The following is an except from The Second Death of Daedalus Mole, currently crowdfunding with Unbound.
A Breaking in the Dark
Nineteen years ago.
Juno was nearly forty years old and she was not afraid of the dark. As she sailed through the channel in silence, her windscreen filling with bleeding pinpricks of white light, she did not feel fear. Gnawing anxiety, however, was a problem. She flexed her middle finger, toying with the silver ring behind her knuckle. Juno couldn’t explain this nervousness if you asked – and wouldn’t if she could – but she had always treated space travel with a healthy dose of caution.
Every civilised species had their own name for it. You could say every town across the Collective did and still not be far wrong. In the Frontier villages they called it the tall sea. Anyone still standing on solid ground was likely to know it as the black. In the Cloud you would find a hundred words for it in as many tongues, chattered and hissed at you in the pidgin of the trade lanes.
Where Juno came from, though, it was called the dark. They didn’t call it the sea because there wasn’t much water there, and they didn’t call it the black because it wasn’t truly black. Juno didn’t call it space because she knew it wasn’t empty. This space was big and it was dark, but it was full of hidden things, and Juno knew, no matter how big or dangerous your secret, you’d only have to fling yourself into the dark and you would probably never be found again.
Unless, of course, someone hired Juno to find you. Today someone had. A blacksmith in Echyras wanted her to run down someone who’d run off with a roll of high-grade daggers. Since the privatisation of the Petradon Imperium’s industrial belt nine years ago, complex mechanisms had become very expensive. Juno hadn’t seen a working firearm in months, and good, solid steel was coming back into vogue. Things were getting a bit rough. People in the outer systems had even started to dress in big coats and flowing robes like the explorers of old, from the times when a single rogue bullet could turn a starship inside out. Irritating when Juno wanted to blend in – the maternity clothes you could buy out here were ill-suited to her line of work.
The channel exit loomed: a great white circle growing rapidly in the viewscreen. Juno reached one mottled green hand up to flick down her bronzed visor, keeping two more braced against the control panel. With her free hand resting lightly on the throttle, Juno prepared to drop. She heard a whine from the engine compartment, a hot room nestled in the rear half of her little grey fighter. The panelling beneath her feet started to vibrate. When her view was nothing but white she eased the throttle gently downwards until it clicked. The Kestrel dropped out of the channel with a jolt and reappeared in static space in a flash of light, her engine switching from channel-space to conventional-space with a screech and a clunk. Then Juno was in darkness. She pressed a switch and her cockpit lights came back on, then another as the target-finders started up, adding their clicks and beeps to the general noise of the ship’s computer. The radio antenna came back to life with a notifying bing, followed by the glass display spewing information onto the cockpit viewscreen.
Juno was not her only name. In the Frontier villages they called her the Mother. In the Cloud they called her the Green Eagle. Back home they called her a lot of things, but she had learned to ignore them. If you wanted to eat you had to do your job, and it didn’t matter one bit whether you sold bagels or killed people for the government. The choice wasn’t yours to make.
Juno didn’t work for the government anymore. A ‘personal indiscretion’ (as the record described it) had prompted her early retirement from police work and entrance into the private sector, where the money was small and the risks were high. She’d been quick enough to sneak a good deal of hardware from the station armoury before leaving, though, which had given her a reasonable head-start in building a new career.
Juno heard a blip as the target-finders locked onto a bulky freighter trying to haul itself away from the channel exit. She selected it and keyed the communicator.
“Hailing mid-class freighter at position four-sixteen-minus-two. This is Juno of the Kestrel,” she said. “You have a price on your head, Amphitryon. Stop running or I’ll confiscate your legs.”
Her hail was met with silence. The Kestrel continued to cruise towards her prey, closing the distance without effort. She reached for a switch on her left and armed the ion cannon.
“Cut your engines,” she said. “I won’t ask again.”
The reply hissed back, barely audible, through her speakers, chattering with interference. Juno frowned. The ship continued fleeing. She flicked up the plastic guard over the button and fired. A blazing projectile whispered out from beneath the Kestrel’s nose cone, leaving a trail of thick white gas behind it as it hurtled forwards, before bursting into a splash of blue light against the freighter’s thruster. The thruster sputtered for a moment, and then its light went out. The freighter juddered as the inertia controls kicked in, and it drew to a halt as the Kestrel bore down upon it.
“Consider yourself under arrest,” said Juno. “I’ll be coming aboard in two minutes. I get a bonus for taking you in alive, so don’t make me kill you, please.” Juno unbuckled her seatbelt, dumped her helmet on the console and ambled from the cockpit to the weapons cabinet mounted above her bunk. Once she had selected a short sword from the rack and tucked a dagger into her belt she returned, and the Kestrel had drawn to a halt alongside her quarry. A hiss from the radio made her pause. The view beyond the main screen was dark. Termina had no planets, no stations and no townships. Had Amphitryon run here thinking a quiet sector would be easier to hide in? Juno checked the main readout again. A barren asteroid field, some debris from a long-lost battle, and the freighter. Otherwise, this place was empty.
“Amphitryon.” Juno said. “Shut off your scrambler, I’m getting interference.”
There was no response but white noise.
Juno furrowed her brow. Then she pulled a heavy lever beneath the control panel, causing a jolt. The docking tube inflated and jumped the gap between ships, clamping onto the freighter’s flank with a loud thunk. Juno thumbed the edge of her sword and walked out.
Four minutes later she ran back into the Kestrel alone, leaving bloody footprints behind her. She cleared the airlock and hit the manual release with an elbow, cutting the connection between ships before reaching the cockpit and searching the readout again. Still nothing.
Juno wasn’t sure, but it seemed to her that the hissing was getting louder.
There was no source. Amphitryon had no scrambler. Her target was lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor of his cockpit, frozen at the moment of death, clutching his face in agony, and the interference was coming from nowhere. She hit the radio.
“Surrender,” she said, to anyone who could hear. “I am armed. Present yourself and yield your weapons or I will kill you.”
No response. Either Amphitryon’s killer had already left, or…
The hissing intensified. Juno weighed up the risk of leaving a job unfinished against the risk of staying here. The sensors showed nothing, but her neck itched. She didn’t feel alone.
Then space ceased to be empty. Juno didn’t see it arrive; there was no landing flash, no hint to announce that something had come. It simply moved into view, like a person stepping out of shadow. It looked like a great wall of bright red flesh, soft and glistening in the glare of the Kestrel’s floodlights. It beat and pulsed in time to some silent rhythm as she watched, and shining, black, many-legged parasites skittered across its surface. They tore at it, drawing blood which drifted from the surface in perfect spheres.
Juno had seen many things, but there was no memory she could use to comprehend what she was looking at. She felt phantom spiders running across her skin and heard blood rushing in her ears. Her head-crest flittered. She slowly stretched out a hand for the weapon controls.
A wall of lighter pink flesh slowly drew back, revealing a bright sliver of green beneath. Juno watched, almost afraid. It continued to creep upwards until it became clear what she was looking at.
A taste of metal bloomed on her tongue. Juno touched a finger to her lip. It came away red. A rivulet of blood ran from her nose and dripped onto the leg of her orange flight suit, mingling with old smears of engine oil.
Juno grunted in pain, clutching her skull and squeezing her eyes shut. It didn’t block her view of the great green eye. It seeped inexorably in, burning as it went. Her head felt like it was on the verge of cracking. Images from somewhere else forced their way inside her, clamouring for space: Juno saw trees hammered by black rain; a stony, overgrown ruin with a moat of tar; a tattered box of books. Pictures and sounds and smells assaulted her from a hundred places at once, scalding.
In her head she heard it, spoken from somewhere close.
“I a- am fe… Fear. Cry for help, little one.”
A jolt of pain shot through her knee, and Juno could see again. Her throat was raw, as if she had been screaming, and she was on the floor, clinging to the arm of the pilot’s chair. The radio was silent. Her head pounded. The Kestrel had gone dark.
Police department records show that Ex-D.I. Juno DiGamma died that night in the Termina sector, murdered by wanted fugitive Lester Amphitryon (motive unknown), who was later executed for perversion of justice at 04:16, 71/DL/2408.
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