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?”
Behind the scenes (scene 324)
Sorry, cliffhanger, I know, but it’s resolved next scene. It just flows better this way.