The First Doom (Part 1)
by DaVaun Sanders
Kyria Grazheen faced down every hollow-eyed stare in the mess hall as she flexed her hand, ignoring the pain lancing through her knuckles. Over fifty women and men surrounded her, former Cassad crew bound by nothing but a shared desire to lash out over their fresh despair. She knew their pain, but sympathy in the Known served a mercenary worse than swallowing a handful of irradiated rounds.
“That’s the last warning you’re gonna get.” Kyria’s brown gaze settled on the man at her feet. He cupped a hand over his jaw, glowering up at her through a puffy eye. He had the good sense to keep his mouth closed while she spoke, even if it meant swallowing a little blood. “One more fight in this outpost, and I’ll shut the broadcast down myself. You can listen to it in orbit like all the rest.”
The scowls deepened as more of the surveying crew set to rush her. Behind them, Shuster’s hand slipped under the bar. Kyria gave a slight shake of her head. He kissed his teeth in exasperation, refusing to budge. Perfect. The man’s grip rested on worse than the mess hall’s poisonous ale.
Kyria winced, flexing her fist again as another Cassad elbowed past his crewmates. Veins bulged along his musclebound neck. “You Arcadian vermin act like you’re the—”
Kyria pried the tooth out of her knuckle with a grunt. “Finally.” A few drops of bright blood oozed out, spattering on the mess hall’s grated metal floor. She peered down at the stocky man, an Element G dispersal engineer by the smell of him. “You were saying?”
“Our survey lasted a decade, Arcadian.” The engineer drudged up some civility as he helped his friend to his feet. “We’ve finally returned from the Unknown to find civil war? Half our worlds under this New Regime? And there’s a trial of the emperor—”
“I don’t care.” Kyria tossed back the cracked incisor. The first man gave her a gap-toothed snarl as he snatched it from the air. She held in a smile. “And this ‘Arcadian vermin’ has seen worse than you’ve ever dreamed. The broadcast stays on. Don’t make me get up again.”
Kyria returned to her empty table without another word. No charging boots followed. The surveyors were already hunkering back around their cold metal tables as the trial dragged on.
“The Cassad ravaged our homeworld!” the latest witness wailed. The feed of Emperor Khalid Cassad’s trial had echoed through every hall of the Efalus Six outpost for days—thanks to some blindspliced audio ports hacked together by a well-meaning engineer from an orbiting ship. Kyria intended to thank the woman personally if the feed kept working up these crews. She couldn’t blame them too much, though; the young emperor’s New Regime captors had crafted quite a spectacle. “Khalid deserves a thousand times a thousand deaths for all who’ve endured Cassad butchery in the Known!”
Reverence, anger, satisfaction and disbelief rippled through the surveyors’ expressions; sometimes all squeezed onto one person’s face. People from some deluded worlds still venerated the Emperor of the Known as a god. They were easy to pick out; eyes bloodshot and unblinking. But if their beliefs held any spark, Khalid Cassad would not wear chains—And Kyria Grazheen’s credits would be worth more than a handful of steaming fek.
She downed her last shot of Cloudspittle and set the empty glass beside a neat row of three more, just as chipped and empty as the Cassad surveyors around her. Shuster’s disapproving frown drifted over the heads of the surveyors. She leered at him, ignoring how the vile drink licked away the skin inside her windpipe. He snorted, muttering to himself as he rummaged through his stock of Roofcutter, ink, and Zarian wine. Kyria didn’t care, so long as he brought over something strong. She would take a few days with a hoarse throat over the dead woman’s voice blooming back to life in her head.
Gotta take a stand somewhere, might as well be here. But this is gonna hurt, rookie. Too late. Kyria squeezed her eyes shut, willing the voice away.
A sudden microburst hit the entire mess hall, rattling the airlock behind her table. She would be first to go if the seals failed.
The trial feed cut out, prompting curses all around. Irritation flashed through Kyria as she massaged her temples. “Next person to mouth off gets their ass worn like a sandal, and I’m walking all the way back to…”
Her words died off as she opened her eyes. A burly man stood before her, wearing a Cassad officer’s uniform like nothing she’d ever seen, an angular cut of blue bordering on black. “You lost?”
“I was just about to ask you the same question.” The lilt of the man’s baritone betrayed a heritage from the interior Known, maybe even Zaria itself. He held an irritating air of self-assurance, though he didn’t look down his nose in that pompous way Kyria had endured from other capital-bred officers. Meaty palms, steady gaze, but definitely not military—technician overseer, maybe? “You hold the most potential of anyone upon this entire planet, I suspect,” he said. “Yet you serve the least use, lingering here. What a puzzle.”
You have no idea.” Kyria’s implanted warden tech signaled no passive scan alerts, yet the Cassad officer’s cool, dark eyes dismantled and reconstructed her in a blink. Most of the surveyors eyed him more warily than Kyria, and he hadn’t even drawn any blood. “I’m right where I need to be.”
“As are we all.” The officer nodded to himself, like he had picked over her secrets and pocketed the most promising. “I’d like you to serve as crew chief aboard my vessel.” He extended a hand. “My name is—”
Kyria laughed in his face. “Best get back to orbit, Cassad. Outpost overseers don’t like recruiters much.”
The officer lowered his hand, thick eyebrows rising. His surprise deepened as Shuster chose that moment to shoulder in front of him. “Found you one last bottle, Grazer.”
Wiry and lean, with smooth ebon skin and a clean shaven head to match, Shuster looked the officer up and down as though he meant to start a fight himself. He knew he’d never do more than take the chill off the worthless insulation job in Kyria’s bunk for a night, but he still enjoyed testing his limits at the worst possible moment.
The Cassad officer smiled back pleasantly, earning Shuster’s frown.
Kyria took the Cloudspittle with a nod of thanks. “Send a round to that table I just broke up.” She poured a bit over her knuckles with a grimace, surprised the wound didn’t hiss. “Don’t tell them it’s from me.”
“You sure?” Shuster asked.
“I’m sure. People don’t respect the birch in one hand if they see the sugar in the other.” She glanced at the surveyors whispering quietly among themselves. Smallish people from Pacifica; men and women of all stature and shade from the Reach, unmistakable Euphrates folk—who knew how their double irises made others squirm, but didn’t hesitate to stare. Even a few Marajeshi sat among them, with freckles sparkling like emerald powder on their brown skin.
Some were undoubtedly been drafted by the Cassad, while others joined to earn higher citizenship tiers. None of it mattered now that the empire had fallen apart. Allegiances lived and died in the surveyors’ eyes as they waited for the trial feed to resume. It’s like watching the Known crumble all over again.
“Get that damn blindsplice synced again, too,” Kyria grumbled. “And make it two rounds.”
The officer opened his mouth, but Shuster barreled right over him.
“Sure. Might as well spend all those creds you saved up while they’re still worth a damn.” He sighed at her swelling hand. “Get that looked at. By Parunja’s Drift, next time use your volt knuckles! You’re not made of alloy, you know.”
“Life would be easier that way.” Kyria poured herself three more shots. “Another bottle of this fek you’re passing around will scour out the soft parts soon enough.”
Shuster’s eyes twinkled. “Let’s hope not.”
The officer cleared his throat. “I’ll order a double of level-three Ease, if that’s not too much—”
Shuster laughed in his face. He strode off to pour Kyria’s credits into other people’s sorrow. The officer’s expression remained cordial as he plopped himself down at her table.
“My name is Amadi Zele.”
Kyria blinked as he hefted the bottle of Cloudspittle and sniffed it experimentally. “First time outside the Known?” she asked dryly.
“Indeed, but my work demands nothing less. I’m close to the truth of a Dark Age myth, hidden for millennia. This last voyage will—”
“That’s supposed to impress me? Myths come and go. One is standing trial in New Beia right now.”
“Quite true.” Zele scratched his mustache thoughtfully. “Tell me, how long did you work in Targotha?”
“Who said I—” Kyria’s hand snapped reflexively to her shorn scalp before jerking it back down. The blue stubble screamed of her stint in Tar City and its notorious pollutants. At least I stopped sweating blue. She glared at the man irritably and downed another shot. “You’re from the explorer vessel that just put in. Hope you’re not planning to stay in orbit long with the way you’re hemorrhaging crew.”
“We depart as soon as you’re ready to come aboard.” The man’s lips quirked. “I’m an Averator of the Cassad Empire.”
“The former Cassad Empire. What in the Known is an Averator?”
Another microburst slammed into the module, forestalling his answer. Some of the surveyors glanced Kyria’s way. She noted the disappointment in their eyes when the airlock held.
“You’ve never heard of Carigine Pelson? Darius Berden?” He sighed at Kyria’s unimpressed shrug.
“Small wonder the empire is collapsing,” Zele muttered, carefully pouring for himself. “So. I gather you’re in need of credits, and I’m in need of your skill set for a survey of my own. Deep into the Unknown.”
“You don’t know a damn thing about my skill set.” Kyria snatched the shot back from him and downed it, suppressing a shudder. Deep surveys meant cryosleep, and free reign for the dead woman in her head. “Besides, I’m under contract with a freighter due here in two weeks.”
Zele rubbed his chin. “I could always requisition your service, though I’d prefer you join us of your own volition.”
“Please. Any Cassad order you whip up means absolute fek,” Kyria retorted with a grunt. “There are no rules in the Unknown, especially now.”
Zele sipped his Cloudspittle and immediately spit it out. “I rarely miscalculate this badly,” the Averator murmured as he stood. “Efalus Six is about to become…unpleasant. With the level of training you received in the Forty-Sixth, I’m surprised you didn’t notice sooner.”
Kyria’s smirk evaporated as she bolted to her feet. “How did you know—”
The hair on the nape of her neck stood up an instant before the proximity mods in her cortex went off. A static hum filled the stale air as a Brython Knight of the Realm clanked into the mess hall. The massive robot resembled a torion tank with legs, covered in a pocked, gray composite wrought in cruel angles and forged for death. A double-barreled repulsor cannon fit atop one arm, and the Knight wielded a long handled purge blade, a nasty weapon designed to maim and scar in offering to the Cathol god.
“Oclorious the Redeemer bears witness upon this system.” The robot’s swiveling receiver node bore a mocking resemblance to a human head. Twin data relays glowed a piercing blue; resembling dead, burning eyes.
Lost your edge, Grazer. Kyria’s hands slipped unconsciously into the volt knuckles hidden in her pocket. She laughed at herself—even with her pick of weapons, her exposed flesh stood no chance against plate armor a half-meter thick. She tensed as the Knight’s scan paused briefly over her military implants, but it swept on, searching for someone who mattered. Shuster earned an additional scan of his own, but his hands stayed on his drinks.
I’m going to show you what it takes to be a leader, the dead woman promised.
The Knight’s grating, unnatural voice approximators pierced the air, coldly fervent. “The Efalus system is now under the blessed protection of the Cathol, and the righteous glory of the New Regime. Stand by for conversion and reassignment. You may rejoice.”
No one breathed as Oclorious stilled, calculating the new lives of everyone within the room, assigning them to posts within the New Regime without so much as an interview. The surveyor that Kyria confronted earlier bristled. Every Marajeshi went rigid in affront. They hated Brython folk and their robots with a passion that Kyria envied…but none of them were soldiers. The Averator stared at the Knight with a stupid look on his face, as if he were chewing his tongue.
“Stop that,” Kyria warned him under her breath. “You’ll get us all killed.”
“What?” Zele asked innocently.
“You’ve got a palate swiper. You keep sending messages back to your ship, that Knight will cut it out of your mouth and expel the rest of us out of the airlock!”
Averators were apparently intelligent, for he ceased at once. “Time to depart, I think. Conversion has never suited my purposes, and I can’t waste several days designing something that can overcome a Brython warship. May the Known be kind, Arcadian.”
“Wait.” The Averator’s words bounced back through her head. “You didn’t say anything about weapon tech.”
Zele ignored her, peering up at the room’s audio port. “Just a little tweak…”
Oclorious jerked out of its proselytizing scan. “Command priority override.” A table of surveyors scrambled clear with a shout as it rumbled straight for Zele. The metal table squealed free of the floor, pulling apart before the Knight’s steel-plated legs.
“I told you!” Kyria snapped, backing away with a snarl.
“Averator Amadi Zele.” The Knight’s blue orbs burned down at the Cassad. “Priority asset level status confirmed. You are hereby ordered to convert.”
The Averator flicked open a handheld device Kyria had somehow missed before. His eyes glittered in triumph as he took in the surveyors’ stunned expressions. “Until the All is Known and stars are dust!” he shouted. “May Cassad forever stand!”
Zele tapped his device, and the mess hall’s audio ports crackled back to life. Chaos filtered through the trial feed, explosions, screaming and weapons fire. A Hub relayer’s panicked voice reported over the tumult, but his words were unbelievable.
“—that is confirmed—it’s the Njaro! A space station under Cassad control has attacked New Beia! The former emperor is missing—but his mercenary guard is reportedly in a firefight with—”
Oclorious halted as a ragged cheer overcame the mess hall. The Knight swiveled crisply. “Heathen parameters actuated. New convert protocols are now active.”
“The emperor lives and fights! Khalid!”
“All else is dust!”
The surveyors grew emboldened in their cheers, no longer cowering from the Knight of the Realm. Cold sky to hot core, Efalus Six had rediscovered an unflinching, unfortunate loyalty to the Cassad Empire. Kyria edged away from the inevitable slaughter pit. “Averator, this is one nice pile of fek you’ve—” She gaped, searching the room. Zele was gone.
Kyria turned to bolt herself, but the dead woman’s voice stopped her. Whatever you do, don’t die alone, rookie. Not while people are depending on you.
“I know!” she snapped at it. Kyria caught Shuster’s eye and very deliberately held up her volt knuckles. He licked his lips and nodded, reaching under the bar.
A handful of the bolder surveyors surrounded the robot, jeering. Bottles broke against the Knight’s blue orbs.
“Reassessing threat parameters,” Oclorious pronounced.
“Hey, Pacifica.” The surveyor Kyria had kicked around turned back to her. “No hard feelings, all right? If you want some payback…” Kyria slid one of her last two knuckles across the table. His face lit up as he caught it. “May Cassad forever stand.”
“Thanks, Arcadian.” Air whistled through the gap Kyria had opened in his teeth. She almost felt sorry for him as he slipped the volt knuckle over his fist. A jagged orange arc flashed from the thin metal strip. The weapon might damage the robot’s optics, but he’d never get that close.
“Reassessing threat parameters,” the Knight’s dead voice boomed out. “Fifty percent complete. All converts must kneel in fealty. You may rejoice.”
She edged for the closest hall. Shuster pulled out an ugly black tube, his prized reverse polarity destabilizer, and set it regretfully on the bar. Kyria grabbed a Marajeshi woman and pointed the weapon out. “Week’s worth of charge will cook some Brython circuits. All yours.”
The woman didn’t hesitate. She strode straight for the destabilizer with murder in her eyes.
“Reassessing threat parameters. Ninety percent complete. Hostile targeting sequence engaged. You may lament.” Kyria burned her boot treads hauling out, with Shuster a step behind.
“We can barter passage,” she said breathlessly as they sprinted down the drab halls, straight for the docks. “I can pilot the outpost hopper.”
“Passage where?” Shuster demanded. “Do you know how far it is to the next shipping lane?”
“We’ll figure it out, we always do. If there’s a Brython warship in orbit this whole outpost is—” Kyria stopped in her tracks. “You!”
Amadi Zele strolled just ahead, arms folded behind his back. He turned expectantly. “Ah, Arcadian. You’ve reconsidered my request?”
“You…you stirred up those poor fools just to slip out of there.” Kyria whistled. “That’s some frigid fek, Averator.”
“I could remove myself from the gaze of that lumbering embarrassment whenever I wished,” Zele replied. “Your compliance required more…how did you put it? Birch and sugar?”
Shuster made a strangled sound, and Kyria’s face burned hot. “You’re insane,” she spluttered. “There’s no guarantee anyone comes off this rock alive, now!”
“Yet here you stand unscathed. I learn quickly, Kyria.” His smile never reached his eyes. “There are no rules in the Unknown.”
Kyria spun as the whine of the Brython Knight’s repulsor cannon cut the air behind them. The surveyors’ shouts turned to screams. Zele didn’t even blink. “I’ll triple the credits of your prior contract.”
“I need something more tangible,” Kyria shot back. “I have project specs. And I want passage for my friend.”
Sweat broke out on Shuster’s brow at Zele’s skeptical appraisal. “He has your skill set?” the Averator asked doubtfully.
“Even better,” Kyria said. “He can cook.”
“Very well. Agreement in principle.” Zele wore the smug expression of a man who always got his way. “The same rate suffices?” Shuster bobbed his head, dazed at the exchange. “Good. We’ll discuss your…project aboard my ship, Arcadian. There’s no time left to waste.”
The man strode off with new purpose in his step. Zele’s single mindedness intrigued Kyria just a pinch more than it unnerved her—but if not part of his crew, she was either converted or dead.
“You just negotiated rates with a Knight at your…” Shuster swallowed. “Thanks for throwing me in the deal. I guess all that Cloudspittle didn’t eat away what’s left of your heart.”
“Might be easier that way,” Kyria replied softly, squeezing his hand. For a moment, she thought it better to take her chances with Oclorious the Redeemer than Amadi Zele. “Watch yourself. He’s Cassad.”
“Then why help him?” Shuster murmured as they followed. “Even if Khalid survived the trial, he can’t stop the Brython and Marajeshi from carving up the Empire, not unless he’s got a secret fleet hidden somewhere. The Cassad are done.”
“I guess I have a thing for lost causes.” Kyria fingered the remaining volt knuckle in her pocket. “He’s out to change the Known…and we don’t have a choice.”
“What do Averators do, anyway?” Shuster stared at Zele in awe. “Make their own credits?”
Zele glanced back with that knowing smile. “No,” he said, his dark eyes glittering. “But we do make history.”
“His ship is a klick out from softdock range.” Kyria had insisted on taking over the hopper’s controls, despite the protests of Zele’s pilots. A single look from the Averator silenced them. She let the thrusters out and the Cassad shuttle leaped through cold space. “Anything on the Brython?”
Shuster slid in beside her without a word, eyes fixed on the gravimetric radar. “I don’t see her on g-det. Instrumentation’s not tracking through the rock’s penumbra.”
“Keep looking. That Knight’s next move is to send out proselyte drones after it’s christened the outpost.”
“Anything in the Known you don’t know how to fight, Kyria?” Shuster muttered.
Looks like it’s just you and me, milkrat.
“I can think of at least one,” Kyria muttered. She glued her eyes to the tactical display, but the dead woman still stirred. The better they know you, the worse you can hurt them.
“Do you like my ship?” Unfettered pride rang in Zele’s voice. “Her name is the Dubious. I designed her myself.”
Shuster cleared his throat. “She’s, ah…”
His hesitation made Kyria glance up, only to hold in a groan. A sensor array of two offset dishes swallowed the ship’s forward hull, with the most exposed observation deck she had ever seen perched just above them. Four arrayed cylindrical modules of uninspired, high tensile alloy joined the observation deck to the rear drive component and Element G transverters—five Cassad Ajuka-class burners—grossly overpowered for its mass.
“See-through is what you’re looking for.” Just looking at the Dubious made Kyria feel naked. It was not only ugly, but useless in a fight. A better named ship didn’t exist in all the Known. She twisted to arch an eyebrow at Zele. “You don’t believe in armaments? Hull plating?”
“Some turrets would fit nicely in place of that observation paneling,” Shuster muttered, shaking his head. “No shield batteries. We’re safer in this hopper. No taking her through atmo, either. Can you imagine the shear?”
“Attacking an Averator’s ship even accidentally was once punishable by death.” Zele’s frown deepened as he took in his pilots’ worried expressions. “Already you’re enhancing my outlook, Arcadian. Are you also knowledgeable in such areas, Mr. Shuster?”
“Me? No. I can do the welding, if it comes to that. But Grazheen’s full of useful—”
Kyria’s elbow to his ribs shut that line of thought down. Shuster grunted, but clamped his mouth tight.
“You wanted a crew chief.” Kyria relinquished helm control to the hopper’s autarchic drive. “That’s what you’ve got.”
“Certainly,” Zele replied. “I’m quite confident you will pass my executive officer’s appraisal.”
Kyria stiffened. “Now there’s an eval? You said you needed me!”
“I’ve found it providential to bow to others’ talents on the rare instances when they supersede my own,” Zele explained with a shrug. “I hope to bow to yours as well, Arcadian.”
“Fair enough,” Kyria muttered. As if Zele weren’t an odd enough breed, now she had to tie bootlaces with her teeth through a fek-eating grin for some puckered-ass Cassad officer? She glanced over to share a sneer with Shuster, but the sight of the man trying to chew a hole through his lip ebbed away her anger. Play nice with the Cassad, she scolded herself, or rejoice for the Brython.
Shuster gawked through the fore window. “What the…”
Kyria glanced up as the nearest cylinder of the Dubious rushed into view, too fast. “Fek!”
A docking bay door split open to receive them just before the hopper slammed into the Dubious’s hull. The craft eased to a gentle stop before Kyria fully braced herself. She gaped out at the ship’s dock, filled from wall to wall with a viscous, clear gel. “A wetdock? These are experimental!”
“Only the best for my ship,” Zele beamed. An overhead hatch hissed open, and he immediately climbed the ladder out.
One of the pilots smirked, a diminutive man with crested locs and gray eyes. “Experimental is a fluid word around here, Arcadian.” He extended his hand to Kyria and Shuster both. “Name’s Julet.”
“I’m Ellin.” The second pilot added in a drawl that marked her from Indo, along with the triangular fortune scars on her smooth cheekbones. “Welcome to the family. Better get moving while you’re still a priority.”
“Lead the way.” Kyria licked her lips and nodded encouragingly at Shuster. She counted her steps all the way to the operations deck, a spherical room offering a view of the surrounding space on every axis. The dirty blue glow of Efalus Six shone through the clear composite under her boots.
So it has some value, she conceded. Like standing in a room-sized HUD display. Still too easy to wipe out the entire command with one clean shot. The configuration reminded her of the glass cages the island Premiers used to fight chameleon sharks on Pacifica.
Enough operation ports for ten crew surrounded them, but only a man and woman stood among them, hunched over a single tactical display.
“We’re the last ship in orbit, waiting for you.” The man expanded his arms, and the deck display shifted to zoom on the Brython warship.
Kyria’s throat went dry. The long, irregular hull brought to mind an armored viper. Turrets protruded from the ship’s underbelly, while fission stacks on top outgassed factory waste directly into space, leaving dark stains on the gray hull.
“I’ll never fully understand your fascination with introducing random elements into our mission. We could do entirely without these Brython.” The man took in Kyria. “Who is this?”
Zele smiled warmly at the man, an expression as fond as he had held for the Dubious. “Paky, my executive officer, meet—”
“Kyria Grazheen.” She strode forward and extended a hand. Youthful, with dark hair perfectly edged and a strong grip and confident air, Paky didn’t act elitist at all. Kyria resisted staring at his shocking orange eyes—she didn’t care what obscure world Paky might hail from, and needed to make a good impression here. “Pleasure to—”
“He’s not the executive officer,” the woman next to Zele straightened. “I am.”
Oh, fek. Kyria drew a measured breath. The woman wore a Cassad uniform cut similarly to Zele, and a tight cord kept her dark hair pulled tight. Kyria cleared her throat. “Averator, I thought you wanted—”
“Remiliat Dumasani is the most intuitive person I’ve ever met,” Zele interjected, scratching his mustache as he peered at the Brython ship. “Rem, Kyria’s agreed to be our tactical officer, and will surely—”
“That’s also my position,” Remiliat interrupted. Her bearing screamed military background—and a well-disciplined one—which somehow made her more irritating.
Kyria shot Zele a reproachful look. “You told me crew chief on the surface.”
“My duty again.” Remiliat shook her head. “Averator we needed an astrometric technician!”
“That task is within my purview, I’m afraid.” Paky added, offering Kyria an apologetic shrug. “You’ll find that titles are rather indefinite within this curious existence we call home.”
Fresh knots formed in Kyria’s shoulders. “So I’m learning.”
“You may stay.” Remiliat’s curt address made Shuster jump. “I can stand no more of Amadi’s experiments on our palates.” Kyria only earned a contemptuous glance. “But you serve no purpose here—nor anywhere, if the stink on your breath is any indication.”
“Perhaps I miscalculated,” Zele sighed, motioning Paky to one of the consoles.
Kyria strode past Remiliat, reaching for Zele’s arm. “Now wait just a—”
“You are voiceless here, Arcadian.” Remiliat’s hand rested on Kyria’s shoulder with a sister’s familiarity. Kyria’s legs simply buckled beneath her. Only reflexes honed by her years in the Forty-Sixth saved her from falling flat on her face.
Kyria rose slowly, masking her shock over the woman’s mystery attack. Her warden tech hadn’t even gone off. “Don’t touch me again. We can trade nerve clenches all day, after I’m paid.”
Shuster groaned. Zele and Paky exchanged a long look, but neither moved a muscle.
Remiliat’s fists clenched. “We don’t need you, and furthermore—”
Alarm klaxons sliced the air. The observation deck’s main display flashed red.
“The Brython warship is firing projectiles,” Paky said calmly.
“Well…evade!” Zele spluttered.
“Not at us, sir.”
A white flash in the stratosphere drowned out the HUD’s red warnings. The murky blue atmosphere of Efalus Six began to dissipate from a point on the equator like a spreading sore, revealing the barren rock of the surface at hundreds of kilometers per second.
“By all the Known,” Shuster whispered.
Kyria’s throat tightened at sight of it. Almost as bad as home. Her eyes stung, but the others were too riveted to see her blink away the tears.
“An atmospheric bomb. Reclamation.” Zele’s brow drew down. “The outpost equipment is still of use to the New Regime. They’re consolidating their reach on the edges of the Unknown.”
Remiliat muttered an oath and strode back to her console, hate glistening in her eyes. “What waste. Paky, get us—”
A high-pitched squeal shivered over coms. “Cassad vessel,” Oclorious’ voice grated. “Cease propulsion and—”
Paky’s hand flicked over the nearest console and the Knight’s voice cut off. “I abhor the Brython,” he muttered. “Plotting our course to—”
“You’ll stand a better chance of erasing a fixture on our g-det if you plot an inverted jump point out of the system,” Kyria cut in. “Might lose a few weeks from your destination, but I’m pretty sure you don’t want that warship following us.”
Paky paused. Remiliat’s eyebrows raised, and a grin split Zele’s face. You’re not this person anymore, a voice cautioned, but Kyria pressed on. “Of course I’m sure you’ve thought of that already,” she added dryly, matching Remiliat stare for stare. “I can show you, unless you still mean to send me back down there.”
Remiliat’s jaw worked soundlessly for a moment, but a glance at the oncoming warship sealed her decision. “Do it.”
Paky made room at the console, but Kyria folded her arms. “Personal armor created per my specs, Averator,” she said. “That’s my pay.”
“Intriguing.” Zele’s response was immediate. “Done.”
Kyria strode to the console and began dropping in coordinates. “You see it now?” she asked Paky. “A short vector on the Z-axis. A Knight of the Realm’s decision engine is based on probability percentages. If you split the difference between your intended coordinates, and factor in a heading in the opposite direction—”
“There’s no way to derive our true destination. They cancel each other out.” Paky gave a slow nod. “Most impressive, Arcadian. I can finish the rest.”
Kyria stood aside. One friend on this heap, at least.
Zele’s satisfied look had returned. “Allow me to show you the rest of my ship.”
“You have more important things to prepare,” Remiliat interjected. “Please, the both of you. Follow me.”
Zele shook his head ruefully, but held his silence. There was nothing to do but follow Remiliat off the deck.
Shuster’s hand tightened on Kyria’s wrist for an instant then slipped away. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Could’ve been us down there.”
They’d both lost friends on Efalus Six, the first place on the edge of the Known that had tried to fill the planet-sized void in Kyria’s heart. Now it was more like dead Arcadia than she could ever wish. Kyria silently cursed the Brythons for the reminder of what she had lost. What she had failed to protect.
Remiliat made terse introductions among the remaining Cassad crew; over thirty bleary-eyed folk just as grateful as Kyria when the Dubious lurched under their feet. Paky had evaded the Brython warship.
“Most of the space is devoted to experimentation, particle density analysis and the like,” Remiliat said, casting Kyria a hooded look. “The Averator has the tools on hand to fulfill your…request. What do you need armor for?”
Oh, just to fight off Pack Loren, the merc who captured Khalid Cassad himself. He’s hunting me and the rest of the Forty-Sixth down, and I’d like a fighting chance for the day he shows up.
“You may run this ship,” Kyria said. “But I deal with Zele for pay.”
“Secrets lead short lives aboard the Dubious, Arcadian.” Remiliat spun on her heel. “Inoculations are required for our mission. Come.”
“Careful, Grazer,” Shuster whispered. “I’d bet a week’s pay she’s from Atunbé. There are…stories. Don’t mess with her.”
Kyria shrugged, she’d never heard of the world. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
They followed Remiliat into a medical bay, a sparse room with no dedicated personnel—not even a field robot for surgery. Shuster sighed as Remiliat motioned him to stand on a dark, rubbery tile inset into the metal deck.
“Pathogen scanner,” she explained.
“I’m not Marajeshi,” Shuster muttered.
“Can’t remember the last time a ship actually took me through proper protocols,” Kyria said. She inhaled from a delivery mister, a cone-shaped device bristling with wires and tubes that suspended from the low ceiling. The cold spray tasted like fek and clung to her throat.
Remiliat frowned at her. “The Averator was working on a master inoculation in his spare time.” She proffered an identical mister to Shuster, who regarded it suspiciously. “Never know what infections await upon any new world, let alone the Unknown.” Her eyes rested on Kyria. “Time for us to sleep now.”
Kyria nodded with a casualness she did not feel. “Lead the way.”
The crew quarters were lined with long metal nightmare tubes, cold and black. Remiliat began to strip wordlessly. Kyria’s gut knotted up. She suppressed a shudder and followed suit.
“Looks like we don’t bunk together this time,” Shuster whispered. “How are you going to wake up if—”
“I’ll be fine.” Kyria flexed her stiff hand as she sidled up to the nearest tube with a tight jaw, aware of Remiliat’s eyes on her. Shuster beat her to it, making a show of settling down inside, buying her time. His face was still lined with worry as he watched Kyria through the glass. A puff of relaxant frosted the tube pink, and he was out.
“Surprised you’re bedding down with us,” Kyria managed as she clambered into the next tube. Her skin pebbled at the cold steel.
“I spend enough time with Paky as it is,” Remiliat replied. “Cryo is a welcome respite from the chaos of the Known.”
“Good thing we’re bound for the Unknown, then.”
Remiliat didn’t match Kyria’s smile as she stared down at her. “You’re not fit for the Averator’s mission. His vision. He doesn’t see it, but I do. You are a broken woman, Arcadian. You’ve let others down before, and you’ll do the same with us if the opportunity arises.”
A snarl curled Kyria’s lip, but bile stirred in her stomach, too. “You don’t know me at all, Remiliat.”
“Perhaps. Sweet dreams, Grazer.”
“What did you call me?” Kyria’s voice went shrill, equal parts furious and frightened. The cryo tube sealed shut, reducing her lunge to palms pressed on the glass. What level of leach-ware did this woman possess to pull Kyria’s call sign—and where had she pulled it from?
Remiliat gazed through the glass, her face like a woman viewing the corpse at a stranger’s wake before finally turning away.
Kyria’s chest grew tight. Her breathing shallowed. The prompt on the glass before her queried for dream inhibitor or stimulator, and she made her selection. Orange mix misted into the tube, stinking faintly of artificial lilac and denatured Element G. She pressed tightly into her palm as the inhibitor took hold.
The synaptic trip circuit embedded in her hand failed to fire.
Way to go Grazheen, you broke more than that guy’s tooth! Kyria lost consciousness, plunging into an all-encompassing darkness where the dead woman laughed softly and patiently loaded her rounds.
“Raids are the best, rookie.” The dead woman’s words echoed in Kyria’s head, the same as they had a hundred times before. A thousand. Kyria feared it was the only dream she had left. “Especially against close foes. The better they think they know you, the worse you can hurt them.”
A full squadron of strangers in outdated assault armor surrounded her, jouncing in their restraints as the dropship hit Junn atmosphere. The Arcadian soldiers’ worn metal exoskeletons whirred and clicked as software synced and weapons went live. Kyria felt their gazes through eyes that weren’t hers. She felt the lips of another woman bare in a wolfish smile.
Finally one spoke, too smooth-faced for this mission. A boy in a flying tomb. “Captain, who are you talking to?”
“The milkrat rookie who’s getting the honor of experiencing my memories one day,” the Captain fired back. Kyria never once saw Shalexa Mercible’s face in her dream, though she knew it like her own. “You heard about the memory training?”
The sergeant beside Mercible snorted on cue. “Yeah, heard about the drooling test subjects and procedural inquiries. You just wanted an excuse to talk to yourself, Cap. Command will never push it past the experimental phase—”
“Mark my words, it’ll be standard ops,” Mercible interrupted. “And my memories will only go to the top of the class. Real keepers. You hear me, rookie?” Kyria felt Mercible’s gloved knuckles rap against her skull. “I want a personal invitation to every medallion ceremony you attend on Arcadia. All of my family sitting here with me, too—so remember their faces. Take care of us. Good seats.”
The boy’s eyebrows climbed. “You’re crazy, Cap!”
“Just now figuring that out?”
Mercible’s squadron laughed. Kyria despised the unfeigned fondness in their eyes—a dead woman did not deserve such loyalty. Mercible dropped her voice low, just for Kyria. “Don’t worry about them, milkrat. I’ll show you what it takes to be a leader. I’m gonna make you famous.”
One of their pilots twisted in his chair, the whites visible all around his dark eyes. “Seven birds to our left! We’re—”
The cockpit erupted in fire. Orange and blue flames licked over the squadron’s exoskeletons, setting uniforms alight and blackening their flesh beneath. Mercible screamed as her metal ident-tags seared her chest.
The dropship lurched, plunging into freefall. Mercible’s voice came to Kyria’s ears. “Report! Who—”
“Captain!” The kid’s shrill voice cut her off. Long flames curled over his thighs. He struggled against his seat restraints. “We’re breaking apart!”
“You stay in that seat!” Mercible bellowed.
The kid ignored her, panicked and blinded by smoke. Kyria watched helplessly though Mercible’s eyes as he pulled free of his seat restraints, slapped at the fire. The kid hooted as the flames winked out in a last howl of wind, flashing her a relieved smile. His face disintegrated as one last burst of Junn flak tore through the dropship.
The dead woman blacked out in the crash, but Kyria never did. All was still, for a little while.
“Kid?” Mercible asked. Nothing. She opened her eyes, grimly assessed her squadron. All dead, bodies shredded by flak or debris. “Looks like it’s just you and me, milkrat.” She looked down and whistled softly to herself. “Gotta take a stand somewhere, might as well be here. But this is gonna hurt, rookie.”
No. Please, Kyria thought. I can’t.
A contorted piece of steel hull girding pinned the Captain’s thigh just above the knee. Her left leg had twisted around so her heel jutted up where her toes should be.
“I know what you’re thinking, rookie,” Mercible said with a low laugh. “But it’s just flesh. It can be replaced. All a question of pain tolerance.”
Mercible grunted as she struggled to yank her Lance free of the nearby debris. The weapon hummed to life, its long blade vibrating dangerously. Kyria wanted to claw her eyes out, but the dream forced her to drink in every detail.
Mercible hissed as she set the Lance’s blade across her thigh. Blood bubbled and smoked where it touched the hot metal, boiling away from it. “Whatever you do…don’t die alone, rookie.” The captain spoke calmly through her gritted teeth. “Not while people are depending on you. Not like this. I forbid it.”
About the Author
DaVaun Sanders resides in Phoenix, Arizona. His short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, PodCastle, Broken Eye Books, Dancing Star Press, and the New York Times bestselling Black Boy Joy anthology. He currently serves as Executive Editor for the World Fantasy Award winning, British Fantasy Award winning and 3x Hugo Nominated FIYAH. His most recent editorial project includes Breathe FIYAH, a flash fiction anthology collaboration with Tor.com. He hopes to continue expanding his body of work in children’s fiction, for his own twins and kids everywhere who deserve to enjoy inclusive stories. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @davaunsanders.
About the Narrator
Laurice White is an actress, poet and mom currently residing in Michigan.