All his life, his luck had been terrible.
Bennie Tayback moved out to the Frontier six years ago, chasing a job in gevenite mining and by the time he'd got there, the Earth government had privatized the whole industry and brought in their own people. Alien governments didn't like to hire outsiders, so that left him to get what job he could scrounge, and he spent the next half-decade bumming around, never making enough to save, never really getting ahead, just working and waiting for his life to begin.
And when he'd had enough of that, he went into business for himself as a freighter pilot. Captain of the light freighter Fortuna.
It didnt take long for his usual luck to reassert itself. The Fortuna was an antique when he bought it, barely spaceworthy on the best of days, a danger to itself and other ships on the worst of days. Worst of all, the cargo bays were so negligible she couldn't haul the huge cargo loads that the larger independent operators counted on to keep themselves profitable.
The Fortuna managed at her best to haul enough cargo to pay for the next light haul of cargo. And Bennie continued to wait for his life to begin while everyone around him, except for his crew, considered him a failure.
Until today, he thought.
The Fortuna was returning from a cargo run to the Celunine colony, dropping off a load of machine parts that had been marked damaged and sold cheap. The payoff for the job had been pitiful, but it had been what his first mate Zalewski had told him as he stalked from the collection agency cursing his rotten luck for the one thousandth time that made him forget about his lifetime of rotten luck.
"One million credits, if captured alive," Zalewski had whispered, as if the figure were as mythical as the man they had their eyes on. "Five hundred thousand, dead. He's hurt and on the run. We can take him."
And take him they did. Oh, it took several thousand volts and the entirety of the anaesthetic compound they kept in the medical bay, but they finally dropped him, and hopefully they'd keep him down.
Long enough to reach the transfer station on Nereus, Bennie thought. Brown says he has a contact with the Blue Dragons, someone who can take custody and get word that we earned the reward and how to collect it.
Nereus, he thought. Half a day's haul through normal space.
He eased back in the ratty captain's chair and stared at the bank of monitors on the left side of the main console as he fingered the cracked leather armrest, his fingers dragging through the exposed padding. Framed in a snowy picture of a circular room that occasionally burst into a full snowstorm of static, his prize lay slumped facedown on the deck. He hadn't moved for some time, and Bennie momentarily feared he'd died until he saw his body rise and fall with the slow intake of breath.
Slow, he thought. He's still alive, still under.
They'd been able to take him, but Bennie held no illusions about whether they could keep him. If this man was half as formidable as his reputation, he'd tear through them like tissue paper.
I've heard of this bastard tearing through entire armies, he mused. Six men on a junk freighter are a dull morning for him.
So Bennie tossed him in the airlock, the thought being that if he stirred, they cycled the air out and blew him out into space. If he tried to rush the airlock, Jacob and Burke would cut him down and they'd have to settle for half.
After all--phenomenal as the reward was and the possibilities for a new life that it held, it wasn't worth the risk if they couldn't keep him under control.
This trip's dangerous enough as it is, Bennie thought. Cant contact Brown's man at Nereus, because if word got out we had him, we'd be as much of a target as he is.
A reward with that many zeroes tends to make people stupid. Plenty of people might try to take him off our hands, and we're in no condition to tell them "no."
Half a day.
That's all we need, and we're set for the rest of our lives.
* * *
"Man, stop playing with that damn thing," Jacob said. "You'll cut your hand off."
"C'mon man--it's cool," Burke said, turning the large twin-bladed knife in his hands, switching his grip from forehand to backhand. "This thing's huge, but it's so light. Never seen a blade like this."
"Whatever," Jacob said, looking over his shoulder through the small window of the airlock. He was still there, still face down, still unconscious.
"Make you nervous?" Burke said, waving it in front of Jacob's face as he turned around. Burke reared back like he meant to strike his younger shipmate, but backed off.
"That's just annoying me," he said, gesturing to the knife. He flicked his head back to the airlock door. "He makes me nervous."
"He's nothing," Burke said. "He went out like a light when Foulkes hit him with that knockout stuff--"
"Yeah, that stuff," Burke said, examining the knife. "He's been out for hours. I dont think he's even half what his rep made him out to be."
"You dont get one of those without some honest-to-God skills," Jacob replied. "I heard about this guy in the bloodmatches. They still hate him for what he did."
"Winning," Jacob said, looking back at the airlock door.
"Aliens didnt think humans had it in them to fight and win. Never mind some punk kid. He showed them, all right. Killed some of their champions."
"That's the point, isnt it?" Burke said, examining his reflection in the flat of the blade. "It's them or you."
"More or less," Jacob said, looking down at the rifle he held in his hands and checking the ammunition level. "This guy . . .I dont know. It was different."
Burke balanced the knife on top of his rifle, checking his weapon as well.
"Because he was human?"
Jacob shook his head. "Because he was goddamn crazy. Look--I dont wanna talk about this no more. He's a wounded animal--that's the only reason we caught him, and . . .you dont wanna mess with an animal when he's wounded. That's when they're most dangerous."
"Jacob, he's just a man. You make him sound like the devil."
Burke looked at the knife and frowned. "Zalewski got his guns. You think I should have traded him?"
"I think you should have left it alone, and I damn sure wish you'd leave me alone."
"Just trying to make conversation."
"Do me a favor--don't," Jacob said, sighing and looking over his shoulder. He peeked back at the door, expecting to see the same sight he'd seen for the past two hours.
He was gone.
He lost a split second to fear, because the simultaneous feeling of his blood turning to ice in his veins and the breath being sucked from his lungs, but knew enough to instinctively lunge for the communications panel.
"Oh shit," Jacob said, stabbing at the button. "Bridge. BRIDGE!"
"What's going on?" Burke said, pushing himself off the wall and staring into the airlock.
"Jesus Christ, how--"
"Shut up! Bennie, we got a problem--he's gone."
"How the hell can he be gone?" Bennie's thin voice crackled back. "There's only two ways out of that damn airlock. One, if he wants to come out alive."
"Dont know," Jacob said. "Burke, hit the cycle."
"DO IT!" Jacob shouted. "Just in case he's trying to get out through the access tunnels."
"How long has he been gone?" Bennie's voice demanded.
"Couple minutes, maybe," Jacob said as Burke started the airlock cycle. There was a steady thrum as the chamber depressurized and all the air rushed out.
"What the hell were you doing? You were supposed to be watching him."
"You set up that camera in the airlock," Jacob shot back. "What the hell were you doing?"
"I . . .hang on," Bennie's voice stammered in response. "The camera should have picked it up if he'd left."
"Yeah, I know the goddamned camera should have picked it up," Jacob shouted. "But it doesnt do any good if no one's watching the damn thing, does it?"
"Cycle complete," Burke said. "I'm going in to check it out."
"You stay right here," Burke said, hoisting his rifle into a ready position. "I'll go. "You keep in touch with Bennie and watch this door."
"Stay here," Jacob said, opening the airlock. "Anything moves that isn't me knocking on the glass, shoot it. You got that?"
Burke nodded, holding the knife in one hand and his rifle in the other, keeping his partner covered as Jacob stepped inside. Jacob's unsettled mood was beginning to rub off on him, and he began to wonder if he shouldn't have left the knife alone.
Sweat began to glisten on his forehead and the air felt slightly stuffy as Burke kept turning around, trying to keep everything around him in front of the muzzle of his rifle as he began to panic.
What the hell was keeping Jacob, he wondered? Not like that damn airlock's miles long or anything like that. C'mon, dammit.
He heard a noise above him and to the right, expertly pivoting and firing at the metal tiles above him. The plating dented, warped, and finally fell away.
Burke looked at his rifle, and looked at the knife, as if considering his options. He set the rifle down and walked slowly and cautiously over to where the panel had fallen to the deck.
He cursed himself for not having a light, peering up into the open panel, knife-hand cocked and ready to stab anything that might leap out at him. If there were anything lurking in the darkness, it gave no sign.
Nothing, except for a slight hint of ozone, anyway.
Burke heard a knocking on the airlock door and could see Jacob framed in the airlock's tiny window. At that same time, there came a loud pop from within the access hatch.
The last thing Burke saw was a brief glimpse of a face, lit by the flash of a short circuit. In his mind, that moment seemed to stretch into minutes, as he considered the cold fury he'd seen etched on the face, and he was ashamed to say that brief glimpse justified everything Jacob seemed afraid of so many minutes ago.
Then there was only darkness, as every light in that second winked out. Jacob pounded on the door even harder and that was enough for Burke to shake off the fear.
If he could dive for the deck, aim for the noise, he might grab his gun . . .
He tried to dive, but something held him fast by the collar of his shirt, gripping him so tight it pulled his shirt against his windpipe. Reflexively, he tried to stab upward at whatever was holding him as something long and soft brushed past his face, sliding down beside him like a rope.
Another hand grabbed his wrist, holding him tight enough to bend his arm back down, driving the point of the blade into his body just under his ribcage, its jagged edges shredding his muscle tissue, cutting his lungs apart and finally piercing his heart. Burke managed a final, gargling spasm of breath before whatever had held him, let him go and he collapsed into a bloody heap on the floor.
Jacob was positively bashing at the window of the airlock now. He couldn't see anything, but he knew what had happened, even before the red-tinted emergency lights finally flickered on and bathed everything in a hellish red glow.
Jacob held the butt of his rifle in the air for a moment, staring at what little he could make out of the face on the other end of the window.
They looked each other in the eye for a moment, and something passed between them--equal parts recognition and realization. Whatever unspoken communication it was, it caused Jacob to throw his rifle aside and spit on the glass at the hard stone-like eyes that stared at him in one last defiant act as the space door opened behind him, and when the air swept him up and blew him out into the vacuum of space to die, he didn't fight it.
"Attention everybody," Bennie's voice cracked over the intercom. He's loose. Get to the upper decks on the double. Dont stop, don't investigate anything . . .
* * *
". . .Just get up here," Bennie said, easing back in his seat, feeling his stomach knot up as he watched a snowy, dark image of Jacob being spaced.
So much for the plan, he thought. He went over the events of the last five minutes in his mind, searching for some clue, some sign he'd taken his eye off the camera feed, something--anything--he'd missed.
Could he have moved in the space between when the camera's picture snowed out completely? How long was that, really--two seconds? Three? No one remotely human could move that fast.
Damn me for being stupid, he thought. I know what happened. I let my mind wander again--took my eye off the ball and thought about my luck when I should have been watching him. Now my goose that laid the golden egg's flown.
Only this goose will murder us all if we're not careful.
He rose from the captain's chair, so deep into the immediate crisis, he ignored the strained squeak it made as it rocked back upright. He walked over to the main console and stared down at one specific bank of switches.
These controlled the oxygen lines for the entire ship. From here, he could cut off the air supply to anywhere on the ship. They'd installed them in the first place to purge the air if they had a viral outbreak on board. After the oxygen purge, they'd have to spend an hour in pressure suits while the ship flushed out the oxygen and cycled in a fresh atmosphere.
Once the rest of the crew were on the upper deck, Bennie intended to dump the oxygen on the lower level. Even if their guest were loose in the ship, the Fortuna didnt have that many open sections between compartments. Instead, they had narrow access tunnels you had to crawl through to get anywhere in the ship. Purging the oxygen would cause them to lock down.
Even without the seals, he couldn't do it in a pressure suit, and with no air to breathe . . .well.
I can do this, he thought. I can still pull this off.
I can make out just as well with the reward for his body, he thought. One way or another, I can take him.
I'm not a loser. Not this time.
* * *
Brown, like Jacob, knew their guest's reputation, but unlike Jacob, was sure it was exaggerated. "All men brag a little," he'd always said--realistically there was no way he could have done everything that had been attributed to him.
If he'd had any notion that the wounded man they'd brought down would have the energy to live through the day--much less escape--he would never have suggested they try to bring him in.
Now Bennie was calling them back to the upper deck, which meant they were down to plan B.
He thought about how they'd all laughed in the mess hall when he'd proposed it. Brown even accused Bennie of overreacting.
"Look at him," he'd said. "How dangerous can he be?"
He hadn't looked like much, Brown thought, slithering through an access tunnel only barely larger than him. He sure didnt look dangerous.
And yet, Jacob looked like he wanted off the ship from the moment he clapped eyes on him, and he knew, and we didnt listen.
And now I'm crawling across the ship through this hot-ass tunnel with almost no air to breathe, he thought, hauling himself upright and setting his rifle aside as he reached for the narrow rungs of the ladder, gasping for air as he hauled himself up the tube.
He tried to slide back down and reach for his rifle, but before he could, a white-metal door snapped closed behind him.
Shit, he thought, flinging himself against the rungs of the ladder and climbing as fast as he could. In the spare light of the tube, he could barely see two feet in front of his face, but he couldn't afford time to glance. If the doors in the access tubes were shutting down, that meant Bennie was starting the purge, and if he dawdled, Brown would be trapped in here, to die of suffocation.
He got so into the process of climbing that he didnt even consider how high up he was. Every time he reached a new rung, he grabbed the next one, and the next one, and on and on.
Until he reached up for another rung, and his sweaty hand brushed against a smooth white-metal door.
Brown looked up at it and shivered. He wanted to bang against it and plead to be let through, but he knew there was no point.
No one would hear him.
All the same, he found he couldn't move. He just hung on to the rungs, staring at the sealed door in front of him, wondering how long he'd have. For a moment, he found himself wanting to laugh for a reason he couldnt really explain to himself. Like he'd just figured out some awful joke someone told him years ago that he'd never really understood.
And then, in a flash, he got it, and he wanted to laugh, even though he shouldn't.
He thought about that for a few minutes as he waited to die.
* * *
Bennie stared at the security board, his hands hovering over the switches to the air supply. He'd sounded the alert five minutes ago--intentionally keeping things vague so that their guest wouldnt have any forewarning of what he was about to do.
If he didnt know what was coming, Bennie reasoned, he couldnt prepare for it, could he?
But where the hell were the others? Brown, Foulkes, and Zalewski should have been back here by now. Even if they'd been on the other end of the ship, they knew it intimately, and would have surely taken every shortcut through the access tunnels to get here.
The question is, would he wait for them?
Every minute he hesitated, their guest---the intruder--got a little closer. For all Bennie knew, he'd already murdered the rest of his crew.
He flinched at that, the unpleasant thought of that caused his fingers to twitch away from the switches.
No, he thought. I won't believe that.
His crew. The only friends he'd ever had. They'd never complained about a thing--never moaned about a payoff, never complained that the rations never went far enough, never sold him out for a better job.
They never called me a loser. I owed them.
And I . . .gambled them on this, he chided himself.
What the hell was I thinking?
His heart sank down into his boots momentarily as he looked over at the bank of security cameras. He resigned himself that none of them would make it to the ready room just behind the bridge, that if they weren't dead, they were trapped on the wrong side of the seals and would be dead soon enough.
If they could just make it to the ready room, they could get the pressure suits there and I could go ahead and hit the switches, he thought. All we'd have to do then was wait him out.
Come on guys, he thought.
* * *
Zalewski came through one of the access panels with such force he actually tumbled to the deck, the pistols holstered at his belt nearly tumbling out. He quickly pulled himself to his feet, loping inelegantly but quickly to the locker on the far well, where the pressure suits waited.
He'd just gotten the locker open when Foulkes made it, coming up through a tunnel in the floor. Foulkes rolled onto the deck, panting and gasping for air as he tried to get the energy to get to his feet.
"Come on," Zalewski shouted, grabbing a neatly folded suit from the locker and tossing it on the floor near Foulkes. "Get this on. We've got maybe two minutes before--"
Foulkes nodded, awkwardly getting to his feet and reaching for the suit.
"Where . . ." he began, gasping for air as he tried to shake the suit out. "Where's everyone else?"
"Dont know," Zalewski said, tossing him a helmet. "Probably dead. Dont know what we're going to do if this doesn't work."
"Jesus. All of them?"
"Do you see any of them around? We have to assume they didn't make it," Zalewski replied. "Get it on so Bennie can hit the purge. NOW!"
Foulkes got the pressure suit unzipped and stepped inside, moving closer to the locker so Zalewski could plug in his oxygen pack.
"Hurry up," Zalewski said.
Foulkes, nodded, lurching towards him as he passed the access hatch that Zalewski had tumbled out of a few minutes ago.
Just as he rose to his feet, something grabbed him, pulling Foulkes halfway into the tunnel. Foulkes screamed and beat his legs as whatever grabbed him, held him tight. He screamed at an even higher pitch as the off-white of his spacesuit began to become stained with splotches of dark red.
Zalewski dropped his own pressure suit and drew one of the pistols from his holster, aiming it in the tunnel. Foulkes wasn't thrashing as much now, and Zalewski thought some of that might have had to do with the fact that the red that had stained his pressure suit was now oozing down the hatch and onto the deck.
Sorry kid, Zalewski thought. I cant save you, but I can pay this bastard back.
He took aim and squeezed the trigger. The gun exploded in his hand, vaporizing it below the elbow in a red cloud and sending a sliver of hot shrapnel into his eye, blinding him. Now Zalewski screamed, shuffling backwards as the stump where his right hand had been seconds before squirted blood in time with his heartbeats.
Through his good eye, he saw Foulkes' body, or what was left of it, hit the deck, and behind that, something else stirred. Zalewski couldn't get a good look, partly because of the loss of blood seemed to be dimming everything.
Whatever it was came over to him, and he felt it pulling the other pistol out of his gunbelt despite his best efforts to get away from it. Zalewski felt himself stumble backward, knocking the back of his head against one of the bulkheads just as the man . . .the thing . . .leveled the pistol at him.
He heard the pistol bark, and then heard nothing.
* * *
He looked at the camera, looking through the heavy door of the bridge right at Bennie.
Before he was even consciously aware of it, Benny hit the switches to key in the oxygen purge. He'd dressed himself in his pressure suit the minute he saw Zalewski enter the ready room, and the fates that had befallen the last two members of his crew had encouraged him to get his own suit ready as quickly as possible.
I'm the last one, he thought, his breath fogging against the visor of his helmet as he watched the camera. Their guest had moved away, but Bennie was reasonably sure he knew where he was going.
He'd gotten rid of the air, and unless he got a pressure suit about two minutes ago, he was as good as dead.
He'll get me . . .unless I flush all the oxygen. I've already purged that section, so even if he tries to grab one of the pressure suits, he'll never get it on in time.
I'm gonna do it, he reminded himself, shaking inside his suit. I'm going to win. I'm going to beat him!
Bennie laughed. This was as high as he'd felt in ages. Maybe he wasn't lucky enough to take the deadliest man in the galaxy in, but he could outlast him, he could beat him. Even if they both died on this ship, it really didn't matter to Bennie anymore--his crew was dead, and as they were his family and friends, he really had nothing more to lose.
He didn't even care about the money anymore. What would he do with it? It didn't matter anymore.
All Bennie wanted now was to outlast the son of a bitch on the other side of the door.
I wont die a loser, dammit.
He cackled again, that weird feeling of lightheadedness taking him away from his fear for a minute. As tears began to stream down his face from laughing, he felt a little melancholy take hold of him as he thought what a shame it was that his crew . . .his friends . . .were all dead.
Because they'd appreciate this, he thought. They'd find it really funny. The miserable little nobody who could never get a break . . .he beat . . .the most dangerous . . .no, that's not right . . .
His thoughts were like quicksilver.
Something was wrong--either with him, or with the suit. He fumbled with it, trying to bend its fabrics over so he could look at the monitor mounted on the front of his suit and check to see how much air he had.
Bennie hit it, then hit it again, hoping it was just a faulty circuit and his oxygen supply would read at 90%. Then he tried to shake it as panic began to fully grip him and he desperately willed it to fill with oxygen.
Then he started to cough, and he began feeling light-headed. He continued to stare at the monitor on his suit, cursing the stupid deal he'd made when he bought a consignment of used pressure suits.
More . . .goddamn . . .rotten . . .luck.
Bennie felt to the ground, coughing and gasping as he tried to get to his feet. Finally, the blackness took him and his eyes drifted closed.
* * *
Perhaps an hour later, something moved in the ship of the dead.
The door to the bridge slid open, and the figure in the pressure suit stepped over Bennie, reaching toward the console and beginning the repressurization sequence. A gentle breeze rustled through the bridge as precious, life-giving oxygen began to flood the bridge.
The figure in the other pressure suit turned and faced the Bennie's prostrate form, the black visor on his helmet down and reflecting the room back on itself as if through some sort of fever-fueled fisheye lens.
The figure stared at the device on his left wrist. After a few minutes, the light on the device went from flashing green to a steady glow, and upon seeing this, the figure reached up and unsealed his helmet.
There was a hiss as the suit depressurized. The figure brushed his chestnut bags away from his sweat-soaked brow as he busied himself with removing the pressure suit, revealing the black and red body armor he wore underneath. His gunbelt was back around his waist, both holsters empty, the hilt of his knife visible from its scabbard in the back. He glared down with cold emerald fire at Bennie, now free of the suit.
Bennie was sure he was dead. He'd black out in the middle of his last coughing fit, and he knew enough about suffocation to know that it was like drowning in blackness--once you went down for the third time, that was it.
Whatever heaven was like, he didn't expect it to be on the bridge of the Fortuna. Nor did he expect to see the man who'd preceded him into death standing above him, a pistol pointed in his face.
He tried to move, but everything felt black, numb, and futile, so he just lay there and tried to make sense of things as best he could.
He'd expected angels, or--knowing the way he'd lived his life--demons. And maybe that's what stared him in the face even now. If he squinted just right, with that long braid he even looked like he had a tail, like the devil was supposed to have.
Weird, he thought, that the devil should look like Kienan Ademetria.
It was the last thought that crossed his mind before a bullet shattered the faceplate of his pressure suit. There was a white-hot flash behind his eyes and what he was sure was pain, but he was too far away to feel it before the black returned and took him for good.
Kienan stared at his handiwork for a moment with a look of utter contempt and irritation on his face, then shoved Bennie's body aside with a perfunctory push of his boot as he made his way to the controls.
"Loser," he growled.