"Only if they have conventional nervous systems," Kaisho replied. "I’ve gone a bit beyond that."
"Were you unconscious at all?"
"Part of me," she admitted. "As for the other part… it’s thrilled not to be linked with Alexander York."
"There are still versions of him on Celestia and New Earth," Festina said.
"Not in working condition," Kaisho replied. "When the Balrog retrieved that gizmo from the clone’s gullet, we used it to send a shot of feedback along the line. One good focused pulse of psychic energy… and the containers inside the other two Admiral Yorks suffered rather spectacular meltdowns. At the time, the New Earth version of the bastard was sitting with the entire High Council at Admiralty HQ. His death made quite a splash. Consider it a windfall for the other admirals’ dry cleaners." She turned to me. "Should I offer my condolences or my congratulations?"
I didn’t like my father. I didn’t like my sister either, not once I learned all the awful things she’d been doing. It seemed really dumb to be sad they were gone.
But then, I’ve always been dumb, haven’t I?
PUSHING BACK THE ENEMY
A booming thud hit the palace’s west gate: the first slam of a battering ram. "No more time," Festina snapped. "Hang on, Kaisho, you’re coming with us."
"Anywhere the Black Army isn’t." She pointed to the hoverchair’s controls. "Fire up your engines and let’s go."
"No need," Kaisho said. "We’re safe here."
Another boom smashed the gates. The Black Army’s Laughing Larries spun into a full hyena cackle, their whoops echoing off the palace’s stonework. Any second they’d open fire.
"Hear that?" Festina asked. "Nobody’s safe, not tonight. Even your precious Balrog should worry. Those troops are surely prepared to burn every speck of moss they see. No matter how fast spores can eat through an enemy’s shell, fire works faster."
"There is no enemy," Kaisho replied. "Not anymore. We’ve dealt with Admiral York, and everybody left is just an innocent pawn."
"Those pawns have been ordered to kill, and there’s no one to call them off."
"They’ll call themselves off, dear Festina… if we demonstrate there are forces in the universe that lesser species shouldn’t fuck with."
"Uh-oh," Festina said. "You aren’t going to… remember, you just called them innocent pawns."
"Of course," Kaisho answered sweetly. "But as Teelu told you a few minutes ago, the Balrog loves jumping out and going, ‘Boo!’ "
Another boom banged above the Larries’ howl. The noise was followed by a heavy crunching sound… but the crunch didn’t come from the army at the palace gates. I looked toward the front of the palace, out where the moss was thickest. It had blazed up bright and angry, a furious fuzzy crimson all over the stonework queen’s head and her four claws.
One of the claws was trying to wrench itself off its foundations.
Slowly, ponderously, the claw crunched back and forth, as if it was stuck in a bit of mud and just needed to be teased.loose. The moss on the wriggling claw flared another notch brighter… and suddenly the claw was moving freely, a building wing four stories tall, lifting into the air.
The claw flexed once, as if it was stiff from lying immobile for so long. Mortar crackled and dust showered put from between cracks in the stone, but the whole thing held together somehow: from the sheer telekinetic force of a trillion Balrog spores showing off their strength. Without a pause, another claw began to work itself free.
"If I were you," Kaisho told Festina, "I’d hop onto that glass cube and head a hundred meters straight up."
"It’s going to get dangerous down here?"
"No, the Balrog won’t hurt anybody. But you’re going to kick yourself if you don’t go high enough to get a good view."
She caught Festina’s gloved hand and pulled it to her lips for a kiss. As she did, the hair covering her face slid aside; with a squirm in my stomach, I saw crimson moss now coated her cheeks, her forehead, even bristly wads over her eyes. There was no way she could possibly see through that glowing fuzz… but I guess Kaisho had reached the point where the moss did her seeing for her.
"Go," she said to Festina: a single word, spoken in a real human voice, not her usual whisper.
Then Kaisho turned to me and held out her hand. A bit reluctantly, I came forward and took it. She clasped both hands around mine and drew me in gently, so I was forced to crouch up close to her. "Teelu" she whispered, her breath brushing my cheek, "a pity we won’t be working together. I would have enjoyed touching my mind to yours. But you’ve persuaded the Balrog not to embrace you as its own. Others have prior claim on you."
"Who?" I asked.
She gave me a little kiss on the nose. "Your people," she whispered, "as you know full well. You still consider yourself unintelligent, Teelu; it’s charming, but you’ll have to grow out of it. Kings need confidence."
Before I could answer, she put her finger to my mouth to stop me from speaking. Next thing I knew, her voice was talking right inside my head. "Sometime in the next eighteen years, Teelu, I’ll visit you, wherever you are. The Balrog believes it would be amusing for you and me to have a child: mostly human, but with your control of pheromones and my enhanced mental abilities. Apparently, this is why the Balrog fused with me in the first place; and for twenty-five years, it’s been transforming my body chemistry to make such a pregnancy possible. A few more years, and I’ll be ready." She leaned forward and kissed me with her moss-covered lips. "It’s a bitch dealing with precognitive races. But if everything I’ve gone through is gearing me up for a night with you… well, life has its compensations, doesn’t it?"
"Um… what if I don’t think this is such a good idea?"
"It’s not an idea, Teelu — it’s fate. Already written by the Mother of Time. Relax and accept that some evening you’ll find something warm and fuzzy in your bed."
She laughed out loud… probably at the look on my face. Then her hoverchair rocketed down the stairwell a hundred times faster than it’d ever moved before. The sound of her laughter echoed long after she was gone.
Festina grabbed my arm. "Let’s go, Edward. Things are going to get crazy real fast." I pulled myself away from looking down the empty stairwell and glanced toward the front of the building. All four claws had ripped themselves free, and now the queen’s head was pushing itself up. The stone under my feet rocked slightly… just a little tremor, but I still wobbled for a moment, off balance.
"Yeah," I said, "going sounds good."
We ran to the edge of the roof and threw ourselves over the wall, onto the glass cube. Even as I jumped, another tremor shivered through the stone beneath me — the queen’s head had risen, and now she was lifting her body on its eight legs.
Far below, things popped and groaned inside the building: walls tearing away from floors, support beams breaking, furniture toppling over. A stream of palace guards charged out a ground-floor door, all of them screaming martial battle cries and brandishing crossbows in search of someone to shoot. They must have thought the Black Shoulders had started the building shaking by clobbering the walls with battering rams. When the guards saw huge masonry claws waving high over their heads, they screamed again. This time, it didn’t sound nearly so martial.
Festina scrambled over the glass roof and stuck her head through the hole in the cube. "Phylar! Are you ready to fly this thing?"
"Make it yes, and make it now. Straight up till we’re clear of this mess."