Authors: James Wisher
over to the rear door control panel, he always felt a little awkward when he first put the armor on, and hit the switch. The doors squeaked open, revealing the clear night sky. Below them the lights of the mercenaries’ camp revealed the clearing and their continuing work. Marcus used eye movements to control the suits heads up display and activated the dedicated link to Gruesome. “Commence attack.”
The war bot walked to the end of the loading ramp, every step rattled the deck, and leapt into the darkness. Three quarters of the way to the ground, thrusters built into its feet and back fired. It looked like someone sent up a flare. A couple seconds later crimson streaks of killing energy streaked up from the ground. Gruesome responded in kind and the battle began.
Marcus leapt out of the ship, fired his thrusters, and flew around the battlefield. Gruesome would handle the heavy combat while he scouted around and checked out the building. If Solomon was anywhere it would be there. He flew around the clearing, checking for hidden snipers or traps. The building, a temporary shelter similar to what soldiers used on long-term deployments, had only one entrance and no guards. An explosion rocked the clearing. Either Gruesome had gotten serious, or the mercenaries had more firepower than he thought. The scream of blaster fire continued without slowing, so whatever blew up it hadn’t ended the fight.
He landed by the open front door and scanned the interior. No life signs, but they might have a shielded room. He charged the vortex cannons in his gauntlets and ran through. The building was empty. The mercenaries must have loaded everything into the hauler already. At the back of the shelter was a door leading to a windowless room. That had to be the holding cell.
Marcus jogged over as fast as his armor would allow. Halfway there his comm buzzed. “Marcus, the hauler is trying to escape. What should I do?”
“Are there any life signs?”
A short pause as she checked the scanner. “Just the driver.”
“Target the cab just in case the trailer is shielded.”
His suit’s audio enhancers picked up the thump of the
heavy cannons followed an instant later by an explosion, sounded like Iaka got him. Putting that out of his mind he focused on the cell door. When he got closer he found it shut tight, and the bolt open. He clenched his teeth and fought down a wave of irritation. No one could be inside. Just to be sure he ripped the door off its hinges, not because he needed to, but to let off some steam, and glanced inside. Nothing, like the rest of the shelter they’d moved everything out.
He turned to leave then stopped. Marcus focused his scanners on the floor and zoomed in. He barely made out a few scuff marks. From the pattern it looked like two cots sat side by side. They were here at some point not long ago. Good, now he needed to find whoever led this bunch and ask him where Solomon was.
Marcus turned away from the cell and headed toward the door. Outside the blasters had fallen silent and all he picked up were faint moans and the thump of Gruesome’s tread as he walked around. He stepped outside and scanned the clearing. The hauler burned at the edge of the clearing, four bodies lay unmoving on the ground, and Gruesome stomped back and forth in front of a trio of men in combat fatigues who tried their best to stay away from the heavily armed robot.
Some of the exterior lights had gotten blasted in the fight leaving the prisoners in shadow. “Iaka do you read?”
“Turn on the floodlights, please.”
powerful floodlights lit up the clearing. “Did you find Solomon?”
“I’m still working on it. Would you contact Smith and tell him we’ve dealt with the kidnappers?”
“No problem. Do you want me to come down?”
“No, it’s a mess down here. Nothing you need to see.”
Marcus switched off his comm and walked over to the prisoners. He crouched down so his faceplate was level with them. “Where’s the couple you kidnapped?”
None of them spoke. One mercenary, a scarred man with a shaved head, spat at Marcus’s feet. He sighed. He hadn’t thought this would go easy, but it would have made for a nice change of pace. “If you don’t talk to me, you’ll talk to that.” Marcus jerked a thumb toward Gruesome. “And it won’t ask you nicely.”
They didn’t so much as flinch. Did they think he wouldn’t follow through? “Gruesome, interrogation mode. Start with this one.” He pointed at the mercenary that spit at him.
Gruesome stomped over, reached down and grabbed the bald man by the leg. The mercenary shouted and kicked at the indifferent steel hand. The war bot lifted the unfortunate man so his head was even with Marcus’s chest then it clamped on to the flailing leg so he couldn’t struggle anymore.
“Last chance. You want to talk or do you want Gruesome to make a wish?”
Dead silence. Marcus shrugged like he didn’t care, but inside he hated what he had to do next. “Pull.” Maybe an example would get the other two in the proper mood.
The motors in Gruesome’s arms whirred to life and the robot pulled the mercenary’s legs in opposite directions. Marcus had to give the guy credit; he didn’t make a sound until he was at a full split. Another six inches had him groaning.
Marcus held up a hand and the war bot stopped. “Where’s my friend?”
“Go to hell!”
He shook his head. Idiot. Marcus dragged a finger across his throat and Gruesome ripped the man’s leg off. Blood gushed and half a minute later the mercenary had bled out. Gruesome tossed the body aside. Disgusted but determined Marcus bent down beside the remaining mercenaries.
“How about you two? I believe I’ve demonstrated my seriousness. If you don’t tell me what I want to know I’ll have my robot rip your arms off. As you’ve seen he won’t have any trouble doing it.”
The younger of the two, a man in his early twenties with close cropped blond hair and a patchy beard trembled. The older man glared at him and he went still. He must have gone through some serious training if one look was enough to stiffen his spine after watching his comrade get killed. Perhaps watching Gruesome rip his commander’s head off would get him talking. Marcus pointed at the older man and Gruesome bent down to grab him.
“Stop!” the young mercenary said. “We handed him over to a crooked security officer a few hours ago. His job was to take your friends to our employer. I swear I don’t know who or where, even the commander didn’t.”
“I believe you.” Marcus switched over to his direct line to Gruesome. “Finish them quick.”
The war bot blasted both men so fast they never made a sound. Marcus grimaced under his faceplate. He hated doing shit like that, but he’d made a deal with the dragons and if he’d gone back on it, well, the less said about that the better. Leaving the murdered men where they lay he went over to the hauler. The mercenary that tried to flee hadn’t even bothered to secure the back doors.
Marcus flew up into the back of the trailer and switched on his chest light. The trailer was three quarters full with cots, trunks, folding tables, and a computer. He grabbed the computer, flew up to the ship, and sent Gruesome the recall command. A few seconds later the war bot landed in the empty hold, all his lethal surprises hidden away again. Its outer chassis had a few burn marks from the rocket that hit him, but other than that Gruesome came through without a scratch. Marcus closed the loading ramp, set the computer down, and returned his armor to its cylinder. When he backed out of the storage cylinder a thin sheen of sweat covered him. The suit hadn’t overheated him, but killing those three men had. Jobs like that were why he didn’t work for Vlad anymore. He hoped this would be the last killing he had to do before he rescued Solomon, but somehow he doubted it.
He took the computer to the cockpit where Iaka waited. She sat cross-legged in the copilot’s chair staring at the door when he walked in. “Did you have to kill them?”
Shit, she’d been watching on the scanners. “I made a deal with the dragons. I agreed to deal with the mercenaries in exchange for their location. It was the only way they’d help me. We got here too late. They handed Solomon and his girlfriend over to a security officer a few hours ago.”
“So all this was for nothing?”
Marcus set the computer down on his console then dropped into his chair. “No. Smith should be able to find out where the ship went, then we can go track them down.”
“Sounds simple.” Iaka’s smile held a sad note. She’d never seen his ruthless side. He’d done his best to leave that part of his life behind, but it would always be there, like a hidden blade, ready to cut anyone that threatened those he cared about. “Smith said he’d be out at first light.”
Marcus nodded, so exhausted in that moment he wanted nothing more than to hit his bunk and sleep. Maybe he’d wake up and this would all be a dream.
efinitely not a dream
, the stink of the bodies rotting in the early morning heat combined with the buzz of insects confirmed it for Marcus. He wished he still had on his armor with its sealed environment. He’d landed the
in the clearing when Smith’s transport arrived twenty minutes ago. Iaka offered to remain on the ship, much to Marcus’s relief. She really didn’t need to see, or smell, this mess up close.
The security officer had walked around the clearing, a little grimace of distaste on his face. The two of them stood a little ways away from the charred remains of the hauler. Half a dozen of Smith’s men went through the debris and collected bodies for disposal.
“So you didn’t arrive in time, I’m sorry.” Smith shook his head. “Doesn’t look like they’ll be bothering any of our other guests. The bosses will appreciate that.”
“They kept their end and I kept mine, no more no less. The mercenaries I interrogated said they handed Solomon and Emily over to a security officer. Any thoughts who that might be?”
“Not a clue, but the central computer tracks all ship movements planet wide. It’ll be simple to see which ship was here last evening and where it went. Come on.”
Smith picked his way through the charred clearing over to a boxy, blue transport sitting a few feet from the
. The loading ramp was down and they walked in past a pair of acceleration couches where the officers sat during flight. A few feet past the couches waited a computer terminal. Smith pulled a keyboard out of a slot under the screen and typed in an access code. The screen flickered and came to life. Smith tapped the screen and swiped back and forth until he reached the screen he wanted. It showed a map of the area covered with blinking dots. He honed in on their current location and typed in a time code. The image ran for a few seconds until a blip stopped in their location.
“That’s your man, Arnold Cade,” Smith said.
Marcus frowned. “Why didn’t he disable his transponder? He had to know you could track him.”
“Good question. The transponder is integrated into the control system. It would take an expert to disable it without rendering the whole system useless, but if they had this planned for a while he could have found someone. Let’s see where he goes.” Smith typed a command and the image moved again. The blip didn’t move very far, but the map got smaller underneath it.
“Does that mean what I think it means?” Marcus asked.
“If you think it means he went into orbit then yes it does.” The blip vanished off the screen. “And that means he entered hyperspace. Well, now I know why he didn’t disable his transponder, he never plans on coming back and we have no authority outside this system.”
“Shit! He could be anywhere.”
“It’s not as bad as all that,” Smith said. He punched in another command. “Those prisoner transports have a fairly limited range. Based on his last heading and given his limited range, there’s only a couple places he could reach before he needed to refuel.”
The computer beeped and a list of three planets popped up. “There you go. He’s most likely headed to one of those planets.” He typed a couple more commands and a small strip of paper emerged from a slot below the screen. Smith tore it off and handed it to Marcus. “I included his exact transponder signal so you can scan for it.”
“Alright, thanks. Can you get me a printout of the pilot’s face so I’ll know him when I see him?”
“No sweat, in fact I should’ve thought of that myself.” Smith punched in another code and a larger sheet of paper slid out with an image of the officer. It almost looked like a mug shot. He had short brown hair, brown eyes, and a square jaw. Nothing that would make him easy to spot in a crowd.
Marcus accepted the second printout. “Do you need anything else from me?”
“Not a thing, captain, and thank you again. Oh, if you should capture the officer intact please return him for trial. We can’t let someone get away with betraying his office like that.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow. In his experience the dragons didn’t bother much with trials.
“Perhaps trial isn’t the right word. We would like a chance to deal with him.”
Marcus nodded. “No promises, but I’ll do my best.”
They shook hands and Marcus left Smith to his cleaning up. He walked the short ways back to the ship, trying his best to ignore the sights and smells of the battlefield. A moment before he set foot on the loading ramp a whoosh caught his attention. Marcus turned back to see one of the officers blasting the pile of bodies with a flamethrower. He shuddered, ran up the ramp and closed it behind him before the stink of scorched flesh reached him.
Iaka sat in the cockpit waiting for him. She wore a simple black jumpsuit and for half a second he mourned the loss of her red bikini. Oh well, it wouldn’t be practical where they were going. “Did you get anything good?”
Marcus handed her the list. “Their best guesses given the pilot’s last known course.”
She read the list. “What are the chances he’s actually on one of these planets?”
“Lousy, unless he’s an idiot. I bet he made a short jump beyond their scanner range, adjusted course, and then went to meet his boss. I’ll need to call in a favor if we want to find this guy before something happens to Solomon.”