Chapter 1

There’s no sound in space, but my saucer cannons simulated a shriek with every blast. A swoosh followed every barrel roll. And when my autogunner scored a hit, a sophisticated program supplied the appropriate level of response, ranging from a simple ping to a full-fledged explosion. I could have programmed it to provide an explosion every time, but that would’ve cheapened the experience.

The atmosphere burst with color as the cannons belched their staccato rhythm. My ship blasted the enemy fighters to scrap, but an impressive fleet stood between my target and me. The shields were holding, but I had only a few moments before I was disabled.

I’d gone over my exo options before mission. Neptunons might have been the smartest race in the galaxy, but outside of our exoskeletons, we couldn’t do much more than flop around. We could drag ourselves across the floor, a means of mobility both embarrassing and ineffective. Our brains had grown too fast, and we just hadn’t possessed the patience to wait around for nature to bestow what we could give ourselves. Over the centuries, we’d only grown smarter and squishier.

The obvious choice for an exo on this mission would’ve been a big, burly combative model. But I’d opted for stealth, taking a modified Ninja-3 prototype. It stood barely five feet tall and space limitations meant it didn’t pack much weaponry. But I wasn’t planning on fighting every soldier on the station. It sounded like a laugh, but time was a factor. Terra was a little over six minutes from total subjugation.

I slipped into my exo, loaded myself into the launch tube, and prepared to fire.

“It was a pleasure serving with you, sir,” said the craft’s computer.


I ejected, rocketing through space in a jet-black torpedo that was practically invisible in the darkness of space. A stray plasma blast could’ve gotten lucky and struck the torpedo. If it didn’t destroy me outright, it would knock the torpedo off course, either sending me spinning into the void of space or plummeting to Terra. But I’d done the math and decided to take my chances.

The torpedo breached the station’s hull. I kicked open the torpedo’s door and exited. There were no guards. Only a couple of technicians gasping for air. The artificial gravity held them in place, but the decompression had taken all the oxygen.

A security team stormed the room. I vaulted over their heads before they got off a shot. A few punches from my exo’s four arms knocked them all senseless before they could even realize I was behind them. The Ninja-3 had several built-in blades, but I tried not to kill people just for annoying me.

I took a second to grab the emergency oxygen masks off the wall and toss them to the technicians.

Then I was on my way. My exo’s camouflage feature al- lowed me to avoid guards. I slipped through the security net without much trouble, though it took a few minutes. By the time I reached the device, I was running short on time.

The immense orb hovered in a containment field. Hundreds of lights, purely ornamental, blinked across its surface. Its ultrasonic hum filled the chamber. Only a Neptunon could hear the sound without having their brain melt.

I blasted the device. It shattered into a thousand little pieces. There was nothing inside. Just a ceramic mock-up of a doomsday weapon.

A door opened, and a Neptunon in a hulking exoskeleton marched into the chamber. He banged his hands together. Their metallic clapping echoed.

“You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?” he asked.

All Neptunons look alike. We even have trouble telling each other apart. It wasn’t surprising that this one looked like me, but the resemblance went deeper.

The clone had been a mistake. I don’t often make mistakes, but I own up to them when they happen.

“A decoy,” I said.

Emperor Mollusk, Mark Two, laughed maniacally. Had I really sounded like that? The clone carried a set of memories minus a few years of experience and the personality to match. Looking at yourself, at who you used to be, wasn’t pretty.

“You should see the look on your face,” he said. “How does it feel to be outwitted?”

“Someone was going to do it eventually,” I replied. “At least I can take some small comfort that I outmaneuvered myself.”

“Yes, if anyone could do it…” He raised an eye ridge in a pompous, self-satisfied manner. We don’t have eyebrows.

“The fleet, the personnel, the space station,” I said. “This must have cost you a small fortune.”

“Ah, but it was necessary, wasn’t it? I knew that only one being in this system had the knowledge and ability to pose any significant risk to my plan. I couldn’t hide an operation like this without something to distract you. So I devised a small game for your amusement. Little clues leading to a fun diversion then a full-blown operation that was every bit as involved and complex as the real thing. But at the heart of it . . . nothing.”

I said, “Meanwhile, you build your weapon somewhere else, somewhere unimportant, somewhere unnoticed. It was exactly what I would’ve done.”

“And now nothing can stop me. In three minutes, Terra shall be mine.”

“You don’t want it.”

He chuckled, but one look at my face told him I was serious. Neptunons might not have the most expressive features, but we get by.

“Having billions of dominated souls chant your name in unison can be great for the self-esteem. Although, really, self- esteem was never our problem, was it?” I asked.

Mark Two studied me skeptically. He suspected a trap, try- ing to figure out my angle. There was no angle. Just a lesson learned.

“Once you’re crowned Warlord of Terra, you’ll see that it’s a lot more responsibility than I . . . we . . . planned.”

He scanned for any sign of deception. I had never been a very good liar. Strange, considering my hobby as a world conqueror, but it was a conscious choice. Being a skilled liar might have made the job easier, but telling the truth, with the occasional lie by omission, increased the difficulty level.

“Let me tell you how everything will go if you succeed,” I said. “You’ll become ruler of this world. You’ll hold it in your hands like a beautiful blue pearl. That’ll be enough at first. Just to have it.

“But then you’ll start tinkering. Oh, you’ll have the best of intentions. You’ll fix those little pestering problems the Terrans themselves never could. Hunger. War. Poverty. Those will be easy, a long weekend.

“After that, you’ll struggle against the relentless urges that drive you. You’ll realize, intellectually, that there’s little left to do. But you won’t be able to help yourself. Terra will become your own personal science project until your inevitable nature nearly destroys the world. Several times.

“Now, providing you manage to prevent this, you’ll learn some restraint. But it’ll always be there. That insistent desire, that nagging need. You’ll never be able to suppress it. Not completely. And you’ll find yourself wondering if tomorrow is the day you destroy it, most probably by accident.”

Mark Two said, “I’ll learn from your mistakes.”

“Or you’ll just make slightly different variations of the same ones. Regardless, the Terrans have been through enough under one warlord. They don’t need another.”

A klaxon blared, signaling the final countdown. I pushed a button on my exo, and the station blast shields lowered. Mark Two frowned, realizing that I’d hacked his systems.

Mark Two shook off his confusion and resumed his laughter. “I don’t know what happened to you in the time since you were me, but it doesn’t matter. Terra will be mine, and there’s not a thing you can—”

“I already stopped it. You didn’t think you could hide your operation in Minneapolis from me, did you?”

He smiled. “No, that was merely another decoy.”

“Of course, it was,” I replied. “As were your machinations in Lisbon, St. Petersburg, and Busan.”

His smile dropped.

“I’ll admit you almost had me with Melbourne,” I said. “But the decoy in Geneva was sloppy work, if I may be so bold as to offer some criticism.”

He wasn’t angered. He was curious. He was me, after all. And I was rarely frustrated by my failures. I preferred using them as learning opportunities.

I pressed another button. I kept the gravity and lights on for convenience, but everything else in the station went dead. The countdown ended. The doomsday device, the real device hidden aboard this station, wound down.

Mark Two glared. “How did you—”

“I’m you, remember. Just you with a few more years’ experience. Everything you’ve done, I’ve already thought of. Every contingency plan, every possibility, I already did five years ago before you were even hatched from your tank.”

He hid his incredulity behind a scowl, but I sensed it. If the situation were reversed, I’d have been the same. I hadn’t been one hundred percent certain that I would foil his plans. But I was a humbler guy now than I was when I had been him.

His mottled flesh darkened with rage. I could see where he was coming from. I’d failed before, but I’d never been outwitted. But I’d never had to face off against myself. Now it’d all gone freshwater for Mark Two, as the old Neptunon saying went.

His hulking exoskeleton lumbered forward. “You may have stopped me this time, but you won’t be around to stop me the next.”

He threw a clumsy punch that would’ve pulverized the Ninja-3 if I hadn’t sidestepped the blow. He followed that with a haymaker that I danced under. I glided behind him and used a microfilament blade to slice open the hydraulics behind the exo’s right knee. It wobbled but didn’t fall.

He hadn’t even bothered to change the specs. Perhaps he wasn’t a perfect clone after all.

Mark Two teetered on his damaged leg as he struggled to line me up in his sights, but it was a simple thing for me to scamper up his back. I stabbed a few vital systems along the way. The last thing I hit was the stabilizer. His powerful exo tumbled over, ten tons of scrap metal.

A hatch opened, and he ejected in a smaller exo. The clear, fluid-filled dome that held his head bubbled with his frustration. I’d never lost my temper like that, but then again, I’d never been foiled so effortlessly. Or maybe the cloning process had simply been incapable of re-creating every bit of my pragmatic genius. He must’ve known his backup was no match for my Ninja, but in his anger, he didn’t care. I dodged the blasts he sent my way and dismantled his exo with three efficient cuts. It clattered to the floor in pieces.

He flopped around, glaring daggers. Neptunons could survive out of water for extended periods, but it wasn’t comfortable.

“You can’t stop me,” he gurgled. “I’ll be back.”

“No, you won’t.”

I activated the station’s self-destruct countdown. Just a little something I’d slipped into his blueprints when he wasn’t looking.

“So that’s it?” he asked. “You’re just going to leave me here to die?”

“I’m afraid so. No hard feelings.”

Mark Two undulated in a shrug. “No, I suppose not. I’d do the same to you if the situation were reversed.”

“I guess I haven’t changed so much after all,” I replied. We shared a laugh.

“Just tell me something. It would’ve worked, right?” “It would have worked,” I said.

He grinned. “That’s something at least.”

“Yeah, it’s something.”

I made my escape without incident, boarding my automated rendezvous craft, and watched the station explode from a safe distance.

It was quite beautiful.

Then I pondered the small world below, oblivious to its own fragility.