I wasn’t sure what I was expecting when we walked onto the para ship. The shuttle up had been simple and utilitarian on the inside, with multicolored buttons and color-coded lockers but little else. It was a decent size, but the thirteen of us had barely fit. Once we docked, we all spilled out, and it was such a relief that it took me a moment to really look around.
We had arrived at what Leeno had called the primary work docks. They were the place where they launched the ships that had attacked most of the system. Normally shuttles wouldn’t dock here, but they were trying to show off their strength. Everything they were doing was to show off, from ‘offering’ to host the negotiations on their ship to waiting five days—a para standard week—before calling us up.
The docks were at least a hundred yards tall, a hundred wide, and twice that deep. There was a giant lock that had opened at our arrival, but it wasn’t an airlock. The entire dock was open to hard vacuum to increase efficiency, and any pilots or passengers had to wear suits just to walk to and from their ships.
There were hundreds of the small para fighters lined up in racks, all carefully polished and perfectly painted. As far as I could tell, every single one was unique. Some were painted a single color with only a splotch here and there, others had whorls and swirls of a dozen colors, and others seemed to have images of creatures I couldn’t identify.
The colors were not limited to the ships. The inside of the dock was a massive mural, stretching from one side of the cavernous space to the other, that seemed to be portraying the para’s rise from hunter-gatherers to farmers to city-dwellers to space-travelers. The mural was abstract, but it used simpler colors than much of the rest of the art. The ships, the ceiling, even the floor were painted a hundred colors I couldn’t name, but the beautiful mural was only simple black, white, red, blue, and yellow.
I wondered if that had something to do with the way para saw colors. Leeno had said that every para was born with slightly different color vision. Some were optimized for night, some for day, and some in between. Maybe the colors on the mural were kept simple to ensure that all para would be able to see it.
With that in mind, I looked over the ships and equipment again as we walked through the hangar. That ship over there, which I had thought looked pure yellow, had a few discolorations that might look obvious for someone better at differentiating yellow and orange. Every button on every machine was striped with at least three colors—perhaps to maximize the number of para who could read the warnings and understand them. Even their language, what little of it I could see, was multicolored, but the shapes of the letters were stark and obvious from each other. Exactly what you’d want if you couldn’t be sure everyone would be seeing the same things.
Leeno and Zero led us through the docks to a large door painted a dozen different shades of green. He placed his hand—still in his vacuum suit—on the middle, and it whirred open, splitting diagonally. Odd, the doors in the shuttle had just slid to the side, like human doors.
We found ourselves in a small room, still green, and I realized belatedly it must be an airlock. The door closed behind us, and a moment later I heard rushing air. Suddenly, I could hear beyond the confines of my suit.
Lily was the first one to take her helmet off, before even Leeno or Zero. She took a deep breath, then nodded. She’d be able to detect any poisons in the air and survive them more easily than anyone else in the group.
The next was Odin. He grunted in annoyance as he took his helmet off. The ceiling was tall enough to accommodate him, but only barely. We had sent word ahead that we’d need high ceilings, but I wasn’t sure if the para would honor that. At least we had confirmed that they could. That massive hangar certainly didn’t make it look like they were strapped for space.
The rest of us took our helmets off after only a little hesitation. Dracul and Pale Night were first—though Pale Night had to be careful with the veil she wore underneath—then I took mine off at the same time as Zaphkiel, the White Cat, and Bahamut. Cailleach quirked her head, as if considering, and then took hers off as well, and carefully pulled her waist-length black hair out of the suit to properly display it. I wasn’t sure the homunculus would last this far from Earth, but she insisted her connection was stable.
Adam and Eccretia waited until Leeno and Zero took off their helmets before doing the same. Maybe a little paranoid, but not unjustified.
Other than Adam and Zero, there were no bodyguards. Just one representative of each culture—not counting the merfolk because we were keeping them quiet in case their cities needed to be used as refuges—and plus me for the guilds, and of course Lily for the city itself. Uncle Art couldn’t come for safety reasons, and Derek had simply refused to let Laura go. Ling would probably have been a better choice than me to actually represent the guilds, but no one knew whether or not they trusted her right now. Besides, with MC still missing, Lily needed my moral support.
Even ignoring the politics of it all, we were thirteen of the strongest people in Domina City, if not the entire system. We could probably conquer this entire ship by ourselves if we felt like it. Of course, Lily would never let us do that without just cause, but it was still an idea at the forefront of my mind.
“I really like these suits,” Dracul said. “The air didn’t get stale or anything. Much better than the last Lunar suits I wore.”
“These were built in conjunction with Domina support,” Pale Night said. “Modified mosses and fungi keep the air recycled much more efficiently.” She fidgeted in her own suit. “They are not designed to be worn over too much clothing, however.”
Dracul raised a perfect eyebrow. “You’ve got clothes on under the veil? I always assumed you were naked underneath.”
“Of course not,” she snapped. She was still fidgeting, pulling at her suit. “I need—to—oh, Nine Hells—”
“Let me help you with that, sweetie,” Lily said, walking over. Pale Night settled down and Lily started unsealing the suit. All the dials and clasps were on the front, but between Pale’s damaged hands and her extra layer of clothing, she hadn’t been able to make them work.
It was almost funny seeing Pale Night, perhaps the most powerful demon in Domina City, being fussed over like a girl going to prom. Especially since Lily was easily a foot shorter than her. But Lily was serious about her duties, and worked quickly to get the suit off. She told Pale Night when to raise her arms, when to wriggle them out of the sleeves, and finally when to step out of the suit entirely.
As Lily was folding up the suit, I glanced over Pale Night. It took her a second to readjust her veil, so for a moment it was plastered tightly against her skin. It was hard to get a good look, but there were odd shapes and holes, strange things that couldn’t be explained as a result of the clothing underneath. There were clearly parts of her missing, and other parts were there that shouldn’t be.
But then the moment passed, and the veil was fluttering around her elegantly like it always was. It was woven from Minerva silk, so an hour stuffed into a sweaty spacesuit hadn’t done much to dampen it.
Once all that was done, the other side of the airlock opened, leading deeper into the ship. There were three large para on the other side, all dressed in some sort of high-tech armor painted a rainbow of colors. They didn’t seem to have any weapons, but I remembered Zero’s arms, and her cybernetic guns. No one here was going to assume that anyone we met was safe.
They didn’t seem the least bit surprised by our bizarre variety. The one in the middle spoke, his tone stilted. “You will follow to elders.”
Everyone glanced at Leeno. He nodded.
Then we glanced at Lily. She tucked Pale Night’s suit under one arm and stepped forward, chin held high. She was smaller than the para—smaller than everyone else in the airlock, in fact—but she carried her authority well. “Very good. We have much to discuss.”
The lead para turned on his heel and started walking down the hallway, not even bothering to look if we were following. The other two took up positions on either side of the group as we fell into step behind the leader.
We walked through what felt like dozens of corridors, each painted with countless of colors. Some were more abstract designs, elegant lines and curves that probably didn’t mean anything specific, while others were murals showing this battle or that war. I noticed a lot of the murals portrayed space battles. Probably to remind us how outclassed we were in that department.
We were eventually led into something that looked like a command bridge, though for all I knew it may have been their rec room. It was circular, with tall ceilings that I could tell Odin appreciated, and a few wall panels that seemed to be showing different parts of the ship. There was a very short holographic table at the center of the room displaying the entire solar system, with some color-coding I didn’t understand that probably indicated ships.
There were a dozen bodyguards dressed the same as the ones who had been guiding us, as well as two shorter people standing next to the table. They were barely two feet tall, with insect-like wings folded up on their backs. With a start, I realized that the table must have been built for their size. Did that mean these were the para leaders?
One of them had a large metal arm and a few silver spots on her temples. I wondered if those were more cybernetics. And I was pretty sure she was female. She didn’t have any obvious breasts and she was dressed in the same pattern of rainbow uniform as the para next to her, but her face was a bit leaner. Maybe I was reading too much into it, but she struck me as feminine.
I frowned, looking around as I realized something. Everyone in the room had multicolored clothing, and even the walls were painted with a few simple patterns. Zero was the only para anything I had ever seen without color. There had to be a reason for that.
The woman with the cybernetic arm said something, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. They were actual words instead of insect-like clicks and buzzes, but still. I would have had more success keeping up with Greek.
“I think it would be best to speak using the local language,” Leeno said. His tone was deferential, and he kept his eyes down. “I know you both have language chips. This one is called ‘English.’”
There was a pause, and then the woman scowled. Was that a function of the chip? “Fine.” She turned to the rest of us. “You, humans. I am Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado, elder of this ship. You may call me Zan.”
“And I am Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” the second one said. He didn’t have any obvious cybernetics that I could see, but he seemed a bit older than Zan. “You may call me Li-Po. We will be conducting this negotiation.”
Leeno frowned, looking around the room. “Where is Elder Leeno?”
Zan frowned. “Elder Leeno… or Dolor, as he insisted on being called at the end… has chosen to pass on to the next stage.”
Leeno blinked those tangerine-colored eyes of his. I put a hand on his shoulder, just briefly. He had told us a little bit about Elder Leeno. No real details, but enough to know that Leeno had been looking forward to seeing him again. He had also implied that Elder Leeno would be on our side during negotiations. So this was hardly the best start.
Lily stepped forward. “Greetings, Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado and Li Po Bay dolor Leenli Reynmu Po malda Teensa Teenbay Moonpo harado,” she said. She didn’t stumble over a single syllable. “I am Lilith, the First Monster, Daughter of Fire and sister of the Lady Domina and the Princess of Necessity. I am the mother to four hundred and fifty million children, and this is my world.” Her eyes flashed. “I am afraid that I will have to demand to know your intentions here. Many have died as a direct result of your actions.”
I noticed several of the bodyguards at the edges of the room shifting into combat stances. Clearly at least a few of them understood English. Adam’s hand carefully went to the pistol on his hip, and Eccretia already had the safety off her own weapon. Odin and Zaphkiel were tense, but everyone else managed to look relaxed. I knew that Dracul, if no one else, would be able to kill half the people in the room before anyone blinked.
Li-Po looked ready to get angry, but Zan stepped forward instead. “We are simply looking for a home, Honored Lilith.” I was surprised she got the honorific right, but I shouldn’t have been. They had studied our language and our city, after all. “We have come a very, very long way.”
“That doesn’t justify attacking our space colonies,” Lily said.
Zan smiled. “We needed to make sure you understood our position.”
Leeno stepped forward, looking a little disturbed. “Elder Zan. I have spoken to several world leaders, and they have offered the second planet in the system for our use. It will require terraforming, but with their help, our hives—”
“Colorless,” Zan said. It had the tone of an order.
Zero stepped forward and put Leeno in an arm lock, slapping her hand over his mouth in the process.
Zan turned her attention back to Lily. “I do not know what this adult has told you.” She said ‘adult’ like a mild insult, like she was calling him a kid. Translation glitch? “But he has no authority to negotiate for our people. Whatever he has promised you is void.”
Lily’s face was impassive. I knew what that meant. “He promised us peace.”
“That most certainly was not his to promise.”
Leeno bucked Zero off; Zan didn’t say anything, so she didn’t try to fight him. “Elder Leeno would not want this. And why did he advance so soon before such an important negotiation?”
Zan didn’t even look at him. “Elder Leeno has done more for you than you know. He made a deal.”
Leeno narrowed his eyes. “What deal?”
She finally deigned to look at him. “We needed another hive, he wanted the killing to stop.”
Leeno recoiled as if slapped. “The attacks—they weren’t a show of strength? You really were going to conquer this entire system?”
“Yes,” Zan said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
We all turned to Odin, who was standing there with his arms crossed, glowering down at the little para. He was almost ten times her height, so it would have been ridiculous if it wasn’t so damn serious.
“I beg your pardon?” Zan said. “You have no right to moralize at us—”
“I wasn’t judging you, Elder Zan,” he said. “I was simply stating a fact. You do not believe that conquering this entire system is the right thing to do. That’s all there is to it.”
I had forgotten that Odin’s power was lie detection. It worked exactly like Laura’s, though apparently he actually had to worry about depleting his reservoir. Laura just left hers on all the time. I glanced at Leeno. Had he known about Odin’s power? He had identified Laura’s back in Domina.
He was smirking. Yeah, he had known. He probably knew about everyone’s powers. At the very least, he had to know that they had them, though maybe he couldn’t actually identify them all. I knew some of them were weird.
I looked back at Zan. Her face was carefully blank. Li-Po, on the other hand, looked close to exploding.
“Our offer still stands,” Lily said quietly. “Venus, the second planet in this system, in exchange for a lasting peace.”
Zan made a clicking sound. I had no idea what that meant. “The greenhouse planet?”
Lily nodded. “Correct. We have biological modification tools that will help with the terraforming. Leeno has read quite a bit of the literature. I am sure that he would be happy to point out some of the benefits.”
“We are aware of your toy maker,” Zan said. “We are also aware of your Kongeegen and Granit parties.”
Everyone except for Lily winced. The Granit party had been trumpeting conquering the rest of the world for years, especially using diseases modified by the toy maker. The Kongeegen weren’t as proactive, but their Darwinist talking points were similar. They had become closer ever since the para had showed up, and had suggested several plans of attack.
They didn’t know about the deal with Venus, but it was easy to see how they might try slipping some diseases into the terraforming mix. Done right, they could kill off the entire para species in days.
Lily, of course, wasn’t fazed. She was in her Mother Monster mode, nothing could so much as make her blink. “Tell me, Elder Zan, do you have any children?”
Zan nodded. “Sixteen.”
Leeno stepped up. “That’s a bit high by para standards, but not too much.” He withered under everyone’s glares. “You know… for context…” He stepped back again.
I shook my head. He was like a different person. In Domina City, he was strange, but knowledgeable and confident. Here, he was like a child. Was he faking it so that the elders underestimated him, or did they just make him feel small and powerless? I could empathize with that.
Lily didn’t bother acknowledging him. “And of all your children, Elder Zan, have any of them ever done anything you didn’t agree with?”
“Several,” she said. “Your point?”
“My point, Honored Elder, is that we cannot control our children completely. We certainly cannot control what they think. We must accept that they are independent people.” She sighed. “And sometimes they decide to spend a disturbing amount of time contemplating genocide.” Her face turned hard. “But until the day comes where they actually attempt it, at which point I will stop them, then I fear the topic is not relevant.”
Zan gave Lily a long, hard look. It was like there was no one else in the room except the two of them.
“I understand,” she said finally. “If you truly view these people as your children, taking a preemptive strike against them is not an option.”
“Of course,” Li-Po said, “they are not our children.” He pressed a button on the table. There was a strange chime, and the hologram rearranged to show something streaking from the mothership down to Earth. An incomprehensible line of vertical characters appeared, tracking with the falling object.
Adam and Eccretia both had their pistols out in a heartbeat, pointed at Li-Po and Zan respectively. The bodyguards all drew weapons of their own, and the other ambassadors tensed for a fight.
“Explain. Now,” Adam said.
“We have done what we must,” Zan said without fear. “To ensure the survival of our species.”
We all glanced at each other, and I could see panic written on everyone’s faces. There were a lot of things the para could do that we just couldn’t counter. If they decided to launch an asteroid at Domina, we wouldn’t be able to stop it. Even the shield wall would be overwhelmed.
If it came to that—if the para really had used this distraction to destroy Domina City—then everyone here would fight to exact retribution. Between all of us, we might even be able to conquer this mothership.
But they wouldn’t have invited us here if conquering the ship was easy. More likely, we were going to just go down in a blaze of glory.
Lily somehow managed to remain calm. “Leeno, dear? What did they do?”
He frowned. “I’m not sure… it’s not a missile—very different alarm for that.” He stepped forward, peering at the words. “Improvised launch? What does that mean? Did you throw a bunch of rocks at…” His expression suddenly turned to horror, and he recoiled. “Hives! You’ve dropped a hive on them?”
“We did what we must,” Li-Po said.
“Elder Leeno would have never stood for this!” our Leeno said. “Is that what all this was about? You tricked him into passing on so that there would be no one to oppose your plan? Or maybe you just needed a hive.”
“We had enough votes to do this with or without him,” Zan said. “It was his idea to advance. This way, he can look after this world, ensure that we do not do anything he finds abhorrent.”
Leeno spat something that didn’t translate and turned away.
“Wait,” I said. I was a little behind, but I was beginning to piece things together. “I thought Elder Leeno died.”
Zan frowned. “Why would you think that?”
“He simply advanced to Hive stage,” Li-Po said. He gestured at the screen. “He is now being sent to your world.”
I frowned. “Okay, what the hell—”
“Wait,” Leeno said, stepping closer to the table. “There are others.” He tried to press a holographic button, but nothing happened.
“It’s keyed to us,” Zan said. “You can’t use it.”
Leeno gave her the side-eye, then passed his hand over the table. There was a brief rush of static, and then when he started pushing buttons, they responded to him.
Zan jumped. It was amusing to see her actually surprised by something. “What did you just do?”
“Manipulated the electricity in the table to give myself admin access,” he said, tapping a few buttons while he kept his eyes on the display. “I figured out how to do it a few hundred years ago, I just never bothered until now.”
Zan stared at him. “We were asleep a hundred years ago.”
“I don’t sleep.” Leeno pressed one more button and the hologram split into four different sections, all showing a projectile moving through an atmosphere. “Here we are. There are three more hives—heading towards Mercury, Venus, and Mars.”
“Are any heading towards Lemuria?” Pale Night asked.
“I don’t even know what planet that’s on.”
“Mars,” Odin said. He pointed at the display. “Can you turn that around? Thanks.” He scratched his chin. “I don’t think that’s going to hit anything important. It’s heading for the opposite side of the planet as Lemuria, but there might be some mining stations down there.”
“Call them back,” Adam said, his gun still pointed at Zan’s head.
“I couldn’t if I wanted to,” she said. “They’re unpowered and unguided.”
Adam narrowed his eyes, clearly deciding whether to kill her anyway.
I tried to head that off. “Leeno, these hives. What are they going to do?”
“It’s… they’re…” He clicked his tongue. “Hard to explain. They will become staging grounds for para troops, but they are not inherently dangerous on their own.”
“Anything you drop from space is going to make a pretty big impact when it hits,” Dracul said. He didn’t seem particularly concerned either way.
“As long as the hive doesn’t actually hit anything important, it should be fine,” Leeno said. “They’re not explosive, and they absorb a good amount of the impact back into themselves. Of course, then they’ll start eating everything in sight to fuel their growth…”
I stared at him. “They’ll what?”
Leeno winced. “They’re alive. Mostly. Not particularly aware, but alive. And they grow.”
Cailleach perked up. She hadn’t said a single word yet, but now she was starting to get interested.
Adam was less so. “Give me one good reason we shouldn’t kill everyone in this room and then take the ship.” The guards at the edges readied their weapons, but everyone ignored them. Any one of the warlords could handle them alone. Red skies, Adam could probably do it. I was the closest thing to a noncombatant in the room.
Zan didn’t look concerned. “This room has been cut off from the rest of the ship. It has no control, and all the airlocks are sealed behind doors that even you people cannot break through.” She glanced briefly at Odin, before focusing back on Adam and his gun. “The air can be pumped out in moments. If you start a fight here, it will also end here.”
I glanced at Eccretia. Her eyes were flickering around the room, clearly using her powers to see through the walls. She saw me looking, and made a quick few motions in Necessarian sign language.
I nodded. We might be able to escape, but it was far from guaranteed. It was best to play it safe for now. I wasn’t sure if the para knew about our powers, but other than Lily, we didn’t have many offensive powers. Probably because the warlords hadn’t needed them. Zaphkiel’s lasers were probably the most dangerous, unless Cailleach had some nuke she was hiding.
Lily stepped forward. “Elder Zan, I hope you realize that you have just declared war on humanity.”
Zan didn’t look concerned. “Call it what you will. If we wanted to annihilate you, we’d just drop kinetic bombardments on you from orbit. But Elder Leeno demanded that we avoid extermination.” She shrugged. “Kill us now or leave. It doesn’t matter in the long run. You can’t attack our ships.”
A chuckle emerged from the wall speakers. “Are you absolutely sure about that?”
Finally, Zan and Li-Po looked surprised. They glanced at each other, and something unspoken passed between them. Zan looked up at the ceiling. “Who is that? How have you infiltrated our systems?”
I grinned. “MC! You’re finally back!”
She chuckled again. “More than you know, sis. More than you know.”
“What happened? Who took you? Did you escape? How—”
“Not really the time. We’ll talk once you’re groundside. Now, Elder Zan.” MC’s voice turned cold. “I wasn’t able to prevent you from launching those hives. I assure you, that was not a wise move.”
“I don’t know who you are, but if you are Earth-based, it is impossible for you to simply hack into our essential systems. Your threats are colorless, and get you nowhere.”
“I didn’t hack your ship at all,” she said. “I hacked Leeno’s ship. The Big Boss put a bug on it the second it touched down. Now I’m just using the communications system to call you. And reading through the archive.” She made a sound like clicking her tongue. “I know what those hives are, Elder. Are you really going to pretend those are for anything but war?”
Li-Po looked indignant. “They can produce food, shelter, everything a colony needs—”
“Yeah, or a military base deep in enemy territory. You dropped one in the most densely populated city on our homeworld. Even if no one dies from the landing, the intent is obvious. One second…” She paused. “Found a precedent. Book seven, chapter eighty-two, paragraph nine, line two. During your medieval period, some soldiers smuggled a hive into an enemy castle. The international council unanimously declared it an act of war.”
Li-Po scowled. “I refuse to be lectured by a disembodied voice.” He waved a hand. “Leave us, and spare us your inelegant posturing. You have nothing to threaten us with.”
“Are you sure about that?” MC asked, amused. “Because this shuttle has a very interesting central reactor.”
I saw Leeno’s eyes go wide.
Then, there was an explosion. It rocked the entire ship, throwing me and several of the para to the ground. The warlords kept their feet, of course. A massive metal screech reverberated through the entire ship, making my teeth feel like they were going to rattle out of my skull.
“Adam, we’re leaving,” Lily said over the blaring alarms, her tone clipped. Adam holstered his gun and drew his shotgun, ready to lead the escape. “Elder Zan, I am afraid I am going to have to officially declare war between humanity and the para.” Her face was completely expressionless, as if it had been made from porcelain.
I recognized it as the face she made when she was trying not to cry.
“Everyone, let’s go,” Lily said, and turned to leave quickly. The rest of us followed, leaving the para behind, too confused by alarms and their still-shaking ship to complain or shoot.
We found ourselves in the same confusing corridors as before, but now there were a dozen different colors of lights and blaring alarms—and no guides.
“MC, which way?” I asked.
“She destroyed the ship, child,” Cailleach said. “No signal.”
I blinked. “But… you’re still here. Can you use yourself as a relay?”
“Perhaps,” she said, unconcerned. The flashing alarms gave her face a demonic cast, and I could barely hear her over the blaring. “But I feel it would be better to detonate this body to cover your escape.”
Eccretia scowled. “Bloody homunculus.”
Lily nodded at Cailleach. “Thank you, Honored Crone. Please do not kill any of the para in the process. I am still hoping for as little bloodshed as possible.”
Cailleach nodded. I didn’t bring up the fact that countless people had already been killed when MC detonated Leeno’s ship.
“So then how do we get out of here?” Odin asked.
“I can’t see a clear path,” Eccretia said. “Everything is too confusing.”
“This way!” Leeno said, running up with Zero in tow. “I know every single centimeter of this ship.”
Dracul grabbed him by the throat before anyone could react. “And how do we know you’re not leading us into a trap?”
“Drake, let him go,” Lily said. “We don’t have time for this, and he was as surprised as we were. Leeno? If you have an idea how to get us out of here…” She gestured down the corridor. Leeno nodded, then ran off. Lily followed, and once again, the rest of us followed like a bunch of puppies after their owner.
We eventually came to an airlock that looked the same as the one we came in through. As we were all preparing our space suits, Pale Night suddenly stepped back. “My suit…”
Lily stopped, then looked horrified. “I… I must have dropped it back in the control room. I can’t…”
Pale Night steadied herself. “Go without me.”
“No,” Lily said, her tone brooking no argument. “We are not leaving anyone behind.” She paused, then nodded at Cailleach. “Remote bodies don’t count. The point is that you are coming with us.”
Pale Night shook her head. “You’re just wasting time arguing. You need to save as many people as you can.” She looked down at her feet. The veil obscured her face, of course, but her body language was clear. She wasn’t budging on this. “I will not have anyone else die because of me, mother. Especially not you.”
Lily just glared at her. Neither one of them was willing to back down.
I sighed. “This would be easy is Derek was here.”
Everyone turned to stare at me.
“What?” I said, defensive. “He could wrap Pale in a shield bubble, hold in the air. But none of us have… shields…” I trailed off.
We all slowly turned to Lily.
“Honored Mother,” Pale Night said, “does Derek Huntsman love you?”
Lily smiled. “Oh, very much so.”
Pale Night bowed. “Then, if you would be so kind…”
Lily cracked her neck, ready to shield her, but I grabbed her arm. “Wait. Do it for all of us.”
Lily cocked her head to the side. “Why? You all have your suits.”
“But we don’t know what the hanger will look like. Could be dangerous. Better safe than sorry.”
She looked at me for a second, then nodded slowly. “Of course. Everyone, gather in close.”
Twelve people—including one giant—huddled as close together as possible without stepping on each other’s toes. Cailleach, of course, stood off to the side, out of range and unconcerned. Zero looked confused, as best as I could tell with that expressionless mask, but Leeno was practically vibrating with glee.
Leeno hit a button, closing the airlock and leaving us in a small, windowless room. Cailleach was on the other side, and would be detonating her homunculus any second. Or maybe she’d try to fight the para off a bit first. Hopefully she was following Lily’s instructions and avoiding killing if possible.
“Leeno,” Lily said. “Which button will open the vacuum side of the airlock?”
Leeno pointed, but didn’t push it. “That one.”
“Good. Adam. On three, I need you to hit the airlock release.”
“Then one… two… three!”
Adam hit the button. A split second later, as the airlock began to open, Lily closed her eyes and pushed her hands out.
A shimmering globe of blue force enveloped us, leaking mist that faded in moments. It was exactly like the shields that Derek created, down to the color of the mist.
“Amazing,” Leeno said, grinning from ear to ear. “I can feel you singing in tune to him. What a marvelous ability you have.”
The airlock was opening, and some smoke was pouring in. Should there be smoke in a vacuum?
“You can’t keep this up forever, though,” Leeno said.
“Correct,” Lily said through gritted teeth. “So please, just let me concentrate.”
Leeno nodded, contrite, and didn’t say another word. The airlock was open enough now for the smoke to clear and give us a good view of the docks beyond.
It was chaos. A huge chunk of the bay was simply gone, like a massive mouth had taken a bite out of it. The doors were blasted apart like they were made of tinfoil, and I could see through the floor and ceiling to other decks.
Great gouts of flame burst forth from the floor and the walls—likely the result of cracked gas pipes. The beautiful murals were blackened and charred, mostly unrecognizable. I could see para running back and forth in their space suits, signaling at each other for tools or maybe for damaged pipes and sparking wires to be turned off.
No one was paying attention to twelve humans, even if they were in a glowing blue bubble.
Leeno looked around the dock in mute horror. He had likely never seen this level of destruction.
The rest of us, however, had. Most of the warlords had caused quite a bit worse. Thankfully there was no blood or obvious dead bodies, so even I didn’t really have any problem with it all. I elbowed Leeno in the gut. “Hey. You good?”
He started a little, but then nodded. He turned to Lily. “Do you have enough power?”
She grimaced. “My reservoir isn’t as deep as Derek’s, but I can get us to the ship.”
Eccretia blinked. “You mean the ship MC blew up?”
There was a pause.
“Shit,” the White Cat said. “I knew we were forgetting something.”
I glared at him. He never had anything useful to contribute. Instead I turned to Lily. “Can you get us to Earth?”
She frowned. “What? You mean… fall through the atmosphere?” She shook her head and I noticed her sweating. “No way. It would get too hot.”
“Most of you would survive,” Eccretia said, glancing at Adam. The three of us were the only ones without warlord-level buffs, and I could probably survive with my flight, if I angled my descent correctly.
“I don’t mean inside the shield,” Lily said. “I mean the shield would break, and then everyone would die.”
Everyone paused to let the implications of that sink in.
Adam snapped his fingers to wake everyone up again. “Hey, c’mon! We need ideas, people! Lily’s reservoir is going to run out soon, and the para might catch up with us eventually. Or these workers might take notice of us. Does anyone have any other powers that might be useful here?”
Everyone shook their heads.
But I had a thought. “I can fly.”
“Well yes, obviously…” Adam’s face cleared. “Meaning you can fly the globe. Any chance that fixes the atmospheric re-entry problem?”
“No,” I said. I pointed up at one of the docking cradles. “But I can get us there.”
The cradle in question held a small shuttle, about the same size as the one we had flown in on. I was pretty sure it was a different model, but with all the custom paint jobs, it was hard for me to be sure.
“Will that work?” Odin asked.
“No time,” Lily said still straining. Was her power already drained? Was she redlining it like Derek had done right before he fought Elizabeth? “Robyn, take us there.”
I nodded and flew straight up.
I wasn’t sure what I had been expecting. Maybe I had been hoping that I’d be able to extend my power to the entire globe and float us up.
Instead, I ended up plastered against the top of the globe, dragging the thing with me.
It was an embarrassing way to move, but I had the power to do it and more. I was at least as strong as the other Paladins now—except for Laura, of course—so moving two thousand plus pounds of weight for a few minutes wasn’t really all that difficult for me.
The cradle was only about a hundred feet up, and I landed us on the gantry or dock or whatever it was supposed to be called. I floated back down to the floor, wincing as I stretched my muscles. My power had handled the weight easily, but my body was another matter. Maybe I had been able to extend my power to the globe a little, because I was pretty sure pushing two thousand pounds onto my body should have turned me to mush.
Lily was breathing hard. “Pale, sweetie? I’m going to try to get a smaller shield around you now. Don’t move.”
“Ready,” Pale Night said.
Lily nodded, then her brow furrowed even further. A globe of blue energy appeared around Pale Night’s head a split second before the bigger one around all of us disappeared. There was a pop as all the captured air spread out in the vacuum.
Adam moved over to the ship and tried the door, then turned back and shook his head. No good. Was it locked?
Leeno pushed him aside gently and placed his gloved hand on the side of the ship. A moment later, I saw electricity crackling over his fingers, and then the door popped open to reveal a tiny airlock.
There was no way we would all fit in that. Red skies, Odin might not fit in it at all. On the way up, we had been forced to stick him in the cargo bay. The ships had a lot of space compared to our own shuttles, but that really wasn’t saying much.
Leeno grabbed Pale Night and shoved her unceremoniously inside, before using his powers again to close the door. A moment later it opened, empty.
The rest of us cycled through the airlock as fast as possible, though Odin had to sit in the cargo hold again. There was no air for him, but his suit would last for days.
Once we were all cycled through, Leeno took his helmet off, and the rest of us did the same. “Zero should be able to fly us out of here.” He nodded to her, and she walked over to the front of the craft, then took the controls. Leeno continued watching her, an odd look on his face.
Eccretia saw his look, and leaned in to whisper quietly. “How loyal is she?”
Leeno shook his head. “I have no idea. She’s Colorless, of course, so there’s no love lost for the elders, but they’re also the only ones who can reverse her condition. I feel like if she was going to turn on us, she would have done it already.”
I frowned. “What do you mean by Colorless?”
Leeno gave me an odd look, then sighed. “Of course, you don’t know. You see, when a criminal is considered low-risk—”
He was interrupted by the shuttle shaking hard enough to almost throw us all off our feet, and then shaking some more.
Zero turned around in her seat and started signing desperately. It wasn’t the kemo battle sign that she had used before.
Leeno winced. “The docking clamps have us locked in. We can’t take off.”
“So?” Adam said. “Just do your electric thing, unlock them.”
“I can’t do that from inside the shuttle,” Leeno said.
“Then go outside,” I said.
“Then I won’t be able to get back in. The doors won’t open unless the shuttle has landed.”
“What kind of stupid safety feature is that?”
Leeno rolled his tangerine-colored eyes. “It’s not a safety feature, at least not in that way. This is one of the old prison shuttles. They bought a bunch of them for cheap before we left home. The doors won’t open except in a docking cradle, so that criminals can’t hijack the shuttle and just land wherever they like. It’s a hardware thing, not software. I can’t override it.”
I looked around the small ship. Now that he mentioned it, I did see some signs of a ship designed to hold prisoners. Nothing so obvious as cages or manacles, but there were a number of sturdy metal handles—painted a rainbow of colors, of course—on the floor, where people could be chained. I also noticed that none of them were in reach of the controls.
I frowned. “But your shuttle didn’t have that problem.”
He shrugged. “That was a different model. Most of them aren’t prison shuttles.”
I threw up my hands. “Then why don’t we go find another one? One that wasn’t designed for transporting criminals?”
“I didn’t see any more shuttles out there, did you?”
“We don’t have time for this,” Adam said. “Does anyone have any powers that might help? Any kind of kinesis, super strength or… I don’t know, teleportation?” Everyone shook their heads. He cursed under his breath. “Just need five feet of teleportation. Is that too much to ask?”
Super strength… “What about the cargo bay? Does that stay locked, too?”
“Yes, sorry. I don’t think—”
The shuttle shook again, but this time it was from an explosion outside the ship.
“No time!” Adam said. “Zero, full power! Rip out of the clamps!”
Leeno recoiled. “What? No! That could damage the ship!”
Adam met his stare without flinching. “More damage than being caught in an explosion, or more damage than being caught by angry guards?”
Leeno blinked, then turned to Zero. “Full power.”
She nodded and started manipulating the controls. The ship shook again.
“Everyone, helmets on, just in case,” Lily said. “Pale, I’ll get ready to shield you if I have to.”
As everyone got ready, there was a long, tortured screech of metal. I could feel every atom of the ship straining against the clamps, like a living thing trying desperately to break free. And then…
And then we were thrown against one side of the ship as the clamps finally failed.
The shuttle wobbled a bit, but smoothed out, and in moments we were outside the mothership, heading down to Earth.
“How did we do?” Leeno asked, as he walked up next to Zero. I followed. She had her hands full, of course, so he had to look over the screens himself. “Grey skies… we lost three thrusters.”
“Can we still land?” I asked. “I doubt my power is enough to fly this whole ship.”
“Well, we’ll hit the ground, if that’s what you mean,” Leeno said. “No guarantees on a soft landing.”
“Head for the water.” I marked the west side of the Domina island. “We’ve got allies underwater who will help us. Plus, these suits have enough air to last us a while, if it comes to that.”
“What about your niece?”
I frowned. “Who?” I glanced behind me. “Oh, you mean Pale Night. She’s not—” I paused. Now probably wasn’t the time to get into the oddities of Lily’s relationship with the people of the city, and what that meant for me. “She should be fine. Hey, Pale!” She looked up. “You’ve got Mermaid lungs, right?”
She nodded. “As well as a few depth buffs.”
I turned back to Leeno. “See, she’s fine. She’d probably last longer underwater than the rest of us.”
He nodded. “Very well. We should still warn your people that we are coming.”
“Yeah, my guild might try to swat us out of the sky.”
Adam walked up. “Why didn’t they do that to the hive, or whatever it was?”
“A hive is not technological,” Leeno said. “No radio, no thermal signature. It’s basically a rock, and not even a shiny rock. I doubt anyone in your city noticed it until it was too late. Though perhaps this MC of yours managed to warn someone.”
I snapped my fingers. “That’s who we’ll call.”
Adam frowned. “Are you sure she’ll still have the same number? We have no idea what happened.”
“She’ll be monitoring it, if nothing else,” I said. “She knows it’s the first thing anyone would call to get in touch with her.” I gave the frequency to Zero, who plotted it in without question. If she was planning betrayal, she was doing an excellent job of hiding it.
A moment later, the radio crackled to life. “Hello? Robyn? Lily?”
“I’m here,” I said. I glanced back at Lily. She had been talking with the warlords, but she walked over when she heard MC’s voice. “We’re both here, with everyone else except for Cailleach. She detonated her homunculus to give us time to escape.”
“Speaking of which,” Leeno said quietly, “I have many questions—”
I silenced him with a wave.
“I’m sure she has her hands full down here,” MC said. “I’m in the Cathedral right now. Bring that shuttle down and we’ll talk. I’m sure the Servants will love to get their hands on para tech.”
I glanced at Leeno. If he had a problem with this plan, he didn’t show it. “Sounds good. It, uh, might be a hard landing…”
“Aim for the pond. It will be messy, but better than the alternative.”
I nodded. Despite what I had said to Leeno, I was much happier to know we’d be landing in the middle of the city instead of out in the Bay at the mercy of the Dagonites.
The White Cat strode up. “I would very much like to see what the para have as well. I can call some of my engineers, have them meet us there.”
MC chuckled sadly. “I’m afraid that they’ve already got their hands full.”
Adam cursed. “The hive.”
“Actually, that’s secondary,” MC said. “There was a more… immediate problem.”
Behind the Scenes (scene 331)
At the moment, Lily can only borrow one power at a time, though that will eventually change as her power grows and evolves. No matter how many powers she has, however, they will always pull from a single reservoir. Also remember that her reservoir is not influenced by the person she borrows the power from; Derek, for example, could have kept up the shield bubble she uses here for hours if not days.