Shaken, Not Stirred
By Wulf Moon
As Cassie soared the galactic ether, she gathered up the mass from an unfortunate comet that crossed her path, spritzed herself in its emerald glow, and draped her body in radiant strands of cerulean and magenta gossamer borrowed from a neighboring nebula. A girl had to dress for success, especially when you were called to a business luncheon with the chairman of the intergalactic Holistic Organization for Accumulation and Redistribution of Dynamics. Serving on the seven-member board of HOARD was Cassie's least favorite task since ascension, but someone had to protect the galaxies and solar systems that fell under the auspices of her delicately balanced constellation.
She fanned opalescent wings, riding a jet of subatomic particles like an eagle rising upon the thermals of her home world. As she vectored toward a dark matter nexus, she pondered the Law of Universal Gravitation. Why did this law seem to aid the reign of fat cat ascendants that, in spite of their mass, always helped them float light as the ether to the peaks of celestial power?
Cassie could see only one equation to sum it up: density equals dense. And greed. So much illicit siphoning of mass from lighter galaxies into the heavier ones going on, hoarding in the name of HOARD, and no one calling the board out on it. So far, every "distribution" she had seen appeared to benefit the largest constellations, violating HOARD's charter.
Well, Cassie might be the "new kid," but she was no longer naive. She'd been around the universe a few times and she'd learned a thing or two. Cassie vowed she'd make her stand this time and call out the board's shenanigans at the upcoming millennial meeting. The lives of her sentients on the third planet from Sol depended on it.
But first, she had to comply with this invitation to a "private meeting before the meeting" from Chairman Hydra. Just a friendly chat , the invitation had chimed, a little luncheon to discuss how we should vote on these starred agenda points.
Cassie scowled. Board decisions might appear to be by majority vote, but Hydra knew all the slippery tricks to tip those votes in his favor. Weighty matters were decided long before anyone sat on their chairs at the spiral table to discuss them. And with her being the new ascendant and not knowing the ropes, she'd been pulled right into Chairman Hydra's gravity well. If she wasn't careful, Cassie feared she might sink so deep she'd drown in it.
Cassie materialized at the specified location on the star chart in her shimmering nebulous form. She lowered inner eyelids, allowing her to add the dark matter spectrum to her sight. It appeared "lunch" would be spent relaxing in chaise lounges, sipping dark matter cocktails siphoned off the dense currents and strands emanating from the orbs that peppered the dwarf galaxy of Segue 2. The mass exchange was complex, but in the ascendant plane, actions mimicked your origin life, and hers had been on Earth.
Hydra had whipped up a hovering tiki hut over a pond of dark matter for the occasion, complete with neon palms—were those rope lights?—and pink plastic flamingos bobbing their heads into the surface that now glowed phosphorescent green in her enhanced vision. As she floated in and retracted her wings, Hydra rose off his lounge in a golden Budai form, the dark matter particles congealing under his bare feet as he stood. His lumbering mass swayed from side to side as he stepped forward and held out his hand.

"Ah, my dear Cassiopeia. You look radiant."

Cassie pretended she didn't see his hand and bowed instead. "Chairman Hydra. You are looking more massive than ever."

His sour look sweetened at the compliment. "Thank you, my dear. One's representative form should meet one's representative mass."

She cast her gaze down, taking in her slender self. Was that a cut?

"Please, my dear." He motioned to the lounge chair floating beside his. "Let's keep this informal."

"As you wish."

As they stepped within the tiki hut and eased into the cushions, Cassie had to admit the ancient chairman knew how to weave some mighty comfortable lounge chairs, and the glittering view of the Sagittarius Stream beyond stole her breath away...or at least the stellar gasses that sufficed for breath in ascendants.
Hydra winked coquettishly, but Cassie could see the snake eyes burning bright as quasars behind his pupils. "Thank you for agreeing to this little dalliance before the millennial board meeting, my child."
"Dalliance? You said this was to be a business luncheon . I expect you to keep it professional."
Hydra cleared his throat. "Of course, of course. Forgive me—still learning the nuances of your origin language."
Yeah, right.
He took a crystal shaker from a little table between them, scooped up ice cubes from a bucket, and poured colorful congealed gasses into it from a frost-rimed silver thermos. Hydra's jowls jiggled as he spoke. "A little concoction I brought from home. My signature recipe."
He shook the container vigorously, and although they were in a vacuum, Cassie's mind filled with the sound of rattling ice cubes. Hydra smiled as he worked; it was a bit disconcerting to see a Budai with ivory fangs.
"Shaken, not stirred," Hydra said. "Is that not the phrase of your people's mixologists?"
Woah . What sharp eyes these ascendants kept on her world. "Correct. But it's become a bit cliche' these days."
"Pity. I admire a good metaphor. So much...opportunity when a galaxy gets shaken . The collision of the larger into the smaller, the resultant chaos as solar mass is exchanged, the subsequent appropriation of intact stars. So much to be...consumed."
"Stored for subsequent cosmological equilibrium, you mean."
Hydra coughed, sending tremors through his rolls of fat. "Yes, yes, for future needs of universal balance and all that, of course."
He sighed and looked heavenward, which could have been anywhere, but in this case was up. "Some of us, my dear, have the weighty responsibility of being the tent pins of this universe. Haste makes waste. Can't stack it all toward the hub or we'd all go down the proverbial toilet. Isn't that the phrase?"
Always the justification for hoarding mass with the massive. Never an atom for the new girl's systems. It was like they were intentionally trying to starve her out. Woah . Were they trying to starve her out? If so, she could think of a few members on the board, present company included, that she wouldn't mind flushing down the toilet, proverbial or otherwise.
Hydra filled two martini glasses to the brim. He passed one to her, the little ice chips within flashing starlight. "A toast! To universal gravitation: may it ever bring us closer together."
Cassie clinked glasses. "To Hubble expansion!"
Hydra frowned, obviously unfamiliar with the term. Cassie hid a furtive smile by tilting her head down and placing her lips to the cool, tingling glass. She sipped from the ionized gasses swirling within. Sweet hydrogen, helium, and oxygen with a dash of raw carbon and a twist of spicy sulfur. Delicious.
Hydra smacked his fat lips, reached out, and patted her on the thigh. "You're our bright new star, Cassie. It's been a Gya since we've had a fresh Ascendant. Pity. Gargon the Lesser was not with us long. Unfortunate collision with Ursa Major." Hydra pointed. "You can still see bits of him over there."
Cassie pulled away from Hydra's touch. These meetings drained her; she suspected Hydra's touch acted as a conduit. He might have assigned himself her mentor, but she had come to recognize it wasn't her mind he was interested in. If he wasn't after her vote he was after her body—specifically, the mass her body represented.
Hydra stared at her with those sparking quasar eyes. "To business then. Point seven on the upcoming agenda."
"What about point thirty-seven? My request for a booster to Sol. I've done the calculations, and by the time that star expands, I don't believe human technolo—"
"Oh, I'm sorry, little one. No room for your request on this agenda. I moved it to Futures."
Cassie burned. Might as well have shoved it into a black hole. She bit her proverbial tongue.
"Now then, Ursa Major is going to call for a redistribution, a little charity project in the GN-z11 system, as your people call it. I've already spoken with Virgo, and we feel it's much too early to start donating from our reserves, there's plenty of expansion rate left in this universe before we have to start worrying about divestiture. No matter how compelling his case, I want you to vote nay on his proposal."
Cassie was fed up with being the mealy-mouthed apprentice. She took a deep breath. Nothing came in, but it made her feel stronger. "You want my vote, you have to put my point about Sol on the next agenda." She sat forward and put on her poker face. " High priority."
Hydra choked on his drink and raised a scaly brow. "My, my, my; my padawan learns fast." He weighed her in the scales of his eyes. "Alright. I'll deal. You make the chips fall my way, you've got your ticket in the big game." His eyes narrowed to serpent slits. "But be careful what you wish for."
In a galaxy far, far away from the primeval point of multiverse leakage, carefully positioned in the neutral zone beyond any constellation's territory, there floated an island fashioned from the densest material in the universe—the crust of a neutron star. As Cassie materialized upon its dark matter nexus, she chuckled. This wasn't a board room as one might describe on Earth—it looked like someone had scooped a chunk out of the Sedona desert and floated it in intergalactic space.
There was one peak on the island, oddly similar to Cathedral Rock back home—if the butte had been illuminated at its dome by a miniature swirling galaxy with a beam of radiation bursting out from its center. Cassie climbed a spiral path circling the butte to its plateau and expanded her proportions to match table and chairs the size of Seattle's Space Needle, all on a dais just ahead. Six of the board had already arrived, seated and ready for business. As the newest member, she was required to arrive last in respect to her elders. If the round table was a symbol of equality, why had Chairman Hydra fashioned himself a golden throne? Some questions you knew better than to ask.
None rose to greet her.
Cassie took a shuddering breath and stood tall. She had promised herself that she'd present herself as a whole new you at this board meeting. Things were going to change. They had to.
Chairman Hydra looked down upon her from his massive throne. His celestial presence was still housed in that behemoth form of the Budai. "Ah, here we are. Madam Cassiopeia. Please be seated."
Cassie sat upon the radiant blue chair, chiseled from the material of the glowing crust of this island. As her gaze circled the table, she burst out laughing.
Hydra frowned, toying with a golden gavel in his ham hands. "What's so funny, Cassie? Care to let us in on the joke?"
Cassie couldn't help herself. "All of you! Look at the forms you chose for today. They're all from my world! Back home, we'd call this cultural appropriation!"
Cetus, seated to Hydra's right, flapped the tentacles streaming from his mouth as he spoke. "It is so rare for the universe to bring forth a new sentient species. Your people have entered such an interesting time-phase. I for one find your mythos fascinating."
"But you're Cthulhu! Who would want to be—" She stopped. Of course. Why wouldn't Cetus the Squid identify with a creature mirroring his likeness? And Cassie had to admit, his cold and calculating eyes had always given her the chills. She felt naked before them, her wrappings of gossamer burned away, every atom in her constellation weighed in the balances of his keen and measured gaze. His gift, of course. Which was why he served as the board's chief financial officer. Which was also why Cassie didn't like him staring her up and down.
Cetus quoted Lovecraft. "'They were not composed altogether of flesh and blood. They had shape...but that shape was not made of matter. When the stars were right, They could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live.'" His tentacles vibrated in pulpy slaps as he sighed. "Pure poetry. It's as if he could see into our very souls."
"Uhmmm...ohh-kay." Cassie turned to Ursa Major on Hydra's left. "Ursa, is that you? What in the quacking quasar are you supposed to be?"
"I'm the Golden Ladle."
"Weren't you the Little Dipper last time we convened?"
"I was Ursa Minor, yes. I have since made acquisitions to my constellation and have accumulated mass to the level of Ursa Major now. Thus, my new form."
"So you're the Big Dipper."
"Golden Ladle, thank you very much."
"Oh, all right. And you, Virgo?" Cassie took in her augmentations. She was much more top-heavy than their last board meeting. Bottom-heavy , too. "Kim Kardashian? Really?"
"She has mass in all the right places." Virgo tossed her hair and gave Cassie the look . "I buy myself a gift every year, so this year I bought myself everything I wanted."
Cassie was not about to get in a fight with her. Again. Don't feed the beast.
"And Hercules? Okay, you look the same. Keep rocking that Kevin Sorbo look, buddy."
He flashed his legendary hero smile, clicked his tongue, pointed at her, and winked. "I do it all for you, princess. Maybe after th—"
Cassie held up a hand. "No. Just no. "
Hercules' chiseled chest deflated.
Cassie leveled on the creature in Orion's chair. "Godzilla? Really? How does he relate?"
Orion lifted his lizard maw and roared, coughed a few times on the smoke, and looked back at Cassie expectantly. Cassie shrugged and held both palms up, waiting.
Orion grinned. "Because he can belt it out. Get it? Belt it out?"
Celestial crickets.
Cassie shook her head, returned her gaze to the throne. Those quasar eyes of Hydra, burning down into hers. When her mentor looked at her like that she normally shriveled in fear. But she had promised herself today would be different. Poker face. Poker face.
Cassie shook her head, returned her gaze to the throne. Those quasar eyes of Hydra, burning down into hers. When her mentor looked at her like that she normally shriveled in fear. But she had promised herself today would be different. Poker face. Poker face.
"And you, Chairman Hydra. The Budai? Don't you think that form is a tad sacrilegious...and excessive?"
Hydra scowled. "What? At thirty trillion solar masses, I've got the bulk for it. A galaxy of my stature should be represented proportionately. And as for religion, we are gods, we can do as we please."
Cassie raised a hand. "Excuse me, but we are not gods. We are ascendants, which means we came from—"
Hydra's eyes kindled. "Don't lecture me on origins, young lady. Know your place! Our races were here long before your race sprouted, and we will be here long after, ahem, well, we will all be here for a very long time, won't we."
Hydra rapped his gavel against the table, the sparks that ensued creating new comets in the galaxy currently represented. "Now then. As chairman of HOARD, I hereby call this board meeting to order. Secretary Virgo, please note in the minutes that we have a quorum."
Virgo plucked a gold hoop from her ear, rubbed it in her palms, and floated an amber sphere in front of her face. "Noted."
Hydra raised his voice. "All hail Theta, Sovereign of the Multiverse, who granted HOARD the oversight of balancing this universe..."
Cassie drifted off until they worked their way to the agenda points, barely discussed, decisions obviously made beforehand by deals done under the table. But one deal had not been made. Which was why Hydra needed her vote, of course.
Hydra cleared his throat. "Ahem. We come to point seven, proposed by Ursa Major. It would appear he'd like to keep this new acquisition of his even though jurisdiction is in question." Cassie heard the acquisition as if spoken in her tongue—the ancient galaxy GN-z11.
A face formed in the big ladle that was Ursa Major, propped upon his chair. He pointed his dipper handle straight at Hydra's face. "Damn straight! I expanded the borders of my constellation fair and square, and that galaxy is mine. I have big plans for reinvigorating it, big plans!"
Chairman Hydra rested his gavel on the table and folded his hands, the perfect picture of a caring Budai smiling on a supplicant...if that smile bore fangs. "Yes, yes, you've certainly done well for yourself. You have the full respect here of your colleagues. But this is an incredibly old galaxy, dating back to the universe's origin puncture. As he who was first awakened by the universe, I think it fitting that the galaxy should fall to its oldest member." Hydra leaned forward, leveling Ursa in his gaze. "And that would be me."
Ursa Major warped out of his golden ladle form and turned into a growling bear outlined in blazing stars. "You bastard! The sentients I rose from weren't far behind yours. Always grabbing up what isn't yours through seniority. Well I won't have it this time! GN-z11 is mine, I say! I have big plans for it. Big. Plans!"
Hydra nodded, jowls swaying. "Then we must put its possession to a vote."
Ursa Major roared, baring rows of shimmering teeth. "Yes! Have at it. Let's vote." He lowered his gaze hard and heavy on Orion and Hercules. And then he swiveled his bear head in Cassie's direction. She could see the question lurking in his depths. Pleading. He really wanted to win this one.
She looked down. This was the day she said she would stand up for herself, stand up for her people. And that meant on this point, she would have to stand down.
As the vote was called, Cassie watched the hands.
"All in favor of leaving GN-z11 in Ursa Major's control?"
Ursa Major raised a mighty paw. "Aye!"
Hercules raised a fist. "Aye!"
Orion hung his Godzilla shoulders and looked down; Ursa rumbled a deadly growl. Orion lifted his lizard head sheepishly and coughed out a weak atomic breath. "Aye?"
Three nays followed. All heads turned to Cassie. She would be the tie breaker. Chairman Hydra leaned forward.
"Nay," Cassie said, speaking without fear, without trembling. On the outside. For better or worse, a deal had been struck.
The gavel dropped. Bang .
The next motion was to decommission GN-z11 and transfer its mass to Hydra. Seconded by Virgo. Put to vote. A tie again. Cassie took a deep breath, voted in Hydra's favor. The deed was done.
More points were discussed, assignments given, motions passed, but it was all a blur to Cassie until Hydra's concluding statement jolted her from the haze. "Cetus, as our duly appointed CFO, is this quarter's Cosmic Census equitably balanced?"
An eldritch voice quavered through the tentacles. "Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn."
Cetus gave a kick to something under the table, which Cassie found curious. "They are balanced," he said.
Hydra hissed. "As well they should be. For all our sakes. Please add the celestial accounts and cosmic census to the corporate minutes and transfer the sphere to Theta's accountants."
"As you wish."
Hydra rapped the gavel with finality. "This meeting is adjourned."
As the others headed one by one for the nexus, Cassie remained seated, watching the whorls in the table slowly turn. Shame flooded through her. If she truly had ascended, why did she feel so low?
A thousand Earth years she had waited—a thousand years Cassie had stewed and calculated, trying to see into the big game Hydra played. Cassie's people had moved from outposts on the Moon to cities on Mars. As mankind's first generation ship was on its way to Proxima Centauri, another HOARD board meeting was about to commence. The more she weighed the votes she had made in Hydra's favor, the more she calculated what the distribution had added to his expansion, the more sour the answer became.
In trying to get her people's everlasting future sealed, she had actually doomed their galaxy. She hadn't believed it possible, but she had done the math: Hydra's constellation was travelling inexorably toward hers. He was coming for her Milky Way!
Cassie ignored Hydra's latest invitation to another agenda luncheon. There was no way she could hide a last desperate gambit from his piercing eyes, especially while sipping exotic martinis.
Instead, she rolled the dice in a desperate throw: a secret missive sent to Cetus.
I have a proposition for you.
She had waited ninety-seven years. She had lost hope he would respond. And then, the missive chimed.
Your place, or mine?
Meet me in the Sol system on a moon orbiting Jupiter. Europa.
Cassie landed at the designated meeting place among the icy spike formations fifteen meters high at Europa's equator. Cetus loomed within the spike fields, still sporting his Cthulhu form, black smoke shrouding him, eyes as dark as the abyss that slept in silence below Europa's mantle of ice.
Cassie folded her wings, glowed bright for light, and took a deep breath of the thin atmosphere. Oxygen—it always smelled sweet to her, like apple blossoms on Earth's orchards. She drew power from that, savoring the scents of home. It might not warm a cold eldritch's heart, but it did wonders for hers.
Cetus gripped a spire with his claws and rose above her, fanning his wings, red eyes blazing like a blast furnace. Cassie expanded her form and spread her white wings out, matching him size for size.
"Look, we can do this all day," she said. "Let's cut the dominance crap and get down to business."
Cetus drew his mass in, standing within the ice spikes once again. He flapped his mouth tentacles; his voice grated like nails against a chalkboard. "As you wish. Why have you called?"
No poker face this time. Cassie laid her cards on the table.
"Look. I don't know what Hydra's got on you, and I don't care. My case for preserving Earth's sun with a hydrogen infusion is on the agenda, and I'm certain it will be voted down."
"And your question is?"
"I could do the manipulation of matter myself, rob Peter to pay Paul as we say in my world."
Cetus leaned against a spire and stroked his tentacles, his body shedding that eerie smoke. He said nothing.
"You'd report me to Theta for unlawful distribution of matter, wouldn't you? Lack of authorization by the board."
Cetus' breath rasped. He said nothing.
"Yet you Elder Ones do it all the time and cover up for one another, especially in regard to Hydra."
"I will neither confirm nor deny that accusation. Make your point."
Cassie folded in her wings, shrunk down to the size of her origin self. She was just a girl in a gossamer toga, laying it on the line. "The Celestial Census. It's always balanced. Proper distribution to maintain universal expansion. Come on, we both know that's not true." She pointed a finger at his elephantine head. "You're cooking the books!"
She expected a roar, feared a psychic scrambling of her ascendant mind. Instead, she got a pulpy chuckle.
"Of course. A little graft is tolerated. But if I sent Theta the real books under the table, there would be a forensic accounting. The last time Theta's entourage paid a visit, they stayed at what your people call Segue 2. It takes so much baryonic matter to maintain Theta's ascendants in this universe, they almost stripped that galaxy clean."
"Huh. I didn't know that about Segue 2, but as we say, it all adds up. So I'm guessing nobody wants a forensic accounting by Theta."
"No indeed. I believe your term is about as pleasurable as a root canal? "
"Nanobot nerve repair ended that one, but we still say pain in the ass . That one is timeless."
"Ah, your people's orifice of extrusion."
"Um, sure. Okay, riddle me this: Who would be bitten in the ass most of all if the secret accounts were revealed?"
Cetus' scaly brow rose over the crater of one of his sunken eye sockets. "Hydra. His violations would prove most excessive. He could not hide it, nor could he scatter that much mass fast enough. There would be a divestiture of his holdings. But all of us have dipped into the cookie jar. I fail to see—"
Cassie rested her hands on her hips. "On my world, the regulators can't penalize everyone, or their system would fail. So, they find a prominent example to make their point, throw the book at him, and slap the others on the wrist. I'm betting the multiverse works the same. The wheels must keep turning, the show must go on and all that jazz. Am I right?"
The gleam in Cetus' eyes could cut through Europa's core. "Interesting. Many probabilities unfold. But probabilities also include uncertainties. The entire board could be disbanded. Yourself included."
"What? I've done nothing wrong!"
Cetus gaze ran up and down her form and stopped at the glowing pearls that graced her neck. Cassie touched them. She might have fashioned them from that comet on her last outing, and there was that illumination spritz the time before, and that dark matter she scooped—
The edge on Cetus' voice eased. "You see, my dear, we all have made infractions of HOARD's charter to one degree or another. If Theta's accountants apply the letter of the law, we all risk disbandment."
Cassie shook her head. "If we don't take risks, the handwriting is on the wall. Hydra's mass will grow. His power will know no bounds."
"My dear, the handwriting is already on the wall. This universe cannot expand forever. Gravity is grave. All matter will return to the source. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes."
"I refuse to believe that. I will not surrender. And certainly not to Hydra! Won't you help me?"
Cetus waved a hand up and down his form. "You see my chosen representation. It is indicative of my spirit. Why in the sleeping salty depths should I help one so frail and young as you?"
Cassie smiled. Density made one dense. And greedy. "I don't know. Maybe because you're tired of being Hydra's yes man? Maybe you'd like your turn on the throne."
At that next board meeting, Cassie's agenda point was shot down by Hydra, just as she suspected it would be. Under the pallid light of the stars, Hydra drew the meeting to a close.
"Is there any final business before I declare this meeting adjourned?" He raised his gavel.
Cetus held up a prodigious claw. "Ahem. One last item."
Hydra lowered the gavel. "Proceed, but make it brief. It's been a long day."
Cetus unraveled a tentacle. Within shimmered a golden sphere, stamped with the imperial auditor's radiant glyph. Cassie actually heard Hydra gulp.
Cetus spoke with authority. "We have an official notice from Theta's accountants. I don't know how, the vault is sealed beneath this table, but somehow they've received some ledgers they find most disturbing. Like royal audit disturbing."
Hydra roared, shaking the foundations of the butte. "What? That's impossible. You're the only one with the access code!"
"I assure you, it was not I."
Cetus met Hydra stare for stare, absolute darkness to absorb quasar light.
"What is more," Cetus said, "Theta's entourage have requested housing within the Porpoise system."
"But that's my origin system! I'm involved in the takeover of another galaxy there right now!"
Cetus' voice arced with that chalkboard screech. "Then I suggest you get your house in order." His baleful gaze circled all in turn, but Cassie thought she caught a spark of light in those fathomless hollows as he passed over her. "All of you. They arrive tomorrow."
Hydra stood up from his throne, shook his gavel at Cassie. "You did this! I don't know how, but I know it's you. You've always been independent, a real pain in my ass!"
Cetus spoke with authority. "We have an official notice from Theta's accountants. I don't know how, the vault is sealed beneath this table, but somehow they've received some ledgers they find most disturbing. Like royal audit disturbing."
There was a day when Cassie would have quaked in fear if her mentor had bellowed like that. This day, she stood up, fanned her glorious wings to full spread, and spoke with all the power of the galaxies and suns behind her.
"You best get going, Hydra. I looked it up. It takes a super singularity for his ascendants to enter this realm. As they say in my world, Theta's about to rip you a new one."
Hydra's cheeks bulged and his face burned bright red as he slammed his gavel down. "This meeting is adjourned!"
The ascendants rushed for the nearest nexus. All but Cassie. And Cetus, who sat smoldering across from her in his chair, studying her.
After what seemed an eternity, his voice came up from the depths, but it was as calm as a frozen sea. "How did you figure out my combination?" he asked.
Cassie smiled. " Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. Took me a week to get your eldritch intonation down, but I finally got it right."
Cetus nodded, tentacles swaying in the brume clinging to his form.
Cassie slid a small wrapped package topped with a black bow across the table, the parcel protected by a containment field. "I had you all wrong. I might be mistaken, but I think there's just a little bit of starlight cloaked within all that smoldering cloud of darkness."
Cetus tapped the package with a claw. "What's this?"
"Present. Signed first edition. I think you'll like it."
Was that a smile? So hard to tell through all those tentacles.
"Thank you," Cassie said. "You could have told Hydra my plans."
Cetus raised a scaly brow. "Oh? I did this for you, did I?" He glanced at the chair to his left. "And who do you think is next in mass for the director's throne?" He winked. "See you at the next board meeting, Cassiopeia."
As Cassie flashed home upon the dark matter strands, moving from nexus to nexus, she wondered if she had played Cetus, or if he had played her. She decided it didn't matter. Because of her actions, that board had been shaken, not given the same old stir. Instead of taking her worlds over, Hydra would diminish...and her galaxies and people would survive. For billions of years to come.
And that, she decided, deserved a toast. She wondered what Hercules might be up to. She stopped at the nearest nexus and flashed out a sparkling missive.
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Shaken, Not Stirred © 2021 Wulf Moon