“You can’t declare war on Domina City!”
“That’s right, you need Congressional approval!”
“Pretty sure it’s not a war. Domina is technically still a part of the US—”
“Oh shut up, Grain! We know you’ve been begging for this for years!”
“I want to save the city, not burn it to the ground—”
“ENOUGH!” I roared.
To my surprise, the dozen or so senators and representatives on my computer instantly shut up. Maybe because I never snapped like that. Heh, I needed to remember that trick.
I was in a video conference call with the congresscritters relevant to the attack on Domina City. Thankfully, there weren’t many of them. Dealing with this group was like herding cats. If I had the entire Congress on my hands, it would be like herding… lions. Loud, angry lions who weren’t actually dangerous because they were declawed… okay, that got away from me a bit at the end.
“Let’s just talk this over,” I said. “Calmly.”
“We still need to discuss why,” Representative Graham said. “You’re asking for five battalions and a small carrier group for one city that hasn’t done anything to anyone outside their borders.”
“It’s what they are doing inside their borders that worries me,” I shot back. “It’s practically a third world country. From what Sele has told me, it’s worse in many ways. This toy maker is used to make monsters and worse, people are kidnapped off the street at random… we need to fix this.”
There was a pause as they considered my words. They didn’t actually want to fight me on this. They were just annoyed that I had gone forward without consulting them.
“They have allies in space,” Senator Lindsay said. “That will make things complicated.”
Of course. My predecessors had used the space colonies as convenient punching bags and scapegoats, blaming them for everything from rising energy prices to strange weather patterns. Why couldn’t they have just taken up golf, or some other normal hobby?
Senator Kines, the former general, stroked his chin. “We don’t know what the space colonies are capable of. They have full manufacturing capabilities; they can make pretty much whatever they want. If they decide to assist Domina in full force, I’m not sure we can stop them.”
Of course we couldn’t stop them. Our military was the most powerful on Earth—emphasis on. We had like, three spacecraft, and they were all unarmed shuttles. Even our air force wasn’t that great. It was still the best in the world, but only barely, and even that was more of a weight of numbers thing. It couldn’t defend against Ceres deciding to chuck rocks at us.
“We have tank support, though,” Representative DaSanto said. “Surely that will give us an incredible advantage.”
Kines snorted. “Tanks are basically useless in a city, and that city has a giant wall around it, with only four gates. Getting them in would be a pain in the ass for very little benefit.” He sighed. “I hate to say it, but I think we’ll need to rely on the Navy for this one. Once they control the waters, our lives will be much easier.”
I didn’t comment on the stupid rivalry. He’d just throw a hissy-fit like last time. “If we were willing to level the city, we could just park some artillery on the east coast and shell them. We want to liberate them. With any luck, we won’t have to fight any but a few of the worst gangs.”
Griggs smiled sadly. “If it’s that easy, just infantry will work. But it’s never that easy.”
I chuckled. “You’re right. I think—”
The feed cut out, the windows with the faces of my allies replaced by a dozen error messages.
“Hello?” I said hesitantly, as if that would actually help fix it. “Can you hear me?”
The door to my temporary office opened, and Sele, the woman who looked like a hawk eagle, came out. Her guards, also similarly modified into various bird forms, flanked her imperiously.
“Mister President, someone cut the internet and phone lines. The entire building is dead to the outside world.”
I scoffed. “This is the Pentagon. What about the backups?”
“Dead. And the backup backups.”
I almost asked about the backup backup backups, but restrained myself. See? I could totally be serious when the situation called for it. “There’s no way this was an accident. Do we still have internal communications?”
“Get me a general. Whoever is in charge at the moment.”
“That would be me, Mister President,” General Hoshi said as she walked through the opposite door, flanked by several guards of her own. “I have men looking into the source of this attack, but for the moment I am assuming it is an attempt on your life. You need to get to safety.”
“An assassination attempt at the Pentagon?” I asked incredulously.
“People have done worse,” Sele said.
“But perhaps not stupider,” Hoshi said calmly. “This will be resolved shortly. Just—”
Her radio crackled to life. “Sir! We found it!”
She plucked it off her belt. “Found what? The break?”
“No, sir! The assailant!” There was gunfire in the background. “We need backup!”
“Lieutenant, calm down. How many are there?”
More gunfire. “There’s—shit!” There was an explosion. “Just one, sir!”
The general blinked like an owl. Probably not a good idea to mention that. “One?”
“She’s—AAAGH!” Anything else he was going to say was terminated by a very large and very fatal-sounding splat.
It made me sick to my stomach, but General Hoshi had dealt with worse, and I was fully confident that she’d be able to find an answer to this problem that didn’t involve detonating half the building again.
But before she had a chance, the radio crackled to life again, and an unfamiliar voice came out. It was unmistakably female, but it was a very deep voice, like the speaker had been gargling with gravel.
“I am here for the whore.”
I scrunched up my face. “…what?”
“That’s a new one,” Hoshi said slowly. “Mister President, don’t take this the wrong way—”
“I’ve never been called a whore,” I said, distracted. “Not even that time I dressed up as a hooker for Halloween.” I generally got oh so clever dick insults used on me instead. Who the hell thought Dick was a good nickname for Richard? “I’m not sure she’s here for me.”
“She’s here for us,” a new voice whispered.
We all turned to see another of Sele’s retinue, the bald eagle who was always twitching like a scared rat, coming out of the same room Sele had been in a few moments before. His eyes were wide as dinner plates, and he had to lean against the wall for support. Watch the claws, buddy. We just got the whole place repainted.
“It’s her,” he insisted. “She’s come for revenge.”
“Ling Yu is dead,” Sele insisted. “I’m sorry Turgay, but she is. The calciophage ate her bones. Not even the toy box can fix that.”
The sound of more gunfire erupted from the general’s radio. “I think I have her, sir!” a soldier whispered. “Just let me—AAGH!” What followed was a few minutes of… ripping and tearing noises, punctuated every few moments by screams of raw terror.
“Tell your soldiers to stand down,” that voice said again, with the kind of cold and dispassionate calm that only the worst and most dangerous killers could manage. “I am here for the whore. No one else.”
“C-can I try?” the bald eagle, Turgay whispered, holding out his hand—talons—to Hoshi. “I don’t know if she’ll listen to me.” His beak… quirked oddly, and I had the strong impression that he was smiling sadly. “But I know she won’t listen to you.”
“Young man, I’m not about to—”
“Hoshi,” I interrupted tiredly. “Let him try.” More gunfire from the radio. “At least let him try.”
She still looked hesitant, but after only a moment handed the radio over to the bird.
He nodded in thanks, then held the thing in both hands and slowly brought it up to his beak. “Ling? Ling, can you hear me? It’s Turgay.” She swallowed visibly. “Ling, please talk to me. I want to talk to you.”
“Ling Yu is dead,” the voice said coldly.
The bird wasn’t buying it. “Ling. This isn’t you. You’re not a killer.”
More gunfire. More screams.
My guards strode up protectively. “General, is there a safer place we can take the president?”
She shook her head. “This is a reinforced titanium bunker. It rivals the one underneath the White House. There’s no place better for her to be.”
“Is there any concrete?” Sele demanded.
I frowned. “What? What does that have to with anything?”
“Just answer the question,” she said, looking at the general. “Is there any concrete, stone, anything of that sort involved in the construction of this bunker? Anything at all. It’s important.”
Hoshi looked as confused as I felt, but answered regardless. “Uh, no.” She stomped her foot, producing a ringing sound muted by the thick carpet. “Even the floor is titanium. This was built when North Korea was still an independent country, and they were trying to build that weird tunneling machine. This is proof against everything up to a nuke.”
More screams sounded through the radio. No gunfire, though.
“Ling,” Turgay whispered. He was close to tears. “These men have done nothing to you. You’re not Butler. You’re not even Derek. You are not a killer. Please. Just turn around and go home!”
The wall clanged.
“What was that?” I babbled.
Turgay visibly swallowed. “Ling, don’t—”
This time, I could see the pictures on the wall shake.
“This will have consequences you cannot foresee,” the bird hissed into the radio. “And that’s assuming you survive! Don’t throw everything away just for some meaningless revenge! Please!”
There was a dent in the wall.
It seemed to be the size of a fist.
My bodyguards and Hoshi’s had their guns trained on the dent, on the spot where this… person would come through. Assuming it was a person after all, and not just some human-shaped monster being led around by this Ling girl.
The entire bunker shook.
Sele had told me about warlords, such as herself. The princes and princesses of the toy maker. She hadn’t gone into much detail, but I had been able to read between the lines. The cosmetic enhancements were secondary. It was the physical ones we shouldn’t underestimate. That kind of thinking led to your skull getting squashed like a tomato.
But jokes aside, punching through titanium with your bare hands simply was not possible.
I blinked. Looked around at everyone else, the general and our guards and the birds. Everyone else seemed to be just as confused as I was. Had she really stopped so easily? Or maybe the guards outside had managed to kill her.
“…Ling?” Turgay whispered into the radio.
The entire bunker shook like an earthquake. Suddenly, it was like we were inside a box being shaken by a kid trying to figure out what his new Christmas present was. We were all thrown to the ground, along with anything on any desks or walls. Glass shattered somewhere, and I felt a heavy oak desk slam me in the gut. Ooh, that one was gonna be hard to explain to the wife.
Then, the shaking stopped.
It took me a moment to realize it; I was too dizzy to see straight. But years of drunken nights had given me a near superhuman ability to operate even when my brain wasn’t working quite right, and I managed to struggle to my feet.
There were people, standing in front of where the door should be. Now, there was just a vague blackness; the door was either open, or the assailants had ripped it off its hinges. There were five, maybe six of them. That explained a lot. Turgay’s friend had help—
Oh. Wait. My head was clearing now. There was only the one girl. I had been wondering why they all looked identical.
She was smaller than I expected. Much smaller. Five feet tall at the most, with the proportions of a frail doll. She looked Chinese—though the name was a big hint—but her hair was bleached blonde.
She wore a simple pair of blue jeans, white sneakers, a tight black t-shirt, and a long black glove that covered her entire right arm. She kept clenching her fist over and over, as if just waiting for someone to use it on.
There was no way a little girl like this ripped through a fortified titanium bunker. Not by herself. It simply wasn’t possible.
But the look on her face…
This was a girl who had fought the world and lost. Multiple times. The world punched her down, and sooner or later she popped back up, ready for another fight. Someone who had lost friends and family and more.
This little girl couldn’t have done this. But with a face like that, I was willing to believe it.
“I am here for the whore,” she said, her voice like gravel.
Some of the rubble of broken furniture shifted, and Turgay slowly rose, talons held up in a supplicating motion. “Ling, let’s just talk this through, all right? You keep saying whore. But there’s no one here who’s called that.”
“I had a lot of time to think, in that box,” the girl mused aloud. I could hear hints of friendliness and honesty in her voice. She had been a normal girl, once, but there wasn’t much of that left. “About your boss. About why she seemed familiar, and about the way she spoke.”
The bald eagle blinked those giant eyes. “What? What are you talking about?”
“I’ll skip the pleasantries. Your boss is a girl who was cast out of her culture for being too extreme even for the Whore-Lord. The woman who murdered her husband, and then hundreds more.”
Turgay shook his head. “That’s not possible, she died years ago—”
Her eyes were as hard as stone. “Xinivrae, the Black Widow, sister of Malcanthet the Succubus Queen.”
Behind us, more rubble shifted, and Sele rose from the wreckage, back straight and bearing strong. I might have absolutely no idea what the hell was going on—not an unusual situation for me to be in—but she met the accusation head-on.
“I was cast out of Shendilavri,” she said quietly. “I am no longer a succubus. I have not been a succubus for almost fifteen years.” She puffed up her chest. “I am Soaring Eagle, Animal King of the aves. I built the culture with my own hands. Xinivrae and the Widowers are long dead and gone.”
“I am not here to argue identity,” Ling growled. “I’m just here to kill you.”
“How did you survive the calciophage?” Sele demanded. “Your skeleton should be completely gone. Even with the toy box, merely holding you together was the extent of its abilities. Regrowing new bones should have been impossible.”
“It was,” the little girl said. “Clarke might have been able to find a way, but I wasn’t Clarke. I had to find an alternative way to replace my bones, and the arm and the leg that were ripped off in my escape.”
She grabbed the glove on her right arm with her left, and pulled it off.
It took me a second to realize what it was.
It was stone.
The entire arm was some mixture of rock and concrete, animated by some fel process that I couldn’t possibly understand. All I knew was that it moved, twisted and flexed and twitched exactly like a real arm. It was just made of stone.
“My entire right arm,” the girl said calmly, even as Sele, Turgay, and the other birds recoiled in horror. “My entire left leg. Every single bone in my body, from the fingers and toes in my remaining hand and foot to my skull and even my teeth.” She grinned dangerously, and I did indeed realize that her teeth were made of the same color stone as her arm. “I survived, whore, despite your best efforts. And now I’m here to kill you.”
“Ling… ” Turgay whispered.
“Ling Yu is dead,” she said again. Her grin widened. “But I have some new friends who came up with a new name for me. Based on the tomb I made of that outpost where you left me behind.”
She flexed her stone hand—and it shifted into a blade even as I watched.
“I am Grave,” she said simply. “And I am going to bury you.”
Behind the Scenes (265)
Richard Martinez is one of those characters who developed his own voice despite my best efforts.