She killed the man who trained her. She killed the fleet that came for her. She killed the planet that caged her. Now she must confront her father.
Mars Xi is on the run, a bounty on her head and a kill count on her conscience. All she has left are her mutant cat Ocho and her fellow human weapon Pale, a young boy wracked by seizures who can kill with a thought. She needs him treated, and she needs to escape, and the only thread left to pull is her frayed connection to her father, Marius Teo. That thread will take her to the outskirts of the galaxy, to grapple with witch-cults and privately-owned planets, and into the hands of the man who engineered her birth.
The Voidwitch Saga
#1 Killing Gravity
#2 Void Black Shadow
#3 Static Ruin
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On Joon-ho Station, drifting temple of some ancient religion, the pilgrims press in tight, smell of sweat and grime thick even through my rebreather. The procession moves slow, dry shuffling scrape of footsteps beneath the constant murmur of prayer.
Surrounded by this many people my heart rate should spike, but I'm already soaked with adrenaline after Bianca Blanca sicced her subordinates on me to buy herself time to escape. Now they're strewn along the length of a maintenance tunnel, still breathing ... barely.
I scan the crowd — hooded black robes, faded to various shades of gray and repaired with patches of darker fabric. Overhead the roof is a huge clear dome. The local star hangs large in the center of an endless field of black, close enough to fill the room with sunlight. Day and night united in a pane of glass.
Ocho is a warm lump in my hood, purring between my shoulder blades. She grumbles when I take her out and stash her in my satchel, but soon settles. I pull the hood up over my head to blend in, and move with the current of bodies. A flash of color and motion catches my eye — people shoved aside, a sharp cry as someone is thrown to the ground.
Got you now, fucko. Blanca knows she's being tailed, but she doesn't know it's by a pissed-off space witch.
I push through the throng, dodging around knots of worshippers, trying to find a balance between gentle and fast. It's been almost a month since I left Aylett Station, fleeing Mookie, guilt, and the Emperor's Guard; the last thing I need is a commotion. The last thing I need is someone recognizing me.
Drop a hollow-moon on a city and suddenly you're public enemy number one. I don't know the price on my head, but even at one credit for every person I killed on Seward, that'd still be a tempting bounty.
I reach a gap, the crowd parting around an older woman sitting on the ground where she fell, another devotee stopping to help her up. The woman seems to hold my gaze as I push past, and my heart goes staccato. They show my face on every news report, and for a second I think she recognizes me even behind the rebreather, but then I notice the white cast to her pupils. She's blind.
She moves off with the other pilgrim, the two speaking Mandarin, and they rejoin the flux circling the shrine, adrift in the smoke of burning incense. I keep moving, offering apologies as I cut through, following the disturbance Blanca makes as she batters her way past the flow of people.
She reaches the far wall and I'm right on her. I grab her collar and yank Blanca toward me. She spins, her face a mask of rage adorned with thin-line geometric tattoos. Glint of a knife blade protruding from between her fingers as she slashes at my belly. I grab her hand with my mind and squeeze. Her eyes go wide at the series of short, wet cracks as I break every bone in her hand. I let go and the knife tumbles to the ground — I kick it aside where it disappears into the forest of feet and robes.
Her mouth shoots open to scream, but the only thing escaping her maw is the sweetly rotten stench of cheap booze. I put a hand over her mouth, push her back, and slam her head against the wall. Her eyes turn hard and she claws my face with her good hand, blunt pain as nails tear my skin. She pulls the rebreather from my face, stops clawing, and stares.
I smash her head against the wall again and grin. "Do I have to break the other one?" Blanca shakes her head, my hand moving with her face.
I peel my hand away slow and she glares at me, rolling her jaw. My satchel shifts as Ocho sticks her head through the opening to stare at Blanca. She yawns and stretches, then disappears back into the bag, circling once before lying down.
"Thanks for the assist, jerkface," I mutter.
Blanca presses her shattered hand to her chest and winces, holding it steady with her other arm. Already the hand is swollen — skin stretched tight over a shapeless mess of fingers.
Her breath turns shallow as she looks at it.
"You'll be fine," I say. "We'll get you to the doc."
Blanca scowls but doesn't resist when I pull her away from the wall.
I fix the rebreather back to my face and we rejoin the procession — easier to float with the current around the huge, sun-lit space than to try and fight against the tide.
* * *
I push Blanca through the door to Doctor Ahlam Ouyahia's clinic, barely able to stay upright, her feet dragging, skin pallid. It's a clean, neat clinic, well lit, every surface white and glossy. We walk through the empty waiting room into the main area, lined with beds along both walls, most of them occupied by patients caught in the dull stasis of illness, overseen by older-model autodocs.
"Ahlam?" I call out.
Her shaved head peers out from the doorway of her office, brow furrowed with concern. "Why is she here? What did you do to her?" Ahlam says rapid-fire as she rushes over.
"She pulled a knife on me, doc, I had to disarm her."
"Why not pull off her whole arm next time."
"I thought about it," I say, and Ahlam scowls.
"You were meant to scare her, not bring her to me broken."
"I didn't know what else to do. Be glad I didn't kill her."
For an instant Ahlam's face twists with anger, then it disappears when she remembers who she's talking to. She lifts her eyebrows and tuts. "Yes, at least you didn't do that."
"She doesn't say much, does she?"
"Vow of silence?"
Ahlam taps the hollow at the base of Blanca's throat: neat surgical scars. "They say it's one less way to displease the gods. Does not stop her terrorizing me."
Blanca shakes violently, deep in shock — if she knows we're talking about her, she doesn't show it. Doc leads the silent gangster to one of the empty beds along the right wall of her clinic. She lies down with her hand still pressed to her chest. Doc sticks her with a syringe and she relaxes slowly, body melting into the bed, hand falling to her side.
I take a seat near Blanca's bed and Ocho climbs from the satchel to rest in my lap. She starts cleaning herself, body twisted in experimental cat-thing yoga.
Ahlam prods Blanca's mangled hand gently and winces as if they're her broken bones inside the taut red skin. She shakes her head. "I don't know how this will heal."
"Just give her a prosthetic," I say.
"It is not that easy. Besides, she would refuse. Many think those modifications taboo."
"Explains the blind woman I saw."
Ahlam nods absently. She sits beside me and our legs touch. She sighs. We were close once, when she was training to be a doctor, but that was years ago.
"What am I meant to do now, Mars?" she asks.
"Fix her hand," I say. "Tell her if she tries to extort you again, I'll break them both."
"But you will not always be here."
"She doesn't know that."
Ahlam sighs again. "I should not have asked you to do this."
"You needed her off your back and I needed a favor. How's Pale doing?"
"The tests are finished. I was checking over the results when you came in."
"What's the verdict?"
Ahlam pushes up from her seat. "Come along."
I leave Ocho on the seat and follow Ahlam to the back of the clinic, past her office to the surgery. Pale lies encased within a diagnostic machine, wearing nothing but a paper gown. He's still as pale as his name, but he's grown half a foot since I rescued him from Briggs's flagship. Since I found him trapped inside a hovering weapon platform, wired into the machine to create a psychic blast on command. Fed through a tube, he dreamt in darkness, a skeleton wrapped in skin and nightmares. He looks a lot better now, but he still can't shake the nightmares, and the seizures scare me as much as they scare him.
Ahlam brings a collection of images up on the glass shell of the machine — cross-sections of his skull and brain, spotted with boxes of various sizes, glowing bright in the dull field of his gray matter.
"Honestly, Mariam, I hardly know what I'm looking at," Ahlam says. "I know which part of his brain each of these augmentations is fitted to, but I don't know what they do, and I don't know if they can be safely removed."
"Which is causing the seizures?"
"All of them? None of them? Some combination?"
"Surely that's all in the research I brought you?" The data I stole from MEPHISTO's servers when I was tracking Mookie. Before Seward, before Homan, before Trix died and Mookie was cut open and put back together as part of the hive-mind Legion. Back when it still seemed like I could fix things. Before everything turned to shit.
"Perhaps it is, but I am no specialist. I treat devotees who fasted one day too many, or who prayed until they collapsed. This boy needs a different sort of doctor."
"What can you do?"
Ahlam exhales deeply. "I can give you more medicine to treat his seizures. If you really want to fix him, take him to the people that did this."
Now it's my turn to sigh. MEPHISTO made Pale what he is, and they also made me. They gave hundreds of children telekinetic powers to see if they could make weapons in human form. It worked ... too well, if I'm anything to judge by. But MEPHISTO is gone. I killed Briggs and every person under his command, and the empire purged most of the witches he'd created.
I want to fix Pale, but with MEPHISTO gone, there's only one person left who can help.
"Your father," Ahlam says, as if reading my mind; "he did this?"
I nod. Marius Teo. "Not personally, but it was his research."
"Mariam, you need to go to him."
I groan because I know Ahlam is right, because I've been avoiding it ever since Sera died. She gave me a picture of him, and I must've looked at it a hundred times since. I don't know how I feel about the man. He made me, but then he sold me to MEPHISTO, knowing they'd make me into this, a killer like the galaxy has never seen.
Maybe that's not fair. He didn't make me a murderer; MEPHISTO set me on the path, but I killed all those people.
"I can't help the boy, but let me do something for you. You look terrible."
"Thanks," I say, deadpan.
Ahlam shrugs by way of apology.
"I'm just tired. You could give me some metamethamphetamine."
She crosses her arms over her chest. "You need rest."
I laugh, a cold flat noise rising from the back of my throat. I'm about to speak, but I stop myself at the sound of bare feet slapping on polyrubber flooring.
Ahlam's son, Hayreddin, runs into the theatre — all long, gangly limbs and panting breath. He stops in the doorway, sunken chest rising and falling, watching Pale unconscious in the diag machine.
"You should leave him here," the boy says, levelling a cool gaze at me. He has a strong voice at odds with his youth. I don't know where he picked it up from, but he exudes an anachronistic masculinity, acting as though he needs to protect his mother, like she isn't capable of doing that herself.
"What are you saying?" Ahlam asks.
"She needs to go, mama; they'll be here soon."
Ahlam crosses over to her son and pinches his chin, lifting his head to face her. "Who?"
I don't wait for the answer. I yank open the hatch and the diagnostic machine starts bleeping incessantly. I slip an arm under Pale's neck and lift him, his eyes flickering as he slowly comes to.
"Wake up, buddy, we've got to go," I say softly, pressing his folded clothes against his chest.
"She's dangerous; I had to call them."
"Who?" Ahlam asks again, desperate edge coming through with her words.
"The Emperor's Guard," I say.
Ahlam turns to face me, then looks back at her son. He only nods. I wince when she slaps him, thunderclap of skin on skin.
"You shame us."
"You shame us by helping her," he spits back.
Pale finishes dressing, grimace carved into his young face at the argument going on around him. I take him by the hand and start for the door when Ahlam grabs my arm.
"I am sorry."
I shake my head. "He's right. We've got to go." I kiss her on the cheek for old times' sake and lead Pale from the clinic with Ocho following at a trot.
Behind me, the two Ouyahias argue in a mix of Arabic and Xhosa, their voices rising exponentially until I reach the outside hallway and close the door behind me.
I open a comm-link to the ship: "Waren, prep the engines; we've got company."CHAPTER 2
Two dozen of the Emperor's Guard line the main concourse leading toward the dock. It's a busy thoroughfare, filled with food kiosks, and vendors selling incense and other offerings for the deities worshipped here.
The Guard move slowly, armed with waver carbines, standard-issue sidearms, and plasma grenades at their waists. The air above them shimmers with the movement of drones. Religious laws forbid perpetual surveillance on Joon-ho — another reason I chose this place — but there's nothing stopping the Guard from bringing their own. They flip over tables and tear down stalls, searching any nook where a person could be hiding. Civilians flee, clutching children to their chests, chased by facial recognition drones. Storekeepers haul their wares away, escaping the imminent wave of imperial havoc.
I pull Pale back into the doorway and press him flat to the wall. He squints like he's calculating an attack, so I squeeze his hand to get his attention. "Leave them to me, alright?" I grab Ocho around the belly, and she swipes at me half-heartedly as I pass her to Pale. "Look after Ocho."
He nods solemnly. "Okay," he says, holding her tight to his chest.
"Stay behind me, and don't watch what I do."
He doesn't answer. I know he thinks he can help, but he's too unstable. If he gets too angry, or too scared, he'll lash out and have another seizure. I can't deal with that now, not with elite troops bearing down and a couple hundred meters of open hallway between us and the ship.
I turn my back to Pale and say, "Hold onto my cloak." He grabs a handful of fabric and I step out of the alcove, walking straight toward the soldiers. Distracted by throwing old people roughly to the ground and separating kids from their parents, the Guard don't notice me until I'm close enough to see myself in the reflective visors of their helmets.
One soldier turns to face me, raising a hand and barking, "Stop!"
I lift him off the ground, feel him as a small dense mote tugging at my mind. He yells when I toss him aside, limbs flailing as he glides through the air and slams into another three troopers.
The rest of the platoon responds instantly, twenty soldiers rounding on me with wavers aimed at my chest, drones gathering above me with camera eyes focusing. My throat spasms in a strangled laugh. It would be so easy to kill every one of them before they moved their fingers off their trigger guards. But then they'd be right about me: Mars Xi, terrorist, mass murderer, heartless creator of mourners and orphans.
I ignore their overlapping orders and start to growl quietly as I gather my thoughts. It's harder to be gentle. First, I crush the drones — the crumpled steel balls sparking as they plummet. Next, I lift the soldiers off the ground, holding each by the throat, squeezing as they squirm and gasp. I drop them one by one as I feel their bodies go limp, weapons clattering to the floor. Hundreds of people along the length of the corridor stare, mouths slack or muttering as they realize who I am.
I never wanted to be famous. Infamous. Whatever.
I pull my hood up and take Pale by the hand. "Hurry now."
Pale beams at the onlookers as we step over the scattered bodies of the Guard. I don't pay them any mind though; I've seen that mix of awe and fear enough times in my life.
We reach the dock and the Rua — our Blackcoat-class corvette — sits waiting with its air lock door open. I push Pale toward it.
"Get settled and wait for me." He scratches the back of Ocho's neck and carries her into the ship.
I find the Guard's vessel at the far end of the dock — a Byrne-class destroyer bristling with heavy weapons and stamped with the emperor's two-headed Janos beetle sigil. I grab the ship in both hands and twist. Dull pressure in my head. Piercing screech as the destroyer splits down the middle, reinforced steel plates shredded apart. I drop the two halves to the ground with twin thuds and a clank of debris.
* * *
"I bought us some time," I tell Waren as I drop into the Rua's pilot seat.
"I noticed," the AI says over the quiet hum of ship engines lifting us from the deck.
The cockpit is purely utilitarian compared to the high-tech trappings that Squid installed in the Nova. Wide, scratched viewport, stick controls, hundreds of buttons and lights, and the meaty smell of old sweat drifting up from the two seats.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Static Ruin"
Copyright © 2018 Corey J. White.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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