I ran. Sprinted through the shadows underneath the canopy of leaves. Branches whipped past my face. I slid down a steep embankment to a small creek, splashed across, and scrambled up the other side. Ship engines roared overhead, sweeping over the treetops. A spotlight shone down through the darkness, and I turned to stay out of the circle of light. If I could keep going for long enough, perhaps there was hope. My lungs burned and my legs ached, but I had to keep running. They were coming.
“You’ve been doing very well, Pup.” The name had stuck. I’d been with the Vipers almost a month, had gone on several missions with them, but nobody had ever bothered asking my name. Not that it mattered, a name is just sounds. Still would have been nice to be called something other than ‘Pup’. “Much better than I expected when I took you on.”
I stood on board a space station, metal walls of Captain Brannigan’s office decorated with a few posters of ships and guns. A thick rug lay across the center of the floor and a dark synth-oak desk stood to one side, a well stocked liquor cabinet against the wall behind it. There was a computer on the desk, along with a model of Jen Kallista’s black and gold M50 on his desk. She was his favorite Murray Cup racer.
“Thank you,” I said as I turned away from the large, curved window that dominated the room and looked out into space as the dusty world I know now was Hyperion spun below. I sat down at the desk across from the captain and took the drink he had poured for me. It was a foul looking black liquid that I had no desire to drink, but I wasn’t about to refuse Brannigan. I drank, and it tasted just as foul as it looked, burning all the way down. I coughed, and he laughed as he downed his own.
“Cathcart Widow,” he said as he poured us both another drink. “Puts hair on your chest.” As if to accentuate his statement, he downed his second drink in a single gulp. I took a small sip and left the rest to sit.
“You’re one hell of a shot,” he continued. “Where’d you learn to shoot like that?”
“My uncle took me hunting a few times,” I said. “Taught me the basics. He said I had natural talent.”
“So you’re a hunter?” I shrugged. He paused as he took another drink, and gazed out the window. “You’re from the Ferron system, right?” I nodded. “What would you be doing if you were back there, instead of out here looking at the world through a scope?”
I hadn’t thought about home. It had only been a month since I had been taken, but it already felt like a different life. There had been so much to worry about just to stay alive in this new world, I had little thought left for the old. I watched the sun slip behind the dusty world as the station orbited past the horizon. I took another sip of the drink, the foul taste worth the extra few seconds of thought. “Probably I’d be off to some university by now.”
“Educated fella’?” he mused, and I nodded in response. “What would you study?”
“I’m good with physics, math, that sort of thing.”
“Really?” He said. “You wouldn’t know it, lookin’ at you. Most math geeks you can spot a mile away. Though I guess it comes in handy when you don’t have access to a ballistics program.”
“I suppose,” I agreed, not knowing how to respond to that. Then an idea came to me. I had been wondering what had happened back at the slave market with Barker and the silent kid, but had felt like straight up asking would be a dangerous move. But now there was a way to find out. “Where would I be and what I’d be doing if you hadn’t brought me on board me at the slave market?”
“You mean if you didn’t attack Jax and get yourself nearly killed?” I nodded, and he shrugged. “Don’t know who the people were who bought your friends. But if I had to guess, they had the look of ag Corp men.”
He took another drink. “There are worse places to end up when passing through Nul. Asteroid mining, for instance. Lotta slaves die in one accident or another.”
An involuntary look of revulsion passed over my face, and the captain picked up on it. “Yea, I’m not a fan of the slave trade myself. That’s one reason I went out on a limb to help you out when you showed some spirit. That, and you bloodied up Jax, and I appreciate that.”
“What have you got against him?”
“Nothin’ personal,” he said. He was smiling, and I noted with surprise he had finished off half the bottle of liquor. “Business. Jax didn’t like me in charge, and he was gaining support. But you knocked him down a peg or two. So you’ve been much more useful already than you know. You were a gamble, but you’ve more than paid off.”
He took another drink and frowned. “I may not look it, but I’m getting too old for this game. In the civilized worlds I’m not much further along than middle aged. But out here life is significantly shorter and a lot more brutal. Gotta take chances just to stay in control.”
I nodded and drank with him. I was getting a rare opportunity to learn a lot about the captain of the Vipers, and I had to keep him drinking and talking. “What would you be doing if you weren’t a mercenary?”
“God knows, I’ve been a fighter all my life. Haven’t a clue what I’d be without a rifle at my side.” He gazed at me in silence for a while, his cold blue eyes searching my face. “Was my brother got me started,” he said at last. “You remind me him. I think that’s also why I wanted to help you. I… I couldn’t help him.”
His words were slow and deliberate, mouth loosened by alcohol but working to stay under control. He looked past me back out the window as he downed another glass. “Jared was his name. Smart kid. Really coulda gone and made somethin’ out of himself.”
He wasn’t really talking to me anymore. I had become an intruder on a private conversation. “But he got shot… in the back, while tryin’ to buy drugs. I tried to protect him, but failed. So the only thing left to do was avenge him. Kill the bastards who’d done it to him. I picked up a gun and never put it down. It can’t bring him back, just leave more dead brothers.”
He turned his eyes back on me, and seemed to remember I was there. “How many you killed so far?”
I swallowed. “Six.”
“I’ve killed fifty two,” he said. “How many of them had brothers who now want to kill me? How many have died trying? Everythin’ I do is to survive one more day. Killin’ just brings more killin,’ but if I put down my gun I’ll be the next to die.”
For the first time the glowering mercenary captain with the cold, blue eyes seemed entirely human. I had met him when he was working for slavers, those who would kidnap people and work them to death in mines. He was a monster. And in the weeks since then he had forced me to kill for him. More than a monster, a demon. But here he was, human. I had caught a glimpse of his story, the chain of events that had led him to where this path of violence and death seemed not just the best option, but the only option.
The image of Jax reaching through the bars at the slave market came to mind, of him taunting the caged and collared women. It had been horrible, and he was horrible. But I couldn’t help but wonder what story had brought him to the point where perpetuating such cruelty and violence could seem the best path. Certainly not a happy one, nor could it come to a happy end.
A chill very different from the soothing cool of Camron’s steadying chems ran down my spine. Now I too was set on a similar path. “Killin’ just brings more killin’,” the captain had said. And now I was the next victim, set to continue the chain of kill or be killed. Would I ever have a choice?
“You’ve done well, Pup,” the captain said again, shaking me out of my thoughts. “You should be proud. Not many can shoot as well as you can. But enough chat, you should get goin’.”
I nodded and stood, turning to leave. “And Pup,” he said as I reached the door. The ice was back in his eyes, as cold and sharp as ever. “Not a word of this to anyone.” I nodded and left the room, knowing full well if I repeated anything he had said he’d kill me. He wouldn’t have any other choice.