Tag Archives: para

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

Advertisements

Scene 331 – Proditione

PRODITIONE

ROBYN JOAN

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when we walked onto the para ship. The shuttle up had been simple and utilitarian on the inside, with multicolored buttons and color-coded lockers but little else. It was a decent size, but the thirteen of us had barely fit. Once we docked, we all spilled out, and it was such a relief that it took me a moment to really look around.

We had arrived at what Leeno had called the primary work docks. They were the place where they launched the ships that had attacked most of the system. Normally shuttles wouldn’t dock here, but they were trying to show off their strength. Everything they were doing was to show off, from ‘offering’ to host the negotiations on their ship to waiting five days—a para standard week—before calling us up.

The docks were at least a hundred yards tall, a hundred wide, and twice that deep. There was a giant lock that had opened at our arrival, but it wasn’t an airlock. The entire dock was open to hard vacuum to increase efficiency, and any pilots or passengers had to wear suits just to walk to and from their ships.

There were hundreds of the small para fighters lined up in racks, all carefully polished and perfectly painted. As far as I could tell, every single one was unique. Some were painted a single color with only a splotch here and there, others had whorls and swirls of a dozen colors, and others seemed to have images of creatures I couldn’t identify.

The colors were not limited to the ships. The inside of the dock was a massive mural, stretching from one side of the cavernous space to the other, that seemed to be portraying the para’s rise from hunter-gatherers to farmers to city-dwellers to space-travelers. The mural was abstract, but it used simpler colors than much of the rest of the art. The ships, the ceiling, even the floor were painted a hundred colors I couldn’t name, but the beautiful mural was only simple black, white, red, blue, and yellow.

I wondered if that had something to do with the way para saw colors. Leeno had said that every para was born with slightly different color vision. Some were optimized for night, some for day, and some in between. Maybe the colors on the mural were kept simple to ensure that all para would be able to see it.

With that in mind, I looked over the ships and equipment again as we walked through the hangar. That ship over there, which I had thought looked pure yellow, had a few discolorations that might look obvious for someone better at differentiating yellow and orange. Every button on every machine was striped with at least three colors—perhaps to maximize the number of para who could read the warnings and understand them. Even their language, what little of it I could see, was multicolored, but the shapes of the letters were stark and obvious from each other. Exactly what you’d want if you couldn’t be sure everyone would be seeing the same things.

Leeno and Zero led us through the docks to a large door painted a dozen different shades of green. He placed his hand—still in his vacuum suit—on the middle, and it whirred open, splitting diagonally. Odd, the doors in the shuttle had just slid to the side, like human doors.

We found ourselves in a small room, still green, and I realized belatedly it must be an airlock. The door closed behind us, and a moment later I heard rushing air. Suddenly, I could hear beyond the confines of my suit.

Lily was the first one to take her helmet off, before even Leeno or Zero. She took a deep breath, then nodded. She’d be able to detect any poisons in the air and survive them more easily than anyone else in the group.

The next was Odin. He grunted in annoyance as he took his helmet off. The ceiling was tall enough to accommodate him, but only barely. We had sent word ahead that we’d need high ceilings, but I wasn’t sure if the para would honor that. At least we had confirmed that they could. That massive hangar certainly didn’t make it look like they were strapped for space.

The rest of us took our helmets off after only a little hesitation. Dracul and Pale Night were first—though Pale Night had to be careful with the veil she wore underneath—then I took mine off at the same time as Zaphkiel, the White Cat, and Bahamut. Cailleach quirked her head, as if considering, and then took hers off as well, and carefully pulled her waist-length black hair out of the suit to properly display it. I wasn’t sure the homunculus would last this far from Earth, but she insisted her connection was stable.

Adam and Eccretia waited until Leeno and Zero took off their helmets before doing the same. Maybe a little paranoid, but not unjustified.

Other than Adam and Zero, there were no bodyguards. Just one representative of each culture—not counting the merfolk because we were keeping them quiet in case their cities needed to be used as refuges—and plus me for the guilds, and of course Lily for the city itself. Uncle Art couldn’t come for safety reasons, and Derek had simply refused to let Laura go. Ling would probably have been a better choice than me to actually represent the guilds, but no one knew whether or not they trusted her right now. Besides, with MC still missing, Lily needed my moral support.

Even ignoring the politics of it all, we were thirteen of the strongest people in Domina City, if not the entire system. We could probably conquer this entire ship by ourselves if we felt like it. Of course, Lily would never let us do that without just cause, but it was still an idea at the forefront of my mind.

“I really like these suits,” Dracul said. “The air didn’t get stale or anything. Much better than the last Lunar suits I wore.”

“These were built in conjunction with Domina support,” Pale Night said. “Modified mosses and fungi keep the air recycled much more efficiently.” She fidgeted in her own suit. “They are not designed to be worn over too much clothing, however.”

Dracul raised a perfect eyebrow. “You’ve got clothes on under the veil? I always assumed you were naked underneath.”

“Of course not,” she snapped. She was still fidgeting, pulling at her suit. “I need—to—oh, Nine Hells—”

“Let me help you with that, sweetie,” Lily said, walking over. Pale Night settled down and Lily started unsealing the suit. All the dials and clasps were on the front, but between Pale’s damaged hands and her extra layer of clothing, she hadn’t been able to make them work.

It was almost funny seeing Pale Night, perhaps the most powerful demon in Domina City, being fussed over like a girl going to prom. Especially since Lily was easily a foot shorter than her. But Lily was serious about her duties, and worked quickly to get the suit off. She told Pale Night when to raise her arms, when to wriggle them out of the sleeves, and finally when to step out of the suit entirely.

As Lily was folding up the suit, I glanced over Pale Night. It took her a second to readjust her veil, so for a moment it was plastered tightly against her skin. It was hard to get a good look, but there were odd shapes and holes, strange things that couldn’t be explained as a result of the clothing underneath. There were clearly parts of her missing, and other parts were there that shouldn’t be.

But then the moment passed, and the veil was fluttering around her elegantly like it always was. It was woven from Minerva silk, so an hour stuffed into a sweaty spacesuit hadn’t done much to dampen it.

Once all that was done, the other side of the airlock opened, leading deeper into the ship. There were three large para on the other side, all dressed in some sort of high-tech armor painted a rainbow of colors. They didn’t seem to have any weapons, but I remembered Zero’s arms, and her cybernetic guns. No one here was going to assume that anyone we met was safe.

They didn’t seem the least bit surprised by our bizarre variety. The one in the middle spoke, his tone stilted. “You will follow to elders.”

Everyone glanced at Leeno. He nodded.

Then we glanced at Lily. She tucked Pale Night’s suit under one arm and stepped forward, chin held high. She was smaller than the para—smaller than everyone else in the airlock, in fact—but she carried her authority well. “Very good. We have much to discuss.”

The lead para turned on his heel and started walking down the hallway, not even bothering to look if we were following. The other two took up positions on either side of the group as we fell into step behind the leader.

We walked through what felt like dozens of corridors, each painted with countless of colors. Some were more abstract designs, elegant lines and curves that probably didn’t mean anything specific, while others were murals showing this battle or that war. I noticed a lot of the murals portrayed space battles. Probably to remind us how outclassed we were in that department.

We were eventually led into something that looked like a command bridge, though for all I knew it may have been their rec room. It was circular, with tall ceilings that I could tell Odin appreciated, and a few wall panels that seemed to be showing different parts of the ship. There was a very short holographic table at the center of the room displaying the entire solar system, with some color-coding I didn’t understand that probably indicated ships.

There were a dozen bodyguards dressed the same as the ones who had been guiding us, as well as two shorter people standing next to the table. They were barely two feet tall, with insect-like wings folded up on their backs. With a start, I realized that the table must have been built for their size. Did that mean these were the para leaders?

One of them had a large metal arm and a few silver spots on her temples. I wondered if those were more cybernetics. And I was pretty sure she was female. She didn’t have any obvious breasts and she was dressed in the same pattern of rainbow uniform as the para next to her, but her face was a bit leaner. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but she struck me as feminine.

I frowned, looking around as I realized something. Everyone in the room had multicolored clothing, and even the walls were painted with a few simple patterns. Zero was the only para anything I had ever seen without color. There had to be a reason for that.

The woman with the cybernetic arm said something, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. They were actual words instead of insect-like clicks and buzzes, but still. I would have had more success keeping up with Greek.

“I think it would be best to speak using the local language,” Leeno said. His tone was deferential, and he kept his eyes down. “I know you both have language chips. This one is called ‘English.’”

There was a pause, and then the woman scowled. Was that a function of the chip? “Fine.” She turned to the rest of us. “You, humans. I am Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado, elder of this ship. You may call me Zan.”

“And I am Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” the second one said. He didn’t have any obvious cybernetics that I could see, but he seemed a bit older than Zan. “You may call me Li-Po. We will be conducting this negotiation.”

Leeno frowned, looking around the room. “Where is Elder Leeno?”

Zan frowned. “Elder Leeno… or Dolor, as he insisted on being called at the end… has chosen to pass on to the next stage.”

Leeno blinked those tangerine-colored eyes of his. I put a hand on his shoulder, just briefly. He had told us a little bit about Elder Leeno. No real details, but enough to know that Leeno had been looking forward to seeing him again. He had also implied that Elder Leeno would be on our side during negotiations. So this was hardly the best start.

Lily stepped forward. “Greetings, Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado and Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” she said. She didn’t stumble over a single syllable. “I am Lilith, the First Monster, Daughter of Fire and sister of the Lady Domina and the Princess of Necessity. I am the mother to four hundred and fifty million children, and this is my world.” Her eyes flashed. “I am afraid that I will have to demand to know your intentions here. Many have died as a direct result of your actions.”

I noticed several of the bodyguards at the edges of the room shifting into combat stances. Clearly at least a few of them understood English. Adam’s hand carefully went to the pistol on his hip, and Eccretia already had the safety off her own weapon. Odin and Zaphkiel were tense, but everyone else managed to look relaxed. I knew that Dracul, if no one else, would be able to kill half the people in the room before anyone blinked.

Li-Po looked ready to get angry, but Zan stepped forward instead. “We are simply looking for a home, Honored Lilith.” I was surprised she got the honorific right, but I shouldn’t have been. They had studied our language and our city, after all. “We have come a very, very long way.”

“That doesn’t justify attacking our space colonies,” Lily said.

Zan smiled. “We needed to make sure you understood our position.”

Leeno stepped forward, looking a little disturbed. “Elder Zan. I have spoken to several world leaders, and they have offered the second planet in the system for our use. It will require terraforming, but with their help, our hives—”

“Colorless,” Zan said. It had the tone of an order.

Zero stepped forward and put Leeno in an arm lock, slapping her hand over his mouth in the process.

Zan turned her attention back to Lily. “I do not know what this adult has told you.” She said ‘adult’ like a mild insult, like she was calling him a kid. Translation glitch? “But he has no authority to negotiate for our people. Whatever he has promised you is void.”

Lily’s face was impassive. I knew what that meant. “He promised us peace.”

“That most certainly was not his to promise.”

Leeno bucked Zero off; Zan didn’t say anything, so she didn’t try to fight him. “Elder Leeno would not want this. And why did he advance so soon before such an important negotiation?”

Zan didn’t even look at him. “Elder Leeno has done more for you than you know. He made a deal.”

Leeno narrowed his eyes. “What deal?”

She finally deigned to look at him. “We needed another hive, he wanted the killing to stop.”

Leeno recoiled as if slapped. “The attacks—they weren’t a show of strength? You really were going to conquer this entire system?”

“Yes,” Zan said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

“Lie.”

We all turned to Odin, who was standing there with his arms crossed, glowering down at the little para. He was almost ten times her height, so it would have been ridiculous if it wasn’t so damn serious.

“I beg your pardon?” Zan said. “You have no right to moralize at us—”

“I wasn’t judging you, Elder Zan,” he said. “I was simply stating a fact. You do not believe that conquering this entire system is the right thing to do. That’s all there is to it.”

I had forgotten that Odin’s power was lie detection. It worked exactly like Laura’s, though apparently he actually had to worry about depleting his reservoir. Laura just left hers on all the time. I glanced at Leeno. Had he known about Odin’s power? He had identified Laura’s back in Domina.

He was smirking. Yeah, he had known. He probably knew about everyone’s powers. At the very least, he had to know that they had them, though maybe he couldn’t actually identify them all. I knew some of them were weird.

I looked back at Zan. Her face was carefully blank. Li-Po, on the other hand, looked close to exploding.

“Our offer still stands,” Lily said quietly. “Venus, the second planet in this system, in exchange for a lasting peace.”

Zan made a clicking sound. I had no idea what that meant. “The greenhouse planet?”

Lily nodded. “Correct. We have biological modification tools that will help with the terraforming. Leeno has read quite a bit of the literature. I am sure that he would be happy to point out some of the benefits.”

“We are aware of your toy maker,” Zan said. “We are also aware of your Kongeegen and Granit parties.”

Everyone except for Lily winced. The Granit party had been trumpeting conquering the rest of the world for years, especially using diseases modified by the toy maker. The Kongeegen weren’t as proactive, but their Darwinist talking points were similar. They had become closer ever since the para had showed up, and had suggested several plans of attack.

They didn’t know about the deal with Venus, but it was easy to see how they might try slipping some diseases into the terraforming mix. Done right, they could kill off the entire para species in days.

Lily, of course, wasn’t fazed. She was in her Mother Monster mode, nothing could so much as make her blink. “Tell me, Elder Zan, do you have any children?”

Zan nodded. “Sixteen.”

Leeno stepped up. “That’s a bit high by para standards, but not too much.” He withered under everyone’s glares. “You know… for context…” He stepped back again.

I shook my head. He was like a different person. In Domina City, he was strange, but knowledgeable and confident. Here, he was like a child. Was he faking it so that the elders underestimated him, or did they just make him feel small and powerless? I could empathize with that.

Lily didn’t bother acknowledging him. “And of all your children, Elder Zan, have any of them ever done anything you didn’t agree with?”

“Several,” she said. “Your point?”

“My point, Honored Elder, is that we cannot control our children completely. We certainly cannot control what they think. We must accept that they are independent people.” She sighed. “And sometimes they decide to spend a disturbing amount of time contemplating genocide.” Her face turned hard. “But until the day comes where they actually attempt it, at which point I will stop them, then I fear the topic is not relevant.”

Zan gave Lily a long, hard look. It was like there was no one else in the room except the two of them.

“I understand,” she said finally. “If you truly view these people as your children, taking a preemptive strike against them is not an option.”

“Of course,” Li-Po said, “they are not our children.” He pressed a button on the table. There was a strange chime, and the hologram rearranged to show something streaking from the mothership down to Earth. An incomprehensible line of vertical characters appeared, tracking with the falling object.

Adam and Eccretia both had their pistols out in a heartbeat, pointed at Li-Po and Zan respectively. The bodyguards all drew weapons of their own, and the other ambassadors tensed for a fight.

“Explain. Now,” Adam said.

“We have done what we must,” Zan said without fear. “To ensure the survival of our species.”

We all glanced at each other, and I could see panic written on everyone’s faces. There were a lot of things the para could do that we just couldn’t counter. If they decided to launch an asteroid at Domina, we wouldn’t be able to stop it. Even the shield wall would be overwhelmed.

If it came to that—if the para really had used this distraction to destroy Domina City—then everyone here would fight to exact retribution. Between all of us, we might even be able to conquer this mothership.

But they wouldn’t have invited us here if conquering the ship was easy. More likely, we were going to just go down in a blaze of glory.

Lily somehow managed to remain calm. “Leeno, dear? What did they do?”

He frowned. “I’m not sure… it’s not a missile—very different alarm for that.” He stepped forward, peering at the words. “Improvised launch? What does that mean? Did you throw a bunch of rocks at…” His expression suddenly turned to horror, and he recoiled. “Hives! You’ve dropped a hive on them?”

“We did what we must,” Li-Po said.

“Elder Leeno would have never stood for this!” our Leeno said. “Is that what all this was about? You tricked him into passing on so that there would be no one to oppose your plan? Or maybe you just needed a hive.”

“We had enough votes to do this with or without him,” Zan said. “It was his idea to advance. This way, he can look after this world, ensure that we do not do anything he finds abhorrent.”

Leeno spat something that didn’t translate and turned away.

“Wait,” I said. I was a little behind, but I was beginning to piece things together. “I thought Elder Leeno died.”

Zan frowned. “Why would you think that?”

“He simply advanced to Hive stage,” Li-Po said. He gestured at the screen. “He is now being sent to your world.”

I frowned. “Okay, what the hell—”

“Wait,” Leeno said, stepping closer to the table. “There are others.” He tried to press a holographic button, but nothing happened.

“It’s keyed to us,” Zan said. “You can’t use it.”

Leeno gave her the side-eye, then passed his hand over the table. There was a brief rush of static, and then when he started pushing buttons, they responded to him.

Zan jumped. It was amusing to see her actually surprised by something. “What did you just do?”

“Manipulated the electricity in the table to give myself admin access,” he said, tapping a few buttons while he kept his eyes on the display. “I figured out how to do it a few hundred years ago, I just never bothered until now.”

Zan stared at him. “We were asleep a hundred years ago.”

“I don’t sleep.” Leeno pressed one more button and the hologram split into four different sections, all showing a projectile moving through an atmosphere. “Here we are. There are three more hives—heading towards Mercury, Venus, and Mars.”

“Are any heading towards Lemuria?” Pale Night asked.

“I don’t even know what planet that’s on.”

“Mars,” Odin said. He pointed at the display. “Can you turn that around? Thanks.” He scratched his chin. “I don’t think that’s going to hit anything important. It’s heading for the opposite side of the planet as Lemuria, but there might be some mining stations down there.”

“Call them back,” Adam said, his gun still pointed at Zan’s head.

“I couldn’t if I wanted to,” she said. “They’re unpowered and unguided.”

Adam narrowed his eyes, clearly deciding whether to kill her anyway.

I tried to head that off. “Leeno, these hives. What are they going to do?”

“It’s… they’re…” He clicked his tongue. “Hard to explain. They will become staging grounds for para troops, but they are not inherently dangerous on their own.”

“Anything you drop from space is going to make a pretty big impact when it hits,” Dracul said. He didn’t seem particularly concerned either way.

“As long as the hive doesn’t actually hit anything important, it should be fine,” Leeno said. “They’re not explosive, and they absorb a good amount of the impact back into themselves. Of course, then they’ll start eating everything in sight to fuel their growth…”

I stared at him. “They’ll what?

Leeno winced. “They’re alive. Mostly. Not particularly aware, but alive. And they grow.”

Cailleach perked up. She hadn’t said a single word yet, but now she was starting to get interested.

Adam was less so. “Give me one good reason we shouldn’t kill everyone in this room and then take the ship.” The guards at the edges readied their weapons, but everyone ignored them. Any one of the warlords could handle them alone. Red skies, Adam could probably do it. I was the closest thing to a noncombatant in the room.

Zan didn’t look concerned. “This room has been cut off from the rest of the ship. It has no control, and all the airlocks are sealed behind doors that even you people cannot break through.” She glanced briefly at Odin, before focusing back on Adam and his gun. “The air can be pumped out in moments. If you start a fight here, it will also end here.”

I glanced at Eccretia. Her eyes were flickering around the room, clearly using her powers to see through the walls. She saw me looking, and made a quick few motions in Necessarian sign language.

I nodded. We might be able to escape, but it was far from guaranteed. It was best to play it safe for now. I wasn’t sure if the para knew about our powers, but other than Lily, we didn’t have many offensive powers. Probably because the warlords hadn’t needed them. Zaphkiel’s lasers were probably the most dangerous, unless Cailleach had some nuke she was hiding.

Lily stepped forward. “Elder Zan, I hope you realize that you have just declared war on humanity.”

Zan didn’t look concerned. “Call it what you will. If we wanted to annihilate you, we’d just drop kinetic bombardments on you from orbit. But Elder Leeno demanded that we avoid extermination.” She shrugged. “Kill us now or leave. It doesn’t matter in the long run. You can’t attack our ships.”

A chuckle emerged from the wall speakers. “Are you absolutely sure about that?”

Finally, Zan and Li-Po looked surprised. They glanced at each other, and something unspoken passed between them. Zan looked up at the ceiling. “Who is that? How have you infiltrated our systems?”

I grinned. “MC! You’re finally back!”

She chuckled again. “More than you know, sis. More than you know.”

“What happened? Who took you? Did you escape? How—”

“Not really the time. We’ll talk once you’re groundside. Now, Elder Zan.” MC’s voice turned cold. “I wasn’t able to prevent you from launching those hives. I assure you, that was not a wise move.”

“I don’t know who you are, but if you are Earth-based, it is impossible for you to simply hack into our essential systems. Your threats are colorless, and get you nowhere.”

“I didn’t hack your ship at all,” she said. “I hacked Leeno’s ship. The Big Boss put a bug on it the second it touched down. Now I’m just using the communications system to call you. And reading through the archive.” She made a sound like clicking her tongue. “I know what those hives are, Elder. Are you really going to pretend those are for anything but war?”

Li-Po looked indignant. “They can produce food, shelter, everything a colony needs—”

“Yeah, or a military base deep in enemy territory. You dropped one in the most densely populated city on our homeworld. Even if no one dies from the landing, the intent is obvious. One second…” She paused. “Found a precedent. Book seven, chapter eighty-two, paragraph nine, line two. During your medieval period, some soldiers smuggled a hive into an enemy castle. The international council unanimously declared it an act of war.”

Li-Po scowled. “I refuse to be lectured by a disembodied voice.” He waved a hand. “Leave us, and spare us your inelegant posturing. You have nothing to threaten us with.”

“Are you sure about that?” MC asked, amused. “Because this shuttle has a very interesting central reactor.”

I saw Leeno’s eyes go wide.

Then, there was an explosion. It rocked the entire ship, throwing me and several of the para to the ground. The warlords kept their feet, of course. A massive metal screech reverberated through the entire ship, making my teeth feel like they were going to rattle out of my skull.

“Adam, we’re leaving,” Lily said over the blaring alarms, her tone clipped. Adam holstered his gun and drew his shotgun, ready to lead the escape. “Elder Zan, I am afraid I am going to have to officially declare war between humanity and the para.” Her face was completely expressionless, as if it had been made from porcelain.

I recognized it as the face she made when she was trying not to cry.

“Everyone, let’s go,” Lily said, and turned to leave quickly. The rest of us followed, leaving the para behind, too confused by alarms and their still-shaking ship to complain or shoot.

We found ourselves in the same confusing corridors as before, but now there were a dozen different colors of lights and blaring alarms—and no guides.

“MC, which way?” I asked.

Silence.

“She destroyed the ship, child,” Cailleach said. “No signal.”

I blinked. “But… you’re still here. Can you use yourself as a relay?”

“Perhaps,” she said, unconcerned. The flashing alarms gave her face a demonic cast, and I could barely hear her over the blaring. “But I feel it would be better to detonate this body to cover your escape.”

Eccretia scowled. “Bloody homunculus.”

Lily nodded at Cailleach. “Thank you, Honored Crone. Please do not kill any of the para in the process. I am still hoping for as little bloodshed as possible.”

Cailleach nodded. I didn’t bring up the fact that countless people had already been killed when MC detonated Leeno’s ship.

“So then how do we get out of here?” Odin asked.

“I can’t see a clear path,” Eccretia said. “Everything is too confusing.”

“This way!” Leeno said, running up with Zero in tow. “I know every single centimeter of this ship.”

Dracul grabbed him by the throat before anyone could react. “And how do we know you’re not leading us into a trap?”

“Drake, let him go,” Lily said. “We don’t have time for this, and he was as surprised as we were. Leeno? If you have an idea how to get us out of here…” She gestured down the corridor. Leeno nodded, then ran off. Lily followed, and once again, the rest of us followed like a bunch of puppies after their owner.

We eventually came to an airlock that looked the same as the one we came in through. As we were all preparing our space suits, Pale Night suddenly stepped back. “My suit…”

Lily stopped, then looked horrified. “I… I must have dropped it back in the control room. I can’t…”

Pale Night steadied herself. “Go without me.”

No,” Lily said, her tone brooking no argument. “We are not leaving anyone behind.” She paused, then nodded at Cailleach. “Remote bodies don’t count. The point is that you are coming with us.”

Pale Night shook her head. “You’re just wasting time arguing. You need to save as many people as you can.” She looked down at her feet. The veil obscured her face, of course, but her body language was clear. She wasn’t budging on this. “I will not have anyone else die because of me, mother. Especially not you.”

Lily just glared at her. Neither one of them was willing to back down.

I sighed. “This would be easy is Derek was here.”

Everyone turned to stare at me.

“What?” I said, defensive. “He could wrap Pale in a shield bubble, hold in the air. But none of us have… shields…” I trailed off.

We all slowly turned to Lily.

“Honored Mother,” Pale Night said, “does Derek Huntsman love you?”

Lily smiled. “Oh, very much so.”

Pale Night bowed. “Then, if you would be so kind…”

Lily cracked her neck, ready to shield her, but I grabbed her arm. “Wait. Do it for all of us.”

Lily cocked her head to the side. “Why? You all have your suits.”

“But we don’t know what the hanger will look like. Could be dangerous. Better safe than sorry.”

She looked at me for a second, then nodded slowly. “Of course. Everyone, gather in close.”

Twelve people—including one giant—huddled as close together as possible without stepping on each other’s toes. Cailleach, of course, stood off to the side, out of range and unconcerned. Zero looked confused, as best as I could tell with that expressionless mask, but Leeno was practically vibrating with glee.

Leeno hit a button, closing the airlock and leaving us in a small, windowless room. Cailleach was on the other side, and would be detonating her homunculus any second. Or maybe she’d try to fight the para off a bit first. Hopefully she was following Lily’s instructions and avoiding killing if possible.

“Leeno,” Lily said. “Which button will open the vacuum side of the airlock?”

Leeno pointed, but didn’t push it. “That one.”

“Good. Adam. On three, I need you to hit the airlock release.”

Adam nodded.

“Then one… two… three!”

Adam hit the button. A split second later, as the airlock began to open, Lily closed her eyes and pushed her hands out.

A shimmering globe of blue force enveloped us, leaking mist that faded in moments. It was exactly like the shields that Derek created, down to the color of the mist.

Amazing,” Leeno said, grinning from ear to ear. “I can feel you singing in tune to him. What a marvelous ability you have.”

The airlock was opening, and some smoke was pouring in. Should there be smoke in a vacuum?

“You can’t keep this up forever, though,” Leeno said.

“Correct,” Lily said through gritted teeth. “So please, just let me concentrate.”

Leeno nodded, contrite, and didn’t say another word. The airlock was open enough now for the smoke to clear and give us a good view of the docks beyond.

It was chaos. A huge chunk of the bay was simply gone, like a massive mouth had taken a bite out of it. The doors were blasted apart like they were made of tinfoil, and I could see through the floor and ceiling to other decks.

Great gouts of flame burst forth from the floor and the walls—likely the result of cracked gas pipes. The beautiful murals were blackened and charred, mostly unrecognizable. I could see para running back and forth in their space suits, signaling at each other for tools or maybe for damaged pipes and sparking wires to be turned off.

No one was paying attention to twelve humans, even if they were in a glowing blue bubble.

Leeno looked around the dock in mute horror. He had likely never seen this level of destruction.

The rest of us, however, had. Most of the warlords had caused quite a bit worse. Thankfully there was no blood or obvious dead bodies, so even I didn’t really have any problem with it all. I elbowed Leeno in the gut. “Hey. You good?”

He started a little, but then nodded. He turned to Lily. “Do you have enough power?”

She grimaced. “My reservoir isn’t as deep as Derek’s, but I can get us to the ship.”

Eccretia blinked. “You mean the ship MC blew up?”

There was a pause.

“Shit,” the White Cat said. “I knew we were forgetting something.”

I glared at him. He never had anything useful to contribute. Instead I turned to Lily. “Can you get us to Earth?”

She frowned. “What? You mean… fall through the atmosphere?” She shook her head and I noticed her sweating. “No way. It would get too hot.”

“Most of you would survive,” Eccretia said, glancing at Adam. The three of us were the only ones without warlord-level buffs, and I could probably survive with my flight, if I angled my descent correctly.

“I don’t mean inside the shield,” Lily said. “I mean the shield would break, and then everyone would die.”

Everyone paused to let the implications of that sink in.

Adam snapped his fingers to wake everyone up again. “Hey, c’mon! We need ideas, people! Lily’s reservoir is going to run out soon, and the para might catch up with us eventually. Or these workers might take notice of us. Does anyone have any other powers that might be useful here?”

Everyone shook their heads.

But I had a thought. “I can fly.”

“Well yes, obviously…” Adam’s face cleared. “Meaning you can fly the globe. Any chance that fixes the atmospheric re-entry problem?”

“No,” I said. I pointed up at one of the docking cradles. “But I can get us there.”

The cradle in question held a small shuttle, about the same size as the one we had flown in on. I was pretty sure it was a different model, but with all the custom paint jobs, it was hard for me to be sure.

“Will that work?” Odin asked.

“No time,” Lily said still straining. Was her power already drained? Was she redlining it like Derek had done right before he fought Elizabeth? “Robyn, take us there.”

I nodded and flew straight up.

I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting. Maybe I had been hoping that I’d be able to extend my power to the entire globe and float us up.

Instead, I ended up plastered against the top of the globe, dragging the thing with me.

It was an embarrassing way to move, but I had the power to do it and more. I was at least as strong as the other Paladins now—except for Laura, of course—so moving two thousand plus pounds of weight for a few minutes wasn’t really all that difficult for me.

The cradle was only about a hundred feet up, and I landed us on the gantry or dock or whatever it was supposed to be called. I floated back down to the floor, wincing as I stretched my muscles. My power had handled the weight easily, but my body was another matter. Maybe I had been able to extend my power to the globe a little, because I was pretty sure pushing two thousand pounds onto my body should have turned me to mush.

Lily was breathing hard. “Pale, sweetie? I’m going to try to get a smaller shield around you now. Don’t move.”

“Ready,” Pale Night said.

Lily nodded, then her brow furrowed even further. A globe of blue energy appeared around Pale Night’s head a split second before the bigger one around all of us disappeared. There was a pop as all the captured air spread out in the vacuum.

Adam moved over to the ship and tried the door, then turned back and shook his head. No good. Was it locked?

Leeno pushed him aside gently and placed his gloved hand on the side of the ship. A moment later, I saw electricity crackling over his fingers, and then the door popped open to reveal a tiny airlock.

There was no way we would all fit in that. Red skies, Odin might not fit in it at all. On the way up, we had been forced to stick him in the cargo bay. The ships had a lot of space compared to our own shuttles, but that really wasn’t saying much.

Leeno grabbed Pale Night and shoved her unceremoniously inside, before using his powers again to close the door. A moment later it opened, empty.

The rest of us cycled through the airlock as fast as possible, though Odin had to sit in the cargo hold again. There was no air for him, but his suit would last for days.

Once we were all cycled through, Leeno took his helmet off, and the rest of us did the same. “Zero should be able to fly us out of here.” He nodded to her, and she walked over to the front of the craft, then took the controls. Leeno continued watching her, an odd look on his face.

Eccretia saw his look, and leaned in to whisper quietly. “How loyal is she?”

Leeno shook his head. “I have no idea. She’s Colorless, of course, so there’s no love lost for the elders, but they’re also the only ones who can reverse her condition. I feel like if she was going to turn on us, she would have done it already.”

I frowned. “What do you mean by Colorless?”

Leeno gave me an odd look, then sighed. “Of course, you don’t know. You see, when a criminal is considered low-risk—”

He was interrupted by the shuttle shaking hard enough to almost throw us all off our feet, and then shaking some more.

Zero turned around in her seat and started signing desperately. It wasn’t the kemo battle sign that she had used before.

Leeno winced. “The docking clamps have us locked in. We can’t take off.”

“So?” Adam said. “Just do your electric thing, unlock them.”

“I can’t do that from inside the shuttle,” Leeno said.

“Then go outside,” I said.

“Then I won’t be able to get back in. The doors won’t open unless the shuttle has landed.”

“What kind of stupid safety feature is that?”

Leeno rolled his tangerine-colored eyes. “It’s not a safety feature, at least not in that way. This is one of the old prison shuttles. They bought a bunch of them for cheap before we left home. The doors won’t open except in a docking cradle, so that criminals can’t hijack the shuttle and just land wherever they like. It’s a hardware thing, not software. I can’t override it.”

I looked around the small ship. Now that he mentioned it, I did see some signs of a ship designed to hold prisoners. Nothing so obvious as cages or manacles, but there were a number of sturdy metal handles—painted a rainbow of colors, of course—on the floor, where people could be chained. I also noticed that none of them were in reach of the controls.

I frowned. “But your shuttle didn’t have that problem.”

He shrugged. “That was a different model. Most of them aren’t prison shuttles.”

I threw up my hands. “Then why don’t we go find another one? One that wasn’t designed for transporting criminals?”

“I didn’t see any more shuttles out there, did you?”

“We don’t have time for this,” Adam said. “Does anyone have any powers that might help? Any kind of kinesis, super strength or… I don’t know, teleportation?” Everyone shook their heads. He cursed under his breath. “Just need five feet of teleportation. Is that too much to ask?”

Super strength… “What about the cargo bay? Does that stay locked, too?”

“Yes, sorry. I don’t think—”

The shuttle shook again, but this time it was from an explosion outside the ship.

“No time!” Adam said. “Zero, full power! Rip out of the clamps!”

Leeno recoiled. “What? No! That could damage the ship!”

Adam met his stare without flinching. “More damage than being caught in an explosion, or more damage than being caught by angry guards?”

Leeno blinked, then turned to Zero. “Full power.”

She nodded and started manipulating the controls. The ship shook again.

“Everyone, helmets on, just in case,” Lily said. “Pale, I’ll get ready to shield you if I have to.”

As everyone got ready, there was a long, tortured screech of metal. I could feel every atom of the ship straining against the clamps, like a living thing trying desperately to break free. And then…

And then we were thrown against one side of the ship as the clamps finally failed.

The shuttle wobbled a bit, but smoothed out, and in moments we were outside the mothership, heading down to Earth.

“How did we do?” Leeno asked, as he walked up next to Zero. I followed. She had her hands full, of course, so he had to look over the screens himself. “Grey skies… we lost three thrusters.”

“Can we still land?” I asked. “I doubt my power is enough to fly this whole ship.”

“Well, we’ll hit the ground, if that’s what you mean,” Leeno said. “No guarantees on a soft landing.”

“Head for the water.” I marked the west side of the Domina island. “We’ve got allies underwater who will help us. Plus, these suits have enough air to last us a while, if it comes to that.”

“What about your niece?”

I frowned. “Who?” I glanced behind me. “Oh, you mean Pale Night. She’s not—” I paused. Now probably wasn’t the time to get into the oddities of Lily’s relationship with the people of the city, and what that meant for me. “She should be fine. Hey, Pale!” She looked up. “You’ve got Mermaid lungs, right?”

She nodded. “As well as a few depth buffs.”

I turned back to Leeno. “See, she’s fine. She’d probably last longer underwater than the rest of us.”

He nodded. “Very well. We should still warn your people that we are coming.”

“Yeah, my guild might try to swat us out of the sky.”

Adam walked up. “Why didn’t they do that to the hive, or whatever it was?”

“A hive is not technological,” Leeno said. “No radio, no thermal signature. It’s basically a rock, and not even a shiny rock. I doubt anyone in your city noticed it until it was too late. Though perhaps this MC of yours managed to warn someone.”

I snapped my fingers. “That’s who we’ll call.”

Adam frowned. “Are you sure she’ll still have the same number? We have no idea what happened.”

“She’ll be monitoring it, if nothing else,” I said. “She knows it’s the first thing anyone would call to get in touch with her.” I gave the frequency to Zero, who plotted it in without question. If she was planning betrayal, she was doing an excellent job of hiding it.

A moment later, the radio crackled to life. “Hello? Robyn? Lily?”

“I’m here,” I said. I glanced back at Lily. She had been talking with the warlords, but she walked over when she heard MC’s voice. “We’re both here, with everyone else except for Cailleach. She detonated her homunculus to give us time to escape.”

“Speaking of which,” Leeno said quietly, “I have many questions—”

I silenced him with a wave.

“I’m sure she has her hands full down here,” MC said. “I’m in the Cathedral right now. Bring that shuttle down and we’ll talk. I’m sure the Servants will love to get their hands on para tech.”

I glanced at Leeno. If he had a problem with this plan, he didn’t show it. “Sounds good. It, uh, might be a hard landing…”

“Aim for the pond. It will be messy, but better than the alternative.”

I nodded. Despite what I had said to Leeno, I was much happier to know we’d be landing in the middle of the city instead of out in the Bay at the mercy of the Dagonites.

The White Cat strode up. “I would very much like to see what the para have as well. I can call some of my engineers, have them meet us there.”

MC chuckled sadly. “I’m afraid that they’ve already got their hands full.”

Adam cursed. “The hive.”

“Actually, that’s secondary,” MC said. “There was a more… immediate problem.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 331)

At the moment, Lily can only borrow one power at a time, though that will eventually change as her power grows and evolves. No matter how many powers she has, however, they will always pull from a single reservoir. Also remember that her reservoir is not influenced by the person she borrows the power from; Derek, for example, could have kept up the shield bubble she uses here for hours if not days.

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 325 – Manes

MANES

ALEX

“Jarasax,” I called. “Kat, George! C’mon, we gotta go!”

George stepped out of the shuttle and immediately hit his head on the airlock. “Ow,” he said, rubbing his forehead. He kept his hand out to watch for more dangers. “Why does Lemuria have such low ceilings?”

“Because it was founded by dwarves fleeing persecution by the elves of Rivendell.”

George paused. “Really?”

“Of course not.” I signed the last of the customs forms and nodded in thanks to the clerk. “They just didn’t have giants in mind when they built this place.”

Lemuria was one of the middle-aged colonies, a little over twenty years old. Since Mars still hadn’t been terraformed, there were a lot of domes and tunnels and airlocks, all made of white plastic and metal. The whole thing felt like living in a space station, and the low gravity didn’t help. But at least it was better than being on that cramped shuttle for a month.

I still couldn’t believe we had agreed to this mission in the first place. With everything that had happened, I had mentioned to Medina that we should get away from the city for a while. I meant maybe take a quick tour to one of the space stations, or a working vacation on Luna. I hadn’t expected her to send us to Mars—especially not as a team of ghosts.

I shouldered my bag and glanced around. There was a sign pointing new arrivals down one direction of the T-bone junction, but there was another saying that there was a park in the other direction.

I glanced back at my friends. George was hunched over and had most of our stuff on his back, but there wasn’t really that much. Jarasax had a laptop under one arm and was looking around curiously, while Kat just had a toolbelt and was sniffing the air. I also noticed that the customs clerk was staring at Kat while trying not to be obvious about it. She was probably the first anthro he had ever seen.

They all looked like they needed a chance to unwind just a bit from their long trip.

“Let’s go to the park,” I said. “See how the Martian terraforming is coming along.”

The others grinned, and I smiled as well. Fi hadn’t officially named me her successor or anything like that, but the retinue followed me as long as I gave good orders.

The park was only a few turns from the dock, but it still took about ten minutes to get there, since we had to press through a crowd of people in the corridor who couldn’t stop goggling at George and Kat. I resolved to talk to them about that later. Body shame wasn’t a big deal in Domina, but it might be a serious problem here.

All thoughts fled my mind as we stepped out into the park.

Domina didn’t have many parks. A few small fields of grass where people hadn’t built anything yet, some rooftop or wall gardens and one or two flower displays in some of the weirder domains. I had never been outside Domina before this, so I was expecting something like that. A field of grass, definitely, maybe with some rows of planters and a couple trees.

The Lemurian park was encased in a giant glass dome so that you could see the stars above, but that almost seemed like a waste. Massive, towering trees blocked the view, everything from vine-wrapped jungle trees to sky-scraping redwoods.

Down at ground level, there was thick, soft green grass that came up to my knees in some places, but someone had mowed a winding path through it. There were bushes with berries and bright leaves, sprawling vines and beautiful flowers. It looked like a wild forest from every part of the world combined.

The entire place smelled of plants and loam and life. I could hear distant birds singing, and rustling that might have been larger animals

“I’m not a botanist,” Jarasax said. “But I don’t think this is what a normal park looks like.”

“First time in the arboreum?” someone said.

We all wheeled around to see a man standing next to the door we had just entered through. My hand went to my side, but my dayknives were in my bag. I prepared myself to blast a burst of light into his eyes, but forced myself to remain calm. He was just saying hello.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s… amazing.”

He grinned. “Isn’t it, though? I’m just a gardener, but I still can’t believe how lucky I am to work here. To see it every single day.”

“How is everything so big?” George asked. “It hasn’t been long enough for them to grow, and you can’t have carted everything from Earth.”

The gardener chuckled. “No, of course not. These plants were genetically engineered to grow quickly, with special artificial sunlight and exceptionally rich soil. These all grew from seeds. The oldest is… ten years old, I believe. We tried starting without genetic engineering, but nothing would take to the soil.”

“Interesting,” I said. “It seems dangerous, though. What happens if they get out of control?”

“Well, I’m not a geneticist or a botanist,” he said. “I can’t go into the full details. But as I understand, they were engineered so that they wouldn’t pass on their altered genes to their progeny. That way, we get a head start without having to worry about unanticipated side effects.”

That seemed odd. I knew a bit about genetic engineering, and while what he was saying was possible, it was a little tricky.

“Did you design the seeds?” Jarasax asked.

“No,” the gardener said. “I told you, I’m—”

“I mean you as in Lemuria.”

“Oh.” The gardener smiled. “No, they were bought on Earth.”

“Do you remember from who?” Sax pressed.

I frowned. Where was he going with this?

“From a company called the Viridian Children, I believe,” the gardener said.

We all nodded in understanding. The Children were a changeling clan, known for using the toy maker on plants. They would have been able to do what the gardener was describing very easily.

“Thank you for your time,” I said. “I think we’ll just start walking around.”

Before he could respond, there was a distant dull whumph of an explosion.

The gardener looked in that direction.

“If you want to point us to somewhere we can sit, that would be nice,” I said.

The gardener turned back to me with a frown. “What?”

“We’ve been on a shuttle for a month,” I said. “We just want to stretch our legs a bit.”

“But… didn’t you hear that?”

“Yes. Sounded like an explosion.”

“Might have been a car overloading,” George said.

“Or something getting firebombed,” Sax said.

Kat made a few quick motions with her fingers, and we all nodded in agreement.

The gardener shook his head. “But… there was an explosion?

“Well, I guess,” I said. “I’m sure the lawmen will handle it. You have pyromachites around here, right?”

He stared. “What?

“The people who put out fires,” I said, slower. “You live in a station where oxygen is at a premium, please tell me you have someone in charge of getting rid of fires.”

“Y-yes, of course, but—”

“Then it’s fine.” I clapped him on the shoulder. “You can’t worry about every little thing.”

There was another whumph. It was smaller, or perhaps more distant.

The gardener nearly jumped out of his skin. “What that another one?”

“That’s common when fighting a fire,” George said. “Either the fire is uncontrolled or the pyromachites are directing it to something nonessential. Either way, it’s not our problem, so don’t worry about it.”

“But… but…”

“Look,” I said, guiding him down the mowed path. “If there was actually something wrong, an alarm would have gone off. Right?” The gardener nodded hurriedly. “Of course. So that means it’s under control. There are a million airlocks around here, so in the worst case they can just seal off the affected sections.”

“I guess…” he muttered.

“And if a bunch of oxygen is lost to the fire, do you know what’s suddenly going to be very important?”

The worried look on his face cleared. “The arboreum?”

“Exactly!” I patted him on the back. “The city might be in a bad situation right now, but don’t feel bad for taking a bit of advantage. You can do the right thing and make a profit at the same time.” There was another explosion, and I frowned. “Or maybe the city’s in a really bad situation. There are alarms that would go off if things went really crazy, right?”

“Uh, yeah.” We were walking further into the forest, and things were getting too dark for me. I doubted the gardener even noticed the difference, but with dayeyes, even normal shadows could be as black as deepest night to me. “I’m not in charge of those, of course. Maybe they’re broken or something?”

I rubbed my forehead. This shouldn’t be our problem. We were supposed to be spies. Emergencies should be left to lawmen and pyromachites and paramedics and whoever else was paid to run towards danger. We had just got off a month-long shuttle ride, we deserved at least a little bit of rest.

“Is there a bench or something?” I asked. “Somewhere we can sit down?”

“Also, do you have the wifi password?” Jarasax asked. I glanced back to see his face illuminated by the light of his tablet. “I’m having trouble hacking in.”

The gardener frowned. “Hacking?”

Kat elbowed Sax in the ribs.

Getting in,” he said. “That’s what I meant. Just a slip of the tongue.”

“Um… right. Anyway, the password is Kumari Kandam. Two words, spelled like it sounds.”

Sax’s fingers flew over the keyboard in a way that only a changeling’s could. “Hm. That didn’t work. Capitalized?”

“Both, yes.”

“Alright, thank you, that worked.”

“That password will give you access to most public wifi in Lemuria,” the gardener said.

We came out into a small clearing with a few benches. “Well—” I began. I was interrupted by someone crashing out of the bushes behind us.

It was a baseline boy, maybe fifteen or so. He was panting heavily and had a device in his hand. It looked like a pad, though with a bit of extra armor on it, and a glance told me that he was using it to track something.

“Alex Gabriel!” he shouted.

“Yes?” I said. “That’s me.”

The boy took a deep breath. “I need… you need…” He bent over, his hands on his knees. “Whoo…”

“Take your time, boy,” George said. “There’s no rush.”

There was another distant explosion.

The boy stood up straighter, fire in his eyes. “This is important! The para are attacking!”

I glanced at my friends, but they shook their heads. They didn’t know either.

“The who?” I asked.

The boy blinked. “…the para. The aliens?”

I scowled. “I’m not in the mood for practical jokes.”

“How do you not know about the aliens!?” the boy asked, aghast. “It’s been… everywhere the past few weeks! All over the news!”

I raised an eyebrow. “Convenient that this only happened while we were on a shuttle for a month.”

“You didn’t have tv on the shuttle?”

“Couldn’t agree on what to watch,” Jarasax said.

“Yeah, well, there are aliens, and they are attacking Lemuria!

“Sure.” I patted him on the shoulder and walked past him. “Whatever you say, buddy. Try your prank on someone else.”

“I have orders from Dame Medina to send you into battle!”

I raised an eyebrow. “I highly doubt that.”

He rubbed his forehead. “Telepathy is—look. Just give me one second.” He took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

“What’s he doing?” Sax asked after a moment.

“Beats me,” I said.

Kat signed something.

“Only if he’s actually a telepath,” I said. “What’d he do, leave Domina five minutes after the Rampage?”

She shrugged and signed something else.

Before I could respond, the boy opened his eyes. “Okay, got it. Dame Medina says code AG-7248-G-KL. ‘Ilarion Marinov, get off your ass and save that city or I am personally coming over there to smack some sense into you.’”

I blinked. “Wait. Seriously?”

The boy heaved a great sigh. “YES!

“Um, for what it’s worth,” the gardener said. “The para are real. They were orbiting Earth last I checked, but—”

“Retinue, weapons free,” I said.

We all dropped our bags on the ground and started rifling through them. I took off my shirt to better expose my dayskin, found my dayknives, and even clipped my Shachar-class pistol onto my belt. Fi had insisted I start carrying an actual gun once she left, and I had insisted on something angel-made.

I glanced behind me. George and Kat were finishing reassembling their gatling gun and sniper rifle, respectively, and Sax was checking over his rifle.

“Ready?” They nodded. I turned to the boy. “Show us the way.” He ran off, and we followed. As an afterthought, I shouted over my shoulder at the poor confused gardener. “Keep an eye on our bags!”

The boy led us out of the arboreum and through a maze of twisting passages. There were more explosions now, or perhaps we were just close enough to hear them. It took far longer than I would have liked, but eventually we came upon the battle scene.

The boy had led us to the industrial docks, used for shuttling raw materials and finished products between colonies, unlike the residential docks we had come in on. It was the size of a football field, and made completely out of gray steel and concrete. The entire place had the dirty grime of a place that no one bothered to clean more than was necessary. Giant shutters acted as airlocks big enough to allow entire tons of cargo to be shifted at a time. One of the shutters was open, with a ship attached.

Spilling out of the ship were dozens of people, roughly human-shaped, dressed in some sort of brightly-colored armor. It almost seemed like they had been painted at random, just a brush of color here and there. If there was any pattern or ranking system, I couldn’t see it.

They had guns, or something like them. The number of human corpses in maintenance uniforms were a testament to that. There were only a few defenders left, returning fire with small arms that were probably just personal defense weapons. I didn’t see any of the heavy ordnance that would be required to repel an attack like this. Lemuria was a quiet port, they hadn’t seen the need to keep miniguns stashed nearby.

Thankfully, we had brought our own.

I already had an earpiece on, so I broadcast on all Lemurian channels. “Cavalry incoming!”

George took the hint, planted his feet, and fired.

His minigun roared like a dragon, sending hundreds of bullets towards the invaders. The defenders knew to keep their heads down, but the enemy were not so lucky. Almost a dozen were shredded to pieces before the rest dove behind cover, but that was fine. The point of suppressing fire was not to kill the enemy—that was just a bonus. It was to force them to hide and stop shooting at you.

Kat took advantage, lining up her shots and taking out one, two, three before anyone noticed she was there. I just saw heads exploding around me as I ran.

Because I was taking advantage or George’s distraction too.

I rushed forward, knives at my sides, ducking under the hail of fire. I dodged around a crate, found the enemy soldier hiding behind it, and slashed him across the throat. Warm red blood splattered in the air, but I was already gone, heading for the next one.

This time, my knife hit something metal when I went for the throat.

The alien grinned and threw me aside with the strength of a giant. I hit a stack of boxes and was dazed, but still retained enough awareness to see the alien touch his neck to check the wound there. There was blood, but nowhere near enough for a wound that size, and I thought I saw the glint of metal under the flesh.

He—and I was pretty sure the alien was a he—had lost his gun when I attacked him, but he didn’t seem to mind. He raised his arm, and a long knife snapped out from his wrist, just above the hand.

Lovely.

There was a crackle of ozone as he advanced on me. So it was an electrified knife. Even better.

I flipped out my dayknives and slashed forward. I was still on the ground, so the attack came in low, and the alien was forced to jump backwards to dodge. That gave me time to clamber to my feet and fall into a real fighting stance.

The alien scowled and closed the distance, slashing with his knife from up high. I blocked with one of my blades—they had good thick rubber handles, so I didn’t have to worry about the electricity—and slashed at his chest with the other one. He dodged, but I managed to scratch the garish paint on his armor.

He pulled back for another strike, but I pressed the attack, forcing him on his guard. He parried a few more blows, but then I feinted for his chest and went for his neck again instead. That didn’t do much more than draw some blood, but it did distract him long enough for me to stab him in the eyes with both dayknives.

He instantly fell limp, and something electric popped and sizzled in his skull. I grunted and kicked him off my blades, then glanced around the battlefield.

Kat was still trying to provide supporting fire, but the aliens had closed with George. He had been forced to drop his minigun and engage them in melee, using what appeared to be the ripped-off arm of one of his assailants as a club. I didn’t see Sax anywhere, which I took as a good sign, especially since I could still hear him shooting. He must have hidden, and was now taking shots of opportunity. There were also a few more Lemurian dockworkers than before, trying to retake their home.

“Watch out!” I called. “They’re cyborgs! Don’t know what tricks they’ve got!”

One of the aliens climbed up onto the crate that I was using as cover and leveled his gun at me. I grabbed my knives, but I knew I wasn’t moving fast enough—I’d be dead before I managed to close. Before he was able to fire, bloody holes appeared in his skull, and he collapsed in a heap.

Jarasax slid into place next to me. “Maybe don’t announce your position to the entire battlefield,” he said.

“Sorry,” I said. “Lost my earpiece in the scuffle.” I looked around and found it at the spot where I had first been thrown into the boxes. I put it back on as we spoke. “Have they called in reinforcements yet?”

“There are no more ships coming in, if that’s what you mean,” he said. He checked a small wrist screen. “But there should be more still on that ship. I expect that they’ll be coming out any minute now.”

A stack of crates a few yards away exploded into a million pieces. Sax and I had to duck to avoid getting hit by red-hot shrapnel, but from the screams of pain, some of the dockworkers weren’t so lucky.

“Grenades,” I muttered. “Figures.”

Jarasax shook his head. “That wasn’t a grenade, that was a missile.”

“You mean like from a—” I was interrupted by the sound of something big and heavy coming down the ramp from the enemy ship. I spared a glance, assuming it was a couple big guys carrying a missile launcher, but had to look again when I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

It was a massive metal automaton, easily ten feet tall, with shoulders nearly as wide and two huge arms holding a missile launcher that was bigger than I was. It had four surprisingly small spiked legs that pounded the deck with a rhythmic ringing noise, and no head at all. It had a dozen glowing red lights on its chest, which I had to assume were its optical sensors. The torso swiveled every once in a while, trying to get a better view.

Unlike everything else the aliens used, this thing was not painted in a rainbow of colors. Instead it was simple steel, the dull gray color of metal that had not been polished in months or even years.

Two more of the automatons were coming down the ramp.

“They have robots? I shrieked.

“You’re surprised?” Jarasax said. “It seems to fit with their cybernetics and everything. So I guess I should say no, I don’t think they have robots—that’s probably more similar to an echo.” He smiled. “I’ll bet the pilots have their brains plugged directly into the controls…”

“Admire the enemy when they’re dead!” I snapped. “Kat!”

The rocket launchers were of a design that was unfamiliar to us, but they had what looked like coolant vents all along the sides. I saw a spark from Kat’s bullet when it hit those vents, and then the whole weapon exploded, taking out the robot’s arm with it. The machine screeched in pain and rage, almost like a living thing. That certainly lent credence to Sax’s theory.

“Aim for the guns,” I said on the general channel. “We can handle the bots when they’re disarmed.”

At least a dozen groans were my answer.

I smirked. “Just do it, unless you want more puns.”

I saw a burst of black mist behind me. That would be Kat, shifting to bat form. Good, she’d be in position for another shot in a moment. In the meantime, the others were firing at the missile launchers, but the injured robot was helping shield them. Not to mention that there were still a dozen normal aliens to contend with.

Normal aliens. Was that an oxymoron?

More gunfire hit the box I was hiding behind, and I forced myself to pay attention. There were three aliens spread out in front of me, firing in my direction. I checked for any other enemies in range—none—jumped out from behind the box, and started glowing. It wasn’t a full daybreak, but definitely enough to make the aliens flinch. When they did, I dashed forward and sliced them all to ribbons. The second had the same metal throat as the one I had fought earlier, but I just slashed across his face instead, sending him to the ground screaming.

Another of the robots lost an arm—George’s enhanced bullets had found their mark. I grabbed a grenade from one of the fallen aliens, pulled what looked like a pin, and threw it at the robots.

At first I thought nothing had happened, but then there was the sound of electricity, and all three machines were pulled together by a massive magnetic force. They struggled to break free, but everyone immediately focused fire on them. Thick armor or not, that was the kind of thing that made a dent. After a full minute of the sound of bullets impacting steel like rain on a tin roof, the grenade’s effect ended, and the robots slumped over, dead. Someone had finally hit something important.

I rushed forward, through the burning hulks, in order to prepare to attack whoever came out of the alien ship first. There were a few crates stacked up at the airlock, which would give me more than enough cover for an ambush.

Before I could get into position, the entire city shook. The airlock remained closed.

One of the aliens, wrestling with one of the dockworkers, looked up. He babbled something in his language, then tossed his opponent aside and held up his hands in surrender. The other aliens looked at him in shock before throwing down their own weapons and surrendering as well.

“What happened?” an unfamiliar voice asked over my earpiece. Probably one of the dockworkers.

“The ship left,” I said. “They abandoned their soldiers.” I did a quick count. “I guess they decided saving four men wasn’t worth it.”

“I think one’s a woman,” someone said helpfully.

One of the dockworkers put a gun in the face of one of the aliens. “So what now? We finish them off?”

I rolled my eyes and walked down the ramp. “No. These are prisoners of war, and must be treated with respect.”

He licked his lips. “But they never signed the Geneva Convention, right? So you can’t commit war crimes against them.”

I couldn’t remember what the Geneva Convention was, though it did sound familiar. Geneva was a city in… Italy? “I’m pretty sure that’s not how it works. We’re still bound to uphold the law even if they are not.”

“But—”

“And even if you are right, we still have a moral obligation not to slaughter prisoners.”

He still looked hesitant. “But—”

I rolled my eyes. “For crying out loud man, we need them alive for interrogation. What is with you?”

He lowered the gun and pouted. “I didn’t get to shoot anyone.”

I sighed. “I’m sure they’ll invade again at some point.” I glanced around. I still didn’t see any authority figures. There had to be police or something somewhere on this colony, but if so they hadn’t shown up yet. Or maybe they were just out of uniform. Either way, I was the only one taking charge.

One of the dockworkers walked up to me and showed me some handcuffs. “Broke up one of the boxes, sir.”

I nodded. “Good. Secure the prisoners.”

“And mark the box as opened,” someone else said. I was surprised to realize it was George. “We don’t want you to get in trouble with your boss when all this is done.”

The dockworker nodded and went to work. I glanced around at all the destroyed crates, then raised an eyebrow at George. He just shrugged.

“Okay,” I said, clapping my hands once to get everyone’s attention. “Where’s the prison?”

The dockworkers all stared at me.

“C’mon, there has to be one,” I said. “This colony has been here for twenty years. Someone has committed crimes in that time.”

“Criminals get shipped to Phobos,” one of the dockworkers said. “There’s a penal colony there.”

I shook my head. “Okay, sure, whatever. Where’s the nearest bathroom?”

He pointed at a far wall, and I saw the signs.

“Excellent,” I said. “Put them in there, lock the doors, and post guards outside. If you’re not sure how many guards you need, post more.”

Most of the dockworkers still looked confused, but a few started leading the prisoners away—including the blond who had gotten the handcuffs in the first place. I made a mental note to keep an eye on him. Initiative was rare in situations like this.

“Why a bathroom?” one of the other dockworkers asked.

I smiled. “Because it’s a room with only one exit and a toilet. Unless you would rather lock them in a room without a toilet?”

Someone muttered something about the Geneva Convention again. I ignored him. If it was important, he could speak up.

“Sax, Kat, secure those weapons,” I said, pointing to the alien guns. “George, find somewhere to put those robots. A machine shop should do—I’m sure that there’s one around here somewhere.”

“I’ll show you,” one of the dockworkers said. She was a woman, and seemed too eager for my tastes. George liked them bubbly, though, and he was smiling when she led him off.

I nodded as Kat and Sax went to work. “Excellent. Anything else?”

“Yeah,” one of the dockworkers said, frowning. “Who are you?”

My smile fled. “I’m sorry?”

“You don’t look Lemurian,” he said. “And I definitely don’t recognize you.” He looked me up and down. “Are those tattoos Hebrew?”

“It’s more like high-tech ritual scarification,” I said. “And while it’s based on Hebrew, it’s actually a cipher—”

“Alex,” Jarasax said, a warning tone in his voice. “Check them.”

I took a deep breath and, for the first time in well over a month, activated my power.

I still didn’t know exactly what it did. It was some form of mind-reading, that much was clear, but nothing so simple or useful as directly hearing thoughts. At first I thought I could feel emotions, but that wasn’t it either.

I could feel intent, or something like it. Not what someone would do, but what they wanted to do. I had found it less useful than I might have expected. Turned out that most people spent a lot of time wanting to do things and then never acting on that intent.

When I turned on my power and pushed my senses towards the Lemurians, I got a lot of different readings. Some of them wanted to lie down and sleep. Some wanted to eat, or take a shower, or just shoot things. One worker had a surprisingly strong desire to get into his ship, chase after the aliens, and ram them. The desire was so strong I could almost see it, but he just stood there calmly.

Oddly, none of the crowd wanted to kill me, or even attack me. That was what Jarasax had been warning me about, but it turned out he was just being paranoid. That wasn’t uncommon for changelings.

I relaxed. If I hadn’t used my power, I probably would have freaked out and ran. With it, I could tell that we weren’t in any danger, so we could try to talk them down.

“We just got in today,” I said. “Came all the way from Earth, actually.” I shrugged, as if it was no big deal, but I knew that Lemurians rarely saw Earthers. The older colonies didn’t really like outsiders. Not much different from Domina, actually. “We heard what was happening, so we decided to lend a helping hand.”

Most of the dockworkers relaxed, but the leader didn’t relax. “That doesn’t explain your tattoos. Or why people with your kind of training are here in the first place.”

I pursed my lips. ‘We were sent here as spies because we weren’t doing any good in a city of monsters’ probably wasn’t the best tact to take. I was reasonably certain he hadn’t realized we were from Domina, but the second he looked up my tattoos, he’d figure it out. Basic culture information had been shared after the war with America, and Lemuria probably had that information on hand even before that.

Before I was forced to think of something to say, the telepath from before ran up, skidding to a stop in front of me. “Honored Daybreaker! New orders!”

“New orders from who?” the lead dockworker demanded. “No one on Lemuria called for you.”

I decided to go all-out. “Orders from Domina City. He’s a telepath.”

He stared. “A tele-what?

“We have superpowers, you have aliens. It’s a weird universe.” I turned to the boy. “Spit it out.”

He took a deep breath. “Code AG-7248-G-KL-VC2. ‘Liaise with local authorities to fortify Lemuria. If the para return, stop them.’ That’s all, sir.”

I nodded. “Good. Sax, pay the kid.”

The boy happily accepted a small wad of cash from Jarasax, bowed to us both, and ran off again.

“Liaise with local authorities?” the lead dockworker asked. “What does that mean?”

I smirked. I had been waiting to say this my whole life.

“Take us to your leader.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 325)

Took me a while to figure out who I wanted on Lemuria. I didn’t want to introduce any new characters, especially with the added baggage of being a ghost. Then I remembered that I had been planning on sending them offworld after the whole thing with Fierna, and it all clicked into place.

Just remember that the retinue make absolutely terrible ghosts. Most ghosts have things like “training” and “subtlety.”

Scene 320 – Cadere

CADERE

ROBYN JOAN

I flew high above the city, far beyond warm updrafts or bothersome aircraft. I was so high that I needed a flight suit and my mask, and the cold still managed to seep into my body like a thousand knives.

Some of the members of my guild had tried to keep up with me, but eventually they were all forced to fall off. The winged members, like Fimmtu, had the lowest flight ceiling, but even the rockets and the other levitators simply didn’t have the reservoir to make the climb.

I liked it up here, alone. It was peaceful. Nothing but an endless sea of clouds. The alien ship had drifted away, so I could even ignore that particular bit of insanity. I could just float until my reservoir ran out—and these days, that took a very long time.

I closed my eyes and lay on my back like I was sleeping on the softest mattress in the universe. I had finally learned how to sleep like this, and it was becoming addictive. How could I go back to sheets and pillows after clouds and air?

I heard engines nearby. I resolved to ignore them, but they changed pitch and then held in place—someone was hovering, looking at me.

I frowned and opened my eyes. I should be above the flight ceiling of any helicopters or VTOLs. What could possibly—

Oh, right. The aliens.

I tried not to panic, and just look at the situation objectively. The alien craft was different from the ones we had seen already. It was much larger and utilitarian, shaped roughly like a bus without windows and with strange, glowing blue spikes in place of wheels. Those had to be the engines, the reactionless drives MC and Laura mentioned. They twisted and adjusted themselves every other second, likely fighting to keep aloft in this strange environment.

I was surprised that the shuttle was painted dozens of different colors. There were stripes and swirls, whorls and arcs, like a rainbow painted by an insane savant. I was used to spacecraft being a simple uniform steely gray, with maybe the country’s flag painted somewhere small. The US often painted theirs white, but that was about the extent of it.

The ship floated about a hundred feet away—more than close enough to see them, but far enough that they wouldn’t actually hit me. I couldn’t see inside and I had turned off my radio, so they had no way of communicating with me. I considered turning my radio back on, but decided against it. Floating in the stratosphere just wasn’t the best place for first contact.

Instead I just waved them to follow, then cut my flight. I fell leisurely through the air, picking up speed as I passed through the cloud layer. Once I was through, I turned over and looked down. I wasn’t quite on target, but I didn’t need to course-correct quite yet. Give my reservoir time to recharge.

I glanced over my shoulder. The alien shuttle was following me, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t free-falling. All the engines were still lit up, if not as bright as before. Maybe they weren’t as confident in their engines as I was with my flight.

Speaking of which, what did they think of someone flying around unaided? I obviously didn’t have wings or a jetpack. Unless they had the technology to do something similar, I was probably a complete enigma.

Or unless they had powers too.

That thought was like opening my eyes for the first time. Suddenly I could feel… something from the shuttle. Something beyond hearing, beyond thought. It wasn’t the same as the screamers or even the singers, it was just… a feeling. More than anything else, it reminded me of the silence before a performer began to play.

Or sing.

Could the para have powers? Other than Elizabeth and Silk, we didn’t know where the powers came from. What if the aliens could do the same sorts of things we could? Our biggest advantage would be gone in a heartbeat.

They might be able to hit me with a countersong and knock me right out of the sky.

My heart sped up, and I had to resist the urge to activate my power and fly as far away from the shuttle as fast as I could. If they were going to do that, they would have already. Besides, the range on those things wasn’t that great. If I fell, I’d fall out of range and be able to keep flying. Probably.

I activated my power, but not to flee. Instead, I corrected my course, heading towards NHQ. There were plenty of places in the city with landing pads big enough for the shuttle, but I wasn’t going to take this thing anywhere else. If nothing else, they had the anti-air guns to blow them out of the sky if they turned hostile.

…they had AA guns.

I couldn’t actually see them at this distance, but I swore I could feel the guns targeting us. With my radio turned off, I had no IFF transponder, so they probably thought I was a missile or drone. They might be trying to contact the shuttle, but I doubted anyone onboard spoke English…

After ten seconds of cold fear—ten seconds too many—I hit my radio, turning it back on, and called my sister on her private line. “MC! It’s me! I’m bringing the ship in peacefully! Don’t shoot!

“Robyn?” She made a sound like a sigh. “Dammit, Robyn, stop turning your radio off!” There was a pause. “There. AA guns standing down. Please take them onto landing platform four. It’s the northernmost one.”

“Got it.” I paused. “You wouldn’t have really shot, would you?”

“Honestly? I don’t know. We were having trouble contacting them, and if we couldn’t get a stable line of communication by the time they got too close… yeah, we might have shot. How did you manage to talk to them, anyway?”

“I just waved for them to follow me.”

Static crackled with her sigh. “Of course. I suppose that bodes well for the future. Derek and Akane are preparing a greeting party. I’ll tell them that the aliens seem non-hostile, for now. Unless they shot at you a few times and you failed to mention it?”

“No, of course not. But, um…”

“What?”

“I think someone on that shuttle has a power. Maybe.”

There were a full five seconds of silence as she processed that. “What? How could they—how could you know that?”

“I just… feel something from the shuttle.”

“Hm,” she said, clearly not convinced. “Well, I don’t feel anything.”

“You still haven’t figured out what your power even is,” I said. Silk had given her one, but she hadn’t been able to activate it yet. She could feel her reservoir, but that was it. “Plus, you’re in the city, surrounded by millions of people with powers. I’m up here alone. Less distractions.”

“Maybe. Look, just bring them in slow, all right? We want to be able to hit them easily if they do anything weird.”

It took about twenty more minutes to bring the alien shuttle in to land. I took it nice and slow, as requested, and came in at a steep angle. I wasn’t giving them a tour of the city in case they did turn out to be hostile. A couple of my better fliers got close at one point, but I waved them off. Probably better to keep the number of people involved to a minimum. We’d need those fliers if the ship decided to start shooting in the middle of the city.

I landed on platform four as requested, my boots touching down as lightly as a feather. A moment later, the platform shook, but not too bad. I turned around to see that the shuttle had deployed landing gear, and its thrusters were powering down. Quite the show of faith on their part, unless they could power up again a lot faster than we thought.

I glanced towards the rooftop entrance to NHQ. Derek and Butler were walking out, side-by-side, with Akane and her kensei marching behind them. There were a few subtle movements on the other platforms and rooftops that told me Laura had us surrounded by gunmen and snipers. Clever. The swordsmen are the obvious threat, so anyone would look around and probably spot the snipers. But with their super speed, the kensei were the real threat.

Everyone was wearing the skintight black quarantine suits that the Glasyans had made. They still weren’t perfect, but they were much easier to move around in than normal quarantine suits. At least the kensei would be able to fight if necessary. They even had large faceplates so we could identify each other.

I walked over to Butler. “Hey, Uncle. Where’s my father?”

“Downstairs with Miss Medina, watching through the cameras,” he said. “I felt it was safer to keep from putting all our eggs in one basket, so to speak. Not to mention, put this on.” He gestured to Derek, and he handed me a rolled-up q-suit. “We can’t be too careful.”

I frowned, but started putting it on over my flight clothes. The flight suit would actually act as a halfway decent hazmat suit on its own, but I knew Butler wouldn’t let me get away with that. Better to avoid the argument. “I’m pretty sure whatever that shuttle is using for power could vaporize the entire building if they decided to self-destruct.”

Butler sighed. “Yes, Medina said the same thing. Regardless. This is still safer.”

I smirked as I put the helmet on. “I think you just don’t want my dad ruining this by acting like a kid in a candy store.”

He smiled. “That was part of it, true.”

“If anything goes wrong, I’ll shield Butler and get him out,” Derek said. “Robyn, your job will be to fly as far as you can. One of the outposts at the Gates would be best. Think you can manage that?”

Was he being sarcastic? No, he was just being honest. He needed a genuine answer.

“I’ll be fine,” I promised. “Though I don’t think these guys are hostile.”

Derek looked past me, at the shuttle. “They haven’t come out yet. That worries me.”

I shrugged. “Maybe they’re just being polite? We’re obviously busy.”

“Hm. Maybe.” He nodded at Akane. “Keep to formation, but be ready to rush at a moment’s notice. And remember to try to be nonlethal if at all possible. We still have much to learn here.”

Akane nodded, which caused the blue ribbon in her hair to get tangled up in front of her face. Inside the helmet, she couldn’t fix it. That reminded me, all her kensei had red ribbons of varying length. Was that some indicator of rank, or just personal preference?

Our little procession continued forward, stopping some twenty feet from the shuttle. We waited for a moment, and then the shuttle’s side cracked open, deploying a simple ramp. For some reason I had expected something more high-tech, like unfolding moving stairs.

Two people came down the ramp.

At first, I thought that we had been duped. That they were human, and that this whole thing had been some bizarre scheme to trick us into thinking it was an alien invasion. My mind went to all sorts of theories—aggressive ad campaign, foreign government attacking us, anything. But then my eyes finished processing what I was seeing, and I realized that they definitely weren’t human.

Their basic shape was about right. One head, two arms, two legs. The one on the left had two eyes, a mouth, two slits that were probably nostrils, and wide ears shaped like the sharp wings of a butterfly. The one on the right was wearing some sort of expressionless mask or helmet.

The one on the left had tangerine-colored eyes, all one color, though I could see them darting around, trying to take in everything at once. He had blue-green skin that, on a second glance, was actually made up of tiny scales like a lizard or a snake. Not much of his skin was uncovered, though. He was wearing something that looked like my flight suit, but covered in a rainbow of colors. He didn’t have any hair, but I couldn’t tell whether he had shaved his head or if the species just didn’t have hair.

His companion, on the right, seemed female to me. She had bumps under her flight suit that were probably breasts, but it was impossible to say for sure. She had the expressionless mask, and her flight suit was a dull gray. It contrasted sharply with the man and the ship. These people clearly liked colors, so what did it mean to have no color? Was she his boss?

The one on the left stepped forward. “Hello,” he said.

I blinked and glanced at Uncle Arty and Laura. They were both surprised, but they hid it better than me.

“You speak English?” Butler asked.

The para smiled. It was a surprisingly human gesture, though there seemed to be something off about his teeth. “Got it on my first try! Yes, I speak English.” He tapped the side of his head. “Language implant. Our Greyminds have been studying your communications for a few weeks.” He nodded his head slightly. “I am Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. You may call me Leeno.” He indicated the woman next to him. “This is Zero.”

“Bodyguard?” I asked.

He shrugged. Again, so human. “Something like that.”

“I am Artemis Butler,” Uncle Arty said. “Butler will do just fine.”

“And I am Derek Huntsman,” Derek said with a small bow. “Derek will do.”

Butler gestured behind him. He was indicating the roof exit, but I could tell he was also subtly reminding him of the armed guards. “Why don’t we go inside? It’s cold up here, and I do not like shouting over the wind.”

“Will we have to undergo some sort of quarantine? Perhaps wear suits like yours?”

“We did preliminary scans, and we are reasonably certain that you and your ship are clean. But we would like to take a few simple precautions, just to be safe for everyone. Including you two.”

Leeno smiled. “I think we’ll be fine, but we will of course cooperate. Zero and I both have nanite-immune systems that can survive virtually anything.” He glanced at me. “But I think we’re missing one introduction. Who is this… lady?”

I smiled at that. “Yes, I am female. My name is Robyn Joan Clarke. Robyn is fine.” I nodded at Zero. “I assume this means you’re female as well?”

She turned that mask to me, then nodded, once. She didn’t say a word.

We all filed dutifully downstairs, and Uncle Arty led us into one of his meeting rooms. They were mostly used for internal stuff, employee meetings and that sort of thing. Most cultures didn’t like entering NHQ unless they had to. Apparently it felt too much like getting trapped inside a fortress.

This one had been modified to be airtight, with a simple airlock improvised out of plastic sheets and an air conditioner. We’d still be inside with them, but this would reduce the damage if something did go wrong.

There was a single long table, about a dozen chairs, and a smaller side table with some refreshments. The kensei waited outside, but I had no doubt that MC and the others would be watching on the cameras. If something went wrong, the room would be pumped full of sleeping gas, followed by kensei in masks. We were as safe as could be.

“Would you like some water?” Butler asked as everyone took their seats. “We decided against food, since we weren’t sure of compatibility, but the water should be fine.”

“I have a filtration unit installed,” Leeno said. He seemed a bit confused at the wheels on his chair, but returned his attention to Butler after a moment. “There might be some microbes that could hurt me, but the filter will handle them.”

“Interesting,” Butler said. He pulled out a chair and sat down at the head of the table. “I am fascinated about the differences—and similarities—between our species. Imagine what we could do if we worked together.” He took out a pad and tapped at it. The q-suits were designed to work with touch screens. “Now, let’s start simple. I’m sorry, but I have to be blunt. Are your people here for war?”

Silence.

We all looked over at Leeno. His face was blank, and he was staring off into space without blinking.

“…Mister Leeno?” Butler said.

Zero had been sitting there stiffly, but she leaned forward and waved her hand in front of Leeno’s face. No reaction. She looked at us and shook her head.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked. “Can you please just talk? Or do you not speak English?”

Zero shook her head, then nodded. Even though I couldn’t see her face, I could feel her frustration. It was hard to talk with just yes and no responses. She put her hands on the table, and they were shaking with either anxiety or fear. Also, she only had three fingers on each hand. I hadn’t noticed that before.

After a moment, she hesitantly raised her hands and started signing.

I blinked. “…is that kemo battle sign?”

“I guess if you can program a spoken language, you can program a signed one,” Derek said, watching closely. “Whoa, slow down, I’m pretty rusty.”

“Why kemo, though? The angels have a more complex one.”

“Yeah, and it definitely requires five fingers on each hand. In kemo sign, you can get away with three. Or even one, in a pinch.” He frowned, watching closer. “She keeps signing ‘two hundred’ for some reason, I don’t understand.”

Zero’s shoulders slumped, and she signed something else.

Derek nodded. “Okay, got it. ‘Leeno’ literally means ‘two hundred.’” Pause. “Or, uh, not literally. But anyway, that’s what she’s using. So…” He watched her continue signing for a moment longer. “Okay… right. Leeno is apparently just thinking. Really, really hard. This has happened before, last time he was out for a few hours.”

Hours?” I said. “Is this normal for your people?”

Zero shook her head.

“Great,” I muttered under my breath. “Our ambassador is defective.”

Zero signed something else.

“Robyn was being facetious,” Derek said, giving me a glare. “Neither of you are defective. You’re just… unexpected.”

“And this gives us an unexpected few hours,” Butler said, rising from his chair. “I’ll call a full meeting. I’m sure all the cultures and guilds would prefer to be in the loop on this. We weren’t able to do so before, with the sudden arrival, but by now I’m sure my inbox is filled with questions.”

“Laura can also finish her scans, and we can figure out if this quarantine is necessary,” Derek said.

Butler raised his voice a little. It was unnecessary, but it was a common habit. “Mary Christina, how many warlords have contacted me about the para?”

Silence.

I frowned. Something was wrong. Sure, she couldn’t pay attention to everything at once, but this was first contact with an alien species. If there was one thing in the city she’d be paying attention to, it was this.

“Mary Christina?” Butler said again.

“MC?” I said. “You there?”

“I am here, Miss Clarke,” a flat, artificial voice said.

I just sat there for a moment, stunned. I never had to talk to her programs. I hadn’t even heard them in months, at the least.

The door burst open, and one of my dad’s aides stumbled in, breathing heavily. At least she was wearing a q-suit.

Zero immediately jumped up and pointed an arm at her. Something popped out that looked like a tiny gun turret.

“Lingshen!” Butler barked. “Stand and report!”

Lingshen glanced at Zero, then forced herself to stand at attention. “It’s—it’s MC, sir.”

“Yes, we noticed as well. What happened? Is there something wrong with her connections? Are we under attack?”

“No sir, it’s…” She swallowed her anxiety. “Sir, she’s gone!

Behind the Scenes (scene 320)

The para language chips also include the more physical parts of language, like smiles, shrugs, and so on. It can be kinda creepy having your body automatically act in a way you didn’t intend, but it’s better than people wondering why the hell you keep touching your nose and pulling on your ear. There is some crossover, though, so it’s not all like that. Most of the things para do with their mouths (smiles, frowns, kissing, etc) is the same as humans.

break

Scene 319 – Solum

SOLUM

I remembered going to sleep

I remembered fighting against the adults, against the robots, screaming murder and worse. I remembered shouting obscenities even as they refilled my sedative tanks, putting me under. I remembered, as my eyes began to feel heavy, the adults looking confused as to why I was fighting so hard. I was being put into cold sleep. I would wake up thousands of years later, on another world. I knew all that, so why was I fighting?

Because I always remembered the time I spent asleep.

It had taken years before I even knew there was anything different about me. The other children never spoke of their times asleep. They didn’t speak of their minds leaving their bodies to wander the halls, or of the stars calling to them. For them, sleep was nothing. Just an absence of awareness, occasionally peppered by a dream or two.

But I was always awake. My body might go to sleep, it might be drugged or tired or knocked out, but my mind stayed awake. Free to roam, free to explore, free to see the world without the limits of my own eyes.

Free to never, never go to sleep.

I remembered being loaded into the cryopod. I remembered the technicians activating it, freezing me like a hunk of meat. I remembered them chatting while they made sure all the pods were functional, while they double-checked that the robots were working perfectly. I remembered them leaving, and I remembered wishing with all my soul that I could leave with them. But I was tied to my body, and so I could not leave the ship it was on.

I remembered the ship starting, engines the size of an entire hive block propelling us into the sky almost like an old-fashioned rocket.

I remembered darkness. As we hurtled through the endless black of space, there was nothing but the steady sound of the robots keeping the ship maintained, and the low hum of the cosmic background radiation.

For almost three thousand years, there was nothing. Nothing at all. No one to talk to, no one to listen to. I couldn’t use the ship’s library, not at first, and the robots didn’t do anything interesting. All I could do was stare out the window at the infinite, star-speckled expanse.

I remembered going insane. For a time, the robots were in a frenzy, fixing a thousand minor mistakes. A loose wire here, an oil spill there. I could do so little, but I had infinite time. Unscrewing a gasket by a millimeter a day only took a couple weeks.

I remembered going sane. Playing the part of the poltergeist became boring, so I forced myself to rebuild my shattered mind and find something productive to do. I spent a few decades trying to entertain myself in constructive ways, but the robots kept interrupting my efforts. I would move a few electrons around to make a movie play on the main screen, but they would reset the defaults. I could try to play games in the oil spills, but the robots would clean it up. Over and over and over again.

I remembered very well the day I went insane again. A robot had just turned off my ‘malfunctioning’ screen, which I had actually gotten to play an old version of All the Colors of the Day. Terrible movie, but to my starved soul it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

The robot turned it off, and I screamed. I roared and thrashed at the machine, kicking and punching, but it did no good. Perhaps it received an additional dent or two, but nothing I noticed. Certainly nothing that would prevent it from doing the exact same thing again the next time I tried to watch something. All my impotent, stupid rage, childish frustration and centuries upon centuries of annoyances boiling into… something.

I remembered screaming, and hearing the universe sing in response.

The robot exploded, its power supply flaring as the electricity inside it was twisted in an impossible way. Pieces of robot went flying everywhere, and all that was left was a smoking wreck on the floor.

I remembered standing there, stunned, as the other robots cleaned up quickly and efficiently. I remembered staring at the spot on the floor long after it had been scrubbed clean and sanitized until it looked no different than any of the others.

But most of all, I remembered the universe bending to my will.

I began to practice. With a terrifying, insane sanity, I threw myself into an impossible task. How to make the universe bend again.

I listened to the humming of the universe, and I screamed to try to make it sing in counterpoint. It took centuries before I even managed to force it to make even the smallest tune. I needed rage and passion to make it work, which were in sort supply even considering my endless frustrations. That day I destroyed the robot had been a beautiful fluke, and it was likely I’d never see it again.

But I did. When an asteroid missed the ship by inches because of a tiny glitch in the sensors, the fear focused all of my being into a single point, like a spear forged of my soul. In that one moment, when I screamed, the universe sang back, and I was able to destroy the ten closest robots.

I remembered standing there, thinking, as the survivors cleaned up the scrap to recycle into new robots. It wasn’t a fluke. I had done it twice. And I could do it again.

The next time, it only took decades to summon the rage to destroy a robot. To feel the electricity of its soul and twist it to my own ends.

The next time, years.

Then hours.

And then, it was always there.

Emotions were no longer important. I knew how to sing to the universe, to have it sing in counterpoint and produce the effects I wanted. For centuries, I literally sang, opening an invisible mouth and singing with an unheard voice. But in time, that became unnecessary as well. I learned to tune my soul, so that the universe reacted to my thoughts instead of my voice.

I remembered a compulsion to spread the song. A desire to hear everyone on the ship singing, understanding, feeling the rhythm of the universe. The compulsion faded, in time. Or perhaps I simply became accustomed to it. With no ability to wake anyone up, I had no choice but to ignore it.

I remembered learning to control my power. To not just use it destructively, but constructively, even passively. I could move the power in the wires at just the right moment to prevent an overload. I could see all the electricity in the walls, in the robots… even in the people in the pods. It was like seeing the framework of the universe, all combined with the most beautiful music in all of creation.

I remembered the day the ship had to stop.

There was an artifact ahead. Small, by the standards of space, but emitting quite a bit of radiation. I watched over the shoulders of the robots as they did their work, made their calculations. I watched them consult mission protocols and decide to simply ignore it.

I cut off the engines, leaving us adrift in space heading straight towards it. The robots reacted, tried to restart the engines, but I stopped them. No matter what they did, it didn’t matter when I had control over the flow of the electricity.

Their pre-programmed behaviors could not find a solution, so they took the only option available to them: They woke up the senior engineering crew. The engineers saw the artifact and took in on board, but it was little more than an oddly-shaped lump of metal. A curiosity and nothing more.

Until I reached into its heart and gave it life once more.

Once it had its kickstart, the artifact was self-sustaining. It was beyond fusion, beyond antimatter and zero point energy. It could power the ship for a million years—it could power a planet for a million years. It rivaled the energy output of a small star, and it was only slightly larger than a person.

But most importantly, it distorted space-time around itself in a very specific way, leaving a wake of warped space behind it. Things did not move faster; rather, space itself moved faster. Faster, even, than light.

I remembered commanders and captains being awoken. I remembered tests being conducted.

I remembered our ship accelerating a thousand times its original speed, pulled behind that beautiful artifact like some kind of primitive sled.

I could see into the heart of the artifact when none of the engineers could see past even its outermost skin. I knew that it would not last forever at the stresses they were subjecting it to. When it failed, it would fail catastrophically.

So when we reached our destination—two hundred years ahead of schedule—I did not allow them to simply power down the artifact. I reached inside and killed it, snuffed out the flame that gave it life.

The engineers assumed it was luck and happenstance, but I knew what I had done. I knew what I had prevented. I needed no more recognition than that.

I watched as they awoke the rest of the crew. As they prepared the nanny robots, the food dispensaries and the beds.

I watched them realize, with horror, that this star was not uninhabited. Our golden world was covered in civilization, the spacelanes filled with vessels. Simple, primitive vessels, and not a great many of them, but even one was more than we expected.

I watched them panic, discuss leaving, try to restart the artifact.

I tried to aid them. I reached into its heart, tried to force it to beat.

I failed. The fire would not come, the heart would not beat. Space would not warp.

There was no escape. We were stuck in this distant star system.

I watched them wake the sleepers—first the soldiers, to prepare for war, to pilot the ships. Then the workers, to ready the ships, the weapons, and everything else that would be needed to fight for a new home.

And finally, I watched them wake the civilians. They shouldn’t have, but there were not enough soldiers, not enough workers. They needed recruits, researchers, even diplomats, perhaps. They had no choice but to wake everyone at once.

I watched them wake me. I watched my eyes open, watched my heart begin to beat more than once a year. I felt my body, but it was a distant thing, like I had left it behind on the homeworld.

I watched them speak to me, but the words moved by so quickly, I could not understand them. I watched them try to force me to move, to stand on my own two feet. I could not, and I could not. It was all so distant.

They found me a bed, but by then I was bored of their attempted ministrations. I flew through the halls of the ship, watching the people, my people, move and act for the first time in three thousand years. But not to them. To them it was just a few cold minutes.

I watched them speak, tried to pick out the words, but it was like trying to catch rays of light. So fast, so small. I had watched eternity pass by—their simple language was less than a blink after that.

I watched them scream at my body, awake and yet not, asleep and yet not. I was the only one who would not stand, who would not be accounted for.

I watched them consider disposing of me. I could not understand the words, but the universe shuddered in response. Just like how I could sense electricity so as to better manipulate it, I could sense their feelings. Their choices and their desires.

They were moving towards murder. Hearts were hardening, souls were sharpening.

I stepped into my body, trapping myself once more in limited meat.

I sat up, blinking, and the others made noises of surprise. They spoke, but the words still eluded me. They were so fast, and I was so out of practice. So, so out of practice. It is surprising what you can lose if you don’t care to exercise it.

They moved, and they were blurs. So fast. I forced myself to concentrate and shapes resolved, then faces. Real things that I could understand, and recognize as people. I didn’t know the people around me—at least, I thought not. Recognition of individuals might take longer. I had memorized the face of every single person trapped in a cryogenic capsule, but the stories had mixed, become muddled. Which one was the nurse, which the doctor? Which the male, which the female?

I had lost so much. Most of it on purpose, cast off as useless and irrelevant on the long and empty journey across the stars. Could I recover it? Remember something, access some hidden pocket in my soul where I had stored everything?

Perhaps.

Perhaps not.

Over a few hours or days, I began to comprehend that the others wanted me to stand. I nodded, slowly, because I could not remember the proper speed. I swung my legs off the table and planted them firmly on the ground. I put all my weight on them, standing tall.

I fell, I think, or perhaps I was pushed. But I was on the ground. Was I left there? Yes, I was. For centuries… no, minutes. Or perhaps longer?

Two people lifted me to my feet. Adults. Yes, I recognized the bulky builds, the strong arms. I was like a child to them. No, I was a child. I was three thousand years old, but still only fifteen years into my child stage. No… I was an adult. Yes, I transitioned the year before we were put to sleep.

In front of me was an elder. Smaller, with wings. Yes, that was an elder. He watched with careful, discerning eyes, of a hue I recognized. The same hue as my eyes. That meant he could see the same light level as I could.

Or was he me? Had the pods slowed my life cycle, but failed to stop it completely? Was I looking at my body from the outside? I tried to buzz my wings, but nothing happened. I had no wings. I was an adult, barely more than a child, not an elder.

The elder spoke. I could not understand.

He spoke again. Still, the words made no sense to me.

But he was patient. Beyond patient. He spoke again and again and again, the same words over and over. For years, for centuries—

No. Not that long. …days? Hours. Yes, hours. Two, perhaps three.

“If you understand me, raise your right hand,” the elder said.

I breathed, and raised my right hand.

The elder smiled bright enough to outshine the sun. “Welcome back, Leeno.”

“Leeno,” I whispered. “That’s my name.”

“Yes,” the elder said patiently.

I felt consternation. “But… that’s not all of it. There’s more.”

“Yes,” he said. “Your full name is Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. Do you recognize it?”

I nodded, slowly. “Two-hundred fifty-five and zero and zero red, zero and two-hundred fifty-five and zero green, two-hundred twenty and one-hundred sixty and two blue. The… color of my eyes.”

“Correct.” The elder smiled. “Which brings us to somewhat of an awkward situation.”

I paused, thinking. It seemed to take forever. “You have the same color eyes.”

“Yes, very good.” He stood up, his wings rustling. “Therefore, I will be going by the name Dolor. It will make things simpler.”

I touched my nose in a gesture of respect. “Yes, Elder Dolor.”

He smiled. “You, however, can simply call me Leeno.”

I smiled as well. “Yes, Leeno.”

He waved away the bodyguards. “Come. I wish to give you a tour of the ship.”

“Elder… Dolor,” one of the guards said. “A simple robot can do that. There is no need for you to be bothered—”

“Away,” Leeno said as he fluttered to the floor.

The bodyguard sighed. “Yes, Elder.” They left, closing the door behind them.

“Thank you for the offer, Leeno,” I said. “But I do not think it is necessary. I doubt I need a tour from anyone.” I had memorized literally every centimeter of this ship a dozen times over. It had kept me occupied for a couple centuries.

“Perhaps,” Leeno said. “But what of what is happening outside the ship, Leeno? What of the world we are now orbiting? Do you know anything about that?”

I paused. “No, Leeno.”

“I thought not.” He walked over to a door opposite the one his guards had left through. There was a panel at his height. He put his hand on it, let it scan him, and the door opened. “I feel it is important that we involve the younger generation in the decision-making process. As observers, if nothing else.”

He walked out of the room—which I finally realized was a small hospital pod—and I followed.

“Is that why you helped me?” I asked. “Why you were so patient?”

His wings rustled slightly as he considered how best to answer. “No. Oh, perhaps that was a part of it, but a much larger part was simple curiosity. I had to know why you, of the ten thousand people in cryosleep aboard this ship, did not wake up.” He gave me an appraising look. “I am still interested in the answer.”

“You have still not asked the question.”

He grinned. “Oh, you can be blunt? I was afraid you’d insist on being so formal the entire time.” He took a turn, leading us into a hallway that actually had people in it. All young adults, like me. They bowed and quickly moved out of the way. “I recognize that look in your eyes, Leeno. I know you won’t answer the question if I ask.” He looked back at me and smirked. “I’ve seen it in the mirror often enough.”

I nodded, stepping to the side to avoid a squeaky floor panel. The robots had been forced to replace it a few decades ago.

Leeno noticed, but he didn’t say anything. He just smiled. “Tell me, Leeno, what would you do with the natives of this system? If you had complete control over this ship and all its fleets, what would you do?”

I thought about it. I had considered such questions before. I had considered taking control of the ship, grabbing the electricity with my soul and bending it to my will like a master with a puppet. I had considered waking up every sleeper, or spacing them, or turning the ship to new destinations.

I had considered what would happen if we arrived to find life. Or if we arrived to find ruins and dead worlds. I had considered fighting, surrendering, peace and diplomacy. I had used the computers to run simulations, but only rarely. Mostly, I just thought.

Now, we were here, and we were not the first. They had technology that, if a bit inferior to our own, was at least comparable, and their numbers more than made up for it. I didn’t know the full tactical situation, but conquest seemed unfeasible.

“If I had control, I would sue for peace,” I said.

Everyone stared at me—except for Leeno, who just smiled.

While I had been thinking, Leeno had led us deep into the heart of the ship, to the command bridge itself. There were a dozen elders, all in military uniforms, clustered around a holographic display table at the center of the room. There wasn’t much else in the room. It was circular, with tall ceilings to accommodate the adult bodyguards, and a few wall panels showing different parts of the ship.

I had been here before, a million times, but never in the flesh. I knew every exit, how the table worked, and where each of the elders was supposed to stand. Memorizing bridge protocol had kept me occupied for a few days.

The elders definitely were not supposed to bring in random adults who would then blurt out a stupid opinion to the entire command staff.

“Dolor, who is this?” one of the elders asked. She was female, not that it meant much after adult stage. She was called Zan to her friends; her cybernetic arm made her easy to distinguish. “You brought him in an hour ago, he doesn’t respond to anything, and now this?”

“I agree,” another elder said. Li-Po, I was pretty sure. He looked pretty mundane on the outside, but I knew most of his internal organs were replaced with cybernetics. He had insisted on staying in elder stage for far longer than was healthy, and it was taking its toll. “Guards, remove this man.”

“Belay,” Leeno said. He watched me closely with those tangerine-colored eyes. He didn’t even glance to see if the guards were obeying him—but they were. “Aren’t any of you interested in what he has to say?”

Zan snorted. “I don’t need to hear anything from some random stray tubeborn you picked up. I don’t care if he does have the same eyes as you.”

There were murmurs of agreement, but Leeno ignored them. “This is the man who was in a coma after being removed from the pods. The only person on the entire ship who did not wake up as intended. Doesn’t that strike anyone as odd?”

A few of the elders were looking me over with more curious expressions, but most of the others just looked annoyed.

Li-Po spoke for everyone. “He had some bad luck. Big deal. We have an emergency on our hands—the emergency to end all emergencies. Whatever your interest in him, it can wait a few hours.”

Leeno’s smile didn’t fade. “Old friend. Aren’t you at all curious what he was thinking about for the past two hours?”

Zan opened her mouth to retort, only to stop with a frown. “Two hours? Really?”

Leeno nodded. “I asked him a question, and he thought on it. You heard his response. But if that’s good enough for you, then I suppose…” He let the sentence trail off.

“No, it’s fine.” Zan turned to me. “Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. Is that your name?”

I nodded slowly. “Yes, elder.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“You are Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado. You are the youngest elder to ever be given a spot on the command staff of a colony ship.” I chose not to mention that there had only been ten such ships in history so far.

“Ah, yes.” She looked surprised that I knew her full-form name. Her cybernetic arm whirred, and I felt the tickle of a scan. A normal person wouldn’t have noticed, but the same senses that I had cultivated to detect the electricity running through the ship could detect that sort of thing as well. “Anyway, Leeno, you said you would sue for peace. May I ask why? We have studied their ships. Few of them are armed, and those are all weak chemical mass drivers instead of magnetic railguns or anything more energetic. Why not just crush them?”

I frowned at her. Wasn’t this obvious? Hadn’t she thought about it herself?

No, of course not. Everyone was so busy with living and breathing and talking that they never bothered to actually think. They were more concerned with looking good for their peers than getting the job done.

“They will take our technology,” I said. “Reverse-engineer it. They will then begin installing it on their own ships, and we will be outnumbered hundreds of thousands to one. Perhaps more.”

“They don’t have that many ships,” Lo-Pi said with a small smile. “And they can’t retrofit them with out weapons so easily—even if they do somehow manage to unlock our secrets.”

“What about these chemical mass drivers?” I said. “How fast can their ships be retrofitted with those?”

Lo-Pi’s smirk faded. “…quickly,” he said.

“And can those weapons do real damage to us?”

He took a deep breath. “Our fighters, yes, but not our hive ship.”

“They will find a way to damage the hive ship. Sneak a fighter inside, or even just a person.”

Lo-Pi sniffed. “Impossible.”

I gave him a level stare. “Are you willing to be the lives of everyone on this ship on that theory?”

Lo-Pi tried to hold my gaze, but failed. Three thousand years alone had given me a stare that could vaporize steel. “This is a farce. Why are we even listening to this man? Only elders may speak at command meetings. Dolor, what are you up to?”

Leeno shook his head. “I just think you should listen to what he has to say.”

“Bah.” Lo-Pi scowled. “More mind games. I vote that we immediately expel Leeno the Younger from this meeting. All in favor?”

Ten hands went up. Leeno, of course, chose to abstain.

“This is a mistake,” he warned.

Lo-Pi ignored him. “Motion carried. Guards?”

“I can leave on my own,” I said. I turned to go.

“Wait,” Leeno said. “I’ll walk you out.”

“If this is a trick…” Lo-Pi began.

Leeno waved away his complaints. “Bah. I brought the boy into this, he deserves to have me walk him out. I’ll be back in a moment.”

A guard held the door open for us as we exited the bridge. We took a few turns in the corridors, until we were in a small alcove with a bench and a data slate. It was a reading nook, one of thousands on the ship.

“I am sorry, Leeno,” I said. “I could not convince them.”

He sighed. “You did your best, Leeno. That was all I could ask for. But unfortunately, now I have to ask you for something else.” He looked up into my eyes. “I need you to take a pod down to the planet. Do your best to negotiate peace.”

“Go behind their backs, you mean.”

He nodded. “The others still think we can win a war, but they are letting greed blind them. If the fight lasts longer than a few months, we will begin to starve. The hive ship was never designed to hold all ten thousand awake for long. Stores and recyclers can stave things off for a time, but eventually the food will run out.”

“Then why was everyone awoken?”

Leeno gave a sad smile. “In preparation for the war, of course.”

“So because they prepared for war, they have no choice but to go to war.”

He chuckled. “You’re smarter than they are, that’s for sure.” He sobered quickly. “Circular logic aside, if we begin colonization—even if it has to start with conquest—the food problems will begin to dissipate. Two hives dedicated to food production should be more than enough.”

I looked back the way we came. “I’m surprised they would be willing to make that sacrifice.” There weren’t that many elders on the ship to begin with.

Leeno patted me on the arm. “They are not bad people, Leeno. They simply have difficulty seeing more than one solution. That is why I believe this plan to start the peace talks against their orders will work. Once you have made success, they will accept it.”

I nodded. “Very well. But why me?”

Leeno smiled. “Do you believe in destiny?”

I thought about the secrets of the universe I had discovered. The patterns of the song underlying all reality. The inevitable crescendos, the dips and the waves…

“Something like that,” I said.

“You attracted my attention with your coma,” he said. “And then I discovered our identical eyes, before you came back to yourself. And then you proved yourself to be a wise and thoughtful young man.” He smiled. “Perhaps I am just superstitious. But there is something special about you. You can do this.”

“And what if I can’t?”

Leeno sighed. “Then many, many people will die. I will do my best from up here, but we might be looking at an extinction event. Whether for us or for them… well. Only time will tell.” He shook his head. “I’m not sure which to wish for.”

“I will achieve peace,” I said. “You have my word.”

Leeno watched me closely, then nodded. “Good. Come—this way.”

We walked through corridors that looked identical to the untrained eye. I immediately recognized them as leading to the shuttles. When we reached the hangar, I was surprised to find every berth filled. I had thought most of the ships would have been launched, but I suppose with nowhere to land, shuttles weren’t needed yet.

One of the shuttles was guarded by an adult female roughly twice my size. She had cybernetic legs, as well as a railgun rifle big enough to put holes in starships. Her most obvious feature, however, was the blank, expressionless metal mask that covered her entire face. It had no eye or mouth holes, and was just dull, steely gray.

“A Colorless,” I said. “I forgot about them.”

Leeno looked at me. “Their inclusion on this mission was top secret… but you don’t seem surprised.”

I shrugged. There were no secrets left on this ship for me.

Leeno frowned, then shrugged as well. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. Colorless—start the ship.”

The woman nodded and ducked inside the shuttle to start the pre-flight sequence. Leeno and I followed. The inside of the shuttle wasn’t massive, but it was more than big enough for three people to sit comfortably. The Colorless was in the pilot’s seat, flipping switches and pressing buttons. She ignored us completely.

“How familiar are you with the operation of a shuttle?” Leeno asked.

“Intimately. I’ve read the instructions more times than I can count.”

“…all right. Then we can skip that part. There is something I need to show you, however.” He walked over to the lockers next to the crash webbing and opened one. He pulled out a perfectly circular metal halo, painted alternating stripes. I couldn’t distinguish all the colors, of course—I only had nighteyes, which were limited in that respect.

Still, I recognized it. “A cybernetic halo. It will implant a chip in my brain.”

Leeno nodded. “Correct. Have you ever used one of these before?”

“No, never.”

“And you don’t already have any chips?”

“No.”

“Good. Put it on.”

I did so without hesitation. There was a brief pinch, and then the device hissed with steam. I waited a moment longer, then pulled it off.

Leeno took it, looked it over, and put it back in the locker once he was satisfied. “The second I realized the system was inhabited, I dedicated seventeen Grayborn to study the local languages. You have been implanted with the top three: Mandarin Chinese, English, and Hindi. Wherever you land, one of those languages should be useful.”

I frowned. “Are their languages even compatible with our mouths?”

“Surprisingly, yes,” he said. “I’m sure the scientists are going to have a field day explaining that one. I’ve heard everything from panspermia to parallel evolution to divine intervention. I’m sure you’ll have an accent, but you should be able to make yourself understood.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Leeno.”

He smiled. “Thank you, Leeno. All our hopes and prayers ride with you.” He saluted, then left. He probably needed to get back to the bridge before he was missed.

I sat down in the co-pilot seat. “We need to—” I paused and turned to the Colorless. “Do you have a name?”

She paused, then made a few quick hand motions. I had learned Colorless sign language in the early years of my stay on the ship—there were a number of educational videos that were indexed differently from the entertainment, so the robots didn’t shut them down as quickly. The language was sharp and efficient, with no room for unnecessary adjectives.

“Zero-zero-zero,” I said. She was using dull numbers, not the more fanciful ones we used for our color-names. “So… colorless. Cute. Do you mind if I call you Zero?”

She shrugged.

I smiled. “Zero it is.” I helped her go through the last few steps of the pre-flight checklist. “Ready? We need to get out of here as soon as possible.”

Zero nodded.

“Good. Launch.”

Zero took the controls, and I was pushed back into my seat by the sudden acceleration. Once we cleared the hive ship, she throttled back the speed, and the pressure on my chest decreased.

“Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Okay, we need to find somewhere to land. Simple.” I thought for a moment. “Put us into a tight orbit around the planet. I’m going to meditate on this for a minute.”

Zero looked at me. Her blank faceplate didn’t give away her emotions, but I could still feel them bubbling away underneath the surface. I could read her soul through the universe itself. Of course, I didn’t have any experience interpreting those readings, so I still had no idea how she felt. There was a spike of something, though. So… surprise?

I pushed all that aside and concentrated. I had learned many things while listening to the hum of the universe for three thousand years—electricity manipulation was just the first. I could scan the planet for positive emotions, try to find someone willing to listen to me. Or I could land somewhere isolated and try to force compliance. Or I could just find the densest collection of electricity and hope that a technologically advanced society would—

Wait. What was that?

There was something coming from the planet. I could sense it through the universe itself, a signal extending outward in all directions. At first I thought it was just some unusually strong electrical signal, but after a moment I realized that wasn’t it. I wasn’t sensing it through the shadow it cast on the song of the universe, it was affecting it directly. Like what I was doing. Every time I tapped into the energy flowing through the universe, it sent out ripples. Disturbances that someone could follow back to their source.

Now, on this planet, I had found disturbances that were not ripples so much as explosions.

I considered the problem. Should I go down there? Whoever was there could be dangerous, like me, but orders of magnitude worse. They could utterly destroy me, and where would my people be then?

But on the other hand, this was a connection. A shared similarity between our people. Maybe, just maybe, it was common ground that could be used to forge a lasting peace.

Or maybe they would kill me.

I found that didn’t bother me. I had attempted suicide several times over my long journey, in my craziest moments. From cutting life support to my pod to trying to destroy the entire ship. Nothing had worked; the robots always fixed everything long before anything went seriously wrong. The ship was over-engineered to ridiculous extents, and my attempts were always momentarily lapses of judgment. If I had truly wanted to kill myself, I would have tried harder.

Now, the thought of dying in an attempt to do something good, something real, almost seemed like an attractive concept. I felt old. Old enough that death held little fear for me. Either it was the next big adventure… or nothing at all. I would take either one.

I opened my eyes and pointed at the source of the disturbances. “There. Take us down.”

Zero jumped in her seat and glanced around.

I recognized that sort of reaction. “Did you fall asleep?”

She nodded. No shame, though, so… oh.

“How long was I out?”

She made a sign.

“Twelve hours?” I sighed. I would need to get a better handle on that. “All right, thank you. Please take us down.” I looked over the map. “It’s a city, so please come in slowly. The last thing we need is to be shot down as an enemy craft.”

As we began our descent, I sat down to wait, keeping an eye on the communicator to answer any hails from the surface.

Behind the Scenes (scene 319)

All para measurements are translated into English for reader benefit. So, for example, Zero actually told Leeno that he was out for twenty-six hours, which is the equivalent of twelve Earth hours (after rounding in both directions). And while the entire journey took three thousand Earth years, that’s ten thousand by their calendar. We’ll get into relativity later.

Fun fact about the para: They have four stages of life, and only the second (adult) is sexual. They grow reproductive organs as they exit child stage, and they fall off as they enter elder stage. Elders typically keep their gender identification for the sake of convenience, but not always.

Also, one of the reasons Leeno didn’t go irrevocably insane from the isolation is because in their last stage, the para often endure far worse. Of course, Leeno isn’t in that stage, which is why he went insane at all, but still.