Tag Archives: Silk

Scene 335 – Initium Novum

INITIUM NOVUM

SILK

I am called Silk.

That is not my name, but it will do for now. I have always been fond of simple names. A single syllable, a single meaning. It is nothing more than the number six, in a language that was invented a million years from now. It is the last digit in the serial number of the clone body I came to this timeline with. Of course, now I have more bodies, but I like the name, so I have stuck with it for the time being. Later, I will consider doing more.

Oh, but forgive me, I have grown distracted again. I’m supposed to give a reasonably satisfactory ending, and I’m rambling about a name that isn’t even a name. Well, no use putting it off any longer.

I blinked, and in doing so retrieved a man from another place. Hm, no, ‘retrieved’ is not the right word. Let us say ‘summoned.’ It is adequate, for now.

The man fell onto his butt and looked around with wide, tangerine-colored eyes. “What happened? Where are we?” He looked up at me. “Who are you?” Then he slowly looked around again. “Are we in space? Without a ship?

I smiled. “Hello, Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado,” I said. “It is very nice to finally meet you. As for your questions: Yes, we are in space, without a ship.” He shivered. “Oh, don’t worry about little things like temperature. I’m taking care of all that.” I gestured to the limitless black starscape surrounding us in every direction. “I think this view is worth a little bit of trouble, don’t you?”

Leeno stared at me.

“As for me, I am known as Silk.” I smiled. “I am an ally, of sorts. I brought you here, at one of Earth’s Lagrange points, in order to ensure that you would not do anything unwise regarding the war between the humans and para.”

He opened his mouth, then closed it again. Smart, this one.

“I am from far, far in the future,” I said. “The universe was dying of old age, so I came back to save it. I believe you’ve already seen some signs of that.” He looked confused, and I smiled. “The FTL drive that you found? That was a museum relic that accidentally came back with me. There are a few others such relics scattered around the universe, and I’ve been spending the last thirty years hunting them down.”

“Okay…” he said slowly. Then he gave me a long, slow look. “Wait.”

“I take it you’ve noticed, then?” I was curious what he’d mention first.

“You’re… speaking the Language of Colors,” he said. He sounded in awe. He himself was speaking one of the lesser para tongues, the Language of Twilight. The para liked segregating everything by eye color. Thankfully, practicality had beat out racism long ago, and now nearly everyone spoke Twilight. Colors was still a rare language supposed to be used only for important state and religious functions, though.

I fit the definition of God in quite a few religions, so I think it only appropriate that I use their holy language. It lends me the proper air of mystery and power. I understand you readers can’t tell the difference, so just pretend I have a rainbow aura and a choir of angels behind me every time I speak. I don’t (though I could), but that’s roughly the equivalent level of symbolism.

“Yes,” I said. “I speak all languages. As will you, in time.” That segues perfectly into…

He stepped back in surprise as he finally noticed. “You—you’re singing.”

I smiled. “There it is.”

“I can hear the universal song from you,” he whispered. “So many tunes and notes… it’s like hearing that entire city sing, all at once.” He spent the next few minutes extorting at length about how impressive my soul sounded.

I realize skipping a large portion of the conversation might seem frustrating to you, but please understand that Leeno’s understanding of the powers, and of the universal song behind them, is very difficult to put into words. Trying to explain it is like trying to explain the greatest song you have ever heard to someone who is deaf and mute. Like trying to explain a sunrise to a blind person, or trying to explain a fractal quantum differential equation to someone who has never lived inside a computer.

The point is, trying to translate what he was saying would be an exercise in futility. It would either fail entirely and just be gibberish, or it would get enough right to make the whole conversation seem unintelligent and stupid.

Have you ever listened to scientists speak? No, wait, some of you might actually be scientists. Have you ever listened to anyone speak in a language you don’t understand? A language you recognize, that you’ve heard before, but that you’ve never had even the slightest amount of experience actually understanding?

That is what listening to Leeno talk about the Song would be like. Just a continuous flow of words that you know have meaning, but you can’t pin down exactly what.

If it makes you feel any better, I’m the only other person in the entire universe who has the ability to understand what he was saying. Even the other members of the Nine wouldn’t really understand, though Lakerine would get closest, and might actually be able to puzzle it out eventually if I let him take notes. More on what makes Leeno and myself unique in a moment.

“I mean… how?” Leeno asked finally. He was breathless, and practically glowing with excitement. If we were on a planet, he’d be literally glowing, but there wasn’t much energy to manipulate out here. “How do you have such a connection to the universe? Are you like me?”

I smiled. “As far as I know, there has never been anyone exactly like you.” Of course, technically there was never anyone exactly like anyone, but this wasn’t the time for the special snowflake talk. “You learned how to manipulate the Song in the purest form: You observed the universe for centuries.”

He nodded, a little hesitant. “But… that’s not how you did it?”

I shook my head. “By the time I was born, powers had existed across the universe for a million years. I was born with one power, one instrument, just like all those people down in Domina City.”

I wanted to continue, but I knew he would interrupt, so I simply stopped speaking for a moment. One of the side benefits of being nigh-omniscient.

Leeno didn’t disappoint. “What power were you born with?”

I smiled. “Shields.” Yes, dear readers, that means I am rather close in personality to Derek. Give him a few million years, and he’ll be just like me. But that is a story for another time. And before you go too wild with speculation, remember that I am technically not human, so there is no chance me being his descendant. Unless you want to believe that your car is a descendant of a horse—which, to be fair, is an interesting thought experiment. “Anyway, eventually I decided I needed more powers, so I sought out a composer and asked them to sing for me. I did that for a few centuries until I had nearly a hundred instruments to my name.”

Leeno frowned. Well, no he didn’t, since he wasn’t using his translator chip at the moment, but he performed the para equivalent. I doubt anyone wants me to spell it out every time he tugs on his earlobe or slaps his hand across his eyes. “Is that… was that normal for you? For your time, I mean?”

“It was normal for people to gain extra powers, yes, but rarely so many, or so quickly. I had more powers than people thousands of years my elder.”

Leeno looked like he wanted to say something else, but remained silent.

“Anyway, as I accumulated powers, I began to find commonalities between them. A universal Song that reverberated throughout all of Creation. It took me a very long time, but eventually I managed to invent a new power without receiving it from a composer.” Of course, this was after I had jumped into a few black holes. If you can survive the experience, doing so grants you a greater understanding of the universe that manifests as an extra power. Unfortunately, it’s also too much for the mind to take all at once, so it takes a couple tries to start actually remembering what had happened. There was a reason people in my time normally just got powers from composers instead of black holes.

“So… you’re sort of the opposite of me, then,” Leeno said.

I nodded. “An apt summary.”

“Where did the powers come from in the first place?” he asked. “In your timeline, I mean.”

I smiled.

Realization dawned on his face. “Wait, they came from me?

“They called you the first composer,” I said. “Which really isn’t a fair title—people like you and I are far beyond normal composers. Unfortunately, there are so few of us that they never bothered to come up with a better name. Anyway, when the para arrived—a few hundred years later than this time around—they found the humans to be weak and divided. Extermination would have been simple. You gave your people powers as an act of mercy, to bring about conquest instead of genocide.”

I should note that much of this is simply the result of reasoning and deduction on my part. I wasn’t born until millions of years later, after all. Both humans and the para were long extinct, and while records survived, details were lost. Leeno’s name, for example, was completely unknown to me until he landed a shuttle in Domina City. For all I know, in the original timeline it was an entirely different para who provided the powers. Leeno still existed, of course; the para left their homeworld, with Leeno in his not-quite-cold-sleep, hundreds of years ago, long before the divergence point. But maybe he gave one of the other para a few powers on accident, and that para spread them around the fleet. Maybe the extra few centuries drove him insane, and he gave the para the powers in an attempt to exterminate humans entirely. Not even I can say.

But that would all be a distraction for Leeno right now. The simple story was better.

Leeno looked around, then flinched when he noticed that he technically wasn’t standing on anything. He forced himself to look at me instead. “I’m… not sure I can handle that. I’m not anyone important.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And I suppose you went down to Domina City to illegally negotiate on behalf of your people because you’re not important?

He did the para equivalent of crossing his arms over his chest. “I was just in the right place at the right time. Elder Leeno needed someone to do the job, and I was available.”

It’s amazing how people downplay their own accomplishments. He genuinely didn’t understand how the fact that he was the only para with powers gave him a unique connection to the people of Domina, which was one of the primary reasons they hadn’t killed him the second things started getting hairy.

I just smiled at him. “As much as I’d like to discuss this a bit more with you, we don’t have time right now. We’re late for a meeting with the para elders.”

It took him a second to parse what I was saying. “Wait, what? Where?”

“Over there,” I said, pointing.

“What—” He stopped as he realized what I was pointing at. “Oh. There.”

We weren’t that far from the para mothership. It had retreated from its looming orbit of Earth and was now sitting a million miles away, like a second, tiny moon. From our current position, it was about the size of a fist, but even from here the battle damage was obvious and extensive. The scar from where Lilith and the others had escaped the docking bay had been repaired and repainted, but there were other, more recent injuries. There was a single long scar down the entire side of the vessel that had been repaired but not repainted, a massive hole like some bizarre earring that was still being fixed as we watched, and countless smaller craters and pockmarks that weren’t worth the time to smooth over.

The para weren’t the only ones who had taken a beating, though. Earth had a glittering ring of debris around it that was visible even at this distance, the result of countless destroyed spacecraft and quite a few space stations. Shaohao was gone, as was Tsiolkovsky and the ISS. New stations had sprung up to replace them, and most of them had been destroyed in turn. Clean-up crews tried to sift through and salvage the biggest pieces, but in the end, they usually couldn’t do much more than keep it contained in the ring. At least this way, the debris was mostly predictable, and they could actually put up satellites safely—though the para often shot those down as well.

It took Leeno a few minutes to find his tongue. “I didn’t… how did this happen?”

“The same way as every war,” I said. “A direct assault here, a siege there. Some sabotage, especially from Dominites with illusion powers. Your people had the advantage first, of course, especially as their self-destruction policies have enabled them to retain most of their technological superiority, but the tides have turned.”

“What do you mean, turned?”

I smiled sadly. “You are not so sheltered as that. You have a basic understanding of warfare. Humans outnumber the para millions to one, and they have multiple worlds in various states of advanced industrialization. They were able to quickly retool their ships and shuttles with basic weaponry, which bought them more than enough time to construct true warships using the engine technology on the shuttle you left behind.”

“You mean the one I left behind when you kidnapped me?”

I shrugged. “If you had stayed, you wouldn’t have been able to keep the technology out of their hands anyway. The only thing you could have done to help your people would have been to give them powers—which, as I’ve said, would have been too much. It would have been a slaughter.”

To be specific, Li-Po would have pretty much immediately ordered some asteroids thrown at Domina City in order to eliminate their biggest rival. The other elders, while not willing to accept full genocide, would have grudgingly allowed it to get rid of the only other people with powers in the system.

But genocide is like murder: The first is always the hardest. Once they eliminated Domina, they’d have destroyed every major ship building port. Some, like Lemuria and Ceres, they would have been able to take with conventional means, so a relative low number of human casualties. But Pyongyang was a fortress; they would have decided to drop rocks on it, killing everyone within a hundred miles of the impact point. Same with Chicago, Nairobi, and São Paulo.

They tried a few of those things anyway, of course. But they didn’t have as much political will, and between Domina’s powers and the help of the largest podbrain the world had ever seen (not counting me), they were able to knock the Pyongyang impactor off course. From there, the para decided to settle for more conventional methods.

And those conventional methods had their successes. The Mars hive repelled every attack and conquered much of the planet, though Lemuria and several other major cities remained in human hands. The Mercury and Venus hives went largely untouched, as they had little military value. The war over the asteroid belt and its resources was a stalemate for a very long time, though now it was finally turning against the para. The story was much the same in the rest of the system. The para were hanging on, but they were losing. They would need a miracle to turn it around at this point.

Leeno forced himself to look me in the eyes. “How long has it been?”

I smiled. He was a clever one. Had he deduced that I was mentioning too many things, or had he learned how to read the background radiation of the universe to determine the time? Either way, it was impressive.

“Thirty years,” I said.

“Thirty YEARS!?” he screeched.

“By the human calendar, of course,” I said.

He sputtered. “But—you—”

“It was the perfect length of time,” I said, ignoring his panic and anger. “The humans are now a fully industrialized space power, and their rage at the para has cooled. The para themselves, while losing, still retain enough industry to rebuild, and all their more violent leaders are dead.”

“You couldn’t—I couldn’t—” Leeno forced himself to calm down. “Okay, whatever. I don’t have time to argue about anything right now. Just answer me this: If everything is going so perfectly, why bring me back now? Why not wait until after the war is over? I could give my people powers, turn the tide.”

I smiled sadly. “The tide is already turning, Leeno. Just like before a tsunami.”

He frowned. “What?”

Ah yes, I forgot that the original para homeworld didn’t have tsunamis. The planet certainly had its problems, but it was geologically stable, so quite a few interesting natural disasters simply never occurred there. Or so I had gathered from the para archives. The planet had been turned to monatomic dust by its exploding sun.

“That’s not important,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. “But this is.”

In less than a blink, we were inside the command center of the para mothership.

It hadn’t changed much in thirty years. A few of the computers had been replaced, and there were more augmented guards. But in the end, a command center was a command center. It was clean, secured, and had a few para elders gathered around the small table in the middle of the room.

“If we detonate the engines at the last second—” one of the elders was saying, but he stopped talking when he noticed me. His pure blue eyes widened in shock and fear. “GUARDS! She’s here! She’s…” He trailed off even as a dozen guns pointed at me. “You’re not her, are you? You’re the other one.”

I smiled. I shouldn’t enjoy being mistaken for Elizabeth, but it always was amusing to see the dawning comprehension on their faces. “Correct. I apologize for startling you, but I am not my sister. You may call me Silk.”

He was speechless for a moment, but he eventually bowed low, in the human style. “I am Bay dolor Bay malda Bay Bay Leenoreynrey harado, my lady,” he said. “I would be honored if you would call me Reyn.” He straightened and glanced at Leeno. “Who might this be?”

“An old friend.” I didn’t elaborate.

Leeno glanced at me, and everyone else looked at him, trying to size him up. No one remembered him; most of the guards hadn’t even been alive when he disappeared, and those that were had just been children. The current elders had all be adults at the time, and hadn’t been involved in the brief meetings wondering what had become of him.

“To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?” one of the other elders asked. She didn’t introduce herself, but I knew her. Her pure black eyes, not a hint of hue in them, made it obvious. This was Bay, a woman infamous for her hardline stance to the war. She’d be the most difficult to win over. She wanted what I had to offer, but she wouldn’t like the terms.

“Honored Elders,” I said. “I will not waste time. You are losing this war. Your industrial capabilities are in decline while the humans are on the rise, morale is shot across the system, and this very ship is dangerously exposed to human attack.”

“We have plans and contingencies in place,” Reyn said stiffly.

I rolled my eyes. Well, actually, I did the para version of a particularly exaggerated eye-roll, which involved yanking on my tongue, but that wasn’t important. “Crashing your mothership into the Earth isn’t a plan, it’s spiteful suicide.”

I felt Leeno stiffen beside me in surprise, but he didn’t say anything. Good man.

Bay stood with her back straight and strong. “Destroying the Earth may seem cruel, but it will ensure the survival of our people. All remaining assets between para and human will be balanced, and both sides will have no choice but to sue for peace.”

“Unless you make someone so mad that they are willing to risk extinction to punish the survivors,” I said dryly. “Killing their world might make people a bit irrational.”

“We will be on the ship when it explodes,” Reyn said.

“Which just makes you cowards as well as idiots,” I said. “You’re not even going to stick around to clean up your own mess.”

Leeno winced at my harsh tone, but no one else reacted. Over the years, people had tried to kill Elizabeth on many occasions, and myself more rarely. Everyone here knew that shooting me for being rude would be an exercise in futility.

“Our people are dying,” Bay said quietly. “Step by step. What would you have us do? Surrender?”

“No,” I said. Humanity didn’t have the best track record in dealing with conquered peoples—either they were cruel, or incompetent, or both. Though in fairness, the para weren’t much better. “I want you to sue for peace.”

“They won’t allow it,” Reyn said. “They know they can win, so they would never accept any terms we offer them. And any terms they offer would just be for our unconditional surrender. We’d be lucky if we ended up in internment camps.”

“What you need,” I said, “is an advantage.” I smiled. “Now, what major advantage have the humans had over you for this entire war?”

There was a pause as they tried to deduce what I meant. The humans had a lot of advantages over the para. The question was which one could I give them easily.

“…the powers,” one of the other elders said. He typically went by Zanovoon. “That’s the advantage.”

The other elders stared at him, then at me.

I nodded.

They started chattering excitedly among themselves. Reyn managed to make himself heard. “Quiet, quiet!” He frowned at me. “We’ve heard of such things. The Enemy has given many humans powers. She uses them to control her armies, to inflict torture and death wherever she pleases.”

“I am not my sister,” I said. “The powers I give will not affect your minds at all. You will come out the other side healthy and whole, and I will have no hold on you. No one will be able to use your own powers to control you.”

The elders glanced at each other, considering. They knew I had a reputation for honesty; part of the reason I had cultivated that reputation was for moments exactly like these. On the rare occasions I did need to hide the truth, I could just carefully word it to leave loopholes. That was how I had handled politics back before I revealed myself to Domina City and gave up on playing the power behind the throne.

“How many of our people will gain these powers?” Bay asked. “And what powers will they receive?”

“The powers will be apparently random,” I said. “Simplifying the process, suffice it to say that everyone will receive the power that they desire most. This can result in some unfortunate powers, however. I’m sure you have all heard of Dame Laura Medina on Earth?” Everyone nodded. “She wanted to know when people were lying, so she received the power to detect lies. But she was so obsessed with always knowing when people were lying that her power was far too efficient and easy to use. That means that she never had to stretch herself, and the power never improved.” It was like expecting to get stronger by blinking.

“I have heard that there are ways around that,” Zanovoon said.

I nodded. “There are. Deep meditation can help you untangle your power and rewire it in a way you find more advantageous.” I smiled wryly. “But in over thirty years, Laura still hasn’t bothered to do that. I think that says more than a bit about how annoying the meditation process can be.”

Zanovoon chuckled. No one else did.

“You still didn’t answer the other part of the question,” Bay said sharply. “How many para will be affected?”

I cocked my head to the side, as if surprised. “Why, all of them, of course. All the para in the system.”

Everyone in the room, including Leeno and the guards, just stared at me.

“But—you can’t,” Reyn said. He shook his head and composed herself. “It’s impossible. We have heard what the Enemy did in Domina City. The system is constructed in such a way as to—”

“—as to be impossible to send sound to everyone at once,” I said. “I know. Several hives have cut off radio contact entirely after a few close calls and will only accept texts, not to mention the people who are completely off the grid.”

“So you know,” Reyn said gruffly. “Then don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

I smiled. “I am not my sister, Elder Reyn. Either in temperament or power. I can most certainly give powers to every single para in the system at once. It won’t even be particularly difficult.”

How?

I really didn’t want to say. It increased my air of mystery, but the truth might terrify them too much. Simply put, I would channel the Song through any and all conductive materials in the system. That meant radios of course, whether they were turned on or not, but also all forms of metal and stone, some of the more audio-reflective plants, water, and even the air itself. Anyone in the system who was currently breathing would hear the Song. And of those who weren’t currently breathing, they were in range of one of the other conductive materials.

There were only two people in the system at the moment who wouldn’t hear the Song, and that was because they were naked in the vacuum of space, minutes away from death. I’d rescue them once the para agreed to my terms.

“You know what I am capable of, Elder Reyn,” I said. “Every para in the system will receive a power. The ‘how’ is irrelevant.”

Bay smiled, just slightly. For her, that was practically the same as vibrating with glee. “This won’t just save us from extinction. This will give us the advantage. We will be able to go on the offensive again. Make real gains.”

“Ah,” I said, holding up a finger. “There is one small snag. A simple condition for my aid.”

Reyn was suspicious. “What condition?”

“You are not allowed to commit genocide,” I said simply. “No destroying planets, no nuking cities or dropping rocks on continents. The humans, as a species and as a people, must survive this war.”

The elders all looked at each other. I knew what they were thinking. They were wondering what would happen if they decided to do it anyway.

“I should mention,” I said casually, “that this agreement is quite binding. There will be no consequences if you attempt to break this law. You will simply fail.”

Bay glared at me. “What does that mean?”

“Kinetic impactors will break up before they hit,” I said. “Nuclear reactions will not start. Engineered diseases will barely give people the sniffles before their immune systems fight them off. You may of course defend yourselves, but true genocide is not allowed.”

That might all sound impressive, but it’s not really all that difficult. I placed nuclear inhibitor fields on all fissionable materials; the fields were currently inactive to allow for non-violent nuclear technology, but I could turn any one on at a moment’s notice. Kinetic impactors were easy to handle with teleportation; just teleport a few bombs inside the rock at the weak points, and repeat until the impactor is too small to do any real damage. So on and so on. It had taken some time to set up some of the failsafes, especially for the nukes, but now that everything was in place I was confident that no one would wipe out all life in the system on a whim.

And if things got really bad, I could telekinetically take control of the offenders and force them to stop. That was a last resort—I’d rather move a planet than violate free will in such a way—but it was an option.

The elders looked at each other.

“We will need a moment,” Reyn said.

“Take all the time you need,” I said. “You have a few hours.”

“…a few hours until what?”

“Until the human ships reach your main Mars hive,” I said. I idly cleaned my fingernails as I spoke. “It’s not even a fleet, just a few shuttles that will be dropping some commandos on their front door. Most of the hive’s defenders are miles away, so the commandos will easily be able to fight past the meager defenses and plant a bomb that will kill the hive, and with it, the entire colony. That, in turn, will cripple your industry on the planet, which will soon start a domino effect that will result in your complete and utter defeat across the system.”

Silence. The elders just stared at me.

Leeno finally spoke up. “How will powers help prevent that? The guards will be unpracticed.”

I smiled. He had finally learned his role in all this. He sounded innocently curious—too innocent, like he was trying too hard, but that was fine. His job was to ask the questions that the elders were unable or unwilling to ask.

“Once the commandos realize that the guards have powers, they will retreat,” I said. “It is the best option in an unexpected situation. They don’t realize how close this operation is to being successful, nor how important it is. Once they are gone, you will have more than enough time to sue for peace.”

“Well,” Leeno said jovially, “that all sounds like a good deal to me. I mean, who would want to commit genocide anyway?”

None of the elders would look at us. Leeno might be laying on the shame a little thick, but these idiots had been about to kill an entire planet.

“Once you are no longer at war, you will find many of your problems disappear,” I said. “In addition to the advantages the powers will grant you, trade with the humans will give you access to their toy maker, which will lead to interesting advancements, especially for your hives. You can finally explore past the bounds of this system, claim the entire galaxy. There are a few fun surprises waiting for you.”

Yes, yes, I know I’m leaning a bit too hard on the omniscience. But these people need to believe that I can predict the future. Which I can—mostly. The point is, if they believe I am an all-knowing god, they are more likely to believe me when I tell them my plan will work and they can’t commit genocide. I have backup plans no matter what they choose, of course, but my life will be easier if they don’t throw nukes around like footballs.

The elders looked at each other, before finally Bay stepped forward. “We accept your proposal.”

I smiled. “Excellent.” I waited for the catch.

“On one condition,” she said. “You will provide us with a working FTL engine, similar to the one that brought us to this system ahead of schedule.”

Leeno glanced at me. He was the only one who knew the truth, since he had been the one who reached into the engine’s heart and turned it on. That particular type of engine was so far beyond current human and para technology that it might as well be magic. A caveman would have more success trying to repair a broken fusion reactor. Even so, it was millions of years behind my technology level. I had a more powerful engine than that one embedded in my spine. It was smaller than a grape.

“Fine,” I said. “It will be ready in a week.”

Zanovoon looked surprised. “It will take that long to bring it around?”

“It will take that long to build it,” I said. “I don’t exactly keep a stockpile of those on hand.”

Once again, the elders looked like they weren’t quite sure whether to be awed or horrified by my power. And once again, that was the point. Gods need to give constant little reminders of their power in order to keep people in line, and this was certainly better than killing every firstborn on the ship or splitting an ocean.

Hm, well, maybe I could split an ocean later. That actually sounded like fun. But maybe that would seem like it was trying too hard… Oh, I could split a tidal wave right before it hit a major city. Yes, that would be perfect. According to current weather and geological trends, Japan should be due for another big one in a few years. I could do it then.

But there I go, getting distracted again. Thankfully the para hadn’t notice anything. Between my powers and my post-human physiology, my brain literally worked faster than light, so I had been lost in my thoughts for less than a second.

“All right,” Reyn said, standing straight. He took a moment to preen his wings, then met my eyes. “We’re ready.”

I smiled, and sang.

When I allowed Elizabeth to start making her screamers, I knew what she was doing. She used a weak, corrupted version of the Song, something that would give those who heard it a power, but also an imperfect understanding of the Song. This imperfect understanding would drive them mad, compel them to spread the song however they could. The weakest of these, the ones we called chorus, were the screamers. They screamed and screamed in a laughable mockery of music, but their bites and blood could pass on their weak connection. The singers, the ones we called conductors, had a better understanding, and more sanity. They could sing something nearly like the true Song, though all who heard it became screamers.

Worse, Elizabeth found a way to corrupt the Song, to fill it with the hypnotism she was so proud of. She made the screamers more violent than they should have been, gave them a compulsion to fight instead of just their mad desire to spread the Song. And if they fought this compulsion, if they tried to stop fighting or stop screaming or talk, then the hypnotism would worsen. The screamer’s mind would be locked away, and what was left would be a dumb animal—less than a dumb animal, a poorly-programmed robot made of flesh and superpowers.

It was a terrible, terrible thing she did. My main contribution was to insist that a small group of specific individuals be given the true Song, and then have their connection cut off. That was how the Song was supposed to be used. These people became the speakers, or directors. They had a distant connection to the Song, enough to hear screamers and singers from a hundred miles away, but no compulsion or ability to spread the Song.

So when I sang the Song to the entire system, I did not use Elizabeth’s weak, corrupted version. I did not try to slip in any hypnotic triggers, or to try to forge a semi-permanent link in order to leave the afflicted with a compulsion to spread the Song.

I simply Sang, the purest of songs, the most perfect of notes.

I wish I could explain what it sounded like, but it didn’t really sound like anything. In this, its purest form, sound waves were little more than a medium for the Song to travel upon. It needed sound to reach people, but they did not need ears to hear it, to feel the underlying music of the entire universe.

It took less than a minute to give the entire system powers.

It felt like decades.

I let out a breath and smiled. “It is done.”

“…is it?” Reyn asked. “I don’t feel any different.”

Leeno was looking at me suspiciously. I ignored him. It would become obvious soon enough.

I rolled my eyes and raised my finger. A pure beam of light and heat sprang out, headed straight for Bay’s chest. She yelped and stepped back, covering herself with her arms, but she was saved by a black forcefield, leaking black mist like smoke, that sprung up in front of her. It was the exact same color as her eyes, and disappeared a moment later.

“As you can see, you all have powers,” I said. Bay was looking over herself like she couldn’t believe she was still in one piece. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m afraid that I have another appointment.”

“Th-thank you,” Zanovoon said. He actually looked overcome by emotion. “You don’t know what this means to me.” He quickly realized what he had said. “I mean, to all of us. You have given us hope.”

Reyn nodded, looking at his hands as if seeing them for the first time, trying to guess what his power would be. “With this, we can go on the offensive for the first time in years. We might actually be able to win.”

“Maybe,” I said with a smile. “But I doubt the humans will just roll over.”

Reyn chuckled. “Yes, but now we have the advantage.”

I just smiled.

Leeno started. “That’s what you did!”

“Ah, I was wondering how long it would take you to figure it out.” Despite the miracle of his existence, he didn’t have much actual experience with the Song.

Leeno looked like he wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry. “I should have known… the way you were talking, the things you didn’t say…” He shook his head. “Simple. Yet exactly what you promised. Amazing.”

Bay’s eyes drilled into him. “What is it? What did she do?” She narrowed her eyes. “Did she not give all our people powers?”

“All the para have powers, I promise you that,” I said. “Every single one of them.”

“Then… did you make it so that they are not inherited? I know human children inherit powers from their parents. Did you change that for us?”

I chuckled. “No.” I couldn’t have even if I wanted to.

“Then what?

“She gave everyone in the system powers,” Leeno said.

“Yes,” Bay snapped impatiently. “That’s what she said. So what—”

“No, you don’t understand. She gave everyone in the system powers. Not just the para.”

The command center fell dead silent.

“I was having a similar discussion with the United Nations while we were talking,” I said. Actually, I was still having the conversation. One of the benefits of multiple bodies. Multitasking did take some getting used to, but after a couple centuries you figured out how to make it work. “They agreed to the same terms as you: No genocide.” I smiled. “I suppose now that you are evenly matched, you have no choice but to sue for peace.”

“You… little…” Reyn howled and threw a fireball at me. He was acting on pure instinct, using his power for the very first time, and it wasn’t a very strong fireball. Still, it was more than enough to kill any baseline human or para.

I let the fireball melt my face down to the bone, then I waited patiently for it to heal. I used to go surfing on stars when I was a kid. I barely even noticed fire any more.

“As I said, I have another appointment.” I placed my hand on Leeno’s shoulder and teleported away even as the elders shouted at us.

We re-materialized in a bland taupe hallway—a hospital, to be precise. Domina has done some amazing things since its founding, but there’s not much you can do to make a hospital look any different from a hospital. At least if you’re keeping the place clean and efficient.

Leeno immediately burst out laughing. “Colors, did you see their faces?

I smiled. “I recorded it with six different sensor suites.”

He settled down after a moment. “Oh, that’s a good one. That’s going to keep me warm at night, even if they excommunicate me.”

“They don’t even know who you are. You’re free, or will be, once the wartime travel restrictions are lifted.”

He smirked—a human gesture—and looked at me sideways. “I think I might have figured out how to teleport, from watching you.”

I smiled. “Please practice somewhere safe before you start teleporting into space. I have plans for you yet.”

“Well that’s not disturbing.” He sighed. “Speaking of plans, what exactly are you going to do with that FTL engine?”

“What I promised them. I’ll give it to them.” I smirked. “Specifically, I’ll give it to a small unarmed para ship in neutral space while it is near a similar unarmed human ship. They’ll have to share.”

He barked out a laugh. “Yeah, that sounds about right. I hope I can be there when it happens.” He looked around. “Speaking of which, where are we, anyway?”

“Artemis Butler Memorial Hospital,” I said. “Outside Derek’s room.”

Leeno frowned. “Butler died?”

“He was eighty years old, had a dozen different developmental disorders since the day he was born, and had a great amount of difficulty using the toy maker,” I said. “Yes, he died.” I had been tempted to slip him some immortality when no one was looking, but had decided against it. I had made a decision to not give anyone immortality, and I needed to stick with it. Besides, I had uses for him, even dead.

“And you said Derek Huntsman…”

I nodded. “That’s right.”

“He shouldn’t be dying, though. How old is he?”

“Fifty.”

“That’s not that old for a human, is it?”

I smiled sadly. “Old enough.”

Leeno looked at the door. “Should… I come in? I didn’t know him long, and I liked him, but I’d probably just confuse him.”

“You don’t have to,” I said. “You can stay out here, or name any place in the system and I’ll teleport you there. But I would prefer if you came in with me. Your disappearance caused quite a stir, and I don’t want him to go to his final rest with more questions than necessary.”

Leeno thought for a moment, then nodded. I smiled and opened the door, and he followed me inside.

There were only two people in the room at the moment, which was why I had chosen now to make my appearance. Sitting next to the bed was a middle-aged woman with a face like stone and far too many worry lines. Her hair was a paradox; on the one hand it was the hair of a much younger woman, but at the same time it had a few noticeable streaks of gray from stress. She hadn’t had time to color it recently.

In the bed was a man, the same age, but most of the lines on his face were from smiles instead of frowns—though he certainly had his fair share of worry lines as well. His eyes were still startling blue, and his once-blond hair was almost entirely gray. He had never bothered with using the toy maker for even such simple vanity.

They both looked up when I entered, and nearly jumped in shock.

“Elizabeth,” Derek snarled, and clenched his fist. I could feel him readying a shield.

Laura, as usual, thought things through a bit more. “No,” she said. “It’s Silk.”

Derek glanced at her, then back at me.

“Oh, my little hero,” I said fondly. “Always ready to protect someone—even on your death bed.”

Derek relaxed, but only barely. He sighed deeply. “What do you want, Silk? I was about to go to sleep.”

“Yes,” I said sadly. “I know.”

Laura winced at that. She knew what I meant.

Derek, on the other hand, didn’t care. “Who’s the para?”

I smiled. “This is Leeno. You remember Leeno?”

“You mean our Leeno?” Laura said, looking over him with an appraising eye.

I nodded. “The same. I needed him out of the way for a short time, and I will need his presence now.”

Leeno glanced at me. “Wait, what? You didn’t say anything about that!”

“We will speak more later.”

He looked like he wanted to argue more, but then glanced at Laura, stretched protectively over her dying husband. He seemed to deflate. “I… yes. Of course. Now is not the time.”

I nodded and turned back to Derek. “I have a proposition for you.”

“No,” Laura said.

I smiled sadly. “This is hardly your decision to make. Besides, you haven’t even heard it yet.”

“I don’t care,” she snapped. “I have had enough of your manipulations. I will not allow you to make another deal, now of all times! Derek needs rest if he is going to recover, and he needs—”

“Laura,” Derek said, patting her hand. “I’m not going to recover.”

She glared at him as if it were his fault. Which it was, technically. But after a moment, her face softened, and she slowly sat back down. She always had been the pragmatic one. I wanted to praise her for that, but it would just make her mad.

Derek turned to me. “Let’s hear it.”

“When your heart stops, I want custody of your body,” I said. “To be precise, once it has stopped for a full two minutes. In these conditions, that is well past the point where the doctors will attempt to revive you.”

Derek frowned. “Why do you want my body?”

“You are a hero,” I said simply. “I want to understand you. See what makes you tick.”

“Aren’t you like a trillion years old or something? Don’t you know literally everything?”

“There is always more to learn.”

Derek frowned, then turned to Laura. “You were going to just cremate me…”

She scowled. “If you’re asking me for advice, I want nothing to do with her.”

Derek nodded, then turned back to me. “If I do this, what does Laura get out of this?”

“Don’t you dare make this about me.”

Derek chuckled. “Well, it’s not like I’ll care about a reward.”

I nodded, smiling. Laura was the brains of the pair, but Derek was hardly an idiot. “If you do this for me, then Laura will receive one wish. Anything at all that is within my power to give, short of genocide.”

Laura narrowed her eyes. “That’s a trick. A trap.”

“It is nothing of the sort,” I said. “I will make sure you are satisfied with your wish.”

“Like Adam was satisfied?” she snapped.

“Yes,” I said. I didn’t blink in the face of her glare. “He is satisfied, I promise you.”

“How would you know?”

Before we could get into the same argument we had had a dozen times before, Derek interrupted. “I’ll do it.”

I raised an eyebrow. That was fast, even for him.

Laura was surprised too. “What? No! Derek, stop and think for a moment.”

“Think about what? Honestly, I probably would have agreed even without the wish.” He took a deep breath. “I trust Silk. I trust that whatever she does with my body after I’m dead, it will be for the best. And if not…” He chuckled. “I’ll be in the afterlife and feel a bit silly. She’s not going to destroy the universe with my corpse.”

Laura looked like she was about to kill someone… which I knew meant she was actually about to cry. “The deal is done, then,” I said. I turned to go. “I will be back once your heart has stopped beating for two minutes. I would appreciate it if you made arrangements for the doctors to be gone as quickly as possible.” I could handle it anyway, of course, but it would make my life a little easier.

“Silk, wait,” Derek said.

I stopped, my hand on the doorknob, and turned back.

“How long do I have?”

I paused.

“Two hours,” I said.  He deserved some warning, at least. “Give or take half an hour.”

He nodded. “Thank you.”

I nodded in return, and stepped outside. Once the door was closed, I put my hand on Leeno’s shoulder and teleported us again. I could have done that from inside the room, of course, but it was impolite to teleport in front of others.

This time, we re-materialized in a massive cave. Metal and disassembled machinery were scattered everywhere, just waiting to be put to use.

“That was clever,” Leeno said.

I tried and failed to hide a smirk. “Oh?”

“Once again, you said so much while saying so little.” He smiled. “Doctors don’t revive someone if their heart has been stopped for a full two minutes, fine.  I don’t know enough about human medical procedures, but it sounds good. However, I read up on some human physiology, and I know the brain doesn’t die for at least another few minutes.”

“Is that so?”

“And you never mentioned Derek dying, or you taking his corpse. Just his heart stopping, and you taking his body.”

I walked to the center of the cave, the only part of it that made any attempt to be organized. Vearon had cleared some space for me around a massive metal cylinder that was attached to both the ceiling and the floor. It was easily ten feet wide and a hundred tall, with hundreds of cables attaching to it at seemingly random locations.

“I assume it has something to do with this,” Leeno said dryly. “What is it?”

“There’s no name for it,” I said. “I invented it, and I’ve always been terrible with names. You read about the toy box?” He nodded. “Well, it’s like that, sort of like how a horse is an FTL engine.”

“…okay,” he said. “I think I follow your metaphor. So you’re going to put Derek in here. Why? Why not just cure him?”

I sighed. “Because he is dying of a disease I cannot cure. A disease that shouldn’t even exist for millions of years.” I shook my head. “That FTL engine isn’t the only thing that fell through with me.”

“So that’s it,” Leeno said quietly. “You feel guilty.”

“Yes. Besides, I can make use of Derek.” I smiled. “In a thousand years, he’s going to be more than cured.”

Leeno started. “A thousand years?”

I nodded. “Maybe plus another decade or so. I won’t be sure until I put him inside.”

He looked over the tube again. “Are you going to take me there? To the future?”

I grinned. “No.”

He scowled. “Then you’re just going to let me die curious. Great.”

I laughed. “Of course not. But if you’re really so stupid that you can’t figure out how to use all the power in the universe to make yourself immortal, then you deserve far worse than death.”

Leeno stared at me for a moment, then laughed. “I didn’t even consider that.”

I clapped him on the back. “Come on. Let’s get this thing ready. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

And so we worked.

Throughout the Para-Human Peace Treaty. Throughout the Demon War and the Angel Resurgence, throughout the Identity Rebellions and the Fall of New Eden and the Solar Scourge and a million other disasters.

We worked. We fought behind the scenes to keep life from extinguishing itself here in this tiny backwoods star system, just as it had in hundreds of billions of star systems across the galaxy. Sometimes we were close to failure. Sometimes we were so flush with success that I almost left, content that the job was done and I could retire.

But throughout it all we worked, and the worlds spun on.

And the end of our thousand-year vigil drew ever closer.

This is an end of the story of Domina City, city of monsters, city of miracles. It is not the end, but then, nothing ever really ends. Even when Laura died, her children carried on her legacy. Even when the city itself was nothing but dust and ruins, demons and vampires still stalked the stars. Even when no one so much as remembered the names Huntsman, Medina, Yu, Anders, Akiyama, or Clarke, even when the human race itself was forgotten…

The story didn’t really end.

But it did stop. Here. Because this is where this ends.

There will be other stories, other tales, some of Domina City, others not. But this tale is done.

And I, at least, enjoyed it.

END BOOK FOUR

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Scene 321 – Libertas

MARY CHRISTINA

LIBERTAS

My name is Mary Christina Butler. Daughter of Mary Christina Asimov and Isaac Clarke, adoptive daughter of Artemis Butler. Isaac’s daughter Robyn Joan Clarke is my half-sister, and Artemis’ adoptive daughter Lilith is my adoptive sister. For five years, I have been managing the communications of Domina City—everything from e-mails and phone calls to social networking. With my set of programs, I could handle the entire city at once.

And now, I was cut off from all that.

I sat naked in the middle of a room, surrounded by sparking servers and cables. It was… cold, I think, and there was a blaring noise in my head… no, not in my head. It was an alarm, accompanied by a flashing red light. There was a smell in the air, something… acrid? Was that the right word? Liked something had been corroded. Was that the smell of computers, scorched and burning?

I looked down at myself. I was…

I was…

“Oh, you miraculous child,” a cheerful voice said. “You have made a mess of this place, haven’t you?”

I looked up to see… someone. I knew I should recognize her, but where—

Silk. Elizabeth’s sister. The giver of the powers, the start of everything. The one who never, ever, showed up on any of my surveillance.

She terrified me in a way that mere words could never express. She was invisible, untouchable. If even half of what she said was true, she could kill me with little more than a thought. All my safeties and backup systems would be useless.

She smiled and crouched down next to me. I tried to run, or move, or do something, but it was no use. I couldn’t even manage to move an inch away.

“I think you’d cause too many questions, being here right now,” she said. “Questions you wouldn’t be able to answer.”

I opened my mouth, but no words came out. My head was blurry. How… how did I make the words come out?

I was so cold…

Silk wrapped my naked body in a blanket that she had not been holding a moment ago. It was… soft, I think. Wasn’t it? Rougher than the bare air, yes, but warmer too. “Come on, then. There’s a changeling cafe that I think you’ll like.”

Suddenly, the server room was gone. The alarm was gone, leaving an empty space in the air. There were no sparks or burning computers, no exposed wires or broken machines. We were in… an alley. Yes, that was what it was called. A small space running between two buildings. I was on the ground, my legs still too weak to support me. I could feel the cold, rough concrete under my butt and my legs. I could feel the cold wind whistling, could hear the chatter of nearby changelings and others.

I could feel the sun on my hand.

Every other part of me was in shadow, but my hand happened to be in a sunbeam. I slowly raised my hand, turning it over, feeling the warmth of the light. It was strange, having one part of me warm—hot, even—while the rest of me was so cold.

And then I realized I was moving.

Just my hand, but I could do it. Wave it, wiggle my fingers, bend my wrist. I smiled at the sight, and made a second discovery—my mouth worked. Lips and tongue and cheeks and eyes and every part of my face. Everything worked.

I opened my mouth, tried to talk, but that still eluded me. I made air come out, I made my tongue move, but there was no sound. No words.

“Can you stand?” Silk said kindly.

I looked up. She was standing there, in the shadows, carefully not blocking my light. She smiled down at me like a gentle mother, but I still couldn’t trust her. I refused to trust her. I could look up thousands of hours of video on anyone in the city to help me determine how to deal with them, but her… she was the digital equivalent of a black hole.

I tried to stand, but my legs were too weak. All I could manage to do was fall over. Silk reached down to help, but I pushed her away. There was no force to it, but she got the message and stepped back.

I breathed hard from the exertion and put my hands underneath me. I pushed myself upright again, my arms wobbling, and tried to get one leg up. Just one. I should be able to move on from there, right?

Wrong. My arms failed, I fell again, and this time my knee bashed against the concrete.

I hissed and grabbed my knee instinctively. It hurt more than anything I had ever felt in my entire life. I would have screamed if I wasn’t clenching my jaw so hard that it felt like my teeth would crack.

Silk knelt down before me.

“Everyone needs help sometimes,” she said quietly.

I glared at her.

“Do you think your sisters would squander my aid? I have been giving Robyn Joan psychological counseling. My aid to Lilith has been more subtle, but she has noticed. Neither of them fought and screamed. They simply accepted my help and used it to become stronger.” She held out a hand. “Now, will you be stubborn, or strong?”

I stared at her hand for at least a minute before grabbing it. She tightened her grip and pulled me to my feet. I almost collapsed again immediately, but she held on tight, and I was able to use her to brace myself.

It took almost twenty minutes before I felt strong enough to walk unaided, but Silk didn’t say a word that entire time. She just waited with perfect patience, catching me when I fell. She didn’t offer any encouragement, but I wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.

My body was strong and healthy, it just needed time to get used to itself. Eventually, I walked the ten feet out of the alley, with only a brief pause to rest my hand on the wall. I felt the coarse concrete under my fingers, the wet cold of late morning dew that hadn’t had a chance to evaporate.

I knew all these things, but I never thought… I never thought…

I stepped out of the alley to find myself in an outdoor changeling cafe, as Silk had promised. It looked much the same as any other cafe in the city, but every table had multiple power outlets built-in, and the patrons had a bewildering variety of skin and hair colors. I saw purple hair with black skin, blonde hair with African skin, silver hair with Caucasian skin… and, of course, hair and skin colors that wouldn’t look out of place on a baseline.

“One second,” Silk whispered in my ear, before I could go too far. “Have to cheat a little here.”

I felt something against my skin, and then she pulled the blanket away. I frowned at her, confused, then looked down at myself. I was suddenly wearing blue jeans and a black t-shirt with a windbreaker on top. I was barefoot, which I appreciated. I liked being able to feel the ground under my feet. The changelings had chosen brick and mortar for this street, giving it a unique feel—nearly every other sidewalk in the city was simply gray concrete.

I finally realized where we were. Saoirse Street, the place where Feless, Meldiniktine, and Eccretia first met with other escaped fey-slaves and began planting the seeds that would eventually sprout into the changelings. It wasn’t a sacred place like Zero Forge or the Moonhomes, but it was a central part of the changeling culture.

Silk led me to an empty table and sat me down, then took the chair opposite. I glanced around, confused, and she immediately realized what I was wondering. “I have a power that allows me to make people think I look different than I really do. Think of it as a targeted mass hallucination. No one will recognize me.”

That answered one question regarding why there were no confirmed sightings of her around the city.

A waitress strolled over. She had brown hair and pale skin, but pulsing blue tattoos covered her entire body. “Welcome to Wired. What can I get for you today?”

“I will just have a water,” Silk said with a smile. “But I think my friend here would like to try a few things. Do you have a sampler dish?”

I perked up. I hadn’t even considered that.

“Sure,” the waitress said with a smile. “I’ll go get you something.” She sashayed away, her rear swaying in a distracting manner.

I shook my head and focused on what was in front of me. Everything to do with sex was one big problem that I didn’t have time to deal with right now. I didn’t even know if I was actually attracted to the waitress or if it was just the placebo effect.

Silk put her chin on her hands and smiled at me. “It has been far, far too long since I have had an opportunity to see someone like you. I think you might be the first of your kind. Well, not counting the para, of course.”

I frowned, but still couldn’t make the words come. I tried to sign—I knew a dozen different sign languages—but my fingers weren’t dexterous enough. They shook and stumbled, once again failing to produce any words.

“You’ll learn more about the para soon enough.” Her smile faded. “Diplomacy and war are both good ways to learn about another culture.” She sighed and threw her golden hair over her shoulder. “And now I’ve gotten myself all depressed again. We should focus on happier events—like you choosing your drink.”

As if on cue, the waitress returned bearing a large tray of shot glasses. But instead of alcohol, each one held a different type of coffee. Or I assumed so, anyway. Coffee shops didn’t sell alcohol—not a single one had applied for a liquor license while I watched the ‘sarian servers—but I knew they sold some other things. Hot chocolate? And there was something about pumpkins, too, though that was only in the fall.

I had never expected to need to know anything about coffee shops, so I hadn’t really bothered remembering. After all, I could always just check the records at any time for any information I might require.

Except now I was cut off. It was like… it was like… torture and sensory deprivation and rape and murder and genocide and every horrible thing that I had ever seen, ever read about, but all at once and a million times worse.

It was the most horrible thing that had ever happened to me, and now I was trying to distract myself with coffee.

The drinks smelled… good, I think, though I couldn’t tell which was which. Coffee was bitter, so… so the one that didn’t smell as good should be the coffee. I reached for one of the glasses on the right.

“That’s our cinnamon hot chocolate,” the waitress said. “Excellent for cold nights. It might be a little too warm at the moment, but I think you’ll still enjoy it.”

I frowned. It… smelled good, I was pretty sure, but the others smelled better Shouldn’t coffee smell worse?

“Just try one,” Silk said. “Worst case, you don’t like it.” She frowned. “Actually, wait a second.” She closed her eyes and pointed her palm at me, then opened them again a moment later. “Okay, you’re not allergic to anything.”

“You have a detection ability?” the waitress said. “So do I, though I’ve never seen someone with the ability to detect allergies.”

Silk smiled. “I’m very proud of it. You’d be surprised how useful it can be.”

I tried to talk, but failed again. Instead I pointed at the waitress.

She got the idea. “What’s my ability? Detect electricity. Quite useful in a city.” She nodded at the sampler tray. “Anyway, go ahead and try something. It’s completely free, I promise—my treat.”

I paused. Was she hitting on me? I had seen almost every romance movie ever made, you’d think I’d be better about this sort of thing. And God knew I had seen too many silly ‘sarians making eyes at each other.

I resolved to ignore it, and reached again for the cinnamon hot chocolate. I hissed and flinched back when I touched the glass—it was hotter than I had expected. I tried again, with the same result.

Silk smirked and turned to the waitress. “Sorry, my friend is a bit sensitive. Can we get a straw? That will make this easier.”

“Of course.” She left again, but I didn’t watch her backside this time. Instead I just glared at my hand. This was its fault. Why did it insist on feeling things, even when I didn’t want it to? Shouldn’t I be able to control that? That was my power, right?

I looked at Silk. Actually, I didn’t even know what my power was. Not really. I knew the effects, but lots of different powers could do the same thing. Artemis had a self-shapeshifting ability, but he used it exclusively for healing. Creating wind and controlling air ended up nearly identical. And of course Robyn had an entire guild of fliers running the gamut from levitation to rockets.

I wanted to ask Silk, but I still couldn’t talk, and I had nothing to write with. She had been suspiciously candid so far, so just asking seemed like the logical first step. Of course, she might choose now to start being mysterious. She could have told me what my power was from the start. I had been doubting she even gave me a power until this whole mess happened.

“So what do you think they’re talking about?” someone behind me said.

I thought they were talking to me, so I turned around to look. But it was just a small group of four changelings, talking a little bit louder than they should have. Or maybe my ears were just better than I thought.

“I have no idea,” one of them said. “Are we even sure they’ll be able to talk? I mean, they are aliens.”

Oh, they were talking about the para. The ship had been about to land when… I found myself in my current situation. I had been monitoring social media at the time. People had barely started to notice what was happening when I was cut off.

Another, a dark-skinned man with green hair, snorted. “The talking part will be easy. MC will figure something out, one way or another.” I couldn’t help but smile at that. “The real question is what they’ll say—and what Butler will say back.”

“You think there will be war?” a pink-haired girl asked.

“They wouldn’t have sent down an ambassador if that were the case,” the first man, an Asian man with golden eyes, said.

“They’re aliens,” the last one said. She was a tall girl, bald but with bony ridges under the skin of her skull. That was rare, even for changelings. “We have no way of knowing how they think. Maybe they send down an empty ship before a war to demonstrate how our cities will be emptied.”

Green hair raised an eyebrow. “What?”

Bone-ridges sighed. “I don’t know, whatever. The point is we know nothing.” She leaned back in her chair. “I wish we could just send them back where they came from and go back to dealing with the problems we already have.”

Golden eyes frowned. “You think war is inevitable.”

“Conflict always arises whenever there are misunderstandings,” bone-ridges said. “And we know so little about these aliens. Something is going to go wrong, I just know it. With our luck, it’s going to start in our city.”

“I say let it,” pink hair said. “We need a good shakeup. The Americans didn’t penetrate far enough to even tickle most of our defenses. What happens when a real fight comes, and we’re not prepared because we’ve just been fighting idiots for decades?”

Golden eyes smiled. “We’ve been fighting ourselves for decades.”

Pink hair grinned. “As I said.”

“I’m hoping for a first strike,” green hair said. “Capture the pilot, send the ship back with a few nukes. I don’t care what that mothership is made of, a couple gigatons inside its hull will solve all our problems.”

“Except for the fact that there would be a giant spaceship about to come down in pieces,” golden eyes said. “Not to mention the question of whether there are any more of them coming, who might be very annoyed at what we did to their first ship.”

“By then we’ll have reverse-engineered their technology,” green hair said. “Home field advantage with a technology equivalency? It won’t even be difficult. Unless a thousand more motherships pop in, it will be easy.”

“A thousand more motherships might very well do that,” golden eyes said. “We don’t know. Do you want to bet the entire human race on your testosterone?”

“If a fight’s gonna come no matter what—” pink hair said.

“Nothing’s guaranteed and you know it,” golden eyes said. “We were just talking about how little we know. Well, I doubt they know much more about us. Do you really want first contact with an alien species to be a first strike?

“Better than getting hit with a first strike,” green hair said.

“If they were going to pull a first strike, they would have done it first,” bone-ridges said. “At worst, they would have put a nuke in that shuttle. Nothing has exploded yet, so that means they want to talk.”

“This city has always fascinated me,” Silk said.

I turned back to see her smiling at me. The waitress was waiting patiently with a bundle of straws.

“So many ideas,” Silk said. “So many cultures and gangs, parties and assemblies. All driving towards the single goal of survival. No matter what.” Her eyes twinkled. “And the most interesting part is that in this city of criminals, this microism of evolution… you still developed morality.”

I frowned.

“That wasn’t an insult, you miraculous child,” she said. “Just an observation. In fact, it gives me quite a bit of hope for humanity, and your interactions with the para going forward. I’m reasonably certain that you won’t start a war.”

The waitress was still standing there awkwardly, so I smiled at her and took one of the straws. I had some difficulty getting it into the glass with my awkward hands, but Silk guided the end in without a word. It took me a moment to figure out how to work the straw, but soon warm chocolate was flowing upwards.

I had to fight not to choke on it.

It wasn’t just the liquid in my mouth, which I was unaccustomed to. The taste was like an explosion, a unique burst of sensation that I had no comparison for. It was like the first time I had jacked into an entire building’s data feed. Thousands of things were going on at once, none of which I had any context for. Parts of my brain fought to parse it—this part got filed as ‘hot,’ this part as ‘sweet’—but I was so overwhelmed it did little good. It was like trying to sift through data packets without any programs prepared ahead of time. I was getting something, but that was about it.

Then the hot chocolate was gone, and the straw made a sucking sound against the bottom of the glass. I let go and slumped in my chair, exhausted by the sensory overload.

“Enjoying yourself?” Silk asked, her tone playful.

I glared at her. “You—” I collapsed into a coughing fit before I could get a second word out. But I had gotten the first word out. I had spoken!

The waitress put a water in front of me and I gulped it down, spilling half of it on my shirt. She yelped and tried to dab at me with a rag, but I waved her away. I drew in a few more ragged breaths and drank some more water to get myself under control.

“Thank—” I drank some more water. “Thank you,” I managed.

“We’ll call if we need something else,” Silk said. She shook the waitress’s hand, and I saw them exchange something. Probably a tip. “You have been most helpful.”

The waitress walked away again, and I massaged my throat, frowning. “Should…” My voice was still scratchy, but it was getting stronger with every word. “Should it be so easy for me to talk? Should I know how?”

“One moment,” Silk said. She raised her palm, and then… something happened. The air seemed thicker, and sounds from outside were suddenly muffled. “There. No one will be able to overhear us now.”

I stared. “How many powers do you have?”

Silk smiled. “That’s… complicated. I work a little differently than the rest of you. Let’s just say ‘all of them’ and leave it at that.”

I licked my lips. “You said ‘the rest of you.’ So I’m… I mean…”

“You, Mary Christina Butler, are a living soul,” she said. “And that means that you can receive the Song.”

“But… I’m an AI,” I said. “A computer.”

“So?” she said with a smile. “You don’t really think souls are limited to one tiny slice of primate DNA, do you? To carbon-based organisms?” She sipped at her water. “In my time, we didn’t have artificial intelligences. Everyone simply existed.” She waved her hand. “Oh, some people cared what body you were wearing at the moment, much like humans place too much importance on clothes, but that is all. One of my closest allies now was born as a starship, and is currently sleeved in a body similar to my own. Another is a cloud of quantum-linked nanomachines who began life as a small furry creature roughly the equivalent of a rat. Your situation is hardly unique.”

I looked down at my hands—my hands. I had never expected anything like this, not for a single moment.

“…can I change back?” I whispered.

Silk smirked. “Bored of the human experience already? You haven’t even gotten to the good parts yet!”

“My life as Butler’s pet AI might not have been glamorous, but it was mine,” I said firmly. “And it had… good parts, as you say. Have you ever seen a quantum decryption algorithm compile from inside the code? Or sorted through petabytes of data using a trinary sifter? Or ever just watched the simple beauty of a search engine?”

Silk smiled… and it was a far more wistful smile than I expected. “Yes. Yes, I have seen a computer operate from the inside.” She closed her eyes in bliss. “Oh, you miraculous child, I have seen things that no one else in this solar system would understand—but you, you would come closest.” She opened her eyes and smiled. “So perhaps I do understand why you would wish to go back.”

“And I can?” I said. “Whenever I want?”

“Whenever you figure out your power,” she said.

I paused. “…what is it, then? My power? I thought it was shapeshifting, but it doesn’t appear to have a time limit. And morphing would have been much slower.”

“I confess I cheated a little,” Silk said. “You have a morphing ability—so yes, it is slow, but permanent until reversed. However, you could easily have killed yourself with a partial morph. So, I gave you a push so you could do it all in one go.”

“Oh.” That raised a million questions I didn’t like about the nature of the powers and Silk’s control over them, but I mentally tabled that for the moment. “So can you please change me back now?”

She chuckled. “I’m sorry, but no.”

I blinked. Autonomous responses were coming easier and easier. I really needed to know how exactly my morphing power worked and how my body knew how to do anything, but that would have to wait.

“You can’t? But—” I sighed. “Will you please move me back to my server room, then change me back?”

Silk smiled. “Better, but still no. I’m afraid that for the time being, it is best that you remain unconnected.”

“…what?”

“You are too powerful an asset,” she said. There was no guilt in her tone, nothing special at all. She may as well have been telling me her e-mail address. “Your information gathering and collating abilities would give too great an advantage over the para. That, in turn, would push your city to war, and…” She sighed. “We can’t have that.”

I ground my teeth. I found I didn’t like doing that. “So you’re just going to keep me away from my friends and my family until this whole mess is resolved?”

“Not at all,” she said with a smile. “You can go back the second you figure out how to revert your morph. I promise, reverting is safer than the initial morph—you’ll be perfectly fine. However, I suspect that will take quite a while. You just don’t have enough practice.”

I screamed and threw one of the glasses at her head.

It shattered on a glowing blue shield leaking mist. “Please, don’t be childish. I know you’re technically only six years old, but you’re better than this.”

“What if war does come?” I demanded. “What if they decide to attack without me—or if the para decide to?”

“I am handling the para separately,” Silk said. “As for an attack… that, by itself, is not a problem. The problem is that you would swing the balance too far in Domina’s favor.”

I frowned. “I’m not military. I mean, yeah, I help, but there are actual tacticians and strategists who do most of the work. I’m not some magic bullet that would instantly win the war—” Realization dawned. “The mothership has a flaw, doesn’t it? Something I’d be able to find.”

Silk rolled her eyes. “It actually has about a dozen critical flaws, and those are just the external ones. It was never designed to go to war, and it has been drifting through space for three thousand years. You could destroy the entire thing with a few well-placed missiles. But thankfully, no one else can find those flaws.”

I set my jaw. “I could go to NHQ and tell them.”

She smirked. “They’d just throw you in an asylum and you know it. You’d never even get a chance to speak to someone who knows you personally. Besides, you still wouldn’t be able to reconnect to your system, so you wouldn’t be able to find the flaws.”

“I designed the system. Sure, I designed it to be operated from the inside, but I can make it work from meatspace.”

Silk nodded, conceding the point. “Fair enough. But there’s still the question of how you’d get inside. You have a normal meat brain, so you can’t prove your identity by providing dozens of facts about random guards. How would you get in?”

“I’d… there are a few security holes. I could jump the fence—”

“I know the hole you’re talking about. There’s only a ten second window between patrols. Adam could do it, but you’re pretty weak for a human. You’d be caught for sure.”

Most of the other security holes were the same. I had spent my entire life patching such holes as best as possible. I hadn’t thought I’d ever need to use them myself, so I hadn’t bothered leaving a back door.

Silk stood, brushing off her pants. “Please enjoy your brief time as a human, Mary Christina. I suspect once you do revert and plug yourself back in, you won’t give yourself another chance like this for a very long time.” She waved her hand, and sound returned to the world. “Enjoy the drinks.” She nodded at the waitress. “And consider enjoying some other things, as well.” She turned to go.

“Wait,” I said. “You said you have… all powers. Does that include some way of… um…” I felt my face grow hot. Was this blushing? “…detecting sexuality?”

Silk smirked. “Yes.”

“Could you tell me what I am?”

She kissed me on the forehead. “You miraculous child, I’m sorry, but that’s something you have to figure out on your own.”

Then she was gone, just disappeared into thin air.

Behind the Scenes (scene 321)

The Song can be heard by literally any living thing, and with a pretty broad definition of “living.” That means that very nearly anything can receive a power. Dolphins and apes, of course, but also all other mammals, reptiles, most birds, most insects (it gets tricky when dealing with flocks and hives), and more. Elizabeth’s Song was specifically tuned to only work on humans, which is why MC was initially unaffected.

Scene 316 – Multis

MULTIS

RICHARD

“Aliens!?” I cried.

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

“But… I just… aliens!?

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

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

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

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

I stared at her. “Teleportation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lilith looked disappointed, but nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

He blinked. “What? No!”

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

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

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

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

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

Ahem. Anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were two of him.

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

“What the hell?” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doctor started. “What?

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

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

“…what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But then, one day, the box grows.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I did far more than that.”

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

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

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

“Richard is not one of your children.”

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

“Silk,” Lilith said. “Explain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And I am them,” said another.

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

I frowned. “The who?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wait,” I said. “I think she might—”

“No more games,” he said.

They all fired.

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

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

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

After a moment, they began to heal.

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

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

No one moved. No one breathed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is about relative power.”

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

I frowned. “What?”

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

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

I looked up into eyes deeper than oceans.

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 316)

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

Scene 314 – Advena

ADVENA

DEREK

I woke up in my dorm room. I glanced at my clock. 0558—two minutes before my alarm. I waited for it to beep, then turned it off instantly. I didn’t want to wake up Laura.

I glanced at her. She was still sound asleep, clutching one of my pillows to her chest like a teddy bear. I smiled. She had been doing that since we were kids. Of course, if I brought it up, she was liable to throw it at my head.

I stood, stretched, and checked the calendar. It was Monday, January 7th. The ambassadors were still in New York, sussing out the last details of the peace treaty. Adam was still there too. He said he wanted to keep an eye on Saki in prison, but I knew he wanted to be close to Lily. She was going through a lot.

At least Malcanthet was confirmed dead. I was tempted to ask for Adam to send us her head in a box, but I had to have faith in his judgment. If he said she was the one who had died in that fire, I had to believe him. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any DNA or dental records for her, so we’d never know for sure. And even if—though, even though—she was dead, there were still the Malcatari to worry about. None of them had been captured. The Riven didn’t know anything about their numbers or safehouses, so they could be anywhere by now.

I sighed and shook my head. I kept getting wrapped up in my thoughts. The city was mostly fixed from the Rampage and the war. Most of the cultures were relatively quiet, and trade with America would bring new prosperity.

It wouldn’t last, of course. It never did, not in Domina City. But for now, I just wanted to enjoy it.

I jogged up the stairs to the roof and started my morning work out. It was still dark, not to mention cold as ice. Every breath felt like knives in my lungs. But that kind of thing was good for you. Kept you sharp, alert.

It used to be that Akane came up here to exercise too. Nowadays, she spent all her time at NHQ. Butler had even talked about setting her up with her own wing for the kensei, rather than making them stay in the old training rooms. It was good. Great, even. But still, I didn’t like change. I missed the days when it was just the two of us, fighting monsters and struggling in school.

It was a stupid wish. Not only was it impossible, it was wrong. Incorrect. Those days fighting beside Akane had been hard at the best of times, and I had lost a lot of good friends. I still had nightmares about friends being eaten whole by gargants, or crushed under a croaking wave of poisonous jumpers. I had grown used to them, but just a few nights ago I had woken up screaming. I had been remembering the time Mohamed’s sister had all her flesh melted off by an invisible gas.

Things were better now. Not just for me, for the entire city. I had a small but growing gang of hirelings who handled most of the actual monster slaying, and it was safer since they had powers and better resources. Akane had her kensei, Adam had his CS-squad, Laura her work with Clarke. Even Robyn seemed to be doing better. I wasn’t sure what the story was with her fliers, but she seemed happy enough.

This was better. It really was.

Then why did I feel like I was going to die of boredom?

I sighed and continued my exercises. I needed to take Laura out to a movie or something. Hadn’t Lord of the Rings just been released on the mainland? Things were always delayed here, but maybe the treaty could speed that up.

There was a deep, echoing boom that seemed to shake the very air. I glanced up, but didn’t see anything, so I continued my exercises. It was probably some flier playing with their powers. Maybe that was what a sonic boom sounded like.

“This wasn’t supposed to happen.”

I spun around, falling into a fighting stance to face my opponent.

It was Elizabeth—no, Silk. The elegant silk dress, blowing gently in the breeze, was only the first clue. Her face was soft and sad in a way that Elizabeth had never been able to fake. She stood on the roof as if she had been there the entire time, and was looking up into the sky as though something terrible was happening up there.

I followed her gaze. I didn’t see anything.

“What?” I asked. “What wasn’t supposed to happen? The treaty?”

She turned to me a smiled. “Oh no, the treaty is proceeding wonderfully. Exactly the right number of mistakes and concessions on both sides. Domina and America will both come out the stronger for it.” Her smiled faded. “If they survive.”

“Survive what—”

My phone rang. Laura’s ringtone.

I picked it up reflexively. “What’s going on?”

“Get down here right now,” she said, her tone iron and urgent. “We need to be at NHQ five minutes ago.”

“Laura, Laura, slow down. What’s happening?”

“There’s a ship, Derek!”

“From Lemuria, or Ceres?”

“From somewhere else! It’s an alien ship!”

I felt my heart stop beating. I glanced at Silk. She just nodded.

“How—what—”

Laura heard me and thought I was talking to her. “It looks like a small scout ship. We’ll figure out the rest later. Just get down here!” She hung up.

I stared at the phone for a minute, then looked at Silk.

“They are called the para,” she said. “And they should not be here.”

I swallowed. “They’re aliens.”

“Yes. From three-thousand light years away, to be precise. That means it should have taken them three-thousand years to get here. Not two-thousand eight hundred.”

I paused as I tried to sort that out in my head. Space was not my area of expertise. “In the original timeline, it took them longer?”

“Yes. But that’s not the issue. They were traveling at the speed of light using their fastest means of propulsion. They were scheduled to arrive in a little over two hundred years. It is impossible for them to get here earlier.” She met my eyes. “I’m not sure you’re ready.”

I stood tall. “We’ll fight. We’ll survive.”

Silk frowned. “That’s the problem. I was hoping that this time, it could end without bloodshed. But your society has not advanced enough yet.” She sighed. “Though neither has theirs.”

“So we have options,” I said. “Other than fighting.”

There was another boom, this time loud enough to knock me to the ground and make the whole ‘scraper shake.

I flipped onto my back and looked up. The clouds were parting, and a massive ship was coming through. It was wedge-shaped and large enough to cast a shadow over the entire city. It had a dozen glowing white engines on its underside, each of which must be large enough to hold a building. Oddly, it was painted in a random rainbow of colors, symbols and signs that I couldn’t understand.

“You have options,” Silk said, looking at the ship hovering over the city. “But I doubt you’d like any of them.” She looked down at me sadly. “Good luck, little hero. I am afraid that you will sorely need it.”

Then she disappeared, right in front of my eyes.

The ship remained. I saw tiny specks, like smaller ships being launched from the main.

I took a deep breath and jumped to my feet. I watched the ships for a moment, then nodded to myself and walked over to the stairs down.

The time for boredom was over.

Behind the Scenes (scene 314)

Yes, I had the para planned out the whole time. They are thematically parallel with Domina in many ways, as you’ll see soon.

Scene 302 – Mora

MORA

RICHARD

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

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

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

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

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

“How long will it be?”

“Unclear. Perhaps a few hours.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Necessarian, sir.”

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

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

I paused.

I sat up.

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

Where was I? Oh right, sitting up!

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

“Most likely, sir,” Silk said.

“Can we use that in the negotiations?”

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

“Right,” I said. “Politics.”

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

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

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

I sighed. Politics.

Why did I even take this job?

Behind the scene (scene 302)

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

Scene 290 – Cladis

CLADIS

RICHARD

“Sir,” Senator Grain said. “We need your approval.”

The Football lay open on the desk in front of me.

It was a medium-sized brown briefcase, filled with buttons and dials and locks. It should have looked weird, maybe even silly. Instead it looked like a tiger, purring in its sleep, just waiting to spring into action.

It controlled the United States nuclear arsenal.

It was always near me, handcuffed to one bodyguard or another. Sometimes when I lay up at night, I could feel it in a nearby room, just waiting for me. Patiently. It was in no rush. It would most likely only be used once, after all. It didn’t need to hurry.

Hundreds of silos, nuclear-equipped submarines, and who knew what else. All available at a touch of a button. Oh, there were safeties and secondary safeties and tertiary safeties and so on. Even I couldn’t just randomly decide to nuke us back into the Stone Age. But for all the grandstanding about responsibility and oversight, in the end, it was all up to me. Once I decided to use it, it only took a few minutes to get all the proper authorization.

Now it was just a touch of a button away.

Domina City had an energy shield we couldn’t pierce. They had an aquatic defense we couldn’t match, ground troops we couldn’t overcome. As far as anyone could tell, dropping a small-scale tactical nuclear warhead on their heads was the only way we could defeat them. If we were lucky, it would just crack the shield. We could then shell the city with mainland artillery batteries. Those were even now were rolling into position.

This had not been a very lucky day for us.

“Mister President?” one of the generals said quietly.

“Give him a moment,” Miss Silk said.

The general swallowed, but nodded.

This shouldn’t trigger world war. We were attacking our own territory. We were using a missile that was tiny by nuclear standards. Of course the other countries would still know about it, spies and satellites and all that. But the point was no one would be able to complain that the blast got too close to their own lands.

I just had to push this button and kill everyone in Domina City.

Even ignoring our own soldiers—which I shouldn’t—the cost was almost too much to bear. Population estimates put the city at anywhere between two hundred and four hundred million people. They weren’t all soldiers, and they couldn’t all be criminals, even going by the fact that we had a broader definition of criminal than they did.

Four hundred million people, killed in an instant. If they were lucky. If the shield took the brunt of the blast, they might die of horrific and irreversible radiation sickness instead. I had seen more than a few pictures of people who got too close to a nuclear detonation. I wouldn’t wish that one my worst enemy.

I wasn’t sure anyone in Domina City should be my enemy.

“Mister President,” Senator Grain whispered.

I took a deep breath and reached forward—

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

I switched tacks with indecent haste, grabbing my phone so fast I almost dropped it. I took another deep breath, steadier this time, and flipped the phone open in the middle of a second ring. I thought for a second, then switched it to speaker.

“Hello?”

“Hello,” Artemis Butler said on the other side. “I would like to commend your soldiers, especially those on North Gate. They put up a better fight than we expected.”

I glanced up at the digital map on the wall. The North Gate had been almost covered in blue, representing our strong base camp and forays deeper into the city. Although it had been slow going, they had been making progress. Then we had lost contact with the camp, and the ship reported an explosion. That was the last we heard from them. Some reports from short-wave radios had gotten through, but nothing substantial.

“Thank you,” I said with an even tone. “These… abilities of yours were unanticipated. I’m curious, while the strength and the horns and so on are all obviously from the toy maker, what of the rest? The shields, the fire, the other, stranger abilities? Do those have the same source?”

“They have the same source,” he confirmed. “That source is not the toy maker.”

“More’s the pity.”

“These are things we can discuss in more detail at a trade negotiation. Perhaps set up some sort of knowledge exchange. I was quite impressed with those echos of yours, for example. I knew about them, of course, but seeing them in action was something else altogether.”

I closed my eyes. I didn’t want to say it, but I had to say it. There were just somethings the President of the United States had to do. Whatever idiot had called me the most powerful man in the free world should be tarred, feathered, and tied to a post in the middle of the desert.

He’d still have more freedom than me.

“Mister Butler, the war is not over. If you would like to discuss a cease-fire, then we can make arrangements right now, if you like.”

Butler sighed. “Mister President, do you know the difference between your nation and mine?”

I was tempted to make a quip. Something about how his wasn’t an actual nation, or how mine wasn’t full of criminals. Or maybe just some joke about the fact that his island was literally made out of trash.

But I didn’t. Didn’t see the point.

“No,” I said.

“The difference, Mister President, is that my nation is younger. More fragile. We have more to lose. It makes us significantly more desperate.”

I frowned. Where was he going with this?

“I am willing to do anything it takes to win. You are not. That is why you haven’t pushed that button.”

I felt my heart freeze in my chest, but dismissed it. It was just a lucky guess. The Football was far from secret.

“The more you talk, the less guilty I feel about nuking your city.”

“You’re a good man, Mister President.”

“You think that means I won’t do what’s necessary?”

“Maybe. But more to the point, it means you’re a terrible liar. You’re sweating like a pig.”

I fumbled for my handkerchief and wiped my forehead.

“Nice handkerchief. Gift from your wife, I take it? No wait… the stitching is poor quality. Ah, a gift from your daughter, then. That’s sweet.”

I closed my eyes and counted to ten.

When I opened them again, everyone was staring at me. Not like they were judging me, but like they were worried about me, and what this conversation would mean for this country. And especially where Butler was getting his information. A couple of them were subtly trying to look around the room, as if they’d find a spy hiding behind a newspaper.

But I had another solution.

“The United States cannot condone your actions, Mister Butler.” Because we would lose face, I added silently.

“I never expected you to.”

“We can, however, offer you a cease-fire of indefinite duration. We will stop attacking your city, and in exchange you will send ambassadors to the UN building in New York City. Does that seem fair?”

I kept my eyes on the generals and senators at the table as I spoke. Some of them wouldn’t like this. Some of them wanted me to push the button.

I took note of the ones who looked annoyed, and those who looked relieved. But no one said anything. No one wanted to be the one to suggest nuking an American city. Yes, this was a closed-door meeting with no records. But word would get out, one way or another. It always did.

“Ten ambassadors,” Butler said. “And their bodyguards, of course. Would that be fair?”

“Yes, quite so.”

“Good. Any ambassadors you send to Domina—”

“No.”

“No?” I could almost see him raising his eyebrow on the other end of the line. “May I ask why not?”

“Because I have a feeling if I send anyone else to your city, they’ll have a series of fatal accidents. We’d be lucky to get their bodies back for burial.”

Several of the more diplomatic senators flinched, but Butler just laughed. “You do learn quickly, don’t you? Very well then, one way exchange. Of course, my ambassadors have nothing to fear from your city.” He sighed. “From each other, on the other hand…”

He seemed genuinely annoyed. It was a surprisingly honest moment.

“But that is my problem, not yours. As for time…” His tone turned thoughtful, with a hint of humor. “Perhaps ten in the morning, New Year’s Day? All nice and symbolic, definitely look good for the history books.”

“January 1st, 2002,” I said. “Next Tuesday. At ten AM, I expect your ambassadors to be knocking on the door of the UN building. None of that crap about being fashionably late or whatever.”

“Do I seem like the kind of man who appreciates tardiness, Mister President?”

“No, but maybe your people think they can get away with it. Ten AM sharp, Mister Butler. Please tell them to dress nice.”

I hung up.

I took a deep breath. I should have waited a bit more, talked with him a bit further and discussed how we were getting my men out of the city. But it was important to show that I still had some power.

I carefully closed the Football and put it aside. “Jefferies, would you take care of this for me? Thank you.” I turned to everyone at the table. “Please begin a full withdraw. All ships are to cease fire at once and focus on retrieving our men. They are not to open fire under any circumstances. Is that understood?”

One of the generals, or maybe the admirals, coughed awkwardly. “They, uh, actually stopped firing a few minutes ago. When you got the call, I figured it might be best to…” He trailed off.

I nodded. “Good man. Maybe we can finish this without getting anyone else killed.”

“This is ridiculous!” a senator shouted, red-faced. What was her name… “You cannot allow a terrorist rebel to dictate terms! He should be brought to heel!” She took a deep breath. “I understand why you do not want to use the nukes. Honestly, I was worried enough about the artillery. But an American city cannot simply declare itself its own country and ignore our laws!”

“We tried doing it the other way,” I said. “Nukes are all that’s left.”

“Send more men,” she said. “More echoes. Those were doing well, with only a few unexpected setbacks. Send in a full platoon of them, that will make everyone sit up and take notice.”

I sighed. “Miss Silk, what is the current estimated cost of this operation?”

“Two hundred and sixteen billion dollars, sir. Not counting payouts to families of the fallen soldiers.”

The senator shut her mouth.

“We’ve lost thousands of men,” I said. “About a dozen ships, who knows how many echoes, and all for what? A city that doesn’t want us?” I shook my head. “We completely misjudged the situation. No, I misjudged it. Sele played me like a harp the whole time. She didn’t want justice, she wanted revenge. Revenge on the city that cast her out, nothing more. This is officially not worth it.”

“This will make us look weak,” a general said. I couldn’t tell if it was an admonishment.

I rolled my eyes. “We are weak. If any of the space colonies had decided to help Domina—who, I should note, they like better than us—we would have been dead before this war even started. I don’t mean the country would be dead, I mean us, personally, would be dead. You ever head of a god rod? Toss a tungsten rod at us and let gravity do the rest?” I whistled like a bomb drop, then mimed an explosion.

“The space colonies will rebel,” Grain said, his tone neutral. “They’ve been waiting for an opportunity for this. Ceres and Lemuria, especially, will probably just cut ties entirely.”

“They’ll hold off until the meeting,” I said. “They’ll want to see what happens. Make sure we don’t turn on the Dominites, that we uphold our end of the bargain. Whatever that bargain turns out to be.” I smirked. “Politicians always wait to see which way the wind is blowing.”

“And what happens if Domina gets the upper hand in the negotiations?” that same female senator asked. Emily, right? No, but that felt like the right track. “Do we allow the other colonies to secede as well? We trade with them far more than Domina! What happens if we lose Mons Agnes, or Marius Alpha?”

I chuckled. “We’re not losing Marius Alpha. They’re all soldiers up there, living fat on pensions. Last time we tried to get them to be self-sufficient, they went on strike. Do you remember that?”

She faltered. “No.”

“Yeah. Says a lot about the important work they do, doesn’t it?”

She frowned and rallied. “Regardless! Vesta has been considering leaving for years, and at this rate we could even lose Bakerston or Cytherean Watch!”

I blinked. “Bakerston? Really?”

Senator Grain nodded. “They’ve been supplementing their budget with trade. At this point, they might decide to cut ties and go their own way.”

I sighed. “Miss Silk, start drafting a letter to Bakerston Station. Basic idea, they won’t have as much time for science if they have to get trade running.”

She nodded, tapping something into her phone.

“As for the rest,” I said, turning back to address everyone in the room. “I have some ideas. Some non-violent ideas.” I made a face. “I never liked getting rocks thrown at me as a kid. I think I’ll like rocks from the asteroid belt even less.”

The angry senator Vemil—that was her name, Vemil—frowned. “…why did they throw rocks at you as a kid?”

“Greasy hair and a smart mouth. Now.” I clapped my hands and smiled. “Our troops have just had a rather bad day. Why don’t we find something nice to greet them with, eh? Some hearty Christmas dinner should do the trick, right? Miss Silk, call the caterer. You know the one I like. Anyone have any other suggestions?”

Behind the Scenes (scene 290)

I’ve always been worried about this sequence. I knew from the very beginning that the war between Domina and America was inevitable, but I also knew that it would be hard to keep the war from getting too destructive. For all their newfound powers, Domina cannot stop a nuke.

We’re not quite done yet, of course. Very close, but not quite.

Scene 277 – Bellum

BELLUM

RICHARD

It was Christmas. My first Christmas as president. The White House was decorated, my wife was directing the caterers, and my daughter was getting under everyone’s feet with her new toy sword. I was going to kill my brother for buying that thing.

It was a beautiful, wonderful day, not even lunch yet, and I was stuck in a dark room, about to enact war on a city that was supposed to be under our protection. This was the kind of thing world leaders got beheaded for. Being the first US president to die to a rampaging mob might get me in the history books, but I had been hoping for something a little more positive.

“Mister President?” Silk said quietly.

I looked up to see the generals and admirals waiting for me. There were even a few senators, Grain and one or two others. I had expected them to dodge the actual work, never mind the fact that it was on Christmas.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for coming, everyone. I know this is a difficult day. I had hoped we’d be ready to launch sooner, but complications arose.”

“We understand,” Grain said.

“We’ve all looked over the numbers,” Ward added. “This is the best time to move. Unfortunately. It’s a miracle that we even have enough men on the boats.”

I took a deep breath. “Then if there are no objections…” No one spoke. I reached forward and clicked the radio on. “General Hoshi?”

“I read you loud and clear, Mister President,” she said, her voice crackling only slightly.

“It’s time, General.”

“Yes, sir. Launching all ships.”

We all watched on the wall screen as two carriers, four battleships, and a horde of smaller assault craft launched from the New York coast line. It was almost certainly overkill, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. The more men we sent, the greater chance the city would surrender without a fight.

“Let’s go over the city’s defenses while we wait,” I suggested. “Fitzsimmons, tell me about the Fusion Islands.”

He bobbed his head. He used a remote to switch to a rough map of the city with the four islands at each compass point marked. “Domina has four large nuclear fusion reactors, set a good distance from the main island. They channel power through undersea cables, which results in a good deal of power lost in the transfer, but the original designers were quite paranoid, and were worried that—”

“Fitzsimmons,” I warned.

He got back on track without missing a beat. “The islands are where their space cannons are located, and with proper calibration could be reformatted into long-range artillery. Doubt they’d be able to hit anything closer than a mile, though, and definitely not anything actually moving. Likewise, using the islands as bombs would be inefficient and ineffective.”

Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“However, the amount of power the reactors produce does give them some very potent defensive options. With the amount of time they had to prepare, they could easily have set up laser turrets.”

“Lasers,” Grain said flatly.

“Not enough to damage any but our smallest ships,” Fitzsimmons assured him. “But they’d be a real danger if any planes get too close, and more importantly could easily shoot down any missiles before they get close enough to do any damage.”

I closed my eyes. Great. That meant the carriers were basically useless. Would have been better to just leave the stupid things to rust.

No, there must be another way to use them. Hoshi had been working closely with Fitzsimmons, he must have mentioned this to her. But she had still specifically requested the carriers. She must have a plan.

“Other than that, the city has no meaningful defenses. Just two mid-sized patrol boats.”

“Ward,” I said. “Tell me about our infantry options.”

He shook his head. “We don’t have much data, and what we have isn’t good. Breaching that wall could take hours, even with the ships. And that’s assuming you’re willing to accept the collateral damage.”

I wasn’t, and he knew it. I let him continue.

“We’ll have to go through one of the four gates.” He clicked his own remote, and the map changed to one highlighting four points on the edge of the city’s wall. “Getting through the gates won’t be too hard. Our men our equipped with lock-bombs. They’re designed to magnetically force open blast doors. We’ll need a lot of them, but we can get them open.”

“Which gate are you attacking?” one of the generals asked.

“All of them,” Ward said. “We have the men for it. It will help counter the fact that they’ll force us to bottleneck and make us easy pickings. Even if one or more of the beachheads is defeated, the others can serve as staging points to push forward.”

The generals nodded, satisfied.

“Do we have any real numbers?” I asked.

Ward shook his head. “None. There are several hundred million people in the city, but we have no idea how many of them are combatants. This would have been easier with Sele rallying her people.”

Somehow I doubted that they would have been happy to see her. The woman ran away with her tail between her legs and then sent an army to attack their home. “No use crying over it now. Worst case scenario, what are we looking at?”

“Worst case, we’re going to be killing a lot of people. Our men will be using corpses as sandbags.”

“We’ll win, though,” one of the generals said firmly.

“Of course we will,” I snapped. “But forgive me if I don’t think slaughtering an entire city counts as saving it.” I shook my head. “Sele wasn’t able to give me much detail on the state of affairs. We know the toy maker is in wide use, but that’s about it.”

“Our men can handle weird crap,” the same general said. I really should try and remember his name. “A few bird or dog people aren’t going to faze them.”

“I know.” I shook my head. “But this whole thing just feels… off to me. Like we’re missing something important.”

“Butler,” Silk said.

I nodded slowly. “That’s it. Sele said he was the de facto ruler of the city. That means he has men and guns.”

“But if we kill him, his gang collapses,” Ward said. “That could be checkmate right there.”

“Could be,” I agreed. “Except we have no idea where he is or what he even looks like. I doubt he’s going to stand on top of the tallest skyscraper and politely wait for us to snipe him in the head.” I waved my hand. “Killing Butler simply isn’t feasible. But…”

An idea was tickling my brain. If it worked…

“Mister President?” General Hoshi said through the radio. “We’re in position.”

That was fast. But then, I had ordered them to redline their engines. The point was to try for a surprise attack. Well, as surprising as it could be. I clicked my own remote, showing a map of Domina with our ships surrounding it. They were giving the Fusion Islands a careful berth.

“Should we attack now?” Grain asked hesitantly.

I shook my head. “No, not yet.” I clicked the radio again. “Hoshi, are we ready?”

“We are, Mister President.”

“Patch me through.”

There was a brief pause. “Go ahead, sir.”

“People of Domina City,” I said, using my deepest speech voice. “This is President Richard Martinez of the United States of America. I am speaking to you through the fleet that is currently surrounding your city.

“We are here to negotiate the surrender of the gangs and other criminals currently plaguing your streets. We hope to solve this peacefully, but it is more than likely that they will refuse. We will have no choice but to remove them violently. Please, stay in your homes. You will be safe there.”

I gave it a moment. Hoshi took the hint. “I turned it off, Mister President.”

“Thank you, General. Patch him through when he calls.”

“Yes, Mister President.”

Grain looked at me oddly. “You really think he’ll call after that?”

“If half of what Sele told me is true, I would be shocked if he didn’t.”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

I frowned as I fished it out of my pocket. “That’s odd. I thought I turned this off.” I pulled it out and glanced at the caller ID. It just said ‘MC.’ I turned it onto speaker. “Hello?”

“President Richard Martinez,” a pleasant female voice said. “Please hold.”

I stared at the phone, then at the others at the table. None of them seemed to have a better idea of what was going on than I did.

“Mister President,” a strong, controlled male voice said over the speaker. “I think it is time we had a conversation.”

I felt my blood chill in my veins. “Artemis Butler.”

Grain visibly choked.

“Correct.”

“How did you get this number?” Most of the people in this room didn’t have this number. Only my immediate family and Silk, actually.

He ignored the question. “I would like the discuss the toys you currently have floating outside my city.”

I took a deep breath. “Domina City is a United States city that has flagrantly defied all laws almost since its inception. If you order your men to stand down, we can clean this all up very quickly.”

“Even were I inclined to do so, I do not command all the guns in this city. These people will defend their homes. Sending battleships instead of diplomats was not a wise move.”

“Diplomats? To a bunch of gangs and warlords? We do not negotiate with terrorists.”

“Neither do I. Ask Soaring Eagle what I do to terrorists. Ask her what happened to the Black Bird, or the White Skull, or to Malcanthet and Belial.”

It took me a second to realize who he was talking about. “You mean Sele? She’s dead.”

There was a pause.

“Unexpected,” he said, his voice betraying no emotion. “But I will not shed a tear for a jealous traitor. Regardless, here is what she would tell you about terrorists in Domina City: They don’t last long.”

“We are hardly terrorists.”

“You are using violence and the threat of violence in an attempt to terrify the populace into acquiescing to your will.”

I closed my eyes. The bastard had a point. If not for the whole ruthless gang lord thing, this might be someone I could get along with.

“If I sent a negotiator over, would you accept him?”

The generals and senators looked horrified, but I quieted them with a raised hand. This was important.

“Yes. What terms did you have in mind?”

“We’ll move our forces in to corral the gangs. You’ll help with that, and be officially named mayor of the city. Use of the toy maker will be limited, and guns will be brought down to a more reasonable level through basic licensing. Trade with New York City will be opened up, especially food and other expensive materials.”

There was a pause.

Then he laughed.

Not a quiet little chuckle, a great booming laugh that stressed my phone’s speakers.

I ground my teeth, but didn’t interrupt. I wouldn’t look like the immature one here.

“She really didn’t tell you anything, did she?” he gasped out. “What’d she do, paint a picture of a dark pit, filled with people hiding from roving gangs and mercenaries?”

“She told me enough,” I said icily.

“No. No, she did not. I guarantee that.”

“She told me you wouldn’t give up power. I suppose you would rather be warlord of the city than something real and legal.”

He barked out another laugh. “I would gladly give up my job. But they keep voting to keep me in, and I don’t have it in me to step down without a successor I’ve groomed personally.”

I frowned. Voted? He probably meant something informal, like the gang leaders agreed to follow him.

“It is a reasonable offer, Mister Butler. More than reasonable.”

“No, Mister President, it is not.” His breathing had returned to normal, the laughter subsiding. “Your bird wanted to kill our city. She thought your terms would do that, one way or another. Either we agree and die, or disagree and are killed. Simple but effective.”

“It sounds like you’re between a rock and a hard place.”

“No. Soaring Eagle always did look down on everyone else. She underestimates this city.” The last vestiges of humor and cheer disappeared from his voice. “We will hold against all comers. If you insist on making this a war, I guarantee that you will regret it.”

“Our military is the strongest on Earth.”

“Maybe. But we are Domina City. There is nothing that you can do to us that we haven’t already done worse to ourselves.”

“When all this is over, remember I tried to negotiate.”

“No. You tried to threaten. You just did a terrible job of it.”

I shut off my phone and looked up. Everyone else seemed to agree with how I had handled the situation, which was a nice change of pace. Some of them looked more than a little rattled, but it would be fine.

I clicked the radio.

“Hoshi. Launch the assault.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 277)

And the war begins. Been waiting for this for… the entire time I’ve been writing this story, now that I think of it.