Monthly Archives: June 2016

Scene 273 – Remoramen

REMORAMEN

RICHARD

I resisted the urge to bang my head against the table a couple dozen times.

It was hard. It was actually, genuinely hard. The table was good strong oak, solid as a rock, and hitting my head against it would probably lose me a handful of IQ points. I figured since no one would let me drink at these stupid meetings, it was the next best thing.

But being president meant you had to keep your cool at all times, even when you wanted to bash your head against a wall. Or a table.

It was December 21st, a Friday, and I was stuck in a board room with a bunch of uptight idiots. But I could be calm.

“Senator Grain,” I said slowly. “Please summarize the problems.”

He nodded. “Basically, people are running scared. The deaths related to this project—pure coincidence, of course, but very poorly timed—have led to all sorts of unsavory rumors spreading. The private sector has practically pulled out completely, which limits our deployment options, since we can’t actually declare war. Not to mention with Christmas around the corner, half our troops are home for the holidays.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “We don’t need half. We don’t even need a tenth. Can we get five battalions and a small carrier group? That would be more than enough.”

The senator looked at someone else at the table. Hoshi.

“…we can,” she said slowly. “But it will take time. A few days.”

“The media is already making noise about our army being made up of atheists and heathens.”

I closed my eyes. “Please tell me they didn’t actually call our soldiers heathens?”

“Not in so many words, but the sentiment was there.”

I rubbed my forehead, took a deep breath, and counted to ten. Calm down. Ordering a nuclear strike on one of our craziest news conglomerates wouldn’t go over well. Unless…

No. No nuking journalists. That was the most important piece of advice my predecessor had given me. I had assumed he was joking.

“Okay, we’ll have everything prepared in a few days,” I said. “Grain. What’s the word on the space colonies?”

“We’ve managed to convince them not to help Domina—at least in the first couple weeks. That’s all I could guarantee.” He squared his shoulders, the way he always did when he was preparing to talk for a while. “The deals were complex, but I was able to earn their cooperation without actually promising them anything. Ceres, in particular, was very—”

“Thank you, Grain,” I said smoothly. He was the standard Democrat filibuster for a reason. He didn’t even do it on purpose. “Director Ward. What’s the status of our spy network in Domina City?”

He sighed. “On the day of your announcement, we had twenty spies in the city. Most of them had only been there since Sele came out. They were doing reasonably well. When the announcement came out, every single one went dark at the same time. I have to assume they’re all dead.”

I felt a shiver, but pushed it down. “Did they get any information out first?”

“Less than we got from Sele.”

Of course. “Fitzsimmons. How’s our tech advantage?”

“It’s…” He was clearly hesitant. “It’s, you know, there. We have an advantage. Probably.”

I sighed.

“No, we do!” he said quickly. “I promise, we do! It’s just, you know… we can’t use it.”

“Why not?” one of the women demanded. Not Hoshi. Crap, this was going to bother me if I couldn’t remember…

“What he means, admiral, is that we won’t use it.” She turned to me, frowning. “We have enough artillery to turn that entire city to rubble. But since we don’t want to do that, we may as well have bundles of sticks.”

“Actually, the artillery—”

“Thank you, Fitzsimmons. That will be all.” I turned off the projector. “Actually, I think this meeting is over. And we’ll skip tomorrow’s. Everyone, call if something changes in your jurisdiction. Especially you, admirals, generals. I want an exact timing on our attack as soon as possible.”

They all nodded, and rose up quietly to leave. Fitzsimmons looked like his execution had just been canceled. Considering that I had been considering sending him with the troops, maybe that was more accurate than I thought.

Once everyone was gone, I turned to my bodyguard. “Where’s Silk?”

“Outside, I think,” Jefferies said.

Since everybody else had left and she still hadn’t come in, that probably meant that she was snubbing me for ending the meeting early. I was going to get an earful about fulfilling my obligations again.

“Thank you, Howard.”

“I’m Steven, actually.”

I frowned, and looked him over. He was definitely the same Jefferies I had always known. “Really? Have I been getting it wrong all these years?”

He looked hesitant. “I—well—”

The door opened.

“Miss Silk,” I said, holding up a hand to forestall any lectures. “I know what you’re going to say.”

“Ceres called,” she said without preamble. “They’re implying if the war continues into the new year, they’ll start sending materiel to Domina.”

I groaned. “What about the Lunar colonies? They gonna start nuking us?”

“They don’t have nukes, Mister President.”

“You know what I mean. Those god-rods.”

She adjusted her glasses. “There has been no further word since Senator Grain spoke to them. I believe that is a good sign.”

“But you’re not sure.”

“But I’m not sure.”

I stood up, stretching. Had a damn knot in my back…

“There is another matter, Mister President.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Okay, let’s hear it.” She was being all… secretarial. Was that a word? I’d have Silk look it up later. …or not.

Oh dammit, I just remembered that I forgot that one admiral’s name. I had been doing a good job at ignoring it. Hewes, maybe?

Silk was oblivious to my internal struggle. “The colony on Triton went dark.”

I blinked. “They did? What’s that mean? Are they planning an attack?” I shook my head before she could answer. “No, of course not. They don’t have enough resources.” Even a god-rod would take years to reach Earth from here, if they could spare the metal. Of course, if they threw it hard enough, it could still cut the planet in half

We needed to put more damn money in space defense.

“They went dark,” I muttered. “Hopefully, that means they’re staying out of this conflict. But it could mean they’re in trouble. What was their last message?”

“Everything green.”

“Hm…” I waved my hand. “I can’t deal with this right now. I need to spend some time with my family before they forget I exist.”

“I highly doubt that will happen, Mister President.”

“Yeah, that’s what they always say.”

“Mister President…”

“Miss Silk,” I said, turning back to boss mode. Silk seemed completely unaffected, but Jefferies stood up straighter just by sheer instinct. “Please arrange dinner for my family. Catered by that steak place my wife likes so much.” I hated it. I hated steak in general, really. Even this place’s famous steaks were like chewing leather. Still, this might be our last chance to eat together before the war.

Silk nodded, and held the door open. “This way, Mister President.”

I stepped out of the meeting room into the White House proper. “I think I know my way to my own office, Miss Silk.”

“But dinner is this way.”

I frowned. “What?”

“I anticipated your request,” she explained. “The caterers set up while you were in your meeting.”

“But—I cut the meeting short!”

“I anticipated that as well.” She smiled. “You’ve never liked meetings.”

Shaking my head, I had no choice but to follow her.

“Daddy!” someone tackled me in the legs as soon as I walked through the door into the dining room.

I smiled and patted my daughter’s head, but inwardly I groaned. She only upped the cuteness when she had done something wrong and needed to butter me up. “Hello there, sweetie. How was your day?”

“I saw a mouse!”

I frowned, then turned to my wife. “She what?”

Grace, my wife, just rolled her eyes. “It was on the computer. Somebody sent for a video of a mouse doing a tap-dance. Just kid stuff.”

“Ooh—” I smiled at my daughter, still clinging to my leg. “Can I see?”

Grace frowned. “Richard.”

“What? I’m taking an interest in her interests!”

She rolled her eyes, but smiled as she sat down at the table, already stocked with food.

“Miss Silk? Did you want to—” I looked around, frowning. “Where’d she go?”

Grace frowned as well. “She was just here a second ago.”

“She said she needed to check on her sister,” Karen said, finally letting go of my leg. “She said to start without us.”

“When did she say that?” I asked.

“Silk has a sister?” Grace added.

“She said it in my head.”

My wife and I both sighed. Karen had been doing this recently, pretending she could hear what people were thinking. Silk was the only one who played along, which might have been the wrong choice.

“I’m sure Miss Silk and her… sister will be fine.” A sister seemed pretty specific to just make up, but maybe Silk had mentioned it to Karen at some point. She’d never said anything to me about it, but I sure as hell wouldn’t talk about my siblings without it being dragged out of me. I had mostly given up on them after they skipped out on my wedding. When my brother dodged his own funeral, I officially gave up.

“Richard,” Grace said. “You’re distracted tonight. Care to sit down?”

I blinked, and nodded, pulling out a seat for myself. “Yes, sorry. It’s been a busy week.”

“Because you declared war,” Karen said, with all the confidence of a ten year-old.

I smiled and rubbed the top of her head briefly before piling food onto my plate. “It’s not a war. Domina City is still part of the United States. New York, specifically.” Not that anyone had bothered pretending for the past thirty years or so. “Do you know what it’s called when you send the military to your own country?”

“No…”

“Neither do I. Let me know when you figure it out—it will play well with the press.”

“Richard.”

I spread my hands. “What? I don’t know what I’m supposed to call it. Police action? Troop redeployment?”

“Does it matter?”

“It probably wouldn’t if I had been able to send the troops earlier,” I muttered. “I thought we had everything lined up and ready to go the day of the announcement. But everything went sideways so fast. With Sele dy—” I noticed my daughter looking at me. “—becoming indisposed, and a few logistics problems, now everything with the space colonies…” I sighed. “It’s coming together again, but still. This was supposed to be an easy win.”

“You need to relax,” Grace said firmly. “Pass me the mashed potatoes. Thank you. Anyway, you just need to give it a rest. Relax a bit, turn your brain off.”

“I learned that you can’t turn your brain off,” Karen said primly. “It’s always whirring away.”

We both ignored her. “I appreciate the thought, but this is important. I can’t just forget about it.”

Grace took a deep breath. “What is it you’re always saying to me?”

I closed my eyes. “I should have seen this coming.”

“Richard, what are you always saying?”

“All work is like a machine without oil,” I repeated dutifully. “It will explode.”

“Exactly. Now, the question is, are there any problems that will be improved with you worrying about them for tonight?”

“No…”

“Then don’t.” She spread her hands, indicating the well-stocked table. “You have a beautiful dinner in front of you, and a wonderful family to eat it with. Just enjoy it. The problems will still be there to worry about later.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 273)

Richard’s family was originally going to be wildly different, but I had to dial it down a bit. Progressive timeline or no, having his brother be an actual circus clown was unreasonable. He simply would never have been elected.

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Scene 272 – Lapos

LAPOS

LING

Nephorthees peered at the piece of paper in her hand. “S-Saharon—”

“Sharon,” I read. “It says Sharon Carter.”

She looked a little embarrassed, but covered it quickly. “Good.” She tucked the note away. “That’s the last target.”

I glared at her. “Is this going to go the same as the other ones?”

The strange woman smiled broadly. “Yep!” She touched my shoulder, and suddenly we were somewhere else. In front of a building, some sort of office or whatever. “Call me when you’re done!” She disappeared again.

I closed my eyes, adjusted the glove on my stone arm to make sure it covered everything, and walked through the glass doors.

There was a man sitting behind the big desk. Baseline, of course. Outside the city, they were all baseline. Except for Nephorthees. She looked baseline, but she acted like something else.

“Miss?” the receptionist asked. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

“I’m here to see Sharon Carter,” I grumbled. I had no idea who she was, or why Silk wanted her dead. I had learned to stop asking questions like that. Nephorthees didn’t know the answers, and thought it was funny that I even cared.

“Floor twelve,” he said with a smile. “Third door on the right.”

I walked over to the elevators without a word.

Nothing hindered me in any way. No one was in the elevator. No one tried to arrest me as I stepped out on the twelfth floor. There were no traps, guards, dogs, or mechanized fire-breathing alligators.

Nephorthees had nearly died laughing when I came back from the alligator thing.

I almost wished there were problems. If there were all sorts of security precautions, I could at least pretend there was a reason. I could at least pretend that only the guilty were so paranoid, and that maybe they deserved to be assassinated. And you know, maybe they really did. But no one ever told me anything.

At the third door on the right, I took a deep breath and knocked, my stone right hand echoing loudly on the thin metal. There was a pause, and I was tempted to knock the door down. But after the debacle the first time with the dogs, I had learned to be more patient and subtle.

A few more minutes waiting, and the door opened, revealing a pretty blonde woman, thirty years old at the most. She smiled when she saw me.

“Ling!” she cried. “Wonderful, wonderful, I thought you weren’t going to make it! Come in!”

She pulled me inside, not seeming to notice that I was as stiff as a statue—and a bit more literally than usual, considering all the stone in my body.

The woman led me through a few small corporate hallways to a reasonably sized meeting room, where she pulled out a chair for me, then sat down next to me.

Across from us were Nephorthees and Turgay.

Turgay wasn’t wearing his cloak or hood. He was sitting with his beak and feathers and talons out in the open for anyone to see. After the thing with Soaring Eagle, there was no way anyone would mistake him for some kid cosplaying.

Sharon didn’t seem concerned, though, and was still smiling broadly. “So. It was… Nephorthees, correct?”

The not-quite-human woman smiled. “Yes, very good. This is Turgay Corvi, and of course you’ve already met Ling Yu.”

“Pleasure,” I said, throat even drier than usual.

I had expected tricks and traps. I hadn’t expected them to come from Nephorthees.

“Mister Corvi,” the woman said, turning to my friend. “You’ll understand that I have questions.”

He nodded.

“Just to start: What exactly are you?”

He squared his chest. “I am a kemo, a member of a culture that modifies themselves to be more like animals. In my case, I am an ave, a bird, and furthermore I am an anthro—someone who has gone the extra mile, become a fully anthropomorphic animal.”

Carter nodded. “And this all came from the toy maker?”

“And the toy box,” he added. “It’s the same technology as the toy maker, but miniaturized and put into a box.”

“More like a coffin.”

Everyone ignored me.

“Absolutely fascinating,” Carter whispered, still looking at my friend. She tore her gaze away long enough to turn to Nephorthees again. “The amount of good my company could do with this kind of technology is breathtaking. But anything related to the toy maker is heavily restricted. Even the military can barely touch it.”

Nephorthees nodded somberly—the first time I’d ever seen her somber, or pretending to be somber, at least. Normally she varied between bored and excited, with little in between. “Just think how much worse it will be if Domina is crushed.”

“Ah…” Carter leaned back in her chair, smiling thinly. “That’s your game.”

Nephorthees shrugged. “The best games are the ones where everyone wins.”

“You want us to withdraw our support staff from the war effort. Without doctors, the invasion will be crippled.”

“No need for something so extreme. Just delay for a few days. Make sure they leave without you, say you’re right on schedule until the second the boats push off. The war will be over before you need to make any further excuses.”

Carter looked amused. “And if it isn’t?”

“Then it will become a world war,” the assassin said, as pleasantly as if they were discussing dinner. “The majority of Earth-based nations will back the United States. The space stations will back Domina. Every power in the solar system will be drawn into the conflict, and millions will die.”

Carter no longer looked amused. Her face was stone.

“One way or another, this war needs to end swiftly and decisively,” Nephorthees continued. “Domina cannot stand against the full might of the US, of course, but if they kick them hard enough in the teeth, it will cause a retreat and a reassessment of priorities.”

“And if there is no retreat? When does Domina surrender?”

“We won’t,” I growled. “We’ve been fighting each other for thirty years. We’ll fight outsiders for thirty thousand if we have to.”

I hadn’t been to the city recently, but I knew that was still true. Sure, I was leaving out the fact that we’d also be fighting each other at the same time, but there was no need to mention that. It would just make her think that Domina was a weaker target.

I still didn’t know why Silk had sent us here to do this, but the goal was clear enough.

“So either an embarrassing defeat for the US, or a world war,” Carter said, turning back to Nephorthees. “I don’t suppose there’s some sort of middle ground? Some tax concessions the city can make to avert this?”

“There are,” Nephorthees admitted. “Maybe they’ll even try them. But the only senators and congressmen willing to listen to those proposals are now disinclined to do so.”

I stiffened. I had been sent to kill several members of congress this past week. Not a lot, but a few. If the targets had been chosen carefully enough, used to stoke the paranoia of the others…

Then Silk had completely eliminated any chance of a peaceful resolution to this mess. It wasn’t likely in the first place, but Butler would have at least tried.

No wonder Nephorthees had been acting like she knew the attack was going to happen soon. In fact, she seemed to know the exact day. It was Monday the sixteenth now, four days after the president’s announcement, and my handler was acting like everything was exactly on schedule.

If Carter noticed the implied threat, she didn’t mention it. “So what exactly are you offering, Miss Nephorthees? A copy of the toy maker and some blueprints?”

“Hardly. In return for you not getting involved, we will not involve you.” She smiled. “Doesn’t that seem fair?”

“Is that a threat?”

“Yes.” Nephorthees smiled. “I hate everything about this place. The color, the stink of your chemicals and your sweating flesh. If I had my way, I would burn your stupid planet to the bedrock and start over.”

I had absolutely no idea if she was being serious or not. I still knew nothing about this woman, and I had spent the last week taking orders from her. But I at least believed that it was possible that she would—and could—kill the planet if Silk wasn’t stopping her.

Carter shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “…I’m not sure who you think you are dealing with. But this company is hardly helpless, and if you continue threatening, we will have no choice but to—”

“Ling,” Nephorthees interrupted. “Non-lethal.”

Much as I didn’t want to jump at her command, a week with her had drilled the instinct into my body. Before I knew what was happening, I had ripped Sharon Carter out of her chair by the neck and slammed her onto the table. My stone arm kept her pinned in place easily despite her struggles.

Nephorthees had only moved to grab Turgay’s arm and keep him from jumping up.

“Miss Carter,” Nephorthees said pleasantly, smiling at the terrified woman. “The only thing preventing me from murdering everyone in this building with my bare hands in the conscience of a very tired woman. Where I’m from, denying a deal like this would be grounds for a summary execution.”

Carter made a sound. I strengthened my grip.

“However, I am prepared to offer you one, small concession. You may send a team of scientists to Domina City. They will work with some of the best toy maker developers in the city, and will leave after one year—assuming, of course, they survive. Does that sound fair?”

Carter nodded desperately.

“Good.” I took the hint, and released the woman. She reached for her throat, gasping for breath, and scrambled off the table, placing her back to the wall and glancing between us like a wild animal. Nephorthees seemed unconcerned. “Ling, do you have any recommendations for who these scientists should study under?”

I thought for a moment. “Clarke is the obvious choice, but Butler is too paranoid. He’d never allow it. Perhaps Bel? He sponsors college-age scientists, this sort of thing would be right up his alley.”

“The logistics would be annoying,” Turgay said, the first thing he had said, in fact. “Pick someone with baseline eyes. Loki likes fooling around with the toy maker.”

I chuckled. “We are not sending anyone to Loki.” I raised an eyebrow at Nephorthees. “The plan is for them to actually survive, right?”

She smirked, but nodded.

“Yeah, not Loki.” I thought for a moment. “What about that lupe Ithaeur you were going on about a year or so ago? The one who helped finally crack anthropomorphism?”

“…Novaehollandiae?”

“I guess. I don’t know, you know I don’t pay attention to that stuff.”

“Novaehollandiae,” Nephorthees said, nodding. “An excellent choice.” I was sure she had no idea who he was. She stood, and Turgay rose as well. Of course, I was already up. “Miss Carter. It was such a pleasure meeting with you. If you can forward the names of those scientists to us, we can see about getting them set up after the war.” Her smile thinned. “Assuming you hold up your end of the bargain, of course.”

“O-of course.”

Nephorthees circled the table to come around to her side. “Here’s my card. Just e-mail the list to me, but if you have any questions or concerns, don’t hesitate to call me, day or night. I don’t sleep.”

Carter gave a weak smile as we left.

I kept my mouth shut as we walked through the offices, down to the elevator, and all the way out the lobby. I knew enough about corporations to know better than to say anything where microphones could hear.

“What was that?” I snapped once we were halfway down the block.

“Aggressive negotiations,” Nephorthees said, unconcerned. “You played along very well, I thought you figured it out.”

“Not that.”

“Though your threats were a little disturbing,” Turgay said.

“Yes, okay, a little bit of that. No, I mean this was clearly the point of the whole everything we’ve been doing the past week!” I threw up my hands. “Teleport in, kill a guy, run for dear life. All to cripple the United States from fighting Domina?”

“That’s what Silk said,” Nephorthees mused. “Cripple. But I don’t like that word. My database says it means something a bit more physical, a bit more permanent. Cutting a man’s hamstring, blowing up a hundred tanks.”

“What does it matter?

“It matters because this is all temporary. Rocks in a stream. There is nothing stopping these people from fighting against Domina besides simple, base fear.”

I stared at her.

“I have killed people,” I said. “Under your orders. That is hardly ‘temporary.’ Those people are never fighting back.”

“Their friends and family could,” she said, unconcerned. “But they won’t. Because of fear.”

“What is wrong with you?”

She turned away. “It doesn’t matter. If I can’t make you understand, I can’t make you understand. Trying to force the issue is hardly going to improve the situation.”

I grabbed her arm. “Now listen here, you—”

She slipped out of my grasp like a snake, even when I tightened my stone fist like a vise.

“If you ever touch me again, I will drag you to the center of your sun and watch as your heart turns to vapor. Silk’s plans be damned.”

I stared. She smiled pleasantly.

“Why?” Turgay asked. “Why do you hate us so much?”

Nephorthees glanced at him, then turned away again.

“Come. We have work to do.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 272)

Ling’s scenes have been going weird places, but I think her dynamic with Nephorthees works.

Scene 271 – Purgatio

PURGATIO

FIERNA

It was Friday, December thirteenth. No… no, that was yesterday. Saturday, Saturday the fourteenth. I needed to remember that. Dates were important. Everything was important, but dates were important. If I lost dates, I was losing everything.

The mentats supplied by my chem glands kept my brain sharp. But if I lost my mind, my brain was just along for the ride. Needed to keep my mind to keep my brain. Keep my mind to keep my brain.

Saturday, Saturday.

“Please, Honored Noble!” the vampire at the foot of my throne begged, weeping. “Have mercy.”

I sipped from a wine glass of unflavored blood. My father had ordered that no one was allowed to flavor their blood, and Balan had kept that ridiculous edict going for years. That would be fine, but Gazra had used up all my hidden stash of flavoring while I was gone. Bastard. I had ordered him to find more, but no one was selling to us right now. Not even anything as innocent as flavor packets.

The point was, my day was not going well.

I leaned down, shoulders held expertly to keep my cloak on. “Why, exactly, should I grant you mercy, Ningal? Did you give any to your sclavi, or to your husband, for that matter?” I leaned back. “You remind me of Xinivrae.”

The petite woman flinched as if she had been slapped.

Perhaps that was too harsh. I swished the liquid around in my glass. “Ningal, your story is a simple one. You were powerless and oppressed, so when you found power, you oppressed others. I am not interested in some petty vengeance.”

“Yes, Honored Noble.”

“I am interested in loyalty.”

“Honored Noble, I never stopped searching for you—”

“Yes. I know. You sent Inanna and her get after me.”

She flinched again. “Y-yes, but only as a test! I wasn’t sure it was you, and I knew you’d handle them flawlessly—”

“Stop.”

Her mouth shut with a click.

I rose from my throne and stepped around her, robe trailing on the ground. “Do you know what my father’s favorite pass time was, Ningal?”

“…yes, Honored Noble,” she said quietly.

I ignored her. “He loved bringing the strong down low. So he would force powerful drugs onto his enemies, turn them into little more than pliable pieces of walking meat, ready to be brainwashed to serve his every whim.”

I placed my free hand on her shoulder. She was shaking like a leaf.

“Perhaps that would be justice. Make you a sclav, give you a taste of what it is like to suffer under another. It is not a lesson someone with your origins would normally need, but you have clearly forgotten where you came from.”

“M-my lady Fierna, please.” She gripped my leg, looking up at me with tears in her eyes. “Please, I’ll do anything. Just—just not that. Don’t make me go back to that.”

I smiled, and patted her gently on the head. “Don’t worry, Ningal. I am not my father. I am not you, either. I know what it is like to be trapped in a haze of drugs and worse. I would not wish that on anyone.”

“T-thank you, Honored Noble! Thank you so, so much!”

“But I still can’t trust you.”

I snapped her neck with one hand.

I stepped over her corpse. “Chamberlain. What was her power?”

The vampire standing next to my throne with a pad tapped through it. “Nothing that we needed. Another variant on consuming blood.”

I nodded. “Ah, yes. She was the one who gained fire powers based on how much blood she drank, correct?”

“Yes, Honored Noble.”

“Ah, well. If we need pyros, we can call the Canians.” I waved my hand. “Ia-o de aici.”

My sclavi moved quickly, picking up the corpse and dragging it down the hall to Ogrémoch’s lair.

The sclavi were still mindless, unfortunately. We had been studying my mother’s notes and her work, but there was only so much we could do when Bel wasn’t willing to help us. We were a culture of hedonistic idiots, not scientists.

Gazra stepped around the corner, holding a small paper bag in his hands. “Is this a bad time?”

I rubbed the spot where my fixer used to be out of habit. “Yes. But I don’t suppose waiting will make it better.” I nodded to my chamberlain, and he left without a word. “Are those my flavors? Where did you get them?”

“A nice old vamp in Little Romania. Didn’t recognize me.”

I frowned. “I was hoping people recognized you, but were still willing to sell.”

He shook his head. “No such luck. Things might go easier if you ask Ishtar for help.”

I rolled my eyes. “Please. I asked her for help in joining Necessarius in the first place.”

“And that worked out fine. She didn’t say a word to anyone for five years. Balan even had her tortured in the early days, but she still kept her mouth shut.”

I briefly considered punishing him for that, but decided against it. Ishtar seemed to have forgiven him, I had to as well. “I’ll consider sending an envoy to talk to her. See if she can get a meeting with… Glasya, perhaps. Or maybe even Aka Manah.”

“She’ll be happier if you go.”

I laughed, and finally grabbed the bag from his hands, carrying it over to a nearby table. “Yes, she would be far happier. But I have work to do here. It is important that the people see that the throne is filled.”

“You’re just using that as an excuse.”

I rolled my eyes as I rooted through the bag. Where were the cinnamon ones? He knew I loved cinnamon. “I could always send you.”

“…she might actually kill me this time.”

“Death by sex isn’t such a bad way to go.”

“It’s less fun than it sounds, trust me.” He shook his head. “Plus I hear her power has something to do with her endurance—during the Rampage, she didn’t sleep at all. She had enough stamina before.”

I sighed. “I’ll talk to Bathym.” He was one of the few people she had never tried to seduce. Some said that it was because he was gay, but she always just considered that a challenge. I had a feeling that they were related in some way and just hadn’t told me.

Gazra poured a glass of his own. He put the powder in first, as always. “Has there been any word from Bel?”

“Just curt refusals. I still don’t know if he’s ignoring me because he doesn’t think I’m Fierna, or if he does, and doesn’t want anything to do with me.”

He swilled his drink around. “I thought it would obviously be the first one. He always liked you. Didn’t your mom introduce you? Without your dad around to screw things up?”

I grunted, and drank my own glass. “Well, yes, but there was that whole thing about helping Malcanthet try to break the Mother Monster.”

Gazra winced. “Yeah, I should have thought of that. But didn’t she forgive you?”

“Of course she did. She forgave everyone involved. Except maybe Lupa herself. But Bel is… well, he’s Bel. He can hold a grudge.”

He gave me an odd look. “You described him as a big old nerd who likes playing with the toy maker.”

“Nerds are good at holding grudges. It’s similar to the problem with Ningal. Somebody’s powerless for most of their lives, then you give them enough to get a little revenge, and…” I shrugged. “You’ve got quite the monster on your hands.”

Gazra snorted and sipped at his drink again. “Bel only looks like a monster.”

“But he’s good at holding grudges.”

“Okay, fine. We’ll deal with Bel later. For now, Dracul will be willing to meet—”

“I think I’d prefer to focus on internal matters right now,” I said quickly. “I’m still worried about Balan’s loyalty, and a lot of the nightstalkers don’t like the sound of my idea to give the sclavi their minds back. Ningal’s death will help, but I need to make some examples—”

“Fi,” he said. “Don’t run from this.”

I closed my eyes. “You know I hate talking to that man. He treats me like a child.”

“Children run from their problems.”

I cracked an eye open. “I ripped my damned fixer right off my arm, don’t say I run from anything.”

“And before that, you were running around anonymously as one of Butler’s random goons.”

I glowered, and sipped my drink. “Why do I keep you around?”

He shrugged, and put his own glass down. “Maybe because you know you need someone to tell you when you’re being stupid.”

“I kill most people who do that.”

He was unconcerned. “Or to remind you about important things outside the culture, like the Dragon being the only person willing to meet with you, or the war that’s coming to the city.”

“Even if Bel started working with us today, we wouldn’t crack my mother’s secrets soon enough to fight. Our sclavi will just be a liability in a large-scale battle.”

Or maybe I just have really nice hands.” He was behind me now, his nimble fingers working on my shoulder blades through the coat. “I think you have five years of knots here. Doesn’t Necessarius have masseuses?”

I smirked, even as I closed my eyes and let him continue. “Not covered under our insurance.”

“Maybe I should be upset about that on your behalf, but our insurance is still crap.”

“What about South Central Medical?”

“Went bankrupt a couple years ago.”

I groaned as he continued working on my shoulders. “Sânge și umbra… more problems to deal with.”

“You know the Dragon is good about helping with this sort of thing…”

I took a deep, tired breath. “He’s going to make us release the sclavi.”

“You want to release them!”

“Once we’ve weaned them off the physical chems, not just dump them in the street! If we—” He worked a knot in my upper back. “Ooh. If we release them, every single one of them will be snapped up by Butler.”

“That wouldn’t be so bad.”

I turned my head to give him a sidelong look. “For them? No, that would be fine.” I turned away again. “For us? It would be the death of the culture.”

There was a pause, as I leaned on the table while he continued massaging my shoulders.

“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”

I turned around, knocking his hands aside. His face betrayed little emotion.

“You never wanted to be Fierna,” he said mildly. “You hate everything your father has built.”

“If Phlegethos falls, the Belians don’t fall with it,” I snapped. “They fracture. There will be a hundred different wanna-be warlords scrambling for control.”

“That didn’t happen when Malcanthet fell. Or any of a dozen kemo warlords I could name. Or, if you want to talk about vampires, when Perrikus died, or Tserron turned angel, or when Rimmon joined with Asmodeus.”

“We’re chem-heads, Gazra. Anybody could make a thousand more of us in a month, if they were following my father’s orders rather than mine. There’s no defense against getting injected with psycho and brainwashed.”

“But they won’t be Belians,” he insisted. “They won’t be your problem.”

“They will be. And they will be.” I shook my head. “Even if they’re not using my mother’s protocols, they’ll still be caused by me, by letting this culture break apart too fast. We can’t let this happen, especially not with war looming.”

Gazra sighed. “I know you’re not going to want to hear this—” He frowned, looking behind me. “Who’s that?”

I turned around. There was someone standing there in a black cloak, their face hidden behind the hood. That itself wasn’t too exceptional—vampires liked black, and they liked hoods. But hiding your face in front of your warlord was hardly polite. “You there. Arăta fața ta.”

They charged without a word.

Gazra and I split apart instantly, him countering the charge head on while I dodged back to grab the St. Euphemia I kept stashed behind my throne. Assassins would be ready for a warlord. It was surprising how few of them considered we might just grab a gun.

When I raised the Necessarian weapon and pointed it at the melee, I took in the situation at a glance. Our opponent was still cloaked, but was dodging Gazra’s superhumanly fast punches with ease. Gazra could go faster if he used his power, but that had tradeoffs.

Impuscaturi!” I yelled. Gazra dodged back, out of my firing line.

Unfortunately, our assailant understood Romanian, and dashed forward, trying to keep Gazra within melee range so that I couldn’t shoot. Before they closed the distance again, I fired, just a short burst.

The assistant leaped back, dodging the bullets that tore through the table I had been standing next to just a moment ago. Whether through buffs or a power, this person had incredible reflexes, and would have to be trapped before—

My eyes caught something inside the robe. Just briefly, as it fluttered with movement, but I saw it.

White skin. Not Caucasian, white.

“Gazra!” I yelled. “Înger! Ochii tăi!

With the charade exposed, the angel ripped off his cloak, revealing a muscular white androgynous body, every inch of his skin covered in glowing Hebrew script. I had never seen an angel with so much angelic script on their body, and briefly wondered why.

Briefly, because I was busy dodging behind my throne and squeezing my eyes shut.

Even facing the other way with my hands over closed eyes, the daybreak was so bright it hurt my eyes. It felt like staring directly into the sun, and any other vampire in the room would have been knocked unconscious by the sudden shock. Our sclavi would probably have been killed.

But Gazra wasn’t just any vampire.

The daybreak died as the angel cursed loudly in Hebrew. I got up and fired another short burst, enough to give the assassin pause and Gazra time to catch his breath.

The flow of the battle had changed. Gazra pressed the attack almost desperately, refusing to let the angel get out of reach. He sidestepped my bullets with ease and took advantage of the opening provided to punch the man in the face.

The angel stumbled, and then made the mistake of holding up his palm and shining a light in Gazra’s face. It was so bright that I couldn’t even look at it, and left a bright white afterimage across my vision from just seeing it for a split second.

Gazra didn’t react.

After all, he was blind now.

There was a boom, and I looked up to see that the angel had been thrown across the room, into one of the concrete pillars near the walls. Before he could recover, I unloaded the rest of my St. Euphemia at him. My aim was poor from his light, but it was almost impossible to miss at this range. Dozens of bullets tore into him and the pillar behind him, until he slumped to the ground like a wet rag.

“Gazra, check him.”

“His heart’s not beating,” he said, despite standing about twenty feet away. “Is he glowing?”

“No. Bring your eyes back.”

He grimaced. “It takes about an hour.”

I nodded. “Forgot.” I stepped down off the dais and to the corpse of our assailant, reloading as I went. “Call the nearest nightstalker. Should be Nya, two floors up.” Phlegethos was full of slaves, but still felt empty because there were barely a handful of masters. There were only a thousand true Belian nightstalkers—and most of them didn’t live here. “We’ll need a cleanup crew.”

“Understood.” He took his phone out, then frowned as he tried to remember where all the buttons were.

Smiling, I turned to the corpse. The angelic script on his skin was ruined in a lot of places, but I could still read much of it. It was a poem, which wasn’t unheard of, but it was a much longer one than usual. And I couldn’t find any detail on the angel’s Name or Caste. That was odd.

Wait… there was one line…

“’And with the dawn shall break the darkness…’” I read. “Gazra, what’s that from?”

He thought for a moment. “Mertion. The Platinum Heaven. It’s part of their motto.”

“…Raziel sent this one.”

Gazra frowned. “You sure? Wouldn’t Pistis Sophia be more likely? Raziel wouldn’t send just one assassin.”

“He didn’t. This was a scout.”

Gazra nodded. “He’ll be sending Evansheer next.”

“Probably. Might send a few more probes in first. Hopefully this one didn’t kill too many of our sclavi on his way in.” I leaned forward and sniffed the corpse. “Nothing really worth mentioning. Some angel brand soaps, a little bit of foundry smell…” I blinked, then sniffed closer. “Do you smell that?”

“I killed my sense of smell for a small strength boost. Why?”

I got up, stalked over to the door, and ripped it open.

The sclavi guards stood there, perfectly unharmed, staring at me blankly.

I growled and shut the door again. “The angel was coated in Belian pheromones. The sclavi thought he was an ally.”

“How did they get—”

“Doesn’t matter! What matters is that we need the sclavi sane again yesterday!” I stalked over to my throne and slammed my hand down on the intercom. “Chamberlain! Get me a cleanup crew and a meeting with the Dragon!” I didn’t give him a chance to respond. I turned to Gazra and pointed angrily. “You! You’re going to Ishtar, and she’s going to talk to Bel! We are getting this fixed, right now.”

He swallowed. “It’s—it’s going to take at least a day or two to—”

“Then GET STARTED!

He ran out of the throne room at top speed.

I sighed, and cast my gaze around the room, looking for the flavor packets he had brought with him.

They had been on the table I had shot up.

Of course.

Behind the Scenes (scene 271)

Fierna is a whole lot of fun to write. Gazra’s power is complicated, and I didn’t want to do another major info dump right away, but it will become clear later.

Scene 270 – Cunctatio

CUNCTATIO

RICHARD

I took a deep breath. “What do you mean, we can’t attack yet?”

Most of the generals and admirals around the table wilted under my gaze, but Senator Grain stayed strong. “These things take time, Mister President. And without Miss Sele as a rallying figure, the public is less enthusiastic than they could be.”

“She was killed by a Dominite! That’s got to count for something!”

“She may have been killed by a Dominite,” General Hoshi corrected. “We don’t have enough information to be sure.”

“So? When has that ever stopped us from declaring war?” I leaned forward. “Look, we’ve got the troops mobilized. They can surround that city and make landfall today. We should do it now, when we’ve still got popular opinion on our side!”

Seriously. Never thought I’d be the one arguing for war to a room full of military bigwigs.

“Their… allies in space still present a problem,” Grain said.

“Whose fault is that?” I muttered.

He ignored me. “Tsiolkovsky Station maintains three separate communications satellites for the city, and they cannot be jammed. But they might be able to jam us. Not to mention that they may have weapons capabilities that we don’t know about. If Domina can draw Ceres into this fight, our cities will be under constant threat from space-bourne artillery.”

I closed my eyes. Ceres didn’t have nukes, but they didn’t need nukes. A rock the size of a baseball, fired at Earth from the asteroid belt, would make a very big dent when it hit. And they had a lot of rocks.

“Have we tried talking to their allies in space? At least try and keep them from getting involved?”

“No.”

No, of course not. What was with this country and ignoring all the people who could kill us before it was too late? I wasn’t saying we needed to send them fruit baskets, but at least talk to them! Actually, sending them fruit baskets might have helped diplomatic relations. I’d file that one away for later.

“All right… don’t do anything overt. Miss Silk? What exactly is the nature of the agreement between Domina City and the space stations?”

My secretary adjusted her glasses, and checked her pad. “Just a simple trade agreement. Domina sends up waste the stations can process, they get food and raw materials. Most of the trade is information, actually. Same as the city’s trade with us.”

Which meant it was harder to replace. We had plenty of waste we could send the stations, but we didn’t even know what kind of data they wanted. It could be general data crunching, research data, or even just their favorite cartoons. We had no idea, because we never talked to them.

Sometimes I felt like I had been put in charge of a circus instead of a presidency.

I kneaded my forehead. “All right. Someone tell me what happens if we attack today, the second we’re ready.”

There was a pause.

“Tsiolkovsky will immediately jam our communications,” Hoshi said. “The Soviets will feign ignorance. We can still press forward, though. Short-wave radios will still work, as will some of the more hardened comms on the ships.”

“Shaohao will stay out of it,” another general said. Gregors, right? Or McGregor. There was a ‘Greg’ in there somewhere. “Bakerston needs us too much to fight against us, but they’ll find a way to stay out of the fight. Claim mechanical failure.”

“The ISS will fight with us,” Grain said.

“They don’t have any weapons,” I said. “If harsh language was enough to win this, we’d be fine just sending the Navy. What about farther out? The Lunar colonies don’t have any relations with the city.”

Silk cleared her throat. I nodded at her to speak. “Thank you, sir. While the Lunar colonies have no direct relations with Domina, they are well aware that much of their trade with Ceres and Lemuria will be disrupted if something happens to the city. Marius Alpha can fire god-rods if they are convinced of the need, and Rima Galilaei will have counters for our more exotic weaponry, such as the microwave stunners.”

“The stunners are a pain in the ass to use anyway,” a general grunted. “Stick with guns and tanks.”

“If we need tanks on that island, we’ve already lost,” an admiral said. “Nevermind the effect the sea air will have on the machines—have you ever tried to use a tank in a city?”

No one answered. He was right, and everyone knew it.

“We have other options,” I said, breaking the silence. “Let’s worry more about the colonies. What about Mons Agnes? They’re on our side, right?”

Silk winced. “They… likely won’t fight against us. Probably. At best, they’ll do the same as Bakerston, feign some sort of communications failure until the situation is resolved. America has very, very few allies in space, Mister President.”

I took another deep breath. “Will waiting improve this situation?”

More silence.

“It may be possible to convince some of our the city’s more mercenary allies to turn away,” Grain said. “Your secretary is right, no one will help us, not directly, but a few promises to the right people will help.”

“Our military is the strongest on the planet,” Greggy said. It wasn’t a boast, just a statement of fact. “We will win, if only by sheer force of numbers. Then anyone in space who took the opportunity to drop tungsten rods on us will regret it.”

I nodded. “Remind them not to poke the bear, got it. Grain, can you organize that?”

“Yes, Mister President.”

“Good. We’ll adjourn for today, reconvene tomorrow. We’ll hold a virtual conference if we have to. Any complaints? Good, everyone’s dismissed.”

They all carefully packed up their files and pads and left, leaving me alone with Silk and my bodyguards.

I leaned back in my chair. “Miss Silk, why do we have to fight?”

She adjusted her glasses, and raised a golden eyebrow. Everything about her was gold, or something gold-like. Bronze skin, perfectly brown hair, and eyes that sparkled like polished ancient coins. “You’re asking me, Mister President?”

“It’s either you or Jefferies.” I jerked a thumb at one of my bodyguards. “Jeff’s a soldier. He fights because people tell him to. You’re a secretary. You handle all the paperwork. Why would anyone go to war?”

“Because they didn’t have secretaries to arrange for otherwise.”

I smiled, but didn’t say anything, knowing she had a better answer coming.

She looked pained. “Mister President, I am not… accustomed to this. Killing. Watching people die, even enemies, it’s…” She paused. “It’s a lot to swallow. I imagine watching blips on a tac screen makes it easier.”

“It does. That’s why I watch through the helmet cams of the troopers on the ground.”

She smiled. “Good man.” Her cheer faded. “But that’s not enough. Leaders still treat the whole thing as a game, pieces moving on the board. Countless people will die in this war, Mister President. Doesn’t matter who wins.”

“You’re dodging the question, Miss Silk.”

“You kill because you want something,” she said bluntly. I blinked, trying to grasp her meaning—I wasn’t used to her being quite so forward. “It has been that way since humanity fell out of the trees. You want food, land, mates. You kill, kill, kill.”

I felt sick. “So it’s just greed.”

“Greed is important. It is one of the primary drives of progress. Greed for fame, greed for money, it doesn’t matter. Many great things have come from greed. The fact that you are trying to conquer a city largely to make a name for yourself does not, in itself, make this war unjustified or you an evil person.”

As usual, she hit the nail right on the head. More than usual, actually; she usually danced around the topic more. That had been the problem all along, the real question I had been asking.

Was this war right?

“Will we save more than we kill?” I asked quietly.

She looked at me, with those golden eyes that seemed to be far deeper than they had any right to be. For a second there, I felt like I was being sized up by something far greater than myself, something that could see a thousand years into the future and a million years into the past.

But just for a second.

It was just a feeling. I didn’t need to make a big deal of it.

“Yes,” Silk said. “Your actions will save many, many lives. More than those killed by your soldiers, more than your soldiers killed by the enemy. The solar system will be richer for this war, Richard Martinez. I promise.”

I smiled, and closed my eyes. “Thank you, Miss Silk. That is all I can ask.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 270)

I always like Richard’s scenes, but despite his humor, he’s a little too pragmatic to be fun here. He’ll be better after the war is over. Assuming Marius Alpha doesn’t drop a tungsten rod on his head at supersonic speeds.