They arrive at the Nul system by way of Centauri, and we lie in wait for them by the gate.
We are the dead. There are four of us; our names are not important, as we gave them up long ago. I am One, and I lead. Two, Three and Four float with me, living corpses seated snugly in our cockpits. Engines off. Weapons off. Life support at minimum. We float in the dark, watching the mouth of the jump point open like that of some massive void-born whale, vomiting forth the convoy of ships that we have been charged to destroy. We bear the cleanliness of purging flames. We stand ready to guide them to oblivion.
They are not many. A luxury-fitted Constellation Phoenix, white and gleaming as bleached bones in the full light of day, escorted by a trio of Gladii and a single Super Hornet. They emerge from the liquid-space tunnel in a flash of light, and we watch as they drift into position. We listen to their communications chatter. They mask themselves in the deception that they are a simple security detail for a mid-level executive of a prominent aerospace corporation; There is no security to speak of here, and they can carry the act on with little question. Our client knows them to be the private soldiers working for a minor Senator’s aide aiming to elevate his master to the halls of power. A simple functionary.
We know better, of course. And that is why we’re here.
I order the others to start their engines as the ships move to the edge of our sensor range. It takes a moment, but they aren’t looking for us – and if they were, the marginal spike is not enough to suggest starships. We fly Sabres, ships designed to be invisible until the last moment and blessed by the Lady of Mercy, and the technology within these sacred spaceframes does its work well. We are errant radio waves to them, scraps of ancient solar flares. All to the good. We are knives in the night, and we aim to sheathe ourselves in their bellies.
All drives to full, and we speed through the void to meet them. The Phoenix is easy to see, both on the instruments and visually; its pale hull picks up light and gleams as if it beckoning us to it. An easy target, but only amateurs would be concerned with it straight away – for most of us, the fighters are our first concern. Even at full speed it is only at the last minute that their sensors pick us up; by then, Four has already targeted the Constellation’s engine nacelles and pours clouds of heavy dumbfire rockets into them, bypassing its advanced point-defense suite and leaving its engines sputtering fitfully and wreathed in smoke and flame. Two and Three are locked on the Gladii, shredding through their lightly armored hulls with laser repeaters. Four will join them in a moment, and their fight will be over before the enemy pilots can even break formation.
My target is the Hornet. It has already sighted us as we come in, and as I close its dorsal turret spews heavy repeater fire over my fuselage in the direction of Four. The Hornet is a bear, built to suffer incredible punishment, but the Sabre is a serpent designed to kill it. My wings blossom with the light of blessed guns; my arms shudder with the vibration of the gatlings that rattle in their mounts on either side of the fighter’s nose. Its shields flare under the assault, but they do not buckle, and for a fleeting moment I am reminded of rain falling on a neon-lit puddle before I pull away in preparation for another round.
The blood sings in my body as I break and roll left, pulling as tight a curve as physics – and my own fragile body – will allow, knowing that if I allow the Hornet the opportunity it will draw its heavy guns on my ship. For a moment, I fear that I am too late; a shudder of force crashes over my ship, and my shields are a bright blue wash that ripples through space over the tinted alloy of my canopy. But suddenly my target data reads blank, and as I come around I see the reason why: the entire front half of the Hornet has been sheared off in an explosion, and my silent comrades rake the stars with the bright glow of their thrusters as they speed away from the wreck. I gave them an opening, and they took it. There is no shame in missing this kill. It is not what I was charged to deliver.
Picking apart the Phoenix takes more time, but is not nearly the ordeal that any of us expected. The snub fighter does not even launch as we target and disable its weapons systems, and it can do very little but try and crawl away on half disabled thrusters. We strike from below, keeping away from its single turret and peeling its defenses away, until finally – bleeding from a dozen different wounds – it stands dead in space, unable to escape the fate that awaits it.
Then the real work begins.
We were tasked to destroy the ship. We will do this, but not yet. On my signal, we come into position low around the ship’s aft quarter. As one, we unseal our canopies and allow the void to fill our cockpits. I take pleasure in the momentary shift in pressure, as if open space embraces us – I do not need to see the faces of my comrades to know that they feel the same way. We each long for it, to die in space. It is the fate to which we have each commended ourselves, the fate which the Lady of Mercy has promised us. Perhaps this will be the day.
We emerge from our cockpits, taking with us the tools of our trade on mag-clips and secure holsters, and let our suit jets take us to the ventral airlock. I watch the jets of vapor gush from Three’s pack as she moves ahead of me, and monitor the ship closely as she reaches the ship’s hull first. I cannot be certain as to the damage inside, but it cannot be minor. The shockwaves from Four’s rocket attacks, and our own dismantling of the ship’s systems, should be enough to soften the crew to the point of minimal resistance. We take no chances, though. Three plants a disruption charge against the lock, reporting readiness within seconds of Four.
At my command, the charge scrambles the electronics of the lock, forcing into an emergency dump cycle; the boarding elevator hisses open, and precious atmosphere gushes out of the hull in record time, taking with it the body of a crewman. For a moment, I feel a jolt of fear as the body wears a business suit – but it is a woman who drifts out, not our target. Her eyes bulge with terror as she tries to tread vacuum, as her hands slip as she tries to cling to the heavy pistons of the elevator mechanism and she tumbles into the darkness. I want to feel badly for her, but I can only observe as her body grows smaller by the moment. We engage mag-boots and swing into the ship before she even passes out.
The locks seal shut beneath us as we step onto the deck. To fore, the command crew lies slumped in their seats, unconscious after the beating the ship has taken. Two executes them all with single shots from his laser pistol, opening holes in back the leather-clad seats through which we can see the universe. Poetic. Another crewman, this one in light security armor, lies slumped at the base of the crew escape pods. I kill him with a shot through the soft armor at the hollow of his throat. Globules of red drift upward around our legs, a necklace of life, as we move aft into the living area.
The well-appointed interior of the vessel is a wreck, as if in the aftermath of a particularly raucous party. Shattered glass tables, spilled wine. Blood against the side of the deck, presumably from a fall. Even as the hatches close, pressure is restored in seconds; on any other day, those who still survive would be lucky, as there isn’t enough time for the void to truly assert itself. But not today. The survivors remain. We find them sprawled on the deck, unconscious: two men in security uniforms, another in a suit. A terrified-looking young man in a skinsuit with transparent panels floats serenely in the floating blob of water that was formerly contained in the ship’s hot tub before the gravity was knocked out. Four kills him from the doorway, which displeases me – he seems to enjoy the act more than he should. He is bent more on revenge than caution. Perhaps the Lady will have me kill him, but that is yet to be seen.
Two and Three execute the rest, but where is our quarry? I pass leather recliners, the scrambled video of the telescreen and the fluid sculpture that Four’s bullet has made of the young man, seeking him. He has not escaped; there is only emergency power, and he cannot escape using the ship’s snub fighter. I have Three move to fore and search the secret ‘safe’ hold that these ships have by design, and the three of us fan out through the rest of the ship. Passing the bed, I see more blood on its rumpled sheets, and the fear rises again. Could he have been killed? I whisper a prayer to the Void that this is not so; I am the chosen one, it is my duty to see his passing into oblivion. My failure would be too dear a blow to the family. As I pass the bed, however, and see bloody handprints on the aft bulkhead, I know where he is.
Two and Three join me first, and Three works to unseal the hatch. As she does so, there is a torrent of thunder, and she catches a trio of bullets in her chest from the coward who hides inside the engineering area. We do not hesitate as she dies, however; we have seen him outlined in the muzzle flash of his pistol, and while her body drifts backward we fire in disciplined step to suppress him, laser shots landing overhead, causing him to cry out amid the clattering of his fallen pistol. He cannot see my smile through the visor of my helmet, but he does not need to. Doom is clear to see when it approaches and grabs you by the hair.
I drag him through blood – his blood, Three’s blood, the blood of his fallen fellows – when Two brings the gravity back online. He gibbers as I haul him up onto the conference table, eyes wide and bulging. The smell of blood and filth is thick in my nostrils as I take off my helmet, and I know that he has shit himself. It is expected, and all to the good; he will tell me what I want to know. They always tell me what I want to know.
“Please,” he gasps, staring up at me as Four uses engineering cable to lash him, spread-eagled, to the table. “Please, who are you, what do you want?”
“You are Thomas Mgembe-Addison.” The words that come out of my mouth are as hollow as my heart.
“I–you know who I am,” he gasps. The pain in his head must be terrible, gauging from the split in his bald scalp. “What do you want? Oh, God!”
“God is an empty concept,” I tell him. “You will tell me what I want to know, and then you will die.”
“Then you’d better kill me.” His face hardens momentarily, and for a moment I wonder if I have underestimated this man.
I reach for my belt and begin laying out its contents on the table. Medipens. Trauma packs. Engineering tools. He knows what’s coming. I can see it in his eyes. “You will tell me what I want to know,” I repeat, “And then you will die. How long that takes, however, depends on you.” I take the first medipen and press it against his forearm, watching as the nozzle presses against the paisley satin of his very expensive robe and dumps its payload into his system. He stiffens, then sighs as warmth and cellular repair agents fill his body, putting a momentary crack in his hastily-conjured psychological armor. That is when I pick up the bolt driver and put a six-inch length of threaded metal through his bicep. He screams and trashes, tearing the flesh even worse than I ever could, pinned there on the table. He screams even louder when I have Four hold his other arm and do the same to it. I am reminded of the Christian image of crucifixion, and for a moment something old and dead squirms in my gut. No more bolts, then. No martyrs. Just answers.
“You will tell me what I want to know,” I repeat, “And then you will die.”
He shouts something that could be a confession, or a curse – both are spat with equal fervor – and he trembles all over before collapsing in an unconscious pile. More drugs bring him around. I even blunt the pain a little This time, with eyes as wide as polished eggs, he whispers the words I am waiting for.
“Who sent you?”
I smile, knowing it to be an utterly plastic thing. “I come with the warm tidings of the Lady of Mercy.”
“Merced,” he spits, and his eyes roll with mingled fury and terror. “You’re with Merced. I had nothing to do with it! I had nothing to do with your…your damnable ship being blown up! I had nothing to do with that fucking…flower…augh, God!”
His agony is pleasurable to me, the only thing that I have felt since I have come here. I smile at him again. “You did not order the destruction of the Al Yasmeen, true,” I say, “But you know who did. And it was you who found our families in the aftermath ordered them murdered. Someone tried to wipe us all from existence, Thomas Mgembe-Addison, us and everyone who ever knew us. There is no cruelty that I can inflict upon you that will match what has been done to us. But I assure you that I will try.”
Four picks up another medi-pen and dumps it in his system. I pick up the thin, fractal-edged sliver of a surgical blade, still used when there is no place or power for lasers. I can see my own smile reflected in its surface, and I wonder if it is revenge that has placed it there, or if the void has claimed me whole. He begs me to stop – he even gives me a name, a name that I believe to be correct – but I cannot hear him now. There is only the music of my own blood, roaring in my ears, urging me now to take the steps that I know that I must to make things a little better. A little more just.
I must see him into death, in a way that he deserves.
Later, when the work is done and the ship is rendered into fragments by the guns of our fighters, I watch as the blood that froze into crystals on my suit melts and runs into the secret parts of the cockpit. Our ships all smell like blood, now; we do not bother to clean them, short of ensuring no medical problem arises. I have come to enjoy it. The Lady of Mercy – not Captain Merces, though she has taken his name in a way – will praise us for the information that we have gotten, and it brings us closer to finding revenge for what has been done to us. We are all mad, or at least we are all closer to it than most, and yet that madness gives us purity. I will return to the Lady, and she will praise me, and she will not know that I am what I am, or what the others are. To her mind, she is still Harper Marian, though she has fooled herself into believing that she is a dead woman. So do we all. When I return, I will don the role of Lieutenant Malcolm Gladwell, pull it over like a mask over the face of One, and then we will carry on as is expected of us. But make no mistake, I am not him. That man is dead, and I am what remains.
I carry nothing in my heart now but a small core of gladness for Three, who met her end – even at the end of a coward’s gun, she is so very fortunate. For we are endless in our suffering, borne down by our charge and not allowed to rot. We died along with the Al-Yasmeen, and she dragged our souls down with her. Now there is only we walking corpses, fueled by a most ancient thirst for blood and for revenge. Know us. Fear us. But under no circumstances should you expect anything from us but death and cruelty.
We are the dead. We hunger. We rage. We will have our due.