“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.”
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.”
“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.