A Town Called Malice
Lewis Smith

© Copyright 2000, Lewis Smith.

The only lights that came through the boarded-up windows painted the abandoned room in the shimmering gold late-afternoon light. Dust from years, probably decades of absence danced in the air, a glittering picture of neglect. Between the peeling paint on the buckling and bubbling walls, the dry, musty smell, and the ghostly drift of dusty air in late afternoon sunlight, it felt like a house only fit for ghosts.

Fitting enough, Mara thought, hands clutched tight around the velvet bag that was pressed between her scarred and aching hands. The coins inside clinked and rustled against each other, dry as the air she was breathing.

Who had lived here before, she wondered? Where had they gone? The place seemed lived in, but also seemed as though there had never been a living human being within its walls.

Until me, anyway. Maybe I’m the first person here, ever.

She tried to smile, but it had been so long all she felt was a little pull on her face, a weak little sensation that soon faded.

Yes, Mara had come to a house full of ghosts, with a bag of everything she’d earned, borrowed, sold, or stolen in three years, to make an offering.

Or was it a wish?

Both, she reminded herself. It was both.

The knowledge and the meaning of that steadied her a bit.

She held on to the bag tightly, thinking of everything that was in there. She counted it, three times a day, every day, for three years. It was her most closely guarded secret. She’d even slept with it, holding it against her stomach with one hand.

In the other she’d held a knife. What was in that bag had kept her alive through these last four years. Four years that should have killed her, but for this one thing keeping her going.

When she heard the door swing shut behind her, she was so startled, she almost dropped the bag. Her gnarled hands clutched at it, a yelp of terror escaping her lips as she got it back in her hands.

When she looked up at the wall again, he was there, a black silhouette framed by shafts of light and drifting dust.

Given the weird, spiky shape of his hair and the long braid that trailed behind him, it—he—looked, in that moment, like the devil.

* * *

Mara squeezed the bag a little tighter as the dark shape loomed before her. The shock of terror that went through her when she dropped the bag had made her a bit giddy. She knew on one level she’d come to see a man about a job. At its heart, that was all this was, a job.

But getting this place, what it meant to her, had, in three years’ time, taken on so much more to her. It had been all that had kept her alive. And, as the flickering bit of the person she had been whispered in quieter moments, it had also made her insane.

But mad or not, she was here.

And so was he.

“I didn’t think you’d come. I mean . . . I hoped. . .you would,” she stammered. Her voice cracked. “Hope” wasn’t a word she used often anymore.

She pushed the bag across the table towards him.

The man didn’t reach for it, didn’t move at all. The clouds of her mania had rolled away a little and she began picking out what details about him that she could in the light.

He was a young man, younger than she expected. His emerald eyes were dark, but didn’t seem cold. If anything, they seethed with a fury that Mara imagined would have scared people, if she hadn’t seen that same rage in her eyes too when she looked at herself.

“I know it’s not enough,” she said, gesturing to the bag. “But they said . . . I heard . . .that you might . . .” The thought drifted. The mania was coming back. Her heart was pounding.

“Did you find the place?”

“Malus-9, Outpost 45.” the man responded. His voice was tight and even.

“Is the colony still there?”

The man nodded.

Mara took a deep breath. What teeth she still had ground painfully against their counterparts. She hadn’t expected to have such a visceral reaction to hearing that place spoken aloud again, but it leapt out of her like a wild, burning, anger.

It scared her, but she also welcomed it. It focused her, and she decided to get to the point.

“They said you can kill anyone,” she said. “Or anything.”

The man stared at her. Those angry eyes burned right through her.

“I want you to kill that entire outpost. Everyone on it. Burn it all. Just. . .burn it all.”

“Why should I?”

“The money—”

“The money got you this meeting. It got me listening to you. So, tell me everything.”

She told him:

* * *

MA-LU5 was an unremarkable planetoid on the far end of the Frontier, a barren rock with a breathable, if sweltering, atmosphere, but barely any agriculture, and hardly capable of comfortably supporting life. But for one little thing, it might have drifted alone, tumbling in the dark, another inhospitable rock in a firmament that had more than its share.

But MA-LU5 had gevenite, and gevenite was always in demand. Gevenite powered the Space Drives that let humans traverse the cosmos, and even a little could make you rich.

And MA-LU5 had a lot, even if it was too far for most of the major mining companies to exploit at the scale it deserved. To fully tap the resource, it needed to be closer to the shipping lanes, it had to be easier to get people and supplies to it, and it had to actually be viable for long-term colonization.

For the larger mining corporations, it failed every one of those criteria, and every survey team marked it for further study someday. Maybe once the shipping lanes were closer, or once they could finally fully automate the mining process. There was an always an excuse.

For them.

Roland Ferron, in his considered opinion, thought they were idiots. The mining corporations thought too big—they insisted that every single mining operation had to support a colony that would continue after they’d exhausted the deposit. That meant costs in the billions, and while they’d eventually make it back on the market, Ferron saw it as wasted expense.

Why start the venture at a loss? It’s like mining with one hand behind your back, he thought, pouring himself a glass of water.

A stupid waste, he thought. I’m not looking to build anything, and I never much had an interest in social engineering.

I’m here to get rich.

He looked out his office window at the operation below. To the left was the small camp city that housed the workers in pods barely big enough for two people. Over to the right was the main shaft—a perfect spiral drill down into the core, where the gevenite was dug out, day and night.

Ferron was a wildcatter. He went where the corporations couldn’t, and mined what they couldn’t. He hired strong backs, worked them hard, and whatever money the gevenite trading didn’t bring him he scraped out by cutting every corner possible.

No colony when a camp would do. No families. No payment up front—only at the end of the term of service. No stores, no fun, no money changing hands. Just a food and water ration, three times a day. No more, no less.

Feed them, let them sleep, make them work, he thought, satisfied that in doing so he gave them all he was obligated to.

Anything else they need is their own affair. Ferron made enough money on the speculator’s market to provide more than this, but he knew that giving the workers too much comfort made fat, made them idle, made them stupid, and most importantly, made them work a little less hard.

And I got no time for that.

He drank his water in one gulp, putting the glass on his desk. As he did, he glanced at the clock set into the surface of the desk. In about a half-hour, Schist would be along with the day’s productivity report and probably 15 more documents to sign. After him would be Chalke with the security update, and Jaden with the requisition forms for the next food delivery.

The usual end of day nonsense, he mused.

He smiled, sitting down with a long exhale. Sometimes, he let himself just sit there and enjoy the day, enjoy the quiet humming along of the machinery he’d set in motion. How wonderfully right it seemed, how completely normal it was.

This was the way it was supposed to be, he thought. You work harder, you figure out how to make it work for you. And then keep it working for you.

His gaze fell on the deep hole in the ground, thinking of how much this strike was going to make him.

The story of Jonathan Diego (Classified P by the Ferron Mining Corp) and Amara Diego (Classified D-P), in brief:

It was just a bumpy ride to the next part of their life.

Jonathan came from a family of miners, five generations back. He traced his lineage back to the deuterium miners in the Jovian system. He was young, he had dreams, and he’d just married Amara, who he’d loved since his high school days.

They had plans, after all. And they were young, and willing to work hard.

Diego’s dreams were more romantic than realistic, and his certification testing, while average, didn’t clear the percentile the mining corporations demanded, and the only people who even responded to his applications were wildcatters like Ferron Mining Corp.

It was a start. Jonathan walked her through the orientation, through the coding—”P” marked you as productive’ “D-P” marked you as the dependent of a productive, and “NP” was the worst: a non-productive. No one wanted to be NP, especially in camps like this.

“It won’t be easy,” he told his wife. “These wildcat camps are terrible places. You sleep on dirt, you work all day, and if you’re lucky, they let you grow some food. And whatever they say goes.”

“But . . . it won’t be forever, baby. I promise.”

It wasn’t. After six months of twenty-hour days, little food, and hardly being able to sleep in his off time, Jonathan got a bit absent minded working his plasma-lance. He failed to notice the overload building in the feeder stream, and before he knew it, the power cell had ruptured.

In one of life’s small mercies, the plasma incinerated him instantly. He felt no pain. In one of life’s more common cruelties, it appeared Mara was due both of their share of pain in the months to come.

Jonathan’s back pay was denied her. Because the plasma-lance had been damaged while he’d been operating it, he was liable. In what the company assured her was a very fair trade, she forfeited her rights to any compensation, otherwise they would have claimed on her to pay back the rest of the cost (plasma-lances weren’t cheap, especially with the markup to cover the company’s accident insurance) and since there were no burial expenses they had to undertake—no body, after all—they gave her a ticket on the next available transport off MA-LU5.

For the next month, she ate nothing. With Jonathan’s death, her “D-P” classification had been downgraded to “NP.” Days of being denied food, because only productives deserved to eat. Days of enduring the scorn of everyone in the camp, assured that as an NP, she was stealing the money and food they worked hard for every day, even though she’d received no money, and no food.

Sometimes, when they threw their refuse at her, she kept it, licking what remnants of food she could off it. Even if it was spoiled, it was something. Every bit was life. And life was a thin of hope for escape from a world so hateful it seemed determined to crush her personally every moment of every day.

Occasionally, there were people who took pity on her. Some would let her sleep in their pod when they were working, or give her scraps of their rations. And for a brief moment, she felt like a human again.

When it was discovered what they were doing, their shifts were tripled, and their rations cut. On the public announcement system, she was blamed, by name. Another NP, screwing it up for hardworking miners.

After the last time, she hid herself away in the daytime, as they’d taken stopped throwing garbage at her, and had graduated to rocks.

Finally, Amara--now just Mara--now 70 lbs of skin and bones, was dragged off to the ship by two burly uniformed FMC troopers—not because she was resisting, but because she was too weak to stand. She rode in the luggage compartment in a heap, so delirious from hunger and abuse that she wondered if the whole thing had been a fever dream.

One of the stevedores watched them load her into the cargo hold, disgusted by how casually cruel the whole scene was. Mining camps, even the best ones, could be hard places, but this was something else, something far meaner.

For half of the sixteen hour trip, he pondered what to do. Finally, he paid for an extra primary bar out of the snack machine, heading down to the cargo hold on his rounds.

She lay in the dark, looking utterly used up. She was filthy, emaciated, and she stank. He’d seen animals in better shape, and with more dignity.

But all the same, he put the primary bar into her hand, closing her hand over it, taking care not to wake her. He continued his rounds, transferring off at the next station.

When she woke up and she felt the bar in her hand, she felt like crying, and did.

* * *

Ferron, as a matter of policy, cut corners wherever he could. He was happy to save a few thousand credits by getting remainder food supplies and allowing whatever colony he was overseeing to be the last stop on the line, which meant a wait of several weeks for fresh supplies that had to last, no matter what.

One more corner Ferron cut was deploying only one short range satellite in orbit of the colony, an outmoded model that was really there for the supply shuttle to key in on. To Ferron’s way of thinking, any force that might try to take or sabotage the colony would come in such force there was little to do but write it off.

So the satellite hung in the dark, and missed the small black ship that slipped into orbit on the far side of the planet three days ago, and with the colony’s pitiful ground control crew, they missed the ship landing far away from the colony, and since there were no ground patrols to detect him as he made his way through the heat-blasted wasteland to a rocky outcropping overlooking the colony.

And there he waited, for the better part of the day.

He didn’t feel the heat as it blazed down in waves, alleviated only a little by a light wind that wheezed through the sands, only to peter out and dissipate. He felt the wind—keeping it in mind as he braced the long sniper rifle into his shoulder, bracing it in the sand with the dipod.

And he waited. For a shadow on the sand.

His breathing was calm and even. He’d hacked into the shipping companies’ database, and found the colony’s location and their shipping schedule, the ship that would be making the cargo run, and the overall schedule.

His gloved hand rested on the side of his rifle, just above the trigger guard.

Cargo ship CS-98331 was an old Meyrink cargo hauler, at the end of a month-long run through the Frontier. That meant a crew that had been making stops every two days for the last month, on an unforgiving schedule, run ragged and ready for a break, with only one more stop between them and two months off.

They’d be tired, inattentive, eager to get this last stop over and done with and head back home. And so they’d overlook running a surface scan, and miss the man lying camouflaged on the ground as they headed for the landing pad.

He felt a sudden coolness on his skin as the massive ship passed over him, the shadow blocking out the sun light for a moment. The shadow blinked over him, and then circled back for its final approach to the landing pad below.

A few hundred kilometers faster than standard approach, he thought, slipping his finger into the trigger guard and peering through the scope. They really do want to get home.

His eye fixed on the data from the spotter scope. He could see his target with pinpoint precision, the sensors in the scope automatically adjusting the resolution to provide a clear picture, while a smaller data readout indicated the wind speed and direction.

The ship began its descent, its turbines wheezing as it kicked up a cloud of dust, sinking down towards the landing pad. He kept his other eye on the ship, watching for anything to indicate it was out of position.

It dipped slightly to port as it began its landing cycle, a telltale sign that the navigational computer was a little slow in coordinating with tower traffic. Newer ships didn’t have that problem—they could almost land themselves—but these older ships needed constant updating and a steady hand at the conn, especially at a ramshackle outpost like this.

He set his crosshairs, keeping a fix on the cockpit. Through the scope, he could see the pilot, fidgeting in his safety harness as he tried to eyeball several consoles simultaneously. He could see he’d loosened his safety harness to better reach the switches above him and at the station adjacent.

Lucky break, he thought. They didn’t even have a full crew in the cockpit.

He kept his eye on the pilot, waiting for him to turn his head to the left for just long enough. Everything else fell away, and for a brief moment, it was only him and the pilot.

Then he squeezed the trigger.

The rifle kicked gently against his shoulder, the hypersonic projectile seeming to sigh as it fired from the rifle. In three fifths of a second, the silent projective shattered the cockpit’s windscreen, shredding the pilot’s head from his body and throwing the mass of what remained backward for a split second. Then the headless body sagged forward, against the control yoke.

The ship pointed its nose down at the pad like a great rock falling from the sky. The nose crumpled as it smashed into the landing pad, shredding the armor plating and the scaffolding underneath, sending metal flying every which way as the ship flopped backwards, pancaking against the wreckage as the fuel cells went up.

The deadly metal rain became a fiery rain, ripping a great wound in the sands beneath for a mile in every direction. Nothing, not the ship, or the landing facility, could be salvaged.

The man exhaled, moving his face away from the scope, and flipping it closed as he flipped the safety on his weapon, moving slow and quiet on his belly in the sand.

Below him, the landing zone burned, a gaping wound in the wasteland.

* * *

It took the better part of the day to put the fires out. The bottom third of the day found Ferron jammed into his office with Chalke and Schist buzzing with worry about the loss of the landing pad.

“This couldn’t have happened at a worse time,” Schist said, jabbing his thin, bony finger on the arm of the chair, rocking back and forth like a restless toddler at dinnertime.

“We’ve got emergency supplies, don’t we?” Ferron said, his voice distant. He kept staring down at the smoking crater in the ground. “Enough to last until—”

“I’m not even worried about the food!” Schist shouted, throwing his hand up. “I’m talking about the gevenite that’s going to start piling up because we don’t have a landing pad to get them off the planet. We’re going to have to rent space on a ship, hire shuttles.”

“How much?” Ferron asked.

“Five hundred thousand for space on the cargo ship,” Schist replied, ticking them off on his finger. “To hire cargo shuttles capable of taking off and landing anywhere . . .you’re looking at 75 thousand, and we’d need four. . .”


“With the amount of gevenite we’ve already pulled out of this strike and what’s left, we’d be flying shuttles morning and night,” Schist clarified. “What would you rather do—pay for four ships working in rotation, or overtime for one or two barely carrying enough to load the cargo pod? We’ve got to pay for every day that ship stays in orbit.”

Ferron made a face that looked like he’d eaten something sour.

“God damn it, ” he spat. “Sixty-two camps, haven’t had an incident in seven years. Now this.”

Ferron gestured to Chalke.

“And what about you? Where the hell was your goddam security?”

Chalke’s hands tightened on the arm rest of his seat, the padded ends of the chair vanishing under his beefy, callused hands.

“Come on,” Ferron said, spoiling for a fight. “Let’s have it. What the hell was that? Sabotage? What the hell happened out there?”

Chalke didn’t even look him in the eye. He’d seen this often enough—whenever there was the slightest problem, or something went wrong, Ferron looked for someone to berate, to make himself stand a bit taller.

“There was no sign of sabotage,” Chalke said, his voice like stone grinding on stone. “From the tape and the telemetry, it looks like pilot error.”

“Pilot error?” Ferron repeated, sneering.

“We’re at the end of their delivery line. Two months in space, no stops, they run these people into the ground,” Chalke replied. He knew it was probably folly to try to persuade Ferron to see logic, but he decided to try.

“The driver got tired, or got stupid, and flipped the ship on our pad. That’s all there is to it.”

Ferron shook his head. “The worst goddam people, I swear.”

Schist cleared his throat.

“While I appreciate Mr. Chalke’s position, and I’m sure he’ll do everything to find out what really happened, this is a sideshow to your real problems,” he interjected, peering at Ferron as he ignored the daggers Chalke was staring into.

“Unless you want to write all this off right now, we need to move on renting the infrastructure—”

Ferron blinked, his expression still hateful “The what?

“The cargo pod; the shuttles,” Schist continued. “We need to get all of this moving—yesterday. Any delay and you’ll have men sitting idle, wondering why they’re not getting fed as much as they used to—”

“They know damn well why,” Ferron growled. “No way in hell did any of them sleep through that explosion.”

“Starve them enough, and they won’t care,” Chalke said. “Empty bellies lead to short memories, and shorter tempers.”

“You going to furlough them?” Schist offered. “That’ll kill our bottom line dead. We might as well take the insurance.”

Ferron chewed it over. He hated being frustrated by things beyond his control, and the luckier he’d been, and the richer he’d gotten, there had been fewer and fewer things that could thwart his will.

But that made those few small things that could frustrate him sting even worse.

Before the crash, this camp would have paid off handsomely—there was enough gevenite here to finance the other camps for a year and a half, and maybe finish that private colony he’d been planning in the Coradha system. It was right there, and it was his.

And he decided then he wouldn’t give it up.

“No,” he said. “We’re not taking the insurance. Chalke, get the miners up at the stations—from now on we’re on four shifts. We’re going to dig faster.”

“That’s going to burn through our supplies faster,” Chalke said.

“No it won’t,” Ferron said. “Because we’re cutting the rations—half every meal.”

Chalke sighed. “They’ll complain.”

“Let them,” Ferron countered. “Then cut their rations completely. If a man refuses to work, I’ll take away his bread.”

Chalke grimaced.

Ferron glared. “You have something to say?”

“You’re riding for a fall,” Chalke said. “They decide they don’t like being worked and starved to death, they might try to do something about it. I’ll tell you right now, I don’t have enough men to keep the camp secure and guarantee your safety. You think about that.”

“They know what they sign up for,” Ferron said, gesturing to Schist. “Our contract still says every man who works for me has to live by my rules. If I say he works twice as hard, he better do it. “And if I say he starves, dammit, he’ll starve.

“My camp, my rules, my law.”

* * *

To the extent that anyone could see any sort of plan in Ferron’s change in policy it was this: By working the miners twice as hard and feeding them half as much, they’d keep them so harried they wouldn’t have the time or energy to get out of line.

It worked right up until the moment it didn’t.

Dario Oliveras was in no mood to hear from the camp’s cafeteria that the half-primary bar set before him was the extent of his meal, not after a triple shift and no sleep. He’d been staggering through the day, so dissociated he felt like he was watching himself behaving like a zombie from miles away.

Dario was as surprised as anyone when he smacked the table so hard and heard himself shouting at the man behind the counter, puzzled by the idea he had the energy after the last shift to raise this much hell.

He missed the counter man’s finger touching the silent call button for camp security, so focused was he on shouting louder and louder. He wanted to shout to himself not to make it worse—Dario knew it was a small camp and that there were guards, but something within him wouldn’t let him stop.

Dario lunged for the counter man, fingers brushing over the man’s white uniform, lumbering forward like a drunk. He caught himself on the tablecloth between the two of them, his feet shuffling forward to steady him, his right toe skidding under the table.

There was a hollow klunk, as the toe of his boot connected with something unexpected. He was gripped by a sudden urge, a need to know what it was and he snatched the tableloth off to see.

The counter man hit the button again, a little less able to keep the terror off his face.

“What the HELL is this?!” Dario demanded, snatching the box from under the table and slamming it on the tabletop before the man.

“You’re hoarding food?! While we STARVE?!”

The rest of the men in the mess tent, who had been keeping the heads down, suddenly swiveled almost as one in their direction. A slow murmur caught fire, and became raised voices, then cursing, then shouting.

Then they got up from their tables, advancing on Dario and the man.

Snatches of accusations, shouts of disbelief and vows to inflict grievous injury on the counter man could be plucked out in the moment, but the rising noise leveled out into an ominous growl, as if the crowd had become a huge, wild, angry beast.

The counter man tried to get away, found his legs didn’t work, and stumbled onto his ass in the dirt, with a dozen angry miners closing on him. He tried to say something, but he was so scared the most he could manage was a terrified squeak.

His eyes fixed on the box on the table. It was a ration case—enough primary bars for 20 men for three meals a day. Longer, if you stretched it. The contents weren’t new to him—he hauled them to the mess tent at meal time three times a day, every day.

But it was the most important thing to him right now, because it wasn’t supposed to be there.

If he could have spoken to them, could have choked out the words, he would have explained that the markings on the box were wrong, that it wasn’t part of the supply shipments . . .

That it had been planted.

He kicked his legs out, trying to move, but one of the miners got their hands on him, dragging him closer to the table. The noise was deafening now, and everything was at a fever pitch.

Someone had the box in the air now, holding it as if it were something to be revered. He couldn’t speak now, couldn’t even breathe.

Where was security?

He stopped shaking, not because he wasn’t scared. No, every muscle was locked rigid. He couldn’t move at all as they dragged him over to the table. He watched as the box was passed from hand to hand, and a brief thought flitted through his mind:

Why didn’t they open it?

He watched as the box was passed over to a man standing over him. He hefted the metal box high over his head, eyes wild with fury. The counter man shared a glance with him for a moment, then brought the box down in a swift motion.

The counter man’s skull exploded like a melon.

* * *

“Good Christ,” Jasper Flint said, pushing the cart to the lip of the burning pit below them. “It was like something out of a goddamned horror movie.”

Marcus Slate shook his head. He didn’t want to think about it or talk about it. Not about the riot in the mess tent, not about security coming in and cracking heads, and certainly not about the fifteen bodies from both of the nights events that were on the cart, reeking of shit and death and . . .

He shook it off as much as he could, momentarily grateful that he hadn’t eaten anything, because he’d have puked it up then and there.

“Slate, what the hell are you doing?” Flit shouted, pulling him back to reality. “Help me with them, you chickenshit.”

Slate tried to nod and focus up, but ended nodding and shaking his head at the same time. He walked over to the pit, sparing a look down at the incinerator fire twenty feet down, the plume of heat making his eyes dry and stinging.

“Come on,” Flint growled, gesturing to the cart. “Get his legs.”

Slate grabbed the legs of the first one off the cart.

“This is . . .Jesus,” he muttered. “This is so fucked up.”

“Shut the hell up,” Flint shouted, the two of them waddling the first body into position, giving it a swing before they catapulted it into the put with a groan. “These people damn near got us all killed. You think Ferron’s going to spring for a Christian burial for them or something?”

Slate sighed. “Guess not,” he allowed. “But we burn garbage, not peo—”

“Same difference,” Flint retorted. “You got the same lecture they did. The people were NPs. They got what was coming to them. If they’re not here to help, they don’t deserve our food, our money, or our mercy. These bastards are worse than trash, almost.”

Slate shook his head.

“If you wanted to be a bleeding heart, you came to the wrong camp,” Flint said. The two of them grabbed another body, repeating the same pathetic waddle and toss motion as the first one.

The first body was burning now, and the smell of burning human fat filled their nostrils. Slate was about to say something, but found whenever he opened his mouth, the smell hit him all over again and he felt like puking.

So he kept quiet, remind himself that to get along, you had to go along.

And the next body got a bit easier to dump, and the next after that, and the next after that.

And after a while, Slate didn’t even notice the smell, really.

* * *

“Do you understand? What I want, and why?”

The man nodded.

“I want them all gone,” she said, her voice quavering. “All of them. For what they did. For what they are.”

“I don’t know if I have enough . . . for that. . .but . . .please. . .”

She looked up. The light had shifted, and the man seemed to be swallowed in darkness, a dark, almost devilish silhouette, looming over her.

It’s appropriate, somehow, she thought.

One last sin.


The seconds stretched in the space between them as the man’s cold emerald eyes burned through her. She gripped the edges of the table to steady herself, hoping and praying for the answer she wanted.

After what felt like forever, he spoke at last.

“I’ll do it,” he said.

Her eyes fell and she exhaled, pushing against the table to keep her upright. The anger, the rage, and the one dark wish that had let her survive the hell she’d endured was gone, and with it, everything that had kept her in the world was gone, and with its exit, it was like her soul was leaving her body.

“Th-thank you,” she stammered.

Another eternity of moments passed. He worried for a moment he might leave before the end, but there was one more thing between them.

One last bit of business.

“And what about . . . the other thing?”

The question hung in the air again, then the man stepped out of the shadows, the light making his cold eyes fire suddenly in the light, framed by his hair. She felt a palpable sense of fear that she couldn’t identify.

He leaned over the table, inches from her face. In a moment, the terror yanked her soul back into her, and she was all too present in that moment. She knew his reputation, and what he could do. She was depending on it, after all.

In the moment, she wondered if she might be part of his price for services rendered.

But all he did was set something on the table in front of her, leaning back away from her. Once he’d moved off back to the room, her fingertips traced the hard metal object, her fingertips spinning it into her palm, closing around it like she was taking an old friend’s hand.

He eyes closed, and she could breathe again. She watched the man move away, slipping away towards the door, as she pulled the object closer to her, keeping her eyes on him.

He reaches for the door, turning the knob and pausing for a moment.

“Under the chin,” he began.

“If you do it right, it’ll be quick.”

She nodded, watching him leave. She hefted the metal object in her hand, testing its weight. She’d never used one, but it seemed easy enough to handle. After a few attempts she found the safety catch, and disengaged it, sliding her finger into the trigger guard.

She took a deep breath. She thought in that moment there would be some last minute fear, something that would pull her back from this last act, but nothing came. There was no fear, no terror, and no doubt in her mind.

One last thing, she thought.

She pointed the barrel under her chin.

Her eyes were wide open when she pulled the trigger.

* * *

Night fell on the camp, and the devil walked among them.

In the two days after the food riot, Ferron had cut the rations again, meaning that the ration problem was now a full-grown crisis. Work limped along, but ground to a standstill as more and more as more men fell to hunger and exhaustion, sleeping fitfully in their tents, shaking and trying to shut out the hunger pains.

The only thing doing big business in the camp by now was burning the bodies. The air was thick with exhaustion and sickness and it seemed to make the dark starless night even more oppressive.

The security teams didn’t have it much better—stretched thin, and just as starved by Ferron’s directives as the miners, they’d been reduced to skeleton staff, and night watches over a camp of exhausted men who were starving to death seemed a little less urgent than committing those men to protecting key facilities in case the workers had a bit more fight in them.

And so, he drifted through the rows of tents like a shadow, lethal and silent.

The lucky ones died before he could reach them, taken by malnutrition or exhaustion or both. The unlucky ones caught a glimpse of him straddling their chests, a gloved hand holding their mouth shut while the other hand raised a jagged blade.

With a clean thrust, he slipped the blade into them, hooking under the ribcage. While some of them were strong enough to jerk against his weight as the point of his blade punctured the heart or the lung, none of them could do much more than a muffled groan of protest that gurgled into a death rattle as they drowned in their own blood.

Again and again the ritual repeated itself, like a shared dream sweeping through the camp. Somehow, the repeated mechanical nature of it made it even more horrible.

Murder by numbers.

No one would ever find their bodies intact—the elements would leave nothing but bleached, sandblasted bones to discover, if anyone ever came looking.

* * *

For some reason, all Edgar Arkos could think of at that moment was what his mother had told him years ago, when as a young child, he’d told her about his dream of going out to the Frontier to seek his fortune.

He remembered her grabbing his hands and pulling him close to her and begging with tear-stained eyes to, under no circumstances should he join the military. This was only a few years after the war, and she was so certain another would break out and kill another one of her sons.

Edgar had patted her hand and told her he wasn’t going to do that—there was no money in the military; everyone knew that—he was going to get a good, safe job with one of the mining companies, handling communications. It would be a good job, and he’d promised to send home money to her, and he’d be safe out there.

There was nothing to worry about, and for many years, there hadn’t been. For a communications jockey, there wasn’t much excitement, but the paychecks were steady and if you did good work

Tonight, he was sitting in the communications office, data from the satellite scrolling over his main terminal. At the next station was his partner Tufa, who was usually good company on these night shifts. On his terminal, communications traffic between the security teams and the camp overseers pinged through.

Everything was normal, everything was quiet.

Except for the man who was leveling a gun at the back of Tufa’s head. His hard emerald eyes bored right into Edgar’s own, almost hypnotic. He felt the tension in the air as a physical thing, sucking all the oxygen out of the room, and causing flop sweat to rise on his skin, the tense, swampy heat making the tension more acute.

“You understand?” The man with the gun said. “Put the satellite in shutdown mode. Lock it down for final retrieval.”

Edgar kept his hands still, but a small tremble escaped him. Locking down the satellite was the last thing the camp did before everyone pulled out. The batteries would discharge, the signal would go dead, and it would be hours before they could reinitialize it.

Until then, they had no way of communicating with the galaxy beyond.

“I-I can’t—” Edgar began, his lips feeling huge and clumsy as he stammered. “I. . .”

The man with the gun squeezed the trigger. Tufa’s head exploded all over his console, some of the brain matter slashing into Edgar’s face and mouth, causing him to gag. The man who’d shot him watched Edgar’s embarrassing display.

The man grabbed Edgar’s hair, tight, pulling him backwards and shoving the barrel of the gun under his chin. He could smell the slight ozone of the last shot, and that made his stomach churn again.

“Do it,” the man said, his voice calm and composed. “Or end up like him. Your choice.”

Edgar thought about it, but on some base level below his conscious mind, the decision had been made within him. His hands trembled as he keyed in the multi-step process, trying to look down his nose at the monitor, as he worked with the gun against his chin.

Normal procedure would have taken ten minutes to confirm lockdown, but it felt like hours. The man let him stare at the screen, and, when the confirmation message indicated final shutdown was successful, he let Edgar go, and he slumped forward, inches from the buttons on his console.

His heart pounded in those eternal seconds. Hope flashed in his mind like summer lighting that he might just get out of this nightmare alive.

Before he could consider that any further, a bullet through the back of his head forced his head to the console for the last time.

* * *

Chalke studied the scanner with a puzzled expression. Even in a situation like this, with the half the camp starving and security patrols kept at a minimum, there was usually enough communications traffic, even this late at night, that it blended into a constant white noise. He often fell asleep to it, in fact. And it was that absence of that familiar drone of that had pulled him out of bed and back to his office to investigate what was happening.

The “what” was “nothing.” No traffic from his security teams, no signal from the communications shack, no word from the loading teams, no movement in the camp.

Mining camps didn’t get this still, ever. No matter how pacified they needed to be. No matter what, camps never fell this quiet. There was always something happening, whether with the miners gambling or raising hell after curfew, or the security teams up to no good, but it was never ever this quiet.

Determined to find out what was going on, he pressed the call button on his communications device again.

“Station One, this is Chalke, give a sit-rep, over.”

He let go of the button.

Nothing, not even static.

He furrowed his brow and switched to another office.

“Communications, this is Chalke,” he said, his voice tense and annoyed. If these fools didn’t answer, head would roll.


He stabbed the button again.


More silence.

He jabbed the communications unit into the holster on his belt, reaching for the two things he kept on him always--a small truncheon, which clipped into a well-worn carabiner on his belt, and a small handgun, slightly heavier-grade than standard issue for his security people.

As a matter of policy, Chalke always wanted to have the biggest gun at the table.

Just in case.

He made a quick check of the weapon and holstered it, exiting his room, ready and willing to discover just what happened. He walked with haste down the corridor to the main office complex. Even with the cutbacks, he’d always posted two guards at the executive living quarters.

He pushed the door release, and it slid open to a still silence and a horrible smell that Chalke found, to his disgust, was familiar. His hand found the truncheon and he brought it up.

He didn’t manage another step taken before he kicked into one of the bodies.

The sight of it made his grip on the truncheon tighten more, his eyes following the trail of blood to another body.

Who’d done this?

Chalke had seen plenty of people killed in mining riots, in food riots, indeed, he’d seen plenty of dead bodies from all sorts of circumstances. Usually they were quick hits—a sharp blow to the base of the head (a disgruntled miner’s favorite) a lucky shot with a stolen weapon and then a man left to bleed out.

But the bodies he found scattered through the halls looked like some sort of wild animal had killed them. Gashes worse than any knife wound he’d seen left men unzipped from their sternums to their crotches left blood and viscera smeared along the floors, and others had their heads liquefied by something that was even stronger than the gun he had.

Chalke paused, feeling sweat condense on his upper lip. He was suddenly aware that he had the handle of the club in a death grip, and his hand shook a little.

Come on, you damned fool, he chided himself. You’ve seen dead men before. You’ve seen wo—

He stopped himself.

He hadn’t seen worse. Something tore through his men, and something about the savagery here made him very aware he was in over his head.

And he didn’t have the biggest gun at the table for whatever this was.

His mind raced. Who could have done this, he wondered? It couldn’t have been the workers—after days of starving them, their first idea of getting back at them wouldn’t be a nearly invisible kill spree. They just want to break things and bust heads.

But this--

He never had time to finish the thought.

There was a red blur at the corner of his left eye. Hands grabbed him, one clenching his wrist and the other around his neck. Chalke tried to thrash against it and bounce off the wall, but he was too slow. The back of his head smacked against the wall, taking his wits and the air out of him.

His head fogged, he tried to make out what was attacking him. It was whatever killed his men, there was no doubt. Whatever had grabbed him was fierce and strong as hell and moved like red lighting.

Chalke tried to will his arm to swing the truncheon at whatever this red thing was. The blur flashed silver at him, and through his still blurry vision, he saw his arm dropping the club to the floor as a cruel red line drew down his forearm as he realized with growing horror that he couldn’t move his hand anymore.

The tendons exposed in the bleeding gash in his wrist no longer responded.

Chalke grunted as the demon kneed him in the stomach, driving the wind out of him again and causing spasms. He couldn’t get a breath, and he crumpled to the floor, his head light and his mind a blur of images.

Chalke fumbled for his pistol with his other hand, but as it cleared the holster, the red demon kicked it out of his hand, sending it skittering along the floor, spinning several feet away into a heap of what had once been his security guard.

Chalke desperately tried to clear his head, but it was impossible. Everything was a blur of random sensory details. He wanted to reach for his club again, but he was too week and his arm was wet and cold (bleeding out, he thought. I’m bleeding out) and he couldn’t see anything very well anymore.

He looked up one more time, past all hope of saving himself, but wanting to look at what had brought him down. As his life ebbed away, he looked up, using whatever dwindling life he had left to force his eyes to focus on the thing standing before him.

The muzzle of the gun that was pointed between his eyes came into brilliant, blued-metal focus, a second before it fired.

* * *

Ferron had made jokes about how many times Schist washed his hands at least five times a day for the past ten years. They’d never been funny—Ferron’s sense of humor was firmly rooted in mean-spirited teasing and belittling—and like half the things he said, Schist had learned to tune it out.

Keep your mind on the numbers, he reminded himself. Always the numbers.

The numbers, and the other numbers he was paid to keep his eyes on Ferron’s numbers, were usually enough to still any lingering feelings of discontent in him. So long as the money kept rolling in and there were as few problems as possible, everything worked well—it was a smooth system.

This strike, however, was anything but. They were still pulling gevenite out of the planet, but without a carrier it sat where the docking bay used to be, container after container ready for a shipment that couldn’t come soon enough to make this pay off.

The smart thing to have done would have been to take the insurance. Their policy would have overseen the loss, and they could have bartered with the mined gevenite to pay for transport and clearing the camp out.

But, Schist thought with a sigh, I don’t work for someone who does the start thing.

Just an idiot with too much money, hidebound ideas about the way things should be, and a sick need to humiliate everyone, and then bend them to his will.

He sighed.

And that’s why I’m in my damn office this late.

The numbers, he reminded himself.

Always the numbers.

His fingers danced over the keys of his portable databook, tallying up the expense for the day’s losses. Later on, when they were off this damn rock and back in civilization, there would be time for a full accounting of this misadventure, and he wanted to be ready.

After all, the only consolation that Schist ever got against Ferron for his bullying was the change to tell him “I told you so,” every now and again.

He sighed, shutting down the data book and setting it on the table and rising from his chair. For the twentieth time today, he wondered why he’d done this to himself for years and years and felt more than ever the weight of everything.

Sighing again, he crossed to the door, opening it and stepping out. So deep in his own thoughts, Schist didn’t sense the man on the other side of it, and by the time he had, the man had grabbed him by his collar and driven a large jagged knife up through his jaw straight into his brain, quieting his annoyed and weary thoughts for good.

* * *

While all of this occurred, Ferron slept.

Curled up in his opulent custom built bed, appointed with the softest mattress and finest Khephren bedclothes money could buy, he slept like a baby as the miners were murdered in their tents. If he knew that his security staff, along with the rest of his men had been massacred on the floors below, anyone who knew him would probably doubt it would make him so much as turn over and wrap himself tighter in the covers.

Ferron liked to end the day sleeping in his own bed. Every day since he’d gotten it, he’d had it shipped to every camp. Whatever the day had been like, whatever the horrible people who worked for him (“worked for him”--there was a laugh, he often thought. “Swindled him out of money they didn’t deserve for the work they put in,” more like) at the end of it, he could retire to his bed and sleep with no lasting worries.

Because, as Ferron had learned, when you were rich enough, everything would usually turn out OK. Either the problems would be fixed, or you could pay someone for it. And when you got enough money, there were whole levels of problems you were totally insulated from, that you never had to worry about at all.

Nothing really ever could touch you.

So Ferron slept through it all. And this man who even now snored away in a fine, opulent, bed fit for a king and drooled on a fine silk pillowcase missed the small occasion of a camp of hundreds of people reduced in the space of a handful of hours down to two.

* * *

To be fair, Ferron had missed the needle that went into his carotid artery, sending a few ccs of a very potent tranquilizer through his veins and keeping him down through the rest of the night.

It had the desired effect. His sleep was darker, more troubled, and finally, something penetrated the veil of sleep, some small flicker of aggravation that fanned into a blaze and caused him to tumble, then fidget, then thrash himself awake.

Or rather, he tried to.

He couldn’t move, and there was something wrong with his bed. It was full of grit—and it was so hard, almost as though he was laying in sand, and he couldn’t move and it was so hot all of a—

Slowly, the fog in his brain rolled back. Certain facts came into focus.

He was laying in sand. He was outside, laying in a sand dune, and the warm sun blazed against his already reddening skin.

Panic lurched inside him. What was going on? What was he doing out here? Where were his guards? Hell, where was the camp?

And most important, he thought, who was he?

The other man sat there, crouched like a vicious animal, ready to pounce. Dark chestnut hair fell over hard and dark green eyes that seemed to burn in the sun. Fixed on the other man’s expression was something that wasn’t quite rage and wasn’t quite contempt, but it made Ferron afraid on some gut level.

Ferron tried to speak, and barely croaked out a word. Some of that would have been due to the drug he’d been hit with leaving him with a case of cotton mouth, but as he tried to work up some saliva and find his voice he was aware of a few more things.

He couldn’t move his arms or his legs, for one. He could thrash like a worm for a bit, but anything else was denied him, thanks to the bindings around his wrists, arms, and legs. They were so tight that when he tried to strain against them, he only caused his joints to cry out in pain.

Oh god, Ferron thought.

Something was dawning on him.


He was sweating in the sun, but at his neck, in the hollows of his clavicles there was more moisture than there should be, as though something wet had been there.

Around his neck, as it happened.

He shivered in the heat, his eyes bugging out, looking into the cold green of the man watching him.


Ferron tried to scream, but couldn’t. Because the tightest binding was around his throat, just around the larynx. And the other man had soaked it in water before tying, so that as it dried in the sun--

oh god, he thought. Even his thoughts felt tiny and choked off, swallowed up in terror.

He was going to die. A million miles from nowhere, and the awful part was that he didn’t even know why.

He tried to scream a few times, and every time his Adam’s apple bobbed up, and down, he felt the binding tighten around his neck. Gasps became wheezes, and shallow panting.

And it was getting hotter.

The man rose to his feet, staring at him, his face still wearing that strange expression. The burning green gems of his eyes were swallowed up in a dark silhouette, and with the way his hair fell over him, it made him look like a horned demon.

If he were able, Ferron would have begged. Fear and delirium were powerful motivators, but he couldn’t say anything, and something deep within him told him it wouldn’t matter.

He watched the man walk away, never looking back as Ferron slowly choked to death.