Tag Archives: Ling

Scene 329 – Reconciliatio

RECONCILIATIO

DEREK

“Hello, Ling,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.

She just looked up at me without expression. “Hello, Derek.”

We were in the AU dorms, and we were finally moving out. The school year didn’t officially end for a few more months, but considering how crazy everything was, we really should have moved out months ago.

Laura had decided that this was as good a time as any to call up Ling for a reunion. I just wished she had told the rest of us first.

I gestured at Ling’s room, across the hall. “Akane got all of your stuff together as best as she could. All your anime and games and whatnot.” I shuffled on my feet. “I’m not sure you still care about any of that any more.”

Ling was silent for a moment. “Thank you,” she said finally. “No, I should thank Akane.” She glanced around. “Where is everyone, anyway?”

“Akane is back at NHQ,” Adam said, carrying a box out of our room. He had even less stuff than I did, but there were a few odds and ends that he had left behind over the months. “She has the kensei and the CS training pretty hard, just in case the whole thing with the para goes south.”

“And Laura should be back soon,” I said. “She’s escorting the American president to Timaeus to talk to some of the merfolk, and then to New York.” I was worried about her, but I tried not to show it.

Ling gave me a thousand-yard stare that told me she could see right through me. “She took one of my gravers. I’m sure she’ll be fine.”

I smiled. “She also has three of my Defenders. Between those four and Laura herself, she could probably conquer New York if she felt like it.”

Ling cocked her head. “Defenders? Haven’t heard of them yet. Are they new?”

I nodded. “Trying to keep them quiet for now. They’re people with force field powers, like mine, though some of them have blades instead of shields. Some of them have been training with the kensei, but mostly they’ve been working on their own.”

“I didn’t think you wanted to start a gang,” Ling said.

I shrugged. “Guilds are different,” I said lamely, not really believing it myself. “Or colleges or whatever we’re calling them.” I walked into my room and finally started packing things up. Ling followed. “Having people working together to figure out their powers just seems like a good idea to me.”

“I wasn’t disagreeing,” Ling said. I thought I saw the slightest of smiles on her lips, but it was gone before I could be sure of anything. “I’d be a hypocrite if I tried to chew you out for having a guild. I was just curious why you changed your mind.”

I winced. “Uh, well, it’s complicated.”

“His brain got stapled to like fifty other people during the siege,” Adam said. “Apparently it left an impression.”

I groaned. “You make it sound so horrible.”

“It kinda was. Laura looked like she had thrown her puppy into traffic.”

Ling glanced between us, frowning, before her face cleared. “Oh, the shield. I heard about that from my spies.” She rolled her eyes, some of the first real emotion I had seen from her today. “Before Butler got rid of them all. Anyway. You became a podbrain or something, right? Telepaths and shielders working together?”

“Yeah, that’s right.” I paused. “Most of my first recruits were from that group. I chose them because they were the strongest shielders around, but I wonder if the concert led us to trust us more.”

Adam gave me a look. “Concert?”

“Impermanent mutable telepathic metaconcert,” Laura said as she walked into the room. “That’s what Clarke has been calling it, anyway.” She smiled at me and kissed me lightly on the cheek. “Hey.”

I smiled back. “Hey yourself. Things go fine with Martinez?”

She nodded. “Yeah, he seemed to hit it off with the Atlanteans.”

“So his bodyguards didn’t shoot anyone?”

“He didn’t have any bodyguards,” she said. She shook her head. “I understand why he fired his previous one, but come on. I’m pretty sure it’s against the law for him to run around without some basic protection.”

“I’ve definitely seen him with Secret Service,” Adam said. “After the whole… thing with Silk, I mean.”

I frowned. “Really?”

“Sure. Those guys in black who follow him everywhere? Who did you think they were?”

I shrugged. I hadn’t really noticed them. That probably meant they were doing their jobs well, blending into the background.

“I know about them,” Laura said. “He had a few with him on the boat. But he went to meet the Atlantean delegates without them, which just seems odd. Even Mayor Konstantopoulos had bodyguards.”

I shrugged and gave her arm a reassuring squeeze. “He seems like a casual man. Maybe he just ditches his guards whenever he gets the chance.”

Laura sighed. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

“What thing with Silk?” Ling asked.

All three of us turned to her.

“What?” I asked.

“You said he fired a bodyguard after something with Silk. What, did he turn out to be Silk? Maybe using some sort of disguise power?”

Laura and I glanced at each other, then at Adam.

He kneaded his forehead. “It says something about the world that we live in that ‘some sort of disguise power’ makes more sense than the truth.”

Ling folded her arms across her chest. She still wasn’t smiling, or making jokes, or… doing anything like she normally would. There was a silence in the air, waiting for her playful banter, but she said nothing. The silence just hung there, empty as the grave.

“Right,” Adam said after a moment of awkwardness. “Now, I wasn’t actually there, but Lily told me everything—”

“Get to the point,” Ling said. Her tone was sharp and curt. It reminded me of when Akane gave orders to her kensei.

“Silk cloned herself,” Adam said. “Martinez’s bodyguard had been involved in some sort of cloning project to make the perfect soldier by copying him. I don’t know why anyone thought that was a good idea.”

Ling frowned. “So these clones… they’d be like American homunculi?”

“Uh, yeah. I guess. Why?”

Ling waved him on with her hand that was still flesh. “Later. Please, continue.”

“Okay. So Silk cloned herself like ten thousand times or however many cloning tanks they had.”

“How did they do it?” Ling said, some of her old geekiness poking through. “Did they use the toy maker? Did America finally make enough progress to do something useful with it? Did they use a toy box? Did the fey help them at all?”

Adam held up his hands. “I have no idea. I mean, I’d assume that the toy maker was involved, but it’s just a guess.”

“Logical deduction,” Laura said.

“Sure, or that. I’m pretty sure the fey haven’t made any deals with the US yet, but who knows with them.”

Ling nodded. “Of course. Please continue. So Silk cloned herself. What’s the benefit of that? Did the clones even have powers?”

Adam gave a sad chuckle. “Oh, yes. Immortality, the works. But the important thing is that she’s a podbrain. She linked all ten thousand minds together, and then they all just disappeared. Lily says one second they were there, the next they weren’t.”

Ling blinked. “A… ten-thousand body hive mind,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“…with powers.”

“Uh, yeah. I just said that like two seconds—”

Ling threw back her head and laughed.

Not a shy or small laugh, but a deep, belly-busting roar or humor. I had never heard her laugh like that even on her happiest day, and hearing it from the Lady of the Grave was downright stunning.

I took an involuntary step back. Had her brain finally snapped from all the stress it was under? With her power level, that could be… worrying. Was it my imagination, or was the building itself shaking with the force of her laughter?

“Ten thousand?” she screeched between laughs. “Ten thousand immortals, all working in unison… and nothing’s changed? Do you realize what that means?

I glanced at Adam. He was edging towards one of his guns, in a holster hanging from his bed. I wasn’t sure if I should stop him or not. I wanted to stop him—this was Ling, after all. We could trust Ling.

But could we trust the Lady of the Grave?

I decided to stall. “What does it mean?”

Ling had a wicked, cruelly delighted smile on her face. “It means that she’s God, and everything is going according to plan.”

I blinked. I wasn’t sure how to process that. “Uh…” I glanced at Laura for support.

She seemed unconcerned by Ling’s outburst, but the fact that she wasn’t stopping Adam from doing anything spoke volumes. “Silk didn’t plan for the para. That’s hardly a sign of an omniscient deity.”

Ling chuckled. “Maybe she didn’t plan for them before, no, but they’re definitely in her plan now. Unless you think that a woman with the power of ten thousand people—including teleportation—can’t kill one ship if she feels like it?”

Laura frowned.

“This explains so much!” Ling said, shaking her head. “Intervening when I was going to kill the president—”

I blinked. “Wait, when did that—”

“Teleporting me out of the Pentagon but not straight to Domina.”

Laura frowned. “I’m not sure how that has anything to do with—”

“And of course kidnapping MC.”

My jaw dropped open. “Wait, what? She did what?

Ling raised an eyebrow. “Surely you know she’s missing.”

“Well, of course!” It wasn’t common knowledge, but the upper levels of Necessarius had been going crazy the past week trying to figure out what had happened and how to get her back. It wasn’t like her software had been deleted, her entire core processing unit was simply gone. A few trusted changelings had been brought in to look over everything, and they had declared that absolutely any hardware that contained any trace of her mind had disappeared into thin air. There were quite a few computers and paraphernalia left behind, but apparently that was just all her equipment. It was like a person disappearing from inside their car when they were driving. “But, I mean—”

“Why do you think she was kidnapped by Silk?” Laura asked.

“And how do you even know she’s missing?” I added. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Adam had gotten to his gun. Now that Ling seemed to have calmed down, he didn’t draw it or anything, but he stayed within reach.

“I can always talk to the real MC whenever I want,” Ling said. “I haven’t been able to since Leeno and Zero arrived, meaning she disappeared.”

“…okay,” I said. “I’ll buy that. But it’s still a bit of a jump to assume that Silk was behind it.”

“Well who else would it be?”

Laura sighed. “Let’s ignore the logic of that particular deduction at the moment. What’s your point? Why does it matter if she has a plan or not?”

Ling gave her a patronizing smile. “Oh, Laura. Surely you’ve thought about it. Laid up at night worrying about it. An uber-powerful immortal of unknown goals—who knows what she’ll do? She could teleport into Butler’s bedroom and kill him. Or teleport into your bedroom and kill you.”

I growled. “I’d like to see her try.”

Ling raised an eyebrow, then smirked. “…well. Maybe that would be harder than I’d have first thought. But still, the point stands that she can do an awful lot of damage if she felt like it. I already failed to kill her once, and I doubt I’d do any better on a second attempt.”

That sounded like a story I wanted to hear, but I didn’t interrupt.

Laura crossed her arms over her chest. “What is your point?”

Ling smiled. “If Silk is a god… if everything is going according to plan… then she doesn’t need to make such gross adjustments. We’re never going to wake up to find Silk or Nephorthees or whoever else they have standing over us, about to deal the final blow.” She spread her hands wide. “We are free.”

We were all silent as we digested the implications of this.

“That’s a weird definition of freedom,” Adam said finally.

“And who is Nephorthees?” I asked.

Ling smirked. “Silk’s assassin. She’s a spaceship.”

“What?”

Laura waved away my questions. “I think I can see some logic in what you’re saying, but there are some parts that don’t track. If she doesn’t care what we do, then why kidnap MC? Assuming, of course, you’re right about that.”

Ling shrugged. “MC is too powerful, too big an advantage. Depending on how the para handle software security, she might have been able to hack into their mothership through Leeno’s shuttle and blow up the whole fleet.”

“The changelings say that’s impossible,” Laura said.

I glanced at her. I was more than a little disturbed that she had asked something like that, but I squashed the feeling down. War was hard, and of course we had to consider every weapon available.

“That still doesn’t track,” I said instead. “How is her intervening to take out a dangerous player proof that she won’t intervene to take out a dangerous player?”

Ling sighed with a frown. Her good humor was fading, and she was slowly turning back into her new, dangerous persona. “Because she didn’t kill her. Now, I’ve never tried to kill an AI in real life, so who knows how hard it is. But I’m guessing it’s harder than kidnapping one.”

I glanced at Laura. How much should we tell her?

Laura just glared at Ling. “True. So you think that if she wants us out of the way, she’ll just kidnap us?”

“No, she—” Ling sighed. “MC is a special case. She is easily the most dangerous person in the entire city.”

“I thought she didn’t have any control over any military hardware,” Adam said. “She doesn’t have any drones or remote tanks or whatever.”

“She has information,” Laura said. “Far more dangerous.”

Adam looked like he wanted to argue, but kept silent.

“The point is, MC is far more dangerous to Silk than the rest of us.” Ling shrugged. “Oh, I have my gravers, Akane her kensei and now Derek his Defenders… but really, what happens if we’re killed or kidnapped? Our guilds will survive without us.”

Laura brightened at the opportunity to correct someone. “Historically, cultures need more time to become stable—”

Ling waved her off. “Guilds are different. There will still be petrakinetics without me, and they’ll want to train. There will be tachyists without Akane, there will be fragmatists without Derek. The guilds might change goals, but maybe not. It’s hard to say, this early on. My point is that if Silk saw the most dangerous person in Domina City—the AI threaded throughout the entire city, always watching and possibly immortal—and only kidnapped her, then there is no way the rest of us have anything to worry about.”

“You said she stopped you from killing Martinez,” Laura said.

I frowned. I still wanted more detail on that, but now was not the time.

Ling nodded. “Yes, she did. But she didn’t kill me or make me disappear or even leave me for the American authorities to arrest.” She paused to consider. “Although that was likely more for their benefit than mine. But she doesn’t consider us a real threat, just children who need to be pushed out of dangerous situations every once in a while.”

Adam snorted. “So your definition of freedom is that we’re too weak for anyone to care enough to stop us from doing anything.”

Ling smiled again, just briefly. “Exactly. And if she does show up to stop you, consider it a compliment.”

“I can do without that sort of compliment.”

She shrugged. “Suit yourself.” She smirked. “I’m feeling much better knowing that I don’t have to worry about her randomly deciding to obliterate my gravers.” She clapped her hands and looked around. “Now, we’ve got some work to do. And after that, who’s up for sandwiches down at Nervi’s?”

Behind the scenes (scene 329)

I mentioned before that guilds usually don’t care how you do things, but more what you do, which is why Robyn will accept anyone who can fly, no matter whether it’s with rockets or levitation. Derek went in something of the opposite direction here, not caring what people can do as long as they all have the same core power—creating force fields. This creates an atmosphere of shared circumstances while still giving them some flexibility with the different talents branching off that power. Shield-makers are the core of the Defenders, but he also has access to sword-makers (who train with the kensei occasionally), knife-makers, wall-makers, and more.

Ling also called herself a petrakinetic, Akane a tachyist, and Derek a fragmatist. Derek is more precisely an aspifragmatist, but fragmatist is the general term. Laura is a latheanakalist (general term anakalist), and Robyn Joan a barykinetic. Technically “kinetic” refers to the power and the term for its user would be kineticist (or petrakineticist or barykineticist), but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so it’s shortened. Artemis Butler, Isaac Clarke, and MC are all various types of morphers, or allagists.

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Scene 324 – Occurrens

OCCURRENS

LAURA

It took two days to arrange everything. Longer than I would have liked, but at ten AM on Thursday, January 10th, the first inter-species diplomatic meeting started right on schedule. It was still held in NHQ, but in one of the outer buildings, so that the representatives didn’t feel quite so overwhelmed.

As Zero had promised, Leeno had snapped out of his meditative fugue state after a few hours. He had promised not to do it again, and while I wasn’t sure he could keep that promise, it would at least increase the likelihood of him making it through the entire meeting awake.

I was a little worried he couldn’t promise anything, in fact. There had been no communications from the mothership, either to us or its little fleet. No threats, no recall orders, nothing besides basic patrol data going back and forth. They were acting like nothing of significance had happened, which didn’t bode well. I had been hoping that Leeno was a prince or equivalent who had decided to do the right thing over objections. It seemed instead that he was just a random nobody.

Except for the fact that Robyn sensed he had a power. Now, down in the city, it was impossible to say for sure—surrounded by so many others with powers, there was just too much interference for anyone to get a good read on him. Maybe he didn’t have a power. Maybe Zero had a power. We had no way of knowing, and I hadn’t wanted to broach the subject in case he thought he was successfully hiding it from us.

The two of them hadn’t done much in the two days of waiting. I had provided him with a pad that had a bunch of informational articles pre-loaded on it, but disabled the internet by physically pulling out the router. The articles would give him a basic understanding of Earth and our recent history, but there was nothing dangerous in there. It was possible he had access to more information—his translator was programmed with English, so obviously they had sorted through quite a bit of our information—but there was nothing I could do about that. I had made sure not to give him any false information though, so we wouldn’t be caught in any lies.

Regardless, now that the time had arrived, the delegates started filing into the meeting room, with its long rectangular table. Butler was already sitting at one end, with President Martinez from America on the other. President Aleks Petrov from the Soviet Union sat with Martinez, while Mayor Milanka Ó Súileabháin sat with Butler—she was from Mons Agnes, and we had been lucky she had been able to come down from Luna on such short notice. Prime Minister Jeong Park from Korea sat with Martinez, then Senator Grain from America took the seat next to him.

So on and so on, everyone filed in, the vast majority choosing to sit on Martinez’s side of the table. Most of the Earthbound countries didn’t like our city very much, and the space colonies simply hadn’t been able to get here in time.

Of course, we had our own representatives.

Once all of the foreigners took their seats, the Dominites started to file in. Lily, of course—she had come with Martinez, but she sat next to Butler—Pale Night from the demons, Nyashk from the vampires, Zaphkiel from the angels, Evangel from the kemos, Odin from the giants, Maeve from the fey, Meldiniktine from the changelings, Ariel from the Dagonites, and Chronepsis from the dragons. The Servants of the Lady had sent two representatives, but they were fussing over the food, and started passing it out once everyone was seated. We had actual paid servers, but it was pretty hard to get the Servants to sit still when there was work to be done.

Once all the humans were seated, the para walked in.

Zero looked the same as ever, but Leeno looked much better. He stood straighter, with a smile on a face as he scanned the room. His clothing was different as well, a multi-layered robe of a dozen different colors. I still hadn’t managed to tease out any information on the meaning of the colors he used—not to mention the distinct lack of colors on Zero.

The Servants quickly moved forward and pulled out two seats for the pair at the middle of the table. Leeno smiled at them and nodded in thanks, then took his seat. Zero hesitated for a moment before taking her seat as well.

“Hello,” Leeno said, smiling at everyone in turn. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”

No one spoke.

“Let’s start simple,” he said. “Yes, I am an alien. My people come from a planet three thousand light-years away. It took us a little less than three thousand light-years to get here. The engine we used for most of the journey is what I believe you would call a warp drive. It largely negated the effects of relatively on the transit.”

Butler glanced at me, and I nodded. It was all the truth.

“Now, there is much I can share with you,” Leeno said. “But first, I’m sure you would all like some sort of peace treaty. Let me assure you all that my people do not want war. We came here expecting a habitable world, bare of life.” He shook his head sadly. “Unfortunately, our information is six thousand years out of date at this point. You are here, and I am sure you will be happy to hear that you are too powerful to simply be destroyed.”

Most of the representatives perked up at that.

“However,” Leeno continued. “We are too strong for you to simply destroy us, either. Both sides have no choice but to find another solution. I believe we should start with a simple show of trust on both sides.” He nodded at Zero.

She glared at him as best as she could with that expressionless mask of hers, but he didn’t back down. She put her arm on the table and started dismantling it, placing nuts and bolts and strange glowing crystals in neat rows. It looked like the arm was almost entirely machine.

When she removed the first gun barrel, that got everyone’s attention.

After a few minutes of that, she started on the other arm—even with so many parts missing that her arm was see-through, the hand still worked fine. She dismantled the second gun faster than the first, then pushed the parts into the center of the table.

“As you can see, we are now unarmed.” Leeno paused, then frowned. “My translator just informed me that was a pun. Apologies, that was unintentional. Regardless, I would like a similar gesture of good faith from you.”

“We are all unarmed,” President Martinez said. I noticed he conspicuously did not look at the Dominite half of the table. Sure, they were all unarmed, but any one of the warlords could easily kill Leeno and Zero with their bare hands. Even Meldiniktine—maybe even especially Meldiniktine.

Leeno smiled. “Thank you, but that’s not what I meant.” He turned to me. “Stop.”

I blinked. “What?”

“That thing you’re doing—stop it.”

I chuckled. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Oh?” He quirked his head. “So you’re not using a low-level form of mind-reading to monitor me for patterns consistent with lies?”

I stopped smiling.

He could sense my power. He knew that I could detect lies. More than that, he seemed to know how it worked. I barely understood it myself, but I had discussed some theories with MC. My power did seem to have quite a bit in common with the mind-reading powers.

“She’s what?” Senator Grain said. Martinez shushed him.

I went through the possibilities in my head. Was Leeno bluffing? Possibly. He could have learned from my power from another source. But I had carefully kept powers out of the data I had given him, so that was unlikely—possible, but I’d file it away for now.

More likely, he really did know what I was doing because he could sense it somehow. Like what Robyn had done to him.

And there was the answer.

“Fair’s fair,” I said carefully. “You’ve seen mine, show me yours.”

“Is that language appropriate?” Grain said. “Mister Butler, who is this girl? Why is she—”

“Grain,” Martinez said tiredly. “Shut up.”

Grain shut his mouth, and I nodded in thanks.

“Fair’s fair,” Leeno said. He held up a three-fingered hand. Sparks danced like ball lightning.

Most of the representatives were a bit surprised, but Zero jumped out of her seat as if Leeno had zapped her. She tensed like an animal waiting to figure out whether to run or attack, but Leeno just patted her seat.

“We don’t have time for frivolities,” he said. He turned back to me. “Stop it. Please.”

I grit my teeth and then, for the first time in eight months, I turned off my power.

I expected the world to feel different. Less clear, perhaps. Less certain, as I couldn’t detect the lies any more. But no, nothing changed. There was a brief feeling of emptiness in my chest, but even that faded in a moment. Everything was still the same as ever.

Somehow that felt more disturbing than the alternative.

Nyashk stood. “If he has a power, that means they could all have powers. This suddenly became much more dangerous than expected.”

“I agree,” Martinez said, standing. “With… um…” He waved his hand at Nyashk. “Scary dark lady. These people, these para, already had higher tech than us. If they have powers too, then maybe this just became a fight we can’t win.”

Odin snorted. “We have powers as well, little American.”

Martinez let the insult pass without comment, which I was thankful for. Odin was looking for an excuse to get violent. “I’ve spoken with your mother, Lilith. I know you’ve only had powers for a few weeks. How long have the para had theirs? How experienced are they with them? Not to mention we still don’t know how many there are. They could outnumber the entire human race a hundred to one for all we know.”

“We don’t,” Leeno said helpfully.

Martinez sighed. “Okay, I’m prone to fits of exaggeration, but still. This is not good.”

“Not all of them have powers,” Butler said.

Everyone turned to him. I just smirked.

“How could you possibly know that?” Martinez’s senator, Grain, asked.

“Zero was surprised,” Butler said. She managed to look a little contrite even through that expressionless mask. “I am quite certain that she, at least, does not have a power.” He cocked his head to the side, considering. “And judging from the strength of her reaction… I would lay even odds that no one else has any powers.”

Everyone slowly turned back to Leeno.

“Correct,” he said calmly. “I am the only para with a power.”

I really wished I had my power on. “How?” I asked.

“I already told you that the trip here took three thousand years,” he said. “Of course, as you might expect, we were put in cryopods to sleep.” He smiled sadly. “Except… I didn’t sleep. Not really. My body slept, but my mind was awake and aware.”

Meldiniktine leaned forward. “You were trapped in a pod for that entire time?”

Maeve shivered, though I doubt anyone else noticed.

“Yes and no,” Leeno said with a smile. “My body, as I said, was sleep, and trapped. But it didn’t take me too long to discover how to send my mind wandering away from my body. I memorized every single inch of the ship.”

“That doesn’t explain your power,” I said. “Did you meet someone? Someone who sang at you?”

He frowned. “Sang? What are you—” He chuckled. “Ah, yes. It can be like a song at times. But no, I gained this power, this ability, simply by observing and practicing.” He smiled. “You can learn a lot about the universe in three thousand years.”

There was silence as everyone tried to digest the implications of that.

“Well,” Martinez said with a smile. “Why don’t we move onto more grounded topics, hm? Mister Leeno. Please, tell us what your people want.” It was a blunt attempt to change the subject, but at the moment it was what we needed.

Leeno’s smile faded. “They want a place to live. Our sun was dying when we left. By now, there is nothing left but cinders. Other ships were sent out in other directions, but we have no guarantee that any of them survived. We may well be the last para in the universe, and our leaders will do anything to survive.”

“Including wiping out humanity?” Park said bluntly.

Leeno nodded. “Not full genocide, but they will crush your civilizations under their heels if they feel they have to.”

Nice use of metaphor. I made a mental note to try to get a hold of that translator tech.

“What do we need to do to prevent that?” Butler asked. “What do they need in trade?”

“To start with, a world of our own,” Leeno said. “Your homeworld is the only suitable one at the moment, but we do have terraforming tools, and your resources should help with that. It could only take a few decades.”

“You have one in mind?” Petrov asked, his accent thick. He did that whenever he wanted people to underestimate him; I knew that he spoke perfect English.

“The second world in your system should do,” Leeno said. “The hot one with the clouds.”

“Venus?” Martinez asked, eyebrows raised. “You want Venus?”

“Is that a problem?”

“No, it’s just…” He glanced at the other representatives, but no one jumped to his defense. “My advisers tell me that Venus would be the hardest planet to terraform. No one can live there right now, that’s for certain.”

“Many para are cybernetically augmented,” Leeno said. “Our workers will be able to survive and make the world livable, in time.”

Now this was getting interesting. We had pieces of Zero’s cybernetics laid out on the table in front of us, but if it was cheap enough for even the normal workers to use, that meant we might be able to trade for it. “We’ll need to look into a way to share our technology, as well,” I said. “We have some bio-engineering tools that you might find helpful.”

“Wait a second,” Grain said. “You promised those to us.” Most of the other foreign representatives murmured as well.

“We can do both,” Butler said.

I touched my necklace, thinking. “The only people on Venus right now are the crew from Cytherean Watch.” I glanced at Súileabháin. “That’s what, a hundred people?”

“Fifty, though they cycle out,” she said. “Most of the crew belongs to various Lunar cities.”

Martinez frowned. “I thought they were all American citizens.”

Súileabháin rolled her eyes. “They work on an American space station, but they live on Luna, get supplies from Luna, and take orders from Luna. Next you’re going to tell me that you think you still own Ceres.”

Grain looked furious on Martinez’s behalf, but Martinez didn’t say anything, so neither did he.

I waited until they settled down a little. “Regardless of which human government owns the Watch right now, we do need to decide what to do with them. We can move them out if necessary, but it would probably be best to negotiate a way for them to stay. They can serve as ambassadors to the para.”

“You are sure your people will agree to this?” Martinez said.

Leeno shook his head. “I can’t be sure of anything.

Súileabháin threw up her hands. “Then what is the point about this?”

“The point,” Butler said, “is to pave the way for future negotiations. To make sure that we can find a way through this that does not involve war.”

“But none of that matters if their actual leaders of these para refuse to listen,” Grain said.

“There is at least one,” Leeno said. “He was going to talk the others around after I left.”

“Well, if there’s one guy, then our problems are solved,” Grain said sarcastically.

“They haven’t attacked yet,” I said. “That’s a good sign.”

“Why should your opinion matter?” Grain demanded. “Who are you? Why are you even here?”

“I am Laura Medina,” I said. “One of the Paladins who fought off the Composer, and the general behind the defense of this city when your people attacked.” I could see that one shocked him, though he tried to hide it. “I organized this meeting, chose who to invite, and prepared all the contingencies in case you became violent.” Everyone squirmed a little at that, though I pretended not to notice. “I have more right to be here than you, Senator Grain.”

Deafening silence greeted my proclamation.

Then Nyashk chuckled. “You always could play a room.” She smirked. “I vote to give the para Venus, if they want it. Furthermore, we’ll take out a first-tier protection contract on the colony, effective system-wide.”

The Dominites started murmuring among themselves, but the foreigners and the para just looked confused.

Martinez gave me a meaningful look. “Miss Medina, would you mind explaining?”

I smiled. “Simply put, it means that Nyashk and her people will kill anyone who takes major actions against the colony. First-tier covers… let me see…” I started counting on my fingers. “War, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. Second-tier includes sabotage and espionage, and third-tier goes all the way to protecting against economic sanctions.”

“It normally costs a small fortune,” Butler said. “Mister Leeno, you should know that Nyashk’s offer is very generous.”

“I can imagine,” Leeno said. He sounded a bit overwhelmed.

“While I am sure that will work out well for Domina, the rest of the world will want a bit more,” Martinez said. “We can hardly give you everything just in exchange for you not fighting us. That’s not a trade, that’s extortion.”

Leeno nodded. “Of course. And I think—”

The doors burst open.

The foreign dignitaries all jumped up in outrage, while all the Dominite warlords moved into fighting positions. I remained seated—I had my own preparations, and they would go more smoothly if I didn’t jump in the middle of everything.

But when I saw who was at the door, I burst out of my seat.

She was flanked by two gravers who were wearing stone armor that was completely unnecessary but served as an intimidating badge of office. She herself looked small, dwarfed by her guards by almost two feet, but she carried herself like a queen. Her eyes had gone hard since I had seen her last, and her hair was filled with stone dust and past her shoulders instead of cut short, with a few braids held in place by clips of stone. She still wore a long black glove to disguise her stone arm.

It was Ling.

Of course. Ling was the Lady of the Grave. It hadn’t been confirmed—she rarely left the Grave itself—but it had been at the top of my list of possibilities. It explained her power, and the devotion the others showed to her.

I pushed past the startled representatives and one of the gravers who tried to stop me, and pulled Ling into a big hug before she even knew what was happening. I could feel her stone arm, but I didn’t care. I just held her to my chest and tried not to cry.

After a moment, Ling patted me on the arm. I realized she couldn’t breathe, and let her go with a smile. “Sorry about that.”

She smiled back. “It’s okay. Didn’t expect that from you, though. Akane, maybe.” She looked around. “Where is Akane, anyway?”

She should have burst in with the kensei by now. The fact that she hadn’t either meant she knew Ling wasn’t a threat, or something had gone very wrong.

“Can someone explain what’s going on?” Odin asked.

“Yeah, Ling, why do you look like you just crawled out of a collapsed building?” Nyashk said.

I turned to them all and smiled. “Honored warlords, esteemed representatives, this is Ling Yu, one of the Paladins who helped take down Elizabeth. She is—”

“The Lady of the Grave,” Martinez said. For once, his face was dead serious. “I remember from when she attacked the Pentagon.”

Ling quirked her head. “Didn’t Silk erase your memories?”

He rolled his eyes. “Who knows.”

“Well, anyway, yes, I am the Lady of the Grave. Or Lady Grave, or Grave, or Ling. Whatever you prefer. It is wonderful to meet you all.” She grinned at Leeno. “Especially our friends from out of town.”

Zero had her hand on her belt, clearly ready to use a weapon, but Leeno just looked contemplative. “Some sort of stone manipulation ability, I’m guessing? It’s hard to tell, but it seems like you’re using it on yourself. That doesn’t make sense.”

Ling raised an eyebrow. “You have powers? Interesting. We’ll talk more later.” She turned to me. “I’m afraid this isn’t a social call.”

“But you did get the invitation, right?”

“Of course.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, we got a bit sidetracked. Lemuria has been attacked.”

I blinked. “What?”

“How did you find out before we did?” Butler demanded. “We—” He closed his eyes and sighed. “Right. Without Mary Christina, our chain of command is a little bit… messy.”

Ling frowned. “Wait, what? I talked with MC earlier.”

“The real one?” I asked.

“Uh, no, she said she was busy, and…” Ling winced. “Oh, damn. Should have seen that one coming.”

“This Lemuria,” Leeno said. “Where is it and who attacked?”

“It’s on Mars,” Súileabháin said.

“Fourth planet in the system,” I added.

“It’s been attacked by the para,” Ling said. “Or rather, it is being attacked by the para. I came here hoping someone had some plan to stop it. Lemuria is a factory colony, mostly building terraforming and colonization equipment. They have no defenses.”

Everyone glared at Leeno.

“I know nothing about this,” he said. “I am sorry.”

“Wait,” I said. “How can you possibly know this? We don’t have any direct lines to Mars, not even getting into the light-speed delay.”

Ling waved her hand without even glancing back. One of her gravers stepped back into the hallway and returned a moment later with a small squirrel kemo. She just had the tail and big black eyes, but she certainly twitched with nervous energy like a squirrel. She looked like she was going to run at any second.

“Just tell them what you told me,” Ling said soothingly.

The girl glanced around, shivering. “Well… um…”

I cursed. “Everyone, back up! You’re crowding her too much! Back to your seats!”

There was some grumbling, but everyone sat back down, leaving the girl alone with the gravers at the door.

The girl seemed more confident now that she wasn’t surrounded by people towering over her. “Well, I’m not a graver. I’m a telepath, actually. I can… link my mind to another.”

“Instantaneous communication, even over several light-minutes,” Ling said. “It’s very impressive.”

The girl nodded. “I linked with my cousin before he left for Lemuria. He called me when the attack started, and I called my brother…” She trailed off, and one of the graver bodyguards—her brother, I had to assume, put a reassuring hand on her shoulder.

“When was this?” I asked.

“Ten minutes ago,” Ling said.

“The colony can still be saved,” Martinez said.

Súileabháin nodded. “Agreed, but Mars doesn’t have the military to help, and nothing else can get there in time.” She paused. “Unless… Butler, do you have any ghosts on Lemuria? They might be able to do something.”

“Does he what?” Park asked. Her confusion was echoed on the faces of the other foreigners.

Butler’s face, on the other hand, was impassive. “I can neither confirm nor—”

Súileabháin slammed the table. “Now is not the time! Do you have any ghosts or not!”

“What are ghosts?” Martinez asked. “Another of your cultures?”

“They are…” Butler paused to try to find words that weren’t too damning. “…spies. And unfortunately, Madame Mayor, I have none on Lemuria. There was one, but he was in an industrial accident a few weeks ago and transferred out.”

“Wait,” I said. “I remember that. MC talked to me about it. She knew we needed another ghost on the colony, and asked for suggestions. We ended up sending four. They’re not real ghosts, but I figured they were better than nothing.”

“Really?” Butler said, surprised. “Who did you send?”

I smiled.

Behind the scenes (scene 324)

Sorry, cliffhanger, I know, but it’s resolved next scene. It just flows better this way.

Scene 322 – Exitium

EXITIUM

LING

I pulled my hand out of the woman’s chest and let her corpse fall to the floor. I shook her blood off, then morphed my hand from a stone blade to a stone hand. Some distant part of my mind kept watch on my reservoir, but there was little need. I had such reserves and it regenerated so fast that practically nothing could deplete it.

I stepped around the corpse, stalking in front of the rest of the prisoners. They were all kneeling in front of me, heads down, my gravers keeping them contained with concrete shackles. No one spoke.

“That one was easy,” I said in a pleasant voice. I had watched enough shows to know that the really disturbing enemies were the ones who spoke calmly and quietly. “I know for a fact that she was a spy. Evidence, pictures…” I waved my bloodied hand flippantly. A few drops landed on some of the prisoners, and they flinched away. “For the rest of you, the evidence is not so… concrete.”

I waited to see if anyone—prisoners or gravers—reacted to my pun. No one did, so I moved on.

“I would prefer not to resort to violence without certainty,” I said. “I would prefer more facts, more information. Which is why I am offering you all a choice. Give up an American spy, and I will simply exile both of you. Remain silent, and I start killing people.”

No one spoke. Someone sniffled, another shuffled in place.

“I understand,” I said, nodding. “You don’t know if you can trust me to keep my word. In fact, it’s possible that some of you are true, native Dominites, who don’t know anything useful to me at all.” I stroked my chin with my flesh hand. “If only there were some way to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone was from Domina City.”

Still no one spoke. Like scared animals, they sensed a trap.

“The obvious answer would be to look for toys,” I said. “But that would be incorrect. An outsider can get toys, and a Dominite can choose not to.” Most of the people kneeling in front of me were baseline, though a few had minor toys. “And simple tests of knowledge can easily be faked. Anyone can learn about Eden, or Bloody Thirteen, or Elizabeth’s Crusade. What then, can be tested? What does every Dominite have in common?”

I waved to my gravers. They grabbed the prisoners roughly by the arms and started dragging them away to individual interrogation cells. Some of them started sobbing—good. I needed them scared. The questioning would go easier that way.

“Lady Grave,” one of my men said once the prisoners were gone. “I just have one question, if you don’t mind.”

I looked him in the eyes and smiled. He was an angel, so he had dayeyes. Violet, in his case. “You’re wondering what this thing is that only a Dominite would know. What test I could use to ensure that we found the spies.”

He looked uncomfortable. “Yes, my lady.”

“There isn’t one,” I said.

He blinked. “What?”

“Nothing reliable, anyway. It’s all about getting them panicked, tricking them into making mistakes. That’s all interrogation is, Mister Ishim. Tricks and subterfuge. Speaking of which…” I kicked the woman on the ground. “Please get up.”

My gravers all gasped as the ‘corpse’ groaned and clambered to her feet. She still had the hole in her chest where I had speared her.

“How are you feeling?” I asked. I was serious—she couldn’t die, but that hardly meant getting hurt was fun.

“Not good,” she groaned. “You missed my heart, but only barely. Can I talk to a doctor? I just need to get patched up, I can take care of the rest on my own.”

I nodded. “Of course. You,” I said, pointing out a graver at random—a baseline. “Take her to Doctor Terra, then go find my accountant.” I smiled. “Miss Howlett needs to be paid for her services.”

The graver nodded and took the woman through one of the side entrances, opposite the direction the prisoners had gone. Speaking of… I waved my hand and covered all the doorways with concrete.

“What was that for, my lady?”

“I’m feeling paranoid of late.” I shook my head. “Superpowers and aliens. This whole city is going mad.” I sighed. “How many more groups of spies do we have on the list?”

One of the other gravers stepped up, a pad under her arm. “That was the last of them, ma’am. Of course, it’s quite likely we missed a few. There’s a rumor about the fey sheltering some spies in Summerhome, but that’s the only lead we have left.”

I frowned. “Why would the fey do that?”

“Perhaps they want to interrogate them themselves? Or maybe they’re just insane.”

I rolled my eyes. “Whatever. Whether the fey are exploiting them or protecting them, they are out of our reach.” I concentrated and molded a large chair out of the concrete beneath me. I let myself fall into it. There were no cushions, of course, but pain was a distant memory for me at this point. “If the city is clean of spies, that means we can focus on the aliens.”

My graver with the pad nodded. I specifically chose not to think of her name. She didn’t like it, and was trying to choose a new one. That was her right and I needed to respect it, even if she was taking an annoyingly long time. “Necessarius has been quiet regarding the alien ship that landed a few hours ago, but they have assured everyone that it did not come to start a war.”

“A bit of good news, then,” I said. I had watched more than enough science fiction—and read enough real science articles—to know that even that small shuttle could probably level the city if it decided to self-destruct. “What of our spies?”

“They say the alien is still in quarantine,” she said. “Beyond that, no detail. They can’t even be sure whether or not Butler has spoken to the alien.”

“He has,” I said. “Or Laura has, at least. She wouldn’t let an opportunity like this pass. What about the mothership?”

“Nothing. It hasn’t changed course or sent any messages that we could detect, let alone intercept or decrypt. I’m not sure that they are even aware of the shuttle.”

I drummed my real fingers on the concrete armrest. “That’s an interesting thing to say. You think the shuttle was a rogue launch?”

“It makes sense, ma’am,” she said. “If this were a large-scale, coordinated action, they would have sent multiple shuttles. One to every capital city would have been the wisest course of action, but at the very least they would have sent one to Mars. Probably Luna and Ceres as well. Domina City is important, but it is not the most important or most populated city on Earth. Like I said, this feels like a rogue faction that chose someplace at random.”

“…I was with you up until the end,” I said. “Why do you think it’s random?”

She shrugged. “What reason would an alien have for coming here specifically?”

I ticked the reasons off on my fingers. Again, the ones that were still flesh. “The toy maker. The powers. Elizabeth. Silk. Or maybe they just thought the giant circle looked like a landing pad.” I sighed. “I shouldn’t get snippy. You are going an excellent job.”

She smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“However, I still believe that there is more going on here than random chance. Look into that.”

She bowed. “Of course, ma’am.” She turned to go. She had to place her hand on one of the concrete-covered doorways to open it, but she managed it. She even sealed it again behind her. Such a thoughtful girl.

“Is there anything else on the agenda today?” I asked.

The remaining gravers bowed their heads. “No, Lady Grave.”

I waved my stone hand. “Then leave. Prepare the prisoners for interrogation, but wait for my signal to start. Just start with the simple stuff like distant screams and the sound of flesh being burned. Anything to keep them on edge.”

They bowed again and left. They didn’t seal up the passage behind them, which I found annoying, but I fixed it with little more than a thought.

I sighed and leaned back in my chair. With all the entrances sealed, this chamber was dead silent. There were some windows far above, letting light in through a few shattered floors. I had replaced the broken original windows with soundproof ones in my first week. This chamber, this tomb, would eventually run out of air, but with only one person that would take days, if not weeks. For now, it was just my own personal sanctum, free from all distractions of the universe.

…I needed to get a tv in here.

After an hour or so of silence, I heard the sound of something smacking against one of the stone walls I had used to cover the doorways. I expanded my stonesense and realized that someone was trying to get through the northernmost doorway. That was the one that led directly to the front of the Grave.

“Enter,” I said.

The wall started to melt, and one of my newer gravers forced his way through awkwardly. He was a fel anthro, and he was left with a bunch of hardened clumps of stone in his fur like he had lost a fight with a wax factory.

“My—” He cursed under his breath as his foot got stuck in the wall. “Fur and fang, just give me a second—”

I concentrated, channeling my power through the stone of my chair, into the floor, and finally into the wall. I molded it away from him, but then closed it up again behind him. Whatever this was, I had to assume it was best kept private. As an afterthought, I molded my chair around so that I could face him.

“What is it?” I demanded. “Have you found more American spies?”

“No, my lady.” He attempted an awkward bow. “It’s about the aliens, my lady. The ones Necessarius captured and put into quarantine?”

Aliens, plural? That was the first bit of actual intelligence we had yet. “So our spies have found something? Excellent.”

He hesitated. “My lady, I am so sorry—”

“Out with it,” I snapped.

“Our spies have been outed,” he said. “In fact, it appears that Butler has known the entire time. His people hand-delivered these to all our informants on the inside.” He proffered me a stack of papers. No, not papers, cards.

“What are they?” I asked.

“Invitations, my lady,” he said. “All addressed to you, all identical.”

I took one and looked it over. It wasn’t anything special. Just a simple formal invite for the Lady of the Grave and two bodyguards to a meeting. It didn’t say my name, I noticed, just my title. I wondered if that was a sign they didn’t know who I was, or if they were just being polite. Either way, it was simple and to the point, as with everything Necessarius did.

Except this one was to an interplanetary summit with a representative of an alien species.

That begged the question of why Butler was inviting the gravers. My people weren’t exactly known as diplomats. Maybe he thought they might need muscle? Even in the middle of NHQ, he could still be surprised. Perhaps he wanted a few surprises on his side as well.

The fact that our spies were compromised was one of those surprises, but I couldn’t bring myself to be mad about it. It wasn’t like he had killed them all. I knew some warlords had demanded retribution for spies being outed, but it always just made them look petty, like little kids throwing a tantrum.

“The meeting is on Thursday,” I said, reading over the invitation again. “That’s two days. I want our best to be assembled and ready in the morning. Whether we’re defending against Necessarius or aliens, we have to be ready for anything.”

“Of course,” my graver said, bowing low. He left, the wall sliding back into place behind him.

I lay back and stared at the ceiling. Aliens. Even by the standards of this city, that was pretty damn weird.

Well, if I wanted to live somewhere normal, I should have moved to Kentucky.

I stood up, stretched, and left the room.

I had work to do.

Behind the Scenes (scene 322)

I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a while, to show that while Ling is much more violent and pragmatic than she used to be, she’s still Ling. She has decided she’s the villain of the story, and is trying to guide the story in a direction that ends with the villain still alive. Top of the list is not actually torturing and murdering random people.

Scene 294 – Cimeterium

CIMETERIUM

LING

Pain.

The world was pain.

Needles and spikes and tearing razors and things I didn’t have names for. Every second my flesh felt like it was about to slough off my bones, because that was exactly what was going to happen. It took a constant effort of will to keep my concrete skeleton in one piece, to keep myself the right shape.

I took a deep breath and pushed it back. All of it, like holding back a river with a single plank of wood. But I did it, and the pain faded to a dull roar. Always there, like my heartbeat or the pull of gravity, but no longer so all-consuming.

I opened my eyes.

I was in the ruined skyscraper that had once been an ave base. The entire building had collapsed from my assault, but the same spikes and twists of concrete that had brought it down also prevented it from falling any further. In fact, the concrete turned the place into a near-perfect fortress, with no entrances or weak spots.

They called it the Grave.

“Alexander,” I said.

He stepped out of the shadows swiftly, but without rush. “Yes, my lady?”

“There is a party upstairs.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yes, my lady. A celebration following the victory against the Americans. There are countless similar parties all across the city.”

“I’m sure.” I stood up from my cross-legged position. I had been meditating. I couldn’t sleep anymore, not when I needed to use my power at all times to keep my skeleton working properly. Clarke’s Insomniac gland was a godsend, but I still needed rest. “Call down three of our strongest. I have a job for them.”

He looked hesitant, but bowed low anyway. “Yes, my lady.” He stepped into what seemed to be a solid wall—the old elevator shaft, now sealed up. The elevator itself was scrap metal at the bottom of the shaft, but it was still useful.

I used my stonesense to track him, or rather the concrete belt he used to ascend the shaft towards the roof. He was almost at the edge of my sense when he stopped at the roof. A few moments later, he and three others began to descend the shaft again, levitating their stone belts to control their speed.

The concrete wall of the shaft opened up like a curtain, and Alexander escorted three people into my chamber. Two girls and a boy. All baseline. Most of my people were baseline. It wasn’t a requirement, it was just the way it had ended up.

“Do you believe the war is over?” I said without preamble.

All three of them stood with their backs as straight as arrows. “No, Lady Grave.”

“Do you believe that now is the time for celebration?”

“No, Lady Grave.”

I levitated my own skeleton, allowing me to float a few feet off the ground and move into a cross-legged sitting position in mid air. “Artemis Butler believes he can solve this with diplomacy and deals. Perhaps he is right. But that is not the way of the Grave.”

“No, Lady Grave.”

“How does the Grave handle its enemies?”

Three voices barked the response with one voice. “We bury them!”

I nodded. “Good.” I pulled a small object out of my pocket. It was about the size of a pen, and I pointed it at the factory-smooth concrete ground. I pressed a button on the side and a light shone out of it, projecting a flat map of the city with a number of red dots scattered around it. They were clustered around the four city gates, especially North Gate.

“Each red dot represents a suspected American soldier, squad, or piece of scrap left behind when the army fled the city.” I clicked the pen again, zooming in farther onto kemo territory. “Perhaps these people were simply unlucky. Abandoned by their country. Perhaps they are kindred souls, who need nothing more than friendship and open arms to become contributing members of this city.” I clicked the pen off. “And perhaps not.”

One of the three—one of the girls—stepped forward. “Lady Grave. Butler’s orders are quite explicit. Defense only. He doesn’t want to further antagonize—”

“Who rules the Grave?”

The girl swallowed. “You do, Lady Grave.”

I slowly stopped levitating myself, setting my bare feet back on the concrete ground. Since I could only use my power on stone I was touching, that meant I could now control the entire building again. The girl flinched, but didn’t step back. Good for her.

“Artemis Butler.” I nodded. “He is a good man. A man trying to do what is best for this city, who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. But he has controlled this city for far too long.”

One of the others, the boy, blanched. “You… you’re not talking about a coup?

I waved my hand. “Of course not. He is what is best for this city. I am simply saying that he is sometimes more worried about keeping his word and making deals than he is about taking out the trash.” I tossed the pen to the second girl, the one who hadn’t spoken. “Today, that will be our job. Your job.”

She nodded, holding the pen. “What would you have us do?”

“Take kemo territory,” I said. “All three of you together, hitting every hot spot you can find. Don’t give them a chance to respond, don’t give them a chance to radio for help. Crush them. Bury them. Leave no evidence behind.”

They all bowed. “Yes, Lady Grave.”

I nodded. “Go, now. Take a few of the novices with you, if you feel it is necessary, but no more than a dozen. I want the report of your first success within the hour.”

They left quickly, running at a solid wall and passing through it like mud. In moments, they were gone.

“They’ll be caught,” Alexander warned. “Anders has his CS squads. Those three won’t be able to fight them.”

“They are not supposed to fight them. They are supposed to distract them. Pull them to this sector of the city, far away from where I will be.” I had been hit with a counter-song twice since I had returned to the city. It wasn’t particularly dangerous, but it had paralyzed me completely.

Alexander nodded, as if he had expected such a response. “And where will you be?”

“East Gate,” I said. “Vampire territory.”

He nodded again. “Very well. I will collect an escort for you.”

“No,” I said, grinning. “I will handle it alone.” I shivered in delight. “It’s been far too long since I was really able to let loose.”

And then I sank into the ground, swimming through the concrete and asphalt of the city streets as easily as if it was water.

Behind the Scenes (scene 294)

Somehow I completely forgot to upload this.  I have no idea what happened.  Better late than never.

break

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 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.