Tag Archives: Zero

Scene 333 – Sororibus

SORORIBUS

ROBYN JOAN

We landed our stolen para shuttle in the center of the Cathedral, the main base of the Servants in Domina City. It was a bit annoying to get the shuttle door open, but once we did, we all piled out and took a moment to just appreciate where we were.

The Cathedral took up an entire block, a single massive skyscraper of glass and polished steel. There were a few arches and open-air tunnels through the structure which gave it a Renaissance décor, but they were far more decorative than practical.

The skyscraper itself, however, was just the perimeter of the block. The center of the building was a massive park, the largest in the city, surrounded on all sides by that single skyscraper, like a huge wall. The walls on the interior were not glass—except for a few strategic windows—but simple stucco and sheetrock covered in a profusion of vines. The vines bloomed with a rainbow’s worth of beautiful flowers, and the park itself was a beautiful grass field with some tall trees for shade.

We landed at the very center of the park, right next to a babbling fountain that served as the mouth of a small ornamental river. I tossed a quarter into the fountain without really thinking about it. The Servants cleared out the coins at the end of every day and used them to help keep the park functional.

Speaking of which, there were two Servants in white robes standing just a few yards away from the shuttle. They were clearly trying very hard not to jump straight towards dismantling the shuttle to see how it worked. Servants were tech geeks as a rule, and most of them were engineers of some type or another. They’d need to share this one with Necessarius, but I doubted that they would mind.

Both Servants bowed as we walked up. “Honored Lilith,” one of them, an ogre, said. “Honored Robyn Joan. Thank you for deciding to land here. Your sister is waiting for you inside, in one of our main server rooms.”

I frowned, then glanced at Lily. She had the same confused look on her face. I turned back to the Servants. “Why not just talk to us out here, where we can enjoy the park? That’s what we usually do.”

The other Servant, an angel, just smiled. “I think it’s best if you see for yourself.”

“All right,” I said. “Can the ambassadors come?”

“Actually, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Bahamut said.

I raised an eyebrow at him. He had barely said two words this entire time. I hadn’t met him before today, so I had no idea if this was normal for him. “Why do you say that?”

Zero signed something.

The White Cat nodded. He pared his nails as he spoke, as if the entire conversation bored him. “Exactly. We need to look into the hive. We should return to our cultures and prepare for the worst. At the very least, we’ll need to get our scientists prepared.”

“Actually, I meant that we should help Akiyama with the Malcatari,” Bahamut said. “We don’t know how many slipped into the city.”

I frowned. “That’s really where you want to be concentrating your effort right now?”

“Yes,” he said. There was an air of finality to it.

I shrugged. “Okay, whatever, but Lily and I are staying.” And Adam, of course, but that didn’t need saying.

“I will too,” Eccretia said. “I have some questions for MC, and I already called my engineers to meet us here. I want to coordinate their work with the Servants.”

Zero made a few signs with her fingers.

“Thank you,” Lily said. “We do appreciate it, I promise.” She turned to the others—Dracul, Bahamut, the White Cat, Pale Night, Zaphkiel, and Odin. “Thank you all for your help today. Please do not feel obligated to stay on my account.”

The warlords bowed deeply and left, one by one. Most of them probably had cars already on the way, ready to pick them up.

Lily turned back to the Servants. “Please, lead the way.”

Our much reduced group walked inside the Cathedral itself. It was a building with tall ceilings, white marble arches, and rounded edges. It looked like ancient Roman architecture married to a Mac, with plenty of computer interfaces and monitors in recessed panels here and there.

There were a few Servants of every culture and clan wandering the halls, but not many. They had better things to do than hang out here, far away from anyone who might need help. That meant the place was very empty, and our footsteps echoed off the walls.

It felt like a church, which was of course the point. The Servants were a religion, and they were absolutely shameless about their faith. Luckily, deifying a computer made them a bit more pragmatic than most religions. I had read a whole bunch of articles on how the Servants differed from normal religions, but the main point I cared about was that they hadn’t tried to sanctify me or Lily. The last thing I needed was to be worshiped by a bunch of geeks who thought my sister was a goddess.

The Servants led us to a large corner room, big enough to hold an entire religious mass. I wasn’t sure if it had been meant for any specific use originally, but now there was a huge bunch of devices and wires in one corner, being fussed over by Servants making sure everything was set up right. Extension cords snaked across the floor in every direction, and I spotted at least a dozen computer towers, all connected to each other through that spiderweb of tangled cables.

At the front of this mess was a large, old chair, a comfortable leather lounger. Many of the cables and wires terminated in the seat, like a spider at the center of its web. I couldn’t see where they were supposed to connect, because there was a woman sitting there. The metaphorical spider.

She was about my age, so twenty years old, maybe twenty-five at most. She had lightly tanned skin, a slender build, and was wrapped in nothing but a white shawl that emphasized her modest curves. She had red hair like mine, but cut short like Lily’s. As we got closer, she looked up and I saw her red eyes. The shape of her face seemed familiar, but I couldn’t figure out where from. Was she another Servant? Had I met her somewhere before?

“Lily,” the woman said with a smile. “Robyn. You both came. Thank you so much.”

We stopped a few feet away from the chair. “Uh,” I said eloquently.

“You—” Lily started, then stopped. She looked like she had been hit in the face with a fence post.

“You sound like MC,” Adam said. I glared at him, but he didn’t seem to care. Always the blunt one.

The woman in the chair smiled. “That’s because I am MC.”

I scowled. Anger brought me back to my senses nice and quick. “I’m not interested in games.” I turned to the Servants who had escorted us in. “Who is this? What is the meaning of all this?”

“This is the Lady Domina,” the angel said calmly, trying and failing to hide a smile.

“Surprise!” the ogre said, then laughed.

I glared at them, then turned back to the woman. “Even if MC was working on an android body—”

“Gynoid,” the woman said.

I frowned. “What?”

“The word ‘android’ means ‘man-like.’ While the word has been used in a gender-neutral context for decades now—and it’s quite possible it was intended to be gender-neutral even when the Greeks first used the word androdes—it is still more accurate to use the word ‘gynoid’ to refer to female life-like robots.”

We all stared. She just smiled.

“Red skies,” I said. “It is you.”

MC laughed and stepped off the chair. She gave me a big hug, but I was too distracted to hug her back. She was… warm, and soft, everything she had never been before, and yet somehow she reminded me of every time I had ever stayed up late talking to her on the phone.

I pushed her away. “Wait a second, I have questions. How—” I frowned. “Why do you have wires—” I looked closer. “You have wires plugged into you.”

She was where all the wires terminated. Dozens went through holes in the back of her shirt, presumably to connect to her spine, but there were others that plugged into the back of her skull, a few on her legs, and a handful on her arms. She had so many wires connected to her body that it was hard for her to move, but she still managed it.

“MC,” Lily said, her voice quiet and worried. “What is this?”

MC smiled at her. God, it was weird to be able to say that. “Blame Silk. Remember when she said she gave me a power, and we couldn’t figure out what it was?” She held out her arms, showing off her body. “Ta-da.”

Robyn and I looked at each other.

“You’re a morpher,” Lily said. “Like Isaac and Artemis.”

“But more than either of them,” I said. “They can shape their skin and muscles, but this…”

MC rolled her eyes. “Well, apparently Silk cheated more than a bit. The process would have been super slow, normally. But she forced me to morph straight to a human body so that I’d be out of the way with the para.”

“But you did intervene with the para,” Adam said.

MC shook her head. “I wasn’t able to prevent their raids, or them from launching the hives. Though admittedly, those were both longshots anyway. The bigger problem is that I could have destroyed the mothership. There are quite a few flaws in its basic structure that I was able to identify.”

“Then tell us now,” Adam said. “We can finish this stupid war in five minutes.”

She shook her head. “No. I’ve had a lot of time to think. Their leaders are doing terrible things, that is true, but there are thousands of innocent people on that ship. I’m not going to help you commit genocide.”

I grunted. “That sounds like something Silk would say.” I was one of the few people who saw her on a regular basis, due to her help with my therapy. She wasn’t doing it herself any more, but she popped in every once in a while to make sure the doctor I had gotten was good.

MC nodded. “I believe that was the lesson she was trying to teach.”

“My Lady Domina,” Eccretia said, bowing her head deeply. I had almost forgotten she was here. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you face to face.”

MC smiled. “Likewise, Honored Paragon.”

“I do, however, have some questions. For example…” She waved her hand vaguely at MC’s body. “What is the purpose of the cyborg look? As I understand the morphing power, morphing non-organic material is impossible except for specific power variants.”

She shrugged. “I don’t know how it all works. All I know is that I was fully human, and then I slowly started morphing back. Starting with this.” She held up her arm and unplugged one of the cables, revealing an old USB port. I got the feeling that most cybernetic implants didn’t look like that. She plugged the cable back in. “I was about halfway through morphing back with the help of the Servants when I heard what you guys were doing. I figured you might need help.”

Zero tapped Lily on the shoulder. We both turned to see her signing a question.

“This is our sister, MC,” I said. “She acts as the communications controller for most of the city. She went missing a little while ago, but she’s back now.”

I had hoped that would be enough to assuage her curiosity, but it wasn’t. Somehow, that blank white mask managed to look confused, and she signed a few more questions. They almost came too fast to understand, so I had to think for a second to sort out what she said.

Lily answered first. “She’s not a cyborg. Not a traditional one, anyway.” She glanced at me. How to explain this? “You know those powers we have?”

Zero nodded emphatically. She was getting better at hiding it, but she still jumped any time anyone used a power around her. She definitely still remembered them.

“Well, MC got one called ‘morphing.’ It let her change from her natural shape into a human one. Right now, she reverted, just a little bit, so that she can use computers in the way that she’s used to.”

That mask glanced between the three of us, as if she was looking at us each in confusion. Could she even see through that thing? I had never asked. She made another sign.

MC chuckled. “Well, I suppose technically, but calling me a computer is like calling Robyn an ape.”

Zero stopped signing. She stood stock still.

“Is something wrong?” Lily asked, putting a hand on Zero’s shoulder.

Zero made a few quick signs.

I frowned. That wasn’t a normal kemo word. “Grey… mind? Is she a greymind?” I glanced at Lily, but she just shrugged. “I don’t know. What’s a greymind?”

“I saw references to this in the para network,” MC said. “I didn’t have time to follow through, though.” Her eyes went distant. “One second, I copied most of the archive, let me look for it.”

Zero’s hand signals turned frantic.

“Wait wait, slow down,” I said. “So she’s a… greymind. Is that your word for AI?” Zero cocked her head at me. “Never mind. Let’s say you’re right. What does that mean? What’s the problem?”

She made a few quick signs.

Lily frowned. “We gave… a greymind… a body.” Now it was her turn to cock her head. “Okay… sure. Maybe we did. Sort of. So what’s the problem?”

She started signing again, too fast for me to follow. “Um, can you slow down…”

“I don’t think that’s kemo battle sign any more,” Lily said. She was frowning, but still trying to watch Zero’s fingers.

“I think it’s Colorless sign language,” MC said. “It’s in the archive, but I got rid of all the pictures, so I really don’t think I’ll be able to…”

Zero stopped signing, somehow giving off a sense of exasperation. She shook her head, then held up her hand.

In half a second, the hand had folded back and become part of the arm, revealing a long gun barrel that hummed with energy.

It was pointed straight at MC.

Before I could do much more than cry out in alarm, two Servants stepped out in front of MC. A split second after that, Lily stepped right in front of the gun, letting it press against her breast without fear.

Lily was understandable—she was most of the ways invincible, after all—but I was impressed with the Servants and their quick response. They had always said that they would give their lives to defend MC, but they had never needed to prove it before.

“Zero,” Lily said curtly. “Explain yourself.”

Zero used her free hand to make some signs, this time using the kemo battle cant again.

“Why?” I demanded. “What’s wrong with a greymind with a body?”

Zero didn’t sign anything. She tried to poke the gun past Lily, but Lily just moved with it.

“Oh dear,” MC said.

I looked back. Her eyes were clear again. “What? Did you just notice the gun?”

“No, I—” She frowned. “What gun?” She looked past her Servants, then yelped. “Oh! Gun!” She held her hand to her chest, as if to contain a rapidly beating heart. “She—I—oh dear. This just gets worse and worse.”

I glanced between Zero and MC. “Lily can survive that shot, right?”

MC winced. “Probably. Depends on the ammo. But… let’s just say that this is going to be representative of the typical para response to my existence. Reverting back to a computer fully will help, but won’t get rid of it entirely.”

“Leeno doesn’t seem to mind,” I said.

MC rolled her eyes. “Leeno’s not here.”

I frowned. “What?” I looked around. “Where’d he go?”

“He never got off the shuttle,” MC said. Then she frowned. “Wait, a Servant with a camera is in the shuttle right now… he’s not there. That’s odd, I didn’t see him leave.”

Adam—holding a gun on Zero—gave me a look. “He got on the ship, right?”

I nodded. “Definitely.”

“I remember him getting on the ship, too,” Eccretia said.

Zero looked between all of us, as if trying to figure out if it was a trick, before she let her gun fold away and reassemble back into a hand. She then made a few quick signs and shook her head.

“So everyone saw him on the ship,” Eccretia said. “And then he just… disappeared? How does that make any sense?”

“He technically has all the powers,” MC said. “He could have teleported.”

I stared at her. “How do you figure that? I’ve only seen him use electricity.”

She shook her head. “He’s tapping into the source of the powers directly, whatever that is. Basically, we all have one gun each, but he’s an engineer. He can make whatever he wants.”

“…all right,” I said slowly. “I think I follow. But even assuming that’s right, let me extend the metaphor a bit and say that he still needs time to assemble those new powers. Or figure out how to use them or whatever. That’s why he’s only been using electricity.”

MC nodded. “Fair.”

“So I doubt he figured out how to teleport sometime between getting on the ship and landing.”

“Maybe he was hiding it.”

Eccretia shook her head. “No, a teleporter would have been very useful on the mothership. He could have saved us some time and effort.”

“We made it work,” Lily said. She looked a little embarrassed by something, but I couldn’t imagine what. “Maybe he just… forgot he could teleport? Especially if he has all the powers, I imagine that’s a lot to keep track of.”

“Okay, fine, let’s pretend he can teleport,” I said. “Then why now? Why would he just randomly disappear without a word? He even left Zero behind.” She started to sign something about how she didn’t mind, but I waved her off. “I mean you’ve been very helpful to him. Leaving you behind wouldn’t make sense.”

She thought for a moment, then nodded.

MC sighed and rubbed her hair back. Something about it shocked me for being so… normal. She had only been human for a week. How was she so used to it already? “Great. So in addition to the war with the para, we’ve lost their ambassador—one of the only people in the system who might have been able to stop this thing—and we’ve still got the Malcatari running around.”

“I’m sure Bahamut and the kensei will have them contained shortly,” Eccretia said.

Those Malcatari, sure,” MC said. “But Akane is sure that there are more, and Elizabeth herself escaped. She can always attack again, and next time won’t be so easy.”

“Won’t we be better prepared?” I asked.

“Yes, but so will she,” Eccretia said. “She’ll fight smarter. Did you look over the report? All she did this time was send some troops to hassle a market. High body count, but in the grand scheme of things, not very important. What happens if she decides to attack one of the space cannons? Or one of the industrial sectors? And let’s not forget that she’s immortal. She’s going to get lucky eventually.”

MC nodded solemnly. “We’ll need an organization dedicated to fighting her. Something that will last. I’m sure Derek and Akane will be happy to help with that.”

“Aren’t you technically immortal?” I asked.

MC shrugged. “Maybe? It’s too early to say. Isaac thinks a few of the warlords might be immortal, but he hasn’t been able to confirm it. Either way, there’s a difference between ‘can’t die of old age’ and ‘can’t die, period.’ We’re all going to die sooner or later. Elizabeth, not so much.”

I closed my eyes. “This is a nightmare. A war on two fronts, with no end in sight.”

MC sat back down in her chair, careful to keep from tangling her wires. “Speaking of that war, somebody needs to look into that little present that the para dropped on our door.”

“I’ll get on it,” I said.

MC smiled. “Actually, I think someone else already called dibs.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 333)

Note that while originally MC was looking through the computers on the shuttle Leeno first flew down, now she has the Servants helping her hack into the new shuttle. Hence why she hasn’t finished downloading everything yet.

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Scene 331 – Proditione

PRODITIONE

ROBYN JOAN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone glanced at Leeno. He nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That most certainly was not his to promise.”

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

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

Leeno narrowed his eyes. “What deal?”

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

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

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

“Lie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zan nodded. “Sixteen.”

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

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

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

“Several,” she said. “Your point?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Explain. Now,” Adam said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We did what we must,” Li-Po said.

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

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

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

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

Zan frowned. “Why would you think that?”

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

I frowned. “Okay, what the hell—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stared at him. “They’ll what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I grinned. “MC! You’re finally back!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw Leeno’s eyes go wide.

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

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

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

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

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

“MC, which way?” I asked.

Silence.

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

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

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

Eccretia scowled. “Bloody homunculus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pale Night steadied herself. “Go without me.”

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

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

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

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

Everyone turned to stare at me.

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

We all slowly turned to Lily.

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

Lily smiled. “Oh, very much so.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam nodded.

“Then one… two… three!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pause.

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone paused to let the implications of that sink in.

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

Everyone shook their heads.

But I had a thought. “I can fly.”

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

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

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

“Will that work?” Odin asked.

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

I nodded and flew straight up.

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready,” Pale Night said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then go outside,” I said.

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

“What kind of stupid safety feature is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sorry. I don’t think—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about your niece?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I silenced him with a wave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam cursed. “The hive.”

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 331)

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

Scene 326 – Eversio

LEENO

EVERSIO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The moon-woman smiled. “Perhaps.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How fast are yours?” Martinez asked.

“Just slightly slower,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

“…yes,” Butler said after a moment.

“And the Gainsborough are…”

“You mean the gray ones?”

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

“Neutral ships,” Medina said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone looked at Martinez.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing immediate,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Speak, man,” Butler said.

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

Oh.

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 326)

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

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

Scene 324 – Occurrens

OCCURRENS

LAURA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, we had our own representatives.

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

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

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

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

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

No one spoke.

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

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

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

Most of the representatives perked up at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked. “What?”

“That thing you’re doing—stop it.”

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

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

I stopped smiling.

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

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

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

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

And there was the answer.

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

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

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

Grain shut his mouth, and I nodded in thanks.

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

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

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

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

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

Somehow that felt more disturbing than the alternative.

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

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

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

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

“We don’t,” Leeno said helpfully.

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

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

Everyone turned to him. I just smirked.

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

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

Everyone slowly turned back to Leeno.

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

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

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

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

Maeve shivered, though I doubt anyone else noticed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Including wiping out humanity?” Park said bluntly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that a problem?”

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

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

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

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

“We can do both,” Butler said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deafening silence greeted my proclamation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doors burst open.

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

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

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

It was Ling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He rolled his eyes. “Who knows.”

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

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

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

“But you did get the invitation, right?”

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

I blinked. “What?”

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

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

“The real one?” I asked.

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

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

“It’s on Mars,” Súileabháin said.

“Fourth planet in the system,” I added.

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

Everyone glared at Leeno.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When was this?” I asked.

“Ten minutes ago,” Ling said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled.

Behind the scenes (scene 324)

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

Scene 319 – Solum

SOLUM

I remembered going to sleep

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

Because I always remembered the time I spent asleep.

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

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

Free to never, never go to sleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next time, years.

Then hours.

And then, it was always there.

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

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

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

I remembered the day the ship had to stop.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps.

Perhaps not.

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

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

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

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

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

The elder spoke. I could not understand.

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

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

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

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

I breathed, and raised my right hand.

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

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

“Yes,” the elder said patiently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smiled as well. “Yes, Leeno.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I paused. “No, Leeno.”

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

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

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

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

“You have still not asked the question.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded slowly. “Yes, elder.”

“Do you know who I am?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lo-Pi sniffed. “Impossible.”

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

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

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

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

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

“This is a mistake,” he warned.

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

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

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

“If this is a trick…” Lo-Pi began.

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

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

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

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

“Go behind their backs, you mean.”

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

“Then why was everyone awoken?”

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “Very well. But why me?”

Leeno smiled. “Do you believe in destiny?”

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

“Something like that,” I said.

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

“And what if I can’t?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, never.”

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

“No.”

“Good. Put it on.”

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

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

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

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

I nodded. “Thank you, Leeno.”

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

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

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

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

She shrugged.

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

Zero nodded.

“Good. Launch.”

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

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

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

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

Wait. What was that?

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

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

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

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

Or maybe they would kill me.

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

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

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

Zero jumped in her seat and glanced around.

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

She nodded. No shame, though, so… oh.

“How long was I out?”

She made a sign.

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

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

Behind the Scenes (scene 319)

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

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

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