It always started the same. Even standing in the other room, Skadi heard the rapid breath, the hissing through gritted teeth. Her Lady was a proud woman, and fought every time to keep herself from screaming, as she was forbidden from soundproofing the chamber. Then the ragged breathing became gasps, little voiced exhalations of pain. Finally, there would always come the screams, made that much more terrible because Skadi could not otherwise have imagined the flat, expressionless voice producing such sounds. Perhaps that was why this was always done with fresh clones, and an ungodly amount of nerve boosters. The screams reached a crescendo as Skadi heard the familiar rending, cracking sound. One piercing shriek followed, and then a heavy slump. Sizzling sounds next, and the faint whirr and buzz of mechanical equipment at work, punctuated only by muted, choking sobs. Skadi had heard this many times. It did not get easier.
Ten minutes later, a diminutive Khanid emerged from behind the thin screen provided for her privacy. She wore black and crimson robes, the colors of her house. Her dark hair fell loose about her shoulders, and a new prosthetic hand shone with a factory finish at her left sleeve. Her Lady’s slender build and tiny statue made her look almost childlike, particularly when standing beside Skadi, who was a full foot and a half taller. Tilting her head back, those blank red eyes met the Brutor soldier’s, irises slowly rotating.
“Thank you for being so prompt, Skadi,” Lilly said in her dull, monotone voice so at odds with what Skadi had just heard.
Most people in Lady Terranova’s employ thought of her as emotionless, an ice queen ruled by cold, calculating pragmatism. It was often said that if she had any emotions at all, they were all expressed in impatient irritation. Skadi had known her for years, and had learned better, though she suspected that none believed these rumors more than the Lady herself, perhaps even clinging to the image of her as an emotionless martinet. Or maybe the agonies devised by the King for her intemperate years among pirates simply sapped her of affect. Still, Skadi knew this greeting to be her Lady’s way of expressing that she was pleased to see her.
“Of course, my Lady. I was surprised you wanted me to meet you…here, though.”
“You do not approve?” Lilly asked, looking around.
The station was too far from home and too close to Delve for Skadi’s liking, particularly with the increased activity of the Blood Raiders within the Empire. “No, I don’t. We shouldn’t be here.”
Lilly’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, but not in anger. The Khanid was, Skadi knew, very slow to anger, particularly with her subordinates, though the edges of her calm had begun fraying in the wake of the Triglavians’ invasions. No, this was curiosity. A military woman at heart, Skadi knew Lilly to be the sort of commander who valued her subordinates’ opinions. At times like this, it was even Skadi’s role to disagree with her decisions, to offer an opposing view. That was not so difficult today.
“Why not? We are here only to purchase dropships in the event that a planetary evacuation becomes necessary in our home system.”
“We could do that in the State. Or we could do it in Domain, or even in the Kingdom, where you’d be expected to buy that sort of thing.”
“We could,” Lilly agreed. “But then the purchases would be a matter of record, and I, a Holder, would be seen to be preparing to evacuate or even abandon my holdings. I do not want to cause a panic, or arouse suspicion that I mean to flee an invasion.”
“It would be easy to explain as vessels for deployment of ground forces,” Skadi countered.
“Not if they are equipped with warp drives.”
Skadi frowned. “So you do want to evacuate.”
Lilly shook her head. “Not at all. But I will not leave a population stranded in a potentially hostile situation if it comes to that. I wish only to be prepared for all eventualities.”
“Well how’s it going to look, you doing business out here?”
“I am a capsuleer. I do business in many distasteful places. It is—“
“My Lady, you won’t get another chance if you do something to upset the K—“
“I am well aware, thank you, Skadi,” Lilly said mildly. “So it is better we conduct this business quickly.”
Skadi couldn’t hide her frustration. “If you’re not going to listen to me, then why am I here?”
Lilly looked back up at her, the corners of her lips twitching in what amounted to her typically statuesque face’s approximation of a smile. “It would not do for a Holder to go unprotected.”
The Brutor woman snorted indelicately. “Oh, right. How silly of me.”
“It is best if we complete this transaction quickly. There is too much other work to be done for me to be here long. And there is something else I would like you to do while I am brokering the sale,” Lilly explained, starting off to the station proper without a backward glance.
Sighing, Skadi made to follow her. It wasn’t hard. Lilly had to take two steps to the much taller woman’s one. If anything, Skadi had to consciously slow her own pace to not pull ahead of her Lady. “Is this anything to do with the meeting you had with—“
“—You know nothing of that, and we will not speak of it,” Lilly said quickly.
Skadi did know about it, though, but she understood Lilly’s reluctance to discuss it. If the Bloody King, as many of her fellow House Guards liked to call him, turned his eye back to Lilly, there wouldn’t be much left of her or her Holdings when he got through with her. That included Skadi and those others Lilly employed, to say nothing of those she owned. Skadi was fortunate in that she had been freed, and so might have the choice of simply fleeing and escaping any Imperial ire her Lady aroused.
“All right. But maybe don’t run your mouth so much for a while? Lay low and just keep killing the Trigonometries or whatever,” Skadi suggested. Of course, she knew the proper name, but little things like this she did more to remind her Lady not to take everything so bloody seriously all the time.
“Triglavians,” Lilly corrected predictably, glancing up at Skadi out of the corner of her eyes. Certainly it was not acceptable to speak to a Holder like that, as Skadi well knew. But that was simply how she had always spoken to her Lady. Lilly knew the Brutor respected her and would follow orders when it came to it, and that was enough. “And perhaps you are right.”
“There are a lot of lives to think about.”
Lilly nodded. “Yes,” she agreed, but swiftly changed the subject. “While I am meeting with my…contact, I would like you to go to the entertainment concourse and meet with a man who goes by Renault. He is Gallente. Tall, blue hair. You should find him in whatever bar seems seediest. He has some information for me. It should be on a storage unit, so simply collect it from him.”
“Does he know I’ll be doing that?” Skadi asked. “Or will this be a surprise visit?”
“He has been paid for his trouble,” Lilly answered. “If you have any issues retrieving the data, or find the situation becomes dangerous…” She handed Skadi the panic button that most Holders kept with them and held out her other hand for the receiver to the same, which Skadi kept on her person.
“Seriously? A Holder protecting her House Guard?”
Lilly shrugged, and Skadi sighed, handing her the receiver as she accepted the panic button.
“This is where we part ways. And remember, if anything goes wrong, signal me immediately.”
Skadi nodded. This was more important than Lilly wanted to say. Sure, Lilly only kept her around when she made public appearances so as not to seem careless and rash—an accusation more than once leveled against her. But still, Skadi did not like the idea of calling her Lady into danger. Not, she supposed, that that really mattered to a capsuleer. She was probably in a new clone because she’d backed herself up just before coming here, which also gave Skadi a sense of the danger this whole affair posed, though she expected that the danger was in the deal Lilly was going to make, not where she, Skadi, was being sent.
They parted ways at the lift leading to the entertainment concourse. Skadi took one car down to the areas reserved for lower-class entertainment, and Lilly up to the more well-to-do section of the station. This far out on the fringes of the Empire, so close to lawless space, Skadi saw few actual citizens of the Empire, and far more travelers, traders, mercenaries, and criminals. She fit right in with the bunch, dressed as she was in light combat armor, weapons carried visibly at her hip and on her back. That was maybe the one good thing about stations like this. They represented one of the few opportunities Skadi had to actually blend in, though some noted the lack of a Voluval tattoo on an apparently free Minmatar.
The instant Skadi stepped off the lift, the sights, sounds, and scents of the lower entertainment concourse assaulted Skadi in a wave of pulsing lights, raucous chatter, and the odor of too many bodies packed together in a chamber with recycled air. Being used to the open mountain air, Skadi found the whole experience repellant. But, duty was duty, and she wasn’t going to help keep her people safe from Trianglenometrylavians if she stood there griping about station life.
Unfortunately, the description of “tall, blue-haired Gallente” was not as helpful here as it might have been more toward the heart of the Empire. She spotted two within moments of stepping off the elevator, but neither were in bars, so she simply noted where they were heading and kept on her course. Finding the “seediest” bar wasn’t much of a project, it turned out. Amid the shuffle of station guests and residents, over whose heads Skadi generally had little trouble seeing, one such establishment stood out. Or rather, failed to stand out. Its lighting was only partially functional, so the name “Grande Olde Tyme” read as something closer to “Rande Lyme” to anyone passing by. The windows were smeared with grease and the grime of accumulated cigarette smoke, and the door was open to reveal an almost completely unlit interior. It seemed a likely candidate.
Inside, Skadi had to pause and almost cover her nose. If the scent of bodies packed together in the station was bad, this place had an odor of stale sweat and vomit that came with a rather unenthusiastic cleaning staff working to keep up with an especially slovenly customer base. One of the patrons by the bar noticed the look on the woman’s face and let out a deep guffaw.
“Lookit this monster of a woman. Prolly crush a skull in ‘er ‘and but she can’t take a bit a smoke!” he grunted to the man sitting next to him, a heavyset Civire with a jaw like a tritanium beam and small, watery eyes. He might have been half a foot shorter than Skadi, but he was almost half again as wide.
“Don’t look so tough from here,” he growled.
“It’s not the smoke,” Skadi returned. “You two smell like week-old fedo ■■■■.”
Both men looked at each other. Skadi was too accustomed to saying whatever came to mind around her Lady and those she kept company with. These two clearly didn’t appreciate it. The Civire, clearly drunk, lurched unsteadily to his feet.
“What’d you say?”
“I said you smell like week-old fedo ■■■■, but that was just me being polite,” she replied, glancing about the bar to see if the man she sought was present.
“Hey, Grolan, take it outside if you’re gonna start another fight,” the bartender called. “You can’t afford to replace anymore starsdamned stools or windows.”
Not seeing the man she was seeking, Skadi shrugged. “Fine with me. At least I’ll be able to breathe out there.”
Another of the patrons laughed, evidently appreciating the aspersions cast on the Civire’s hygiene, though one look at the woman told Skadi that she wasn’t a great deal cleaner. Her apparently lack of attention paid to Grolan seemed only to serve to further irritate him. He let out a bellow, and charged toward Skadi. Once, he might have been a threat. What had clearly been muscle had long since gone to flab, and whatever instincts he might have had as a soldier—so Skadi guessed his former occupation to be—had been drowned in whatever rotgut he’d been guzzling. She neatly sidestepped him, letting him barrel past her, and gave him a swift kick in the posterior as he did. In consequence, he tumbled rather gracelessly out the front door, landing face first in the thoroughfare.
That got a laugh. She took a bow to the smattering of applause and turned to leave, wondering what could possibly be seedier than the Randy Lime. Sidestepping the prone Civire, Skadi stepped back out onto the station streets to peer around. There didn’t seem to be any likely candidates in the area. Frowning, she glanced back toward the lift, wondering if she should have gone to a different level. While she stood there thinking, the Civire had managed to force his way to his feet.
“I’ll rip your damned heart out!” he roared, charging at Skadi again.
Truth to tell, she’d figured he was done for the night, and hadn’t been expecting a second attack. Still, he was too slow. Skadi stepped into the alley between the bar and a rather dingy looking restaurant beside it, and as he tried again to tackle her, she ducked, planting both hands in his stomach, and flipped him over her back and into the open dumpster. Unfortunately, it would do nothing to improve his smell, but she doubted he would have an easy time climbing out, given the state of him. Thrashing and swearing echoed from the dumpster, and Skadi had to step back to dodge a few bottles being tossed over its edge at her.
She tripped on something soft.
Catching herself on the grimy wall, Skadi looked down and saw that she had just stepped on the outstretched leg of a very, very dead Gallente man with a shock of bright blue hair. Reflexively, she reached up, slamming the heavy covering down atop the dumpster to mute any sound from within, and turned her attention to the man before her. Yes, he was definitely dead. A laser burn through the center of his chest told her that he’d been killed fairly recently, as there was still the faint odor of burned flesh clinging to him, and his body had not yet gone cold or rigid. So, whoever had killed him was probably close by. She reached into her pocket and touched the panic button. This definitely counted as something going wrong. Worried now, Skadi began patting the man down, searching for any data storage device he may be carrying.
Her world exploded into stars as something flat and heavy hit the back of her head. A boot. Skadi sprawled across the ground, rolling away and curling defensively in anticipation of further blows. The breath almost went out of her lungs as she rolled hard into the corner of the dumpster in which the drunken Grolan was still cursing and shouting. As soon as it became clear there would be no immediate follow-up to the first blow, Skadi sprang to her feet, putting as much distance between herself and the apparent source of the attack as she could.
Coming to her feet, Skadi caught sight of three people crowding one end of the alley, and another three at the opposite, boxing her in. Nausea gripped her as her head rang from the blow. A concussion, she was all but certain. That would have to wait. Her assailants bore no identifying marks on their clothing, but none of it looked to be military issue. That might be a good sign. But it might not. Leaning her shoulders back against the wall, Skadi took a moment to try and steady her spinning head while also looking nonchalant.
“I’m guessing you’re not with station security, huh?” she said, playing for time.
Six on one wasn’t her idea of a good time. She might win. She might not. If they were drunken thugs like Grolan, she’d take her chances. But the almost parade rest stances each of them had told her that if they weren’t active military, then they all had been at once point or another. The best she would be able to do is hope that her Lady made it to bail her out, preferably with station security in tow.
“You were here for Renault?” one of them asked, face obscured by a hood and what was either a privacy mask or a well-concealed tactical visor. The voice was ever so slightly attenuated, leaving Skadi thinking it might have been combat headgear. Fortunately, she didn’t think they were wearing powered suits, or the kick to her head would’ve caved in her skull.
“I was here to take out the trash. Didn’t really expect to find I wasn’t the only one dropping morons in the trash today, though,” she said, trying to play it off as if she hadn’t noticed the man was dead. “But that’s your business, and I’ll just be going about mine.”
The three figures in front of her took a step forward in unison. A soft shuffle behind her told her the other group was doing likewise. Seconds ticked off the clock as she considered what to say. They weren’t attacking, so they must want something from her. Information? Probably to know who she was working for. Maybe the data was encrypted? No. Skadi shook herself. Now was not the time to be speculating.
“You were searching the body.”
Skadi shrugged. “No harm taking a few credits off a sleeping drunk,” she said, spreading her hands. If she went for her weapon, the ones behind he would shoot her before she could bring it to bear. She needed to get around the other side of the dumpster, fight in close.
“Come with us. We have questions.”
So they weren’t official. The MIO would’ve thrown a black bag over her head and had done with it. Any organization here with a more official agenda would’ve arrested her and read charges. That left mercenaries, criminals, pirates… Each of the six figures wore a tan poncho that covered them almost from neck to toe, the hood obscuring any facial features. If they were Cartel, Serpentis, or Raiders, they weren’t displaying it openly, even down here. Well, there was one way to find out.
Skadi shrugged and stepped forward, around the dumpster, hands held out, palms up, wrists together as if she intended to let them cuff her. “Want to tell me why I’m being arrested?” she asked conversationally as she approached the one nearest the dumpster, rather than the one in the middle who had been speaking. This had the desired effect of evidently confusing them. They hadn’t expected her to cooperate. The figure she now stood before glanced uncertainly at the leader in the center, who made an impatient gesture toward Skadi’s wrists. Well, they obviously had restraints of some kind. Still being much taller, Skadi couldn’t get a good look at their faces, but as she leaned forward and drew in a breath through her nose, her face wrinkled.
Serpentis operatives usually smelled like gunmetal and shoe polish. They fancied themselves professionals, and treated their gear with a near-military reverence. Cartel operatives tended to smell like spices and stims. Exotic and hedonist was their thing, after all. But only one faction smelled like copper and the faintest hint of cloying rot: Blood Raiders. Probably the time around their “sacrifices” for their rituals as their bodies were just starting to turn when they couldn’t get them “fresh” enough. That was bad.
The operative was reaching toward the holster at Skadi’s hip to disarm her. “Man, I thought the dumpster smelled bad,” she said, glancing at the middle operative. “This guy knows what I mean, yeah?” Her knee came up between the operative’s knees just as their hand closed on her gun. A harsh, groaning whoosh of air told her she’d guessed his sex right. He doubled over, releasing her gun, and Skadi jerked him around in front of her, positioning him between the other two operatives at her end of the alley as she crouched behind the dumpster for cover from the other three.
No gunshots. They wanted her alive. But that didn’t mean they didn’t come at her. Skadi planted a kick square in the man’s fundament, sending him sprawling into his companions as she drew her own gun. He fell in front of her, and she snapped off two shots at the agents in front of him. Her Minmatar firearm roared as its projectiles exploded from the short barrel, the sound almost deafening in the alley, followed by two bangs. One was muffled, and accompanied by a wet spray of blood in all directions. The explosive round had lodged in the skull of the lead operative, reducing it to a fine red mist. The other had glanced off the wall behind the third.
Firearms were…not always ideal in such close quarters. Before Skadi could bring her weapon down to aim at the third operative, he had shoved his falling companion aside and thrown himself bodily onto her. This had the effect of shielding her from any fire, but the knife in his hands was none too reassuring. He tried to drive it down into her chest, and Skadi was forced to drop her own weapon to grab his wrist with both hands, stopping him. Her muscles bulged as she shoved his weapon backward. Even when he brought his other hand to join the first, he could not overpower her. Slowly, she turned the blade around, pushing it up toward his chest.
Before she could bury it in him, he was yanked off of her and the muzzle of an Amarrian laser pistol, its barrel smeared with red-brown, was pushed into her face. Not fancying the idea of seeing how her teeth fared against an energy weapon, Skadi raised her hands once more. “Okay, you got me,” she said, doing her best to sound sheepish. “I wasn’t taking out the trash. I—“
The operative threatening her was suddenly hurled backward with such force that the wall bucked slightly when he hit it, a sickening thud and crunch making it clear to all present that he would not be getting up again. Ever. For an instant, the remaining four operatives exchanged confused looks as a frankly tiny Khanid woman entered the alleyway wearing a glossy black podsuit. She must have shed her robe in expectation of a fight.
“Blooders,” Skadi said, not wanting to distract Lilly much at a moment when several armed people were confronting her.
One of the others, recovering from their surprise, turned their pistol toward Lilly. Her cybernetic arm shot out, grabbing the barrel and crushing it without a word. She dropped the ruined gun, instead grabbing her would-be assailant by the throat and shoving them back against another of their companions. Skadi heard the snapping of vertebrae an instant later, followed by another crunching sound as she throttled the person behind them with their ally’s corpse. Both slid to the ground. Lilly crouched below a kick from another of the Blooders, bringing her cybernetic arm around and slamming him into the dumpster. She drew his pistol from his side as he lurched forward and fired at the last standing Blooder, taking them in the chest.
Dropping the firearm, Lilly went to the man she’d thrown against the dumpster. His helmet had tumbled off, revealing a weathered face smeared with what Skadi told herself repeatedly was just red war paint. His eyes were wide with fear though as Lilly hauled him to his feet and shoved him against the wall. She gripped his throat, pushing him upward, but the man was so much taller than her that, if she meant to lift him off his feet, she was simply too short to do so.
Evidently he noticed this too. He glanced down at her, then at the ground, then at her again.
“Are you trying—“ he began
“Are trying to lift him off his feet…but you’re too short?” Skadi couldn’t stop herself from asking first, cutting him off.
“Mmm,” Lilly rumbled. “Who sent yo—“
Lilly blinked in surprise as the man dropped the quarter of an inch she’d managed to get him up back to his feet as her cybernetic arm detached from her body in a hissing hail of sparks. Glancing at the metallic stump that ended halfway down her bicep, Lilly frowned, her gaze drifting to a woman standing a few feet away in a combat suit, holding what looked for all the stars in the cluster like a sword.
“A monomolecular blade,” Lilly observed.
Skadi spared a moment to wonder if her arm had pain receptors, but decided it must not have. That would be an odd design choice anyway. Unfortunately for the man she’d been about to interrogate, what the arm did not have was any sort of failsafe release that seemed to be activating. He had slid down the wall, choking as the arm’s fingers remained tight around his throat, a blue tinge creeping into his lips. No. Stop. Don’t, she halfheartedly willed the severed prosthetic.
Whoever this new attacker was did not seem as interested in taking them alive. She lunged immediately at Lilly, the blade flashing. It was a much better fit for close quarters than a gun, but Lilly was faster. She dodged to one side, narrowly avoiding the thrust that would’ve impaled her. The attacker swiftly changed the thrust into a level slice, and Lilly bent almost completely backward at the waist to avoid it. Spinning to come upright, Lilly swatted the back of the blade with her remaining hand, sending it deep into the nearby wall.
This bought her a precious second as its wielder decided not to release it, instead giving a powerful jerk to tug it free. Lilly kicked straight up, snapping her attacker’s head back and sending her staggering half a step backward. She caught herself quickly, sword now in hand.
“Lilly!” Skadi called, not really feeling there was time for a, “Lady Terranova” in this.
She grabbed her own fallen weapon, tossing it to her Lady. The Khanid caught it deftly, ducking and turning to bring it to bear. But her attacked moved with inhuman speed, slicing through the barrel and, very nearly, Lilly’s trigger finger as well. Lilly threw the useless weapon directly into her opponent’s face, forcing the Blooder—if a Blooder this newcomer was—to bat it aside. In the time that took, Lilly reached back, grabbing her prosthetic arm from where it remained, wrapped around the man’s neck. The sheer force of her grabbing it wrenched it free, the fingers curled in a clawlike grip on nothing.
Lilly swing it around with all her might, striking the woman in her mask. Skadi heard the crunch of metal on metal, and glass breaking, followed by a cry from within the mask. Some of the glass, Skadi could see, had sliced into the woman’s eyes. Lilly struck again, this time at the woman’s stomach, knocking her backward. As her assailant fell, Lilly touched something on the arm, and the fingers all pressed together, stretched straight out. These she drove straight down through the mask and into the woman’s skull. Skadi winced as the white prosthetic was stained red all the way to the elbow.
“Are you all right, Skadi?” Lilly asked calmly.
“Think I have a concussion,” she said. “Other than that, fine.”
Lilly jerked her arm out of the visor, flicking bits of skull and grey matter off of it.
“People are going to notice you walking around the station carrying a bloody severed arm,” Skadi pointed out.
Nodding in concession to this point, Lilly ripped one of the ponchos off of the dead Blooders and wrapped the limb up in the thick cloth, tucking it under her arm. She then pulled another poncho off of one closer to her size and threw it over herself.
“Search them for the data drive. It will not be large,” Lilly instructed, hurriedly checking the pockets of those around her.
Skadi went directly to the one who had been the leader, quickly finding it in one of their belt pouches. Drawing it out, she held it up for Lilly. “Got it.”
“Put it somewhere secure. Come. We need to move quickly. That was a clone trooper. She will already be making her report.”
Skadi blinked, glancing at the dead woman with the crushed faceplate. The prospect of facing a clone trooper again was not at all appealing, and so she is quick to slip the data drive into one of her many pockets before glancing out toward the street. Predictably, the sounds of gunfire had aroused a great deal of attention, and people were already milling about, clearing the area. Station security sirens were already audible in the distance.
“Station security’s on the way,” Skadi reported.
“Then we must hurry. I do not want it being known that we were involved.”
“I think we’re past that…”
“We will deal with that later. We need to leave with that information now.”
“What is on this thing that’s so important?”
“Later!” Lilly hissed.