Rike pulled his hand-held communicator out of his pocket. He remembered watching shows like Star Trek, and had to laugh – the ones on the original show always clicked on and worked like a charm, and later, when the bald guy took over, all they had to do was tap their little badges and they’d be in touch with people down on the surface of the planet while the ship was still in orbit.
His communicator was about as big as a lunchbox; luckily it folded down to the point where it was nearly flat when he stored it in his pack, but bending open the steel, erecting the translucent disc lens antenna and firing up the portable power pack took a few minutes, minutes he really didn’t have before Krek and his merry crew decided it was time to fly off. He saw the Loraithian pirates out of the corner of his eye, most of them on board the Marauder, impatiently stalking back and forth. The promise of a profit was the only thing that had enticed Krek to stay, and Rike had a feeling that unless he could get Maga to agree to something fairly lucrative he was going to be shit out of luck.
Resaana watched him set up the communicator from over his shoulder.
“Please don’t,” he said.
“Stand behind me like that. It drives me nuts.”
Resaana backed away, acting put out.
The crystal disc – roughly the circumference of a softball and milky white, as if frosted – started to spin and hum in place, and Rike had to hold the base of the device down in the mud to keep it steady while he adjusted the frequency. He was far from an expert at using the damn thing; like most technology he’d encountered in the Auran Galaxy, he essentially had to keep fiddling with the device until it worked. Rike had picked up quite a bit of knowledge during his time on the Vigilant, even if most of what Ensign Ress and Chief Engineer D’rak told him had gone through one ear and out the other.
The air tasted staler than before, and the stink of the bodies was getting palatable. Rike pulled his cowl up over his face, leaving just his eyes exposed. Usually he only drew the cowl when he knew he was getting into a fight (because it looked bad-ass), but he also found that it helped stave off nasty smells. Every planet in the Auran Galaxy held some new visual marvel – thousand-foot waterfalls, anti-gravity caves, great winged monsters with fiery wings, shambling mounds of living water moving in herds, sleek warships that literally sliced the air open like cut skin when they made hyper-space jumps. That, and there was always a smell, and rarely a pleasant one: Galdar smelled like burning dung, most starships and war vessels stank of rancid engine oil, Vandrona had the overpowering scent of salt, and Sares 6 just smelled like a wet dog. It was enough to make Rike want to trade his nose in for something more useful.
“Is it working?” Resaana asked.
“Can you chill?”
“What do you mean?”
“Just…hang on,” he said.
The image flickered, a small holographic projection at the center of the disc. He could tell the reception was lousy, but the more he twisted the dial to try and pull in a clearer image the more the signal seemed to fade. The air twisted and squelched, and the air around the disc bent in, as if pulled into a vacuum, giving Rike the eerie sensation that he’d stuck his head in rapidly freezing water, complete with the instant migraine. His teeth started to rattle, and he was about to turn the device off when Maga finally came into view.
He couldn’t see her clearly – he never could. He was fairly certain she was Icaran, somebody important enough that she wanted to keep her true identity a secret. She also had a mean streak a mile (karsec, he reminded himself, karsec) long. Crossing her meant having to go to the auctions on Rigel 2 and placing a bid if you ever wanted to get your testicles back.
Maga appeared as a curvy and tall winged silhouette against a backdrop of silver-grey smoke. Her eyes burned like coals but her face was a featureless black mask.
“What?” her raspy voice demanded.
“Wow,” Rike said. “Nice to see you, too.”
“Is the job done? Did you find Rast?”
“No. He’s not here. He’s been taken by the Taur.”
“Taken? Taken where? Listen, you idiot, you need to find him, wherever he is. No excuses.”
“In that case, I’ll need money.”
“WHAT THE HELL FOR?!” It might have only been a virtual shout, but it was pretty loud. If for some reason the weapons fire and exploding balls of plasma hadn’t already alerted every predator within three karsecs of their presence, Maga’s outburst would do the trick.
“I need to book passage to the processing facility we think he’s being held at,” Rike said. “The captain of the ship who brought me to Bloodthorn isn’t feeling up to a trip into the middle of Taur territory.”
Maga watched him, silently. He hated when she did that. Rike wasn’t one for constant conversation in the first place, but he couldn’t stand it when people left questions unanswered, or when the only response he received was a chorus of crickets. Maga knew that, of course, which was why she let her answer hang in the air.
Lizard-like birds called out from overhead, and insects the size of footballs skimmed the churning river’s surface. Resaana paced about, her blades clanking against her armor, while Krek looked on impatiently from the ship.
Finally Maga spoke, barely loud enough for him to hear her.
“Convince them,” she said. “And don’t contact me again until you’ve found Rast.”
The image faded as the communicator powered down.
Rike hovered over the comm device for a moment, then quickly turned down the disc, folded in the edges and slid it into his pack, knowing he’d have to do a better job of securing the device later. He tensed his fingers, stood and stretched as he slung his pack over his shoulder. His boots twisted in the mud, and he ran a hand over his face to clear away a dank layer of sweat. The shadow mist was thick there in the trees, and the gangly vegetation dripped thick moisture. He watched the smoking ruins as he turned in a long circle.
Resaana caught his gaze. He nodded to her, and she nodded back.
“Well?” Krek shouted at him. It was fifty paces to the ship, which was slowly powering up. The knotted climbing ropes were down but the anchor was up. Krek and one of his men were still on the ground in front of the vessel; its bladed hull loomed behind them, while the remaining three pirates were up in the ship, one at the helm and the others manning the side-mounted guns, ballistic cannons capable of tearing a hole through armor plating. Luckily the weapons had a limited arc of fire and were difficult as hell to aim.
Rike took a deep breath as he walked casually towards the ship, his cowl still drawn. Time seemed stretched out, slowed. The waves on the river rippled, the clouds froze. He gave Krek a nod as he stepped closer. A flier soared through the distance, some black and leathery thing that rose to the heavens and melted against the dismal sun.
“We’re good,” he said.
“What’s ‘Good’?” Krek growled. “You haven’t told me what you’re going to pay me to drop into the middle of a Taur detention center.”
“My employer is very generous,” he said. He was within thirty paces.
“You’re either going to give me a figure,” Krek said, his hand dropping to his hand-cannon, “or else you’re going to…”
“Die,” Rike finished. His hands whipped forward with blinding speed. One drew the ra-blade, a short saber with serrated edges, while the other pulled his hand-cannon free. He saw the targets without looking at them, moved on instinct. If he took the time to aim he couldn’t hit the broad side of a dead whale, but if he let the targets come naturally to him, let them settle into his surroundings like they were just another part of the landscape, he couldn’t miss.
Krek raised his weapon, but not in time. The black blade sliced through his gut and his pistol dropped to the ground.
The other crewman on the ground reached for his K12 Plasma Rifle, but he never should have left it slung, and he didn’t even get it off his shoulder before Rike raised the hand-cannon sideways and let loose an explosive burst of electric fire which smashed through the Loraithian’s skull and scattered his brains to the ground.
Both shadow-addled humanoids collapsed before the sound of the hand-cannon even registered. Time sped up. Rike sensed the adrenaline rush through his body.
Rike dropped the hand-cannon and drew his pistol, an HG-12 loaded with plasma-infused rounds. The men up top started to turn the big guns. He released five shots, six, and the first man dropped in a haze of blood. Their shadow cloaks might have camouflaged them under normal circumstances, but when the shooter didn’t actually look at the target those natural defenses weren’t nearly as effective.
Blasts rang out, a rapid barrage of heavy beats. Two tore into the canopy, the third took the other gunner in the head and sent him over the side and into the stale waters. The last two rounds went wide.
The gun clicked empty. Rike reached for a spare clip as the last crewman started firing. Razor shot tore at the ground. Rike heard the whistle of edged rounds scream past him.
A hard crack sent the Loraithian back against the console. He stood stupidly for a moment and then sank to the deck. Resaana’s rifle was enormous, nearly as tall as she when she fully telescoped it out and undid the scope, whose crystal lens gleamed. The mouth of the long barrel smoked as she ejected the massive shell. She looked at Rike and gave him a smile.
“Now you owe me,” she said.
Rike smiled, and realized she was right.
God damn it. This isn’t my day.
Krek struggled to sit up, which proved difficult with the ra-blade sticking out of his chest. Shadow blood pooled around the blade and stained the ground dark, and the longer he lay there bleeding the easier it was for Rike to see him. The pirate tried to raise his weapon but dropped it, and he noisily coughed up dark wads of phlegm.
Rike heard a click as his hand-cannon finished recharging. He picked it up from the ground, wiped it clean, pushed Krek onto his back with a boot, and blew off his face. Only a plasma burn and a stain of dark blood remained.
He turned to Resaana.
“Know how to fly this thing?” he asked her.
“And if I don’t?” she laughed.
“Then I guess we’re walking,” he said.
Rike climbed up the rope ladder and onto the deck. The ship was stuck in what he supposed was the aerial equivalent of PARK, because though the engines steadily hummed the craft remained stationary even without the anchor down, and its hull scraped the marsh as it hovered in place. He removed the corpse’s weapons and threw the bodies overboard. Resaana joined him, moving with amazing dexterity and speed up the ladder in a quarter of the time it had taken him.
The deck of the vessel was slick with slime and cluttered with junk. Rike didn’t know what half of the equipment was, so he left it alone and focused on figuring out the controls. He already had to rely on Resaana for information about where they were going, but if he could learn what he needed to know elsewhere he could cut her loose, assuming he could figure out how to fly the damn ship.
I didn’t used to be this way, he thought. I didn’t use to think like this. Most days Rike wouldn’t have gone back to that old, soft life even if a way to return to Earth actually presented itself (which it never had, and likely never would, and after fifteen-plus years he’d all but given up on the notion), but as he stood there on the deck, watching Resaana’s smug smile as he struggled to figure out how to work the vertical tilt and fire the thrusters – he was an expert at flying his Razorhawk, but everything else confused the hell out of him – the gravity of his situation hit him square in the face.
You’re fucked, buddy. If you don’t find Rast, Maga is going to tear your heart out and eat it like a sandwich, but not until after she hits you where it hurts. And now the only thing keeping your fat out of the fryer is some merc hussy who’s holding all of the cards. Well done, dude.
After another minute of failing to get anywhere he stepped back and held his hands up in surrender. Resaana grabbed the controls, and within moments they were off the ground. The air rushed beneath them as the vehicle lurched into motion. She brought them higher than Krek had flown, which meant they would make better speed, though they’d be less energy efficient and somewhat exposed.
“So where to?” he asked.
“I don’t intend to try to break into a maximum security Taur installation without some help,” she said.
“Great,” he said, in a tone he hoped indicated that it wasn’t great. “The more the merrier.”