

Then Nyashk chuckled. “You always could play a room.” She smirked. “I vote to give the para Venus, if they want it. Furthermore, we’ll take out a first-tier protection contract on the colony, effective system-wide.”

The Dominites started murmuring among themselves, but the foreigners and the para just looked confused.

Martinez gave me a meaningful look. “Miss Medina, would you mind explaining?”

I smiled. “Simply put, it means that Nyashk and her people will kill anyone who takes major actions against the colony. First-tier covers… let me see…” I started counting on my fingers. “War, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. Second-tier includes sabotage and espionage, and third-tier goes all the way to protecting against economic sanctions.”

“It normally costs a small fortune,” Butler said. “Mister Leeno, you should know that Nyashk’s offer is very generous.”

“I can imagine,” Leeno said. He sounded a bit overwhelmed.

“While I am sure that will work out well for Domina, the rest of the world will want a bit more,” Martinez said. “We can hardly give you everything just in exchange for you not fighting us. That’s not a trade, that’s extortion.”

Leeno nodded. “Of course. And I think—”

The doors burst open.

The foreign dignitaries all jumped up in outrage, while all the Dominite warlords moved into fighting positions. I remained seated—I had my own preparations, and they would go more smoothly if I didn’t jump in the middle of everything.

But when I saw who was at the door, I burst out of my seat.

She was flanked by two gravers who were wearing stone armor that was completely unnecessary but served as an intimidating badge of office. She herself looked small, dwarfed by her guards by almost two feet, but she carried herself like a queen. Her eyes had gone hard since I had seen her last, and her hair was filled with stone dust and past her shoulders instead of cut short, with a few braids held in place by clips of stone. She still wore a long black glove to disguise her stone arm.

It was Ling.

Of course. Ling was the Lady of the Grave. It hadn’t been confirmed—she rarely left the Grave itself—but it had been at the top of my list of possibilities. It explained her power, and the devotion the others showed to her.

I pushed past the startled representatives and one of the gravers who tried to stop me, and pulled Ling into a big hug before she even knew what was happening. I could feel her stone arm, but I didn’t care. I just held her to my chest and tried not to cry.

After a moment, Ling patted me on the arm. I realized she couldn’t breathe, and let her go with a smile. “Sorry about that.”

She smiled back. “It’s okay. Didn’t expect that from you, though. Akane, maybe.” She looked around. “Where is Akane, anyway?”

She should have burst in with the kensei by now. The fact that she hadn’t either meant she knew Ling wasn’t a threat, or something had gone very wrong.

“Can someone explain what’s going on?” Odin asked.

“Yeah, Ling, why do you look like you just crawled out of a collapsed building?” Nyashk said.

I turned to them all and smiled. “Honored warlords, esteemed representatives, this is Ling Yu, one of the Paladins who helped take down Elizabeth. She is—”

“The Lady of the Grave,” Martinez said. For once, his face was dead serious. “I remember from when she attacked the Pentagon.”

Ling quirked her head. “Didn’t Silk erase your memories?”

He rolled his eyes. “Who knows.”

“Well, anyway, yes, I am the Lady of the Grave. Or Lady Grave, or Grave, or Ling. Whatever you prefer. It is wonderful to meet you all.” She grinned at Leeno. “Especially our friends from out of town.”

Zero had her hand on her belt, clearly ready to use a weapon, but Leeno just looked contemplative. “Some sort of stone manipulation ability, I’m guessing? It’s hard to tell, but it seems like you’re using it on yourself. That doesn’t make sense.”

Ling raised an eyebrow. “You have powers? Interesting. We’ll talk more later.” She turned to me. “I’m afraid this isn’t a social call.”

“But you did get the invitation, right?”

“Of course.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, we got a bit sidetracked. Lemuria has been attacked.”

I blinked. “What?”

“How did you find out before we did?” Butler demanded. “We—” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Right. Without Mary Christina, our chain of command is a little bit… messy.”

Ling frowned. “Wait, what? I talked with MC earlier.”

“The real one?” I asked.

“Uh, no, she said she was busy, and…” Ling winced. “Oh, damn. Should have seen that one coming.”

“This Lemuria,” Leeno said. “Where is it and who attacked?”

“It’s on Mars,” Súileabháin said.

“Fourth planet in the system,” I added.

“It’s been attacked by the para,” Ling said. “Or rather, it is being attacked by the para. I came here hoping someone had some plan to stop it. Lemuria is a factory colony, mostly building terraforming and colonization equipment. They have no defenses.”

Everyone glared at Leeno.

“I know nothing about this,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“Wait,” I said. “How can you possibly know this? We don’t have any direct lines to Mars, not even getting into the light-speed delay.”

Ling waved her hand without even glancing back. One of her gravers stepped back into the hallway and returned a moment later with a small squirrel kemo. She just had the tail and big black eyes, but she certainly twitched with nervous energy like a squirrel. She looked like she was going to run at any second.

“Just tell them what you told me,” Ling said soothingly.

The girl glanced around, shivering. “Well… um…”

I cursed. “Everyone, back up! You’re crowding her too much! Back to your seats!”

There was some grumbling, but everyone sat back down, leaving the girl alone with the gravers at the door.

The girl seemed more confident now that she wasn’t surrounded by people towering over her. “Well, I’m not a graver. I’m a telepath, actually. I can… link my mind to another.”

“Instantaneous communication, even over several light-minutes,” Ling said. “It’s very impressive.”

The girl nodded. “I linked with my cousin before he left for Lemuria. He called me when the attack started, and I called my brother…” She trailed off, and one of the graver bodyguards—her brother, I had to assume, put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“When was this?” I asked.

“Ten minutes ago,” Ling said.

“The colony can still be saved,” Martinez said.

Súileabháin nodded. “Agreed, but Mars doesn’t have the military to help, and nothing else can get there in time.” She paused. “Unless… Butler, do you have any ghosts on Lemuria? They might be able to do something.”

“Does he what?” Park asked. Her confusion was echoed on the faces of the other foreigners.

Butler’s face, on the other hand, was impassive. “I can neither confirm nor—”

Súileabháin slammed the table. “Now is not the time! Do you have any ghosts or not!”

“What are ghosts?” Martinez asked. “Another of your cultures?”

“They are…” Butler paused to try to find words that weren’t too damning. “…spies. And unfortunately, Madame Mayor, I have none on Lemuria. There was one, but he was in an industrial accident a few weeks ago and transferred out.”

“Wait,” I said. “I remember that. MC talked to me about it. She knew we needed another ghost on the colony, and asked for suggestions. We ended up sending four. They’re not real ghosts, but I figured they were better than nothing.”

“Really?” Butler said, surprised. “Who did you send?”

I smiled.

Behind the scenes (scene 324)

Sorry, cliffhanger, I know, but it’s resolved next scene. It just flows better this way.

Scene 323 – Balæna

BALÆNA

RICHARD

I really hated boats. I had hated them ever since my uncle took me on a fishing trip when I was ten. I had been sick for days after that. Hadn’t stepped onto one ever since, not even for naval ceremonies.

But now, I didn’t have a choice. For the first time, Artemis Butler was willing to meet face-to-face, hopefully as a lead-up to discussing the para, and he wanted to do it on neutral ground. Since no such thing actually existed, a boat was the next best thing. He had even been magnanimous enough to allow it to be a US ship. Everyone told me it was diplomatically super important and all that, but all I knew was that it was on a god-damn boat. Before this day was over, I was going to find a way to have a meeting with him on solid land.

“Thank you for meeting with me, Mister President,” Butler said as he shook my hand. “This is Laura Medina.”

The young woman shook my hand as well. “Pleasure,” she said. She had sharp eyes and a good grip. She was one to watch out for.

“The pleasure is all mine,” I said. Her smile faded a little bit when I said that, for some reason, but I pressed on. “My, ah, assistant wasn’t quite clear exactly why you called this meeting.” I tired to look apologetic. “He’s new, you see, I… lost my previous one.”

“It wasn’t my idea, actually,” Butler said. “Miss Medina suggested it, and Mayor Konstantopoulos thought it was a wonderful idea.”

I frowned. “I’m sorry, but… who? I thought you were the mayor of Domina City.”

“President, actually,” he said. “But Konstantopoulos is actually the mayor of Timaeus.”

“I’m still lost.”

Butler frowned, and glanced at Medina. She smirked. “They’ve been very careful about keeping themselves secret. I think it would be best not to spoil the surprise.”

Butler sighed. “Fine.” He smiled at me. “You are in for a treat, Mister President. Of course, you were anyway, but… well. Perhaps the surprise is worth a bit of extra skulduggery on our part.”

I smiled. “Just as long as you promise that this isn’t an ambush.”

Medina frowned, but Butler chuckled. “No, of course not. We didn’t even bring any bodyguards. The only power here right now is you and your ships.”

“Ship,” I said.

He frowned. “What?”

“It’s just the one ship.” I waved a broad hand at the empty horizon. “Where would we be hiding them?”

“…you didn’t bring any extra ships?” he said. “Into White-Cap Bay?

“Well, no.” I glanced at the captain of the ship. She was starting to look concerned. “It was a show of trust. You’re not going to attack us, so bringing extra firepower just seemed…” I trailed off. “…unfriendly.”

Butler turned to Medina. “Call Mary Christina.” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Well, not Mary Christina, but her—”

“Yes, yes,” she said, pulling out her phone and putting it to her ear. “Send a broadband announcement to all Dagonites in the area. We need however many pods they can get here, as soon as possible. Tell them Necessarius will pay triple standard bodyguard rates.” She paused again. “Good.” She flipped the phone closed. “Ariel is on her way with her honor guard. She’s the only one confirmed, but she’ll bring anyone else she can.”

“I doubt she’ll find anyone fast enough,” Butler said. He gave me a calculating look. “I am considering suggesting we turn back.”

“What exactly are you so terrified of?” I asked. I was starting to sweat, now. Butler and Medina seemed collected, but not calm. They were panicking, but they were still in control of themselves. “There’s nothing for miles!”

“Very few threats in the ocean travel on the surface,” Medina said.

“The—the Daggon—”

“Dagonites,” she corrected before I could finish. “And no, they are not a threat. They are the ones who have been protecting you from the threats.”

“What—”

“Captain!” someone called. We all turned to see a sailor running up. “We’ve got a sonar ping, underwater!”

“A sub?” Medina asked. The captain had barely opened her mouth. “Or a pod? A group of human-sized blips, that is.”

“Uh…” The sailor glanced at his captain for confirmation, but she was no help. “I’m not sure that sonar is sensitive enough to detect something that small…”

Medina cursed. “Silver and gold. We could be surrounded, and your idiotic equipment wouldn’t even notice! What’s the radar profile look like?”

“It’s a submarine,” the captain snapped. Probably annoyed at Medina talking over her. “It doesn’t matter what its exact class is, it has too many weapons for us.”

Medina rolled her eyes. “It’s not a sub, it’s a wreck. If I can identify it, I can identify the captain, which means I can predict their tactics.” She took a deep breath and turned to the sailor. “Now. Radar profile.”

The sailor looked between Medina and his captain.

“Answer her,” I said quietly.

“…the sonar operator said it looked like a Gleaves-class destroyer,” he said. “Which makes no sense, because even if they weren’t all fifty years obsolete, they’re surface ships, not subs. They couldn’t—”

“That means either McKenzie or Thatch,” Medina said, half to herself. “How fast was it moving?”

“Fifteen knots.”

“It’s McKenzie,” Butler said. “Tiberius can’t go that fast until Thatch redlines the drives.”

“Which she might do, if she’s fought Saltbreaker recently,” Medina muttered. “He always gives her ideas.” She was typing something frantically on her phone. “Captain. Call battle stations.”

The captain was turning red now. “I’m not going to do anything until you explain—”

“Captain,” I said, tired. “Please.”

She frowned, but took a deep breath. “All hands! Battle stations! Prepare for—” She glanced at Medina, who barely seemed to be paying attention. “Submarine attack.”

“Close enough,” Medina said. She addressed Butler without looking up. “We can’t confirm which one it is until they start shooting, and by then it will be too late. Thatch could sink us in one volley.”

“McKenzie will take at least two,” Butler said. “Augustus has shorter range, as well.”

There were a lot of names and concepts being thrown around, but I forced myself to remain calm. “Whatever happens, I trust you.”

Medina rolled her eyes. “Please stop lying.”

I blinked. “I’m sorry?”

Before she could say anything, something burst out of the water and splashed onto the deck.

I didn’t even wait to see what it was—I remembered well the stories of the sailors who met the Dagonites at the battle of Domina City. I stumbled and fell on my butt, but couldn’t spare any attention to be embarrassed.

Medina and Butler stumbled back as well, which surprised me. For some reason I expected them to step forward and start swinging.

The creature on the deck, dripping seawater, had green scales, webbed fingers and toes, razor-sharp shark teeth, and flat eyes. It hissed like a snake and brandished a wickedly hooked spear.

“Aléxandros stélnei tous chairetismoús tou!” the creature spat. It charged towards us—though it was hard to tell which of us specifically—stabbing forward with that shiny spear.

Medina whipped out a gun and fired twice. Her shots went wide, but it was enough to break the creature’s charge. It dodged to the side, hissing, and for a second I could swear that its eyes glowed.

Oh wait, these people had superpowers. They might have actually glowed.

I tackled Medina to the ground on instinct, and felt the heat from the creature’s eye beams scorch the air above us.

I really hated this city.

Someone threw open the hatch from belowdecks. I was surprised to see a young Japanese woman with a sword, of all things, in addition to a long blue ribbon in her hair. She took in the scene at a glance, grabbed her sword, and then suddenly she was standing in front of us, sword out. I hadn’t even seen her move.

“Surrender,” she said to the creature. “Or retreat.”

It grinned with those shark teeth it had. “Do you want to see if you can run faster than light, little girl?”

The swordswoman narrowed her eyes, but before she could do anything stupid, Medina slowly stood up.

“Captain McKenzie,” she said. “Please, call off your men.”

The man—and it had to be a man, I realized that now—laughed. It sounded like sandpaper on skin. “So it’s captain now, is it? Apologies, Dame Medina, but the contents of this boat are far too valuable to let slip by. I think—” He unexpectedly turned and shot lasers out of his eyes again, aiming at the swordswoman. I was caught completely off guard.

She wasn’t.

Somehow, she managed to dodge, even though the beams had to be moving at the speed of light. She leaned to the side, then ran forward so fast that she was a blur, far faster than any human should be able to. Her sword struck out in a glittering arc, and McKenzie screamed as his arm went flying in a spray of blood.

She drew back for a killing stroke, but somehow she was too slow. McKenzie moved like lightning to dodge a blow aimed at his neck, then dove over the side and into the water.

The swordswoman frowned, but wiped her blade clean and then slid it into its sheathe.

I slowly clambered to my feet. “That was…”

“Sloppy. Apologies.” She bowed to me. “Wasted too much reservoir dodging the lasers, then didn’t go for the killing blow fast enough.”

“It’s fine, Akane,” Medina said soothingly. “I think in this case, it might be better to have let him get away. This way he can order the Augustus to retreat. They probably would have kept attacking if he was killed.”

I frowned. “I don’t know much about tactics, but retreating after only one person is injured—even the captain—seems like a silly idea.”

“McKenzie is deeply pragmatic,” Butler said, walking up and wiping off his shirt. “Boasts aside, he has let bigger catches than this slip through his claws, and for smaller injuries than losing an entire arm. He doesn’t like risk.”

“Uh, sir?” one of the crew said. “The ship—the Augustus, you said? It’s moving away.”

The captain managed a small smile. “Excellent. Maybe I’ll forgive you people for getting blood all over my decks.”

The man swallowed. “There are two more pings incoming.”

“Silver and gold,” Medina muttered. “They must have followed McKenzie here, knowing he’d cover their approach and that if he retreated they’d be in a position to attack. Can you identify the ship classes?”

The man glanced at his captain, then looked down at his pad. “Um, one is another Gleaves-class destroyer.”

“That’s the Tiberius,” Butler said. “She’ll be in range soon, and Thatch isn’t going to offer surrender.”

“What’s the other?” Medina asked.

“It looks like a Wickes-class, which makes no sense, those things are even older than the Gleaves. I think the last one was decommissioned in the forties—”

“The Constantine,” Butler said, sounding resigned.

“Oh, good,” Medina said, her tone deadpan. “We get to die in a new and interesting way. Is Saltbreaker still doing that thing where he launches sharks at people?”

“Did you say sharks?” I asked, more confused than afraid. What was he going to do, toss it up on the deck and have it flop at us?

“I haven’t heard of that one in a while,” Butler said, ignoring me. “He might shoot a few mosscrabs at us, though. They can kill everyone on the ship without damaging anything valuable. Then his men can get anyone who tries to escape into the water.”

“Assuming Thatch lets him,” Medina said, thoughtful. “Do you think we can play them against each other somehow? I don’t know much about their relationship.”

“I don’t either, but it’s better than nothing. Get us a radio link.”

My head was spinning. “Okay, wait. What exactly is going on?”

“We’re trying to distract two Rahab wrecks by making them fight over who has the right to kill us,” Medina said as she fiddled with her radio. “If we can distract them for long enough, reinforcements will arrive.” She shook her head. “Of course, it will have to be a lot of reinforcements. Thatch and Saltbreaker will run if they have to, but they’re not going to do it at the first sign of trouble like McKenzie.” She handed the radio to Butler.

“Every extra minute alive is an extra minute to find a way out of the predicament,” he said. He turned the knob on the radio and spoke into it. “Captain Thatch, we surrender unconditionally. We are powering down engines, please do not shoot.” Our own captain moved to give the order, but he stopped her with a raised hand, then turned the knob again. “Captain Saltbreaker, we surrender unconditionally. We are powering down engines, please do not shoot.” Then he nodded, and our captain ran off to order the engines powered down.

“How long do we have?” Butler asked.

“That should buy us a few minutes,” Medina said.

“How long do we need?

She shook her head sadly.

Butler sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Does anyone on this boat have any useful powers? Shields, hydrokinesis, anything like that?”

“Nope. The only Dominites are you, me, Akane, and two ‘sarians down below.”

“What are their powers?”

“Healing and the ability to take damage meant for someone else.”

I raised an eyebrow. “That sounds like a powerful combo. So someone shoots Butler, the guy down below grows a bullet hole in his shoulder, and his buddy heals him?”

Medina looked at me oddly. “That’s exactly right. I usually have trouble explaining it to people, though. It’s a pretty rare power.”

“I play games sometimes,” I said. “Well, I used to, I guess. Haven’t had time. Anyway, that sort of thing is pretty common on tanks.”

Butler didn’t seem to be paying attention to our conversation. “What if we send Akane to get help?”

Medina shook her head. “They’d see her and open fire early. Same if we call for help. Now we just have to hope that our people get here fast enough.”

There was an explosion off one side of the ship, drenching everyone on the deck.

“BRACE!” the captain called.

“That wasn’t Thatch!” Medina yelled over the sounds of sailors shouting orders at each other. “Explosion was too small! That was Saltbreaker—keep an eye out, something weird is coming!”

The captain scowled. “Can’t you be a bit more specific?”

“It’s probably not a shark!”

Before anyone else could yell anything, there was another explosion, this time from the other side. And it was accompanied by high-pitched, inhuman screeches.

For the first time, Butler looked scared.

“Are those—”

“Scream-stealer eels! Yes, Derek showed me some Mohamed caught once! Everyone, the eels have paralysis poison! Don’t touch them, and don’t touch anything they’ve touched!” She turned to the captain. “Is there any chance this stupid boat has a high-speed escape pod? We need to get Butler and the president out of here.”

The captain stared. “An escape what?

“Never mind.”

I drew myself up to my inconsiderable height to make a proclamation. “I don’t want to abandon you in your—”

“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped as she typed through her phone. She didn’t even look at me. “If you die out here, the war will be back in a blink, aliens or no. And whoever wins will be easy pickings for the para.”

“Oh,” I said. “Right.”

Someone grabbed my arm, and I nearly screamed.

I turned to see Senator Grain, half-dressed and wild-eyed, clutching my arm like a lifeline.

“Mister President, with all due respect, what the hell is going on?”

I frowned. “Were you sleeping? In the middle of the day? You know the only way to cure jet lag is just to power through it.”

“RICHARD!”

“We’re under attack,” I said with a calm I didn’t feel. It was far too much fun to needle Grain like this. “We fought off one, but there are others, and apparently he likes weird things. We’re probably going to die.”

“Because you idiots have fewer safety features on your boat than a vampire in a blood drive,” Medina said as she continued typing furiously at her phone.

Grain stared at her. “Who the hell is this?

“This is the woman who might get us out of here alive,” I said, trusting my gut.

Might?

“Remember what I said about us probably dying? That’s still true.” There was another explosion near the front of the ship, and it took all my willpower not to dive for cover. But I could act presidential when the situation called for it—such as making a friend look like a skittish little girl. “Maybe you should go back down below. Get some more sleep.”

He took a breath to yell at me again, but was interrupted by a massive explosion. It nearly capsized the boat, and my professional demeanor dissolved as I had to desperately grab the nearest railing to keep from flying around like a ragdoll. I glanced to the side and saw many of the monsters go flying off. That was a small piece of luck.

The scariest thing was that the explosion wasn’t close to us. I could see a huge plume of water maybe a mile away. I was only seeing the tail end of it, water falling back into the ocean, but it was still hundreds of feet high.

“What was that?” I asked.

Butler raised an eyebrow at Medina. “Indeed. Did Thatch blow Saltbreaker out of the water?”

She was still typing furiously. “Maybe. Not sure. Radar?”

The sailor from before took a second to realize she was talking to him. “Uh, it’s all messy right now, can’t really see anything. Also, it’s sonar, not radar, not sure if you know the difference…”

Medina clearly wasn’t paying attention to him any more. “Much as I’d like to think that was our miracle, it’s much more likely it was Thatch blowing up the Constantine. In other words, the worst case scenario.”

“How is that the worst case?” I asked. “We have one less enemy to fight, and maybe the Constantine managed to damage, uh, Thatch’s ship—”

“The Tiberius. And it’s a wreck, not a ship.”

“Right.” I paused. “Why is that?”

She finally sighed and looked away from her phone. “Because the Rahabs raise shipwrecks from the ocean floor, repair them enough to run, and use them to launch raids. The mobile ones, like the ones we’re facing now, are the ghost ships. And the problem is that the Tiberius has a much greater range than the Constantine. I’m sure she sank him long before he could fire back. Once Saltbreaker makes repairs, he might go after her, but we’ll be long dead by then.” She shook her head. “If he had been the survivor, we might have had a chance. Weird weapons mean sometimes you get lucky. Thatch just uses guns and shoots until everything stops moving.”

There were more explosions, more plumes of water. They were closer than before, but still too far to do any real damage to us—half a mile, maybe, and they were much smaller than the one that had apparently sunk the Constantine.

“What’s she doing now?” I asked. “Ranging her shots?”

Medina frowned. “No, definitely not. The Tiberius has some of the most advanced weapons systems on the planet. She could hit a fly from—” Realization dawned. “She’s not shooting at us. The Constantine is still afloat.”

Even I understood the implications of that. I grinned. “Which means that the captain will be pissed, and forget about little old us.”

“Yes! Exactly!” Medina settled down. “Of course, the second they see us running, they’ll put aside their differences for long enough to sink us. We could outrun them on the open water, but we’d have to turn around first. Right now, we’re facing them, and running through them would be suicide.”

“We’re not quite facing them,” the aide said. I noticed the captain glowering at him. She hadn’t said anything; she knew she was out of her depth and wasn’t going to be pissy about it, but she wasn’t happy either. “Why don’t we just run straight? We’ll be out of their range in a few minutes.”

“That’s a few minutes we’ll be in their range,” Butler said. “At this stage of the battle, there will be no playing around. A few minutes will be more than enough for both of them to sink us. Or at the very least cripple our engines.”

More plumes of water exploded out of the ocean—and they seemed to be closer than before. “I think whatever you decide to do, it will need to be fast.”

Medina raised an eyebrow. “You don’t have a suggestion?”

I raised my hands in defeat. “I am not a sailor. I don’t know anything about naval combat, let alone whatever the hell this is. I’d just get in your way.”

Medina quirked her head to the side. “Honesty. Interesting.”

“Hey, I’m always honest!”

She rolled her eyes. Okay, that was fair.

Before anyone could say anything else, there was one more massive explosion, right next to the ship. Everyone on deck was drenched, again. No one really seemed to mind except Grain, who sputtered and shook himself like a cat who fell in the bath.

Then a phone rang.

It was Medina’s. I was surprised it still worked after all the water, but she wasn’t. She answered instantly. “Yes, hello?” She blinked. “…oh. Uh, yes. Of course. Well, thank you then. I’m glad you got my message—oh. Yes, he’s right here.” She hung up, a curious expression on her face.

“…so we’re not all going to die?” I asked.

“Sonar is back!” the aide said. “They say the two ships—sorry, wrecks—are moving away, but there’s something big right next to us. Like, really big. They have no idea what it is.”

“He wanted to meet the president,” Medina said. “That’s why he was in the area, and was able to get here so fast.”

“Me?” I said. “Who wants to meet me?”

Another wave crashed over the ship, but this time it wasn’t from an explosion—more like a really big splash. As the ship stopped rocking unduly and the water cleared from my eyes, I was clearly able to see what had surfaced right next to us.

It took me a minute to identify it. It seemed to be a whale, maybe a blue whale. It was about eighty feet long from nose to tail if I compared it to the length of the ship, and I had no doubt that it could capsize us with one flipper, but it was just sitting there peacefully.

It was also covered in guns.

Great cannons that looked like they had been ripped off a battleship had been strapped to the beast’s back and sides with leather and metal. There were six big ones that I could see—two on top and two on each side—but also at least a dozen smaller ones, which meant they were ‘only’ big enough to fit my hand in the barrel instead of my entire head. There were even smaller machine guns, little things that were strapped anywhere they could fit, even on the bigger guns in some cases. They moved and twitched constantly, pointing in every direction.

“You tamed whales to carry guns for you?” I asked. Or maybe I whispered it. I was staring at an animal carrying as much firepower as a mid-sized battleship, I was a little bit in awe.

Medina grinned. “No,” she said. “We didn’t.”

The beast gave a massive groan that reverberated through the ship and through my bones.

It took me a moment to identify it as laughter.

“So this is the president?” a calm, male voice asked. There was a mechanical quality through it, like it was being piped through a speaker. “He seems competent enough. Smaller than I expected, perhaps.”

I took a step back. The voice was coming from the whale.

A small metal globe detached itself from the bulk of steel and floated over. It had a glass window of some—ah, it was a camera. The lens whirred and focused on me. “My name is Johnathan Tar, Mister President,” the voice said. It had a subtle Southern drawl to it. “It is very nice to meet you.”

I swallowed. “Ah, likewise? But, I mean… who are you, exactly?” It had taken an effort of will to say ‘who’ instead of ‘what.’

“I’m one of the warlords of the Dagonites,” he said, the camera bobbing up and down slowly. “A Trident, I guess. Got a few other titles, but that’s the big one. I’m one of the people in charge of keeping the Bay safe.” He chuckled. “Safe from you, lots of times, in fact.”

“Me?” I blinked. “I mean, us? America? What did we ever do to you?”

“Oh, nothing major,” he said. “Just couldn’t let you get too close to the city. You would have caused problems if you discovered it.”

“But… we’ve always known about Domina City.”

He chuckled, the sound coming from the whale itself instead of from the camera. “That’s not the city I’m talking about.”

I opened my mouth, then shut it. I couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t betray my ignorance.

The camera turned to Medina. “Laura, is it? One of the Paladins?”

She bowed. “Correct, Honored Trident.”

“No need for that, miss, just wanted to thank you for all you’ve done.”

“And you as well, Whale-Lord,” she said.

He chuckled again, sending a bone-rumbling vibration through the decks. “Fair enough.” The camera turned back to me. “Do tell me next time you are in the Bay, Mister President. I would welcome the chance to speak with you further.”

I nodded dumbly.

The camera turned briefly to Butler. “Artemis,” the whale said cordially.

Butler nodded in turn. “Johnathan. Good hunting out there.”

“It always is.”

The camera floated back to Tar and nestled in a cradle under one of the medium-sized guns. He turned and dove underwater, his massive tail slapping down and sending yet another wave crashing over us. I heard chattering laughter and saw creatures leaping out of the water nearby. At first I thought they were dolphins, but then I realized they were people, men and women with fish tails following their lord. In moments they were gone as well.

For a few minutes, the only sound was water dripping to the deck from our clothes.

“Well,” Butler said with a chuckle. “I doubt anything Konstantopoulos has in store can top that. Besides, we’re running late. I’ll tell her that you’ll come see her on the way back, after the meeting.”

I still had no idea what he was talking about. “Yeah. That sounds good.”

“Excellent! Captain, please resume our course towards Domina. We have a busy day ahead of us.”

Behind the scenes (scene 323)

Johnathan Tar is a telekinetic. That’s how he was able to make the camera hover like that, and these days it’s how he controls most of his guns. He used to use a custom-made keyboard in his mouth that goes all the way around the inside rim of his teeth, but he mostly doesn’t have to worry about that any more. He does still have it though, just in case. You don’t get to be a Dagonite warlord without being at least a bit paranoid.

Scene 320 – Cadere

CADERE

ROBYN JOAN

I flew high above the city, far beyond warm updrafts or bothersome aircraft. I was so high that I needed a flight suit and my mask, and the cold still managed to seep into my body like a thousand knives.

Some of the members of my guild had tried to keep up with me, but eventually they were all forced to fall off. The winged members, like Fimmtu, had the lowest flight ceiling, but even the rockets and the other levitators simply didn’t have the reservoir to make the climb.

I liked it up here, alone. It was peaceful. Nothing but an endless sea of clouds. The alien ship had drifted away, so I could even ignore that particular bit of insanity. I could just float until my reservoir ran out—and these days, that took a very long time.

I closed my eyes and lay on my back like I was sleeping on the softest mattress in the universe. I had finally learned how to sleep like this, and it was becoming addictive. How could I go back to sheets and pillows after clouds and air?

I heard engines nearby. I resolved to ignore them, but they changed pitch and then held in place—someone was hovering, looking at me.

I frowned and opened my eyes. I should be above the flight ceiling of any helicopters or VTOLs. What could possibly—

Oh, right. The aliens.

I tried not to panic, and just look at the situation objectively. The alien craft was different from the ones we had seen already. It was much larger and utilitarian, shaped roughly like a bus without windows and with strange, glowing blue spikes in place of wheels. Those had to be the engines, the reactionless drives MC and Laura mentioned. They twisted and adjusted themselves every other second, likely fighting to keep aloft in this strange environment.

I was surprised that the shuttle was painted dozens of different colors. There were stripes and swirls, whorls and arcs, like a rainbow painted by an insane savant. I was used to spacecraft being a simple uniform steely gray, with maybe the country’s flag painted somewhere small. The US often painted theirs white, but that was about the extent of it.

The ship floated about a hundred feet away—more than close enough to see them, but far enough that they wouldn’t actually hit me. I couldn’t see inside and I had turned off my radio, so they had no way of communicating with me. I considered turning my radio back on, but decided against it. Floating in the stratosphere just wasn’t the best place for first contact.

Instead I just waved them to follow, then cut my flight. I fell leisurely through the air, picking up speed as I passed through the cloud layer. Once I was through, I turned over and looked down. I wasn’t quite on target, but I didn’t need to course-correct quite yet. Give my reservoir time to recharge.

I glanced over my shoulder. The alien shuttle was following me, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t free-falling. All the engines were still lit up, if not as bright as before. Maybe they weren’t as confident in their engines as I was with my flight.

Speaking of which, what did they think of someone flying around unaided? I obviously didn’t have wings or a jetpack. Unless they had the technology to do something similar, I was probably a complete enigma.

Or unless they had powers too.

That thought was like opening my eyes for the first time. Suddenly I could feel… something from the shuttle. Something beyond hearing, beyond thought. It wasn’t the same as the screamers or even the singers, it was just… a feeling. More than anything else, it reminded me of the silence before a performer began to play.

Or sing.

Could the para have powers? Other than Elizabeth and Silk, we didn’t know where the powers came from. What if the aliens could do the same sorts of things we could? Our biggest advantage would be gone in a heartbeat.

They might be able to hit me with a countersong and knock me right out of the sky.

My heart sped up, and I had to resist the urge to activate my power and fly as far away from the shuttle as fast as I could. If they were going to do that, they would have already. Besides, the range on those things wasn’t that great. If I fell, I’d fall out of range and be able to keep flying. Probably.

I activated my power, but not to flee. Instead, I corrected my course, heading towards NHQ. There were plenty of places in the city with landing pads big enough for the shuttle, but I wasn’t going to take this thing anywhere else. If nothing else, they had the anti-air guns to blow them out of the sky if they turned hostile.

…they had AA guns.

I couldn’t actually see them at this distance, but I swore I could feel the guns targeting us. With my radio turned off, I had no IFF transponder, so they probably thought I was a missile or drone. They might be trying to contact the shuttle, but I doubted anyone onboard spoke English…

After ten seconds of cold fear—ten seconds too many—I hit my radio, turning it back on, and called my sister on her private line. “MC! It’s me! I’m bringing the ship in peacefully! Don’t shoot!

“Robyn?” She made a sound like a sigh. “Dammit, Robyn, stop turning your radio off!” There was a pause. “There. AA guns standing down. Please take them onto landing platform four. It’s the northernmost one.”

“Got it.” I paused. “You wouldn’t have really shot, would you?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. We were having trouble contacting them, and if we couldn’t get a stable line of communication by the time they got too close… yeah, we might have shot. How did you manage to talk to them, anyway?”

“I just waved for them to follow me.”

Static crackled with her sigh. “Of course. I suppose that bodes well for the future. Derek and Akane are preparing a greeting party. I’ll tell them that the aliens seem non-hostile, for now. Unless they shot at you a few times and you failed to mention it?”

“No, of course not. But, um…”

“What?”

“I think someone on that shuttle has a power. Maybe.”

There were a full five seconds of silence as she processed that. “What? How could they—how could you know that?”

“I just… feel something from the shuttle.”

“Hm,” she said, clearly not convinced. “Well, I don’t feel anything.”

“You still haven’t figured out what your power even is,” I said. Silk had given her one, but she hadn’t been able to activate it yet. She could feel her reservoir, but that was it. “Plus, you’re in the city, surrounded by millions of people with powers. I’m up here alone. Less distractions.”

“Maybe. Look, just bring them in slow, all right? We want to be able to hit them easily if they do anything weird.”

It took about twenty more minutes to bring the alien shuttle in to land. I took it nice and slow, as requested, and came in at a steep angle. I wasn’t giving them a tour of the city in case they did turn out to be hostile. A couple of my better fliers got close at one point, but I waved them off. Probably better to keep the number of people involved to a minimum. We’d need those fliers if the ship decided to start shooting in the middle of the city.

I landed on platform four as requested, my boots touching down as lightly as a feather. A moment later, the platform shook, but not too bad. I turned around to see that the shuttle had deployed landing gear, and its thrusters were powering down. Quite the show of faith on their part, unless they could power up again a lot faster than we thought.

I glanced towards the rooftop entrance to NHQ. Derek and Butler were walking out, side-by-side, with Akane and her kensei marching behind them. There were a few subtle movements on the other platforms and rooftops that told me Laura had us surrounded by gunmen and snipers. Clever. The swordsmen are the obvious threat, so anyone would look around and probably spot the snipers. But with their super speed, the kensei were the real threat.

Everyone was wearing the skintight black quarantine suits that the Glasyans had made. They still weren’t perfect, but they were much easier to move around in than normal quarantine suits. At least the kensei would be able to fight if necessary. They even had large faceplates so we could identify each other.

I walked over to Butler. “Hey, Uncle. Where’s my father?”

“Downstairs with Miss Medina, watching through the cameras,” he said. “I felt it was safer to keep from putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. Not to mention, put this on.” He gestured to Derek, and he handed me a rolled-up q-suit. “We can’t be too careful.”

I frowned, but started putting it on over my flight clothes. The flight suit would actually act as a halfway decent hazmat suit on its own, but I knew Butler wouldn’t let me get away with that. Better to avoid the argument. “I’m pretty sure whatever that shuttle is using for power could vaporize the entire building if they decided to self-destruct.”

Butler sighed. “Yes, Medina said the same thing. Regardless. This is still safer.”

I smirked as I put the helmet on. “I think you just don’t want my dad ruining this by acting like a kid in a candy store.”

He smiled. “That was part of it, true.”

“If anything goes wrong, I’ll shield Butler and get him out,” Derek said. “Robyn, your job will be to fly as far as you can. One of the outposts at the Gates would be best. Think you can manage that?”

Was he being sarcastic? No, he was just being honest. He needed a genuine answer.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised. “Though I don’t think these guys are hostile.”

Derek looked past me, at the shuttle. “They haven’t come out yet. That worries me.”

I shrugged. “Maybe they’re just being polite? We’re obviously busy.”

“Hm. Maybe.” He nodded at Akane. “Keep to formation, but be ready to rush at a moment’s notice. And remember to try to be nonlethal if at all possible. We still have much to learn here.”

Akane nodded, which caused the blue ribbon in her hair to get tangled up in front of her face. Inside the helmet, she couldn’t fix it. That reminded me, all her kensei had red ribbons of varying length. Was that some indicator of rank, or just personal preference?

Our little procession continued forward, stopping some twenty feet from the shuttle. We waited for a moment, and then the shuttle’s side cracked open, deploying a simple ramp. For some reason I had expected something more high-tech, like unfolding moving stairs.

Two people came down the ramp.

At first, I thought that we had been duped. That they were human, and that this whole thing had been some bizarre scheme to trick us into thinking it was an alien invasion. My mind went to all sorts of theories—aggressive ad campaign, foreign government attacking us, anything. But then my eyes finished processing what I was seeing, and I realized that they definitely weren’t human.

Their basic shape was about right. One head, two arms, two legs. The one on the left had two eyes, a mouth, two slits that were probably nostrils, and wide ears shaped like the sharp wings of a butterfly. The one on the right was wearing some sort of expressionless mask or helmet.

The one on the left had tangerine-colored eyes, all one color, though I could see them darting around, trying to take in everything at once. He had blue-green skin that, on a second glance, was actually made up of tiny scales like a lizard or a snake. Not much of his skin was uncovered, though. He was wearing something that looked like my flight suit, but covered in a rainbow of colors. He didn’t have any hair, but I couldn’t tell whether he had shaved his head or if the species just didn’t have hair.

His companion, on the right, seemed female to me. She had bumps under her flight suit that were probably breasts, but it was impossible to say for sure. She had the expressionless mask, and her flight suit was a dull gray. It contrasted sharply with the man and the ship. These people clearly liked colors, so what did it mean to have no color? Was she his boss?

The one on the left stepped forward. “Hello,” he said.

I blinked and glanced at Uncle Arty and Laura. They were both surprised, but they hid it better than me.

“You speak English?” Butler asked.

The para smiled. It was a surprisingly human gesture, though there seemed to be something off about his teeth. “Got it on my first try! Yes, I speak English.” He tapped the side of his head. “Language implant. Our Greyminds have been studying your communications for a few weeks.” He nodded his head slightly. “I am Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. You may call me Leeno.” He indicated the woman next to him. “This is Zero.”

“Bodyguard?” I asked.

He shrugged. Again, so human. “Something like that.”

“I am Artemis Butler,” Uncle Arty said. “Butler will do just fine.”

“And I am Derek Huntsman,” Derek said with a small bow. “Derek will do.”

Butler gestured behind him. He was indicating the roof exit, but I could tell he was also subtly reminding him of the armed guards. “Why don’t we go inside? It’s cold up here, and I do not like shouting over the wind.”

“Will we have to undergo some sort of quarantine? Perhaps wear suits like yours?”

“We did preliminary scans, and we are reasonably certain that you and your ship are clean. But we would like to take a few simple precautions, just to be safe for everyone. Including you two.”

Leeno smiled. “I think we’ll be fine, but we will of course cooperate. Zero and I both have nanite-immune systems that can survive virtually anything.” He glanced at me. “But I think we’re missing one introduction. Who is this… lady?”

I smiled at that. “Yes, I am female. My name is Robyn Joan Clarke. Robyn is fine.” I nodded at Zero. “I assume this means you’re female as well?”

She turned that mask to me, then nodded, once. She didn’t say a word.

We all filed dutifully downstairs, and Uncle Arty led us into one of his meeting rooms. They were mostly used for internal stuff, employee meetings and that sort of thing. Most cultures didn’t like entering NHQ unless they had to. Apparently it felt too much like getting trapped inside a fortress.

This one had been modified to be airtight, with a simple airlock improvised out of plastic sheets and an air conditioner. We’d still be inside with them, but this would reduce the damage if something did go wrong.

There was a single long table, about a dozen chairs, and a smaller side table with some refreshments. The kensei waited outside, but I had no doubt that MC and the others would be watching on the cameras. If something went wrong, the room would be pumped full of sleeping gas, followed by kensei in masks. We were as safe as could be.

“Would you like some water?” Butler asked as everyone took their seats. “We decided against food, since we weren’t sure of compatibility, but the water should be fine.”

“I have a filtration unit installed,” Leeno said. He seemed a bit confused at the wheels on his chair, but returned his attention to Butler after a moment. “There might be some microbes that could hurt me, but the filter will handle them.”

“Interesting,” Butler said. He pulled out a chair and sat down at the head of the table. “I am fascinated about the differences—and similarities—between our species. Imagine what we could do if we worked together.” He took out a pad and tapped at it. The q-suits were designed to work with touch screens. “Now, let’s start simple. I’m sorry, but I have to be blunt. Are your people here for war?”

Silence.

We all looked over at Leeno. His face was blank, and he was staring off into space without blinking.

“…Mister Leeno?” Butler said.

Zero had been sitting there stiffly, but she leaned forward and waved her hand in front of Leeno’s face. No reaction. She looked at us and shook her head.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “Can you please just talk? Or do you not speak English?”

Zero shook her head, then nodded. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her frustration. It was hard to talk with just yes and no responses. She put her hands on the table, and they were shaking with either anxiety or fear. Also, she only had three fingers on each hand. I hadn’t noticed that before.

After a moment, she hesitantly raised her hands and started signing.

I blinked. “…is that kemo battle sign?”

“I guess if you can program a spoken language, you can program a signed one,” Derek said, watching closely. “Whoa, slow down, I’m pretty rusty.”

“Why kemo, though? The angels have a more complex one.”

“Yeah, and it definitely requires five fingers on each hand. In kemo sign, you can get away with three. Or even one, in a pinch.” He frowned, watching closer. “She keeps signing ‘two hundred’ for some reason, I don’t understand.”

Zero’s shoulders slumped, and she signed something else.

Derek nodded. “Okay, got it. ‘Leeno’ literally means ‘two hundred.’” Pause. “Or, uh, not literally. But anyway, that’s what she’s using. So…” He watched her continue signing for a moment longer. “Okay… right. Leeno is apparently just thinking. Really, really hard. This has happened before, last time he was out for a few hours.”

Hours?” I said. “Is this normal for your people?”

Zero shook her head.

“Great,” I muttered under my breath. “Our ambassador is defective.”

Zero signed something else.

“Robyn was being facetious,” Derek said, giving me a glare. “Neither of you are defective. You’re just… unexpected.”

“And this gives us an unexpected few hours,” Butler said, rising from his chair. “I’ll call a full meeting. I’m sure all the cultures and guilds would prefer to be in the loop on this. We weren’t able to do so before, with the sudden arrival, but by now I’m sure my inbox is filled with questions.”

“Laura can also finish her scans, and we can figure out if this quarantine is necessary,” Derek said.

Butler raised his voice a little. It was unnecessary, but it was a common habit. “Mary Christina, how many warlords have contacted me about the para?”

Silence.

I frowned. Something was wrong. Sure, she couldn’t pay attention to everything at once, but this was first contact with an alien species. If there was one thing in the city she’d be paying attention to, it was this.

“Mary Christina?” Butler said again.

“MC?” I said. “You there?”

“I am here, Miss Clarke,” a flat, artificial voice said.

I just sat there for a moment, stunned. I never had to talk to her programs. I hadn’t even heard them in months, at the least.

The door burst open, and one of my dad’s aides stumbled in, breathing heavily. At least she was wearing a q-suit.

Zero immediately jumped up and pointed an arm at her. Something popped out that looked like a tiny gun turret.

“Lingshen!” Butler barked. “Stand and report!”

Lingshen glanced at Zero, then forced herself to stand at attention. “It’s—it’s MC, sir.”

“Yes, we noticed as well. What happened? Is there something wrong with her connections? Are we under attack?”

“No sir, it’s…” She swallowed her anxiety. “Sir, she’s gone!

Behind the Scenes (scene 320)

The para language chips also include the more physical parts of language, like smiles, shrugs, and so on. It can be kinda creepy having your body automatically act in a way you didn’t intend, but it’s better than people wondering why the hell you keep touching your nose and pulling on your ear. There is some crossover, though, so it’s not all like that. Most of the things para do with their mouths (smiles, frowns, kissing, etc) is the same as humans.

break

Scene 318 – Notitia Collectio

NOTITIA COLLECTIO

LAURA

“There has been no communication from the aliens,” Butler said. He stepped forward and pointed at the large screen in front of us. I was just barely getting used to him being more mobile, but I still stepped away like he was a massive tree in a forest, about to fall. “Their smaller ships have a much higher flight ceiling than the American ones, but they’ve still retreated to the mothership after the American fighters got too close.”

“Robyn, what’s your flight ceiling?” I asked.

“I haven’t hit it yet,” she said. “My guess is either infinite or the edge of the atmosphere. Depends on if my power is using the Earth’s gravity or not. Some of my fliers have different abilities, though.”

I nodded. Anyone with wings would have a tiny maximum height compared to anything technological. On the other hand, I knew she had at least one man with rockets. He should be able to reach outer space if he felt like it.

“We’ll get you some flight suits,” I said. “See how close you can get to these things.”

Robyn winced.

I raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong?” I sighed. “Tell me you’re not afraid.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m—okay, I am afraid. My therapist says I need to be more honest about that sort of thing…”

I frowned. She had a therapist? I had no record of that. I made a mental note to check up on it.

“I’m more worried about getting supplies directly from Necessarius. I wanted the fliers to be a little more independent.”

I smiled. “This from Clarke’s princess? He built NHQ for you in the first place.”

Butler chuckled. “I did have some say in it, you know. We had been needing a headquarters for a while. The unfortunate situation with Robyn just scared Isaac enough to accelerate it by a few years.”

Robyn gave us a massive eye-roll. “Anyway. Do we know anything about these aliens? Other than the fact that Silk seems to be worried? Which strikes me as a really, really bad sign, by the way.”

“No,” Butler said. “Nothing.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said. “MC?”

“This is a schematic of the alien fighters,” MC said over the loudspeakers as a picture appeared on the screen. “Of course much of it is guesswork, but between the space colonies and our own scopes, we have a pretty good idea what they’re capable of.”

The ship was a small, teardrop shaped vessel without any apparent windows or other apertures. The round section was the front, the tail the back. It was roughly the size of three baseline humans; with the machinery, it would be a tight fit for a person.

“Their fighters use a reactionless drive that is roughly comparable in speed and maneuverability to our own rocket engines. The current theory on Ceres is that they’re exploiting the Woodward Effect, but that hasn’t been conclusively proven. However, if necessary, Cerean ships can outrun them, at least until fuel becomes an issue.”

“The para ships haven’t needed to refuel since we’ve been watching them,” I said. “Their radiation signatures imply hydrogen fusion, which means they would need to refuel eventually, but the mothership can likely collect hydrogen from the interstellar medium.”

“The mothership?” Robyn said. “Why not the daughter ships?”

I pointed at the schematic. “No room for a ram scoop. Maybe if they’re completely unarmed, but even that’s unlikely. My guess is that the mothership acts as a refueling point. The daughter ships should be able to hold enough hydrogen for a week or two of operation—less during high-energy operations like combat. If the ships are manned, the pilot will need food sooner than the ships will need fuel.”

Butler looked at the schematic. It had a small, human-shaped figure inside it. “How sure are we that the ships are manned? Drones seem like the wiser course.”

“They appear to communicate with radio, like we do,” MC said. “At least, that’s our best guess judging by their scans. We’ve had a few bursts from the ships that would be consistent with pilots reporting and receiving orders, but nothing like the near-constant datastreams drones would require.”

“What about artificial intelligences?” Robyn asked.

Butler and I both stared at her.

“Oh come on,” she said. “Obviously it’s possible. MC, could they fit in an AI smart enough to fly one of those ships?”

The voice from the speakers was hesitant. “…maybe. We couldn’t, that’s for sure, but if their AI science has advanced a bit, it’s possible. But that’s making a lot of assumptions. The ships seem to be just the right size for one pilot.”

“And that’s not making assumptions?”

“Not as many,” I said. “One of Lemuria’s satellites got a good scan of one that passed by. There seems to be a good amount of empty space in the middle. The most logical explanation would be a pilot.”

Robyn frowned. “What, they can’t detect pilots?”

I shook my head. “Not using the scanner the satellite was equipped with. Living flesh isn’t dense enough.”

“Which is more evidence that these ‘para’ are close to human,” MC said. “Of course, we could have assumed that from the very beginning. I doubt they would have bothered to come here if they weren’t at least crudely similar to us, biologically.”

“Let’s move on,” Butler said. “Do we know anything about their weapon systems yet?”

“Nothing,” I said. I pointed to the front of the schematic. “Scans indicate there’s something in there, but they haven’t fired on anything yet. Judging by the small size of the ships, I would guess something energy-based, lasers or plasma perhaps. There’s no room for bulky ammo stores.”

“Could be something with small ammo stores,” MC said. “Like a small railgun.”

Robyn frowned. “I’ve seen railguns. Would one even fit? Or rather, would one that’s strong enough to damage another ship fit?”

It took me a second to parse that. “Uh, yes. Well, I mean it’s possible. We’d be hard pressed to do something like that, but that’s just an engineering problem.”

“How do these weapons stand up against our own ships?” Butler asked. “Theoretically, of course.”

“Pretty much anything is going to tear through any human ships like butter,” MC said. “Nobody has bothered making combat ships yet. Ceres has a few prototypes, but that’s about it. Even the military outposts don’t have much.”

Butler sighed. “So our entire species is a sitting duck.”

“She didn’t say that,” I said. “The various manufacturing colonies can start making guns and slap them onto existing ships without too much trouble. It will be crude, but it should be enough to put holes in the alien ships.” Assuming our scans were accurate, but I didn’t say anything about that.

“All right. How many human ships are there across the entire system?”

I frowned. “Over two thousand, I think.”

“Most are in orbit around either Earth or Mars,” MC said. “Transport shuttles and the like. And most of the rest are in the asteroid belt.”

“Right. And how many ships do these para have?”

“Current guess is a thousand,” MC said. “Though it’s hard to keep track. Plus the mothership, of course. They’re all staying pretty close to her, so they haven’t had a chance to explore the system beyond their initial fly-by. And that was pretty quick.”

“Yes, let’s discuss that,” Butler said. “They have faster than light capabilities.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Did you read the transcript of Derek’s debriefing? Silk doesn’t seem to think that they should have FTL travel. That implies all sorts of things.”

“Yes, it implies that she’s just as confused as the rest of us.”

I shook my head. “No, not that. I mean none of this technology is that far beyond us.” I waved my hand at the schematic. “The reactionless drive is a bit surprising, but that’s about it. They don’t seem much more than fifty years or so ahead. A working FTL drive is centuries ahead of what they have. I don’t think they built it.”

Butler stroked his chin and frowned at me. “That’s a very attractive theory, but I don’t think we can assume that. If they use FTL technology when we aren’t expecting it, they’ll be able to devastate us. Destroy every single one of our outposts before we even know what has happened.”

“Then why haven’t they done that already?” I asked.

“Maybe they want peace.”

“If they wanted peace, they would have contacted us by now,” I said. “Even if they can’t speak our languages yet, they would have done something as a show of faith. Moved the mothership to a less threatening orbit, perhaps.”

“There you go assuming again,” MC warned. “They’re aliens. They probably don’t think the same way humans do.”

I shrugged. “We have to start somewhere. Pretend for a moment that that is a human ship. What would its behavior suggest?”

Butler nodded. “They’re surprised.”

“They didn’t expect us to be here,” I said. “We’ve been here for a while. The fact that they didn’t notice implies that they were using light-speed detection devices to look for habitable worlds. When they left their homeworld—” I checked my notes. “—three thousand years ago, we would still have been living in small towns and villages. And their information would have been an additional three thousand years out of date. I doubt they even noticed us on telescopes. Which, added all together, means they didn’t have FTL travel.”

“Yes,” Robyn said, annoyed. “We know. Welcome to five minutes ago. I think the point Butler was trying to make was that they could have reverse-engineered an FTL drive. Maybe they found a wreck or something.”

“Yes, because space is simply littered with functioning artifacts of ancient FTL-capable civilizations.”

“Why not? It’s not like we’ve explored the universe or anything.”

“Perhaps we should table this discussion for the moment,” Butler said. “Let’s focus on tactics for the moment; we can deal with the rest later. The important part is that we do not believe their small ships capable of FTL.”

“All this is moot until we actually talk to them,” MC said.

I smiled slightly. “So a first strike option is off the table?”

Butler raised an eyebrow at me. “Nothing is off the table.” He sighed. “But for now, we wait. And try to figure out what they actually want.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 318)

This one took me a while, because while nothing happens, that’s exactly the point. They just don’t know anything yet.

Next is a big one, though.

Scene 290 – Cladis

CLADIS

RICHARD

“Sir,” Senator Grain said. “We need your approval.”

The Football lay open on the desk in front of me.

It was a medium-sized brown briefcase, filled with buttons and dials and locks. It should have looked weird, maybe even silly. Instead it looked like a tiger, purring in its sleep, just waiting to spring into action.

It controlled the United States nuclear arsenal.

It was always near me, handcuffed to one bodyguard or another. Sometimes when I lay up at night, I could feel it in a nearby room, just waiting for me. Patiently. It was in no rush. It would most likely only be used once, after all. It didn’t need to hurry.

Hundreds of silos, nuclear-equipped submarines, and who knew what else. All available at a touch of a button. Oh, there were safeties and secondary safeties and tertiary safeties and so on. Even I couldn’t just randomly decide to nuke us back into the Stone Age. But for all the grandstanding about responsibility and oversight, in the end, it was all up to me. Once I decided to use it, it only took a few minutes to get all the proper authorization.

Now it was just a touch of a button away.

Domina City had an energy shield we couldn’t pierce. They had an aquatic defense we couldn’t match, ground troops we couldn’t overcome. As far as anyone could tell, dropping a small-scale tactical nuclear warhead on their heads was the only way we could defeat them. If we were lucky, it would just crack the shield. We could then shell the city with mainland artillery batteries. Those were even now were rolling into position.

This had not been a very lucky day for us.

“Mister President?” one of the generals said quietly.

“Give him a moment,” Miss Silk said.

The general swallowed, but nodded.

This shouldn’t trigger world war. We were attacking our own territory. We were using a missile that was tiny by nuclear standards. Of course the other countries would still know about it, spies and satellites and all that. But the point was no one would be able to complain that the blast got too close to their own lands.

I just had to push this button and kill everyone in Domina City.

Even ignoring our own soldiers—which I shouldn’t—the cost was almost too much to bear. Population estimates put the city at anywhere between two hundred and four hundred million people. They weren’t all soldiers, and they couldn’t all be criminals, even going by the fact that we had a broader definition of criminal than they did.

Four hundred million people, killed in an instant. If they were lucky. If the shield took the brunt of the blast, they might die of horrific and irreversible radiation sickness instead. I had seen more than a few pictures of people who got too close to a nuclear detonation. I wouldn’t wish that one my worst enemy.

I wasn’t sure anyone in Domina City should be my enemy.

“Mister President,” Senator Grain whispered.

I took a deep breath and reached forward—

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

I switched tacks with indecent haste, grabbing my phone so fast I almost dropped it. I took another deep breath, steadier this time, and flipped the phone open in the middle of a second ring. I thought for a second, then switched it to speaker.

“Hello?”

“Hello,” Artemis Butler said on the other side. “I would like to commend your soldiers, especially those on North Gate. They put up a better fight than we expected.”

I glanced up at the digital map on the wall. The North Gate had been almost covered in blue, representing our strong base camp and forays deeper into the city. Although it had been slow going, they had been making progress. Then we had lost contact with the camp, and the ship reported an explosion. That was the last we heard from them. Some reports from short-wave radios had gotten through, but nothing substantial.

“Thank you,” I said with an even tone. “These… abilities of yours were unanticipated. I’m curious, while the strength and the horns and so on are all obviously from the toy maker, what of the rest? The shields, the fire, the other, stranger abilities? Do those have the same source?”

“They have the same source,” he confirmed. “That source is not the toy maker.”

“More’s the pity.”

“These are things we can discuss in more detail at a trade negotiation. Perhaps set up some sort of knowledge exchange. I was quite impressed with those echos of yours, for example. I knew about them, of course, but seeing them in action was something else altogether.”

I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to say it, but I had to say it. There were just somethings the President of the United States had to do. Whatever idiot had called me the most powerful man in the free world should be tarred, feathered, and tied to a post in the middle of the desert.

He’d still have more freedom than me.

“Mister Butler, the war is not over. If you would like to discuss a cease-fire, then we can make arrangements right now, if you like.”

Butler sighed. “Mister President, do you know the difference between your nation and mine?”

I was tempted to make a quip. Something about how his wasn’t an actual nation, or how mine wasn’t full of criminals. Or maybe just some joke about the fact that his island was literally made out of trash.

But I didn’t. Didn’t see the point.

“No,” I said.

“The difference, Mister President, is that my nation is younger. More fragile. We have more to lose. It makes us significantly more desperate.”

I frowned. Where was he going with this?

“I am willing to do anything it takes to win. You are not. That is why you haven’t pushed that button.”

I felt my heart freeze in my chest, but dismissed it. It was just a lucky guess. The Football was far from secret.

“The more you talk, the less guilty I feel about nuking your city.”

“You’re a good man, Mister President.”

“You think that means I won’t do what’s necessary?”

“Maybe. But more to the point, it means you’re a terrible liar. You’re sweating like a pig.”

I fumbled for my handkerchief and wiped my forehead.

“Nice handkerchief. Gift from your wife, I take it? No wait… the stitching is poor quality. Ah, a gift from your daughter, then. That’s sweet.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten.

When I opened them again, everyone was staring at me. Not like they were judging me, but like they were worried about me, and what this conversation would mean for this country. And especially where Butler was getting his information. A couple of them were subtly trying to look around the room, as if they’d find a spy hiding behind a newspaper.

But I had another solution.

“The United States cannot condone your actions, Mister Butler.” Because we would lose face, I added silently.

“I never expected you to.”

“We can, however, offer you a cease-fire of indefinite duration. We will stop attacking your city, and in exchange you will send ambassadors to the UN building in New York City. Does that seem fair?”

I kept my eyes on the generals and senators at the table as I spoke. Some of them wouldn’t like this. Some of them wanted me to push the button.

I took note of the ones who looked annoyed, and those who looked relieved. But no one said anything. No one wanted to be the one to suggest nuking an American city. Yes, this was a closed-door meeting with no records. But word would get out, one way or another. It always did.

“Ten ambassadors,” Butler said. “And their bodyguards, of course. Would that be fair?”

“Yes, quite so.”

“Good. Any ambassadors you send to Domina—”

“No.”

“No?” I could almost see him raising his eyebrow on the other end of the line. “May I ask why not?”

“Because I have a feeling if I send anyone else to your city, they’ll have a series of fatal accidents. We’d be lucky to get their bodies back for burial.”

Several of the more diplomatic senators flinched, but Butler just laughed. “You do learn quickly, don’t you? Very well then, one way exchange. Of course, my ambassadors have nothing to fear from your city.” He sighed. “From each other, on the other hand…”

He seemed genuinely annoyed. It was a surprisingly honest moment.

“But that is my problem, not yours. As for time…” His tone turned thoughtful, with a hint of humor. “Perhaps ten in the morning, New Year’s Day? All nice and symbolic, definitely look good for the history books.”

“January 1st, 2002,” I said. “Next Tuesday. At ten AM, I expect your ambassadors to be knocking on the door of the UN building. None of that crap about being fashionably late or whatever.”

“Do I seem like the kind of man who appreciates tardiness, Mister President?”

“No, but maybe your people think they can get away with it. Ten AM sharp, Mister Butler. Please tell them to dress nice.”

I hung up.

I took a deep breath. I should have waited a bit more, talked with him a bit further and discussed how we were getting my men out of the city. But it was important to show that I still had some power.

I carefully closed the Football and put it aside. “Jefferies, would you take care of this for me? Thank you.” I turned to everyone at the table. “Please begin a full withdraw. All ships are to cease fire at once and focus on retrieving our men. They are not to open fire under any circumstances. Is that understood?”

One of the generals, or maybe the admirals, coughed awkwardly. “They, uh, actually stopped firing a few minutes ago. When you got the call, I figured it might be best to…” He trailed off.

I nodded. “Good man. Maybe we can finish this without getting anyone else killed.”

“This is ridiculous!” a senator shouted, red-faced. What was her name… “You cannot allow a terrorist rebel to dictate terms! He should be brought to heel!” She took a deep breath. “I understand why you do not want to use the nukes. Honestly, I was worried enough about the artillery. But an American city cannot simply declare itself its own country and ignore our laws!”

“We tried doing it the other way,” I said. “Nukes are all that’s left.”

“Send more men,” she said. “More echoes. Those were doing well, with only a few unexpected setbacks. Send in a full platoon of them, that will make everyone sit up and take notice.”

I sighed. “Miss Silk, what is the current estimated cost of this operation?”

“Two hundred and sixteen billion dollars, sir. Not counting payouts to families of the fallen soldiers.”

The senator shut her mouth.

“We’ve lost thousands of men,” I said. “About a dozen ships, who knows how many echoes, and all for what? A city that doesn’t want us?” I shook my head. “We completely misjudged the situation. No, I misjudged it. Sele played me like a harp the whole time. She didn’t want justice, she wanted revenge. Revenge on the city that cast her out, nothing more. This is officially not worth it.”

“This will make us look weak,” a general said. I couldn’t tell if it was an admonishment.

I rolled my eyes. “We are weak. If any of the space colonies had decided to help Domina—who, I should note, they like better than us—we would have been dead before this war even started. I don’t mean the country would be dead, I mean us, personally, would be dead. You ever head of a god rod? Toss a tungsten rod at us and let gravity do the rest?” I whistled like a bomb drop, then mimed an explosion.

“The space colonies will rebel,” Grain said, his tone neutral. “They’ve been waiting for an opportunity for this. Ceres and Lemuria, especially, will probably just cut ties entirely.”

“They’ll hold off until the meeting,” I said. “They’ll want to see what happens. Make sure we don’t turn on the Dominites, that we uphold our end of the bargain. Whatever that bargain turns out to be.” I smirked. “Politicians always wait to see which way the wind is blowing.”

“And what happens if Domina gets the upper hand in the negotiations?” that same female senator asked. Emily, right? No, but that felt like the right track. “Do we allow the other colonies to secede as well? We trade with them far more than Domina! What happens if we lose Mons Agnes, or Marius Alpha?”

I chuckled. “We’re not losing Marius Alpha. They’re all soldiers up there, living fat on pensions. Last time we tried to get them to be self-sufficient, they went on strike. Do you remember that?”

She faltered. “No.”

“Yeah. Says a lot about the important work they do, doesn’t it?”

She frowned and rallied. “Regardless! Vesta has been considering leaving for years, and at this rate we could even lose Bakerston or Cytherean Watch!”

I blinked. “Bakerston? Really?”

Senator Grain nodded. “They’ve been supplementing their budget with trade. At this point, they might decide to cut ties and go their own way.”

I sighed. “Miss Silk, start drafting a letter to Bakerston Station. Basic idea, they won’t have as much time for science if they have to get trade running.”

She nodded, tapping something into her phone.

“As for the rest,” I said, turning back to address everyone in the room. “I have some ideas. Some non-violent ideas.” I made a face. “I never liked getting rocks thrown at me as a kid. I think I’ll like rocks from the asteroid belt even less.”

The angry senator Vemil—that was her name, Vemil—frowned. “…why did they throw rocks at you as a kid?”

“Greasy hair and a smart mouth. Now.” I clapped my hands and smiled. “Our troops have just had a rather bad day. Why don’t we find something nice to greet them with, eh? Some hearty Christmas dinner should do the trick, right? Miss Silk, call the caterer. You know the one I like. Anyone have any other suggestions?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 290)

I’ve always been worried about this sequence. I knew from the very beginning that the war between Domina and America was inevitable, but I also knew that it would be hard to keep the war from getting too destructive. For all their newfound powers, Domina cannot stop a nuke.

We’re not quite done yet, of course. Very close, but not quite.

Scene 288 – Scuta

SCUTA

LAURA

Of all the people with shield powers in the city, not even Derek could deflect an artillery barrage. He might manage one shell, perhaps, but it would have knocked his reservoir all the way into the red, like when he caught that building. And yet, we needed some way of blocking them. It was inevitable the city would be shelled, and our point-defenses would barely catch a fraction.

I was proud of my solution.

I was also terrified of it.

We sat in one of the war rooms of NHQ. It was a large and fortified chamber with countless computer screens on the wall and a real-time tactical table in the middle. The table was updated on the fly by MC’s programs, using information from all over the city. Akane and Flynn were there, in addition to myself, Butler, Clarke, and about a dozen of their aides.

And, of course, the Shield Wall.

That’s what we were calling them, because it was just the only thing we could think of. Thirty-six shield-producers like Derek were sitting on the floor in a ring around the war table. Each one had someone standing behind them, hands on the shielders’ temples, concentrating as hard as they could.

Those were telepaths, the best and most trustworthy ones we could find in the city. They used their powers to connect the shielders to themselves and each other, creating a hive mind. It was like what the pod-brains used, but this time made up of seventy-two people.

“Shield Wall,” I said. “What is the status of the barrier?”

One of the girls spoke in a flat tone without opening her eyes. “Barrier is stable. Sectors A-17, A-18, B-29, and C-09 are under fire, but holding. Enemy fire has been reduced, and is virtually non-existent in all other sectors.”

This hive mind was an invaluable field asset, but I was worried about side effects, both long-term and short-term. What would happen when we tried to untangle them? They could all die, or just refuse altogether. Would the other members of the hive remember Derek’s secrets even after they were separated? Would Derek even be the same person?

I touched the ring on my necklace. I had just got him. I had waited nearly my entire life, and I had finally got that idiot to pay attention to me as a woman. Had I just killed him, all for some momentary tactical advantage?

I closed my eyes. No matter what happened, I would not apologize for saving this city.

I opened my eyes and managed a smile. “So the Dagonites took down the fleet.”

“White-Cap Bay is their territory,” Butler said. “The fleet was an insult.”

I scanned the war table. “They’ve still got more ships afloat than I’d like. MC, what’s the status of those?”

“They’ve repulsed the Dagonites,” she said, her voice coming through the wall speakers. “I’m not sure how. Maybe they got lucky and saw them in the water before they set the bombs, started shooting or something. I don’t know. They’ll have to retreat once the Dagonites regroup, but that will be at least a few hours.”

I nodded. “Shield Wall. How long can the barrier last at current attack rate?”

A different shielder spoke up, with the exact some dull tone. “Approximately three-point-seven hours.”

I frowned. “Cutting it a little close.”

Clarke looked up. “Could the Atlanteans help?”

I scowled. “Yes, they could. But they won’t. They think they’re safe on the damn ocean floor. I half hope one of the sinking ships squashes them.” I tapped at the war table, and it reconfigured to overlay the location of the Atlantean cities. “Nope, they’ll be fine. I guess I should be happy.”

“Besides, they’re busy fighting off the Rahabs,” Butler said. “Blame them if you wish the Atlanteans could join the fight.” He thought for a moment. “MC, call up the kelpie warlords. Ask them the exact path the ships would be forced to flee on.”

I raised an eyebrow, but he didn’t elaborate. How would this help us drive them off faster? Whatever.

I sighed and turned back to the board. “Demon Gate is holding strong.”

One of Butler’s aides—a demon, funnily enough—stepped forward. “The Erlking reports that the stoneshapers are invaluable. He thanks the Gravers for organizing this so quickly. He also says…” She checked her pads. “’Ripping apart their silly robots is far too much fun.’”

I frowned. “Robots? The US has robots?”

“Mechanized heavy battle armor,” Butler said.

“Oh. Echoes.” I shrugged. “Not robots, but whatever. I imagine they’re sending those at every gate?”

Butler nodded. “West Gate isn’t quite as successful as South, but the giants are holding strong. At last report, Odin said they managed to cut the army in two. They’re actually capturing soldiers alive.”

“Excellent. That will play well on the news.” I tapped East Gate, which showed an angry red scar reaching nearly a mile into the city. “What about the vampires? I’m still worried they let the enemy get too far in.”

Butler smirked. “That’s the perfect word. ‘Let.’ They knew that ambushing at the gate itself would be too costly, so they drew them to spread their forces thin, and are now striking at targets of opportunity. The enemy seems to be terrified and demoralized.”

I sighed. “There’s going to be a lot of property damage once this is over. They still haven’t finished repairing from the Rampage.”

“I’ll offer tax breaks to anyone who helps rebuild at reduced rates. I should extend that to the rest of the city…” He sighed. “Worries for another time. Right now, my bigger concern is North Gate.”

North Gate, also known as Beast Gate, Kemo Gate, and the Sprawl. It was a maze of tiny alleys and confused buildings, some of which had managed to partially collapse into each other over the years. The place barely had any streets, because the kemos of the area preferred to travel by rooftops.

We had expected that it would be easy to hold, but that was proving incorrect.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, as I observed the glowing red wound on the city. It was spreading farther and wider than it should. At least the vampires were keeping the intruders confined to a few single streets. “The kemos should never have let them run free like this.”

“Here, miss,” an aide said, as she handed me a pad.

I glanced through it. “Field report from Delia. She’s crediting the echoes.”

Butler sighed. “They were designed for urban warfare. Superheavy infantry, capable of breaching buildings and weathering moderately heavy fire. We should have seen this coming.”

I shook my head. “They shouldn’t even be able to get inside the buildings. What are the kemos doing, throwing rocks at them? Bottle them up and pour fire at them until they go away.” I read a bit more. “Ah, here’s the problem: A bunch of idiots tried to take them out hand-to-hand.”

“It worked in South Gate,” Clarke said.

“For the Erlking,” I said. “None of the kemos have that kind of raw physical power.” I paged through it a bit more. “Let’s see… yes, they fell back and started using ambush tactics, but by that point the invaders had a foothold.” I sighed. “The kemos are winning, but slowly and expensively.”

Another aide handed Butler a pad. “The Gatorcroc says he can drop a building on them, if necessary.”

I closed my eyes. “Does he even understand the phrase ‘collateral damage?’”

“Probably not.”

I thought about it. “Akane.”

She perked up. “Yes?”

“How fast can your kensei get to North Gate?”

“I can have ten men there in ten minutes.”

I nodded. “It will do. Send them. Tell them to focus on the echoes, then retreat to the warlords and request further instructions. They’re a fire team, we need them at hotspots the kemos can’t handle on their own.”

She nodded and stepped aside for some privacy as she pulled out her phone.

“We should have sent the kensei up earlier,” Butler said.

“You agreed to keep displays of powers to a minimum.”

“They should have been ready, though.” He turned back to the map. “But that’s not an issue any more. We need to figure out what to do with North Gate. They’re too dug in. The kemos will take heavy losses if they attack.”

“Bomb them,” I suggested. “Soften them up for the kemos to finish them off.”

He shook his head. “Not with the shield up. I don’t want to worry about them hitting it.”

I took a deep breath. “We have some people with invisibility. Not many, but—”

“Closest is an hour away.” He showed me a green dot on the map, moving towards North Gate. “She was supposed to be there half an hour ago, but she’s running late for some reason. We don’t have anything else in the area. All the civilians have evacuated.”

“If Obox-ob was around, we could surprise them through the sewers.”

“Still no sign of him. The only other thing that uses the sewers is…” He trailed off.

“The fey,” I finished.

Clarke looked thoughtful. “They did offer…”

“No,” Butler said sharply. “Only as a last resort. They promised to stay out of this unless we asked. I want to see if they can hold to that.”

“Oh, of course we could,” a pleasant female voice said. Every gun in the room immediately turned to point at Maeve, who was standing at the door, smiling. “If you ask, Mister Butler, we’ll stay hidden until this city is nothing but cold ash in the wind. But we would like to offer you some other options.”

Behind her, one of her Princes walked in, holding a small plastic box in her arms. It was the winged girl from the Wild Hunt, Aitil Péine. She blinked in the light—harsh to her nighteyes—but otherwise just stood quietly next to her Princess.

“Lady Maeve,” Butler said, a little stiffly. “To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”

Maeve smirked. “Just doing my duty for the city, Mister Butler.” She nodded at her Prince.

Aitil strode up and plopped the box on the war table, before opening it up to reveal… a radio. A radio with perhaps a larger antenna than normal, but nothing else particularly remarkable about it. I had built better radios than that.

There was a pause.

“I’m not playing along, Maeve,” Butler growled. “Explain.”

“It looks like the radios the US uses,” I said.

Maeve smiled. “I’m sure MC has already hacked the enemy communications.”

“Of course,” MC said from the speakers. “Though honestly it’s not very useful at the moment. The battlefield is nearly small enough that everyone can see what is happening. Several ambushes have been foiled, but—”

“Mary Christina,” Butler said, admonishing her. He turned back to Maeve. “Continue. Please.”

“This is something else. It is tied to their explosives.”

The room was silent. I thought I heard someone choking in surprise.

I blinked. “You managed to hack their bombs? How is that possible?”

She smiled. “Some of our feyborn have that invisibility. Such a useful talent. We simply had them slip into the camp and make a few adjustments to the equipment. Not everything has a remote trigger, of course, but those that don’t should go up in a chain-reaction when the rest blow. The base camp will be destroyed, and all that will be left is to hunt down any stragglers.”

Butler narrowed his eyes and loomed over her. “What is the price?”

Maeve smirked. “You’ll owe me a favor?”

“No,” Butler said instantly. “Name a firm, specific price, or the deal is off and you have to replace a homunculus.”

“Speaking of homunculi, did you know that there are a few scattered among the enemy troops? Very interesting—”

“Your price, fey.”

Maeve’s smile finally faded. “We want to go to New York.”

Butler rocked back on his heels. “I see.”

“I don’t,” I said. “Even assuming your homunculi can operate that far from your real bodies, what would you want there?”

“Legitimacy,” Butler said.

Maeve nodded. “Once this little war is over, one way or another, negotiations will need to occur. Many warlords will wish to send their ambassadors to represent the greatest cultures of the city, and Butler will of course agree. We just want to be remembered as one of those great cultures.”

“Instead of a bunch of insane monster makers.”

Maeve smirked. “Do I look insane, Honored Paladin? Does my dear Aitil look like a monster?” She shook her head. “Did you ever consider that perhaps the fey have moved on from their darker origins?”

None of that was a lie—but then, none of it was really a statement of fact, either.

“What about the gargant?”

Maeve raised an eyebrow. “What? I’m not sure what you mean.”

“The one at Acheron.”

Maeve’s smile disappeared.

“That is not relevant to this discussion.”

“You have a gargant hunting down people like dogs, and it seems to have a power—”

“Laura,” Butler said. “Now is not the time.”

I scowled, but stepped back.

“So,” Maeve said, as if nothing had happened. “Do we have a deal? The radio for the position?”

“No,” Butler said. “We have a deal—if this works. I’m not promising you anything in exchange for a broken radio.”

She smirked. “Come now Butler, give us some credit. Funny as that would be, it would gain us nothing in the end. The bombs will explode. Anything that happens after that, I cannot guarantee. So, deal?” She held out her hand to shake.

Butler stared at it for a moment like it was a poisonous snake, before grudgingly shaking it.

“Deal,” he said tiredly. “Miss Medina. If you would.”

I nodded. “MC, order any troops near the enemy base camp to retreat.”

“Done,” she said. “There weren’t many.”

“All right,” I said. I picked up the radio, looked at it for a moment, and then found that the ‘talk’ button had been crudely taped with red duct tape as a label. Its purpose was obvious. I took a deep breath, then pressed the button.

I imagined I could feel the shaking from here.

“Reports coming in,” one of the aides said immediately, hand to her earbud. “Big explosion at the gate… lot of smoke and confusion… enemy echoes seem to be down… no friendly casualties reported.”

“Tell the kemos to send in the best they have,” I said. “Retake that gate immediately, and hold it. Everything else is secondary.”

Maeve clapped her hands, just once, to get everyone’s attention.

“Well, that was fun,” she said cheerily. “Who’s up for Chinese?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 288)

One of the interesting things about writing these war scenes is the power difference. America could wipe Domina City off the map, shield or no, and there’s nothing anyone could do about it. But the thing is, with their powers and toys and sheer bull-headed stubbornness, Domina can defeat any army America sends at them. They outnumber the enemy at least ten to one, and that’s before civilian militias come into play.

So the biggest difficulty here is finding ways to justify keeping things difficult for the city. I’m proud of the echoes, but most higher-level warlords can beat one in a fair fight (though there are far more echoes than there are warlords of that level). So what other advantages does America have? Short of giving up and nuking the place, of course.