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The surrounding moss suddenly flared a brilliant burning neon: bright enough to blind me for a second. When I could see again, the container was gone — vaporized, dissolved — and the once-captive spore was now just one among a million others glimmering silently in the darkness.

Mission accomplished for the Balrog… the prisoner freed. But the rescue hadn’t happened till after Dad’s clone had been eaten alive. My father’s other copies — Mr. Clear Chest on Celestia, and Alexander York, Admiral of the Gold, on New Earth — must have stayed mentally linked with the dying man through the whole ordeaclass="underline" must have felt every millisecond of the devouring as if it was happening to them.

I wondered what it would do to you… feeling yourself being eaten alive. The Balrog could surely tell me — if it was telepathic, it must have heard my father’s silent screams — but I decided I didn’t want to know.

Festina was already scaling the rope, hand over hand toward the top of our glass cube. As she climbed, she called to Tobit, "Have you figured out how to fly this thing yet?"

"Almost," he answered. "Provided there aren’t any built-in security checks. If the onboard computer wants me to type a password or something, we’re screwed."

"Cross your fingers that doesn’t happen," Festina told him. "If we can’t stop the attacking army, this cube is our only way out of the city."

The moment she clambered onto the cube’s glass roof, I grabbed the rope and headed up too. No point me staying in the cube: I couldn’t help Tobit with the controls, and I couldn’t help Innocence either. Sometime in the past two minutes, while I was watching my dad get eaten, Innocence had quietly passed out. Maybe that was a good sign — Mandasars shut down like that when their metabolisms shift into a full-out healing state — but it could also mean she was too broken inside to keep herself awake. We needed to get Innocence to the infirmary… but she wouldn’t be safe till we stopped the Black Army.

Outside the cube, the air had curdled with the smell of buttered toast — eau de Balrog, so thick the night breeze couldn’t dissipate it. From this angle, I could see how much of the parapet was covered with glowing red: a bulgy patch where my father had been, a Dade-shaped mound nearby, a light dusting everywhere else. Plebon and the Mandasars had been pelted with their share of spores when the Balrog exploded from the stairwell, but they weren’t coated solidly… just a sprinkle of specks, like gleaming freckles all over their bodies.

Festina turned toward me as I joined her. She stood at the edge of the cube, where it nuzzled the top of the parapet wall. No spores had fallen on the cube itself; but if Festina took another step forward, she’d be walking on moss dust.

"What do you think?" she asked. "Is it going to eat us?"

"I don’t know," I said. "It sure likes pretending it wants to eat us… but that might be its idea of a joke. Jumping out and going, ‘Boo!’ at the lower species. If the Balrog really wanted to have us for supper, it could have done that long ago."

"Maybe it’s just following its own code of ethics," Festina suggested. "Can’t eat anyone who keeps a respectful distance, but if you actually step on a spore, you’re fair game."

She had a point. Maybe if you stepped on a bunch of moss, it actually hurt the spores — I’d get hurt if someone walked all over me. In that case, the Balrog might feel perfectly justified in biting your feet.

I glanced back at the palace’s palisade. Outside, the Black Army was massing for its final assault, with ramps and battering rams and siege towers. Even worse, four Laughing Larries had taken up positions just inside one section of wall; by the look of it, they’d soon open fire, slaughtering nearby guards as the attackers began smashing their way in.

Whatever we needed to do, we’d better do it fast. Time to try a trick. "Give me a second," I told Festina. Then I closed my eyes and thought of pheromones.

Here are the pheromones I’d made: the lust scent that got Festina talking about judo mats; the "don’t be scared" smell I’d used to comfort Counselor; the royal pheromone that screamed, "Obey me now!" Some of those chemicals worked on humans, some worked on Mandasars. I didn’t know if I could make something to work on Balrogs… but Balrogs could "taste" pheromones so maybe the darned moss could be affected too.

Back on the orbital I’d tried to make a Balrog repellant and Kaisho had got real mad: Stop it, Edward, before you produce something deadly. Okay — maybe it was dangerous, trying to make the Balrog go away… but what if I made it nice?

I pictured a different sort of royal pheromone: not one to subdue peasants, but one that spoke to rulers. A scent that said, Some people end up in positions of power; and if you’re the one who comes out on top, you have to be good about it. You have to do the right thing, and never ever act like a jerk.

It wasn’t a fancy sentiment, and any philosopher would nitpick it to pieces… but the Balrog and me, we had things in common. If we really wanted, we could both run roughshod over normal folks; so we had to take special care not to. Do the right thing and don’t act like a jerk. That was a rule I wanted to follow myself, and I wanted the Balrog to follow it too. I tried to make a pheromone that would stir some sense of scruples in a bunch of glowing alien spores…

…and as I stood there on the edge of the ramparts, the spores just drifted away — slid silently off Plebon and the Mandasars, sifted over the parapet stones, and drew back to the stairwell. Ten seconds later, Dade was still covered in fuzz but the rest of the area was absolutely clear.

"Holy shit," Festina whispered. "Did you do that?"

"Um. Maybe."

"With pheromones?"


She shuddered. "Makes me glad I’m wearing this tight-suit. If you can drive off the Balrog, you probably smell like the rear end of something whose front end is dead."

"No," I said. "I smell like conscience." Then I stepped over the rampart wall and onto the parapet.

Fast as we could, we heaved Plebon and the Mandasars onto the top of the glass cube. The unconscious Zeeleepull took a ton of work and when we were finished, his shell had a bunch of new dents and scratches… but at least we got everybody safely onto the cube’s upper surface. No way we could get them all inside — it would take a heavy-duty winch to lower Zeeleepull through that hole in the roof — but if Tobit could hold the cube level as it flew, our friends would be safe where they were.

Provided Tobit could fly the cube at all.

"Ready to go?" Tobit yelled up through the hole.

Festina looked back at the parapet. Kaisho and her wheelchair still sat in the mouth of the stairwell. The admiral paused a moment longer, then sighed. "Hold on a minute, Phylar. One more passenger to pick up."

I was already hopping onto the parapet one last time. The main mass of Balrog had retreated a bit down the ramp, leaving Kaisho sitting out on her own. She’d slumped good and limp when Dade shot her with the stunner; but as we grabbed the arms of her chair, she lifted her head. "That won’t be necessary," she whispered.

Festina jerked in surprise. She let go of the chair and balled her hands into fists; but after a second she let her hands relax. "You recover amazingly fast from being stunned," she told Kaisho. "Most organisms stay unconscious for six hours."