Perdition is under siege. Mercenaries have boarded the station with orders to take control of the facility—and execute the prisoners. Their commander is offering full pardons to the first five inmates willing to help the mercs complete their mission.
Dresdemona “Dred” Devos hasn’t survived hard time just to surrender to the Conglomerate’s armored thugs. Leading a ragtag army of inmates, Dred and her champion, Jael, wage a bloody guerilla war of chaos and carnage against impossible odds. But no matter how dire the outlook, the Dread Queen never backs down…
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Laser fire spattered the rusty floor like neon rain.
“What the hell—” Dred bit out, but there was no time for questions.
In ten seconds, she was fighting for her life. Along with Jael, Tameron, and Martine, she had come to wait for the supply ship. They’d been alerted as usual by the flicker of power just before lights out, so they’d hauled ass to the neutral zone in Shantytown to wait for provisions. Instead of bots unloading crates and barrels, a full squadron of armed men stormed out. She dove for cover, shouting at her people to stay low.
Why didn’t I bring the Peacemaker? But she hadn’t expected things to blow up like this. Some surprises couldn’t be foreseen.
The smell of scorched metal filled the air as Shantytown prisoners ran amok amid the blasts. Most weren’t sane to begin with, and it had been over two months since any provisions arrived. If the population hadn’t been thinned so dramatically through the war with Priest and Grigor, Queensland would have already been on the verge of starvation, even with the hydroponics garden and the tetchy Kitchen-mate. Dred could only imagine how bad things were here, with no rules or safety, just the law of tooth and claw.
Bodies dropped all around, and Dred crawled toward the corridor behind her. A few Shanty-men made it past the nose of the ship and attacked the helmeted squadron with ragged yellow nails and rusted bits of wall panel. Against full armor, they did no damage, and the soldiers picked them off with close-range shots. Their dying screams echoed in her head even as the assault gave her the necessary time to regroup.
“Fall back!” she shouted.
Martine snarled, but she could doubtless see how poor the odds were and how the Shanty-men were dying in droves. Along with Tam, she slid around the corner just behind Dred, while Jael covered their retreat. He swore as a shot sizzled against his back, but it didn’t stop him. With a snap glance over one shoulder, she checked on him; anyone else would be on the ground in shock. His jaw clenched, but he ran through the pain, dodging lightning bolts bouncing off the walls behind them.
An inhuman-sounding voice crackled through the speakers on the helmet. “Let them go. We have plenty to clean up here first. We’ll get them eventually.”
That’s what I’m worried about.
Dred sprinted until they reached Queensland; she didn’t explain the rush to the sentries. Once she composed herself and discussed the situation with her advisors, she’d send Martine to update the rest of the men. Until then, they could wonder why there were no supplies. She beckoned Tam, Martine, and Jael to her quarters, where they were assured of privacy. She waited until the door closed behind them, then she secured the lock.
I learned something from the clusterfuck with Wills.
As the relatively new ruler of Queensland—it had been less than a turn since she killed Artan and took his turf—Dred had trusted Wills, a madman with a gift for prognostication, without realizing he owed his primary allegiance to Silence. Their alliance was over now, and she knew she hadn’t finished her business with Death’s Handmaiden. For the time being, revenge had to wait. Once retribution had been her primary purpose, and it was the reason she’d ended up in Perdition. Time had taught Dred to be more judicious with her drive to violence.
“Report. Start with Tam.” He was a slight man with brown skin and a cunning mind. From what little she knew of him, he had a knack for politics, skilled at seeing hidden snares and schemes, as well as planning his own. Since the disaster with Wills, she didn’t trust him fully, but that applied to pretty much everyone in her inner circle. She didn’t need to explain that she wanted to hear his observations.
The spymaster answered, “At least fifty got out of that transport. There was no room for anything else in the cargo area.”
Martine added, “They all had multiple weapons, and their armor was top-notch. I doubt there’s a weapon on board that could scratch it.”
She was a small, dark-skinned woman with teeth filed to points to demonstrate how dangerous it was to mess with her. Though Dred hadn’t always gotten along with her, in the past few months the other woman had proven her loyalty, at least as much as anyone did in a place like this. Martine was tough, smart, and honest. Like most, she’d hated Artan, and she took it personally when a raid took her men from her. At first she’d thought Dred was a coward for not pushing back immediately. Now she seemed to understand the need to evaluate resources and plan strikes accordingly.
I’m not claiming territory I can’t defend.
“Apart from the turrets and the Peacemaker,” Jael put in. “The uniforms had no logo, no emblems, no identifying details of any kind. That means this is black ops.”
Jael was a former merc who was sent to Perdition because he was too dangerous to be allowed his freedom and too valuable to kill, mostly because he wasn’t human. He was Bred, the result of an off-the-books experiment. She didn’t know how many tank-borns had survived, but Jael acted like he was alone in the universe. Maybe he used to be. Not anymore.
Possibly she didn’t mind his difference because she had her own burden to carry. The first time she left the colony where she was born, her head nearly exploded with unwanted stimuli, a mad wash of deviant longings and murderous impulses she couldn’t rightly call a gift. Things only got worse from there, and her story ended in blood, wound round with chains. There’s a reason he and I are here. Dred controlled her empathy now, but the weight of it hadn’t lessened over the turns.
Of all of her people, she relied on Jael most, probably because they felt the same, though she was far from comfortable with the development, and Dred was ready for him to turn on her, as people usually did, but it would hurt if she had to put him down; she didn’t usually let people get that close.
Tam continued, “They also moved as a unit and were clearly taking orders from the one who called them back.”
“Mercs,” Martine guessed. “Highly paid if equipment is a gauge of earning power.”
“Then what the frag are they doing here?” Dred demanded.
Jael wore a somber look. “Cleaning up.”
Tam nodded. “That’s my assessment as well. They’ve been sent to purge the facility.”
She huffed out a breath, trying not to show how rocked she was by that conclusion. Things had been the same inside Perdition for turns now. Dred had no idea what political machinations had resulted in this new crisis, but they had to handle it. The worst part was, even if Queensland wiped out the first extermination crew, the Conglomerate had the budget to send more—more men with heavier weapons and deadlier tech. There was no telling what protocols were in place, however, or how long it would take before funds were skimmed and allotted to this kind of black op. It gave her limited ability to predict how much time they had between strike teams.
“The force fields never came up,” Martine said, looking thoughtful. “It didn’t register at the time, but usually when a supply ship docks, they lock the whole place down.”
Tam paced a few steps—for him, quite a sign of agitation. “No need. They had the manpower to keep us from stealing the ship and taking off.”
Jael wheeled and slammed a fist into the wall above Dred’s bunk. The motion revealed the charred wreckage of his ruined shirt, nothing but smooth skin beneath. She understood how his lack of scars plagued him, a reminder that he wasn’t human and never would be. In front of the others, she didn’t move to his side. Didn’t touch him. But her gaze lingered, silently asking, What’s wrong?
“I’ve been sent on search-and-destroy missions. You go, burn everything down. Usually, it’s because the territory’s in dispute and someone else wants to take possession.”
“They don’t want to use this as a prison anymore?” Martine wondered aloud.
Dred shrugged. “It’s probably getting expensive. They thought we’d kill each other off in a few turns, solve the problem without the Conglomerate’s needing to dirty its hands by reinstating the death penalty.”
Martine bared her sharp teeth. “But we beat the odds, huh? Carved out a little empire in here, so they’re gonna take it back.”
“Sod that,” Jael snarled.
Dred shook her head. “We’ll fight. I don’t know how much good it’ll do, but we know Perdition better than they do. Any schematics they brought are turns out of date.”
“Equipment cannot compensate for cunning,” Tam added.
She wanted to believe he was right, but based on the demolition squad wreaking havoc in Shantytown, his words might be bravado more than fact. “We won’t go out easy. If they let down their guard, we might get a closer look at the ship, see if escape’s an option.”
Tam nodded. “We should keep our plans fluid, but there’s no question we must defend. It’s the only way to survive.”
“Best defense is a strong offense,” Jael said.
Dred raised a brow. “Did you see the heat they were packing?” She turned to Martine. “I need you to delegate five runners to carry word to all the sentries. Tam, circulate among the men and explain things. Ike can help, pull him from tinkering with the Peacemaker. This takes priority.”
“What about me?” Jael asked.
“You’re coming with me. I didn’t see any of Katur’s people in Shantytown, so he won’t know what’s happened. I’m hoping for some cooperation in exchange for the news.”
“Good thinking. They might not be numerous in the Warren, but they’re more trustworthy than Silence or Mungo’s people.”
She grimaced; that wasn’t saying much. “Let’s move.”
The meeting broke up when she deactivated the electronic lock. Dred spied Calypso coming her way and dodged the questions by aiming Tam in the woman’s direction; the spymaster could prevaricate with the best of them. With Jael at her heels, Dred raced back through the barricades toward the air ducts. It wouldn’t take long before word spread among the Queenslanders, and she was relying on Tam and Ike to keep order.
Jael pressed ahead to scout. He gestured for her to move past him, and she went like a shadow, up the metal rungs and into the ducts. Jael pulled the panel shut after them, so nobody wandering close to their territory could easily see where they’d gone. From there it was a straight shot to the slope that led to the maintenance shafts. It was a long climb, and Katur’s watchman met them at the bottom; he’d probably smelled them coming long ago.
“Why are you here?” The small humanoid had a deep voice with a hint of a growl, even when he spoke universal. Their native tongue had more guttural sounds, impossible for humans to reproduce.
“I request an audience with Katur,” she said politely. “You can keep our weapons.”
It was a small courtesy that cost them nothing. Jael was just as dangerous without a shiv, but Katur’s people didn’t know that. The sentry stripped them of their arms, then moved off, after admonishing them to wait. “If you stir, I’ll know.”
“So will everyone else,” she murmured. A wrinkled muzzle and a flash of teeth met what she hadn’t intended as a joke.
Then the guard continued until he disappeared from sight. Jael propped himself against the wall nearby, but she knew it was for a better vantage of the ladder they’d come down. He seldom relaxed all the way; the former merc slept less than anyone she’d ever known, and even when he did, he never seemed to be completely out. A whisper or a stray movement had him on his feet in a heartbeat, ready to fight. While she appreciated his wariness, he wasn’t a restful bed partner.
“It doesn’t make sense,” she muttered, more to herself than him.
“If they’re tired of paying our upkeep, why not just blast the place?”
“They want to use the station for something else,” he said. “There’s no other reason to send in a cleaning crew.”
“They want to retrofit again. Clear out the undesirables.”
“And make the place turn a profit, if I had to guess. They might go back to refining minerals. Could also be an emergency station or a research facility for something too dangerous, unethical, or risky to be approved dirtside.”
“The laws are smokier out here,” she said slowly.
“Precisely, love. Whatever they want to use the place for, I guarantee it’s not shiny or clean. Or the squad they sent would be sporting the Conglomerate logo.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better.”
“It wasn’t supposed to.” He offered a smile with razored edges and dark echoes. “They’re in full assault gear. Nothing short of heavy weapons will penetrate. It’s equivalent to durasteel but lighter and more flexible.”
“Durasteel like the blast doors.”
We have homemade blades and spears.
Before she could respond, Katur’s guard returned. “He will see you. Briefly.”
“Thank you for the courtesy.” Tam had hammered it into her head that she had to treat each petty despot in here like a foreign dignitary even if she thought it was bullshit.
Dred had to admit, though, that Katur was the least insane of the lot, possibly including herself. But most of his people had been tossed in Perdition not for capital crimes, but for being nonhumans during a time unwelcoming to immigrants. So they had a better, saner group to build with, and their leader was the best of them.
Katur waited in a small room that still smelled faintly of machine oil. Once, this sublevel had been used for maintenance. These days, it was home to the aliens on board, but he kept strangers away from the rest of his people. Dred respected that caution. His mate, Keelah, was nowhere to be seen. The alien leader was short by human standards, with brindled brown fur and amber eyes, and he wore a shrewd expression as he studied them.
She recalled enough of Tam’s lessons to say, “I greet you in peace.”
“Likewise.” Katur didn’t ask about her errand.
“I’ll make this quick since I need to get back to Queensland. The supply ship that just docked brought only soldiers. They’re here to wipe us out.”
Katur regarded her for two beats. “Why do you tell me this?”
“So you can make plans and aren’t surprised by the heavily armed invaders above.”
“Information is valuable. It seems unlikely that you’ve come out of kindness.” His quiet tone said that humans rarely did anything from that motivation.
Sadly, Dred’s experience dovetailed with Katur’s. “I don’t expect anything as formal as an alliance, but it might make things easier if we both rescinded our kill-on-sight policy—with regard to the other’s personnel. It’s about to get violent up in here.”
“As opposed to the peace and prosperity we have enjoyed until now.” The gentle irony in Katur’s voice prodded a smile out of Dred.
“You make a good point.”
Katur went on, “There’s no question how you’ll recognize my people, should they pass through your territory. But all humans look alike to us.”
Jael smothered a chuckle, and she nudged him with an elbow. “You just enjoy saying that. Regardless of how we look, we don’t smell like Silence’s or Mungo’s crew. We bathe occasionally in Queensland.”
“Very well. The safety of your soldiers depends on their hygiene, then.” That seemed to amuse Katur.
“I’ll let them know,” she said dryly.
“If you’ll pardon me, I need to send scouts to verify what you’ve told me.” The alien didn’t reveal fear if he felt any. Maybe Perdition had burned it out of him.
“Thanks for your time.”
“Thank you for the forewarning.”
Dred dipped a shallow bow in response and followed the guard back to the ladder where they’d dropped down. As she climbed, she strained for the sound of laser fire but came up with only the normal groaning and banging of the ducts. Other machinery nearby made it tough to hear anything, so she wouldn’t know if there was fighting on the deck above. Mentally, she mapped what she knew of the station.
They’ll cross into Mungo’s turf first. With any luck, his men will engage. She had no clear intel on what kind of offensive or defensive capabilities Munya could bring to bear, but they were numerous enough to slow the mercs down. She hoped. Silence’s people worked best in the dark, but they would find it impossible to take out their targets through so much armor. Death’s Handmaiden would have to find a workaround.
That will buy us some time.
In her mind’s eye, she saw laser fire threshing the Shanty-men like wheat while the soldiers stood untouched in the armor. It reminded her of period vids she’d watched as a kid, about the dark time before humans were “civilized” and they stopped wiping out primitive people from Class P worlds with advanced weaponry. Even as a child, she’d known it was wrong, but she never considered how those people must’ve felt: how fear and futility came on, so powerful as to shatter the spirit. At what point do you buckle and say, no more? This, I cannot fight. In the vids, the doomed, noble tribe fought to the last man, then the wheels of progress rolled over him, and the credits began.
Dred didn’t equate the plight of those inside Perdition with Class P sufferings, of course. Nobody here was innocent. But it was human nature to survive.
Once she swung out of the hole in the wall and down onto the ground, she glanced up at Jael. “What can we do to upgrade our defenses quickly?”
“You want my help, love?”
Though she might find it hard to speak the words with anyone else around, she said, “I need it. You’re the only one with any tactical experience. The rest of us are just criminals.”
His blue gaze locked with hers. “You’re not just anything. But yeah, I’ve a few notions. I could use Ike’s help and a crack at the parts we got as victory spoils.”
“Whatever you need,” she said grimly. “I have the feeling hell just got worse. And that shouldn’t even be possible.”
The supply closet was dark and jumbled with gears, wires, scrap metal, and lengths of pipe. Ike had some kind of organizational system with items sorted according to what could be built from each piece. Jael skimmed the makeshift shelves, narrowing his eyes to read the faded scraps of label at the bottom of each pile. Overhead, the single light flickered; when it gave up, there might not be another to replace it. He breathed in the scent of oil, dust, and the tang of hot metal, trying to focus on the blurry memory struggling to surface.
Ike interrupted his abstraction. “Something you need, son?”
“Are you busy?” Jael asked.
As usual, the old man was wrist deep in Peacemaker mechanical bits. He shook his head, wiping a hand across his brow, leaving a dark smear. “No more than usual.”
“Have you heard?”
“That we have a new crop of killers among us? Yes indeed. I gather Dred wants us to tighten up security as much as possible?”
“That’s the goal.”
Ike nodded, wiped his palms on already stained trousers, and said, “Lead the way. I’m right behind you.”
Out of necessity, Jael did the heavy lifting when they raided the parts store. Ike advised him on what would be most useful, and he loaded up. Then he headed for the first checkpoint. Jael dropped the parts and sorted through them with confident hands. Ike stood by with a weary expression. Lately, the old man had been moving with the stiffness of one who had aches and pains that defied classification. He hated the thought of seeing a man he respected just wither away, but there was no medical help available. Infuriating, when the outside world could fix Ike up right and proper.
His expression must’ve given him away because Ike said, “There’s no cure for what ails me.”
“Rejuvenex.” That was an expensive antiaging treatment. Not everyone could afford it, but those who could often extended their life spans by close to a hundred turns.
Might be more, now. Jael wasn’t exactly up to speed on the latest innovations.
“Not in here.”
He was right, so no point in arguing. Jael put together the parts as fast as he could; there was a lot of ground to cover and no telling how much time. He’d built things like this before, when the outcome mattered less. But that was Perdition. Every day was life or death.
“Trip line, attached to a junk bomb?” Ike asked.
“Yep. Best I can do with what we’ve got.”
“Some of that shrapnel might make it through the armor.”
“I hope so. They’ve got the munitions to take out our Peacemaker.”
“The turrets would probably cut through, too, if we could keep them pinned down long enough.”
“Unlikely, unless we built blockades.”
Ike looked thoughtful. “We could do it, but it would restrict our ability to leave Queensland.”
“We might be trapped for the duration anyway.”
The challenge came in the form of open corridors. Eventually, he secured the trip line close to the ground and peeled back the wall panel to hide the makeshift mine. With luck, the enemy wouldn’t expect convicts to be so prepared, but if their unit cohesion was anything to judge by, they wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
Still, if I can slow them down, that gives us more time to get ready.
“If you can spare me, I’ll gather some of the big guys to haul junk.”
Jael nodded. “We want them forced into proximity with the turrets as long as possible. We should build the barricades on this side. If they try to push past or climb them, the turrets will spin and catch them in the back.”
“And pound them all the way down the corridor, until the first bend,” Ike noted.
“That’s the best we can do. Go. I can work and keep watch.” He was fast enough to make it feasible.
When he wrapped up, Ike still wasn’t back, so he moved on, installing the same security measures near each checkpoint. The sentries watched him, but they didn’t try to interfere. His status as the Dread Queen’s champion was secure, even more so with Einar gone. Crazy as it sounded, he missed the big man. Mercs in his unit had died before, but Jael had never minded. To him, people were a fungible resource, one easily interchanged for another. Until Perdition.
As he reached the third guard post, electronic feedback echoed from a sound system he hadn’t even known was still functional. Doubtless it dated from back when Monsanto ran this place. The speakers popped as someone’s helmet voice-software package synced with the ancient equipment.
“This is Commander Vost. I am now in charge of this facility. I’ve been granted authority to issue pardons to a select few, those who make themselves . . . useful. I’ve already seen that my schematics are outdated, based on certain renovations you’ve undertaken. If you want a Conglomerate pardon, the path is simple, and I have room on my ship. Help me clean this place up and be among the last five convicts standing.”
“Mother Mary,” he breathed.
It was an evil genius of a plan. Set the convicts to eliminate each other. When they whittled the number down to five, the mercs would mop them up. Jael wasn’t gullible enough to fall for the promise of safe passage and a pardon, but he’d bet that a vast number of maniacs were. Hell, most of these guys liked killing. They were good at it. This was just an excuse to turn on each other.
Footsteps, along with the clink of Dred’s chains, alerted him to her presence before she spoke. She wore metal links wrapped around her forearms, protection from enemy strikes and a potential weapon rolled into one. “It’s going to be a bloodbath.”
“Can you keep your people from turning on each other?”
“Don’t know,” she said tiredly. “The promise of freedom is . . . diabolical.”
“I like my plan better. We kill the mercs and steal their ship.”
“There’s a lot of death between those points.”
She cautioned, “We don’t know if it’ll be possible with all of the mercs dead. We’ll need launch codes most likely, and I doubt Vost will keep them on a handheld in his pocket for our convenience.”
“Maybe Tam can hack the system.”
“Maybe.” But she didn’t sound too hopeful.
“Hand me that line.” No point in wasting time. The other zones might’ve already devolved into a frenzy of violence, but he didn’t hear any chaos in Queensland.
She did as he bade her, a good assistant. Dred folded down beside him, her knees jutting like the wings of a large and flightless bird. It was odd for him to think of her like that because she was so much predatory grace, wrapped in skin and bone, but she was also awkward angles and the tired slope of a spine that had no more steel in it. Briefly, he touched her shoulder because comfort was a foreign country to him. Then he got on with the business of mining their hallways.
“This next?” She proved she knew a little about bombs when she anticipated the part.
He nodded and installed it. With her help, the cache went together much faster than the others. Just before they left, Ike arrived with a team of muscle, all bearing junk that wouldn’t be missed. It wasn’t heavy enough to keep the mercs from shoving it down, but the onslaught from the turrets would soften them up before they did.
“Is the promise of pardons true?” a big Queenslander whispered to another.
The short one snorted. “You think that asshole’ll stand by his word? When did anyone ever keep a promise to you?”
“You got a point.”
Jael felt like a crisis had been averted. It was one thing to build barriers to keep the enemy out, another to find an adversary nearby, intending to cut his throat while he slept. A lifetime of expecting a dagger in the back had taught him to strike quick and hard, but Queensland would turn into a charnel house if that happened here. He’d be lucky to cut his way out and find a safe place to ride out the dying.
He set to work alongside the others, fitting debris in place like puzzle pieces. Too much heavy stuff on top, and the pile toppled. Soon, they blocked the passage, which made him feel trapped and claustrophobic, an uncomfortable flashback to his time in the Bug prison on Ithiss-Tor, when his whole world was bounded by an eight-by-eight hole in the wall. Perdition was big enough that he hadn’t started to terror sweat yet, but now that they were closing Queensland off from the rest of the facility, the boundaries were shrinking. But he couldn’t focus on weakness when there was more work to be done. Hours later, the territory was defended as well as he could manage, given limited supplies and time. The lights in this last corridor were malfunctioning, flickering, so that it gave the dirty hallway a derelict air. It was easy to imagine this place totally empty and himself as a ghost haunting it.
That’d be my luck, huh? I die, and I still can’t get out of here.
Jael was careful not to reveal his uncertainty to Dred. She might have less use for him if she realized how much of a bubbling mess his brain was. Darkness and echoes and half-strangled memories from his time in the tank—and sometimes a voice in his head whispered that he was, in fact, a monster, so he might as well stop fighting it. Grim determination was sometimes all that kept him moving forward, along with the resolve to prove his creators wrong. I won’t come to nothing. I won’t die in here.
Dred came to check the fortifications as he turned back toward the common area. She paced around, inspecting the work, and he pulled her in for a kiss. To his surprise, she didn’t stop him. He fell into her like a river of cool, clean water. Her mouth was soft and smooth, a panacea for the chains rattling in his head. Ironic, when she wore them around wrist and ankle. The metal felt cold and hard against his back when she put her arms around him.
“Don’t do that in front of the men,” she said quietly.
“You ashamed of me, love?”
“No. But it’s not their business, and I don’t want them wanking to it later.”
“Hadn’t thought of that. My prior incarceration didn’t lend itself to such dilemmas.” In the Bug prison, he had been the only humanoid, and while he ought to be used to being the only one of his kind, he never got used to the inhuman chatter echoing through the caves. “So what’s the next phase of our strategy?”
He half expected her to pull away, but instead she put a hand over his heart. Nobody had ever done that before, as if she drew comfort from feeling the steady, reassuring beat. He almost made a joke about the thing being impossible to stop, but the sober look in her eyes kept him from it. Jael never imagined that he’d care whether somebody else felt like shit.
But he did.
She breathed out. “Not a fragging clue. Holing up feels like a delaying tactic at best, like we’re just hiding and waiting to die. I’m not going out like that, so I need to work something out.”
“Now you’re talking.” He barely managed to choke back some bullshit about the fight not being over until the last man’s down. What the hell’s wrong with you? If he didn’t know better, he’d call it a brain infection.
“Supply run,” she said, as if she’d been thinking while he studied her face. “We left things hidden in Grigor’s and Priest’s territories, thinking there was no rush on the hauling. But we might well need it now.”
Jael nodded. “I’ll assemble the others. Who do you want to take with us?”
She thought for a few seconds. “Tam and Martine.”
“He needs to stay and keep order. The men respect him.”
That sounded like a good plan, so Jael let go of her and stepped back. “Then what’re we waiting for, queenie? Rally the troops.”
Once Dred gave all the orders, she went to find Ike to make a special request. “Is it all right if we borrow RC-17?” That was a boxy maintenance bot Ike had reprogrammed to do recon and help them bypass certain ship defenses. The droid’s sensors might come in handy if the situation got dicey.
In answer, the old man turned the unit’s remote over to Dred. “Be careful out there.”
“Make sure this place is in one piece when I get back.” She tapped the command button, and the unit circled her feet in response.
Ike rubbed his whiskered chin, wearing a wry expression. “Given what’s going on, I make no promises.”
She smiled as he intended and stripped off her chains. The skin of her forearms bore pebbled imprints from the metal; she shook her arms once, twice, getting used to the new lightness, then she bent to unwind them from her boots. It had been so long since she’d done so that she was surprised to see that the thin leather had faded in a pattern that matched the dents on her arms. Dred rubbed her fingers over her inner wrist, tracing the thorn-tree tattoo that wound up past her elbow. It was a delicate design, all black ink and pale skin—the only one she’d had done before she was sent to Perdition. The ancient symbolism had spoken to her, even then. According to the oldest tales, the thorn tree represented strife and challenges—with the promise of strength for those who overcame the odds.
The old man stared at the circling bot for a few seconds, then glanced back up at her. “Two men were on the road together when they met a monster in the wilderness. One of them shoved the other down and scrambled up a tree. The second man lay there, terrified, and the beast came up to snuffle over him while the traveler held his breath and played dead. Surprisingly, that worked, and the monster went away, uninterested in carrion. When the other man dropped out of the tree, his former comrade killed him. Do you have any idea why?”
“Because he’d proven he’d turn at the first sign of trouble, and it was the wise man who knew to strike first.” Dred couldn’t remember where, but she’d heard some version of that parable before. “Is there some reason you’re telling me this now?”
“Don’t lean on anyone too hard,” Ike said quietly.
“Is this about Tam again? Or Jael?”
“It’s about no one in particular . . . and every man in the place.”
“Not you,” she said.
Tiredly, the old man shook his head. “Under the right weight, I’ll buckle.”
“Noted. Thank you for the story.”
She signaled to Tam, Jael, and Martine, who were waiting near the center of the common room, and they joined her at a jog. The halls were eerily silent beyond the new barricades. Dred tilted her head, listening, and she didn’t hear the usual scrabble of claws from the oversized rats that lived in the bowels of the station. She’d heard that the aliens hunted them for food, but they were tricky to catch and big enough to take on a normal-sized humanoid when they attacked as a pack. More than anything else, their complete absence reinforced how serious the situation was. If the rodents had gone to ground, the mercs must be shooting up the place.
As if she shared Dred’s concern, Martine muttered, “Wish we knew where those fucking mercs are.”
“You’re not alone.” Tam slipped to the front of the group and headed off to scout.
“I’ll go with you,” Dred said.
Since she’d discarded her chains, she should be able to keep up, and Dred needed to keep her finger on the pulse of what went on in Perdition. While Jael shot her a look she found impossible to interpret, Tam only nodded. Soon they left the others behind, a deep sort of silence between them, born of shared trials and tragedies. Before Einar’s death, she might’ve hesitated to call Tam a friend, but he was definitely more than an advisor.
The spymaster boosted into the ducts with her close behind and set a silent course to the nearest major intersection. Dred didn’t hear the tromp of heavy boots that would indicate mercs but the smell—there was no nearby grille panel for visual confirmation, yet Dred was sure a large group of Mungo’s men were moving nearby. Tam signaled a few things and she recalled enough from working with soldiers of fortune to understand he was indicating forty men, heading west. Away from Queensland.
She flashed her hands four times to confirm the number, and he nodded. Not a threat we need to worry about today, at least. Dred lifted her chin to indicate she got it, then Tam continued deeper into enemy territory. As they passed a duct panel, she glimpsed Silence’s killers clad in black, moving like ghosts below. All of them had their garrotes out, which meant they planned to do some killing.
“They’re headed for the Warren,” Tam whispered.
Too bad for Katur and company, but Silence’s choice of first strike gave Dred some room to maneuver. She experienced a pang of regret at reacting that way, but survival didn’t offer the liberty of altruistic gestures. In here, it’s us or them. Maybe, if she played her hand close to the vest, Queensland wouldn’t be annihilated by the mercs. It was also possible that Katur would play a long game of cat and mouse, forcing Silence to a frustrated retreat. Nobody knew the bowels of the ship like the aliens.
“Nothing that will hinder us much,” she said softly. “Let’s go back to the others.”
“Agreed.” In private, he didn’t use the faintly ironic “my queen” that he favored in front of other Queenslanders.
The return journey went much faster, now that they knew what to expect. Martine and Jael seemed edgy, though that might’ve been because their location had been more exposed. Jael paced forward three steps when he spotted Dred. She shook her head slightly; whatever he had to say could wait. Seeming oblivious to undertone, though doubtless that was only the impression he wished to give, Tam made a brief report of what they’d found.
Martine was frowning. “Can we circle around?”
Tam nodded. “It’ll take longer, but yes. This way.”
Farther on, Dred heard the distant echo of combat, but Tam veered away. Good call; she preferred not to waste time and resources on internal conflict when the mercs posed the greatest threat. If the other factions weren’t completely psychotic, they’d see that themselves.
Both Jael and Martine were light on their feet. This time, if they were forced to fight, she’d opt for knives. Better if they weren’t, however, at least until they had the cache.
The walls were gunmetal gray, etched with scars and encrusted with turns of grime. There hadn’t been a sanitation staff since long before convicts took over the place. Ike had told her that drones like RC-17 were responsible for the cleaning, and some spots, the bots just couldn’t reach. Turns of neglect had made it worse. Bulbs had burned out and not been replaced, so there were patches of shadow, loose wires dangling from broken ceiling hatches.
Tam’s path took them through the neutral zone, down two levels, and out the other side. The smell alone told her they were getting close to what had been Grigor’s territory. Farther on, blood smeared the walls, remnants of the battle where most of his brutes died. It had taken days to haul away the bodies.
“Left at the next turn,” she said.
She sent RC-17 in to make sure no squatters had taken possession of the area, then she led her crew along to where the hallway widened into a great room. Through there and deeper in the zone, they’d hidden several crates. The stillness was making her nervous, so she quickened her step, not pausing until she opened the supply-room doors. Rubbish and empty containers were piled up in front, disguising the treasures hidden deeper within.
“Grab as much as you can carry,” Dred said.
The hover dolly would’ve made this job easier, but it also would’ve been harder to maneuver, and it would’ve invited notice. Better to use manual labor and get it done the old-fashioned way. She and Tam scrutinized the supplies while Martine perched atop a box, reclining like a cat.
“Food first,” Tam suggested.
“That’s a genius idea.” Martine was smirking. “Are you sure nuts and bolts aren’t more important? If this death trap falls apart, we’ll choke faster than we starve.”
His dark eyes flashed at her. Dred left them bickering amicably as she prowled through the salvage. Once she designated the crates that needed to be moved right away, Jael piled four boxes in his arms, and she pretended she didn’t realize he was showing off. She and Martine took two each, as did Tam.
“RC-17 can scout for us on the way back,” Tam said.
“Agreed.” She deployed the bot and let it scurry around corners.
It was programmed to beep in sequence, then speak an alert message if it encountered other life-forms. In here, it was best to assume they were hostile and respond accordingly. She moved cautiously behind the bot while they retraced their steps.
“Hard to believe this place was full of people, not that long ago,” Martine said.
“Life is change.” Jael wore his customary insouciant expression, the one that suggested he had no deeper feelings.
That look was a liar.
Dred drew him aside while Tam and Martine argued over the next supply priority. “What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing, queenie. What makes you think otherwise?” The flat tone gave away more than he intended.
I know you better than that now.
“Don’t lie to me,” she said.
He pushed out a breath, his blue eyes unusually dark. “I’m thinking about Einar, all right? He was a bastard and a murderer or he wouldn’t have been here, but I’ve not had so many friends in my life that I can just shrug him off.”
“I know what you mean.” She wanted to put a hand on his arm or run her fingers through his hair. That longing became a spike in her chest, but she didn’t act on it. “I feel like I let him down.”
“Me too,” he whispered.
Before she could respond, Jael whirled in response to the RC-17 unit’s beeping wildly. “Organics detected. Unauthorized personnel.”
“Boxes down,” Dred ordered. “Looks like we get to fight.”
Martine dropped her burden and popped her neck on each side. “And to think I was afraid this would be boring.”
“Since when?” Jael asked. “There’s always the threat of imminent violence. That’s why we vacation here.”
Please don’t let them be mercs. We’re not ready to take on an armored unit.
Dred felt naked without her chains, but she swung around the corner with a blade in each hand. She was relieved to see four of Silence’s killers, even odds. These men were dressed in black from head to toe, blood-whorl patterns on their forearms and their faces made up like skulls. Possibly they had broken off from the larger group and been sent on some dark errand.
A hunting party. Time to make them prey.
Like all of Silence’s crew, this lot didn’t speak. There were no growls of rage, no threats; the enemies just readied their weapons. Each one of them faced off against an opponent, though Dred knew from prior experience that Jael could’ve taken all four by himself. But she didn’t like revealing his inhuman prowess, even to her inner circle. If anyone else figured out his healing trick, they’d cut him open just to watch him seal the wound. Queensland still had its share of sadistic bastards. In a place like Perdition, it couldn’t be otherwise.
Dred’s opponent was tall and gaunt with a spidery quality to his limbs. His long face, painted like a skull, along with yellowed eyes, gave him the look of a man who was already dead. As they circled, he flashed her a glimpse of his tongueless mouth, likely to intimidate her with his commitment to Silence’s madness; his tongue had been severed at the base, so there was only a pink scar at the back. Revulsion did creep down her spine like scuttling, segmented legs, but she didn’t let it affect her determination to kill the bastard.
When he lunged at her, she spun to the side, nearly slamming into Martine, who aimed a scowl at her. Dred was better with her chains than close-up with knives; she knew better than to let the man grapple. He had better reach, and Silence’s crew was fast with their garrotes. He could slice clean through her throat if she gave him an opening.
She lashed out, first with her right hand, then her left, but he blocked both strikes. He nearly snagged her wrist, but she twisted out of the attempted hold and came out with her knife still in her hand. You’ve gotten sloppy, relied on the chains too much. Dred tried to remember old techniques and circled her knives so he’d be watching those instead of her feet. When she was sure he was waiting for a blade strike, she kicked him in the crotch. Silence’s men still had testicles apparently; he flinched enough to give her an opening and she slashed a line across his throat. The skin peeled back in a wet red bubble, then he toppled.
Martine and Jael had already dropped theirs, but Tam was still working. He said without turning, “Feel free to wade in. We need to get those supplies back.”
Jael ended the fight with a closed-fist blow to the man’s temple. He didn’t look strong enough for that to be a one-shot kill, but the enemy dropped like a stone. Martine regarded him with a speculative expression, gaze skimming down his lean frame, taking in the ropy musculature and the deceptive breadth of his biceps.
“Secret technique?” she asked with a raised brow.
Dred wasn’t sure if the other woman could be trusted, but her options for lieutenants had shrunk with all the dying, plus Wills’s betrayal after the massacre on Grigor’s turf. The fact that they’d won in the end didn’t change how many men she’d lost, and there would be no reinforcements. She was watching Martine, for sure, but she couldn’t afford to cut her out of the loop. The woman was fierce and ruthless, and she wasn’t psychotic, which was more than could be said for most of Perdition’s inmates.
“I studied for decades with a bunch of monks,” Jael said, straight-faced.
“I’m sure. Because our people are known for discipline.”
“Our people?” Tam asked.
“Convicts. The lawfully challenged, if you prefer.”
Jael laughed. “Lawfully challenged. I like that.”
Dred interrupted, “The longer we stand here, the likelier it is we run into more trouble. Let’s get these supplies back to Queensland before they decide we’ve abandoned the place, and Ike’s facing a revolt.”
“You think that could happen?” Martine wanted to know.
Dred shrugged. “In here? Probably. We need to be there, reminding the men that they can’t believe that merc’s promises. Otherwise . . .”
“It would be a massacre,” Tam predicted.
She couldn’t look directly at the threat of complete eradication without the shakes setting in. Though Tam had built the mythos of the Dread Queen, she wasn’t a leader and never had been. Outside, she had been a solitary killer, a vigilante who hunted in the shadows. And she didn’t know if she had the strength to hold Queensland together.
Not through this. But I don’t know how to give up, either.
Queensland was in an uproar when they got back. Long before they reached the first checkpoint, Jael made out shouting voices, arguments raging in multiple corridors. Too much to hope that they’re all clever lads. Though a few of the big brutes who had built the barricades might’ve seen through the empty promises, others weren’t so savvy. If this rot runs too deep, we’ll have to cut our losses and run. But Jael understood well enough that it would be the same as admitting defeat. While a smaller group might be able to hide longer, they’d have even less chance at taking out Vost’s crew.
Dred wore a thunderous scowl as the sentry stopped them though they were obviously laden down with provisions. “Is what the merc said true? People have been saying it might not be a bad idea—”
“If you fight us,” Dred cut in, “then you stop being a Queenslander. You can go join Mungo or Silence. They’d kill their own because an outsider said to. We don’t.”
“Artan did,” the man muttered.
“And he’s dead now. Maybe you want me to end you, too.” Dred took a step closer, and even without her chains, she was both terrifying and beautiful. She pulled a blade from her thigh sheath and set it gently to his throat. “Just say the word.”
Dred flicked her wrist, and a pinprick of red appeared on the man’s throat. Neither Jael nor Tam would dream of intervening. For her part, Martine looked downright eager.
The guard gulped and dropped his eyes. “No. Sorry. I’ll man my post.”
“See that you do,” she said.
They pushed past with the supplies, then had to pass them across the barricades; the debris was piled nearly to the ceiling, with just a meter or so clearance, barely enough space for the crates. The last two containers, Jael shoved from the other side until the carton left scrapes on the ceiling.
“Put your back into it,” Martine teased.
He leaned to the side to give her a look. “I shove any harder, and I’ll pull off the ceiling panels.”
She grinned back. “Men always overestimate their abilities.”
Tam, Martine, and Dred wrenched hard from the inside, and centimeter by centimeter, the boxes shifted. At last they had the goods on the right side of the blockade, where their people could use them. A pang went through him. What the hell. When did I start thinking of this flotsam as mine? But he felt protective of this place even though it was a cesspool, maybe because of Dred. Her inner circle took their cues from her, treating him like a person, like he was worth something. This was the last place where he should trust anyone; intellectually he knew that. She’d probably kill him if it came down to his life or hers, but the hard facts no longer felt quite so incontrovertible.
“Where should we put this stuff?” Martine asked.
Good question, since with the bitching he heard in all corners, looting might be a problem. Dred looked thoughtful as Tam answered, “I know of a storeroom where the electronic lock still works.”
“Nobody can hack it?” Jael asked.
“Unlikely,” Martine said. “It would require high-tech equipment to bypass. It’s not like an analog lock you can open with picks.” At their collective stare, she added, “What? I had a life before I ended up in here.”
Dred grinned. “Sounds like an interesting one.”
“I did all right.”
“Did the teeth come before or after?” Jael wondered aloud.
He expected the woman to threaten to bite him, but apparently she considered him enough of a friend to answer. “I filed them my first week in. Men were less interested in trying to rape me when word got around that I bite the penis off anybody who touches without permission.”
“I take it you did that at least once, to prove a point?”
She smiled. It was impressive. And startling. “Doesn’t taste like chicken.”
Tam was regarding her with new interest. “We must get better acquainted.”
“You serious?” Martine seemed surprised, but Jael heard the pleased skitter of her pulse. Tam had never shown interest in anyone that Jael had noticed—of any gender or species. Until now.
“What was it, the biting? Don’t worry, I don’t have to chew all the way through.”
“I feel like we should leave these two alone,” Dred said.
Jael nodded. “Likewise. You stay with the goods. Dred and I will make two trips, then you can lock up, Tam. Sound good?”
Ordinarily, the spymaster would help with the hauling, but he seemed quite distracted by Martine. Right, then. Since the other two didn’t answer, Jael followed Dred down the hall to the storeroom. The low murmur of conversation started as soon as he stepped away; he could’ve eavesdropped, had he been so inclined, but there was no reason to spy on a personal exchange though he’d done it as part of a contract more than once.
“So that was interesting.”
“I’d wondered what rang his bell,” Dred said.
“Now we know. Do you think we should leave them alone for a while?” Jael spoke in a light tone, hoping the nascent spark between Tam and Martine would distract her, even for a little while.
Her smile was fleeting, and it revealed how troubled she was. “No time.”
The door swooshed open at her approach. Looks like the motion detectors are still working. She slid into the room and carried her crates to the back wall before setting them down gently. Her careful restraint, so obviously a sign that she was holding on to her composure by her fingernails, made him feel . . . something, but damned if he knew what to call it. Tension rode low in his stomach, like he wanted to pull her close for a few seconds, but she wouldn’t stand for it, even if he wouldn’t feel like an arse doing it. They didn’t have that sort of relationship, and he didn’t even know if he wanted it. Each step closer to her made him feel like he was walking on razor blades with a pit of spikes below.
“Let’s get the second load.”
The next trip went quicker, as Dred seemed driven, like someone would steal the supplies if she didn’t get them locked up fast enough. Hell, maybe she’s right. Tam and Martine were talking earnestly, though the woman wore a pert smile. For his part, Tam showed more animation than Jael had witnessed from him previously, and his heartbeat was a little fast. Jael stopped himself from checking for other signs of interest.
Not my business.
Martine turned at their final approach. “You ready?”
Dred nodded. “Lock it down, Tam.”
Jael expected that she’d leave them to it, but Dred supervised the securing of the storeroom. He tracked her eyes as she memorized the code. The door swished shut, and her shoulders relaxed. Tam stepped back, wearing a satisfied expression.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Perdition
“Definitely a must for fans of Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series or Joss Whedon’s Firefly.”—Vampire Book Club
“Thought-provoking and gripping.”—The Book Pushers
“Aguirre revisits the classic idea of survival within an anarchic, violent society, offering protagonists whose moral gray contrasts with the stygian dark of those around them. Sirantha Jax fans may be intrigued to see what befell Jael after his ill-considered actions there, and new lead Dred is a strong linchpin for a promising new series.”—Publishers Weekly