Authors: T. F. Grant,C. F. Barnes
A XANTOVERSE STORY
COPYRIGHT C.F. BARNES 2014
This edition published in 2014 by Anachron Press
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this work are either fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity is purely coincidental.
The rights of the authors to be indentified as the authors of this has has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication maybe reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher. The rights of the authors of this work has been asserted by him/her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Kina had waited for this moment
for what felt like an eternity. She crouched in the dark of the Haven space station. Her heightened senses buzzed while her heart beat pulsed at the border of her comfort zone.
This was no bad thing; she operated better when on the edge of control.
Kina did not have the blessing of exceptional dark vision, but that was the point of this test. An assassin might not always find themselves in perfect conditions and a Wraith assassin had to be capable of doing their job in any given situation. Every sound within the dark space aided her perception, giving her locational hints of her enemies’ whereabouts. The scent of sweat on the still, musty air, added to the detail of the picture Kina built in her mind as she visualized their movements through the blackness.
Moving with the grace of an umbra wyrm, Kina stepped to her left and slid behind a steel pillar in the old industrial plant, controlling her breathing and listening for any hint of a sound.
The slightest shuffle of movement came from her right. A shape shifted, an indistinct blur of solid darkness in the gloom. Her two Wraith seniors had withheld the number of assailants she would face. Not that it mattered; all she cared about was that, to become a Wraith like Dzagnev and Lanat, she would have to survive.
Failure meant death, but she had jumped at the chance, because success meant a life of wealth and position, something everyone within
Something Kina craved above all else.
Life diminished by poverty in the ancient space station wasn’t for her. She’d grown up watching her parents scrape and struggle, running dangerous and low-paying jobs for criminal factions such as the Iron Council and Cauder Industries. When Kina was just eight standard years old, mercenaries had killed her parents while they were on a salvaging run.
Career options on
weren’t exactly varied.
If it wasn’t trading resources stripped from the graveyard of dead ships outside the
in Hollow Space, the pocket universe that randomly trapped unsuspecting, hyper-jumping craft, it was spying for one faction or another, trading information, drugs or sex, and moving one’s self further up the ladder, stabbing in the back anyone who got in your way.
Kina was no information dealer.
She didn’t have the patience to play the long game, and neither was she a great prospector like the salvagers who would pounce on any ship that found itself inexplicably dragged into Hollow Space—like her childhood friend and scoundrel extraordinaire, Tairon Cauder.
Which left her only one
choice—join the Wraiths as an assassin for hire.
A heavy breath came from a few meters in front and to the left of her. A shadow shift around a steel upright. A rusted chain, with links as thick as a kronac’s fist, scraped against the support beam. The sharp metallic sound echoed in the cavernous space.
Footsteps, another halted breath, the scent of sweat stronger now, resonated from in front of her position at the rear of the plant. She waited, crouching behind an old dead generator on her haunches, graphsteel daggers in her hands, their edges recently honed and waiting for the kiss of flesh.
A rustle of fabric from her right told her she was facing at least two assailants, but it would be a mistake to rule out more at the other end of the plant. And neither could she rule out that they might be equipped with night-vision glasses.
The closest one was probably female, and human; the rustling cloth sounded like the cheap polymer fabric made from the waste products of the farms in the lower levels of the station. The human women of
wore the gaudy-colored fabric as a fashion statement—and occasionally some men.
Still, male or female, human, kronac, vul, or dalgef, she didn’t care. They were in here for one reason and one reason only: to kill her and collect their bounty from the Wraiths.
And with the doors locked, there was only way out: be the last alive.
Kina placed her daggers into the loops on her belt and reached up the pillar until she found the barest of cracks. Digging her fingers in to get a grip, she pulled her slight, athletic body up, using her toes to find places from which to push.
Chunks of the pillar had been shot out, probably during one of the many gang wars that would often erupt on the space station. These divots provided her with plenty of holds with which to climb higher.
She stopped when she reached about three meters high. If one of her enemies was a kronac, they’d be at least two and half meters tall and she wanted enough clearance. If they
a kronac, then her task was an order of magnitude tougher.
But then she wouldn’t put that past Dzagnev or Lanat.
They came from a system run by the Penumbra—a shadowy organization that was reputed to run most of the known habitable galaxies outside Hollow Space from behind a curtain of secrecy. Working for the Penumbra meant you had to be the best-of-the-best.
When they got trapped in Hollow Space like thousands of others, the two Wraiths had realized that they weren’t getting out of the pocket universe anytime soon, and that they had better make the best of the situation on
. The planet it orbited, Galacia, had nothing on the surface and no ship could get through the volatile atmosphere, meaning the station remained their only logical destination.
Many didn’t survive the harsh realities.
The Wraith’s way was to run contracts as though they were still working for the Penumbra. And it seemed business was good, hence Kina’s audition. They needed to expand and hire more assassins to fulfill their clients’ desires.
And that meant being able to take down a kronac if someone wished.
Hanging to the pillar, Kina closed her eyes and focused her hearing, straining to make out each and every click and shuffle. There were various bugs and beetles scurrying in the corners too, which didn’t help. But she was certain, mostly from the ruffling of the clothes, that a female human was nearing.
The footsteps were slow and deliberate, but the soles, rubber probably, made the merest of squishing sounds as they gripped and slid against the rusting metal deckplates that gave the station its gravity.
Closer now, the sounds grew more distinct.
Kina opened her eyes and looked down to her right. The pressure on her fingers and toes increased, threatening to cramp her muscles, but this was the time.
A definite shadow moved to within a meter of the pillar.
From the size she estimated it was either human or dalgef—the latter being bipedal like humans but with large rolls of loose skin. In the darkness they’d resemble a large human.
No problem for her. Her double-edged blades would rend flesh regardless of species.
Kina breathed in through her nose and got the scent of sweat. Pungent and sweet, she knew they were definitely human. Conditions on the station meant most people didn’t shower or bathe very often in order to conserve the water.
Over time, she learned how different each species smelled.
They were right beneath her now. Kina’s vision made out the shape of a shotgun, or perhaps a rifle, in their hands, pointing forward. A bulky apparatus hung from their head, giving them a square aspect.
If they looked up…
She freed her right hand and drew her dagger silently then pushed away with her feet, letting go of her left hand. She fell behind them, drew her second dagger, and buried the twin blades into the sides of the person’s neck, severing multiple arteries. She hit the ground and bent her knees to absorb the near-silent fall.
She ripped the blades free, dropping them into her belt loops. Blood spurted from the target’s neck. She wrapped a hand around the person’s mouth to silence them. A brief struggle turned into stillness as they bled out. Kina supported their weight and slowly lowered the body to the floor, taking the gun for her own use.
Placing the firearm in a sling over her back, she bent down, removed her daggers, and cleaned the blades on the cheap polymer jacket.
Despite working in near silence, the roar of her pulse, fueled by the brief injection of adrenaline, made her paranoid that everything had been heard. She took the night-vision goggles from the body and placed them over her eyes.
Using special photomic algae that the kronacs grew, the goggles made the scene before her light up in shades of green. The image was blurry, but she could now see basic detail and blocks of shapes that made up the plant. She saw two other figures moving slowly toward her location: one human and one kronac—the arboreal creature’s feathers, lizard-like face, and four arms were the obvious giveaway.
She sighed inwardly, but wasn’t surprised.
They had flanked her position—the human was slowly stepping forward to her left and the kronac to her right. The former carried a Lawkeeper’s shock-stick while the latter wielded a Napier designed auto-shotgun.
The weapon Kina had taken off her first attacker was a rather disappointing and likely-to-misfire
It would be useful as a distraction at best. Even from close range it wasn’t guaranteed it would hit anything. The barrel being made from an old scaffolding pole and the stock cut crudely from scrap metal did not afford the weapon any degree of accuracy or reliability.
Which told her just how desperate some people were to try and take the Wraith’s money. She doubted the others would be so lacking in class. It seemed from their movements that they were telepathically linked, and that cost a small fortune to have done.
These were bounty hunters, pure and simple.
She only knew of one kronac bounty hunter: Reaper—on account of his preference for duel-wielding sickles. With his massive strength, he’d literally cut people in two. This meant that the one on the left was definitely human, and his partner in crime: Denious Chang—an ex-Crown Central senator and a bloodthirsty maniac.
Really not good.
Kina cursed the Wraiths for her predicament and tried her best not to feel like a trapped rabbit. She reminded herself that she was in control here. She was what they were after, and that gave her the power over the situation.
First things first: get rid of Chang. He was mental, unpredictable, and could be easily influenced. Reaper was too cool for any tricks. He’d been around the block for a few centuries.
She rummaged quickly over the body, running her hands through the pockets. She found a single Credit coin. Perfect. The hunters were just five meters from her position now. She stayed low behind the large generator as she threw the coin up and over toward the front of the plant.
It clanged against an old workbench before chiming against the floor. Chang spun round and dash back. Reaper remained on course as expected. Kina studied the infrastructure. The pillars climbed at least ten meters high to a mezzanine floor. Steel gantry sections ran lengthways on either side, leading to a pair of spiral staircases near the entrance of the plant.
She didn’t want to just run out from where she was. She’d still be flanked, and with Reaper closing in, he’d have her rear. Only one option: climb. Not that that would stop the kronac; they lived in trees and climbed as well as any creature she’d ever seen.