Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Empty Gun

The bazaar on the moon that wandered Transitional Space did not meet Kestre sa Elaya’s exacting requirements for a safe transaction. In years past, as the duelist prime of House Elaya, she would have journeyed with an honor guard to the much-feted Gray Manse. Her meeting would have involved liquors imported from the Flower Worlds and delectable canapés and candies, some of which she would pocket to give to her nieces when she returned home.

If circumstances had been less dire, she would have scorned a meeting with the arms dealer entirely. The dealer refused to leave the moon, for reasons lost in antiquity. That rankled; Kestre was used to people coming to her, not the other way around.

But House Elaya had died in blood and ash two months ago. Kestre herself had been left for dead by the assassins of House Tovraz. She was determined to make them pay for their mistake.

To do so, she needed a weapon. Not just any weapon, but one outside the Houses’ Registry. Weapons like the ones the arms dealer sold.

Kestre didn’t like Transitional Space. Like most House aristocrats, she was superstitious, and she’d always wondered if the immense aliens who had once lurked in Transitional Space, which humanity had driven off in the wars of old, still clung to existence. But she wouldn’t admit to fear, either, and in any case the moon hadn’t suffered any alien attacks since it was colonized.

“Three cutpurses behind you,” her neural assistant said. “Knives only. They shouldn’t cause you any trouble.”

“Thank you,” she said in a harsh whisper, and whipped around, dropping into a fighter’s crouch. She saluted the cutpurses as though she faced them in a duel. The knife rested easily in her hand, and one by one she pointed at each, angling the blade precisely to reflect the streetlights into their eyes.

The cutpurses recognized the challenge for what it was, and slunk away.

“That was overkill,” the assistant said mildly.

“I don’t have time for petty thieves,” Kestre returned, and continued on her way beneath the city dome with its featureless black sky. The hungry sky, the locals called it, those nights in Transitional Space, as the moon traveled through a warp-world sideways of ordinary space. She wondered if anyone else would hunt her tonight, but no one else troubled her.

The arms dealer lived in a surprisingly ordinary apartment overlooking a zero-gee playground. Kestre’s doubts increased as she contemplated the dismayingly domestic wreath of cloud-bloom and brachial wires on the door. Then she knocked.

The door opened. The arms dealer was tall and broad, very dark, like Kestre herself, but with a strangely indistinct face. Even her eyes resembled pits of shadow.

The interior wasn’t much better. Row upon row of weapons rested in plain sight, everything from finger-length knapped flint knives to crew-served artillery and even, in the back, the gleam of a missile whose length receded into an unlikely distance. Kestre assessed the offerings with an expert eye and shook her head in disappointment. “If this is all,” she said, “I had best be on my way.”

“Wait,” the arms dealer said. “For the last survivor of House Elaya, I have something special.”

“On with it, then,” Kestre said, unease coiling in her belly.

“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” the assistant said. “We should look elsewhere.”

“We don’t have many options,” Kestre subvocalized. “We’ll have to chance it.”

The arms dealer led Kestre into her home, stopping in a room where there was a single case. “This is what you want,” she said.

Kestre’s eyebrows rose. All she saw was a handgun of peculiar proportion, too large to wield comfortably, and dull green in color. “Unregistered?” she asked.

“Unregistered,” the arms dealer confirmed. “The only one of its kind.”

“Ammunition?”

“It’s an amicable gun. It handles its own ammunition.”

In her past life, Kestre would have walked away at this point. She’d heard of amicable artifacts, although she’d never handled one. They turned up on certain dead worlds, forever voyaging through Transitional Space, relics of the long-ago aliens that humanity had fought off during its first travels to the stars. The artifacts had a reputation both for extreme efficacy and for bringing bad luck to their owners.

Kestre was desperate, and her luck couldn’t get any worse. Her House had perished. All she had left was her life, and the point of that life was revenge.

The arms dealer smiled knowingly at Kestre, who scowled and lifted the gun from the case. Still awkward, but it fit her hand better than she’d expected from its appearance. This might be workable after all.

“What do you want for it?” Kestre said after a grudging pause. “Whatever is in my power to give is yours.”

The assistant began to protest Kestre’s bargaining skills, but it was too late.

“The honor of House Elaya is still alive, I see,” the arms dealer said. “Give me your House name, then, since you value it so.”

Kestre shuddered and squeezed her eyes shut. The last thing she had of real value—but without a House, and she thought of the last time she’d tucked in her youngest cousins, the name meant nothing. The House could not go unavenged. If this was the price she must pay, then so be it. “Yes.”

The arms dealer laid two precise fingers on Kestre’s brow. A sensation like ice spiked through Kestre’s heart and settled in her bones. “Say it,” the arms dealer said, imperious. “Say your name. So you know.”

Kestre opened her mouth. “Kestre—” Her own breath choked her. She coughed, tried again. “Kestre—” No use. She could not complete the name, even though the words sa Elaya beat in her chest.

“It’s done,” the arms dealer said. “Good hunting, Kestre of the Empty Gun.”

Kestre would have asked what she meant by that, but the arms dealer was already ushering her out of her home. The racks of weapons leered at her as though they were gossiping about her.

Outside, pinpricks of light and the roseate whorls of local nebulae were emerging in the everywhere sky. The moon wasn’t supposed to have exited Transitional Space for another four days. Had she lost that much time?

It didn’t matter. She had a hunt to take up, name or no name.

• • • •

Kestre left the moon out of paranoia and traveled to a sparsely populated world to run her first tests, specifically in the Pillared Plains, with their double-edged shadows and glass-bright rocks, the dust of fallen stars. Few of the nearby city’s inhabitants ventured here. There was no profit to be had, and explorers had a habit of turning up dead at the city limits. That made it perfect for her purpose.

She wasn’t so stupid that she was going to take an unfamiliar weapon to an assassination. Here she encountered her first disappointment. The gun did not fire.

Despite the arms dealer’s assurances, she had procured rounds of rare polymorphic ammo, the kind that shaped itself to best suit weapon or world. It had taken the rest of her resources: fitting for someone who didn’t belong to a House anymore. Fitting, but worrisome.

The gun misfired once, twice, and more times beyond that. Kestre had dealt with recalcitrant firearms since her childhood, under the severe eye of House Elaya’s armsmaster. The fault was not in her ability, but the gun’s own peculiarities. She added the arms dealer to the list of people she needed to kill, and turned to head back toward the city, causing the crossbow bolt to miss her by a centimeter.

Even in the dim and chancy light that ghosted through the Pillared Plains, Kestre recognized an assassin’s bolt. Her neural assistant confirmed it. The bolt was yellow and green, the colors of House Tovraz. Despite her efforts to conceal her movements, someone had determined that she survived—and was set to finish the massacre.

A horrible laugh bubbled up in her chest. House Elaya was dead. She’d surrendered her name, after all. But the assassin didn’t know and wouldn’t care, and she was damned if she’d be easy meat.

Kestre dove for cover, a second bolt glancing off her armor as it hit at the wrong angle. There would be another, somewhere. The Tovraz liked to work in threes.

She thanked House Elaya’s smiths for her suit. Her thanks didn’t last long. The assassins had shared target lock with their third squadmate. The next bolt came from above, in what would have been an admirable parabola if Kestre had been in a mood for admiring, and punctured her air supply. The ones that followed cracked her two spares.

These must be professionals. They didn’t care about the pretty formalities of the duels Kestre had grown up fighting, and in whose terms she still tended to think. They wanted her dead, and they wanted her to know that she was dead.

“They’re leaving,” the assistant said in the carefully neutral voice it used when it wanted to inform her that we’re fucked.

Of course they were leaving. Her heart thumped in panic at the serpent hiss of air escaping even as she reached for sealant. She couldn’t save enough of the precious oxygen; the gauges told her that. Without air, she wouldn’t survive the journey back to the city, even on the scooter she’d rented. The assistant, for all its pessimism, had done the pragmatic thing and backtracked the bolts’ trajectories to give her targeting information. Useless as the information was with a gun that didn’t work.

At this point, Kestre gave in to frustration. She was going to die in a lawless corner of the universe without having taken out a single person on her list. She’d sacrificed her most valuable possession, her House name, without achieving one iota of her revenge.

The gun had none of the useless polymorphic ammunition loaded. It was time to test the arms dealer’s claim that the gun took care of matters itself, incredible as it sounded. Better that than giving up.

She lifted the gun and pulled the trigger three times in rapid succession, aiming in the general direction of the first target, the second target, the third.

It was a laughable gesture. In any other universe, it would have availed her nothing, and she would have died a slow, agonizing death of asphyxiation only to be dragged by the corpse-collectors to the city limits when they found her. Or perhaps she would have hastened the process out of spite by opening her helmet to vacuum.

But this was the universe in which her weapon was the empty gun, bought in Transitional Space for the price of a House name, and the gun fired once, twice, thrice. The recoil surprised her, because the gun was empty and there should have been nothing to cause recoil. She actually dropped the gun after that third shot, something she hadn’t done since childhood.

“They’re not leaving anymore,” the assistant said. This time its tone meant we are either more fucked than before or miraculously unfucked, and it’s your job, as the human half, to figure out which.

Kestre was stunned into a non-sarcastic response. “What the hell happened?”

“They’re not leaving anymore.” Now it meant I don’t know either, and you’re still in charge, what’s a poor AI supposed to do?

She was not so reckless as to believe the danger had passed. But she needed air, so she hastened to the first assassin’s location. What she found when she reached them disquieted her.

The assassin’s helmet was cracked, the faceplate mazed like a flawed opal. There was a hole in the center of their forehead, and a corresponding exit wound in the back of their head, and in the back of their helmet as well. Perfect headshot, instant death.

“Definitely dead,” the assistant said in wonderment. “Well done, ma’am.”

Kestre was vain about her skills as a marksman, but not so vain that she didn’t recognize that the headshot was highly improbable. Still, she accepted her luck, such as it was. The mysterious bullet—wherever it had gone—had missed the assassin’s own air supply. She liberated it and replaced her tank with a quiet sigh of relief: salvation.

The sigh of relief faded when she examined the second and third assassins. They’d died the same way, both of them. This went from highly improbable to downright hallucinatory.

“Much as I’d love to stay and gawk,” the assistant said, “there may be more on the way.”

May meant it hadn’t yet detected anyone. Kestre didn’t believe in taking chances. At least she needn’t add the aggravating arms dealer to her list after all.

She retrieved her scooter, then headed back to the city. Now that the adrenaline was ebbing, nausea filled her—not because she’d come close to death, but because the Tovraz had decided she was a footnote, unworthy of a proper duelist. They’d sent common assassins after her.

• • • •

After that, Kestre’s vendetta began in earnest. She learned to rely on her gun, which always killed living targets and was effective against inanimate objects as well. It kicked her hand with that familiar recoil even though taking it apart and putting it together again, multiple times, assured her that it was as empty as its name. Likewise, the gun hated her polymorphic ammunition and wouldn’t discharge if she loaded it. After a while, she simply gave up trying.

Kestre started with the outlying scions of House Tovraz, the ones sent to safeguard Tovraz’s trade concerns amid the Wandering Moons. She felled eight of them before the warning bulletin went out and they increased their security. The AI’s squeamishness convinced her not to take their ears as trophies, although she thought it would have been a fine jest to mail them to the Tovraz citadel. Her sense of humor had darkened lately.

For a time, all went well. When Kestre needed money to sustain her operations, she went bounty-hunting. Sometimes a small voice whispered that the duelist prime of House Elaya should be above random killing, especially for something as mundane as money. But then she remembered that she had sold her name, so why not sell her scruples too?

This lasted through seventeen kills.

The eighteenth—the eighteenth was when the nature of the empty gun began to manifest.

• • • •

Kestre was in the middle of killing the eighteenth person on the list, in the Labyrinth of Blinded Skulls, when she got the news.

“Ma’am,” the assistant said, its very politeness a warning, “when you get a moment—”

“Not now, sorry,” Kestre said through her teeth as she fired the empty gun. The eighteenth person got off one last shot at her, by some miracle of timing: the closest call she’d had since the beginning. Then they slumped dead.

Kestre assessed her surroundings against the assistant’s kinesthetic map of the Labyrinth’s corridors. She’d learned during an earlier engagement that she couldn’t trust her own maps, thanks to House Tovraz’s countermeasures. Even if she’d disabled the map scramblers earlier, there was always a chance some clever hacker had undone her hard work.

Her maps remained in alignment. The Labyrinth’s halls rose above her with their improbable pointed arches, its walls festooned with the blindfolded portraits of Tovraz ancestors. (Why blindfolded, she didn’t know; some stupid Tovraz quirk.) Even so, Kestre remained vigilant. She had a scar across her side that ached in bad weather because she’d gotten careless with the ninth person on her list.

“Do you have time now?” the assistant asked with a hint of impatience.

Kestre approached the eighteenth kill. No pulse. That same perfect headshot. “Go ahead, thanks.”

“The ancestral head of House Tovraz has returned to life,” it said.

She froze. “What?” That first patriarch had been gunned down several centuries ago. She knew his name and face from her tutors’ history lessons. Was this the gun’s bad luck finally catching up to her?

“Check the newsfeeds for yourself,” the assistant said.

Kestre didn’t waste any time leaving the Labyrinth. Later, she would remember the escape in splintered dreams from which she woke sweating: passages in which gravity inverted and reverted to a schedule like the heartbeat of a restless giant; robots emblazoned with the green and yellow of House Tovraz, and armed with lasers that she escaped only by virtue of her armorsuit’s automatic reflection mode; a perilous climb up a series of maintenance shafts that led to her getaway flyer.

After escaping the Labyrinth, she holed up in one of the pricier hotels for privacy and used the assistant’s connections to verify its information. Sure enough, the ancestral head of House Tovraz had hatched out of his burial urn and demanded to resume leadership of the Tovraz. If it was a prank, it was a hellaciously entertaining one.

“One more Tovraz to remove from the world,” Kestre subvocalized to the assistant.

“Eighteen down, one up isn’t so bad a ratio,” it replied.

She smiled wanly. “You really think it’s the old man and not some sick joke?”

The gun’s weight pulled at her belt. She knew it was true, despite her words. The impossible had happened, and she was somehow responsible.

“Maybe we should reconsider what we’re doing,” the assistant said.

Kestre shook her head. “No,” she said reluctantly. “We’ve come this far. There’s nothing to do but add the patriarch to our list.”

• • • •

Hunger wracked Kestre during her next twenty-six kills. Not physical hunger, which she could have endured, although she didn’t neglect the needs of the body. The gun itself demanded more bloodshed.

She kept this gnawing knowledge from the neural assistant. It would have advised her to surrender the gun to some collector (not the authorities) and leave House Elaya unavenged. After all, it had been impressed with the imperative of preserving her specifically—loyalty to her above all and the House a distant second. As far as the AI was concerned, a dead House’s honor mattered not a whit. But she was not her assistant, and it still mattered to her. She would not concede that she had surrendered her House name for nothing.

Kestre started cataloging the kills as if they were rare specimens that she had to document for some museum of atrocities. After all, the manner of death never changed. Always the same tidy headshot. The only difference was, sometimes, the size of the wound, as if the caliber of the bullet was chosen at random.

There were kills that took place during high-speed chases upon skimmers over dust seas made from the ground-down fossils of ancient behemoths, and kills that took place at nosebleed heights across decaying struts and balconies, so high that even the birds wheeled below. Some kills happened in the deep-down swamps of worlds poorly terraformed and abandoned to breed disease, cauldrons fit only for the habitation of dolorous machines; others happened in the unsweet caress of sheer vacuum, far from stars or planets or anything but the radiation of the universe’s first exhalation.

During these kills, she avoided the news, and asked the neural assistant not to talk about it either.

The next kill after that was another matter. Her squeamishness in learning about her effect on the world bit her in the ass. Even in the more lawless corners of civilization, you couldn’t murder people like this and go unnoticed. Kestre’s House officially no longer existed; she couldn’t claim that she was legally pursuing blood feud.

Kestre had just completed a grueling climb out of the maze of inner apartments where her latest target had holed up and emerged into a surfeit of light: white lights, red lights, the muzzles of guns all aimed at her. The neural assistant sputtered out of silence to tell her how many people she was facing. She heard the number without processing it: too many to escape was all that mattered.

Primed by her experiences, she did the illogical thing. She was already dangling from a window; that left one hand free. And she had superb reflexes, which had served her well as duelist prime. She drew and fired in the general direction of the authorities who had come to arrest her. If her vengeance ended here, fine; but it wouldn’t end without her taking someone on the way out.

Her vengeance didn’t end. It took her a full minute to appreciate what had happened. The sound of scores of people dropping in unison, like a percussion ensemble’s last hammer-blow. The silence afterward.

“All those people,” the assistant said, at a loss for words.

Kestre, dangling, stared down at the blood, and the blood, and the blood.

“You should go before anyone else shows up,” it added softly. Meaning before you kill more bystanders.

“What the hell is going on?” Kestre demanded. But she was already moving. She scrambled down the rest of the way, hands steady only because the alternative was falling to her death on the street below, amid the not-a-tessellation of corpses.

The empty gun hadn’t kicked against her hand any more than usual. It had felt like an ordinary single shot. The one difference—besides the damage—was an obscene satiation radiating throughout her body. She suspected that once it ebbed, she would be left hungrier and more hollow than ever.

Once Kestre made it to her getaway flyer, she keyed it up and headed for the starport. She hadn’t completed her quota of kills on this world—saints of Elaya, if not for the assistant, she would be starting to lose track—but it was clear that she’d have to return later.

Unfortunately, the authorities had noticed the sudden demise of their police forces. They were even more determined to apprehend her now.

The assistant spoke again. “They know where we’re going,” it said. “Maybe it’d be better for us to lie low for a while.”

“That won’t work,” Kestre said. “We might be stuck here for ages. We have to get off-planet, even if it means stealing a ship.” It wouldn’t be the first time.

“We have a police fleet converging on our position.”

The city sped by beneath them, a blur of lights and bridges and spindle figures. Kestre saw the police in their combat flyers. Her flyer didn’t have a tactical system, but the assistant did. It connected to the flyer’s sensor suite and calculated that she only had two minutes and nine seconds before the leading missiles reached her.

Missiles, Kestre thought with savage humor. I’m moving up in the world.

“Tell me,” Kestre said aloud to the gun, “just how many people can you take out with a single pull of the trigger?” She was shocked, although she shouldn’t have been, by the raw edge to her voice.

The one who answered was her assistant. “I don’t think this is such a—”

“We need a way out,” Kestre said, “and this is our only option. We can’t go back to the way things used to be. If we’re going to take out the rest of the list, we have to live. And right now, living means killing them.”

The assistant lapsed into miserable silence.

“Well, can you?” Kestre asked. She was addressing the gun again.

One minute remaining. Kestre still had no desire to die in the air. She wondered what would happen if she pushed the gun to its limits. Assuming it had any.

She twisted in her seat, pointed the gun toward the rear of the craft, and set her finger on the trigger.

“Is this what we’ve come to?” the assistant asked. Kestre was aware that she had tried it sorely. “If you choose suicide, it’s my duty to go down with—”

Kestre pulled the trigger.

That’s it, she thought philosophically when the rear of the craft remained intact, despite a satiation so intense it made her queasy. Whatever alien sorcery powers this weapon, I’ve used it up. She rechecked the cabin’s pressure gauges: no change.

Kestre started to laugh. There was nothing else to do. She was going to die. After all the miracles that had saved her, she’d finally pushed her luck too far. It was only just.

“It worked, Kestre,” the assistant said. It rarely used her name. There was no inflection in its voice.

“Don’t be absurd,” Kestre snapped, then regretted it. The assistant was the only friend she had left. Never mind that it had no choice in its loyalty; it did its best by her. A little reciprocity was the least she owed it.

Besides, she could verify its words for herself. It projected a tactical grid over her field of vision, a map, a snapshot of the massacre. The entire police fleet had gone up in flames. The missiles and flyers had plummeted to the ground below, devastating shops and streets and apartments.

“But how?” Kestre wondered. Even if the empty gun had destroyed the entire crew complement of every flyer in pursuit, the vehicles, even the missiles themselves, would have AIs heuristic-sworn to continue their masters’ mission. The city police’s central command could, however awkwardly, puppeteer the vehicles—if they had survived.

They had another six minutes before they reached the starport. An unaccustomed pang struck Kestre’s heart. She was not used to grieving for strangers.

A cold trickle of regret wormed its way into her stomach. She couldn’t see the dead, both the police, and the people who’d been below their flyers and the missiles. But she would always remember the click of the trigger, the kick against her hand, the utter roaring sense of emptiness. She’d always preferred her existence as a duelist because everything was personal.

The kills before today had been personal. She might not have gotten close enough for anyone to see her eyes, as in the dueling halls of yesteryear, but they’d known she was coming for them. The Tovraz had known that she lived, and that while she lived, she had only one purpose: their extinction. There had been a strange, pure honesty in the hunt.

That honesty had shattered with the massacre she’d left behind her. The police weren’t supposed to have gotten involved. But she’d failed to extricate them from the tangled skein of her vengeance. And she was going to carry their shades like shackles until she died.

“We’re under interdict,” the assistant said in a subdued voice. “Security is out in force at the starport.”

And Kestre knew what she had to do.

The assistant provided Kestre a map of the starport and of the massacre site. She spent a precious few moments determining the extent of the empty gun’s reach. As far as she could tell, there was no geometric logic to its targets. It did not fire like a laser, where she pointed it. It did not obey the laws of ballistics; its projectiles were indifferent to the hand of gravity and ignored the quixotic pull of the wind. It felled what it wished to fell. That was all.

“You can’t,” the assistant said. “Kestre, this is too much.”

“We have to get off this world,” Kestre said. Repeating it like a chant, because she couldn’t think of any other way to restore order to her universe. Her House name was gone. If she lost her mission as well, what did that make her? Loss of purpose terrified her more than annihilation.

Her flyer wasn’t authorized to approach the starport. Kestre heard, as from a distance over thundering seas and across indescribable crevasses, the bleating of the starport authority commanding her to turn back; to surrender herself to the patrols that even now were on intercept. The authority’s words presented themselves to her like the buzzing of stinging insects. They had no relevance to her.

She spun the gun in her hand, a showman’s trick; chose a direction. The direction was down. They weren’t over the starport yet. She pulled the trigger anyway.

For the rest of her life, she would associate that kick against her hand with the drumfall deaths of innocents. The tactical display informed her that nothing impeded their safe landing in the starport. The flyer touched down without incident.

A storm wracked the city and the wind whipped about Kestre as she disembarked. Shrapnel crunched beneath her shoes and blew against her armorsuit. Without its protection, she would have been bloodied. Not that a little more blood mattered, for the starport was painted in gore and liberally decorated with fallen bodies. While the corpses themselves, where intact, displayed the headshot wounds she knew so well, the gun hadn’t stopped there. In demolishing the starport’s defenses, it had caused any number of explosions. Walking through the fire-splashed halls and toward the arrayed starships was like touring a combat zone as depicted by an enthusiast of the butcher’s art.

Kestre remained dry-eyed as she passed the corpses of students in their uniforms and children clutching snacks. She didn’t dare give in to sentiment. Yet, when she emerged on the upper levels where the starships’ silhouettes knifed the sky, she wept at the prospect of escape, and hated herself for it.

“Which one?” she asked the assistant, paralyzed not by her own monstrousness but by the kaleidoscope variety of ships available, a harvest won by the gun’s profligacy and her own willingness to go along.

“The best ship,” the assistant said, its voice strained, “is this one—” It indicated a deepship upon the map.

The grotesque satiation should have dulled Kestre’s senses. Instead, she shivered as she strode toward the deepship, like a harp tuned too tight and stirred by the charnel wind. Despite her suit’s filters, she gagged at the imagined stink of the roasted dead, and this despite the fact that she was no stranger to such smells.

The deepship welcomed her although its AI should have barred her way. When she reached its bridge, a one-woman procession leaving footprints of blood and ash and viscera, she looked around and wondered if she was to fly a ship with no brain. But the assistant assured her that enough of the ship’s programming remained for their purpose.

The bridge displays lit. Kestre couldn’t focus on any of them. “Take us to our enemy,” she said hoarsely. “Take us to the Citadel of House Tovraz so I can finish this.”

• • • •

“Kestre,” the assistant said. “Kestre.”

Kestre had slept fitfully, dreaming of House Elaya and its fantastic gardens, its mazy walkways, its children. She’d had none of her own, but she’d been an excellent aunt up until the point where she failed to save the children from the slaughter. At first, mired in dreams, she mistook the assistant’s voice for that of the armsmaster.

“Kestre,” the assistant said a third time, and she woke.

She had fallen asleep in the captain’s chair without making any effort to clear the other dead. There were too many of them. Ghoulish as it was, she wanted the reminder of the gun’s efficacy, so that she could stop taking it for granted.

“There’s pursuit,” the assistant said now that it had her attention.

“There must be a tactical display,” Kestre said. She’d never before set foot on a ship-of-war.

“It’s set up,” the assistant said, directing her to the appropriate holo.

“Pursuit” was an understatement. Another holo was playing an unencrypted news bulletin. The world they’d escaped had taken the destruction of its starport seriously. The system’s patrols were coming after the terrorist—her.

“Why didn’t you wake me earlier?” Kestre said, trying to keep the waspish note out of her voice and failing. “I could have taken some stims, instead of leaving you alone with this.”

“Because we have help.”

“. . . help?” Kestre said, not certain she’d heard correctly. Who would help her after what she’d done?

“If the enemy of your enemy—”

“Oh, that kind of help,” Kestre said, paradoxically relieved that she didn’t have to factor in the whims of some heretofore undeclared ally. “Then what’s the issue?”

“You want a viewport. Of which there are none on the bridge.”

The bridge of this particular ship was a well-fortified nerve center, rather than being anywhere close to the ship’s exterior. “Do we have time?”

“Trust me,” the assistant said.

Her heart clenched tight, and she acceded.

Kestre took a lift to the nearest viewport. It was something of a relic, in a guest cabin, presumably to impress visitors of high status—give them something to look at if the holos didn’t provide sufficient entertainment. The cabin had once been occupied. Kestre averted her eyes from the finely dressed person, the book that had tumbled from their hand. The title nagged at her: The Red Sign. Later, she would forget the corpse’s face and staring eyes, but not the antiquated book.

She stared out the viewport. “I don’t see anything.”

Then she understood the assistant’s concern. The black outside was not the black of ordinary space, but Transitional Space. That wasn’t the surprising part. Even the fact that a fleet of ships pursued them wasn’t surprising.

Rather, the darkness swarmed with the undulating shapes of alien leviathans. They were devouring the enemy ships, unfazed by railgun fire, by missiles, by mines. She had thought the aliens to be extinct.

The fleet was receding in the unspeakable distance. They couldn’t chase her and fend off the aliens at the same time. A desperate hope candled in Kestre’s heart. They might reach House Tovraz’s citadel after all.

Kestre returned to the bridge. They exited Transitional Space, and she beheld a holo of the citadel. House Tovraz’s headquarters occupied geosynchronous orbit over one of its garden worlds, a space station so encrusted in defenses that it resembled a lofty crustacean monarch. And here Kestre’s ambitions were frustrated, for she was too late.

Behemoth ships, vaster even than the leviathans, were even now firing on Station Tovraz and the world below. The deepship’s sensors told her that only stray wisps of atmosphere remained on the station and that it had been thoroughly sieved. Whatever its population had been—and it would have been immense—it was now zero.

As for the world below—

“Show me,” Kestre said.

“It will only hurt you,” the assistant said.

Show me.”

The assistant interpreted the data for her in excruciating detail. The world’s oceans boiled. All that remained was a hellstorm of smoke and steam and fire. She had not known that weapons of such world-killing potency existed. She was tempted to dismiss the assistant’s false-color portrayal as hyperbole. It was prone to no such thing.

“Where did they come from?” she whispered. And why weren’t they firing on her as well?

Kestre was no military expert. Still, the tutors of House Elaya had taught her to recognize the warships of the major human powers. She could identify them just as handily as she could a parry. And these were no warships that any human civilization, in its yearning after the stars, had ever built or conceived.

The assistant had no answer for her.

“Then we must ask them,” Kestre said. “Hail them.” She didn’t know that it would work, but she didn’t know that it wouldn’t work either.

There was a chime: the alien ships were answering her call.

She almost said, I am Kestre sa Elaya, but that was gone. It stuck in her throat like thistles. She started over. “I am Kestre of the Empty Gun. I desire parley.”

For a tense moment, she wasn’t sure they had understood her. She repeated herself in all the languages she knew, despite despair that even a House education could not prepare her to speak a tongue heretofore unknown.

Then the aliens responded. “Kestre of the Empty Gun,” said a voice. It was a voice a hammer forging armageddon might have.

“You have robbed me of my revenge,” she cried. “Who are you?”

“Kestre of the Empty Gun,” it said, “did it never occur to you to ask where your ammunition came from?”

The question stumped her. She hadn’t cared, after a point, that the gun fired, impossibly, from an empty chamber. It had only mattered that anyone, and anything, she aimed at met its end.

But it was clear that the alien knew her and her history; knew what wretched path had driven her here.

“Did it never occur to you,” it went on, relentless, “that even alien artifacts, however old, obey some of the universe’s laws?”

She choked back a laugh. “You call this obeying the universe’s laws?”

“Your gun fires bullets, and worse,” it said. “This ammunition is not manufactured from the void. It comes from somewhere—out of the past. For a small death, an inconsequential one, it comes out of the recent past. For a greater death, for a massacre to feast upon, it draws from the distant past. We have you to thank, Kestre of the Empty Gun, for stealing the bullets that dealt our death-blows in the ancient war between your people and ours, and returning us to life.”

“No,” Kestre whispered. “No no no no no.” How many more worlds would fall like this one?

Revenge had sustained her this far. She had no more stomach for it. She’d envisioned something cleaner, neater; something that resembled the pageantry of a duel. Just as she’d had the ability to pull the trigger, to her eternal damnation, she had the ability not to. The choice lay entirely in her hands.

The voice had no pity. “We have feasted well and will feast better yet.”

Wildly, Kestre presented the gun. Even now her hands did not shake. She would have preferred it if they had.

“Go ahead,” it said. “Pull the trigger. You can stop us, but you will need ever-escalating firepower. Imagine who you’ll summon next out of the universe’s maggot history.”

“Fuck you,” Kestre said. She tasted blood, realized she’d bitten through her lip in her distress. Apparently, there were limits to vendetta, after all.

Out of nowhere, she remembered not the dead children in the starport, but the book; the honored guest on this very deepship, splayed across the floor, whose leisurely reading she had so untimely interrupted.

If only she’d stopped when the patriarch of House Tovraz, assassinated by someone like her, had walked out of his urn. If only she’d stopped after that first conflagration of death. If only, if only.

She was done. If only she’d stopped earlier—but failing that, she could stop now. It wouldn’t save the people she’d already murdered, but it would, perhaps, limit the damage going forward.

To the assistant, she said, “Help me destroy this thing.”

She was grateful that it didn’t question her volte-face or tell her I told you so. “Engine room,” it said.

Kestre didn’t believe, in her heart of hearts, that a mere antimatter drive would suffice. Still, it beat quitting. She let the assistant shut down the communications link while she sprinted toward the engine room.

The Kestre who had begun this journey would have demanded that the assistant shut out reminders of the world outside; would have told it not to distract her with irrelevancies. Now she knew better. Even if the threat of the empty gun held the aliens at bay for the moment, she couldn’t afford to forget that they could check her in turn by threatening other worlds. It would surely be easy for them to move on to others and destroy them as well.

Kestre almost skidded into a corner, almost crashed into walls, almost broke her ankle tripping over corpses that had turned the whole deepship into a grisly obstacle course. But she remained in excellent shape—even better shape than she’d been in as duelist prime. Vendetta made for an excellent training regimen. And she’d taken vendetta beyond anything the Houses had seen before.

The tactical display exploded in an inferno of incoming missiles.

“They know what we’re doing,” the assistant said. Despite the calm of its voice, Kestre heard a faint note of approval. “I’ve initiated evasive maneuvers, but we don’t have the antimissile defenses to survive this. Besides,” and it paused minutely, “you’re going to have to turn off the antimatter containment if you’re going to throw the gun in there. At which point ‘throwing’ is no longer a concern.”

“I earned this,” Kestre said to the assistant. “But you—what of you?”

“You can’t do this without me,” it said, “and I wouldn’t leave you even if I could. I’ll help you turn off the containment.”

Under other circumstances, they might have been able to rejigger the fuel injection system and throw the gun into the engine that way. But they didn’t have time. It was this or nothing.

“Thank you,” Kestre said inadequately. “You deserve better.”

Together, they shut off the containment field. Perhaps even an alien gun that fired projectiles from the past couldn’t survive an onslaught of antimatter. Any thought beyond that dissolved in a rush of light beyond light.

• • • •

Kestre came to in a familiar bazaar, the one in Transitional Space where she’d obtained the empty gun. Not just in the bazaar: in the home of the arms dealer, with weapons resplendent on every side.

“So you figured it out,” said a voice she had heard an eternity ago. The arms dealer came forward. The face that had once struck her as so indistinct, so empty of character, now reminded her of her own with its scars and effaced tattoos.

“You received fair price,” Kestre said, “but I have one more bargain to make.”

“Speak.”

“Take it back,” Kestre said in a rush. “Take it all back, from the moment I made the agreement with you. If your gun can reach through time, surely—surely there’s a way.”

“Of course there is,” the arms dealer said. “But there’s a price, always.” And the smile she smiled at Kestre was Kestre’s own, made grotesque with triumph. “You have one name left. Give it to me, and let me leave this place, and live your life. I can make better use of it than you ever have.”

A shadow passed over her heart. But it was a small price to pay after everything she had done.

Then the assistant spoke. “No,” it said. “Take my name instead.”

The arms dealer heard it too. “You?” she demanded.

“I am of House Elaya,” the assistant said. “I was just as responsible as Kestre for the massacres of the empty gun, even if it no longer exists. Take my name and be satisfied.”

“Well-played,” the arms dealer said. “Say your name, so that I may devour it.”

“Sa Elaya,” the assistant said, and for a moment its voice dwindled into static.

Once Kestre would have added the arms dealer back to her list; would have attacked her for her temerity. Now she said, “Thank you. You will not see me again.”

Once outside the arms dealer’s home, under the utterly dark sky of Transitional Space, Kestre said to the assistant, “Our House is well and truly dead.”

“It may be dead,” it replied, “but we endure.”

“So we do,” she said.

And together they walked out of the history of the Houses and into a history of their own.

Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee

Yoon Ha Lee’s debut novel, Ninefox Gambit, won the Locus Award for best first novel and was a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke Awards. Its two sequels, Raven Stratagem and Revenant Gun, were also Hugo finalists.  Lee’s middle grade space opera, Dragon Pearl, was a New York Times bestseller, and his steampunk fantasy Phoenix Extravagant came out from Solaris in October 2020.  His short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Lightspeed Magazine, Clarkesworld Magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other venues.  Lee lives in Louisiana with his family and an extremely lazy cat, and has not yet been eaten by gators.