My mother used to read me Heart of Darkness at bedtime. I was the only kid on our asteroid with chronic insomnia, though to be fair, she did feed me melatonic, so the lack of sleep wouldn't stunt my growth. Kids don't normally question their parents' behaviour, since they usually have no comparison, but I did eventually ask her why I got Conrad, when other kids my age got 'Space Rabbit and the Five Teebles'.
"Because I'm training you as a weapon. You have to take down the devil, so your heart must be black, bereft of hope, because he'll surely take you down with him."
I was five.
Before I was fifteen, old enough to think that maybe I had some say in the matter, her space-buggie exploded one day whilst in transit. Over-fuelling, they said. Like we could ever afford to fully fuel anything. That was when I knew I'd never had a choice, that choice had been ripped away from me, falling on the wrong side of the umbilical cord. I accepted it. I had to take down Beckel. Trouble was, he'd bought immortality via auto-cellular-rebuild with back-up mem-feed off the subspace nets: even if you cut his head off, he'd grow a new one. That was when I realised I had to get creative, had to dig deep into legends. That's when I got interested in finding hell.
There are only three truths in the galaxy. One: everything has a price. Two: bars exist everywhere; only the clientele and the drugs change, and not by much either. Three: you learn the most useful stuff in those bars. Like, every single one of the hundred known space-faring species has a version of hell, even if they don't have a concept of right or wrong. And I figured, that's the ideal place to send the worst scum under the suns, because if he's immortal ...
Of course, it didn't become more than a fantasy till I met Gorscht, an invertebrate space-dock labourer with a penchant for intra-cranial nannite massages -- pretty scary to watch. After one particularly heavy drinking session, he let slip that he knew where hell was. "Pass the nannites," I said. The intel was worth it, though some nights I still can't stop scratching.
"There's only one white hole in the galaxy," Gorscht said -- well -- squelched, if you must know, but I had a translator-resident implant. "Size of a large Dyson sphere. Nothing gets in, nothing gets out. No gravity, just an energy barrier that goes exponential as you approach it; the shearing force disaggregates anyone attempting to break in. Hell's in there."
I believed him, mainly because lying when nannites are doing an internal run leads to permanent psychosis, even for intelligent squids.
My resident -- a semi-intelligent implant of the 'whaddya-wanna-know?' variety -- is state of the art and hooked to the nets, but audio-only, like a wise grandma nattering at the back of your head. I call it res; it's inside my head so I dispensed with formalities a long time ago. But I tended to ignore it most of the time, forgetting how much wiser it was. Even while I was sobering up, it started cross-referencing myths and facts in the hundred alien races, and ran a confidence check. It came up only 30%, but added two useful comments, the first that 30% was way better than the usual max 3% on 99.9999999% of searches for hell's location. The other comment was that now that I'd run the check, another net-user wanted to talk to me, and had further information about hell. I choked on my coffee when the res added that the user was an Anachreon. Went by the name of Xlotlik.
Maybe I should mention I worked as a tech on Faster-Than-Light runs? The pay was crud, but I needed to travel, first to get my plan sorted, and second to avoid Beckel's mob finding me: I'd used half my inheritance to send a flesh and blood avatar to Mom's funeral. Strange to watch a copy of yourself being diced by two goons as it stood over a rock-grave listening to a holo-priest. Mom had the last laugh though; as per her last will and testament, I'd left enough explosives in the coffin to take out the goons and half the cemetery. Beckel had been fooled into thinking I was dead for a full year. At least it gave me a head start.
My res said the meet with Xlotlik had to be face to face. That was pretty unusual, and it took me two years of criss-crossing shunts and some hitching to make it to the ass-end of the galaxy. I'd contact him once a month to see if he'd found another buyer for the information, and to check that he -- and that's just a generic 'he', by the way, I still have no idea what sex it might have been -- was still there. Looking back, I must have been crazy, not knowing if he was legit or just some kook, but then my res routinely tracked the extended Beckel family, and every few months another one dropped off the face of the universe, and I moved up a notch on Beckel's hitlist, so going to meet Xlotlik kept me out of harm's way. Sorry, forgot to mention -- Beckel and I are related. My mom, in her early teens, made a spectacularly poor choice in mates.
The first time I got to speak to the Xlotlik was via ansible, when only a few sectors away. The Anachreon asked why I wanted to know about hell; specifically, did I want in or out. I'd laughed, and said 'In'. He'd said that that was good, because he only had a way in. My laughter died in my throat.
Anachreons are known for being the most insular of the hundred species. In fact that's pretty much all that is known about them. Not even a picture. I checked my res. It had nothing except they didn't like strong light, and added that whatever I did find out about them would fetch me a good price on the exobiology nets. Oh, and they inhabited a nebula -- nobody had ever located a home-world -- so the last part of my journey was in a one-man capsule with three days' supply of food, and a send-off from the crew who assumed I'd starve to death in space waiting for the mystery creatures to come get me. I didn't mind. That last little party on the Deep Space Vessel Empty Promise would serve me well as a wake, since I'd always figured I'd never have a proper funeral: I had no friends to speak of, and family were dying out fast.
After eleven days I slipped into a coma, which I guess was the Xlotlik's whole idea for the meeting. All I remember is a cloud of fog with vague features, and a feeling of ironic benevolence. I awoke a couple of days later outside the nebula travelling at light speed on a transport. The Captain, an eight-armed Fetashka with impressive breasts, was livid when I crawled out of a cargo container and made it to the bridge, but got all solemn when she noticed something around my neck -- an albino diamond, worth more than her ship, and known to be the sole trading currency of the Anachreons. She had her med mind-rip me for details. She must have got some because I got a cabin upgrade and passage home. A while later I checked on my res and sure enough there was a stack of new info about the Anachreon species. I laughed -- it was bull, and beautiful, too. Nice one, Xlotlik.
What the Captain hadn't taken much notice of was something I didn't have in my possession before the meeting: a thin metal rod, the length of an outstretched hand, a rainbow sheen on its otherwise dull surface. My res had no idea what it was. Whenever I held it, it turned a jungle green colour. I knew it was the key to hell. Xlotlik had somehow coded the info into my intuition, something res-builders had dreamed of for decades. But I didn't know how the rod worked. I envisioned clubbing Beckel to death with it, and then he'd somehow go to Hell, but that would be just too easy. After all, that was why my Mom had fed me on Nietsche and Zurckel as a kid, to protect me, and to hardwire it into me: expect the worse, and then accept that you're being wildly optimistic.
Gods, I missed her.
It took another year to get back and befriend a lab-tech to find out what the rod was, without her organisation confiscating it. All she could say was that it was made of an indeterminate metal, but that inside it had a molecular decoder of incredible precision, able to strip down an object and convert it into an ion stream. One of the other lab-techs confided that he thought it accelerated the stream as well, possibly to FTL speeds. It cost me a small fortune in bribes, plus some threats with my S&W pulse pistol, and signing a waiver for reverse engineering rights, just to get out of there and off-world before the military got wind of it. I somehow knew they'd never replicate what it was intended for, but they didn't care -- the spin-off potential was giga.
So, I found myself in a bar, staring at the key to hell. An ion bar. I kept laughing every time I thought of it. An Allurian female walked up to my table -- I'd always had a soft-spot for blues, didn't mind they all looked exactly the same, and never gave their names; if they did, it counted as a marriage proposal. Besides, it had been a couple of years, and Mom would understand. She'd always understood people's needs, and as a boy she hadn't wanted me distracted by love, said it'd get me killed off early, so at the age of fourteen she had a hooker come over and teach me the facts of life.
After my Mom was born, they broke the mould.
In the morning, I found the Allurian weighing the rod in her hands. It flushed turquoise, like her, and I swear the damn thing purred. I'd spent two years of my life and all my money getting it, and had no conscious idea of how it would get me and/or Beckel to hell. I glared at it in her soft hands, then snatched it from her. I apologised, but said she had to leave. She smiled, didn't say a word, and left. As I put it back on the table, I noted flecks of brown, like spatters of mud, staining the blue bar. "Fuck you!" I said to it, without any real idea why, and headed for the shower.
As I felt the scorching water ripple down my back, steam enveloping me in a needle-spray vortex, my res informed me that my four last-surviving cousins had been reported lost in a freak navigation accident which sent their ship, along with four hundred other passengers, headlong into a nearby sun. My forehead slumped onto the side of the cubicle with a wet thunk, and stayed there. I'd grown up with them. I could picture them laughing behind their visors, playing low-G soccer between the Ball Brothers as we called them, two testicle-shaped asteroids.
Blindly, because it wasn't just water stinging my eyes, I groped for the control and set the shower to ice cold. I stayed there till I passed the violent shivering stage, till my skin went numb.
The Allurian came back for some item she'd left behind, saw me in there, the same colour as she was, dragged me out, and called the medics.
I suppose it was a good thing.
There was no more family now. Just me and Beckel.
It's difficult to make a good plan when you don't know what the last act is, or the penultimate one. So I focused my motivation, as if by building that up, it could propel me in the right direction and with enough force to complete my mission. Beckel had sold out Earth. He'd been a stroider -- an asteroid miner, and had built up an inter-alien trade in ores. One night -- it's always night in the Belt -- an unknown species called the Skrim passed through and offered him a sweet deal. They'd lost their own world to a supernova, or so they said, and needed a new planet and live genetic material for their DNA sequencers to download their stored people. To them, he seemed to be the guy to make the transaction.
Beckel had been a big-shot for a while on Earth, but he'd screwed up there, and was relegated to the butt-end of the Corporation. Nobody really liked him, but he got the job done and was out of harm's way, and no one important back on Earth had to talk to him. Which was a mistake, in hindsight, because if they'd bothered, they'd have realised how angry he was, festering away on his little asteroid, and they would have revoked his access to the security codes for Earth's orbital defence perimeter. The bastard handed Earth over on a platter, and all life was transformed at the molecular level in a matter of hours. The Skrim got the moon and Mars too, in a kind of three-for-one deal
Rangers quickly appeared, but the Skrim had signed documentation from Beckel, and, well, there wasn't much the Rangers could do anyway. In the end they just let it slide -- mankind was pretty low on the Galactic priority scale, and the Skrim were a new race and had a lot to offer. Well, you know the way it goes, and if you don't, I can send you a reading list.
The Skrim paid Beckel handsomely, and not just money. They had tech no one else had. They uploaded his DNA, his memories, his personality, and guaranteed their specialised subspace net would keep him alive indefinitely. Like I said, a sweet deal.
Within a year, some of the surviving off-worlders tried to get together a class action law suit against Beckel. But only his family -- because it had been a family business -- really knew what had happened. So he decided to close off that litigation avenue by terminating his dynasty -- after all, he was effectively immortal. Family feuds were of no interest to Rangers, and there was no human police force left. Case closed.
So, back to the Plan. The rod -- how it worked -- still evaded me, and I was running out of time. I was the last one on his list, and with Beckel's resources it was a matter of days, maybe hours. No way was I going to get close to him, either; too much security. I decided I had to find a way to kill him, or rather, to have him killed. There must be a way, and I still had the albino diamond. I reminded myself of truth number one.
But even in my heady moments I knew it was a crap plan; maybe I was still that five year old kid. Mom had never given me strategy to read; Sun Tzu or Xurisghin IX, for example.
Finding an assassin is easy -- but finding one that can get the job done costs. And of course you know where to find them: bars where no one smiles, there are few females, no laughter, and every alien looks out of the corner of whatever sensory orifice they sport. I picked a Crenatian: they look like the business -- billowing black cloaks of flow-metal, concealing nobody-knows-what. And they make absolutely no noise when they move. Word has it they sleep in subspace, and they never, ever fail. Even Rangers steer clear of Crenatians. Nobody messes with them.
Or so I thought.
Until that moment I'd considered that the death penalty for someone who procures a murder was harsh; the killer, sure, fair dues. But after doing that deal, when the Crenatian took Beckel's ID code and whipped the albino diamond from my hand, I saw it was apt: I felt that tight connection with the lethal chain of events I'd just set in motion, with the victim whose hours were marked. I also felt a thrill, as unexpected as it was unwelcome. I headed to Draneys; they knew me there. When you start wondering who exactly you are, and marvel at what you're capable of, you seek out others you hope know you better.
I had a feeling I was being followed, though with aliens it's hard to tell, and was relieved when I arrived at the bar. The clientele was as usual. A couple of genfems tried to engage me, but I had neither inclination nor the cash. After ingesting a number seven-three-five -- my favourite -- I headed to a booth and brought the shutters down. The cocoon was perfect. I placed a splayer on the small table in front of me, dismissing worries that the drink stains might be corrosive, depending on who had done what in this particular booth earlier, and strobed through the flickering holo till I found what I was looking for.
Before me stood the diminutive holo of Beckel. No aliens gave a toss about him, but a few had at least heard his name. One or two races were actually impressed because he'd sold out his own planet, his species, to make a fast buck and live forever. I wondered if his story was required reading somewhere.
As I stared at it I fantasised about the job. I'd have liked to have seen it: the kill. The fear in Beckel's eyes as the Crenatian lifted his cloak revealing the hideous machinery of death shrouded within, some kind of tech-mage stuff which would break the sub-space connections so that he'd really die. I'd have liked to have been there, to recite a litany of accusations, speaking for the fifteen billion souls waiting for him on the other side.
I realised my hand was in my pocket, gripping the ion bar. I brought it out. It was orange in colour, pulsing. I'd never seen it like that. "You had your chance," I said, and shoved it back in my overcoat.
The locked booth door burst open. Before I could move, I found I couldn't.
Waking up strapped onto an operating table when you weren't scheduled for surgery is never good news: best option is you've just had some undesirable intervention. Second best is you're about to get some, without the benefit of anaesthetic.
"You must realise, Decker, that Crenatians are easily bought off -- it is simply a matter of doubling their fee."
Beckel. Standing somewhere behind me. Oh well. Best laid plans ...
"Did you really think a nobody like you could get me assassinated? You must realise I have protection."
I did, but I had to try.
"You might like to know that I offered your accomplice a lot more -- we're talking a factor of ten, here -- to turn the contract around; unfortunately he refused, against their code apparently."
I'd heard he liked the sound of his own voice. I had no idea why; it grated on me. I wondered where the ion rod was. It would fit so neatly ...
I heard a strange chirping noise, like deranged chipmunks, coming from beneath me somewhere.
"My colleagues -- they don't have names, by the way, though you might have heard of their species label -- Hakhgraphick -- are going to interrogate you, just to make sure you're just another sad bastard -- and I mean that literally, since I do remember your whore of a mother -- who wanted revenge, and that you're working alone. You won't survive the process of course, but I've asked them to stretch it out, to exercise their creativity, so to speak."
Name-calling didn't faze me -- Mom had never gone out with another man in my living memory of her miserable life. My spirits actually lifted. I'd see her soon.
'So, toodle-pip, old chum. Oh, by the way, what exactly is this?'
For the first time he walked around the table and came into view, a ridiculous ginger quaff, Roman nose and pudgy eyes -- a pre-pubescent adolescent's face. No doubt he was reverse-ageing -- he could afford it. Strange to see your own father looking half your age. He held the rod, a foppish grin plastered across slack lips.
It glowed red, and the secret in my mind unlocked. It wasn't a key so much as a one-way ticket home, looking for the right passenger.
I smiled. Well, that's not quite true.
He vanished. Well, if you want the details, he kind of got sucked into the rod. Took a second. He tried to scream, but there wasn't time. I'd hoped for more, of course: blood, flames, or maybe even a puff of smoke. But when you've read all I've read, and lived where I've been, you learn to quit when you're even. My res recorded the gurgling sound, and the pop as he and the rod went elsewhere. I play it back sometimes, you know, like you do when you're stuck in a queue and need something to cheer you up.
The Hakhgraphick -- little purple buggers known colloquially as spider-babies, since they have heads like human babies with bodies like tarantulas, panicked when Beckel disappeared. I told them exactly where he'd gone, my res conveniently supplying the name for the place in their dialect. I was already pumped full of truth drug, so you can imagine ...
I sat in the bar with my usual in front of me, wondering what was next. My mission was over. I'd never expected to achieve it or even come close. And now? Emptiness didn't cover it.
A pair of blue thighs appeared in my line of vision. I was sure it was her.
"Hello," I said. "Sorry about the other morning. And thanks for pulling me out of the shower."
"You look sad. Do you need company?"
I looked up into her pure sapphire eyes. I've no idea what made me say it, it just came out. "I need a new woman in my life."
She stared at me a long time. Rumour was they were empaths, how come they were so good ... well, don't make me spell it out.
I felt my Mom watching me, smiling. I stood up, reached across the table, took her slim fingers in mine, and spoke in a clear voice which cut through the din. "The name's Decker."
The bar went vacuum quiet, all eyes and whatever else focused on her.
After a short eternity, she replied. "My name is Farana."
The cheer that erupted around us was deafening.
I felt a breeze and swore I glimpsed the whirl of a black robe as an albino diamond appeared on the table between us, and a voice I sincerely hope never to hear again whispered, so only I could hear, "wedding present".
I found out later that if you do the Crenatian's job for them, you get a refund.
Our first-born had my mother's eyes, and his mother's skin. We named him Conrad.