K knew she was dead the minute she woke up.
Her death sentence was written in the neat row of black stitches marching along her inner thigh like orderly insects. The fact that she could see her own thigh—that it wasn’t obscured by the black mesh of her skinsuit—was her first clue, but stitches in her flesh clinched it.
She had been contaminated—maybe fatally so. Still, she hoped. She prayed to Purity that she might still remain untouched. She couldn’t remember anything—not the way she’d gotten the wound, or the person who had sewed it up. She didn’t even know how she’d ended up on a table in the small bare room with battered metal cabinets and chipped white countertops.
She only knew her head throbbed like a rotten melon about to burst and her suit was gone, leaving her helpless.
Get hold of yourself, K. You’re a fourth level Paladin. You can handle this. You can handle anything. Even being naked and alone, stripped of her weapons and defenses? Yes. She raised her chin and tried to examine the room where she found herself, though her vision kept wavering in and out of focus alarmingly. You’re not defenseless, she reminded herself.
Paladins went through rigorous physical training from the time they could walk and K was no exception. Looking down at herself she could see that her body, which she hadn’t seen nude since childhood when she had first been fitted for her skinsuit, was strong and lean. In fact, other than being considerably bigger—she was almost two meters, tall for a female—it looked much the same as it had back then.
Her chest was flat as a Paladin’s should be. Breasts only got in the way during combat, presenting the enemy with a sensitive target. She thanked Purity that hers were almost nonexistent, the nipples a pale, innocent pink that blended into the white of her skin. Glancing further down she noted that her hips were narrow and strong and her sex was barely noticeable—a colorless slit between her thighs. This was as it should be. Her body was strong—fit to fight—and that was all K ever asked of it. Nothing else was required.
K looked around. There was a flat metal panel bolted to one wall of the room. A viewscreen? It wasn’t transmitting anything at the moment and in its shiny surface she saw her face. The image staring back at her seemed strangely vulnerable without the cowl of the skinsuit to frame it. The thick blue-black cable of her hair—the only soft part of her—was still coiled in a braid at the back of her neck and her black-on-black eyes marked her level and achievements.
All Purists had black irises—it was a trait of their people. But as they progressed toward true Purity the black bled outward, obscuring the white sclera. It was a slow process and painful—it had cost K much to get where she was today with only a thin white ring around the outer perimeter of her eyes. When she reached the fifth level and surrendered herself completely to Purity even that would be gone. She would be as cold and empty as space itself, hollow inside. A vessel filled with holy nothingness. It was what every Purist worked for tirelessly, though few achieved it.
There was one who had achieved it though—the High Sentinel. He had taken an early interest in K, making her his protégé despite her routine origin, a fact that would have pleased her immensely if she had still been subject to strong emotions. A Paladin of her level was not, however.
The capacity for feelings was lessened as the black within a Paladin’s eyes grew until only cool, pure reason remained. Being devoid of violent emotions kept one from making rash decisions in battle or giving in to hysteria. At the moment K was grateful for the cool nothingness she felt within. That and her training were the only things that kept her from leaping off the table she found herself on and running from the room in a blind panic.
K took a deep breath and tried to think steadying thoughts. The High Sentinel came to mind again, as well as the last words he had said to her. Her head throbbed as the memory came back in a rush…
“You appear to have everything in order, Commander K.” The Sentinel’s pale face looked up at K from the com-link on her wrist. Though he was a Paladin of the highest level he wore no skinsuit. He needed none—his eyes had been completely black since before K had been expelled from the artificial womb that had birthed her in the newlife center.
“I thank you, Sentinel.” K inclined her head to him, a mark of respect. “My squad is ready and the ship is primed to attack.”
“You have the Erian filth in your sites?’
“We do. Our sensors show a small party only and the ship has no weapons—they should present no major difficulties. We will board them shortly.”
“Good. Kill on contact, Commander. Take no prisoners.”
K raised an eyebrow. All her life she had been taught that the natives of Eros were evil, decadent, depraved. Why else were the Purists at war with them? But to enter an unarmed ship and slaughter all those aboard…
“Forgive me, Sentinel,” she said, trying to pick her words carefully. “But they are, as I said, unarmed. There would be no honor in the kills.”
“No honor except ridding the universe of more Erian filth. They must be purged in order for Purity to expand—all of them.” His eyes flashed in what might have been anger had he still been capable of feeling or displaying such an emotion.
K tried once more. “The pshalite mines on Midas need new workers. If we engage our hyperdrive we can deliver them in less than—”
“No!” His vehemence surprised her. “The Erians must be purged. They are debauched. Not even fit to be slaves. They would corrupt and contaminate all who came in contact with them. In fact,” He frowned slightly, a white indentation appearing between his black-on-black eyes. “I wish you to take special care, Commander K. You must not even speak to them or allow them to see your face.”
K felt a mild surprise at his orders which seemed extreme. “I will, of course, avoid contamination at all costs, Sentinel.”
“See that you do.” His eyes burned into hers. “I have great plans for you, K. You are the most promising Paladin I have seen come up through the ranks in too many cycles to count.”
“Thank you. I am most gratified by your trust in me.” K felt a mild pleasure and then wished she had not. A Paladin of her level ought to be able to hear the grimmest news or most lavish praise without even a hint of emotion. Still, she would get there soon if she progressed as the Sentinel expected.
“You have earned it. When you return to Athena I think you will be ready to take the fifth level trials.”
Another faint surge of pleasure made her clench her jaw. “I had not thought to be ready for that for another two cycles.”
“Oh, you’re ready, K. You must be. We can wait no longer for—” He broke off abruptly. “Just see that you dispatch the Erians quickly and with minimal contact. Then set a course back to Athena.”
“I will do as you say.” K nodded again.
“Very well. Do not fail me, Commander K. Sentinel out.” His image flickered and disappeared with a faint hum.
K closed the com-link and stepped into the command area of her ship to look at the vessel on the viewscreen. It was clearly from Eros. The sleek pink sides made of gallixium, a metal found only on the fifth planet from the Prometheus system’s yellow sun, glimmered softly in the cool black of space. What it was doing here, on the far side of Minotaur which was mostly inhabited by ravenous reptilian beasts, was a mystery. But mystery or not, it was not Purist and therefore must be purged.
“Get ready to engage,” K told her pilot. “Our orders are to kill on contact and leave no survivors.”
The pilot turned, clearly surprised. “But, Commander. The pshalite mines—we were told that every available slave is needed.”
“You heard me, Six.” K gave him a slight frown to signal her displeasure. “These orders come directly from the High Sentinel himself. Purge them all.”
There was a faint murmur around the command area as the rest of the purge squad took this in. It wasn’t the killing that bothered them—K was certain of that. Paladins were trained to kill without mercy or emotion from an early age. Waste, however, was shameful and not in keeping with the concept of Purity.
At the moment there was a push for more pshalite, the mineral that fueled the hyperdrives of most interstellar ships. Rumors filtering down through the ranks spoke of a massive campaign in the making. Possibly one that would encompass the entire Prometheus system. K didn’t know about that—it was not her place to know. She only knew that she must follow the High Sentinel’s orders without question. To do anything less meant both dishonor and death.
“Four and Five,” she snapped at her gunners. “When we board them I’ll want you on my right flank. Three and Two on the left. One, you’re bringing up the rear. Six will remain with the ship as always and plot a course for home.” She nodded at her pilot. “Take us the fastest route possible, Six. I want a straight line trajectory back to Athena.”
The pilot frowned slightly. “Your pardon, Commander K, but that will take us much closer to Colossus than is safe. Maybe if we were to detour and pass by Pan instead—”
“I said the fastest route, not the safest route, Six,” K admonished him. “Do you fear the giants so much you would yield to cowardice?”
His chin snapped up and he glared at her. “I fear nothing. I feel nothing, Commander.” The Paladin’s code.
“Clearly you do or you wouldn’t keep questioning my orders, Six. Plot the course and be ready to engage the moment we finish with the Erian vessel.”
“Commander, please, I do not fear for myself. But you are too valuable to risk. I—” Six had risen from his seat and now he took a step toward her. His eyes were full of some emotion K couldn’t read and his hand…his hand was outstretched as though to touch her.
Though the thick black webbing of their skinsuits covered both his hand and her arm the gesture was still completely unacceptable. Contact was forbidden, a fact that was drummed into every Paladin, male or female, from the moment they were assisted from the artificial womb by the birthing mechanoid. That Six would even think of touching her, let alone act to do so, was a grave offense.
“Remember your place, Paladin.” K amplified her commanding contralto through her suit, making it sharp enough to cause pain. “You dare to approach me so?”
“Forgive me, Commander. It was only my regard for you that made me forget myself.” Six stopped abruptly, his hand dropping to his side. His cowl was down and K could see that his cheeks and the tips of his ears were red with embarrassment.
“Allowing yourself such emotions, even for your commander, is unbecoming and inappropriate,” she told him. “Admitting them aloud is even more shameful. Return to your seat, Six and let’s hear no more about it.”
He nodded silently and did as she commanded. K watched, frowning slightly. She wouldn’t have tolerated such a show of emotion or his endless questioning if it were not for his extraordinary skills as a pilot. It was strange since the rest of the squad had all been part of his birthgroup and none of them showed much ability at flying. However, it happened so sometimes. K herself was the eleventh of twenty-six and though all of her birthgroup had been genetically engineered for leadership, she had far surpassed the others—those that had survived to adulthood, anyway. None of the rest of them was more than a second level Paladin and none had their own purge squad as she did.
The High Sentinel’s voice rang in her head. I have great plans for you, K. Yes, and she intended to be worthy of those plans and his trust in her.
“Now.” She nodded at Six again. “Bring us in fast. They won’t know what hit them.” There was the faint vibration as their ion grappling hooks dug into the sides of the Erian vessel and began to pull it close. “Shields up,” K barked but there was no reaction from the pale pink vessel. It floated in their grasp inactive, glistening like a polished shell in the black void, waiting for K’s next move.
K allowed herself a frown of concern. This wasn’t right—wasn’t normal. The Erian ship should be a bubbling cauldron of frantic activity. They should be hailing her ship and suing for peace or at the very least calling for help but the sensors didn’t detect so much as a single distress cry.
K thought of hailing them herself but no, the High Sentinel had specifically warned against face-to-face contact. She wasn’t sure why since the Erians were descended from the inhabitants of Earth-that-was, the same as the Purists. Though they were clearly inferior stock and had allowed themselves to become wanton and excessive as the Purists had not, K didn’t think their depravity could spread through viewscreen contact and a few words exchanged. Still, the High Sentinel’s word was law.
“Why do they sit there like that?” murmured One. “They aren’t even trying to escape—their life buoy is still attached.”
“Maybe it’s disabled,” Three said. “Sensors show an increase in heart rates among all aboard. Clearly they fear us.”
“As they should.” K raised her voice and addressed them all. “Purge squad, are you ready for battle?”
They answered as one. “We are ready, Commander. We fear nothing. We feel nothing.”
“Good.” K pressed the pressure tab behind her right ear. The cowl of her skinsuit slid over her face, forming an airtight seal that doubled as a helmet. She could see out but no one else could see in. Her features were completely obscured allowing her to be the faceless, anonymous instrument of Purity she had been born and bred to be. “Let’s go.”
The squad moved smoothly into formation around her and K heard the hum of their weapons being primed. She carried no external machines of death herself. The plasma gauntlets strapped over the forearms of her skinsuit were more powerful than any pulse pistol or smart gun. They were so deadly, in fact, that only a fourth level Paladin or higher could control them effectively. K thumbed them on and felt the familiar sharp pain as the needles in her suit dug into her flesh. Immediately she was flooded with the cool nothingness of Purity, all her emotions utterly purged at once.
This is how it will be, she thought as the squad marched through the metal corridor that led to the airlock. Their pneumodrill had already bored a hole in the side of the Erian ship and they had only to cross over and take them. When I am fifth level, when I have passed the trials and I stand at the High Sentinel’s right hand. When my eyes are perfectly black without even the thinnest ring of white, I will never feel again. I will be as cold as space. Filled with Purity.
The thought brought neither sadness nor satisfaction with it which was just as it should be. The High Sentinel had been right—K was ready for her fifth level trials. She was closer to Purity than even she had suspected. And after she purged the Erians and fed their bodies to the cleansing blackness of deep space, she would return home and embrace it completely.
The airlock cycled with a hiss and the purge squad assumed fighting stances all around her. K stood solid and steady, taller than all of them, even the males, and readied herself for the assault. The lock swung open, revealing the gaping, jagged hole in the hull of the Erian ship. And then—
K shook her head as the memory dissolved into blurs and blackness. What had happened to her? How had she gone from her own ship with her purge squad in formation around her and the familiar safety of her skinsuit to this? Naked and possibly contaminated in the middle of this bare little room with only her own image in the inactive viewscreen for company. The dull, dented silver door panel had a blinking red light at its top—a clear indication that it was locked. If she’d had her suit and plasma gauntlets she could’ve blasted through it with no problem. As it was, she wasn’t sure what she was going to do.
Have to find a way out of here. K slid off the table and tried to stand on shaky legs. The long black braid of her hair uncoiled from the base of her neck with the motion and slid over one shoulder. Silky ends brushed against the bare skin of her wounded thigh, making her wince. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt anything but her suit’s protective webbing in that area.
From her first fitting at the age of nine cycles the skinsuit had never left K’s body. It grew with her, hardening into armor that kept her safe in battle and molding itself to the contours of her body to cradle her at night. It fed her nutrients through its needles and kept her hydrated even in the driest conditions. K looked longingly down at her forearms. A row of tiny white scars ran up the inside of each one, reminding her of her loss. Already she missed the comforting sting of her suit’s injections.
Where is it? I’d have a lot better chance of getting out of here if I had it on. Yes, and the skinsuit would hide the stitches that marked her as possibly contaminated. No one would ever have to know…
Immediately K was ashamed of her thoughts. If she had been contaminated by the touch of another she would have to be cleansed—a rigorous and painful process performed in the temple of Purity on the Purist home world of Athena. The priests of Purity—the Sage-kind—would execute the necessary ritual. Unless, of course, there had been prolonged contact in which case no cleansing was possible.
K shivered and pushed the thought away. She looked at her thigh again. How much time had it taken to place that long row of orderly black stitches? Whose hand had done the deed? On Athena a medical mechanoid would have done the work but K didn’t think that was the case here. The stitches were neat but not completely uniform—there were tiny variations in the length and spacing that indicated a human touch. And it wasn’t just the stitches. Who had removed her suit? How much had they touched her to get it off? Can’t worry about that now. Have to find it and get out of here.
Leaving the sturdiness of the exam table took more effort than K liked. Why was she so weak? Her head throbbed and the room spun around her, threatening to throw her down on the scuffed metal floor. More through force of will than anything else she managed to stay upright—barely. She stumbled a few short steps across the room and reached for the nearest set of metal cabinets, grimly determined to conduct her search. Yanking them open she found plenty of medical supplies—gauze pads, hemolysers, insti-coagulents—all wrapped in plasti-seal, but no suit. Swearing under her breath, K moved methodically to the next set of cupboards and found more of the same.
She was shivering continuously now and not only from cold. Something was wrong—she needed her suit. They must have put it somewhere…it has to be here somewhere…
“If you’re looking for your suit it isn’t here.”
The deep voice behind her made K’s heart jump. She whirled around unsteadily and had to grab the nearest counter to stop from falling. She looked up…and up and up. The man standing in the doorway had to be almost three meters in height with the heavy musculature to match his massive frame. Spiky brown hair framed the light-on-white eyes of the Impure—his irises were a strange bluish-green color K had never seen before. But it wasn’t his eyes that worried her as much as his size. His shoulders were more than twice as broad as her own and his huge hands were balled into fists at his sides. There was only one thing he could be.