Tag Archives: Laura

Scene 335 – Initium Novum

INITIUM NOVUM

SILK

I am called Silk.

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

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

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

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

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

Leeno stared at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled. “There it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “An apt summary.”

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

I smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Over there,” I said, pointing.

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean, turned?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thirty years,” I said.

“Thirty YEARS!?” he screeched.

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

He sputtered. “But—you—”

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

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

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

He frowned. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“An old friend.” I didn’t elaborate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The other elders stared at him, then at me.

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zanovoon chuckled. No one else did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How?

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

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

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

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

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

Reyn was suspicious. “What condition?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elders looked at each other.

“We will need a moment,” Reyn said.

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

“…a few hours until what?”

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

Silence. The elders just stared at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled, and sang.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It felt like decades.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just smiled.

Leeno started. “That’s what you did!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then what?

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

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

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

The command center fell dead silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeno frowned. “Butler died?”

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

“And you said Derek Huntsman…”

I nodded. “That’s right.”

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

“Fifty.”

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

I smiled sadly. “Old enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek glanced at her, then back at me.

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

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

“Yes,” I said sadly. “I know.”

Laura winced at that. She knew what I meant.

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

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

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

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

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

“We will speak more later.”

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

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

“No,” Laura said.

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

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

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

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

Derek turned to me. “Let’s hear it.”

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

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

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

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

“There is always more to learn.”

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

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

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

“Don’t you dare make this about me.”

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

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

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

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

“Like Adam was satisfied?” she snapped.

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

“How would you know?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Silk, wait,” Derek said.

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

“How long do I have?”

I paused.

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

He nodded. “Thank you.”

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

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

“That was clever,” Leeno said.

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

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

“Is that so?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leeno started. “A thousand years?”

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

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

I grinned. “No.”

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

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

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

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

And so we worked.

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

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

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

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

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

The story didn’t really end.

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

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

And I, at least, enjoyed it.

END BOOK FOUR

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Scene 334 – Alvus

ALVUS

LAURA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek immediately grabbed my arm.

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

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

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

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

I rolled my eyes. “Derek…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MC sighed. “Leeno is… not available.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Aren’t para born from these hives?”

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

Derek frowned. “Well, I think—”

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

As it faded, all was silent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Derek frowned, then glanced at one of his Defenders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And if it is? Dangerous, I mean?”

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

Derek chuckled. “Fair enough.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How random,” Derek said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was answered by more chittering from all around.

“We’re surrounded,” I spat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I said.

“Whatever happened to keeping this thing alive?”

I glared at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned to go.

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

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

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

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

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

No response. This was probably a waste of time.

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

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

Yes, there were definite sparks this time.

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

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

After what felt like an eternity, the rumbling stopped.

“…is that good?” the Defender asked.

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

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

“Laura!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 334)

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

The hives were the final answer.

Scene 329 – Reconciliatio

RECONCILIATIO

DEREK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam gave me a look. “Concert?”

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

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

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

“So his bodyguards didn’t shoot anyone?”

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

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

I frowned. “Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What thing with Silk?” Ling asked.

All three of us turned to her.

“What?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, yeah. I guess. Why?”

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

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

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

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

“Logical deduction,” Laura said.

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“…with powers.”

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

Ling threw back her head and laughed.

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

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

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

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

But could we trust the Lady of the Grave?

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

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

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

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

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

Laura frowned.

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

I blinked. “Wait, when did that—”

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

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

“And of course kidnapping MC.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well who else would it be?”

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

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

I growled. “I’d like to see her try.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And who is Nephorthees?” I asked.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can do without that sort of compliment.”

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

Behind the scenes (scene 329)

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

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

Scene 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.