Way looked at the shape shifter standing where she thought her mentor had been and tried to decide just how much of the surrounding terrain she could afford to blow up.
“I know that look, and the answer is ‘you don’t want to do that’. Trust me.” the shape shifter said via dream speech.
That made Way blink.
“Master Jessica?” she asked in dream speech.
“Yes. Surprised?” Jessica asked.
“I shouldn’t be, but I kind of am. Why did you make your identity on this world a shape shifter?” Way asked.
“On my original world, I could transform into a more impressive body. It was handy when I wanted people to know up front not to mess with whoever I was protecting. I looked into it here and discovered that this world already has a sizeable presence of shape shifters.”
“This was supposed to be a learning experience for me wasn’t it?” Way asked.
“Yes. As tests went, let’s say you passed.” Jessica said.
“I did?” Way asked, feeling guilty over how close she’d come to blasting her instructor.
“When my mentor tried a similar test with me I left a crater a half-mile across with how hard I hit him.” she said.
“Did he ever forgive you?” Way asked.
“Oh he was delighted with that response. It meant he was free to try all sorts of tricks on me.”
“Why do I get the sense that I’m going to have to watch out for those tricks too?” Way asked.
“No reason I can think of.” Jessica said and whistled innocently.
Way groaned inwardly. Learning to stay on her toes was part of her training. A Guardian needed to be able to react properly to a variety of unexpected events. Learning to jump in the right direction each time a surprise hit her looked like it was going to be nerve wracking though.
“So what’s our next step then? Were the shapeshifters behind the attack on the Peace Spire?” Way asked.
“Let’s find out.” Jessica said.
The negotiators had fallen into a “less civil discussion” (i.e. a screaming fist fight) while Way and Jessica were chatting. It took the two of them a few minutes to separate the two factions and restore order. Once they’d managed to calm things down the arbiter rose and addressed the crowd.
“We stand in the ruins of the Peace Spire. Let this not be the ruins of the peace however. We must press forward, immediately, or this setback will be mistaken as the opening shot of the war we seek to avoid.” the Arbiter said.
“But what if it is the opening shot of the war. How can we believe that our counterparts came here to deal in good faith when they, or forces loyal to them, launched an assault on the peace process itself!” one of the negotiators said.
“That’s absurd! This attack was clearly orchestrated by the vile, backstabbing scum of their world!” a negotiator on the other side screamed.
“Gentlemen.” Jessica said trying to get their attention. It was a wasted effort, none of the negotiators heard her over the cacophony of shouted threats and accusations that followed. The tiny red, blue, and purple haired woman snapped her fingers and repeated herself. “Gentlemen”.
The snap of her fingers was like a thunderclap. It struck the negotiators, and only the negotiators, with enough force to knock each of them to the ground.
“There’s no need to bicker over this. Before the conference, we deployed surveillance equipment around the entire city. I have the images and identification on the aircraft which launched the assault on us.” Jessica said.
At the touch of a button, a pair of holographic images sprang from the computer on her wrist. Each showed a fighter with very different markings and topology.
“That looks like one of your Hammersmith attack planes!” one of the negotiators said.
“And that looks like one of your Sleipnir class assault drones.” a negotiator on the other side answered.
“Yes, which means either both sides tried to sabotage the peace conference, or someone else is trying to make you fight each other.” Jessica said.
The negotiators, as a group, fell silent as they considered that. Way knew that the truth was that both sides had tried to attack the peace conference. Each thought that their ‘secret allies’ would be forced to save them and that the war could be started on a footing favorable to their own side. Neither group had predicted the presence of Way and her mentor though.
“It must have been one of the shapeshifters!” one of the negotiators exclaimed, pointing at the shapeshifting delegate who’d been revealed when the Peace Spire collapsed.
“That doesn’t seem too likely.” Jessica said.
“But they’re the only ones who would have a reason for us to fight. They must be the ones behind setting up this war.” a negotiator said.
“That’s not true.” Way said. “They have less interest in this war than any of the rest of you.”
“What does your protege mean?” a negotiator asked Jessica.
“Arbiter. Perhaps you can explain?” Jessica said.
“I don’t know what you mean.” the arbiter said.
“Well you are the one who started this peace process correct?” Jessica asked.
“Yes. I couldn’t let two such beautiful worlds be destroyed by the horrors of the war they could inflict on each other.” the arbiter said.
“Why?” Jessica asked. “I mean why care about both of them? Certainly one has to seem more like home than the other right?”
“No, I consider both worlds my home. I wouldn’t see either one perish for the other.” the arbiter said.
“But one of them must have your family and friends on it right? Or could it be that you have family and friends on both worlds?” Jessica asked.
“I don’t know what you mean.” the arbiter said. Way watched as several of the negotiators, the ones who were shape shifters in disguise, shifted nervously.
“Then perhaps you know what this is?” Jessica said and produced a glowing golden pyramid that was etched with glowing silver cuneiform script.
“No.” the arbiter said, a note of fear plainly evident in his voice.
“No, you don’t know what it is, or no, I shouldn’t use it.” Jessica said.
Jessica turned to the negotiators and addressed them instead of the arbiter.
“This is a morphic disrupter. Harmless to solid state beings but if a shape shifter is in the range when it turns on they lose cohesion. Basically it melts them into a puddle for as long as its on. They can pull themselves back together once its turned off but I’ve heard it leaves them with a really nasty headache. What do you think? Should we turn it on?”
Several of the negotiators nodded in agreement with that idea. The rest, the shapeshifters, were looking at the arbiter expectantly.
“That won’t be necessary.” the arbiter said and changed from his gleaming armored form to a plain gray putty skinned humanoid. At his nod, the rest of the shapeshifters cast off their disguises as well.
A collective gasp escaped the remaining negotiators.
“We’ve been betrayed from within!” one of them shouted.
“Far from it.” Jessica said. “The shapeshifters are natives of both worlds. They’ve been with you for centuries now.”
“How is that possible?” one of the negotiators asked.
“We were driven from our homeworld, forced to flee across the dimensions from an alien threat.” the arbiter explained. “We scattered, some of us arriving on one world parallel to our Earth, some on another.”
“It wasn’t until your two worlds made contact that we discovered our missing kinfolk had survived.” one of the revealed shapeshifters said.
“I tried to start a war between you, you know I am guilty of that crime. You humans are terrifying and I knew how you would react when you inevitably discovered us. You also know the lengths I have gone to and what I gave up to prevent that war from coming to fruition.” the arbiter said. “I thought, foolishly, that I could claim both worlds for my people. They taught me otherwise. None of them wanted to give up their homes. None of them wanted to lose the people they knew and cared about who lived on each world.”
“I don’t understand then. Who would want us to go to war then?” one of the human negotiators asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Jessica replied.
“The aliens who drove the shapeshifters off their world. They’ve discovered how to follow the shapeshifters across the dimensions and are seeking more worlds to conquer.” Way said.
“Even better, they’re seeking worlds that are stupid enough to conquer each other for them.” Jessica said.
“What can we do?” one of the human negotiators asked.
“Forge this peace between yourselves. All of you. Fight back against them together and we’ll stand with you.” Jessica said.
“Will that be enough? Will we have enough power, even together, to defeat them?”
“We’ve got a few surprises we can show them.” Way said with a smile.