Samson woke to an iced-over helmet visor and a fire burning in her skull.
Blinking hard against the frost, Samson reached up to clear the visor with her left hand. Beneath the ribbed fabric of her suit’s glove, glittering white gave way to equally glittering black – the great empty sea of space yawned through the shattered canopy of her ship. How she’d survived, she had no idea.
The sight of open space pulled wisps of memory through the flames in her head. She had no idea how long she had been out. A few hours ago – was it hours? – she had sortied with a few other pilots out of New Canberra to escort a caravan of haulers to the commercial-grade jump points at the edge of the system. To do that, they’d navigate the Episces Belt, the asteroids that girded the center of the system like a great chain of dense, signal-eating pearls. It was hardly a legal run, but that’s what paid her bills these days.
Samson had always been a good shot, back when she served with the planetary militias and private forces out on the frontier – first in Aurora Legionnaires for militia wings and later in Hornets for corporate forces. Maybe not on par with the Navy elite, but even as a civilian soldier she could hold her own with damned near anybody. After she bought her Ghost-variant Hornet, the Void Queen, from her last employer, she became a straight up force of nature when on the job. She was good at the dark work.
It was supposed to be an easy job.
The pain in her head was terrible, but Samson knew she’d have to stoke it harder. The face of her visor was blank and unlit, as were the instruments of her ship – those that were intact, that was. Looking around, she saw that the canopy of the Queen, had been peeled back and to the right over her head like blowtorched plastic. The console had been crushed and deformed down over her thighs, and while she could feel her legs, Samson couldn’t seem to move them. She wasn’t really sure if she’d be able to get them out. Certainly couldn’t eject without tearing them off, and while one of them was already synthetic, she surely didn’t want the other replaced even if she could have survived the loss.
What Samson needed to do was take stock of what she still had. Taking a deep breath, she swung her head hard against the still-intact frame of the canopy on her right side; a red moire of agony filled her vision, and she fought hard to keep her gorge down as the pain boiled through her. It was worth it, though, because the impact jarred her helmet’s systems into action and the brilliant green double-A arrowhead of the Anvil logo led the instruments as they sputtered into being. Right off the bat she saw that she was done for. No power save for the helmet’s onboard cell, and no response from her beloved Queen. The ship was dead in space, and now a large, angry blue indicator flashed at the bottom right of her visor indicating that her oxygen was nearly gone.
She tried to work herself out from under the console. The slug that had torn through her canopy had been a big one, slung from a mass driver at a speed she couldn’t even guess at. Even if the slug hadn’t connected with her body, the sheer force of the impact should have killed her. Instead, it had torn through her cockpit like a bullet through an orange, leaving her tangled in steel and hard vacuum. It had also deformed the instrument block to the point that, after trying to pull herself out for a while to no avail, she knew that she wasn’t getting out of there without a cutter. And with nobody nearby – nobody that she could see, at least – it wasn’t likely a cutter was going to be forthcoming.
This time there would be no company medic to stitch her up, no synthetic parts to replace what had gone before in previous action. If anything, her arm and leg – metal bones and polymer muscle – were the only things that didn’t feel as if they were on fire. Soon those flames would burn out when the void got her. There was nothing that Samson could do but sit there and wait out the last brief minutes of her life, but she’d hate to go quietly. She could scream, but it would eat what little oxygen she had left in record time. Samson didn’t want to die yet. She didn’t want to die at all, but what choice did she have? She wasn’t a tech. She wasn’t going to be opening up the ruined console and get the thing running again – she was a pilot, a good one, and a killer besides. Barring some kind of miracle, Samson knew that she was a dead woman.
Maybe this was all karma.
From the start, she knew that the run wasn’t going to be a legitimate one; Advocacy had made all but the thinnest parts of the Belt entirely verboten for civilian traffic, and it was known that the rocks hosted pirates and smugglers like a warren full of wasps. Samson herself knew it all too well. She and her wingmates were all mercenaries, and it wouldn’t be the first time they’d flown escorts for ships running the belt to stay under Imperial notice. Yeah, it was supposed to be an easy job, all right. A sanctioned job. Cleared with the bosses, all bribes paid, all shares promised. It should’ve been no problem at all.
Samson watched the oxygen alarm pulse slowly in the corner of her field of vision. Funny how wrong you can be about things.
The convoy wasn’t anything special, just a Starfarer and a couple of Hull-A’s, sprint haulers slugging boxes filled with her employer’s mystery ingredient. Samson wasn’t sure what they were hauling, though it really could have been anything – drugs, guns, whatever. She only knew that the holds weren’t full of slaves, because she’d paid a close personal friend of hers in the know to make sure she had that guarantee. Samson got into a lot of really questionable business, but she didn’t deal with the skin trade. Once she was clear on that, though, she’d had the Queen fueled up and on its way to meet them out at the inner limit of the Belt.
It hadn’t bothered Samson that they were going through the rocks – she knew the two other pilots, and knew their reputation. The Watanabe brothers, Shinji and Takeru, flew a pair of Avengers decked out in Rising Sun colors that played up what some people said was their old Earth samurai heritage. Their family had fought the Tevarin at the founding of the Empire, and now they were out playing at masterless ronin on their own. How strange that they they seemed no different than that lost race their forefathers helped defeat.
The way it worked, the Watanabes would fly in formation with the convoy, easily visible with rising suns splayed across their hulls, daring anyone to draw close. Samson would play rear sentry in the Queen; the ship’s sensor-absorptive hull was damned near invisible with the way the Belt played havoc with instruments. She would creep along behind them, a black shadow in the night, waiting for someone to dare wade out and pick a fight with the brothers. Then she’d swoop in and shred them with gatling and laser fire. In terms of technique, Samson was a backstabber; she snuck out of the dark and put holes in people. She had made a lot of evil spirits out of people from behind the pilot’s stick. It really was the same as sliding out of an alley with a long knife, and there really wasn’t any way to glorify it when you weren’t doing it for a cause.
She met the Watanabes and the convoy out at a particularly thick portion of the inner boundary of the Belt. Having gotten there some time before, she’d taken up an agreed-upon position so that they could feed each other telemetry via laser once the convoy had gotten close enough. She watched the haulers swing by, the Xi’an design making the Starfarer and Hulls look like a sea turtle and exotic fish respectively, bracketed by the gull-shapes of the Watanabe’s Avengers. As per usual, she waited for them to pass for some six thousand kilometers or so before taking in position behind them, skirting the rocks in the Queen like a doppler-shifted shadow. Then, just as the run began, it fell apart completely.
The Mustangs poured down over them from between the rocks, their hulls gleaming red and venomous light blazing from beneath their wings. Samson watched them come, lit by the distant glow of New Canberra’s yellow sun, the pulsing needles of gatling lasers flashing across the shields of the ships as they charged. The Watanabes broke from their positions and made to intercept as Samson punched the booster, bringing her guns online; she figured that the brothers would hold them off easily as she came in for the kill, but to Samson’s horror the elder brother’s ship broke apart in a cloud of flames as two of the Mustangs bracketed him. They must be militia models, she realized as she shot ahead toward the budding carnage, packing dumbfire loads. With half the escort already lost, she knew that she’d have to bring the hammer down hard on the angry mayflies if she were going to help save the convoy.
By the time she got into range of the brawl, the space around the convoy was alive with electric death. Already having taken down two of the attackers with his ship’s gatling cannon and paired heavy lasers, Takeru continued to shred at the ultralight frames of the bandit Mustangs while the haulers got into the the act with their turrets. The neutron cannons of the latter were too slow to hit their attackers, though, and were instead making it harder for the bandits and the younger Watanabe alike to wind their way through each others’ fire. Takeru’s Avenger had already taken a score of laser hits across its painted hull, and the rising sun looked as though it were going to set in rapid time; the haulers were in trouble too, one of the Hulls’ drives flickering fitfully from an engine hit and the Starfarer’s hull blistered and scarred from several hits. Were they trying to disable the ships, or take them out entirely? Samson wouldn’t wait to find out.
Her heart thundered in her chest as she swung into an attack vector, and blood sang in her ears with the raw power of the maxed-out drive. With the sensors of all ships so reduced in range, and her own ship dark enough to miss visual contact until on top of them all, the first salvo Samson gave them proved a final one. She came in hard, dropping Marksmen onto a pair of Mustangs trying to come around to strike at the convoy’s flank; the heatseekers hit the bandits at nearly point-blank range, blasting them into fragments through which she rolled the Queen. In that moment of chaos, she lined up another shot with the pair of Mantises slung beneath the fighter’s wings; she drew nearly close enough to kiss the last Mustang’s oversized cockpit with the nose of her Ghost, but not so close as to keep the heavy gatlings from converging fire. For just a fragment of a moment, Samson saw the pilot inside of the other ship, bringing up one hand to shield his face from the inevitable before the cannons spun up and converted him into a cloud of blood and shrapnel.
Takeru was roaring something over the comms circuit in Japanese, something that sounded like a victory cry – but it was lost over the sound of alarms as the Starfarer exploded. Closer to the freighter than Samson was, his words were cut short as the blast consumed both the freighter and his ship in its furious jaws. The Queen was flung away; Samson’s head slammed into the side of the cockpit, and her vision swam with pain and the echo of impact. She tried to pull the ship out of the spin, and as she did witnessed the death of the wounded Hull-A as it too was swallowed by a massive explosion. Torpedoes, years of instinct barked to her through the haze in her head. Someone was using torpedoes on the goddamned freighters!
If there were torpedoes being used, she could do nothing; even close on, there was no way she’d be able to target the incoming torps through the interference with enough accuracy to take them down. She had to find the source, and she quickly found it; coming down from the rocks was the flanged manta-ray shape of a Gladiator fighter-bomber.
The bomber came down from on high, and heavy lasers under its wings strobed lances of green light at the remaining Hull, whose shields crackled and spat with the assault. Samson punched the Queen upward to meet the ship, hammering down the trigger so that the ship’s gatlings roared and spat tracers across the bomber’s belly. So intent was she on augering a hole through the ship’s center that she momentarily forgot about the turret; it rolled over against the fury of her assault, revealing its dorsal surface marked with a great, red, smiling mouth, and brought its turret to bear on her. It had a pair of Sledges or some other model of mass driver, incredibly strong but hardly for use by bombers – but torpedo-sniping targets without sensors was the mark of an ace pilot and an ace crew, and she made easy target, hurtling nose-first at the beast, and looking back now she should not have been surprised when the guns fired directly into the nose of her ship and plunged her instantly into the dark.
And now she was here. There was no sign of the convoy, only the vast wall of the Belt stretching on into forever and the blackness of empty space on either side of it. The ship must have stopped itself before the systems gave out – all the same, she remained floating out in the wilderness, far from Advocacy patrols or even the pirates that might have at least taken her captive for ransom (or worse, though at least then she would still have a chance at survival.) Now there was only the cold coming in, slowly filling her, fighting against the suffocating fire in her lungs. It would not be long now.
Samson leaned back in her seat, allowing the tension to flood out of her – after all, it didn’t matter anymore. She closed her eyes against the stars and turned her mind inward, thinking of her life. A child on Terra, full of promise. Her parents, before an accident claimed them. Turning her back on citizenship and following the dark turns of a mercenary existence. Women she had loved, mostly for the moment. The cold seeped further in, and she found herself thinking of one in particular that she had truly loved, one with dark hair and skin, bright blue eyes, a smiling mouth. Then, the same features in miniature, set in the face of the little girl that was always at her heels. Samson thought of the girl with a sudden warmth starting inside of her; though her affair with her mother had long ago ended, the little girl stayed in her memories. They had the same name, after all. When she didn’t come back from this, the insurance payment on her life and on the Queen – as well as all of her savings – would go to the child, instead. The girl’s mother had wanted her to have a good life, not the mean existence that Samson led; with the death of one Anna, the other would be guaranteed that happiness. It was a good thing. Maybe the only good thing she’d done that she could remember. She had always wanted to do something great enough to have a song written after her, but maybe this would be enough.
Behind her eyelids, the strobing blue star of the oxygen light changed from blue to red. Her lungs burned along with it, like the distant sun whose heat could not find her, but whose light would illuminate her death scene. The end of her movie. Samson opened her mouth and let out that last breath, fogging the visor of her helmet – and then, without complaint, faded away. The stars burned on without her.
Anna Samson had lived a life. Perhaps it had not been the best, but it had been lived in full. Some day a salvage party would find her in her ruined throne, silent in stately repose; she would be the Queen of the Void in her own right then, her crown wrought of ice and wreckage, and her court made up of ghosts.
On that day, the sight of her would spawn a ballad that would last among her kind for centuries.