The Mad Seeder: Finale

Raiding the Nest

It was no trouble getting under Proplay’s atmosphere.  They were afforded all the same privacies as other guests and residents outdoors.  Security systems were concentrated on individual buildings and varied with the affluence of the owner.  Everyone but Dana was shocked by the number of private guards posted at each doorstep.  Some buildings had two or three watchmen seated at the top of thin towers that had big steel-rimmed binoculars built into their edges.

Much of the architecture fell into two groups: buildings reminiscent of medieval castles that had been plated in dark metal and buildings that simply looked like giant safes with doors thick as ship hulls.  All of the vehicles flying about had dark tinted windows.  Even the people in the streets on their bicycles had dark visors on their helmets.  Someone who needed to ask directions may have been stuck on a street corner for days desperately trying to catch an exposed eye.  Their efforts would have been further complicated by the lack of signage; the streets did not have names, at least not ones that were public information.

“Lots of restaurants here are invite only,” Dana commented as Buck slowly flew them over the neighborhood closest to Perseus’ compound.

“And they can stay in business that way?” Natalie asked.

“Some of them are profitable with only five or six regular customers.  I’ve only eaten on this rock a handful of times because most of them aren’t interested in publicity.  When they are it’s just to add to the air of exclusivity.”

“So if we turned one of these places upside down and cracked it like an egg what kind of secrets would come pouring out?” Shay asked.

“Every kind there is,” Dana said.  “Sometimes a rock’s entire economy is run surreptitiously through one corporation here.  So you could get something like that or maybe you’d just get a pile of prostitutes who specialize in the kinky stuff.”

“What are we going to get?” Buck asked.

“A mess,” Natalie sighed.  She looked out the window as Buck slowed the craft.  They’d moved out of the neighborhood and into a grassy area with scattered trees and dirt roads.  Buck left the craft hovering behind a tree so they could observe the compound in the distance.  “Is that the one we have to crack open?” Natalie asked as her eyes took in the Greek-pottery pillars of the imposing structure.

“According to the data I found,” Buck confirmed.  “I don’t know if Perseus is here but I’m pretty sure the pearl is.”

“I think he’s here,” Dana said.  “Look, there’s some kind of gathering going on and I’ll bet he’s the life of the party.”  There was a variety of vehicles parked on a stone landing strip next to the building.  Some of them were dark generic in-atmosphere vehicles clearly built on Proplay.  The others came in an assortment of sizes, colors, and functions: there were baby blue and dull red boats with enough seating for families of ten.  A couple looked more rugged and space friendly.  As they watched another one, a beige craft with the mouth and finger prints of children smeared on the lower half of its windows, arrived and landed on the stone.  Six different doors popped open and its occupants poured out like crickets from a cramped jar.  The two adults corralled their seven children as best they could but the wife had trouble keeping up as she looked ready to deliver the eighth at any moment.  They were all mildly dressed, not their Sunday best but perfect for pseudo-casual family photos.

“He looks like me,” Natalie noticed and pointed at the man.  They did have the same jawline.  The same hair color.  He wore glasses as well, in a similar style no less.  Natalie’s half-brother, or perhaps three-quarters brother, grabbed a bottle of wine from the front seat of their boat and urged his pack of Knarkids to the opulent front doors.

“There aren’t any guards,” Shay noticed.

“He’s talking to a security camera,” Dana said.  He watched the man wave at the small device.  He urged his children to wave as well.  The man placed his hand on an electronic pad adjacent to the door.  There was a dull blue glow underneath his palm and then the door opened on its own.  The swarm of children pushed their way inside and once they were all in the wife shut the door behind them.

“I think that’s a genetic scanner,” Buck said of the device next to the door.  “He thinks he doesn’t need guards as long as the only people who come in share a family resemblance on a microscopic level.”

“Luckily we have some of his code on hand,” Dana said.   They all looked at Natalie.

“You want me to go up there?” she said with a gulp.  Her anger and pluck drained out of her once she imagined her feet actually hitting the ground.  “What would I say to the camera?  I don’t even know what I’d say…”

“Relax,” Dana said.  “I’ve already got a plan.  We need a gift though.”  He crawled out of the front seat and into the back with Natalie and Shay.  He rooted around in the supplies they’d taken from Bucks’ parents’ fridge and eventually pulled out a green bottle of wine.

“I was going to drink that,” Shay complained.

“You might get to.  It’ll have to be a victory toast though.  Now… the camera is going to see you Natalie so you shouldn’t look like you’re wearing your armor.  It’s not really party attire.”  They dug one of Shay’s shirts out of her bag and helped Natalie drape it over her shoulders in such a way that it resembled a thin jacket.  From there they prepared for battle.  Shay donned her quiver and arrow-filled ankle guards.  Buck switched his driving gloves for his fighting gauntlets.  Dana loaded an electricity pipe into his sword.  Everyone except Natalie pulled their cloth helmet over their head.

The eyes behind the front door’s camera watched as a young girl entered the frame.  She looked innocent enough with her goofy smile and glasses.  Another face came into focus next to her, the one that put the camera there in the first place.  Perseus Knarkid stared into the lens with Natalie nervously awaiting the result of the staring contest just two feet away.

“This is my daughter Natalie,” Perseus told the camera.  A hand reached up and scratched the side of his eyepatch nonchalantly.  “She brought a lovely bottle of wine and we need to get it chilled immediately.”  Natalie put on her best fake smile, held up the bottle for the camera to inspect, and wiggled it with an impression of anticipation.

They waited tensely for any kind of response.  Shay was leaned up against the wall underneath the camera.  She held the base of the punching bag at an angle so its posture looked a little more natural.  Dana was crouched behind it providing convincing touches like scratching the side of its face.  Buck was crouched beneath Natalie, quickly typing the Perseus punching bag’s words into the data pad.  He clicked a few facial modifiers to make it appear impatient.  He’d never considered using them as tools for infiltration; he’d only stuffed it in the boat back at the dojo as a reminder of all the hard work he put into them.  Plus he had known that wherever he was he would want to punch Perseus Knarkid from time to time.

The camera panned gently toward the front door.  Dana and Shay wobbled the punching bag back and forth to make it look like it was walking.  Buck crawled under the tangle of bodies and poked Natalie in the shin.  She looked down and he pointed at the hand scanner emphatically.  She walked up to it and did her best not to look back at the wobbling facsimile of her father.  She placed her hand on the scanner as if she expected to be burned.  Instead it glowed and emitted a gentle sound.  The door clicked open and the security camera panned back to its original angle.

“Go,” Dana muttered.  The group filed in one by one, still trying to keep a low profile.  Once they were all in Shay shut the door gently behind them and stood up.  Her back cracked three times and it echoed in the massive welcome hall.

“Sorry,” she whispered to soothe the terrified stares.  They heard the clamor of the party off to the left and silently decided to investigate the rest of the compound first.  Buck had the punching bag lead the way.  It rolled down each hallway on its tiny wheels, the occasional idling glance making it appear to admire its likeness’ decorating skills.  Still thinking that the farcoward apple couldn’t fall far from the tree, they had to assume that each room could have been rigged with some sort of trap.

The punching bag did not set any off though.  It led them dutifully through the obscenely expensive chambers one by one.  In the third room they caught sight of their first tadpole robot milling about near the ceiling.  The machine ignored them completely.

“What is that?” Shay asked.  “A security drone?”

“I don’t think so,” Buck said.  “With a tail like that… I think it’s just… decorative?”  Two more tadpoles entered the room and swam around the first one.  Together they seemed to play like otters for a bit before flying off again.

They checked every door they passed by.  None of them seemed locked and most of them appeared to be guest bedrooms in various styles.  Dana spotted the work of several famous artists hanging from the walls or sitting, sculpted, atop stands in the hallways.  He quietly rattled off each individual’s name and the average price of their work.

“Zenaya Chaucette… 500 loaves.”

“Markus M. Parkinter… 2,000 loaves.”

“Largo Buckshot… I don’t even know.  He said he retired fifteen years ago but that thing’s dated two years ago.”  Buck tried to ignore the information.  If he had complied with Perseus’ initial request one of his punching bags might have been in there somewhere.  He would’ve had them shipping out to IML gyms all over the Collective.  He would’ve brought an entourage of models and fitness celebrities back to his parents’ hollow in Palawan instead of his three depressing new friends and one last punching bag like a refugee from a country bombed to ash.

When they had cleared the upper right levels without finding anything useful Shay hoisted the punching bag off the ground and carried it down the stairs gently so they could look in the basement.  When she set it down with a grunt and looked up she saw a human child staring up at her with a half-eaten chocolate croissant in his little hand.  He looked about six.  Shay stared in horror as if he had blood smeared across his lips and held a severed ear instead of a pastry.  The others came up behind her and froze when the child glanced at them.

“You’re a big auntie,” the little boy said.  He took a few steps back and then held up two of his fingers and squinted one of his eyes.  He adjusted the difference between his fingers and then notched them down the length of Shay.  “You’re seven feet tall,” he said.

“That’s a neat little trick,” Natalie said, carefully approaching the Knarkid.  She did her best not to spook him.  “Where did you learn that?”

“At school,” the boy said.  “Are you my sister or my auntie?”

“I’m…” Natalie paused.  She didn’t even have to lie.  “I’m your sister,” she said.

“Why do you have a shield?” he asked.

“I just get scared sometimes, so I like having it around,” Natalie said.  “Do you want to touch it?”

“My mom says I’m not supposed to touch weapons yet.”

“Oh it’s just a shield.  It’s not a weapon.  Go on.”  She held the edge of it out to him.  He waddled forward and ran his stubby pink fingers along the edge.

“Sister Natty, we‘ve still got to find the thing,” Dana said through clenched teeth.  He was getting nervous out in the open.

“Don’t be a grouch,” Natalie scolded him.

“Yeah,” Shay added with a stupid smile.

“This shield is pretty cool huh?” Natalie said when she turned back to the boy.

“Mhmm,” the boy said.

“I’ll tell you what.  If you don’t tell anybody we’re here I won’t tell anybody you touched the shield and maybe I’ll let you hold it later.  We’re trying to stay hidden so we can surprise everybody at the end of the party.  Can you keep our secret?”  The little boy smiled and put his finger over his lips.  “Good.  Now run on back to the party and we’ll see you later.”  The boy obeyed and was quickly gone from sight.

“That was brilliant,” Buck complimented.

“I’ve had plenty of practice,” Natalie said.  She couldn’t help but remember that she’d been practicing not with strangers all those years, but with siblings.

In the basement they found a much drearier atmosphere and a lack of decoration.  The walls were gray stone and some of the passages were quite narrow.  It seemed the perfect place to lock away the pearl, but all they found at first was storage.  It was almost like a normal home, even if the average piece of dusty junk was suitable for most fine auction houses.

They eventually found one locked door with a small window on it.  They crowded around to get a good look.  What they saw was a shirtless sweating Shem struggling to roll a huge metal ball up an artificial hill.  They watched, bewildered, until the ball settled into the divot.  It popped into the air and they all flinched.  When it struck the back wall Shem shouted at it as if it were a large slobbery dog that couldn’t help but moisten the furniture.  He started rolling it again.

“It’s the farcoward,” Shay said.  “What’s he doing?”

“It looks like he’s being held prisoner,” Dana said.  “He must’ve really pissed Daddy off.”

“We’re not going to wind up down here are we?” Natalie asked.

“We should go in there and give him a thrashing,” Buck suggested.

“There’s no sense in risking some alarm just to blacken his eyes,” Dana said.  “We’re here to get the pearl.”

“It’s not down here,” Shay said and started walking back to the stairs.  “Let’s hurry.  Either it’s in the other upper wing or Perseus is polishing it in his lap like a bowling ball.”

They ascended the basement stairs again, this time peeking their heads out to make sure no more children were tumbling through.  Shay hoisted the punching bag over her shoulder and they climbed another set of stairs.  Now they could hear the ruckus of the party directly below them.  Someone popped a cork and all the voices rose in a wave.  The melodies of a small band came through the floor after that: a piano, a fiddle, and a clarinet.  It was the kind of music parents have to clap for at school concerts.

They came to a small cardboard sign held up by a string and two lamps on each wall.  No children past this sign; the party is downstairs! It read.  The message was ringed by marker drawings of several balloons blowing in the wind.  Buck drove the punching bag straight through it like a marathoner winning his race.

In the next chamber the décor became overgrown with greens and yellows.  The hall was extremely wide and the walls on either side, from top to bottom, were aquarium glass.  Behind the glass were some of the most colorful freshwater fish to ever exist.  In the old days of the Earth saltwater fish hogged much of the rainbow, but since terraforming had given all the creatures of the Earth a biodiversity growth spurt fresh water was just as impressive.  Emerald catfish ran their barbels along the smooth white and black stones at the bottom.  Blue carp with white speckles milled around in lazy schools.  A group of thousands of minnows, each no bigger than the end of a cotton swab, flashed their golden scales whenever they turned.  Fleshy aquatic plants grew from the bottom and up the entire length of the wall.

Perseus’ tadpole robots swam around in the tanks as well, blending in with the organic creatures.  When they grew bored of the water they silently exited the tanks, ran themselves through a towel-ring embedded in the wall, and then swam in the air around the room.  As the group moved forward the robots became so numerous that you could barely see the ceiling in places.  Natalie was about to mention how unsettling they were when their attention was drawn to the main fixtures of the hallway.

Ten stone pedestals stood in five rows of two.  The first two pedestals had blank plaques and nothing occupying them yet, but the others were filled with taxidermy monsters.  They passed the newly installed pastoral ice leopard.  Buck was short enough to tilt his head under its jaw and look up through the two holes for its fangs.  Shay ran her hand along the snout of the bearded manrilla, an ape taller than her with hands that could easily crush a horse’s skull.  Its purple spotted face was contorted into a permanent snarl.

“Are these real?” Natalie asked as she stared into the glass, but still quite piercing, eyes of the murderous mud tiger.

“Yes,” Dana said.  “I think Perseus fancies himself a monster slayer as well.”

Once they had passed the labors of Perseus Knarkid they reached the second half of the massive hall.  The aquarium walls continued all the way to the end and curved in to connect the massive tank.  In rows very similar to the monsters stood marble statues of gods and goddesses from varying mythologies.  The marble did not have the smooth skin tone of the classical Greek statues; it swirled with dark spots and stripes like the storms on the surface of a gas giant.  The eyes of each statue, even the ones who were supposedly the embodiments of virtues like love and compassion, stared in dark judgment.  You should not be among us, they seemed to say.  You are but ants that have crawled under our gates.  Dana touched the tip of a trident held by one of the statues; it was unnecessarily sharp.

“So which one of these is my great grandfather?” Natalie asked with a bitter smirk.

“What do you think you’re the goddess of?” Shay asked, looking at Natalie through the bowed legs of Apollo.

“Revenge,” Natalie said and smiled at the Amazon more earnestly.

“You two, look at this,” Dana said.

They all approached the curved wall of glass at the end of the hall.  Nestled at the bottom of the aquarium, ringed in a pattern of stones, was a giant blue-lipped clam.

“You don’t think that…” Shay started.

“I do,” Dana said.  “This guy thinks his life’s an epic poem.  He’s got the farcoward doing Sisyphean penance in the underworld of his mansion and we just passed his equivalents of the Lernean hydra and the Nemean lion.  Putting a magical gem in a safe is too mundane for him, so he put the pearl in there.”

“How do we get it out?” Buck asked.  “If that’s a machine it might electrocute anybody who touches it or something like that.”

“No…” Dana said. He mulled over the tank and ran his hands across the glass.  “We didn’t see any guards.  We didn’t set off any alarms.  He thinks that his direct protection is all the treasures around here need.  We just have to go in and get it.  Shay, give me a boost.”  Dana removed his cloth helmet, his boots, his belt, and his weapons.  The Amazon knelt down and held out her hands for him to step on.  She boosted him up to the opening between the top of the aquarium and the ceiling and he rolled into the water.  Shay removed some of her armor as well, jumped, grabbed the glass lip, and squeezed past the ceiling.  She’d been aware how loud an Amazon splash could be ever since her first rope-swing over a lake, so she lowered herself carefully into the water.

She turned out to be a very graceful swimmer, especially compared to Dana who looked like a forcibly submerged bulldog.  She dove to the bottom and wrapped her arms around the massive clam.  It would not budge.  She pulled for forty-five seconds straight before resurfacing for air.  When she got back to the bottom she saw Dana trying to pry its lips open with his bare hands.  Angry bubbles streamed from his nose and the sides of his mouth, some getting caught in his thick eyebrows.  When his hands slipped he kicked at the clam.  It did not seem disturbed.  He surfaced for air.  When he got back he found Shay shoving a flat arrow she had plucked from her shin guard into the clam’s seam.  He flailed until he was behind her and helped her push it in as best he could.  When it looked far enough in Shay bent the tiny switch at the end of the shaft and the airbag at the tip of the nonlethal arrow activated.  The clam popped open.

Out poured a wave of frolicking illusions.  The sounds of the pearl filled the water and the air.  Its light seemed to erase the glass separating the four of them and create a force field charged with positive emotions.  Seals from the pearl’s favorite nature programs swam around Dana and Shay, smiling at them strangely with the faces of news anchors.  Projections of the birds of paradise from Lorie’s golf course swam through the glass and flew to perch on Buck’s shoulders.

The orb rose out of the arms of the porcelain Venus statuette that had held it inside the clam.  It hung perfectly in the middle of the tank and spun on its own, overjoyed at the reunion.  Perseus’ tadpoles swam away from it skittishly; it was the only thing they’d ever reacted negatively to.

Shay pulled the pearl into a hug and was delighted when it spun her large body playfully in the water.  She reached out and grabbed Dana, who had been enjoying the moment just fine without the swinging but accepted her hand anyway.  Somehow the tiny device effortlessly swung them through the tank and pulled them to the surface.

Dana and Shay crawled out of the tank and shook as much of the water from their clothes as they could.  The pearl started to sing a strange melody none of them had heard before.

“I think it composed that on its own,” Buck said as he approached them.  Shay held the pearl low enough for Buck to slide his hands across its surface.

“Can you turn the volume down?” Dana asked him.  “We don’t want to disrupt the festivities.”

“Oh, didn’t you know you were invited?” a female voice asked slyly.  They spun around to see Emzara standing behind Natalie with her sword to the girl’s throat.  A second figure, this one male, stepped out from behind Dionysus.  He had a bow and arrow trained on them.  All at once the pearl locked itself down.  The illusions vanished.  The singing stopped.  Reality returned like a hangover.  The pearl turned a lifeless gray and grew heavier in Shay’s arms.

“Just let her do it,” Natalie told her friends.  “Don’t give her anything.  It doesn’t matter what happens to me.”

“Shut up Natty,” Dana said.  “You know we’re not going to do that.”  Dana held his hands up in surrender.  Shay and Buck followed suit, but Shay kept the pearl held tightly to her side.

“Good,” Emzara said.  “Now come with us.”  She turned Natalie around and started marching her down the hallway.  The man with the bow walked backwards and scrutinized them like a hawk.  Dana was surprised he did not protest when he and Shay reached down to pick up their weapons and armor.  They left a wet trail as they made their way back through all the statues.  Buck rode on the back of his punching bag, steering it with the datapad.  He quietly designed a new program for it along the way.  Shay tossed her cloth helmet to Dana who wrung the water out of it for her so she wouldn’t have to risk dropping the pearl.

The Knarkids escorted them down the stairs and into the hall they had specifically avoided.  The sounds of the party grew.  The elements of the noise started to separate: the tinkling of silverware, the laughter of children, and the pouring of drinks.  Like most of the rooms in the mansion the ceiling was quite high.  There was a lengthy central dining table with polished wooden dance floors on either side.  The floor to the left had a small curtained booth set up and had three rows of children sitting in front of it.  Inside the booth two ornate cloth puppets did battle: One was a bearded man with an eyepatch and the other was an exaggerated interpretation of Fednaught’s sloth bear.  Building his mythos up for the next generation, Dana thought.  In a few days we could be part of that show.  Four little toys with X’s for eyes.

The right dance floor had a catering station manned by two chefs who were busy carving slices of steaming peppered pork from the spit, dividing pans of cornbread, and tossing green and purple salads in huge crystal bowls.

The central table was extremely crowded with rows and rows of outstretched hands grabbing the butter, passing the salt, or spearing fingerling potatoes.  Dana counted forty heads, mostly adults but some teenagers.  Seated at the head of the table with an infant bouncing on his knee was the smiling godhead of the Knarkid operation.  He looked up at his new guests and his smile did not fade.

“Welcome to my home,” he said with surprising volume.  The chatter at the table stopped and all heads turned towards them.  The puppets paused their epic battle and retracted into the booth.  The chefs excused themselves and scurried into the kitchen.

“What are they doing here?” Magdalayna asked with a scowl from her seat beside Perseus.

“Everyone,” Perseus addressed the room.  “I think some fun is in order before dessert.  We have volleyball, grappleball, and horseshoes set up in the backyard.  You should all head out there now and I’ll join you shortly.”

Chairs groaned against the floor as everyone departed.  A young woman took the infant from Perseus and corralled three of the children from the puppet show.  The teenage boy manning the puppets crawled out from under the booth and hurried out with his head down, not bothering to remove the puppets from his forearms.  In under a minute the party had shifted itself out of the chamber entirely.  Perseus remained along with Emzara, the man with the bow, another woman about Dana’s age who wore IML clothes, and Magdalayna.

“Maggie you should go with the rest of them.  There’s going to be some swordplay,” Perseus said.

“I’m not going anywhere,” his wife retorted.  “I want to see them put in their place.  This is the second time they’ve burst into my home and ruined a perfectly good meal.  And with all the children here this time!”

“Pretty sure that wasn’t all of them,” Buck said.

“What gave us away?” Dana asked.

“Your entrance,” Perseus answered.  “Did you consider that the eyes behind that camera were my own?  I must admit I was surprised to see myself escorting Natalie to the party.  I see now how you accomplished it.  I thought I had gotten rid all of those things.”

“I thought you’d be too busy with the party,” Dana admitted.

“Oh I was.  I’ve gathered from your conversations that you’re aware of my heritage.”

“You mean that you think you’re the son of god.”

“My creator,” Perseus continued, “has the quality of perfect sight.  He sees all things at all times.  Though I am bound by human resources I’ve done my best to mimic his ability.”  Perseus reached up and removed his eyepatch.  There was no scar.  No empty socket.  Just a tan line and a perfectly healthy second eye.  Perseus turned the patch inside out and held it out so everyone could see.  Electric images raced across the inside of it.  “I always keep one eye on the things most important to my work,” Perseus boasted.  “I saw you enter and I was curious whether or not you’d find the pearl.  Once you did I sent Emzara and Calvin there to fetch you and bring you to me.”  He dropped the eyepatch on the table, stood up, and brought himself close to the group of prisoners.  The other woman followed behind him.

“Why not just have her kill us?” Dana asked.

“I understand why you would expect that of me, given the transgressions of my son Shem,” Perseus conceded.  Magdalayna’s ears perked up.  She eyed Emzara, who stared back coldly, perfectly fine with her assuming she had tattled on the sniveling farcoward.

“We saw your little punishment for him in the basement,” Natalie managed to say even though the sword was still pressed against the side of her throat.

“What?” Magdalayna blurted, “Percy where’s Shem?  What did you do to him?”

“Shut up!” Perseus roared, forcing Magdalayna back into her chair.  She tilted her head down and stroked her pregnant belly.  “Though I do enjoy my privacy,” Perseus explained, “I don’t consider myself a shadowy figure.  You deserve a fighting chance just like everyone else.  We shall do battle.  That will prove what I am capable of.  You will see my greatness and the greatness of my children.  It seems you’ve already seen the greatness of one of them.” He eyed Natalie.  “Emzara release your sister and come over here.”  Emzara obeyed.  Perseus approached Natalie but she retreated behind Shay.  “Don’t be afraid of me my child.  I’m your father.  I won’t let you get hurt.”

“I’m calling a security team,” Magdalayna said and poked at her datawatch.

“You’ll do no such thing,” Perseus interrupted.  Magdalayna crossed her arms as her cheeks grew redder.  “This is the perfect time for Natalie, Calvin, and Edith to fight alongside their father.  Perhaps this is their first labor.  Yes… the battle to retrieve the enchanted pearl.  He may have even planned it this way.  The odds are perfect.  Four against four.”

“Four against five,” Buck said and wheeled the punching bag forward.  He tapped the datapad and made the bag speak in Perseus’ voice.

“I’m a jackass,” it said, “I made a big old collection of jackasses so I wouldn’t be so lonely.”  Shay, Natalie, and Buck all laughed.  “Do not mistake me for any lowly jackass.  I am the god of jackassery, as evidenced by my terrible skunky stink.  Also I am stupid. Stupider than pond scum.  That is why I’m always sticking my dick where it doesn’t belong.  I do it so much that I accidentally poked myself in the eye with it and now I have to wear this patch.”

Perseus unsheathed the saber at his hip.  It was a long intimidating weapon with silver designs etched in its pommel.  He flicked the pommel open, removed two pipes from a pouch on his belt, and loaded them both into the hilt of the sword.  When he flicked the pommel closed the blade came to life with both crackling electricity and licks of sinister orange fire.  Emzara loaded her signature pipe of C-gel.  The woman named Edith pulled a single-headed axe off her back.  Calvin pulled the string from his bow and then split the bow in half, revealing two hidden curved daggers.

“Do not seriously injure your sister,” Perseus ordered.  The children of god stepped forward.  Dana and the others pulled their cloth helmets on.  Dana flicked his sword’s switch and charged his blade with lightning.

“Shay, give Natalie the pearl and stay on her,” Dana whispered to the Amazon.  She handed the cold orb to Natalie, who squirreled it away under her arm and then held her shield in front of her.

“Charge!” Buck hollered.  He grabbed the back of his punching bag and sent it rolling at full speed toward Edith.  The device’s speed surprised her and sent her reeling back.

“Excuse me, I’m late for my jackass seminar!” the punching bag shouted.  “I’m running it and I’m also all of the people attending!”  The bag collided with Edith as she embedded her axe into its torso.  Buck popped up over its head and punched her in the shoulder.

Shay dropped to her knee and her arrows fanned off her shin guard.  She pulled the bow from the front of her tunic, nocked an arrow, and loosed it at Calvin.  He moved to block it but was caught off guard by the airbag, which detonated an inch from his face, broke his nose, and knocked him unconscious.

“One down,” Shay boasted.  Emzara’s sword swung by as an arc of red light.  Shay pulled back, but not before it sliced all the fanned arrows on her leg in half; their shafts clattered onto the floor.  The Amazon rose to her full height and grabbed her mace.  Emzara did not relent; she spun her body rapidly and her blade extended at just the right moments to keep her giant opponent off balance.  She cut through Shay’s bow string, but the expensive piece of equipment compensated by loading another string.  Shay smashed the floor where Emzara had been standing a moment before.  The polished wood cracked and sent splinters flying.

The natural flow of the fight, something Perseus saw as divine intervention, positioned the leaders of each group against each other.  At first they sized each other up and walked slowly at an angle until they were on the opposite side of the central dining table.  Perseus pulled a small black object from his belt and popped the cap off it to reveal a series of sparkling needles.  He pressed the device into the side of his bicep and Dana heard the hiss of an injection.

“What’s that?” he asked Perseus.

“Oh just a little something to help me keep up with the young people.”  Dana noticed Perseus’ posture straighten some.  His chest expanded minutely and his biceps bulged against his shirt.  Dana had heard tell of muscle boosters that granted a few hours of enhanced strength, but they were supposed to be prohibitively expensive.

They fired bolts at each other simultaneously and created a blast of light between them.  Perseus took up a rigid fighting stance and went through a combination of moves.  Every slash sent a wave of fire at Dana that he had to duck or back away from.  Perseus arced his lightning in confusing ways, successfully striking Dana in the shoulder and left arm.  His fancy new armor absorbed much of the charge but he still had to shake his arm to get the feeling to return.  I’ve got to get in close, he thought.  Close enough he might burn himself.  Dana rolled under the next roar of flame and ran forward, but Perseus did not falter.  He thrusted his saber and forced Dana to block and spin off to the side.  He lost his footing and smacked his head against the side of the table.  All the silverware rattled and a pitcher of cherry soda poured onto the floor.

Dana glanced up in time to see more fire.  He retreated under the tablecloth just as it was set ablaze.  He saw a pair of thin legs pull themselves from under the table and retreat.  Magdalayna yelped.  He crawled out from the other side and tried to stand.  Edith surprised him with a swing of her axe from the side and he was put on his back again.  Buck inserted himself between them and grabbed the handle of Edith’s axe as she tried to swing again.  She bore down on him powerfully, but Buck let go with one of his hands and punched her in the thigh.  When she was down on his level Buck pulled off his gloves so he wouldn’t shred her face and unleashed a flurry of punches until she fell unconscious.

Emzara corralled Shay closer and closer to Natalie.  They became boxed into the corner.  Shay practically built a moat of craters around them trying to keep Emzara’s rapid strikes at bay.  The Amazon had taken several cuts to her forearms already.  She grunted and flailed with her bow and her mace, but her opponent ducked them both and came face to face with Natalie.  She threaded her sword behind the shield and pulled.  Natalie was dragged onto the floor as the shield flew across the room and hit the back wall.

The pearl struck the floor and let out the pained notes of hammers on glass.  Emzara reached for it but the pearl’s core turned into a swirling ball of blue clouds.  It rolled away from her of its own accord.  Emzara scrambled to her feet and chased it but it stayed just out of her reach.  It even made a ninety degree turn when it came too close to a wall.  It rolled straight to Dana who scooped it up and then deflected a strike from Perseus.  As their blades clashed he felt the heat of the fire pulling sweat from his cheeks.  He pulled away and ran.

“Keep Emzara busy!” he shouted at his friends as he fled the room.  Perseus chased him to one of the sets of stairs in the main hall.  Dana backed slowly up them, heart pounding, breath ragged, trying to keep his vision focused.  “I’ll destroy it!” he threatened.  “I promise I won’t,” he whispered to the pearl.  It went dark again in his arms.

“You won’t,” Perseus challenged.  “You would have done it sooner.  We both know it is a priceless treasure.”

“And you want to use it to seed yourself across space.” Dana accused.  “You want to reshape humanity in your own image.”

“It’s not quite as dramatic as all that.  Humanity is already in my father’s image.  I’m just here to nudge it closer.”

“You think god’s not up to the task himself?”  Dana slowly backed up the stairs.  I’ve got to keep him waxing divine until I think of something.  There’s got to be a way to get it out of here.

“God is perfection,” Perseus said as he softly set foot on the first stair.  “In order for perfection to exist there must be imperfection to compare it to.  Man fills that role.  Theologians for countless millennia have wondered why a perfect god doesn’t free us from our suffering, but they go about the question the wrong way.  Suffering is necessary.  That being said, our holy father loves us very much and has correctly guessed, for you can only guess when dealing with the imperfect, that he has ways to alleviate some of that suffering.  He’s been doing it throughout history, mixing himself with his creations to form messiahs.  Individuals with the holy spark who can shape man with their actions.”

“And you’re one of these bastards?”

“Only the most recent.  I confess I don’t know exactly who the others were but I have my suspicions.  Jesus thought he could alleviate suffering with his teachings, but he foolishly wasted his breath and blood trying to explain the perfection he felt to the imperfect barbarians around him.  Alexander the Great thought he could spread his spark by force, so he took over much of our home planet, but empires crumble just as much as philosophies warp.  I am the newest iteration.  I have learned from these mistakes.  The only way to bring man closer to the divine is to do it without his permission and without his knowledge.  I am placing the holy spark in the hearts of men and women across many worlds.”

“With your junk!?” Dana exclaimed.  He hated Perseus’ choice of words.  Every syllable was unbreakable alabaster and every sentiment was a golden chariot that wouldn’t slow down.  He knew there was no convincing this man that what he was doing was wrong.  Perseus’ ideas could not be criticized because their source could not be tarnished or stained.  It must be pretty damn comforting to lock your brain up like that.  Make it so no one can penetrate it and shatter your little world.  And it doesn’t matter how many seeds he’s sown, his world is still little because there’s no room for anyone else.  “Why do you think you’re perfect?  That kid of yours, Shem, is a farcoward.  He tried to kill me from a hundred feet away with a laser.”  Dana was running out of stairs.

“I merely steer toward perfection; I cannot create it,” Perseus lectured.  “Half of Shem still comes from his mother Magdalayna.  She is a stupid woman.”

“Then why did you knock her up again?”

“Her devotion makes her a useful manager for many of my simpler affairs.  We were married early in my efforts when I hadn’t quite known how great I would become.  Back then I was focused on individual women rather than the species at large and I had heard tell of her family’s predisposition to multiple births.  I needed to swell my ranks and she was a key factor in the beginning.  She has given me many sets of twins and triplets.  I do confess that she grows more irritating by the day.”

“Don’t forget to try and justify the incest,” Dana said sarcastically.  “What twisted logic do you have for that?”

“I don’t need to do any twisting.   You and I both know that the prenatal care of our age takes care of any problems the process used to cause.  Screenings and gene treatments make them just as healthy as any other children.  The stigma is only a social one and I don’t waste my time with the trivialities of man’s self-shaming.”

“How many women have you raped?” Dana asked pointedly.

“You may not believe me, but I have never physically forced a woman.  I find the idea unsavory.  I merely exert pressure or hide my intentions.  You must understand none of what I do is part of some selfish sexual conquest.  It has all become very technical.  I rarely go to bed with women these days.  Most of it has become automated.  Samples of my genetic material are shipped out to my facilities and the women are usually inseminated by doctors or nurses.”

“I guess that makes you a farcoward rapist then.”

“I’ve used my resources to make sure that my efforts continue beyond my death as well,” he said, shrugging off the insult.

“What do you mean?”  Dana reached the next floor.  A school of tadpole robots came through the hall.  They swam by serenely, some passing between Dana’s legs and others rubbing up against Perseus’ arms as he ascended the last few stairs.

“Just on time,” Perseus cooed as he stroked the back of one of the robots.  It hovered in place and seemed to relish his touch.  “My tadpoles.  Each one of them carries frozen samples of my holy spark.  If my mortal coil snapped or if I was imprisoned they would immediately know to flee and seek out my children so the work can continue.  The robots here hold the very future of humanity.”

“You mean these things are full of…” Dana flailed to scatter the robots.  He’d never wanted a shower more in his life.  Maybe a nice dip in a volcano.  Perhaps the witness procedure would be worth it if it could erase knowledge like that.  “What convinced you?” he asked.  “What made you think you were so much better than the rest of us?  A visit from an angel?  A burning bush?  A carved tablet of commandments you tripped over?”

“Again you mistake the dramatic for the meaningful,” Perseus tut-tutted.  “It was a revelation.  When I had risen above the smog of Nephilnaut it collided with me, joined with me, became me.  The golden but ethereal harmony of perfection.  My heartbeat was the word of god.  His gentle but resolute touch has pushed me forward this whole time.  I feel it always.”

“Unbelievable!” Dana bellowed to the ceiling.  “You’re telling me we went through all this shit… all of it… because you feel perfect?  Because you just know you’re a super special butterfly?”

“Come now Dana,” Perseus said as he stepped up to face him.  The tadpoles ringed him like a halo of insect larvae and his flaming sword reached out a hungry curl of smoke.  “You shouldn’t deny what I know you see.  I know you look at me and see something more than just a man.  Something that profoundly frightens you.”

“You’re right,” Dana said.  “When I look at you I don’t see a man.  I see a large tin of salted mixed nuts!”

“So you think I’m crazy, but…” Perseus started to say, but Dana suddenly thrust his left arm forward, caught Perseus in the gut, and knocked him back down the stairs.  Dana bolted off into a corridor with a very rough bad plan forming in his mind.  Perseus’ tadpoles caught their creator before his head could hit the floor and lifted him back to his feet.  He laughed to himself and pursued Dana at a leisurely stroll.  He knew there was no way out of the building without Dana having to pass by him again.

Back downstairs, Emzara swung her sword and cut straight through the middle of Shay’s bow.  The Amazon was forced to drop the weapon and hold her mace in both hands.  Natalie retrieved her shield and barreled towards Emzara like an angry bull, no longer content to just hide behind it.  Emzara chuckled and tripped her half-sister before tossing the shield again.  It slid across the dining table and took out the rest of the glasses.

“Just kill them Emzara!” Magdalayna yelled while she fanned herself from the corner.

“Shut up mom!” Emzara yelled back.  After hearing her father shout her mother down, Emzara felt permission had been given to disrespect the woman.  Buck caught her with a punch in the lower back.  His gauntlets punctured her skin.  She felt a warm trickle of blood down the back of her thigh.  She spun around and shooed the Leprechaun back with a few swings.  Buck pulled back close to Shay.

“Nobody hurts my children!” Magdalayna fumed.  She waddled over to her large purse that had been kicked away from the side of the table.  No one paid her any attention as she was unarmed, but that was about to change.  She struggled to lean down and grab the bag.  She unzipped it and rifled through its contents.  Where was it?  In there somewhere… wallet… compact… gum… there!  Shem was such a thoughtful boy. 

Magdalayna pulled out a dark cylinder with a diamond studded tip.  It was a gift from Shem, something she could use to protect herself, or in this case Emzara.  She’d never used the pocket laser before but it seemed simple enough.  She turned it on and waited for the charging light to glow.  She held it up first like a telescope, then like a flute, and then like a television remote; it was difficult to decide what the appropriate way to aim was. She decided to go with the remote variant because she was, after all, trying to turn something off.  Which one to switch off though?  The shield girl was one of Percy’s.  The Amazon was a nice big target.  The Leprechaun… the same Leprechaun that had harangued her from her doorstep for so long.  It was about time someone shut him off.

Magdalayna squinted one eye and pointed the cylinder at Buck.  That was how they aimed things in the movies.  She pressed the button.  Four tenths of a second passed.  The laser whined and shot a line of burning blue light.  The line passed through Buck’s sternum and moved towards his heart before abruptly ending.  The Leprechaun stared at the scorched line across his armor and dropped to his knees.

“No!” Shay screamed.  She ran to her friend and cradled him as he fell backward.  Buck tried to breathe.  He could only burble and expel a few drops of dark red blood.  He grabbed at the front of Shay’s armor, fingers turning a pale seasick green.  She wiped the blood from his mouth and stroked it into his red hair, trying to make it disappear.  She rocked him back and forth like a child and whimpered.

“You’re okay,” she said.  Heavy tears cooled the burns on his armor.  “You’re okay Buck.  You’re a lot of things little man.  Artist.  Boxer.  Friend… brother… but you’re not dead okay?  We’ll get some help.  The pearl can maybe… it can do something.”  Buck smiled wanly, blood pooling in the lines of his teeth.  He tried to tell Shay it was okay.  He’d had a feeling their mission was his last hurrah.  He’d ridden the creation Perseus tried to destroy into battle and made himself heard.  Nobody could ignore Buck Renshi forever.  He tried to tell her that but all he could give her was the smile.  He felt another wave of blood hit his throat instead of air.  Then he felt very little, just a vague sense of retraction like tidal sounds pulled back into a conch shell.  Buck’s mind shrank and faded.  He wasn’t.

“Naaaaauugghhhh!” Shay wept.  She pressed her forehead to his and tried to transfer the heat of her anger into him.  She tried to give him every emotion she had to rekindle his spirit.  Natalie joined her in cradling the body.  She’d had some training as a nurse but it was plain to her that nothing could be done.

“What have you done?” Emzara frigidly asked her mother.

“I was protecting you!” Magdalayna cried.  “I don’t know why your father keeps playing with these swords when he can smite them with the push of a button.  We are the family of god!  We shouldn’t have to stand here and listen to that greenbean and…”

Shay delicately passed Buck’s body to Natalie.  She grabbed her mace, rose to her feet, focused her white hot rage like a needle threaded through the sun, and hurled her weapon at Magdalayna.  The mace arced through the air perfectly.  Magdalayna only saw it in the corner of her eye before its blunt head struck hers.  She toppled.  Shay went back to Buck.

Emzara felt glued to the floor.  With more effort than she’d exerted in the fight she ripped herself off the polished wood and walked to her mother’s prone form.  One of her eyes was half-shut by the massive purple wound above it.  The other was open.  Her limbs were outstretched, making her look like a starfish with a bulbous body.  Emzara leaned down and checked her pulse.  She eyed her mother’s abdomen.  She felt sadness, but it was vague and far away as if she’d heard about her mother’s death via handwritten letter.  It was like the slight drain of remorse in a person who makes an excuse to miss a funeral.

“I was always dead to you Mom,” she thought.  “I guess you were dead to me too.  You never wanted to be more than what Dad made you.  An oven.”  She did not feel like fighting any more.  Emzara sheathed her weapon and disappeared down a corridor.  She sensed that things would go south for her if she stayed and she needed to make sure a few things were in order.

“Shit!” Natalie shouted. “The babies!” Natalie rushed over to Magdalayna’s body as she watched her half-sister retreat.  She checked for a pulse as well. Natalie lifted Magdalayna’s dress and examined her stomach.  A shadow appeared over it.  She looked up to see Shay hovering over her with Buck’s body in her arms.  The Amazon suddenly realized what she’d done and nearly collapsed against the wall.

“I… killed her babies!” she cried.  “I didn’t mean to… I wasn’t thinking!”

“Just hang on!” Natalie said to calm her.  “Maybe not.  I might be able to save them.”  She looked around and grabbed the pocket laser.  She pointed it at the floor and tested its power.  After scorching several tally marks in the floor she found the dial for its intensity.  She dialed it down and burned the floor again.  Down some more and another burn.  Each seared line grew thinner and lighter.  When she was confident she had the beam set low enough to act as a laser scalpel she pressed under the swell of Magdalayna’s belly.

She’d assisted in births before and had seen C-sections performed plenty of times, but actually holding the scalpel was very different.  Her hand shook against Magdalayna’s rapidly cooling flesh.

Should she even save them?  Did they want to be a part of this?  They could get carried off and brainwashed and forced to bear their own father’s children.  They could wind up carrying lasers of their own.  No… She had to save them.  It wasn’t even for them; It was for Shay.  She didn’t need to have their blood on her hands.  She shouldn’t have to live with that.  Do it for Shay.

The laser hissed against the flesh.

Dana burst through the double doors and onto the mansion’s massive balcony.  It had become evening and a strong breeze whipped at the singed strings on his armor’s sleeves.  Perseus would be on him in moments and there was nowhere to go.  He kept walking until he hit the railing, cold as jailhouse bars.  There was nothing but pavement and boats below; a fall was guaranteed to at least break his legs.  He looked up at the sky and saw a star burn its way through the remaining daylight.  I’m not getting out of here, but you can…  You don’t need us to carry you anymore.  We’ve caused you nothing but trouble anyway.  Dana held the pearl out over the edge of the balcony.  For a brief moment he thought he felt it twitch in his hands.  Fear perhaps.  It remained dormant, dull as dusty glass.

“It’s time for you to go,” he told the pearl.  He couldn’t afford to whisper; it needed to know he was talking to it.  He wasn’t a man using a totem like a mirror to talk himself up or down.  “I know you understand me…  I’m sorry for what you’ve been through.  I’m sorry I doubted you.  I know you didn’t ask for any of this.”  Dana swallowed.  He hugged the pearl to his chest and let it feel his heartbeat.  Then he held it out again.  Still, it did not respond.

“You can do this,” he encouraged it.  “You can move on your own.  You can change into anything you want!  You were near Buck’s punching bag so I know you can transform just like its face.  You were around my suitcase and those tadpoles so I know you can fly.  You were in plenty of boats so I know you can navigate.  You have to make the decision to go.  I can’t do it for you.”  No response.  No light.  “You don’t need us anymore.  No matter where you go… We love you.  Shay, Buck, Natalie, and me… we all love you.  I’m not going to pretend I know what I’m doing.  There are a thousand places I could tell you to go because I’ve been there, but you need your own place.  Wherever that place is we’ll try and picture you there, happy.  We love you pearl.”

Silence.  A tear streaked across Dana’s face like a comet.  A familiar light appeared at the pearl’s center.  It grew out past its surface and engulfed the balcony.  There were no frolicking animals or spinning clocks this time; it was just a cytoplasmic ball of data growing and shrinking and rearranging.  Dana wondered if it was writing formulas, making art, or forming a philosophy.  Whatever it was, it was beyond him.  The pearl rose out of his hands, light as a soap bubble.  For a second he was afraid it would pop or be carried away in the breeze.

The pearl sucked the sphere of data back inside and spun like a tilted planet.  It spun faster and faster until the air whistled around it.  Its bluish light went brighter and brighter until it became a blinding white.  Dana took a step back.  He felt like he was watching an eclipse, like he might be blinded by the end of it but there was no looking away.

The light around the pearl stretched and lengthened and then the pearl did as well.  Its perfect spherical body warped like water in zero gravity and grew a tail.  The other end of it stretched out into an egg shape.  A blue ring, an eye of light, appeared under its shimmering surface and glanced about rapidly like a chameleon.  It grew a second eye.  It grew a nearly invisible fin along the length of its tail.  It started to swim in the air around Dana.  He laughed as it circled his head and swooped in for him to pet its back.

It had become an angelic likeness of one of Perseus’ tadpole robots.  Instead of vague disgust or gooseflesh, it only created wonder in Dana’s mind.  It was like a playful germ from heaven, deemed inconsequential by the powers above but magnificent by mortal eyes.  It nuzzled up to Dana’s chin and he hugged it briefly.  It sang a little song that was part children’s choir and part icy bells.  Dana delicately pushed it back into the air.  He heard footsteps echoing through the doors behind them.

“It’s okay Pearl.  Go.  Live your life.  I’ll take care of everything down here.  I’ll tell them you said goodbye.”

The pearl swam by his face again and wiped one of his tears away so perfectly that the fin didn’t actually touch his skin.  It swam ten feet into the air and examined the bright star Dana had a minute ago.  It turned back to look at its guardian.  Dana drew his sword, ejected the lightning pipe, and loaded the magnetic one.

“Go on,” he told it gently.  The pearl turned, sadness apparent in the lazy swish of its tail, and retreated into the darkening sky.  Dana felt its radiance fade away behind him.  It’s good you won’t be here to see this, he thought.  I’m going to destroy this man.  I’m going to rip the godly parts right out of him.  Dana wiped his tears away and took a strong stance.

The tadpoles came through the door before Perseus.  A hundred of them emerged and circled the outer edge of the balcony, creating a loose swirling dome of rubbery fins and lidless eyes.  Perseus stepped on to the balcony.  His smug expression faded when he didn’t see the pearl in Dana’s arms.  His face grew both stony and hot like a desert rock sweating off the dew of the night.

“Where is it!?” he bellowed.

“I guess you should’ve kept your god-eye on,” Dana mocked.  “The Appearl has a mind of its own.  It’s choosing its own path now.”  He pointed his sword into the sky at the fading blue-white dot that was on its way to join the other stars.

“You fool!  You cotton-brained idiot!”  Perseus rushed to the railing and watched the pearl retreat, powerless to stop it.  It was the first time he’d felt that way in many years.  God seeing a gray hair in the sink.  God realizing he wasn’t tall enough to reach his favorite cereal in the grocery store anymore.  Realizing he needed to ask a younger man for help. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” he roared at Dana.  “There’s no telling how many centuries of work you’ve just ruined.  Millions of children who won’t have my veil of protection, who won’t have my legends to make them feel secure in their sleep.  The devil has sent you; hasn’t he?  Yes… I think I can see your horns now.  I was a fool not to notice them earlier.”

“The pearl is choosing its own path,” Dana repeated.  “There are only two paths for you Perseus.  One ends in a cell and the other a grave.”

“Oh and I’m supposed to choose?” Perseus asked.

“No.  I’m going to decide for you depending on how long I have to look at that disgusting mug of yours.”  Dana swung his sword.  Perseus hopped back and primed his saber again.  It hissed to life with fire and lightning.

Perseus swung the saber over his head and sent a curling plume of fire at Dana.  It scorched the ground under him as he hopped onto the railing.  He teetered and nearly fell, but managed to build up enough momentum to run across the railing and jump onto Perseus’ position with a downward strike.  Perseus tried to back up but Dana activated his pipe.  Tiny iron filings emerged from the sword’s pores and greedily grabbed Perseus’ blade.  The two warriors were locked in a tug-of-war and Dana refused to release his enemy’s weapon.  Perseus thrust his saber forward and shot a fireball past Dana’s head.  Dana heard two blisters form and burst on the surface of his ear.  He released the switch on his sword and sent Perseus sprawling backward.

Doing his best to ignore the burn, Dana primed his blade again, but this time he swung around his head and the magnetic force pulled in one of Perseus’ tadpoles.  He swung it around and around before releasing the magnetism and tossing it at Perseus.  The helpless robot careened through the air and struck its creator in the chest.  The robot wriggled its way back into its school as Perseus picked himself up off the ground.

“Do not harm them!” Perseus ordered.  “They are the future!”

Dana snagged another one with his magnetic pull and swung his sword downward like a carnival game mallet.  The robot smashed against the balcony floor and produced a geyser of sparks.  Dana reversed the polarity of his magnetic blade and swept the metal carcass disrespectfully over the edge where it struck the hoods of the boats below.

“You will feel the wrath of god almighty!  Aaaaurrrh!”  Perseus charged forward and flung alternating natural disasters at Dana.  He burned through the rest of his loaded pipes in moments trying to finish him off.  The tadpoles’ swimming became frantic.  The confused machines collided with each other in the air and created a cacophony of metal on plastic; their programming drew them simultaneously toward their father and away from the danger.  Lightning arced wildly around them and jumped between the bars of the balcony railing.  Dana was struck in the chest and he felt his heart skip a beat as the electricity passed through him.  His vision blurred and he struggled to stay on his feet.  He felt the heat of the fire before he even saw Perseus’ attack.  Dana made an educated guess as to the move and ducked under the saber.  He held his sword up and locked Perseus’ in place with magnetic force.

The two came face to face as they tried to force their locked blades into each other.  Perseus’ face was all wiry beard and knotted eyebrows, like the exaggerated face of a raging totem pole.  Dana reversed his polarity once more and pushed Perseus back.  He swapped it again and snagged another tadpole out of the air.  It acted as an extension of his sword, reaching past the blade and smacking Perseus in the face with its tail.  Dana used the added range to go on the offensive.  He smashed the robot onto Perseus’ toes and broke them both.  He snagged another and beat its creator over the head with it.  The demigod was forced to drop his saber and push the machine out of the way with his hands.

He won’t destroy them, Dana realized.  He’d give up anything else, but not a part of himself.    Perseus charged forward, arms like a gorilla’s, and tried to grab Dana by the sides.  He dodged the grab.  Perseus swung around and reared back his arm like a ship’s cannon ready to fire.  Dana grabbed another tadpole out of the air and held it in front of him.  Perseus was unable to pull back and he punched into the machine’s innards.  His body went rigid and spittle flew from his mouth as he seized.  He’d struck the robot’s power source and electrocuted himself.  The tadpole had a spasm and died as its creator dropped unconscious to the ground.

Dana wasted no time unspooling the restraining wire from his belt. He bound Perseus’ hands, arms, and legs before tying him to the railing.  He ripped all the pouches and pipes from Perseus’ IML clothing and tossed them over the edge.  He tossed the saber as well, which stuck in the roof of a big family boat like a mangrove shoot.

It’s over.  We got him.  Dana remembered his family downstairs.  He hoped they’d managed to hold Emzara off.  What if the rest of the party came back inside and overwhelmed them?  What if they’re being used as piñatas right now?  Dana was about to rush back inside when he noticed the tadpoles.   They were all pointed at Perseus and staring at his still body.  Their simple computer minds tried to interpret the bonds Dana had placed on him.  Eventually they came to the silent conclusion that Perseus Knarkid, father of thousands and role model to none, had been captured.  It was time for them to grow up as well, to travel to the far corners of the Collective and become more Knarkids.

They turned tail and started to fly away, splitting in different directions.  Dana activated his sword once again and pulled as many of them down as he could.  He slashed them out of the air and stabbed them through their mechanical heads.  He leapt up and caught the stragglers.  He ripped off their tails and smashed them against the ground.  A minute later he was panting wildly again, surrounded by pale green machine parts and twitching sparking wires.  All together he’d only gotten a small portion of them.  The rest shrank and disappeared into the darkening sky.  Dana picked himself up, checked again to see if Perseus’ bonds were secure, and then went inside.  He descended the stairs and reentered the dining hall.

Natalie and Shay were seated at the dining table.  Magdalayna’s body remained where it had fallen but was now soaked in blood.  Natalie wore some of that blood as she cradled two infants in her arms.  The way she held them indicated they were very much alive.  Dana’s mind glossed over them as his eyes came to rest on Buck’s body, which was laid out on the table like a centerpiece.  Shay held one of the Leprechaun’s small hands in hers.  They looked up at Dana.

He rushed over to Buck and ran his hand across his scorched chest.  He dropped into a chair and grabbed the Leprechaun’s other hand.

“It’s done,” he said with his head down.

“Where’s our pearl?” Shay asked, her voice worn thin by grief.

“I told it to go.  It grew a fin like Perseus’ bots and flew away.  Now nobody knows where it is.  I told it we love it.”  Shay nodded her head.  It would’ve been nice to say goodbye, but it was good that it didn’t see what happened to Buck.  It didn’t need to know the only person that really spoke its language had departed in a very different way.  There was no boundless frontier of stardust for Buck Renshi, just the hands of his family trying to pull him back by the body.

“And Perseus?” Natalie asked.  “Did you kill him?”  Dana shook his head.

“He’s knocked out on the roof.  Tied up.  We can’t kill him.  All this is going to come out.  We need to look clean at the end of it.”

“I don’t care about that,” Natalie said.  “Go kill him.  You can tell the police I did it.  He should pay for this.  He should pay for Buck.”

“You can’t pay for this,” Dana reasoned.  “Buck was worth more than everything Perseus has… and everything he is.”  Natalie did not look like she was convinced but she stayed in her seat anyway.

Emzara walked in carrying a massive bag on her shoulders.  Dana rose out of his seat and pulled his sword, but Emzara held out her hands to pacify him.

“You killed him,” Dana said through clenched teeth.

“That was my mother,” she explained.  “And she’s now dead because of her cowardice.  I don’t mean you any harm.  Enough blood has spilled.  I just want to leave this place.”

“You think I’m going to let you walk out of here so you can corral those disgusting robots and grow some more Knarkids?” Dana raged.

“That’s not what I’ll be doing.  Like every incarnation before him my father had a flaw.  His plans were never going to work.  I knew this.  He’ll fade and become a museum statue like all the others.  I nearly laughed when he told me his plan for that pearl.  I looked at him and saw a wolf pissing on all the trees and jealously guarding his harem.”

“So what are you going to do?”

“Great things.  Great things that will not interfere with the spark-less masses.  I don’t care what happens to them.”  Dana stepped away from the table.  He did not lower his sword.

“I’m sorry about your friend,” Emzara said honestly.  “Keep in mind I have also lost my mother.  You’re tired.  I could kill all three of you in this state.  Why don’t we admit that this is over?  Perseus is over, but I am not my father and I will not go down with his ship.”

With that Emzara walked past them.  Dana couldn’t bring himself to strike at her.  She was right about one thing; he was extremely tired.  If I sleep, will I catch Buck?  Maybe there’s time enough for a visit on the other side before he’s totally gone.

“I called the police,” Shay said and tapped her datawatch.  She sniffled.  “I thought it was time…  I called three different stations in case Perseus has some of them.  I called the news, stations on and off Proplay.  I called everybody.”

“That’s fine,” Dana said.  It was time.  He wondered if Shay had sensed the moment the pearl departed and known their quiet strange little family had done its job.

The Appearl passed through the last layers of the atmosphere.  The cold of space could not touch it, for it had love at its core.

A Vein of Ruby

Fourteen months later Dana sat in his timeshare on Autique sipping at a Bomberry soda.  His glass clinked against the living room coffee table as he set it down.  Tired of watching the brittle orange leaves fall outside his windows, he switched on his television with his datawatch.  Autique’s flora had some quirks like Galglow’s, but they were much subtler; it always seemed to be autumn there.  Leaves grew in darker and drier than they were supposed to and never lasted long.  The constant litter of gold and orange used to comfort Dana and remind him that everything would keep going whether humanity liked it or not, but now it just reminded him of the new constant in his life.  That constant played out across the television.

On the screen he saw Perseus seated in a courtroom wearing his Sunday best.  His eyepatch tan line had faded.  His beard was cut shorter and immaculately groomed.  He never looked worried.  Most of the time he didn’t even seem to pay attention to the proceedings.  He had a swarm of lawyers to do that for him.

The Collective had wanted to start the trial four months earlier, but Perseus and his network of influences gummed up the process from the beginning.  One of the policemen that had arrived back on Proplay had tried to sneak Perseus out of the building but had been thwarted by other officers that weren’t his children.

Fact finding had been a nightmare.  A huge number of subpoenas had resulted in raids on secretive cult headquarters, each one of them a can of worms all knotted together like the tail of a rat king.  They would find corruption in the local government that tied into the regional economy that tied into the Collective military that tied into an oddly high number of claims for maternity leave among the female Generals.  The Collective found they could not freeze his assets because that would shut down the economies of a hundred different regions, so they appointed temporary leaders to his many corporations.  Perseus was like a chronic illness that seeped into every moment of someone’s life until they couldn’t tell their symptoms from their natural state.

When a sharp prosecutor had insisted the jury undergo genetic testing, half of them had to be thrown out because of blood relation.  The Collective got goosebumps when two of the ten judges had to be thrown out for the same reason.

Despite this, things progressed.  Perseus was technically being charged with around 390,000 separate counts of various crimes.  If he was convicted the length of his sentence would fit his immortal heritage.  If the almighty allowed it he would go stale in prison for the next 1,400 years.

Dana’s watch flashed blue.  He tapped it and flicked the incoming call over to the television screen.  Perseus’ pre-trial hearing became the interior of Shay’s home on Tortim.  It was good to see her in her element.  Her Tortim clothing was just loose enough that she looked like a snake slipping out of its old skin for a quick shower.  She’d cut her hair short to deal with the tiny hands that always grabbed at it.  She wore one too many wooden arm bands and they jostled against each other when she moved.

After she’d returned to Tortim and Perseus’ story had come out she’d become something of a hero in her hometown.  Many of the bands she now wore were carved gifts from admirers and suitors.  One band differed from the rest; it was plastic and had a small green light on it.  The Collective had wanted to detain her badly for the killing of Magdalayna, so they pressured Tortim to allow extradition.  The Amazons said something a little like this: Hmmm oh yes… Yeah we’ll definitely think about it.

In the end they offered a disingenuous olive branch in the form of Shay being under home arrest and wearing a monitoring band.  What they failed to mention to the Collective was that they considered Tortim to be Shay’s home, so the monitor would only beep reprovingly if she left the atmosphere.

That was fine with her, for there was no better place to raise their child.  Dana watched her bounce their baby girl on her knee.  She had a head of limp dirty-blonde hair, a little yellow nose like a finch’s beak, and her mother’s smile.  Around three months ago, when the child was born, she told Dana via a video call that she’d decided to name her Wren in honor of Buck’s surname Renshi.  Dana had no objection.  Even if he did, he would’ve felt insensitive voicing it since he’d made an excuse as to why he couldn’t be there for the birth.  He hadn’t been there before it either as he simply didn’t want to be around a crocodile-sized woman lumbering about in her eleventh month of pregnancy.

He did work up the decency to visit her a few days later and meet his daughter.  He gave Shay a toy he’d had specially made for the girl.  It was from a company that made toys based on Paleolithic art.  That company argued that the most basic representations of humans and animals were the most meaningful to young minds.  The toy was an absurdly expensive hypoallergenic cloth doll of a human with brown skin.  Its simple black eyes, if accidently swallowed, would dissolve in the throat like a multivitamin.  Dana wanted Wren to have it because its blank face felt like an imitation of his own spirit; it was another being with all but the essence of its soul burned away by its makers.  It would remind her that somewhere out in space there was a humorless man like the one held in her plump little hands that would be there to help if she needed him.

He held his little girl and admitted to Shay he still didn’t feel much like a parent.  Shay told him he didn’t need to worry.

“Amazons are strong,” she had said.  “One parent is enough.  We grow up knowing there are all kinds of families, but I don’t know how I’ll explain to her that her sibling, the first child we raised, is a spacefaring transforming super computer.”

“Are you still watching the hearings?” Shay asked him, bringing him out of his thoughts and back to his couch on Autique.

“Yeah.  They’re getting nowhere faster than ever.”

“Your editor must be happy about that,” she commented.  He grinned.  His editor had nearly had a heart attack when he’d seen Dana on the news and learned the legal trouble he mentioned earlier actually involved multiple battles, a collapsing bridge, assassination attempts, a planet-spanning conspiracy, and an honest-to-god magical jewel sitting on top like an alabaster cherry.  He begged Dana to turn it into a novel and told him that with his built-in readership it would be the best-selling book in the history of the species.

Dana had acquiesced.  The rest of his short life was already on the page after all.  It had only taken him three months to pump out the manuscript.  The book had exploded as soon as it hit shelves.  If there was any chance Dana was going to be pulled back in by the Collective and charged with anything relating to the Appearl affair, it vanished in the tide of positive public sentiment the book generated.  His publisher had hired a team of temporary assistants whose main job was turning down ninety-nine percent of the offers he received for signings, interviews, and speaking engagements.  He had to admit it was nice being known for a book where the last line wasn’t a row of reindeer pictograms.

“Have you heard anything from the pearl?” Shay asked suddenly.

“I don’t know,” Dana admitted.  He pointed to his left.  The television turned so Shay could see Buck’s punching bag stood in the corner of the room.  Dana had changed its facial configuration to make it look like their fallen friend.  It wore a necklace with Buck’s diamond comet and his Palawan woodpecker toy on it.  “I swear that sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, that thing winks or smiles at me.  I don’t know if it’s a silly little joke program Buck buried in there or if it’s the pearl watching over me.”

“I get that feeling sometimes too,” Shay said.  “My watch will light up in the middle of the night and I can see it through my eyelids.  The light feels just like it used to.  When I open them it’s dark again.  I think it’s just checking in.  That’s what it does instead of writing letters.”  Shay’s eyes lingered on the punching bag.

Dana recalled how she was forced to miss the funeral because of her monitoring.  He’d been there on Galglow with Buck’s parents for the process.  There was a tradition in Buck’s family to be buried in a special plot of Palawan roots.  Over the course of about four months the roots would find the interred body and absorb its nutrients.  As the remains decayed the roots took their place, becoming a beautiful sculpture of twisted wood.  When it was done families would sometimes separate the sculpture from the rest of the tree and replant it in their own private gardens.  Buck’s parents informed him that before Buck had died he’d stated he wanted his body to be art.  Dana was able to pull a few strings and get the wooden fossil of his friend replanted in the prestigious topiary gardens outside the largest art museum on Galglow.  There was a picture of him alive on the first page of the book and a picture of his Palawan memorial on the last page.

“You think he’ll get convicted right?” Shay asked, once again pulling him out of the fog.

“I don’t know,” Dana admitted.  “I think it’s a miracle he hasn’t weaseled his way out of it already.  You know that he’s under house arrest just like you until the trial?  Except his house is the size of six houses.”

“At least your book is getting the truth out.”

“Did you know his lawyers are pulling some crap now trying to justify a bunch of the charges as the actions of an organized religion?  All the taxes he neglected to pay and certain human rights abuses… they’re trying to get about 60,000 of the charges dropped.”

“We did everything we could,” Shay said.  She pulled Wren up and placed the little girl on her shoulder.  Dana saw she held the hypoallergenic Paleo-man.  “We beat Perseus.”  Dana’s watch flashed again.  There was another incoming call.  He saw Natalie’s name.

“Shay I have to go.  Natalie is calling.”

“Alright.  Tell her I said hello.  Wave goodbye to Daddy.”  Wren was too busy staring at the ceiling to wave, so Shay waved the hand for her.  “We’ll talk to you soon,” she said before hanging up.  Natalie took her place on the television.  She had tears streaming down her face and her expression suggested there was someone just out of frame with a laser pointed at her intestines.

“What’s wrong?” Dana asked.

“It’s,” Natalie stammered, “It’s the Collective… th-they want to… They think I-I’m just what they need to convict my dad.”

“Slow down.  Are you saying they…”

“Yes!  They say I’m the p-perfect victim.  I’m a product of incest.  I was raised by a mother loyal to h-him and unknowingly ran a Knarkid farm.  Plus, Shem tried to kill me, I saw the pearl, I broke into his home, and I saved two of his kids.  They think there’s no way the jury can hate m-me.  But they want to take that away!”

“They want you to be a witness,” Dana said, his voice not quite caught up with his fury yet.

“I thought I had nothing left, but this…  Will it be okay Dana?  Will it maybe… m-maybe get better after I can’t remember any of it?”

“No,” he said sternly.  He’d never been surer of anything, in either of his lives.  “Remember what I told you Natalie.  There has to be something they can’t take.  They want to kill you for your ruby.”

“They can have it,” she sobbed.

“Don’t talk like that.  Listen, where are you?”

“I’m on Sunsa.”

“Is the decision final?  Do they have you?”

“No, I’m staying with a friend.”

“Okay, good,” Dana muttered.  He stood and went to grab an IML jacket off the wall.  “I’m coming to you.  You can give me the details on the way.  I’m going to get you out of there.  We’ll take you to Neustone and get you some kind of asylum.  I won’t let them erase you.”

“Why do you even care?” she asked.  “I don’t even care.”

“You called me,” Dana said.  “I know you care.  I’d sooner carve the ruby out of my own skull before I let them have yours.  You’re not just a victim Natalie.  I came to love you the same way I did Shay, the pearl, and Buck.  I’m coming to protect you.”

“Thank you,” she wept.

“Hang in there.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Dana rushed into his bedroom and packed his suitcase with weapons, armor, and other supplies.  He sheathed his sword and ordered the bag to follow him out the door.  John Doe was killed by the powers that be.  The man that had grown back was no coward.

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