Tag Archives: Richard Martinez

Scene 328 – Syreni Civitatem

SYRENI CIVITATEM

RICHARD

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

Even if this ‘last tour’ required a boat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then we began to sink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had finally come within sight of our destination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chuckled. “I can see why.”

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

I blinked. “Ah… sister cities.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That sounds promising,” I said.

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

“Seems simple enough,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The west, I would have to guess.”

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

“…ah,” I said. “Right onto Timaeus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled. “None taken.”

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

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

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

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

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

He smiled and nodded politely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I frowned. “Who’s Herbert?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence greeted her words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh…”

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 328)

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

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

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Scene 326 – Eversio

LEENO

EVERSIO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moon-woman smiled. “Perhaps.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How fast are yours?” Martinez asked.

“Just slightly slower,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“…yes,” Butler said after a moment.

“And the Gainsborough are…”

“You mean the gray ones?”

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

“Neutral ships,” Medina said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone looked at Martinez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing immediate,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak, man,” Butler said.

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

Oh.

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 326)

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

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

Scene 324 – Occurrens

OCCURRENS

LAURA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, we had our own representatives.

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

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

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

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

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

No one spoke.

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

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

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

Most of the representatives perked up at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. “What?”

“That thing you’re doing—stop it.”

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

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

I stopped smiling.

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

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

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

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

And there was the answer.

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

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

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

Grain shut his mouth, and I nodded in thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow that felt more disturbing than the alternative.

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

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

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

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

“We don’t,” Leeno said helpfully.

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

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

Everyone turned to him. I just smirked.

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

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

Everyone slowly turned back to Leeno.

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

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

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

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

Maeve shivered, though I doubt anyone else noticed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Including wiping out humanity?” Park said bluntly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that a problem?”

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

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

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

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

“We can do both,” Butler said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deafening silence greeted my proclamation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doors burst open.

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

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

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

It was Ling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He rolled his eyes. “Who knows.”

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

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

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

“But you did get the invitation, right?”

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

I blinked. “What?”

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

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

“The real one?” I asked.

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

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

“It’s on Mars,” Súileabháin said.

“Fourth planet in the system,” I added.

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

Everyone glared at Leeno.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When was this?” I asked.

“Ten minutes ago,” Ling said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

Behind the scenes (scene 324)

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

Scene 323 – Balæna

BALÆNA

RICHARD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m still lost.”

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

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

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

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

“Ship,” I said.

He frowned. “What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The—the Daggon—”

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

“What—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sailor looked between Medina and his captain.

“Answer her,” I said quietly.

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

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

“Fifteen knots.”

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

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

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

“Captain,” I said, tired. “Please.”

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

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

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

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

Medina rolled her eyes. “Please stop lying.”

I blinked. “I’m sorry?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I really hated this city.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s the other?” Medina asked.

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

“The Constantine,” Butler said, sounding resigned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How long do we have?” Butler asked.

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

“How long do we need?

She shook her head sadly.

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

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

“What are their powers?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“BRACE!” the captain called.

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

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

“It’s probably not a shark!”

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

For the first time, Butler looked scared.

“Are those—”

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

The captain stared. “An escape what?

“Never mind.”

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

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

“Oh,” I said. “Right.”

Someone grabbed my arm, and I nearly screamed.

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

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

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

“RICHARD!”

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

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

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

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

Might?

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

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

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

“What was that?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right.” I paused. “Why is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, I’m always honest!”

She rolled her eyes. Okay, that was fair.

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

Then a phone rang.

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

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

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

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

“Me?” I said. “Who wants to meet me?”

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

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

It was also covered in guns.

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

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

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

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

It took me a moment to identify it as laughter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She bowed. “Correct, Honored Trident.”

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

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

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

I nodded dumbly.

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

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

“It always is.”

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the scenes (scene 323)

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

Scene 316 – Multis

MULTIS

RICHARD

“Aliens!?” I cried.

Silk winced. “I am surprised as well, Mister President.”

“But… I just… aliens!?

She pursed her lips. “I am sorry, sir. More sorry than you could possibly know.”

I took a deep breath and brushed my hair back. My hand was sweaty, my forehead was sweaty. We were sitting in the back of a limo, so I adjusted the air conditioning, but it didn’t seem to help.

“How did we miss them?” I asked. “Did the space colonies just decide not to tell us that an alien ship was heading right for us?”

Silk sighed. “They just… appeared a few thousand kilometers away. We don’t have any images of their actual arrival, but I have to assume that they used some sort of teleportation technology.”

I stared at her. “Teleportation?

“It already exists in Domina,” Lilith said. She was the only other person in the back of the limo. She hadn’t taken her eyes off Silk the entire time, but she hadn’t said anything. “Well, it’s not technology, but one of the powers. Perhaps these aliens have a similar source.”

Silk didn’t so much as blink. “Perhaps.”

I still wasn’t sure about bringing Lilith with me on this emergency meeting, but she had insisted, and it didn’t seem like a good time to annoy my new ally. At least she had left her bodyguard behind. That guy disturbed me. Every time he looked at me, I could tell he was thinking of the best ways to kill me.

I took a deep breath. “Okay. Teleportation explains how they got past our sensors and defenses so easily. It does raise some more questions, but whatever, we have a billion of those anyway. Just add it to the freaking pile.”

“What we need to focus on right now is opening diplomatic channels,” Silk said.

“If you don’t mind, I have a friend who might be helpful,” Lilith said. “My sister. She is in charge of most of the administrative parts of Domina City. I can patch her right through to the meeting.”

I thought about it, then shook my head. “No, it will be hard enough getting you in. The Joint Chiefs and Congress and whoever else might riot if we push the issue too much. Right now, it will just have to be you.”

Lilith looked disappointed, but nodded.

That was one of the reasons I had agreed to bring her along. I knew she would be reasonable.

The limo rolled to a stop. “We’re here,” Jefferies said from the front.

I frowned. “Already?” A moment later, Jefferies opened the door for me. “Thank you, Bryan.” I looked around. “What is this place?”

It looked like an abandoned warehouse. The company logo had been painted over, and there were no cars or trucks around. And none of that was as important as the fact that this obviously wasn’t the meeting.

I turned to my bodyguard and frowned. “Bryan, are you betraying me?”

He blinked. “What? No!”

“Because this really isn’t a good time for a coup. Maybe in a few weeks, I could fit it into my schedule, but—”

“No, sir, I—” He took a deep breath. “Sir, this is a very strange situation, I understand. But this is only a few minutes out of your way, and I really do think you need to see it. It doesn’t have any direct relation to the aliens, but I suspect it could be useful.”

I glanced up. The massive ship was still floating there without a care in the world. If I looked closely, I could see smaller ships flitting around it like flies. It had been over Domina City earlier, but it had drifted over New York now.

“All right,” I said. “Show me. But make it quick.”

Jefferies looked hesitant, but nodded and ushered me to the door. He held it open for me as if he was holding open the door for his best friend who had stolen his prom date because he had said he didn’t have feelings for her, but it was a lie, and he knew his friend was going to break her heart.

Ahem. Anyway.

I entered the warehouse to find a mostly wide open area. There was a table with a computer and some extension cords leading to the wall, but other than that the only thing of interest were strange pods. Each one was about the size of a large closet, covered in pipes and readout panels. They stretched from one end of the warehouse to the other. Some quick math told me that there were about ten thousand of them.

There was a woman at the computer. Even if she wasn’t wearing a lab coat, it would be obvious that she was a doctor. She was bent over the computer, typing madly away, while the monitor displayed some bizarre shapes and numbers I couldn’t make sense of.

The door slammed behind us, and the doctor glanced at us. She almost jumped out of her seat and forced a smile on her face. “Mister President! So good of you to finally come by! Have you been read in yet?”

“No,” I said. “And since there appears to be an alien invasion going on right now, I would prefer to do this as fast as possible.”

The doctor smiled. “That’s why you’re here, actually.”

Lilith raised an eyebrow. “You knew the aliens were coming?” For some reason, she glanced at Silk.

The doctor shook her head. “No, no, of course not! We—” She frowned. “I’m sorry, who is this?”

“Lilith,” I said. “Ambassador from Domina City. You can say anything in front of her.” Maybe that wasn’t a good idea, but I was annoyed. This was a distraction we could hardly afford. If someone didn’t get to the point soon, I was going to scream.

The doctor forced herself to smile. She took a few steps away from the computer, so that the pods were nicely framed behind her. “Well, this isn’t about the aliens directly. This is about creating an army!

“We have an army,” I said. “It’s called ‘the Army.’ Not to mention the Navy, Air Force, and Marines.”

The doctor was practically vibrating with glee at this point. “Of course. But training men takes time, ensuring their loyalty is difficult. What if you could create a highly-trained, perfectly loyal army in weeks?

I sighed. “Yes yes, all very impressive. Please just skip to the end.”

“Sir.” Jefferies stepped out from behind one of the pod devices.

“What?” I said, and then realized what was happening.

There were two of him.

The one next to me, my bodyguard, was dressed in an immaculate suit and had a handgun at his side. The other one had exactly the same face, but was unarmed and dressed in military fatigues. He stood straight and tall, and was soon joined by more. In moments, a dozen identical faces were staring back at me.

“What the hell?” I whispered.

“Homunculi,” Lilith said under her breath. I don’t think anyone was supposed to hear. Her eyes darted back and forth, trying to keep all of them in sight at once.

“Sir, please remain calm,” Jefferies—my Jefferies—said. He stepped out in front of me, between me and the clones. “These men are clones of me, not just in body but in mind. That means that they are loyal and willing to sacrifice themselves for your sake, or the sake of this country.”

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath, counting to ten. This… was a bad idea. Something was going to go horribly wrong. It always did. Either the clones would turn out to be evil, or they’d be useless. Something.

“Where did you even get the money for all this?” I asked.

“Operation: Doppler,” the doctor said. “You signed all our budget requests.”

I groaned and rolled my eyes. “I thought that was a radar project.”

All of the Jefferies smiled a little. That was disturbing.

“Okay,” I said. I took another deep breath. “Thank you for informing me of this. It… might be useful against the aliens.” I shook my head. “We have absolutely no idea about their goals, their weapons, or anything, but fine, whatever. I just…” There were a billion and one questions that I didn’t have time to ask. Needed to narrow it down. “The clones. How long do they last? A full normal lifespan?”

“No,” the doctor said. “A few weeks. A month at most.”

I glanced at the clones. They didn’t look surprised at this news.

“That’s why they picked me,” the real Jefferies said. “They needed someone selfless enough to die a dozen times over.”

“Goody,” I said dryly. I waved my hand at the pods. “What about these? I’m guessing they have more clones in them.”

“Yes, sir,” the doctor said. “One each.”

“Put them on hold for now. We’ll deal with this later.”

The doctor started. “What?

“Pause everything,” I said. “We simply don’t have time.” I shook my head. “I can’t imagine why you thought it was a good idea to do this now of all times.”

The doctor frowned. “But sir, this was your idea.”

“…what?”

“Not the whole project, of course,” she said. “That was mine, but you called ahead, asked to be read into the details of the project.”

Jefferies frowned. “What? I got a call from you saying that everything was at a critical stage, and I should bring him immediately.”

I pointed at the doctor. “I definitely didn’t call you.”

She pointed at Jefferies. “And I didn’t call him.”

Lilith looked between us. “Unless the fey have a presence out here, that means—”

There was a loud clunk through the warehouse, like the sound of ten thousand different mechanisms moving at once. The pods began to leak steam from their fronts, outlining the doors on each pod I hadn’t spotted before.

“Oh,” Silk whispered. “It’s like I can finally breathe.”

She was collapsed next to the doctor’s computer. She looked like she had just run a marathon and couldn’t move her legs, but she was smiling through the sweat and tears. Like she had accomplished something important.

The doctor ran over to the computer. “She—she activated all the pods at once! Decanting everyone!

I stepped back. “Are they going to attack?”

The doctor shook her head. “No, all the mental programming is done. So is the physical, for that matter, they’re perfectly viable specimens. But we don’t have the resources to handle all of them at once.”

I glared at Silk, still on the floor. “Explain yourself.”

“Imagine being trapped in a box,” she said.

But it wasn’t her. Not the Silk collapsed in front of the computer. I turned, horrified, to see an entirely different Silk stepping out of the steam of the foremost pod. She was naked, but unconcerned. She walked like a queen, full of confidence.

“This box is the size of a postage stamp,” the naked Silk continued. “But somehow, you managed to stuff yourself inside this box. You couldn’t do anything, couldn’t move, could barely even think. But you grew used to it.”

“Silk,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was talking to the naked one or the one at the computer.

“But then, one day, the box grows.”

I turned my head to see another Silk, stepping out of another nearby pod. Also naked. Also completely in control.

“Suddenly it’s not the size of a postage stamp, but a shoebox,” she said. “How would that feel?”

“Would you feel like you could think again?” another Silk said.

“Would you feel something like yourself again?” said another.

“Silk,” I said, stepping back. “Please make them stop.” I noticed that Jefferies had his gun out, and his clones were slowly establishing a perimeter. Looking for weapons of their own, maybe?

Silk—the clothed one—stood and walked over in front of her clones. “You misunderstand, Mister President. You have nothing to fear.”

“We haven’t finished testing everything yet,” the doctor said. She had the look on her face of someone who knew they were fired, but that they might be able to avoid jail time if they cooperated. “That’s why they were supposed to wake them up one by one. Even with Jefferies, there were a few… uncertainties. With this woman as the template, they could get… violent.”

“And you misunderstand as well,” my Silk said.

“What do you think I did?” another said.

“That I just swapped out Jefferies’ DNA sample for my own?” said another.

“I did far more than that.”

Lilith stepped up next to me. Her back was straight, her eyes were strong. “Either kill us or explain. Stop playing games. We have work to do.”

Several of the clones smiled. “Ah, my friend. Always so protective.”

“But we are not in your city, oh Daughter of Fire.”

“Richard is not one of your children.”

“Are you truly going to try to be a mother for the entire world?”

“Silk,” Lilith said. “Explain.”

“Or tell your clones to leave,” I said. “It would make us feel a lot safer.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that some of Jefferies clones had guns now. They must have found the armory or something.

My Silk smiled at me. “Oh, Richard. I understand that this is a lot to take in, but surely you’ve realized it by now? You were always so observant.”

I kept my lips pressed in a firm line. I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction.”

“There is no one to send away,” Silk said. “All these bodies are me.”

I frowned. Of all the things I expected her to say, that wasn’t one of them. Of course, this day was already more surreal than the time my college roommate spiked my drink with acid. “You’re—I—what?”

“You’re a podbrain,” Lilith whispered. “A thousand-body podbrain.”

Another Silk smiled at her. “That’s one word for it. I dislike it. Your podbrains are multiple individuals with linked minds. I, on the other hand, am one individual with a thousand bodies.” She smiled, and so did all the other clones. “It’s a tiny shadow of the power I once had, but it will do for now.”

I struggled to wrap my brain around what she was saying. “You’re… so your clones, they…”

“They are me,” one of the clones said.

“And I am them,” said another.

“I was planning on unveiling this in a few weeks or months,” yet another said. “Unfortunately, the miscalculation with the para forced my hand.”

I frowned. “The who?”

“The aliens,” said another clone. She smiled. “You’ll get to know them soon enough.”

“I… I… need to sit down.” I stumbled, and Lilith caught me. My head was swimming so much I barely noticed. But somewhere in my tortured, confused brain, a connection was made. “This whole project was your doing, wasn’t it?”

The clothed Silk nodded. “I needed bodies, and I couldn’t make them myself. So I gave a doctor an idea, slipped her altered blueprints. Forged signatures, spoke with your voice over the phone.” She breathed a sigh of relief. “And finally, here we are. For the first time in thirty years, I feel like I can think again.”

“You’re not thirty,” I said. It was stupid, but it was the first thought that popped into my head. According to her resume, she was twenty-five.

“You should—you should have thought first,” the doctor said. She was shaking, but she managed to stand up to a small army anyway. I made a mental note to not throw her in prison. “Those clones will only last a few weeks. Do you think I’m just going to make ten thousand more for you?”

One of the clones gave her a pitying smile. “Do you think I’d make clones for myself that would fall apart in less than a month? These will last ten years. The next batch will last a century, if not more.”

“You—” The doctor looked at the pods. “You made upgrades? Incredible! With these, we can—”

One of the clones snapped her fingers. Every single pod popped and spat sparks. Many of them started smoking.

“I’m sorry,” the clone said. “That’s a little above your pay grade.”

The doctor looked like she was about to cry. If my life’s work had just been destroyed right in front of me, I probably would have cried.

“I’m sick of this,” Jefferies said, eyes seething with rage. He—and all his clones—had pistols out and pointed at the crowd of Silk clones. “Sorry, Mister President, but you’re going to have to get a new secretary.”

“Wait,” I said. “I think she might—”

“No more games,” he said.

They all fired.

Bullets tore into the Silk clones, splintering bones and splattering blood. I saw bits of gray matter and worse, flying through the air as if in slow motion. The warehouse was filled with the deafening echoes of gunshots, and the sharp scent of gunsmoke filled the air.

The Silk clones didn’t move. Not when bullets burst through their rib cages, not when they bounced around inside their skulls, and not when the original Silk was filled with so many bullets that her face was unrecognizable.

It didn’t take too long for the Jefferies clones to run out of bullets. Still, the Silk clones stood tall.

After a moment, they began to heal.

Blood leaped off the floor and back into the body. Bones reassembled themselves. Flesh re-knit, not even leaving behind a scar. In moments, every single clone, as well as the original, was back in perfect condition.

The original Silk spat something on the floor. It was a bullet.

No one moved. No one breathed.

“I understand your protective instincts, Bryan Jefferies,” Silk said. “But they are misplaced. You cannot harm me, and I have no desire to harm you regardless.”

I swallowed. “What do you want from us?”

She just smiled. “Nothing. Why would I? I have everything I need from you. You are walking the correct path towards peace. The para are an anomaly, of course, but I will keep them under control. That’s why I upgraded, after all. You have nothing to fear from me.”

“Everyone wants something,” I whispered. I had learned a thing or two from politics on the Hill. I hadn’t slept through all the meetings. “No man—or woman—would accumulate this much power without some goal in mind.”

One of the Silk clones laughed, but the rest just smiled. “Oh, I apologize for my outburst. It’s been so long since I’ve been like this, I forgot that you wouldn’t understand.”

“Yes, yes, you’re one person instead of ten thousand, I know,” I said. “Podbrain, metaconcert, hive mind, whatever you want to call it. Now what do you want?

Silk was still smiling. “You misunderstand. It is not about the nature of my bodies.”

“It is about relative power.”

“A cat should not try to understand a human’s worries.”

I frowned. “What?”

She sighed. “Again, I apologize. Please, allow me to explain this in the simplest way that I can.”

And suddenly, I was on the ground, on my knees. I was… I was kneeling before her. I looked around, and all the others were kneeling as well. The doctor, Lilith, the Jefferies clones… all of us. They all looked as shocked and surprised as I felt.

I looked up into eyes deeper than oceans.

“I am God,” Silk said simply. “My will be done.”

And then she and all her clones disappeared, as if they had never existed at all.

Behind the Scenes (scene 316)

I’ve rewritten this scene a million times. There was one draft where Silk made literally the entire world bow to her, but that had too many problems.

Scene 309 – Matre Monstro

MATRE MONSTRO

RICHARD

“Mister President,” the aide said. “They’re ready.”

I cursed and jumped up from my seat. They delay the meeting for eight hours, and then call it again with no warning. Maybe it was a Domina thing, a show of strength. I didn’t really care how strong they were, I just wished I had a chance to finish dinner.

I cursed, struggling with my tie. Never had been able to get used to the stupid things. Normally Silk helped me before important events like this, but she was gone. Some sort of family emergency, she had said. I was curious, but hadn’t asked. To put it bluntly, I had more important things on my mind.

If I had thought ahead, I probably would have asked her to tie my tie before she left. Then I could have just never untied it. But then the knot would probably get dirty over time… maybe that was why people didn’t do that.

After a couple eternities, I managed to get the stupid thing tied. I took a deep breath and stepped outside.

There were dozens of people waiting for me outside my office. No press, thankfully, but I would have almost preferred them. Instead I had to deal with generals and senators who all wanted pieces of my time.

“Sir, I understand you have refused to have the so-called ambassadors arrested—”

“Now, I know it’s too late, but I still think we should have had this meeting in Domina City—”

“These stupid children think they can dictate terms to us—”

“Sir, please be careful, they are more dangerous than they appear—”

“Sir, I think—”

Senator Grain stepped up beside me as I followed my guards through the crowd. I smiled and nodded to everyone trying to give me advice, but ignored them. Most of the people I would be listening to weren’t here.

“We should make them wait,” Grain said.

“No,” I said.

He sighed. “Richard—”

“No,” I said again. I pulled open a door and slipped inside. Grain followed me, and the hubbub died as the door closed. This room wasn’t the meeting room, just a waiting room. There were half a dozen of my closest advisers sitting here, but they didn’t make any noise. “Stalling at this point would just make us look petty.”

Grain brushed some dandruff off my shoulder. “Fine. I guess I can’t argue with that logic. You remember the talking points?”

I rolled my eyes. “Yes, mom. Start with requesting reparations for the damage done to our ships and armies. They’ll refuse, but it will put us in a better bargaining position for the rest. Ultimate goal is to get their toy maker mods, and figure out where the hell that shield came from.”

Grain nodded. “Yes, that’s perfect.”

I smirked. “This isn’t my first rodeo. I know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, but you’ve never negotiated with someone who can rip you apart with their bare hands.” He brushed at my other shoulder, frowning as some piece of dust proved stubborn. “And now you have to deal with ten of them. And their bodyguards.”

“Thank you so much for that reminder,” I said dryly. A thought occurred to me, and I filed it away for later. “Anything else?”

“Nothing much.” He went to brush my shoulder again, but I batted him away. “The meeting is being recorded, but not broadcast live. It could be decades before anyone sees it.” He paused. “I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse.”

I sighed. “Neither am I.” I nodded to the others, and they all stood. My guards opened the doors, and I strode into the meeting room.

There were a couple of dozen people, all standing around a long table. They stuck to their half of the room, leaving us plenty of space. They were talking among themselves, but they all turned to look when we entered the room.

I had been briefed as best as possible, but it was still hard not to be shocked. So many of them all in one room… half of them barely looked human any more. There was one that looked like a giant lizard, or maybe a dragon. He was the most extreme, but there was also a naked woman with light green skin glowing slightly. She was speaking to an anthropomorphic white cat, who sniffed in my direction and frowned. There was a group of men who were all eight or nine feet tall. They were speaking with a man who appeared perfectly normal, but his bodyguards all had eyes of pure black. A man with horns was standing next to two women in wheelchairs. They had black eyes as well, but they had patches of fish scales and I could see tails peeking out from under the blankets they had in their laps. A woman in a stunning black dress, dusted with glittering stars, stood with her entourage, smiling at me. On the other side of the room, a normal-seeming woman and two normal-seeming bodyguards glared daggers at her.

I adjusted my tie and forced a smile onto my face. “Welcome, ambassadors of Domina City. I hope you weren’t waiting long.”

“We were,” the normal-looking man said. He stepped up behind a seat next to the head of the table. “But that was not your mistake. Please, do not feel obligated to apologize.”

The others seemed to take his lead, standing behind seats on their half of the room. Even thew wheelchairs were around so that the women could get a better view of the room. They were put behind the man with the horns, who had taken the chair next to the head of the table. Right across from the man with the black-eyed bodyguards.

The head chair itself remained empty. I wasn’t sure what to think of that.

My own people spread out to stand behind their chosen seats on our side of the table. I took the head seat, but paused before pulling the chair out. Was there some hidden ritual here I didn’t understand? Some part of Dominite culture I was missing?

“If you would all take your seats, we can get started—”

“Not quite, President Martinez,” the woman in the black dress said. “We’re just waiting on one more.”

“You appear to have me at a disadvantage. What is your name?”

She smiled. “Lady Maeve, Maiden of the Unseelie Court, Princess of Snow and Frost.”

O…kay… “Lady Maeve. “Who are we waiting on?”

The doors opened.

A girl strode through.

She couldn’t be more than five feet tall. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was barely more than four. Though her professional suit covered up most of her tan skin, I could see tribal tattoos peeking out from her hands and neck. She had a pair of small red horns jutting out of her forehead, short black hair, and a lithe tail snaking up from behind her. Her eyes were red, in more ways than one. The iris was red, yes, but they were also bloodshot and puffy. She almost looked like she had been crying. Still, they were stronger than I expected. Whatever she had been forced to deal with, she had pushed through.

She had one bodyguard, a young man with hard eyes. His suit didn’t fit quite right and his gun was worn too openly, but at least he looked human. He didn’t have any modifications that I could see.

I cleared my throat. “Young lady, I don’t know who you are—”

“Mister president, you have a daughter, correct?”

I paused for a moment. “I think it would be more accurate to say I have a daughter-shaped bundle of energy, but yes.”

She smiled. It faded quickly. “Less than eight hours ago, I held one of my daughters in my arms as she burned to death.” Her eyes were as hard as steel. “She was not a loyal daughter. She died trying to take me with her. When she realized there was no way for her to win, she decided she wanted everyone to lose. But she was still my daughter.”

My eye twitched. I was pretty sure I could smell something scorched. I really didn’t want to know what it was.

“So we can discuss my credentials at another time. Right now, I am too tired.” Her bodyguard pulled out the chair at the head of the table for her, and she sat. The Dominite ambassadors all followed suit without a word. She looked at the papers in front of her. “Now, first on the agenda. Domina’s sovereignty.”

The rest of us slowly sat as well. “I—I think it would be best if we dismissed our bodyguards,” I managed. “As a show of good faith.”

The girl looked at me, frowned, then nodded. “Agreed.” She waved her hand. All the Dominite bodyguards immediately marched out of the room, not even bothering to wait for confirmation from the ambassadors. The girl’s own bodyguard paused for a moment, but left along with the others.

Our own bodyguards filed out as well, but again, slower. They exited the room behind me, and I was suddenly very happy that there were two waiting rooms. Leaving our bodyguards with theirs for the duration of the meeting would probably lead to a fight.

“Most of the difficult parts of Domina’s sovereignty are already accounted for,” the girl said. “We do not pay you taxes, and you do not support us in any way. The prisoner ships might require some new paperwork, but we already receive prisoners from other foreign countries. Putting America in that category shouldn’t be overly difficult.”

“Young miss,” I said. I felt like the world was spinning away beneath me, and my tie was too tight. “I’m sorry for underestimating you. But please—who are you?

She looked up and met my eyes with a level gaze.

“I am Lilith,” she said. “The First Monster. The Mother Monster, the Great Matron. Everyone who uses the toy maker is my child, and everyone in Domina City uses the toy maker. Artemis suggested that my presence would be beneficial to these negotiations, and I agreed. So, I have come.”

I chuckled and glanced at some of the other ambassadors. “Look, I’m willing to take a joke pretty far—”

“I’d stop right there if I were you, friend,” the man from before said. The one with the bodyguards with the black eyes. He smirked, and I could see a hint of fangs in his mouth. “Some of these people might be willing to start a war over an insult to dear old Mom.”

“Dracul,” Lilith said. “Nu-l amenința. Mă voi ocupa de asta.”

Dracul rolled his eyes, but fell silent. His smirk didn’t disappear, however.

Lilith turned back to me. “Any other questions, Mister President?”

I sighed. “No. Not for now, anyway.”

“Excellent.” She tapped at her pad. “Let’s discuss trade. Currently, Domina only trades digitally with America. Outsourced server time, call centers, so on. That should be able to continue uninterrupted, but we can also add a few more things. We can give you toys and monsters, while you can give us food and other goods that are difficult to make offworld. This will take some pressure off some of our allies in space, which will be good for the system as a whole.”

Next to me, Grain cleared his throat. “We haven’t—I don’t think the president has agreed to grant you sovereignty yet.”

Lilith nodded, then gathered up her things and stood. The other Dominite ambassadors followed suit.

“Wait wait wait!” I said. “What are you doing?”

“If you are not willing to grant Domina sovereignty, then we have nothing else to talk about,” she said. “The war will resume, and we will be forced to take drastic measures.” She turned to Maeve. “How fast can you get a dozen gargants in Washington DC?”

Maeve grinned. “Tomorrow. Easy.”

I took a deep breath. I didn’t know what gargants were, but the context made them frightening enough. “You’re trying to scare us. It won’t work.”

“No,” Lilith said. “I am trying to do what is best for my children.”

“A good mother wouldn’t get them killed.”

Half the Dominite ambassadors gasped. The giant growled under his breath and grabbed the table. I couldn’t tell what his plan was, but Lilith stopped him with a raised hand. He reluctantly stepped back.

Those red eyes bored into me. “Is this truly how you want to play this?” she said. She just ignored the insult, which I was thankful for. It had slipped out, and I hadn’t meant it. “Do you really want to jump back into a war? I understand bluffs. I understand acting stronger than you are. But if you do not accept Domina’s sovereignty, people will die. People you could have saved. Do you really want that on your conscience?”

Grain scoffed. “Little girl, if you think—”

“Shut up,” I said.

Grain glared at me, but shut his mouth.

I continued holding Lilith’s gaze, looking deeply into those red eyes of hers.

She didn’t blink.

“Everyone out,” I said.

Everyone stared at me. Grain was the one to speak. “Excuse me?”

“You heard me,” I said. “Everyone out. Lilith stays, but that’s it.”

They stood silently for a moment, as if they couldn’t believe what they were hearing. I couldn’t quite believe what I was saying. But when I didn’t retract the order, they grumbled and started packing up their things. Everyone, on both sides of the table. They all filed out, muttering and whispering. Even the wheelchairs got pushed out by Dracul and the giant.

Once they were gone and the doors closed behind them, I leaned back in my chair and sighed. “You would have done it, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” Lilith said quietly. “I am sorry. But my children must come first.”

I cocked my head. “So that’s real? You’re not just pandering to the audience?” I jerked my thumb at the camera. “It’s not live, if that’s what you’re worried about. We can delay it for years, if that’s what you want.”

Lilith walked over. She didn’t come all the way to my side of the table, but she did come over to the half way point. She sat on the table and smiled at me.

“None of it is faked,” she said. “I’ve never been a very good liar.”

I stood and walked over opposite her. Now we were only a few feet apart instead of almost twenty. “That’s exactly what good liars say.”

She chuckled. “The truth is… I’m doing my best.” She shrugged. “Parenting is hard enough with a handful of kids, or even just one. I have over four hundred million. I can’t possibly look after them all.”

“What do you do, then?” I asked. I could tell that she was being genuine. A woman like this wouldn’t take the title without trying to live up to it. She had to get to know her children somehow, or she wouldn’t call herself their mother.

“I’m a waitress,” she said with a smile.

I blinked. I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting, but it wasn’t that.

“I know it sounds silly,” she said. “Everyone always says that.” She leaned back on her hands, a wistful look on her face. “But it lets me meet people. Talk to them. Find out what they like, what they do. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

I didn’t say anything. I had spent some time as a waiter when I was a kid, and all it had done was test my faith in humanity. Luckily, we had served alcohol and my boss was very understanding.

“I have to do what is best for my city,” Lilith said. “I am sorry.”

I nodded. “So your sovereignty is non-negotiable. I understand. But I need something in exchange. Favored trade status would go a long way to making this pill easier for congresscritters to swallow.”

She quirked her head. “You’re afraid of them overriding your decision?”

I smirked. “It’s not that bad. They’ll grumble about it, but they don’t want to start a war either. I pretty much just need to give them an excuse to accept it.”

She smiled. “And favored trade status is a very good excuse.”

I smiled as well. Then I stopped. “How does trade with your city work, any way? I know you exchange packages with the space stations, but I don’t know the exact details.”

“Artemis normally sets the specific trade tariffs,” she said. “Smuggling isn’t a major problem, due to the difficulties of trading at all. I suspect we’ll start seeing many more problems once we start trading with the mainland more. And not everyone will like the idea of giving you toys.”

“If it makes them feel any better, we’re not going to be usurping their monopoly any time soon. We still have all those laws against the toy maker in place, and getting rid of them won’t be easy.” I rolled my eyes. “It’s part of the reason we attacked in the first place. Kind of like invading because someone kept parking on the sidewalk.”

“What about the monsters?” she asked. “What do your laws say about that?”

“I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

“The fey modify animals. Make them larger, more dangerous. Gives them interesting properties that are useful. Food, some types of medicine, that sort of thing.”

“There’s no way we’ll be able to ship live animals,” I said. “Maybe if you were still a client city, but as your own sovereign state, it’s out of the question. Not sure if there will be enough of a demand for that sort of thing anyway.”

“As long as the option is on the table, it’s a good start.” She headed back to her seat. “I think that is enough for the moment. Should we call the others back in?”

“Maybe.” I paused. “Just one last thing. Your daughter. The one who died.”

She stopped. She didn’t look at me. “Yes?”

“You said she died eight hours ago. That means it happened here, in New York.”

“Yes.”

“What, exactly, happened? Does it have anything to do with the fugitive I heard about?”

Lilith sighed, and turned to face me. She still didn’t look at me, though. She kept her gaze turned down. “Malcanthet… always wanted power. When Domina City wouldn’t give her enough, she fled here. Tried to build what she wanted. When I arrived, she kidnapped me, we fought, and she killed herself. That is all.”

I took a deep breath. Oh boy… “That is the kind of thing we would like to know about.”

She looked up and met my eyes. She didn’t seem defiant, just a little confused. “You want us to send you our criminal profiles?”

“That would be nice,” I admitted. “I think Interpol might be necessary. I don’t know. But what I meant was the part about a foreign ambassador almost getting killed on our soil. That sort of thing can cause… problems.”

Lilith smiled. It seemed genuine. “Don’t worry, Mister President. I was never in any danger.”

I gave her a look. “Yes, because every time someone tries to kill an ambassador, we just ignore it if they survive. Do the others even know what happened? How will they react when they find out?”

She thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. I think that they will decide that Malcanthet was our problem. They will not blame you. Several of them were at the Battle of Shendilavri. They will blame themselves for letting her escape in the first place.”

“Okay. Just as long as they don’t say that.”

She frowned. “Why?”

“Because my people will blame you,” I said. I shrugged. “Not you specifically. Domina. Whoever was in charge of this… Shin…”

“Shendilavri was Malcanthet’s domain,” Lilith said. “An alliance of cultures drove her out and burned the building to the ground.”

She said it so casually. “Right. Sure. But then she came here. How much damage has she done in the past few weeks? Do you even know?”

She frowned. But this time it was in confusion, not annoyance. “What?”

“I doubt she’s just been sitting around doing nothing.”

“Well, you’re right, but… why do you think she’s only started trouble in the past few weeks? Did something happen?”

“I was just guessing,” I said. “I don’t know when all this happened. She got driven out before the war started, right? So at least a few weeks.”

Lilith looked like she was struggling with something.

“What?” I said. “What is it?”

“Mister President,” she said slowly. “Malcanthet was driven out of Domina almost six years ago. I have to assume that she has been here this entire time.”

I sat down.

“Oh,” I said.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

I rubbed my forehead and sighed. “Well… that might be problematic. From a public relations standpoint, at least. More of that ‘all immigrants are criminals’ crap.” I looked up. “What exactly did she do?”

She winced. “I think my sister can explain a little better than I can.” She pulled out her phone and started tapping buttons. “She wrote an article a while back summarizing everything. It’s required reading in most universities these days.” She slid the phone across the table to me.

I grabbed it, frowned, and started reading the text on the tiny screen. She could have at least put it on a pad.

I blinked. I continued reading.

I blinked again.

“I… I…”

“Yes,” Lilith said.

“But—she could have taken over the city!” I said. “We’re not prepared for this sort of thing!”

“It’s harder than you’d think. Anyone who holds political office is very closely scrutinized. It’s unlikely she could brainwash anyone. Not to mention that routine medical checks would have caught their odd blood chemistry.”

“But—you should have told us!”

“And what would you have done?” she asked. “Or your predecessor, rather. Would he have believed us? And if he did believe us, what would he have done about it? Would he have decided that Domina City was too dangerous to leave free? Would he have sent in the armies, looking to arrest every single one of our warlords?” She shook her head. “Artemis made his choices. I agreed with them at the time, and I still do now.”

I swallowed and slid the phone across the table. “Maybe keep the details to yourself for now. Just until we get something signed, and people calm down a bit.”

Lilith nodded.

“But for the future, we will need some system of sharing criminal profiles.” I shook my head. “Even if I didn’t understand what half of those crimes were. Like, what is retribution evasion?”

She smiled. “Short version? Tax evasion.”

I rolled my eyes. “That’s always what gets them in the end.”

She walked over to the door on her side. “So should we invite them back in?”

I nodded. “Let’s try and finish this up quickly.”

Behind the Scenes (309)

This is another scene that I ran through a dozen variations of, from random monster attack to Malcanthet secretly still being alive and declaring undying revenge. This is one of the lower-key versions of the scene, but I think it works better.

Scene 302 – Mora

MORA

RICHARD

“Delayed?” I asked. “What do you mean delayed?”

“I mean the meeting is not going to take place yet.”

I sighed. “Yes, thank you, I know. I mean why is it delayed?”

The Dominite man gave me a look, but I weathered it. I was just happy he wasn’t obviously modified by the toy maker. As far as I could tell, he was completely human. He wore a nice black suit and said he was from Necessarius. I hadn’t seen any of the other ambassadors or their people yet. Well, I had seen them during the procession, but I hadn’t actually met with any of them.

“There is a minor issue that needs to be resolved,” the man said. “Until that happens, several of the delegates will be distracted. It is best to simply wait.”

“How long will it be?”

“Unclear. Perhaps a few hours.”

“I thought Butler was good about being on time,” I said.

“He is. Unfortunately, he is not here, and we are not as experienced in dealing with unexpected emergencies.”

I sighed, and nodded in dismissal. He bowed and left.

I was sitting in the conference room in the UN building. It was supposed to be filled with delegates from all nations and Domina City, but instead it was just me.

I still didn’t know how the UN would react to Domina City. Most of the representatives liked me, but mostly because I acted like a fun idiot. They could usually get whatever they wanted out of me. So what did they want in this situation? Did they want Domina to remain under American jurisdiction, or did they want it to become a free country? Either one would set a difficult precedent.

I groaned and leaned my forehead against the oak table. This had been easier when we were fighting. Body modification and superpowers were weird, but at least I understood them more than politics. I had spent most of my life reading comic books. I knew how all that worked.

The door opened, then shut quietly. “Mister President?”

“Miss Silk,” I said, my voice muffled. I refused to raise my head from the desk. “The meeting has been delayed.”

“Yes, I heard. Unavoidable circumstances, I am afraid.”

I waved my hand, still not raising my head. “I don’t even know what the circumstances are. The Necessarius guy—”

“Necessarian, sir.”

“Sure, Necessarian. He wouldn’t even tell me what was happening!” I sighed. That made my lips brush the desk more, and I got the taste of oak in my mouth. Or the varnish, I guess. “I should have pushed him harder.”

“As I understand it, the situation involves an escaped fugitive.”

I paused.

I sat up.

I didn’t wonder how Silk had heard that. She had her ways. Sometimes she was a better spy than anyone the CIA gave me. She was good enough that I had ordered a triple-strength background check on her, but no one had found any discrepancies.

Where was I? Oh right, sitting up!

“A Dominite fugitive on US soil,” I said. “That sounds like the sort of thing they should have warned us about.”

“Most likely, sir,” Silk said.

“Can we use that in the negotiations?”

“Perhaps. It depends on whether they catch her, how they do it, and whether they share that information without being prompted.”

“Right,” I said. “Politics.”

Silk smiled. “You’re a politician, sir.”

“Not by choice.” I sighed. “Okay. We probably should avoid pissing off the people with superpowers.” We didn’t know the extent of those powers, which was why I was being careful. Hopefully we could tease out more details. Then we’d know when it was safe to piss them off. “We’ll delay as they asked. No snide comments or anything. But make sure you put ‘talk about fugitive’ on the list.”

“Yes, sir.”

I leaned back in my chair. “What else is on the agenda for today?”

She adjusted her glasses. “Well, the UK wanted to talk to you about trade tariffs, but I think they’re just trying to dodge the proper channels because they know you’ll be easier to convince.”

I sighed. Politics.

Why did I even take this job?

Behind the scene (scene 302)

Short, yes, but it’s important to show what Martinez is up to. Besides, it breaks up the scenes nicely.