Chapter 54 BELLY OF THE BEAST
After Malachite had left, Murash addressed the group of twenty-one recruits. “Welcome to the starship Rubrum Dei Dextera—the Red Right Hand of God. It’s a big vessel: we are currently in the aft main hold on the port side. This will be your home until we reach Amalfi in six to ten weeks.
“You are not to leave the cargo hold unless instructed to do so by one of the overseers. If you are found wandering outside, you’ll be disciplined the first time, killed the second.
“There are eleven groups, more than two hundred recruits, most of them lifted from Protasia. More may join us en route, for we have several more ports to visit before we reach our final destination.
“You’ll work for your passage. Hard. You will be fed, and you’ll be allowed to rest between work shifts. But beyond that, how you organize yourselves is entirely up to you. Band together for security. Go hide in a corner. Doesn’t matter to me.
“Just keep in mind that for the time being, you’re not people, you’re property. You belong to the Veiled Hand and have a value, however small. Feel free to rough each other up a bit. But kill or cripple another recruit, and you’ll compensate the Hand for the loss with the only currency you’ve got: your own life.
“You have an hour to get sorted. Then we begin. Now go.” He waved his gloved hand in dismissal. The youngsters stood rooted to the spot for a few seconds, then began drifting after the groups into the gloom of the cavernous cargo hold.
The vessel was massive, larger still than Haides’s estimate, measuring more than two kilometers from the forward sensor spires to the aft drive baffles. It was a bulk freighter—Oblast-class, as ungainly as it was slow, in particular when loaded. It had been built hundreds of years ago and was now nearing the end of its lifespan.
Haides had imagined mercenaries would ride in lithe and deadly craft, black as the void and bristling with lethal weapons. This void leviathan didn’t seem the kind of ship a clan of assassins would want to use, but here he was, trapped in the belly of the fat beast.
There were some advantages to using such a vessel. It was utterly inconspicuous, in a way that even the best stealth fields couldn’t replicate. Old tramp freighters like the Rubrum dei dextera plied the space lanes of the Successor Kingdoms, their holds half full at best, struggling to make it in a galaxy where trade was increasingly dominated by a small number of trade guilds. The Red Right Hand could go anywhere without raising suspicion, could bring any number of assassins hidden inside its cavernous hull, and the Veiled Hand could even engage in a little profitable trade on the side.
The ship had some serious downsides, though, on top of being a slow and cumbersome space whale. It had a huge internal volume, countless decks, and endless corridors, and its great age meant stuff was always breaking down. The crew was working hard to keep it properly maintained, but there weren’t enough skilled hands onboard to keep decay at bay.
Enter the new recruits. Maintenance—that was the work Murash had talked about. The youngsters were used as a source of unskilled labor, assigned to the million and one tasks that needed doing aboard the dying starship. There was always cleaning to be done, light maintenance work—like painting and removing corrosion—lots of carrying and sorting, mess duty, that sort of thing.
It could have been worse, Haides reflected, but not by much. The overseers had the recruits running ragged. Time for rest was kept at a minimum. A few brief breaks to drink stagnant water and to eat from the slop buckets. Nights were entirely too short. The would-be assassins were too exhausted at day’s end for anybody to even think about doing something stupid.
For his own part, the fallen Ghost of Thira managed to retain just enough energy to remain inquisitive. He did precisely what was required—and nothing more. He was adept at not being noticed, skilled at being in the right place at the right time, and good at sneaking a little more food and rest than the others.
Rather than walk around in a daze all day, Haides kept his eyes peeled and ears to the ground—as much as he dared. In that way, he came to pick up a lot of tidbits about the ship and the crew. Where they had been, what they had done on Akakios-Protasia, where the vessel was heading—they were indeed going to Amalfi, where the Veiled Hand’s headquarter was located—where a recruit might be allowed to go, and what he should not do. Who among the crew were reasonably humane, and who were as likely to smother you as strike up a conversation.
Haides even learned a thing or two about the Veiled Hand. Not much, because the ship’s crew was reluctant to talk when the recruits were near—and probably didn’t know much, to begin with. The Veiled Hand was one of the deadliest assassin clans in Coalition space. Their services were in demand across all the Successor Kingdoms, and in this particular corner of the galaxy, they were the most infamous group of mercenaries around. That lifted Haides’s spirits. His capture looked like it could turn out to be a good thing. Training with one of the most feared assassin guilds in existence? Yes, please. He wasn’t sure how many of his fellow recruits felt the same way. It didn’t matter. Only he mattered.
At night the recruits were confined to their quarters: empty cargo containers sitting in the hold where they had first been assembled. There were a lot of them, more than a hundred. Some were sitting alone in the gloom, far from the others, but most were clumped together. The lone containers were called ‘islands,’ the small groups were ‘villages.’ The biggest cluster, thirty-something containers, some of them stacked on top of one another, was called ‘the town.’
Two hundred plus recruits settled down in the containers, each struggling to find his or her place within this new community. Some formed close-knit bands that settled the villages. The band with the most member took over the town. A handful of loners, like Haides, sought out the single containers farthest from the others. In the perpetual twilight of the cargo bay, each group was separated from the others by a sea of darkness.
Violence was a thing. Hundreds of frightened and desperate strangers, forced to live together in the dark, without the mores of civilization to guide their actions. There were beatings, and there was rape. Possessions, such as the recruits had, changed hands, stolen, or offered as tribute. Favors were traded. People gained in status—or lost it. No one interfered. The strong ruled the weak. The will of the group leaders dominated the individual.
Then somebody, a big lad from another group, was killed by his three lieutenants. Retribution was swift and merciless. Black-clad assassins came out of the gloom, grabbed those responsible, and cut them to pieces while the rest of the recruits watched. The whole thing was over too swiftly for Haides’s taste but did produce an acceptable amount of blood. After that, the violence became less pronounced—the threat of intervention was enough to make the young ones behave.
The incident proved the recruits were being watched around the clock. If Haides wanted to sneak around, he had to figure out how the surveillance was set up. After careful observation during the sleep cycle, he managed to spot the surveillance drones—five, maybe six—silently floating above their heads, hidden in darkness. For the most part, the drones were on station over the town and the villages, caring little for the few recruits huddling on the islands. Only occasionally would a drone or two peel off and check on the islands or patrol the shadowlands in between the settlements.
Like Murash had said, recruits were not supposed to leave the cargo bay at night. Access points were locked after the work crews had returned to the hold. But the Shadow of Thira could not be stopped by something as simple closed doors. After the others had collapsed of exhaustion, Haides would drag his weary body into the utility conduits to do a little prowling. The journey to Amalfi wasn’t long enough to explore the entirety of the ship—that would have taken years—but that wasn’t the point of his nightly expeditions.
The point was not passively waiting for whatever was coming. Those that only reacted, lost. If you acted, you could still lose, but at least you had a chance of winning. Haides’s time with Luca and the other GIs had taught him as much. The Ghost of Thira was not a static creature—it continuously adapted, gathered intel, and sought ways to improve its situation.
On any starship of a certain size and age, some spaces and places fall out of use and are forgotten. The Red Right Hand of God was two kilometers long, hundreds of meters tall, and broader still. At least half a million cubic meters, divided between dozens of decks and hundreds of compartments and subdivisions. And in between lay the utility spaces that existed just out of sight from the main decks.
Getting there was simple enough. After making sure no drones were watching, Haides climbed to the roof of the container, scampered up the wall to reach an air vent, peeled the rusted grate open, just enough to slip through, and entered the ventilation system. A ship as big as the Rubrum had to have large air ducts to cycle the air. Haides was able to move along the primary ducts—being small and scrawny again came in handy. The only obstacles to progress were the air fans. Many had stopped working, but some were still running. He figured out how to temporarily disable them—they had been designed so that a maintenance worker could shut them down manually if need be. As long as the ship didn’t receive orders to seal bulkheads, he potentially had access to any part of the Hand.
After a bit of exploring, Haides found a spot where no one from the ship’s crew ever came: a walled-off area wedged between secondary two cargo holds that had sat there collecting dust since the ship’s last refit. This space became his secret hideout. He’d collect odds and ends it found—or stole—and stash it, much like he had in Thira. Haides knew he couldn’t take anything with him when they debarked, but it was still nice to have something to do. And if the opportunity for escape presented itself, he had a bolthole with an emergency kit packed and ready.
It didn’t take long before Haides noticed he wasn’t alone. Vermin stalked the ducts and hidden spaces. That’s another common denominator for cargo vessels: sooner or later, vermin of some kind will get into the ship. He taught himself how to trap the void-rats that lived between decks. The meat was stringy and difficult to chew, but it tasted like heaven compared to the slop the recruits got fed.
Cooking was a challenge—he wasn’t desperate enough to eat the rats raw—but he was able to figure out a solution: he peeled away the insulation from a heavy-duty power conduit. He then put a skinned and boned out rat inside the hole and closed up—it got hot enough to cook the little animal in an hour or so. After stealing salt from a cargo container, and some ketchup from a mess hall, the cooked rats didn’t taste half bad.
The meat did wonders for Haides’s health. He hadn’t felt this fit and ready in years, since before turning into the Ghost. In fact, he was brimming with energy. He hardly needed any sleep at all, just a few hours spent slumbering in the hideout. He wasn’t sure who to thank for the sudden turn of good fortune, so he built little shrines to all the gods. Better one too many than one too few.
He started by painting—his palette was made from odds and ends, found, stolen, and traded for—the Falcon-headed Horus-Who-Is-Ra on one wall, with his wife, Owl-headed Athena, by his side. Haides smeared some rat blood near Horus’s feet in memory of a dead boy he’d never know and dressed Athena in the armor of the amazons that had come to Thira. Next up was the mighty Thor with the hammer Mjölnir, that could send Shadow-spawn back to the Pit with a single blow, and his squire Heimdall holding the Gjallarhorn, which he’d use to call the gods to Ragnarök—the final battle.
Having finished the Olympic Gods, Haides moved on to Freya and Poseidon, co-rulers of the Cosmic Ocean. In charcoal, he drew the Rubrum dei dextera in Poseidon’s hands, beseeching him to guide the vessel safely through the void. Freya ended up looking a lot like Mother. He put Artemis and Janus with them: Akakians had never cared much for Sif, counting Janus as the squire of Thalassa. Artemis became the girl he had killed with the blade. Janus, he drew as his own brother by the same name, the two faces showing his divided nature—loving sibling and treacherous bastard.
Then followed the Gods of the Dead, Hades, and Nephthys, Osiris and Anubis. Hades was the undisputed king of the underworld that shared his name. Of all the gods, he was counted second only to Horus. He was not god much prayed to—it was said Hades was as likely to kill you as answer your prayers. His queen, Nephthys, protector of the dead, was far more popular. It was she who guarded the souls of the dead against the Shadow. Jade-skinned Osiris was also important: he judged the dead, deciding who would go to the Elysian fields and who would linger in Hades—or be cast out into oblivion. And finally, Anubis, who collected the souls of the recently deceased and brought them to the netherworld. When Haides painted Anubis’s hallmark canine head, he made the god look like Nik.
Haides even made room for the Banished: Set and Isis and Hecate, but most of all, he made space for Loki, the Trickster. Set was a strange one: cast out and despised by the other gods, yet always watching the Abyss, and battling Apep, the Great Serpent when he tried to escape from the Pit. To Haides, it seemed that both gods and humans owed Lord Set a debt of gratitude. Queen Isis got no face at all, for in that nothingness, Haides saw the likeness of everyone who had ever betrayed him. The witch Hecate he made to look like Eli—to Haides, they were now one and the same. Last of all, he drew Loki, the Trickster, the god that Haides felt had covered for him the most.
And still, with all sixteen major Gods painted on the walls of the hideout, something was missing. A blank space that called out to Haides in his sleep. There was a shape there, hidden inside the metal that wanted out, so he drew it in his own blood. A tall, barechested God, his face hidden by a helmet, his right hand dripping blood. Dread Ares, the Dead God of War, whose last scion had fallen during the First Shadow War. He became the primogenitor of many significant lineages, but without a champion, he was not among the reborn gods.
During one nightly foray, Haides came across Larissa, the girl Malachite had cut from the group on the first day. He watched her from the shadows—she didn’t notice being watched. The girl was in the company of one of the ship’s officers—he also didn’t see anything.
For want of something better to do, Haides started keeping an eye on the couple. Second Officer Bohdan MazLanan was his name, distantly related to House MazLanan of Amalfi, so the man belonged—ever so tenuously—to the noble class. Haides briefly wondered how it would feel to kill a scion as opposed to a commoner. To push his blade into Bohdan’s heart and feel the divine spark drain away. There were plenty of legends that featured things like that. Heroes claiming a piece of divinity by overcoming their opponents, villains murdering scions to steal their power. More likely than not, it was just that—stories. The second officer didn’t have any divine blood in him, nothing for Haides to take. Killing him was out of the question anyway—if an officer died, they would not rest until they’d caught the perp.
The girl had started out at the captain’s table. Now she was the property of the second officer. She seemed happy enough with her fate, which was probably the reason why Malachite had booted her out of the program.
When Bohdan was on duty, Larissa would remain inside his quarters, locked up to keep her away from the rest of the crew—or the crew away from her. Given MazLanan’s position that happened every other day—the captain and the first officer alternated the day shifts, and the second and third officer got to share night duty.
Haides went to see the girl one night. The air ducts couldn’t carry anything but air and rats into the room—they were much too small even for a skinny boy. He had no way of getting through the door once it had been locked. That left Haides with only one option: to go through the door while it was still unlocked.
The plan thus formulated, the Ghost began its watch of the second officer’s quarters. On the third night, it saw him entering. He didn’t lock up. Haides slid out of the hiding place and padded over. Took a moment to listen at the door: MazLanan went into the next room to greet sweet Larissa, telling her to make ready. The Ghost didn’t want to be caught eavesdropping outside the door of an officer, so it disappeared back into the shadows. After a while, faint sounds of feigned pleasure could be heard. The Ghost slid over, opened the door, and slipped inside.
When the second officer left his cabin an hour or so later, he locked up from the outside like he used to. The Ghost waited a few minutes before letting itself out of the cupboard without a sound. From the other room, Larissa’s breathing could be heard—resting, but not asleep. The Ghost lingered, listened to the girl go into the bathroom, then return to bed. Five minutes later, the breathing had become shallower and more even.
A shadow drifted into the bedroom. The lights had been turned low, but the Ghost’s eyes had grown accustomed to the dark—to the extent that bright light caused it discomfort. The shadow stopped by the side of the bed. Larissa’s hand had been shackled to the bulkhead with a long silver chain. She could get up and move around the sleeping chamber or use the bath, but she couldn’t leave the quarters—or reach the outer door to unlock it.
The shadow held a shiv now, a piece of jagged metal torn from the ship’s bones. The point of the blade dropped towards Larissa’s exposed navel. It would be so easy to kill her. The pain would wake her, and she’d see a shadow standing there, blade in hand. She wouldn’t realize she was dying until it was too late. And he would be there to see her leave this plane of existence to begin the journey to Hades. That was why he had come, was it not? To kill for the sake of killing, because he could. To dip his hand in her blood.
Haides felt suddenly uncertain. What was he doing? What did he hope to gain by coming here? There was cold steel in his hand, ready to strike. He looked at Larissa’s naked flesh. The girl could not provide him with satisfaction, save her life’s blood. He wanted her dead, so bad the knife-hand was shaking. But if he killed her, it would cause quite the ruckus. Not as much as with Bohdan, but enough. It was not worth the fallout to see her die. There would be other deaths, better deaths. One kill now, or countless deaths later. He put the knife away and returned to the shadows.
Daytime was less eventful than the nights. The recruits mostly stayed in the groups they had arrived in, but sometimes got mixed with the other teams. When that happened, there was gossiping. That’s how we learned of the purges—of the boys and girls who couldn’t or wouldn’t keep up, strangled to death. Or those that were suddenly and without explanation dragged away screaming, never to be seen again.
The only two casualties in Haides group were the two Malachite had taken care of on the first day; the boy with the slit throat, and the girl Larissa. That Prefect Murash and his three murderous friends were any kinder than the other group captains, Haides couldn’t quite believe. That left only one explanation: with one glance, Malachite had seen who the weak ones were and spared them the trouble. At the same time, he had sent a message to the other assassins: I’m the king of this particular hill. He had sent Haides a message as too: don’t get cocky, boy—I’ve got my eye on you.
They lost the third several weeks into the voyage. The team was clearing away corrosion to prepare for a paint job. Just hours before, the ship had completed its second collapsar jump and was heading in-system somewhere. To kill, to recruit, to trade.
The ship lurched and shuddered, violently and without warning. Warning claxons bleared, and there was general confusion. When Haides looked around, he saw Cassius, a boy two years senior from Thira proper, pinned beneath a support column that had snapped and fallen. The overseer of the day was nowhere to be seen. The group was gripped by a sense of uncertainty. Nothing unexpected had happened to upset their little universe before, and now that it had happened, they were like little chickens separated from their hen.
Malachite appeared out of nowhere, taking advantage of the confusion to make a dramatic entrance. He loomed over the recruits, radiating calm and confidence. His very presence stilled the storm in their hearts.
“The ship has come under attack from pirates. The Corwin system has been a hotbed of such activity for generations. They fired a warning shot across our bow, but in their incompetent eagerness, they got a little too close. But fear not, the captain is in communication with their leader. This mess will soon be sorted out.” He was implying that no pirate in his right mind would attack the Veiled Hand.
Malachite moved over to the fallen boy. He didn’t quite bend down to examine him, just cocked his head to one side and looked him over. “This one has too much technical aptitude to waste. Ashul,” that was the name of today’s guardian, “have him taken to the medical bay and fitted with replacement legs. Then reassign him for permanent shipboard duty.” Ashul appeared from somewhere and bowed in obeisance.
So there was a way out that didn’t involve death. Get crippled—and if you had useful skills, they might still make use of you. It didn’t really appeal to Haides. He didn’t have any secondary applications—killing was the only thing he was any good at. Killing and staying alive. Besides, he wanted to be an assassin, not an apprentice craftsman.
They didn’t lose anyone else for nearly two weeks. During the final approach to Amalfi, however, two more from Haide’s group fell in as many days, bringing the group down to eighteen members. None of the new dropouts survived, making Cassius’s fate unique.
One boy actually had the gall to try to attack Ashul with a shiv. He might have fared better if he had had some help. But Micor was a loner, like Haides. Ashul blocked his weak attack, broke his wrist, and cut him a second smile beneath the first. Then the recruits got to take a break as they watched the boy die and his blood pool on the floor. Ashul dipped his right hand in his blood, and that was that. Haides came away from the encounter with a new shiv, much better than the one he’d made himself.
The second was another boy, younger than Haides, a quiet lad that got picked on all the time. One day he simply had enough. He jumped over a metal railing and plummeted head-first into the waiting metal floor, twenty meters below. They cursed the dead boy—it cost them an hour of rest time to clean up the mess.
Haides couldn’t figure out why the little one had done it. Six weeks of toil had made the recruits hard and lean. They received better food and extended rest periods. They were less weary now, so why end his life when things were looking up? Haides put the incident out of his mind—there was nothing to be learned from it.
One early morning Haides returned to his container to find somebody waiting. He heard them before leaving the air duct. They were trying to be quiet, but boredom, mixed with uncertainty, made them whisper amongst themselves. Haides’s hearing, like his night vision, had become extremely sensitive during the stay aboard the Red Right Hand.
“Where is he?” a deep voice hissed. “Who knows,” somebody else, another male, said. “He’ll be back,” a third voice, a woman, replied. “He’s a weird one,” the first voice said.
Haides knew who they were, knew what they had planned to do. He waited out the rest of the night in the duct. Even after they packed up and left the island, he didn’t descend. Better safe than sorry. Thira had taught him as much.
The last one to go from Haides’s group was Diana. She was tall and dark of skin and hair. There were plenty of Akakians that looked like that, but none had her strange clicking accent. When she came aboard, she had been a little chubby. Now she was nothing but lean muscle.
With Micor and Dive Boy gone, Haides was the only one that didn’t belong to either of the two factions that had formed. Some of the juves decided it was time to put the weirdo in his place. That’s why they had come to the container during the night cycle. To hurt Haides, perhaps even kill, despite the risks. Could be they too had figured out the drones. Or maybe they were stupid.
Rather than wait for a replay of what had happened on Akakios, when Jan and the Khinoes had staged an ambush, the Ghost of Thira would teach them a lesson.
Diana wasn’t much of a looker, but she was young and eager and had earned her place as the right-hand woman of Helian, the group’s leader. He hadn’t been at the container, but he had known about it, the Ghost was sure. Thus he was equally to blame.
A shadow sat in the darkness on top of the village containers, waiting until Diana and Helian were coupling. As a leader, Helian had a little more privacy, a partition of his own. Anyone keeping guard would be sleepy and complacent. The shadow slid down and inside, unseen and unheard. It moved in from behind while the girl was on top, sliding Micor’s shiv along her thigh and slicing through the left femoral artery without either of them noticing they were not alone.
She gave a startled yelp and then started screaming in earnest. The shadow shoved her aside and put razor-sharp metal against Helian genitals. He became deathly still, eyes big as saucers, breath frosting over as he exhaled.
By the time the rest of Helian’s lackeys had arrived, the temperature inside the container had fallen below zero, and Diana’s screams had turned into a begging whisper. The shadow didn’t deign to look at her, holding the boyfriend in thrall for a few moments longer.
The darkness slowly pulled the shiv back. No one did anything. The shadow stepped away. Still, they did nothing. It stopped by Diana’s side and dipped its right hand in her blood—frost roses were already forming in it—held it aloft for all of them to see. “Rubrum Dei Dextera,” the shadow said as it flowed away. “Rubrum Dei Dextera,” it repeated as it exited the container, red right hand still raised high for the benefit of the watchers above.
At roll call the day after, Haides’s group came up one short. But no one ratted on him. Not even when Malachite pressured them over the girl did anyone speak up. He knew, of course. The drones had seen it all. Haides got the impression the old assassin was rather pleased. He warned the recruits not to let it happen again, but no punishment was meted out. He said it while standing within striking distance of Haides—the boy took the hint.
The rest of the journey was uneventful. Haides’s fellow aspirants caused him no further trouble. He stayed away, for the most part, only stopping by to show his face often enough they would not forget. No one from the other groups bothered him either—word got around.
Two more weeks, a little over six weeks in total, and then they were there: Amalfi, the decadent and filthy underbelly of the Seventh Astro-administrative Circle of the Coalition.