Chapter 1: Marooned
Merco lay motionless on the metal floor of his cargo hold. His vision was blurry, and he faded in and out of consciousness from the bloody head wound seeping onto his cheek and neck. Pain throbbed oppressively across his beaten body, unwilling to give him a moment’s peace. His eyes flitted open, catching blurred images of dim lights and two other figures inside the ship with him.
A faint glow of yellow drew his attention to his left arm which was a cybernetic prosthetic from the elbow down. The prosthetic forearm had a glowing metal band over the wrist; an inhibitor. The device was designed to cut off all signals that commanded the prosthetic to connect with his nerve endings. Whoever had slapped that on him knew how to immobilize his main source of defense, as the robotic forearm had thrice the power of his original organic arm. Without it he was an easy target. How did they even know he had a prosthetic? The limb looked like a long, black, leather glove over a normal arm. Only someone familiar with him would’ve known it wasn’t flesh and blood. He grunted, willing the fingers to flex, but nothing happened.
It had all happened so fast; the attack on his cargo ship. His instruments barely had time to register the other ship before he was blindsided. Should’ve been wearing my harness. Always hated wearing it. The other ship rammed him and had sent his head smashing into the metal frame of his front window, knocking him out cold. Now he was awake and didn’t know what had occurred after impact.
“Nice ship you have here pal,” an unfamiliar, young sounding, male voice commented just ahead of him in the cockpit seat. “Think we’ll take it off your hands.”
“The Hell you will.” Merco growled, lifting his head off the floor.
The second figure stepped over to him and hoisted him up roughly by his short, dark, peppered hair, “Kinda mouthy for a dead man don’tcha think?”
Merco finally could see the face of one of his assailants. He was a Gret’nal, a lizard-like humanoid bristling with spikes along his jowls, rough grayish green scales along his limbs, and a row of spikes racing down the back of his thick neck and spine. Behind, sharp, nonexistent lips were hundreds of small pointed teeth. His golden eyes slit menacingly as his reptilian tongue flickered out at his face. Not particularly pretty to look at. Even less pretty to go up in a fight against one.
“Now, now, Gurt. Remember, we’re not supposed to kill him.” The pilot up front chided in a sly tone, “At least...not directly.”
Merco winced as the scaly alien growled with irritation before dropping him on the deck plates.
“Who are you?” Merco demanded hoarsely.
He could just make out the back of the pilot’s white head but couldn’t see the face. His voice wasn’t unpleasant or very deep; more sly and reedy sounding.
“Oh, just some mercenaries looking to get set for life over your carcass.” The pilot commented off-handedly.
Merco blinked with confusion, “Mercenaries? But...why me? I’m not worth anything to anybody. I’m just a cargo ship pilot.”
“And a former war hero.” The pilot stated. “At least you were to the ‘winning’ side. However, our employer wasn’t on the winning side.”
A sickening ball welled up in Merco’s stomach. The flashbacks surfaced briefly. Laser fire. Shouting commands. Sweat in his eyes. Ground shattering explosions. Blood. His blood. Someone else’s blood. Immeasurable pain exploding through his left side. He couldn’t feel his arm.
He counted to ten slowly in his head and then finally said, “I’m no war hero. I’m just someone they pinned a medal on for the publicity.”
“Semantics,” the pilot waved a dismissive hand, “I don’t get into the politics. I just work for the highest bidder.”
“And who was your highest bidder?”
The pilot waggled his alien-looking finger without turning around, “Ah, ah, ah. First rule of my trade is anonymity. The only thing you need to know is what Gurt has to tell you.”
Merco wasn’t ready for the hard, scaly fist that knocked him out cold.
Hours later after a hyperspace jump...
Gurt sat pensively across from their target, flicking his reptilian tongue from time to time. He hissed and turned to his counterpart, “Why ain’t we killin’ im?”
Cresh, the young alien pilot with a spiked Mohawk of dark blue hair and smooth snow white skin, sighed, “I told you, Gurt. Our employer doesn’t want us to kill him. Just maroon him on a lifeless planet somewhere. ‘To die in absolute loneliness and despair, away from everything he knows and loves.’” he quoted in a melodramatic tone.
The humanoid lizard bared his teeth minutely, “Seems dumb to me for what we’re gettin’ paid.”
“What’s the difference? This is the easiest job we’ve ever taken. After this job we’ll be set for a long time. Maybe even for life!” the young pilot smirked, keeping his quadruple eyes on the scanners in front of him.
“Just boring is all.” Gurt growled.
Cresh rolled his four eyes at his surly partner until the scanners flickered green for a confirmation of his search, “All right, Gurt! We’ve got one!”
“A planet for dumping off our cargo.”
The reptilian leaned over the pilot seat to view the scanner. Cresh pointed to the scrolled readouts, “See. Breathable air for him, a long way from his home world, and no civilization for light years. Just like our guy wanted.”
“What’s that?” Gurt pointed to small pinpoints of green that were indicating life forms on the planet.
Cresh waved a hand, “Nothing to worry about. Just indigenous life...not civilization.” He dramatically pulled his dual goggles down over his eyes, “We’re going in for a drop off.”
On the planet below...
Cresh hovered the cargo ship over the ground, the ship’s jet wash throwing sand and whipping the scrub brush violently. The planet was habitable, but desolate desert in the area they had chosen. The dark, purplish terrain was rocky with some strange rock formations dotting the horizon.
The loading bay door opened and with a none too gentle kick, Merco was dumped out. The impact on the ground awoke him from his stupor. He groaned and rolled onto his back just in time to be hit with a violent gust of hot air from his ship as it thrust upward into the sky.
“No...” he croaked, reaching up to the shrinking dot as it shot further up.
In less than a minute the dot was gone, and he was alone. He sat up slowly, his limp prosthetic draped in his lap and his head pounding with pain. Merco looked at the yellow inhibitor band on his wrist, trying to discern how to remove it. He could remove the cybernetic arm from stump easily but working on it with one hand in the middle of nowhere...that was all but impossible. He decided to wait and find a sturdy rock to break it open. But the flat sandy terrain seemed short on rocks.
The upper middle-aged man reached up to the left side of his head where it felt like someone had jammed a hatchet into his skull. His fingers contacted a warm wetness and tacky roughness. He was bleeding from his head. Without a mirror he didn’t know how badly but the pain told him it was a bit more serious than a flesh wound. Those damn mercenaries...and whomever had paid them. Now he was marooned...somewhere.
His stood up groggily and turned in a slow circle to assess his surroundings. Any other person would be screaming and panicking at their sudden abandonment, but Merco had been in warzones as a young man many times worse than this. He knew how to survive...the only question was could he on this world with no intel or resources?
The only thing that made his mind buzz with dread was the thought of his sons and his ex-wife. His sons were grown now and had lives of their own, but he had a fairly close relationship with them. Though he and his wife had separated long ago, after their sons were grown, their relationship was not corrosive. He had kept in touch with her from time to time...but not this month. She had a more prestigious job as a corrections officer, while he was, in essence, a space traveling “truck driver”. They had grown apart with their jobs and she had always wanted more time together than he. Merco was far more independent and after the war, domestic life never fit his personality correctly.
But now...now that he was abandoned on this alien world all he could think about was his family and if he’d ever see them again.
His mind buzzed with questions. Where was he? What planet was this? Who had hired those mercenaries to do this to him and why?
The land around him was mostly flat with very little vegetation, much like a desert. However, he could see some texture on the horizon. Trees? Or some alien vegetation? It was many miles away, but vegetation meant water...hopefully. With a marked limp in his gait, he slowly trudged in the direction of what he hoped was a place to shelter.
The suns overhead burned hot as Merco trudged alone across the wasteland. With some clever maneuvering and tying of his worn war jacket, he fashioned a sling for his limp prosthetic arm and a bandage for his head. His lips were dry as leather and he prayed somehow there would be some source of water when he reached the vegetation on the horizon...unless of course it was just a cruel mirage.
Although the pounding of his injured head and face were making him sincerely wonder if he was going to die here on this alien world; alone, unknown, and suffering until his last breath. The heat only made his thoughts more dire. As the minutes bled into hours, he could feel his strength waning. His vision went blurry, either from fatigue or sweat. However, despite the blur the horizon was suddenly becoming promising. There was vegetation...but it didn’t look green; more of a lavender to gray blue color with splotches of dull green here and there. Survival instinct prodded him on.
“You’re almost there...you can’t die just yet.” His brain urged.
He walked for another eternity before the shade of the alien plants embraced him in a cooling hug. With tedious, stumbling steps he collapsed to rest. The suns’ cruel heat sucked away all of his energy but now in the shade he began to rebound. His tongue was so dry, and his lips felt split in a million flaky pieces.
Merco knew he’d die in no time without water but trepidation of what the water on the planet would be like frightened him. Would he be able to find water? Would it even be drinkable? Would it kill him? Well if he didn’t drink, he’d die anyway so what difference would it make?
After several long minutes he stood up weakly, using the surrounding growth to steady himself. The vegetation was mostly sapling sized trees with broad leaves that went slightly above his head at their tallest and lots of smaller grasses beneath. He knew there had to be water somewhere if there were these many plants. Without knowing where to start, Merco starting walking again, slowly but with purpose.
When many minutes passed, he suddenly caught sight of a beam of waving light against some of the trees ahead. A reflection? He pushed on and soon found a small puddle of what looked like clear water. He laughed with relief and fell to his knees beside the pool. Thirst pushed him past the point of reason as he plunged his face into the cool liquid and greedily sucked up all his mouth could hold. It didn’t taste bad or threatening so he drank and drank until the puddle emptied. He sighed and wiped his lips. That felt so much better now.
Then, near the empty puddle, a shimmering caught his eye. He leaned over to get a look at the beautiful object. It looked like a very smooth, dark teal rock with silvery marbling all through it and was about the size of a large strawberry. Fascinated, Merco picked up the rock and was surprised that it was warm to the touch. He rolled it over in his palm and it sparkled in the light.
“Huh. Cool rock.” He said to himself as he tucked it into his shirt pocket.
He stood up and looked around him. Far off he could see a large rock formation. The skies were beginning to darken and Merco knew he’d need shelter for the night, so he began walking toward the rocks in the distance.