Authors: Ann Aguirre
Considering, Silence mentally adjusted her plans. And smiled.
Hunting for Payback
A bad feeling plagued Dred all the way back.
The explosion might've been a failure in station systems, but she didn't think so. Something about the attack felt premeditated, and they wouldn't find out the truth until all members of the group were accounted for. Returning to base camp felt twice as long, and she couldn't relax until they popped out of the depths and found Jael already waiting, joking with Hex on the other side of the room.
A breath she didn't even realize she was holding slipped out in a sigh. Hex was unharmed, apparently unconcerned by the explosion. Jael must've heard it, considering he had the same acute senses as Dred, but he gave no sign. That was probably for the best, all things considered.
“Let's see your inventory,” she said.
Jael pushed to his feet and crossed to meet her. He handed her a scrap of paper etched in what looked like charcoal. Dred skimmed the list with an appraising eye.
Vost came up to stand at her shoulder, reading along with her. “Looks like you found some good shit,” he observed.
“What about you?” Jael asked.
Dred handed over the list. Before Jael was done inspecting it, Hex snatched it out of his hands. “Nice. I can't believe your friend stashed a power converter. That'll help.”
“Where's everyone else?” Vost wanted to know.
Hex shrugged. “Not sure. We were the first ones back.”
While they were waiting, Dred put together a meal. If the others ran into trouble, they would want some food when they got back. Sure enough, Calypso and Duran were hungry when they arrived about an hour later. Their inventory was the most promising yet, containing several parts that needed to be moved to the docking bay. So far nothing was big enough that it required a hover dolly, and most of it could be transported through the ducts.
Nice stroke of luck, that.
Another hour passed before Keelah showed up, with Redmond leaning heavily on her shoulder. They were both covered in blood, and the merc looked like he had narrowly escaped having his throat cut. Questions could wait. Dred sprang into action, using their precious and limited water supply to clean the man's wounds. As she worked, Keelah said, “The ambush came out of nowhere. I thought we were home free when they hit us.”
“You didn't smell them?” Jael asked.
She didn't pause for Keelah's reply. Redmond was still losing blood, so she tore his shirt into strips and bound his injuries as the female said, “No, it was too close to the engines. Everything down there is oil and hot metal.”
“That's convenient.” Duran wore a thunderous scowl. “It seems more likely that you saw an opportunity to thin us out.”
Redmond shook his head weakly. “I'd be dead already if not for her. She's a ferocious fighter when she's cornered.”
Since Dred had seen as much firsthand, that didn't surprise her though the mercs seemed startled. Vost leaned down, checking her handiwork, and she cut him a look that made him back off a few paces. Soon, she had Redmond bandaged up, but she didn't like his odds of survival without antibiotics, pain meds, and better treatment. By his commander's grim expression, he shared her dark outlook, not that they'd tell Redmond. He was pale-faced and sweaty, but he didn't seem to have processed the fact that the rents in his flesh would turn septic if poison didn't get him first.
It would be kinder to put him down.
Otherwise, dying would be slow and painful. But he wasn't one of hers, so that call had to come from Vost. On the floor, Redmond moaned. His cheeks were shifting from the pallor caused by blood loss into the ruddy splotches of fever.
The merc commander drew Keelah aside for a private conversation; he couldn't know that he'd have to leave the room to make it so Dredâand Jael tooâcouldn't overhear. She wasn't
to eavesdrop. Recently acquired talents just made it impossible not to.
“How many were there?” Vost asked.
“Six, give or take. We got three, the others took off, like they were receiving orders.” The female shook her head. “You don't understand how
“They didn't have comm units.”
“Of course not. But I swear it was like they heard something, all at the same time, too.”
“Well,” Vost said. “That's disquieting.”
“You've no idea.”
“Where did they come from?”
“Up above.” Keelah's tone was neutral.
Vost let out a strangled sound, full of foreboding and frustration. “Which means they're scouring the ducts for us.”
“Seems likely,” she allowed.
“We won't be able to hide here long then.” The mercenary commander spoke Dred's own thoughts. “We have to move quickly and set up in the docking bay, or they'll pick us off.”
“I think we can get the force fields up again once we're inside,” Keelah said.
Vost looked grim. “I hope so. At this point, fortification is our only hope.”
He's right. We have to dig in and prepare for a siege while doing our damnedest to build something spaceworthy out of scrap and salvage.
“Tam and Martine still aren't back,” Jael said, drawing Dred's attention from the exchange across the room.
If Redmond and Keelah had run into trouble, the last pair might have, too. Unlike most of the other squads, Dred cared enough about them to risk search and rescue. She wouldn't stick her neck out for Duran, Vost, or Redmond.
Keelah. Definitely not Hex since she'd just met the alien. Such emotional triage qualified her as an asshole, Dred knew. But that was how you stayed alive in Perditionâby calculating the odds and not taking stupid risks for people who wouldn't reciprocate.
“I'll go,” she murmured.
“We're okay,” Martine grunted as she popped through the access panel.
“Bit singed. And the stash was blown to shit.” Tam was burned a couple of places, mostly his forearms.
“That doesn't sound like Ike,” Dred commented.
Martine wore a permanent snarl. “Pretty sure Silence's crew raided our cache first and left us an exploding present to find.”
Tam nodded. “There were traps all over the area. I should've been more careful.”
“I'm glad you made it,” Dred said. “Now we need to plan some payback.”
Jael set his jaw, and she recognized the look from the last time when he'd gone rogue sniper, determined to take out the mercs. Since they only had one major enemy left to face, there was no question what he had in mind.
But maybe I can talk him out of it.
This time, Jael didn't sneak away. He waited until just before the watches started and pulled Dred aside. He began, “I'm telling you this as a courtesy, not asking permission.”
“You're going after Silence,” she said softly.
“Everything changes with her out of the picture. Her minions become easier to kill, less dedicated to wiping us out.”
“I don't think you realize how well protected she is. She's like the queen at the center of the hive. Drones will die in droves to keep you from her.”
“And I don't think
realize how much experience I have hunting hard targets.”
It wasn't an idle boast, either. Back in his days as a merc, his commanders never blinked at aiming him at some impossible task.
Of course, you're only half as effective as you used to be.
But this wouldn't be like assassinating a general behind enemy lines; there was no razor wire, no electrified perimeter, no minefield. At worst, there would be some traps and a lot of tongueless assholes to carve a path through.
“Fine,” she said. “I can't send anyone with you, but I suspect you knew that.”
He nodded. “This is a solo mission. I'll be back soon.”
Jael leaned in for a kiss, and she met him more than halfway, such a change from the frozen princess in chains who glared anytime he stretched out a hand. Until meeting her, he'd lost hope that anyone could accept him as he was and not constantly see a failed experiment instead of a person. Gratitude certainly ringed his feelings for Dred, but at the heart of it, there was so much more.
Everything, in fact.
“Be careful,” she said.
“You went there once, right? With the Speaker.”
Dred nodded. “I don't know if they're still in the same place, but let me map it for you.”
He memorized the route she drew and discarded it. The others didn't notice when he slipped out. This reminded him of when he'd gone out to snipe mercs, not expecting to make it back in one piece. At least this time, he'd kept his promise and not simply disappeared.
There was no laser rifle, either. Weapons would only slow him down and make it difficult to move silently. No, if he succeeded in taking Silence out, it would be with his bare hands.
This shit has gone on long enough.
When he went out with Hex, he had to worry about how well the alien could fight. The same with Dred since she abandoned her chains in favor of stealth.
But I'm sodding tired of being hunted.
He was careful in moving to the center of the station, where Silence had holed up like a spider. Jael half expected to find the place deserted since Dred knew where they were, but from the smell on approach, Death was thriving.
He stilled, listening to their movements. Since it was down cycle, he didn't hear many of her trained killers roaming around.
That'll make my job easier.
Though he'd love to execute the lot of them, that wouldn't cut the head off the snake.
Then again, if I thin the herd, she can't replenish her numbers.
There was no point in speculating until he actually got inside. Dred didn't know the back way into the territory, as she'd followed the Speaker in through the front door, so to speak. There were two sentries on watch, both painted with the disconcerting death art that made it impossible to read their expressions. Even from this distance, he could tell that they were awake if not alert. Most of the lights had been disabled, leaving only a flickering overhead here and there, and a miasma of smoke hung heavy in the air. It smelled like every village he'd ever burned, all the corpses he'd ever flung on an open fire.
He found a scrap of metal and chucked it between two watchmen. That instant of distraction was all he needed to race up and snap their necks, two clean twists. Jael grabbed their arms and guided their bodies down to avoid the thud. Surely others must be nearby, and they'd recognize that sound. Then he stepped into Silence's domain, ready to end her.
Like a shadow, he prowled amid piles of dried skin and bones, heaps of rotting meat. Though he'd seen countless wartime atrocities, never anything like this, and more than once, he had to choke down the bile pooling in his throat. Breathing the fetid air alone felt like it might kill him. He skirted a pair of bodies writhing together in the blood and filth, playing some unholy game with their blades. Honest to Mary, it felt like a mercy when he snatched up a discarded knife and cut the woman's throat cleanly, only her partner didn't seem to notice. He kept moving on her, transported with grotesque, inhuman ecstasy. So Jael killed him, too.
It's like these daft buggers are stoned out of their minds.
As soon as the thought registered, it rang true. There was no other explanation for how completely Silence controlled her minions.
But what's she feeding them? How do they make it?
If he could find her chem and torch it, Death's sodding Handmaiden would find herself at the mercy of deviants in withdrawal. While he'd much prefer to stick a blade in her neck, he didn't
her. He found the massive bone chair that she presumably used when she was in residence, holding court over madmen and junkies, but it sat empty while her followers humped and moaned, oblivious to his presence.
This doesn't make sense. How can they have the presence of mind to patrol? So maybe this is their off-duty reward?
His skin crawled. Before he went after the drugs, he had a score to settle on behalf of all the Queenslanders who had died in their sleep.