Monthly Archives: July 2016

Scene 277 – Bellum

BELLUM

RICHARD

It was Christmas. My first Christmas as president. The White House was decorated, my wife was directing the caterers, and my daughter was getting under everyone’s feet with her new toy sword. I was going to kill my brother for buying that thing.

It was a beautiful, wonderful day, not even lunch yet, and I was stuck in a dark room, about to enact war on a city that was supposed to be under our protection. This was the kind of thing world leaders got beheaded for. Being the first US president to die to a rampaging mob might get me in the history books, but I had been hoping for something a little more positive.

“Mister President?” Silk said quietly.

I looked up to see the generals and admirals waiting for me. There were even a few senators, Grain and one or two others. I had expected them to dodge the actual work, never mind the fact that it was on Christmas.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for coming, everyone. I know this is a difficult day. I had hoped we’d be ready to launch sooner, but complications arose.”

“We understand,” Grain said.

“We’ve all looked over the numbers,” Ward added. “This is the best time to move. Unfortunately. It’s a miracle that we even have enough men on the boats.”

I took a deep breath. “Then if there are no objections…” No one spoke. I reached forward and clicked the radio on. “General Hoshi?”

“I read you loud and clear, Mister President,” she said, her voice crackling only slightly.

“It’s time, General.”

“Yes, sir. Launching all ships.”

We all watched on the wall screen as two carriers, four battleships, and a horde of smaller assault craft launched from the New York coast line. It was almost certainly overkill, but I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. The more men we sent, the greater chance the city would surrender without a fight.

“Let’s go over the city’s defenses while we wait,” I suggested. “Fitzsimmons, tell me about the Fusion Islands.”

He bobbed his head. He used a remote to switch to a rough map of the city with the four islands at each compass point marked. “Domina has four large nuclear fusion reactors, set a good distance from the main island. They channel power through undersea cables, which results in a good deal of power lost in the transfer, but the original designers were quite paranoid, and were worried that—”

“Fitzsimmons,” I warned.

He got back on track without missing a beat. “The islands are where their space cannons are located, and with proper calibration could be reformatted into long-range artillery. Doubt they’d be able to hit anything closer than a mile, though, and definitely not anything actually moving. Likewise, using the islands as bombs would be inefficient and ineffective.”

Everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief.

“However, the amount of power the reactors produce does give them some very potent defensive options. With the amount of time they had to prepare, they could easily have set up laser turrets.”

“Lasers,” Grain said flatly.

“Not enough to damage any but our smallest ships,” Fitzsimmons assured him. “But they’d be a real danger if any planes get too close, and more importantly could easily shoot down any missiles before they get close enough to do any damage.”

I closed my eyes. Great. That meant the carriers were basically useless. Would have been better to just leave the stupid things to rust.

No, there must be another way to use them. Hoshi had been working closely with Fitzsimmons, he must have mentioned this to her. But she had still specifically requested the carriers. She must have a plan.

“Other than that, the city has no meaningful defenses. Just two mid-sized patrol boats.”

“Ward,” I said. “Tell me about our infantry options.”

He shook his head. “We don’t have much data, and what we have isn’t good. Breaching that wall could take hours, even with the ships. And that’s assuming you’re willing to accept the collateral damage.”

I wasn’t, and he knew it. I let him continue.

“We’ll have to go through one of the four gates.” He clicked his own remote, and the map changed to one highlighting four points on the edge of the city’s wall. “Getting through the gates won’t be too hard. Our men our equipped with lock-bombs. They’re designed to magnetically force open blast doors. We’ll need a lot of them, but we can get them open.”

“Which gate are you attacking?” one of the generals asked.

“All of them,” Ward said. “We have the men for it. It will help counter the fact that they’ll force us to bottleneck and make us easy pickings. Even if one or more of the beachheads is defeated, the others can serve as staging points to push forward.”

The generals nodded, satisfied.

“Do we have any real numbers?” I asked.

Ward shook his head. “None. There are several hundred million people in the city, but we have no idea how many of them are combatants. This would have been easier with Sele rallying her people.”

Somehow I doubted that they would have been happy to see her. The woman ran away with her tail between her legs and then sent an army to attack their home. “No use crying over it now. Worst case scenario, what are we looking at?”

“Worst case, we’re going to be killing a lot of people. Our men will be using corpses as sandbags.”

“We’ll win, though,” one of the generals said firmly.

“Of course we will,” I snapped. “But forgive me if I don’t think slaughtering an entire city counts as saving it.” I shook my head. “Sele wasn’t able to give me much detail on the state of affairs. We know the toy maker is in wide use, but that’s about it.”

“Our men can handle weird crap,” the same general said. I really should try and remember his name. “A few bird or dog people aren’t going to faze them.”

“I know.” I shook my head. “But this whole thing just feels… off to me. Like we’re missing something important.”

“Butler,” Silk said.

I nodded slowly. “That’s it. Sele said he was the de facto ruler of the city. That means he has men and guns.”

“But if we kill him, his gang collapses,” Ward said. “That could be checkmate right there.”

“Could be,” I agreed. “Except we have no idea where he is or what he even looks like. I doubt he’s going to stand on top of the tallest skyscraper and politely wait for us to snipe him in the head.” I waved my hand. “Killing Butler simply isn’t feasible. But…”

An idea was tickling my brain. If it worked…

“Mister President?” General Hoshi said through the radio. “We’re in position.”

That was fast. But then, I had ordered them to redline their engines. The point was to try for a surprise attack. Well, as surprising as it could be. I clicked my own remote, showing a map of Domina with our ships surrounding it. They were giving the Fusion Islands a careful berth.

“Should we attack now?” Grain asked hesitantly.

I shook my head. “No, not yet.” I clicked the radio again. “Hoshi, are we ready?”

“We are, Mister President.”

“Patch me through.”

There was a brief pause. “Go ahead, sir.”

“People of Domina City,” I said, using my deepest speech voice. “This is President Richard Martinez of the United States of America. I am speaking to you through the fleet that is currently surrounding your city.

“We are here to negotiate the surrender of the gangs and other criminals currently plaguing your streets. We hope to solve this peacefully, but it is more than likely that they will refuse. We will have no choice but to remove them violently. Please, stay in your homes. You will be safe there.”

I gave it a moment. Hoshi took the hint. “I turned it off, Mister President.”

“Thank you, General. Patch him through when he calls.”

“Yes, Mister President.”

Grain looked at me oddly. “You really think he’ll call after that?”

“If half of what Sele told me is true, I would be shocked if he didn’t.”

My phone rang. Five simple beeps.

I frowned as I fished it out of my pocket. “That’s odd. I thought I turned this off.” I pulled it out and glanced at the caller ID. It just said ‘MC.’ I turned it onto speaker. “Hello?”

“President Richard Martinez,” a pleasant female voice said. “Please hold.”

I stared at the phone, then at the others at the table. None of them seemed to have a better idea of what was going on than I did.

“Mister President,” a strong, controlled male voice said over the speaker. “I think it is time we had a conversation.”

I felt my blood chill in my veins. “Artemis Butler.”

Grain visibly choked.

“Correct.”

“How did you get this number?” Most of the people in this room didn’t have this number. Only my immediate family and Silk, actually.

He ignored the question. “I would like the discuss the toys you currently have floating outside my city.”

I took a deep breath. “Domina City is a United States city that has flagrantly defied all laws almost since its inception. If you order your men to stand down, we can clean this all up very quickly.”

“Even were I inclined to do so, I do not command all the guns in this city. These people will defend their homes. Sending battleships instead of diplomats was not a wise move.”

“Diplomats? To a bunch of gangs and warlords? We do not negotiate with terrorists.”

“Neither do I. Ask Soaring Eagle what I do to terrorists. Ask her what happened to the Black Bird, or the White Skull, or to Malcanthet and Belial.”

It took me a second to realize who he was talking about. “You mean Sele? She’s dead.”

There was a pause.

“Unexpected,” he said, his voice betraying no emotion. “But I will not shed a tear for a jealous traitor. Regardless, here is what she would tell you about terrorists in Domina City: They don’t last long.”

“We are hardly terrorists.”

“You are using violence and the threat of violence in an attempt to terrify the populace into acquiescing to your will.”

I closed my eyes. The bastard had a point. If not for the whole ruthless gang lord thing, this might be someone I could get along with.

“If I sent a negotiator over, would you accept him?”

The generals and senators looked horrified, but I quieted them with a raised hand. This was important.

“Yes. What terms did you have in mind?”

“We’ll move our forces in to corral the gangs. You’ll help with that, and be officially named mayor of the city. Use of the toy maker will be limited, and guns will be brought down to a more reasonable level through basic licensing. Trade with New York City will be opened up, especially food and other expensive materials.”

There was a pause.

Then he laughed.

Not a quiet little chuckle, a great booming laugh that stressed my phone’s speakers.

I ground my teeth, but didn’t interrupt. I wouldn’t look like the immature one here.

“She really didn’t tell you anything, did she?” he gasped out. “What’d she do, paint a picture of a dark pit, filled with people hiding from roving gangs and mercenaries?”

“She told me enough,” I said icily.

“No. No, she did not. I guarantee that.”

“She told me you wouldn’t give up power. I suppose you would rather be warlord of the city than something real and legal.”

He barked out another laugh. “I would gladly give up my job. But they keep voting to keep me in, and I don’t have it in me to step down without a successor I’ve groomed personally.”

I frowned. Voted? He probably meant something informal, like the gang leaders agreed to follow him.

“It is a reasonable offer, Mister Butler. More than reasonable.”

“No, Mister President, it is not.” His breathing had returned to normal, the laughter subsiding. “Your bird wanted to kill our city. She thought your terms would do that, one way or another. Either we agree and die, or disagree and are killed. Simple but effective.”

“It sounds like you’re between a rock and a hard place.”

“No. Soaring Eagle always did look down on everyone else. She underestimates this city.” The last vestiges of humor and cheer disappeared from his voice. “We will hold against all comers. If you insist on making this a war, I guarantee that you will regret it.”

“Our military is the strongest on Earth.”

“Maybe. But we are Domina City. There is nothing that you can do to us that we haven’t already done worse to ourselves.”

“When all this is over, remember I tried to negotiate.”

“No. You tried to threaten. You just did a terrible job of it.”

I shut off my phone and looked up. Everyone else seemed to agree with how I had handled the situation, which was a nice change of pace. Some of them looked more than a little rattled, but it would be fine.

I clicked the radio.

“Hoshi. Launch the assault.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 277)

And the war begins. Been waiting for this for… the entire time I’ve been writing this story, now that I think of it.

Scene 276 – Naves

NAVES

NEPHORTHEES

My name is Nephorthees. Once the flagship of the Via-na starfleet, the death of a thousand galaxies. Later, I was an assassin, slipping through the dark places between stars to end emperors and kings. Now, I am still an assassin, but stuck in a pitiful little body that doesn’t even come with any guns.

I wasn’t entirely helpless, though. I had a link to Besceriul in my skull that allowed me to download data updates, software patches, and other upgrades that made my life easier. Right now, it was giving my eyes a zoom function so that I could scan the boats from half a mile away.

“Lady Grave,” I said, calling to the girl. She was a petrakinetic half-golem, probably the only one on the planet. I once met an entire species of people like her. “I’ve found one that’s less defended from the rest.”

She nodded, calm in the face of danger. Poor girl. I had seen some videos of her before her capture. She had seemed like a nice and gentle soul. But unrelenting pain and torture had burned that off. I’d never tell her how sorry I felt for her. She wouldn’t appreciate it, anyway. The gentle girl was gone; all that was left was the Lady Grave.

“Can’t you just teleport us straight into the cargo hold?”

My Song didn’t work like that. I could only teleport to places I had been, and even then, if things had changed too much, it could fail. Boats—or any sort of vehicle, really—were extremely difficult to teleport onto.

“No,” I said. “You’ll have to sneak in.”

She sighed. “Yeah, I expected—wait. You’re not coming with us?”

“It will be easier to just sneak you two in. I’ll meet you in Domina later.” Of course, one of my other Songs let me turn invisible, but there was no need to mention that one.

Grave took a deep breath to steady herself. “Can you at least help us as a distraction?”

I glanced at the bird, Turgay. He had been getting more quiet and withdrawn with each passing day, to the point that he barely spoke any more. Sometimes he did better, sometimes he did worse, but this was clearly one of his worse moments.

He’d never make it onto the boat. Not like this.

“Yes,” I said, turning back to Grave. The computer in my skull tried to scan her face to calculate her exact emotions, but I dismissed it with a thought. Her stone skeleton had messed up her physiology enough that the scanner was useless. “I’ll take us closer, then you two take it from there while I distract everyone. Agreed?”

They both nodded, Turgay with significantly less enthusiasm.

“Good.” I grabbed their arms and teleported. Suddenly, we were on top of another skyscraper, far closer to the docks and the military boats loading up men and cargo. A quick scan of the area told me the best route through. “Get down there and get on those boats. You’ll know the distraction when it happens.”

Grave and Turgay nodded again, then headed towards the fire escape.

Then everything stopped.

I sighed. “I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

Silk strode up beside me. “It’s fine, this won’t take long.”

“Funny.” We were currently in a virtual space while our minds were sped up so fast that it seemed like the world wasn’t even moving. Well, my mind was sped up. Silk’s brain was overclocked as a general rule. “What’s the problem?”

“No problem. I was just checking in.” She looked over the pair, apparently frozen mid-step. “How’s Turgay?”

“Worse than Grave,” I said. “Or at least less functional. She might go crazy and start killing people soon, but at least she’ll last long enough to do so. Turgay needs hand-holding just to get out of bed in the morning.”

“Returning to Domina will be good for him. Your constant moving around isn’t helping his mental state.”

I shrugged. “Your orders weren’t very specific.”

She waved off the excuse. “I wasn’t chastising you. He needed time away from the city, for more reasons than one. And Ling does better when she’s taking care of him. It reminds her that she’s human.”

“If you say so.”

“I do.” She turned back to me. “And what of the other matter I asked you to look into?”

I shook my head. “I can’t find them. It’s like the para just disappeared. They didn’t make any detours that I saw. I’m not sure why you sent me. Vearon had a lot more time than me, and he didn’t find anything either.”

“Vearon has never been a ship, or even a captain of a ship. You have a perspective he lacks.”

There was a pause as she stared at the sky.

“I’m sure it’s something stupid and obvious we’ve missed,” I assured her. “Something—”

“I’ve calculated every possibility a hundred times over,” Silk said. “None of them are good. Best case scenario is they veered off-course somehow. Worst case, our arrival from the future somehow destroyed them outright.”

I stared. “How? We never got within a thousand light years before you sent Vearon to check up on them!”

“The universe is complicated. You can’t track every particle and piece of dust. You have to calculate in aggregate, make assumptions and generalizations. But if you miss the wrong piece, the whole puzzle begins to collapse.” She sighed deeply. “An entire species, Neph. Lost, beyond repair or resurrection.”

I remained silent. I was an assassin who used to be a genocidal warship. Killing a species or two, even sentient ones, wasn’t that big of a deal to me. But Silk took this sort of thing pretty seriously.

Silk took a breath. “Did you tell Ling not to kill anyone?”

I shook my head. “She’s gonna have a hard enough time without pacifism.”

Silk made a face, but nodded. “Agreed. Unfortunately. Well, it should be fine. These are good men and women, but deaths are inevitable in a war. Just call me or Besceriul should she need to do something extreme like sink a ship or kill a captain.”

“Agreed.” I knew that she was speaking to me, too. She didn’t want me to blow up one ship to give them the distraction to sneak onto another. “Will I see you in Domina, or are you still babysitting the president?”

“I will be with Richard for the time being. If I come to Domina, it will be in disguise. I’ll let you know.”

“Careful,” I warned. “You gave them counter-song. You walk past a paranoid warlord’s domain, and your illusion could fall apart right in the middle of the street.”

She smiled. “Thank you for your concern, Nephorthees, but it is misplaced. I will be fine.”

I shrugged. “If you say so.”

“I do.” She gave Ling one last look, before turning back to me. “Keep them safe. Both of them. They are important.”

Silk disappeared, and time resumed.

“Kids, wait.”

They both stopped, surprised.

“…good luck.”

“Uh, yeah,” Grave said. “You too.” They both jumped over the edge of the roof without hesitation.

I sighed. I wasn’t built for this. I had enough trouble understanding this type of thing when I was growing up. At least back then I had the standard icebreaker of ‘hey, you want to dive into the nearest star?’

I hated this body so much.

I rolled my shoulders and cast my gaze across the city. A distraction with minimal loss of life… something big and expensive, but not actually dangerous. Blowing up an empty building would work, but my scanner wasn’t advanced enough to guarantee an entire building was empty.

There. That should do the trick.

I teleported to another building, eyeing the machines on its roof critically. There were plenty of air conditioners and other primitive devices scattered around. I didn’t understand how most of them worked, but the one I needed was the simplest of them all.

A water tower.

I floated up the side, then placed my hand on the cool metal and concentrated. After a moment, I removed my hand, leaving behind a glowing white hand print that throbbed with energy. Then I quickly teleported back to my starting position.

I concentrated on my hand, and pulled.

The water tower exploded with a boom that shook the city. The resulting torrent of rain was more than enough to draw the attention of every single person within half a mile. There was no way anyone could miss this.

I didn’t have as many Songs as Silk or even Elizabeth, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve.

I searched near the boats for Grave and Turgay. There they were, slipping past surprised guards with ease. Now they were going belowdeck—

Where the guards likely would still be at their posts.

Whoops.

I teleported again, this time straight into the ship. That was a bad idea, since my Song was based on sight when dealing with places I hadn’t been before, but it was fine. Yes, my foot got sliced off by a wall, but it regenerated after two steps. I had more important things to worry about right now.

I couldn’t cause too big a scene. If they realized someone was on board, they’d search the entire ship with a fine-tooth comb. Even knocking out the guards wasn’t an option.

I set my eyes to scanning, trying to find some weakness to exploit. I could see the power lines in the walls, going to speakers and all sorts of other devices. Speakers… maybe if I faked an alarm… no, that was the same problem as before. Needed to be subtle.

I smelled something on the wind. I sniffed, then smiled. Simple, yet effective. This would work beautifully.

I followed my nose, tracking the delicious scent to its source. The kitchen, manned by a single cook. Since the crew wasn’t fully embarked, the place was pretty much completely empty.

At the last second, I realized I wasn’t wearing a uniform, but it was too late. Hopefully Grave would be smarter.

The cook smiled at me. “Hey there, sailor! Coming in before anyone else?”

I smiled back. “Something like that. I smelled something wonderful, and wondered what it was.”

He chuckled at my wordplay. “Cinnamon rolls, bacon, and scrambled eggs.”

“Sounds great.” My stomach thought so, at least. I hated eating as a general rule.

He nodded happily. “The last cook actually had fish. The moron ordered it and everything. Can you imagine that?”

I had no idea if this was some aspect of human culture I was unaware of, or if the cook was just crazy. “I hope you threw all that out.”

He rolled his eyes. “No, you can’t actually throw out food on a ship. I just tossed it in the cold storage as emergency rations. We’ll never need them, though. We’re only gonna be gone for a week, tops.”

“Even if it does turn into a siege, we’ll be close enough to be resupplied from New York.”

“Exactly, exactly.” He washed his hands at a small sink, then slipped some gloves on. “Now, what are you in the mood for? If this spread’s too rich for you, I’ve got some bread rolls and soup.”

“No, this should be fine…” I tapped on the glass above one item. “What’s this?”

As he walked over to figure out what I was pointing at, I used my other hand behind his back to summon a small orb of fire. I threw it at the part of the kitchen that my superhuman nose told me was the greasiest.

It exploded like a bomb. I actually had to bend the flames away from the cook to keep him from being roasted.

“MY KITCHEN!” he cried as the fire alarms went off. He dashed forward, and I had to teleport behind him to grab his shirt. “LET GO OF ME! THAT’S MY KITCHEN!

I dragged him over to the wall easily despite his thrashing and pounded on one of the emergency intercoms on the wall. “All hands, to the mess hall! We’ve got a fire! Repeat, the food is on fire!

That brought them running.

It took nearly an hour, but the dozen guards on the ship managed to kill the fire for good. It would have been so much worse without me there to keep the flames under control, but of course they didn’t know that. As far as they knew, I was just the girl shouting for more fire extinguishers.

“Captain on deck!” someone yelled. I snapped a perfect salute with the best of them. I mentally thanked Silk for the year I spent in North Korea. Those guys made sure you knew how to show respect.

If there was anything wrong with my salute, no one noticed. The sailors were too busy staring straight ahead, while the captain was looking over the damages.

“It doesn’t seem too bad,” he mused. “Can you still cook like this?”

“Yes, sir,” the cook said stiffly. “Mostly just scorches. We got lucky. Grease fires are bad.”

“I am aware.” The captain looked the cook up and down. “This is the first such emergency in your career, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ll be more careful next time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good.” The captain walked out of the room. “As you were.”

Everyone visibly relaxed.

“How bad was it really?” I asked, with all the fake concern I could muster.

“Things are going to taste like grease and smoke for this entire trip,” he said mournfully. “But I’ll make do. And it really could have been a lot worse. Should have been a lot worse, really.” He smiled at the sailors who had come running. “I guess I owe you all my gratitude.”

“A round of free drinks?” one of them asked hopefully.

The cook rolled his eyes. “Fine.”

Everyone cheered.

After a few rounds of drinking illegal alcohol, I slipped away from the drunken men and women, then teleported away once I was out of sight. I had done everything I could. If Grave and Turgay got caught now, it was their own fault.

Behind the Scenes (scene 276)

Nephorthees is a weird one to write for. But I think she comes off well.

Scene 275 – Iter

ITER

LING

“Well, you’re on your own now,” Nephorthees said. “See ya.”

“Wait!” I grabbed her by the arm before she could teleport away. “That’s it? You order us around for two weeks, and then nothing? No explanations, no reward, not even a point in the right direction?”

“Yep.” She squirmed out of my grip in a way that I was pretty sure a human shouldn’t be capable of. It wasn’t strength, it was just that her arm bent around like rubber. “You’ve learned everything I have to teach you, all that crap.”

“You didn’t teach us anything!”

“Yeah, well, good luck.”

She disappeared.

And that was it.

We still knew nothing about the woman. Nothing about her goals except that she seemed to be trying to cripple the US in the war. We knew even less about where she came from or how she got here. The last two weeks had been like working for a ghost.

I brushed my hair back with my good hand. “Guy, do you know where we are?”

Before he could open his beak to answer, someone else spoke.

“New York City, New York. Closest spot to Domina.”

I turned and threw up my hands. “Nephorthees!”

She just smiled. “What?”

“What are you doing here!? I thought you left!”

“Yeah, and now I’m back.” She held out a cup filled with a strong-smelling roast. “Coffee?”

“What? No, I don’t want coffee! I want to know what in the velvet Hell is going on!”

“I’ll take some coffee,” Turgay said, reaching out a claw.

Nephorthees pulled it away, frowning. “I’m pretty sure birds aren’t supposed to have caffeine.”

“I’m still human on the inside. Didn’t even touch my digestive system.”

“Hm…” She was still frowning, but she handed over the coffee. He couldn’t sip it without cheeks, but he poured it down his throat skillfully.

“Nephorthees,” I said. “Please explain what is going on?”

She rolled her eyes. “The boss sent me back. Said you’re not ready to go alone, or something.” She shook her head. “Stupid. Like I don’t have better things to do than babysit a freak and a bird.”

I let that pass without comment. “Tell Silk we’ll be fine, thanks.”

“She’s not worried about you. She’s worried about everyone else.”

I frowned. “She—she’s what?”

Nephorthees sipped at her coffee, and sat down on the edge of the rooftop. Turgay and I followed suit. This was the tallest roof we could find, and had been camped up here the past few days. If not for the short buildings surrounding us, it would almost feel like home.

“Lady Grave,” Nephorthees said somberly. “Last time you were allowed to make your own decisions, you attacked a military compound and killed a bunch of people. If not for Silk, you might have slaughtered the whole base. Assuming you weren’t killed in the process.”

I remained silent.

“And Mister Corvi. You decided to run away with a homicidal, traitorous coward to play as her lead scientist, in order to betray your home and everyone you’ve ever known, for no real reason.”

Turgay muttered something under his breath about it being more complicated than that.

Nephorthees wisely ignored him. “I’ve been in your shoes—both of your shoes.” She shook her head. “This one time, my sjhbhv got hurt, and I got so mad—”

“Wait,” I interrupted. “Your… what? What got hurt?”

She grimaced. “I hate your language. My… my…” She visibly struggled. “Parent. Sort of. My clone-source, like Silk is to Elizabeth, but different. The tree from which I fell, the factory from which I was forged.”

“Nice use of metaphor,” I said.

“Those aren’t metaphors.”

Okay. Maybe I was missing more context here than I thought.

“Anyway, my sjhbhv got hurt, so I tracked the offender across three galaxies and made his favorite star go nova while he was solar-surfing.” She chuckled at the memory. “You should have seen his face before he was vaporized.” She sighed. “Of course, the inhabitants of that star system didn’t think it was funny. I had to work for them for a thousand cycles, helping to rebuild. My sjhbhv was mad when I got back.”

Turgay and I just stared at her.

Context. So much context needed.

“You haven’t learned that lesson yet.”

“What lesson?” I asked. Incredulously, not sarcastically. I was so lost I honestly had no idea what I was supposed to take from her little story.

“That revenge isn’t worth it. What has your little quest gotten you?”

“I got Guy back.”

She chuckled. “Don’t pretend that was your doing. You would have killed him if Silk hadn’t intervened.”

“I would not!”

She shrugged. “Okay, maybe not, but you wouldn’t have ended up with him on your side. Not drenched in the blood of everyone in that base. Not having made the war against Domina City a thousand times worse by killing the president and his general.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“I think she’s got a point,” Turgay said. “I mean, killing Xinivrae is one thing. Killing some innocent president is another.” He quirked his head. “I forgot to ask how you figured out who she was, anyway.”

“I was a Widow when I was a succubus,” I said. “Don’t you remember?”

“You mean when you ran away from home? No, I don’t know what you were doing.”

I shrugged. I guess I had kind of avoided the topic, except with my matron. And even with her, it only came up a couple times to hit the highlights.

“The point is that you need a chaperone.” Nephorthees turned to Turgay. “Both of you do. Silk is busy, Lakerine is busy, Besceriul is busy, Canthil and Masgador stand out too much, and Vearon and Lorofe aren’t even on the planet. So the duty falls to me.”

I felt like those names were important, but they went by too fast for me to catch them. “I’m glad you’re so enthusiastic.”

“It’s either this or sit on a couch watching tv while I wait for an assassination order to come in. I doubt there will be any more for a while. It was only in the early days that things were busy enough to be fun.”

Turgay gave her a look. “Early days? Early days of what?”

“Early days of being here. We landed…” She frowned. “I can’t remember the date, but thirty years ago. Had to make lots of changes to make sure things worked out better. Assassinate a few leaders, impersonate a few more, so on and so on.”

“Like… like what?”

She considered for a minute. “Korea. The northern one. Lorofe and I handled that together.” She smirked, her eyes distant. “Fixed a decades-old conflict in a day and a half. That was fun.”

Turgay looked confused. “The North Korean regime collapsed when the leader—ah, I can’t remember his name—”

“Don’t look at me. I just killed the guy.”

“—announced on live television to his entire country that everything he had ever said was a lie, and that they needed to reunify with the south. And then most of the leaders committed suicide.”

“Yeah…” Nephorthees said, almost dreamily. “That was a lot of fun.”

“And the Soviet peace talks?” I demanded. “Was that your doing?”

She shook her head. “Nah, that was Silk. No assassinations or impersonations, just her doing her whole cool speech thing.” She adopted a breathy, mocking tone. “’Communism can survive, gentlemen, and will even win in the end, but you need capitalism to get the leg up.’ She’s lucky I didn’t puke right then and there.”

I rubbed my forehead. “I think… we might be getting a little off track here. What are you doing here?”

Nephorthees peered past her feet, over the edge. “I dunno. She said I’m supposed to keep you safe? Mostly. I don’t have to save you if you do something too stupid. But I don’t know what the plan is, either.”

“She didn’t tell you?”

“She doesn’t tell anyone anything. Except for Lakerine. And Besceriul. Sometimes Vearon, depending on the subject.” She thought for a minute. “Lorofe, of course, gets some coaching. Even Masgador and Canthil get brought into the loop sometimes. I guess it’s just me. And Elizabeth, but she hardly counts.”

I tried not to show any apprehension. “You know Elizabeth?”

Nephorthees snorted. “I had to retrieve her after she burned her first planet. You should have seen Silk. They were mad.” She chuckled to herself.

“They?” Turgay asked.

Nephorthees rolled her eyes. “That’s a long story. Don’t worry about it. Point is, I don’t really care why I’m doing all this crap. Silk knows that, and is nice enough to build scenarios around me so that I don’t have to think about this sort of thing.”

Turgay’s head drooped. “Sounds like a sad way to live.”

“Don’t listen to him,” I said with a scowl. “Look where thinking too hard got us. Turgay lost his culture and his warlord, I lost my bones and the ability to sleep.”

“You people are so primitive,” Nephorthees said with a laugh. “A little thing like having all your bones replaced gets you depressed.”

I bristled. “It was torture, over the course of months—”

“Lady Grave, I used to have a body half the size of this planet, capable of traveling between galaxies in minutes. You think you have problems?” She shook her head. “I used to assassinate gods. Now the only goddess around is sending me to kill individual people. It’s embarrassing.”

There was a pause.

“Let’s back up a bit,” I said. “What was that about you being a spaceship?”

“What was that about gods?” Turgay added.

I shushed him. “Nephorthees. Spaceship?”

She gave me a wry look. “What, you think a million years from now, people bother with your little metal contraptions? No, ships were intelligent and sapient, and proudly ferried people around the universe.” She rolled her eyes again. “Then that whole Song thing happened, and even that was obsolete.”

“Song thing. You mean the powers.”

She smirked. “You kids are so silly. You’ve been given a technology a hundred million years ahead of its time, and you’re all worried about zombies and one stupid immortal. Immortality isn’t even hard.” She shrugged, taking another pull of her coffee. “That particular form is a little weird, but basic biological, no aging immortality is pretty easy.”

I leaned back on the roof. “Talking to you is like trying to talk to a dolphin on cocaine.”

“I’ve done that,” she chuckled. “It’s actually pretty fun. They’ve got some weird crap on the mind.”

I took a deep breath and counted to ten, then sat up again.

“Elizabeth,” I said. “Is there any way to kill her?”

“No,” Nephorthees said instantly. “Well, Silk could kill her.” She thought for a minute. “I might, but I wouldn’t risk it. The rest, it’s possible, but don’t bet any money on it. You? Anyone else in your city?” She shook her head. “Nah. You’re fighters, but the wrong kind of fighters. It takes practice.”

I didn’t really know what she was talking about, but ‘not possible’ came through loud and clear.

“…what’s she like?” Turgay said after a moment.

We both turned to him.

“What?” I asked. “Guy, we know what she’s like. Evil monster hiding under bubbly persona. It’s easy.”

“Yeah, but…” He shook his head. “We can’t know for sure with her. She’s too good an actress. But Neph might know.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Actually, he has a point,” I said slowly, thinking it over. How many times had I seen shows where massive problems could have been avoided if the villain’s back story had come to light earlier? “I want to hear what you think of Elizabeth.”

Nephorthees paused for a moment, and I almost thought she wasn’t going to answer.

“Silk is something special,” she said finally. “One in a… not trillion. I’ve met trillions upon trillions of people, and only one Silk.” She shook her head. “You talk about people having drive, but that girl… her will drove the entire universe for billions of years. She’s something divine.”

I didn’t interrupt. I knew better.

Turgay frowned as best as he could with his beak. “But—”

I shut him up with a smack upside the head.

Thankfully, Nephorthees continued. “Silk… Silk had some weird biology, by your standards.” She smiled. “By mine, it wasn’t that weird. But there was cloning involved. Elizabeth is a clone who went… sideways.

“Silk blames herself. Says she should have seen it coming.” She laughed. “That’s what she does. She blames herself for everything, takes responsibility. Not that unique, but she managed to take on the entire universe.

“Anyway, the chances of Elizabeth being born, as an independent sapient, were a trillion to one. The chances of her being as smart as Silk? Another trillion to one, probably more.”

But… Elizabeth was an idiot. I was pretty sure that hadn’t been an act.

Still, I didn’t interrupt.

“But Elizabeth… she was Silk’s antithesis. Her opposite. Darkness and light, as you say. Silk was a perfect martyr, someone who could take every pain and loss of every single thing in existence and keep on moving. Elizabeth…” She trailed off, eyes distant.

“So there’s no trick?” I said after a moment. “She really is as bad as she seems?”

“Worse,” she said quietly. “She’s held in check now, by fear of Silk and the hobbling. Before, the things she would do… Entire galaxies, burning like tinder, until even the stars were nothing but ash. Done for fun, because she was bored.” Nephorthees shivered. It might have been intentional showmanship, but it was damned effective.

“What this hobbling you mentioned?”

Nephorthees blinked, then nodded. “Oh, that. Yes, Silk squashed Elizabeth’s head after the thing with the seventeen galaxies, then screwed with her regeneration so that her brain would always regenerate wrong.”

I sat up straighter. “Wait, Laura mentioned that. Some glitch in the MRI, something weird about the way they did it. Elizabeth seems to be brain-dead.”

“Elizabeth is brain-dead,” Nephorthees corrected. “It’s the only reason she hasn’t destroyed your planet with a paperclip yet.”

“She couldn’t be walking around if she was brain-dead.”

Nephorthees shrugged. “She has willpower.”

“Willpower? Willpower?” I glanced at Turgay, but he just shrugged. “Willpower is for ignoring pain, for beating the other guy in a fight or for throwing yourself in the line of fire to save someone. It’s not for ignoring brain damage.”

“She’s not ignoring it. It’s still there. It’s why she’s not a tenth as smart as she used to be.”

“She should be a lot stupider. As in not alive.”

Another shrug. “She’s got a lot of willpower.”

I took another deep breath. “Miss… Nephorthees. I’m not sure you understand enough about human biology to know how completely bonkers that sounds.”

“I’m pretty sure, from your point of view, Elizabeth isn’t really human.”

“…point. But unless she has a spare brain, it shouldn’t matter!” I started. “Please tell me she doesn’t have a spare brain.”

Nephorthees rolled her eyes and stood up, brushing off her pants. “I’ve explained as best I can, clearly that wasn’t good enough. Let’s just go.”

Turgay and I stood too, a little hastily. “Go? Where?”

“Where do you think? Domina City.” She grinned. “March, kids. We’re getting on one of those boats.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 275)

Nephorthees is proving harder to write than I anticipated. I know everything about her backstory, I’m just worried about dumping it all on readers.

Scene 274 – Domus

DOMUS

FIERNA

December 22nd, Saturday. Saturday, Saturday. I needed to keep that in mind. It was important. Days were important. They were something to latch onto in the haze of drugs.

Saturday.

Taking a deep breath, I pushed through the broad glass double doors into the building. I was still wearing my sensual coat, but now I had a black bodysuit underneath for the sake of decency. When my father was in charge, I hadn’t bothered, but now when leaving the domain I needed to present a more respectable image.

Saturday. Don’t get distracted. Saturday.

“I am here to speak to Bel,” I said, striding towards the elevators without waiting for an answer.

The twins behind the desk jumped up and spoke with one voice. “You can’t see Bel without an appointment!”

I pushed past the pod-brain hard enough to send one of the bodies into a wall. “I’m done waiting.”

I stepped inside the first elevator, then glared at the vampires inside. The drakes might not have recognized me, but they knew an angry Noble when they saw one, and ran out as fast as they could. I jabbed the button for the top floor, and waiting patiently as the elevator rose quickly.

Eventually, it stopped, but the doors didn’t open.

“We’re sorry,” a female voice dripping with condescending friendliness said out of the speaker. “But this is Noble Bel’s penthouse suite. You are not authorized to be here without an appointment. Please choose another floor.”

Tempted as I was to rip open the elevator doors, they would be prepared for that. Not only was the penthouse armored like a bunker, but the cable would probably cut, and I would fall a hundred stories in this metal box.

Instead, I jabbed the call button. “Tell Bel Fierna is here to see him.”

The reply was instantaneous. “Noble Bel is in a meeting right now. If you would be willing to wait a few hours, we would be more than happy to set something up at a later date. Tomorrow night, perhaps.”

“Tell Bel that I’m here, and I’m not leaving until he sees me. I’ll live in this damn elevator if I have to.”

There was a pause, then the doors opened.

Bel’s penthouse was nothing special, as vampire suites went. Polarized windows that could darken during the day but allow a beautiful view of the city at night. Nightlights in the ceiling—currently dark—and a nice wet bar in the corner. He had his bedroom and a kitchen hidden somewhere, but out here in the foyer there was just lots of open space and a couple scattered couches.

In the center of the room stood Bel, Noble of Avernus, Lord of the Bronze Throne. He didn’t look much like a vampire. He had big muscles and pebbly red skin, very strange for a vampire. Not even the Nosferatu used those toys. But he had black eyes and a mouth full of overly large fangs, which was enough. He stood with back ramrod straight, betraying nothing.

He was alone. I knew he wasn’t meeting anyone.

“Fierna,” he said curtly.

“Uncle Barry,” I snarled.

He sighed. “Fi…”

No,” I said. “No no no. I was hoping you didn’t realize it was me. I was hoping you thought I was just some pretender to the throne, and that you were denying meetings due to some, I don’t know, honoring the dead thing.”

“Fi, it’s more complicated than—”

“But you knew it was me,” I spat. “You knew this whole time, and you refused meetings set up by the Dragon himself. You always idolized Dracul, Uncle. Has that changed in the past five years, too?”

“Can you just let me say—”

“What could possibly justify—”

“YOU RAPED HER!”

I shut my mouth with a snap.

His fists were clenched hard enough that his nails were drawing blood; I could smell it in the air. His eyes were wild, and he was breathing heavily. He looked like he was about to charge me like an animal.

“At Shendilavri, you raped Lilith. You tried to break her.”

“She’s forgiven me for that,” I said quietly.

“Well I haven’t! You did unspeakable things to the only mother I’ve ever known, and you expect me to just shut up and work with you?”

“Uncle Barry, you’re ten years older than her—”

“So what?” He shook his head. “When I came to this city, I had nothing. I became a demon because of her, then a vampire, then a Noble. All because of her. That beautiful woman who would even forgive someone like you.”

He took a deep breath, and walked over to the bar.

“Uncle Barry—”

“Get out,” he said tiredly. “And if your dad’s still alive, tell him I’ll kill him if he ever shows his face again.”

I rolled my eyes. “Dad is not alive. You saw his body yourself.”

He poured himself a drink, muttering. “Body doubles, clones…”

“You did a DNA test. And you know he didn’t fake the corpse. The drugged-up Noble of a drugged-up culture wouldn’t be able to manage something like that.”

Bel didn’t say anything, but I knew I’d made my point. Not only was my dad horrible with the toy maker, but none of the cultures who sided with Malcanthet were much better. The people who worked with the toy maker on regular basis were known for being pretty devoted to the Mother Monster. Even the mercenary sibriex had refused to help Malcanthet.

“What of your mother?”

I sighed. “She tried to run. Got past the Belians pretty easily, but Lupa caught her, executed her before she could make any more trouble. She’s probably buried somewhere under Shendilavri right now.”

His hand tightened on his glass. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you.”

“I still want you to leave.”

“This is bigger than us,” I insisted. “We need an army.”

“The city has an army. One not made of slaves and slavers.”

I gave him a look—wasted, since he was peering into his glass. “Uncle Barry. Do you know how many soldiers this city has?”

“No.”

I shrugged. “Fair enough, neither do I. But don’t you think that an extra two hundred thousand freed vampire slaves will make a difference?”

He looked up, blinking. “Two hundred thousand? Really? I thought Phlegethos was dying!”

“Two hundred thousand sclavi. A thousand true Belians.” I shook my head. “Balan and the others thought to compensate for our low nightstalker numbers by using addiction to swell the ranks of our slaves. But now the time of such things is over. I don’t need them ready by the time the war with America starts. I need your help weaning the sclavi off their addictions, as well as de-programming them.”

“Your mother didn’t exactly leave notes on her process lying around.”

“I can have those sent to you.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You can? Then why not just de-program them yourselves?”

“First, they’d still be addicted and vulnerable. There’s not enough fixer in the city to keep every single one of them sober. Second, she didn’t leave notes on de-programming. And we don’t have enough skill with the brainwashing in the first place to figure it out.”

Bel frowned. “Gaziel could at least puzzle out some of it.”

I closed my eyes. “I… killed Gaziel. He tried to assassinate me a couple times, and… look, it’s not important. The point is, you’re the only one I trust with the skills I need. Please, help me undo my mother’s work. It’s what she wanted, at the end.”

He groaned and downed his glass. “Black night, girl, using your mother against me is low.”

“It’s for a good cause.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s what Dracul and Ishtar said…”

“You know I wouldn’t have gotten either one of them involved if that wasn’t true.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, I heard what happened to poor Gazra. How is he?”

“We had to manually repair his pelvis with the toy maker.”

Bel shook his head, still smiling. “Oh, I know I shouldn’t be laughing…”

I failed to suppress a smile myself. “I’d ask you to keep it secret, but Ishtar has already been telling anyone who will listen. She’s having dinner with Glasya about now. I’m sure it will be all across the city by dawn.”

Bel paused for a moment, playing with his empty glass.

“I still don’t forgive you,” he said quietly.

I nodded. “I know.”

“Mother preaches forgiveness, but it’s hard…”

“I know.”

He took a deep breath. “Give me the notes and a hundred sclavi. The worst of the worst. I should have them fully de-toxed by tomorrow night. Not sure about the de-programming. If we’re lucky, we can do it at the same time, but don’t hold your breath. Either way, once the first batch is done, the rest will go faster.”

I bowed low. “Thank you, Noble Bel.”

“Don’t thank me,” he said gruffly. “Thank my mother.”

I smiled sadly. “I think I will. We haven’t spoken since I took back the throne.”

“Does she know you’re back?”

“She must. And she knew who I was when I was working for Necessarius. When did you think I earned her forgiveness?”

He shook his head. “I should have known. Wish she could have told me, though…”

“It wasn’t her secret to tell.” Besides, when several hundred million people see you as their mother, it’s a little hard to give them all reasonable amounts of your time. That was why she worked like she did.

“Yes, I suppose not.” He waved his hand and turned back to the bar. “Send me your sclavi, Noble Fierna. Let’s save your stupid culture, and this city along with it.”

Behind the Scenes (scene 274)

Ah, Bel. He’s a fun one to write. This was probably his worst scene, but it was still fun. He’s at his best when interacting with Clarke. Hopefully we get an opportunity to see them snarking at each other soon.