Mars Xi is a living weapon, a genetically-manipulated psychic supersoldier with a body count in the thousands, and all she wanted was to be left alone. People who get involved with her get hurt, whether by MEPHISTO, by her psychic backlash, or by her acid tongue. It's not smart to get involved with Mars, but that doesn't stop some people from trying.
The last time MEPHISTO came for Mars they took one of her friends with them. That was a mistake. A force hasn't been invented that can stop a voidwitch on a rampage, and Mars won't rest until she's settled her debts.
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The pain is sharp, like needles pricking the flesh of my thigh. I push Ocho down firmly, forcing my cat-thing familiar to lie in my lap and stop kneading me. I scratch behind her ear and within seconds she's purring.
"Alright, Pale; let's try that again."
The boy nods, somber look on his face like this might be life or death. Maybe one day it will be, but right now it's just me throwing chunks of plastic at him.
I take a cube of plastic for the fabricator and toss it fast at Pale's belly. He sweeps his arm and forms a psychic barrier, knocking the block into the wall.
"Good," I say.
I'm cross-legged on the floor with Ocho; Pale stands at the far end of the room. The scars that wreath his skull have started to fade — the white lines barely visible against his white skin. I keep his head shaved, because if he can get a grip on the hairs he pulls them out. I guess it's a stress response, and I can't really blame the kid for being messed up after four years sealed in a metal box. MEPHISTO couldn't trust the psychic boys with autonomy, so they kept them catatonic and ran a surge of current through them to produce psychic blasts on command.
He's looking better than he did when I pulled him out of that weapon platform, but he's still too skinny, his power still lacking in nuance.
I throw another cube, faster and a bit higher, and he knocks it to the other side of the room with a grunt, moving his left hand this time to direct his power.
I'm trying to teach him some of the things the MEPHISTO doctors drilled into me when I was a child: controlling psychic intent through physical movement and vocalization, and using your abilities for defense as well as attack. I'm leaving out the bits where they isolated us from friends and family, starved us and experimented on us, the hypnotic commands, the mind games ...
"Here's an easy one," I say, but pelt the plastic at his face as hard as I can.
Pale flinches, squeals, and instead of forming a barrier he reverts to the kid in the box, responding to stimulus with violence. His attack sends the cube rocketing over my head, but I ignore it and neutralize the blast itself, catching it and crushing it down to a vibration in the bones of my hand. He's already put a couple of dents in the walls of the Mouse — don't need him adding any more. The cube bounces off the wall behind me and hits the ground with a loud clatter. The noise scares Ocho out of my lap, and she leaves fresh punctures in my skin.
"Fuck," I whisper, and Pale starts crying. "No, not you," I say, then I stand and go over to the boy, resting a hand on his shoulder. "Don't worry about it, okay?"
He throws his arms around my waist and I pat him on the head while he sniffles.
"Mars?" Waren's artificial voice comes from the speakers hidden somewhere overhead. Technically the Mouse is his ship, but the AI acts like I'm in charge, even though — or maybe because — I let him go untethered.
"Squid would like to see you aboard the Nova."
"Tell them I'll be right over." I make a kiss sound and Ocho runs up my body and deposits herself on my shoulder. "You want to come with me?" I ask Pale.
"Okay," he whispers. He releases my waist, wipes his nose on the sleeve of his shirt, and clasps onto my hand, smiling.
He's a sweet kid, but it's still weird having someone that looks up to me, that wants to be around me. Then again, we are cut from the same cloth, and we've got the matching skull scars to prove it.
I walk to the air lock with my two charges and open both doors, revealing the largely empty cargo hold of the Nova.
The Nova is a crusher and tug, the sole ship in Squid's scavenging business; though they haven't really had much time to scavenge since I came along. Sorry, Squid.
"Einri?" I say loudly, my voice echoing in the massive space. "Where can I find Squid?"
"Captain Squid is in the cockpit," the Nova's AI says, its voice flat, sans voice modulation.
We make our way through the few scavenged ships and hunks of scrap in the hold, and pass by the living quarters. Winding in and out of the corridors, we reach the mess hall where Trix is tinkering with her exoskeleton, its parts laid out on the dining table.
"Hey, Trix," I say.
She looks at me, then diverts her glance to Pale. "Hi, little man."
He waves with his free hand, and Trix gets back to work. Since we lost Mookie, she's let her crew-cut grow out, and the dark circles beneath her eyes tell me she's barely been sleeping. Her exoskeleton and weapons, though? They've never been so well maintained.
Mookie went AWOL from the imperial military when he met Trix, and that came back to bite him in the ass — thanks to me. After they caught Squid's crew to try and bait me, MEPHISTO sent Mookie away to be court-martialed. Trix has hardly spoken to me since. I don't blame her.
When Pale and I reach the cockpit, Squid is leaning against the viewscreen, wearing a charcoal suit jacket with sharp shoulders and a fine lapel, and loose-fitting pants long enough to pool at their bare feet. Ocho jumps down from my shoulder and trots over to Squid; they turn away from the viewscreen and crouch down to pat Ocho. "How are you, Mars?" they ask.
Guilty? Pissed off? Anxious? I don't know, but I'll feel better when we have Mookie back. "Good," is all I say, saving Squid the hassle of hearing my uncertainties. "Just been training this guy."
"I didn't interrupt, did I?" they ask.
I pick Pale up with a groan and drop him into the pilot's seat. "Nah, we were finished."
"How is it going?" Squid asks, aiming the question at Pale, but he only shrugs in response.
"Slowly," I say. "What did you want to see me for?"
"We're almost there," Squid says; "come have a look." They stand and face the viewscreen, pressing their long fingers against the glass. "There," they say, magnifying a square of the void beyond.
Lekaplica stands out against the darkness, jagged edges jutting out at random.
"How have I not heard of this place before now?" Squid asks.
Two cruisers form the main structure of Lekaplica, fused together top-to-top so they mirror each other. A carrier and countless frigates are attached outboard, like mushrooms sprouting from shit. All told, it has almost as much living space as Aylett Station, but the makeshift structure is notoriously hard to navigate.
"Does that place look like it was put together by professional scavengers?"
Squid chuckles and a flush of pale blue glides across their cheeks. "No, I guess not."
The station is in orbit around a neutron star — the only object of note left in the system after the sun went supernova millions of years back. As far as I know, the system doesn't even have a name. The stackheads chose it because it's an underutilized node in the Trystero network, leaving plenty of spare bandwidth for them to fill with their endless streams of data.
"Transmission incoming," Einri says.
"Patch it through."
"Nova crew: please state your name, and your business at Lekaplica." They sound like an AI without a voice mod, but more likely it's a person who wishes they were a machine.
"Lekaplica, this is Mariam Xi." I let that hang in the air for a few seconds. If anyone besides MEPHISTO knows what I did to Briggs's fleet, it's these intel-hunting, data-hoarding weirdos. "I'm here to see a friend: Miguel Guano."
* * *
I walk into Modem, the main bar in Lekaplica's transit hub. The place is packed wall-to-wall with stackheads — singularity zealots with skulls packed full of augmentations, storing everything they see and hear in the hope of one day digitizing their full consciousness. There's a constant din of chatter: half conversation, half "internal" monologue spoken out loud.
"I'm pretty sure I've had nightmares that started out like this," I say to no one in particular. Ocho must agree, because she makes a low mraow and slips off my shoulder to hide in the hood of my cloak.
"Miguel!" I yell it loud and for a split second the bar goes quiet, my voice imprinted into the endless storage of every patron.
I see movement at the bar — Miguel waving — and push forward.
"Hey," I say, as I sidle up beside him.
"Hey, Mars. Good to see you still in one piece," he says. Then in his "inside" voice, "Did she really destroy a whole fleet single-handed? Shit is crazy."
"Yes, Miguel, I really did. And since you've brought me all the way out to the ass-end of nowhere, the least you could do is talk to me, not about me."
"Eh, sorry, chica."
"Why aren't you at Aylett, anyway?"
Miguel shrugs. "Didn't want to risk showing my face there after I helped you out. Besides, it's good to be around other stackheads, y'know?"
"I really don't," I say deadpan. "You got what I need? You found out where they're keeping Mookie?"
He doesn't so much shake his head as tip it from side to side.
"Then why am I here, Miguel?"
"Listen; it ain't that easy — we're talking military records, imperial data encryption. But I got you the next best thing."
He grins, and I can tell he's going to make me ask, so I do. "What?"
"The location of MEPHISTO's Data Storage Facility. All their records; not just prisoner transfer, but everything they've got about you, about the program, about the other women like you."
It takes me a second to process that.
"Fuck." The word falls from my lips, and Miguel's grin stretches even further. "How much?" I ask.
"This could be the haul of the decade. Top secret data delivered to me by a void-damned space witch. How about this: no charge for the intel, but whatever data you can scrape off their servers you forward on to me?"
"Deal," I say, because really, it's too easy to agree now and change my mind later; it's not like I'm speaking my thoughts out loud.
He slips a shard across the bar, spreading a ring of condensation over the black glass counter. "Everything you need — just promise me you'll be careful."
"Shit, Miguel, you're worried about me, and you haven't made even one sleazy pass at me: what happened to you?"
"That was only ever in jest, Mariam; I apologize," he says. Then, "Truth is, I'm scared shitless now."
I smile at that, slap Miguel on the shoulder, and make my way out of the bar, pushing through the muttering din.
All around me is black: that impossible nonspace inside of a wormhole. My chest rises and falls inside my space suit as I sit on the hull of the Mouse and stare at the hidden infrastructure of the galaxy itself.
"Heart rate is spiking," Squid says, their voice coming through my earpiece from the cockpit. "Are you sure you're okay out there?"
"I'm fine, Squid." My heart's thudding hard in my chest, but that's normal. Staring into the abyss, I should be terrified, but honestly, all I can think about is where we're heading.
Ocho squirms inside my suit and climbs into my helmet. She looks out, then turns to face me and makes an annoyed-sounding maow.
"You're the one who wanted to come outside with me."
She maows again, and crawls over my shoulder to return to the hood of the cloak I wore under my suit for her sake.
"Coordinates are locked in," Waren says, voice coming directly from inside the comms system rather than through it, too clean, too close.
"I'm ready," I say.
Squid sounds calm as ever when they give the order: "Hit it."
We shunt through space-time; wide swathes of flat color hang pixelated, then begin to crystallize. As clarity seeps in I see the planet Miyuki, its frozen surface glittering like a bed of precious stones.
"It's beautiful," Squid says over comms. They aren't wrong.
There's a small fleet in orbit around the ice planet, drifting serenely in the void — three frigates surrounded by a swarm of fighters.
As Waren brings us closer, the defense fleet rallies, exhausts glowing bright as starshine as they turn to face the Mouse.
"They've seen us," I say.
"You need to deal with them quickly, Mars," Squid says.
"On it. Waren, keep the ship steady for me."
"I'll do my best," he says.
"That's all I ask."
The frigates loose a volley of missiles that streak through the space between us. I reach with my fingers stretched open, spreading my thoughts like a net. I grab hold of the projectiles and fling them back at the fleet. Explosions bubble in vacuum, fighters shatter into fields of floating detritus. One of the frigates lists to the side and tumbles toward Miyuki.
I grab the other two frigates, clench both fists, and feel the ships crumble, hardened chassis resisting for a short moment before the vehicles collapse.
The remaining fighters move in formation, speeding closer. Before I can crush them, the Mouse rotates hard to starboard and I'm thrown off the hull. I jolt to a sharp stop at the end of the polyplastic tether.
My mouth opens, abuse for Waren forming on my tongue, but I shut it when a white-hot blast of plasma from the planet's surface streaks past. My helmet darkens in response and the Head-Up Display flashes heat proximity warnings.
"Good flying," I say, winding the tether around my arm and pulling closer to the hull. With my other hand I grab three of the fighters and hurl them; they spin out of control, colliding with the rest of the wing. I reach out wide again, take hold of the ships, and crush. A sound builds in the back of my throat, the only noise in the silence of the void, as one by one the small crafts explode and compact into solid spheres orbited by specks of shrapnel.
Another blast of cannon fire burns toward us from below, and I hold tight as Waren strafes the Mouse out of the way.
"I don't know how many more of those I can dodge, Mars," Waren says flatly.
"I can't crush the cannons 'til I know where they are."
"We need to get down there," Squid says, "quickly."
Waren zags to port and my arm throbs as I strain to hold the tether tight.
"Mars, we're about to hit the atmosphere," Squid says.
I start chanting "Fuck fuck fuck" as I unclip the tether and clamber across the hull, gripping handholds as the ship thrashes beneath me like a wild beast.
I swing into the open air lock and punch the controls, then listen to the thu-thump of my heart as I wait for the air lock to cycle. When the light over the interior door turns green I duck through the opening and spot Pale. He's strapped to the wall, dressed in a gray space suit too large for him, eyes barely visible over the lip of the helmet.
The ship shudders with an echoing dhoozh, and running lights switch from white to red: we just lost atmosphere. I cross the ready-room and check the clasp on the neck of Pale's suit.
"Wait here; keep your helmet on and don't undo these straps, no matter what." His eyes are stuck fast to me, but slowly he nods. His face is blank and I can't tell if it's catatonic terror or simple serenity. He's not much for vox at the best of times, so I don't bother asking.
"We're gonna be okay," I say. I leave him and head for the cockpit.
The floor pitches beneath me. I'm tossed forward, but break my fall with a little telekinetic push. I cut Pale out of the comms circuit and say, "What the fuck is happening?"
"I need you up here now, Mars. We have multiple hull breaches, and we just lost power to the engines," Squid says. "Waren still has thrusters, but that won't be enough to stop us crashing into the planet's surface."
"I'm on my way. Trix, get to the ready-room and wait with Pale."
"Already moving," she says, rounding the corner to head back the way I came. She's wearing her red and black exoskeleton over her space suit, with a hefty-looking lasrifle clipped to the exo's frame. The ship shakes again, but the gyroscopes in Trix's exoskeleton keep her steady while I slam into the wall. I stay there hugging it so Trix's artificially broad frame can push past me.
I keep rushing for the cockpit, progress stunted by the ragged rhythm of the Mouse falling down and apart. I pass a viewport and glance outside. The sight is split between void-black and the blue-white of Miyuki's atmosphere, with the glowing orange re-entry burn fluttering past.
When I reach it, the cockpit door slides open for me and I find Squid in the pilot's seat, face slack as they interface with the Mouse via skullstack pilot augmentations.
"Squid, I'm here now. I need you to open the blast shield."
They don't say anything, but the shield slides away, revealing a wide stretch of Miyuki's endless white plains.
Excerpted from "Void Black Shadow"
Copyright © 2018 Corey J. White.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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