308 - Lying Down With the Lion

Carisa Maldonado was a little girl when the UFO came.

She didn’t understand what was happening. It didn’t hurt, but she was scared anyway, and she screamed and cried. They’d talked to her, but it hadn’t sunk in at the time.

She got a little older. She looked up some of the words they’d used. “Black hole”. “Conduit”. It hadn’t meant much, but she felt like she had done something.

They came for her a second time. She’d fought and struggled and shouted. It hadn’t worked. They’d done something to her - changed her - but by the time the strength was hers, the UFO and its occupants were long gone.

She could crush anyone who crossed her. She could break anything that upset her. And she realized to her frustration that this meant she was less free than she’d ever been.

Her family was always watching.

Anything that broke was her fault. Anyone she hurt was blame she’d have to carry. She had to be cautious. She had to be polite. She had to take it.

She really didn’t like taking it.

The glowing alien was so polite, it was extra annoying. Why did the team have to take one of his kind?

“Hello. My name is Scraaseetotabobah.”

He’d even bowed. Gawd.

“Your name is Bob.”

“My apologies. My name is Scraasee–”

“I am not calling you anything but Bob,” she’d announced.

The others on the team had looked at each other, and at her, but by now she was done caring about what they thought. She was a god damn super-chica, and she would wear peoples’ dislike as a badge of honor. Let them have their little looks and share their little whispered conversations. When someone had to punch a mountain, they’d still come crawling back to her.

“Think of it… like a nickname,” Kinetica had told the alien, apologetically. “We give nicknames to people. It’s a way of… making friends.”

The space chump had the gall to smile. “Very well. Please call me Bob. My friends.”

No me estoy haciendo amigo de este payaso.

I am not making friends with this clown.

“Do you know why we would have taken A10 before you, Keri?” Blackbird asked.

“It’s not because she’s more powerful,” Keri replied flippantly.

“It’s because of that attitude. We know you’ve been abrasive toward some of your teammates. You’ve had things to say about Transcendent because of their alien origin. You have power. But you’re not a team player.”

“Well that’s because I’m stuck with a shitty team!” she shouted.

“The Junior HHL is one of the most promising teams in the country,” Blackbird said quietly. “We’ve made sure of that. Funding, training, and careful screening of new recruits. In your case, you got in despite your attitude, not because of it. If you think you’re better than them because you’re more powerful–”

“I’m better than them because all the shit I’ve put up with! They are a bunch of privileged whiners who pretend to play nice, and then stab me in the back. ¡Manda cojones!”

Blackbird sighed. “If you don’t like them, then why don’t you quit?”

Keri had no answer she could say out loud.

Because being alone is worse than being with those assholes.

Whenever she wasn’t letting her anger get the better of her, life was pretty good. She didn’t think about it much.

She was a minor Instagram influencer. She’d taken up costume design, and was good at it. She’d sit in the restaurant, poké bowl beside her, laptop in front of her, and create a costume. The colors flowed out of her mind, through her fingers, and onto the screen, creating patterns that would catch the eye. Then she’d shovel cubes of fish and spoonfuls of rice into her mouth until the next moment of inspiration hit. Then she’d post the results - or make them, and model it. The numbers flowed in.

This was what she felt she wanted. Recognition. Adulation. Celebration. Attention.

She could be angry later.

She always was.

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By the time she’d fully figured out Adam Amari’s deal, Keri was pretty sure he’d made her feel every possible emotion.

First - well, that grownup bod was pretty hot. Then she got creeped out when she started to realize the situation. There was some sadness and anger and all kinds of things in there, as the confusion had swirled. She’d hated Sol, until she understood how Adam felt about him.

But there was one feeling that tore through the others and established dominance, the way she did when she was thrashing bad guys. One feeling that won out in the melee.

Something from space came and messed his life up too.

She had to take care of him. She absolutely had to do right by him, the way a big sister would take care of a kid brother, going through the same shit she had.

She was grudgingly getting along with Bob. She was on better terms with her other teammates.

She’d punched enough monsters, broken through enough walls, taken enough blasts to the face, that somehow or other they’d started appreciating her.

Getting to know them meant understanding how they felt, just a little bit.

And she understood that she was pretty obnoxious.

She made costumes for them, after someone had shared - without her consent! - some of her Instagram work. They were all complimentary and the praise was nice, but it felt hollow and artificial. Maybe it was sincere? But she was too far into her own head to know for sure. They had to hate her for her attitude, but they tolerated her for her power.

Wasn’t this what she’d told Blackbird was what she wanted? To be respected for her power?

It kinda sucked.

Somehow, she disliked Kid Kelvin the least. He was a d-bag, but it was kinda obvious that he didn’t like himself. It was all a front.

Like me.

Kinetica was… okay. Boring powers. Boring person.

Stingray was the cool kid, but he had problems. Everyone knew his father was Nautilus, but he never talked about it. But he had attitude.

Ninjess didn’t talk about shit. Well, that was good, in a way. She was dependable.

Bob talked a lot. About his home, what he liked, what he was doing on Earth.

Every time he smiled, it ground into her gut like a knife.

I’m supposed to hate him.

The worst, though, was AJ.

AJ Masoud, formerly “Pharos”, had been on the team once. He had some kind of eye-beam power, until a villain had damaged his eyes.

After that, everyone kinda agreed that he should quit the team. No powers is no good, right?

She thought “everyone kinda agreed” had included AJ.

What good was he anyway? He didn’t have power. He couldn’t take revenge against the people who did this to him. He couldn’t contribute to the team. He was just… AJ.

He was a student at Gardner. He was doing well. His grades were good. Every so often, the two of them would be put in a situation where they couldn’t ignore each other. She’d do her best to talk about her costumes, knowing he couldn’t see them.

He’d be agreeable and complimentary, in that weird way you know isn’t sincere but they do it to be nice?

It didn’t make any sense.

Like, why didn’t she talk about literally anything else - like something he could experience without his eyes?

Being nice to me is his revenge. Against some of the people who wronged him. Us.

When he was on the team, AJ had smiled a lot. But it was a smile that felt like an excited puppy wagging its tail. It was eager. Now, when he smiled, it was like… he was just a dude. A dude who’s happy.

Or… he’s just a nice guy.

Nothing made any god damn sense.

It all made her want to punch things, really really hard.

So she did.

¡Puta madre!

How was she to feel about the HHL, finally recognizing her, finally inviting her into step up?

It meant leaving the planet. It meant going after the Blot, the aliens who had invaded.

Blackbird knew her history. She’d gotten the invitation personally. “You don’t have to, but… if you feel the need, well… there’s people out there who need rescuing from the Blot, and maybe you’d like to help with that.”

It meant leaving Earth behind. Her team.

The people who supposedly hated her. The people she supposedly hated.

I’m supposed to say yes. Why is it so hard?

She’d asked her family first, of course.

Mom put together a huge sealed container of sazón - “you’ll be doing your own cooking in outer space, won’t you”. Everyone got busy writing cards and notes. Uncle made sure she had a crucifix and rosary beads. Cal and Chel gave her their favorite stuffed lion toy.

They seemed supportive, but concerned. She could see their faces, read the worry, hear the unspoken questions and admonitions. But she smiled, and promised them she was strong, nothing could hurt her, and she’d be back once business was wrapped up.

Halcyon Heroes League members filed aboard the Sunjumper. The press was there. Members of Park Tech were there. The ship was new, based on some kind of fancy “black hole drive”. It could go anywhere at incredible speed. It wasn’t armed, but the crew would more than make up for that.

Keri walked up the ramp, cradling her bubble helmet in her arms like a chihuahua. The space suit was thick, definitely unfashionable, but not too encumbering. She switched the helmet to one hand long enough to wave to the crowd and the cameras - with a tinge of regret and sudden loneliness - and ducked into the brightly lit interior of the ship.

The Sunjumper launched, not with the furious rocket blast Keri had expected from watching old news footage, but with a gentle hum of electromagnetic thrust. She looked out the porthole, watched the people fade into dots, watched the clouds pass, watched blue turn into black.

Transcendent, the Golem, Paladin, Sigrun, and Phantasm were all operating machinery, or looking out their own viewports. They’d invited a couple of other non-HHL heroes along, but Keri didn’t know any of them personally.

Nobody seemed interested in talking.

Well, that doesn’t bode well.

Transcendent was from space, originally. That made him sort of the leader by default.

“We have some idea of where they’ve been, based on the species we saw during the invasion,” he’d said. “That means there’s going to be a Blot presence in those systems. We’ll start by eliminating that, then work back to where their bigger, more important assets are.”

“Sounds like a plan. Let’s get to it,” Phantasm had grinned.

“Let’s kick some ass,” Keri had said, emboldened by the spirit.

They’d all just nodded at that, and gone back to things.

It was weird, then, feeling like she was no longer special. She wasn’t the baddest mofo on the block here. She was just a junior member of a very storied ass-kicking team.

Well, at least they don’t hate me.

Luyten’s Star was 12 light years from Earth. A “super-Earth”, Luyten b, swung around the red-orange star at a speedy 18 days a year.

It was really something to see. Keri had seen pictures of Earth in textbooks, on television, and so on. This was just somehow bigger.

The Sunjumper descended through pink-purple clouds. The crew could see, far below them, signs of habitation. And there, in the distance, was what they expected. Blot technology. Black-stained fungal overgrowths that served the Blot as buildings. People - not human, but perhaps humanoid, and chained together - laboring at something. Blot mycoforms, moving this way and that.

“This is it,” the Golem had said, in a cold voice that didn’t fully mask the undercurrent of fury. “I think everyone knows what they need to do.”

Everyone did.

Keri’s life fell into a familiar rhythm.

Find a population under Blot oppression. Challenge the Blot’s hold over them. Defeat the Mold, Tendrils, and Colossi that came in waves to do battle. Defeat the Blot Neurocaps that formulated strategy and directed the minions. On the ground, obliterate their Stroma bases and tear up the Mycelium underneath. In space, tear apart the Sporeships.

Once that was done, accept the tearful gratitude (or its equivalent) of the population. Question them about the Blot. Find another place to go. Leave behind a Park Tech ansible to let them call for help, if or when the Blot return.

Everyone had different parts to play in this process. Paladin and Phantasm fought the ground-based minions. Golem took on the Colossi. Transcendent, Sigrun, and Keri fought targets in the air and space. As part of his weirdo psychic powers, Transcendent handled translation and communication with the locals.

The other heroes were from around the world. All of them had some kind of grudge against extraterrestrials, Keri learned. Erdrücken, from Germany, had powers similar to hers, but when he used them he had to be on a planet’s surface. Not great for destroying Sporeships, absolutely great for crushing underground fungal networks under tons of rock. Sapan, from Turkey, could throw objects - or herself - great distances, by imparting a kinetic charge to them. Skykiller, from Vietnam, controlled some kind of blue-purple cloud of mist that could change density, spread, and form structures. As a team, they were like a destructive pinball machine, with Sapan bouncing off Skykiller’s mist like a living missile and Skykiller aiming the ricochets at other targets.

Days turned into weeks.

She visited thirty seven places. Most of them were on planets. Some were spectacular bubbles of air and habitation floating between moons, or giant floating leaves held aloft by a Venus-like super-atmosphere, or the dark and claustrophobic interiors of asteroids. One was on a dwarf planet that orbited its star so rapidly, an eight-hour battle had seen three sunrises.

The people the Blot were enslaving were just as varied. Spindly humanoids born of low gravity, puffy pink marshmallows that extruded pseudopods to manipulate objects, crystalline insects with holes in their bodies that “sang” as they moved about. There were a few groups that Golem dubbed “mycophiles” - people who had come to love or value the Blot - but for the most part, they were all as grateful for their freedom as any human being.

AB Aurigae b was 508 light years from Earth. If one had bent a sufficiently powerful telescope in the direction of Keri’s home planet, they might have been able to pick up the light coming from Copernicus’ home as he began writing “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”, the foundation for a heliocentric theory of the Solar System.

The planet itself was a gas giant, ringed with newly born moons that shone with volatile chemical light. The Blot had brought captives from a dozen worlds here, and had put them to work creating what the Blot always wanted.

The Blot wanted something beautiful, something artistic. They couldn’t do it themselves. So they made other people do it.

They’d only just started the work here. They weren’t well-entrenched, so most of the cleanup happened in space. That let Keri take point.

She was familiar by now with the experience of tearing apart a Sporeship. She’d fly at it, arms forward, fists balled up, and close her eyes. She’d puncture the spongy surface, fly through the disgustingly ichorous interior, and come out the other side. If she’d aimed properly, she’d destroy enough of the stronger materials to weaken the structure of the thing, and it could collapse under the pull of gravity from a nearby planet. Other times, she’d have to just keep at it until the thing was Swiss-cheesed enough to fall apart from existing inertial force.

It felt like waking up from a long and torturous dream when she saw signs of people, newly exposed to the vacuum of space, as she emerged from the latest ship.

“TC, Skykiller, air supply!” she shouted over comms, as she’d been trained.

Transcendent flashed up, with Skykiller in tow. Skykiller’s mist engulfed the alien captives as they floated out of the Sporeship. Keri watched as more people became visible, and more mist materialized to shelter them.

The Sunjumper wasn’t big enough to hold them, but in a valley on a nearby moon, a tenuous atmosphere had been found. The rescuees were taken there, and Keri got back to work.

Once the Blot had been dealt with, Keri found the moon, and the valley.

There was something, gnawing at her.

There was something she had to find out.

The people she’d seen aboard that Sporeship, the people that had been rescued and brought here, had been Scraaseetotabobah’s people.

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The Star Children, as they called themselves, had some kind of pseudo-telepathy that let them speak familiar languages, the way Transcendence could. They were otherwise glowing columns of light, and when they named themselves, it sounded like a fax machine making a call. Keri remembered Bob carefully enunciating his name for the team’s benefit.

“I know one of your people,” Keri said. “But he never said anything about the Blot. So what happened to you?”

“You can speak,” Transcendence had said to one of them, and they flashed multicolored lights in acknowledgement.

“That’s kinda rude,” Keri said, turning to Transcendence.

“They don’t speak unless given permission by a being of power,” the HHL hero explained.

“The fuck? Is that like a species thing?” she asked in confusion.

“It is a Blot thing,” the alien countered. “These beings have been told that unapproved self-expression will lead to their termination.”

“Holy shit,” Keri said to herself, softly. To the Star Child, she changed her approach. “No está bien. Nobody’s gonna hurt you if you talk. So please say whatever you feel like. If you feel like saying nothing, say nothing. Okay? We’re friends here.”

The Star Child glimmered, but did not yet speak.

“Okay, so like, my question from earlier?” Keri prompted.

“We were captured by the Blot,” the glowing alien explained hesitantly. “They wish us to create things for them. They threaten us with destruction if we do not comply. They will take us to another place, where we will perform our artistic function.”

“Like, all your people? Just a small group? Or what?” Keri asked.

“A whole crystal,” the alien said. Perhaps realizing that this was insufficient, it went on. “We are birthed from light passing through crystals which orbit our sun. A few minds emerge, then fracture with age. These grow and fracture in time. Perhaps 4,500 individual entities now exist from those few that were taken. The offspring inherit the memory of the parents, but develop into unique individuals.”

“So like they captured your great-grandparents, and you’re basically kids who grew up in captivity?” Keri asked in shock.

“That is approximately correct.”

“So most of your people are free, then?” she asked. “Like, at liberty, not captives?”

“At liberty until the Blot come for them,” the alien murmured.

“Okay, so people like Bob…”

Keri halted.

Here she was, talking to this generational prisoner, about a hero of their people who’d come to Earth.

And she could not


his real name.

The weight of the disrespect she’d shown him was like a punch in the gut.

“We do not know anyone called ‘Bob’. I am sorry we cannot help you,” the alien said sadly.

“He is… He’s a hero, on Earth, but he’s one of your people,” she explained.

“That one is fortunate,” the Star Child said. “Our home is no longer safe.”

The question that nagged at Keri came to her lips. “But he’s got power. He’s amazing. You people have that kinda power too, right? Like, manipulating light? Blasting stuff? Flying? You coulda fought back against the Blot, right?”

The alien pulsed and glowed and flickered, but said nothing.

“Why didn’t you fight back?” Keri demanded.

Again, her question was met with silence.

“Why didn’t you fight back!” she shouted.

She felt herself stepping forward, getting ready to physically push at the Star Child, when Transcendent’s hand clapped down on her shoulder and restrained her.

“When someone comes at you, or doesn’t let you use your own name, or whatever, you’re supposed to say something,” she explained, feeling tears rolling down her cheeks. “You don’t just take that shit lying down. You stand up for yourselves.”

She heard Phantasm’s voice behind her. “Easy, Superchica. The only place the lion lies down with the lamb is in Heaven. Everywhere else, there’s always gonna be the strong and the weak.”

She turned, and stared through a haze of tears, and realized–

Something from space came and messed their lives up.

–just how powerless she felt.

“What’s going to happen to these people?” she asked Transcendent.

“The same as always,” he’d said. “We’ll leave them a communication device, and move on to our next target.”

She swallowed a heavy lump, and shook her head. “I’m leaving the mission. I’m taking these people somewhere safe.”

“Where would be safe from the Blot?” the Star Child asked.

“I dunno.” A fresh wave of tears and choked sobs caught Keri off-guard. “How about Earth? We’re so welcoming and accepting of aliens there.”

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Earth had enough experience with aliens to have some notion of “putting out a call”. They put out a call for a freighter large enough to hold the Star Children, and willing to go to that wild frontier planet Sol Three, the so-called “graveyard of space empires”.

The crew of the Sunjumper waited in the AB Aurigae system long enough for the freighter to arrive. They negotiated a fee for passage - a promissory note to HHL members on Earth. Keri walked up the ramp, travel bag clutched in her hands, full of stuff like a half-empty container of sazón and a well-worn plush lion. And as she did, she saw them wave goodbye.

Keri could see the Earth through the viewport.

She dreaded what she imagined coming. Meeting her family again. Telling them she’d failed, she hadn’t stuck it out. Going back to her team–

She wanted to get out of the freighter, fly back into deep space, and never come back.

The negotiations with the remaining members of the HHL went smoothly. There was some kind of “Sepiaverse” thing in play, something the Menagerie had done, and Jason Quill had already started making provisions for refugees from somewhere. A few hundred more wouldn’t be a problem, it sounded like?

That left Keri, unfortunately, with lots of time to do other things.

Where was Adam Amari? In space - but not dealing with the Blot. Concordance stuff?

She wanted to ask him a question, after apologizing for being just the worst.

In all her travels, why had she never seen the Concordance intervene against the Blot?

But she couldn’t do that either. That just left two things–

Her family hugged her and didn’t let go. She told them what she’d done, and all they did was fuss and smile and promise she had made them proud. She wanted to cry, and protest that she’d been awful, but they weren’t having it. The extended family on the island were the same, and she had to spend a few hours sitting moodily at the peak of Pico Duarte after the reception they gave.

Didn’t they understand what she was feeling? It was like they loved her and were glad to see her back. But who the hell could feel that?

There was one other way she could put off the inevitable.

Sitting in a restaurant, poké bowl beside her, laptop in front of her, she began designing a new costume. It was time to stop being a “super-chica”. That name had been born out of her defiance. It was a name to pick fights with. It was a challenge. “Come at me at your peril”.

It was time to stop being that person. And if she wanted to change, she wanted to dress the part.

Finally - finally - she made herself known to her JHHL teammates.

They’d picked a new name in her absence: “The Chosen”. Well, with the HHL being what it was, she kind of understood.

She squared her shoulders, took a breath, and went and found one teammate in particular.

The glowing alien smiled.


“Welcome back from space. I am glad you are safe.”

“Yeah. And I got stuff to tell you. About your people. But first…”

The alien smiled again. “First?”

“Re-introductions. I’m Keri Maldonado. I’m going by the name ‘La Cordera’ now. Lamb, or the Lamb.”

She leaned in. “And it’s really important to me that I get your name right. So please tell me again.”


Keri felt a great relief. “Nice to meet you… Scra-a-see-to-ta-bo-bah,” she said. “I won’t forget it.”

Keri’s gone through a fair bit, but maybe things are better for her now? How do we feel about recent developments?

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Wow. That was a great opening.

And a huge kick in the gut.

A neatly packaged tale.I’m not quite sure what Keri’s new name represents to her, or how it changes her approach to things – but I do want to find out.

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