A wave hit me in the side of the head as I splashed feet-first into the ocean, spluttering a little as I came back up. Several metres away the yacht from Tez’s vision bobbed up and down, engine cut, clearly visible in the bright afternoon sun. At first it looked like no one was on board, until I made out a lone figure crouched on the rear deck in the act of emptying what my nose identified as human waste over the side. It wasn’t Mayari.
It was hardly the only vehicle in sight. Singapore’s ports had never been quiet, but this was something else. Ships were backed up almost to the horizon, densely packed and eerily quiet. In the distance, not that far away, sat the island itself.
I warped onto the roof of the ship for a better look and found myself staring out at the familiar skyline, ordinary to all appearances except for a distinctive band of ocean close to shore, completely devoid of traffic. The dead zone extended from the water’s edge and continued for a couple of hundred metres out. A particularly dense line of boats marked the point where Themis’ compulsion must have kicked in, and seemed to be attracting more activity.
Refocusing on the immediate problem, I called out to the figure below. “Have you seen a woman with long silver hair? Or perhaps one wearing her weight in jewellery?”
The figure took another couple of moments to shake out the remainder of the refuse before turning to stare up at me. “I have,” she said. “Don’t tell me. You’re another one of them, aren’t you?”
“What makes you think that?”
She raised the empty container at me. “Well, you’re on the roof. And you have four arms.”
It was a good thing I hadn’t run into Parvati upfront. Impersonating one of her avatars to her face wouldn’t have made the best impression.
“Good call,” I admitted, changing form into my guise as Sørine, for Parvati’s sake. The captain – judging by her uniform, a feminine version of the kind of getup Apollo liked to wear – waited for me to slide off the roof and gestured with the container into the ship’s interior.
“The passengers are keeping out of the sun,” she informed me, keeping up an admirable poker face. “I hope there won’t be any more of you. It’s already too crowded. Everyone’s stranded from port, and there’s been no radio or mobile communication from the island. We’re all just waiting to be allowed back in.” She looked at me hopefully. “I don’t suppose you have any news?”
“You’ll be waiting for a month,” I said. “If I were you, I’d set course for Malaysia now and hope they let you in. Never hurts to be first in line.”
“A month? Surely not. Just the logistics of circulating supplies –” She saw my face and made a double-take. “You don’t think they'll send help.”
“They can’t. Not here. And even if they could, they’d need them all for themselves. Give it a couple of weeks, it wouldn’t surprise me if the situation in there devolves into anarchy.” I shrugged. “But what would I know? I’m just an opportune bystander on a roof.”
I can hear you out there, Mayari prodded me from the direction of the lower floor of the cabin. Are you planning on joining us sometime in the next century?
“Got to go,” I informed the captain, and headed in down the stairs.
A gaggle of mostly tourists was crowded into the lower cabin. Counting Mayari, Yun-Qi and Parvati, it made ten people in total. What made the scene all the more bizarre was that Parvati appeared to be holding the eight-seater counter taking up fifty per cent of the small space hostage. With the exception of Yun-Qi and Mayari, each perched uncomfortably on one half of the table, the rest of the group were seated on the floor with their shoes off. Parvati, of course, had claimed the head of the table for herself. No one in the room was talking, and none of them looked happy.
Seeing me enter, Parvati nodded to Yun-Qi and uttered a few sharp words in Sanskrit, whereby he slithered out of the alcove and gestured for me to take his place.
“I think not,” I said in Mandarin, not moving. “Someone looks like they’re in dire need of temporal adjustment training.”
“While I agree,” Mayari began, “antagonising our not-so-gracious host is a poor way to begin a negotiation.”
We had a decent amount of bartering power despite the uncomfortable stalemate. If it came to an altercation it would be two against one, with neither side having much intel on what the other was capable of. Chances were we’d come out on top, especially if we struck first. There was very little chance Durga’s personality would survive the altercation, and there was always the possibility Parvati could pull out an unexpected triumph, but she was in no position to be bullying us around. We had to be giving her pause.
Rather than comply, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the severed face of Janus, holding it out towards said host, who recoiled at the sight. The tourists took it much more in stride, probably under the assumption the object was some kind of stage prop. “As promised, a solution,” I announced in broken Sanskrit, then switched back to Mandarin, nodding at Yun-Qi. “Tell her we’re ready to release Durga.”
Of the seven hapless unfortunates, two were children: One small boy who seemed to have a fidget problem, and a slightly older girl whose posture screamed of pent-up adrenaline raring to escape. The adults weren’t much better, tense and wary with bags under their eyes, shifting every so often to reposition themselves against the hard surfaces of the cabin.
I used Parvati’s momentary distraction to spit anaesthetic out into the face I was holding, excreting the substance from the skin of my fingers. At the same time, I grew my body out further, extending it in filaments like fishing wire until I had strands resting against all seven hostages. At which point it was a simple matter of pushing them through to the haven of Tru’s apartment where I could figure out what to do with them later. Some gods could get a bit whiny around the office about only being able to relocate people away via touch. Shapeshifting, combined with a little imagination, allowed me to mitigate this particular restriction.
A complex wash of emotions passed over Mayari’s face at the sudden disappearances. Her shoulders tensed.
Less subtle was Parvati’s reaction. Her head snapped back around, outrage consuming her features. For an instant she flickered, changed and turned blue, gold jewellery giving way to eerie trophies of flesh and bone. From her eyes a deep wildness gazed out, raring to unleash itself on anyone who stood in its way. For that brief moment, I found myself paralysed not by indecision but by force, as surely as I had by Enki’s edict days ago. Only for an instant, however, before Parvati’s countenance firmly reasserted itself.
“How dare you exploit my hospitality?” she thundered, rising from the table. Yun-Qi translated her words with a furtive glance in her direction, but kept going. “You disturb me on my ship, in my home, and thieve my retainers, with no regard for consultation. This, when I have been nothing but indulgent with you. Give me one good reason I shouldn’t take your retainer from you in reparation and cancel our bargain.”
I wondered how she’d found out about Regina, until I realised she was talking about Yun-Qi. The spy-turned-executive assistant was as casually-dressed as I’d ever seen him, which was to say his suit had a few faint wrinkles in it and he’d undone the shirt button under his tie in such a way as to try to disguise the fact he’d changed anything.
Mayari rose similarly to her feet. Her hair whispered around her in buoyant strands as if floating in invisible water. “We don’t do things like that anymore,” she responded, delivering the lie with the calm clout of conviction. “If you run around taking whatever you want from wherever takes your fancy, our mutual enemy will find you in no time.”
“Don't patronise me,” snapped Parvati. “You think I don’t know I need to be careful? This doesn’t begin to approach what I want. This is nothing. Your trickster promised me a home, only to lock me out of it the instant I did what she wanted.”
I rolled my eyes. “Blame Themis.”
The returning laugh was filled with derision. “Am I supposed to trust you after you only just stole from me? All I’m doing is claiming a new home. Here on the waters between lands, where borders are indeterminate and ownership is in dispute. If my house is taken from me, I have no choice but to rebuild it myself from the most modest beginnings. Elevate these serendipitous mortals to positions of honour and fortune. My new elite. Only small minds would assume I’d enslave them.”
“They were scared,” Mayari pointed out. I could see her chafe at the ‘small minds’ comment. “Things have changed dramatically in your absence. More than you can imagine, and faster than anyone expected. If you turn up and announce your divinity, people are going to think you’re lying or have lost your mind. And if you give them proof, they’ll fear you.”
Yun-Qi’s translation slowed down a bit on that last part, a slight frown on his face.
“Not to say it can’t be done,” I jumped in. “But you need to ease into it. Be subtle. You’re a fugitive, and Providence’s reach is wide.”
“Everything comes back to choice,” added Mayari. “So offer them one. And for heaven’s sake, you shouldn’t be holding court in this vessel. It’s definitely violating safety standards.”
“Do not patronise me,” Parvati repeated. She shook her head, a toss of the shoulders, and her jewellery tinkled. “Do I need to explain to you my experience with periods of absence? People are malleable. They will adapt and come to be grateful for their advantage. But I can't be expected to navigate a hostile environment without eyes and advisors. This is obviously an temporary solution until an improvement can be found.”
At this point Yun-Qi stopped translating. “I managed to talk her out of taking over one of the larger vessels,” he explained. “She had her sights set on the largest one until I described how unsuitable cargo ships were.”
“It’s a strict upgrade,” said Mayari. “As evidenced by the fact they have beds.”
“It's the prestige,” Yun-Qi replied, his expression unreadable. “She wants to impress. I explained smaller boats were more exclusive and sought after. I imagined a slight exaggeration would spare further crews her attention.” He frowned. "How long will she need an escort for?"
Interesting. I wondered how he would react if offered the chance to become one of Parvati’s retainers. I’d pictured him as a general fanboy, or perhaps just someone posing as one to achieve an end, but it was starting to look like his taste in deities was limited to a more specific radius. It made me a little uncomfortable to think said radius might extend only as far as me.
Parvati was almost too easy a target. She’d been dropped into an alien world unrecognisable from the one she’d known and could only trust whatever she could glean from her own observation, hampered as it was by the language barrier. We could tell her just about anything and she’d have to take it at face value until disproven. No wonder she was pushing back.
“Enough,” Parvati ordered, her displeasure at being left out crystal clear. Once again I felt that brief hiccup wash over me, freezing me in place just for a moment, along with what might have been a flicker of change in the goddess herself. “A proper residence will be one of my requirements. I will not give you Durga for free. In addition, I will need full amnesty and independence from all other divine entities. Including you.”
“Within reason,” Mayari specified, drumming her fingers on the surface of the table. “We can promise not to harm you and not to turn you over, but that’s about the extent of it. What the rest of Providence does is out of our control. If they scry you out, there’s not much we can do. Get caught, and we’ll deny all knowledge of having met.” The drumming ceased, her fingers hovering above the bench. “There’s also the question of what to do about all these stranded refugees,” she murmured, meeting my eyes.
“Well, they’re not coming to my apartment,” I stressed. At it was, I wished I was there right now to see how Tru was coping with seven more strangers landing in his lap instead of being expected to witness a treaty agreement for what at this rate would end up being the young sovereign nation of New Yachtland.
She grinned at me. “The queen wants a court, does she? What do you call it when two halves of a problem fall into your lap?” She snapped her fingers. “Right, serendipity.”
“Blind, stupid luck,” I corrected her.
The grin didn’t go away. “I’ve been preparing for a moment like this for fifty years.”
I cottoned on. “You want to put them on the moon? There must be thousands of people out there. Last time I checked, your bunker couldn’t support four.”
“No, it’s not ready. But the supplies are. Food, beds, tools, etcetera. With the replicator, we can roll them out on a larger scale in no time. Especially if I can get Tez on board.” Her tone seemed to indicate Tez would be gotten on board whether he liked it or not. “Parvati can be first. We’ll get her set up, and she can be my assis -” she paused, remembering her words were still being translated, “- designated project consultant and ambassador. That should speed things up. Think about it. This will be a trial run. I’ll have a whole town full of test sub -” she paused again, “residents.”
Parvati looked between us warily. “You’re offering me a principality? In exchange for Durga?”
“I’m offering you a place to stay,” said Mayari. “And a job, if you want it. You can pass the time how you want, but to be blunt, without a translator you aren’t going to get far. And I’ll need someone to keep the camp running while I’m at Providence.”
At the mention of Providence, Parvati’s eyes hardened again. Hard to blame her.
“You were a leader,” Mayari pressed on. “As one to another, you will be again. But our purpose should be to aid and protect, not be the next coming of autocracy. These people have lives they’ll need to go back to in a month. We can find you a translator and by the end of it I’d be very surprised if we can’t find a few people interested in working with you long-term. But you can’t just go swooping in and claiming random people against their wishes. It has to be a partnership.” She extended a hand. “That’s the offer. Deal?”
Parvati glanced down at the proffered limb and back again, not moving. Her lips curled downwards. “You use alluring words to dress up a swindle, you who grovel to conquerors. I ask for my independence, and instead you offer only more subservience. My sisters and I have been freed from captivity after hundreds of years, and not only do you seek to acquit our oppressor, you’d also deny us the basic right to rebuild what was lost. All while keeping us conveniently under your watchful eye. I think not. Give us ownership of this new principality, however, and you can have Durga. Uneven as the trade may be.”
The hand dropped. “And what would you do with it?”
Parvati lowered herself back down into a seated position. “That is none of your business.”
I figured the numbness from the anaesthetic would have well and truly had enough time to take full effect by now, and used the distraction to quietly wake up Janus’ sleeping face. It took a few attempts of increasing intensity, but eventually the god flared into consciousness. There was no screaming in my head, so I took it the treatment was working.
Mayari was trying again, coming at the negotiation from a different angle, though I could hear the frustration creeping into her voice.
Quick, I urged Janus. The face twitched in my hand and it took a monumental amount of willpower not to drop it. These are the terms we agreed with your counterpart. Ever met Parvati? We need to separate Durga’s personality out of her, fast. Can you do it?
She of many? Easily. Has she agreed to it?
Durga's a hostage. If you don’t do it now, a god will be erased forever.
Then so be it, said the face. It twitched again. This was going to be one of those days. As tiresome as it was at a desk on a typical office day, it at least had a lack of dismemberment going for it, if you didn't count the sporadic outbreaks of infighting every few decades. And you couldn't count those. Finesse in battle was harder for most to achieve when the nearest available weapons were old rotary phones whose handsets fell off their holsters and trailed stretchy spiral cord around your legs the moment you picked them up. HR took their job seriously. Although it hadn't stopped some people from trying.
At the table, Parvati stumbled mid-sentence, her body jerking forward. She clutched at her torso, then clutched it again, more arms sprouting weed-like from her shoulders. A high-pitched, agonised moan escaped her lips, soft at first, but growing in volume until it reached an intensity loud enough to shatter windows. The cabin shook, hairline fractures spreading across the chamber to send woodchips and veneer fluttering from the ceiling.
Mayari darted out of the alcove in a hurry, shooting me an accusatory glare. But it was too late to take it back. No sooner had she gotten clear than one of Parvati’s arms crashed down on the table, splitting it in two. Another slammed against the wall behind her, tearing an entire panel from its frame. It landed on top of her but she caught it and swung it around, pelting it haphazardly across the room. It flew crashing into the cabin’s miniature kitchen, right where a row of complimentary glassware had been sitting before the shriek had turned it into an experimental mosaic.
Yun-Qi had dived out of the way and was standing, tensed, at the edge of the stairs. Footsteps, barely audible above the cacophony, skittered up behind him and came to an abrupt halt as the ship’s captain raced into sight of the doorframe. She took in the scene, shouted something unintelligible and began towing the former academic back up towards the main deck.
She’s resisting, Janus informed me, presumably unaware of the chaos raining down around us.
No kidding. Don’t let her win.
Disoriented and ambushed, I doubted Parvati was in much of a state to fight back. To my left, Mayari had her arms raised, power swelling out from around her and filling the room with an ominous sense of impending pressure, ready to come crashing down on the back end of a knife’s edge. I stayed well away.
Parvati screamed in Sanskrit, the cry reaching almost eardrum-shattering volumes, still tearing at herself as much as the environment around her. At that point something gave, the fingers finding purchase, and a tear opened up in the centre of her chest, cavernous and dark like the emptiness of space.
Out of it stepped Durga. Or fell, rather, head-first onto the splintering cabin floor where water was trickling up from the breaches. She caught herself in a flash of red into a forward somersault which resolved into an alert crouch, looking astonished to be there. Her eyes landed first on Mayari, then on me, before swivelling and coming face to face with her captor.
Parvati sagged against what remained of the cabin wall, eyes closed and no longer screaming. The wound in her chest was already starting to close.
It is done, Janus said. I didn’t know how to make him go back to sleep in this state, so dispensed an extra dose of anaesthetic and slid the face into a pocket, keenly aware not to shapeshift. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I absorbed another god during a transformation, but it seemed like the sort of thing I could easily come to regret.
“Sister,” Durga murmured in Sanskrit, in what sounded to me like pure reverence. She stepped forward.
Parvati’s eyes snapped open in an instant. “Die,” she snarled.
The goddess’ form flickered, vertical lines appearing across it as if on an old cathode television set. Pale brown flesh gave way to blue, the elegant silk robes to something out of a poacher’s wet dream. The garland of skulls around her neck and the skirt of preserved human arms wreathing her waist didn’t help, either. While the Hindu gods did tend to have plenty of arms to spare, the fact these were distinctly not blue was a good indication they hadn’t been self-donated.
“Ah,” said Durga, her eyes not moving from the new arrival, “this is my sister Kali. We haven’t met.”
Kali opened her mouth and screamed out a string of curses I didn’t understand.
“She has a bit of a temper,” Durga added. “Also, you might want to run.”