Tag Archives: Robyn Joan

Scene 331 – Proditione

PRODITIONE

ROBYN JOAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone glanced at Leeno. He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That most certainly was not his to promise.”

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

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

Leeno narrowed his eyes. “What deal?”

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

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

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

“Lie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zan nodded. “Sixteen.”

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

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

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

“Several,” she said. “Your point?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Explain. Now,” Adam said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We did what we must,” Li-Po said.

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

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

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

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

Zan frowned. “Why would you think that?”

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

I frowned. “Okay, what the hell—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at him. “They’ll what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned. “MC! You’re finally back!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw Leeno’s eyes go wide.

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

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

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

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

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

“MC, which way?” I asked.

Silence.

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

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

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

Eccretia scowled. “Bloody homunculus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pale Night steadied herself. “Go without me.”

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

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

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

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

Everyone turned to stare at me.

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

We all slowly turned to Lily.

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

Lily smiled. “Oh, very much so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam nodded.

“Then one… two… three!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone paused to let the implications of that sink in.

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

Everyone shook their heads.

But I had a thought. “I can fly.”

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

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

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

“Will that work?” Odin asked.

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

I nodded and flew straight up.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready,” Pale Night said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then go outside,” I said.

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

“What kind of stupid safety feature is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sorry. I don’t think—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about your niece?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I silenced him with a wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam cursed. “The hive.”

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 331)

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

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Scene 320 – Cadere

CADERE

ROBYN JOAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, right. The aliens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or unless they had powers too.

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

Or sing.

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

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

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

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

…they had AA guns.

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

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

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

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

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

“I just waved for them to follow me.”

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

“No, of course not. But, um…”

“What?”

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

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

“I just… feel something from the shuttle.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two people came down the ramp.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You speak English?” Butler asked.

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

“Bodyguard?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

“…Mister Leeno?” Butler said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zero shook her head.

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

Zero signed something else.

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

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

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

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

Silence.

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

“Mary Christina?” Butler said again.

“MC?” I said. “You there?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 320)

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

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Scene 318 – Notitia Collectio

NOTITIA COLLECTIO

LAURA

“There has been no communication from the aliens,” Butler said. He stepped forward and pointed at the large screen in front of us. I was just barely getting used to him being more mobile, but I still stepped away like he was a massive tree in a forest, about to fall. “Their smaller ships have a much higher flight ceiling than the American ones, but they’ve still retreated to the mothership after the American fighters got too close.”

“Robyn, what’s your flight ceiling?” I asked.

“I haven’t hit it yet,” she said. “My guess is either infinite or the edge of the atmosphere. Depends on if my power is using the Earth’s gravity or not. Some of my fliers have different abilities, though.”

I nodded. Anyone with wings would have a tiny maximum height compared to anything technological. On the other hand, I knew she had at least one man with rockets. He should be able to reach outer space if he felt like it.

“We’ll get you some flight suits,” I said. “See how close you can get to these things.”

Robyn winced.

I raised an eyebrow. “What’s wrong?” I sighed. “Tell me you’re not afraid.”

She shook her head. “No, I’m—okay, I am afraid. My therapist says I need to be more honest about that sort of thing…”

I frowned. She had a therapist? I had no record of that. I made a mental note to check up on it.

“I’m more worried about getting supplies directly from Necessarius. I wanted the fliers to be a little more independent.”

I smiled. “This from Clarke’s princess? He built NHQ for you in the first place.”

Butler chuckled. “I did have some say in it, you know. We had been needing a headquarters for a while. The unfortunate situation with Robyn just scared Isaac enough to accelerate it by a few years.”

Robyn gave us a massive eye-roll. “Anyway. Do we know anything about these aliens? Other than the fact that Silk seems to be worried? Which strikes me as a really, really bad sign, by the way.”

“No,” Butler said. “Nothing.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I said. “MC?”

“This is a schematic of the alien fighters,” MC said over the loudspeakers as a picture appeared on the screen. “Of course much of it is guesswork, but between the space colonies and our own scopes, we have a pretty good idea what they’re capable of.”

The ship was a small, teardrop shaped vessel without any apparent windows or other apertures. The round section was the front, the tail the back. It was roughly the size of three baseline humans; with the machinery, it would be a tight fit for a person.

“Their fighters use a reactionless drive that is roughly comparable in speed and maneuverability to our own rocket engines. The current theory on Ceres is that they’re exploiting the Woodward Effect, but that hasn’t been conclusively proven. However, if necessary, Cerean ships can outrun them, at least until fuel becomes an issue.”

“The para ships haven’t needed to refuel since we’ve been watching them,” I said. “Their radiation signatures imply hydrogen fusion, which means they would need to refuel eventually, but the mothership can likely collect hydrogen from the interstellar medium.”

“The mothership?” Robyn said. “Why not the daughter ships?”

I pointed at the schematic. “No room for a ram scoop. Maybe if they’re completely unarmed, but even that’s unlikely. My guess is that the mothership acts as a refueling point. The daughter ships should be able to hold enough hydrogen for a week or two of operation—less during high-energy operations like combat. If the ships are manned, the pilot will need food sooner than the ships will need fuel.”

Butler looked at the schematic. It had a small, human-shaped figure inside it. “How sure are we that the ships are manned? Drones seem like the wiser course.”

“They appear to communicate with radio, like we do,” MC said. “At least, that’s our best guess judging by their scans. We’ve had a few bursts from the ships that would be consistent with pilots reporting and receiving orders, but nothing like the near-constant datastreams drones would require.”

“What about artificial intelligences?” Robyn asked.

Butler and I both stared at her.

“Oh come on,” she said. “Obviously it’s possible. MC, could they fit in an AI smart enough to fly one of those ships?”

The voice from the speakers was hesitant. “…maybe. We couldn’t, that’s for sure, but if their AI science has advanced a bit, it’s possible. But that’s making a lot of assumptions. The ships seem to be just the right size for one pilot.”

“And that’s not making assumptions?”

“Not as many,” I said. “One of Lemuria’s satellites got a good scan of one that passed by. There seems to be a good amount of empty space in the middle. The most logical explanation would be a pilot.”

Robyn frowned. “What, they can’t detect pilots?”

I shook my head. “Not using the scanner the satellite was equipped with. Living flesh isn’t dense enough.”

“Which is more evidence that these ‘para’ are close to human,” MC said. “Of course, we could have assumed that from the very beginning. I doubt they would have bothered to come here if they weren’t at least crudely similar to us, biologically.”

“Let’s move on,” Butler said. “Do we know anything about their weapon systems yet?”

“Nothing,” I said. I pointed to the front of the schematic. “Scans indicate there’s something in there, but they haven’t fired on anything yet. Judging by the small size of the ships, I would guess something energy-based, lasers or plasma perhaps. There’s no room for bulky ammo stores.”

“Could be something with small ammo stores,” MC said. “Like a small railgun.”

Robyn frowned. “I’ve seen railguns. Would one even fit? Or rather, would one that’s strong enough to damage another ship fit?”

It took me a second to parse that. “Uh, yes. Well, I mean it’s possible. We’d be hard pressed to do something like that, but that’s just an engineering problem.”

“How do these weapons stand up against our own ships?” Butler asked. “Theoretically, of course.”

“Pretty much anything is going to tear through any human ships like butter,” MC said. “Nobody has bothered making combat ships yet. Ceres has a few prototypes, but that’s about it. Even the military outposts don’t have much.”

Butler sighed. “So our entire species is a sitting duck.”

“She didn’t say that,” I said. “The various manufacturing colonies can start making guns and slap them onto existing ships without too much trouble. It will be crude, but it should be enough to put holes in the alien ships.” Assuming our scans were accurate, but I didn’t say anything about that.

“All right. How many human ships are there across the entire system?”

I frowned. “Over two thousand, I think.”

“Most are in orbit around either Earth or Mars,” MC said. “Transport shuttles and the like. And most of the rest are in the asteroid belt.”

“Right. And how many ships do these para have?”

“Current guess is a thousand,” MC said. “Though it’s hard to keep track. Plus the mothership, of course. They’re all staying pretty close to her, so they haven’t had a chance to explore the system beyond their initial fly-by. And that was pretty quick.”

“Yes, let’s discuss that,” Butler said. “They have faster than light capabilities.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Did you read the transcript of Derek’s debriefing? Silk doesn’t seem to think that they should have FTL travel. That implies all sorts of things.”

“Yes, it implies that she’s just as confused as the rest of us.”

I shook my head. “No, not that. I mean none of this technology is that far beyond us.” I waved my hand at the schematic. “The reactionless drive is a bit surprising, but that’s about it. They don’t seem much more than fifty years or so ahead. A working FTL drive is centuries ahead of what they have. I don’t think they built it.”

Butler stroked his chin and frowned at me. “That’s a very attractive theory, but I don’t think we can assume that. If they use FTL technology when we aren’t expecting it, they’ll be able to devastate us. Destroy every single one of our outposts before we even know what has happened.”

“Then why haven’t they done that already?” I asked.

“Maybe they want peace.”

“If they wanted peace, they would have contacted us by now,” I said. “Even if they can’t speak our languages yet, they would have done something as a show of faith. Moved the mothership to a less threatening orbit, perhaps.”

“There you go assuming again,” MC warned. “They’re aliens. They probably don’t think the same way humans do.”

I shrugged. “We have to start somewhere. Pretend for a moment that that is a human ship. What would its behavior suggest?”

Butler nodded. “They’re surprised.”

“They didn’t expect us to be here,” I said. “We’ve been here for a while. The fact that they didn’t notice implies that they were using light-speed detection devices to look for habitable worlds. When they left their homeworld—” I checked my notes. “—three thousand years ago, we would still have been living in small towns and villages. And their information would have been an additional three thousand years out of date. I doubt they even noticed us on telescopes. Which, added all together, means they didn’t have FTL travel.”

“Yes,” Robyn said, annoyed. “We know. Welcome to five minutes ago. I think the point Butler was trying to make was that they could have reverse-engineered an FTL drive. Maybe they found a wreck or something.”

“Yes, because space is simply littered with functioning artifacts of ancient FTL-capable civilizations.”

“Why not? It’s not like we’ve explored the universe or anything.”

“Perhaps we should table this discussion for the moment,” Butler said. “Let’s focus on tactics for the moment; we can deal with the rest later. The important part is that we do not believe their small ships capable of FTL.”

“All this is moot until we actually talk to them,” MC said.

I smiled slightly. “So a first strike option is off the table?”

Butler raised an eyebrow at me. “Nothing is off the table.” He sighed. “But for now, we wait. And try to figure out what they actually want.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 318)

This one took me a while, because while nothing happens, that’s exactly the point. They just don’t know anything yet.

Next is a big one, though.

Scene 291 – Victoria

VICTORIA

ROBYN JOAN

The cork from the champagne bottle almost hit me in the eye.

“To victory!” Tekhiko yelled, holding aloft the foaming bottle. He hadn’t noticed the near-miss. “Domina City still stands! Sumus firmi stare!

Sumus firmi stare!” the rest of us echoed as we raised our glasses. There was much clinking and smiles, even before most people got any champagne.

“I would like to say something,” Fimmtu said as Tekihoko filled his glass. “First, thank you Orla, getting this nice little venue arranged on such short notice.”

Calling this place a ‘venue’ was giving it too much credit; it was just a reserved room at Nervi’s. It was on the second floor, so most people didn’t even know it existed. So, yeah, I guess Orla did a good job finding it.

There was some polite clapping, and a single cheer from Tekihoko. How much had he had to drink?

Fimmtu smiled an ave smile, but continued. “Domina City won its first war—its first war against outsiders, I mean.” There was some chuckling at that. “That’s something to be proud of.” He shrugged. “And, yeah, we fliers didn’t really do anything, but personally, I’m fine with that. We were ready, but we weren’t needed. I’m not sure what else we could have asked for.” He raised his glass higher. “To victory.”

“AD VICTORIAM!” Tekihoko cried, then burst out laughing.

Fimmtu chuckled. “Sure, buddy. Ad victoriam.”

Ad victoriam,” everyone else said, much more calmly, as we drained our glasses.

The toast done, the group broke apart into little cliques of three or four people. Orla went with Justine, Reinhold went with Sascha and Kora, so on and so on. Platon half walked, half carried Tekihoko over to a seat. Other than that, there weren’t any actual drunks yet.

Fimmtu sidled up to me. “Hey, boss.”

I smiled. “Hey. What’s up?”

He shook his head and pretended to sip at his wine. He couldn’t actually drink it, at least not easily, since the glass wasn’t designed for his ave beak. “Hell of a thing that happened here today. Never thought I’d see the day where Domina was attacked by outsiders.”

I rolled my eyes. “My dad saw this coming. Well, he’s just generally paranoid, but he was right this time. I have a feeling he and Butler would have unveiled something nasty if things hadn’t gone our way.”

“How is your dad?” Fimmtu asked. “NHQ, I mean. Did it get attacked at all?”

“Didn’t you look at the battle maps?”

“Local ones only. I couldn’t find the city maps.”

MC had given those to me without a second thought. “They’ll probably get published soon. The Americans didn’t penetrate far, and definitely not as far as NHQ. I think they barely got as far as Little Romania. Even that’s just because the vampires were having too much fun playing with their food.”

“I heard North Gate got hit pretty hard, though.”

“Mostly the gate itself. Shops and businesses. Though I hear they did put a pretty big dent in Seventeen Forge, so that’s gonna be annoying.”

Fimmtu looked thoughtful for a moment. “Seventeen is fully automated these days, right?”

I shook my head. “You’re thinking of Ninety-Seven, over in Dire Maul. I didn’t hear anything about it getting attacked. Besides, it’s still just an experiment anyway.”

He shook his head. “Which one is Seventeen? What’s it called?”

I struggled to remember. “…Tanzō.”

He nodded. “Right, right. Yeah, I spent some time there. Basic assembly line work. You have a casualty report?”

“I could look it up.”

“Nah, it’s fine.” He sighed. “It’s got safe rooms and all that. If any of my friends got killed, it was because they were too stupid to run.”

I frowned. “Victim blaming isn’t healthy.”

He raised an eyebrow, which was impressive to see on a full ave anthro. “Since when did you sound like a psychologist? Have you actually been showing up to class?” He chuckled. “Surprised the school hasn’t shut down completely.”

I took a deep pull of my wine. “I’m…”

In therapy.

I could say it. No need to mention Silk or any of the weirder stuff. Just… I’m in therapy. Simple and easy. All I had to do was say it.

The only problem was that Domina didn’t like therapy. In this city, if you had problems, you were supposed to go out and kill something like a normal person. Monsters were great for catharsis.

“I’ve picked up a few things here and there,” I said. “Being trapped in NHQ for a few years gave me a lot of free time.”

“I can imagine.” He shuffled his wings. “Any chance you’ve picked up anything about bird mites?”

I chuckled. “No. Pretty sure you’re one of the first humans to have that problem. Why don’t you go ask Delia, or someone else at G’Hanir?”

He rolled his eyes. “I didn’t exactly leave on good terms.”

“So? First time I was there, Akane exploded her shoulder breaking through a top story window. We’ve gone back there a few times since, no problems.”

Fimmtu gave me a confused look. “I know what those windows are made of. How did she just shoulder it open?”

“Super speed. Like a bullet from a gun.”

He shivered. “Ugh. She’s lucky she didn’t just splat like a bug.”

“Speaking of bugs…”

He rolled his eyes again. “Okay, I set you up for that one.” He pretended to sip his drink again while scanning the party. “I’ll look into it. Some of the hawkmasters might have something. Until then, let’s just enjoy this party.” He took a deep breath. “I doubt things are going to stay peaceful forever.”

I chuckled. “Half the city is partying right now. We won a war!”

“Parties can turn to riots when enough drink is involved. Besides, it’s not like the entire city stopped fighting each other to defend against the Americans. The ‘sarians still have plenty to worry about.”

“Like what? All the major cultures were involved in the fight, even the fey. Unless you think the skulls used the opportunity to try and claim some territory.”

He wasn’t amused by the joke. “Off the top of my head, I didn’t hear anything about the Nessians in the fighting.”

My smile disappeared. “Did they take someone?”

“I’m sure they did, but no, I don’t have any direct evidence of it.” He sighed. “I’m sure someone will just disappear in the chaos, and we’ll never find them again. Maybe one of the lesser kemo clans will get a new slave, but no one will be able to prove anything.”

I leaned back against the wall. “Is Asmodeus still doing business with the fey?”

Fimmtu gave me a sad ave smile. “Skies above only know. I haven’t heard anything about it since their reformatting. They might have just taken it underground. On the other hand, the fey don’t seem to need slaves these days. People are joining them willingly.”

“Maybe it will be enough to finally kill them off,” I said. “The Nessians, I mean. Force of arms couldn’t get rid of them, but if they have no customers, they’ll dry up on the vine. Even the Belians are ignoring them now.”

Fimmtu looked confused for a moment, before nodding. “Oh, right, Fierna cut ties with them. I heard about that. She seems to be doing well—better than her father, at least. She sent some drakes to help on East Gate.”

Fierna. Yeah. Kelly had been doing well for herself. Or at least the best she could.

I sighed. “I’m gonna go get another drink.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 285)

Sumus firmi stare is the official Domina City motto. It doesn’t get much use, but nothing stirs patriotic feelings like being attacked by an outside army.

Scene 269 – Sollemne

SOLLEMNE

DEREK

A party felt like a stupid idea.

But we needed this, dammit. After months of stumbling from crisis to crisis, we needed something that didn’t involve monsters or assassinations or superpowered goddesses from the future.

More people had come than I expected. In addition to the rest of the Paladins and the retinue, five of Akane’s kensei—plus both her nephews—had come, and were chatting amiably with the half-dozen scientists Laura had brought. It seemed like they had met before at NHQ, and were now discussing some old missions. Akane had more kensei, but they seemed to mostly be busy right now.

The real surprise was that Simon, Seena, and all their friends had come as well. I recognized Simon’s girlfriend and Eccretia of the Never-Known Thieves and her bodyguards (who had been polite enough to leave their guns at home), but the last girl, who Seena had called Veda, was unfamiliar. She wore a big concealing cloak and seemed to be avoiding me, which usually meant that I had tried to kill her at some point. Oh well, as long as she didn’t start something, it was fine.

“Nice party,” Adam said with a smirk as he walked up, Lily on his arm.

She elbowed him in the ribs. “Be nice.”

He rolled his eyes. “Sorry.”

“I know this might seem like a bad time to throw a party—”

He laughed. “You kidding? It’s the perfect time. I grew up in New York high society. Most of the best parties were when there was some crisis that everybody was trying to distract themselves from. But this…” He winced. “At least the food’s nice.”

I raised an eyebrow. “It looks like people are having a good time.”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

“They are,” Lily said, half to me and half to Adam. “They’re not just putting on a show. They’re genuinely enjoying themselves.”

“Except for the retinue.”

I glanced over at the group. They were easy to spot, due to George being the only giant on the roof. George was eating something mechanically, and Kat was doing something on her phone. Jarasax actually seemed to be having an animated conversation with one of Eccretia’s bodyguards, but Alex…

Alex looked like a zombie. I wasn’t sure he was even conscious of where he was.

After everything that had happened with Kelly, it was probably a miracle he even got out of bed in the morning. Actually, considering that he didn’t sleep, it might be that he just hadn’t gone to bed after all this happened.

Kelly… Fierna… had released a statement to the rest of the city, declaring the Belians and Phlegethos hers. There had been talk of war, but right now she seemed to be busy purging her house of discontent. None of the other vampires, or Necessarius, wanted to deal with her.

“It’s a miracle she didn’t kill him,” Adam said quietly. “That’s gotta be freaky.”

I didn’t say anything. I hadn’t mentioned what I had overheard, and didn’t see a need to do so now. I shouldn’t have heard it in the first place. Should have just left when I had the chance, no need to stay…

“You have that look in your eye,” Lily said wryly.

“What look?”

“The look you get when you’re blaming yourself for things that aren’t your fault.”

I sighed. “I don’t need you to mother me, Lily.”

She raised her hand, forestalling the point. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m just saying this as a friend, Derek. Whatever it is, let it go. You did everything you could, and it would have turned out worse if you weren’t there.”

I rolled my eyes. “You don’t even know what it is.”

She smirked. “You always do everything you can, and it always turns out better from your presence. You really aren’t a hard one to read, little hero.”

Please don’t start calling me that.”

She laughed, and pulled Adam away. “Come on. Nervi’s set up some of her pumpkin roast. Have you tried it yet?”

I shook my head as they walked away, and nearly ran headlong into Laura, who was walking up with a couple drinks. Sodas, thankfully. Good thing Nervi didn’t cater alcohol—I would have drank most of it already.

“This one is yours,” Laura said without missing a beat, handing me a can of Cerean something or other. The logo was stylized, I couldn’t tell what it said. The only reason I knew it was from Ceres was because their cans are always rectangles.

I took it, but frowned at the more normal can in her hand. “Shouldn’t we switch?”

She shrugged, taking a swig. “That was the last one.”

She had been trying to get me to try some Cerean brand for a while now. I guess this was it. I cracked open the lid, slightly annoyed at the lack of fizz (carbonation was a horrible idea when shooting giant packages through space) and sipped at it. It tasted light and fruity.

Laura smirked. “You don’t like it.”

“No, I do, I just—” I stopped. “I don’t know why I even thought of lying to you.”

She took my arm lightly and led me to one of the groups. Scientists, I was pretty sure, but most of Akane’s kensei had left their swords at home, so it could be them. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard worse. Try overhearing a man telling his wife where he was last night, and realizing every word is a lie.”

I winced. “Oh. What’d you do?”

“Blackmailed him later,” she said pleasantly. “That was fun.”

Yet another reminder not to get on her bad side.

“Derek, these are some of the Clarke’s researchers. You’ve probably met them all before at some point or another.”

“I know I’ve met you,” I said, indicating a kemo with bat ears. Those were rare. I couldn’t even remember what the subculture was called. Well, microculture. “You’ve helped patch me up once or twice.”

She nodded. “I have a degree in medical applications of the toy maker. One of my main projects is to study our Honored Mother, to make sure her newest toys can be added safely.”

“You know she doesn’t like being called that,” one of the men warned.

The bat kemo smiled slightly. “I know. She tells me it every day.”

“What about the rest of you?” I asked, steering the topic onto grounds I felt more comfortable with. “What do you all do with Clarke? Are any of you working with him on…” I frowned, and turned to Laura. “What’s that thing he’s working on these days?”

“The heart,” she answered. “Macro-scale muscle and bone generation. He almost cracked it before the Rampage, and now he basically has.”

The male researcher, the black man who had warned about the Mother Monster, snorted. “Yeah, using his power he’s cracked it. But that’s cheating. What happens if he dies, or if he’s just busy and we can’t find another exomorpher? He needs to focus more on the toy box itself, not playing with his power.”

“I’m still catching him morphing his skin when he thinks no one is looking,” Laura said. “It’s going to take a bit longer for the novelty to wear off.”

“Are people like Clarke that rare?” I asked. “With that power, I mean.”

The researcher thought about it. “A little. No one here has it, but there are more than a few scattered around NHQ. But that’s not the point. We don’t understand these powers, and shouldn’t be trusting them. What if Silk comes back and snaps her fingers, turning them all off?”

I glanced at Laura, who didn’t look as concerned as she should have. The man had a point. Silk had given us a way to disrupt powers, who knew what else she could do. I still didn’t trust her, no matter that Laura had been pointing her power at her the entire time. For all we knew, she had some way to dodge that ability.

“Excuse us,” Laura said as she tugged on my arm, pulling us away from the group. “Speaking of Clarke, his daughter just landed.” She was right, Robyn had just floated down, carrying a case of beer. Still, the second we were out of earshot, she quietly said “You had that look on your face.”

I sighed. “Everyone is noticing looks on my face tonight. What is it this time?”

She smirked a little, but quickly turned serious. “That look when you’re worrying about something you shouldn’t.”

“Is that the same as my ‘everything is my fault’ face?”

“No, of course not.”

I rolled my eyes. “Fine. I am worried about Silk.”

“Don’t be.”

“Why not?”

“Because there’s absolutely nothing you can do about her.”

Before I could retort, we were within a couple steps of Robyn, and Laura was all smiles for her. “I thought you had decided to skip.”

She managed a small smile of her own. “Nope. Just grabbing some beer.” She hefted the six-pack.

I raised an eyebrow. “Is that really a good idea?”

She shrugged. “Probably not. Want one?”

“Yes.”

No,” Laura cut in. She gave me a look. “If I can’t drink, you can’t drink. That was the deal.”

“I said that when I thought there wouldn’t be any alcohol here at all,” I grumbled.

Robyn looked between us. “Why can’t you drink?” Her eyes twinkled with amusement. “Are you pregnant?

What?

“Of course not!” Laura added. “Silver and gold, when would we even had time to do that?”

I glanced at her. “That’s why you think it’s improbable? Just timing?”

Robyn snorted. “Please, if this city wasn’t constantly in danger, you two would never leave the bedroom.”

I felt myself go beet red, but Laura didn’t seem surprised at all. “Don’t exaggerate. Technically, we’re not even dating.”

“Technically nothing!” I squeaked. “We’re not dating! Period!”

She gave me a sidelong glance.

I thought back to the last month or so. Farther back, actually, all the way to the reveal of Elizabeth’s identity. About the amount of time we had been spending together, the lunches and dinners we had taken alone, without anybody else around, and all the other girls I had been turning down.

“Crap,” I muttered.

Robyn smirked. “I know a nice jewelry store if you need to apologize.”

I sighed. “I’ll think about it.”

Laura was amused as well, but she kept a better lid on it. “No need for jewelry, I promise. The look on your face is apology enough.”

“Glad you find my pain funny.”

She just smiled. “Come on. You need to meet some people.” She pulled me away.

“Robyn, share,” I called back. “Don’t drink all of that by yourself.”

She flipped me off with a winning smile.

We walked across the roof, weaving through the crowd, and I tried to find the words. “I’m… sorry. That I didn’t notice we were dating.” Then I chuckled. “I think that might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever said.”

“I’m sure you’ve said worse.” She squeezed my arm tighter, laying her head on my shoulder briefly. “And I knew you were being an idiot, but didn’t say anything. It’s as much my fault as yours.”

“That’s not true and you know it. A little your fault, sure, but I think this is a time I really do deserve the lion’s share of the blame.” I blinked as a thought occurred to me. “Do our parents know?”

“I haven’t mentioned it to them, but that doesn’t mean much. Thieves are good at figuring things out, especially when they’re close friends with Butler.”

I groaned. “Butler knows.”

“Of course he does. Clarke doesn’t, if that makes you feel better.”

“It does, actually.” We slipped into the edge of the crowd of swordsmen and swordswomen at the corner of the roof. “Akane! How are you enjoying the party?”

At the center of the group, Akane sat on a table, sipping a drink and smiling. I couldn’t remember the last time I really, truly saw her smile, but here she was.

She raised the drink in my direction. “Derek. Good party.”

“Auntie Akane was just telling us about the first time you two fought a gargant,” one of the younger swordsmen explained. One of her nephews, obviously. Yuuki, I was pretty sure. “Was it really a full-sized blind-rammer?”

I rubbed my forehead. “Oh, don’t remind me of that disaster. It’s a miracle the thing didn’t bring the whole building down on us.”

“And somebody forgot to buy insurance,” Akane said, still smiling.

“And I forgot to buy insurance,” I said. “So we were liable for the damages.” I shook my head. “I think we spent the whole next year paying that one off.”

“She also claims you managed to kill a deathmarked,” another kensei said. This was the other nephew, Yuudai.

“We crushed it in a car compactor. It’s dead.” I swallowed. “Pretty sure.”

Sometimes I still had dreams of that thing coming after us.

Laura tugged on my arm before the silence could get too awkward. “We’ll let your boss regale you with her old war stories, kids. Mister Huntsman and I need to speak with Noble Nyashk.”

I knew an out when I saw one, and gave polite nods to them as we left. I was actually a little surprised when she pulled us towards Seena and her group, which included her brother and his girlfriend, the changeling warlord and her bodyguards, and the hooded woman.

“Noble Nyashk,” Laura said by way of greeting. “I’m pleasantly surprised that you came.”

“Dame Laura,” Seena answered in kind. “I got your invitation. It seemed downright criminal not to put in an appearance.”

“How is your new job treating you?”

She sighed. “I’m one of two warlords trying to hold the Mals together, and the other one is Zepar. It’s difficult, and I’m not sure the culture is going to survive the winter.”

“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “People always need assassins.”

“Our methods are going out of style. People prefer more subtlety than knives in the dark. Contracts are starting to dry up.” She shrugged. “But powers change the game. We’ll see, we’ve had some recent successes.”

“What’s your power, by the way?” I asked.

She smiled pointedly. “My secret weapon.”

“Mine’s one of the stock vampire ones,” Simon said before things could get awkward. He held out his scarred hand, and shadows writhed in his hand. “I can make darkness. Shadows deep enough that even a vampire can’t see through them. Cool, huh?”

“And you?” I asked his girlfriend.

She shrank at the attention. “It’s… weird. I kind of… turn into electricity?”

I frowned. “And what? Attack people?”

“No, I don’t have enough control for that. I’m just… electricity. It kinda works like teleportation, but I have no control over where I end up, I just kind of randomly rematerialize somewhere within ten feet of my starting point.” She shrugged. “Like I said, it’s weird.”

Laura, however, looked thoughtful. “There might be something more to that. Maybe you can stop by NHQ tomorrow morning, we can run some tests.”

Yolanda shivered. “I’m not big on tests.”

“Exercises, then. No needles.”

“…okay.”

“I fix things,” one of Eccretia’s bodyguards said. Ferenil, I think.

His boss glared at him. “That’s supposed to be a secret.”

“I reverse time!” the other man, Domothon, said.

Eccretia sighed. “And that definitely is.”

“Well, that’s an easy fix,” I said. “Reverse time, and keep your mouth shut this time.”

He winced. “I just did. It was out of reach.”

I blinked. “…five seconds is out of reach?”

“Yes,” he grumbled. “And it takes forever for my reservoir to recharge. I mostly just use it in emergencies, like when I get shot.”

Ferenil slapped him across the face.

“Gods of men and darkness, what was that for!?

“Just checking that your reservoir was really depleted.”

Domothon rubbed his cheek and glared.

“I’m guessing you don’t feel like sharing, Honored Paragon,” I said to change the subject.

Eccretia scowled. “No. I might as well at this point, but I’m not going to. I’m sure you understand. You all hid your powers for as long as possible.”

I shrugged. “We were considering coming out for a long time. Elizabeth forced our hands.”

“Robyn hid it from us for a while,” Laura added. “We only found out when she saved us from an ambush.” She shook her head and took a sip of her soda. “Irresponsible. Understandable, but irresponsible.”

“It all worked out in the end. And besides, she was helping us.” The others looked at me blankly. “MC knew,” I explained. “Robyn acted as her scout. So she saved our lives a few times.” I tried not to grind my teeth. “…but she could have done better.”

There was a moment of awkward silence.

“Miss Korrapati,” Laura said to the girl in the hooded cloak. “What’s your power? My first guess would be speed, or perhaps shapeshifting.” She shook her head. “No, any form of identity concealment wouldn’t need the hood, of course…”

The girl shuffled on her feet. “Kinesis. You know, moving things with my mind? Small things, mostly. I’m a tinkerer, so it helps me build things.” She shrugged. “Simple, but nice.” She chuckled. “Better than this friend of mine. He got one of those vampire draining things. He refuses to use it, so he’s basically powerless.”

“What does he drain?” I asked.

“Life.”

“Ah.” Yes, that would be hard to use ethically.

“I’m sure he could find a use for it,” Laura said, smiling pleasantly. “Has he tried draining animals?”

The hooded girl shook her head. “Only works on humans, as far as he can tell.”

I snorted. “That sounds arbitrary.”

“Lots of powers are,” Laura said. “One of the ‘sarians at NHQ can’t use her telekinesis unless she’s wearing leather gloves. Pretty powerful when she has the gloves, though.”

While I frowned in confusion, everyone else nodded. I guess they all had more interaction with weird powers than me. I mostly just knew the Paladins and Akane’s kensei.

I opened my mouth to say something, but Simon looked at something behind me. “Who’s that waving at you?”

“Hm?” I turned to see George the giant waving from across the rooftop. “Oh, that’s the retinue.” I paused, thinking. “I don’t want to just leave you guys—”

They waved us off. “No, it’s fine, just go.”

I nodded in thanks then peeled away, Laura still on my arm as we navigated the crowds.

“Be careful,” I told her quietly.

She blinked and frowned. “Careful of what?”

“Just in general. We don’t want to depress them any more than they already are.”

She looked like she had a retort ready for that, but didn’t say anything as we walked up.

“George,” I said with a smile. “What’s up? You enjoying the party?”

He smiled weakly. “Best as I can, sir. Best as I can. I was just wondering if you had any specific plans for us during the battle.”

I winced. “You don’t need to be involved.”

“With all due respect, sir, working makes us feel better.”

Kat and Jarasax nodded. Alex hadn’t so much as acknowledged our presence.

“All right…” I thought for a moment, before turning to Laura. “Vampire domain?”

She nodded. “Best place to put them. Alex will be most useful there, and the rest are used to working in those sorts of conditions. We’ll stick you on East Gate.”

I frowned, then leaned down to whisper in her ear. “Where are the Belians going to be, again?”

She stiffened, then cursed under her breath. “Of course. West Gate, then, with the angels.”

George nodded. “Probably for the best.”

I gave Alex a look. “You fine with that?”

He shrugged. “The Saints have forgiven the ‘sarian angels. Mostly.”

“Not what I meant.”

He turned away. “Yeah, well, it’s the most pressing matter. I’ll live.”

I sighed, and turned to the kemo of the group. “Kat. How is your power treating you? It must be hard, since you didn’t get one that matches your personality.”

She shrugged, and signed something.

“She’s been going to a support group for the bats and bleeders and so on,” George translated. “She’s doing okay.”

She signed something else.

“The biters have it worse.”

I nodded. Yeah, that was a weird one. The skins and the bleeders too, but at least they didn’t have that permanent morphing thing. That wasn’t going to be fun if it wasn’t what you wanted, deep down.

“And you, George?” Laura asked. “What’s going on with you these days? I know the giants are still having some difficulties without the Hammer, but war hasn’t broken out yet.”

He waved a massive hand. “I barely pay attention to the culture any more. Yeah, what’s happening to them sucks, but they’ll survive. I’ve got my own stuff going on.”

“Which is?”

“Well, besides the retinue, uh…” He thought for a minute. “Been pretty big on online gaming recently.”

“Need to do something with all that free time,” Jarasax said with a smile.

“Isn’t the Big Boss sending you on missions?” I asked. “Helping the CS-squad, that sort of thing? You have the most experience with powers, so I just assumed you’d be part of it. Maybe get folded in completely.”

Sax shook his head. “We were, but with… everything that’s happened, we’re kind of on enforced leave right now.”

I winced. “That might not be the best idea.”

George nodded. “I’d feel better if we were working regularly.”

“I’m sure if you explain the situation, he’ll be happy to put you on more missions.”

“Now isn’t the time for it, though,” Laura said. “With war just around the corner.”

“They haven’t attacked yet. May as well get this settled, instead of just waiting around forever.”

“Guys…” Sax said, jerking his head at Alex.

The poor angel looked like his brain was shutting down. This was simply not something he wanted to think about.

“…another time, then,” Laura said. “We’ll see you around.” She led me away.

“Well, at least that wasn’t a complete disaster,” I muttered.

“It could have been worse,” she agreed. “I have no idea how, but it could have been.”

“Yeah…” I shook my head. “Poor bastards. I think they might be looking forward to the war a little too much.”

She winced. “You don’t think they’ve gone suicidal.”

“Alex is the only one I’m really worried about.”

“…but the rest are spoiling for a fight.” She nodded. “They want to do something. Maybe you’re right about them needing more jobs. I’ll talk to Butler tomorrow. See if he can’t find something for them to do.”

“Maybe we can—” I frowned as I realized she was leading me to the stairs. “Were are we going?”

“Downstairs.”

“Yes, I got that.”

She squeezed my arm and laid her head on my shoulder. “I meant back to the dorms.”

“What do you—oh.” Huh.

That was…

Huh.

She chuckled. “You’re cute when you’re flustered.”

“I think gobsmacked might be a better word.”

She smiled. “Maybe. But flustered is cuter.”

I opened the door for her. “After you.”

Her eyes twinkled, and she laughed as we left the party.

Behind the Scenes (scene 269)

I had a huge romance arc for Derek and Laura planned. A long arc revolving around the remnants of his mind control, their interactions as children, and the reason she left South Central in the first place. I decided to go with a simpler option, keeping it mostly offscreen, because it just wasn’t working. Too reliant on cliches and so on.

break

Scene 260 – Oppugnatio

OPPUGNATIO

ADAM

It was Thursday night, shortly after dusk. November 29th. Why did that feel important?

“So we’re raiding the domain of a bunch of drugged-up vampires,” I said.

Laura didn’t even look at me. “The slaves aren’t the problem. The nightstalkers, the ones who still have their minds, are the issue.”

“But they’re not as strong as the sclavi,” Kelly said as she strode up to the edge of the roof next to us. She observed the skyscraper across the street with a critical eye. Phlegethos was the opposite of the angel domains in a lot of ways; while the Heavens were covered in light reflected and refracted a million times over, the Black Crypt was completely, utterly dark. Even at this distance, I couldn’t use my phone; the vampires had a ‘dark zone’ set up, which was sort of a specialized EMP field for taking out lights. It just had an annoying habit of killing most other electronics as well.

Even without the conspicuous darkness, the vampire domain would still be easy to spot. Two buildings next to each other were joined by walkways and paths. The walls were lined with spikes and blades, which I suspected were sharp enough to cut any kemo stupid enough to try to climb them. There were a few outcroppings here and there, manned by turrets that slowly scanned the area. Even the glass was black and bulletproof.

“I have ways of neutralizing the sclavi,” Kelly said, apparently unconcerned with the view before us. “But I’m not sure if it will work more than once or twice, so I’ll save it for an emergency. In the meantime, aim for the leaders, and the rest will scatter.”

“We still need to get in. Unless you’re suggesting walking in the front door?”

The ex-Belian shrugged. “They wouldn’t expect it, that’s for sure. But we need a better plan.”

“Roof?” Derek suggested. He nodded at Kat and Robyn. “We’ve got two fliers.”

“I can’t carry more than two people,” Robyn said.

“And Kat can’t carry anyone,” Laura said. “We can’t have Robyn make three trips; we’ll be spotted.” She frowned, then shook her head. “But it’s still a good idea. Robyn, go high. Really high. See what the security looks like on the roof.”

Robyn nodded and shot off like an arrow from a bow, likely more than happy to have a mission that didn’t involve getting in firing range of anyone. In a moment, she was out of sight, disappeared into the night sky.

“I still feel like we should have done this during the day,” I said. “Night gives them too many advantages.”

“We got here as fast as we could,” Laura said, still not looking at me. “Considering how clingy Ishtar was and how far Phlegethos is from Jealous Heart, we were lucky. We’re not waiting until tomorrow.”

“She’s always been clingy,” Kelly said. “The drugs aren’t helping.”

Kelly hadn’t gone into Jealous Heart with us. Considering how bad her ex-girlfriend was, I really couldn’t blame her. Ishtar was nice, even friendly, but she was still a Belian, and still crazy. Not fey crazy, but pretty out there.

I was getting distracted. We had more important things to worry about.

Derek’s phone beeped. He flipped it open and turned it to speaker mode. “Robyn?”

“I’m here,” her voice sounded out of the speaker. “The roof isn’t too heavily guarded, but I’d prefer not to test it. Three nightstalkers, all clear-headed, as far as I can tell. We wouldn’t be able to get them all before they called for backup.”

“Well that’s out,” I said. “Are there any sewers?”

“None big enough to crawl in through,” MC said, cutting into the conversation without missing a beat.

I sighed. “Of course not. Well, maybe a frontal assault is our only option. “Flynn—” He turned away from Phlegethos, then frowned. “Wait, where’s Flynn? Wasn’t he with us a minute ago?”

“I sent him back to NHQ to watch over the kensei,” Akane said without blinking.

I sighed again. Losing one of our main heavy-hitters was going to make this more difficult than it needed to be. “Okay, fine, whatever. Uh, then Akane, you’ll be on point, Derek you’re a bit behind, then the rest of us will take the rear, with Robyn and Laura staying out of it—”

“You’re missing something important,” Laura interrupted. “MC, any chance you have a list of the powers the Belians might have at their command? The slaves aren’t as important; focus on the nightstalkers.”

“Sorry, but they weren’t exactly interested in registering with Necessarius.”

“Great.”

“Vampires tend to gravitate towards powers of darkness and blood, though, if that helps.”

“A little,” Laura admitted. “Though it would probably help more if we had an angel.”

“I can go find one,” Robyn said through Derek’s phone. “That Adele Lucifer, maybe?”

“No, she’s busy.”

Everyone’s busy,” I said. “Including us. We shouldn’t be here.”

Kelly glared at me. “Are you saying we should abandon friends to slavers?”

“No, I’m saying we should try to buy them back the ‘sarian way.”

But she shook her head. “Won’t work. If they were grabbed at random, maybe, but we’re pretty sure that they were targeted specifically. Calling and offering money will just make them accelerate their plans.”

“Why can’t anything be easy?” I shook my head. “I swear, things were simpler when the whole damn city was screaming.”

“A graveyard is simple too,” Kelly said. “That doesn’t mean you should make more of them.” She sighed. “But in this case, I think ‘simple’ might be our only option. There are no secret side entrances or anything, no other way into the domain besides the roof and the front door.”

Kat signed something.

“That still requires that Miss Clarke kill two guards as fast as possible,” Kelly reminded her. “You’re not going to be able to take out more than one before they call for help. Not an option.”

“Robyn could carry me up there, then Kat snipes one while I get the other two,” I said.

“Better,” Laura cut in before Kelly could speak. “But it still has problems. The roof is likely covered in cameras, and no one can get close enough to drop a transceiver on one before being seen.”

“If we go in from above—”

“You’ll have to start from high above. Do you have some kind of gas mask?”

MC snorted, a strange sound to hear from a phone. “We can get him a damn gas mask, no problem. The cameras, though… I think some of them are pointing up. I’m not sure that there’s any angle of approach where you won’t be spotted.”

“The roof is still a better option,” I said. “Even if reinforcements come.”

“Adam,” Derek said firmly. “Most of us can’t fly. You want to be trapped on a roof with no way out but a sheer drop to the pavement?”

“No, he has a point,” Laura murmured, half to herself. “It’s not designed to withstand any kind of siege; it’s out of reach of all other buildings, and they wouldn’t have had time to revamp it, even if they realized that fliers could come in that way.”

I tried not to look smug.

Apparently it didn’t work. “Wipe that grin off your face,” Kelly snapped. “This plan should work, but it’s still Plan B. Plan A is getting in undetected. Miss Clarke. Do you see any angle where you can get next to a camera and drop a node on it?”

“Uh… maybe. I think the north—”

I heard the metallic click of a gun behind us.

I pulled out my Sica as fast as humanly possible, spinning towards the sound.

Derek, seeing my panicked reaction, immediately covered us in a glowing blue force field, an entire globe covering us from every angle. Not a second too soon, either—bullets started bouncing off it almost before he finished making it.

Vampires were stalking onto the rooftop, vampires with the vacant stares that only the heavily drugged could manage. They were still well-armed, though, and I knew better than to underestimate a couple dozen men armed with machine guns.

“How long can you hold the shield?” I muttered.

“Not long,” he whispered back. “I don’t want to dissolve the back side, in case they try to snipe us from Phlegethos.”

I looked back towards the Belian domain, and realized he was right. If they had found us here, they could have already called the men on the rooftop and requested support. Give one of them a sniper rifle—or even a basic infantry rifle with a decent scope—and we were screwed.

Then another Belian strode onto the roof.

This one clearly wasn’t drugged—at least not to the extent of the slaves. Her black eyes were clear, her stride straight and strong. She walked right up to Derek’s shield, and smiled as she traced the force field with a long black talon.

“A bit of an overreaction, don’t you think?”

Derek was visibly sweating. “No.”

“Hm. Of course. Derek Huntsman, I presume?” The girl smiled, baring sharp fangs. “The first Paladin, the first Paragon, first in the fight against the evil Composer.” I wasn’t enjoying her mocking tone, but she just chuckled at our annoyance. “You all think you’re so clever. As if the rest of us don’t know how to deal with powers now.”

“Akane,” Derek hissed.

The shield blinked briefly, just long enough for his bodyguard to run out at superspeed, slashing at the Belian with a knife.

Next thing I knew, she was slammed against the wall on the other side of the roof. A moment later, she fell to the ground, leaving behind a massive crack in the concrete wall. She didn’t move.

That was a clever trick,” the nightstalker said in a patronizing tone. “Very clever indeed. Even without a sword, the kenkami is dangerous enough that I’m sure there are very few people in the city who would survive. Even with my superspeed and judo training, it was very difficult.” She grinned again. “Thanks for that warning.”

I closed my eyes. Dammit, Derek.

“Well, I think it’s past time to take you all in, don’t you think?” the woman continued. “After all, your friends are already inside. The angel and the changeling, that is.” Her eyes twinkled like black stars. “We expected you ages ago.”

“That’s why you took them?” Laura asked thickly. “Bait?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

The vampire shrugged. “How should I know? I just follow orders.”

Derek swallowed. “If I drop the shield, do I have your word that no one will be harmed?”

Derek,” Laura hissed.

He ignored her. “Well?”

The Belian placed her hand on her chest. “On my honor, you will all be escorted to Phlegethos safely.”

Derek nodded slowly. “Adam, everyone, drop your guns.”

I stared at him. “You can’t—”

Drop it.”

Gritting my teeth, I slowly did as ordered. I heard a clatter as the others did the same.

The shield faded a moment later.

“Excellent,” the woman said. She clapped her hands, and the slaves moved forward to surround us more totally. “We’ll have to keep the guns pointed at you the whole time; security precaution, I’m sure you understand. We—” She frowned. “What’s she doing?”

We all turned—

Laura was the one who figured it out first. “No, don’t—”

With a scream, Kelly ripped the device off her arm, the needles taking a significant amount of her skin with them. What was left behind was little more than a bloody, ruined mess, with white bone showing through in places.

One of the slaves bashed her over the head with a rifle. She fell like a sack of potatoes.

“Idiot,” our captor muttered. “Come. The Nobles will wish to speak with you all.”

Behind the scenes (scene 260)

It’s hard to describe exactly what is wrong with the Belian sclavi. They’re not robots, and they’re not zombies; they retain their minds, in theory, and can take action on their own initiative. But they’re barely aware of their surroundings, and extremely susceptible to orders according to their programming.

Scene 259 – Reppertum

REPPERTUM

ROBYN JOAN

I was perched at the edge of a rooftop, looking down at a much shorter building down below. The one I was on was some random business, a software firm like dozens of others in this part of the city.

The building below us tried to pretend to be the same, but from our angle, it was easy to see the truth. Most of the satellite dishes on the ceiling were fake, as was everything within sight of the windows. People pretended to work, but they were just a cover for whatever was going on inside.

“Are you sure this is a Belian outpost?” I asked. “The workers don’t look drugged.”

“I’m sure,” Fimmtu, at my side, said. “They might like using addiction to ‘recruit’ people, but they know that a chain comprised of nothing but drugged-up idiots is a pretty stupid chain. For operations like this, they use clearer heads.”

I peered through the small high-tech telescope my father had given me for my last birthday. It was the same kind the asteroid miners used. Dad had imported it from Ceres, probably at some horrific expense. I didn’t want to think about it. The point was, the thing worked perfectly, letting me zoom in close enough to see their faces.

“They don’t have nighteyes,” I said. Most appeared baseline, but there were a few kemos and such scattered around as well. There was even at least one full angel. A Jegudiel, if I was reading the tattoos right. “Passers, or just not vampires?”

“A few passers, I’m sure,” Fimmtu said. “But the majority don’t know what’s going on.”

I put the scope down and turned to him with a frown. “I thought you said this whole operation was a fake. Are you telling me the people in there actually think they’re working for a software company?”

“They are,” he said. “And that fact makes them an excellent front for the vampires hiding inside.” He looked me in the eye, which was always a disconcerting experience, considering his big bird eye. “Don’t underestimate the Belians, Honored Magister. Not all chems enhance the physical at the expense of the mental.”

Mentats, that sort of thing. Yeah, I knew the Nobles and other high-ranking Belians were using those. I just hadn’t really thought very hard on the implications. I knew mentats had side effects, but couldn’t recall what they were at the moment.

I shook my head. Not important. “It’s just the outer ring of the building that’s real, right? Nothing past those doors that say ‘authorized personnel only.’” They were locked with digital handles; not actually that difficult to hack, but harder than using a standard electronic lockpick.

“Correct,” the ave said. He pointed a talon at the roof. “There’s only one camera up top, pointed at the door down. If we can hack that, we can get inside. If we’re really lucky, we can hack the rest through it.”

“I doubt we’ll be that lucky,” I muttered. “Remind me again how you found this place.”

“Followed a nightstalker who wasn’t paying enough attention.”

Flight did make that sort of thing easier. I still wasn’t sure this wasn’t a trap, but it wasn’t like I had much choice. What else could I do, just go home and twiddle my thumbs while friends were being tortured or worse?

It was tempting. It was far, far too tempting. But Silk said that confronting your fears was important. That you needed to look at the emotion calmly and objectively, and see whether or not you should be afraid, and what to do about it.

This was not a time to be afraid. I was just looking for excuses.

“Let’s go,” I said, stepping off the roof.

I floated down carefully, heading straight for the small half-floor that contained just one room and the stairs down. It was probably a security center as well; I landed as quietly as possible. Fimmtu landed a bit louder with a rush of wings a moment later, but still not too bad.

He held up a talon, indicating silence, and pointed to the camera at the edge. It was pointed down and away from us, as expected, keeping an eye on the door to the stairs, the single weak point in this fortress.

“How are your hacking skills?” the anthro whispered in my ear.

“Horrible,” I said. “But we’ll be fine.” I slipped a wireless transmitter onto the camera case and switched it on. The air was filled with the scent of burning plastic, and then it was in, attached to the wires inside.

I pulled out my phone. It had been on this entire time, so that she could listen and actually understand what was going on. “MC? You got it?”

“Yeah,” she answered instantly. “Already set up a loop. Got every camera in the building I could, but the ones on the interior must be on a different system. I can’t find any trace of them anywhere.”

Of course. “Just get us inside, we’ll handle the rest.”

“Both of you? One will be easier.”

I thought for a moment. If I sent Fimmtu in, I could stay out here where it was safe…

No. That wouldn’t work. He was too obvious. Aves in general were an oddity after Soaring Eagle fled, and an ave anthro would stick out like a sore thumb. He couldn’t go in, with or without me.

I took a deep breath, then another. “I’ll do it.”

There was a slight pause on the other end, but when she spoke, there was no sign of surprise. “Good. Follow my instructions exactly. First, drop down and open the door. Quietly. There’s a guard, he’s just facing the other way right now.”

I nodded to myself, then turned to Fimmtu. “Keep watch. If something goes wrong, MC will call you. Other than that, stay safe.”

“And you as well.”

I dropped down.

The door wasn’t even locked; someone had held it open an inch with a rubber doorstop. Maybe he was planning on going out for a smoke or something, or maybe he was just an idiot in general.

The room was, as expected, a security room, with banks of computer monitors showing everything in the building. Why they had it up here instead of somewhere more defensible, I’d never know.

The guard himself was watching the monitors—in theory. He had earbuds in, and seemed to be reading a book on his pad. I didn’t stick around to see if he was going to turn and look back any time soon; I just headed straight down the stairs, clipping my own earbud on as I did.

“Stop!” MC hissed right as I was about to round a corner. “Hide!”

I didn’t stop to question. I slipped my phone in my pocket and backtracked, slipping under the cover of the stairs as a few baseline women passed. The one with the green hair seemed familiar… she looked a little like that Dagonite friend of Seena’s.

“Clear,” my half-sister said after a moment. I could barely hear her over my pounding heart.

She led me down the hallways, past more than a few doors that led into the interior. The problem was that these doors were mostly in full view of more than one cubicle. They’d notice the wi-fi transmitter before too long.

Finally, after going three floors down, we found a door that seemed like it would work. It was also in view of a cubicle, but this one was clearly unoccupied, with even the computer removed weeks ago, judging by the dust buildup.

I moved to the door, which didn’t even have a handle. It just had a small steel keypad, with no visible screws or anything else to make it easy to pop off, get to the wires, and reprogram. Not to mention that if I did find a way to pop it off, there was probably an alarm.

I paused before I put the transmitter on.

“Robyn?” MC whispered. “What’s wrong? I don’t see anyone nearby.”

“Is this going to set off an alarm? They have sensors, right?”

There was a pause.

“One second.”

I could almost hear her frantically typing on a keyboard, trying to find the answer before she got me captured by the kind of people who liked to pump their captives full of enough drugs to pickle a rhino.

“I need you to look at the bottom edge of the pad,” she said suddenly. “For a serial number.”

I felt under there with my fingers, and did indeed find something. I looked down and saw it inscribed in tiny script. “You ready? H-Z-U-eight-zero-one-zero-nine-four-two-one-three-two-five-seven-nine-zero-zero-eight-seven-six.”

There was a long pause.

“You’re sure about that? Absolutely sure?”

“Yeah. You want me to snap a picture?”

“No, no, I’ve found the model and everything, it’s just… nothing. Just a bit surprised because… nothing. Anyway, I’ve looked up the specs for that lock type, and it’s fine. There’s no alarm.”

Confused as to her reaction, but not having any better ideas, I put the small transceiver on the lock. It melted through with an acrid smell, and then a moment later the door beeped and popped open.

Beyond were dark hallways.

“MC?” I whispered.

“I’m here,” she said instantly. “Let me guess, you need night vision goggles?”

“No, I have those.” I wasn’t an idiot. I knew a secret vampire outpost wasn’t going to have convenient nightlights illuminating the place in red half-light. I slipped the goggles over my head, and suddenly the place was bright and well-lit. These were the type that worked the same way as vampire nighteyes, so they just made everything brighter rather than tinged green. “What I need is for you to tell me where to plug you in.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t have any schematics of the interior, but if you can find a camera without being seen, I can access the system through there.”

Easier said than done. A quick glance around told me that there were cameras pointed everywhere but the door itself; likely to keep them from being blinded every time the door opened. I had a flashlight, but blinding the cameras would just alert the security guards I was here.

There… might be an angle where I could sneak by, but I wasn’t sure how wide a field of view the cameras had. I had to get into the corner, close enough to reach up and plant the bug. On the ground, it was impossible.

Good thing I could fly.

I floated up slowly, until my back was against the ceiling. Then, I slowly, ever so slowly, slid forward, towards the closest camera, which was pointed down at the ground. I wasn’t worried about my reservoir. It was deep enough to keep this up for days.

Finally, after what felt like hours but was probably no more than a couple minutes, I was within reach of the camera. I slipped my hand into my pocket, grabbed the small transponder, carefully pulled it out so that I didn’t drop it, and—

A door slammed.

I almost fell off the ceiling.

“Any luck?” a female voice asked.

“None,” a male responded. “I don’t think this is working.”

“You need to try another tactic. Don’t always attack head on.”

Were they talking about questioning prisoners? Maybe I should follow them…

The man laughed. “This from you? You’re not exactly subtle either.”

“True, but at least I know I should be subtle.”

They were underneath me now. Two vampires, no obvious toys besides the eyes and fangs. If I looked closer I would probably be able to see signs of drug use, but I honestly didn’t even know what to look for.

I should follow them. I slid along the ceiling—

“I’m not even sure he’s gay.”

“He hasn’t said he isn’t.”

“He might just be polite.”

I let the pair pass, staying close to my chosen camera instead, and resolved to ignore their babbling. Once I was sure they were gone, I returned to my original task and carefully placed the transceiver on it.

Some burning later, and then MC’s voice was in my ear. “I’m in. There’s… wow, there’s a lot of cameras on this system.”

“Your bunker has roughly one camera per square foot.”

“I said they had a lot of cameras. Not enough cameras. And they’re not organized very well. They can’t talk to each other, just the security office, and even that’s one way.” There was a pause, likely caused by her sorting through the data. “Okay, got it. Mentats make people paranoid, but the wrong kind of paranoid. This system is weird, but not too difficult.”

“Does that mean I can get off the ceiling now?”

“What? Oh, I wondered where you were. Yeah, sure.”

I floated down to the floor like a feather and adjusted the bulky goggles over my eyes. “Which way do I go?”

“I’m not seeing any prisoners anywhere… or holding cells for that matter.” A short pause. “That part might be on another system. How many more of those transceivers do you have left? Please tell me you grabbed the whole pack.”

The transceivers came in packs of a dozen. “No. I just grabbed a handful. Five.”

“Two left, huh? Okay, we’ll have to do this another way. Head straight ahead. I’m looping the feed for the cameras you’re on, so you’re invisible and all that. Just be ready to hide if I tell you, okay?”

“This isn’t the first time we’ve worked together,” I chided her. “I know how it works, sis.”

“Yeah, yeah… okay, at the end of the corridor, turn right—”

“The corridor only turns right.”

“Well, yes, I know, I meant just—okay, good, like that. Now the security center is the third door on your right.” I strode forward and opened the door in question. “Just be careful, there’s no camera in there, so—”

“Crap,” I muttered.

The lone security guard turned around with a frown as the door squeaked open. “Did you idiots lose your keys again—” He jumped up when he saw me. My goggles were a dead giveaway that I didn’t belong. “Bleeding night—how’d you get in here!?” He reached for his radio.

I flew across the room as fast as I could, tackling the poor drake bodily into the monitors, which sparked as they broke and shattered. He gave a grunt of pain, but grinned with sharp fangs and kept a strong grip on my arm.

“Sorry, baseline,” he hissed. “You’re not the only one with a power.”

Electricity played over his fingers, and he reached out to grab me.

I flew up—too fast. I hit my head on the ceiling, but it worked. I dodged his grab. Before he could grab me again or call on his radio, I slammed down with all the speed I could muster, pounding him into the ground.

He must have hit his head on something, because he didn’t move when I got off him.

I… didn’t kill him, right? I couldn’t check. I couldn’t bring myself to check.

“Robyn?” MC hissed in my ear. “You all right? ROBYN!”

“I’m… I’m fine,” I managed. “Just had a run-in with…” Urp.

I ran over to the trash can in the corner and threw up.

After a few minutes of heaving my cheap breakfast up, I was finally able to settle down. MC was yelling at me the whole time, which didn’t help. “ROBYN! Should I call Artemis, or your dad? Robyn, answer me!”

“I’m fine,” I finally said. “Seriously, just… a little sick.”

She paused for a moment, but knew better than to dwell on something I didn’t want to discuss. “Okay. You need to plug that wi-fi transceiver into the mainframe. It’s probably below the desk or something.”

Wiping off my mouth, I searched around for the computer box. “I think this is it. But it’s inside a safe.”

“Electronic?”

I shook my head, even though she couldn’t see me. “Analog.”

“Shit. Uh, maybe… one second, let me think about this.”

I frowned. “Wait. It can’t be completely contained, right?”

“Uh, yeah. There are probably wires coming out the back or something. But you can’t put the transceiver on the wires. It won’t work. It needs an actual connection to the computer itself. And that little thing doesn’t have near enough thermite to burn through a safe.”

“What about two—”

“Still no.”

I peered at the dial. “What about the lock itself?”

There was a pause. “…that might work,” she said slowly. “But it’s a big might. And since the dial itself isn’t magnetic, you’ll have to hold the transceiver up to it as it burns. You might lose a finger.”

“Then Dad will just have to grow me a new one,” I muttered, trying not to think about how much it would hurt in the meantime. I crawled back to the front, dug out one of the little devices, and placed it on the dial. “Ready.”

“Go.”

I pressed the button, and held onto the little antennae to hold it in place while the thermite burned. It was far, far too hot, and the vaporized plastic washed over my hand and briefly stung like acid, but after a moment it was over. The thermite was gone, and my fingers were all in place.

I tugged on the safe. No luck.

“I’ve disengaged the magnet remotely,” MC said in my ear. “Pull it out and try the next.”

I did so, discarding the twisted transceiver covered in still-cooling molten plastic, and replaced it with the fresh one, then clicked it on as well. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to do if—

The transceiver fell inside the safe with a dull clang.

“Well, I guess that worked,” I muttered. I reached inside the broken lock and pulled at the lever, causing the door to swing open and reveal the beeping computer inside. Finally. Now all I had to do was place the transceiver—

“MC,” I said with as much calm as I could muster. “I’m now out of wi-fi transponders. How am I supposed to connect you to the mainframe?”

“Uh… grab the second one you used to burn through.”

I did as she asked.

“The thermite’s gone, but you can still use the actual transceiver. You just need to pop the case off the mainframe, and put it on something that looks important. The motherboard would be best, but even the video or sound cards would work.”

I frowned at the computer. “I need a screwdriver.”

My sister sighed over the earpiece. “Of course you do. Well, this is a security center. There should be something somewhere.”

Thankfully, it only took about five minutes to find a small maintenance kit in one of the drawers, including a convenient screwdriver. Ten more minutes later, and I got the face of the computer off, and placed the scorched transceiver on a big circuit board.

“Anything?” I asked.

“Give me a second…” she said, distracted.

My phone rang.

I pulled it out of my pocket, staring at the caller ID. “Who’s Drakela Sanguinas?”

“Corporal Sanguinas,” MC said. “Kelly, with the retinue. Should probably answer.”

Oh, her. I flipped the phone open and put it to my ear. “Hello, Kelly.”

“Miss Clarke,” she said, her tone clipped. “Have you had any luck with the search?”

“You told me to stop.”

“And if I expected you to actually listen to me, I wouldn’t have. Any luck?”

I sighed. “MC’s in the mainframe of a Belian outpost right now. Might find something.”

“Maybe, maybe not,” the vampire said. “Belians are paranoid. Good at compartmentalizing.”

“Eh.” I shrugged. “Any more luck on your end?”

“We spoke to the Dragon. He recommended checking Jealous Heart.”

I had no idea what that was. “And?”

“And the Paladins and George and Kat are in there right now, trying to get Ishtar to give up something useful. I don’t have much confidence in their success. Her domain isn’t called Jealous Heart for her generosity.”

“Wait, you’re not in there with them?”

“Ishtar and I… know each other. And we parted on bad terms last time. It’s better this way.”

“Got something,” MC said through my phone—presumably so that the vampire could hear. “Kelly, I need some quick help on Belian lingo. Strălucire refers to an angel, right? And tron means Phlegethos.”

“Yeah, that’s right. But you can’t mean that they’re taking Alex to Phlegethos. That just doesn’t make any sense.”

“That’s what I’m reading here,” she insisted. “Apparently they were in the outpost for a little while, and then got shipped off to Northwest Middle. They should be there by now, depending on traffic.”

The Belians might not be the most powerful or militant culture, but Phlegethos would still be a fortress. It was going to take time to find a way to infiltrate it. I turned to go, checking to make sure that the guard was unconscious—and just unconscious—as I did. “MC, I’m gonna meet up with the Paladins and the rest of the retinue. Self-destruct the transceivers once I’m out.”

“Agreed. I’ll send you a GPS to Jealous Heart.”

“We can make do just fine without her,” Kelly said.

“Maybe,” MC said. “But there’s something else that they called Alex.”

I could hear the confusion in the vampire’s voice. “What? What’s they call him?”

Momeală.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

It was Kelly who answered.

Bait.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 259)

Rambled a bit on this one, but it came out well enough.