Book: Starship Desolation
The Galactic Wars Book Two
9. The Verge
12. The Verge
15. The Verge
18. The Decluvians
Connect With Me
Copyright © 2016 by Tripp Ellis
All rights reserved. Worldwide.
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents, except for incidental references to public figures, products, or services, are fictitious. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales, or organizations is entirely coincidental, and not intended to refer to any living person or to disparage any company’s products or services.
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There were four minutes and thirty-two seconds left on the IED’s timer. Not a lot of time to find an escape shuttle and clear the blast radius. And this was going to be a helluva blast.
Lieutenant Commander Kurt Walker was in the missile bay of the SSC Xenvelor—a Saarkturian super-cruiser on its way to destroy New Earth with the ultimate weapon of mass destruction.
Twenty-four Noxvis bombs lined the missile bay. Annihilators, as they were called. The weapons converted and produced a greater fraction of their mass into explosive energy, when compared to a traditional nuclear device. Each missile was capable of annihilating an entire planet. But they were highly unstable. The weapon’s core was contained within an electromagnetic field, leaving it vulnerable to accidental detonations. At least, Walker hoped that was the case. The fate of mankind depended on it.
Unlike traditional nuclear weapons, which were nearly impossible to detonate accidentally, a simple IED could detonate the destructive force of a Noxvis bomb. Like all new technology, the Saarkturians hadn’t quite perfected the devices. It was like the early days of America’s nuclear program, when devices didn’t have rigorous safety controls. America was a distant memory now, and Earth had long been abandoned.
In a few minutes, the IED Walker had planted aboard the Xenvelor would explode, detonating the Annihilator. The resulting explosion would virtually destroy the entire Saarkturian fleet that was approaching New Earth.
The missile bay was easily the length of a football field. A cavernous room, four stories high. Rows upon rows of launch tubes lined the bulkheads. Additional rounds of ordinance waited to be automatically reloaded into the tubes.
The Noxvis bombs were the size of cold war era ICBMs, but a million times more powerful. Lying flat, the Annihilators were the length of a semi trailer truck.
4:15 left on the timer.
The bay filled with angry enemy warriors. Two platoons of Saarkturians stormed in, weapons ready. They were looking for Walker. One of the Saarkturian technicians must have tripped an alarm before he died.
Walker was crouched behind a missile, near the center isle. He was ready to make his last stand. The deck was littered with the bodies of the Saarkturian tech crew that he had killed. Blood had spattered the deck and dotted some of the surplus missiles. Bright crimson specks of blood contrasted the stark white rockets. Walker was going to have a lot of explaining to do, but he was going to let his rifle do all the talking.
He had almost forgotten he was dressed in full Saarkturian battle armor. Sleek black composite armor, helmet, and full face mask. It looked otherworldly, almost insect like. It took Walker a second to realize the armor was the reason the platoon hadn’t fired upon him as they entered the bay—he looked like one of their own.
At 6’4”, Walker was a foot shorter than the average Saarkturian. But it wasn’t enough of a difference to draw attention. The Verge was a pejorative term used by humans in reference to Saarkturians. They were on the verge of being human. Or, perhaps, humans were on the verge of being Saarkturian. We shared over 99% of the same DNA, and had the same basic anatomy. But they were bigger, stronger, smarter, and faster. They had pale translucent skin, black eyes, and sharp fangs. They had a history of being merciless.
Walker stood up, lowered his weapon, and casually stepped into the center isle of the bay. His heart was pounding in his chest. But he played it cool. In Saarkturese, he yelled out to the enemy platoon leader. “He’s headed aft, along the port side.”
The platoon leader paused for a moment. Was he going to buy it?
A moment later, the platoon leader signaled the troops. They flowed out of the missile bay as quickly as they had entered.
Walker breathed a sigh of relief. He was a little surprised that his ruse had worked. But he certainly wasn’t going to stick around. It wouldn’t take them long to figure out he had sent them on a wild goose chase.
Walker sprinted across the bay and exited into the corridor. He followed the passageway to the starboard side of the super-carrier and found an escape shuttle. Like lifeboats on a sea fairing vessel, there were several escape shuttles on both the port and starboard sides of the SSC Xenvelor. Enough for the entire crew to evacuate.
Walker mashed a button on the bulkhead, and the hatch to the shuttle slid open. A whoosh of air rushed out. He dashed inside and closed the hatch behind him. He ran forward and hopped into the pilot’s seat.
The shuttles were designed to power up and launch quickly. You could bypass the extensive list of preflight checks. At the press of a button, the shuttle would disengage and launch into space.
Walker strapped himself in, powered up, and glanced over the flight controls. The console illuminated. Everything was in Saarkturese. The alien language was an intricate series of glyphs. It shared nothing in common with the English language.
3:09 left on the IED’s timer.
Walker found the launch button amid the array of controls. All Reapers had extensive language training, and Walker was fully fluent in the alien language. Knowing how to speak and think like the enemy was the first step in defeating them.
He punched the button and the shuttle blasted into space. The thrust slammed Walker back against the seat. He throttled up and pointed the craft away from the alien armada. He didn’t care where he was going, as long it was far away from the fleet. There was no telling what the blast radius from 24 Noxvis bombs would be. And that was just from the SSC Xenvelor. There were hundreds of ships in this convoy of destruction, each with an array of ordinance. They had planned to annihilate every planet in the colony.
It didn’t take long for the Xenvelor’s massive guns to target and fire at the escaping shuttle. The staccato report of the cannons rumbled. Walker yanked on the controls and rolled the ship, spiraling away from the streaks of brilliant tracer fire.
Walker was putting distance between the shuttle and the fleet. An alarm sounded. The display flashed red. A heat-seeking missile was rocketing through space. The alarm’s tone went solid as the heat-seeker locked on to its target. In a few moments, the nasty little missile would catch up to Walker’s shuttle and blow it into bits.
Walker deployed electronic counter measures. Two ECMs jettisoned in a brilliant flash, replicating the emissions of an ion drive. They were virtually identical to the UPDF’s Mark 7 MOSS (Mobile Spaceship Simulator) decoys. The devices also attempted to jam the missiles targeting system. It was a two pronged approach.
The missile was moments away from impacting the shuttle. Walker cut the shuttle’s engines and coasted through space. It was a risky move, but it payed off. The rocket’s guidance system locked onto one of the ECMs and exploded in a blinding blast.
The explosion rattled the tiny ship, but didn’t cause any noticeable damage. Walker powered the shuttle’s drives up and streaked away from the fleet.
1:19 left on the IED’s timer.
Walker wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to put enough distance between himself and the Xenvelor before the detonation. But the massive ship was beginning to look tiny at this distance. Walker hoped that Slade and the others had gotten a safe distance away by now. He sure wanted to see her again someday. Maybe, if he was lucky, their paths would cross—hopefully under better circumstances. Maybe they’d get to finish what they started.
Another proximity alert sounded. Before he could glance to the display to see what the new threat was, several rounds of weapons fire rattled against the hull. It was that unnerving metallic ping that made all pilots pucker.
Projectiles tore through the bulkhead. Sparks showered. Precious oxygen vented into space through the punctured hull. It wouldn’t take long for the entire cabin to depressurize.
A Saarkturian Phantom was on his tail.
Walker clutched the controls and took evasive action. The Phantom blasted another round of fire. The brilliant glow of tracers streaked across the star field. Walker rolled the shuttle away, narrowly escaping the deadly bullets. He tried his best to lose the attacker. But the escape shuttle wasn’t designed for space combat. It was a bulky, lethargic craft that was designed to transport 12 to 20 people as a measure of last resort.
The Phantoms were heavily armored gunships. Not quite as fast and nimble as the Hornets, which were advanced tactical fighters, but still very capable in a dogfight. One pilot, one gunner. Two 30mm chain guns and and array of Inferno and Cobra rockets. A gunship like the Phantom could put a damper on anyone’s day.
Its primary function was as an anti-armor attack craft, providing close air support. It also had room to carry 8 troops into the field. The design had remained relatively the same since the first Verge War. Why fix something that wasn’t broken?
It was about to destroy Walker’s shuttle. Air was rushing from the hull and one of the engines was sputtering. The Phantom clung to his tail. The 30mm guns were about to tear Walker a new ass when the star field erupted in a scorching inferno.
The star field turned white from the blast. Bright enough to sear your retinas, even if you were looking in the opposite direction. Walker clenched his eyes shut and covered them. The blast ballooned out, engulfing the fleet, triggering secondary explosions. The detonation was so destructive, it was almost like an act of creation—akin to the big bang. Primordial.
It was, perhaps, the largest single expenditure of energy created by sentient life in the history of the universe. And it kept expanding.
The blast wave sent Walker, and the Phantom, tumbling into space. The shuttle shook and rattled. The thunderous rumble was deafening. The giant molten core of the explosion looked like a supernova. It consumed the entire Verge armada. It seemed like it was going to engulf the shuttle as well. The aft section of the hull began to glow, much like it would reentering an atmosphere. The thermal protection system was pushed to its limit. Walker was dripping with sweat—it was like an oven inside the tiny craft.
An automated Saarkturian voice spoke from the command console. It was a soothing, calm, feminine voice. “Warning. Exceeding maximum safe temperature.” It repeated over and over again.
Walker wrestled with the controls. It was like trying to tame a bucking bronco. The craft spun and twisted. The star field was a blur. It was enough to make even an experienced pilot dizzy.
After a few moments, Walker got the craft leveled out and nosed toward a nearby planet. It was desolate. It didn’t particularly look like the best place to land, but if he didn’t find somewhere to set down soon, he was going to run out of air inside the cabin. Even from space, the planet looked harsh and uninviting. Dry and barren and cracked. Primeval.
In the chaos, Walker had lost track of the Phantom. There was no telling if it had survived the blast. With any luck, it hadn’t.
Walker’s ship sputtered along on one engine. The blast had fried some of the electronics, and the control panel was in disarray. The central display screen was distorted with digital static. Gauges and indicators gave random readings. Everything went haywire. It was hard enough to fly by instruments when the system was in working order, now it was virtually impossible.
Walker plunged the shuttle into the planet’s upper atmosphere. The thermal protection system had already taken a beating—hopefully it would hold up through reentry. The bow of the ship began to radiate a searing orange glow. The reentry was violent. Turbulent air shook the craft, mercilessly. Walker plummeted through the clouds with his teeth rattling in his skull. Gripping the controls was like hanging on to a jackhammer.
With only one engine, and some steering thrusters damaged, it was difficult to control the angle of descent. The escape shuttle wasn’t exactly aerodynamic to begin with. It was closer to a flying brick.
Wind whistled through the bullet holes. The shuttle creaked and groaned as it plunged through the upper atmosphere. The automated alarm sounded again. “Warning. Exceeding maximum safe temperature.”
The shuttle was on the verge of breaking apart during reentry. Metal twisted and sheared as the craft spun out of control. It looked like a ball of fire plummeting across the sky, like a meteor crashing to the ground.
Walker’s powerful arms flexed as he gripped the flight controls, fighting the turbulence. Eventually, he leveled off the craft and achieved a more stable descent. But he was still coming in too fast, and too steep. The little wings weren’t really providing any lift. With only one engine, the shuttle was listing starboard. The vertical thrusters didn’t seem to be working at their full capacity. They were providing lift, but not nearly enough.
The hull began to cool as the craft slowed. It made it through the upper atmosphere without incinerating. But the craft was racing toward the rugged terrain at close to terminal velocity. It was too bad the escape shuttle didn’t have an escape pod. A parachute would have been handy.
Walker was going to have to ride this one out.
Alarms sounded. Indicators flashed. The soothing voice of the onboard computer seemed to take on a sardonic tone. “Exceeding maximum safe rate of descent. Please adjust your speed.”
No shit, tell me something I don’t know, Walker thought. He was trying to slow this damn thing down. His adrenaline was high, and his heart was pounding. This shuttle was going to make one helluva crater if things didn’t turn around.
The EMP from the blast had frazzled the onboard computer and electronics. Nothing was functioning properly. Walker did the only thing you can do when a computer locks up on you.
Not a pleasant proposition at 32,000 feet.
Walker powered the craft down completely. Without knowing the density of the atmosphere, and the gravitational force of the planet, it was difficult to say with any degree of certainty—but he had roughly 3 minutes to power the ship and avoid pancaking on the surface.
The craft was in free fall. Walker wasn’t even sure the system would reboot. And if it did, there was no telling if the systems would come back online.
A moment went by after he tried to restart the system—nothing happened.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” The ship was completely dead. The controls were non-responsive. This was it. This was how he was going to die—a grease spot on some shit-hole of a planet.
Two minutes until impact.
Walker slammed his fist into the console in frustration. The display sparked to life, and the system began to boot up.
“System online,” the computer said.
Walker liked her tone much better now.
The controls seemed to be working properly. The digital gauges gave accurate readings. A diagnostic list of system failures displayed on the center screen. The vertical thrusters came back online. They still weren’t operating at full capacity, but better than before. The starboard engine was gone, and nothing was going to bring it back from the dead. But, all things considered, the situation had improved.
The craft was spiraling to the ground, but Walker managed to get the shuttle under control. He straightened out and leveled off, but was still descending too fast. At least he had more control of the shuttle now, and a better angle of descent. It wasn’t going to be pretty, but if he could avoid the mountain range and crash in the flats, he might have a better chance.
The shuttle screamed through the sky. Craggy mountain peaks stabbed skyward. It was a red and rocky array of canyons and peaks. Odd rock formations and spires that vaulted toward the heavens. Walker hoped he had enough lift to clear the rocks as he careened toward them. But he didn’t.
It was close.
A foot to the left, and everything would have been fine. But the starboard wing clipped the edge of a spire, which sent the shuttle spinning like a frisbee. It cut across the sky and smacked into the flats. It was a bone jarring impact. Walker’s body slammed against the safety harness. The cross harness dug into his shoulders and chest. The lap belt mashed his pelvis. Pain stabbed through his spine.
The shuttle skipped across the dry, sandy terrain like a stone across the surface of water. It settled into a groove, plowing up dirt and sand, vaulting plumes into the air. Bits of the exterior hull tore away. The craft plowed across the barren flats and caught the edge of a rock formation. The impact shattered the front polycarbonate glass windows. Shards pelted the cockpit in a deadly rain. A rush of hot air poured into the cockpit. The bulkhead crumpled. Metal twisted and groaned. The shuttle spun off at an angle, finally grinding to a halt.
It took a moment for Walker’s head to stop spinning. His whole body was filled with adrenaline. There are always a few terrifying moments after an accident, when you are so hyped up that you can’t feel anything. You have no idea if you’re injured or not. Only when the adrenaline dies down do you feel the pain. Walker checked himself over. He didn’t find any obvious puncture wounds. Nothing seemed to be broken. He unbuckled his safety harness and crawled out of the pilot’s seat. He was a little stiff and sore—tomorrow, it would certainly be worse. But at least he had survived the crash.
The windows were broken out, yet he was still alive and breathing. The air had to have at least some oxygen in it. Though it felt a little thin. He found himself breathing just a little bit deeper to get the same amount of oxygen. Or maybe it was the stifling heat. He had been to a lot of hot, shitty places in his career as a Special Warfare Operator. Dense, muggy jungles. Dry arid deserts. Dying volcanic planets. But he never felt anything this hot.
Sweat was beading from his forehead. At the rate that he was losing fluids, he’d be dehydrated in no time. The wind kicked in sand through the broken windows. The tiny granules pelted him in the face. The sun scorched terrain was dry and cracked. Inhospitable. It had to be well over 130 degrees, and it was barely after dawn. The massive glowing sun hung just over the horizon, like a nasty fruit from the pit of hell. By midday, this place would be an inferno.
“Captain Slade, you are under arrest,” the Master at Arms said.
Slade looked bewildered as she stood on the quarterdeck of the USS Devastator. It was an Omaha class heavy attack cruiser. It was older than the USS Scorpion, and was now serving as the central hub for all UPDF operations. President Amado had even setup his situation room aboard, just in case New Earth came under attack.
An officer slapped cuffs around Slade’s wrists and ratcheted them tight. They dug into her skin. She was surrounded by a platoon of Marines, weapons drawn.
“What are the charges?” she demanded.
“Violation of the peace treaty. Disobeying commands. Inciting terrorist attacks,” the Master at Arms said. “I could go on, but you get the idea.”
Slade clenched her jaw. This was total bullshit.
Cameron was arrested as well on charges of treason. And Bo, the Saarkturian, was taken into custody as an enemy combatant. The whole thing stunk of corruption and political agendas. Someone wanted Slade out of the way.
She had destroyed the invading enemy fleet and hobbled her way back to earth in a Verge escape shuttle. And this was the thanks she got?
“According to the UPDF Code of Military Justice, I must inform you of your Article 31 rights,” said the Master at Arms.
“I’m aware of my rights,” Slade said. “So you can fuck off and get me a lawyer.” She jerked away as a guard clutched her arm. “Get your hands off of me, Petty Officer.”
“Do you want to add resisting arrest to the charge?”
Slade scowled at the Master at Arms. “I want Lieutenant Commander Catherine Kent as my council.”
“You’ll get who’s assigned to you.”
Slade’s eyes narrowed as she looked over his name tag. “Chief Petty Officer Thorne, I’m the senior ranking officer in the fleet. When these ridiculous charges are dismissed—and they will be dismissed—do you really want to be on my bad side?”
“Catherine Kent. She’s aboard the Scorpion.”
“The Scorpion is getting put into dry dock for repairs.”
“Then she has to be somewhere on New Earth,” Slade growled.
“I’ll see what I can do, sir.”
“Cameron, keep your mouth shut,” Slade said. “Don’t talk to anybody without an attorney. Bo, the same goes for you.”
“I am not, in any way, familiar with your legal customs,” Bo said.
“Just keep quiet. You have my word, I will get you out of this.”
Slade followed Thorne to the detention center. She was separated from the others and put into a solitary holding cell. A guard was posted outside.
They were going to treat her like they treated all terrorists. She knew the drill. They were going to keep her locked up in this cell and delay access to her attorney for as long as possible. They would feed her as little as possible and bring her to the brink of starvation and dehydration. When she fell asleep, they’d wake her every 15 minutes to keep her sleep deprived. Then, when she was frazzled enough, they’d begin the interrogation and dangle a cheeseburger in front of her face to get her to talk.
Article 31 stated that it was mandatory the accused have an attorney present during all questioning. In the first era, before New Earth, you had to specifically request an attorney. The law had been changed shortly after the second era of mankind began. But there were ways around it. If someone was foolish enough to sign away their rights to counsel, they would lose that protection. When someone hasn’t eaten for a week, you’d be surprised at what they’re willing to give up, in exchange for a little food.
Slade suffered through it, and didn’t cave. She could only hope that Cameron and Bo were getting treated better than she was. After a week, she was able to meet with her attorney.
She was brought into an interrogation room. Cameras were recording everything, and there was a two-way surveillance mirror.
Catherine Kent entered and motioned to the people on the other side of the mirror. “Cut the cameras. Now!” She wasn’t putting up with any bullshit. “This is a privileged conversation.”
Kent took a seat across the table from Slade. “How have they been treating you?”
“Figures.” Catherine was frustrated. “You haven’t talked to anyone, have you?”
Slade shook her head. “How’s Cameron?”
“Let’s focus on your case. I can’t discuss my other clients.”
Slade gave her a look that begged for more information.
“He’s okay. But he’s got an uphill battle.”
It wasn’t what she wanted to hear, but any news was better than nothing.
“You’ve got an uphill battle as well. Rourke’s been given command of the Scorpion.”
“At least she’s in good hands.”
“Rourke is the one who pressed Command to bring charges.”
Slade’s eyes grew wide. “What?”
“He contends that your defiance of Command, and your forays into the DMZ, instigated the Verge attack.”
“They had clearly been planning this attack for some time. It was blind luck we stumbled across their fleet and were able to destroy them.” Slade hung her head, thinking of the sacrifice Walker had made. As far as she knew, he died in the blast.
“I understand. And if you want my personal opinion, Rourke saw an opportunity and made a power grab. Not to mention, you are one of the more outspoken officers in the fleet.”
“Those candy-ass politicians need someone to tell it like it is.”
“That may be why most of those candy-asses find you abrasive.”
“Fuck them. I know Amado is not a fan. The feeling is mutual. He’s done everything he could to dismantle our military. It makes you wonder who’s side he’s on?”
“Well, the fact of the matter is, you disobeyed direct orders.”
“If I hadn’t, none of us would be here right now.”
“You know as well as I do, the military operates by a chain of command. If that gets broken, the whole system falls apart.”
Slade’s face tightened. She had as much respect for the chain of command as anyone. There was no denying that she disobeyed direct orders.
“Look. We know the Verge have mind control technology,” Slade said. “They were responsible for the terrorist attacks. How do we know they haven’t infiltrated higher levels of our government?”
“Can you prove they have mind control technology?”
“You were aboard the Scorpion. You know as well as I do, they have that capability.”
“But can you prove it?”
“Are you going to tell me the testimony of over 1500 sailors isn’t going to count for something?”
“There is still no definitive proof of this technology. Anecdotal evidence is not going to be sufficient in this case. I’ll do my best to defend you. But powerful people are out to get you.”
Walker’s shuttle still had power. But it wasn’t going anywhere. With the front windows blown out, and the hull riddled with holes, no amount of repairs would make it space worthy again.
Unlike the larger super-carriers and destroyers, smaller ships didn’t have their own reactor. They depended on power cells for fuel. A fully charge cell could last up to 20 years. At least Walker would be able to run the cooling system within the shuttle for the foreseeable future. He was going to need it, as the temperature was increasing by the second.
But the heat was only one of his problems. If he didn’t find food and water, in a reasonable amount of time, he was going to die on this rock.
He rummaged through the ship and was able to find a Saarkturian version of a first-aid kit, a few containers of water, and some prepared emergency meals. It was a start, but it would only last for a few days.
Walker grabbed his weapon, opened the back hatch, and stepped out into the blistering heat. A few moments, and the searing sun was more than enough. It felt like only a few seconds could give you a serious sunburn.
The terrain was harsh. Mostly flat, dry cracked ground with windswept dunes here and there. The occasional thorny tree dotted the desolate landscape. Withered and twisted, with foot long thorns like talons. It had to be a scrappy plant to survive in this wasteland. If it could think, and Walker had encountered plants that could, it was probably as angry as it looked. This was the kind of place that made hell seem like a vacation spot.
Walker surveyed the terrain with a scowl on his face. This wasn’t looking promising. The mountain range that he clipped was maybe 40 or 50 miles away—a jagged line on the horizon. Not much could survive in the flatlands. But in the mountains, in the valleys and canyons, maybe there was cover? If there was cover, maybe there was food? It was doubtful that larger animals could survive in the desert flats. The only living things that seemed to exist out here were the thorny trees and smaller insects.
Walker glanced down at his boot to see a bizarre scorpion-like creature crawl over his foot. He shook it off and smashed his heel onto the creature. It crunched under his foot. Greenish/yellow goo spurted out of its shattered shell. A shiver ran down Walker’s spine.
For as tough as Walker was, bugs still gave him the willies. He shivered for an instant. He had seen enough of bugs on Delta Crucis 6 to last a lifetime. It didn’t matter whether they were big or small, he couldn’t stand the fuckers. He didn’t care what ecological purpose they served. They all deserved death, as far as he was concerned. Maybe it was all the wasp stings that he received as a boy? Maybe it was all the Reapers killed on DC 6? Maybe it was losing Lilly to a bug that hurt the most?
This bug was dead, but it just didn’t know it yet. With its head separated from its mangled thorax, it still squirmed for a few moments. Walker looked down at the hideous thing, hoping it was writhing in pain for its last few moments alive.
Walker and the bug shared the same fate. For all Walker knew, he was dead, and he just didn’t know it yet. Or hadn’t accepted it. There was no way he was getting off this planet. There was no way he could have any hope of long-term survival here. But he wasn’t the kind of guy to give up. If he was going to die on this planet, he wasn’t going to do it without a fight.
Five minutes in the blistering sun was more than enough. The shuttle would be good shelter for a few days. But he would have to make it to the mountain range eventually. That was the best hope for long-term survival.
He was about to step back into the shuttle when he saw it approaching. The sand around Walker’s feet exploded in a spray of 30mm gunfire. The Verge gunship had found him and was looking to finish the job.
The Phantom strafed the crash site, unloading a torrent of destructive power.
Walker stood tall, unafraid as the Phantom approached. He brought his weapon up to the firing position and looked through the sight. He squinted one eye and lined the ship up in the crosshairs with the other. His finger wrapped around the trigger, and he squeezed off several rounds.
Walker’s bullets tore through the Phantom’s hull. The Phantom’s bullets exploded at Walker’s feet. It was like a game of chicken with extremely uneven odds. The Phantom roared toward Walker and passed overhead. The rumble of the engines was ear splitting.
Walker spun around and kept the Phantom in his sights. He blasted several rounds into the port side thruster.
Walker waited for the Phantom to circle around for another strafing run.
The Phantom’s port side engine began to sputter. A trail of black smoke billowed from the thruster as the Phantom continued over the mountain range. Walker got lucky. It wasn’t coming back to attack him again. The Phantom had bigger concerns.
A slight grin curled on Walker’s lips. At least he had gotten a little payback on that son-of-a-bitch. He hoped the Phantom would go down in a ball of flames. After a few moments, the Phantom disappeared over the horizon. Walker listened for a crash, but he couldn’t hear anything. He was too far away.
Five minutes in the heat was more than enough for him. His skin felt like it was on fire. His mouth was as dry as the desert sand he was standing on. He was billions of miles away from the nearest Federation colony. He had no means of interstellar communication. And no one was going to come looking for him. As far as Slade knew, Walker had died in the blast. If he was going to get off this hellhole, he was going to have to find a way himself. No one was coming to save him.
Walker climbed back into the shuttle and sealed the hatch behind him. He took a swig of water from the rations, then he climbed into the pilot’s seat. The external temperature gage read 150 degrees. How hot was this planet going to get, he wondered? He turned the cooling system to high, but with a broken window it wasn’t going to do much good. It would take the edge off, but most of the cool air would rush out through the broken glass.
He took an inventory of the weapons aboard the shuttle. There was a small weapons locker that contained several rifles, extra magazines, knives, tactical swords, flashlights, and a few thermal grenades. There was a part of him that wanted to hunt down and destroy what was left of the Phantom’s crew—if there was anything left. But revenge wasn’t a priority now. Survival was.
By noon, the planet surface was hitting 240 degrees. At that temperature, you could survive for a short duration. But caught without shelter in the midday sun and you’d surely die.
The temperature inside the shuttle was sweltering. It was like sitting in an oven. But it was better than being exposed. Every breath was a struggle. Walker spent the better part of the day just trying to fill his lungs with air and battling the incessant stream of desert bugs that crawled in through the broken windows. It seemed hopeless. Was this going to be the extent of his existence for the rest of his miserable life?
He had no intention of waiting to die in the wreckage. But he wanted to get a better idea of what he was up against before setting out into the wasteland.
The day might have been scorching, but the night was cold. As soon as the sun set, the desert became a frozen nightmare. Frosty wind whistled in through the windows. Even with the shuttle’s heater at full blast, Walker was chilled to the bone. By midnight, his water rations were frozen solid. The outside temperature was well below zero. This was a planet of extremes.
There was a period of time, just before dawn, that was actually comfortable. When the sky was gray, and the sun was nosing over the horizon. It was a perfect 70 degrees. All he needed was an ocean, and someone in a bikini, and it would feel like a vacation. But it didn’t last long. By the time the sun had crested the horizon, it was starting to get uncomfortable.
If Walker was going to make it to the mountain range, he’d have to set out in the pre-dawn hours when the temperature was just above freezing. And he’d have to find shelter before noon.
Walker stepped out of the craft and gazed at the horizon. It seemed like an impossible journey. Perhaps 40 miles in six hours on foot? That would be tight. Walker was in good shape. He was used to long endurance marches. But not in this heat. And not with a thinned atmosphere.
In the sky, it looked like vultures were circling in the distance. They were waiting for something to die, or to get too weak to be able to fight them off. In this heat, that wouldn’t take long. Walker had a gut feeling that vultures weren’t the worst thing out there.
He grabbed a pair of binoculars from inside the shuttle. A closer look at the vultures revealed they weren’t vultures at all. They were reptilian creatures, maybe five to six feet in length. Somewhat reminiscent of a pterodactyl, it had bat like wings, sharp talons, and razor-like teeth. Vicious predators.
If this planet could support large predators, then there had to be prey. Perhaps Walker had a shot at finding a sustainable food source.
Walker took a stroll around the perimeter of the crash site. Nothing but dry, cracked dirt and sand. And those damned scorpions. They were the equivalent of desert roaches. They seemed to be able to survive anything, even the harsh midday sun. But their venom could be deadly. Walker enjoyed the sound they made crunching under his boot.
He made his way back to the ship and prepped and packed his gear. He set out for the mountains in the pre-dawn hours the next morning. The cold was bone chilling. Even the scorpions were hibernating somewhere. Probably buried deep in the sand, or in some underground burrow. The desert rocks held heat throughout the night from the intense daylight. An underground burrow at the base of a large rock might be quite cozy at night—for a bug.
Walker was marching at a good pace. The activity was keeping him warm. At dawn he was able to cover the most ground. But the blistering sun rose quickly in the sky. It wasn’t long before Walker was the one the vultures were circling. But they soon found a better target, and left Walker in the baking sun. The were going to have to wait a while if they wanted to feast on Walker. He wasn’t planning on dying anytime soon.
The vultures had found something smaller. More likely to die. He came upon them harassing a small mammal. It resembled a dog, with a pointy snout, wide blue eyes, spiky ears, and a tail. But it didn’t have a pelt. It had a thick skin that was almost reptilian, like a Komodo Dragon. It was a cute little thing. Clearly a pup. And it was about to be vulture food.
It was crouching under a thorny tree for protection. Three vultures were swooping in, trying to snatch it with their talons. But the thorny projections were keeping them at bay. At least, for now. The dog was snapping and barking and yelping. The helpless little thing was trembling with fear. The vultures were like bullies, tormenting the poor creature.
This pissed Walker off.
He clenched his jaw, and the veins bulged in his neck. The sun wasn’t the only thing making his blood boil. He hated bullies. And this wasn’t a fair fight.
One of the terrifying vultures got lucky. It swooped in and grabbed the pup by the leg. It flapped its massive wings and ascended toward the sky. The pup writhed and barked, dangling helplessly from the vulture’s talons.
“Aria Slade, in the Article 100 violation of compelling surrender, I find you guilty as charged. In the Article 134 violation of reckless endangerment, I find you guilty as charged. In the Article 90 violation of willfully disobeying a superior officer, I find you guilty as charged. In the Article 94 charge of mutiny and sedition, I find you guilty as charged.” The judge almost seemed winded after reading the long list of violations.
Slade deflated. She felt like she had been punched in the gut. Her heart fluttered as she waited for the sentencing.
“It is the decision of this court that you be reduced in rank to O1. All pay and allowances will be forfeit.”
A 25 year career down the drain. She still had the tiniest bit of hope that she would avoid a prison sentence.
“You are hereby dishonorably discharged and sentenced to life imprisonment in the maximum security facility on Alpha Ceti 7.” The judge slammed the gavel down with a crack.
The sound jolted Slade’s nerves. Her knees went weak, and she fell back into her seat. She wasn’t sure what hurt worse… life in prison? Or the dishonorable discharge? All she had ever done was serve the Federation faithfully. Every decision she had made was in mankind’s best interest. Now, all of her sacrifice and service were gone in an instant.
She had gotten a rotten deal. She knew it was going to end badly the moment the trial started. The judge had close ties to President Amado. Hell, they had been college roommates.
Slade was getting shuffled off, like so many other officers that publicly opposed the new administration. Rourke’s testimony had sealed her fate. It was heartbreaking to watch a once loyal friend dig the knife in so deeply. He had his nose up everyone’s ass in Amado’s administration. Now he was their man to lead the fleet.
“Don’t worry. I’m filing an appeal,” Catherine said. “This trial was a farce.” Her voice had a slight tremor in it. Her usual confidence was gone. She knew the horrors of Alpha Ceti 7, and her grim face showed it. “I’ll see if we can get you detained on board the Devastator, at least until we get through the appeal process. I’ll push for minimum security facility like Gamma Delta 3, or Zeta Prime.”
Slade was dazed. Her expressionless face gazed blankly at the table.
The bailiff stepped to Slade. “Prisoner 1192833, stand up.”
Slade mindlessly complied. She no longer had a name. She was just a number.
“Turn around and put your hands behind your back.” The bailiff slapped the cuffs on her wrists. He grabbed her arm and pulled her out of the courtroom.
Slade glared at Rourke. He had been sitting in the crowd, watching the verdict go down. He wouldn’t make direct eye contact with Slade. He knew how low he had stooped for power. Rourke averted his eyes and left the courtroom.
The bailiff escorted her back to the detention area. He tossed her in the cell and slammed the hatch. She was going to have to wait here until she was put aboard a prison transport to Alpha Ceti 7.
As tiny, and as cramped, as this cell was, it was a dream compared to the maximum-security prison on Alpha Ceti 7. Full of rapists and murderers and deviants. It had a reputation for atrocious living conditions and human rights violations. It had the highest inmate death rate of any maximum-security facility. And corruption was rampant among the entire prison system. Judges were getting kickbacks in return for longer sentences. Wardens were utilizing prisoners as slave labor, profiting handsomely from commercial contracts.
An inmate entering the system was quickly stripped of all sense of their humanity. They were looked upon as some type of sub-species. And basic human rights didn’t apply. At least, that was the view of most officials in the corrections system. A prison that was located at the outer reaches of the colonies, like Alpha Ceti 7, had little oversight.
Still, this cell was enough to drive her insane. She relished the time in the courtroom during the trial. At least she had space and human contact. The thought of spending the rest of her life in a box like this, or worse, was mortifying. She was used to the confinement aboard a starship. But as a captain, the universe was hers to explore. As a prisoner, her life became meaningless. She knew what was coming, and she was powerless to stop it.
Slade found her mind drifting to thoughts of the second wave of attacks that were inevitable. The Saarkturians were going to retaliate. There was no doubt about it. They would destroy the colonies and New Earth. And with any luck, they would destroy Alpha Ceti 7. Maybe the rest of her life wasn’t going to be very long, after all.
A guard rapped on the door. The metal clang reverberated through the cell. “Slade. You’ve got a visitor.”
Slade got up from her bunk and moved to the hatch. The food slot opened. Slade saw Lt. Commander Zoey Bryant peering through the slot from the hallway. “I see they’ve got you in the penthouse suite.”
“You’ve got five minutes,” the guard yelled.
“It’s the height of luxury, let me tell you,” Slade said, dryly. “I’m afraid this is better than where I’m going.”
“This is total bullshit. We’re not going to let this stand, sir.”
“Careful, Commander. You wouldn’t want to get accused of conspiracy. Or mutiny and sedition.”
“Rourke totally sold you out, sir,” Bryant whispered. “He’s saying the Verge attack fleet was only a few ships.”
“I know what he’s saying. I heard his testimony.”
“It’s a bold-face lie.”
“The majority of the crew never knew the size of the Saarkturian Fleet.”
“And the one’s who did are too scared to contradict Rourke,” Zoey said.
“I understand. Taking my side is a career killer. If I were you, I’d stay as far away from me as possible.”
“I don’t care about my career, sir. Right is right. And wrong is wrong.”
“I appreciate your loyalty, Commander. But look out for yourself. There is nothing you can do for me, short of breaking me out of here. And I don’t recommend that.”
Zoey grinned. She was never one to back down from a challenge. “I have no intention of breaking you out of here. That would be impossible.” She said it loud enough for the guard to hear. Then she whispered. “But Alpha Ceti 7 is another story altogether.”
“Time’s up, Commander,” the guard yelled. It wasn’t anywhere close to five minutes yet.
Zoey puffed up and gritted her teeth. Then she shouted. “I just want to say, I think you are a disgrace to the uniform. I hope you rot in hell.” She said it for the guard’s benefit. She winked at Slade and left.
Walker brought the scope of his rifle to his eye. He lined the reticle up on the vulture’s head. His finger squeezed the trigger.
The vulture’s head exploded in a cloud of red blood. Walker managed to take the beast out before it soared too high. Its body plummeted to the ground. Its talons went slack, releasing the pup. The little guy landed safely on the ground. But another vulture swooped in to grab him.
Walker lined the reticle up with the abominable predator. But before he could squeeze the trigger, a third vulture slammed into him. The impact knocked him to the scorched ground. The beastly thing was atop Walker, pecking and clawing at him.
It had rows of teeth, like a shark. Its jaw snapped tight, like an alligator. Walker dodged repeated attempts by the creature to gnaw his face off. He batted the thing aside and scrambled for his weapon. The vulture latched on to Walker’s ankle, but his teeth couldn’t pierce the Saarkturian battle armor.
Walker clutched the grip of his weapon and swung the barrel around. He blasted off a flurry of gunfire. The bullets tore through the creature’s skull and ripped its way through its torso, blasting out of its ass. Chunks of the birdlike creature splattered against the desert rocks. Walker kicked the carcass off of him.
The pup had dodged the attack of the other Vulture. But the creature was circling back around for another dive. A few well-placed rounds from Walker’s rifle sent the beast tumbling to the ground. The beast’s body smacked the hard dried dirt. A small plume of dust dispersed in the air.
Walker climbed to his feet. He took a deep breath and wiped the sweat from his brow. He had enough vulture meat to last a lifetime. But he sure didn’t want to haul one of these damn things out of the flats, all the way to the mountains. He couldn’t imagine they were very tasty.
Before he knew it, the dog was at his feet, looking up at him with those big blue eyes. His tongue was hanging out as he panted. He looked like he was smiling.
“What are you looking at?” Walker stared at the dog. “You’re free. Go. Get out of here.” He tried to shoo him away.
The dog tilted his head and lifted an ear. He didn’t know what the hell Walker was saying. But he certainly wasn’t going anywhere. He had found a new best friend.
Walker took his tactical knife and began carving into the carcass of one of the vultures. It was better than hauling a full bird across the desert. The damn things weighed 150 pounds. It wasn’t a thanksgiving turkey, but it would have to do for now. He tossed a scrap of meat to the dog.
He looked at Walker like he was crazy. He put his snout to the meat and recoiled instantly. His little face twisted up, and he made a whimper of disapproval. The meat was repugnant.
“Hey, beggars can’t be choosers.”
The dog sniffed the meat again and took a tiny bite. He spit it back out and coughed. He shook his head like it was the most horrible tasting thing he’d ever had in his mouth.
“That bad, huh?”
The dog whimpered in response.
Walker stopped carving up the meat. There were many creatures whose meat was poisonous. A defense mechanism. It wasn’t usually found in predators. It was more of a characteristic of prey. It gave Walker pause. Was there something bigger out there that caused these vultures to evolve with a built-in defense mechanism?
Walker cleaned the blade of his knife and slid it back into the scabbard. It wasn’t even noon yet, and it was deathly hot. He still had a long way to go. He marched toward the mountains, and the dog followed.
Walker waved him off. “Go on. Run along.”
But the dog just trotted behind him. He had no intention of listening to Walker.
“Just because I saved you doesn’t make us friends.”
The dog tilted his head and kept following along.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” It was almost as if he was expecting some type of answer from the animal. Walker sighed. “Okay, fine. But I’m not slowing down for you. And I’m not saving your ass again. You get in trouble, you’re on your own. You got that?”
The dog barked.
“And no barking.”
The dog barked again in acknowledgment.
Walker jogged for another hour, gasping for breath. The air was stifling. His body was soaked in sweat. He had to take a break. The temperature was near 200 degrees. Walker sat on a rock and filled his lungs with the searing air. He had misjudged the distance to the mountains, and his ability to withstand the heat. It was like trying to run a marathon in a dry sauna.
He took a sip of water, then gave some to the dog. He needed to take cover soon. He wouldn’t survive long in the midday sun. But there was no shelter around. Just the occasional thorny tree.
Walker’s feet ached. His quads burned from the constant running. Sweat dripped from his nose onto the dry ground as he huddled over, leaning his elbows on his knees. He was beginning to think this was a bad idea. He should have just stayed in the shuttle.
The dog began to growl and bark at him.
“Hey, what did I say about barking?”
But the dog wasn’t barking at Walker. He was barking at the thing behind Walker—a creepy crab like pincer claw that had emerged from the sand. It hovered ominously above Walker. The pincers look like they could snap Walker’s head clean off. The dog kept barking and growling. A second claw emerged from the sand. And still, Walker didn’t notice.
Tears streamed down Prince Valinok’s cheeks. His black eyes were puffy, and his nose was runny. His body heaved in jerky sobs.
He was only a boy—14 years old. Not entirely different from a human boy. Bigger and taller, but still a child. A child who was now heir to the throne of Saarkturia. A child who’s mother had been killed, and her fleet destroyed. He was the son of Queen L’Naar.
He tried to wipe away the river of tears, but more kept coming. He screeched with the kind of sorrow that only the death of a loved one can bring. The hollow empty pain of abandonment. The horror of being truly alone.
He curled into a ball on his bed. Like all Verge structures, the Palace was an architectural masterpiece. Sleek, curved lines, vaulted ceilings, dim lighting, dark walls. Opulent, by Saarkturian standards.
Attached to the bedroom was a large terrace that overlooked the royal city of Fonesia. The gloomy blue sun cast a pale light over the city that even at noon was no brighter than dusk on New Earth.
“I’m sorry to be the one to bring you this news,” Rylon said. He was an older gentleman who had long been an advisor to the Queen. His game was politics, and he was good at it. He had been the queen’s eyes and ears. Nothing could stir in the Senate that he didn’t find out about and relay to the Queen. Above all things, he desired power. And as always, he wanted to ensure his place right next to the most powerful person in the Realm.
Rylon sat next to Valinok and watched him cry until his tears ran dry. He tried to comfort the boy. When he spoke, he did so in a soothing and compassionate manner. “You cry all you want now. But when you are through, I never want you to shed another tear. You are no longer a boy. Soon you will be King. And you must never show weakness. Do you understand?”
Valinok sat up, dried his eyes and nodded. “We will take our entire fleet, and we will destroy the humans.”
“While I echo that sentiment, our fleet is in shambles.”
“Then we will build a new fleet.”
“It will take decades to amass the strength necessary. The weaponized fuel for the Noxvis bombs is not easy to obtain. It takes years to extract and refine.”
“I will have my revenge,” the boy yelled, his face red with rage.
“That you shall. But we must be prudent. You are about to become the youngest king in our history. But your ascension will not go unchallenged by the Senate. You must display wisdom beyond your years. You must be strong and aggressive, but not impulsive. It is far better to rule with the support of the Senate and the people.”
“I know nothing of politics, Rylon. My mother had a distaste for it.”
“That is why she relied on me. As you too can rely on me. I am ever your humble servant.” Rylon bowed in an effort to appear humble.
“Find a way to destroy the humans, and you shall have anything you desire.”
“I serve my King not for want of material possessions, but for the good of all Saarkturians.” It was a lie, and Rylon was playing up to the child’s growing ego. “But I can assure you, the humans will be destroyed.”
“Now may be the time for a strategic alliance.”
Valinok’s face twisted up. “Never. I will not conspire with our enemy. An inferior one at that.”
“Don’t underestimate their potential. They have proved a worthy adversary. Their continued existence is proof that we have failed to eradicate them. My sources tell me their capacity for war has grown.”
“Their technology is inferior.”
“But adequate. It is only a matter of time before they challenge us again. And we are no longer prepared to address the threat.”
“An alliance could be made. Though, it would require concessions.”
“What kind of concessions?”
“Relinquish the Thelovian sector.”
“It is of little strategic or economic value. The Decluvians have laid claim to it for centuries. It would be a gesture of good faith.”
Valinok pondered this. “No.”
“I would urge you to reconsider. Have you ever been to the Thelovian sector?”
Valinok shook his head.
“Perhaps we should arrange a visit. You could see for yourself how insignificant the region is.”
The boy was quiet for a moment. “If I do choose to relinquish the sector, how can you be so sure that would be enough to convince the Decluvians to become our allies?”
“Oh, that won’t be enough to convince them. That is just what it will take to get them to the bargaining table. For the Decluvians to fight and die on our behalf, it will take a far greater gesture.”
The boy’s curious eyes stared at Rylon. “Like what?”
Rylon pondered how best to present his plan. “A union between the two species.”
Valinok was a smart boy. It didn’t take him long to see where Rylon was going. “Absolutely not.”
“Sometimes, rulers must make personal sacrifices,” said Rylon.
“It’s a little more than a sacrifice. It’s a nightmare. The Decluvian’s have tentacles. I will not marry the princess.”
“Merely a symbolic gesture. And the ceremony will not take place until you come of age.”
“The Saarkturian people do not want a Decluvian queen.”
“It will be years before the actual marriage takes place. There are many things that can happen in the mean time.” Rylon’s tone was devious.
“Tentacles, Rylon. Tentacles!”
Rylon shrugged. “Such are the sacrifices one must make in order to rule the galaxy. You do want to rule the galaxy, don’t you?”
Prince Valinok sighed. “I want my mother back.”
Rylon looked at him with sympathy.
“I want to be a child and play games and be irresponsible. When I grow up, I want to rule the galaxy.”
“My dear boy, none of us want to grow up. But one day we wakeup to discover that we have. Today was that day for you. You can never go back to being as you were. Remember your childhood fondly, for today, you must become a man and lead your people.”
The Prince eyed Rylon for a moment. “You have always been a friend to my mother. I trust you, Rylon. I will defer to your judgement.” Valinok grimaced. “Contact the ambassador. Offer the Thelovian sector in exchange for a meeting.”
“As you wish, my Lord.” A slight grin curled on his treacherous lips. The boy was going to be easier to control than he thought.
The shuttle was filled with a dozen killers. Hardened criminals with soulless eyes. Slade was shackled at the wrists and legs. The prisoners were sizing each other up. All eyes were on Slade—she was the fairest of the bunch.
They were heading toward the USS Gibraltar, a prison transport ship that would ferry them to Alpha Ceti 7.
Prisoner 3603762 was twice as large as anyone else. Six foot five, 350 pounds—a thick hulk of a man. Underneath his number was a name—F. Giles. He looked like the kind of guy who could snap through his restraints, if he really tried. Definitely not the kind of guy you’d want to meet in a dark alley. He wasn’t going to have any problems in prison. He certainly wasn’t going to be anyone’s bitch.
He kept staring at Slade with lustful eyes. She just stared back at him. She wasn’t one to back down from a fight. Even one she knew she’d lose.
“I bet you don’t last a day in the big house, Sugar Puff,” Giles said.
“I bet I last longer than you.”
Giles chuckled. “Maybe I ought to come to you for protection.”
“Maybe you should. You look kind of frail. And you’ve got dick sucking lips.”
The rest of the inmates burst out in laughter.
Slade was making enemies quick.
The shuttle landed on the flight deck of the Gibraltar. A moment later and the hatch opened. An armed cadre of guards escorted them off the shuttle and into the Gibraltar’s holding area. They unshackled the inmates and shoved them in the cell.
It was a common area of about 50 inmates. Like a drunk tank of a county lockup, there was one latrine, and a sink. No privacy whatsoever. If you were going to take care of business, you had to do it in front of everyone. And these weren’t the kind of people you wanted to pull your pants down in front of.
All of the inmates were dressed in orange jumpsuits, with digital readouts of their prison number embedded within the fabric.
The guards weren’t in the UP Navy. They were privately contracted corrections officers. From here on out, the inmates would be in the care of the private correctional system.
Slade’s eyes surveyed the holding cell as she entered. As always, she tried to identify potential threats. She knew Giles was one. And there were plenty more like him in this cell.
She strolled over to a corner and sat down. The kid next to her couldn’t have been more than 16. Skinny, pasty faced, thick glasses.
“What are you in for?” Slade asked.
He looked at her for a moment before he spoke. And when he did, the words came low and slow, like he was doing an impression of his favorite movie star. “I killed 9 guys in a bar fight.”
Slade narrowed her skeptical eyes. “You’re not old enough to drink.”
“I’m old enough to kick ass.” He tilted his head back, like a boss.
“You don’t look like the ass kicking type.”
“I can hold my own.” She could tell he was scared shitless, but trying to put on a good front.
“I can see you’re a killer, no doubt.” Slade knew this kid wasn’t a violent offender. He didn’t have the look in his eyes. That cold, emotionless stare that all killers have. Even the serial killers that masquerade as friendly neighbors have the stare. They hide it well, but if you look deep enough, you can see a cold detachment. A separation from themselves and the rest of humanity.
“Damn right. Nobody better mess with me.”
“What’s your name?”
“Prisoner 2936783. But my friends call me Kirby.”
“How long they give you?”
“I’m a lifer,” he said, trying to sound tough. But then his eyes went slick. He covered his face with his hands to hide his tears.
“Looks like we got a little crybaby,” one of the inmates teased. “You can’t run to your momma here, boy.” He chuckled. “That’s alright. I’ll be your momma and your daddy.”
Slade glared at him.
“What you looking at? First time you seen a real man, honey?”
“I’m sorry, I thought you were a woman.”
There were laughs all around.
The inmate scowled at Slade. She was making friends quickly.
He stood up and ambled toward her. He was a short stocky guy. And like so many guys coming into the joint, he had something to prove. They were all angling to establish their dominance. Alpha males, each and every one of them. All looking to be at the top of the pecking order.
Slade stood up and got ready for a fight.
She studied the inmate. Watched his eyes. His hands. His posture as he approached.
“That’s some mouth you’ve got on you,” the inmate said. “You better believe I’m gonna put it to good use—“
Slade landed a right cross square on his jaw before he could finish. The blow snapped his head back. With lightning speed, she mashed her heel into his knee. Ligaments and tendons crackled as the knee bent sideways. The inmate dropped to the ground. Slade put a hard elbow in the back of his neck.
He flattened against the ground, blood oozing from his lips and nose. He whaled in pain, but he wasn’t getting back up. He wasn’t ever going to walk without a limp, if he was ever going to walk at all.
She scanned the crowd of onlookers with cold eyes. Her little demonstration was enough to make anybody else think twice about messing with her. Right now, Slade was atop the pecking order. And that was just how she liked it.
“Hey! Try not to kill each other before we get to the prison,” one of the guards yelled. “We only get paid for live inmates.”
The fallen inmate writhed in agony on the floor, screaming and whaling. He begged the guards to help him.
“Shut up, maggot,” a guard yelled. The acetate nameplate above his badge read: O’Connor.
But the inmate didn’t stop.
“She broke my fucking knee, man. I need medical assistance.”
“Don’t make me come in there and shut you up,” O’Connor said. But he was just looking for an excuse to use excessive force. He loved his job.
“You can’t leave me like this. I got a right to medical care.”
“You ain’t got a right to shit.”
“This is bullshit, man. I want to file a complaint. I know my rights.”
“Oh, you want to file a complaint?” O’Connor sneered at him. “Let me get you the forms.” He motioned for two other guards to assist him and drew his baton stunner—an 800,000 volt taser. Lightning on a stick.
The guards gathered around the entrance. O’Connor unlocked the hatch to the holding cell and they stormed in, batons ready.
O’Connor hovered over the inmate and jammed the baton into his belly. He zapped him with a charge. The end of the baton crackled and arced. This baton was more than an ordinary taser. It created a powerful electrical field that enveloped the subject in a brilliant, arcing aura. The inmate convulsed and vibrated uncontrollably. After a minute, O’Connor stopped zapping him. “Got any more complaints?”
The inmate said nothing.
“I can’t hear you.” O’Connor cupped his hand to his ear, as if straining to hear. “Oh, you’re not done yet?”
O’Connor beat him mercilessly with the baton. The metal slapped against the inmate’s thick frame. Ribs cracked with each blow, as did the bones in the inmate’s forearms as he tried to shield himself.
The two other guards kept the rest of the inmates at bay as the beating continued.
“What’s that you say?” O’Connor asked. “Still haven’t had enough?”
The other officers couldn’t resist getting in a few hits. Inmate 1109283 was a bruised and bloody pulp.
Giles, and several other inmates, saw this as an opportunity. They tackled the two guards. Others rushed O’Connor.
With fists like sledgehammers, Giles pummeled one of the guards and stripped away his baton. He jabbed the rod into the guards back and let the electricity fly. His body contorted and vibrated.
Giles took the guard’s keys and his gun. Then he glared at Slade and marched toward her.
The holding cell was pure mayhem. Screaming and yelling, hooting and hollering. Inmates were kicking and punching O’Connor, beating him beyond recognition. Everything he had doled out was coming back to him, three fold.
It was a full on prison riot.
“What is it, boy?” Walker asked. He finally turned around to see the sharp prongs of the claws strike at him. He dove to the dirt and tumbled away. The pincers narrowly missed and stabbed into the crusty ground. They recoiled for another strike.
Just great, Walker thought. A big bug.
His eyes grew wide as the creature fully emerged from the sand. The monster was massive. Its giant pincers hovered 10 feet in the air. The thing was a cross between a scorpion and a crab. Some type of arthropod. The pincers stemmed from its forked tail. It had a hard shell on its back and six powerful legs that terminated in sharp talons. Its mouth was full of serrated fangs. Its eyes were extended and could track prey independently. It was one ugly bug. And it was in between Walker and his rifle.
The pincers grasped at Walker. He dodged and weaved. His hand gripped the hilt of his tactical sword and pulled it from its scabbard. The blade rung as he pulled it free. He twirled it around like a rotor blade. Another pincer stabbed at him.
Walker slashed the stainless steel anodized blade, severing the end of the pincer.
The claw flopped to the ground, and continued to clasp at nothing—an involuntary movement that persisted for several moments.
Green blood spewed from the flailing tail. The creature screeched in pain. The sound was like nails on a chalkboard. It immediately struck back with another attack from its remaining pincer. The claw clasped onto Walker shoulder, piercing his armor. The sharp prongs stabbed into his skin. Pain rocketed through his body. His arm went numb as the creature’s venom entered his veins. The tactical sword dropped from his hand as his grip grew weak.
The dog was barking like crazy.
Walker crumpled to his knees, the venom taking hold. He grabbed the sword with his left hand and spun it around. With his last bit of strength, he hacked the pincer off. It was still gripping into his shoulder.
Walker’s vision was starting to blur. He was only going to have one chance. In a matter of moments, he would likely pass out from the venom. He charged the menacing creature and jammed the blade into its hideous skull. It shrieked and flailed about. Then collapsed. Walker pulled the blade out and stepped back from the carcass. He dropped the blade then ripped the claw out of his shoulder.
His knees went weak and he collapsed to the ground. The temperature was almost unbearable. The ground was searing. If he passed out like this in the noonday sun, he might not survive until the evening.
The dog was barking at him. It latched onto his collar and tried to pull him with his teeth. But the tiny animal didn’t have the strength to pull Walker across the ground.
The dog barked at him some more, then ran into the underground burrow of the arthropod. A few moments later he ran back out and barked at Walker again. His small jaws clasped Walker’s collar, and the dog pulled with all its might. It was like a Chihuahua trying to tow a Mack truck. The dog let go and took a few steps toward the burrow. He looked back at Walker, trying to lead him on.
Walker mustered his last bit of strength and crawled across the gritty sand. His vision was fading. He climbed down into the arthropod’s hole. It was significantly cooler in the underground trench. He could see why the creature had spent most of its day buried in the burrow. Once he was well inside and protected from the harsh sun, Walker passed out.
When he awoke, he was dizzy and nauseous. He dry heaved for a few minutes before his stomach settled down. His body ached like he had the flu, and his head felt like he had downed a bottle of tequila the night before. At least he had survived the poison.
The dog was waiting patiently by his side. He had stayed there the entire time, protecting Walker as he slept. He let out a little bark of joy when Walker moved. He rushed up and licked Walker’s cheek.
“All right, all right.” Walker couldn’t help but grin a little at the dog’s enthusiasm. He pet the dog’s head and scratched his chin. Then the little guy flopped onto his back and exposed his belly, almost demanding he be scratched.
Walker scratched the dog’s tummy and sighed. “I guess I have to give you a name, don’t I?”
The dog barked in affirmation.
“Well, you’re loyal.”
“You kind of sound like a Marine. I’m going to call you Gunnery Sergeant Bailey. How does that sound?”
“Bailey it is.”
Bailey licked Walker’s face again.
“Okay, okay. Settle down, Bailey.” Walker grinned. “This was a good idea you had coming down here. Sure saved my ass.”
Walker peeled off his armor and took the first aid kit from his pack. He cleaned and disinfected his puncture wounds. His clavicle was unharmed, but the stingers had punctured his infraspinatus and subscapularis muscles. His arm was still a little numb from the venom, but when that wore off, he’d be in a world of hurt. He found a regenerative gel compound within the first aid kit and applied it liberally to the area. The compound would speed healing. Then he applied a long acting pain relieving gel that blocked nerve impulses.
His odds of survival dramatically decreased with a gimp arm. He needed to get back in tip top shape as soon as possible. He’d seen how efficient Saarkturian medical technology was, so he was optimistic he’d return to full performance in days rather than weeks.
The blistering heat of midday had passed. If he was going to make it to the mountain range by nightfall, now was the time to start out. But feeling woozy with poison still in his system, and a wounded arm, Walker questioned his ability to make the journey. He had enough rations to last a few days. Best to camp in the burrow for the night and set out in the morning. He just hoped some other creature didn’t try to make this burrow its home during the night.
“The boy is not ready to be King,” Nuule protested.
“He will rise to meet the challenge,” Rylon said. “Queen L’Naar was only 17 when she began her reign.”
The two men spoke in hushed tones in the west colonnade outside of the senate building.
“He knows nothing of leadership. He has no military training. He lacks the experience to inspire men to fight and die.”
“He will learn.”
“He should do so under the guidance of a steward.”
“And who should the Steward of Saarkturia be? You?” Rylon said, smugly.
“I have the allegiance of the generals. I am a veteran of many wars. I am the Chief Magistrate of the Senate, the highest elected official. It is my right, by law, to assume stewardship of the Empire in the event that an heir to the throne cannot, or will not, serve.”
“Valinok is ready and willing to serve.”
“The law is very clear. He is forbidden to serve until he reaches the age of majority.”
“Do you really want to be the one to deny Valinok his rightful place on the throne?” Rylon was clearly threatening Senator Nuule.
“No. That is not my intention,” he stammered. “I merely want to safeguard the throne. So much power at such a young age could be disastrous.”
“I’m sure Valinok’s maturity will surprise you.”
“I am not the only one with these concerns.”
“Then perhaps you should give me the names of these people with concerns, so that I may assuage their fears.” Rylon was making another threat.
Nuule’s eyes narrowed at him. If Rylon was going to threaten him, Nuule was going to threaten him back. It was a risky move. “Without the support of the military it will be impossible to lead.”
“I have spoken with the generals. I have their support. I suggest you reconsider your position.”
Nuule wasn’t sure if Rylon was lying. He knew he was a snake, and not to be trusted. Generals Surlos, Evadeen, and Larook had pledged their support to Nuule in private. Had they switched their allegiance?
The Decluvian Ambassador is arriving shortly.
“They are coming here?” His eyes were wide, and his voice was panicked.
“I am negotiating a treaty.”
Nuule’s face tightened. “All treaty negotiations must meet the approval of the Senate.”
“You can continue to challenge my authority, if you wish. But I am acting at the bequest of our next King.” A smug smirk curled up on Rylon’s lips. “We can argue about the specifics of Saarkturian law, but Valinok’s ascension to the throne is inevitable. It would be unwise to interfere. Good day, Senator.”
Rylon left Nuule fuming in the colonnade. The magistrate’s eyes burned into Rylon like laser beams as he walked away. He knew he was in danger. Rylon would eliminate all who opposed him.
Queen L’Naar had kept Rylon on a short leash during her reign. He was her political attack dog. But unrestrained, there was no limit to the mayhem he could cause. He didn’t seem to have a soul or a conscience. His lust for power was his only guide. If Nuule was going to stop him, it wasn’t going to be through political means. He was going to have to get his hands dirty. It was either kill Rylon, or be killed.
Giles squared off against Slade. He gripped the baton in his right hand, slapping the tip into his left palm. Crack. Crack. Crack. He had a scowl on his face, and his eyes were menacing. He moved closer.
Slade prepared for a fight. Giles was a big guy. He was going to be a lot tougher to bring down than the short, stocky inmate. She’d let him take the first swing, she thought. She’d let his momentum work against him. Once he committed to a swing, his full body weight would be behind it. She could dodge, then make her attack. Take out a knee. Kick him in the groin. Smash his trachea. Gouge his eyes out. That was her plan.
But she didn’t need it.
“I knew there was a reason I liked you,” Giles said.
Slade’s face twisted up, quizzical.
“That little stunt you pulled is gonna set us free.” Giles grinned. “Those guards would never have come in here if you hadn’t beat the snot out of that punk.”
Giles turned to the gang of inmates that were beating the guards. “That’s enough. We need them alive, you morons!”
The ship’s bridge was sealed off from the detention center. There were security cameras embedded everywhere on board. The inmates hoisted the guards onto their feet and dragged them in front of a camera.
With a pistol to O’Connor’s head, Giles made his demands. “I know you can hear me. I just wanted to let you know, there’s been a little change of plans. We’re going to make a detour. You’re going to take us to Beta Hydras, or these guards are going to die.” Giles smiled.
But his smile didn’t last long. The compartment filled with a noxious gas. The inmates quickly began coughing and gasping for air. The gas vented in from several ports. Soon the air was thick with haze.
Slade felt her chest grow tight. She wheezed for breath and felt lightheaded. Then everything went black.
A swift kick to the ribs woke Slade from her slumber. She was no longer aboard the Gibraltar. She was in the prisoner processing station of Alpha Ceti 7. How long and she been unconscious?
“On your feet, scumbag!” yelled a guard as he towered over her.
Slade’s head was throbbing from the gas. Her mouth was dry and pasty. Her lungs burned from the harsh chemical. The kick in the ribs wasn’t helping anything either.
She crawled to her feet and fell inline with the other inmates. But it wasn’t fast enough. As soon as she stood up, the guard planted a fist in her belly. She doubled over in pain.
“When I say move, you move.” This guy made O’Connor seem friendly. “You got me?” His nameplate read: J. Pemberton.
“Yes, sir,” Slade choked out.
Pemberton had short brown hair, buzzed high and tight, a thick nose from multiple fractures, and one artificial eye. But just one look in his good eye, and Slade knew everything she needed to know about this man. He was a killer. And he took this job because he got off on control.
Pemberton looked Slade up and down. Then he walked the line of prisoners. The processing room was a sparse, with grimy walls. The greenish fluorescent lights hummed overhead, bathing the room in a sickly pallor.
“Welcome to Alpha Ceti 7. Your worst fucking nightmare. Each and every one of you are here because you are a dirt bag that society has no use for. You are beyond rehabilitation, as your behavior on the trip over here has demonstrated. It is unfortunate that we no longer have the death penalty. That would make my life a lot easier. I am Captain Pemberton, and you will refer to me as sir, or my title. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” the inmates muttered.
“I didn’t hear you!”
“Yes, sir,” they shouted.
“Some of you are former military. Some of you are civilians. I suspect the former military will fall in line a little quicker around here. If you obey my commands, I’m sure your stay here will be more pleasant. If you don’t, accidents can happen, and we have plenty of body bags.”
It reminded Slade of her first day in basic training.
Pemberton introduced a man with an off white suit and round wire-rimmed glasses. He was a stark contrast to the grimy shit-hole of a prison. “This is Warden Carson. He is God to you scumbags. Do you understand?”
Carson smiled. “Now don’t let Captain Pemberton scare you. I’m not so bad, if you obey my rules. But, if you plan on being a troublemaker. You should be very afraid. Because Captain Pemberton is wrong. I am not God. I am the devil himself.”
Slade could see in Carson’s eyes a man with a cold heart.
Carson walked the line and took note of the prisoners. His eyes lingered on Slade longer than the rest. His eyes soaked in her shapely form like a desert during rain.
“For those of you involved in the riot aboard the Gibraltar, you will be pleased to know that Lieutenant O’Connor has suffered massive brain damage. He’ll likely never utter a coherent word again.” Carson looked over the motley crew again. “Well, I’ll leave you good people in Captain Pemberton’s capable hands.”
Carson left the processing station.
“Alright, dirtbags. Time to get disinfected. Strip down.”
Slade cringed. Was she really going to have to get naked in front of this bunch? She was the only woman in the bunch. Apparently there was no segregation between male and female prisoners.
The rest of the degenerates peeled out of their jumpsuits. It was not a pretty sight. Some were fit and trim. Some were not. Some looked like they hadn’t seen the sun in years. And some looked like they hadn’t taken a shower since the first Verge War.
“What’s the matter, princess? You too good for this? Are you shy? Are you embarrassed?” Pemberton asked.
“Then take your fucking clothes off!”
When it came to medical technology, the Saarkturians knew what they were doing. By the morning, Walker’s wounds were almost healed. He wasn’t going to be bench pressing 300 pounds any time soon, but he had a good range of motion and only mild soreness. The regenerative gel had done its job.
“What do you say, Bailey? You ready for a walk?”
Walker gathered his gear and crawled out of the hole into the freezing pre-dawn desert. The underground burrow had acted as insulation from the elements. It kept cool during the day and retained warmth during the night. Walker wanted to crawl back inside for a moment. It was much more appealing than stepping out into the harsh environment.
The mountains were roughly twenty miles away. Not a leisurely stroll, but doable.
Bailey didn’t want to leave the burrow. And who could blame him? The little guy was shivering.
“C’mon. Don’t be a wuss.”
“I get it. I want to stay in there where it’s warm and sleep all day too. But you’re in the UPDF now. And UPDF Marines don’t get cold.”
Bailey looked up at him with big sad blue eyes.
“Don’t look at me like that.” The two stared at each other for a moment. “Okay, fine. Stay here. But I’m moving on.” Walker took a few steps. “Don’t come crying to me when you get lonely.”
Bailey whimpered but stayed at the mouth of the burrow.
Walker stopped and looked back at him. “C’mon boy.”
But Bailey wasn’t having any of this cold nonsense.
Walker sighed. “New recruits,” he muttered as he marched back to Bailey. He slung his pack from his shoulders and set it on the ground. He pulled out a small blanket. He wrapped Bailey up and put him in the pack with his head protruding out. Then he sealed the pack around him to keep him warm. He hoisted the pack onto his back. Bailey rode piggy back, surveying the terrain over Walker’s shoulder. He was like a king, and Walker was his personal chauffeur.
“I think you’re faking it just to get a free ride.”
Walker marched toward the mountains. He stayed on solid ground, making sure to avoid dunes, or mounds of sand, or anything else that might indicate a creature burrowed underneath.
Once the sun was peeking over the horizon, Bailey was ready to climb out of the pack. It was that time of morning that felt pleasant and tropical. Walker let him out and Bailey followed along on foot. Bailey had no problem keeping up with Walker as he jogged.
By the time they reached the mountainous region, Walker was exhausted. He felt like he had sweated out enough liquid to fill a swimming pool. He guzzled down some of his water, and let Bailey drink his fill. But at this rate, their water supply was going to go fast. Dehydration was going to become a serious concern.
Walker’s exposed skin was already red and peeling from sun exposure. The UV light emanating from the sun was intense. The thinner atmosphere wasn’t shielding out as much of it. It didn’t seem to bother Bailey at all. His skin was built for this climate.
The two snaked their way into a canyon. Its sheer cliffs would provide shade from the sun in the mornings and afternoons. But noon was fast approaching. And there was another problem. Walker got the distinct impression that something was following them. Another predator, out there, stalking them.
A falling rock. A blur of movement out of the corner of his eye. A gut feeling. That’s all he had to go on. But it was enough. He had learned long ago to trust that little voice that whispered in the back of his mind. Every time he had ignored that feeling, he had wished he’d listened.
Walker marched through the canyon and found an overhang that provided cover. The massive rock jutted out at an almost perpendicular angle. Walker and Bailey climbed into the protective alcove and took shelter. It wasn’t an ideal situation, but it might get them through the hottest part of the day. Hopefully the rocks would radiate enough warmth to get them through the night.
Noon was tough. The reflection of the sun on the bright sand was blinding. It was enough to burn your retina, if you stared at it long enough. Every breath of air was like fire. Nothing moved on the surface of this planet at midday. Not even bugs.
As the afternoon began to cool, Walker set out to find some wood for a fire. The only vegetation on this rotten planet were the twisted thorn-filled trees. He used his tactical sword to hack the branches. The blade had serrations near the hilt. It wasn’t as good as a saw, but with some effort, it worked. He cut down a few trees and carried the wood back to the campsite, making several trips. He still couldn’t shake the feeling that eyes were upon him.
After the sun dipped down below the horizon, Walker made a fire. He and Bailey huddled around it and ate some rations. It almost felt like camping. All they needed were some marshmallows. But this was one trip to the wilderness that wasn’t going to end.
Walker planned on getting an early start in the morning to look for a more suitable, long-term shelter. He wrapped Bailey up in a blanket, and the two settled in for some shut-eye. Walker used his pack as a makeshift pillow. The amber flames flickered and popped and threw off a nice amount of heat. The alcove in the rocks seem to hold in the warmth rather well. All in all, it wasn’t a bad place to camp for the evening.
By the middle of the night, the fire had died down. Only a few glowing coals and ash remained. And the temperature had dropped considerably. But that wasn’t the worst of their problems.
There was a howling in the distance. The discordant sound drew closer.
In the darkness, Walker could hear heavy footsteps and deep rumbling breaths. He peeled his eyelids open and stared out into the night. Staring back at him were three pairs of fierce eyes, reflecting the glow of the smoldering embers of the fire. The eyes stood maybe three feet above the ground. They weren’t human. Throaty snarls filled the air. The eyes drew closer. These were the eyes of a predator. No doubt about it.
“This agreement is unacceptable to us.” The Decluvian Ambassador crossed his arms and sat back in his chair. His face was stern. Ugly. But stern.
The Decluvian’s had evolved from an amphibian species. They had brightly colored skin with black spots. The ambassador’s predominant color was orange, but some were blue, others were yellow, some were green, and some displayed multiple colors.
Large, protruding eyes gave them almost 360 degree vision. They had long, slender fingers—three on each hand, and an opposable thumb. There was slight webbing in between the digits. The tips of their fingers could adhere to almost anything. They preferred hot and humid climates with lots of water. And water was something the Decluvians were running out of.
They were an aposematic species—their skin was toxic. And they could also secrete the toxin through sweat when threatened. Touching a Decluvian could be a deadly proposition. The poison easily permeated through Saarkturian and human skin. Almost instantaneous paralysis and loss of autonomic function would result.
They didn’t really have tentacles—that was the stuff of urban legend and contemptuous jokes. But there were plenty of other species out in the cosmos that did have tentacles.
The two men sat at a table in a conference room within the palace. The Ambassador had two personal guards with him. Rylon attended the meeting without guards—though they weren’t far away.
“We’ve conceded the Thelovian sector,” Rylon said. “I’ve offered the Kophosis realm, which has more water than you could use in a hundred lifetimes. Plus the promise of lasting peace between our great civilizations.”
“Saarkturia must become a Decluvian colony and swear allegiance to Emperor Tyvelon,” said Ambassador Borgnavi.
Rylan gritted his teeth and smiled. Borgnavi was full of himself. There was no way a Saarkturian would ever bow down to a Decluvian. And, apparently, they felt the same way.
“What I’m offering is a peaceful coexistence, and a shared throne. With a Decluvian Queen on a Saarkturian throne, you are guaranteed a voice and a legacy in the monarchy.”
Borgnavi kept his stern look.
“Allegiance to the Emperor.”
Rylon sighed. “I have made a good faith gesture with Thelovian. Keep it. The sector is yours. When you wish to resume these negotiations, in good faith, let me know.” He smiled and stood up from the table.
Borgnavi looked flustered. “I have traveled a great distance to negotiate, and you walk out?”
“I didn’t see any negotiating on your part. I only heard demands.”
Borgnavi scowled at him.
The Decluvians weren’t the best negotiators in the galaxy, and they wore their emotions on their sleeves. But they knew enough to ask for more than they wanted. And Rylon knew this. It was all about posturing, but eventually the Ambassador would come back down to reality.
“There are 15 inhabited planets in that sector. We’d have to relocate countless civilians, not to mention the mineral value.” Rylon pretended to be appalled at the idea.
“We want Phiblios.”
In truth, there were only a handful of settlers in the Phiblios sector. It was junk. The planets had no real value. Rylon knew the Declovians wanted the system, but he had no idea why. “I don’t know, that’s asking a lot. I’ll have to bring that before the King, but I don’t think he will agree.”
“Phiblios, or there is no deal.”
“I will need assurances from you. Do not make me look like a fool. I will present this to the King on your behalf. But you must give me your word that the Emperor will agree to these terms.”
The Ambassador leaned in and smiled. “Unlike you, I have the authority to negotiate on his behalf.”
“I can only aspire to be someone as powerful as yourself. Thank you for your time and consideration. I will be in contact with you as soon as the King makes a decision.” Rylon was stroking Borgnavi’s ego, and playing hard to get. He didn’t need to get Valinok’s approval on anything. The boy would do as he suggested.
The inmates were hosed down with a high pressure line. It felt like thousands of pellets hitting your skin. Afterwards, they stepped into a chamber with a disinfectant gas.
Slade emerged from the chamber, hacking and coughing. Her lungs were on fire. It was probably Methylchloraltrioxilate. A known carcinogen.
She covered her private parts as best she could. But no one was shy about looking. Half of the men had pitched a tent. The other half probably couldn’t get it up. Slade was a good looking woman. That fact wasn’t lost on anyone.
The prisoners were marched to another room where a woman with latex gloves performed a cavity search on each of the inmates. Slade breathed a sigh of relief that it was a woman conducting the search, and that she was changing gloves between each prisoner. But Pemberton made sure to take a special interest in Slade’s examination, standing over the woman’s shoulder.
The prisoners were issued new jumpsuits, then escorted to their cells. The entire prison watched with glee as the freshman class of inmates nervously strolled into their new home. There were whistles and catcalls. Hoots and hollers. And all manner of sexual offers.
Giles was pulled out of line and forced to wait in the commons area. The rest were shown to their compartments.
Slade caught a lucky break—she was bunking with Kirby. At least she wouldn’t have a fight every night after the lights went out. She figured she could handle Kirby. And he seemed like a nice enough kid. He had probably hacked a computer system somewhere. Exposed government corruption. Did something to piss someone of power off. He wasn’t like the others, and he probably didn’t really belong here. Neither did Slade, for that matter. But if you asked anybody who was an inmate at Alpha Ceti 7, none of them belonged here. They were all innocent.
“What we’ve got here is a leader,” Pemberton said as he circled Giles. “An instigator. One thing we do not like here are leaders. Thinkers. Revolutionaries. You keep your head down and do your time, and we will all get along just fine. But this man started a riot.” Pemberton gripped his baton. “Let this be a lesson to anyone who would lead a revolt.”
Pemberton whacked Giles in the gut. He doubled over with pain. The other guards joined in beating Giles to the ground. They hit him and kicked him and zapped him with their stun batons. Blood splattered. Ribs cracked. Bones broke. When it was all said and done, Giles was a twitching blob on the floor, amidst a pool of blood.
Pemberton looked upon his handiwork with glee.
A couple of guards dragged Giles’s broken body to the medical center.
It was a running joke among the inmates. Sure, the facility had a medical center for the staff and to administer routine medications for the inmates. They were quick to deal with colds and flu and infectious outbreaks. But forget about major medical. The major medical center was the facility’s crematorium.
They boxed Giles up and put him on the conveyor belt, and rolled him into a 4000 degree furnace. You could hear his screams reverberate all the way through the cell block.
Pemberton and his gang weren’t fucking around. Sure, they got paid by the number of inmates housed. But that didn’t keep them from sacrificing one, just to let the others know how the rule of law worked here.
The first night was the worst. If you could make it through the first night, maybe you could make it through the second. And if you could make it through the second, maybe the third wasn’t out of the question. And that was how you had to do your time at Alpha Ceti 7. One day at a time. For the rest of your life.
For some, it was too much. The prospect of spending the rest of their life in this shit-hole was too much to bear. They hung themselves, or found a way to open up their carotid artery, or slice their wrists. Kirby cried himself to sleep that night. But he didn’t kill himself.
There were no windows in the facility. You had no idea if it was day or night. You had to rely on the schedule provided for you by the facility’s lighting. It was an underground facility. The surface wasn’t survivable. With an average temperature of 300 degrees, Alpha Ceti 7 was the perfect place for a prison. Even if you could escape, you had nowhere to go. There were over 2000 inmates incarcerated in the facility. None of them were ever going to see the light of day again.
And the smell was something atrocious. Like an old pair of gym clothes that never got washed. The hot, damp, musty body odor of 2000 men. Pungent and sour.
The facility was completely dependent upon resupply ships. Of course, there were evacuation protocols for the staff, in case of emergency. But a delayed resupply transport could wreak havoc on the day-to-day operations.
Breakfast was a chalky, thick liquid that contained all of the vital nutrients. Bland and tasteless. But it would keep you from starving. You weren’t going to get bacon and eggs in this place, not even on holidays.
In the mess hall, all eyes were on the newbies. The inmates were like sharks eying fresh meat. Slade took a seat at an empty table. Kirby followed close behind. He knew if anyone could protect him in here, it would be Slade.
She stared at her cup of tasteless slop, then began to slurp it down. It was gross and left a bad aftertaste. She kept her eyes sharp, surveying the crowd. She knew she was going to get tested on her first day in the joint, just like she had been on the transport ship. It was just a question of who. Would it be the big, thick meathead? The short mouthy guy with his entourage? The inmate with the cold stare and a gang tattoo under his eye? Those were just the guys at the next table. Every inmate in here was a potential threat.
In the sea of hard faces, she saw one that was familiar. Commander Ian Marlow. Former Commander Marlow—now inmate 2993836.
Marlow caught sight of Slade and moved to her table. “Mind if I have a seat, Captain.”
“I wouldn’t wish this place on my worst enemy. But it’s nice to see a familiar face.” He set his half eaten cup of gruel on the table and sat down. “Welcome to the resort. I’m sure you’ll get a visit from the real welcoming committee soon. So keep eyes in the back of your head.”
“Who should I be concerned with?”
“It may be the warden’s prison, but Tiny controls the inmates. Over my left shoulder, two tables back. You can’t miss him.”
Slade’s eyes found the man. He made Giles look like a dwarf. Tiny’s face was hard and rugged. He was built like a tank. Broad shoulders. Hulking biceps. Cinder blocks for fists. It was easy to see why he ran the show in here. There wasn’t another inmate that could match him in a fight. Whatever Tiny wanted, he got. By the look in his eye, he wanted Slade. He was staring right back at her.
Slade blew him a kiss, just to let him know she wasn’t afraid of him.
Walker gripped his weapon and lined up a pair of eyes in his sights. He carefully placed a few logs onto the glowing coals, hoping to restart the fire. Most animals are afraid of fire, he thought. Maybe if he could get the fire going again it would keep these things at bay.
Bailey was up and barking. He kept it up even as the predators emerged from the darkness. The little guy didn’t lack on courage or tenacity, that was for certain. Either that, or he was completely unaware of just how small he was in comparison.
As the predators drew closer, their form became more apparent. They looked like armor plated saber tooth tigers. Long, sharp fangs. Ravenous eyes. Scale-like articulated plates lined their backs, with rows of thorny spikes. This wasn’t a cat that liked to be petted. These were vicious killers, and they were drooling in anticipation of their next meal.
Bailey had a lot of bark, but not near enough bite for these beasts. But he wasn’t backing down.
The beasts closed in.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
One of the beasts went down in a flurry of gunfire. Blood erupted from the creature’s armor plating.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
Another went down. Its heavy body slapped the rocky ground. Blood pooled around its carcass.
Walker fired with speed and precision. But he wasn’t fast enough.
The third beast tackled Walker. The creature flared its fangs and dove for Walker’s jugular. Walker dodged and struggled with the beast. He could smell its hot breath. It was powerful—300 pounds of lean muscle. A pure killing machine.
Bailey kept barking. He was the pep squad. But sensing the dire situation, he entered the fray. He bolted forward and clamped his little jaw onto the beast’s hind leg.
The beast kicked him away.
Bailey tumbled across the rocks in a plume of dirt. Then he charged right back at the ferocious predator.
Walker evaded the snapping jaws of the vicious creature. He finally heaved the beast aside and blasted his weapon. Bullets ripped through the predator’s armor. Blood splattered on the rocks. The heavy beast fell limp.
Walker was bleeding from gouges across his face and neck. He was lucky the beast’s claws hadn’t ripped out his jugular. But at least they were safe.
Bailey growled at the fallen beast, triumphantly. He looked back at Walker and barked, almost taking credit for the victory.
“You’re a killer, Bailey. No doubt about it.”
The bright side to this little altercation was that they had meat. Walker took his tactical knife and skinned and quartered one of the beasts. Then he skewed a chunk of meat on his tactical sword and barbecued it over the fire. He tossed the cooked meat to Bailey for approval. The dog wolfed it down without hesitation. Walker sampled a piece himself. To his surprise, it was tasty. Like a juicy steak back home. It wasn’t tough or gamey. It looked like Walker and Bailey were going to feast like kings.
There were undoubtedly more of these predators roaming the canyons. It was both a curse and a blessing. They’d have a supply of food, but eventually, Walker was going to run out of bullets. And that would make defending themselves even more difficult.
A constant source of clean water was their next priority.
Walker stoked the fire, and the two slept fat and happy for the rest of the night. They set out in the morning to further explore the canyon.
The shade of the canyon was much more pleasant than the direct sun. It was almost like a casual hike. Just a man and his dog. Walker kept an eye on the ridge line, looking for more saber-toothed monsters. But he didn’t have that eerie sensation of being followed. It would be nice to make it through a whole day without having to fight for your life.
With a stroke of luck, he found an entrance to a cave. Bailey rushed in, throwing caution to the wind.
“Bailey!” Walker shouted at the impetuous dog. He gritted his teeth and stormed after him. He had already grown fond of the little guy, but he wasn’t about to admit it.
Walker moved into the darkness of the cavern. “Sergeant. Get back here!”
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust.
“Bailey!” Walker’s voice echoed through the darkness. This was no small cave.
Walker struck a flashlight. The beam pierced the darkness, finding the rocky walls of the cavern. He scanned the rugged cave—Bailey was nowhere in sight.
He could hear the dog moving somewhere in the farther recesses of the cavern. The cave funneled off into pitch blackness. Walker followed the passageway as it narrowed. At one point, he had to crawl on his hands and knees to get through a tiny tunnel. He emerged on the other side in a room full of stalactites and stalagmites. A wondrous domed structure. The crystalline ceiling reflected brilliant hues of color from the beam of his flashlight.
In the center of the chamber, there was a crystal clear pond. Bailey was lapping from its surface. If it was good enough for Bailey, it was good enough for Walker. He knelt down beside the pond, cupped his hands, and scooped water towards his lips.
It tasted perfect. Crisp and clean. No odor or aftertaste. Pure, spring fed goodness. A smile curled on Walker’s lips. They had an endless supply of water, shelter from the sun, and there were beasts to hunt. He felt like he could survive on this planet for as long as necessary. Years, if need be. It was like a huge weight was lifted.
Walker and Bailey drank their fill. But there was something in the water that had plans of its own. A massive tentacle slipped quietly out of the water. Walker and Bailey were too preoccupied to notice. The tentacle slithered and coiled, then lunged for Walker. It wrapped around his forearm. Another snared his leg.
The tentacles jerked him into the water with a splash, pulling him under. Water rushed into his lungs. He hacked and coughed, and that only let more water in. Walker struggled. Bubbles rushed to the surface amid the commotion. More tentacles restrained him, pulling him closer to the hideous amphibian. A giant, squid like creature with black eyes and a mouth like a meat grinder.
Walker struggled, his lungs burning from lack of oxygen. The horrid leviathan pulled him deeper. He could hear the muffled barks of Bailey at the surface. He hoped the little guy would be smart and run. This creature had plenty of tentacles. Nothing near the surface of the water was safe.
“You cannot make me marry a Saarkturian,” the princess said. “I won’t do it.”
She was like any other teenage girl, except she was blue and orange and had black spots. And her father was Emperor Tyvelon.
The two argued on the terrace of her chamber in the Royal Palace. It overlooked the muggy swamp city of Bhodulaa. The sounds of the swamp insects filled the night air. It was as thick and tense as the conversation.
“Kyva, you will do as I say.” Tyvelon’s face tensed. “You will sit upon the throne of Saarkturia, and ensure peace for our people.”
“It’s repulsive that you would use me as something to bargain with. And don’t talk to me about peace when you intend to destroy the humans as part of the deal.”
If Tyvelon had hair, he’d have pulled it out in frustration. He was ruler of the Decluvian Realm. He was feared and respected. No one dared to utter a contrary word. Except his daughter. She was the one person in the Realm he couldn’t control. “You get your politics from your mother.”
“At least one of my parents has common sense.”
“Watch your tongue, young lady. I’ve sent men to their death for less than that.”
“It’s a good thing I’m not a man.”
“You are going to marry the prince and ascend to the throne, if I have to imprison you and ship you to Saarkturia in a cage.”
“It’s so dry there. My skin is going to flake and crack.”
“I have a life here. You can’t make me leave it.”
“Is this about that boy?”
“He has a name, father. Sivaan.”
“I love him.”
“You don’t know what love is.”
“According to mother, neither do you.”
Tyvelon scowled at her. “I’m going to make this very simple for you. Do as I say, or life is going to get very difficult for Sivaan.”
Kyva glared at the Emperor. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“I’ve already had him arrested. I’ll release him when you’re in Saarkturia.”
Kyva’s big eyes filled with tears. She beat her father’s chest. “I hate you.”
“One day you’ll learn, a leader makes sacrifices for the good of the people.” Tyvelon marched out of her chamber.
Kyva crumpled to the floor, sobbing.
Tyvelon returned to his chambers and activated a 3D communication device. A few moments later, a holographic image of Rylon appeared before him in the room.
“Emperor, it’s so great to see you. Have you given consideration to my proposal?”
“It is acceptable to me. My daughter is enthusiastic. She will be on the Royal Transport to Saarkturia tomorrow.”
“Excellent,” Rylon said, grinning. “Valinok is eagerly awaiting her arrival. It seems we have a deal.”
“My legion will crush the humans. And our agreement will produce an heir to the throne of Saarkturia, unifying both our species.”
Rylon smiled. “I look forward to the day.”
“Probably shouldn’t have done that,” Marlow said.
“I’m not really known for doing what I should do,” Slade said. “I tend to follow my gut.”
“Seems like your gut landed you in this place. May want to reevaluate.”
“What’s Tiny’s story?”
“Does he need one? He’s trouble. That’s all you need to know. I’d tell you to keep your head down and steer clear, but you’re already on his radar.”
“His real name is Beauford T. Jackson,” Kirby said. “He’s in for murder, aggravated sexual assault, drug trafficking, and conspiracy.”
“How do you know all this?” Marlow asked, surprised.
“I hacked the correctional system database. I wanted to find out as much information about this place as possible.”
“What else do you know about this place?” Slade asked.
“Lots of stuff. Daily operations. Maintenance and delivery schedules, annual revenue. I know this place is probably cooking the books.”
“They’re claiming more inmates than they have. By my count there’s 2037 inmates in the mess hall, give or take. There’s 2354 on the official roster. Where are the other 300?”
“People go missing around here all the time,” Marlow said. “Or worse.”
“What do you mean, worse?” Slade asked.
One of the guards strolled past the table.
“Some other time,” Marlow said, keeping an eye on the guard.
The guard thwacked his stun baton on the table, then pointed it at Marlow. The cups of breakfast slop bounced and fell over.
“You eyeballing me, old-timer?”
“No, sir,” Marlow said.
“Clean that mess up. Now!”
Marlow grabbed a napkin and started mopping up the spilled slop. He wiped it off the edge of the table and shovel it back into the cup. Then he gulped it down.
Slade looked at him with wide eyes.
“You gotta take what food you can get around here. Trust me, you’ll do even more degrading things in order to survive.”
This was the kind of place that broke you down mentally, until you just gave up and complied. But Slade had never been one to comply. She wasn’t going to start now.
“Just watch yourself,” Marlow said. “They’ll come at you in the bathrooms, the showers, they can even get to you in your cell after lockdown.”
Kirby was rattled. His face went pale and his big eyes stared at Marlow. His hands were trembling. “How can they get into your cell after lockdown?” he stammered.
“The guards are as crooked as the cons in this place,” Marlow said. “Inmates buy them off with money, drugs, sexual favors, or a share the profits for turning someone out.”
Kirby swallowed hard.
“Don’t accept any favors from anyone,” said Marlow. “You may soon find that you owe them something.”
Slade had heard enough, she was going to set the tone right here and right now—in front of everyone, for all to see. She pushed up from the table and marched over to Tiny’s table. The whole cafeteria went silent.
Marlow watched with concern.
Tiny’s glaring eyes pierced into her. He sat still and waited for her to speak.
“I hear you run the show,” Slade said.
“The inmates have put their faith in me. Have you come to worship?” His voice boomed in a low rumble.
“I came to tell you that your show is over. It’s my show now. And I’m gonna make you my bitch.”
Tiny’s gang burst into laughter.
“Damn, honey. You got big balls for a sweet little thing,” one of them said.
“You gonna let her speak to you like that, Tiny?” another asked.
Tiny wasn’t laughing. He pushed up from the table.
Slade got an eyeful of just how massive this man was. She had a sinking feeling in her stomach, like she had made a big mistake. But she couldn’t back down now. She looked him up and down, then let him have it. “Yeah, you look bitch to me.”
There was no laughter this time.
Tiny’s gang was stunned. They stared at Slade, slack-jawed with wide eyes. Nobody ever insulted Tiny, and lived.
Tiny clenched his jaw, and the veins in his forehead bulged. Rage boiled behind his eyes. He cut through the clearing between the tables, and the mammoth man squared off against Slade.
The guards had taken notice. But they weren’t going to do anything. This was a free show. And they were going to let it play out. It wasn’t often they saw someone go up against Tiny.
“Tell you what, sweetheart,” Tiny said. “If you drop to your knees right now, I might be willing to forget this whole incident. Let me put the faith in you.”
People were starting to place bets on how long the fight would last, or if Slade would comply with his request. Nobody was betting on who would win the fight. It was a given that Tiny would crush her. He was an easy 400 pounds. Slade was maybe 105 pounds, after a meal.
Slade held up her pinky finger and wiggled it. “I bet it’s no bigger than this. Are you sure you want to embarrass yourself in front of all these people?”
Tiny clenched his jaw, and his fists balled up. He had taken all the abuse he was going to take from Slade. He charged at her and swung a sweeping right hook. She ducked down, slid under, and bounced up behind him. She could feel the wind from his swing as it narrowly missed her face.
The crowd was on their feet, screaming and cheering.
Tiny and Slade had switched positions. Tiny turned around and came back at her with the same right hook. Same result. She ducked again and bounced up on the other side. He was big. Big and slow.
Slade needed to keep him moving and wear him down. Just one hit from those cinderblock fists would be enough to put her out cold. This was going to be a war of attrition. Gorilla tactics.
Tiny charged her again. He was like a Mack truck, barreling down the highway. And he was coming in low. She wasn’t going to be able to duck under him this time.
Slade feinted right, then left. But she had nowhere to go, stuck between the rows of tables.
Tiny swung an uppercut that connected with Slade’s jaw. The impact launched Slade into the air, throwing her several feet back. She smacked the hard concrete floor like a stone.
Tiny was moving in for the kill.
Strong tentacles pulled Walker closer to the rows of serrated teeth. A razor sharp shredding machine. Walker’s arms were wrapped up tight. It felt like a boa constrictor squeezing his torso. He had no control.
He was well below the surface. Only the narrow beam of the flashlight on the shore lit the cavern. This creature was pulling him into the dark depths of the water. Soon he would reach his breakpoint—the point where your body will involuntarily gasp for breath. A last, dying attempt for oxygen.
Reapers went through extensive underwater training. A two minute breath hold was required at the Advance Special Warfare School. But that was nothing. Walker could easily do 3 times that, under normal circumstances. But this was anything but normal. When the creature had pulled him into the water, Walker didn’t have a full breath. There was no way he could hold his breath for even two minutes with an empty set of lungs.
As Walker was pulled toward the thing’s meat grinder of a mouth, he kicked the monster right between its ugly eyes. The blow stunned the slimy bastard, momentarily. Its tentacles went slack. Walker wrenched an arm free and grabbed his tactical sword. He pulled it from its scabbard and hacked the rubbery tentacles in half, freeing his other arm. Then he severed the tentacles that gripped his legs. Black, inky blood filled the water.
More tentacles curled around his legs, pulling Walker closer to the creature’s deadly mouth. Walker desperately needed air, but the thing was dragging him deeper. Another foot, and Walker was going to feel the sting of this monster’s teeth.
As he drew close, Walker jammed his blade right between the monster’s eyes. It squirmed and flailed. Tentacles waived and twisted. It let out a hideous screech. Then the thing retreated into the deep in the blink of an eye.
Walker sheathed the blade, then he pulled and kicked toward the surface. His lungs burned. His heart was pounding. His arms felt like rubber, worn out from the struggle. His vision was beginning to fade. He was so close, but the surface seemed so far away. He could hear Bailey barking, and it sounded like a distant dream.
He kept pulling toward the surface. Toward that narrow beam of light. He finally broke through the surface and gasped for air. He swam to shore and pulled himself out of the water. His chest heaved for breath. Air never tasted so good.
Bailey was still barking at the monster lurking in the deep. Walker scooped him up and carried him back a safe distance. There was no telling if that thing would come back. Hopefully it was dying at the bottom of the pond, but Walker couldn’t be sure. He would have to be extremely cautious the next time he needed to get water from this hole. But right now, it was the only source of water they had.
Walker deflated. The flashlight was still resting at the edge of the water. He let out a deep exhale. He didn’t want to go anywhere near the water. Not today. He had enough of slimy water monsters. He had enough of things trying to eat him. But that flashlight was too valuable to leave. Like the shuttle, it had a power supply that would last for the next 20 years. There really wasn’t much difference between it and the shuttle’s power supply. Same technology—different voltage circuits. He had to hand it to the Saarkturians—they had better technology, all the way around.
Walker set Bailey down. “Stay here. That’s an order, Sergeant.”
Walker crept toward the edge of the water. It was still rippling and lapping against the shore from all of the commotion. The sound echoed off the cavern walls. Walker knelt down and snatched the flashlight, keeping his distance from the water. His legs were ready to spring away at the slightest hint of the monster. Pools of its inky blood had risen to the surface. He shined the light deep into the water, but didn’t see a trace of the slimy creature.
He stepped back from the water’s edge and shined the flashlight across the cavern. It looked like it continued on, but he was in no mood to further explore it today. He didn’t even want to know what lurked deeper in this cave. But his imagination couldn’t help but run wild.
He led Bailey up to the front part of the cave near the entrance. Walker peeled off his armor, and underclothes, and set them near the edge of the cave. It didn’t take long in the extreme heat to dry.
He waited out the scorching midday sun, then went looking for firewood. He returned with enough wood for the night. He started a fire and grilled up some sabertooth. He and Bailey ate like kings again. After the day they had been through, they deserved it.
The cave seemed to be ideal. The rock formations at the entrance kept the wind out of the cavern. The fire kept the front portion of the cave comfortably warm at night. It was elevated and provided a good view of the canyon. There was a fair amount of wildlife in the canyon to hunt. It seemed like a sustainable shelter. Walker felt like he and Bailey had found their new home, for the time being.
He grilled up another section of meat and tossed it to Bailey. The little guy devoured it. It seemed like he could eat twice his weight.
Walker watched him with a smile. “Don’t you have any family, Bailey?”
Bailey looked up at him and tilted his head. Then went back to his meat.
“How did you end up out here, all alone?”
Bailey’s big eyes looked at him again for a moment.
“I know you didn’t fall out of the sky, like I did.”
Bailey rushed over to Walker and licked his face.
Walker chuckled. “I guess we’re family now, huh, Sergeant?”
Walker pet Bailey and scratched his belly, just the way Bailey liked it.
Walker smiled. There could be worse things, he thought. He could be stuck on this planet all alone. At least he had Bailey to keep him company.
After he had finished his meal, Walker stood up and walked to the mouth of the cave. He looked up at the stars. It was a crystal-clear night. It seemed like you could see all the way across the galaxy. Somewhere out there, one of those specks of light was the sun that New Earth circled around. He wondered if he would ever see it again.
His mind drifted to Captain Slade. Her supple skin. Her luscious curves. Her no bullshit personality. A woman like that could give a man hope. And that’s what Walker clung to. If he ever got off this rock, he was going to find her, and take her to the Zeta Hydrus nebula, and finish what they had started.
The thought made him smile, and gave him something to dream about. But his dream was interrupted. A high pitched whine woke him in the middle of the night.
Slade’s vision was blurred, and her jaw hurt like hell. She spit out a piece of a chipped tooth. It bounced across the concrete, along with her pinkish saliva, tainted with blood.
She saw Tiny charging at her—a blurry figure, like an ox. She sprung to her feet and dodged just in time to miss his next devastating blow.
He wasn’t expecting her to get up so fast. He was expecting her to dodge like she did. His fist, like a wrecking ball, narrowly missed her face. The breeze fluttered her hair. Tiny had put all of his weight into the swing. When he missed, the momentum carried him forward, and he fell to the ground.
Slade reeled back and kicked him with everything she had—right in the groin. You could hear a collective “Ew,” among the crowd. The men instinctually grabbed at their own gonads in sympathy.
Slade leapt into the air and did an elbow drop on Tiny, smashing his head against the concrete. Blood spattered from his nose and lips. His front teeth shattered against the concrete.
But that didn’t keep him down. The big, toothless son-of-a-bitch pushed off the ground.
Slade kicked him in the head, hard. His head rocked back a few inches. That was it. A kick that hard should have split his head open. It would have knocked the average man unconscious. He should have had brain damage. Instead, he was just pissed off. He glared at Slade and stood up.
He spit blood onto the concrete and charged her. 400 pounds of pissed off meat, barreling toward her.
Slade dodged, but Tiny swung a colossal blow that connected with her chest. The punch lifted her from her feet and flung her back. She heard a few ribs crack. Slade crashed into a table of inmates and rolled off of them, back onto her feet.
Tiny swung again.
Slade ducked and dodged underneath and spun around behind him. She gasped for air. Every breath ached.
The crowd began to chant: Tiny, Tiny, Tiny…
This guy was unbeatable. He just kept coming. He charged at her again, and swung a wide hook.
Slade ducked and tripped him as he passed. She pounced on him, getting him in a chokehold from behind. Tiny punched at her, bloodying her face. But she held on tight. This was it. If she let go she was dead.
After a few moments, Tiny passed out.
She could kill him now. Or, at least, paralyze him. It would be an easy snap of the neck. She thought about it long and hard. The best defense was a good offense. If she snapped his neck, she’d establish her dominance. Nobody would come at her again.
Slade had killed before on the battlefield. But that was the enemy. She had never killed in cold blood. And she wasn’t going to start now.
She loosened her arm from Tiny’s neck.
The crowd was dead silent.
Slade stood up and wiped the blood from her face. She spit blood onto the concrete and surveyed the crowd with weary eyes.
They all stared at her, slack-jawed. Never in a million years did they think a woman would take down Tiny.
Slade grabbed his ankle and lifted it high in the air. Then she kicked his knee sideways with all her might. It bent 90 degrees in the wrong way. Muscles and tendons and ligaments snapped. You could hear it clear across the cafeteria. She strolled around Tiny’s body and lifted his other ankle. With a massive crunch, she snapped the other knee.
Tiny would never walk in the same way again. He certainly wouldn’t be a threat anymore. It was enough of a demonstration to keep anyone from thinking she was weak. There was a valid argument that it was even more cruel than killing Tiny. He’d have to spend the rest of his life in this prison with the embarrassment of the loss to Slade. But then again, nobody in this prison thought of Slade as an ordinary woman anymore.
“Anybody else want a piece of me?” Slade said.
The room was silent.
“That’s what I thought.”
The guards rushed in cautiously. Even they were skittish of her now.
She surrendered, knelt down, and let them shackle her.
“You just broke one of our fundamental rules,” Pemberton said. “No fighting.” But even he had enjoyed the show. “That’s 30 days in the hole, scumbag. We’re about to see how tough you really are.”
Pemberton yanked her to her feet.
Marlow and Kirby watched with a mix of glee and concern. Marlow knew what 30 days in the hole could do to a person. But he was proud of the way she had fought.
Kirby was nervous. Slade was his only hope of protection.
“Anybody fucks with you, tell them they’ll have to deal with me,” Slade said.
Pemberton dragged her away to the pit. Solitary confinement wasn’t just a 6x9 cell with no human contact. It was a water-filled pit, with about 3 inches between the surface of the water and the grate. The only way to survive was to cling onto the grate and pull your nose above the waterline to breathe. It was too deep to stand in. And you had to do all your business in the water. And who knew if they ever cleaned it? Most people didn’t survive 24 hours in the hole, much less 30 days.
It took Walker a second to place the sound. But then it became clear. It was a sound of a thruster powering up. But then it sputtered and died.
Walker rushed to the edge of the cave and tried to pinpoint the direction of the sound. It was due south. Maybe four or five clicks.
The engine spun up again, choked, sputtered, then conked out.
It had to be the Verge gunship—he had shot that bastard down, after all.
Walker rushed back into the cave and grabbed his gear. He told Bailey to stay put, the dog was very good at listing. He could sense the urgency, and he wasn’t about to miss out on any of the action.
The cold of the night was brutal. It felt like your bones turned into icicles. Walker jogged through the canyon toward the sound of the troubled engine. It wasn’t long before Bailey was shivering. Walker bundled him up in a blanket and put him in the pack, as he had done before.
Bailey huddled over Walker’s shoulder, his eyes and ears at full attention. Walker’s heart pounded as he ran, and the exertion kept him warm within his armor.
At the end of the canyon there were a sea of dunes that spanned a few miles. Walker could see the gunship. It had crashed and plowed through one of the dunes, but didn’t look to be in bad shape—other than its engine problem.
He saw the pilot working on the engine.
Walker grinned from ear to ear—that ship was his way off of this planet.
He lined the Verge pilot up in his sights. It was maybe 1000 yards. He had a clear shot. He had made plenty of kills at a greater distance.
He flicked the safety off and wrapped his finger around the trigger. He clenched his jaw and frowned. He was conflicted. He wanted to kill that bastard for shooting him down. But he wasn’t an expert in Saarkturian technology—Walker might not be able to get those engines up and running on his own. He needed the Saarkturian alive. At least until the ship was repaired.
“I’m going to need you to be really, really quiet. You got me?” Walker whispered.
Bailey let out an almost imperceptible whimper.
“Absolutely no barking.”
Bailey licked Walker’s ear.
The sun was just edging up over the horizon. Walker’s plan was to sneak through the dunes and ambush the Saarkturian. Take him prisoner, make him fix the ship, then leave him stranded on the planet. That seemed like a fitting retribution. After all, these aliens were on their way to annihilate the human race. They deserved no compassion.
Walker used the dunes as cover and made a wide arc around to the far side of the ship. He crawled on his belly to the ridge of a dune and surveyed the craft. The Saarkturian was on the other side of the gunship. Walker had a clean approach to the vehicle. The Saarkturain wouldn’t be able to see him from this angle.
Walker took off his pack. Bailey crawled out.
“Stay here. If anything happens, head back to the cave. You got me? I don’t want any heroics out of you.”
Bailey just tilted his head. He didn’t understand.
Walker scuttled to a rock formation and took cover. Bailey started to follow, but Walker waved him off. Bailey reluctantly crouched down and hid behind the ridge of the dune.
Walker readied his weapon and dashed to the craft without making a sound. He rested his back against the bulkhead. He could hear the alien working on the other side.
The sun rose over the horizon, bringing the first rays of dawn. The bright light had to be difficult on the Saarkturian’s sensitive eyes. And his pale skin probably burned faster than the average human’s. The alien had probably been working on the ship that night, avoiding the daylight. He’d most likely be calling it quits soon.
Walker crept to the rear of the ship. He turned the corner by the port side thruster, then swung around the starboard thruster, taking aim at the alien. “Don’t move,” he said in Saarkturese. “Drop the tools. Put your hands in the air.”
The alien didn’t comply.
“I know you understand me,” Walker said.
“Oh, I understand you,” he replied in English. “I just don’t take orders from sub-level life forms.”
Walker scowled at him. “Well, this sub-level life form is going to put a high-level projectile through that thick skull of yours. Drop the tools and put your hands up.”
A woman’s voice behind him derailed his plans. “Looks like you’re the one who needs to put their hands up. Drop the weapon. Now!”
Walker sighed and grimaced. He was furious with himself. He had forgotten that gunships typically flew with a two-man crew. He hadn’t accounted for a second Saarkturian.
Walker deflated, and lowered his weapon. He could tell from her voice, that the woman behind him was standing close. The barrel of her weapon was likely inches away from the back of his head. It was a rookie mistake. It was an opportunity Walker felt was worth taking advantage of.
He jerked his head aside, out of the line of fire. He spun around, like lightning, and pushed the barrel away. A burst of gunfire exploded from the barrel—an involuntary reaction on the Saarkturin woman’s part. The spray of bullets almost hit the male Saarkturian.
Walker simultaneously brought his weapon up, aiming at the woman. He was about to blast several holes into her body armor when he was tackled by the man. They crashed to the ground, and Walker got a face full of sand.
The two struggled for a moment. This alien was around the average build for a Verge warrior—7’6”, 330 pounds. He was twice as strong as Walker. He had the commander in a chokehold. Walker would pass out soon if the situation didn’t change.
The Saarkturian woman couldn’t fire without potentially hitting her comrade, so Walker and the alien duked it out on the ground for a few minutes.
Bailey just couldn’t stay out of the fight. He ran up and was barking and snapping at the Saarkturian.
Walker grabbed a fistful of sand and threw it into the alien’s eyes. It was enough of a distraction to cause him to loosen his grip slightly. Walker was able to slide out of the chokehold and twist the alien’s arm behind his back, inflicting excruciating pain. He grabbed the alien’s armor by the collar, and hoisted him to his feet. He used the alien as a shield, keeping the Saarkturian between himself and the woman.
She didn’t have a clear shot at Walker. “Let him go.”
“Drop the weapon, or I snap his arm,” Walker shouted back.
Bailey was still yapping away, biting at the woman’s calves. She’d shake him off, then he’d come back for more.
“Is this your dog?” she asked.
Walker clenched his jaw and said nothing.
“Let Malik go, before I decide to do something unpleasant to the little mutt.”
“You hurt Bailey, it will be the last thing you ever do.”
She grinned and took aim at Bailey. Saarkturians weren’t known for their compassion.
“Alright!” Walker let go of Malik.
The alien stumbled forward, shaking out his arm that had been stretched too far in the wrong direction. Then he picked up Walker’s weapon from the sand.
They both took aim at Walker.
“Get out of here Bailey.”
But Bailey was stubborn and kept barking.
“Go, Sergeant. That’s an order!”
Bailey whimpered, then scampered away.
“Do you want to kill him?” the Saarkturian woman asked. “He’s the one responsible for the destruction of the fleet.”
“Not with a bullet. He should suffer,” Malik said. “Get the restraints. We’ll leave him in the sun to die.”
The water was freezing, and it smelled like ass. So much for sanitary conditions. Slade tried to slip her fingers between the grating and hang on, but Pemberton stomped at her fingertips. She had to tread water and keep her nose above the line.
Pemberton kneeled down and peered through the slats of the grate that covered the pit. “That was a hell of a number you pulled on Tiny. But don’t get any funny ideas about who really runs the show here. It ain’t Tiny, and it ain’t the warden.” He had a slight grin.
Pemberton stood up and walked off.
Slade latched on to the grate and held herself up. There was no way you could get any real sleep in the hole. The minute you did, you’d sink into the water and get a mouthful of muck. It was going to be an exercise in sleep deprivation, among other things.
After basic training, she had attended the Navy Fighter Weapons School. But she also continued her training at Ranger School. After that, it was Reaper training at the Navy’s Special Warfare Academy. She wanted as much advanced tactical warfare training as possible. And it payed off during the first Verge War.
She had survived hell week during Reaper training—and if you could survive that, you could survive just about anything. It was a week of heavy drills and no sleep. You spent most of the time cold and wet, and wet and cold. But that was only a week, and it had pushed her to her limits. She was facing a month in the hole. She wasn’t sure if she would make it.
Slade knew the key to surviving impossible situations was to never let doubt creep into your mind. The minute you opened the door to doubt, it would start to burrow its way in and grow. The mind is a powerful thing. If you believe you’re going to fail, you will fail. If you believe you’re going to succeed, you will succeed. She made up her mind. Come hell, or slimy water, she was going to make it out of this hole alive.
She hoped that her son, Cameron, was serving his time somewhere nicer than this place. If she ever escaped this prison, she was going to find him, and break him out. Then she would go after Rourke. It was still hard to believe he had sold her out.
Slade spent the rest of the day clinging onto the grate, keeping her nose above the water. She never got another meal that day. Or the next. Or the day after that.
She would doze off here and there, maybe getting a few seconds of sleep before her nose would plunge underwater. By the fifth day she was at her limit. Her body was chilled to the bone. Her fingers had seized up from clinching the grate. She was in a delirious state—not awake, but not asleep.
She hadn’t heard hide nor hair of anyone. Not a guard. Not another inmate. It was a weird, sensory deprivation experience. She began to hallucinate. She lost her sense of space and time. It was almost like an out of body experience. Like she was looking down at herself.
She needed food and fresh water. Drinking from the water that surrounded her in the pit would make her so sick, she’d wish she was dead.
Water bugs scurried along the walls of the pit. There was no telling what else lurked in the murky water.
She heard footsteps and a voice calling out to her. She wasn’t sure if it was real or not.
“It’s your lucky day,” Pemberton said. “The warden wants to see you.”
She stared at him a moment, dazed.
“Did you hear me? You’re getting out of here. Let go of the goddamn grate.” Pemberton smacked at her fingers with his baton.
She peeled them off and slipped them away through the grate. They were seized up and looked arthritic. She could barely keep her head above water as Pemberton unlocked the grate and flipped it open.
“Get her out of there,” Pemberton commanded.
Two guards reached in and pulled her out of the water and threw her onto the ground. She was weak and shivering.
“On your feet, inmate!” Pemberton screamed.
Slade staggered to her feet and almost fell down again. She could barely stand. Her knees wobbled and her body trembled.
Pemberton’s face twisted up in disgust at the sight of her. “Take her, and get her cleaned up. She can’t go to the warden like this.”
The guards hauled her away to the shower stalls. One of them turned on the faucet and the other pushed Slade into the stream of water. Hot water. She felt like she had died and gone to heaven for a moment.
“Off with the jumpsuit,”one of the guards commanded.
Slade scowled at him. She was too weak for a fight. She peeled off her jumpsuit and lathered up with soap. The two guards watched with lecherous eyes, but that’s all they did. Slade was sure they’d try something, but they let her be.
One of the guards handed her a towel, and she dried off and covered herself. They led her out of the lockup to Pemberton’s office. “You can change in there.”
She looked at the guard, bewildered.
She pushed through the door to Pemberton’s office. It was a simple space—desk, computer terminal, two chairs, filing cabinets. On the desk was a black cocktail dress and a pair of high heel shoes.
Now she was sure she was hallucinating. This had to be all a dream. A nice dress and high heels? She hadn’t seen a pair of high heel shoes in years. She hadn’t worn a dress in decades.
No. This was definitely a dream. She was still back in the pit, probably on the verge of drowning.
She reached out and grabbed the dress. It felt real. She slipped out of the towel and into the dress. It fit her perfectly. It hugged her sensuous curves.
She slipped the shoes on. The stiletto heels accentuated her toned calves. Slade had nice legs. She had nice everything. She was a fine woman. All she needed was a little makeup and she’d be ready for an evening on the town.
She figured they had gotten her sizes from the database. But why?
Her heart began to fill with dread. Something was up. She had realized this wasn’t a dream. It was very real. The warden wanted her to look nice. But what did he have in mind?
Walker’s feet and ankles were cuffed. They were going to leave him to die in the middle of the desert, with the harsh sun rising in the sky. No human could survive exposed to the elements. If he made it through the first day, it would be a miracle. He’d surely die by the second. The vultures were circling overhead. They’d probably be gnawing at his flesh soon.
“Just think of it as a little vacation,” Malik said with a grin. “A day at the beach.”
Walker began laughing, which put a scowl on Malik's face. “What’s so funny?”
Walker nodded and looked behind Malik. Three of the deadly giant arthropods had emerged from the sand. Malik's eyes went wide as they stood tall. Sand poured off their exoskeletons.
“Looks like we’re all going to die out here,” Walker mused.
Malik raised his weapon and took aim at one of the creatures as it approached. His finger gripped the trigger and squeezed off a flurry of gunfire. Muzzle flash sparked from the barrel. Bullets tore through the air. But they just bounced off the arthropod’s hard outer shell.
The creatures retracted their heads into their shells. They angled their shells almost perpendicular to the ground as they charged, making it almost impossible to hit their softer flesh.
Both Malik and the woman, Saaja, unleashed a torrent of gunfire—with almost no effect. The things kept charging closer.
Walker struggled against his metal bonds. They were too strong to break, and his fists were too wide to slip through, no matter how hard he pulled. The metal gouged into his flesh, and blood began to ooze from his raw skin.
Malik blasted at one of the creatures legs. The armor was thinner, and a barrage of fire severed one of the limbs. It slowed the thing down a little. Saaja and Malik cut through limbs with a hail of bullets. But the things were almost on top of them now.
They dodged and weaved as claws grasped at them.
“Watch out,” Walker said. “Those claws are loaded with venom.”
Saaja lit up one of the claws with a stream of bullets. It erupted in a yellowish-green blast. But another claw stabbed into her from behind. Her body went limp. The rifle fell from her hands. She dropped to the sand, paralyzed.
The creature pulled her limp body close and was about to feast on her flesh. Its ugly head jutted out from its exoskeleton. Malik blasted the monster’s skull, exploding it into a thousand chunks of goo. The carcass crashed to the sand, still twitching.
Malik kept fighting off the creatures. But a few more were coming. Walker was rolling around in the sand, dodging claws that were stabbing at him. He was about to be monster food.
“Looks like you could use an extra hand,” Walker shouted to Malik.
Malik was outnumbered, and he knew it. Trying to fend off multiple attacks and protect Saaja’s motionless body was impossible. He couldn’t keep this up for long.
He fired at a claw that was menacing Walker. The creature’s head protruded from its shell, and the hideous thing let out a screech. Malik blasted the creature’s exposed head. It exploded in a mess of goo.
Malik dropped down and unlatched Walker’s restraints. His eyes found Walker’s, and without saying a word, they had a warrior’s agreement. They’d fight on the same side until the bugs were defeated.
Walker sprung to his feet and grabbed Saaja’s weapon. The creatures’ tails split off like a wishbone into the claws. Walker began blasting at the tails, cutting them off at the base. Without the claws, these things were a lot less threatening.
Round after round blasted into the horrid arthropods. Green and yellow goo coated the sand. Twitchy carcasses lined the desert. Six of them had already been downed. Three still remained. But Walker was out of bullets.
He tossed the weapon down. “My sword. Give me my sword!” he yelled to Malik.
An arthropod was bearing down on Walker.
Malik unhitched the scabbard from his utility belt and tossed it to Walker, in between bursts of gunfire.
Walker snatched it out of the air and slid the blade from its scabbard.
An arthropod was storming toward Saaja’s motionless body. She was an easy meal. A claw reached out to grasp her. The beast was trying to sneak in for a snatch and grab, and whisk Saaja’s body away.
Walker chopped down on the claw. The blade cut into the monster’s flesh. The claw dangled, hanging on by a few strands of muscle and fascia. Walker spun and hacked the other claw that was stabbing toward him.
The blade sliced clean through the monster’s flesh. Its shrill screech pierced Walker’s ears. Then the creature charged him. Walker held his ground and plunged his sword into the thing’s brain.
The massive creature bowled Walker over. Its heavy carcass pinned Walker against the sand. The thing’s legs twitched and scratched up the sand for a few moments. Walker tried to heave the carcass off him. But its crushing weight was too heavy. Walker could barely breathe.
Malik finished off the last of the arthropods. Nearly a dozen were either dead, or writhing in the sand on their way to death.
Malik rushed to check on Saaja. She was alive, but barely. The spikes of one of the claws had punctured her lung. Her blood was flowing out onto the sand and filling her lungs with fluid. She had heart palpitations. She was gurgling for breath. Saaja had so much venom in her system, her autonomic nervous system was shutting down as well.
Malik put pressure on her wound, trying to stop the bleeding. He had the look of abject terror on his face. His black eyes gazed upon Saaja with worry. Walker could tell he cared deeply for her. They were probably more than just crew mates.
“You need to drain the fluid from her chest,” Walker yelled.
Malik was in such a state of panic that he was almost paralyzed himself. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Get this bug off of me.” Walker’s voice groaned as he tried in vein to push the carcass aside.
Malik stayed with Saaja, ignoring Walker.
“Get this bug off of me, or she is going to die.”
“Isn’t she just a peach?” the warden said.
Slade was on display in the Warden’s office. Her hands were cuffed behind her back.
Pemberton and the two guards were there. Another man was sizing her up. He was maybe 40, about 6 feet tall, with dark hair. He hadn’t shaved in a few days. He wore an old-school leather flight jacket and aviator sunglasses.
He wasn’t a prison official. He didn’t have anything to do with the Department of Corrections. He was with a man of an alien species, and a woman. The man had green skin and wide, fish-like eyes. He was probably Alfluvian, but there was something different about him.
They all had empty holsters. No outside weapons were allowed in the prison.
“She’s alright,” the man said, sounding disappointed. “You got anything better.”
Slade clenched her jaw. She knew exactly what this man was. He was a trafficker. He was looking at merchandise, and he was negotiating price.
The first rule of negotiation is to never act interested. If you want to get the price down, you find something wrong with the merchandise. You’ve got a better deal just around the corner. Make the seller insecure and he’ll come down off of his ask price. You don’t need to buy what he’s selling.
“Son, it doesn’t come any better than this,” the warden said. “Not in here.”
That sleaze ball of a warden was selling female prisoners to the highest bidder. That’s why the prison population didn’t match up to the books. That’s why there were hardly any women on Alpha Ceti 7.
The man in the aviator sunglasses grabbed Slade’s jaw and looked over her face from side to side. Slade jerked away.
“Feisty.” He turned around and faced the warden. “I don’t know, Carson. She looks like trouble. And she’s got a busted lip.”
Warden Carson smiled. “The lip will heal.”
“She’s got a chipped tooth.”
“Minor cosmetic damage.” Carson shrugged.
“I have a very demanding clientele. If I show up with sub-par material, Little Nicky is not going to be happy.”
Slade’s eyes went wide. Sub-par? Who the fuck is this guy?
“I’ll give you 45,000 credits, tops.”
“Logan, you insult me,” Carson said. “Nothing less than 75,000.”
“Are you high? You must be smoking that Cetian herb.”
Slade clenched her jaw.
“I can go 55,000,” Logan said. “That’s it.”
“65,000. That’s as low as I can go. You aren’t the only trader in the system, you know.”
“55,000 untraceable credits. That’s my final offer.” Logan folded his arms and eyed Carson.
Carson’s eyes narrowed. Then he sighed. “Deal. But I’m getting the short end of the stick here.”
Logan smiled and shook Carson’s hand. “Pleasure doing business with you.”
The woman with Logan hefted a briefcase onto Carson’s desk. Her name was Mia. She flicked open the latches, lifted the lid, and turned the case to face Carson.
His eyes lit up with glee.
“It’s all there,” Logan said. “Count it.”
“No need,” Carson said. “If you’re short, I’ll find you, and bring you back here to rot.” He grinned.
Logan rolled his eyes. “Thanks for the hospitality, but we need to be going.”
Logan grabbed Slade’s arm. She jerked away.
“I’m already beginning to think I paid too much for you,” Logan said.
“Fuck you,” said Slade.
“Relax, honey,” Logan said. “Where you’re going is much nicer than here.”
“I am not your honey.”
“You are now.” He had a slight smirk on his face.
Slade glared at him. But anywhere was better than Alpha Ceti 7. She knew she’d have a better chance of escape outside the prison.
“Logan, the cuff’s please,” Carson said.
Pemberton released Slade. For a moment, she thought about fighting her way out. Planting a stiletto heel in Carson’s crotch would have been fun, but it wasn’t a fight she could win. There were too many of them. And Pemberton, and the guards, had guns.
Mia slapped another set of restraints around Slade’s wrists. Logan grabbed her arm and escorted her to the hangar bay.
His ship was an X-377 Scarab—a mid size, long range, light armored, multi-role vessel. It could accommodate a total of 8, including crew, and had a small cargo hold. They were popular among smugglers, private transport companies, and the ultra wealthy. No billionaire’s space dock was complete without a Scarab.
It was a good looking ship—sleek and fast. It was fitted with two, 30mm guns, both fore and aft. A dozen, armor piercing, Spitfire missiles kept most of the hijackers away. The Scarabs usually weren’t carrying enough goods to be worth messing with anyway. They zipped across the galaxy, mostly unnoticed.
Every now and then, the UPDF might harass an unregistered Scarab that they came across. But the UPDF’s primary objective wasn’t to bust drug smugglers, or human traffickers—that fell under the jurisdiction of the Drug Enforcement Corps (DEC), the Planetary Criminal Investigative Service (PCIS), or the Customs and Planetary Protection Agency (CPPA). None of which had the resources to comb the galaxy and intercept the plethora of ships involved in the illegal space trade.
Deep space was the Wild West. And Logan was the equivalent of a cattle rustler.
Stenciled on the side of the craft was the fading and weathered callsign: SS AURORA.
Logan marched Slade up the loading ramp, and escorted her to one of the cabins. It was nicer than her prison cell, but she wasn’t exactly looking forward to being locked in here either.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked.
Slade cringed. Vega Draconis was a den of iniquity. It was a colony on the outer reaches that was left to its own devices. It was so far from New Earth, it rarely merited any attention. The PCIS and DEC didn’t usually bother with it. It was one of those places that even cops didn’t like to go.
Vega Draconis was a popular tourist destination site for those looking for illicit fun. The planet’s official tourist motto was: Adventure Awaits You on Vega Draconis. The unofficial motto was: What happens on Vega Draconis didn’t really happen—and if it did, you can’t prove it.
“You seem like a smart woman,” Logan said. “Things will go a lot better for you if you just comply. You might even have a little fun.”
He had no idea who he was talking to. Compliance wasn’t one of Slade’s strong points.
“You’re not going to give me any trouble, are you?” he asked.
“Do I look like trouble to you,” Slade said, innocently.
Logan lifted an eyebrow. “You look like a big, heaping handful of it.”
“How about taking these cuffs off?” She batted her eyelashes at him, seductively.
“Not a chance.”
Her face tensed. “You realize we are about to be in the middle of another war,” Slade said.
“Isn’t there always a war going on somewhere?”
“Another Verge War.”
He arched an eyebrow at her. “Okay, so, you’re one of those conspiracy wackos.”
“Go ahead. Ignore me. It doesn’t change the fact that the Verge are going to retaliate.”
“Nobody has seen the Verge for 25 years, lady.”
His condescending tone grated on her nerves. “I have.”
“We destroyed an entire armada on their way to attack New Earth.”
“Even more bullshit.”
Slade gritted her teeth and huffed.
“Even if what you say is true, what do I care? It doesn’t affect me,” Logan said.
“Who are you going to sell your product to if New Earth and all of the colonies are destroyed?”
“Save it, sweetheart. I paid good money for you. And I’m going to sell you for even better money. Anything else doesn’t concern me. So feel free to ramble on about your crusade and your prophecies of doom in the confines of your own room.” He shoved her inside and sealed the hatch.
Slade kicked the hatch in frustration. “Can I get something to eat?” She hadn’t had anything to eat since Pemberton shoved her in the pit.
There was no response.
A few moments later, she felt the room warble, and her stomach twisted up as the ship made the jump into slide-space.
There was one good thing that came out of her encounter with the Saarkturians. She no longer had to worry about the slide-space induced degenerative genetic disease. But Vega Draconis was enough to keep her mind occupied with worry for the rest of the journey.
Malik heaved the heavy bug, and Walker rolled out from under its carcass. His legs were practically numb from being impinged. He staggered toward Saaja.
“I need a small tube,” Walker said.
Malik looked at him like he was crazy.
“Blood is filling her chest cavity and collapsing her lungs. Don’t they teach you guys how to give first aid in the field?”
Malik grimaced. It took more soldiers to care for the wounded than the dead. The Verge felt it was a waste of resources on the battlefield. They didn’t train their troops extensively in first-aid. The Verge society was more of a collective. The individual didn’t matter.
Walker knelt beside Saaja. “Help me take off her armor.”
They unlatched her chest plate and removed it.
“Get me a tube and a first aid kit,” Walker commanded.
Malik dashed to the ship and returned a moment later with a small piece of tubing. “This is all I have. It’s a spare hydraulic line.”
Walker took it from him. It wasn’t the cleanest thing in the world, but it would have to do.
“Keep pressure on that wound.”
Malik did as Walker commanded.
Walker took his tactical sword and cut through Saaja’s shirt. Then he took the tip of the blade and lacerated her torso between one of her ribs. Red blood oozed out from her milky white skin.
“What are you doing?” Malik asked, alarmed.
The term meant nothing to Malik.
Walker cut through her fascia and muscle and penetrated her thoracic cavity. Then he fed the hydraulic tube into her chest and blood began to drain through it.
“Do you know CPR?”
Malik shook his head.
Walker took over and placed his palms over Saaja’s chest. He continuously pumped her chest, resuscitating her. After a moment she coughed up blood. It spewed out of her mouth onto the sand. She gasped for air.
“In the kit there should be an expandable polymer wound healing gel. Find it.”
Malik rummaged through the first-aid kit. He tossed the gel packet to Walker. He applied it to Saaja’s wound. The gel expanded to fill the cavity. It was much like the GS gel that the UPDF had. An expandable biopolymer foam, with regenerative compounds. It was great for plugging puncture wounds. Though, the Saarkturian version seemed more advanced.
Walker rolled Saaja over and removed her backplate. Then he applied the wound sealing gel to the puncture wound on her back. The gel contained an antibiotic, but Walker rummaged through the first aid kit to find an antibiotic injection that would work systemically.
Saaja was breathing, but she still couldn’t move. It would be some time before the venom wore off.
“Just hang in there, you’re going to be okay,” Malik said in a comforting voice. He gently touched her face. Saaja nodded.
“Let’s get her back to the ship,” Walker said.
The two men carried her back to the Phantom. Walker found a painkiller in the first aid kit and gave it to Saaja. From his previous experience with Saarkturian regenerative compounds, he knew they worked quickly. But this was an extensive injury, and he wasn’t sure how long Saaja’s recovery period would be. If she did recover at all.
“How do you feel?” Walker asked.
“I don’t feel anything after that shot you gave me,” she said.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to be. You let me know when it starts to wear off.”
She nodded. “I never thought I’d thank a human.”
“We’re not all bad,” Walker said. “Get some rest.”
Malik was thankful, even though he couldn’t bring himself to say it. He held Saaja’s hand and tried to comfort her. The pain medication had a sedative effect, and Saaja dozed off quickly.
“You seem to care for her a great deal,” Walker said.
“We are to be mated. Unlike humans, Saarkturians mate for life.”
“Some humans mate for life. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out, no matter how much you want it to.”
“Saaja and I have always been destined to be together. If she dies, it will be the end of my lineage.” Malik gazed at Saaja with love and concern. Walker could see in his eyes that she was the most important thing in the universe to him.
“I’ll do my best to keep her alive, you have my word.”
“It seems like you’ve had a lot of practice with this type of thing,” Malik said.
Walker nodded. “Too much. It seems like every living thing in the universe tries to kill each other, at some point.”
“What’s wrong with your ship?” Walker asked.
“There’s a short in the power cell. I repaired most of the damage to the starboard engine. But I can’t maintain continuous power. We’d never make escape velocity. I don’t think we’d make it a few hundred meters without falling out of the sky.”
“Perhaps we can come to some kind of arrangement?”
“What type of arrangement?”
“A mutually beneficial one. We agree to work together to get off this planet. Then we can go our separate ways.”
Malik pondered this for a moment.
“The power cell on my shuttle is fully functional,” Walker said. “It’s two days from here. We grab it, come back, and get off this rock.”
Malik’s eyes narrowed. “Then what?”
“You drop me off at the nearest outpost, or colony.”
“If we drop you off at a colony, or an outpost, we’ll be shot down, or taken prisoner.”
“You have my word that won’t happen.”
“Why should I trust you?”
“For the same reason I’ll have to trust you once you get the power cell,” Walker said. “Do we have a deal?”
Malik’s face tensed as he thought about this. A moment later he answered. “We have a deal.”
Walker extended his hand. Malik looked at him, confused.
“Where I come from, a man is only as good as his word. And we shake on a deal,” Walker said.
Malik stared at Walker’s hand for a moment. Then he reached out and clasped it. Their eyes met, and their hands shook.
Walker didn’t know how the Verge felt about loyalty and honor. They had broken the peace treaty and had been heading toward New Earth with a fleet hell-bent on destruction. Did a handshake with a Saarkturian mean anything?
It took nine slide-space jumps to reach Vega Draconis from Alpha Ceti 7. The Scarab entered the atmosphere and made its approach to a private space port in Europa City. It was the capital of Vega Draconis, and had the largest population density on the planet.
It was a city of almost perpetual night. The party never ended in Europa. You could buy liquor, or whatever you wanted, 24 hours a day. The clubs and bars and restaurants never closed. The city was filled with dazzling lights. Brilliant video displays lined the sides of towering buildings. It had that electric vibe in the atmosphere. Something was always happening. It was like New York and Las Vegas hooked up for a one night stand and had a really bad kid.
Slade watched the descent into the city from the porthole in her cabin. It was hard to believe that a city that looked so wondrous from above could be such a gritty, slimy cesspool.
The hatch to her compartment slid open. “Time to meet your new boss,” Logan said.
“I’m hungry. I haven’t eaten in a week.”
“Not my problem.”
“You know, you might get more money for me if I looked well fed and had some makeup.”
Logan frowned. Slade was right. “Mia,” he called out. A few moments later she appeared.
“What is it?”
“Let her borrow some makeup.”
“That wasn’t a request.”
“Fine. But you’re reimbursing me for expenses.”
Logan rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Just make her look pretty.”
“I’m not a miracle worker,” Mia said.
Slade glared at her.
“Do it,” Logan commanded.
“Okay.” Mia darted out and returned a moment later. She entered Slade’s cabin with a Nouveau Visage makeup applicator. It was in a small aluminum case, and folded open like a laptop. It had a display and a small robotic arm. It scanned Slade’s face, then displayed a number of potential makeup looks to choose from on the screen.
Logan kept an eye on things with his pistol drawn.
Mia swiped through a few looks, settling on just the perfect face. “Here. I think this is a good look for you.” Mia spun the display around to show Slade. Mia looked almost gleeful, playing with makeup.
Slade frowned.“It’s a little trashy, don’t you think?”
Mia deflated. It was like insulting her artistic taste. “Honey, on this planet, trashy is what sells.”
“You seem like a nice person. How can you be a part of all this?”
“It pays the rent,” Mia said. “And you’re just a convict.”
“Enough chit chat,” Logan grumbled. “Paint her up.”
“Hold still and close your eyes,” Mia said.
Slade sighed and did as she said. The robotic arm moved from left to right, like and inkjet printer, spraying her face with makeup. It was flawless perfection.
Slade looked in the mirror and almost gasped. As the captain of a star destroyer, she didn’t have much use for makeup. She had almost forgotten what it felt like to get all dolled up. Even if it was a little bit trashy.
“I have got to get one of those,” Slade said.
Mia stifled a chuckle. Then her face turned to stone. She stepped back and closed the Nouveau Visage. None of the crew liked to spend too much time with their cargo. They didn’t want to develop any kind of attachment. They didn’t want to see them as human beings. They were just merchandise, like any other commodity.
“Mia, go with Gorth and deliver our other goods. Then meet me at Little Nicky’s.”
“What about her?”
“I can handle this one.”
“You sure about that? She’s feisty.”
Logan glared at Mia.
“You’re the boss.” Mia shrugged and left the compartment.
“A little something to eat would be nice,” Slade said.
Logan reached into his pocket and pulled out a nutrition bar. He stepped into the compartment, strolling toward Slade as he peeled off the packaging. He held the bar to her full lips.
Her eyes narrowed at him.
“Take it or leave it, honey. It’s the only thing you’re going to get.”
Slade leaned forward and took the bar into her mouth. Her big eyes looked up at Logan as her plush lips wrapped around the bar. She could see his mind drift to lustful thoughts.
Her teeth bit into the bar, breaking off a chunk, and she gobbled it down. It wasn’t half bad. It was better than the slop she had been fed back in the prison. She devoured the bar with blazing speed, almost taking off Logan’s fingertips. She’d have probably eaten them too if he didn’t snap them away.
“I guess Carson really doesn’t feed you people.”
“Not when you’re in the hole for a week.”
“You survived a week in the hole?” Logan lifted an incredulous eyebrow.
“Something like that. I lost track of time. It’s easy to do.”
“I know hardened criminals, twice your size, that couldn’t last a day in the pit.”
“I guess those criminals weren’t very hard.” She subtly, or not so subtly, arched her chest out. The words slipped off her tongue like velvet. Her voice was breathy and sultry.
Logan couldn’t help but glance down at her inviting cleavage. Then he chuckled. “Look, sweetheart. I know what you’re doing. It’s not going to work.”
“What’s the matter. Don’t you want to test out the merchandise first?”
“Do you really think every woman that comes through here doesn’t try the same thing? You’re not going to catch me off guard. You’re not going to escape. You’re not going to get me to do something stupid.”
Slade laughed. “Putting yourself alone in a room with me was pretty stupid.” Slade kneed him in the groin. Logan double over. She planted another knee in his face, cracking his nose. He dropped his weapon. Slade kicked it across the deck.
Still cuffed behind her back, she flopped onto the bunk, and pulled her cuffs over her ass. She pulled her legs through and dashed for the weapon. With her hands cuffed in front of her now, she had a fighting chance.
Logan was sprinting for the gun as well. If she didn’t get to that gun first, she was going to be in deep trouble.
“Bailey?” Walker yelled. “Bailey?”
The sun was rising, the desert heat was sweltering. There wasn’t any shelter nearby, and Walker was growing extremely nervous about Bailey’s whereabouts. The dog was indigenous to the planet. Surely he could take care of himself. But Walker was still filled with dread.
A few moments later, Bailey came running across the sand. His paws were kicking up plumes of dust as he ran. He jumped into Walker’s arms and licked his face, excitedly.
Walker cradled him and petted his head. “It’s good to see you too, Sergeant.” Walker smiled. He had never thought of himself as a dog person, but this little animal seemed to have been giving him more joy than he could remember having in a long time. He carried Bailey back into the Phantom. Together, they would wait out the heat of the afternoon.
“I don’t understand your attachment to this creature,” Malik said.
Walker smiled. “I don’t either. But he sure does grow on you.” Walker scratched Bailey’s chin. “Don’t you Saarkturians have pets?”
Malik shook his head. “Pets are impractical.”
“A lot of the good things in life are impractical.” Walker petted Bailey and smiled. For a few moments, all was right with the universe.
They lazed around for most of the day. There wasn’t much you could do in the heat. And the inside of the Phantom was like a furnace. Walker was bathed in sweat. Malik was running low on food and water. It wasn’t going to be enough for the three of them for more than a day.
The sun arced across the sky and began its slow descent. The Phantom cooled off, slightly.
“If we leave now, we can make it to my shelter by the evening,” Walker said. “In the morning, we can head into the flatlands and recover the power cell.”
Malik looked to Saaja.
“Go, I’ll be alright,” she said, though she didn’t sound totally confident.
Malik grimaced. “I don’t want to leave you like this.”
“I can go alone,” Walker said. “You can’t leave without the fuel cell, and I can’t leave without you.”
“The terrain is treacherous,” Saaja said. “The odds of survival out there are better if you work as a team.”
“I can survive just fine on my own,” Walker said. “Isn’t that right, Bailey.”
Malik frowned. “Saaja is right. We will work as a team.”
The two gathered their gear, reloaded the weapons, and set out into the desert. Bailey followed. They were halfway to the cavern when the sky began to darken. A storm was brewing on the horizon. Rain would be a welcomed gift.
“That doesn’t look good.” Walker’s eyes narrowed as he gazed at the approaching storm. But it wasn’t rain. It was an angry sandstorm that formed a thick, abrasive wall of particles. The kind of storm that could grind the flesh from your bones in a matter of minutes. It was moving toward them at a blistering pace.
“We need to find shelter,” Walker said. He was still wearing the Saarkturian body armor, but he had left the helmet back at the cavern. No sense in lugging it around. The heat was even more stifling with a full helmet and face mask on your head. But it would have provided some extra protection during the storm. Bailey, however, was completely exposed.
Walker took off his pack and let Bailey crawl in for cover. He hoisted the pack on his back, and he and Malick picked up the pace.
Despite their efforts, the storm descended upon them before they reached the cavern. It was like a hurricane enveloped them. Visibility dropped to a few feet. Sand and pebbles hailed down.
Walker tried to take cover behind a rock formation. A gust of wind swept him from his feet and whisked him twenty yards, slamming him into the canyon wall.
It seemed the wind speed was increasing. Painful pellets of sand peppered his face. Bailey crouched in his pack. Malick was nowhere to be seen. None of them were going to survive for long in this storm.
Walker pulled himself forward along the canyon wall. Two steps forward, three steps back. His face was red and raw from the pummeling grit. He kept marching forward, looking for an alcove, or anything that might provide a little shelter.
Walker crammed himself in a groove, behind a rock formation. It was pretty exposed, but better than nothing. He tried to shelter Bailey as much as possible, but the wind seemed to come from every direction, swirling mercilessly.
A cloaked figure emerged from the haze of sand. He was covered from head to toe in a makeshift armor, scavenged from whatever he could cobble together. He clung to a safety rope that ran through a clamp on his belt. The figure tossed the end of the rope to Walker, and he pulled himself up.
The figure turned around and marched back the way he came. Walker followed, pulling himself along the rope. It wasn’t store bought rope. It was hand made and knotted together out of a fibrous material.
The figure led him to a small opening in the canyon walls. Inside was a small alcove. It looked like a primitive, but cozy home. There were handmade tables and chairs. Crafted pottery—clay bowls and plates. A bunk to sleep on. Even some type of artwork on the walls. Whoever this figure was, he had been here for quite some time.
Walker entered the dwelling, and the figure sealed the opening behind him. The door was made of metal and looked like it had been part of a bulkhead once.
Walker spent a few minutes coughing up dirt and sand that had filled his lungs.
The figure pulled back his hood and peeled off his face mask. He was a rugged man of maybe 50, but the harsh elements had weathered his swarthy skin beyond his years. His hair was short and starting to gray, and his square jaw was stubbled with a little more than a five o’clock shadow.
Walker hadn’t shaved since he crashed on this damn planet, and his neck was starting to itch. This man must have had a nice, sharp blade to be as well groomed as he was.
Walker set his pack on the ground and Bailey leaped out. He took in the scenery, cautiously.
“Thank you,” Walker said.
“Those sand storms are a real bitch,” the man said. “Lucky I saw you.”
Walker nodded. “One of my men, if you could call him that, is still out there.”
“I’ve done my good deed for the day. But you are welcome to do as you please. There’s a few hundred feet of rope. After that you’re on your own. I’d stay put if I were you—if you want to live. I’ve seen those storms take the skin off an animal in minutes.”
Walker was torn. He needed the Saarkturian. They were a team now. And Walker never left a team member behind.
Slade sprinted across the cabin, but Logan outpaced her by a foot. She was never going to reach the gun before he did. She dove, putting a shoulder into him. They both crashed to the deck. Logan rolled onto his back. Slade clutched her fists together, cuffed at the wrists, and pummeled him in the face.
She wound up and swung at him again. But he grabbed her wrists mid-punch and tossed her aside. Logan stretched for the weapon.
By the time Slade lunged back at him, she was staring at the barrel of his pistol.
Logan wiped away the blood that was dripping from his nostrils. The sleeve of his leather jacket was smeared with crimson. It was probably going to leave a stain.
“You’ve got some fight in you, I’ll give you that,” Logan said.
“You’re not going to shoot me,” Slade said, full of bravado. “You wouldn’t want to damage the merchandise.”
“Don’t push me.”
Slade grabbed the barrel of the gun, spinning it around 180 degrees. Logan’s finger caught in the trigger guard—if she twisted any farther, his finger would snap.
Logan grimaced. It was extremely painful. Slade had complete control. She stood up and stripped the weapon away.
Logan looked up at her in disbelief. She had disarmed him before he really knew what happened. Slade was good, and Logan had never met anyone like her.
“Give me the keys to the cuffs.”
“I don’t have them. Mia does. You have to wait till she comes back.” Logan smiled.
Logan shrugged. “You’re not going to shoot me either.”
“Don’t be so sure about that. I’m a convict, remember.”
“You’re not a violent offender. I can see it in your eyes.”
Slade fired into the deck beside Logan.
He twitched. “Okay, okay. Ease up.” Logan eyed the bullet hole in the deck and frowned. “This ship wasn’t cheap, you know.”
“I don’t have any.”
Slade’s finger gripped the trigger.
Slade wasn’t backing down.
Logan sighed. “Okay, fine. They’re in my cabin.”
Logan pulled himself off the deck. Their eyes were locked into each other.
Logan stepped into the hallway. Slade cautiously followed behind.
“Where’d you learn how to fight?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Just making friendly conversation,” Logan said. “I get nervous when crazy women point guns at me.”
“Does that happen a lot?”
“It’s a hazard in my line of work.”
“Maybe you should get a new job.”
“I’ll start sending out resumes,” he snarked.
They reached his quarters, and Logan opened the hatch. His stateroom was pretty standard for this class of vehicle. A bunk, a desk, a small living area, and a kitchenette.
“Where are the keys?” Slade asked.
“In my desk drawer. Do you want to get them, or should I?”
“Move against the port bulkhead and put your hands against the wall.”
Logan reluctantly complied. Slade crept into the state room, keeping an eye on Logan as she inched toward the desk. She slid open the top drawer. A spare set of keys were there, along with another handgun.
Slade lowered her hands, cautiously. She kept the gun aimed at Logan as best she could with her hands cuffed together. She grasped the spare key with her left hand and unlatched the cuffs. Logan was still in position against the bulkhead.
“Turn around.” Slade tossed the cuffs to him. “Cuff yourself to the bunk.”
“So, you like it kinky?”
“In your dreams.”
Logan locked cuffs around one wrist, then strung it through the metal bunk frame and latched the other wrist. He wasn’t going anywhere, and he wasn’t happy about it. She could see him scheming for a way out of this.
“I have to thank you for getting me out of that prison. But I’ve got other plans. I’m going to have to borrow your ship.” Slade had a deliciously devious grin on her face. She backed out of his state room and sealed the hatch.
She raced to the cockpit and powered up the system. The control panel illuminated, and the onboard computer went through its preflight checks. Everything was in the green. All systems were go.
She powered up the main thrusters. Two, dual core, Hughes & Kessler Ramblers. They were some of the most powerful thrusters in their class. The Scarab was no slouch when it came to speed.
The engines whined as they reached full power. Slade took a moment to familiarize herself with the controls. She was about to hit the vertical thrusters and get the hell out of there when she felt the barrel of a pistol press against the back of her head.
She started to reach for her gun.
“Don’t even think about it,” Logan said. “And I will shoot you this time.”
“How did you get free?”
“I had an extra set of keys in my pocket. You should’ve frisked me. It could have been fun.”
Slade’s face tensed. She was frustrated with herself. She should have done a better job securing Logan, she thought. She had gotten careless.
“I’m going to be glad to get rid of you.” He forced her out of the pilot seat and cuffed her again. “Are you ready to meet Little Nicky?”
Walker clung to the rope as he marched through the blasting sandstorm. He had wrapped his head and was wearing goggles he borrowed from his new acquaintance. The wind picked up speed. With all his strength, Walker could barely inch forward.
A gust blew him off his feet and launched him 20 feet backwards. He clung on to the rope and pulled himself back to his feet. He made several attempts to make forward progress, but the storm was too powerful. It took every bit of strength just to pull himself along the rope, back to the dwelling.
This felt a lot like losing, and Walker hated to lose. He pulled off the goggles and his head wrap and took a seat. Even with the cloth wrap, he had inhaled dirt and sand. He spent a few minutes hacking the debris from his lungs.
“When the storm dies down, we’ll see if your friend is still alive,” the man said.
“I wouldn’t call him a friend. More of a necessary acquaintance.”
This peaked the man’s interest. His brow lifted, quizzically.
“He is a Saarkturian. And he’s the only way off this planet.”
The man’s face tensed and filled with rage.
“I take it you have no love for the Verge?” Walker asked.
“The Verge is how I came to be on this planet. Are we still at War?”
Walker’s curious eyes looked over the man. “The first Verge War ended 25 years ago.”
“My God,” he muttered. “Have I been here that long?” The man looked stunned. It took him a few moments to process the information.
Walker gave a slight nod.
“You said first Verge War… has there been another?”
“We are on the brink of the second now. They broke the treaty and sent an attack fleet. But we managed to stop the first wave.”
“We should have exterminated them. Saarkturians don’t honor treaties. And you’ve made a deal with one?”
“No choice,” Walker said.
Twenty-five years of rage was boiling up in the man. Things he hadn’t thought about in ages were coming to the surface. Walker could see the anguish in his face. The years lost on this planet. The life that he never got to live. All erased by his imprisonment on this arid rock in a forgotten sector of space.
“I’m Lieutenant Commander Kurt Walker, UP Navy, Special Warfare Group. This here is Gunnery Sergeant Bailey.”
The man smirked and softened a little. “You’re a Reaper, eh?”
“Lieutenant Gavin Slade. But after 25 years on this hell hole, they ought to promote me.”
Walker’s eyes widened. “Any relation to Captain Aria Slade?”
Gavin lifted his brow. “Captain, huh?” He seemed proud. “You know her?”
“We’ve met,” Walker stammered.
“She’s my wife. Well, was my wife. I suspect she’s moved on by now.” He frowned and hung his head. He gazed at his wedding band that he still wore. He fidgeted with it, rotating it around his finger with his thumb.
Walker wasn’t about to mention that he’d almost had a thing with her. “You were reported as KIA.”
“Understandable. For all intents and purposes, I am dead,” he muttered. “Has she remarried?”
“How do you two know each other?”
“We… worked together on my last mission.” Walker quickly changed the subject. “Your son is a helluva fighter pilot, so I’m told.”
Gavin’s eyes lit up. “Son? I have a son?” His face was a mix of joy and regret. He had missed out on his son’s childhood.
“Cameron Thomas Slade. He’s an ensign in the UP Navy.”
“Well, I’ll be damned.” He smiled, full of pride.
Walker didn’t have the heart to tell him Cameron had been charged with treason. Though Walker was certain Cameron’s actions were a result of the Verge mind control technology.
“So, you say this Saarkturian has a ship?”
Walker caught Gavin up to speed on all the details. His eyes were wide, and his jaw was slack. He was astonished that Walker was still alive. “You mean to tell me that you crashed in the northern flats and made it out on foot alive?”
“You are one lucky son-of-a-bitch. Those flats are crawling with those fork-tailed devils. There are thousands of them buried out there under the sand. And you want to go back in there to retrieve a power cell?”
“It’s our only way off the planet.”
“No, thank you. I lost a platoon of men in those flats when we first crashed here. I’m not going back in there. I’ll stay in the canyon. It’s kept me alive this long.”
“I only ran into one of those things on my way out. Maybe there aren’t as many out there as you think.”
“Like I said, you got lucky. They’re buried in burrows. They pick up on vibrations in the ground. Walking through there is like ringing the dinner bell. You must have stepped in all the right places, or managed to catch them on a lazy day.”
“I’d rather take my chances in the flats than stay here for the rest of my life.”
That hit Gavin like a punch to the gut. He grimaced. Walker could see Gavin had resigned himself to the fact that he was never going to leave the planet.
“I’ve been here so long, I don’t know if I would even fit in back in the world. You’re the first person I’ve seen in 25 years. Hell, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to hold a conversation after all this time.”
“One way, or another, I’m getting off this planet,” Walker said. “You’re welcome to come with me. Or you can stay here.”
“If you’re going to go back into the flatlands, you need to do it before the rainy season comes.”
“It rains on this planet?”
“For a few weeks out of the year, we get heavy rains. The monsoons are always preceded by the sandstorms. And we’ve had quite a few sandstorms in the last few weeks.”
“What happens during the rainy season?” Walker almost didn’t want to ask.
Gavin had a grim look in his eyes.
This time of year, Europa city was cold and rainy. The slick streets reflected the colorful lights of the city. Automated cabs were lined up at the curb just outside the space port. Logan pushed Slade into a cab.
“Please state your destination,” said a soothing, automated voice.”
“Teasers on 25th Street,” Logan said.
“Teasers nightclub on 25th Street,” the voice repeated, “Is that correct?”
“That will be 75 credits, please.”
Logan placed his palm onto the scanner on the dash.
“Thank you. Transaction complete.”
In any other city, on any other planet, facial recognition cameras within the cab would have identified both Logan and Slade. The authorities would’ve been notified of the exact whereabouts of an escaped convict. Upon detecting Logan’s gun, the cab would have shut down, and reported him to law enforcement for outstanding warrants.
But all of those data tracking tools were outlawed on Vega Draconis. Even the payment portal was encrypted. Not only was mass surveillance data considered an invasion of privacy, lawmakers felt it would reduce tourism and stifle economic growth. The outlaw planet had quickly gotten a reputation as a wild and raucous destination early on. Tourism was the single biggest revenue generator on the planet. And nobody wanted to see that come to an end. You could get away for a weekend on Vega Draconis, and no one would ever know you had been there. Of course, that also made it a haven for the outlaws of the galaxy.
The cab hovered above the roadway and took off through the city. It twisted and turned through the streets, taking the shortest possible route, factoring in traffic. Within 15 minutes, they were standing curbside at Teasers.
Logan nodded at the bouncer and pushed in through the main doors. A thick wave of electronic dance music and heavy bass enveloped them. Slade could feel the beat in her stomach. She was still hungry.
It was a glitzy decadent nightclub that was a mix of dance club, strip joint, and brothel. Half naked girls of all species danced around poles on stage. There was a dance floor that pulsed in rhythm to the music, visualizing the sound waves on the floor. The club was thick with smoke, partially from cigarettes, partially from the fog machines. Colored swaths of light cut the air in dazzling displays. The DJ was spinning tunes and calling performers to stage in a cheesy announcer voice. “Jasmine, stage two. Jasmine, stage two.”
Europa City was the kind of place where you could march someone into a club in handcuffs with a gun poking into their ribs and no one would pay it any attention. Nobody wanted to get into the middle of someone else’s business. Especially not in Teasers. And hey, maybe handcuffs and guns were your thing?
Slade saw a group of Marines drinking and having a good time. Girls were clinging to them, trying to empty their wallets with lap dances.
Logan marched Slade to the main bar and called out to the bartender. “Little Nicky around?”
“In the VIP lounge.”
Logan dragged Slade to the back of the club. It was darker back there, and the music wasn’t as loud. A bouncer at a velvet rope put out his hand and stopped Logan.
“I got business with Little Nicky,” Logan said.
The bouncer was a thick, meathead of a guy. He had dark hair and a goatee, and wore a navy suit that was custom fitted. He was wearing way too much cologne. Inside his coat was a .45 holstered in a shoulder harness. It probably wasn’t the only gun he was packing.
He glanced back to a man who was wearing dark sunglasses, sitting on a sofa with two gorgeous girls. The girls were in various states of undress, sipping on champagne and taking turns snorting lines of white powder from the glass coffee table in front of them. It was an antiquated way of doing drugs. You could get the same result with a neural stimulator, but it lacked the tactile feel and experience. And real cocaine was a rare commodity these days. Synthetic knockoffs were popular and cheap, but you had to have money to have the real deal. No matter how far technology advanced, people still wanted their drugs, their booze, and their cigarettes.
The man motioned Logan forward. This was Little Nicky. He was an average sized guy, but his dad was Big Nick. And Big Nick was a big deal. Teasers may have been Little Nicky’s club, but it was bought and paid for with Big Nick’s money and connections.
The bouncer stepped aside and let Logan pass.
“Logan, you’re late,” Little Nicky said. “You were supposed to be here two days ago.”
“I don’t like to be kept waiting. I have a business to run here. The merchandise needs to be kept fresh.”
“Business seems to be doing well,” Logan said, looking around. The place wasn’t packed, but it wasn’t bad for mid afternoon. Europa City was covered in perpetual darkness. One day blended into the next, and sometimes parties would go on for days. But still, there was a day and night ebb and flow. Around noon, the sky would reach its lightest, which looked like dusk on most planets. Real night was always busier.
Nicky stood up and strolled around to get a better look at Slade. She felt his sleazy eyes cling to every curve of her body. The vibe this man gave off was slimier than the pit back on Alpha Ceti 7.
“She’s a little old, don’t you think?”
Slade scowled at him.
“She’s experienced,” Logan said.
“Have you tested her out?”
“I don’t get high on my own supply.”
Nicky grinned. “Well, I might have to put her through her paces at some point.” He strolled around Slade, checking her out from all angles. “I’ll give you 35,000 credits for her.”
Logan’s jaw dropped. “Excuse me?”
“That’s what the market will bear. Look around. My clients like nice, wholesome, college girls. You know, innocent girls that are here just making a little extra cash to put themselves through school. That’s the fantasy. They don’t want some old battle axe that looks like you just pulled her out of a maximum-security prison.”
Both Slade and Logan gritted their teeth.
“Nicky, are we looking at the same thing here? This woman is stunning. She might not be 20 anymore, but she still inspires all kinds of fantasies.”
“I can go 45,000 credits, tops.”
“I’m trying to run a business here. I’ve got transportation costs. I’ve got housing, food, clothing, incidentals. I got my crew. I’m losing money at 45,000.”
“Your lack of ability to keep production costs low is not my problem.”
“I’m not selling widgets here,” Logan said. “This business is nuanced and ever-changing. Supply is constantly in flux. But demand always remains.”
“She looks like she’s going to be a pain in the ass.”
“No, she’s very docile and compliant. She didn’t give me any trouble on the way over here.”
Nicky gave Logan a skeptical glance. He looked Slade over one more time. “Where are you from, sweetheart?”
“None of your goddamn business.”
Nicky backhanded her. The strike reopened her split lip. Blood trickled down, rolling over her chin.
“Hey, hey! You break, you buy,” Logan said.
Nicky got up in Slade’s face. He was a spoiled little brat that always got his way. “When I ask a question, you answer me. Is that clear?”
Slade spit blood in his face.
Logan’s eyes went wide. He couldn’t believe she had just done that. Nobody disrespects Little Nicky. It’s just not done.
Nicky was so pissed, he was shaking. He wiped the bloody saliva from his face, and flung it to the ground. He clenched his jaw, seething. Veins in his neck and face bulged.
Even Logan felt bad for what Little Nicky was going to do to Slade.
“The rain brings the mating season for those arthropods. As if this planet needed any more of them. The rain and cloud cover keep the planet relatively cool during the day. So they are out all day long, looking to feed and reproduce. You certainly don’t want to be in the flatlands during that frenzy.”
Walker wasn’t too thrilled with the idea of thousands of those creatures running around. The small handful he’d already dealt with were more than enough.
They waited for the storm to die down, then searched the canyon for Malick. They found him on the ground, unconscious, several hundred yards down the canyon. His helmet was dented and scratched. The wind must have catapulted him. His head must have slammed against a rock, knocking him out.
Walker knelt down and carefully removed Malick’s helmet, making sure to support his neck in case Malick had a spinal injury. He was still alive, and the armor had saved him from the harsh sandblasting.
The sun was rising, and they needed to get him to shelter soon.
“Give me a hand with him,” Walker said.
Gavin knelt down. Walker took one side, Gavin took the other. He groaned as he lifted Malik from the ground. “He’s a heavy son-of-a-bitch, ain’t he?”
Walker and Gavin carried Malick back to the dwelling and set him on a bunk.
“I can’t believe I’m giving aid and comfort to the enemy,” Gavin said.
Malik was out for almost an hour. He woke, groggy, and had no recollection of what had happened.
Gavin scowled at the Saarkturian. “You’re lucky those saber-toothed bastards didn’t find you before we did.”
“Malik, this is Gavin. Our gracious host,” Walker said, eying Gavin. The last thing Walker needed was for Gavin to start another Verge War. “He’s agreed to help us, in exchange for a lift off of this dump.”
Malik gave a nod of agreement.
“We should head out in the morning for my ship,” Walker said.
“Why not this afternoon?” Malik asked.
“Let’s give it a day to see how you feel. I don’t need you passing out on me out there.”
“You’ve probably got a mild concussion. I think we need to keep a watch on you for a bit. Do you have a headache? Nausea, dizziness, confusion?”
Malik held up his dented helmet. “Of course I have a headache. What do you think?” He glared at Walker. “I’m fine.”
Walker shrugged. “If you say so.”
“I’m fine,” he snarled, which only made his head hurt worse. He tried to stand, but felt woozy. He crashed back down to the bunk.
“Like I said, we’ll head out in the morning.”
Malik couldn’t argue any longer.
“You’re not going to like this,” Gavin said. “But there’s only one way to survive the flatlands.”
Walker lifted a curious eyebrow.
Little Nicky’s eyes burned into Slade. “300,000 credits. That’s what I’ll pay. Just so I can make her life a living hell.”
Logan’s eyes went wide. That was twice what he had hoped for. “Sure,” he stammered. But even as greedy as Logan was, the concern on his face was evident.
“Then it’s a deal,” Nicky said.
The two shook on it.
Logan handed him the keys to the handcuffs.
“Why don’t you stick around. Drinks and entertainment are on the house tonight. Pick any girl you’d like.”
“Thanks,” he said, thinly. Logan stood there for a moment, staring at Slade.
“The transaction is over. Go. Have some fun.” Nicky shooed him along.
Logan strolled away, past the bouncer and the velvet rope of the VIP lounge. But he kept glancing back at Slade. He looked like he almost felt sorry for her.
Nicky glared at Slade. Then he called out to the bouncer at the velvet rope. “Marco, take her upstairs and get her fitted with an obedience implant. Then put her on display. Let’s see what she’s really worth.”
Marco grabbed Slade by the arm and dragged her upstairs. Slade jerked and pulled and kicked at him, but his grip was too tight, and his frame too big. He pulled her along like she were a stuffed doll.
Slade didn’t want an obedience implant. Once that was installed, the game would be over. It wasn’t mind control, exactly. But it was close. They were small, disc-shaped objects affixed to the back of the neck. Nano tentacles penetrated the spinal fluid and entered the brain, influencing a number of key areas in the prefrontal cortex and limbic system.
While not as advanced as the Saarkturian mind control, the devices could reduce inhibition, modulate serotonin levels, increase impulsive behavior, increase sex drive, and stimulate pleasure areas of the brain.
You couldn’t program someone to be a stone cold killer with an obedience implant. But you could make them docile and compliant, and be happy about it. You could also simulate the sensation of pain. Pure and total threshold pain. 20 on a scale of 10. The worst pain you ever felt in your life. And it could all be accomplished with the press of a button. That was enough to keep most people in line.
Marco brought her to The Doctor. He was an older gentleman with gray hair and a gray mustache, wearing a white lab coat. But the lab coat was probably just to make him feel better about himself. Who knew if he was a real doctor or not? It didn’t really matter. He was the guy responsible for the implants. He also made sure the girls were healthy enough to work, and took care of them when they weren’t.
Almost every disease had a cure, and thereby had been mostly eradicated. But running an intergalactic brothel meant that somebody was going to catch something at some point. And the good Doctor was there to cure them.
Marco barged into the Doc’s office. It was a makeshift facility with an exam table, diagnostic devices, medical instruments, and cabinets full of medications. Doc was at his desk with his sleeve rolled up. He had just injected something into his arm, and his head fell limp.
This is just great. The Doc is a junky, Slade thought.
“Doc, snap out of it. She needs an implant,” Marco said.
It took a moment for Doc’s eyes to focus. A moment later, he nodded and pushed up from the desk. He listed over to the cabinets and grabbed an obedience disc.
Doc ambled over to Slade. His words were thick and slurry. “Don’t move during the process, or you could become paralyzed.”
Marco put a gun to Slade’s head. “Or you could become dead.”
No way was she going to let this happen.
Doc was trying to line up the disc and implant it on the back of her neck. But he was having a hard time. His hand was drifting from side to side.
Slade mashed a stiletto into Marco’s foot. She spun around and leaned out of the way as Marco squeezed the trigger.
A .45 caliber round drilled past her forehead. She could feel the breeze as the bullet pierced the air. She did a roundhouse and kicked the gun from Marco’s hand. The gun clattered across the floor.
Like lightning, Slade kicked Marco in the groin. But it didn’t faze him. He grabbed onto her ankle and yanked her from her feet. Slade’s head smacked the hard floor.
Marco rolled her onto her stomach and pounced on her back. He grabbed her hair and mashed her face into the floor. He put his other hand between her shoulder blades and held her to the ground.
“Trust me, you really don’t want to move during this process,” he said.
This was more action than the Doc had seen in quite some time. He looked on, nervously.
“Go ahead, Doc,” Marco said.
Doc knelt to the floor, placing the disc against Slade’s neck. Then he activated it. Eight spider-like arms burrowed into her skin and affixed the disc to her neck. Her body stiffened as the nano-tentacles plunged into her spinal fluid and spread to her brain.
Within moments, she relaxed. She was calm and sedate. She was something she never thought she’d be—compliant.
Marco grabbed his gun from the floor and holstered it. Doc gave him a controller, specifically coded for Slade’s implant. He pulled Slade from the ground and marched her to another room down the hall. He pushed her inside. It was a typical pleasure room. There was a bed, seductive lighting, music.
Marco removed her handcuffs.
There was a part of her that wanted to escape. But she just couldn’t make her body do anything about it. Part of her was terrified. Part of her just didn’t care.
She looked over the room, then faced Marco as he stood by the door.
“Let me tell you how things work around here.” Marco held the controller in his hand. “You can feel pleasure…” He pressed a button. A flood of endorphins rushed through Slade’s body. It was pleasure like she had never felt before. Every nerve ending in her body bristled with euphoria.
“Or you can feel pain.” Marco pressed another button. Stabbing, pulsing pain covered her body. Deep, chilling pain. Like every bone in her body had been broken. Like her skin had been seared and her flesh was blistering. Like someone had stabbed an ice pick through her temples. She crumpled to the ground, and tears streamed from her eyes.
Marco lifted his finger from the pain inducer.
Slade felt instant relief. She exhaled, and her body relaxed.
“Do what you’re told, and you get rewarded with pleasure. Cause trouble, and your life will be hell. Do we understand each other?”
“You know, most girls grow to like it here. They get addicted to the pleasure. I’m told nothing can compare—that no pleasurable experience is as complete as one derived from pure brain stimulation.”
Marco hit the pain button again. Slade seized up in pain. She twitched and convulsed on the ground for a minute. Then Marco released her.
“That’s for kicking me in the balls.”
She gasped for air and wiped the tears from her eyes.
Marco yanked her up from the floor. “Now you’re going to go down there and do exactly as you’re told. And if you try to leave, I can inflict pain and track you down. You’ll probably be dead by the time I get to you, so I advise against trying to escape.”
Marco escorted her down to the main stage. He whispered something to the DJ.
After the current song ended, the DJ introduced Slade to the eager crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage our newest addition to the Teasers’ House of Pleasure, the one and only, Ms. Electra!”
And just like that, she had been dubbed with a new identity.
Logan sat with his crew at a table by the stage. They were drinking their fill on Nicky’s dime. But Logan looked like an old stick in the mud. He wasn’t having a good time. He watched Slade as Marco shoved her onto the stage.
“What’s the matter, boss?” Gorth asked. “You look like someone kicked your dog.”
“Come on. 300K, that’s the most we’ve ever scored. Plus the 50K on the other goods we delivered to McMurphy. Not a bad haul. And you can settle your debt.”
Logan forced a smile.
“Shit boss. Don’t tell me this one got under your skin?”
Logan’s face tightened. “No. Of course not.”
“Then live a little,” Gorth slurred. “We earned it.” He slugged another shot down. He was going to drink his fill of free whiskey.
“This is Ms. Electra’s first night at Teasers. Please give her a warm welcome,” the DJ said.
The crowd erupted with applause.
Slade hesitantly walked to the end of the stage. A spotlight bathed her body in warm light.
“Spin around, honey,” the DJ said. “Show them what you’ve got.”
Slade did as he commanded.
“This is a woman who knows how to fulfill your every desire,” the DJ said. “If you want some private time with Ms. Electra, grab her when she comes off stage. Better hurry. The line is going to be long for this one.”
Walker and Gavin stood over the carcass of an arthropod they had rooted out of its burrow and killed. Gavin cut into the creature’s flesh and scooped out its gooey green blood into a clay bucket.
Walker’s face twisted up. “That smells like ass.” The stench hit him like a hot wall of filth.
“Give me a hand with this, would you?” Gavin said. “Fill up that other bucket.”
Walker cringed, but knelt down and started scooping the slop into the bucket. “Want to tell me what this is for?”
“Those arthropods have a highly attuned sense of smell. While they have good visual acuity, their pattern recognition sucks. This blood will mask your scent. They’ll see you as one of their own.”
“Have you tested this theory out before?”
“Yes,” Gavin said. “You just better hope one of them doesn’t want to mate with you.”
“That sounds pleasurable.” Walker grimaced, his voice thick with sarcasm.
They hauled the slop back to Gavin’s dwelling. Malik’s face crinkled and Bailey whimpered.
“Put a lid on that,” Malik said. “And I thought human’s smelled bad.”
Gavin covered the buckets. It helped attenuate the stench a little, but not nearly enough. It permeated everything in the small dwelling. Gavin was never going to be able to get the smell out. But if things went well, he wouldn’t be living on this planet for much longer.
After a while, they got somewhat numb to the horrid smell. But every now and then, you’d catch a good whiff of it and want to hurl. It was the kind of smell that you could almost taste in the back of your throat, triggering your gag reflex.
Walker tried to get a good night’s sleep, but he kept having nightmare’s about bugs. When he woke in the morning, he was certain he was back on Delta Crucis 6, for a moment, fighting the bugs—and losing. The campaign on DC6 was one of his first deployments. After all these years, it still haunted him. He shook the dream off, and hoped it wasn’t some sort of bad omen.
Gavin had stockpiled enough jerky to last for months. Dehydrated on racks in the sweltering sun, the saber-tooth jerky made as tasty a breakfast as one could get on this planet. But with the stench of the bug goo wafting through the air, it was hard to enjoy the meal.
They geared up for the journey, then doused themselves in the bug juice. Bailey was no fan of the putrid smelling slop. Walker coated Bailey’s skin with it, and the dog would try his damnedest to shake it off.
“I know it smells bad, but it’s going to help,” Walker said. He gave Gavin the evil eye. “It better help.”
The team set out for the flatlands. The goop dried and stuck to them like a nasty paste. By dawn, they had reached the end of the canyon.
Walker looked out over the flatlands. “We’ll only be able to make it half way by midday. We’ll have to root one of those things out of their burrows and take shelter. We’ll march single file to minimize our footprint.”
Walker started off jogging into the flats. He was keeping a good pace. Malik had no problem keeping up. He was physically superior. Bailey was a natural runner. But Gavin wasn’t used to this kind of physical exertion. He was lagging behind. His chest heaved and expanded as he gasped for breath. Sweat dripped from his brow. He had to stop several times, hunching over on his knees, sucking wind.
Walker slowed up and waited for him, but he knew the delay was going to cause problems. They had been lucky, so far. They hadn’t seemed to stir up any arthropods.
They all took a break and caught their breath for a moment. They weren’t even a quarter of the way to the ship, and the heat was becoming unbearable.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a march like this,” Gavin said between gasps. I’m slowing you down.”
“We’ll be just fine,” Walker replied. “We’ve got maybe another hour before the heat will be too much. We can look for shelter now, or we can push on.”
“We need to cover more ground,” Gavin said. “If we don’t, we’ll all freeze out here, come nightfall.”
“Let’s keep moving,” Walker said.
They followed him as he sprinted north. It wasn’t long before Gavin’s side was aching and he was gasping for breath again. He was limping along like a wounded animal. Eventually, he had to take a knee and catch his breath.
Walker slowed and backtracked toward Gavin. “We’ll rest here a moment.”
They still weren’t halfway yet.
Walker took a swig of water.
Malik was visibly frustrated. “I’ll carry him.”
“You will do no such thing,” Gavin said, defiantly.
“I’m twice as strong as you humans. I will not continue to waste valuable time placating your ego.”
Gavin gritted his teeth. “You’ll be old too, one day.”
“But not today,” Malik said. “If we continue to let him drag us down, we will all die.”
This infuriated Gavin. He looked like he was about to pounce on Malik and start a brawl.
“He’s right,” Walker said.
Gavin scowled at Walker. “If you think I’m gonna let him give me a piggy back ride, you’ve got another thing coming.”
“It wasn’t a suggestion, Lieutenant,” Walker said.
“I should outrank you by now,” Gavin grumbled.
“But you don’t.” Walker grinned.
Gavin muttered something under his breath and climbed on Malik’s back. “This is ridiculous.”
Bailey started barking.
“What is it, boy?” Walker asked.
Several arthropods emerged from the sand and surrounded them.
Logan grimaced and pushed back from the table.
“Where you going, boss?” Mia asked.
He ignored her and climbed onto the stage and pulled Slade away.
“Seems we have a taker,” the DJ said.
Mia and Gorth looked at Logan like he was crazy.
“What the hell has gotten into him?” Mia said.
Logan led Slade to one of the pleasure rooms upstairs. He locked the door behind them.
Slade was a little nervous, almost trembling, not sure what he had in mind.
“Relax,” he said. “If I wanted you, I could have taken you back on my ship.”
Slade was relieved and oddly offended at the same time. “Please, I remember kicking your ass, if I’m not mistaken.”
Logan glared at her.
“So, what, did you miss my charming personality? You bring me up her just to talk?”
“I’m trying to help you. But keep being a smart ass and I’ll be happy to throw you back to the wolves.”
“Did you suddenly develop a conscience?”
He scowled at her again. “Look, lady. I don’t really give a shit what happens to you. You’re just another piece of merchandise.” He was lying. Slade could see in his eyes that what he had done was eating at him.
“How many girls have you done this to?”
He lifted his brow at her. “You think I’m some kind of amateur?”
“I think you’re a delivery boy. And you’ve never delivered a cargo like this before. That’s why you’re here. You feel guilty. Who knew scumbags could have a conscience?”
Logan’s eyes narrowed at her. “I don’t need to take this bullshit from you. Have a nice life.” He spun around and marched for the door.
“Wait. Don’t go.”
He stopped at the door with his back to her.
“You have to help me.”
“I don’t have to do shit.”
“Please.” Her voice was frail and vulnerable. It wasn’t a tone that often slipped from her lips. It was a tone that was hard to ignore.
Logan grimaced, mad at himself for letting Slade get to him. Pissed he had gotten into this situation in the first place. He knew he was going to regret getting involved with her.
He turned around and her big blue eyes were pleading with him.
“I can’t help you. You don’t cross Little Nicky and live. I’ve got my own problems, I don’t need any more.”
“Then why bring me up here?”
“Okay, fine. You’re right. I’ve never done this before, and I feel like shit about it, if you want to know the truth. I usually just run drugs for Nicky. But I needed the extra cash.”
“Help me get out of here.”
“If I do that, I’m a dead man. And I’ve already got one bounty out on my head.”
“Well, you can’t die twice,” Slade said, her voice filled with subdued optimism.
“You can’t leave. The minute you step out of the building, it will trigger your implant. You’ll be filled with unimaginable pain. You won’t make it past the sidewalk.”
“Then we take the implant out.”
“It’s not that simple. Remove it improperly, and you could become paralyzed, or even die.”
“We find the Doc, and force him to remove it? Problem solved.”
Logan cringed. This was all going to end badly, and he knew it. But he agreed. He had gotten her into this mess. He was going to get her out of it.
He pushed open the door and peered down the hallway. There was a fat old guy pulling a young girl into one of the pleasure rooms. They disappeared inside the room, and the hallway became quiet.
“Stay here,” Logan said.
He slipped out of the room and crept down the hallway to the Doc’s office. He put his ear to the door, but didn’t hear any activity inside. He pushed through and found Doc passed out at his desk. But as he stepped closer, Logan had that sinking feeling in his stomach that the Doc wasn’t just passed out. There was an empty syringe on the desk. Doc’s body was cold and lifeless. Logan grabbed his hair and lifted his head. Doc wasn’t breathing. He had OD’d.
Logan made his way back to Slade’s room and told her the bad news.
“Just do it,” Slade said. “I’ll take my chances. Just pull the damn thing out. I’d rather die than spend the rest of my life like this.”
Logan frowned, then pulled his mobile from his pocket.
“What are you doing?”
“I know a guy who might be able to help,” Logan said.
The call connected. A young guy appeared on the screen. He was early 20’s, and he didn’t look too happy to be hearing from Logan. “What do you want?”
“I was just calling to see how you’ve been? Long time, right?”
“You only call when you want something. And you still owe me money.”
Logan grinned. “Silas, I don’t want anything. I just need some help… for a friend.”
“Logan, you don’t have any friends. Just people you use.”
Logan turned the mobile so the camera could frame Slade.
“Take my advice, Lady. You don’t want anything to do with this guy,” Silas said.
Logan turned the display back to face himself. “We’re in a bit of a situation.”
“Not my problem.”
“I can pay.”
“No, really,” Logan said. “I’m flush at the moment.”
“Then why is there still a bounty out on your head.”
“Today was payday. I can either settle up with you, and compensate you handsomely for a very simple job. Or I can take all these credits and erase my debt with the Duke.”
“The smart thing is to settle up with the Duke. I’m not really looking to kill you over the 1000 credits you owe me.”
“As we both know, I don’t always do the smart thing. Call it a genetic defect.”
“You’re defective, alright.”
“Do you want the job, or not?”
“What is it?” Silas asked.
“She needs an implant removed.”
Silas cringed. “Those are risky.”
“We know that. Can you do it?”
“I’ve done them before.”
“Great. We have a deal.”
“We haven’t even discussed price,” Silas said.
Silas’s eyes went wide. “Okay. Bring her over.”
“No. You have to come here.”
“Where is here?”
“Oh, hell no!” Silas shook his head.
“What’s the big deal?”
“I got the shit kicked out of me there last time. And Nicky said he’d kill me if I ever showed my face there again.”
“What did you do?”
Logan sighed. “Fine. 20,000 credits.”
“You couldn’t pay me enough to set foot in that place again.”
It was the moment of truth. Sand dribbled from the exoskeletons of the creatures as they stood tall. Menacing pincer claws hung overhead.
Bailey barked and growled. He wasn’t about to back down from a fight. He squared off against one of the towering creatures.
“Easy, boy,” Walker said as he crept toward Bailey. He kept an eye on the creature as he inched closer. Walker’s heart was thumping in his chest. The arthropod looked ready to strike at any moment. Walker scooped up Bailey into his arms and slowly backed away from the creature.
At least six of the monsters had popped up out of the ground. They surrounded the team and took an aggressive posture. But they didn’t attack. After a few minutes of observation, they backed off and crawled into their burrows.
The entrails had disguised Walker and the others. Putting up with the smell had been worth it.
The sky was darkening on the horizon. A storm was rolling in.
“The rains are coming,” Gavin said.
“Let’s get moving,” Walker commanded.
They ran through the flatlands for another hour. It would have been time to take cover and get out of the heat. But the dark clouds had rolled in overhead, blocking the harsh sun.
“I say we keep pushing while we have the cloud cover,” Walker said.
Now Malik was the one who looked worn out. He was dripping sweat, huffing and puffing from carrying Gavin.
“Can you make it?” Walker asked.
Malik’s face tensed, offended at the question. “Yes, I can make it.”
Gavin climbed down from Malik’s back. “I’ll run on my own for a while.”
“I’m fine,” Malik insisted. The Saarkturians were stubborn and prideful. Walker could respect that. Reapers were much the same way.
“I’ll run just until I start to slow you down,” Gavin said.
“We’re wasting time,” Malik said. He took off running. But it wasn’t a long distance jog. He had broken out into a sprint.
Walker and Gavin followed. But they couldn’t keep up with Malik’s speed. Only Bailey could match him stride for stride. Walker figured Malik was running so fast to prove a point.
“Ease up so we don’t burn out,” Walker shouted ahead.
“I won’t burn out.”
Gavin was already lagging behind.
Walker turned on the speed, running full steam. He caught up to Malik.
“I should have gone on this quest alone,” Malik said. “I can cover twice the ground you can.” Malik ran even faster, pulling away from Walker like he was standing still.
“Okay, I get it,” Walker yelled. He slowed up. There was no sense in trying to keep up this pace.
Gavin caught up to Walker, and the two ran at a more leisurely pace.
“This is where it starts to get fun,” Gavin said. “This is where most of them live.”
Arthropods emerged from the sand in the wake of Malik’s blazing speed. A few became dozens. Dozens became hundreds. Hundreds became thousands.
Maybe it was the vibrations. Maybe it was the coming rain. But within minutes, the flats were crawling with these hideous creatures.
Walker and Gavin weaved their way through the menacing horde. It was a maze of claws and legs and exoskeletons. Clacking and clattering of pincer claws filled the air. The horrid screeches of the creatures was earsplitting. It was enough to make your spine tingle, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand tall. Especially if you had an aversion to bugs.
But they weren’t attacking. Not yet at least.
Malik finally slowed his pace and waited for the rest of the team to catch up.
“On second thought, I’d rather not be out here alone,” Malik said. “I think I’ve found something I hate more than humans.”
Walker almost laughed.
They snaked their way through the swarm. One wrong move and you’d find yourself trampled under the spiky legs of the creatures. It was unnerving, to say the least. But the creatures seemed to be more interested in the onset of mating season.
They kept splicing through the horde until Walker’s shuttle was in sight. Walker felt a weight lifted from his shoulders. He wasn’t entirely sure they would make it this far.
It was maybe three or four hundred yards away. The sky had grown dark and Walker could smell the moisture in the air. A wall of rain was fast approaching. Soon, it was pouring down on them.
The dry earth soaked up the water like a sponge. The once dry and cracked ground quickly became soft clay. The rain seemed to send the creatures into a frenzy. The clacking and chattering of exoskeletons and claws snapping were almost deafening.
The downpour was torrential. Walker and the team quickly found themselves trudging through a muddy slop. With each step their feet would stick in the sucking mud. It slowed their pace. But that wasn’t their only problem.
The rain had showered away their protective coating of bug blood. They were no longer invisible to the creatures olfactory glands. It wouldn’t be long before thousands of these monsters caught a whiff of their scent.
This was never going to work, Silas thought.
He strolled toward the entrance to Teasers. The bouncer was eyeing him. His narrow eyes burned into Silas. It was like some type of X-ray vision. Silas was certain the bouncer was on to him—that he would see through his disguise.
His heart was thumping in his chest as he drew closer to the door. Silas was wearing a black hat, red shirt, and a black trench coat. The brim of his hat was pulled down low.
He looked like a gunslinger from an old western. It wasn’t his style at all. Silas had gotten the costume from Gina—a makeup artist and wardrobe person he knew. She worked in the adult film industry. Europa City was the porn capital of the galaxy. Gina was pretty good with special effects makeup too. She had worked on a lot of low budget horror films, but they didn’t pay nearly as well as the more illicit stuff. The gunslinger costume was from the last film she had done wardrobe for: Big Guns for Big Buns #2.
Silas was sure the bouncer was going to clothesline him as he passed, but the big oaf just stepped aside and let him enter. Silas paid the cover charge and strolled into the club.
The music thumped. Girls twirled around poles in the most acrobatic of ways. It was distracting, to say the least. But Silas kept the brim of his hat down to avoid the surveillance cameras mounted on the ceiling. He strolled to the bar and ordered a drink, trying to blend in. Teasers was known throughout the galaxy, and it drew a crowd of all sorts. An outlaw gunslinger wasn’t really an unusual sight.
“You looking for some company?” A busty red head pushed up against him.
Silas’s eyes bulged. She had all the right parts in all the right places. There was nothing synthetic about this girl.
“Turn around,” Silas said.
She grinned slightly and lifted a seductive eyebrow. Then she spun around, prominently displaying her assets. She had a nice portfolio. Highly diversified. But that’s not what Silas was looking for.
“Lift up your hair.”
She clasped her hands together, scooping her hair into a ponytail. She lifted it up, revealing her neck. She didn’t have an implant. She spun around and stared into his eyes. “I’m here because I want to be.”
Silas looked shocked.
“I can make more money here in a night than I can in a month waiting tables. It’s a no brainer for me.”
“You can’t really enjoy this kind of work?”
She sighed. “I’ve got a little mouth to feed. I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure my little man has what he needs.” Her eyes narrowed at him, quizzical. “Most guys just want to see me naked. What’s with all the questions?”
“I’m not most guys.”
She chuckled. “That’s what they all say.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jasmine,” she said seductively.
Silas smirked. “What’s your real name?”
She sighed. “Liana. I’m only telling you because you don’t look like a total creeper.”
Silas chuckled. “Okay, Liana. I’ll give you 100 credits to walk me up to the private rooms.”
“And then what?”
She squinted at him. “That’s it?”
“And you keep quiet about it.”
She pondered this for a moment. “300 credits and you’ve got a deal.
Liana grabbed his arm and pulled him across the club. She led him upstairs to the private rooms. Silas handed her 300 credits in cash.
“Are you sure you don’t want anything else for your money?” Her eyes smoldered at him.
“I don’t pay for sex,” Silas said.
“You paid for me to escort you up here. The sex is on me.” She smiled.
“How about you give me your number?”
“I’ll only give you my number if you’re actually going to use it. I’ve met a lot of jerks. You seem like a nice guy.”
“I don’t know how nice I am, but I’ll call.”
She took his mobile and programmed in her number. She handed it back to him and kissed him on the cheek. “It was nice to meet you…” She still didn’t know his name.
“Silas,” he said.
“It was nice to meet you, Silas. If that’s your real name.” She spun around and sauntered away.
Silas watched her go. She had a nice saunter.
He crept down the hall and found Slade’s room. Fifth on the left. He pushed through and greeted Logan.
“What took you so long?” Logan asked.
“I got here as fast as I could. Chill.”
“Nice outfit,” Logan quipped.
Silas flipped him off. “Let’s see what we’ve got to work with.”
Slade spun around and gathered her hair into a ponytail. She lifted it up, revealing her neck.
Silas looked over the implant. “Looks like a Genomedyne 233-A.”
“Can you get it off?” Logan asked.
“Sure,” Silas stammered.
Logan arched an eyebrow at him. “Have you removed one before?”
“Two. One worked out just fine.”
“And the other?” Slade asked.
“The other doesn’t walk so good anymore.”
“On the matter of payment,” Silas said. “I need that upfront.”
“You’re not inspiring confidence,” Logan said.
“Take it or leave it.”
Logan scowled at him, pulled out his mobile, and transferred the credits into Silas’s account. “Are we good?”
Silas checked his account balance. “We’re good.”
He pulled out a device from his pocket that looked like a high-tech screwdriver. It had a digital display, and the octagonal stem connected perfectly to the implant’s docking port, located in the center of the disc.
“Yup, it’s a 233-A,” Silas said. He made a few adjustments on the device. “Hang on. This might cause some momentary discomfort.”
“How does that work?” Logan asked.
“This is a third party device. Like a master key. It analyzes the system and calculates the appropriate interface retractions. If all goes well, the nano-tentacles will withdraw, and she’ll have complete control of her neural function.”
Slade took a deep breath.
“Are you ready?”
Silas activated the device.
Slade’s body seized up with pain. She clenched her jaw and her fists balled up. Her whole body convulsed. The spider-like arms that held the disc in place retracted. Silas pulled the disc from her neck. A moment later, Slade fell to the ground, motionless.
Logan dropped to his knees. A look of panic washed over his face. “Are you okay?”
“I can’t move.” Slade could barely slur the words out.
Walker and the others sprinted through the mud. Within a matter of minutes, the rain had turned the desert into a boggy quagmire. Each step would put you ankle deep in mud. If you weren’t wearing boots, it would rip the shoe right off your foot.
The creatures had taken notice of them. It was pure chaos. Claws snapped at them from all angles. The team zigzagged through the deadly maze of arthropods.
Walker and Malik blasted at the monsters with their rifles. Bullets tore into pincers and shattered skulls. Green blood spattered, then mixed with the mud. But for every creature that fell, there were hundreds more to take its place.
Some of the creatures snapped at each other, fighting over the morsels of food running in their midst.
Walker and the others were almost to the shuttle. Gavin brought up the rear. It looked like they were going to make it, unscathed. But a creature attacked Gavin. A pincer snared him.
Then another beast snatched at him. The two creatures were having a tug-of-war with Gavin’s body. One of the beasts ripped his leg from its socket. Muscle and tendon snapped and tore. Bones crackled. Crimson blood sprayed out of Gavin’s leg like a fountain. He screamed in agony.
One of the beasts crawled off with his leg to feast on it.
Walker blasted at the other arthropod’s tail, severing it in two.
Gavin dropped to the ground, paralyzed.
The beast flailed about and screamed.
Another beast stepped in to claim the prize. Then another. The two new monsters fought each other. Swiping and grasping. They locked pincers, like deer lock horns. The beasts rammed each other.
Walker dashed to Gavin, stealing him away as the creatures scuffled. He heaved Gavin over his shoulder and ran for the shuttle. Malik blasted a wave of suppressing fire, covering Walker.
Each step in the sloppy mud was precarious. With the added weight on his shoulders, Walker’s feet slid as he ran. He almost lost his balance a few times. His quads were burning and his low back was aching. He secured Gavin with one hand, and continuously fired at the creatures with the other.
He finally reached the shuttle as the horde closed in on him. Malik kept the horde at bay, blasting away. Once Walker, Gavin, and Bailey were in the shuttle, Malik climbed in. As he swung the hatch shut, a claw stabbed at him, blocking the hatch.
Walker gripped his weapon and aimed at the claw. His finger squeezed the trigger, firing off a burst of rounds. The claw exploded. Green slop splattered everywhere. But Malik was able to seal the hatch.
Malik wiped the goo from his face and flung it onto the ground. His lip curled up, disgusted by the guts, and the stench.
Creatures continued to poke their grubby little claws in through the gashes in the hull. But their pincers were too large. The shuttle rocked and rattled as they tried. Malik shoved the barrel of his weapon through the opening and blasted away.
“Save your ammo,” Walker said. “We’re going to need it.” He was busy attending to Gavin. Blood was draining out of his stump. Walker drew his sword and cut a section of fabric from Gavin’s clothing to use as a tourniquet. He tied it as tight as he could. But Gavin had already lost too much blood. His face was pale. His skin was cold and clammy to the touch.
“I would have liked to have seen my son,” Gavin said. It was the last words he would ever utter. His breath stopped, and the color drained from his lips. His body lay perfectly still.
Walker clenched his jaw and hung his head.
Gavin’s eyes were fixed, staring at the ceiling. Walker gently shut his eyelids with his fingertips. After 25 years, Gavin had finally left the planet.
Bailey knelt beside the body and whimpered.
The creatures had given up attacking the ship. But the muffled clatter of their mating activity served as an unnerving reminder of their presence.
Thunder crackled, and rain continued to pour down. There was no telling how long the storm would last. Days? Weeks? Months?
They were stuck in the shuttle until the rain stopped. Then they’d have to kill an arthropod and re-camouflage themselves with its entrails—all while fighting off hordes of creatures.
Their odds of survival seemed dismal. They hadn’t taken more than a few days worth of food with them on the journey.
“I’m sorry for the loss of your comrade,” Malik said.
Walker nodded, grimly.
He peered out through the gashes in the hull. It was a sea of hideous monsters, sliding and crawling all over each other. Fighting and mating, and mating and fighting. It was an orgy of sex and anarchy. And soon, there would be thousands more of them crawling around. Walker had no idea what their babies would look like. Or how long they would take to hatch. But they would likely be able to fit through the gashes in the hull.
The thought of thousands of those little things swarming the inside of the shuttle was enough to make him shiver. After his mission on DC 6, he didn’t think his hatred for bugs could grow any deeper. But he was wrong. His capacity for hatred of creatures with more than two legs had grown. What he wouldn’t give for one nuke, just to take out this miserable horde.
Malik didn’t waste any time getting down to business. He dug into the electrical system and pulled the fuel-cell. He clenched his jaw and cursed in Saarktureese. “We’ve got a problem.”
Slade was face down on the carpet. The foul smell of the dirty, stained carpet filled her nostrils. Her whole body was numb. She couldn’t feel a thing. Was this the way she was going to spend the rest of her life? The thought filled her with dread. Her heart raced with fear.
After a few minutes, sensation began to return to her fingertips and toes. She was able to wiggle her index finger. It was a far cry from being fully mobile, but it was something. Slowly, sensation returned to her hands, then her feet, then her forearms, then legs.
Logan helped her up and sat her on the edge of the bed. “ “Do you think you can walk out of here?”
“Maybe,” she slurred. She had the motor control of a drunk.
“You’re not going to be able to just walk her out of the front door,” Silas said.
“I know. That’s why we need your close.”
“What?” Silas’s face twisted up. “Oh, no. That wasn’t part of the deal.”
“It’s the only way I’m going to be able to get her out of here.”
“What about me? It’s the only way I got in.”
“I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”
“I want an extra 10,000 credits.”
Logan scowled at him. “Okay. Fine.” He pulled out his mobile and transfered the money.
Silas stripped out of his clothes. Logan helped Slade out of her dress and into the gunslinger outfit. He stuffed her arms awkwardly into the sleeves and pants legs. Then he pulled her hair up into a bun and set the hat on her head, the brim low on her brow.
Logan slung Slade’s arm around his shoulder and helped her stand. The clothes were too big for her. The shoulders too broad, the pants too baggy. But at a quick glance, she might pass for a man. If anybody looked too carefully, the gig would be up.
“What the hell am I supposed to wear out of here?” Silas asked.
Logan glanced to Slade’s black cocktail dress on the floor.
“You have got to be kidding me?”
“A little makeup, and you’ll look just like a woman.”
Logan helped Slade to the door. She fumbled along, barely able to stand. They slipped into the hallway and headed toward the stairwell. Slade shuffled along, hardly able to pick her feet up. The stairs were precarious. With one arm around Logan’s shoulder, and the other grasping the rail, they managed to reach the bottom without tumbling down. Though, there were a few close calls along the way.
The music pumped and the lights danced across the club. A fog machine had just gone off, creating a nice thick haze. It was the perfect opportunity to try and make it to the exit.
“Stand up and walk straight.”
“I’m trying,” Slade slurred. Her speech was as bad as her stride.
“It’s now, or never. Let’s go.” The two strolled across the club. Slade was clinging on for dear life, trying not to tumble over her own steps. She looked like a baby animal taking her first steps.
Mia and Gorth were three sheets to the wind, taking full advantage of the free liquor. Gorth caught sight of Logan as he crossed the room. “Didn’t he go upstairs with a woman?”
Mia squinted. “Yeah.”
“What happened? Did he switch teams?”
“Whatever floats your boat?”
Logan nodded his head, motioning for Gorth to meet him at the door.
“Looks like we’re on the move,” Gorth said. He and Mia tried to stand, and that’s when the liquor really kicked in. They almost looked as bad as Slade crossing the room.
Logan was almost to the exit with Slade when Little Nicky called out to him. “Leaving so soon?”
Logan clenched his jaw and cursed under his breath. He forced a smile and looked back over his shoulder at Nicky. “Yeah. It’s getting past my bedtime. I turn into a pumpkin soon.”
“How was the girl? Is she worth the money I paid?”
“And then some.” Logan started for the door. The bouncer was now standing between him and the doorway.
“Who’s your friend?” Nicky asked.
Logan stopped. “He just had a little too much to drink.” Logan started for the door again.
“It would be bad for business if someone died of alcohol poisoning on my premises.”
“If he can walk on his own, I’ll let him leave. If he can’t, I’m calling him some medical assistance.”
Slade kept her head down and removed her arm from around Logan’s shoulder. She swayed, but stood on her own. Logan watched with baited breath.
“Take a few steps, sir,” Nicky said.
Slade teetered as she stepped forward. But she kept upright, for the most part. Her other leg shuffled forward, and she completed another step. But her third step wasn’t so successful. She tripped and crumpled to the ground. The hat flew off, and her hair flung down.
Nicky scowled as he recognized her. He reached for his gun, but Logan beat him to the punch.
BAM! BAM! BAM!
Logan blasted off several rounds. Blood splattered from Nicky’s chest. The impact sent him tumbling back, crashing onto a table. Glasses broke and drinks splashed. Patrons screeched in terror.
The bouncer pulled his gun from inside his coat. His finger wrapped around the trigger and he was about to blast a hole in the back of Logan’s head. Gorth took the Bouncer out with a hail of gunfire before he had the chance.
Logan swiped Slade from the floor, and the gang hustled out of the club. They dashed across the sidewalk and hopped into a cab, speeding away into the night.
They had just killed the son of one of the most powerful mob bosses in Europa City. Big Nick wasn’t going to let this slide. He was going to track them down and kill them all. But only after he had tortured them mercilessly first.
“As soon as you put a load on this, it’s going to short out,” Malik said.”
There was a bullet lodged in the fuel-cell.
“It’s practically useless,” he continued. “We’ve come all this way for nothing.” He slammed the fuel-cell down. It clattered against the deck.
“Are you sure it can’t be fixed?” Walker asked.
Malik shook his head.
The sound of rain pattered off the hull. Walker, Malik, and Bailey all sat with glum faces.
“Why didn’t you people design these systems with backup power supplies?” Walker asked.
“Saarkturians don’t believe in failure. There is no need for contingency plans, or redundant systems. It is the will of God that we are on this planet. And if God wills it, we shall leave.”
The Saarkturians were waging war against the humans to expel them from the Holy Land. Walker didn’t put a lot of faith in the willingness of the Saarkturian God to get him off the planet.
“I guess it was your God’s will that you lost the first war?” Walker couldn’t resist egging Malik on.
Malik scowled at him. “The first war was a lesson. Perhaps it is His will that we win the second.”
“We shall see.”
Malik reconnected the fuel-cell so they’d have power to heat the ship during the night. It was capable of powering such a small load. Walker was lucky the cell hadn’t exploded when it was first hit during his escape from the SSC Xenvelor.
Walker pulled out his flashlight and shined it in the compartment to help Malik see what he was doing. At first Malik grimaced at the bright light. “I’m Saarkturian. I don’t need a flashlight to see in dim light.”
He was annoyed, but then it dawned on him… Walker had a flashlight. It was powered with the same type of fuel-cell, only smaller. “You’ve had a flashlight this entire time, and said nothing?”
Walker shrugged. “What’s the big deal?”
“Fool. That fuel-cell has enough power to launch the ship.”
Walker scoffed, incredulous. “This flashlight can power your gunship?”
“It can power that flashlight indefinitely, or it can give us enough juice to escape the planet’s gravitational field and, perhaps, make a few slide-space jumps. The core is smaller, but the output is the same—it’s just attenuated down for the flashlight.”
“So, you can wire this thing up to work?”
“Yes, provided we can make it back alive.”
Walker was elated and tormented, all at once. Gavin had died needlessly. “We’ll stay here till the rain stops.”
“What if it doesn’t stop?”
“It will. It has to.” But Walker wasn’t sure it would stop raining before they ran out of food.
Walker kept a lookout through the slashes in the hull. The angry sky grew even darker as the invisible sun dipped down. The heat of the day dissipated. The surly creatures disappeared into their muddy and wet burrows. As the temperature cooled, the bugs went into hibernation.
Night fell, and the sweltering heat turned to freezing cold. The torrential rain turned into a blizzard.
“Take your pick,” Walker said. “The bugs, or the cold?”
“The cold,” Malik said.
“If we set out now, we’ll likely freeze to death during the night. In the day we have no chance against those things.”
“I can rig a portable heater with the ship’s fuel-cell and some wire,” Malik said.
He pulled some wiring and stripped the coating. Then coiled it around a plank and attached the wires to the fuel-cell. The low conductivity wire provided resistance for the current, which created heat. It took him about fifteen minutes to rig up. Within minutes, the coils glowed, radiating warmth.
“This will keep us from freezing,” Malik said. “We’ll run and take breaks to warm up. We just can’t run it for too long. It could overload the cell and explode.”
Walker was impressed. “Well, what are we waiting for?”
Malik grinned. It was a rare smile from the stern Saarkturian.
Walker grabbed his gear and let Bailey take his usual position in the backpack. He wrapped his head to protect himself from the cold. Only his eyes were exposed. He opened the hatch and was hit with a rush of crisp cold air. He stepped out into the frozen wasteland. Snow packed and crunched under his feet. At least those damn bugs were frozen, he thought.
They marched into the wintery wasteland. It didn’t take long for Walker to feel frozen himself. The sub-zero wind was penetrating. Within minutes, his core temperature dropped. His feet and hands went numb. He held out for as long as he could, but he had to stop. “Let’s fire up that heater for a minute.”
Walker, Bailey, and Malik huddled around the glowing coils. The warmth felt great. It was almost worth getting cold, just so you could feel good from the warmth of the makeshift heater.
The snow melted, and the ground underneath the heater turned to mush. Malik would have to wait until the coils were cool to the touch before they could take off running again. By that time, they were practically frozen again. At this rate, it was going to take them all night to reach the canyon.
By 3am, they were exhausted, and they weren’t even halfway there. They took a break to warm up. Malik set up the heater again, and within minutes they were bathed in warmth. Walker took some jerky from his pack and warmed it by the coils. He broke off a piece for Bailey, and he gobbled it down.
Walker leaned back against his pack and rested for a moment. But he made the mistake of closing his eyes, and he dozed off.
He was awoken sometime later by Bailey’s incessant barking.
Walker didn’t know how long he had slept. He peeled one eye open and saw that Malik was asleep. The heater was raging. It was almost too hot. Walker felt like he had been roasted over a fire. The glowing coils had melted a large area of snow.
Walker lay amidst the thick mud. “What’s the matter, boy?”
It didn’t take long to get an answer. As Walker wiped the sleep from his eyes, he saw an angry pincer claw stabbing down at him. The heat had brought several creatures out of hibernation.
Walker felt the sharp pincers pierce his flesh as the claw latched on to his thigh. The venom stung as it flowed through his veins. He grabbed his weapon and opened fire on the beast.
Muzzle flash lit up the night.
The creature recoiled as Walker pummeled it with gunfire. Soon, its head exploded, and its massive body crumpled into the slush. Blood oozed from its wounds.
Malik grabbed his weapon and blasted away at the other creatures.
Walker’s body grew numb. He couldn’t feel his legs. The venom spread through his body and soon he was paralyzed.
Bailey hovered over him with sad, worried eyes.
Malik destroyed the rest of the creatures in a hail of bullets. Then he cut off the heater and waited for it to cool. He ran to Walker and knelt down beside him. “Can you walk?”
Walker shook his head. “I can barely move my hands.” He choked the words out, hardly able to speak. He tried to grip his hands, but they only twitched slightly. He had taken a heavy dose of venom.
“I’m sorry, my friend,” Malik said. He rummaged through the pack and took the flashlight. Then he packed up the heater and ran off into the night.
Walker clenched his jaw. He tried to curse at Malik as he ran away, but he could hardly make a sound. Never trust a Saarkturian, he thought.
Bailey barked and chased after Malik, but soon returned to stay by Walker’s side. The two of them would surely die during the night from the cold. If by some miracle they survived until the morning, the swarm of arthropods would surely get them.
“Drive faster!” Logan yelled.
The automated cab responded. “I’m sorry. I cannot exceed the maximum legal speed limit.”
Logan craned his neck and looked through the rear window. A black hover-car fell in line behind them. It was a Vanguard SX7—a luxury sports sedan that was THE car to own. You could drive it manually, or it would drive itself. Every pop star and gangster worth their salt had one. This had to be one of Little Nicky’s crew, or worse, someone working for Big Nick himself.
A machine gun emerged from the passenger side window. Muzzle flash erupted. A flurry of bullets pierced the air, smacking against the rear window of the cab.
The tempered glass webbed and cracked. Broken shards sprayed about the cab. Everyone ducked for cover.
“Please do not damage the vehicle,” the automated voice said. “Your account will be debited in the final amount of the repair costs.”
Logan and the others drew their weapons and began firing back at the black car.
“Somebody give me a gun,” Slade yelled.
Logan pulled a backup from his ankle holster and handed it to her.
The sound of gunfire was deafening in the confined space of the cab. The air filled with the sharp smell of gunpowder. Searing hot shell casings sprang from ejection ports, bouncing onto the seats and rolling onto the floor.
The two vehicles exchanged a volley of gunfire. Soon the windshield of the black car was peppered with bullet holes and webbed with cracks.
The Vanguard weaved through traffic and quickly caught up with the cab. It pulled alongside, and the passenger peppered the cab with bullets. Glass shattered. A hailstorm of gunfire ripped through the vehicle. The metallic thud of the bullets impacted the door panel in a staccato rhythm. But the bullets weren’t piercing the composite material of the door panels.
“Drive faster!” Logan shouted over the gunfire. He hunkered down, taking cover behind the door.
“I’m sorry. I cannot exceed the maximum legal speed limit,” the automated voice said again.
“This is a medical emergency.”
“Okay. You said medical emergency, is that correct?”
“I am permitted to exceed legal speed limits in instances where an occupant needs medical attention. Would you like me to reroute to the nearest hospital?”
“No. Continue to the space port.”
“Patients typically have better outcomes seeking immediate medical attention at a healthcare facility. Are you sure you don’t want me to reroute?”
“No! The space port.”
Logan reached up and fired over the windowsill. The barrel locked out, and he pressed the magazine release. The magazine dropped out, and he smacked in his last magazine. He chambered a round and resumed firing.
The Vanguard rammed into the cab.
Metal crumpled. More glass shattered. The cab rocked, then took evasive action.
“Encountering overly aggressive drivers,” the voice said. “It seems we have been involved in an accident.”
“Do not stop,” Logan yelled. “Keep going.”
The two cars weaved in and out of traffic, racing down Hawthorne Ave. Logan, Mia, Slade, and Gorth took turns firing and reloading. The Vanguard slammed into them again.
“It seems we have been involved in another accident,” the voice said.
“No shit,” Logan said.
“I’ve determined this driver to be hostile.”
Logan rolled his eyes and kept blasting at the Vanguard until his magazine was empty. “I’m out.”
Everyone was almost out of ammo. The Vanguard kept ramming into the side of the cab. It was like a demolition derby on one of the busiest streets in Europa City.
Slade waited for the brief pause in the gunfire that came when the gangsters needed to reload. She popped up over the windowsill and took aim.
The machine gunner in the Vanguard popped in another magazine. He was lifting the weapon, ready to blast. Slade had a clear shot. But the cab was anything but steady. It bobbed and rolled, speeding through the heavy traffic. Slade held her arms firm, but still, they wobbled. She tried to time the bounces just right—then she squeezed the trigger.
The bullet launched from the barrel in a plume of smoke and muzzle flash. It was her last shot. The weapon locked out. The bullet tore through the air, penetrating the passenger’s left eye. Then it blasted out of the back of his skull. Brain and blood and bits of bone splattered on the leather seats, the windshield, and the driver.
The passenger slumped over and his weapon dropped out of the window, clattering across the pavement below.
But the bullet kept going.
The driver didn’t have any time to react. It drilled through his temple and lodged into his gray matter. He slumped forward against the steering controls, blood oozing from the hole in his temple. The car drifted across three lanes of traffic and slammed head-on into a massive shipping drone. It was the equivalent of an 18 wheeler Mack truck. The Vanguard shattered into a million tiny pieces. The truck seemed completely unharmed.
The cab sped away through the city. They all watched the wreckage vanish behind them as they raced away.
Logan was impressed. “Nice shot.”
“Somebody had to get the job done,” Slade said.
“Is everybody okay?” Logan asked. “Anybody get hit.”
They all checked themselves over, patting at their torso and extremities, feeling for blood. After a firefight like that, the adrenaline can run so high you might not even feel a wound for a few minutes.
It seemed impossible, but everyone had escaped unscathed. There were a few minor cuts and abrasions from the flying glass and debris. But no one was worse for the wear.
The feeling was exhilarating. You haven’t really lived until bullets have zoomed over your head, or ripped past your ears. Talk about a near-death experience. Walking out of a situation where you should have died can leave you feeling euphoric—and traumatized. It was better than any high you could get from a drug. Slade knew this all too well, as did many combat veterans. A few minutes of intense fighting, a spike in adrenaline, and the long, anxiety filled wait until the next one.
Slade’s ears rang, and the world was a little muted for the next several minutes.
The cab arrived at the spaceport and they exited the vehicle. Her whole body felt numb, and her heart was still pounding in her chest.
The cab looked like a hunk of twisted sheet metal, peppered with bullet hits. Logan didn’t even want to know how much they were going to try and bill him.
They entered the lobby of the Chadwick Thackston Spaceway, and raced to their docking port. There was little security in the private space ports. They didn’t have to comply with Federation Aviation Regulations. It was a loophole that these were merely docking, refueling, and service stations. You could come and go as you pleased, without a pat down or body scan. With all the chaos that had been going on recently, no one had ever hijacked a small private space ship. Passenger vehicles, cargo ships, military vessels—yes. Scarabs—no.
One thing was for certain. They were getting off this planet, and they weren’t ever coming back. They dashed through the terminal and stepped out on the tarmac, approaching the Scarab.
Logan breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of his majestic ship. But that didn’t last long. They were quickly surrounded by thugs with heavy weapons. These were Big Nick’s people, and there were at least a dozen rifles bearing down on Slade and the others.
Big Nick’s fist slammed into Logan’s face. They were like bricks. His knuckles were bloody and raw. Nick was a big, thick bald guy, with a cream double breasted suit that was now stained with spatter. A cigar dangled from his mouth as he beat the crap out of Logan.
Nick’s thugs had taken Logan, and the others, to some seedy warehouse on the wrong side of town. It was damp and dark. The kind of place where you could kill someone, stuff them in a barrel of acid, and no one would ever come looking.
A stream of crimson blood spewed from Logan’s mouth. His face was purple and green and yellow. Blood filled his left sclera. He tongued his lateral incisor—it wiggled. It wasn’t going to last for too many more hits.
Big Nick had been at this for a while, and he wasn’t anywhere near finished. Beads of sweat coated his meaty face, like a cold soda can during summer. He was already huffing and puffing from the exertion. He unbuttoned his coat for a little air. Under his jacket, a shoulder holster held a Bösch-Hauer P355 magnum.
Nick puffed on a cigar, and the cherry was nice and glowing. He moved the orange tip toward Logan’s eye, dangling it millimeters away. “I’m gonna burn your eyes out. But first, I’m gonna pull out all your fingernails with this pair of pliers.”
Logan swallowed hard as Big Nick stuffed the cigar back in his mouth, and grabbed an old rusty pair of pliers. There was a tray of tools that Big Nick could choose from—wire cutters, hammers, power drills. There was a crow bar, a blow torch, and a disc sander. Big Nick was going to work his way through all of them.
“You killed my son for what? Some floozy you pulled out of a maximum security prison?” Big Nick snarled at him. “I never figured you for such a moron. I hope she was worth it.”
Big Nick drove the needle nose pliers under the nail bed of Logan’s pinky finger. He clamped the tool down like a vice on his fingernail.
This was going to hurt like a mother fucker.
Slade could hear him scream in agony from the next room as Big Nick ripped out Logan’s fingernail. She had no idea what was happening, but it didn’t sound pleasant.
She was tied to a chair, awaiting her fate. There was no telling what Big Nick was going to do to her. Torture her, kill her, put her back to work in the club?
She heard Logan scream out in pain again. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy to scream easily. She couldn’t imagine what was happening to him.
She struggled against her bonds. The ropes dug into her wrists. Her heart raced, and a thin mist of sweat coated her body.
Logan’s gut wrenching screams echoed throughout the warehouse. After his screams faded away, she heard the dull rumble of what sounded like an explosion. Her face twisted up, perplexed. Then she heard another rumble. Then another. And another.
The sound was all too familiar. This was an airstrike. Someone was bombing the city with conventional weapons. She heard fighters and bombers rip through the air.
The explosions grew closer. The sound of chaos filled the city. Shrieks and screams. Car horns and alarms. Europa City was under attack. But by whom, she wondered? Had the Verge returned so soon?
Dappled rays of moonlight filtered in through a nearby window. Slade wanted to edge her chair closer, but even if she could get to it, the window was too high to see out of while strapped to a chair.
The ground vibrated as the bombing grew closer. The sounds of chaos on the streets grew louder. Soon the explosions were right on top of her. She could hear the sound of incoming ordinance whistle through the air, followed by a deafening explosion.
Bricks and mortar flew through the air as the blast erupted. The warehouse wall came apart like a stack of legos. The overpressure from the blast slammed Slade across the room, crashing into the opposite wall. Dust and debris filled the air.
The impact knocked her unconscious.
She wasn’t sure how long she was out. When she woke up, she was covered in rubble. The wooden chair had splintered into pieces. A sliver penetrated through her calf.
Her whole body ached. She hacked dust out of her lungs and crawled out of the rubble. She was cover in minor cuts and abrasions. She didn’t think anything was broken, but she wouldn’t know for sure for a few minutes, till the adrenaline died down.
She could see out to the street. There was a huge crater in the roadway from the blast. She could hear the distant moans and cries of nearby wounded. Others ran through the streets, screaming in panic. Parts of the city were on fire. Black clouds of smoke billowed high into the air.
Two fighters roared past overhead. Slade caught a glimpse of the sleek ships—she didn’t recognize them. They weren’t Verge Hornets. Great, some new type of intergalactic threat, she thought.
The rumble of explosions continued throughout the city. The staccato report of small arms fire rattled in the distance.
Slade eyed the giant splinter poking into her calf. She tore off a strip of clothing, then delicately removed the sharp piece of wood. She winced with pain as she pulled the jagged thing out. Then she wrapped the fabric around the wound and tied it off. She staggered to her feet and hobbled through the hole in the wall to the next room. Each step sent a stabbing pain through her calf.
Logan’s body was covered in dust and debris. Slade didn’t know if he was alive, or dead, or somewhere in between. Big Nick was crawling out of the rubble. He was definitely alive—and extremely pissed off. His face twisted up at the sight of Slade. Screw the fact that the city was getting bombed—Big Nick was still hellbent on revenge.
Big Nick charged at Slade, like a steam roller. He lumbered over the debris and came with a wide right. Slade ducked aside. Her calf stabbed with pain. Big Nick barreled past her. She stooped down and grabbed a fragment of brick. She spun around and hurled the chunk at the thick bastard.
It cracked him in the side of his melon forehead. The brick bounced off and clattered across the floor. It opened up a gash across Nick’s forehead. Crimson blood oozed out. But it didn’t seem to faze him one bit. It was like his skull was made of titanium. He just snarled and roared like an animal, charging at her again.
Big Nick was slow—heavy, lumbering steps. He swung again. His hammer of a fist whooshed over her. Slade dropped down and bounced up behind him. She spotted the crowbar amongst the debris.
Big Nick spun around and squared off to her again. He was already huffing and puffing. Blood was pouring into his eye, obstructing his vision. The welt on his forehead had swelled up like a baseball.
Slade reached down and grabbed the crow bar.
“You know what…? Fuck this.” He reached into his coat and pulled out the Bösch-Hauer. It was a big gun. The magnum hollow point bullets could blast a hole in a person the size of a basket ball. The big black barrel pointed right at Slade.
But with the blood dripping in his eye, he couldn’t aim very well. He blasted off several rounds. It sounded like a canon.
Slade dove for cover behind a tattered table that had toppled over during the blast.
Big Nick fired into the table. Bullets ripped through the wood, blasting holes the size of baseballs next to Slade.
Nick marched forward, closing in on her. She cowered behind the table with no where to go. She clutched the crow bar, but it wasn’t going to do any good.
Nick made it to the edge of the table, towering above her. He aimed the pistol at her head. The barrel was big and black, like a sewer pipe. Nick’s finger wrapped tight around the trigger. His narrow eyes glared at her, and he gritted his teeth. He didn’t get to torture her, so he wanted to savor this moment as long as possible.
This was it. Slade was going to have a good sized hole in her head—if the bullet didn’t decapitate her completely.
But Nick savored the moment a second too long.
Logan had climbed to his feet and was standing behind Big Nick. With a brick in his hand, he swung with all his might. He clobbered the meathead’s skull so hard the brick shattered. The hit opened up a gash on the back of Nick’s shiny head. You could see the white of his bone for an instant, before the blood oozed into the gash.
The blow would have knocked anybody else to the ground. But not Big Nick. He just spun around with a scowl on his face.
Logan’s eyes widened with surprise.
Nick whipped the pistol around. Logan grabbed the barrel, and the two struggled over the gun. But Nick was too powerful. Logan kneed the meathead in the groin, but it didn’t seem to do any good. This guy was built like a tank.
Nick hammered Logan in the face with his massive fist.
Logan’s jaw jerked sideways as he launched into the air. One punch knocked him from his feet. He crashed to the ground, impaled against the jagged pile of broken bricks. His lip was split, and another tooth was loose.
Nick stared down the barrel of his big gun. He was about to pull the trigger when Slade plunged the crowbar through his back. It ripped through muscle and bone. The metal pierced his thoracic cavity, severing the aortic artery. The tip protruded through his chest for an instant, then Slade retracted the implement. Blood spurted from the wounds.
The aorta is the main artery in the human body. It starts at the left ventricle and descends into the abdomen, feeds the kidneys, then forks into the legs. If that is severed, or ruptures, you’ll bleed out in seconds.
Before Big Nick really had a chance to process what happened, he collapsed to his knees. Then he face-planted amidst the rubble.
Blood dripped down the crowbar and dribbled onto Slade’s hands. She tossed the bar aside and wiped the blood on her pants.
Logan looked impressed. “Let’s find the other’s and get out of here.”
Bombs were still exploding in the distance. It was pandemonium across the city. Slade could see what looked like troop transports landing. This was a full scale invasion.
Slade and Logan sifted through the debris, looking for Mia and Gorth. They found them buried under a pile of debris— neither had survived the blast. No pulse. No respiration.
Logan was visibly shaken. But he knew now wasn’t the time to dwell on the loss of his comrades. “We need to get to the Scarab. Can you walk?”
“I can try,” Slade said. She put an arm over Logan’s shoulder and the two hobbled out into the chaos of the city.
More enemy troop transports were landing in the distance. The streets were pocked with craters. Whole blocks were leveled. Some buildings were left half standing. Others were just foundation. The city was reduced to piles of concrete and rebar. Black smoke billowed from the many fires that dotted the metropolitan area. People staggered about, either in a daze, or screaming with panic. Some looked for loved ones among the ruins. Others ran in sheer terror, looking for some type of escape.
By the time Logan and Slade made it to the spaceport, it had been destroyed. Fragments of the structure remained. The bombed-out carcasses of several ships littered the tarmac. The Scarab was reduced to a smoldering hunk of metal.
“Son-of-a-bitch!” Logan yelled as he saw the withered remains of his beloved ship.
Most of the bombing had stopped. What remained was the clatter of small arms fire. At the end of the block, Slade saw what was left of a platoon of UPDF Marines.
“Fall back,” the squad leader shouted.
There were only four Marines left. They were exchanging fire with the enemy as they pulled back. Brilliant bolts of blue plasma-like projectiles darted through the air. They looked similar to tracer rounds. The enemy bullets erupted into small, incendiary explosions on impact. They left 12 inch craters in the brick and concrete. The pock marks were charred black and burned for a few moments before flaming out. Getting shot with one of those bullets wouldn’t leave much left of you.
Soon, the Marines broke out into a full on sprint.
“Come on,” Slade muttered to Logan. “I think we need to get out of here.”
“I agree,” he said, staring at the oncoming invasion force. There were hundreds of them advancing down the block. Light armored vehicles were cruising down the street.
Slade and Logan ran along with the Marines. Every step was agonizing for Slade. She tried her best to keep up. Falling behind would mean certain death.
It didn’t take long for the slushy mud to freeze. The falling snow covered the area quickly. The warmth faded and the bone chilling cold returned. Unable to move, Walker’s core temperature dropped rapidly. He and Bailey were shivering.
Bailey crawled on top of Walker to help him conserve body heat.
Walker’s heart rate and respiration accelerated. Classic signs of mild hypothermia. He knew he was in trouble when his body stopped shivering and confusion set in. As the night went on, his heart rate and blood pressure slowed, and his cognitive abilities declined. He had a hard time remembering where he was, or how the hell he got here.
Walker wasn’t sure if it was his imagination, but it felt like it was getting warmer. At first he thought it was just a hallucination. But the black sky above was turning gray. The sun was coming up somewhere behind the cloud cover. Soon the snowfall turned to rain.
He had made it through the coldest part of the night. He was able to wiggle his toes and clasp his hands. The venom was wearing off.
The rains turned from freezing cold to warm, as the sun climbed higher. Soon, it felt like taking a hot shower. He didn’t have full use of his legs yet. But he was able to reach out and grab his weapon. He was going to need it.
As the temperature rose the arthropods began to stir in their burrows. The sky was a pale, angry gray. Rain poured down, and the air was thick and sticky, like an Amazon jungle. Walker was finally able to bend his knees about the time the creatures were emerging from their burrows. It wasn’t long before he was surrounded by hungry arthropods, snapping and clawing at him.
Still unable to stand, he lay on the ground, blasting away at the creatures. Round after round, he fired into the ravenous creatures. Green blood and bug parts scattered everywhere. They attacked from all angles.
He was able to keep them at bay, for a little while. Though he was surrounded by thousands, most of them were preoccupied with mating. Only those that were close enough to get a whiff of his scent were interested in devouring him.
Walker kept squeezing the trigger, peppering the ravenous creatures with bullets—until the bolt locked out, and the magazine was empty. He had just fired his last bullet.
He pulled his tactical sword from its scabbard, and staggered to his feet. He could barely stand. His legs still felt numb, but he was able to move, awkwardly. He looked like a gangly calf taking its first steps. His left leg was caked in dried blood from the pincer’s wound. If he was going to go out, he was going to die on his feet.
One of the creatures moved in for the kill. Its claws snapped at him. Walker dodged and hacked one of them off—then the other. He stabbed the beast between its eyes, plunging the sword deep into its brain. Walker pulled the sword out. It made a sucking sound as he pulled it from the gooey mess.
He spun around and hacked at an arthropod that was attacking him from behind. Walker had the drill down pretty well by now. Hack, hack, stab. That was how to take these things down. One after the other he fought these giant bugs.
Bailey crowded around his ankles taking cover and barking.
The storm poured down, soaking Walker. The ground was a muddy quagmire. The beasts crawled over each other like a sea of giant cockroaches. Walker slashed and sliced and hacked at the monsters. Walker’s chest heaved for breath, and his heart felt like it was going to punch through his sternum. It took every ounce of his strength to hack through these creatures. He couldn’t keep this up forever. He was getting worn out.
Carcasses of dead bugs piled up around him. But more came and crawled over them. His arms felt like rubber. He was so exhausted he could barely swing anymore. But he kept fighting. He didn’t want these damn bugs to eat Bailey.
One of the creatures attacked him from behind. The pincer lashed out and clamped down on his shoulder. Venom filled his body. His grip went slack and he dropped the sword. His knees were weak and he collapsed to the ground. His body smacked the wet mud. Face down in a puddle, he couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t use his arms. He was going to drown in the puddle, if he wasn’t eaten first.
Bailey barked and tried to roll Walker over, but he was too heavy. Then Bailey bit down on Walker’s ear and pulled his face out of the water.
Walker gasped for air and filled his lungs. Bailey set Walker’s head back down, positioned so one nostril was out of the puddle. He ran in circles around Walker, trying to ward off the creatures. But they weren’t afraid of Bailey.
One of the creatures batted him away with the swipe of a claw. Bailey tumbled through the muck, got up, and charged back at the creature. Bailey wasn’t going to go down without a fight either.
“You’re Captain Slade, aren’t you?” PFC Finnley asked.
Slade nodded. Saying I used to be just didn’t seem to sit well with her.
The squad ducked into an alley and crossed over several blocks.
“Where’s your CO?” Slade asked.
“You are now, sir,” Lance Corporal Brooks said.
“The LT, and half the platoon, got wasted. Just disintegrated into nothing,” the platoon sergeant yelled. “This was supposed to be a weekend of R&R. Who the hell are these bastards?”
“I don’t know,” Slade said. “Where are you headed?”
“To the extraction point,” the sergeant said. Then he rephrased his statement. “Anywhere you say, sir.” He saluted Slade. “Sergeant Brad McCormack, 1st Battalion, 10th Marines, 2nd Space Expeditionary Force. Stationed aboard the Ardent.”
“Have you been in communication with her?”
“No, sir. But we’ve got a drop ship waiting for us.”
“We’ve got a Raven waiting outside the city. This area’s too hot. As soon as we get to a safer LZ we can call her in. We were coming into the city when the shit hit the fan. We had to do something.”
The platoon took cover in a bombed out structure. There wasn’t much left—a little bit of the roof, a few walls. It was enough to conceal them somewhat while they regrouped. But it wasn’t going to hide them from thermal scans.
Small arms fire in the distance sounded like fire crackers.
“They’re rounding up the civilian survivors and taking them prisoner,” Sergeant McCormack said. “Anybody who resists gets vaporized. I sure wish we had ammo like that.”
“They’ll use the prisoners as slaves,” Slade said.
“Have you seen this species before?” McCormack asked.
Slade shook her head. “And I thought the Verge was the only thing out there we had to worry about.”
“Skylark, Bravo 2, do you copy?” Lance Corporal Duran was frantically trying to establish contact with the drop ship. “Skylark, Bravo 2, do you copy?”
A filtered voice cracked over the comm system. “Roger, Bravo 2.”
“It’s been fun, but we’re ready to get the hell out of here.”
“That’s a negative on the extraction.”
“What do you mean, a negative?”
“The enemy has established a solid perimeter. They’re dominating the skies. There’s no way we can make it in and out of the city.”
“Skylark, Bravo 2 actual. This is Captain Slade. Where is your present location?”
“We’re in a pasture, about 15 clicks outside the city.”
“In the rear with the gear. Must be nice. Fuckers.” McCormack grumbled under his breath.
“I’m sorry, Captain. But you’re gonna have to make it here on foot. As far as I can tell, we’re the last flight out. I can’t reach the Ardent, or anybody else.”
“Send us your coordinates, and stay put,” Slade commanded.
“Aye, sir.” The communication disconnected. A few minutes later the coordinates appeared on the encrypted PDUs of the platoon.
The military network in Europa City was still intact. It was virtually indestructible. The signal was carried by thousands of autonomous relay drones that populated the sky. They were invisible on radar and shielded from EMP blasts. You could incinerate them with a nuclear blast, but drones from other areas would spread out to take up the slack. The only way to effectively disable the network was to unleash a swarm of hunter-killer drones. But that tactic could take days to fully implement.
McCormack looked at his display. “They are roughly 25 clicks from our current position.”
Slade looked over the grim faces of the platoon.
Fighters roared overhead, patrolling the sky. Slade could hear troops and vehicles moving closer. She peered over a tattered windowsill—an enemy drone was hovering in the street. It was a black orb, with a weapon mounted on the end of each of its short wings. Muzzle flash erupted from the weapons. A stream of blue tracers streaked toward her.
Slade ducked under the windowsill. Bullets impacted the concrete wall. Other’s blazed through the window, screaming over her head. The opposite interior wall of the structure was gone, so the bullets passed through, impacting another building farther down the block.
The Marines took cover.
The drone’s onslaught was incessant. Round after round chipped away at the exterior concrete wall.
McCormack crawled along the floor to the south wall of the building. He motioned to Duran to take the north corner of the building. There was a gaping hole in the south wall. McCormack leaned around the corner, aiming his weapon at the drone. But it had already sensed his movement and was waiting for him. McCormick got off a few rounds at the drone before he was met with a flurry of oncoming fire. Bits of concrete and debris blasted inches away from him. He ducked back around the corner in the nick of time.
Duran took up the slack, blasting off several rounds.
The drone swiveled like a turret between the two ends of the building, playing wack-a-mole with the two Marines.
They took turns tag teaming the drone until it was a pile of metal on the ground. The firefight had eaten up most of their ammunition—and there would be more drones coming.
“Lets move out,” Slade commanded.
The platoon filed out of the demolished building. They crouched low as they scurried through the city, hugging walls and taking cover behind cars whenever they could.
Block after block looked the same. Every now and then, there was an intact street sign, or a recognizable building. Even Logan, who had been here many times before, had difficulty placing landmarks. The face of the city had changed in the blink of an eye.
Most of the cars on the street were bombed out. They were covered in dust and debris. Windows were shattered or blown out completely. As they rounded the corner on Milton Avenue, Logan spotted a delivery van. It was covered in dust and had one shattered window. But it looked in pretty good shape otherwise. He pointed it out to Slade.
The van was parked in front of what used to be the Federation Embassy. Each colonial planet had an ambassador that served as their direct connection to the Federation government. The colonies were free to establish the nuances of their own laws, as long as they were in compliance with overall federal regulation, much like states in the old American Republic. The job of protection fell to the Marine Security Force. But there weren’t any other Marines around. The embassy had been demolished.
“You want to go streaking through the city in that?” Slade asked.
“Got a better idea?”
“Do you ever watch the news?”
Logan shrugged. “I try to avoid it.”
“How many times have you seen footage from a combat aerial vehicle of a truck trying to escape down a lone highway?”
Logan shrugged again. “A few, I guess.”
“And what always happens to the truck?”
“It gets blown up.”
The Marines chuckled at Logan.
Logan scowled at them. “Ye of little faith.” He dashed toward the van.
Slade gnashed her teeth. “Goddamn it.”
“What the hell is he doing?” McCormack said.
“He’s going to get us all killed,” said Duran.
Slade scanned the sky—there weren’t any enemy vehicles in the immediate area. The main invasion force sounded like they were at least a click away. The aliens were meticulously working their way through the city, securing it grid by grid.
A few moments later, Logan was in the van and had it started.
“How’d he do that? It’s almost impossible to steal a car these days.” Duran asked.
“I believe Logan has a certain criminal expertise,” Slade said.
Logan pulled the hover-van alongside the platoon and rolled down a window. “Anybody need a lift?”
With all the dust covering the car, it was hard to see the underlying color. Slade could barely make out the MSC logo on the side of the van. She didn’t think much of it.
“This is a really bad idea,” McCormack said.
Slade grimaced, contemplating the decision. But she didn’t have to contemplate for long—a stream of blue plasma-like bullets streaked over her head. She snapped her gaze to their origin. A handful of enemy troops were approaching from several blocks away.
The troops were covered in full body armor. But Slade could see glimpses of their faces underneath their helmets. Brightly colored skin with black irregular spots. Some were orange, others were blue, some were yellow. The invaders were Decluvians. She had never seen this species before.
An enemy tank turned the corner. Its heavy gun took aim at the platoon.
Slade hopped into the van and rode shotgun. The others piled into the back. There were boxes strewn about the cargo area. Brooks and Finnley sat on long slender crates. McCormack and Duran took a position at the back of the van, by the rear windows.
Logan mashed the accelerator, and the vehicle lurched forward.
The tank fired.
The projectile whistled through the air, exploding next to the van. The blast sent the van sliding sideways. Debris pelted the side of the van and smashed one of the windows.
Logan got the vehicle under control and turned at the next intersection. He barreled through the city, dodging wrecked cars and other debris. Hovering over the ground allowed the van to glide over the impact craters with minimal disruption. Europa City definitely had a new pothole problem.
At full throttle, it was a white-knuckle ride. Slade buckled her safety belt and held on for dear life. Buildings blurred by as Logan weaved through the city. McCormack kept watch out the rear window.
A thick fog had rolled in over the city, decreasing visibility. At least that would give them a little cover. But it wasn’t long before an aerial vehicle emerged from the fog behind them.
“Shit. We’ve got company,” McCormack yelled.
Logan was already pushing the van to its limits.
The aerial vehicle opened fire. Blue streaks pierced through the air. A barrage of high caliber bullets rained down. They were the same incendiary rounds as the small arms fire. They tore up the roadway, blasting bits of concrete and debris, leaving behind flaming potholes.
Logan swerved down a side street.
McCormack hammered at the rear window with the stock of his rifle, punching out the glass. He swiped off the jagged fragments with the barrel, then he took aim. Duran followed suit.
The enemy aircraft angled around what was left of a building, chasing after the van.
McCormack and Duran opened fire. It was like shooting a pellet gun at a tank. The enemy aircraft was a close air support vehicle. It had high caliber machine guns and armor piercing rockets. It had a heavy, composite armor-plated underbelly. McCormack’s only hope was to put a round in the pilot’s skull.—if the damn thing had a pilot at all. It could have been an AI drone, or remotely piloted.
Spent shell casings ejected and clattered across the floor of the van. The deafening rattle of gunfire filled the vehicle. McCormack and Duran kept firing.
So did the enemy.
Blue tracer’s streaked toward them.
Logan zigged and zagged.
The bolt of McCormack’s weapon locked out. He pressed the magazine release. It dropped to the floor. He grabbed another from a pouch on his tactical vest. He slapped his last magazine into the well, pressed the bolt release, and kept firing.
It was a miracle the van hadn’t been obliterated yet. Logan was doing a good job of making the van a hard target to hit. But they had a long way to go.
It wasn’t long before McCormick was out of ammunition. “I’m out.”
“So am I,” Duran said.
“We’ve been dry since Fifth Avenue,” Finnley said, speaking for himself and Brooks.
The enemy was closing in on them.
Slade leaned over to Logan and mumbled. “This is that moment… you know, the one you always see on the news.”
Logan frowned and kept driving like a bat out of hell.
They were escaping the city in a van owned and operated by the MSC—Military Spacelift Command. It was a division of the UPDF that employed both military and civilian personnel. Their primary objective was to transport food, medical supplies, and munitions to the troops.
Finnley was the first one to notice it. The green crates that he and Brooks were sitting on had X79 Spitfire stenciled across them in white lettering.
“Sarge,” Finnley yelled. “Spitfires!”
“I’d give my left nut for one right about now,” McCormack said.
“There’s one right under my nuts.” Finnley got off his ass and opened the crate. Brooks realized he was sitting on one as well. The two Marines dug out the Spitfires. They were advanced, precision guided, armor piercing, rocket propelled grenade launchers.
Finnley tossed one to McCormack. He hoisted the weapon over his shoulder. The targeting screen activated, and McCormack took aim. After a few seconds, the device locked onto the enemy aircraft. But the enemy had already fired. Two rockets were inbound, screeching through the sky. Clouds of white propellant billowed from their thrusters.
“Incoming,” McCormack yelled.
The rockets narrowly missed the rear bumper. The explosion rocked the van, blasting its ass end into the air. The Marines tumbled about the cargo area.
Logan wrestled with the controls to keep the van from flipping over. It finally slammed down and bounced over the roadway. He wrangled it back under control, rounded a corner, and kept speeding away.
McCormack poked the nose of the launcher out the window and took aim again.
Brooks lunged out of the way of the exhaust port.
McCormack squeezed the trigger as soon as he heard the steady tone of missile lock.
The rocket blasted off. The van filled with propellant exhaust. Logan could hardly see anything through the haze. He squinted and rolled down the windows. Everyone coughed and hacked as the exhaust filled their lungs. The chemical taste coated the back of their throats.
The rocket streaked toward the enemy aircraft and exploded in a blinding flash. Chunks of metal and avionics rained down. The frame of the gunship plummeted down to the roadway in a twisted wreck.
The Marines cheered. There were hoots and hollers and high-fives. Logan looked over at Slade with a sly grin. “See, this wasn’t a bad idea after all.”
Slade pointed ahead to the bridge that spanned the lake that bordered Europa city. It was demolished.
“Shit,” Logan muttered.
He veered off the roadway onto the grass that led down to the shoreline.
Slade gripped the door handle. “What are you doing? These things aren’t designed for traversing water!”
By the time the words had slipped out of her lips, the van plowed over the water. The vertical thrusters carved into the surface, spraying water everywhere.
Slade wasn’t sure if there was going to be enough surface tension to keep the van high and dry. But it kept plowing across the lake, leaving a helluva wake.
Logan grinned. “This is faster anyway.”
They barreled across the waterway and picked up the highway on the other side. Soon, the smoldering ruins of Europa City were barely visible through the fog. Logan ran the van full throttle through the suburbs to the countryside, to the extraction point.
When they arrived, the Skylark was nestled under some trees in a lush green field. A herd of cattle milled about like it was any other day.
The Marines piled out of the van and jogged toward the Skylark.
Slade’s eyes met Logan’s. “Okay. So, maybe I owe you one.”
“We’re not out of this yet, Sugar. It’s only just beginning.” He hopped out of the van and headed toward the Skylark.
Slade shook her head and followed after him.
The Ardent was likely nothing more than a million pieces of orbiting space debris. The probability of getting shot down as they tried to escape the atmosphere was high. Even if they did manage to survive, there might not be anywhere left to go. All of the colonies could possibly be under attack. New Earth might not even exist anymore.
Slade knew one thing for certain—she was going to fight. Maybe not here. Maybe not today. But as long as she had breath left in her, she was going to defend the Federation. Even if this platoon of Marines was all that was left of the UPDF, she was going to lead them into battle.
Out of the corner of his eye, Walker could see the creature hovering over him. It rolled Walker around, looking over its next meal. The creature had to defend his prize from other would-be thieves trying to steal his meal. The creature growled and snapped at the other predators. It bought Walker an extra few moments of life.
He lay on his back, paralyzed, looking up at the sky. The hideous creature hovering above him. Its sharp, razor like teeth waiting to gnash his flesh into tiny bits.
Time seemed to slow down for Walker in his last moments. It was a surreal, almost out of body experience. The clatter coming from the horde of creatures seemed to fade away into the distance. His steady, thumping heartbeat filled his ears. Like some type of lucid dream, he thought of his parents, his childhood, his friends, lovers, brothers-in-arms, the comrades he had lost on DC6, the many covert operations he had carried out. And, of all people, he thought of Aria Slade. He wondered if she had made it back to New Earth.
He was surprisingly calm. He was going to die, and somehow, that was okay. He had served his time in this life, and now he was on to the next. He didn’t have a perfect life, no one ever does. But he knew he had given it everything he had. He had never done anything half-assed. And he had no regrets. Well, maybe one or two.
Just as the creatures revolting mouth was lunging toward his flesh, he heard the roar of an engine. The Verge gunship descended through the clouds. Then he heard the most beautiful sound in the world. The report of two, 30 mm chain guns.
Muzzle flash illuminated the sky. The massive rounds tore the creature hovering over Walker to shreds. Blood and bug parts splattered everywhere. Walker and Bailey were covered in bug juice—which was a good thing. It kept the other bugs from attacking them, at least until the rain washed it off. But by that time the gunships had eviscerated everything in the vicinity.
Malik and Saaja had cleared a nice circle around Walker. A bug free zone. To make the perimeter even wider, Saaja unleashed the fury of the Inferno rockets.
Walker grinned as the bugs were incinerated and blasted into bits. Rocket after rocket exploded. It was like dropping napalm on these bastards. They flailed about, burning with a flame that not even the rain could douse.
The gunship landed. Malik dashed out and ran through the mud to Walker. He pulled him up and heaved him over his back. Bailey followed as Malik carried Walker back to the gunship, while Saaja kept laying down suppressive fire with the 30mm guns.
Malik set Walker in the cargo area, then climbed into the pilot seat. Bailey jumped in, and within seconds, they were dusting off.
Saaja crawled out of the gunner’s seat and attended to Walker’s wounds. “I guess it’s my turn to patch you up now.” She smiled.
“I never thought I’d be so glad to see a Saarkturian.”
“Lets hope we have enough power to make escape velocity,” Malik said. He throttled up, and the ship raced toward the upper atmosphere. The engines roared. The ship rattled and shook as they streaked through the turbulent air.
Within moments, they cleared the atmosphere, and Walker felt the weightlessness of space. Bailey didn’t know what the heck was going on as he floated above the deck. He had never been in space before.
Walker had to chuckle. “It’s okay, Sergeant.”
Bailey barked a few times in protest. But he quickly adjusted. He even started to have fun, gliding across the compartment.
Saaja cleaned and disinfected Walker’s wounds, then applied the regenerative, skin sealing gel. He’d be good as new within a day.
“What made you come back?” Walker asked Malik.
“A man is only as good as his word,” he said with a grin.
“I had to leave you behind, temporarily. I would never have made it back to the ship in time if I had to carry you. I had to hope that you would make it through the night. You seemed tougher and more resilient than the average human. Looks like I was right.”
“Bailey and I thank you,” Walker said.
Bailey barked in agreement.
“I don’t suppose you want to drop us off back at New Earth?” Walker asked.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please consider reviewing on Amazon—a simple “Loved it,” or, “Hated it,” would be appreciated.
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I'm just a geek who loves sci-fi and horror. I was abducted by aliens and forced to travel the galaxy as the official biographer of an evil galactic ruler. This is where I learned to hone my craft. Fortunately, I escaped and made my way back to Earth, and now I write about my adventures. I hope you enjoy!