The Void Around the Sword’s Edge
originally published in Fiction River: Pulse Pounders
Mai-li slid down the pole and pushed her butt to the edge of the stage so the maroon-skinned Rafellan could stick a cellophane credit voucher into her G-string. Normally she wouldn’t risk getting scraped by his claws for a measly five credits but with the exception of Bill the bartender, he was the only male in the club. She needed to have another long talk with Izzo about her schedule.
During the 1800 shift all nine tables around the stage were full with standing room only in the gawkers gallery that extended around the club’s perimeter. This 0400 shift was a joke. Thank goodness stripping wasn’t her primary source of income and double thanks that most of her crew wasn’t human. They thought she was some sort of folk dancer.
She preferred her “day job” as Monoceros Station’s Chief maintenance engineer. Unfortunately being chief grease monkey didn’t pay a living wage. You’d think it would since the place literally couldn’t run without her. No one else on this stationary piece of junk knew how to turn a P790 pulse beacon into a heating unit. However her employer didn’t take into account the fact that necessities like food and water had to be imported. If it weren’t for tips and her roommate she’d be sleeping in the corridors.
She could have gotten a job with the Intergalactic Guard. They paid a living wage. Of course IGs had the life expectancy of an air filter but her bank account would have been well padded at the time of her death.
Mai-li swung herself around the pole in preparation to pull herself into an inverted spread eagle. She had one foot off the ground when the pole violently jerked free of her grip. Without the pole to keep her balance she fell to the stage, landing hard on her right arm.
The music cut out, only to be replaced by a claxon. Yellow emergency lights dropped from the ceiling while corresponding lights rose from the floor to illuminate a path to the exit. Whatever hit them, it was big. I need to call in and check the damage report. She rolled onto her back with a groan and reached for her right wrist. It took her a moment to remember why she felt bare skin instead of her comm.
She used her good arm to push her long, black hair away from her face and stood up. The Rafellan was already halfway to the door and her coworkers weren’t far behind. At least Bill had the decency to check on her before he bolted too.
Mai-li massaged her sore arm, not that it did any good. Just as Bill cleared the threshold her roommate, Carter, ran into the club. Even from this distance she could tell that his complexion was five shades whiter than normal. Considering his pale skin never saw the sun that was saying something.
He ran to the stage. “Mai, we’re under attack!”
“Oh, so that’s what that was? I thought I fell off the pole for fun.” Mai-li ran to the dressing room with Carter on her heels.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked.
She grabbed her clothes from her locker and started to change. “If I’m going to be captured by an alien horde and sold into slavery I’m going to be wearing more than pasties and a g-string, damn it!”
“It’s worse than the Zyk.”
Shit. “Well I’m still not manning my battle station half-naked.”
“There’s no time for that. We have to get out of here! If we leave with everyone else,” his voice wavered, “we might be able to get away.”
Mai-li paused with her pants half on. She had one leg in and one leg out. Carter wasn’t just scared, he was bowl-voiding terrified and she knew of only one force in the galaxy that could make a lifelong spacer cry for their mama. The Church of the Great Void.
The Voiders were a militant religious order that believed humans were placed at the ass end of the galaxy as punishment for some great, unknown sin. Therefore anyone that left Earth’s solar system was essentially an escaped convict and needed to be executed. It didn’t matter that by searching the universe for “sinners” they were themselves violating that sacred law since every last one of them was human. Apparently tourism was a greater sin than hypocrisy.
Carter’s logic was sound. Since the Voiders had a habit of shooting escape pods, if everyone left at once a few of them might survive long enough to get out of range. The odds of that happening weren’t good but a chance was a chance. However the question that stilled her hands wasn’t if she was comfortable with those odds. It was whether she was comfortable with the idea of running from them again.
“Mai, c’mon. We need to go!”
She finished putting her pants on. “I’m staying.”
“You heard me.” She pulled on a sports bra and reached for her shirt. “I ran from them once and it didn’t work. They still found me.”
She slipped on the shirt and stepped into her boots. The magnetic clasps fastened themselves as soon as her heels hit the sole. “I ran again, came here, and once again they’ve found me.”
Mai-li reached into her locker for her comm. “I’m not going to stop you from leaving but I’ve had enough of their twisted jihad. If they’re that determined to see me dead, I’m going to make them pay for it first.”
She slapped her comm onto her wrist, subdermal magnets held it in place, and skimmed through the long list of damage reports. She couldn’t bear to say goodbye. Not when she knew the odds. He needed hope right now and even though she couldn’t look him in the eye and tell him he’d make it, her silence might help him maintain what hope he did have.
Carter took two steps away and hesitated. He practically leapt the distance between them and pulled her into a bone bruising hug.
“Good luck,” he said in her ear.
“Same to you.” Mai-li gave him a final pat on the back before pushing him away. “You’d better go. This place is going to go down faster than the Titanic.”
Carter left without looking back, which was good. If he cast one forlorn look in her direction she may have changed her mind. She turned her attention back to the damage reports. Communications were down, which wasn’t a surprise. That was the first thing all Void Wardens aim for. The only reason the staff comms still worked was because they were routed through an internal system. So they could still talk to each other, just not to the outside world.
External sensors were mostly functional. A couple of tertiary relays were hit. The damage wasn’t bad enough for her to worry about them at the moment. No damage to life support, thank goodness, but the guns to port and aft were completely gone. In fact, it looked like half of the aft docks were gone too. They must have been destroyed in the explosion. Speaking of which…
Mai-li looked at the time. Several minutes had passed since the explosion and she hadn’t felt any subsequent blasts, which was odd. The director wasn’t the type to surrender after the first warning shot and with communications down he wouldn’t be able to use negotiations as a stalling tactic. Not that there seemed to be anything to stall for. There weren’t any urgent requests for her to repair any particular system and most of the pods should be away by now.
The Voiders however wouldn’t leave mid assault, especially not when they had the upper hand. So why didn’t they fire again?
Shit! They’re already on board.
Mai-li ran for the main corridor but what she saw by the stage on her way out made her pause. The Rafellan came back. He looked at her expectantly and even waved a couple more credit vouchers.
“Sorry, the club is closed due to…human problems.” She didn’t wait around to see if he understood.
The main corridor was empty. All the restaurants and shops were closed, which was normal for this hour but the lack of panicking humans sent chills down her spine. Mai-li ran to the nearest maintenance panel. This particular panel was a computer terminal for diagnostics. She quickly logged in and transferred control of all internal systems to her comm. It was a clear breach of protocol and if the director found out she would be fired for misuse of authority. Given that he had other matters on his mind, it was probably safe enough.
A bolt of static electricity zapped her hand as she closed the panel. The hair on her arms stood on end and not just from the voltage. This corridor was steel plating from top to bottom. There wasn’t anything here that could create the friction necessary for such a charge. But she knew what could. On a hunch she knelt down and put her hand on the floor. The moment her fingertips connected with the steel another shock zipped through her hand.
Pulse weapons couldn’t kill a Void monk. That never stopped people from trying, of course. They just never succeeded. Everyone thought that their robes made them impervious to the blast but that wasn’t true. Their belts concealed a powerful energy diffuser that scattered the volts across the nano relays imbedded in the robes. Unfortunately, no one thought to install a repository for all that energy, which meant it danced around them until it found somewhere else to go. Often that somewhere else was the bulkhead.
There were too many variables for her to judge how close they were. Too close for comfort, that’s for certain. She needed more time to prepare some defenses.
Mai-li didn’t know which way to run. Up wasn’t an option. The ventilation ducts wouldn’t be able to hold her weight and the noise would give away her position. If only there were a way to divine which way…
She touched the floor again, the shock making her wince on reflex. Slid on her knees a couple feet to the left and touched the floor there. It may have been her imagination but the current felt slightly weaker here. The thought crossed her mind that her fingertips might have been desensitized from the repeated shocks. However since she had nothing else to go off of…
Left it is.
Left took her further away from the club and the damage aft. Hopefully it also took her further from the entry point. This end of the corridor wasn’t as serene as the section she left. There were abandoned hover trolleys, some with luggage still on them, and one of her underlings left their toolbox on the floor with the electrical access panel open. The light they were fixing still flickered.
Mai-li stopped short of the junction so she could peer around the corner. There weren’t any telltale signs—footsteps, heavy breathing—to tell her she wasn’t alone but that didn’t mean the coast was clear either. The sound dampeners on a Void monk’s sandals meant they could walk on bubble wrap without making a sound.
She inched closer until she could see the branch directly across. Her heart beat louder than a heating unit with a loose bolt. Holding her breath, she leaned until she could see most of the hall. It was clear. Mai-li sighed and turned around to peer the other way. A pair of figures in black, hooded robes approached. She cursed under her breath. White bolts of electricity leapt between them and arced off the ceiling. For the current to act that wild they must have been shot multiple times, and recently at that. It surprised her that the diffusers hadn’t shorted out by now. No wonder she got zapped from so far away.
Sweat trickled down her neck. There was no way she could take them both out. The second she got within reach the current would fry her. Unless…
Mai-li ran to the toolbox and dug in the bottom. “There’s gotta be a pair of gloves here somewhere,” she muttered. It was hard not to shout “Yes!” when she found a pair of insulated electrician’s gloves rolled up in the back. The fit was a little loose and they extended to her elbow but she wasn’t going to dicker about that. She grabbed a couple screwdrivers, one in each hand, and ran back to her post.
The monks were nearly upon her. She had to stand a couple feet away from the wall to keep from getting zapped. Wait…just…a moment…longer…
They rounded the corner. Mai-li thrust the screwdrivers up, aiming for their eyes. The monks reacted immediately. They leaned back so their faces wouldn’t come into contact with the screwdrivers. It didn’t do them any good, though. As she predicted, the current surrounding the monks surged along each rod. When the tip of the screwdrivers penetrated the dark confines of their hoods, the current shot out from the tip and zapped them between the eyes.
The monks convulsed until every volt passed through their skulls. Smoke emerged from their hoods along with the sickening stench of cooked flesh. When their bodies finally fell to the floor, one pitched forward and the other back. She had to jump out of the way of the one that fell forward. Even though most of the current coursed through the floor she had no intention of finding out how much their bodies may have retained.
Mai-li stared at the smoldering corpses. If she continued to take them out one or two at a time, given the number of monks that were likely present, she wouldn’t be able to take out a significant number before they slaughtered everyone. She also didn’t have the stamina for that kind of offensive. She needed to make a very big and very public stand, one that forced the rest of the order to stop and take notice. The Voiders needed to understand that this wasn’t just a final stand and that she wasn’t just another runaway human.
A couple taps on her comm activated the station intercom. “This is not a test of the emergency broadcast system. This is a message for the Void Warden in charge of this patrol.” She took a deep, calming breath before proceeding. “I wish to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. I know you don’t believe we’re worthy of such, but if you believe that the faithful men and women in your charge are worthy of a continued existence, I suggest you come to the club on level nine in ten minutes.”
She started walking back toward the club. “Oh, and don’t mind the mess on the way down. I just killed two of your monks in case you doubted my sincerity.”
Mai-li crouched behind the hover trolley. The abandoned luggage obstructed part of her view and that was all right. For this part of the plan she didn’t need to see the entire corridor.
A squad of ten Voiders marched toward her. They were right on time, as expected. What she didn’t expect was the Warden, positioned in the center of the pack, was someone she hadn’t seen in years, and frankly never wanted to see again. He was a Korean man in his fifties, who brazenly wore his hood down.
Twenty or thirty humans walked behind him. Some were in station uniforms while others wore everything from club wear and casual clothes to pajamas. The only common denominator between them was the fear.
“There weren’t supposed to be hostages,” she said into the intercom.
No one in the squad replied. They kept marching past her with their captives in tow. Every face she saw, whether she knew them or not, pissed her off. This wasn’t right. Making them come here was torture.
One of the captives, a little Mexican boy whose dad she worked with, stumbled. Seeing her chance she rushed from her hiding spot to help him up. He looked up at her with sleepy eyes. The poor kid. He’s too tired to understand what’s going on. A moment later his dad knelt down. It looked like he was about to say something. Not wanting to risk the wrong words coming out of his mouth, she distracted him by picking up his son and passing him over.
A monk jabbed her in the back with the toe of a sandal. “Keep moving.”
Mai-li joined the group and scanned for anyone else she knew. While there were a few familiar faces, Carter wasn’t among them. She hoped that was a sign he got away. The Voiders herded everyone into the strip club. Mai-li squeezed through the crowd. She managed to get a spot next to the big round table at the end of the stage.
The Korean man stepped up onto the bar across the room. “I am Warden Sung,” he said, “and I do not negotiate with defilers. You along with the human occupants of this station have been found guilty of violating God’s Prime Law. The sentence for which is death. If you do not resist, your recompense will be swift.”
Mai-li watched as the Voiders took up positions in the gawkers gallery and one on stage. Each had a bokken, a wood sword, tucked in their belt. The Voiders didn’t use plasma weapons. The energy diffusers worked a bit too well to allow them to use them; too much interference. A wood sword however didn’t interfere with anything and in skilled hands it was just as deadly as its steel counterparts.
And they will use them on everyone here if I don’t reveal myself.
Mai-li stepped up onto the table and stared the Warden down. “Hello, Dad.”
“The prodigal child.” Warden Sung smiled. “This is a blessed occasion, brethren. God has bestowed upon us the honor of administering His justice on the apostate. I think in this case taking pleasure in our work will not be regarded as a sin.”
The Voider positioned on the stage raised his bokken high in the air and leapt across the distance between them. Mai-li took one step to the right, upending the table. She slid down to the floor. The Voider, being unable to change course mid-air, collided groin first with the table’s edge. Mai-li heard the sickening impact over the crowd’s cheers and schadenfreudic groans. He wouldn’t be moving any time soon.
She jumped up on stage and ran for the curtain. A second Voider charged toward her from stage right. The pole was all that stood between them. Mai-li grabbed it tightly with both hands and pushed off hard, letting her momentum swing her around. She tucked in her legs and waited until the last second to kick out. Her heels connected with the monk’s chest with enough force to crack at least two ribs. He doubled over in pain.
Mai-li let go of the pole and landed on one foot. She used the other to kick Voider two in the head hard enough to knock him out. He fell to the stage still clutching his chest. Mai-li grabbed the bokken from his belt and fell into a defensive stance in time to face off with the next monk. Voider three stopped just out of her reach. Damn. This one is smart. He wasn’t going to be taken unawares like his brethren.
Mai-li kicked Voider two off the stage. She wanted the stage clear before she engaged number three and there was a chance that the act might infuriate him enough to make his attack sloppy.
No such luck. He merely took it as an invitation to draw his bokken and circle her. Not to be intimidated, she mirrored his movements and gave his weapon a couple firm taps with the tip of hers. The tap, while not a real strike, served two purposes. One was to test his grip. If her opponent’s bokken bounced too far away from hers then their grip was weak and they could be easily defeated. If it held firm, which his did, then she needed to proceed with caution.
The other purpose was to rid her mind of fear and nervousness. Breaching the void around the sword’s edge always scared her. It felt like sacred space. That’s why she always began a fight with a couple taps. It forced her to get over it before she got hurt.
She hadn’t held one of these in years. While it felt good to have the smooth weight in her hands again, she worried that she was too long out of practice. Pole dancing kept her body fit but it did nothing for her technique. If Voider three were as well practiced as his grip suggested, he could easily defeat her. There’s only one way to find out.
Voider Three struck a downward blow. Mai-li quickly countered but didn’t try to stop the blade. She only applied enough resistance to deflect the blade. A loud crack split the air, silencing the onlookers.
Using the backward momentum from her strike, Mai-li dropped into a crouch and swung her blade to strike Three in the gut. Three tried to bring his weapon down for a counter strike but his position was too high. His sword couldn’t cross the distance in time. The force of Mai-li’s strike doubled him over. She rose and sidestepped around him, letting her blade slide off his robe. When the tip cleared his body she brought her bokken up and slammed the butt of the handle down on the back of his head.
Mai-li felt a warning tingle between her shoulder blades. On instinct she dropped to one knee, spinning in the process. It wasn’t a comfortable position but it did put her bokken in the right place to prevent Four’s from cracking her skull. She had to brace her sword with both hands to stop the force of his strike and even then her arms almost gave way.
Four strode forward to keep pace with her and struck again. Mai-li ducked and rolled further back, barely managing to avoid it. Unfortunately that also meant that his blow struck the pole. The resounding ring made her teeth hurt.
The adrenaline rush that fueled her first two bouts began to fade. Her triceps burned from the exertion. She didn’t know how long she could keep this up—certainly not as long as they could but there was no backing out at this point. The moment she stepped up on that table she became committed to this fight and she had to see it through. Every Voider she took down was recompense for the years of torment their training inflicted upon her and increased the survival odds for their captive audience. She needed to give this everything she had.
Mai-li rolled onto her back and kicked out with both legs, using her core muscles to catapult to a standing position. She thrust her blade straight at four. He tapped it aside. Mai-li took one step forward and channeled the ricochet into a spiraling circuit around his blade. It was an unorthodox strike. Hell, it should have been impossible to execute. It was a move better suited to a thin blade such as a rapier. A bokken was simply too bulky and heavy for that kind of wrist work. Which of course, was the only reason why it worked. Four never saw it coming and had no clue how to counter it.
When the tip of her bokken passed the hand guard of Four’s she pulled up sharply with all her might. It didn’t force Four to relinquish his blade, but it did force him to switch momentarily to a one handed grip because the strike smashed a couple of his fingers. Mai-li didn’t bother to contain her smile when she hit his other hand, dislodging the weapon.
“Enough!” The Warden shouted. He walked up to the stage, the crowd parting around him. “I will kill you myself.”
She couldn’t understand why he stopped the fight. It wasn’t because she beat three monks. That was pure luck. No, the warden definitely had another reason to intervene other than spite or impatience. She looked again at Voider four. No, it couldn’t be.
“Hyun-ki?” Mai-li whispered.
Voider Four gave a barely perceptible nod. Tears beaded at the corners of her eyes. She hadn’t seen her younger brother since she left. Mai-li had to bite her lip to keep all of the sorrow and joy from showing on her face. Father couldn’t find out that she knew.
“Please help me save them,” she quietly begged. “You know this is wrong.”
Hyun-ki took a few steps back to allow their father to approach. Warden Sung drew his bokken and leaped up on stage with the vigor of a man half his age. She still couldn’t believe that he wanted to fight her himself, he never sparred with her when he visited the training grounds in her youth, and he took full advantage of that. Before she could raise her sword he struck her high on her left arm with enough force to crack bone.
Mai-li screamed. It took all her will to keep both hands on the bokken. She tried to raise it for a strike and found she couldn’t. The pain was too much.
Father struck again and again. Each successive blow drove her further back until her heel reached the edge of the stage. She managed to feebly block two out of three strikes. Each time his sword struck hers the shock sent another sharp pain through her injury. That added to the pain from the blows that did meet flesh made it almost impossible to focus. So much pain radiated through her body that she couldn’t tell if any more bones broke during the fight.
Father swung his blade down in an arc, knocking her blade from her hands. It landed somewhere in the crowd. Mai-li didn’t try to ascertain its whereabouts. She was finished. She knew it and so did he.
He raised his bokken high for the killing blow. Mai-li closed her eyes and waited for the deathblow to come.
Only it didn’t.
Mai-li opened her eyes. He stood frozen, mid strike. Blood trickled down his face. When his lifeless body fell to the stage, Hyun-ki stood behind with a bokken covered in their father’s blood. Her jaw dropped. For a brief moment the shock of what he did chased away the pain—but only for a moment.
Hyun-ki lowered his hood. The chubby teen she remembered had grown into a handsome man.
“By right of combat,” he said to the remaining Voiders, “I now command this force. I declare this station to be a holy sanctuary in memory of Warden Sung. There will be no more cleansing of the population here. Everyone will return to the ship at once to say prayers in his honored memory.”
He turned to her. “I’m sorry I can’t do more.” He said it softly enough that his subordinates wouldn’t hear.
“Don’t be. This is more than I expected. Thanks, baby bro.”
“I’ll alert the medics on the way out.”
And with that he and his subjugates gathered up the bodies of their fallen brethren and left. The crowd didn’t applaud or cheer as they departed. They probably didn’t fully understand what happened. Or perhaps they didn’t believe that through an unbelievable chance humanity was given one precious refuge. Hell, she still couldn’t believe it. Whatever the reason, she was grateful for the silence. It seemed appropriate for a newly founded sanctuary.
Mai-li sat down carefully. While she waited for the medics she composed in her mind her resignation speech to both of her bosses—if they still lived. This place was going to get a lot busier and a good mechanic would be in a lot higher demand than a grease monkey/stripper.