Shivering with anticipation, Mercy crouched, ready to pounce from the darkness. The ceiling cavity was hellishly hot, lined with heated water pipes, and insulated from the cool corridor below. As she endured the oppressive heat, a solution of sweat, blood and dissolved bodypaint trickled uncomfortably down her spine. Ignoring the prickly numbness of her bare feet, she gazed through broken ceiling tiles at a steel door beneath a cold white lumen and its adjacent oculus. Her calloused fingertips drummed excitedly against twin holsters strapped to her moist thighs. Extending her right thumb, she felt the faceless chrono affixed to her belt, and the raised pins informed her of the eighty remaining seconds.
Eyes closed, she forced long, slow breaths and flexed her toes against the narrow platform’s sharp, metallic edge. Bringing her left hand up, she swept aside a few strands of short hair that had become pasted to her sticky forehead, smudging black paint as her fingertips passed across the small raised scar bisecting her eyebrow’s arch.
Remember who you are, she thought. You are Mercy Keeler.
She quickly reached down and placed both hands around her pistols’ grips. Thumbing off the restraint clips, she drew the weapons smoothly out of the frictionless holsters and opened her eyes.
A wide grin cracked open across her face and exposed her perfect, artificial teeth, framed by a blend of smeared red lipstick and black paste.
Mercy Keeler can’t fail, she thought. She‘s unstoppable. Upon hearing the sound of footfalls approaching from behind the closed door, her smile vanished. Clenching her jaw tightly, she brought her body to stillness and prepared to leap.
‘Darling,’ she heard in a hushed tone, ‘are you awake?’ Her sleepy eyes opened and warm firelight entered her world. She watched the fire’s undulating flames and listened to its soft crackling before looking down at the empty glass in her left hand and the fresh stain on the sofa cushion beneath it. With a groan, she realised she’d nodded off and had wasted a good glass of Raenka, marking the antique sofa in the process.
‘Yes, I am,’ she sleepily called back over her shoulder as she placed the glass on the floor. Looking down at the stain, she considered apologising but then decided to say nothing of it.
‘It’s late,’ Victor said softly, with a touch of remorse. Mercy sympathised, knowing that he’d been sitting alone, hunched over a cogitator, when they could have been together doing something far more enjoyable in front of the fire. She sat up straight, flexed her sore left wrist and swept a long fringe from her eyes.
Standing up on unsteady legs, Mercy pulled the thick woollen blanket tightly around her bare shoulders and made her way around the sofa towards Victor. Shaded from the flickering firelight by the sofa’s tall back, his face and chest were illuminated solely by the steady glow of twin cogitator screens at which he stared intently.
‘You know for sure it will all be fine, so why are you so worried about this particular mission?’ she asked as she approached him at the room’s furthest edge. During countless briefings and lengthy training sessions, and especially during their shared intimate moments, Mercy had noticed the way he’d looked at her, as though expecting tragedy. Despite always knowing exactly how a mission would end, he seemed anxious this time, as though for once something was not in fate’s hands but in hers.
Bending down behind Victor, Mercy passed her arms gently around his waist, caressing a collection of scars along the way, and clasped her hands in front of him. Her calloused fingers reminded her of the transformative weeks spent in practice, scaling rough walls and narrow ledges. Leaning forwards, she lightly rested her throat on his right shoulder and felt the cold of his back against her warm chest. He reached back with both hands to grasp the blanket and pulled it tightly around them both, sheltering from the nearby window’s cooling breeze.
Glancing at the cogitator’s leftmost monitor, Mercy saw a list of access codes and a familiar building map, superimposed with a complex route. The rightmost screen displayed a subject profile and the pictograph of an attractive young man aiming pistols at a target, competing in a popular bullseye competition. She then looked down to the ageing, battered dataslate on the wooden desk and thought of its prophetic contents: their future together.
‘Just…’ he paused, cocking his shaven head to rest it on hers, ‘be careful.’ Her practised smile manifested, displaying newly implanted, perfect teeth.
With an exotic accent and deep tone, she whispered, ‘I’m Mercy Keeler,’ and suddenly jerked her thumbs into Victor’s ribs, causing him to jump to his feet. Grinning, he turned to face her and she reached out to hug him tightly, pulling his bare chest against hers as the blanket fell from her shoulders and left them standing in a naked embrace. They gazed into each other’s firelit eyes. With an eager smile framed by chestnut locks, she took his hands in hers and stepped backwards, tenderly pulling him towards the comforting warmth of the hearth
The door opened out ahead of an emerging figure: dead, as a flechette punched through his forehead and out the back of his skull. Struck hard in the chest with a barefoot kick, the guard’s body flew back, sliding across the polished floor into the brightly lit security office. Mercy leapt through the door, past a second, astonished guard, and landed in a squat. The guard reached for a panel marked ‘ALARM’, but fell short as her second silent shot penetrated his left temple, tore through his brain and impacted the ferrocrete wall behind. Frantically, she jumped up and caught the falling body, preventing it from banging loudly against the metal console.
She rose to face a bank of glowing monitors that displayed live feeds of the building interior, many of which showed dark, unoccupied rooms in addition to the few occupied by night shift menials performing system maintenance. As expected, the guard contingent within the building was far below regular strength. Mercy smiled when she saw the system monitor indicating the deactivation of all wireless vox.
In the cold light of the room’s lumens, Mercy noticed that the black body paint across her arms and legs had come away entirely in several places, leaving a striated, blotchy mix of pale flesh and makeup. She then suddenly felt the cords securing her armoured breastplate digging uncomfortably into her back and considered discarding it to face the rest of the mission without it. The thought faded, replaced by a memory of Victor insisting she wear the rigid, contoured panel.
Holstering her pistols, Mercy reached down and pulled the ID tag from the dead guard’s chest, clipping it to her breastplate. She then stepped out of the entrance security office into the corridor behind it, sped up to a run, and left the cooling corpses behind her without further thought. Sprinting onwards, the sound of her bare feet padding against the polished floor was obscured by the hum of exposed air-recirculation ducts lining the ceiling. As she arrived at a corner, she halted without looking around and put her back against the chill wall. She silently unholstered her right pistol and placed her outstretched thumb on the chrono: three seconds. She counted down.
Cartwheeling past the corner, Mercy aimed down the passage and saw two guards enter the corridor halfway down at a junction. Deftly, she fired the pistol twice, darts penetrating the exposed necks of the armoured men, and ended her movement behind the opposite corner. Obscured from the guards’ view, she waited for a response, hearing the sound of clattering armoured bodies as they collapsed to the floor. Mercy turned the corner to find the two guards face-down at the junction, their blood pooling around them. She ran forwards and hopped up onto the first guard, then over onto the second, using their bodies as dry islands in a red lake.
As she reached the door at the end of the corridor, the automated scanner read the ID attached to her armour, and the doors opened outwards, exposing an occupied chamber and its astonished occupants. She raised her pistols and opened fire.
As she regarded her reflection in the full-length mirror, Mercy noted that the velvet dress’s shade of red perfectly matched that of her freshly clipped and dyed hair. Conforming to her athletic frame, the light fabric accentuated her strong feminine curves and hid several scars. A pair of knee-high stiletto boots of the same red and golden pattern finished the ensemble. Observing the backless cut and short hem, she questioned the decency of exposing so much flesh at a formal party. With kohl-rimmed, emerald eyes above artificially high cheekbones, dark blusher and ruby lipstick, she looked every bit the part she’d be playing.
‘Would straps ruin the look?’ she questioned Jeff’s reflection as he stood behind her, the mirror’s light glinting off his facial augmetic. Smiling, she gestured with hands cupped towards her chest. ‘I’ll fall out of this!’
‘Molly has something for that.’ Jeff chuckled mechanically, his motion sending reflected spots of light dancing across the lavish bedroom walls. Mercy smiled at his reflection a moment longer, but her broad grin faded as she turned on the spot to face him.
‘So I slip it out and strap it on?’ she asked, lightly tapping the solid front of the dress with her knuckle, velvet softening the thud of the armoured plate beneath.
‘Knot the cords in front of you, then slide the plate around to the front.’ Jeff frowned with one brown, human eye. ‘It’s all I could manage.’
‘It’ll be fine…’ she paused and grinned at his concerned face, ‘or else I’ll run the mission topless!’ Half-joking, she raised her scarred eyebrow at Jeff, who smiled back weakly. She placed her right hand gently on his metallic shoulder joint and held his gaze.
‘Lots could go wrong tonight,’ whispered Jeff, reluctant to say it out loud. ‘If I don’t get it all perfect…’
‘You will’, she interrupted kindly, looking down into both his bionic and natural eyes. ‘He said we’ll succeed, remember?’ The confident words brought with them a pang of guilt as she spoke, thinking of what lay ahead.
Mercy looked at the wooden dressing table with the gold clutch purse laid open on the top, its contents beside it: a forged ID with a matching invitation, a small black cosmetics kit, and a powder compact with an embossed with a stylised golden iris.
‘With more space, I’d have fit in a body glove,’ Jeff said sadly, following her gaze.
‘Don’t worry about that,’ she interrupted as she promptly bent down and affectionately kissed his clammy forehead, leaving a perfect ruby lipstick mark. With a sigh, Jeff sombrely nodded.
‘Have you seen him?’ Jeff asked, unaware of their previous night’s engagement and ignorant of the depth of their relationship. Mercy quickly turned away from him and resumed regarding her reflection, her eyes settling on her face and the sultry makeup that augmented her surgically altered features.
‘I have,’ she replied, thoughts heading back to the morning and leaving Victor asleep beside the dying fire.
‘He’s worried he’ll lose you,’ Jeff whispered, the words barely audible through his modified throat.
‘Never,’ Mercy replied with a smile and a calculated, low tone, returning to the practised performance. She absentmindedly scratched the back of her left wrist as she attempted to ignore her rising anxiety. ‘He told us, Jeff,’ she said, with a flash of that artificial smile. ‘Remember who we are and why we do this!’ She watched him uncomfortably nodding as she went on.
She reached up and tapped the dress’s chest piece once again, this time her fingertips searching for a small catch resting behind the centre of the plate.
‘Remember,’ she smiled widely at her reflection, ‘I’m unstoppable.’
Flowing air whistled in her ears and cooled her exposed flesh as she sat cross-legged in the darkness of the ventral ventilation duct, smelling the familiar scent of unwashed bodies filtering through the vent’s barred intake. Mercy touched the chrono again: two minutes to wait. On schedule, she thought, which offered her some comfort as she sat there alone in the darkness, shivering from a combination of an adrenaline crash and her rapidly decreasing body temperature.
Thin strands of flickering amber light entered between fixings and cast narrow bands of illumination across her bent knees, arms and torso. In the gloom, the blood on her shaking hands glowed brightest.
It had taken more ammo than she’d expected to eliminate the archive’s occupants – a dozen or so guards and menials – and they’d offered little physical resistance. She’d shot each of them in turn, starting with the guards, their lifeless bodies falling in a swathe in front of her with frozen expressions of shock adorning their inanimate faces.
A young guard had hidden throughout the conflict, listening to the carnage and waiting for Mercy’s attack to end, before heroically leaping up to respond. His single shot had struck Mercy’s breastplate, the force of the impact momentarily winding her. Instinctively, she’d turned to fire in his direction and watched as her final dart entered through his right eye, passed through his skull, and made a terrible mess on its way out. Conscious of the report made by the guard’s pistol, Mercy had listened for alarms or approaching footfalls, but much to her relief, she’d heard neither.
Almost as challenging as killing the room’s occupants had been the gruesome task of piling warm, blood-streaked bodies beneath the isolated ventilation system, which began at the room’s far end. She’d used the extra height to detach the grill and climb in, all done whilst mentally cursing the lack of movable furniture.
Mercy had then silently crawled through dozens of metres of ventilation ducts, ascending through and traversing across several empty and occupied rooms along a memorised route. In almost absolute darkness, she’d penetrated deeper into the annexe and entered its isolated region, beyond the reaches of the archive, where she waited at the next drop point.
Putting lingering thoughts of the corpse mound out of her mind, Mercy unholstered both pistols and removed their magazines. Their ejection automatically depressed the check buttons, causing the activation of red blinking indicator lights. She’d counted her shots correctly, and the magazines were indeed empty.
After placing the spent magazines carefully on the duct’s floor, she retrieved a fresh one from the right holster’s ammo pouch. Out of habit, she tapped the clip’s ammo reader; the indicator lit a solid amber, reporting that it was half-filled at least. Throne, she silently cursed, her heart already beating faster. Quickly sliding it into the pistol and beginning to panic, she retrieved the second spare clip and tapped the indicator. It flashed red.
The Duke’s manicured right hand rested gently in the small of Mercy’s naked back, his soft fingers playfully stroking the line of her spine as he gently led her up the carpeted staircase towards his private chambers. Dressed in deep blue velvet, he struck a magnificent figure alongside her glorious red ensemble. His eyes, deep-set within his young, chiselled face and framed by glossy black locks, remained fixed on her ruby lips, occasionally flitting down to steal a glance at her ample cleavage. Distant murmurs of party conversation receded as they abandoned the crowd behind them, far away across the breadth of the immense structure.
Victor had driven Mercy to the cliffside mansion in a chic, rented transport, as guests had just begun to arrive. Stepping out of the vehicle at the foot of the stone steps, she had instantly snatched the attention of the young aristocrat. Mercy had immediately avoided the Duke’s gaze and casually turned away from him to observe the spectacular red brick building and its ugly, tacked-on, grey ferrocrete annexe: the famous family archive. Then she’d turned to face him and beamed, her new, perfect smile lighting up her face and captivating the Duke entirely. Without an entourage, she’d brazenly climbed the stairs alone in her stunning dress, flashing her exposed, bare thighs, locking eyes with the young man. Upon reaching the threshold, she’d coyly smiled and walked straight past him, into the building. Another female guest had seized the disappointed Duke’s hand in greeting as he’d watched Mercy walk away, his eyes drifting to her naked, muscular back. She’d then proceeded through the building’s security checkpoint, where she encountered guards employing various scanners to search for contraband. Found to possess nothing of concern, she had been waved on through.
With four black-attired guards in tow, the young man had approached Mercy shortly after, as she’d stood separated from the rest of the crowd. She’d been pretending to examine the ancient sculptures placed in a quiet corner of the immense banquet hall before he’d cleared his throat and introduced himself.
‘Duke Raymond Kine Jr,’ he’d confidently announced over the murmur whilst proffering his hand. She’d turned and beamed, resisting the urge to reach out, and instead placed her hands to her back whilst dropping into a slow, shallow curtsey.
‘Mercy Keeler,’ she’d replied with the practised, low timbre and musical accent. Subtly pouting, she gazed up at him intensely, causing him to flush and quickly retract his hand.
Composing himself, the Duke had continued by complimenting Mercy on her exotic accent before attempting to impress her with the wealth of his inherited estate. Politely nodding, she’d gradually moved closer until they were almost touching. Finally responding to her cues, he’d invited her up to his private chambers and casually dismissed his security entourage for the evening.
The Duke pushed open the door and led the way into the room whilst escaping warm air caressed Mercy’s bare shoulders. She strode into the well-lit, ostentatious chamber and observed its immense proportions, including an ancient four-poster bed to her far left. Turning back, Mercy watched as the Duke tapped at a wall panel, which then displayed a one-hour countdown and the word ‘Privacy’. Perfect, she thought.
‘Can I get you anything to…’ she interrupted him, lurching forward and thrusting her lips hard against his. She immediately felt him step into the kiss and reach his hands up around her exposed jaw, his fingers brushing against short hairs at the nape of her neck, his palms pleasantly warm against her cool cheeks.
The Duke eventually stepped back, smiled and excitedly looked at Mercy’s flushed face, her smudged red lipstick framing a wide seductive smile. With half-closed eyes, she bit down on her bottom lip and softly groaned. He broadly grinned as he reached up and began unfastening his blue jacket. Mercy quickly turned away and strode further into the room, leaving him to undress behind her, approaching the room’s large window and observing the tiny green lights glowing at its four corners.
Wearing only his underwear, the Duke quickly approached Mercy with outstretched hands, but before he reached her, she turned to face him, smiled viciously, and slapped him hard across the face. His cheek quickly turned rouge, but he remained beaming, clearly thrilled by the development and beginning to sweat profusely. Looking down at his toned, bronzed body, she felt a spark of excitement. Excellent, she thought.
Mercy tossed her clutch to the floor and reached to the back of her waist to unclip the dress’s seam. It dropped heavily around her feet whilst the Duke followed it down with his gaze. His eyes slowly made their way upwards from the knee-high boots to regard her muscular thighs, tight black leather shorts and defined abdominals, finally pausing on her chest. He stared in mild disappointment at the broad section of matte black tape fixed across the centre of her bosom, concealing her nipples and supporting an attractive décolletage. When his gaze rose to meet her eyes, she forced an expression of regret.
‘If I had…’ Mercy started, pausing for a moment before flashing a wicked grin and raising her scarred eyebrow as she spoke, ‘my tools…’ His smile grew broader as he nodded, but when an unsure expression passed quickly across his face, Mercy gazed at him with practised bedroom eyes.
‘Right,’ he said breathlessly. Excited again, the Duke took hold of Mercy’s hand, the clammy feel of his palm a departure from the touch she’d previously experienced. He pulled her in close behind him and began walking, once looking down at her hand and smiling at what she knew was a silent acknowledgement of her rough fingers. Stopping at an empty corner, the Duke pushed against a small wall panel, which slid upwards and revealed a twelve-digit keypad. He released her hand and grinned back at her before shrouding the pad with his left hand, typing in the key-code with his right. A faint whir emitted from the wall to their left and a large, unmarked section of wall folded inwards.
Immediately, Mercy regarded the massive, purple-painted, metallic construct hung on the chamber’s far wall. It resembled a circle with a diagonal line protruding from the top right, which intersected a crescent that followed the circle’s edge, ending in a smaller crescent of the opposite orientation. She instantly recognised it as the cult symbol of Slaanesh.
Along the room’s left ran a chromed metal shelving unit displaying all manner of colourful, oddly-shaped or else sharpened items that Mercy could scarcely believe existed to induce unnatural pleasure. Before she had a chance to inspect the room any further, the Duke turned to face her and saw that her expression had turned from amusement to discomfort. As he began to appear concerned, the moment hung there between them. Timidly, with his worried eyes fixed on hers, he began to turn for the keypad, but Mercy thrust her half-naked body into his, her bare stomach pressed firmly against his sweaty flesh. She held her hands tightly around his waist and planted a hard kiss against his parted lips, finding his tongue with hers.
His outstretched arms dropped as he relaxed into her embrace and reached down to cradle her buttocks. Swept away from his senses by the passionate kiss, he remained unaware as she reached up and placed one hand on his forehead, the other on his crown. A loud crack and his body fell to the floor with his head rotated to an impossible angle. Mercy’s expression was cold as she looked down at the heretic and spat at him, the gobbet of their mixed salivas landing in an open, lifeless eye. His frozen expression of pleasure caused her to regret the timing, having sent him to his death during a pleasurable act – in much the way he probably would have wanted.
Looking towards the wall opposite the disgusting shelves of hedonistic objects, Mercy examined the dead Duke’s gun rack. Without pause, she stepped over his corpse and entered the room before locating his two famous competition flechette pistols, identical to a pair with which she had been practising for weeks. Before retrieving the weapons, she unracked a harness with twin universal holsters and strapped it tightly around her waist and thighs. Conscious of the time already spent, she quickly took the loaded weapons and holstered them. Turning to leave the secret room and its plethora of pleasure aids behind her, she hastily grabbed two spare magazines from the nearby shelf and slipped the mags into the vacant pouches.
Her mind screamed, and her chest tightened as she saw the light blinking red. Only an idiot would store them unfilled, she thought. Only an idiot wouldn’t check!
A wave of fatigue hit Mercy hard as she realised she was short of flechettes in a mission that had accounted for many more silent rounds. She slumped backwards, her head slamming the metal, causing a hollow thud and dull pain. Already shaking from the cold, her panic intensified and brought about severe trembling. She experienced mental flashes of the final expressions of those she’d killed, their deaths all so pointless if she couldn’t complete the mission. She clutched her arms tightly against her chest and started to rock. The welling up of tears overwhelmed her, and she sobbed silently for an unmeasurable moment, lamenting her stupidity and over-confidence.
You’re Mercy Keeler. The sudden thought instantly overpowered the grief she’d felt just seconds before, giving her pause. Mercy quickly reached for the top edge of the breastplate and found the tiny, inward-pointing ridge. Pulling upwards, she slid a narrow ceramic blade out of the inbuilt scabbard; hidden there, she’d practically forgotten it. He knew I’d need it, she thought. That’s why he insisted I take the armour. She thought again of the deadly pistol shot deflected by the breastplate. He knew, her thoughts repeated, visualising Victor’s dataslate. He knows everything.
With a renewed strength of will, Mercy assured herself that she’d complete the mission and that it was impossible to do otherwise. She quietly discarded the empty pistol and magazine, sliding the knife into the back of her waistband. She touched the chrono’s raised surface and realised that more than two minutes had passed. Behind schedule, she thought, confidently shrugging it off. I’ll make it up. Breathing steadily, Mercy reached forward to the panel release clip, listened for the telltale signs of conversation beneath her, and readied herself for the drop. Unstoppable, she thought.
Mercy returned to her crumpled dress, tore apart the seam above the breastplate and quickly slid out the black, contoured ceramite, trailing the thin black cords attached to its sides. As advised, she pulled the assembly around her back, tightly knotted the cords against her tape-covered breasts and stomach, then carefully rotated the plate to cover her front. She found herself hoping it would make Victor happy to know she had heeded his advice.
After unfastening her red velvet boots, Mercy kicked them aside and leaned over to retrieve the clutch to remove the two makeup items. She snapped the lid from the compact and placed it against the right side of the holster belt. With a single finger tap, the back panel’s fastening spike protruded and worked its way into the belt, fixing it in place. A double-tap and the surface changed to a matrix of raised points that mechanically extruded and retracted, its coded texture indicating the mission time. Mercy placed her thumb on the chrono – two minutes. Throne, she thought. She grabbed the makeup kit and crushed it entirely between her toughened hands, balling up the resultant mass in her palms; the multicoloured, soft materials and the black case fused in a sticky black paste which grew in volume as she kneaded it.
First, she applied it to her hair, drawing her hands up to her brow and over her head, pasting the short strands down against her scalp, masking red with black. Then she coated the pale flesh of her legs, feet, arms and cleavage. Next, she put her trained flexibility to good use and painted her back and shoulders. Finally, she closed her eyes and used what remained of the camouflage paint to coat her face and neck. The sticky black substance adhered to her flesh, and Mercy felt her skin tighten as it set. Once again, she felt the chrono, which told her she had mere seconds left until the next stage. She quickly turned to the nearby window to observe the tiny green lights, mentally counted down to zero, and watched them change to red.
With effort, she reached for the bottom of the heavy window pane and hoisted it upwards, bringing inside a gust of cold night wind, causing her to shudder. She quickly climbed out on the ledge and placed her back against the rough ferrocrete wall. Stealing a glance downwards, she saw the moonlit, sheer drop of the immense cliffside that ended with ferrocrete breakwaters so far down that she could neither hear nor see the crashing waves. Turning back to the window, she slid the pane shut, just quick enough to see the lights safely return to green. Jeff, she thought, just in time.
Click, click, click, as her empty flechette pistol failed to fire, and her heart skipped a beat. Mercy threw the weapon at the guard’s face, the distraction affording her just a second to duck below a nearby steel table. As she fell to a low crouch, she felt a sharp pain in her neck that accompanied the crack of a gunshot. Hearing the muted whimpering of cowering men and women hiding among the room’s racked beds and piles of filthy clothing, she reached back to retrieve the knife from her waistband. Ignoring the fresh pain, she leapt up and tore across the chamber, blade outstretched, pursuing the guard as he sprinted across filthy floors towards the alarm panel.
The cool sea breeze kissed her painted flesh as she carefully dangled from a narrow window ledge. A humming security drone approached her position, patrolling the building perimeter, and Mercy patiently waited for it to pass. She felt confident that the lavishly applied thermal insulation paste would endure the journey to the target window and obscure her heat signature throughout. After having scaled three floors and leaping between eight window ledges, her body ached. Yet faith in her practised abilities contributed to her conviction. I can do this, she thought, as she climbed the narrow ledge and prepared to leap across to another.
Checking her chrono, Mercy confirmed she’d reach her destination in time, and that she’d get through the target window within the short period provided by Jeff’s machinations. Too late, and she’d be stuck outside, but keeping the window alarm disarmed any longer would alert security; either way, the mission would fail. As she looked ahead at the windowless annexe, she was reminded why she’d be running the gauntlet from inside.
With justified paranoia, the late Duke Raymond Kine Senior had implemented a procedure to prevent an invader from retrieving his most valued prize from within the premises. Setting off any of the alarms would trigger the emergency destruction protocol and destroy the vault’s contents. An unwillingness to give up on his fruitless analysis of the alien object had led to his obsession with dark powers and ceaseless labour in his secret, self-contained laboratorium. Inherited by his murderous son, the lab remained active, hidden away behind the family archive. The item remained in the vault when not being physically examined by the lab’s indentured scientists and menials who never saw the light of day.
Mercy paused at the edge of the ledge, looking down into the gloom, as she thought about those she’d have to kill. Eliminating Obstacles, Victor had called it, necessary to prevent the activation of the internal alarms. She’d told herself throughout the planning that they were all destined to die, and since they worked for a patricidal, Slaanesh-worshipping heretic, they were just as guilty.
But, what if they’re not? The unsettling thought suddenly occurred as she vividly remembered a previous, harrowing mission during which she’d killed the guilty and innocent alike, all upon Victor’s direction. Her balance suddenly wavering, Mercy lost her footing on the narrow ledge and fell.
Bleeding and exhausted, Mercy limped towards the murmurs of a white-robed man. The spluttering from his blood-filled mouth was the only exception to the silence amidst a dozen fresh corpses within the ransacked habitation room. Reaching the pale, gaunt menial, she carefully squatted over his chest and, in a two-handed grip, held her knife angled down against his breast. With what little physical strength remained, she forced the blade down, penetrating his filthy robes, through his chest, and into his beating heart. Looking down into his sunken, terrified eyes, she felt him take his last laboured breath and finally expire. Still focusing on his dead eyes, she withdrew her knife and retained it in her shaking right hand, its grip sticky with the congealing blood of her recent kills.
Lightheaded, Mercy slowly stood and turned to make for a nearby fallen security guard. Stepping onto a slick of fresh, warm blood, Mercy slipped and tumbled headfirst to the floor. Her weakened arms did little to protect her face from the impact and she felt a sharp crack as her nose fractured against a stained floor tile. A shockwave of pain cascaded through her as she slowly, painfully rolled over and laid there, the cold surface jarring against the scabbed flesh of her back.
With her eyes closed, tears streaming, and limbs shuddering with fatigue, she reached for the chrono: three minutes. She silently chuckled before wincing at the pain it caused to the side of her neck.
After dropping from the darkness of the ventilation duct to the hab room floor, Mercy had found herself surrounded by off-duty laboratorium staff and menials in various states of undress. Some were asleep, some eating, many just attempting to relax in the dank, lived-in quarters that consisted of the entirety of the captive lab workers’ home outside of the lab itself. She’d watched their confused expressions turn to sheer panic as she began attacking the guards at the room’s periphery. Quickly eliminating all but one of the guards with the last of her flechette rounds, she’d taken a shallow hit to the neck before intercepting the last, sprinting guard en route to the alarm activation panel. Then, slowly bleeding from a fresh wound, and already exhausted, she’d turned back to eliminate the rest of the cowering figures. Regarding the terrible physical states of each of them, as she’d moved through the group, she’d proficiently sliced their throats and provided each with what she’d told herself was a mercy kill. Some had feebly fought back, but it hadn’t stopped her from eventually eliminating them all. Obstacles, she thought.
Mercy reached up to the right side of her neck and sought the source of discomfort. A flash of intense pain clouded her vision as she fingered the wound and felt the sticky mass of blood and black paste that had gummed it up, preventing her from bleeding out. She reached to tap the chrono and found that a minute had already passed.
Can I just end it all? The thought intruded, and not for the first time since meeting Victor. Everything she’d seen and done since meeting him had demonstrated that she was unable to escape her fate; each time she had attempted to choose for herself, to re-write her destiny, she’d failed and fallen back onto the path that Victor had laid out in front of her.
If the success of this mission is predetermined, she thought, could I have chosen to stay home and sip amasec? She quickly dismissed the ludicrous thought as she’d always done, reminding herself to derive some comfort in the knowledge that the path she and Victor travelled would be long-lived and filled with immense purpose.
She heard the muted footfalls as people moved from behind the laboratorium’s entrance door. She was sure that the guards posted within the lab beyond had heard the single, muted gunshot and were probably readying for defence, but they were unwilling to activate the vault’s destruction protocol.
They won’t risk destroying it without confirmation, she thought, remembering from the briefing how the new Duke had ordered zero vox communication, unwilling to risk having his wireless transmissions intercepted by the security staff arriving with his VIP guests. No vox, she thought, no confirmation and no alarm. I can still do this. Mercy painfully opened her eyes and strained to look at the left wrist she’d instinctively raised above her face, considering what would happen next. Without further hesitation, she jammed the wrist into her mouth, searched with her tongue for the embedded stim capsule, and bit down hard.
Mercy gasped as an intense wave of chemical bliss exploded through her enraptured, shuddering body. Her spine arched, her teeth cut deep into her bottom lip, and she moaned loudly as pleasure overpowered all sensation of pain. Her toes curled, her fists clenched, but as the rush subsided her vision returned with a laser focus. Her body was renewed and powerful. Reinvigorated, she beamed, her teeth coated with fresh blood.
She effortlessly kicked up, landed on her feet, and slid her knife into the breastplate as she ran to the nearest security guard. Tearing the pistol from his dead hand and ejecting the spent magazine, she replaced it with a spare from his belt pouch. She forced the new firearm into the right holster, which immediately re-formed to accommodate it. Seeking another pistol, she hopped over to the nearest guard, but before taking his gun, she detached the ID card from his uniform and clipped it to the top of her breastplate. After reloading his pistol, she stored it in the left holster and made for the next fallen guards. She repeated the reloading procedure twice more, keeping hold of the latter pair of weapons. Obscuring the ID tag with the pistol in her left hand, she crossed the filthy hab and ran to the laboratorium’s entrance.
With a touch of excitement, feeling the unnaturally rapid function of her heart, she thumb-tapped the chrono. Two seconds, one. She uncovered the ID card and let the scanner read it. Just as Mercy reached the threshold at full sprint, the doors flew open, and darkness fell.
Frantically, Mercy reached out and snatched the ledge with her left hand, her back scraping against the rough wall in an uncontrolled parabola as her straining wrist suffered a sharp jolt of pain. Repressing a scream, she grabbed the ledge with her right hand and quickly ended her swing to hang motionless, facing outwards. Gritting her teeth, she twisted to pull herself up and onto the narrow ledge. Her heart raced as she rose to her feet and found that she had lost her bearing.
How many more jumps? she thought, beginning to panic and breathing heavily, looking back at the way she’d travelled. Mercy silently cursed herself for letting her mind wander. Attempting to avoid panic, she took a deep breath and closed her eyes.
You’re Mercy Keeler, the thought arose immediately, giving her pause. You are unstoppable. Before, she’d repeated this phrase as a joke, but this was the first time the idea had come to her naturally. She found it unusually comforting, returning her confidence and reminding her that she knew everything would be fine.
Resolute, she put aside thoughts of failure, turned to face the next ledge and leapt over, landing effortlessly. She touched the chrono: ten seconds. Frack! Mercy thought as she considered jumping one ledge further. Yet finding the adjacent room pitch-black, she couldn’t confirm she was not already at the target entry point. Gritting her teeth, she took the risk and jumped to the next ledge. Looking through the window, Mercy could see that the adjacent room, barely lit by a weak, ancient lumen, was the dry storage room she’d sought. Instantly, the green window lights turned red. She slid the pane up, stepped down inside the room, and pulled the window shut, just as the lights returned to green. Well done, Jeff, she thought, reaching up with both hands to rub her itchy eyes before thinking better of it.
Rushing, Mercy climbed up a stack of large polymer crates and through a raised insulation panel, into the cavity above. Crawling around in the gloom, she located the ventilation duct, unclipped the access panel and climbed inside, wincing as the top edge caught against her grazed back. She rapidly crawled through fifteen metres of the ventilation duct, feeling a gradual increase in ambient heat, and exited through an access panel, stepping out to crouch on a narrow platform at the edge of the room’s sweltering ceiling cavity. To get a better vantage, she shimmied sideways, unavoidably dragging her fresh wound along a hot pipe in the narrow space, and saw the annexe’s entrance through the crack of a broken ceiling tile.
Despite the uncomfortable temperature, she felt her excitement grow. Eyes fixed on the door, she quivered, anticipating the off-duty guard about to leave through it. Mercy touched the chrono: five minutes. Easy, she thought.
Blind in the gloom, Mercy perfectly executed a tumble through the open doorway and landed in a low crouch, arms outstretched in front. Equally sightless, the inexperienced guards panicked and greeted her with a volley of gunfire that passed over her shoulders towards the lab’s entrance. With senses augmented by the potent drugs, she noted each of her attackers’ muzzle flashes and, a silent moment later, let loose several perfectly orchestrated volleys of her own. Grunts and screams filled the open space as they slumped and crashed against the equipment they’d used as cover.
Visualising the room’s layout, Mercy leapt up and darted to the left, taking a divergent route towards the vault and avoiding further gunfire. Vaulting over the sporadically lit countertops, Mercy traversed the room, taking only enough time to ensure she killed everybody she passed. Diving across a gangway, she shot two of her attackers point-blank, throwing the spent firearms at their collapsing bodies as she unholstered her second set of pistols. Heading back to the entrance, Mercy completed the circuit, aided by the muzzle flashes of her weapons as she chased fleeing outlines and shot them all down. The final two white-robed runners collapsed as Mercy’s very last bullets tore through each of their heads. Within mere seconds of Mercy’s entrance, each of her targets was either taking their last breaths or lying face down in expanding puddles of blood.
Without pause, she dropped her pistols and sprinted through darkness up the central gangway, towards the vault’s closed entrance. Quickly touching her chrono, she felt the next countdown: two seconds, one.
A heavy clunk sounded as Jeff remotely unlocked the vault door. Arms held in front to guard her, she piled into it, nudging it inwards and releasing a soft blue glow through the crack. Carefully she slipped inside the vault and observed its central pedestal.
A small, metallic cylinder hovered in a suspensor field, its brightly lit, pulsing contents shining through a window in its housing, sending cascading light across the incineration devices lining the vault’s walls.
With no time to savour the moment, she grabbed the cylinder and slipped it into the right holster, its material instantly accommodating the new shape. Mercy quickly turned back and left the vault.
Agony as a hot slug tore through her left shoulder, the force throwing her back hard against the vault’s door frame as the gunshot’s report echoed in the still darkness. Mercy’s tiring senses flared, prompting her to dash at the injured guard, who let off more rounds, tracking her illuminated figure as she sprinted at him. Mercy dodged shots left and right whilst slipping the knife upwards from her breastplate. Smiling viciously as she reached him, she thrust the ceramic blade into the guard’s neck and felt the pleasantly warm spatter of his blood across her face. He slumped backwards under her weight and quickly expired as she withdrew the blade.
Sirens sounded, and emergency lumens glowed, transforming the darkness to a hellish red. The vault door slammed shut with a heavy clunk behind her and the vault’s incinerators whined. Mercy heard approaching footfalls from the lab’s entrance as she frantically felt for the chrono: one second. She whispered, ‘Frack!’
The world exploded and knocked Mercy from her feet, sending her sliding on a floor slick with blood. White light flooded the room from the gaping hole in the far wall through which Mercy saw the familiar rear beams and entry ramp of Victor’s dropship. Mercy sprinted, ignoring new gunfire from the lab’s entrance, and leapt from the floor’s ragged edge, across a wide gap and into the ship, landing heavily on her injured shoulder, the shock sending her into a spasm of immense pain. The ramp quickly closed upwards as the vessel rose, and Jeff shuffled over to Mercy down the gangway, dragging an emergency medical kit and observing her with his bionic eye.
‘Sister, are you ok?’ asked Jeff, looking from her shoulder to her face. Mercy reached down with her right arm, heavy with the rapid onset of the stimulant’s withdrawal, and retrieved the glowing cylinder. She handed it to Jeff with a bloody grin. Jeff took it, turned to the flight deck and called out, ‘Inquisitor, she got it.’ He turned back to her and said, ‘Easy, right?’ An uncomfortable half-smile settled on his face as she heard Victor call for him, ‘Just another day in the Ordo Chronos.’ With a nod, Jeff turned and quickly made his way forward.
Forcing herself up, Mercy shouldered the medical kit, limped up to the small ship’s washroom and stepped inside, catching her reflection in the mirror. A monster looked back at her.
An uneven mess of black paste and blood was congealed over her face with pale, fleshy traces of tears running down from her eyes past her broken, bleeding nose. A mix of blood, paste and red lipstick was smeared across her teeth, and her hair stood, crazed and filthy in random tufts of red and black. Worse, her normally beautiful eyes were fully bloodshot, surrounded by fresh bruising. Thinking of how she’d begun the evening, she now found herself broken, in significant pain and monstrous. Considering the image a reflection of her true self, she began to cry.
Mercy dropped and crashed back hard against the bulkhead as the ship listed to port. Tears poured from her eyes as she tried to cradle her filthy face with both hands, and deal with the overwhelming pain from wounds and chemical withdrawal. Slumping into a foetal position, she attempted to block out the bright light and engine noise, trying to fight against a violent flood of vivid memories of those she’d killed, their terrible screams and their last choking breaths. Through blurred vision, Mercy saw Victor running to her before she sleepily closed her eyes and silently began a mantra she’d learnt long ago.
Ave Imperator! she starts, repressing the pain as memories of the mission play out of sequence, scenes punctuated by flashes of screaming faces. I serve the Emperor until death, the words hollow as she remembers the screams of the dead, their blood on her hands.
I am sister… an explosion of bodily agony interrupts her thoughts and causes her to clench her jaw so tightly that she hears the sharp crack of a shattering implanted tooth. As the pain subsides, she feels Victor’s warm arms cradling her, but she refuses to open her eyes and look up at him, despite his vocal demands.
You’ve deprived me of my identity, my purity, my faith, she laments as she is suddenly struck by memories of her life long ago, before the Ordo Chronos, before Victor stole her away from her Order, her sisters and her devotion. I don’t know who I am anymore.
You are Mercy Keeler, the familiar thought intrudes, in a voice that is not entirely her own, replacing the mantra and trailing off as her consciousness finally ebbs into total darkness. Unstoppable.
About the Author
Dan first became interested in 40k in 1996, when he visited the iconic Hammersmith Games Workshop as a child. He immediately began collecting and painting, occasionally fitting in the odd immense battle! He resumed the hobby a few years ago and has since become far more interested in its creative-literary aspects. He enjoys writing short stories and homebrew articles, as well as expanding his numerous armies.