Tag Archives: Laura

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.

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Scene 328 – Syreni Civitatem

SYRENI CIVITATEM

RICHARD

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

Even if this ‘last tour’ required a boat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we began to sink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had finally come within sight of our destination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chuckled. “I can see why.”

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

I blinked. “Ah… sister cities.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds promising,” I said.

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

“Seems simple enough,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The west, I would have to guess.”

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

“…ah,” I said. “Right onto Timaeus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled. “None taken.”

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled and nodded politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “Who’s Herbert?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence greeted her words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh…”

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 328)

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

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

Scene 326 – Eversio

LEENO

EVERSIO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moon-woman smiled. “Perhaps.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How fast are yours?” Martinez asked.

“Just slightly slower,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“…yes,” Butler said after a moment.

“And the Gainsborough are…”

“You mean the gray ones?”

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

“Neutral ships,” Medina said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone looked at Martinez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing immediate,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak, man,” Butler said.

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

Oh.

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 326)

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

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

Scene 324 – Occurrens

OCCURRENS

LAURA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, we had our own representatives.

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

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

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

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

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

No one spoke.

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

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

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

Most of the representatives perked up at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. “What?”

“That thing you’re doing—stop it.”

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

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

I stopped smiling.

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

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

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

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

And there was the answer.

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

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

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

Grain shut his mouth, and I nodded in thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow that felt more disturbing than the alternative.

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

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

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

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

“We don’t,” Leeno said helpfully.

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

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

Everyone turned to him. I just smirked.

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

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

Everyone slowly turned back to Leeno.

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

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

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

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

Maeve shivered, though I doubt anyone else noticed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Including wiping out humanity?” Park said bluntly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that a problem?”

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

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

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

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

“We can do both,” Butler said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deafening silence greeted my proclamation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doors burst open.

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

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

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

It was Ling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He rolled his eyes. “Who knows.”

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

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

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

“But you did get the invitation, right?”

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

I blinked. “What?”

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

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

“The real one?” I asked.

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

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

“It’s on Mars,” Súileabháin said.

“Fourth planet in the system,” I added.

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

Everyone glared at Leeno.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When was this?” I asked.

“Ten minutes ago,” Ling said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

Behind the scenes (scene 324)

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

Scene 323 – Balæna

BALÆNA

RICHARD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m still lost.”

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

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

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

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

“Ship,” I said.

He frowned. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The—the Daggon—”

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

“What—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sailor looked between Medina and his captain.

“Answer her,” I said quietly.

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

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

“Fifteen knots.”

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

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

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

“Captain,” I said, tired. “Please.”

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

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

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

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

Medina rolled her eyes. “Please stop lying.”

I blinked. “I’m sorry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really hated this city.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the other?” Medina asked.

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

“The Constantine,” Butler said, sounding resigned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long do we have?” Butler asked.

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

“How long do we need?

She shook her head sadly.

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

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

“What are their powers?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“BRACE!” the captain called.

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

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

“It’s probably not a shark!”

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

For the first time, Butler looked scared.

“Are those—”

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

The captain stared. “An escape what?

“Never mind.”

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

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

“Oh,” I said. “Right.”

Someone grabbed my arm, and I nearly screamed.

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

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

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

“RICHARD!”

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

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

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

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

Might?

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

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

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

“What was that?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.” I paused. “Why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, I’m always honest!”

She rolled her eyes. Okay, that was fair.

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

Then a phone rang.

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

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

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

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

“Me?” I said. “Who wants to meet me?”

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

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

It was also covered in guns.

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

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

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

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

It took me a moment to identify it as laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She bowed. “Correct, Honored Trident.”

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

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

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

I nodded dumbly.

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

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

“It always is.”

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the scenes (scene 323)

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

Scene 318 – Notitia Collectio

NOTITIA COLLECTIO

LAURA

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

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

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

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

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

Robyn winced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Butler said. “Nothing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about artificial intelligences?” Robyn asked.

Butler and I both stared at her.

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

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

“And that’s not making assumptions?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe they want peace.”

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

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

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

Butler nodded. “They’re surprised.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 318)

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

Next is a big one, though.

Scene 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.