Part One: Protostar.
Thane stared at the sun.
The star was at zenith, and its luminous, bloated, bulk hung low in the western sky. Its rays, the scarlet hue of Arashu's scales, illuminated a barren landscape. Thane's small ship gleamed like a drop of blood among the rocks.
The sun was dying.
It was a natural death. The hydrogen stored deep within the red giant's core was nearly exhausted. In a million years, give or take a few, the sun would expand and the planet Thane stood on would burn. The water and atmosphere would evaporate as the temperature rose. The mountains would melt like frost on a hull.
The planet was already doomed.
It was Thane's job to hasten the process.
He reached into a pocket of his suit and produced a small white sphere. The orb was smaller than a hand grenade and Thane would have found it surprisingly heavy had he been unaware of its contents.
The sphere's cargo had cost Thane nearly a third of his not inconsiderable advance. He'd spent another quarter of his paycheck on the orb itself. Containment vessels sufficiently advanced to reduce the mass of a microscopic black hole to something a man might easily carry were extremely expensive. Thane found the cost reassuring. Advanced weaponry should not be available to amateurs.
He dropped the orb upon the ground.
The sphere cracked open like an egg. Thane watched curiously. He saw a void so black that it was less of a color and more the total absence of any shade at all vanish through the burgundy rocks. The remnants of the containment vessel lay scattered on the ground.
Nothing happened. Thane lidded his eyes and basked for a moment in the infra-red rays emitted by the dying sun. After a while his acute senses detected a faint vibration in the soil surrounding the fragments of the containment sphere. A handful of sand loosened and slid down into the rock where it vanished into an invisible whirlpool.
Thane took a step back. A few more grains trickled down. A rock the size of Thane's palm tilted and slipped into the void. The surface of the planet seemed suddenly insubstantial.
Thane clasped his hands and bowed his head. He expected the familiar words to come easily to his mind. They did not. Instead he remembered an old prayer, a verse from a book written long ago in a desert the drell had long since left behind them.
"Who are you, in such a fierce form? I wish to understand you, for I do not know your ways.
I am Death, the destroyer of worlds. Get up and attain glory. All these have already been destroyed by Me."
Thane whispered the words into the sterile bubble of his helmet and watched his breath condense upon the visor. He found solace in the ancient verse, as he had so often before. The recital reminded him that he was only an instrument. The blame lay with his employers. In four months, six at the most, this world would end.
As he headed to confront a few of the handful of people who might actually notice the difference, Thane reflected that his employer would be pleased to hear that he had not reneged upon his contract.
It was not the first time he'd been asked to kill a world, but it was the first time he'd agreed. Planets were hard to kill, and Thane had a reputation to uphold. Most planets had far too many inhabitants for Thane to consider them a target. The sea of his gods' forgiveness was wide, but so many deaths would drain even an ocean.
This planet was different.
Its relative lack of importance was reflected in its name- a handful of letters and numbers with significance only to the asari scientists who'd named the system long ago. The syndicate who had claimed the planet called it Pele. Devoid of both food and liquid refreshment-definitions of both subject to change depending on species-the planet lacked a breathable atmosphere and had no native species at all. Nothing could live on rocks alone, although some things far out in the black came close. The world's demise would make more of a mark on the stock market than the sky.
The planet was an unconventional assassination target by anybody's standards, but Thane had always liked a challenge.
The ground shook again with more force. Thane revised his estimate of the world's demise as he returned to his ship. He set a course towards the planet's pole until he saw the prefabricated buildings of a human mining colony spread out below the ultraviolet haze of an aurora, and landed the craft among the scattered buildings. The red giant shone sullenly on the horizon as he stepped down from his ship.
He found the largest building and prepared to fulfill the second part of his contract.
Thane had timed his arrival to coincide with the mine's busiest period. All the workers were deep underground. He he found it easy to override security and slip inside without alerting anyone. There were alarms, which Thane systematically disabled, and a wide array of sensors and recording devices, which he destroyed with a small EMP grenade tuned to a specific frequency. It took him less than five minutes to make his preparations, and there was no sign of the miners arriving soon once he was done.
He used the time to meditate.
Part Two: Star
It had been a long shift.
Aroha stifled a yawn with the back of her hand as she stripped off her suit, half-listening as Reyes cracked a joke she'd heard a million times before. As the suit hit the ground she tapped her omni-tool to check in, picked up the suit, hosed it down and hung the clean suit in her locker. Around her the rest of the miners did the same.
She'd worked for the Ahial Syndicate for two standard years. Nothing ever changed except the credits in her bank account, and that not fast enough. She had one more year before she could wipe away her debts and leave this place for good.
The year couldn't pass fast enough for Aroha's taste.
Nothing changes, she thought, and noticed that her omni-tool was silent.
Aroha was the mine's information specialist. She should have received a dozen messages the instant she walked in the building. Stock reports, weather information, bio-statistics, emails, memos, spam…the list was endless, and often infuriating, but necessary.
She tapped Reyes on the shoulder. "Hey man, you noticed any power outage on this shift?"
Reyes shook his head. "Not since that one two weeks ago."
Aroha raised her voice, because just because Reyes hadn't noticed didn't mean nothing was happening. "Okay, who backed up against the power switch?"
Everyone carried on hosing and hanging their suits. Only Big Driss frowned. "What you talking about?"
Aroha tapped her omni-tool in explanation. "Power cut. My omni's not working."
He shrugged. Power outages were not uncommon. "We're about due."
She punched his arm. It felt like hitting concrete. "You’re not bothered 'cause you know it's not your problem."
He punched her back, gently. "Nah. It's your job."
Aroha sighed theatrically, grabbed a towel from the rack and stepped into the hangar.
The hangar should have been empty. It wasn't. Aroha blinked a few times-unexpected visitors were rare in this arm of the galaxy, but the figure persisted.
Somebody was already in the hangar. Some alien. Aroha didn't recognize the species. Ahial was a human corporation, and she'd grown up on Earth. The alien sat at the break table with its hands loosely clasped; completely at its ease and yet entirely strange.
Aroha stopped in mid-stride. Driss walked into her back, and someone else walked into him. She lurched forwards with a stumble that would have been comical if it hadn't been so appallingly undignified.
The silence stretched out between them.
"Are you from the Syndicate?" Aroha asked, when it became clear that nobody else was about to say anything.
"Not exactly," said the alien in perfectly intelligible batarian. It-he-the voice was deep and undeniably male-cleared his throat with a very human cough.
Silence fell like spacedust. Aroha wanted a shower. Her head itched. She raised her hand to scratch without thinking and winced as her work-roughened fingers rasped audibly against her shaven scalp. Reyes, to Aroha's left, had frozen in the act of pulling off his orange coveralls.
The alien coughed again. "I'm here as a representative of Eldfell-Ashland Energy," he said.
A collective grumble filled the room. EAE had held the monopoly on palladium mining in the Decoris system before Ahial had muscled in five years ago. Eldfell-Ashland had not taken kindly to the competition.
"You here to buy us out?" Driss called.
The alien shook his head. His skin was striped and scaled like a lizard's and his scalp gleamed in the fluorescent lights. "I have a message," he said.
"We have the comm for that," Aroha said. "Why travel?"
"This is important."
"What's so important you have to fly down planet-side just to tell us?"
"Your planet's dying," the alien said bluntly.
Driss pushed his way to the front of the crowd. His mohawk hackled. "How do you know?"
"Because I killed it."
She heard, rather than saw, Driss frown. "You can't kill a planet."
"On the contrary," said the alien calmly. "One standard hour ago I released a miniature black hole on the surface of this planet." He touched his wrist. "I am transmitting the footage and co-ordinates to your system with my omni-tool. You may view it at our leisure. The black hole will eat its way through the core of the planet to the other side, at which time it will oscillate back to the original co-ordinates and begin the whole process once again."
"Can we stop it?" Aroha asked.
"No. Once the black hole has absorbed enough mass it will sink to the planet's core and absorb the planet into a singularity. The singularity will have the same mass of the original planet. It'll orbit this sun."
"There must be a way," Driss growled.
The alien shrugged. Aroha noticed that his arms were subtly longer than human limbs. His shoulders rose and fell like the sea. "There's nothing you can do. It's hard to kill a world, but it's impossible to stop one once it's begun to die."
"Why should we believe you?"
"Because I'm telling the truth," the alien said. There was something about his demeanor that suggested that he was, and something more subtle that suggested it would not be wise to cross him.
"What's in this for you?" Reyes asked sulkily.
"You're a mercenary?"
"An assassin," the alien corrected. "You have less than two standard weeks before the surface of this planet becomes too unstable to support life. I suggest-"
"Why?" Driss interrupted.
The alien blinked two sets of eyelids. "Because you will die."
"Why are you telling us this?"
"The terms of my contract were specified by Eldland-Ashfell Energy. The owners wish to further prevent the Ahial Syndicate gaining a foothold within the Terminus Systems. The planet's death will be seen as an example by those affected. It was the wish of my employers that you should carry this message to the headquarters of the Ahial Syndicate."
Aroha saw her chance. "There are recordings-"
"Destroyed," said the alien.
Driss glanced back over his shoulder at Aroha, who raised her wrist. "He's right," she said as she tapped her omni-tool. "I'm picking up some strange electromagnetic activity." She gave the alien a hard glance that slipped from his scales as easily as sand. "Have you done this before?"
"How'd you know it'll work?" she asked.
"I see no reason why it won't."
"We could kill you," Driss snarled.
The alien shrugged again. "You could try." He rose from the chair with liquid grace as the miners shuffled their feet. "They didn't pay me to kill you. I'd prefer to avoid working for free."
Reyes frowned. "Who are you?"
Good question, Aroha thought in surprise. Reyes was not known for original thought.
The alien clasped his hands in a gesture like a prayer. "Thane Krios."
Reyes whistled and snapped his fingers. Several of the miners flinched. "Krios, right. I've heard of you. The one-hour massacre on Omega-"
"An unfortunate necessity," the alien said. If he had been human, Aroha would have said he looked ashamed. "I killed several people on Omega who did not need to die."
Aroha opened her mouth to call bullshit just as a tremor shook the facility. Reyes staggered. Aroha grabbed his arm. Her resurrected omni-tool flashed warnings. "That was a big one," she said, listening to the rumble of crates toppling in the warehouse behind her.
"The situation will deteriorate," Krios said calmly. "You should make arrangements for your evacuation. Do you have a ship?"
Aroha nodded. Escape craft were required for any mining operation, but most mines cut corners where they could. "We do have one ship-"
"Does your ship have room for everyone?"
She nodded. "Why do you care?"
Krios gave her a long look. "I've no wish to carry more deaths upon my shoulders."
"That’s strange," she said. "For an assassin."
He winced. "Do you blame the knife for stabbing you, or the hand that holds it?"
"A knife can’t think," she pointed out. "You can."
"This has nothing to do with thought. Corporations fight. Accept it. "
"We don't deserve this," Aroha said, annoyed. "I don't deserve this. I have debts."
"Few people get what they deserve." he said.
Aroha racked her brain for a witty response. She was still thinking when he turned and walked away. Driss went to grab his shoulder, but the alien turned quick as a whip and said something Aroha did not catch. Driss glared, but moved aside. Aroha wondered what the assassin had said to Driss that stopped him.
She watched as the door closed behind the alien's back, then turned to her omni-tool, wondering already what she should say to the Syndicate.
She made the call a minute later.
Part Three:White Dwarf
Another quake rocked the planet as Thane crested the gravity well. He saw the mine's lights flicker far below before dust in the atmosphere blocked his view, and subtracted another week from his estimate of the planet's time of death.
He hoped the miners left in time.
The Ahial Syndicate would be most displeased to hear of the planet's demise. No doubt they'd post a price on Thane's head. His reputation would deter most men, but there were always a few desperate or foolish enough to try their luck against him.
Let them come, he thought as he stared towards the dying sun. The dark bulk of the planet he had killed eclipsed the star's bloated brilliance for a moment before Thane's little ship moved on.
Thane orbited the sun, hoping to gain enough momentum to slingshot his small craft towards the nearest mass relay. A solar storm swept across the star, whipping flares from the planet's molten core. The ship's screen darkened instantly and blocked most of the ultraviolet radiation. Thane's nictitating membrane cut out the majority of the rest, but the glare was bright enough that he had to raise one hand to shield his eyes.
It was a spectacular sight. The sun's corona shone like red surf on the galaxy's shores. The rays enfolded the doomed planet as if Arashu cradled the world with bloodstained wings. The sight stole Thane's breath. He had seen many strange and wondrous sights in his life, but he had never seen his gods before.
He wished that he could have waited, but his course was already set, and perhaps that was for the best. No man was made to gaze upon the divine for long. He took one long last look back before the engines flared. His comm crackled to life.
“-can hear me?”
Thane recognized the voice. It was the big woman with the tattooed face who'd spoken to him at the mine. She sounded scared. He slapped the controls to cancel his course and listened to her voice between bursts of static.
“...request assistance. This planet is breaking apart. Our transport off-planet-it isn't working. There has to be someone, and ...”
Thane glanced through his ship's screen at the planet he had killed. He could see no change from this far out in space.
The comm crackled. “Save us.”
He flicked the comm off. He did not need to hear more. The information would merely tangle his emotions.
There has to be someone.
Thane sighed. The woman's hopeless words repeated in his memory. Her face would be another in Thane's parade of dead. It would not be the first time he had had cause to curse his species' perfect recall.
There has to be someone.
Yes, he thought. There's me.
Thane checked his fuel gauge. He had enough fuel to return to the Citadel, with a bare minimum remaining for emergencies. Landing and relaunching would pare his safe margin down to zero. His ship was only large enough for one. He could not take anyone off-planet, but he might be able to use his skills to fix their ship.
Thane entered the co-ordinates for his last landing site. He felt the subtle change as his ship changed course. The star on the horizon shone like the gleam in a predator's eye.
Perhaps his act would be nothing more than a final flail against a dying world. Perhaps he would find whether the horizon of his gods' forgiveness was truly infinite. He did not particularly care. He had not been paid to kill the miners, and he had not gained his reputation by killing innocents.
The closer he got to the planet, the worse it looked. The sullen red starlight gave the mountains a sinister aspect. Clouds of dust darkened the atmosphere and fouled Thane's sensors. He felt the ship lurch as the planet's gravity took hold, and ran a check for seismic activity. The results did not surprise him. He estimated that conditions would be lethal within days.
Let's make this fast, he thought as he flicked the switch that transferred the shuttle's controls to manual. The ship accelerated as he added power to the thrusters. Red rocks blurred beneath him as visibility reduced to a few meters. Circuits and computer chips calculated his course at faster than thought speeds. The facility glowed like a beacon on his screen as he drew closer.
He decelerated once he was within fifty meters of the mine and felt the familiar judder as the thrusters disengaged and his ship descended towards the planet's surface. The lights dimmed. Thane raised his hands to check the screen and the floor bucked beneath him as the craft lost power. All the lights went out. Red dust swirled against the windscreen as the ship dropped like a stone. Thane's temple collided with the side of the head restraint, and he lost consciousness as suddenly as slamming a door.
The cockpit was dark when Thane woke. He hung over the shattered windscreen, suspended by his seat harness. Grit pattered against the ruined glass. The dying star shone scarlet on the horizon.
Thane slapped the harness. The buckle had been twisted in the impact and it took a dozen attempts and a significant portion of Thane's strength to release him. He landed on the windshield, which shattered, and fell another meter to the ground in a rain of broken glass.
He landed in a crouch upon the rocks. The ship loomed above him, a useless hulk, its side split by a boulder that must have fallen from a rock spire in the earthquake. Another tremor shook the ground. Thane flattened himself to the rocks, but nothing more fell. His suit's HUD flashed a dozen warnings.
He was almost out of oxygen. Any other species would have been suffocated by the increased levels of carbon dioxide in his suit's re-breathing system, but drell had high tolerance to expired gases. His shields were non-existent, whittled down bit by bit by his suit's attempt at survival. The armor was already uncomfortably hot. Drell physiology compensated for high ambient temperature with increased activity levels, but activity burned oxygen fast.
Thane's hand sought for the gun he wore strapped to his leg. His fingers found the rounded plastic of the grip. It was almost too warm to touch, and he wondered just how long he had been unconscious.
The rounded roof of the mining facility was visible through the dust. The distance, infinitesimal in terms of cosmic navigation, seemed enormous. Thane felt the weight of the singularity beneath his feet. The dying sun's heat scorched his shoulders.
He turned away from his wrecked ship. As he began to walk he reflected that his employer would be pleased to hear he had not reneged upon his contract, and even more pleased to learn that he had died making his escape and therefore had no need for the remaining half of his not inconsiderable retainer.
Thane had survived worse situations, and he had no intention of dying for someone else's beliefs. His work had brought him to the planet. His conscience had led him back.
He did not regret his return. He did regret not taking the time to visit Kolyat on Kahje before he accepted the contract. It had been a very long time since he had last seen his son.
Thane opened all his pores to increase cooling, and walked towards the facility as slowly as he could. It was not easy work. His metabolism quickened as the temperature rose. His breath came faster. He found his steps speeding without realizing it, and he consciously slowed his progress. His HUD provided helpful reminders of his suit's decreasing oxygen levels.
By the time he reached the facility he had less than two percent oxygen remaining and the outlines of a plan.
He entered the facility easily. The miners had not locked the door. What was the point?
Thane flicked his helmet open and took several long, deep breaths. The air had the stale tang of recycled gases, but it tasted clean to him.
He checked his weapon and looked around. There were several drums of chemicals in the entrance, but no people. One of the drums lay on its side, perhaps overturned by the tremors. A thin green liquid leaked from the drum's cracked seal and pooled upon the concrete. An alarm droned in ceaseless warning.
He pressed the console. The door slid open, and everyone turned to stare.
Part Four:Red Giant.
“This is a SOS. My name is Aroha Thompson. I am the information specialist at the Ahial Syndicate facility on Theta Epsilon a1579b, known as Pele, in the Decoris System of Sigurd's Cradle. Our planet is breaking apart. We have a few days according to our projections before the surface becomes too unstable to support human life. Our escape craft has malfunctioned. Our long-range communication drones have been sabotaged. I have access to limited range transmissions only. This is a SOS. I repeat, this is an SOS. Provide immediate assistance.”
Aroha listened to her hoarse voice repeat the words. She'd done everything she could think of to boost the signal without the assistance of drones. She'd even recorded the message on a manual beacon and launched it into space. She knew the range was short and the Terminus Systems were lawless. Nobody would come to rescue them.
The air smelt of fear and desperation. Reyes cringed at every tremor. Driss stomped around as he he could defy the earthquakes with his feet. Aroha's voice was hoarse from recording transmissions. Most of the miners were hard at work on the ship, but she knew nothing short of a miracle would get it flying in time.
There should have been failsafes, plenty of them. But the failsafes had failed one by one, and what remained was certainly not safe.
Aroha's message repeated on a loop. She leaned the back of her hand against her forehead and thought of better times.
She did not hear the assassin return. Instead, Driss's voice cracked like a whip in the quiet, each syllable slicing the soft dirge of the recording. “Why did you come back?”
Aroha raised her eyes from her console and saw Krios standing in the hangar. He blinked once at Driss's question, but did not reply. He just walked straight past Driss and up to Aroha where she sat at the console. His footprints traced sand across the decking. His suit's exterior was torn and stained with reddish dust.
“You told me you had a ship,” he said.
Aroha heard the tread of heavy feet on the decking behind her a second before Driss grabbed Krios by the shoulder and spun him away from her. The assassin sighed, slipped from Driss's grasp with fluid strength and aimed a gun Aroha had not even noticed at Driss's head. Then he turned back to Aroha.
“You told me that you had a ship,” he repeated.
Driss edged to the side. The barrel of the gun followed him. He moved in the opposite direction. The gun tracked him like a snake. Aroha bit her lip.
“The ship,” Driss said between clenched teeth, “is not working.”
“Yes.” the alien said. “I heard your distress beacon.” His voice was very calm, yet Aroha sensed a tension in him that had not been there before.
“Why did you come back?” she asked him cautiously. She held out her hands, palms uppermost, to show him that she had no wish to fight.
“What do we care?” Driss said sulkily. He edged away and raised his hands to mimic Aroha's gesture.
The assassin lowered his gun. He half-turned, keeping his back to the console with an ease that spoke of long habit. “I prefer to avoid collateral damage. I've found I sleep easier that way. I heard your message and returned to do what I could. Unfortunately my ship crashed a short distance from the mine.”
Driss brightened. “Could we use your vessel for spare parts?”
“I'm no mechanic,” Krios said, “but I think it's past repair. And we have little time.” He turned to Aroha. “I need your console.”
“I need to make a call.”
“We already tried that,” Aroha said. “The drones are out.”
“Yes. I used a shortrange EMP device to block your communications. But you still have radio.”
“Radio'll take too long,” Driss said. “Useless for anyone who isn't already in the system. The Syndicate is based on Ilium. By the time they pick up the signal, we'll be dust.”
“I'm not going to call Ahial.” Krios said calmly.
“Then who're you gonna call?” Driss asked.
“Anyone who'll listen,” Krios said, as if someone would.
“The only folk we'll find out this way are treasure hunters and mercenaries.” Aroha put in. “They don't tend to be reliable.”
“They're reliably greedy.”
“That's true,” she agreed. “But what makes you think they'll listen?”
“Someone will,” he said.
“Why should we let you make the call?” Driss asked.
“What choice do you have?” The assassin's smile was thin. “If it is my time to die then I shall die, but I will spend my last breath reaching for the shore. I have no intention of dying without a fight.”
“If it wasn't for you we wouldn't be dying in the first place.” Driss muttered.
Krios looked at him with eyes the color of deep space. “All of us are dying, human. Some of us last a little longer than others.”
Driss turned to Aroha. “What do you think?”
Aroha sighed. “He's right. What choice do we have?” She looked up at the alien and ran her fingers thoughtfully across her tattooed chin. “I didn't expect an assassin to have morals.”
Krios' expression was impassive. “My profession does not define me.”
“Fine.” Driss said. “Make the call.”
The assassin holstered his gun in the small of his back and moved forwards to the console. Aroha pushed her chair back to give him room. She expected him to take some time to familiarize himself with the controls, but his hands moved across the keyboard as if he had used the equipment many times. His batarian had no accent, which surprised Aroha a little, given his exotic appearance.
“My name is Thane Krios,” he said into the console. “I am a professional assassin. The bounty on my head exceeds thirty million credits. I am stranded at the Ahial Syndicate facility on Theta Epsilon A1579b, in the Decoris System of Sigurd's Cradle, with access to limited range transmissions only. Send a ship. I will not fight. There is one condition; that you provide transport off planet to a safe location for twenty syndicate employees stranded with me. I estimate that conditions will be unsurvivable within ten standard days.“ He shut off the comm and turned to Aroha. “Let us hope it attracts some attention.”
“Thirty million credits?” Driss's mouth hung open. Aroha tried not to think what she would do with that much money.
Krios gave a modest shrug. “I have found the amount of a bounty does in no way reflect the worth of an individual.” he said.
Driss shook his head. “You can't trust mercenaries when that much money's involved.”
“I have found mercenaries untrustworthy no matter how much money is involved,” said the assassin.
Aroha found her voice. “Suppose they do come after all. What's to stop them killing us to claim your bounty?”
“Nothing.” Krios said. “Though I promise you they will not get that far.”
Driss looked skeptical. “You're that good?”
“Good enough to have a thirty million credit bounty on my head.”
“So you'll trade your freedom for our lives?” Aroha asked. “Excuse me if I find that hard to believe.”
“An individual is not defined by their actions alone. “ Krios said briefly. “I owe a debt. I've sinned, and must atone.”
Driss snorted. “That sounds complicated.”
“It's really very simple.”
Driss looked at Aroha. Aroha shrugged. The assassin's voice repeated ceaselessly on the console until Aroha turned the volume down. The floor vibrated, a small shake this time, and she paled.
Driss stretched. “Gotta see how the ship's getting on.” He glanced over at Krios. “Just in case your plan don't work. No offence.”
Driss nodded briefly before he headed for the doors. Krios sat down in the chair opposite Aroha and steepled his fingers against his chin. This close, he looked tired.
“Do you want some water?” she asked.
She could have sworn she saw surprise flit across the assassin's face for a moment. “Thank you, but no. My species can function with very low fluid levels.”
“Pardon me,” Aroha said. “I was brought up on Earth. What are you?”
“I am a drell,” he said.
“I've never seen your species before.”
“We are not common,” said Krios. “We don't usually leave Kahje.”
“Are you all assassins?”
He looked at her. “Are all humans miners?”
She blushed. ”No.”
He spread his hands. “My species is as diverse as yours.”
Aroha bit black-tattooed lips as they listened to the message repeat. Dust pattered on the roof of the hangar. Another quake rattled the windows.
“Suppose someone rescues us,” she said after a while. “Suppose they're honest.”
“Then I will do them the courtesy of not escaping until I am in C-Sec custody.” Krios said.
“But Citadel security is the best in the business!” Aroha said. She had once spent a long and spectacularly uncomfortable night in the C-sec cells after a rather too enthusiastic evening out.
He smiled, a bare twitch of his lips that she suspected would have been a grin on any other man. “I assure you that I am more than capable.”
They settled back into silence. Aroha copied her own message, and broadcast that as well. Driss returned after a while. She looked over at him, but he just shook his head.
It was a long wait.
Aroha expected the wait to be terrible, but it was just boring. Driss went back to the garage after a while. Krios closed his eyes, but Aroha didn't think he slept.
She was woken from a doze by a crackle on the comm.
“Syndicate facility, this is the vessel Cartagena. Are you receiving me?”
Aroha stabbed desperately at the console. “Yes! I mean, we're still here. And alive.”
She frowned. “He's here, too.”
“We're entering orbit now. Our estimated time of arrival is thirty minutes from now. Hold on.”
“That's great!” She could have hugged the console. “Do you have room?”
There was no answer. Aroha opened all the channels, but the ship had gone.
“They didn't hang around,” said Driss, who had returned to the facility to sack out in the chair near Aroha. The whites of his eyes were the colour of old plastic. He looked exhausted. ”Do you think they're honest?”
“Hard to tell.” Aroha said. “But they're here.”
“I hope they are.” Krios said. “Whatever happens, you can consider yourself under my protection.”
Driss sniffed. “That's reassuring,” he said.
The assassin smiled. “We can hope.”
Aroha waited nervously as the minutes ticked by. She got up to fetch herself a glass of water, but couldn't bring herself to drink. After a while she felt a vibration that could have been a tremor but wasn't. They'd left the door open after some debate, and when she heard the hiss of hydraulic hinges opening she nearly knocked over her glass.
The six men that entered were all armed. They carried their weapons in their hands with a confidence that told Aroha they were prepared to use them. Their expressions said they were looking forwards to it.
She heard Driss's breath hiss between his teeth. “Great.”
“Which one of you is Krios?” one of the men called.
Aroha looked over at Krios. He sat quietly in his chair, his head bowed, hands clasped. She leaned closer and said “Thane!” softly., but the assassin did not move.
Reyes smiled. “Thank the gods. You've come to save us!” He held his hand out to the closest mercenary, but the man brushed him aside.
“Where's the assassin?” he asked in rough batarian. “We've come to claim the bounty.”
“Forget the bounty,” Reyes snapped. “We'll die if you don't help us-”
The spacer raised his gun and struck Reyes across the face. Reyes went down hard, a bruise spreading across his face. A few of the miners started forwards, but the mercenary raised his gun and they stepped back.
“Search the facility,” he ordered.
“Krios!” Aroha said loudly.
The assassin raised his head. Aroha never saw him draw his weapon, but she heard him shoot. Six shots, one after another. The mercenaries staggered back. Driss vaulted the railing and grabbed the closest man's gun as he fell. He leveled the weapon at its owner's head, then lowered the gun. “He's dead.”
Across the hangar, two miners helped Reyes stagger to his feet. The assassin slipped his gun back into its holster. He'd killed all six men from a sitting position without even breaking a sweat. Aroha lowered her hands from her ears.
“I guess they weren't honest,” she said as she stared at the bodies.
“No,” Krios agreed, “but they have a ship.”
And they did.
Krios left the ship at Ilium, and Aroha never saw him again.
Three months later; when the planet finally crumbled and shares in the Ahial Syndicate dropped by fifty percent, she ran a search for him. She found nothing. Ilium's famous information brokers did no better. If she hadn't known better, she'd have thought Thane Krios had fallen from the face of the earth.
As Aroha searched, she found footage of Pele's last moments. She saw the planet vanish like water down a plughole; absorbed by the singularity in its core. The sun flared as Pele slipped into darkness. Plasma tendrils spiraled round the void, and for a moment it seemed to Aroha as if the remnants of the planet was cradled in a pair of giant wings.
The beauty of the sight took her breath away.