Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not one of your wishy-washy “sympathetic” villains, alright?
I don’t regret my actions. I don’t think I’m “really in the right,” or whatever. I wanted power, and I took it. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that; you know the story of Cecily Terona, Captain of the Scylla, feared opponent of the Confederate Union of Planets.
Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about being the face of intergalactic villainy: most of it’s not that interesting. Sure, every so often you get to fire a big laser or terrorize some colonists, but mostly the time is spent on bureaucracy and paperwork.
I’d been doing just that for half a cycle when disaster struck.
…what? You wanted me to start “at the beginning”? What a ridiculous concept. We’d be here for hours. Keep up.
“Captain?” My assistant Kai interrupted my work, brows drawn, gills fluttering nervously. “The Shroud-Cleaver is here.”
He either feared interrupting me, or perhaps the impending arrival of the galaxy’s best assassin. One of the two. Or, perhaps, he still felt the effects of a recent tiff with his boyfriend. I suppressed a sigh and returned to my work.
“I’ll meet them in the receiving lounge,” I replied, “when I have the time.”
Kai hovered uncertainly for a moment, before murmuring a “yes, captain” and departing. The Shroud-Cleaver wouldn’t take out frustration on my underlings — probably. Still, I felt a prickle of unease run across my spine. They didn’t make a habit of dropping in unannounced; I highly doubted they had just missed my company.
And I hadn’t survived this long by ignoring my instincts. I completed the current report, logged out, and left the office. Underlings snapped their mouths shut as I passed. I paid them no mind; they could gossip if they wished. It kept morale up.
Outside of the receiving lounge, I hesitated only long enough to straighten my jacket.
Moragh the Shroud-Cleaver cut an imposing figure. They owed this partially to their musculature and height, the scutes atop their head nearly scraping the ceiling, and partially to the aura around them, which seemed to say, “back off before I snap you in half.”
As if sensing my presence, they turned, reptilian eyes surveying the room. Upon noticing me, their mouth split into a smile that might have been charming if not for their viciously sharp teeth.
“Terona!” Moragh said, pleased. “It has been a while.”
“What are you doing here, Moragh?” I demanded, less pleased.
“Oh, really,” they admonished in their nasal voice, unlatching their thick cloak and dropping it carelessly over one of the chairs, “is that any way to greet an old friend?”
“We’re not friends,” I replied automatically. “Hang that up.”
Moragh seated themself leisurely. “Do not stand on my account, Terona,” they said, gesturing magnanimously to another chair.
I considered ignoring them, spitefully, but the unease I’d felt earlier had solidified into a more concentrated agitation, thrumming through my entire body. Eager to cut to the chase, I perched myself on the edge of the chair.
When Moragh only stared at me serenely, I finally snapped, “Well? What’s happened?”
Slowly, luxuriously, they said, “I have received intelligence I thought would be of interest. You remember Jayne Albrecht?”
At the mention of her name, my breathing stuttered. Only experience kept me from gasping. Instead, I set my jaw, dug my fingers into my thighs. The place on my shoulder where flesh joined with metal began to ache for the first time in years.
What happens when you come face to face with the fate you’ve been avoiding? Panic, apparently.
“Scientist, I think,” Moragh continued. “Had this whole theory about multiple universes.”
“I remember,” I managed. I could still feel the clamp of her machine’s tongues on my arm, could still smell the weird, rotten-egg stink it had generated as it worked.
“Her daughter recently graduated from the CUP’s military academy. A rising star; sounds like they have her slated for big things.”
“Alessia,” I murmured. I could still see her perfectly in my mind, a bright-eyed girl with a halo of curly hair and freckled brown skin. I should have killed her, too.
Moragh leaned forward, brow furrowed. “Terona?” I realized that I gripped my thighs hard enough to bruise. “Let’s take a walk,” they suggested. “I want to see your new shooting range.”
I swallowed thickly. “Right.” As I put myself back together, Moragh stood and stretched. The movement lifted their shirt slightly, showing the corded scars I knew covered most of their body.
Moragh got to have a tragic backstory. I, apparently, only got to cause them.
As we traversed the ship’s halls, the past released its grip on me, and my body calmed. Moragh kept up a steady narrative about a recent mission, which I admit I heard very little of. Alessia Albrecht would be dealt with, I promised myself.
We reached the observation deck, and Moragh approached the windows keenly. I dismissed the other officers inside, ignoring their cautious looks at the Shroud-Cleaver. Inside the shooting range, a group of my soldiers went through their mandatory daily training.
After a moment of observation, Moragh cocked their head. “They’re not very good.” I shot them a dirty look. They added, in an exceedingly neutral tone, “The clear visors are new.”
“And?” I demanded.
Moragh didn’t respond, and my fingers tightened on the railing. I’d hoped they wouldn’t notice any of the new security features. Getting called out for paranoia was the last thing I needed.
Finally, they started, “About the girl —”
“We kill her,” I interrupted. “Like all the others.”
“You realize it will be more complicated than that.”
I did, of course. Moragh meant that the CUP would not easily give up its rising star, and, perhaps more importantly, I doubted that the brewing story would easily give up so compelling a protagonist. “I will deal with the fallout,” I said. I always had before.
In the arena, one of my underlings landed a halfway decent shot, and her companions swept her into a congratulatory hug. My chest burned at the sight, and Moragh shot me a disconcertingly keen-eyed glance.
“We can start tomorrow,” I said finally. “Come on, I need a drink.”
I led the way back to my private quarters. There, Moragh sprawled across my favourite chair while I fetched a bottle of wine. With a practiced hand, I poured the wine into a crystal glass for myself and a sturdier ceramic mug for Moragh. Their clan had little use for delicate things, and besides that, I’d already lost a few glasses to their inebriated grip.
Dropping into a chair, I drained my glass in one pull and poured another. Moragh watched me, sipping more slowly from their own.
“Do you believe in fate?”
Perhaps in another universe, Moragh would have had an in-depth response. In this one, they said, “Sunken gods, Terona, again?”
“Maybe if you’d give me a straight answer,” I snapped back.
“You are obsessed,” they told me, lip curling. “You want to know what I think?”
Their yellow eyes gleamed at me. “I think you look for a reason. Something simple to explain your life, your choices.”
I shook my head vehemently. “Absolutely not. I own my choices. I take control of my life. I have spent the last decade making sure that it is not ruled by something so simple as fate.”
“Has anyone ever pointed out to you that by trying to avoid fate, as you see it, you continue to engage with it?”
I thought this to be a stupid point, and told them as much, earning myself a pointed click of their claws against the ceramic mug and a raised brow. “Is this about the Albrecht girl?”
“Don’t be tiresome,” I retorted. My shoulder still ached.
Moragh did not relent. “All these years, and Jayne Albrecht is the only one you will not speak of. Now this has you spooked. Maybe you can hide from your crew, Terona, but you cannot hide from me.”
I waved a hand. “It doesn’t matter,” I said, pushing past the roughness in my throat. “She’ll be neutralized. That’s what I keep you around for, after all.” I forced a jagged laugh. “I should have known better than to talk philosophy with a Zedelian killer.”
Nothing changed in Moragh’s expression, but their fingers tightened almost imperceptibly. “Perhaps so,” they said. Placing their mug down on a nearby table, they stood. “I won’t disturb you any longer, Captain.”
“Moragh —” I tried. They stopped, glancing at me expectantly. The apology they wanted stuck in my throat. Finally, I spat out, “I expect you on deck at 0800 hours.”
Moragh inclined their head and departed. I sank back into my seat, and drained the rest of the wine by myself.
If you are familiar with these kinds of stories, you will know they are not often kind to the plans of villains like me.
We tracked Alessia Albrecht, used our intelligence to discover when she would be relatively alone. This turned out to be while on a mission, some kind of law and order issue in a far-off colony. I wanted her blasted out of the sky. Instead, she and her ship were captured.
“There seems to have been some confusion on deck, Captain,” Kai informed me nervously.
Useless, all of them. “Kai, you’re in charge until I return. Nobody does anything, understood?”
I would deal with Albrecht, and then I would deal with whoever decided to take her prisoner. As I headed for the hold, I passed two underlings, looking almost determinedly away from me. A moment later, I realized that I didn’t recognize their faces. I paged Kai, trying to keep the panic down.
“We’ve got a problem. Lock down the command deck. Get —”
The ship gave an almighty shudder, and coms cut off. A missile, probably, one strong enough to nearly knock me off my feet. Alarms blared. I broke into a sprint, heading directly for the holding cells.
Another explosion. This one threw me into a wall, effectively knocking me out.
Some indeterminate amount of time later, I snapped awake in the middle of the half-collapsed corridor, head pounding, surrounded by smoke and the dim green glow of the emergency lights.
I went to pull myself up, only to find my prosthetic arm stiff and unresponsive. The explosion had damaged some key connections, and I could barely use it. Marvelous.
I looked up and recognized Alessia Albrecht, pointing a blaster directly at me. “Take off your weapon and throw it to the side.”
I reached for the blaster at my hip, weighing my odds of being able to shoot her before she could return fire. I didn’t like them.
As I tossed it aside, Alessia added, “The other one, too.”
Carefully, I reached behind myself and unstrapped my second blaster from its hiding place beneath my jacket. Then, I held my breath to see if she also knew about the knife strapped to my side.
For a long moment, we stared at each other in silence. Then: “You’re Cecily Terona.”
I swallowed. “I am.”
“I remember you,” she said slowly. She looked the picturesque hero, her CUP uniform tousled but not ripped, shock writ plain on her face. As if she couldn’t stop herself, she blurted, “Why did you —” and cut herself off.
“Why did I kill her?” I finished lightly, thinking I might get her to drop her guard. “Because she was dangerous.”
Her brows drew together angrily. “Don’t lie to me.”
I laughed shortly. “It’s not a lie just because it’s not what you wanted to hear.”
“My mom worked with you,” she retorted, properly anguished. “She was a scientist. She didn’t pose a threat!”
“She devoted her life to seeing beyond the confines of our universe and into others,” I said, idly picking at the nails on my good hand. “I’m sure you can understand why I couldn’t allow her to return to the CUP.”
Alessia didn’t flinch. “Even if I believed you, there are better ways to handle that than murder.”
“Actually, I found murder a very good way to handle it.”
To tell you the truth, I’m not sure what I expected. Being punched square in the face wasn’t it, and the surprise of it left me gasping, laughing. By the time I realized she might have opened herself up, she had moved out of range again. I wiped blood from my lip, excitement thrumming through me.
What? I told you I was an unrepentant villain.
She looked guilty, and I barely contained a dismissive scoff. Fucking heroes. Punching me was the most interesting thing she’d done. “Cat got your tongue?” I asked, because I had apparently never met a bear I could resist poking.
Finally, in a quiet voice, she asked, “Why didn’t you kill me, too?”
An excellent question. I thought, uncomfortably, of my last conversation with Moragh, and without my explicit permission, I said, “Do you believe in fate, Miss Albrecht?”
“Sorry, fate? What does fate have to do with anything?”
I shrugged. “Your mother’s machine brought me self-awareness. It showed me the way my life would go. What is that if not fate?”
Alessia raised her blaster, aimed it directly at my face. “And if I shoot you right now, is that fate?”
A shudder ran through me. I had worked so hard to try and avoid this, and it had been years since I’d been so close. It felt terrifying, and exhilarating. “It would have a certain poetry to it,” I responded hoarsely, “don’t you think?”
She held my gaze for a long moment, and then she shook her head. “Bullshit. I make my own choices, and so do you.”
“Someone has to be the bad guy,” I said.
At that moment, a voice came over the coms, echoing through the entire ship. “Captain Terona,” it said, “this is the starship Pyrrhus, of the Union’s elite team. We have infiltrated your ship and disabled your shields. Surrender Alessia Albrecht to us, or we will have no choice but to destroy your ship.”
Alessia’s grip faltered just slightly, the blaster dipping, and I took my chance. I tackled her to the ground. She managed to get off a shot, but it went wide. In moments, I had my knife to her throat.
“Stupid,” I said, not sure if I was talking to myself or to her.
At that moment, a voice called, “Captain!” I turned to see Moragh, accompanied by a half-dozen underlings. The cavalry had arrived at the worst possible moment. Of course, I could have still killed Alessia, but the presence of witnesses gave me pause. Besides, who knew what was happening to my ship; I could kill her after I had everything under control.
“What took you so long?” I snapped at Moragh as my people contained Alessia.
“Decided to take the scenic route,” they replied dryly. Still angry with me, then.
I had to get back to the command deck. In our current state of disarray, our only chance was to run as far from the Pyrrhus as possible. We set off, moving quickly, taking Alessia with us for ease of transport. I had no intention of losing her.
About halfway between the hold and the control deck, the captain of the Pyrrhus apparently decided they’d given us enough time, and the bombardment started up again. Blasts rocked the ship, destabilizing us. Even Alessia wore an expression of grim determination; if they destroyed our ship, it would not bode well for her, either.
“Someone needs to reach command,” I said, grasping wildly for balance.
Moragh steadied me. “Perhaps we should consider releasing the girl.”
I scoffed, “Of course not. Don’t be daft.”
“Is your obsession worth the cost of every life on this ship?” Their tone held frustration.
“Moragh, you don’t —”
And then it all went to hell. A missile hit the ship, and our corridor collapsed under the assault. My underlings, in true fashion, barely stood a chance: three crushed as the ceiling came down on them, shrapnel ripping through the others. I winced. At least none of them were sucked out into space; that always seemed a bad way to go.
My priority was Alessia, newly freed of guards. I peered through the haze of dust and smoke, and instead, I found Moragh, their distinctive shape clear in the chaos.
“Moragh, we need —”
I trailed off as they turned towards me, revealing a large piece of shrapnel protruding from their chest. For a long moment, nothing made sense. Moragh the Shroud-Cleaver, the terror of the Union, the galaxy’s most feared assassin, couldn’t possibly be hurt by something so mundane as shrapnel.
They wavered, and I stumbled forward to catch them as they collapsed. “Terona,” they said through bloody lips, “the girl.”
I looked to see Alessia, unguarded, unrestrained, watching us in return, eyes wide. I could have recaptured her. I could have chased her down, drawn my weapons, killed her unceremoniously. Stories expected certain levels of narrative payoff, generally, and I had learned how to circumvent them.
But I knew that it would cost me the chance to save Moragh.
I made a logical, calculated choice. Moragh stood as my best ally, a well-trained guard dog. As much as I wanted to kill Alessia, rationally, tactically, I needed Moragh. Emotions didn’t play a part.
I turned away from Alessia. Zedelians like Moragh were hardy; if I could get them medical help, their odds were good. Of course, my dominant arm still hung uselessly at my side, significantly hampering my movement.
I slung their hand over my shoulders, gripped their middle, and maneuvered them to their feet. Unhelpfully, they towered head and shoulders over me, and weighed approximately two tonnes.
“T’rona,” they slurred, “what’re you doing?”
“Shut up,” I replied, beginning to walk us both forward, with some difficulty. “Just stay awake. That’s an order. Not that you follow those.”
They mumbled something in response. I didn’t catch it, too focused on putting one foot in front of the other, half-dragging them beside me. The bombardment seemed to have briefly ceased, at least. We moved slowly, but surely, through the half-collapsed corridor.
That is, until Moragh passed out, like an idiot. I crashed to the floor, too, unable to bear their weight alone. Irritation and anxiety warred in my chest as I shook them. “Wake up,” I ordered. “Moragh, if you die on me, I’ll be pissed.”
They roused, mumbling incoherently, and I hefted them back up to their feet. We barely made it around the next corner before they collapsed again. Breath rattled worryingly in their chest. I attempted to cajole them into waking, from calm orders to half-shouted threats. Finally, when none of these proved successful, I began dragging them down the corridor. I only made it a few more feet before pain stopped me, and I fell to my knees beside them.
I hadn’t felt so powerless since that day in Jayne Albrecht’s machine, and I hated it. I had defied the CUP for over a decade, killed at least a dozen would-be heroes, and yet I couldn’t save a single life.
I looked at Moragh, and thought that if I’d been a hero — if I’d been the great Alessia Albrecht — maybe the narrative would have let me save them. How fucking useless.
Footsteps came from behind me, and I turned, reaching for my blaster. Alessia approached cautiously, hands up. When I didn’t shoot her, she knelt beside Moragh, inspecting their wound.
Distrustful, I asked, “What are you doing, stupid girl?”
“Are you really going to insult me right now?” she demanded, disbelieving. Then, she shook her head, and said, very seriously, “Ask me.”
For a long moment, I thought my pride would win out. Glancing at Moragh, I blurted, “Help them. Please.” The words burned my throat. Still, she nodded.
Together, Alessia Albrecht and I pulled Moragh upright, and began to carry them forward. It must have been a strange sight. Neither of us wasted breath on air beside my occasional indication of direction. She even took the majority of their weight, probably using some heroic strength.
To my amazement, we reached the command deck. Kai came sprinting out of the airlock, followed by two medics.
“Call a retreat,” I ordered. “Evasive action. Get Moragh inside.”
They did as I ordered, leaving me awkwardly in the corridor with Alessia. “Thank you,” I said, begrudgingly. “I’m not sure why you helped them, but…”
“Don’t you?” she asked.
Eager to move beyond sincerity, I suggested, “Inborn heroic traits?”
Alessia made a noise that might have been a laugh. “You and I are both stubborn, Terona,” she said, “but my mom taught me to make my own choices. You chose to save your friend; I chose to help you. That’s all.”
“Very naïve of you,” I said, “coming this close to my territory.”
“Will you kill me, then?” She didn’t seem fearful.
It would be simple. Nobody had ever accused me of being a good sport. Instead, for reasons I do not care to unpack, thank you, I said, “Get out of here. Escape pods are down the hall to your left.” Alessia nodded and turned to go. “Don’t think this changes anything,” I added.
She glanced back, grinning, heroism shining out of her pores. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
And then she was gone. I stepped through the airlock, onto the command deck. Medics swarmed Moragh’s unconscious form, administering care. Underlings stood around, too, gawking openly at the Shroud-Cleaver made vulnerable.
“Get back to work,” I barked. “We need to get out of this galaxy immediately; full power to thrusters.” As they scrambled to follow orders, I said to the medics, “Take Moragh to my quarters.”
As our good old Scylla began to lurch forward, an escape pod released, and the CUP ships tracking us slowed to pick it up. Alessia Albrecht had returned to her people, which gave us enough time to activate the warp drive.
Once we were assured of escape, I retired to my quarters. There, I unlatched my left arm and let the useless thing crash to the floor. Next, I addressed my state of dress; Moragh had managed to bleed all over me. I stripped off my jacket, dismayed to find that their blood had soaked through my undershirt as well, staining the fabric irreparably. I had more tasks to do, reports to oversee—
Blood stained my nails. The tasks could wait, I decided. I needed a drink.
I retrieved a bottle of wine, popped it open, and took several long swallows, until my hand stopped shaking. Moragh had been left on my bed, their feet dangling ridiculously over the end. I pulled my favourite chair over to them and dropped myself into it, bottle in hand.
“Saving any for me?” came Moragh’s rough voice, startling me.
“Absolutely not,” I snapped back. “I dragged you through the ship, I earned this. All you did was bleed on me.”
Moragh chuckled, a throaty sound that became a cough halfway through. “I suppose ‘thank you’ doesn’t entirely cover it,” they replied.
I took another long drink. “Don’t think I was worried about you. Just didn’t fancy explaining things to your clan.”
“Of course not.”
For a long moment, we sat in silence. I couldn’t tell if Moragh was still angry with me, and couldn’t fathom why the lack of knowledge felt like I’d swallowed a coal.
“She got away,” I said finally.
Moragh’s yellow eyes seemed to pierce through me. “And? Was that because of fate?”
I didn’t think I imagined the sarcasm in their voice, and my initial instinct was to tell them exactly where they could shove it. Instead, I said, “I don’t know,” surprising myself. Then, “I guess it doesn’t really matter.”
I had done the unthinkable, let a would-be hero slip from my grasp for the first, and, I feared, the last, time. Alessia Albrecht could very well spell the end of everything I had built: my fleet, my power, even my very life.
And yet, without her help, I would have already lost everything of significance.
Moragh hummed, and then said softly, “I think it does. Matter.”
“I didn’t think you believed in fate.”
“I don’t,” they said, “but whether or not there is some kind of predetermined path…it still matters what you choose.”
Their words echoed Alessia’s to an uncomfortable degree. I shifted, not liking the turn of the conversation. I wondered how much they knew, how much they had been awake for.
“We should do something,” I said, changing the subject. “When you’re healed up. Find some disgusting tourist-ridden planet, one with a proper beach or something, and drink ourselves silly.”
Moragh’s lip curled. “That sounds dangerously close to a social event.”
Still, their smile widened. “I’d like that.”
I didn’t say what we surely both knew, that such a thing could never actually come to be. I could hardly leave my ship without its captain, and Moragh, well. There were some downsides to being the most famous assassin in the galaxy.
And despite feeling like I’d signed my own death warrant, I wanted it. I wanted to exist outside of the narrative. I wanted to be without the weight of choices. I wanted Moragh —
No, that’s enough.
You don’t get anything else. I’ve bled myself dry into this account as it is.
I’m not looking for pity. I’m not trying to change anything. I don’t even know how this story ends, not specifically. Maybe you do.
…don’t tell me.
I’m giving you this only because I think Moragh is right: it does matter. It matters that we are people, even my underlings, it matters that Moragh has the best smile in the galaxy, and it matters that you have a choice. Even if your story has decided that you’re the villain — you can still choose to try.
Good luck. You’ll need it.
Erin Rockfort is an Ottawa-based writer, podcaster, and therapist. She co-hosts the podcast The Brodacious Book Club, and is a convention organizer for the Aurora Award-winning Can-Con. She has also appeared in Ephemera Reading Series, and can be found on twitter as @pineapplefury.