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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
“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.