Tag Archives: Derek

Scene 335 – Initium Novum

INITIUM NOVUM

SILK

I am called Silk.

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

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

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

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

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

Leeno stared at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled. “There it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “An apt summary.”

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

I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Over there,” I said, pointing.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean, turned?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirty years,” I said.

“Thirty YEARS!?” he screeched.

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

He sputtered. “But—you—”

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

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

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

He frowned. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“An old friend.” I didn’t elaborate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other elders stared at him, then at me.

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zanovoon chuckled. No one else did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

Reyn was suspicious. “What condition?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elders looked at each other.

“We will need a moment,” Reyn said.

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

“…a few hours until what?”

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

Silence. The elders just stared at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled, and sang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It felt like decades.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just smiled.

Leeno started. “That’s what you did!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what?

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

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

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

The command center fell dead silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeno frowned. “Butler died?”

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

“And you said Derek Huntsman…”

I nodded. “That’s right.”

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

“Fifty.”

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

I smiled sadly. “Old enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek glanced at her, then back at me.

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

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

“Yes,” I said sadly. “I know.”

Laura winced at that. She knew what I meant.

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

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

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

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

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

“We will speak more later.”

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

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

“No,” Laura said.

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

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

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

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

Derek turned to me. “Let’s hear it.”

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

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

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

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

“There is always more to learn.”

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

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

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

“Don’t you dare make this about me.”

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

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

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

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

“Like Adam was satisfied?” she snapped.

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

“How would you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Silk, wait,” Derek said.

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

“How long do I have?”

I paused.

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

He nodded. “Thank you.”

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

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

“That was clever,” Leeno said.

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

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

“Is that so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeno started. “A thousand years?”

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

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

I grinned. “No.”

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

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

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

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

And so we worked.

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

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

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

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

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

The story didn’t really end.

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

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

And I, at least, enjoyed it.

END BOOK FOUR

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Scene 334 – Alvus

ALVUS

LAURA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek immediately grabbed my arm.

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

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

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

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

I rolled my eyes. “Derek…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MC sighed. “Leeno is… not available.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t para born from these hives?”

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

Derek frowned. “Well, I think—”

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

As it faded, all was silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek frowned, then glanced at one of his Defenders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if it is? Dangerous, I mean?”

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

Derek chuckled. “Fair enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How random,” Derek said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was answered by more chittering from all around.

“We’re surrounded,” I spat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

“Whatever happened to keeping this thing alive?”

I glared at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned to go.

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

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

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

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

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

No response. This was probably a waste of time.

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

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

Yes, there were definite sparks this time.

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

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

After what felt like an eternity, the rumbling stopped.

“…is that good?” the Defender asked.

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

“Laura!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 334)

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

The hives were the final answer.

Scene 329 – Reconciliatio

RECONCILIATIO

DEREK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam gave me a look. “Concert?”

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

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

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

“So his bodyguards didn’t shoot anyone?”

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

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

I frowned. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What thing with Silk?” Ling asked.

All three of us turned to her.

“What?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, yeah. I guess. Why?”

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

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

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

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

“Logical deduction,” Laura said.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“…with powers.”

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

Ling threw back her head and laughed.

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

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

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

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

But could we trust the Lady of the Grave?

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

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

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

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

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

Laura frowned.

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

I blinked. “Wait, when did that—”

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

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

“And of course kidnapping MC.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well who else would it be?”

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

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

I growled. “I’d like to see her try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And who is Nephorthees?” I asked.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do without that sort of compliment.”

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

Behind the scenes (scene 329)

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

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

Scene 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 314 – Advena

ADVENA

DEREK

I woke up in my dorm room. I glanced at my clock. 0558—two minutes before my alarm. I waited for it to beep, then turned it off instantly. I didn’t want to wake up Laura.

I glanced at her. She was still sound asleep, clutching one of my pillows to her chest like a teddy bear. I smiled. She had been doing that since we were kids. Of course, if I brought it up, she was liable to throw it at my head.

I stood, stretched, and checked the calendar. It was Monday, January 7th. The ambassadors were still in New York, sussing out the last details of the peace treaty. Adam was still there too. He said he wanted to keep an eye on Saki in prison, but I knew he wanted to be close to Lily. She was going through a lot.

At least Malcanthet was confirmed dead. I was tempted to ask for Adam to send us her head in a box, but I had to have faith in his judgment. If he said she was the one who had died in that fire, I had to believe him. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any DNA or dental records for her, so we’d never know for sure. And even if—though, even though—she was dead, there were still the Malcatari to worry about. None of them had been captured. The Riven didn’t know anything about their numbers or safehouses, so they could be anywhere by now.

I sighed and shook my head. I kept getting wrapped up in my thoughts. The city was mostly fixed from the Rampage and the war. Most of the cultures were relatively quiet, and trade with America would bring new prosperity.

It wouldn’t last, of course. It never did, not in Domina City. But for now, I just wanted to enjoy it.

I jogged up the stairs to the roof and started my morning work out. It was still dark, not to mention cold as ice. Every breath felt like knives in my lungs. But that kind of thing was good for you. Kept you sharp, alert.

It used to be that Akane came up here to exercise too. Nowadays, she spent all her time at NHQ. Butler had even talked about setting her up with her own wing for the kensei, rather than making them stay in the old training rooms. It was good. Great, even. But still, I didn’t like change. I missed the days when it was just the two of us, fighting monsters and struggling in school.

It was a stupid wish. Not only was it impossible, it was wrong. Incorrect. Those days fighting beside Akane had been hard at the best of times, and I had lost a lot of good friends. I still had nightmares about friends being eaten whole by gargants, or crushed under a croaking wave of poisonous jumpers. I had grown used to them, but just a few nights ago I had woken up screaming. I had been remembering the time Mohamed’s sister had all her flesh melted off by an invisible gas.

Things were better now. Not just for me, for the entire city. I had a small but growing gang of hirelings who handled most of the actual monster slaying, and it was safer since they had powers and better resources. Akane had her kensei, Adam had his CS-squad, Laura her work with Clarke. Even Robyn seemed to be doing better. I wasn’t sure what the story was with her fliers, but she seemed happy enough.

This was better. It really was.

Then why did I feel like I was going to die of boredom?

I sighed and continued my exercises. I needed to take Laura out to a movie or something. Hadn’t Lord of the Rings just been released on the mainland? Things were always delayed here, but maybe the treaty could speed that up.

There was a deep, echoing boom that seemed to shake the very air. I glanced up, but didn’t see anything, so I continued my exercises. It was probably some flier playing with their powers. Maybe that was what a sonic boom sounded like.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

I spun around, falling into a fighting stance to face my opponent.

It was Elizabeth—no, Silk. The elegant silk dress, blowing gently in the breeze, was only the first clue. Her face was soft and sad in a way that Elizabeth had never been able to fake. She stood on the roof as if she had been there the entire time, and was looking up into the sky as though something terrible was happening up there.

I followed her gaze. I didn’t see anything.

“What?” I asked. “What wasn’t supposed to happen? The treaty?”

She turned to me a smiled. “Oh no, the treaty is proceeding wonderfully. Exactly the right number of mistakes and concessions on both sides. Domina and America will both come out the stronger for it.” Her smiled faded. “If they survive.”

“Survive what—”

My phone rang. Laura’s ringtone.

I picked it up reflexively. “What’s going on?”

“Get down here right now,” she said, her tone iron and urgent. “We need to be at NHQ five minutes ago.”

“Laura, Laura, slow down. What’s happening?”

“There’s a ship, Derek!”

“From Lemuria, or Ceres?”

“From somewhere else! It’s an alien ship!”

I felt my heart stop beating. I glanced at Silk. She just nodded.

“How—what—”

Laura heard me and thought I was talking to her. “It looks like a small scout ship. We’ll figure out the rest later. Just get down here!” She hung up.

I stared at the phone for a minute, then looked at Silk.

“They are called the para,” she said. “And they should not be here.”

I swallowed. “They’re aliens.”

“Yes. From three-thousand light years away, to be precise. That means it should have taken them three-thousand years to get here. Not two-thousand eight hundred.”

I paused as I tried to sort that out in my head. Space was not my area of expertise. “In the original timeline, it took them longer?”

“Yes. But that’s not the issue. They were traveling at the speed of light using their fastest means of propulsion. They were scheduled to arrive in a little over two hundred years. It is impossible for them to get here earlier.” She met my eyes. “I’m not sure you’re ready.”

I stood tall. “We’ll fight. We’ll survive.”

Silk frowned. “That’s the problem. I was hoping that this time, it could end without bloodshed. But your society has not advanced enough yet.” She sighed. “Though neither has theirs.”

“So we have options,” I said. “Other than fighting.”

There was another boom, this time loud enough to knock me to the ground and make the whole ‘scraper shake.

I flipped onto my back and looked up. The clouds were parting, and a massive ship was coming through. It was wedge-shaped and large enough to cast a shadow over the entire city. It had a dozen glowing white engines on its underside, each of which must be large enough to hold a building. Oddly, it was painted in a random rainbow of colors, symbols and signs that I couldn’t understand.

“You have options,” Silk said, looking at the ship hovering over the city. “But I doubt you’d like any of them.” She looked down at me sadly. “Good luck, little hero. I am afraid that you will sorely need it.”

Then she disappeared, right in front of my eyes.

The ship remained. I saw tiny specks, like smaller ships being launched from the main.

I took a deep breath and jumped to my feet. I watched the ships for a moment, then nodded to myself and walked over to the stairs down.

The time for boredom was over.

Behind the Scenes (scene 314)

Yes, I had the para planned out the whole time. They are thematically parallel with Domina in many ways, as you’ll see soon.

Scene 292 – Reneo

RENEO

DEREK

We opened our eyes.

Seventy-two pairs of eyes surveyed the room. We looked over the Necessarians, who were holding their guns a bit too close. Dozens of them, far too many to fight. Too many of our bodies were weak and needed to be protected, and we did not know what powers the Necessarians had.

The only course of action was obvious.

I fell forward, like a puppet with its strings cut. I had to take great gasping breaths of air as I trembled on the floor on my hands and knees. I heard someone throw up, but I was too focused on keeping my own stomach under control to look.

“Derek?” Laura slid down in front of me. “Hey, it’s me. You okay? How are you feeling?”

I groaned. “Like my brain got stretched out to cover seventy-two people at once.”

She lifted up my chin, forcing me to look at her. Her hair was damp with sweat, and her eyes lined from lack of sleep. She had been running herself ragged. She probably hadn’t gotten a single moment’s rest since the American ships first launched.

She was still beautiful.

How had it taken so long for me to notice? I was going to wring Elizabeth’s neck if I ever saw her again.

Laura held up three fingers. “How many—”

“Three.” I sighed. “Now two. And three, but a different three.” I grabbed her hand before she could continue, and forced a smile on my face. “I’m fine. I think I just need rest.” I heard more retching from behind me. “And maybe some crackers.”

Laura pulled me to my feet carefully, keeping an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t dizzy. “What do you remember from the hive?”

I shook my head. “Not much. Bits and pieces, but I don’t think my brain is equipped to handle the memories. The fact that we’re not all blown up makes me think that it worked, though.” I grimaced as my stomach rebelled again. “…crackers?”

“Over here.” She led me out of the room, down a side hallway I didn’t recognize. It was different than the one we had come in from.

“How did the battle go?” I asked. I checked my phone. “Is it really the same day?”

She nodded. “We held them off long enough for Butler to arrange a cease-fire. The American president seems like a coward, so it wasn’t that hard. He didn’t want more deaths on his conscience.”

“How many?”

“Not important right now.”

“Laura—”

Derek.” She gave me a hard glare. “The war is over, the American forces in retreat, and the cultures are tending to their dead. We can worry about everything else later. You’ve already done more than enough today. You literally saved the entire city—you can worry about philosophically saving it later.”

I grumbled, but we had found the vending machines, and Laura was collecting a few bags of crackers from it. We didn’t have to pay, of course. This was NHQ, and MC controlled the vending machines. She kept track of debts and payments and so on for everyone.

Laura opened a bag of crackers and handed it to me. Once I started eating, she started talking, knowing I wouldn’t be able to answer. “People died, yes. That’s what happens in Domina City. But the casualties were minimal, and most of the damage was limited to property. Right now, pretty much everyone is partying, and the city is safe.”

I swallowed a mouthful quickly. “What do you mean, pretty much everyone?”

She sighed. “Derek…”

“Laura.”

She touched her necklace, then let it go and rolled her eyes. “Fine. The outer city was hit, but central was completely untouched. They couldn’t even hear the gunfire. They barely stopped fighting each other during the war, and now things are worse since all the ‘sarians and hellions are partying.”

“Asmodeus.” The central city was his primary hunting ground.

She sighed. “Yes. As well as the Nosferatu, Doresain, and pretty much anyone else who has a domain nice and far away from the war.” She rolled her eyes. “The Canians helped with the war, but now they’re having a party. So they’re probably going to burn their entire street to the ground.”

“Then let’s go talk to them.”

No.” She stepped in front of me and put her hand on my chest. “We have people handling that. Not all of Necessarius is drunk right now. You need rest. The city can survive without you for eight hours.”

I frowned, but didn’t push her aside. “Mephistopheles respects me.”

“And he also respects the ‘sarians we sent to talk to him,” she said. “We’ve got this. Gosling knows what he’s doing. He’s the one who handled that scandal with the Canians and the troll a little while back.”

The name did sound familiar. “Okay, then the Nosferatu will probably—”

“We have people for that too. And the ghouls, and the Nessians, and the hags and the kemos and the trapped American soldiers.” She tried to smile. “It’s a city, Derek. Not a sad puppy. It can take care of itself.”

I looked her deep in the eyes for a moment, trying to stare her down.

After a moment, I closed my eyes and nodded.

“Fine,” I said after a moment. “I get it, I’ll do it. Rest, relaxation, all that annoying stuff.” I looked at the crackers in my hand. Why was I even eating these? My stomach was fine now. “Just tell me one thing. Butler got a cease-fire. In exchange for what?”

Laura smirked. “In exchange for a diplomatic meeting in New York on New Year’s Day.”

I started. “That’s in a week! We need to—”

She rolled her eyes and entwined her arm with mine. “We need to do nothing.” She pulled me away from the vending machines and towards the elevator up to ground level. “None of the Paladins or the retinue are going to be involved in this.”

“Why are we using the elevator? It’s just one floor.”

“Because I don’t want you using the stairs right now.” She pressed the button. “Anyway, the cultures will send one ambassador each, including Necessarius. Most haven’t been decided yet, but it’s not us.”

The elevator opened, and we piled in. “Which ones have been decided?”

“The dragons and the giants.”

I was still getting used to dragons being real, and more than just Io. “Who are they sending?”

“The dragons are sending Tamara, the Mercy.”

I thought for a moment. “…which subculture is she in charge of?”

“The Compassionate Healers.”

“Right.” The elevator doors opened again, and we piled out onto the first floor. “What about the giants? Nicholas, or maybe even Thor? His mom would probably be a better choice.”

Laura took a deep breath. “They’re sending Skrag.”

I blinked. “Skrag the Slaughterer?

“Yes,” she said glumly as we walked out onto the street.

“But—but—he’s Skrag! What is Odin thinking?”

“He’s thinking that the ogres are the closest thing that the giants have to a neutral party.”

“Yeah, because everyone hates them equally!”

“True, but Skrag is highly respected.” She shrugged. “As much as he can be, anyway. He was the only real choice.”

“Gordok,” I said instantly.

“Gruul would riot,” she said. “And the trolls wouldn’t be far behind. Gruul himself is obviously not on the table, the trolls would never agree on who to send, the Muspels and Nifs still dislike the Aesir ambassador after that stunt at Surtr’s birthday party, and the Aesir would never trust the Jotuun ambassador. So yes, Skrag really is the only option.”

I groaned. “I hate this city.”

She pulled me closer as we walked to a cab waiting at the sidewalk, and I received a whiff of her perfume. “Is that so?” she asked, smiling.

I smiled back. “Well, only sometimes.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 292)

We’re doing a lot of short ones right now, but the longer ones are coming back soon.

In other news, if you are an American citizen, please vote in the upcoming election.  Even if you feel like you are in a “safe” state or district where your vote doesn’t matter.  Democracy only works if people exercise their right to vote.

Scene 269 – Sollemne

SOLLEMNE

DEREK

A party felt like a stupid idea.

But we needed this, dammit. After months of stumbling from crisis to crisis, we needed something that didn’t involve monsters or assassinations or superpowered goddesses from the future.

More people had come than I expected. In addition to the rest of the Paladins and the retinue, five of Akane’s kensei—plus both her nephews—had come, and were chatting amiably with the half-dozen scientists Laura had brought. It seemed like they had met before at NHQ, and were now discussing some old missions. Akane had more kensei, but they seemed to mostly be busy right now.

The real surprise was that Simon, Seena, and all their friends had come as well. I recognized Simon’s girlfriend and Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and her bodyguards (who had been polite enough to leave their guns at home), but the last girl, who Seena had called Veda, was unfamiliar. She wore a big concealing cloak and seemed to be avoiding me, which usually meant that I had tried to kill her at some point. Oh well, as long as she didn’t start something, it was fine.

“Nice party,” Adam said with a smirk as he walked up, Lily on his arm.

She elbowed him in the ribs. “Be nice.”

He rolled his eyes. “Sorry.”

“I know this might seem like a bad time to throw a party—”

He laughed. “You kidding? It’s the perfect time. I grew up in New York high society. Most of the best parties were when there was some crisis that everybody was trying to distract themselves from. But this…” He winced. “At least the food’s nice.”

I raised an eyebrow. “It looks like people are having a good time.”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

“They are,” Lily said, half to me and half to Adam. “They’re not just putting on a show. They’re genuinely enjoying themselves.”

“Except for the retinue.”

I glanced over at the group. They were easy to spot, due to George being the only giant on the roof. George was eating something mechanically, and Kat was doing something on her phone. Jarasax actually seemed to be having an animated conversation with one of Eccretia’s bodyguards, but Alex…

Alex looked like a zombie. I wasn’t sure he was even conscious of where he was.

After everything that had happened with Kelly, it was probably a miracle he even got out of bed in the morning. Actually, considering that he didn’t sleep, it might be that he just hadn’t gone to bed after all this happened.

Kelly… Fierna… had released a statement to the rest of the city, declaring the Belians and Phlegethos hers. There had been talk of war, but right now she seemed to be busy purging her house of discontent. None of the other vampires, or Necessarius, wanted to deal with her.

“It’s a miracle she didn’t kill him,” Adam said quietly. “That’s gotta be freaky.”

I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t mentioned what I had overheard, and didn’t see a need to do so now. I shouldn’t have heard it in the first place. Should have just left when I had the chance, no need to stay…

“You have that look in your eye,” Lily said wryly.

“What look?”

“The look you get when you’re blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault.”

I sighed. “I don’t need you to mother me, Lily.”

She raised her hand, forestalling the point. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m just saying this as a friend, Derek. Whatever it is, let it go. You did everything you could, and it would have turned out worse if you weren’t there.”

I rolled my eyes. “You don’t even know what it is.”

She smirked. “You always do everything you can, and it always turns out better from your presence. You really aren’t a hard one to read, little hero.”

Please don’t start calling me that.”

She laughed, and pulled Adam away. “Come on. Nervi’s set up some of her pumpkin roast. Have you tried it yet?”

I shook my head as they walked away, and nearly ran headlong into Laura, who was walking up with a couple drinks. Sodas, thankfully. Good thing Nervi didn’t cater alcohol—I would have drank most of it already.

“This one is yours,” Laura said without missing a beat, handing me a can of Cerean something or other. The logo was stylized, I couldn’t tell what it said. The only reason I knew it was from Ceres was because their cans are always rectangles.

I took it, but frowned at the more normal can in her hand. “Shouldn’t we switch?”

She shrugged, taking a swig. “That was the last one.”

She had been trying to get me to try some Cerean brand for a while now. I guess this was it. I cracked open the lid, slightly annoyed at the lack of fizz (carbonation was a horrible idea when shooting giant packages through space) and sipped at it. It tasted light and fruity.

Laura smirked. “You don’t like it.”

“No, I do, I just—” I stopped. “I don’t know why I even thought of lying to you.”

She took my arm lightly and led me to one of the groups. Scientists, I was pretty sure, but most of Akane’s kensei had left their swords at home, so it could be them. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard worse. Try overhearing a man telling his wife where he was last night, and realizing every word is a lie.”

I winced. “Oh. What’d you do?”

“Blackmailed him later,” she said pleasantly. “That was fun.”

Yet another reminder not to get on her bad side.

“Derek, these are some of the Clarke’s researchers. You’ve probably met them all before at some point or another.”

“I know I’ve met you,” I said, indicating a kemo with bat ears. Those were rare. I couldn’t even remember what the subculture was called. Well, microculture. “You’ve helped patch me up once or twice.”

She nodded. “I have a degree in medical applications of the toy maker. One of my main projects is to study our Honored Mother, to make sure her newest toys can be added safely.”

“You know she doesn’t like being called that,” one of the men warned.

The bat kemo smiled slightly. “I know. She tells me it every day.”

“What about the rest of you?” I asked, steering the topic onto grounds I felt more comfortable with. “What do you all do with Clarke? Are any of you working with him on…” I frowned, and turned to Laura. “What’s that thing he’s working on these days?”

“The heart,” she answered. “Macro-scale muscle and bone generation. He almost cracked it before the Rampage, and now he basically has.”

The male researcher, the black man who had warned about the Mother Monster, snorted. “Yeah, using his power he’s cracked it. But that’s cheating. What happens if he dies, or if he’s just busy and we can’t find another exomorpher? He needs to focus more on the toy box itself, not playing with his power.”

“I’m still catching him morphing his skin when he thinks no one is looking,” Laura said. “It’s going to take a bit longer for the novelty to wear off.”

“Are people like Clarke that rare?” I asked. “With that power, I mean.”

The researcher thought about it. “A little. No one here has it, but there are more than a few scattered around NHQ. But that’s not the point. We don’t understand these powers, and shouldn’t be trusting them. What if Silk comes back and snaps her fingers, turning them all off?”

I glanced at Laura, who didn’t look as concerned as she should have. The man had a point. Silk had given us a way to disrupt powers, who knew what else she could do. I still didn’t trust her, no matter that Laura had been pointing her power at her the entire time. For all we knew, she had some way to dodge that ability.

“Excuse us,” Laura said as she tugged on my arm, pulling us away from the group. “Speaking of Clarke, his daughter just landed.” She was right, Robyn had just floated down, carrying a case of beer. Still, the second we were out of earshot, she quietly said “You had that look on your face.”

I sighed. “Everyone is noticing looks on my face tonight. What is it this time?”

She smirked a little, but quickly turned serious. “That look when you’re worrying about something you shouldn’t.”

“Is that the same as my ‘everything is my fault’ face?”

“No, of course not.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I am worried about Silk.”

“Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s absolutely nothing you can do about her.”

Before I could retort, we were within a couple steps of Robyn, and Laura was all smiles for her. “I thought you had decided to skip.”

She managed a small smile of her own. “Nope. Just grabbing some beer.” She hefted the six-pack.

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that really a good idea?”

She shrugged. “Probably not. Want one?”

“Yes.”

No,” Laura cut in. She gave me a look. “If I can’t drink, you can’t drink. That was the deal.”

“I said that when I thought there wouldn’t be any alcohol here at all,” I grumbled.

Robyn looked between us. “Why can’t you drink?” Her eyes twinkled with amusement. “Are you pregnant?

What?

“Of course not!” Laura added. “Silver and gold, when would we even had time to do that?”

I glanced at her. “That’s why you think it’s improbable? Just timing?”

Robyn snorted. “Please, if this city wasn’t constantly in danger, you two would never leave the bedroom.”

I felt myself go beet red, but Laura didn’t seem surprised at all. “Don’t exaggerate. Technically, we’re not even dating.”

“Technically nothing!” I squeaked. “We’re not dating! Period!”

She gave me a sidelong glance.

I thought back to the last month or so. Farther back, actually, all the way to the reveal of Elizabeth’s identity. About the amount of time we had been spending together, the lunches and dinners we had taken alone, without anybody else around, and all the other girls I had been turning down.

“Crap,” I muttered.

Robyn smirked. “I know a nice jewelry store if you need to apologize.”

I sighed. “I’ll think about it.”

Laura was amused as well, but she kept a better lid on it. “No need for jewelry, I promise. The look on your face is apology enough.”

“Glad you find my pain funny.”

She just smiled. “Come on. You need to meet some people.” She pulled me away.

“Robyn, share,” I called back. “Don’t drink all of that by yourself.”

She flipped me off with a winning smile.

We walked across the roof, weaving through the crowd, and I tried to find the words. “I’m… sorry. That I didn’t notice we were dating.” Then I chuckled. “I think that might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.”

“I’m sure you’ve said worse.” She squeezed my arm tighter, laying her head on my shoulder briefly. “And I knew you were being an idiot, but didn’t say anything. It’s as much my fault as yours.”

“That’s not true and you know it. A little your fault, sure, but I think this is a time I really do deserve the lion’s share of the blame.” I blinked as a thought occurred to me. “Do our parents know?”

“I haven’t mentioned it to them, but that doesn’t mean much. Thieves are good at figuring things out, especially when they’re close friends with Butler.”

I groaned. “Butler knows.”

“Of course he does. Clarke doesn’t, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does, actually.” We slipped into the edge of the crowd of swordsmen and swordswomen at the corner of the roof. “Akane! How are you enjoying the party?”

At the center of the group, Akane sat on a table, sipping a drink and smiling. I couldn’t remember the last time I really, truly saw her smile, but here she was.

She raised the drink in my direction. “Derek. Good party.”

“Auntie Akane was just telling us about the first time you two fought a gargant,” one of the younger swordsmen explained. One of her nephews, obviously. Yuuki, I was pretty sure. “Was it really a full-sized blind-rammer?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Oh, don’t remind me of that disaster. It’s a miracle the thing didn’t bring the whole building down on us.”

“And somebody forgot to buy insurance,” Akane said, still smiling.

“And I forgot to buy insurance,” I said. “So we were liable for the damages.” I shook my head. “I think we spent the whole next year paying that one off.”

“She also claims you managed to kill a deathmarked,” another kensei said. This was the other nephew, Yuudai.

“We crushed it in a car compactor. It’s dead.” I swallowed. “Pretty sure.”

Sometimes I still had dreams of that thing coming after us.

Laura tugged on my arm before the silence could get too awkward. “We’ll let your boss regale you with her old war stories, kids. Mister Huntsman and I need to speak with Noble Nyashk.”

I knew an out when I saw one, and gave polite nods to them as we left. I was actually a little surprised when she pulled us towards Seena and her group, which included her brother and his girlfriend, the changeling warlord and her bodyguards, and the hooded woman.

“Noble Nyashk,” Laura said by way of greeting. “I’m pleasantly surprised that you came.”

“Dame Laura,” Seena answered in kind. “I got your invitation. It seemed downright criminal not to put in an appearance.”

“How is your new job treating you?”

She sighed. “I’m one of two warlords trying to hold the Mals together, and the other one is Zepar. It’s difficult, and I’m not sure the culture is going to survive the winter.”

“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “People always need assassins.”

“Our methods are going out of style. People prefer more subtlety than knives in the dark. Contracts are starting to dry up.” She shrugged. “But powers change the game. We’ll see, we’ve had some recent successes.”

“What’s your power, by the way?” I asked.

She smiled pointedly. “My secret weapon.”

“Mine’s one of the stock vampire ones,” Simon said before things could get awkward. He held out his scarred hand, and shadows writhed in his hand. “I can make darkness. Shadows deep enough that even a vampire can’t see through them. Cool, huh?”

“And you?” I asked his girlfriend.

She shrank at the attention. “It’s… weird. I kind of… turn into electricity?”

I frowned. “And what? Attack people?”

“No, I don’t have enough control for that. I’m just… electricity. It kinda works like teleportation, but I have no control over where I end up, I just kind of randomly rematerialize somewhere within ten feet of my starting point.” She shrugged. “Like I said, it’s weird.”

Laura, however, looked thoughtful. “There might be something more to that. Maybe you can stop by NHQ tomorrow morning, we can run some tests.”

Yolanda shivered. “I’m not big on tests.”

“Exercises, then. No needles.”

“…okay.”

“I fix things,” one of Eccretia’s bodyguards said. Ferenil, I think.

His boss glared at him. “That’s supposed to be a secret.”

“I reverse time!” the other man, Domothon, said.

Eccretia sighed. “And that definitely is.”

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” I said. “Reverse time, and keep your mouth shut this time.”

He winced. “I just did. It was out of reach.”

I blinked. “…five seconds is out of reach?”

“Yes,” he grumbled. “And it takes forever for my reservoir to recharge. I mostly just use it in emergencies, like when I get shot.”

Ferenil slapped him across the face.

“Gods of men and darkness, what was that for!?

“Just checking that your reservoir was really depleted.”

Domothon rubbed his cheek and glared.

“I’m guessing you don’t feel like sharing, Honored Paragon,” I said to change the subject.

Eccretia scowled. “No. I might as well at this point, but I’m not going to. I’m sure you understand. You all hid your powers for as long as possible.”

I shrugged. “We were considering coming out for a long time. Elizabeth forced our hands.”

“Robyn hid it from us for a while,” Laura added. “We only found out when she saved us from an ambush.” She shook her head and took a sip of her soda. “Irresponsible. Understandable, but irresponsible.”

“It all worked out in the end. And besides, she was helping us.” The others looked at me blankly. “MC knew,” I explained. “Robyn acted as her scout. So she saved our lives a few times.” I tried not to grind my teeth. “…but she could have done better.”

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Miss Korrapati,” Laura said to the girl in the hooded cloak. “What’s your power? My first guess would be speed, or perhaps shapeshifting.” She shook her head. “No, any form of identity concealment wouldn’t need the hood, of course…”

The girl shuffled on her feet. “Kinesis. You know, moving things with my mind? Small things, mostly. I’m a tinkerer, so it helps me build things.” She shrugged. “Simple, but nice.” She chuckled. “Better than this friend of mine. He got one of those vampire draining things. He refuses to use it, so he’s basically powerless.”

“What does he drain?” I asked.

“Life.”

“Ah.” Yes, that would be hard to use ethically.

“I’m sure he could find a use for it,” Laura said, smiling pleasantly. “Has he tried draining animals?”

The hooded girl shook her head. “Only works on humans, as far as he can tell.”

I snorted. “That sounds arbitrary.”

“Lots of powers are,” Laura said. “One of the ‘sarians at NHQ can’t use her telekinesis unless she’s wearing leather gloves. Pretty powerful when she has the gloves, though.”

While I frowned in confusion, everyone else nodded. I guess they all had more interaction with weird powers than me. I mostly just knew the Paladins and Akane’s kensei.

I opened my mouth to say something, but Simon looked at something behind me. “Who’s that waving at you?”

“Hm?” I turned to see George the giant waving from across the rooftop. “Oh, that’s the retinue.” I paused, thinking. “I don’t want to just leave you guys—”

They waved us off. “No, it’s fine, just go.”

I nodded in thanks then peeled away, Laura still on my arm as we navigated the crowds.

“Be careful,” I told her quietly.

She blinked and frowned. “Careful of what?”

“Just in general. We don’t want to depress them any more than they already are.”

She looked like she had a retort ready for that, but didn’t say anything as we walked up.

“George,” I said with a smile. “What’s up? You enjoying the party?”

He smiled weakly. “Best as I can, sir. Best as I can. I was just wondering if you had any specific plans for us during the battle.”

I winced. “You don’t need to be involved.”

“With all due respect, sir, working makes us feel better.”

Kat and Jarasax nodded. Alex hadn’t so much as acknowledged our presence.

“All right…” I thought for a moment, before turning to Laura. “Vampire domain?”

She nodded. “Best place to put them. Alex will be most useful there, and the rest are used to working in those sorts of conditions. We’ll stick you on East Gate.”

I frowned, then leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Where are the Belians going to be, again?”

She stiffened, then cursed under her breath. “Of course. West Gate, then, with the angels.”

George nodded. “Probably for the best.”

I gave Alex a look. “You fine with that?”

He shrugged. “The Saints have forgiven the ‘sarian angels. Mostly.”

“Not what I meant.”

He turned away. “Yeah, well, it’s the most pressing matter. I’ll live.”

I sighed, and turned to the kemo of the group. “Kat. How is your power treating you? It must be hard, since you didn’t get one that matches your personality.”

She shrugged, and signed something.

“She’s been going to a support group for the bats and bleeders and so on,” George translated. “She’s doing okay.”

She signed something else.

“The biters have it worse.”

I nodded. Yeah, that was a weird one. The skins and the bleeders too, but at least they didn’t have that permanent morphing thing. That wasn’t going to be fun if it wasn’t what you wanted, deep down.

“And you, George?” Laura asked. “What’s going on with you these days? I know the giants are still having some difficulties without the Hammer, but war hasn’t broken out yet.”

He waved a massive hand. “I barely pay attention to the culture any more. Yeah, what’s happening to them sucks, but they’ll survive. I’ve got my own stuff going on.”

“Which is?”

“Well, besides the retinue, uh…” He thought for a minute. “Been pretty big on online gaming recently.”

“Need to do something with all that free time,” Jarasax said with a smile.

“Isn’t the Big Boss sending you on missions?” I asked. “Helping the CS-squad, that sort of thing? You have the most experience with powers, so I just assumed you’d be part of it. Maybe get folded in completely.”

Sax shook his head. “We were, but with… everything that’s happened, we’re kind of on enforced leave right now.”

I winced. “That might not be the best idea.”

George nodded. “I’d feel better if we were working regularly.”

“I’m sure if you explain the situation, he’ll be happy to put you on more missions.”

“Now isn’t the time for it, though,” Laura said. “With war just around the corner.”

“They haven’t attacked yet. May as well get this settled, instead of just waiting around forever.”

“Guys…” Sax said, jerking his head at Alex.

The poor angel looked like his brain was shutting down. This was simply not something he wanted to think about.

“…another time, then,” Laura said. “We’ll see you around.” She led me away.

“Well, at least that wasn’t a complete disaster,” I muttered.

“It could have been worse,” she agreed. “I have no idea how, but it could have been.”

“Yeah…” I shook my head. “Poor bastards. I think they might be looking forward to the war a little too much.”

She winced. “You don’t think they’ve gone suicidal.”

“Alex is the only one I’m really worried about.”

“…but the rest are spoiling for a fight.” She nodded. “They want to do something. Maybe you’re right about them needing more jobs. I’ll talk to Butler tomorrow. See if he can’t find something for them to do.”

“Maybe we can—” I frowned as I realized she was leading me to the stairs. “Were are we going?”

“Downstairs.”

“Yes, I got that.”

She squeezed my arm and laid her head on my shoulder. “I meant back to the dorms.”

“What do you—oh.” Huh.

That was…

Huh.

She chuckled. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”

“I think gobsmacked might be a better word.”

She smiled. “Maybe. But flustered is cuter.”

I opened the door for her. “After you.”

Her eyes twinkled, and she laughed as we left the party.

Behind the Scenes (scene 269)

I had a huge romance arc for Derek and Laura planned. A long arc revolving around the remnants of his mind control, their interactions as children, and the reason she left South Central in the first place. I decided to go with a simpler option, keeping it mostly offscreen, because it just wasn’t working. Too reliant on cliches and so on.

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