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Keeping Count

Two hours. That would be enough, right? Hawke tried to remember how long this had taken last time. Fifteen minutes too early wouldn’t give her crew enough time and fifteen minutes too late would mean—well, it wouldn’t be good. No, two hours should do it. She set the timer and slipped the ring back around her finger just before an electric jolt sent her flailing to the dirt.

Staying conscious during the initial shock had been difficult, but she muscled through, and an hour later she was in the Orbital Palace, tucked away in a dark interrogation room. There, the two Khakian guards that had first scooped her up from the moon hung her on a cross-beam like the fella on those necklaces the Old Sol Jesuits wore around their necks and amped-up the room’s gravity, accelerating the effects of the crucifixion. It was only a half-hour later, when each breath she took was a struggle, that Menlo Noidez dared to show his face.

While he wore the robes and upturned sneer of a Merovingian noble, the malice that burned so plainly in Menlo’s eyes belied the monster that lurked beneath. Seven stars belonged to Clan Noidez, and six of them lived in constant fear of Menlo’s influence ever stretching beyond his own. Fortunately, his six older sisters stood united between him and his goal, unfortunately, even together they weren’t nearly as ruthless or cunning as the man that stood before Hawke now. Then again, if they’d been blessed with half a brain to share between them, Hawke’s pockets would have been a lot lighter.

“Captain Hawke,” said Menlo, stepping forward so they were face to face. “I’ve come to expect you fiddling in my affairs every few months, not every few years. You’re long overdue.”

Hawke struggled against gravity, pushing herself up so she could get enough of a lungful to speak comfortably. “I’ve been keeping up with my fiddling, it’s your catching me that’s been getting sloppy.”

The nobleman sniffed humorlessly. “So what did my sisters get you to do this time? Try and turn an advisor? Run guns to one of the rebel factions on my moon? Set fire to my factories?”

“We’ve done this before, Menlo,” Hawke said. “You know a good merc doesn’t kiss and tell. If you want an answer from me, you’ll have to get your hands dirty.”

The nobleman huffed again, lifting up a corner of Hawke’s shirt and inspecting the splatter-shaped scar he’d left on her abdomen the last time the two of them had met. “Trust me,” he said. “Things will be plenty messy.” He brushed over the burn mark with his long pointed nails. It would have made her squirm if even the slightest movement wasn’t now akin to swimming her way up from the bed of a lake to its surface. “You should know that I’ve already spoken to your crew. They offered up a ransom, I told them only all six of my sisters would do.”

“Then you might want to wait,” said Hawke. “Furfit can be very persuasive.”

He didn’t wait.

There were plenty of ways to describe Menlo Noidez. He was a shrewd businessman, a despot, a petulant example of why the more democratic sectors of the Orion Systems looked down on the aristocratic backwater of Merovingia. But for all these, there was no phrase that described him better than “armchair masochist.” With just a few splotches of acid-burn to show for her prior encounter with Menlo, Hawke had gotten off easy. In the court of the oldest Noidez sibling alone there were half a dozen examples of Menlo’s handiwork; the niece he’d mangled into madness, taking both her beauty and her brains before she came of age, the spy he uprooted and returned, limbless, every orifice but his mouth soldered shut. It was grizzly, but in truth it was what allowed Hawke to charge so much for her services. No one else would accept the sisters’ contracts. But now, as Menlo stepped aside and snapped orders at his toadies, she was sure she’d be earning every excruciating penny as the next nineteen minutes ticked away.

First came the crag-leeches. Their threat wasn’t immediately apparent, aside from the icy prick that accompanied each of them attaching to her flesh, but after the fifth began to grow plump she realized the more nefarious intention behind them. They were thinning her blood, which might have only been a minor inconvenience had the crucifixion not already had her body straining to keep oxygen flowing to all its corners. And that was just the beginning.

After the leeches had grown fat, Menlo’s guards gave Hawke another slew of blasts from their tesla rifles. Back on the moon’s surface, the seizure-inducing shots had done little more than make her wriggle, but now her blood was so thin and poorly oxygenated that her muscles couldn’t even spasm quickly. Instead she made a series of protracted, jolting movements that slowly wore her out.

Eyes fluttering, her tongue slapping against every inch of her mouth, Hawke was beginning to struggle to keep her count. Several times she felt herself dip just below the surface of consciousness, but still she strained to keep from being fully submerged. The count was what was most important, the count was paramount. And when Menlo finally called his minions off, there were only five scant minutes left, though she may have lost a handful of seconds on either side.

“Are we ready to open up now, Captain?” asked the nobleman, stepping back into view.

“Dad walked out—mom was a tweaker—and clowns—scare the shit out of me,” Hawke shot back. “That open enough for you?”

Menlo clicked his tongue. “It’s difficult isn’t it? Having to maintain such bravado when you have nothing left to barter with. I tell you what, you tell me what my sisters were after, and I’ll give you an easy death. Else-wise we do it my way.”

Hawke furrowed her brow in mock contemplation, then heaved a heavy breath. “C-can’t do that,” she said. “Too curious ’bout what you’ve got up those silky sleeves of yours.” The flames in Menlo’s eyes flared. He snapped his fingers.

The Khakians shuffled back to the forefront, this time carrying a long steel pike that glowed bright red at the end waving a bit too close to Hawke’s face. She nearly laughed, surprised that Menlo would settle for such standard fare, then she caught a whiff of the half-melted metal. It wasn’t steel at all.

It wasn’t easy to get Korolevium that bright a red. There was a reason it had become the standard hull material for the freighters and cruisers robust enough to head down into atmo, it didn’t burn easy. Even from a few feet away, Hawke could already feel the heat from it starting to cook her skin the same way a few days in the desert might. Two and a half minutes, she told herself, trying not to look straight at it. All you need is two and a half minutes.

“I don’t think I have to tell you how unpleasant just a prick from this would feel.”

“Could you?” Hawke coughed. “I never did have much of an imagination.”

Menlo sneered, reaching forward and squeezing her face in his claw-like hand. “How much more will it take to convince you, Captain? You can either tell me what I want to hear, or keep cracking wise and I’ll melt you from the inside out until you scream it at me.”

For a moment, Hawke sputtered unintelligibly, wheezing as she tried to collect her breath, high-gravity crucifixion was beginning to catch up with her. “Could do it like that,” she finally gasped. “Or we could do it—so that poker ends up—sticking out of your chest.”

The nobleman’s fingers tightened on both her cheeks until she could feel warm, sticky trickles running down from where his nails dug in. “Putting it there would be quite the accomplishment, considering your current predicament. Are you honestly delusional enough to believe there’s a way out of this?”

What was it now? One minute? Half? All the talking alongside the escalating battle for air was really beginning to mess with the count. Pushing herself up a final time, Hawke couldn’t help but chuckle a bit, no matter how much it hurt. “Please,” she said, just before taking in her final stunted breath, “There’s always a way out.” Then she stopped struggling, letting herself dangle from the beam as she shut both her eyes and mouth as tight as possible.

There was a small delay. Not enough for Menlo or his conscripts to escape, but enough for Hawke to hear them shuffling madly for the door before the sharp hiss from her hand drowned out. Aside from a small sting, she barely felt a thing when the ring’s explosive cap popped, releasing the neutralizing agent. The air instantly became dense with it and she could feel the vapor sticking to her skin. As she waited, breath held tight, she thanked Old Sol that her count had run short instead of long. Getting tortured by Menlo was certainly no cakewalk, but going blind for a month might just drive her to lunacy.

A few moments later, just as the urge to exhale was growing unbearable, a breathing mask was strapped securely over Hawke’s face. “Thank—you,” she wheezed.

“Just wait until you get the bill,” said Furfit, already working at the latches that kept her tethered to the cross. He undid them quickly, the claws on the ends of his small, furry fingers more nimble and evolutionarily capable than human fingers. “How’d you hold up?” asked the Folorian, unbuckling the last of his captain’s restraints. She flopped ungracefully to the floor.

“I’m not dead,” said Hawke, taking plenty of time to get back to her feet. “But let’s just say that Cerberian Ale I have tucked away in the galley won’t be making it until morning.”

“Well, do you still have it in you to do the honors?”

“Even if he’d broken every bone in my body,” Hawke said, her grimace turning to a grin.

“Good,” said Furfit, his canid face a bit blanched by Hawke’s eagerness. “I’ll be waiting outside, don’t dawdle.”

Once her crewman had stepped back through the door, Hawke snatched the pike from the incapacitated Khakians writhing on the floor. Not gently, she used the dull end to turn Menlo on his back until his wide eyes stared up at her, seeing nothing.

“Bito? Grinok?” he screamed between coughing fits. “Who—who’s there?”

“You want to know what your sisters sent me for?” Hawke asked. The malicious fire that had once burned in his eyes was gone now, doused by fear. And as the man stared blindly up at her, whimpering and afraid, she knew she didn’t have to tell him. He already knew.

Hawke waited until the pole sunk as deep as it would go, until the screaming stopped, until his legs had danced their last involuntary jig. She had gone through plenty for this contract, she was going to make sure she finished it right.


Lognar and the Bad Word

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