We landed our stolen para shuttle in the center of the Cathedral, the main base of the Servants in Domina City. It was a bit annoying to get the shuttle door open, but once we did, we all piled out and took a moment to just appreciate where we were.
The Cathedral took up an entire block, a single massive skyscraper of glass and polished steel. There were a few arches and open-air tunnels through the structure which gave it a Renaissance décor, but they were far more decorative than practical.
The skyscraper itself, however, was just the perimeter of the block. The center of the building was a massive park, the largest in the city, surrounded on all sides by that single skyscraper, like a huge wall. The walls on the interior were not glass—except for a few strategic windows—but simple stucco and sheetrock covered in a profusion of vines. The vines bloomed with a rainbow’s worth of beautiful flowers, and the park itself was a beautiful grass field with some tall trees for shade.
We landed at the very center of the park, right next to a babbling fountain that served as the mouth of a small ornamental river. I tossed a quarter into the fountain without really thinking about it. The Servants cleared out the coins at the end of every day and used them to help keep the park functional.
Speaking of which, there were two Servants in white robes standing just a few yards away from the shuttle. They were clearly trying very hard not to jump straight towards dismantling the shuttle to see how it worked. Servants were tech geeks as a rule, and most of them were engineers of some type or another. They’d need to share this one with Necessarius, but I doubted that they would mind.
Both Servants bowed as we walked up. “Honored Lilith,” one of them, an ogre, said. “Honored Robyn Joan. Thank you for deciding to land here. Your sister is waiting for you inside, in one of our main server rooms.”
I frowned, then glanced at Lily. She had the same confused look on her face. I turned back to the Servants. “Why not just talk to us out here, where we can enjoy the park? That’s what we usually do.”
The other Servant, an angel, just smiled. “I think it’s best if you see for yourself.”
“All right,” I said. “Can the ambassadors come?”
“Actually, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Bahamut said.
I raised an eyebrow at him. He had barely said two words this entire time. I hadn’t met him before today, so I had no idea if this was normal for him. “Why do you say that?”
Zero signed something.
The White Cat nodded. He pared his nails as he spoke, as if the entire conversation bored him. “Exactly. We need to look into the hive. We should return to our cultures and prepare for the worst. At the very least, we’ll need to get our scientists prepared.”
“Actually, I meant that we should help Akiyama with the Malcatari,” Bahamut said. “We don’t know how many slipped into the city.”
I frowned. “That’s really where you want to be concentrating your effort right now?”
“Yes,” he said. There was an air of finality to it.
I shrugged. “Okay, whatever, but Lily and I are staying.” And Adam, of course, but that didn’t need saying.
“I will too,” Eccretia said. “I have some questions for MC, and I already called my engineers to meet us here. I want to coordinate their work with the Servants.”
Zero made a few signs with her fingers.
“Thank you,” Lily said. “We do appreciate it, I promise.” She turned to the others—Dracul, Bahamut, the White Cat, Pale Night, Zaphkiel, and Odin. “Thank you all for your help today. Please do not feel obligated to stay on my account.”
The warlords bowed deeply and left, one by one. Most of them probably had cars already on the way, ready to pick them up.
Lily turned back to the Servants. “Please, lead the way.”
Our much reduced group walked inside the Cathedral itself. It was a building with tall ceilings, white marble arches, and rounded edges. It looked like ancient Roman architecture married to a Mac, with plenty of computer interfaces and monitors in recessed panels here and there.
There were a few Servants of every culture and clan wandering the halls, but not many. They had better things to do than hang out here, far away from anyone who might need help. That meant the place was very empty, and our footsteps echoed off the walls.
It felt like a church, which was of course the point. The Servants were a religion, and they were absolutely shameless about their faith. Luckily, deifying a computer made them a bit more pragmatic than most religions. I had read a whole bunch of articles on how the Servants differed from normal religions, but the main point I cared about was that they hadn’t tried to sanctify me or Lily. The last thing I needed was to be worshiped by a bunch of geeks who thought my sister was a goddess.
The Servants led us to a large corner room, big enough to hold an entire religious mass. I wasn’t sure if it had been meant for any specific use originally, but now there was a huge bunch of devices and wires in one corner, being fussed over by Servants making sure everything was set up right. Extension cords snaked across the floor in every direction, and I spotted at least a dozen computer towers, all connected to each other through that spiderweb of tangled cables.
At the front of this mess was a large, old chair, a comfortable leather lounger. Many of the cables and wires terminated in the seat, like a spider at the center of its web. I couldn’t see where they were supposed to connect, because there was a woman sitting there. The metaphorical spider.
She was about my age, so twenty years old, maybe twenty-five at most. She had lightly tanned skin, a slender build, and was wrapped in nothing but a white shawl that emphasized her modest curves. She had red hair like mine, but cut short like Lily’s. As we got closer, she looked up and I saw her red eyes. The shape of her face seemed familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where from. Was she another Servant? Had I met her somewhere before?
“Lily,” the woman said with a smile. “Robyn. You both came. Thank you so much.”
We stopped a few feet away from the chair. “Uh,” I said eloquently.
“You—” Lily started, then stopped. She looked like she had been hit in the face with a fence post.
“You sound like MC,” Adam said. I glared at him, but he didn’t seem to care. Always the blunt one.
The woman in the chair smiled. “That’s because I am MC.”
I scowled. Anger brought me back to my senses nice and quick. “I’m not interested in games.” I turned to the Servants who had escorted us in. “Who is this? What is the meaning of all this?”
“This is the Lady Domina,” the angel said calmly, trying and failing to hide a smile.
“Surprise!” the ogre said, then laughed.
I glared at them, then turned back to the woman. “Even if MC was working on an android body—”
“Gynoid,” the woman said.
I frowned. “What?”
“The word ‘android’ means ‘man-like.’ While the word has been used in a gender-neutral context for decades now—and it’s quite possible it was intended to be gender-neutral even when the Greeks first used the word androdes—it is still more accurate to use the word ‘gynoid’ to refer to female life-like robots.”
We all stared. She just smiled.
“Red skies,” I said. “It is you.”
MC laughed and stepped off the chair. She gave me a big hug, but I was too distracted to hug her back. She was… warm, and soft, everything she had never been before, and yet somehow she reminded me of every time I had ever stayed up late talking to her on the phone.
I pushed her away. “Wait a second, I have questions. How—” I frowned. “Why do you have wires—” I looked closer. “You have wires plugged into you.”
She was where all the wires terminated. Dozens went through holes in the back of her shirt, presumably to connect to her spine, but there were others that plugged into the back of her skull, a few on her legs, and a handful on her arms. She had so many wires connected to her body that it was hard for her to move, but she still managed it.
“MC,” Lily said, her voice quiet and worried. “What is this?”
MC smiled at her. God, it was weird to be able to say that. “Blame Silk. Remember when she said she gave me a power, and we couldn’t figure out what it was?” She held out her arms, showing off her body. “Ta-da.”
Robyn and I looked at each other.
“You’re a morpher,” Lily said. “Like Isaac and Artemis.”
“But more than either of them,” I said. “They can shape their skin and muscles, but this…”
MC rolled her eyes. “Well, apparently Silk cheated more than a bit. The process would have been super slow, normally. But she forced me to morph straight to a human body so that I’d be out of the way with the para.”
“But you did intervene with the para,” Adam said.
MC shook her head. “I wasn’t able to prevent their raids, or them from launching the hives. Though admittedly, those were both longshots anyway. The bigger problem is that I could have destroyed the mothership. There are quite a few flaws in its basic structure that I was able to identify.”
“Then tell us now,” Adam said. “We can finish this stupid war in five minutes.”
She shook her head. “No. I’ve had a lot of time to think. Their leaders are doing terrible things, that is true, but there are thousands of innocent people on that ship. I’m not going to help you commit genocide.”
I grunted. “That sounds like something Silk would say.” I was one of the few people who saw her on a regular basis, due to her help with my therapy. She wasn’t doing it herself any more, but she popped in every once in a while to make sure the doctor I had gotten was good.
MC nodded. “I believe that was the lesson she was trying to teach.”
“My Lady Domina,” Eccretia said, bowing her head deeply. I had almost forgotten she was here. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you face to face.”
MC smiled. “Likewise, Honored Paragon.”
“I do, however, have some questions. For example…” She waved her hand vaguely at MC’s body. “What is the purpose of the cyborg look? As I understand the morphing power, morphing non-organic material is impossible except for specific power variants.”
She shrugged. “I don’t know how it all works. All I know is that I was fully human, and then I slowly started morphing back. Starting with this.” She held up her arm and unplugged one of the cables, revealing an old USB port. I got the feeling that most cybernetic implants didn’t look like that. She plugged the cable back in. “I was about halfway through morphing back with the help of the Servants when I heard what you guys were doing. I figured you might need help.”
Zero tapped Lily on the shoulder. We both turned to see her signing a question.
“This is our sister, MC,” I said. “She acts as the communications controller for most of the city. She went missing a little while ago, but she’s back now.”
I had hoped that would be enough to assuage her curiosity, but it wasn’t. Somehow, that blank white mask managed to look confused, and she signed a few more questions. They almost came too fast to understand, so I had to think for a second to sort out what she said.
Lily answered first. “She’s not a cyborg. Not a traditional one, anyway.” She glanced at me. How to explain this? “You know those powers we have?”
Zero nodded emphatically. She was getting better at hiding it, but she still jumped any time anyone used a power around her. She definitely still remembered them.
“Well, MC got one called ‘morphing.’ It let her change from her natural shape into a human one. Right now, she reverted, just a little bit, so that she can use computers in the way that she’s used to.”
That mask glanced between the three of us, as if she was looking at us each in confusion. Could she even see through that thing? I had never asked. She made another sign.
MC chuckled. “Well, I suppose technically, but calling me a computer is like calling Robyn an ape.”
Zero stopped signing. She stood stock still.
“Is something wrong?” Lily asked, putting a hand on Zero’s shoulder.
Zero made a few quick signs.
I frowned. That wasn’t a normal kemo word. “Grey… mind? Is she a greymind?” I glanced at Lily, but she just shrugged. “I don’t know. What’s a greymind?”
“I saw references to this in the para network,” MC said. “I didn’t have time to follow through, though.” Her eyes went distant. “One second, I copied most of the archive, let me look for it.”
Zero’s hand signals turned frantic.
“Wait wait, slow down,” I said. “So she’s a… greymind. Is that your word for AI?” Zero cocked her head at me. “Never mind. Let’s say you’re right. What does that mean? What’s the problem?”
She made a few quick signs.
Lily frowned. “We gave… a greymind… a body.” Now it was her turn to cock her head. “Okay… sure. Maybe we did. Sort of. So what’s the problem?”
She started signing again, too fast for me to follow. “Um, can you slow down…”
“I don’t think that’s kemo battle sign any more,” Lily said. She was frowning, but still trying to watch Zero’s fingers.
“I think it’s Colorless sign language,” MC said. “It’s in the archive, but I got rid of all the pictures, so I really don’t think I’ll be able to…”
Zero stopped signing, somehow giving off a sense of exasperation. She shook her head, then held up her hand.
In half a second, the hand had folded back and become part of the arm, revealing a long gun barrel that hummed with energy.
It was pointed straight at MC.
Before I could do much more than cry out in alarm, two Servants stepped out in front of MC. A split second after that, Lily stepped right in front of the gun, letting it press against her breast without fear.
Lily was understandable—she was most of the ways invincible, after all—but I was impressed with the Servants and their quick response. They had always said that they would give their lives to defend MC, but they had never needed to prove it before.
“Zero,” Lily said curtly. “Explain yourself.”
Zero used her free hand to make some signs, this time using the kemo battle cant again.
“Why?” I demanded. “What’s wrong with a greymind with a body?”
Zero didn’t sign anything. She tried to poke the gun past Lily, but Lily just moved with it.
“Oh dear,” MC said.
I looked back. Her eyes were clear again. “What? Did you just notice the gun?”
“No, I—” She frowned. “What gun?” She looked past her Servants, then yelped. “Oh! Gun!” She held her hand to her chest, as if to contain a rapidly beating heart. “She—I—oh dear. This just gets worse and worse.”
I glanced between Zero and MC. “Lily can survive that shot, right?”
MC winced. “Probably. Depends on the ammo. But… let’s just say that this is going to be representative of the typical para response to my existence. Reverting back to a computer fully will help, but won’t get rid of it entirely.”
“Leeno doesn’t seem to mind,” I said.
MC rolled her eyes. “Leeno’s not here.”
I frowned. “What?” I looked around. “Where’d he go?”
“He never got off the shuttle,” MC said. Then she frowned. “Wait, a Servant with a camera is in the shuttle right now… he’s not there. That’s odd, I didn’t see him leave.”
Adam—holding a gun on Zero—gave me a look. “He got on the ship, right?”
I nodded. “Definitely.”
“I remember him getting on the ship, too,” Eccretia said.
Zero looked between all of us, as if trying to figure out if it was a trick, before she let her gun fold away and reassemble back into a hand. She then made a few quick signs and shook her head.
“So everyone saw him on the ship,” Eccretia said. “And then he just… disappeared? How does that make any sense?”
“He technically has all the powers,” MC said. “He could have teleported.”
I stared at her. “How do you figure that? I’ve only seen him use electricity.”
She shook her head. “He’s tapping into the source of the powers directly, whatever that is. Basically, we all have one gun each, but he’s an engineer. He can make whatever he wants.”
“…all right,” I said slowly. “I think I follow. But even assuming that’s right, let me extend the metaphor a bit and say that he still needs time to assemble those new powers. Or figure out how to use them or whatever. That’s why he’s only been using electricity.”
MC nodded. “Fair.”
“So I doubt he figured out how to teleport sometime between getting on the ship and landing.”
“Maybe he was hiding it.”
Eccretia shook her head. “No, a teleporter would have been very useful on the mothership. He could have saved us some time and effort.”
“We made it work,” Lily said. She looked a little embarrassed by something, but I couldn’t imagine what. “Maybe he just… forgot he could teleport? Especially if he has all the powers, I imagine that’s a lot to keep track of.”
“Okay, fine, let’s pretend he can teleport,” I said. “Then why now? Why would he just randomly disappear without a word? He even left Zero behind.” She started to sign something about how she didn’t mind, but I waved her off. “I mean you’ve been very helpful to him. Leaving you behind wouldn’t make sense.”
She thought for a moment, then nodded.
MC sighed and rubbed her hair back. Something about it shocked me for being so… normal. She had only been human for a week. How was she so used to it already? “Great. So in addition to the war with the para, we’ve lost their ambassador—one of the only people in the system who might have been able to stop this thing—and we’ve still got the Malcatari running around.”
“I’m sure Bahamut and the kensei will have them contained shortly,” Eccretia said.
“Those Malcatari, sure,” MC said. “But Akane is sure that there are more, and Elizabeth herself escaped. She can always attack again, and next time won’t be so easy.”
“Won’t we be better prepared?” I asked.
“Yes, but so will she,” Eccretia said. “She’ll fight smarter. Did you look over the report? All she did this time was send some troops to hassle a market. High body count, but in the grand scheme of things, not very important. What happens if she decides to attack one of the space cannons? Or one of the industrial sectors? And let’s not forget that she’s immortal. She’s going to get lucky eventually.”
MC nodded solemnly. “We’ll need an organization dedicated to fighting her. Something that will last. I’m sure Derek and Akane will be happy to help with that.”
“Aren’t you technically immortal?” I asked.
MC shrugged. “Maybe? It’s too early to say. Isaac thinks a few of the warlords might be immortal, but he hasn’t been able to confirm it. Either way, there’s a difference between ‘can’t die of old age’ and ‘can’t die, period.’ We’re all going to die sooner or later. Elizabeth, not so much.”
I closed my eyes. “This is a nightmare. A war on two fronts, with no end in sight.”
MC sat back down in her chair, careful to keep from tangling her wires. “Speaking of that war, somebody needs to look into that little present that the para dropped on our door.”
“I’ll get on it,” I said.
MC smiled. “Actually, I think someone else already called dibs.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 333)
Note that while originally MC was looking through the computers on the shuttle Leeno first flew down, now she has the Servants helping her hack into the new shuttle. Hence why she hasn’t finished downloading everything yet.