The prison ship Perdition, a floating city where the Conglomerate’s most dangerous criminals are confined for life, orbits endlessly around a barren asteroid.
Life inside is even more bleak. Hailed as the Dread Queen, inmate Dresdemona “Dred” Devos controls one of Perdition’s six territories, bordered on both sides by would-be kings eager to challenge her claim. Keeping them at bay requires constant vigilance, as well as a steady influx of new recruits to replace the fallen. Survival is a constant battle, and death is the only escape.
Of the newest convicts, only one is worth Dred’s attention. The mercenary Jael, with his deadly gaze and attitude, may be the most dangerous criminal onboard. His combat skill could give her the edge she needs, if he doesn’t betray her first. Unfortunately, that’s what he does best. Winning Jael’s allegiance will be a challenge, but failure could be worse than death…
Chapter 1: The Dread Queen
Pain was a flower.
It began with crimson petals, threaded white, and ended with a black, black heart. Like mine. Since she’d taken Queensland half a turn ago, she had perfected the art of how much a captive could take before he broke. Some men ate agony like candy, while others were fragile as a bird’s bones.
Dred watched as her men carved lines into the intruder’s skin. “It doesn’t have to go down like this, Eli. Tell me why you’re really here. Then defect from Grigor, swear to me, and I’ll let you serve.”
That was bullshit. Since they were all liars, murderers, and thieves, it wasn’t as if she could trust Eli’s word should he give it. She might convince him of her sincerity, however, and learn something about her enemies’ intentions. The deception didn’t trouble her. For all she knew, this man’s mission was to stick a silent knife in her kidney.
“Never,” Eli gasped, red-tinged sweat dripping down his arms. “You don’t understand. Grigor will kill me. He’ll hunt me down.”
Fear wins over self-preservation.
“Not inside my territory,” Dred said.
She leapt down from the throne cobbled together from scrap metal and rusty chains. It was an affectation, but one that amused her. Between the braids, the tattoos, and the leather rumored to be human skin, men found it hard to meet her gaze. Eli was no exception; Tameron had sold her legend completely. Some of it was bullshit, of course.
“You can’t keep me safe,” he whispered. “Grigor has eyes everywhere.”
“That’s impressive cowardice.” When she got within kicking distance, Eli flinched and shielded his face. Dred laughed softly. “You think I can’t break your teeth through those arms?”
“I know you can,” he whispered.
“Good. Now tell me why you’re inside my border.”
“I was scavenging on Grigor’s orders. I didn’t know I’d crossed!”
Since there were checkpoints and sentries posted anywhere territories overlapped, that was impossible. The only way Eli could be here was if he’d intentionally come through the ducts or sought some other secret way through her security. And there was no innocent reason he’d have done that, especially not on Grigor’s orders.
“Keep lying to me, and you won’t last the hour.”
“Kill him,” Einar advised.
The man holding the prisoner’s right arm was a tall, muscular blond with hair that looked like he hacked it off with a rusty knife. Scars covered Einar from head to toe; his lip pulled sideways from a nasty slash to his face, and he was a missing an earlobe. Since he bathed, Einar was also one of the best catches in Perdition, their private name for the hellhole the Conglomerate had chosen to house its worst offenders.
Dred circled thoughtfully. Each time she gave the order, it got easier, like she lost a little more of her soul. She couldn’t have him learning her defensive strategies or finding her hidden weapons caches, then reporting to Grigor. Each time there was an incursion, she had to assume the worst and react accordingly. Things had been unsettled lately, and both Grigor and Priest were daring more, pressing harder from each side.
She jerked a nod at Einar. “Do it.”
“No, pl—” The giant snapped the prisoner’s neck before he finished begging for his life.
“I suspect he was a spy,” Tameron said. “You couldn’t let him live.”
Tam was a slight, dark-skinned male, younger than Dred, but it was impossible to say how much. She didn’t ask people how old they were, where they were from, or what they’d done to get tossed in here. None of that mattered inside Perdition. It only mattered how hard you’d fight to stay alive. He was also invaluable in keeping her regime on track; he supplied insights about her enemies and quiet information about the mood in Queensland, which was what the men called her territory.
The prison ship was the brainchild of some bright-eyed Conglomerate drone. Take one of the old deep-space asteroid refinery ships and retrofit it for incarceration. We clean out overcrowded prisoners, and we can focus on those offenders who have a legitimate chance at rehabilitation. Back when they first commissioned the prison ship, she’d heard the rationale on the bounce, like everyone else. Turns later, they had a floating city full of criminals, its orbit fixed in the middle of nowhere.
Never dreamed I’d end up here. But then, who does?
“Send the body for processing,” she told Einar.
With a nod, the giant hoisted the corpse to his shoulder and headed for the chute where they deposited all organic waste. It would be processed and converted into fertilizer for use in the hydroponics gardens, which didn’t work as well as they were supposed to. Half the lights had burned out, and it wasn’t like they could requisition new ones. Occasionally, supplies came in with a load of prisoners and a unit of new Peacemakers. None of the fish ever went after a one-ton machine armed with laser cannons, disruptors, and shredders, fortified with heavy armor. Plus, it was impossible to get to the docking bay. Every emergency door on Perdition went into lockdown, and energy fields came up when a ship arrived, sealing off the area completely. Only after the ship departed did the fail-safe kick off, leaving the fish to make their own way and avoid agitating the droids.
Usually that meant joining with whatever territory you found yourself in. Sometimes, when numbers got low, due to violent death or illness, sectors sent recruiters to wait outside the first set of emergency doors. Though Perdition had four would-be kings, it only had two queens, and Dred was the only one they called so. The other female leader, Silence, didn’t seem to be looking to build an empire; she just enjoyed the art of death. Dred had been around enough to know that Silence had a gift because the other woman did it so quietly, so cleanly, you’d almost fail to note she’d garroted clean through your throat. She didn’t often mess with Silence, who killed for pleasure, not defense, not to keep people out of her territory. And there was no predicting the behavior of someone like that.
She felt cold eyes on her. Spinning, she saw Lecass watching with a small group of his followers. He had been part of Artan’s regime, but so far, he hadn’t made a move. The man’s inaction troubled her as much as a challenge would. Deliberately, Lecass stared until she gave him her back, a calculated insult. One of these days, he would tire of the quiet drama and step things up. Dred would be ready.
Up until half a turn ago, Artan ran Queensland, though it was called Artania, then. He had been a raving narcissist with periodic fits of utter egomania, and from what Dred had been able to tell, he’d suffered from delusions of grandeur, which complemented his persecution complex. Consequently, his favorites didn’t usually last more than a few months. Until me. She didn’t know if that spoke well of her survival instincts or if it branded her a masochist.
Tam turned as the lights flickered. “That means a ship’s coming in.”
Because the machinery was so old, it stressed the circuits. The ship couldn’t efficiently light the whole vessel as well as go into lockdown. It had been a while since she’d headed toward the docking area to assess the new fish. She wasn’t greedy for bodies, like Grigor and Priest were. Grigor fed on fear, sometimes literally, she thought, and Priest brainwashed his recruits into thinking he was the living incarnation of some god. They worshipped him over in Abaddon, which was what he called his section of Perdition.
She cocked her head, knowing it was a scary look. “Want to go see what the universe has thrown away today?”
Tam nodded. “We lost a few guys in the skirmish with Grigor.”
Most of their daily conflicts occurred with Grigor or Priest, the two greatest threats to Queensland. Grigor had been here longest, and he was constantly pressing to see what new areas he could claim. Dred had the bad luck to be his neighbor. With Priest on one side and Grigor on the other, she was fighting constantly to maintain her territory.
Sometimes, however, Mungo came out in search of blood; and you had to fight hard against his people. They were the hungriest in the ship. He was a short, red-haired man with a bushy beard, pale blue eyes, and rosy cheeks. By his appearance, one could be forgiven for guessing he was harmless . . . right before he ripped out your throat with his bare hands and tried to eat your face. She’d heard that Mungo liked children best . . . for all kinds of things, and those preferences had gotten him thrown into Perdition early on.
They prey on weakness. Uncertainty.
She had little of either left in her. Whether her decisions were right hardly signified. Nothing mattered in this hole. The smart ones gave up and died; maybe they found the afterlife the priests and holy women had promised, shortly after her arrest. At first, during the trial, she had missionaries in her cell every day, trying to save her soul, trying to sell her on Mary’s grace, but after everything she’d seen, everything she’d done, she couldn’t believe.
The awful cast of her ability had burned anything like faith out of her. Over the years, she’d learned to block it out—to read darker emotions only of her own volition. Otherwise, she lived with a barrage of other people’s violence drumming in her skull. That was probably why she’d snapped. Maybe her sentence would’ve been lighter, at a different facility, if she could have brought herself to whisper those words of remorse the judge so badly wanted to hear.
But she couldn’t. Because she wasn’t sorry for a single murderer she’d put down. From the tone of her trial, it was clear they thought she was insane—and it would’ve only made her case worse if she’d admitted to being an unregistered Psi, using illegal gifts to hunt down psychopaths. Though Dred had heard that less than 3 percent of humanity possessed talents like her own, Psi Corp required all Psi-positives to be delivered to the nearest training facility, where the company oversaw their upbringing. As a kid, Dred hadn’t realized she had any particular ability, and when she left home, the die was cast.
Besides, what that ancient Old Terran philosopher had written so many turns ago was true, after all. He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. She had become what she despised most . . . and she belonged here.
I am the Dread Queen.
“Come,” she called to Einar, who caught up to them at a jog.
“How long until docking?” he asked.
“Half an hour,” Tam guessed. “When everything goes dark, we’ll know they’re here.”
She scanned the dingy, rusted-metal corridor walls. “Let’s see how far we can get.”
During docking, recruiters didn’t interfere with each other, even if they crossed borders. This one time, it was allowed, because otherwise it would be impossible for any group to augment its numbers, save the one in closest proximity. On this side, that would be Priest. He cared only for adding worshippers, but it often took longer for convicts to succumb to his brand of brainwashing. It wasn’t the sort of thing that made for a quick pitch. Still, she didn’t linger in Priest’s territory. Since they moved fast, they reached the second set of doors before the lights went down, and the barricades came up, along with the energy fields that would fry anyone who tried to cross. A few distant screams told her that some convicts had a timing problem.
Uneasily, they shared the space with Silence’s people, unusual, because the quiet killer didn’t often take an interest. But it had been a while for her, too. Silence must have advisors who let her know that if she killed too many of her own people out of sport, then she wouldn’t have the numbers to drive off anyone intent on taking her territory. There were six in all . . . and Dred’s was among the largest, with space on all decks. The lifts didn’t work, but she had shaft access, which meant her people could sneak around the ship unseen. Tam was particularly good at it.
The neutral zone lay just past the docking bay, a shantytown inside the prison ship, where fish often huddled until they realized it was worse there than when they affiliated. Townships had rules, at least, enforced by the leader’s people. The neutral zone had only one—take what you can. It was impossible to sleep there without being robbed, raped, or shanked, sometimes all in the same night. And so she’d tell anyone she deemed worthy of a second look.
That was the extent of Dred’s pitch: Come with me, and you may not die. There was no reason to be more persuasive. The smart ones listened.
In the dark, it was eerie, with only the red glow from the nearby shock field and the crackle of electricity. Silence’s people didn’t talk, even among themselves, and their behavior made for an uneasy truce. Tam kept a hand on his shiv, eyeing them with wary attention. On her other side, Einar played the role of gentle giant, but he wasn’t gentle. Nobody inside Perdition was. If they’d been sent up on a wrongful conviction, then they learned to fight, or they died.
Einar had been inside longer than Dred, and she’d been here for five turns before she got tired of etching hash marks into a sheet of metal to mark the days. Forever wasn’t a number anyway. It just was. At her best guess, she had thirty turns beneath her belt, give or take. She’d been killing for three years before she got caught. Before she got cocky. At the height of her career, she’d thought they’d never figure it out.
At last, the vigil ended. The lights came back up, and the security measures died, which meant it was safe to proceed. Pushing to her feet, Dred signaled her two men and jogged past the two sets of security doors, through Shantytown, and toward the reception area, where fish always milled around, as if expecting to be greeted by guards, someone to tell them where to go, what to do, how to get food and water. Poor, stupid fish.
This crop looked particularly sad. A few of them were crying, faces wedged between their knees. They all wore prison-issue gray, numbers and chips in the backs of their necks. Most of them had been shorn and deloused though a few looked as though they had been dragged from the darkest hole in the system, then set on fire. The weak and wounded wouldn’t last long; she ignored them.
Then her gaze lit on a man near the back. At first glance, he looked young, but his eyes refuted the initial assessment. Though he was slim and clean, with a crown of shining blond hair, his summer-sky eyes held a hardness that came only from turns of fighting, violence, and despair. He might well be the most dangerous man on the ship. Time to find out if he’s stable. Giving Tam and Einar the order to guard her, she closed her eyes and let slip the dogs of war.
“Definitely a must for fans of Aguirre’s Sirantha Jax series or Joss Whedon’s Firefly.”—Vampire Book Club
“Thought-provoking and gripping.”—The Book Pushers
“Aguirre revisits the classic idea of survival within an anarchic, violent society, offering protagonists whose moral gray contrasts with the stygian dark of those around them. Sirantha Jax fans may be intrigued to see what befell Jael after his ill-considered actions there, and new lead Dred is a strong linchpin for a promising new series.”—Publishers Weekly