Aphelion Issue 277, Volume 26
October 2022
 
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One Last Mark

by Paul Miller




The Handler loved playing God.

In fact, he felt it was his chief purpose in life.

He smiled and surveyed the holographic faces hovering uniformly over his desk. Each of the men and women represented were under his complete control. He simply let them know his wishes via the chip implanted in their brains, and if they failed to obey, he could give them an excruciating death with the press of a button. The only limitation was that anything he ordered his Hunters to do had to be approved by his bosses in Umbra Agency.

His office door whirred open, and a balding man in a crisp black uniform stepped inside. Speak of the devil...

"Director," the Handler observed, unable to mask his surprise. Rarely did he get to see someone of such rank in person.

"It's a little dark in here for my taste," the other man said quietly.

The Handler immediately ordered the light on. He preferred to work in absolute darkness, it was true. Just him and the avatars of his pawns. "Sorry about that, sir."

The Director waved away the apology with a toss of his hand, striding over and stopping directly in front of the desk. "It doesn't matter. I have a job for you, and I suggest sending your best Hunters to accomplish it."

"Very well." The Handler already knew which he intended to use. "What's the problem?"

"Some raiders have been preying on cargo ships in human space, near Shangri-la." The Director sighed. "Usually something like this is beneath our notice, but these particular raiders have proven remarkably adept at evading the authorities. They are too well-armed for men of their profession, and they are too well-informed of the cargo shipping schedules. We believe they're being backed by someone with some serious money to throw around. Probably some idiot that thinks a life of crime sounds like an exciting way to make his mark on the world."

"You want me to find out who's backing them?"

"No. I want every one of the raiders eliminated . . . in as grand a fashion as possible. I want to send a message. Make the backer turn away from the criminal life forever, always looking over his shoulder wondering if he's next." The Director smiled. "Have you got any Hunters in mind?"

The Handler touched one of the faces before him, one shrouded in wild black hair and an unkempt beard. The other faces disappeared as the bearded one grew larger. A holographic control panel appeared in front of it. "This one is perfect. Hunter 734. The best I've got."

"Only one? I thought perhaps a small team might be prudent, considering the nature of the threat."

The Handler just grinned, inputting a series of commands on the console, sending them to his Hunter's shuttle, ordering it into an area of space near the human world of Shangri-la.

The Director frowned. "Aren't you going to brief the poor bastard?"

"No."

"At least wake him up. He's in cryo-sleep, for God's sake. He won't have a chance. What are you playing at?"

The Handler laughed; he couldn't help it. "I like to challenge him. Trust me. I know this particular Hunter very well. Not only will he get the job done, but he'll do it in such a way that the raiders' backer will be peeing himself for weeks."

"You realize that if this goes poorly, I'll have you fired." His eyes narrowed. "Maybe worse."

"Yes sir. I do. You're welcome to hang around here and keep tabs on the mission with me, if you're having doubts."

"I think I will at that," the Director said. He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Just who is this Hunter 734 anyway?"

With the press of a holographic button, Hunter 734's bio appeared in the air. The Director's eyes widened as he read it.

"I see," he said. "Perhaps this will work out after all . . . or at least I'll have an excuse to get rid of one more arrogant Handler. I win either way." He sat in the office's only other seat and leaned forward. "Let's get to it then."


* * *

Cyrix cursed vehemently as he was awakened by someone pounding on the door to his cabin. He rolled out of his bunk, snatched a massive assault rifle from under it, then flung the door open and raised the weapon.

"Don't shoot me, boss," Renny whimpered, cowering with his arms in front of his face.

Cyrix glared down at the far smaller man. "You better have a damned good reason for disturbing me. Or are you just looking to get shot?"

Renny nodded in a very manic fashion. "Yes. Er, have a good reason, that is. Don't want to get shot. It's just that I think me and the others found a good mark. Some kind of shuttle. Just floating there, ripe for the picking. Probably ran out of fuel. You uh, you want us to see what she's got?"

Cyrix reached up with one large hand, rubbing the hairless dome of his head in the way he always did when deep in thought. They had been raiding the same area for too long. His plan had been to lay low for a while, then pick things back up somewhere far away. That would keep the peace officers off their backs.

On the other hand, a single shuttle that had run out of fuel was an easy target. And who knew what they might find inside? It wouldn't even take very much time.

"All right," he said. "Let's do it. One last mark, then we're out of here."


* * *

Cyrix eyed the shuttle sitting in the middle of their docking bay warily. The sleek black frame was of a make he'd not encountered before, and that made him nervous. It was also the most expensively built craft they'd ever taken, so he was curious to find out what kind of wealth awaited inside. He ran a hand over his smooth head as the two emotions battled for supremacy inside him.

One of his men jumped back from an open panel in the shuttle's hull where he'd been rewiring the door controls. Sure enough, the shuttle's door glided smoothly open.

"We ready?" Renny asked from beside him.

Cyrix nodded. Excitement began to overcome nerves as he, Renny and four others stepped inside, blasters in hand. He couldn't believe how smoothly this was going. The shuttle hadn't even made a cursory attempt at escape as they'd guided it on board.

Raiding was never this easy. And what could possibly happen now? He already had the little shuttle aboard his warship-disguised-as-a-freighter, and over thirty capable men had his back.

His eyes slowly adjusted to the gloom. The inside of the shuttle was all one big cockpit. Against one side was a large viewscreen above the supercomputer responsible for the millions of intricate calculations necessary for traveling faster than light. On the other side was a large tube with cords snaking from it in every direction. There appeared to be someone inside.

"Oh shit," Renny said, scratching at the patchy whiskers on his face. "That's a cryo-tube."

Cyrix eyed the man. "So? Maybe it's worth something."

"Don't you get it? The only people with the technology to do something like this is Umbra Agency. The person frozen inside there is a damned Hunter."

Cyrix walked up to the cryo-tube and wiped away some of the frost that had gathered on the outside. A man almost as large as him was suspended in some kind of clear viscous substance inside. The man had wild hair and a tangled beard, and his body was covered in a network of spiral tattoos as well as hundreds of small scars.

Didn't those tattoos mark him as being from Purgatory? Cyrix shook his head. Couldn't be. Everyone from that world was dead.

"What should we do?" one of the men asked.

Cyrix was about to answer when a loud alarm sounded, echoing inside the cramped shuttle. Jets of steam poured from the edges of the cryo-tube, and the man inside stirred.

"He's waking up!" Renny shouted. Cyrix quickly backed away. He nodded to the other men and they spread out, blasters trained on the cryo-tube.


* * *

Kill them all.

The thought wasn't even his own, but it was more coherent than anything else in Ra'vihd's sluggish mind, so he clung to it desperately. Something about the command had an urgency to it that made him want to fight his way to consciousness and understanding as quickly as possible.

Kill them all.

Why was he so sluggish? He thought for a moment as his body began to twitch. It was because he had been asleep, asleep for a long time.

But was he only asleep? No, it was more than that. He'd been frozen. Inside a cryo-tube.

And why was he frozen? He hesitated on this, then everything came back in a rush. He was frozen because he was one of Umbra Agency's infamous Hunters--Hunter 734. He was a glorified dog on a leash, forced to do their bidding or die in horrible pain. There was far more to him, of course, many reasons for the murderous hate that burned inside his dark soul, but unless he could one day escape his Handler's control, none of it mattered.

Kill them all.

Ra'vihd's eyes snapped open, and he smiled. Killing was something he happened to be very good at, and it was the one thing he could still glean pleasure from in his miserable existence.

Some of the accumulated frost had been wiped away from the outside of his cryo-tube, and he saw men surrounding it with weapons drawn.

So that's what was going on; some foolish raiders had mistaken his star wraith for a common shuttle and thought to loot it. His smile widened. It was a decision they would come to regret.

Steam poured from the cryo-tube's vents and the liquefied cryo-gel began to drain. Ra'vihd flexed his arm and leg muscles repeatedly. It usually took a few minutes for his body to recover from its long slumber, but this time he would be shot if he didn't act as soon as he was released.

He was at a decided disadvantage.

The cryo-tube's door flew open in a final burst of steam. Dozens of cords jerked out of Ra'vihd and his breathing apparatus fell away. He collapsed to the floor in front of the cryo-tube in a puddle of gel, coughing and gasping for breath. A chorus of blaster fire erupted, and he flung himself away, willing his limbs to work as they were supposed to. Bolts of condensed energy ripped through the wall panels behind him, causing sparks and bits of metal sheeting to rain down. He felt a rush of air as one bolt missed his face by inches.

He needed his weapons.

Ra'vihd rolled behind the cryo-tube, slapping a hand down on the palm reader next to his weapon locker affixed to the tube's side on the way by. There was a soft click, and the locker sprang open. He stayed crouched behind the cryo-tube as condensed energy slammed into it.

"Did we get him?" somebody called out. The barrage stopped. Thick smoke clouded the area, but it immediately started to dissipate.

He had to make his move before it did.

Ra'vihd willed his body into motion, crawling to the locker and jerking out the two Umbra Agency prototype weapons stored carefully inside: his reaver and shrieker. The former was a mesh-covered baton, capable of shearing through just about anything when ignited. The latter was an altered blaster pistol that turned its targets to ash. He blindly fired the shrieker a couple of times in his enemies' direction before crawling back behind the cryo-tube.

Somebody screamed in agony for a few moments, then abruptly cut off. Ra'vihd smiled grimly. It seemed one of the shrieker's blasts had found its mark.

"What the hell was that?" one of his attackers shouted. "He just burned up. We need to get out of--"

The words were cut off by a scream as the speaker was hit by another blast from the shrieker. Not a smart move giving away his location like that. Ra'vihd glanced at the weapon and saw the little red light on its side blinking. It would be useless until it had some time to cool down.

"Pull back," one of the attackers shouted. He had a deep, powerful voice that easily filled the shuttle. Ra'vihd peeked around the cryo-tube. The speaker was a large bald man with a dangerous-looking assault rifle cradled in his arms. He looked even bigger than Ra'vihd.

Interesting.

The other men quickly backed out of the star wraith, firing a couple shots off to keep him pinned down. A small man with a weasel's face turned to the bald one. "Want me to blow it, Cyrix?"

The one named Cyrix nodded. He motioned to the others to back farther away. The small man pulled a tiny round explosive device from his pocket, thumbed it on, and lobbed it into the star wraith. It landed next to the weapon locker, close enough to blow Ra'vihd into a hundred pieces.

He scooped up two handfuls of cryo-gel from the floor and dove for the explosive. His muscles tightened in anticipation of being ripped apart. This had to be perfect, or he would die. He smothered the explosive in gel, then snared one of the cords spewing steam and turned that on the explosive as well. As soon as steam touched the gel, it froze.

Ra'vihd stared for a few moments, not even daring to breathe, until he was sure the explosive wasn't going to go off. "Big mistake," he whispered. He reached back into the locker, pulled out a shirt and tore a long strip from it. He then froze the strip to the explosive.

The reaver ignited with a loud snap. A quick touch of the reaver to the strip of cloth set it on fire. Ra'vihd waited a moment, then hurled the frozen explosive through his star wraith's open door, into the docking bay beyond.

There was a deafening explosion, followed by screams and shouted curses. Ra'vihd was thrown to his back by the blast, but unharmed. Now was his chance. He jumped up and sprinted to a small side console for his star wraith's supercomputer. He quickly activated the craft's turret. A view from atop the weapon blinked to life on the viewscreen, and Ra'vihd quickly set to work, turning the weapon in tight circles and shooting anything that moved.

He caught sight of a few men disappearing through a blast door. Cyrix and the small man who'd thrown the explosive were among them. He tried to take them out, but couldn't get a clean shot before the blast door slammed shut.

"Later, then," he promised. He fired the turret until it was close to overheating, taking out walls and shuttles and anything else he could find. Warning lights flashed throughout the docking bay, and alarms screamed at him to stop before the hull was breached entirely.

It was chaos, and chaos was good. He thrived in it.

The smart thing to do would be to blast a big enough hole to fly through and escape, but his orders were to kill everyone. He had to be certain all the raiders were dead.

"So be it." Ra'vihd pulled a pair of worn pants from the locker and pulled them on. His belt came next, and he shoved both his weapons through it. Then he crept out of the star wraith, through the burning docking bay, and disappeared through a hole he'd blasted in the wall, into a narrow corridor leading deeper into the ship.


* * *

"Impressive," the Director said quietly. He stared at the hologram above the Handler's desk that showed them the world through Hunter 734's eyes.

"Yes," the Handler said, trying to keep any trace of smugness from his voice. "As I said, he's the best I have."

The Director shook his head slowly. "I almost pity the raiders. They haven't got a chance."

"No."

"I used to wonder how one man pulled off the attack on the K'larith homeworld. Now that I see him in action, it makes a little more sense."

"Yes. I've long thought that if we were going to give Purgatory to the K'larith in exchange for peace, we should have made damn sure all of her people were dead. Common sense, right?"

"But what are the odds the one man to survive out of an entire planet's population would be so capable? It seems fate has once again shown a sense of profound irony."

The Handler smiled. "At any rate, he's one of ours now. So it all worked out in the end."

The Director frowned and said nothing.


* * *

It made Cyrix sick to his stomach to see the fear in his men's eyes. He didn't care how dangerous their enemy was, he would not allow himself to be unmanned so. He had been in the business for over a decade now, and he would be damned if he was going to let one man bring it all crashing down around his head.

"What do we do, boss?" Renny asked. The coward looked to be on the point of tears.

Cyrix took stock of his remaining crew. There was a surge of rage as he thought of the good men that had died, but he fought it down. He still had ten left, including Renny, and all were well-armed.

"We'll set up an ambush in the mess hall. Plenty of cover there. Also plenty of room to flank him."

"What if we can't beat him?" Renny asked softly.

Cyrix lashed out, punching his friend in the face as hard as he could. Blood streaked from Renny's nose, and he collapsed to the floor.

"If the ambush doesn't do for him, I'll take him on myself." Cyrix rubbed the top of his head, glaring at the shocked faces of his men. "We can beat him because I can beat him. Got it? Anyone else want to imply I don't have what it takes."

Silence.


* * *

Ra'vihd lost track of time as he stalked the ship's dark corridors. He knew it had been a while, however, and alarms were still blaring all around him. It seemed he had significantly compromised the integrity of the raiders' ship. This wasn't going to be a very safe place for much longer.

He needed to hurry.

He also needed to be careful. A few lone, terrified men had crossed his path--and were easily killed, of course--but the majority of his prey eluded him. This likely meant the rest were grouped together, which was good, but he felt sure they would set up some kind of ambush.

"Should I try to pick them off one-by-one? Might not have that much time." There was a hint of the mechanical in his once-ruined voice, a reminder of his youth on the desolate planet of Purgatory. Humanity's betrayal of that planet to the K'larith and the subsequent revenge he had taken on their species were what landed him in a K'larith prison. When Umbra Agency had come looking to make him one of their Hunters, he'd jumped at the chance. Now, he wondered if this form of imprisonment might be even worse than the prison.

He shook his head, forcing himself to focus on the task at hand. "No. I need to walk right into their ambush and get this over with." At least that way he could catch them all in one spot. It would save time, if not effort.

A short while later, he strode confidently into the middle of the mess hall. Four rows of tables ran the length of the large room, a few of which were overturned. There was a grimy kitchen in one corner and a large viewscreen opposite it. Rows of clouded lights flickered along the walls, casting the entire hall in a writhing white haze.

This was where they were waiting for him. He was sure of it. There was a flicker of movement as somebody tried to sneak around behind him.

He took a deep breath.

"Shoot him!" The leader, Cyrix, shouted, his voice booming.

Ra'vihd charged ahead, the one movement he was sure none of them would anticipate, as blaster fire erupted. The floor behind him exploded, and a few of the nearest tables were ripped to shreds. Immediately, the bolts of condensed energy began to zero in on him as the raiders adjusted their aim.

He needed to find cover.

Something caught his eye. Two of his attackers crouched behind a table in front of him and to the left. Only their heads and weapons were visible. He fired the shrieker, barely grazing one man's ear, but that was enough. The man screamed in agony, then vanished in a cloud of ash.

The reaver flared to life. Ra'vihd leaped the table and brought it across his body in a vicious swipe. The other man's head fell to the floor with a thud and rolled slowly away. Ra'vihd caught the man's body and jerked it in front of him just in time to absorb a handful of blasts.

Two men charged his location, and both died in the horrible pain only a shrieker could inflict. Unfortunately, the weapon needed to cool down again. Ra'vihd shoved it back into his belt and picked up the assault rifle the man he was using as a shield had dropped.

He was much larger than his shield, and some of his body was exposed. He knew he needed to stay on the offensive.

A bolt of condensed energy tore through his left shoulder. The pain was immediate and agonizing. He dropped the body and stumbled backward a few steps before collapsing on his back on the floor.

"We got him."

Ra'vihd smiled through the pain. He hadn't survived this long by being weak. It wasn't even the first time he'd been shot. He tried to appear helpless as two more men charged. When they were within range, he calmly sat up and shot them both in the head.

"Enough of this," the small man with a weasel's face said. Ra'vihd saw him reach into a pocket and pull out another small explosive.

Some people never learn.

He took careful aim as the man thumbed the weapon on. When he drew back to throw, Ra'vihd shot his arm. The explosive dropped to the floor at the man's feet.

"Son of a--"

Writhing flame engulfed the man, as well as two others near him, and searing heat blasted outward in an ever-expanding circle. Ra'vihd was knocked on his back and sent sliding across the floor. He finally came to rest against the far wall, just under the viewscreen, then was showered in glass as the screen shattered.

He fought to his feet quickly, shrugging off glass and favoring his shoulder. He just caught sight of the raiders' leader disappearing through a door. With an exasperated groan, he forced himself to hurry in pursuit. If he let his target get away, he may never be able to find the man again. Cyrix knew this ship better than he ever could. And there just wasn't time for a prolonged search.

He followed the sounds of the other man's flight, trying desperately to ignore the weakness overcoming his injured body. He wondered what he would do if Cyrix did get away. Could he return to his star wraith and fly away, sure this ship's declining condition would kill his enemy soon? Would his Handler even let him do such a thing?

The question turned out to be irrelevant.

Ra'vihd turned a corner in a narrow maintenance shaft to find Cyrix waiting for him. The man's eyes were bright with rage. The machinery around them popped and sizzled, and showers of sparks occasionally spewed forth.

"You killed my friend," Cyrix said, his voice a low growl. "I can't let you live after that, after what you did to Renny."

Ra'vihd grinned, raising his shrieker.

"No," Cyrix said. "Let's settle this as men. No weapons." There eyes met, a tense moment passed and both men tossed their weapons to the side.

They approached each other cautiously. Ra'vihd was no slouch at hand to hand combat, but he was hurt, and his opponent was enormous. He sprinted the last few steps, throwing a vicious punch at the other man's face. Cyrix easily dodged, however, and delivered an uppercut that sent Ra'vihd reeling. Black flecks danced in front of his eyes, and he fell to the floor.

He was no match for Cyrix. He was going to lose.

"I think I'm really going to enjoy this," Cyrix said, rubbing the top of his head and stepping closer. He kicked Ra'vihd in the ribs and face repeatedly, laughing as he did so. Then he reached down and lifted the injured man, hurling him into the sparking machinery to their side. Ra'vihd grunted in pain as electricity wracked his body. He collapsed to the floor, twitching helplessly.

"Had enough?" Cyrix asked. His eyes widened in amusement. "What's this? Trying to crawl away like the worm you are? I don't think so." He closed quickly, fists clenched.

But Ra'vihd hadn't been trying to escape. Never that. He had simply been trying to reach his weapons. He bided his time as he was kicked repeatedly, but when Cyrix lifted him up again, the reaver ignited with a crack, slicing the larger man open from groin to throat.

If he'd had the strength, Ra'vihd would have laughed at the look of utter surprise on his enemy's face.

"No weapons..." Cyrix muttered weakly, collapsing to the floor.

With a monumental effort, Ra'vihd climbed to his feet. True, there was no honor in this kill. But he'd learned long ago that there was no such thing as honor. There was victory, and there was death. Nothing more.

He stumbled away, trying to reach his star wraith before the raiders' ship was destroyed, retracing the trail of corpses he'd left in his wake.


* * *

His breath came in painful, ragged gurgles. Cyrix knew he was about to die, but he no longer cared. He had failed their backer. Failed his men. Failed Renny. Failed himself.

He should have trusted his gut. He'd known it was time to move on, known they were risking drawing unwanted attention. He tried to laugh, but only succeeded in coughing up a glob of blood. Greed was what had done them in. One last easy mark had been too tempting to pass up.

"Renny," he said weakly. "It was one mark too many." His eyes started to roll back in his head. "It was one mark too many . . ."


* * *

The Handler and the Director sat side-by-side in silence, watching as Hunter 734 slowly made his way back to the star wraith. They watched as he blew a big enough hole in the raider ship's hull and guided his small craft out, then slowly stripped, replacing his pants and weapons in their small locker, and reset the cryo-tube to receive him. They watched as the cryo-tube door closed and it started to refill with gel, and they noted the rage still burning in their Hunter's eyes.

All that killing, and he was far from satisfied.

Finally, after a while, the Director spoke.

"What is it that sets him apart from the other Hunters, do you think? What makes him better?"

The Handler leaned forward in his chair, causing it to squeak loudly. "Motivation. The others give in to the hopelessness of their situation. They give in to our complete control shortly after being implanted with the chip. But 734... he's different. He has been with us for years, yet he's never lost hope. He still believes that one day he will be free of us. There is something so important to him that he will do anything to survive, so he might one day achieve it."

"Vengeance?"

"Yes. Against the K'larith who yet live, and us." The Handler's smug smile took on a sickly tone.

"God help us should he ever gain his freedom," the Director said, shaking his head sadly.

The Handler thought that, to his Hunters, he was God. For some reason, this time it wasn't as comforting a thought as it had once been.

He reached for the console under the holographic face of Hunter 734 and ordered the man to sleep.


THE END


2013 Paul Miller

Bio: Mr. Miller lives in Dallas, Texas. His stories have appeared in various online and print publications, including Kzine, Every Day Fiction and Silver Blade. Find links to his other work at paulmillerfiction.wordpress.com."

E-mail: Paul Miller

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